DoBox – the world's first iPad hub (review)

Monday April 24, 2017

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Keen readers will remember that about a year ago here on Mac Kung Fu we briefly discussed the DoBox, which advertises itself as a “portable wireless dock for Apple devices”.

Well, a few weeks ago they sent us one for review, and while what we received is an engineering sample, there’s certainly a great deal of promise.

At the core
Speaking to a colleague one day, I tried my best to describe the DoBox. After around five minutes telling him its features, he said to me, “But what actually is it?“ And although I mentioned again that it was a hub, that didn’t really help.

And the DoBox can be perplexing if you aren’t familiar with it. This can mean it’s also tough to make a case for recommending it to somebody.

The trick is to define it in reverse – to explain what it is by mentioning the problems faced by the average iPad user – and especially anybody who uses the iPad for work.

Always running out of battery? The DoBox can help with its 5,000mAh battery that can charge any device from its USB-A ports. We tested this by charging an iPad and iPhone and it worked as described.

Running out of storage? You can transfer your pictures and videos to the DoBox’s 30GB of built-in storage – and, of course, this allows pictures and videos to be shared with others who also connect. Sharing files on a micro-SD card and any USB storage device is also possible, of course, by simply attaching them.

Want to create a private Wi-Fi network to share the data, or to create a private network for colleagues at any location? The DoBox can do this. It can also share an existing Wi-Fi connection in this private fashion, or share an Ethernet connection.

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And this is before we approach the DoBox’s magical tricks. By attaching a mouse and keyboard, you can remotely control a Mac’s desktop, for example. And the developers behind the DoBox have created an API that, if integrated by app developers, allows the use of a USB keyboard or mouse within iOS apps.

First appearances
The DoBox is made out of aluminum and, at about 13cm square, its width and depth are about the same as a CD jewel case. According to our ruler, it was 1.8cm in height. We have to say its weight took us a little by surprise, especially considering this is a device supposed to be thrown in a bag with your other portable computing equipment. However, at 460g – just under half a kilogram – we reckon the DoBox feels positive in the hand. It’s got a nice feel.

On the top of the unit is the indicator light that also operates as a touch on/off switch (more of that later), and on the back are the ports: two USB-A, one HDMI, a headphone jack, micro-SD-card slot, and Ethernet. There’s also a USB-C port for charging and a very small hole behind which is a reset button.

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Charging and turn-on
As mentioned, charging must be done via a supplied USB-C cable. A warning leaflet in the box says this must only be attached to a charger of 1A or more – such as the one that came with your iPhone or iPad – or the USB 3 port on a computer. You can’t plug the DoBox into USB 2 ports, probably because the theoretical power output limit of 0.5A (although many computers allow more than this).

Turning on the device involves swirling your finger around the circular indicator light area on top of the unit. These indicator lights pulse while the unit is charging and their colour indicates the state of the battery, ranging from red (low) to yellow (medium), to green (charged).

Turning on the unit by running your finger around the indicator area takes practice and, even after just a handful of times using the DoBox, we wished there was an old-fashioned on/off switch somewhere. Turning off the unit involves resting a finger on the edge of the indicator area, and this too was frankly annoying. Turning the DoBox on and off this way is an impressive trick but, in addition to it simply being annoying to have to literally fumble with the unit for 5-10 seconds each time you want to use it, keeping the indicator area touch sensitive draws precious current from the battery and will slowly drain the unit. Again, an actual physical switch wouldn’t do this, while a traditional press button would draw almost negligible current.

The DoBox takes a moment to boot and this gives an indication that this is basically a small computer running an operating system. We didn’t take apart the DoBox but we’ll bet that inside is an ARM chip running some kind of embedded Linux.

Once booted you need to join the DoBox’s own Wi-Fi network, and then use the DoBox app on your phone or tablet to take control and configure the DoBox.

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App
The app wasn’t finished as I wrote this review, and key features simply weren’t yet implemented, such as ability to create a Wi-Fi network to share an Internet connection, or Bluetooth functionality. Connecting via Wi-Fi on our Mac shows an 2.4GHz 802.11n connection running at 65Mbps. No matter how many times we connected this speed remained constant. In my tests I needed to be in the same room as the DoBox to be able to connect too.

Talking of Macs, there is no app for Mac or Windows but to share files you connect to the DoBox via a standard SMB share – the DoBox appears in the left of the Finder window under the Shared heading, and you connect as Guest. Alas, in our tests this just didn’t work – and here we are reminded our review unit was an engineering sample, so oddities like this are to be expected. However, using the age-old technique of clicking Go > Connect to Server, and specifying the DoBox’s IP address (192.168.8.1) we were able to connect with no problems and up/download files. File transfer speeds for larger files are not fast, but for smaller files like images or documents transfer is almost instant.

Connecting to the DoBox via the USB-C cable from our 2015 MacBook Pro didn’t appear to let us connect to the DoBox as a mass storage device (that is, in the same way a USB stick connects). This seems a missed opportunity.

Usefully if you have a Mac with USB-C ports, if you attach the DoBox via USB-C and then turn off the DoBox, it turns into a USB hub allowing you to attach older devices to the USB-A port in order to connect them to your Mac.

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Video playback on TV
One of the DoBox’s tricks is to allow video playback on a TV or monitor via HDMI. A business person might use this feature to show presentations, for example, without needing to take-up storage space on his/her iPad. Once the TV or monitor is attached, playback is controlled via the app on your iPhone or iPad.

Weirdly, although the video output to a domestic Samsung TV worked fine in our tests, audio output was routed to the headphone jack. There’s presently no way to change this in the app. Not only that but the audio output was very loud, and again the app offered to way to adjust the volume. We’re not sure why the audio isn’t just sent over HDMI, which seems the most sensible solution.

Conclusion
The DoBox is impressive and is here right now. In a world of so many Kickstarter failures (or half-implemented features) the creators and developers of the DoBox should be applauded for delivering on an ambitious design goal.

However, if the DoBox has any issues, it’s with these very design goals. I mentioned earlier that it’s very hard to explain to others what the DoBox actually is, and it feels like the DoBox flies perilously close to the black hole of “solutions to problems that don’t exist”. This black hole has swallowed-up many an ambitious hardware design in the past 30 years of personal computing.

Here’s my idea: If there’s a DoBox 2, it should be advertised as a “smart battery hub”. It should focus on that one important and highly useful problem – running out of battery while you’re out of the home/office – and advertise everything else as an extra on top of this. This includes the storage, and Wi-Fi connectivity, and HDMI playback… All of this should be advertised as the “smart” features of what is already a very capable mobile charging device. In other words, solve one major problem satisfactorily – and make it very clear you’ve done so – and then move onto solving other problems.

As it stands, the DoBox is certainly very useful. However, we simply weren’t able to test it as fully as we’d like because of the limitations within the app, which was still at the very early beta stage when we reviewed the unit in April 2017.


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Charge your iPhone without the chime or buzz

Sunday April 16, 2017

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Here’s a quick tip. Sometimes I go to bed after my wife is asleep and, of course, I plug my iPhone into charge on the nightstand. Alas, it chimes when I attach the Lighting cable, and my wife wakes up. Thinking myself clever the following night I set the phone to silent mode via the side switch but, ah, Apple’s engineers are way ahead of me because the phone then vibrates when I attach the Lightning cable. And the BUZZ BUZZ noise wakes my wife up.

The quick and simple solution if you want silent charging? Swipe left on the lock screen to activate the camera and then plug in the Lighting cable. No chime. No buzz. Then press the Home button to return back to the lock screen.

This works if the phone is unlocked too. Just open the Camera app, attach the Lightning cable, and then close the Camera app.


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How to set a full-time Mac boot password (i.e. a BIOS password)

Friday April 14, 2017

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Those coming to Macs from the world of PCs might be aware of what we used to call a BIOS password. This was a password set within the motherboard’s BIOS that presented a password prompt as soon as the computer was powered on. Did you know a Mac can utilise a similar password? Read on…

Independent of the operating system, the BIOS password on a PC blocked access to the computer unless the password was typed (although in most cases it could be overcome fairly easily).

Macs have their own firmware password system. Because Macs use FileVault full disk encryption to protect data, its main purpose is to block anybody from booting to the recovery console, or block them from booting via anything that isn’t the main boot disk, such as a USB stick. In other words, once set the firmware password prompt does NOT appear each time the computer boots. It only appears if the user is attempting to do something out of the ordinary.

However, you can also configure the password prompt to appear at all times – whenever the computer is booted, as with a PC’s BIOS password (or equivalent on more recent models).

Bear in mind you’re playing around here with fundamental security settings for your Mac by following the steps below. Be extremely careful when following these steps, and make a note of any new passwords you set, or changes you make.

First follow the steps required to set a firmware password using the recovery console. Once that’s been done, follow these steps.

  1. Open Terminal, which you’ll find in the Utilities folder of the Applications list of Finder.
  2. Paste in the following into the Terminal window and then hit Enter:
    sudo /usr/sbin/firmwarepasswd -setmode full
  3. You’ll immediately be prompted for your macOS/OS X login password, so type it.
  4. You’ll then be prompted for the firmware password, so type it when prompted.
  5. Reboot your computer.

Upon reboot the firmware password prompt will appear, and will now appear each time the computer boots or reboots. It won’t appear when you wake the Mac from sleep or suspend, though.

To turn off the boot-time password prompt, but still leave in place the standard firmware password that will block unauthorised booting from things like USB sticks, or access to the recovery console, again open a Terminal window and paste-in the following:

sudo /usr/sbin/firmwarepasswd -setmode command

Again, you’ll need to type your passwords when prompted, as mentioned in steps 3 and 4 above, and will need to reboot.

For what it’s worth, you can also entirely remove the firmware password when macOS/OS X is booted, via the following command within a Terminal window:

sudo /usr/sbin/firmwarepasswd -delete

Obviously you will need to know the firmware password to be able to do this.

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How to create a macOS virtual machine easily — and for free

Saturday March 25, 2017

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Recently the folks behind the useful but expensive Parallels Desktop virtualization app released Parallels Desktop Lite, which is available in the Mac App Store. Although it requires an in-app purchase if you want to install Windows as a virtual machine, Parallels Desktop Lite is entirely free of charge if you just want to install Linux or macOS as a virtual machine. It’s also quick and easy to use – a far cry from other methods up until now that have been complicated, time-consuming and of dubious legality.

Here are the steps required to create a macOS virtual machine using Parallels Desktop Lite.

  1. Open the Mac App Store on your Mac and search for Parallels Desktop Lite. Click to “buy” it and install it (it’s free).
  2. Remaining in the Mac App Store, search for the version of macOS that is installed on your Mac. For example, if this is Sierra then search for that. Click to Download it, if it isn’t already downloaded. Note that once the download finishes the macOS installer will automatically start, but you don’t need this and can simply click the Quit menu option.
  3. Open Parallels Desktop Lite and choose the free use option. Its label tells you that this merely lets you install Linux. For some reason this doesn’t mention macOS, but using Parallels Desktop Lite to install macOS is possible – and if you read the App Store description you’ll see it’s mentioned there.
  4. Next, click the right-hand option in the New Virtual Machine window – “Install Windows or Another OS from a DVD or Image File” – and click Continue.
  5. macOS will appear in the list, so simply click Continue to carry on. Main feature illustration
  6. You’ll be told a bootable disk image file will need to be created, which is fine – this will happen automatically. Just click the Continue button. The default save location for the image file is OK, so just click Select in the File Open/Save dialog box that appears.
  7. Once creation of the disk image has finished, you’ll be prompted to give the new virtual machine a name, and choose a location to save it. Once done, click Continue.
  8. Your new virtual machine will boot, and installation will begin as if you’re booting a new Mac. Select to install macOS from the recovery menu when it appears, and ensure the power is attached if you’re using a portable Mac, otherwise installation cannot continue. Note that there was a weird bug on my MacBook Pro that meant the screen was stretched in an odd way, but resizing it slightly by clicking and dragging the edge fixed this.
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Once installation has finished, you can simply click the red close button at the top left of the virtual machine window to suspend your virtualized macOS. Each time you start Parallels Desktop Lite you’ll be able to click the large play button to unsuspend the macOS virtual machine.

For what it’s worth, creating a macOS/OS X virtual machine in this way is entirely legal. The macOS/OS X End-User License Agreement (EULA) provides explicit permission: “… you are granted a limited, non-transferable, non-exclusive license… (iii) to install, use and run up to two (2) additional copies or instances of the Apple Software within virtual operating system environments on each Mac Computer you own or control that is already running the Apple Software, for purposes of: (a) software development; (b) testing during software development; (c) using macOS Server; or (d) personal, non-commercial use.”


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