writing about tech

Everything (in the tech world) is amazing, and no one is happy

Everything is amazing, and no one is happy” is an often-quoted rant, but that’s because it’s still very often a relevant sentiment. You may have noticed that I haven’t updated this blog in months, and it’s largely because I haven’t been inspired to say much. Perhaps that’s because of a simple truth: I rarely write about how happy I am with something, and I’m basically happy with everything I use these days.

Things are boring in the tech world, but I think we’ve lost sight of why they’re boring – because everything is actually pretty great now! Even iOS vs. Android arguments have largely lost their luster; the OSes are closer in functionality now than ever before, and we actually finally have a Nexus phone with great hardware and a great camera – the unicorn of the tech world! We even have an Apple TV that can run third-party apps, something people have been asking for since the Apple TV was first a thing. We have a laptop made by Microsoft, which is yet-another thing that die-hards fans have been clamoring for since the original Surface.

The most I could ask for is that some of my devices get better at talking to each other, and that things be a bit less buggy, but that’s all basically things that can be solved in software and services. Hardware-wise, I’m basically ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, because everything is pretty ideal. All of the big questions – what phone should I get, what tablet should I get, what laptop should I get, what streaming box should I get – have easy, straightforward answers.

People too-often view “boring” as a negative thing, but remember  that things are often only interesting or exciting because of how imperfect they are. iOS and Android releases every year were exciting because, for awhile, they were works-in-progress that lacked fundamental features – now they both have basically everything I’d want, and everything else is a bonus. Phone releases were exciting because every phone out there had some major compromise – these days, the compromises are few, far between, and relatively minor. It’s harder to buy a bad phone than it is to buy a great phone.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re certainly on the cusp of some exciting new technology changes; VR and AR are finally heading to the mainstream in a big way, and new pushes in screen technology will certainly lead to gorgeous TV/phone/tablet/laptop/headset screens that make our eyes bleed rainbows – but until then, it’s essentially all quiet on the western front as things have generally settled in a consumer-satisfying way – and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Early impressions of the new Apple TV

7/10, with the potential to be a 9/10 once Apple actually finishes it. There are some glaring omissions:

  • The iPhone/Watch remote app not working.
  • The way Photos works. Why can’t I share use my Favorites as a screensaver?! It seems like the most obvious thing.
  • The fact the Universal Search API isn’t ready for third-parties.
  • Random bugs. I somehow reached a point where none of the buttons on the remote other than Siri would do anything, so I had to unplug it and plug it back in. ¯\(ツ)

It’ll still be my default way of watching stuff, though, because the core functionality is pretty great. Not having to dig around Hulu’s shitty UI to find the next episode of something is glorious, as is using voice to jump around a YouTube video. “What did he say?” even works on YouTube, though I don’t think it turns on subtitles yet.

Biggest surprise: holy shit, Alto’s Adventure on the Apple TV is actually really fun. The graphics and sound are pretty great on a home media setup, and there’s something relaxing/meditative about that game in particular – likely a combination of the game’s fantastic art direction and the simplicity of the controls.

Most of the games I downloaded to play around with I’ve already deleted, but this one is definitely sticking around, and as a result I’m slightly more bullish on the Apple TV as a gaming thing than I was a day ago. I don’t see it as a hardcore gamer’s paradise, but for “sit back and relax” stuff with simple controls? This thing has definite potential.

I could see it being especially great with stuff like Telltale’s games. Heck, it’s not hard to imagine a future where you’re watching Game of Thrones and a recommendation engine suggests you download the games – it could be great for discovery if Apple allows third-parties to glue pieces like that together.

Current recommendation: if you want a new streaming box, and live in Apple’s ecosystem already, get the $150 model – but maybe wait a few weeks/months unless you’ve had it with your current setup.

Hardware as a Service: Thoughts on the iPhone Upgrade Program

This Friday, I signed up for the iPhone Upgrade Program, because of course I did. A new iPhone every year? How could I refuse?

It goes beyond that, though, and I’m starting to believe this could be the start of a fundamental shift in how people buy technology going forward. Before we dive too deep into that, though, a brief Q&A:

So what is the iPhone Upgrade Program?

Well, to start with, it’s not a lease, like many people seem to think – it’s 0% financing, through Apple. Take the price of an unlocked iPhone, add the cost of AppleCare+, divide by 24, and that’s what the monthly payment is. Like any financing plan, you can pay it off at any time. When the next iPhone comes out, you have the option of selling your current iPhone back to Apple and getting the latest model, while your monthly payment remains static.

Isn’t this what AT&T and Verizon and other US carriers already offer?

Yup! It varies a bit, depending on if you get insurance through them, whether or not you want AppleCare, and how long the terms of the contract are, but yeah, it’s not dissimilar to AT&T Next and Verizon Edge and other such things.

So why go through Apple?

Because fuck the carriers.

Seriously? That’s it?

Kind-of. The problem with any of the US carrier plans is that you’re tied to that carrier, at least until you pay the device off. Phones you get through the iPhone Upgrade Program are unlocked. You could jump from AT&T to T-Mobile to Verizon to Sprint, all on the same device.

So why is this a big deal? Haven’t other companies sold their phones directly? Why do you think it’s the possible start of a paradigm shift?

Because it’s Apple doing it, and – like it or not – when Apple does things, it tends to impact the industry in a big way.

Apple saw the writing on the wall; subsidized phones are dying, and with it, any way to realistically claim that their phones “start at $199”. So, millions of customers are now looking at the unlocked, unsubsidized price, and let’s face it: no one wants to pay $650 for a phone, much less the $750 you need for a phone with decent storage or the $850 for a phone with decent storage and a big screen. Those aren’t the type of numbers that move 13 million phones over a single weekend.  But you know what sounds way better than $650 all at once? $31 a month.

Why does that sound better? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but personally, I’m better at budgeting around monthly payments than I am at saving up for a large one-time payment – even in cases when the large one-time payment is cheaper. One-time costs are scary; monthly payments are smaller and friendly. That’s why I suspect that this isn’t just a shift in how people buy iPhones, but potentially a shift in how people buy all sorts of things.

You know what sounds expensive? A $349 smartwatch. You know what sounds better? Paying $16 a month for that same smartwatch, which is the price of the cheapest Apple Watch plus AppleCare, divided by 24.  You know what sounds even better than that? “Upgrade every year and enjoy the latest iPhone and the latest Apple Watch for just $45/month!”

Apple is positioned as perhaps the only company that could do this – they sell almost all of the pieces of the hardware puzzle, so they could easily ‘bundle’ together pieces of Apple hardware for a ‘discounted’ monthly rate. I imagine there are millions of people who would pay $80-100 a month to ensure they have the latest iPhone, Apple Watch, and iPad, or $100-120 for the latest iPhone and MacBook Pro.

This is why I call the iPhone Upgrade Program – and my hypothetical Apple Upgrade Program – “hardware as a service”. So many of the software services we use every day are updated and improved without our knowledge; some we pay for with money, others with our data. All of them largely exist to do things we could do on our own, but we pay for the convenience. I could run my own cloud storage system, but Dropbox is far more convenient. I could use Google Drive for free, but I might prefer paying for Office 365.

“Software as a service” has always been about trading money for convenience, and “hardware as a service” is no different. I could budget better, save up a large payment, buy a new unlocked every year phone, and sell my old phone – but I don’t, because now there’s an easier way. It may not be the most cost efficient method, but it’s by-far the easiest.

The fact this is starting on an S-cycle year really helps drive this point home, as you’re quite-literally paying for a faster, better version of the otherwise-same package. Think of it as “subscribing” to the iPhone; you pay the same price for the service, and it gets better on a yearly basis. Office 365 gets video support; the iPhone gets a 12 megapixel camera. Dropbox gets a team feature; the iPhone gets another gig of RAM.

The only fundamental difference at this point is that one is software and one is hardware, which is one reason why I believe Apple is so intent on making the hardware upgrade process as seamless as possible – which is why I think AppleCare+ is built-in as part of the deal – it’s the final piece of the “hardware as a service” puzzle. Something go wrong? Rather than pay another $650, you just head over to the Apple Store, pay a one-time fee, and you’re back in business, good as new.

It’s insidious in its own way; the most overt form of hardware lock-in imaginable. Once you’ve bought into the iPhone Upgrade Program – or a hypothetical Apple Upgrade Program in the future – why would you want out?  If you like the devices, and you’ve already budgeted for the monthly costs, you have little reason to consider competing products unless you have a terrible experience.

Lock-in aside, though, it may also truly be a win/win for customers – I believe it is, otherwise I wouldn’t have considered the iPhone Upgrade Program at all. It gives people the option to buy a truly unlocked device, free from carrier interference, in a way that many people can likely budget for much more easily.

It’s consumer-friendly enough that I not only hope my Apple Upgrade Program becomes reality, but that other companies follow suit. Why not pay Google $40 a month for a Nexus phone and a high-end Chromebook every year? Or Samsung $60 a month for a yearly upgrade to your Galaxy Note and Gear S smartwatch? Or Microsoft $80 a month for a flagship Windows Phone and a Surface tablet? The best part is, if this catches on, it should be fully scalable. If all you need is a basic phone, you budget $5 or $10 a month and get the equivalent of a Moto G every year. If you need a new high-end laptop and and flagship phone, then you budget $100 or 200 a month. If you change phones and tablets more frequently than laptops, then you just budget for those, while continuing to save up for a new laptop when you actually need it. This may be the only way smartwatches ever truly catch-on; rather than being an expensive accessory, they become a relatively in-expensive “add-on” to your hardware plan.

It’s easy to see this not just becoming way we buy our hardware, but the preferred way to buy hardware. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I’d prefer to set aside a lump monthly payment to always have the latest phone and watch – if it’s a known, constant cost, I can budget for it, and never have to think about saving up money for a new device in those categories again. Most of the software we use every day is getting faster and better without us thinking about it; it’s about time the hardware we use follow suit.

On content blockers in iOS9

If you haven’t heard, content blockers for Safari are  a thing in iOS9, and many in the media aren’t exactly thrilled about it:

I don’t know if this will be the Adpocalypse that many are predicting, but after using one for a bit, there’s no question that using content blockers in iOS9 is definiely a way to unsuck the mobile web. It’s a shitty situation, but as a consumer, I don’t know what else to do. Most mobile sites are so bad without a content blocker that I just _don’t go to them. Now, I can actually visit those sites, but I feel a little shitty about it.

The big problem is that this is essentially a one-way street – for those of us frustrated enough to turn on content blockers, we aren’t going to shut them off, even if content providers “learn their lesson” and tone down on mobile ads/tracking/etc.

For what it’s worth, I don’t use any ad blockers on my computer, but that’s because it’s fast enough that I don’t really need them. I do block Flash by default, but come on, of course I do. If you’re using Flash for anything revenue-generating, you’re doing it wrong.

So…yeah. I don’t really know where we go from here. If this becomes a serious problem (and I’m still not entirely convinced it will), I expect we’ll see things like native advertising get even more popular. And maybe that’s okay! I’d rather have the occasional native ad than have a ton of ads and tracking scripts actively ruining my browsing experience.

I feel pity for content providers, but also think that they should’ve been more cautious in building out their platforms. You can’t build a castle on quicksand and not expect it to sink, and it’s hard to imagine that none of them saw this coming. “Our revenue stream relies on making the user’s browsing experience worse in ways that could be actively disabled client-side if people get frustrated enough” doesn’t exactly seem like the world’s most solid business plan. After all, aren’t web publications often the ones criticizing other industries for not adapting to new realities fast enough?

Let’s not forget that all of these ads and tracking scripts have a real-world impact on mobile users, more so than on desktop users – many of us still have data caps, and some tests have shown that content blockers can reduce bandwidth usage by as much as 50%. So it’s not just a user experience/speed thing, it’s a real money-in-my-damn-pocket thing.

I don’t know what the solution is, and I don’t envy the person who has to figure it out, but…this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, and those blaming Apple for it are missing the bigger picture.

I want a Google-powered Amazon Echo

I have an Amazon Echo, and it’s actually pretty great. It’s a bit overpriced for what it is right now, but the $99 I got it for was basically perfect. The big problem is, as a heavy Google services user, the potential of it is, for me, largely crippled by its lack of Google support.

For example: I have several upcoming trips, and Google’s Inbox has kindly created ‘Bundles’ for each of them. It’s borderline-creepy, but it’s also too useful for me to care – it gives me all the relevant details about my upcoming flights and hotels in a single place for quick reference.

I’d love the idea of an Echo-like device that could tie into that data, so that I could ask “Hey , what’s going on?” and it would provide not just news and weather, but also remind me about upcoming trips, etc. based on the context that Google already knows about me.

“Hey Google, what’s up?”

“The weather in Tucson will be warm, but it looks like you’ll get a break from that while you’re in Salt Lake City next week. Do you want me to set a reminder for you to pack 5 hours before your trip?”

“Yes, thank you. Can you also shuffle my favorite songs so that I have some music to pack to?”

“Of course.”

That, my friends, is the future.

A 2-minute review of 2 hours of using Windows 10

I’ve used Windows 10 for all of two hours total so far, on a single machine (a Bootcamped MacBook), so obviously I feel confident giving an overall review at this point.

I’m only being half-facetious, because it’s Windows, and you probably already love it or hate it or tolerate it at this point, and Windows 10 isn’t likely to change your mind all that much. Personally, I never had much issue with Windows 7 – it was just starting to feel long in the tooth. My experience with Windows 8 was pretty limited, suffice it to say, I never felt a need to install on my laptop or desktop, because Windows 7 was Fine™.

Windows 10 is basically Windows 7 + a (great) new coat of paint and polish + the best ideas from Windows 8 + a native package management tool for us nerds (finally!) + the Mission Control view from OS X + a fun virtual assistant.

Overall, I’m digging it so far.  Honestly, if I wasn’t somewhat dependent on Apple’s services like Continuity and iMessage, I would seriously consider running Windows 10 full-time,  even if it was just for the novelty of using something new. If Windows 10 represents Microsoft’s direction for the next 5-10 years, I’m actually pretty excited to see where things go.

Score:  Fine/10, would install again.

What’s the point of a smartwatch if you already have your smartphone?

A common criticism of smartwatches since their introduction has been “what’s the point of a smartwatch if it just does all the same things your smartphone does?” While it’s certainly a valid criticism, I also think it’s a bit of a lazy one.  Yes, a smartphone can do basically everything at this point, but it doesn’t mean it’s better at doing those things than a tablet, laptop, or yes, even a smartwatch. Heck, I’d say there’s more value in a smartwatch over a tablet, because it can physically do things that a phone can’t, simply because you’re wearing it. I think it’s difficult to understand those situations until you’ve actually worn one. However, since that’s a weak position to take, I’ll throw out a few examples:

  • I’m driving, and my phone is in my pocket. I remember I have to do something when I get home. I tilt my wrist – Hey Siri, remind me to do that thing when I get home. Hey Siri, okay. Done. Eyes never off the road. Also, replace “driving” with “running” or “biking”.
  • I’m at home, my phone is in another room. My friend asks me if I want to play some Heroes of the Storm. “Sure” I reply, from the built-in responses. Or “Maybe in a bit”, I dictate. Quick response, notification dealt with, never had to go find my phone.
  • I’m biking. I glance down at my wrist, and immediately know my heart rate, as well as the elapsed time, or current pace, or current distance, depending on what I’ve set it to.
  • I check the time, and notice my Move or Stand circle is almost filled. I get up and take care of some business around the house/office, because I need to fill those circles, dammit.
  • It’s getting cloudy, and I wonder if it’s going to rain in the next hour. I tilt my wrist, swipe up to my Dark Sky Glance, and see that it won’t.
  • I’m shopping. I check my shopping list on my wrist, grab something off the shelf, and check the item off.
  • I pull into the garage, and my wrist is tapped. The Reminder I set earlier just went off. I snooze it, knowing it will tap me again in 15 minutes, regardless of where my phone/laptop/tablet happen to be in the house.

Some of these are things I could do with my phone. But why would I? I’m already wearing a smartwatch, and for those things, it’s faster. Better. I could also watch a movie on my phone, but I don’t – because a tablet (or a TV, for that matter) is more suited for the task.

Different screens. Different contexts.

My favorite Apple Watch apps so far

Someone asked what my favorite Apple Watch apps were so far, and I boiled it down to this core list:

* RunKeeper, in tandem with the Exercise app. I like being able to control my GPS-driven workout app from my wrist. Being able to switch between them with a double-click of the Digital Crown is a nice touch.

* Overcast. I usually just control podcast playback from the media controls Glance, but sometimes I want more control, or sometimes my iPhone will get confused and play music instead of a podcast.

* Dark Sky. I find I use its Glance rather than the Weather glance, and I find its functionality – a detailed forecast for the next hour and the rest of the day – complimentary to the built-in Weather app’s function of giving me a longer-term forecast.

* Wunderlist. Love this app. I use both the Glance and the app to check for my to-do list. Great for shopping, too.

* Shazam. Now that I can launch Shazam right from my wrist, I actually use it again.

I have some others installed, but those are the only ones I’d qualify as a must-have. Deliveries almost makes the cut, but I don’t need to check my package status often enough to open the app more than one or twice a day, much less use the Glance.

I will say that having a Watch app available means I am more likely to try out app out – for example, I knew Overcast and Deliveries both existed for awhile, and I’d heard great things about both, but didn’t bother to try them out until I heard they had Watch apps. Now, I use and love both services.

Apple Watch Review

Smartwatches are incredibly hard to review. I’ve reviewed two others now, and I’m still not really sure how to approach it.

As a reviewer, you typically write with the assumption that the reader has, at the very least, accepted the value of the product category, and is simply deciding which product in that category they want. If you’re reviewing a smartphone, it’s a fair assumption that the person reading is already sold on the very concept of smartphones. Smartwatches are different. Many people – even people in the tech world – don’t see the value.

While I have wavered from time to time on the value of smartwatches, I generally err on the side of finding them useful. It’s difficult to explain why, however, because it’s all about the little differences they make in your day – each of which, taken individually, don’t sound terribly compelling. Today, my Pebble-owning co-worker excitedly explained how great it was to get his two-factor authentication codes directly on his wrist, without having to dig out his phone to read them. It’s one of those paradoxes that simultaneously thrill smartwatch owners while confusing cynics. “That’s it?”, they ask. Obviously, that’s not it, but it’s a fair question. If smartwatches are so great, why are they so difficult to sell people on? For me, it’s all about form factor.

My life is full of screens. My laptop screen, my tablet screen, my smartphone screen, and my smartwatch screen. All of them serve fundamentally different purposes, and are ideal for different types of activities. My laptop is better than my tablet for writing or coding or browsing, but not for traveling, or using in bed, or gaming, or using on a stationary bike or treadmill. My tablet is better than my smartphone at most things, other than photography, but isn’t something I want to haul with me from place to place.  My smartphone is better than my smartwatch for most activities that take longer than a few seconds – writing a longer e-mail or text, or browsing Facebook or Twitter.

So why a smartwatch? Well, stop and think for a moment: how many times do you dig out your phone for an activity that only actually requires a few seconds of passive interaction? Checking the time. Checking the weather. Checking your calendar. Checking your notifications. Starting a timer. Checking an item off a to do list. Creating a reminder. Reading a text. Reading an e-mail. Arming an alarm system. Starting to track a bike ride. Checking the stats during that bike ride. Playing or pausing audio. Double-checking directions to wherever you’re going. Paying for something. Identifying a song that’s playing. These are all things I do multiple times a day, and, honestly, a smartphone isn’t the ideal form factor for those. They sound trivial, because they are mostly passive, quick interactions, but they’re also the things I probably do most with my phone, and as average phone size continues to get bigger, taking out an oversized device for a trivial task feels increasingly ridiculous. As with many things in life – the little things make all the difference. Little conveniences, all day, every day, add up to something I like having in my life.

That’s almost 500 words, and I haven’t even really talked about the Apple Watch. There’s a reason for that: it’s because the Apple Watch is a smartwatch. It’s a damned good smartwatch, probably the best I’ve ever used, but it doesn’t sell the form factor in a revolutionary new way.

I don’t think it has to, though.  Apple won’t change the wearable world because they reinvented the product category, but rather, because they will introduce the product category to millions of people who may never have tried a smartwatch otherwise – and I think many of those people will be pleasantly surprised by how much they like wearing one.

The hurdle for many, and rightfully so, is the price. After the $149 Pebble, I balked at spending $249 on a Moto 360 last year, so I certainly understand the hesitation at the Apple Watch’s $349/$399 asking price. The good thing is that it feels like a device worth what you’re paying for it, but still, that’s a lot to ask for a device in a still-largely-unexplored category.

I was initially skeptical of the design, but it grew on me after seeing it in person, and the positive impressions have continued. Unlike some Android Wear watches, which impressively imitate  “regular” watches, the Apple Watch makes no attempt at doing so – for better or worse, it  undeniably looks like an Apple product. This is almost certainly intentional; Apple doesn’t want their watch to be mistaken for a regular watch.  They want people to immediately recognize it’s an Apple Watch. While understandable from a branding perspective, it also highlights one of Android Wear’s chief advantages: choice. Given another a year or two, I imagine almost anyone will be able to find an Android Wear device that matches their taste. If you want an Apple Watch, you better like the Apple Watch.

There is one area of personalization where Apple does win, though, and that’s with watch bands. While some Android Wear devices might let you swap in standard watch bands – again playing in their attempts to mimic a regular watch – Apple has found an incredibly slick, user-friendly way to easily swap bands within seconds. Whatever you think of the Apple Watch, don’t doubt this: Apple (and their third-party partners) are going to make an obscene amount of money selling bands to people. I’m already planning on buying at least one additional band – Milanese Loop – and swapping it out with the Sport band after my workouts. That’s absolutely insane, because I’m not a fashionable person, and this isn’t something I’d even consider doing with a regular watch. But Apple makes swapping the bands so easy, and the Milanese is ridiculously nice.

Fortunately, if you’re more sane than me, the band that the Sport model comes with is surprisingly good. Apple calls it “fluoroelastomer”, but I just call it “incredibly comfortable”. It’s the first watch band I’ve worn in a long time that I can actually forget I’m wearing, and that includes the pretty-great leather band that came with the 360. The only frustrating thing is that I’d prefer the black color, but for some inane reason, Apple refused to sell the silver aluminum Sport with the black band. So white will do, for now.

As I mentioned above, my life is full of screens, and the Apple Watch’s is one of the nicest among them. It’s the first smartwatch I haven’t been able to see pixels on, and AMOLED – with its ability to only light up the pixels in use while keeping the rest of the screen black – continues to be the ideal screen technology for a smartwatch from both an aesthetic perspective and a functional perspective.

One more thing about the hardware: I laughed at the digital crown when it was announced, but now I find myself using it constantly. It’s not a “revolutionary” control mechanism by any stretch of the imagination, but as a button that doubles as a way to quickly scroll content, it’s certainly a nice-to-have.  In the last day or so, though, I feel like it’s gotten slightly less responsive on initial use – like it “sticks” for a moment. It’s certainly tolerable, but hopefully it won’t get much worse.

As many doubt as I had about the hardware, they paled in comparison to my doubts about the software. I questioned Apple’s apparently app-centric approach, while praising Android Wear for its comparative simplicity. Once again, actual usage has mitigated those doubts – mostly.

While much has been made about apps on the Watch, they’re actually not as front-and-center as I feared. You could legitimately live in the watch face and get most of the functionality you’d want, as the watch face hides the two most important features – missed notifications, which are available with a swipe down, and Glances, which are available with a swipe up.

Glances are one of my favorite parts about Watch OS. They give me the information I care about most, while also acting as a shortcut to launch the app if need a bit more or want to interact with the information. Dark Sky tells me the current temperature and the weather for the next hour. Wunderlist shows me my next task. Activity shows me my progress towards my fitness goals. For this reason, I’m also incredibly picky about what gets to go in my Glances area – if I have to go through too many other Glances to get to the one I care about, then much of the point is lost.

Notifications, on the other hand, are about the same as you’ll find on Android Wear, right down to the fact that they inherit the notification actions you’d get on your phone. With Inbox, I can mark an e-mail as “Done” right from the notification on my phone – same with the Watch, and exactly the same as Android Wear. The only exception is with some of Apple’s first-party apps, which generally allow you a bit more interaction than third-parties do. For example, if you’re talking to someone over iMessage, you actually see the same “typing” indication on the watch that you’d see on your phone. It’s a small touch, but it’s the sort of attention to detail that is prevalent throughout the hardware and software.

Otherwise, I’d say Watch OS is actually a bit behind Android Wear in the area of notifications – as-of right now, you can only dictate replies to messages that come in through the default Messages app, so no responding to Hangouts messages or Facebook Messengers messages from your wrist. This is an obnoxious limitation that I hope is dealt with sooner rather than later.

There are some aspects of the Watch I prefer to other smartwatches, though. The “taptic” engine, despite the ridiculous name, really is a step above the vibration engine found in other devices. The same way the Force Touch trackpad actually feels like clicking, the “taptic” engine genuinely feels like something is tapping your wrist to get your attention. The look on people’s faces when I put my watch on their wrist and send myself a message is pretty delightful. The other nice thing: when you get a notification, your wrist doesn’t light up. You just get the tap, and you can either raise your wrist to immediately view what came in, or just check on it later. This has made the smartwatch experience far less distracting to me and those around me, and as an added bonus, people can no longer awkwardly read incoming messages off of my wrist.

Speaking of the screen-on-on-wrist-raise feature, it works…mostly. It might be a little more consistent than the Moto 360 was, but there are certainly times where I go to check something and it misbehaves.  It does seem to false trigger less often, though – for example, it doesn’t randomly turn on and off when I’m driving around.

So, notifications above the watch face, Glances below it – what about the watch faces themselves? Well, some are great, and some are pretty-but-useless, and some are just useless. Fortunately, I (eventually) figured out how to delete the ones I didn’t care about, so now I’m down to Utility (somewhat pretty, mostly useful), Modular (not really pretty, but has the most information), and four others that are very pretty but almost entirely useless.

What makes a watch face useful? What is quite possibly my favorite feature of the Watch – the complications. While Apple currently doesn’t support third-party watch faces, and some suspect they never will, the existence of complications helps soften the blow. On my Modular watch face, I currently have: time (obviously),  date, my next calendar appointment,  current temperature, battery level, and, perhaps my personal favorite, my activity level for the day so far. The activity level information is something I desperately wanted in Android Wear, so I’m pleased it’s a default option on the Watch.

Perhaps the best thing about complications, though, is that they act as shortcuts to full apps. The current temperature is sometimes what I want, but sometimes I want the forecast for the rest of the day – tap on the temperature and I’m in the Weather app. Next calendar entry is great, but what’s my agenda for the rest of the day? Tap on the calendar entry and I’m there. It’s hard to believe that the Apple Watch is, far as I know, the first to do something that seems so obvious.

As for those full-apps? Well, it’s a mixed bag. Like watch faces, some are great, and some are useless? Calendar? Great! Here’s my schedule. Remote? Great! Controlling my TV from my wrist never gets old. Photos? …thanks but no thanks. Twitter? Why, why would I want Twitter on my wrist? Instagram? God no.  Wunderlist? Great! I can jump in and mark something as completed – something I wanted to do on my Moto 360, but a proper Wunderlist app wasn’t available during my months spent with it. Never doubt Apple’s ability to bring third-party apps to the table in a way competing platforms just can’t seem to do, for whatever reason.

Performance of those apps is occasionally slow, as they aren’t running natively on the watch, but rather are just fancy extensions of something running on your phone. However, I’ve found performance generally acceptable, and far better than the initial reviews led me to believe. I’m not sure if Apple made some optimizations prior to the retail release, or if tech journalists are just less patient than me.

We’re now over 2000 words in, and I still feel like there’s a lot more to cover. I could probably go on for another 2000, but instead, I’ll shotgun out some random thoughts I’ve had over the last few days.

  • Force Touch? It…usually works, but it’s frustrating when it fails to. Also not sure if I like the general interface paradigm of hiding actions behind a Force Touch, as it basically requires the user Force Touch every screen to see what they can do. A subtle visual indicator would be nice.
  • Digital Touch? I haven’t drawn anything, or sent my heartbeat to anyone, so I can’t really say. I’ve sent a couple of animated emoji, and they send as animated images to non-Apple Watch owners. Cute, but basically useless.
  • Siri? Mostly great, surprisingly. Way better than on the phone. Dictation still seems a bit slower than Google’s dictation on Android and Android Wear, but it’s acceptable.  “Hey Siri” detection is significantly less reliable than “OK Google” detection, for whatever reason – however, it’s available from everywhere on the watch, not just the watch face, so that helps make up for it. Perhaps more annoying is that Watch OS lacks Android Wear’s “automatically time out and complete the activity” option, so if I create a reminder or dictate a message, I still have to tap “Okay” to finish creating it. Clunky and annoying – it’s obvious Android Wear was built more around voice as a primary input mechanism than the Apple Watch was. Watch OS seems to know that voice input is important, but at times still treats it as a second-class citizen.
  • Taking a phone call on your wrist? Feels kind-of cool the first time you do it, but not something I’d envision doing on a regular basis.
  • The screen is surprisingly easy to see in the sun. Early reviews said otherwise, though that could be because the Apple Watch Sport’s screen apparently performs better in sunlight than the Apple Watch’s.
  • Battery life is more or less the same as it was on my Moto 360. It certainly lasts longer while exercising, and I no longer feel obligated to charge it after a workout to get a full day out of it. Ittill goes on my charger when I get in the shower, because the charger’s already on my nightstand, and where else would it go? Speaking of the charger – I like that it’s magnetic and wireless, but still miss the elegance of the 360’s Qi charging dock, not to mention its use of a wireless charging standard.
  • I like that the watch automatically locks itself when removed from your wrist. Given that anyone with my watch could easily trigger an Apple Pay transaction, this seems like a particularly elegant solution to a necessary feature.
  • Speaking of which: Apple Pay was born to live on the Apple Watch. Apple Pay (and NFC payments in general) are already pretty cool, and while paying with your phone is generally faster than paying with a credit card, paying with something that’s already on your wrist is noticeably faster than both.
  • The watch can be set to unlock to the last used app, which is useful if you’re doing something like using the watch as a remote for an Apple TV, or monitoring an active workout. As a bonus, all apps have the time in the upper right corner, so it’s still useful as an actual watch when you aren’t on the watch face itself. In a way, it becomes a makeshift whatever-activity-you’re-doing-centric watch face.

And then, of course, there’s the fitness stuff. I could write a whole post about that – in fact, I already have – but the long and short of it is that it’s exactly what I’ve wanted out of a fitness tracker for years. It passively tracks my movement throughout the day, while also actively and accurately tracking my heart rate during exercise. The only time I’ve seen it struggle to read my heart rate is while dancing, which Apple explains with: “Rhythmic movements, such as running or cycling, give better results compared to irregular movements, like tennis or boxing.” It’s not that it stops working entirely during those activities, just that it seems to take a reading less often. There are, of course, dedicated fitness trackers that will also read your heart rate – but as someone who has already decided they want to wear a smartwatch, I’m not really interested in wearing something on both wrists.

Most importantly to me, MyFitnessPal’s latest version will update my calorie allocation for the day based on the activity recorded by the watch, and the Fitbit app can be set to record my steps based on my iPhone rather than the Fitbit hardware.  All of this means I finally have what I wanted since the original Pebble – a smartwatch/smartphone combination that will allow me to retire my Fitbit One without sacrificing MyFitnessPal functionality or the social aspects of the Fitbit ecosystem.

So where does that leave us? The Apple Watch is, in my experience, a paradoxical device. Sometimes it feels like Apple’s most-polished first-gen product ever…until it doesn’t. 95% of the time, it’s a smooth, reliable experience…but then Siri will freak out. Or a poorly written Glance will cause my watch to reboot. Or I’ll show the watch to someone and it won’t let me enter my passcode to unlock it without restarting it.

Bottom line: the odd quirk aside, it’s the best smartwatch and the best fitness tracker I’ve ever used, but the price is pretty hard to swallow unless you want both types of devices. Most people probably shouldn’t buy it just as a smartwatch, or just as a fitness tracker – it doesn’t do enough beyond what other smartwatches do to revolutionize the category and push into “objectively useful for everyone”, and it’s too expensive to buy as solely a fitness tracker. 

For most people, it’s hard not to recommend waiting for the next generation – not because this one isn’t good, but because the next one will probably be better and cheaper. If nothing else, the next generation will drive down the cost of this generation. It’s not that it isn’t great or useful – it’s pretty great and pretty useful – but rather, that it’s not necessarily $349 worth of useful. At $299, it becomes more reasonable. At $249, it’d be much, much easier to recommend.

But, if you have an iPhone, and you love gadgets – it’s a pretty damn cool gadget, so that might well be enough. If you love gadgets and have an interest in fitness tracking, like me, then it basically sells itself.  So if the question is “Should I buy?”, the answer for most people is “probably not”. But if the question is “If I do buy it anyway, will I like it?”

Yeah, I think you probably will.

25 Miles on a Bike with the Apple Watch and RunKeeper




I’ve been a bit obsessed with gadgets and fitness tracking since I discovered RunKeeper on the iPhone 3G in 2008. It wouldn’t run in the background, and it murdered my battery, but I still loved tracking the stats and maps of my walks and bike rides. It was primitive, and it was messy, but I had a taste of how gadgets could encourage me to be more fit, and I wanted more.

Since then, things have grown a bit more sophisticated, though still not as much as I’d like. Other tracking services came along, but I stuck with RunKeeper but, well, it has all my data, and I have a community on there. What I didn’t love about RunKeeper is that I had to fish out my phone every time I wanted to interact with it or view my current stats.

Enter the original Pebble. I was mildly intrigued by the possibility of notifications on my wrists, but I was excited to finally have an interface for RunKeeper. I missed the original Kickstarter, but managed to grab one at Best Buy, and it was my first step into a larger world.

I’ve also tried the Moto 360, and now the Apple Watch.  In addition, I use a Fitbit One, which is great as a generic fitness tracker and social platform, but generally a bit lacking when it comes to accurately tracking bike rides, and obviously can’t work with RunKeeper at all. My holy grail fitness tracker has always been one that could replace my Fitbit and my Pebble, could accurately track my heart rate,  all while still acting as a display for RunKeeper and performing other smartwatch-y functions.

The Ride

So, today, I took my new Apple Watch on a 25 mile bike ride to find out if it is truly the Chosen One. The short answer? Not quite – but it’s really, really close, and all-but-one of the failings are on the software level, not the hardware level – so things could change.

Let’s cover the hardware failing first – the first-gen Apple Watch has no built-in GPS. For many, that could very well be a deal-breaker. If you still have to carry your phone, why bother? Personally, I like to have my phone with me, especially on bike rides, in case something goes wrong. It’s also how I listen to podcasts – shout outs to The Adventure Zone and the Android Central Podcast for keeping me company today. So, relying on my phone’s GPS is just fine for me.

Software-wise, the biggest issue is that third-party apps can’t tap into the Apple Watch’s heart rate monitor, so I have to use both RunKeeper and the built-in Workout app if I want to get heart rate information. That’s the bad news. The good news is that a double-tap of the digital crown will switch between your last two apps, so it’s really easy to jump between RunKeeper and Workout. It makes it harder to manually pause my workouts, but both apps automatically pause if I stop for a short time, so that’s not a huge deal.

The other software issue is the RunKeeper watch app itself, which is the most bare-bones version of RunKeeper I’ve ever  it. The actual during-activity display is fine, but you can’t change the type of activity you want to do from the launch screen, so you have to dig out your phone for that. It’s a dumb limitation, and one I have to imagine will be fixed sooner rather than later, but if you try and use the app today, that’s what you get.


That’s the bad stuff.  Now let’s talk about the good stuff, which is basically: everything else. It’s by-far the best smartwatch I’ve used for working out – it combines most of my favorite aspects of the Pebble and the 360, while correcting some of the issues with both.

Vs. The Pebble

The Pebble’s RunKeeper integration and fitness tracking functionality are appropriately simple. The RunKeeper app will display your current stats, and will pause the run if you hit the side button.  This is one case where the Pebble’s always-on interface truly shines, as I can always see my information and it’s always visible regardless of lighting conditions. The Pebble itself serves as a basic pedometer, which tracks my runs well enough, but fails when it comes to bike rides.  That, combined with the lack of a heart rate monitor, means it’s a fantastic RunKeeper display, but too basic as a fitness tracker.

Vs. The Moto 360

I’ve already extensively covered my use of the Moto 360 as a fitness tracker, so I’ll focus on the differences between it and the Apple Watch.  My biggest issue with the 360’s RunKeeper integration was that, while it kept the screen always on, it was usually too dim to see without tapping on the screen, and the usual “wake the watch up” wrist gesture wouldn’t work to turn the screen on. This is likely to save battery life, but having to tap every time I wanted to view my stats wasn’t a great experience.

The Apple Watch, in comparison, just times the display out like normal, which sounds worse, but there’s one major difference – you can set the Apple Watch to display the last-used app on wrist-raise, so your fitness stats are still just a glance away. While you can turn the display off on the 360, if you raise your wrist, you’re going back to the watch face, meaning the stats you care about at least a swipe and tap or two away. Not the end of the world, but also not ideal.

The other big difference is the heart rate monitor. While the 360 will passively monitor your heart rate during a workout, which is great, the Apple Watch goes one step further by surfacing that information and taking it more frequently, so you can accurately judge your level of effort mid-workout.

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While I don’t have the equipment to judge how accurate the heart rate info is,  but others who do have vouched for its accuracy:

At the end of three workouts, both the Polar and the watch reported similar average beats per minute. That’s far more accurate than the Fitbit Charge HR and Microsoft’s Band.

The only real issue here again seems to be software-related – while Apple uses the heart rate information to calculate calorie burn, it doesn’t seem to be surfaced anywhere else. I’d love to see how my heart rate varied during a workout.

Finally, battery drain during the workout was (obviously) more substantial than it is on the Pebble, but better than the 360, even with me constantly checking my  heart rate. Over the course of the nearly-two-hour bike ride, I lost about 30%, and I could probably mitigate that by not checking my wrist as often. The only real downside is that it means I’ll likely need to charge after a morning workout if I want to make it through the rest of the day, but that’s no different than my experience with the 360.

Other bits and pieces

Some other things of note:

  • The Exercise app and RunKeeper app recorded almost the exact same distance, which is unsurprising as I imagine the Exercise app is using the phone to calculate distance.

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  • Calorie burn between the Apple Watch and RunKeeper weren’t really in sync, though strangely, my Apple Watch and FitBit were quite close. I also like that the Apple Watch differentiates between Active and Resting calories. Given that the Watch has my heart rate information, I’d imagine its calorie estimation is more accurate.


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  • I love that the Apple Watch differentiates between reaching your active calorie burning goal and staying active the rest of the day. The fact that the Watch expects you to stand at least once an hour definitely calls out folks like me, who are inclined to go for a morning run or ride, but then use that as an excuse to remain mostly-stationary the rest of the day. In the image below, the blue circle screams: You spent two hours on the bike, and that’s awesome, but you aren’t done yet!




  • Apple’s Activity app on both the phone and the watch is actually pretty slick, complete with Achievements, but it’s going to be fairly limited until some social aspect is incorporated – after all, what’s the point of earning trophies if I can’t compare those trophies with my friends? I could probably stop wearing my Fitbit at this point, except for the social ecosystem I’ve built there. It’s fun to compare my days and weeks with others, and competition encourages you to get just a little more movement in.
  • I was worried about screen visibility in the sunlight, but I was able to view my stats without a problem in Arizona’s morning Asun. Some of the illusion is lost, however, as you can easily see where the screen ends and the bezel begins, which is much harder to do when you’re indoors.


So, 25 miles later, where does that leave us?  I was expecting trade-offs similar to what I’ve seen with the Pebble and the Moto 360, and while there are a few, they are relatively minor, and nearly all of them can be fixed with software changes. It’s easily the most capable wrist-worn fitness tracker I’ve used, and we’re only day two into it being publicly available. It’s hard to imagine where we’ll be in a year or two, with or without new hardware. This is the first smartwatch I’ve worn that legitimately convinces me I could ditch my Fitbit, and I would, if it weren’t for the social aspects of Fitbit and the tie-in with MyFitnessPal, which I use to track calorie intake. Of course, if I lose my Fitbit, I’m much less likely to replace it now than I was before.

Here’s what I’d like to see in the future:

  • I won’t even need to start the Workout app, as the Watch will figure out what I’m doing based on accelerometer activity and track accordingly.
  • The RunKeeper app would be able to access the heart rate monitor, and I could view my heart rate data on RunKeeper the same way you can if you pair a heart rate monitor to your phone.
  • My active calorie burn information would be sent to MyFitnessPal, so that my calorie goals for the day would be adjusted accordingly.

Still, all of this is software. Hardware-wise, the pieces are already there for my ideal fitness wearable, and even today, it’s more capable than most-if-all of its direct competitors. Of course, it’s also more expensive, but, well, that discussion will have to wait until a full review.

(Addendum: I’d like to thank Apple on behalf of bloggers everywhere for providing an easy way to take and sync screenshots on an Apple Watch. No more awkwardly taking photos of my wrist for these sorts of posts!)

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