writing about tech

Month: December 2014

The iPhone 6 Plus Experiment

Oh God what have I done

Oh God what have I done

As many of you probably know, I’ve used Android phones for almost three years now – my last iPhone was the fantastic iPhone 4 – but I’ve recently grown frustrated with inconsistent behavior and performance of Android. Battery life has always been a problem, and it recently grew to a head, but it’s not the only problem I’ve had with Android.  Media controls and integration continue to be a struggle for Android. Third-party app performance is less than ideal.  New apps and services still typically come to iOS first, despite Android’s significant marketshare advantage.  Apple’s ecosystem remains untouchable; if you want an accessory or service for your device, it’s almost certainly available.  The Apple Store remains the gold standard for customer service on consumer electronics, and nothing from any Android OEM has come close.

Personally, I don’t have a strong preference for either platform; I like and appreciate each one for what it is. I’m not a fan of companies, but of devices – specifically, devices that seamlessly fit into our lives.  My chief problem with iOS has always been that it expects the user to fit their workflow to match how Apple wants you to do things; my chief problem with Android has always been that it often demands a fair amount of micromanagement on the user’s part if you want an ideal experience. For me, it comes down to that core struggle: user experience vs. personal workflow.

After a couple weeks of toying with the idea of getting an iPhone 6 Plus, and after being incredibly impressed by the iPad Air 2 I got about a month ago, I finally decided it was worth revisiting the possibility of using an iPhone as a daily driver.  So, at lunch yesterday, I gave into a whim, and here I am, less than a day into owning a new iPhone 6 Plus.

The question that I can’t answer without actually using an iPhone again full time is whether or not I can live with iOS’ limitations on my primary mobile device. It’s one thing when it’s a secondary device used primarily for leisure and content consumption; it’s another when it’s the device that drives my day to day activities.  I’ve become accustomed to adapting a device to my workflow; can I return to adapting my workflow to a device

So, here we go – a two-week experiment with an iPhone 6 Plus.  Here’s what I’m anticipating, both positive and negative:

What I’m looking forward to

Touch ID

I have Touch ID on my iPad Air, and it’s pretty amazing. It’s been more than a year since this feature was initially introduced with the 5S, and no competing phone has been able to match the simplicity and accuracy of Apple’s implementation.

Battery life

Given my rant yesterday, this probably isn’t a surprise, but it’s still worth mentioning.  Standby times on iOS devices tends to be solid, and I’m expecting no less from my 6 Plus.  I’m also not holding anything back – it’s configured more-or-less the same way my Android phone was, at least within the limitations of iOS.  PocketCasts and Play Music are set to automatically download.  FitBit and weather apps are syncing in the background. Notifications are being pushed to my Pebble. Google Now is…Google Nowing.  Like with my Android phones, I have no intention of babying this thing to save battery life. It will meet my demands or I will (eventually) find a device that will.  Battery life is something I’ve always compromised on – I’m the guy who always has his phone plugged in at work – and I’m tired of making that compromise. Assuming I’m not spending all day playing games or streaming my video, my phone should last me all day. Period.

A pure experience

iPhones are still the best example for how to release a phone without any carrier interference. While you do have to deal with Apple’s “bloatware” (its usefulness likely dependent on how deep you want to go into Apple’s ecosystem), at least the carriers can’t touch the hardware or software. Android is getting better in this regard, but you still generally have to buy a phone unlocked if you want a carrier-free experience – even the Nexus 6, if purchased through AT&T, gets their logo stuck on the back. Of course, as we learned from the iOS 8.0.1, the downside to a lack of carrier intervention in the update process is that it can lead to a glitchy software update rolling out to thousands of phones – but that remains the exception, rather than the rule.

One of the best mobile phone cameras, ever

I currently use a Sony RX100M2 as my primary camera, but the iPhone 6 Plus’ camera is a breath of fresh air after coming from an HTC One (which is great in some ways and flawed in others) and a Nexus 5. It’s not that those cameras are objectively terrible, but what they are is not reliable. I’m excited to use a phone with a fast camera that’s quite good in most conditions – it may mean my point and shoot can get left at home a bit more often.

Apps, apps, apps

I’ve greatly enjoyed the quality of apps I’ve seen on the iPad Air, and I’m excited to see that quality brought to my mobile handset.  My daily go-to apps like RunKeeper and MyFitnessPal seem to be better designed and perform better than their Android counterparts.  Even Chrome seems to run a bit better on iOS, likely due to the fact that it has to share the Safari browser engine, essentially becoming a fancy Google-centric Safari wrapper. Given Chrome’s performance on OS X, sometimes I wish the OS X version was also just a fancy Safari wrapper.

Apple’s ecosystem

Although I’ve already put a good deal of effort into making third-parties work together in Android to deliver functionality similar to Continuity, there’s something reassuring when it’s a native solution as opposed to a hacked-together solution dependent on multiple third-party apps (in my case, PushBullet and MySMS).  As an iPad and MacBook owner, I’m already excited to be sending texts from those devices using the native messaging app on each.

Reliable Bluetooth audio controls

Now we’ve reaching the nitty gritty, but I’ve found that one of the more frustrating aspects of Android in my day-to-day usage is that the Bluetooth controls on my go-to set of headphones simply aren’t very reliable. It’s been this way on ever Android device I’ve used in the last couple of years – the Nexus 5, the Nexus 7, and the HTC One.  All of them have varying degrees of problems (the Nexus 7 would typically drop connection entirely after a couple of minutes), the most common being that the phone would take commands from the Bluetooth headphones as suggestions. Pause? I guess, when I get around to it. Go back? Eh, maybe. We’ll see. As someone who often uses headphones for hours a day, between running and working, this adds up to a pretty frustrating experience. I had reached the point where I was using my headphones on my iPad more frequently than my phone, just because I knew the damn things would work right.  For the record, I don’t think this is a problem with the headphones, either.  My Moto 360’s Bluetooth audio controls are often fairly delayed as well.  As a bonus, iOS also displays a battery meter for the connected headphones – something Android can’t do, regardless of you root and ROM it.

A cooler phone

This one…probably sounds weird.  I don’t mean cooler as in hipper – I mean, literally, cooler. I’ve yet to have an Android device (phone or tablet) that didn’t run hot while under load including, occasionally, while it was just sitting in my pocket. I’m hopeful that Apple’s marriage of software to hardware will better handle thermal issues.

The size

I’m excited to try a bigger phone, with all the benefits it can bring. I’m also worried it’s simply too big, however.

 

What I’ll miss

Complete freedom

This is the obvious and predicable choice, but it doesn’t make any less true. Everything positive I’ve ever said about Android remains true, and while iOS8 has made strides towards being more open with the additions of Extensions and Today Widgets, it still doesn’t adapt to my personal workflow the same way Android does.  Whether or not I can put up with doing things the “iPhone way” will largely determine how this experiment plays out.

Android Wear

This is actually a big one.  Despite recent frustrations, I still love my Moto 360, and not being able to use it is a huge, huge hurdle on my potential move back to iOS. I still have an old Pebble, which is…fine, I suppose, but I already miss Android Wear. There’s always a chance Android Wear could work with iOS, at least on the same level as Pebble, but today, that’s simply not a reality.

Default Apps

This is another tough one. While Google has done a commendable job of ensuring its own apps work together inside iOS, there’s still a lot more than can be done. I should be able to ask Siri for directions and have her open Google Maps. I should be able to ask Siri to take a note and have it go into whatever app is able to handle that communication. This is something I use all the time with Android Wear, and not being able to create to-do items in my to-do app of choice is going to be a frustrating hurdle.

Google Now

I’m a huge Google Now user and lover, and I’m going to try using Google Now on the iPhone, but I’m concerned about how well it will perform when it’s not an integral part of the OS. Of course, this could go both ways: perhaps I can get most of the benefits of Google Now within the app restrictions of iOS, thus giving me much of the functionality without the battery life hit. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out.

An IR Blaster

This is specific to my uses, but I had my HTC One setup as a universal remote for my TV and audio system. Obviously this isn’t a deal breaker – I can go back to using my regular remotes, like a peasant – but it was a really, really nice feature.

Wireless Charging

My current phone didn’t have this, but the Nexus 5 did, and it’s a convenience you find it difficult to give up once you’re used to.  At least Apple’s Lightning cables are a step above Micro USB in user-friendliness, though.

The size

Hardware-wise, I still think the HTC One was, like the iPhone 4, close to perfect.  It feels right in your hand, and the size is pretty ideal.  While I’m excited to try a larger phone for the first time, I already miss some aspects of the One’s form factor.

 

So, those are my expectations going into this experiment. As I said at the beginning, I haven’t used an iPhone on a regular basis in almost three years, so I’m excited to see the ways the platform has changed and grown. Even if I don’t end up keeping the 6 Plus, at least I’ll come away with a better understanding of what the platform is capable of.

My increasing frustration with Android in a single screenshot

Let’s be clear – I like Android, a lot. The freedom it provides is still unparalleled, even with iOS8’s recent strides towards being more open.

Now, with that said…the last couple of weeks have tested my patience with misbehaving technology. It started with the way Lollipop handles notifications and has been further exacerbated by an issue with Lollipop on the Moto 360 that makes notifications unreliable. Yes, you read that right: somehow Google (or Motorola, or both) managed to release a smartwatch update that broke the core functionality of a smartwatch. Nailed it, guys.

These little glitches have been adding up, especially as I look toward getting a new phone in 2015. I’m not going to lie: I’ve been tempted to run out and buy an iPhone 6 Plus on more than one occasion, and it’s not out of love for iOS, but out of frustration for the maddeningly inconsistent experience on Android. Android is great! You know, usually. Until it isn’t.

Tonight was close to being the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t even anything new, but just something I’d seen happen before – an event that had its significance increased by other recent frustrations. A few hours ago, my phone’s battery randomly decided to eat itself, even though I wasn’t using it, and it was on WiFi the whole time:

2014-12-30_2006.13.57.0.png

The detailed usage stats are useless, as usual, only telling me that “Android OS” was responsible, without giving any further explanation as to the actual root cause.

This is simply unacceptable. Fortunately I was home and didn’t need my phone tonight, but what if I had? Why does Google think it’s okay for a rogue process or app to completely hijack my phone? Ideally the OS itself would detect and deal with this scenario, but it’s not even trying. The least it could do is warm me that hey dude your battery is draining really fucking fast you might want to do something about it.

Did a reboot fix this? Yes. Should I have to reboot my phone to fix this? No, of course I shouldn’t. That’s insane. There’s nothing I can do with a reboot that Android shouldn’t be able to do on its own. Either a third-party app is being allowed to run completely out of control, and that behavior is being reported as “Android OS” or the OS itself is doing something awful, which is even worse.

Where do we go from here? I honestly don’t know. I’d like to wait and see where Google takes Android 5.0 in the next couple of months. I love the freedom Android gives me, and I love that I can set up my phone to match my own ideal workflow.

But you know what? I’m also tired of having to micromanage my phone just for the benefits of that freedom. This process and battery management stuff is just one example of something Google should’ve worked out years ago; not something I’m still fighting as we reach the end of 2014.

My 10 Second Review of Hearthstone

Despite first being released on PCs, Hearthstone is, I believe, the inevitable result of tablet gaming.  I’ve long felt that tablets are an ideal medium for board and card games – I’m also hopelessly addicted to Ascension, for example –  and Blizzard embraced that by creating an incredibly-polished collectible card game that anyone can pick up and play.  The twist is that many of the rules would be incredibly complicated (if not impossible) to implement in a physical game, which I think is where tablet card games truly shine.  I can’t even imagine playing the physical version of the aforementioned Ascension, since there’s just so much to keep track of.

I would seriously recommend it to anyone who owns a tablet (especially now that it’s on Android), but I take no responsibility if you end up hopelessly addicted.  You have be warned.

(But seriously, it’s super-fun).

PushBullet is the missing element of stock Android

Although I’ve yet to experience it personally, I am a huge fan of Apple’s concept of Continuity – the core idea being that, while you’re using a computer, your phone becomes a glorified router for text messages and phone calls.

As an Android phone user, I am hoping Google will answer with a similar cross-platform solution – but while I wait, a third-party has stepped in to fill the gap with an app called PushBullet. Many of you probably already know what PushBullet is, but if you don’t: the short version is that it started as an Android app (and Chrome extension) that allowed you to send data between your devices. However, over the last year or so, it has evolved to become quite a bit more.  My two most common uses are:

  • Notification mirroring between Android and Chrome. Any device running Chrome can view and, as of two days ago, interact with your phone or tablet’s notifications. Want to dismiss a notification? Done. Want to archive or delete an e-mail? Done. Any of Android’s built-in notification actions show up as options in the notification pop up.
  • Screenshot 2014-12-18 10.05.43

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Send and receive text messages from your computer. I personally use a combination of MightyText and PushBullet for this, as PushBullet doesn’t yet support MMS messaging, but it’s enough for basic messaging needs. You can quick-reply directly from a notification or send a new message from inside the extension.

Screenshot 2014-12-18 10.07.09 Screenshot 2014-12-18 10.07.19 Screenshot 2014-12-18 10.13.42

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is also plenty more PushBullet does that I personally haven’t used, such as Universal Copy/Paste, Notification syncing between Android devices, and sending files between your computer and your Android device.

PushBullet’s existence really highlights the key difference between iOS and Android: iOS is rigid, so if you want this sort of functionality, it has to be baked in by Apple, the trade-off being that when it does come, it’s (usually) done very well. Android, on the other hand, gives third-party apps enough flexibility to fill in some of those functionality holes. An app like PushBullet or MightyText just can’t exist properly on iOS, at least not without jailbreaking – the APIs just aren’t there.

This is, perhaps, why I lean towards using a more open, flexible device as my global “router” – there continue to be areas where Android isn’t as polished as iOS, but even today, Android can just do more.  It’s unfortunate that third-parties sometimes have to fill in the functionality gap, but the very fact that developers can is just as important to me, if not more so. In a world where my smartphone is less of a phone and more of a glorified mobile data router that I can leverage on any number of other devices, I find the functionality of that router is more important than how fluid the UI is.

As nice as that flexibility is, this is the sort of incredibly convenient functionality that Android – like iOS – should really just have built-in at this point. A logical step would be to expand the new multitasking view in Android 5.0 to include activities on all your devices, not just the one you’re currently using it.  At this point, though, I’d settle for Google to simply purchase PushBullet and implement the same functionality at a native-level. I shouldn’t have to download an app or install a Chrome extension; it should just work between any instance of Chrome and Android that I’m logged in on. That’s the dream, at least.

Google needlessly fucked up Android Wear notifications in Lollipop

Over the weekend, I decided to flash a shiny new Android 5.0.1 ROM on my HTC One, and it’s been mostly great, except for one thing – it’s changed the way I use my Moto 360 (also running Android 5.0) and not for the better.

The details on how things have been changed has been covered in greater detail by Android Central, but the tl;dr  is my standard setup of “silence the phone only get notifications on my wrist” – something you’d think would be simple – is broken, for a couple of reasons.

The first reason is that Google arbitrarily decided that I want to have the same notification setting on my watch as I do on my phone. But…why? Aren’t there completely reasonable situations where I’d want my phone muted but still get notifications on my watch, or vice-versa?  Apparently not in Google’s eyes.

The second reason is that Google also arbitrarily decided to replace “Silent” mode (a standard feature on phones for who-knows-how-long) with “Priority” mode, which is great in theory but frustrating in practice. This effectively silences all notifications except the ones I specifically allow through, which would be great if it wasn’t also putting my watch in priority mode.

The key to this seems to be the “Mute Connected Phone” feature option in the Android Wear, which unfortunately at this point seems to only work when it wants to, which, as far as I can tell, is entirely random.

Muted by Android Wear! You know, maybe. We'll see. Honesty, probably not.

Muted by Android Wear! You know, maybe. We’ll see. Honesty, probably not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing quite like seeing my phone claim it’s muted by Android Wear, only to then vibrate or make a sound. Nailed it, Google.

I realize my complaints are pretty specific, but I imagine the use-case I describe for Android Wear is actually a pretty common setup, if not the most common. Why would I ever need my phone to make a sound or vibrate if I have a connected watch?  Sure, give me the option if I really want it, but muting the connected device should be the default, not something that, as of this writing, doesn’t even work. 

Also, I’m not sure if it’s a related bug or not, but sometimes my watch decides it doesn’t want to buzz anymore, which, well, is a pretty frustrating flaw in a device whose primary purpose is to notify me of things.

I love many of the things that Google does, but find myself constantly baffled by why they feel the need to change things that aren’t broken.  You know what worked fine?  The Sound/Vibrate/Silent modes that have existed in Android for years, and separate notification settings for my watch and my phone.  Sure, add a Do Not Disturb option if you want to, but that should be an additional feature, not something that replaces what everyone has already gotten used to.

In the past week, my phone and my watch have both been “updated”, yet I feel like my personal workflow has taken a step back, not a step forward.  Get your shit together, Google.

Misplace your FitBit? There’s (literally) an app for that

This morning, after my stationary bike workout, I misplaced my FitBit One. I knew it was either in my office (where the bike is) or my room, but I wasn’t sure which, and it’s small enough that it could’ve easily fallen in a corner somewhere. Unfortunately, there’s no “find my FitBit” feature on my phone – but it was still connecting to my phone via Bluetooth.

That’s when I got the idea to download an app that would show me Bluetooth signal strength – in my case BlueScan for Android, but there are certainly others for both iOS and Android. By looking at the signal strength, I was able to quickly determine which room it was in (the office) and where it was (on the floor next to my bike).

Signal strength low = not in the bedroom

Signal strength low = not in the bedroom

Signal strength high = probably in the office

Signal strength high = probably in the office

 

I figured this was a neat trick worth sharing, especially as more and more of us are carrying small, easy-to-misplace Bluetooth devices, whether it’s a fitness tracker, smartwatch, or headphones.

Daily Drivers Update, November 2014

Since I’ve had some fairly major changes in my Daily Drivers over the last couple of months, I thought it’d be a fun exercise to explain what has changed, why it changed, and what’s on the horizon.

Tablet

Old and Busted: Nexus 7 (2013)

New Hotness: iPad Air 2 (WiFi, 64 GB)

My history with tablets is a strange one, suffice it to say, I’ve gone through way too many, and I’m tired of making sacrifices in this area.  When it comes to upgrade cycles, I think tablets should be more like laptops than smartphones, and in that regard, the iPad Air 2, with its top-of-the-line processor, 64 GB of storage (finally), a laminated screen (finally), and 2 GB of RAM (finally) might finally be the tablet I can use for years to come. The iPad Air 2 is an iOS tablet that outperforms a 2011 MacBook Air and that’s, frankly, pretty ridiculous.  It’s also the first iPad I’ve used that – probably thanks to the added RAM – legitimately feels like a secondary computer, rather than purely a consumption device.  Of course, it is also a fantastic consumption device, because it’s still an iPad, and that’s where they truly excel.  I have more to say about the iPad Air 2, but that can wait until I’ve used it for a couple more weeks.

As for why the Nexus 7 got ditched – well, it’s complicated. I tended toward smaller tablets – originally the iPad Mini, and later the Nexus 7 – because I thought I’d carry them with me more.  Unfortunately, I found that with devices of that size, they’re often too big to conveniently carry around without a bag, but also, almost paraodically, too small to justify using over my phone, except perhaps for games or reading.  However, since I discovered that I greatly prefer a Kindle for reading books, those use cases became even smaller, and my Nexus 7 quickly became the device that rarely left the nightstand. The final nail in the coffin was that, despite Google’s best efforts, Android simply doesn’t have the software library of the iPad, especially when it comes to games – even for fairly major releases.  Hearthstone?  Finally coming in December, probably – almost eight months after its debut on the iPad.  FTL?  No word on if it’ll ever show up. After awhile, you get tired of waiting for Android tablet ports that, at best, show up “eventually”.

Phone

Old and (actually) Busted: Nexus 5

“New” Hotness: HTC One (M7)

This one is a bit different than the others, because my Nexus 5 is literally busted, in that the screen is broken. Fortunately, I had an old HTC One that was willing and able to take its place.  I’ve already gotten into detail a couple of times about why the HTC One is a fantastic phone, so I won’t bore you with that again, suffice it to say that over a year and a half later, it’s difficult to find a justification to replace it.  Like the iPhone 4 before it, I feel it’s a somewhat-timeless smartphone…at least as long the software updates keep coming. I certainly had my reasons for using a Nexus 5 for awhile, and I believe those reasons are still valid, but now that I’ve put the effort into making the HTC One as unlocked and open as my Nexus 5 was, I’m not in any rush to replace it again.

Smartwatch

Old and Busted: Pebble (original)

“New” Hotness: Moto 360

I’ve written a lot about the Moto 360, but the quick-and-dirty summary: no one needs a smartwatch, but they are useful, and if you want one, and have an Android phone, this is the one I’d recommend, largely thanks to its ambient light sensor and incredibly convenient wireless charging.

Why did the Pebble get ditched?  Some part style, some part software. The original Pebble is not a terribly attractive device, especially when compared to something like the Moto 360.  Perhaps more importantly, however, I’ve found a huge amount of utility in Android Wear’s voice commands, particularly when it comes to setting reminders and creating to-do lists.  Also, while the Pebble excels at showing me notifications, but Android Wear – and by extension, the Moto 360 – allows me act on many of those notifications, and I’ve found that makes a huge difference in utility.  The only real benefit to the Pebble is battery life, but I have no problems charging my smartwatch daily, as long as the charging method is convenient and it doesn’t die on my wrist.

 

So what’s next? I honestly don’t know – I’ve reached a surprisingly happy medium with my current line-up, with each device filling an important niche, and no device feeling underused.  The most obvious candidate for replacement is the HTC One, given its age and the fact my contract is up early next year, but right now, I don’t see anything I’d jump to replace it with. The only real candidate is the new Moto X, but even then, I’m not sure it’d be a huge upgrade.  I’m excited to see what comes out next year – especially from HTC – but if nothing strikes me as being better than my HTC One in most or all areas, then I’ll wait it out.

It’s perhaps my dirty little secret that as much as I love technology, I don’t love buying things on a near-constant basis.  It’s that love of technology that drives me to find the ideal devices that fit so seamlessly into my life that I don’t want to replace them, because replacing them could actually make things worse.  People who know me in person will laugh at this, and they’re right to do so, but for the first time in awhile, I’m not itching to buy anything new any time soon – and it feels good.

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