writing about tech

Month: January 2015

Quick Tip: Use an iPad adapter with your iPhone to charge much faster

This is one of those things that, as a nerd, I assume everyone knows, but the reality is quite the opposite. While your iPhone obviously came with a wall adapter, that wall charger doesn’t charge your phone as fast as possible, as it it is a 5-Watt adapter.  If you want to (roughly) double your  charging speed, use a 10-Watt or 12-Watt iPad adapter. It’s perfectly safe (at least as long as you use an official one), and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the difference in charging speed compared to what you get out-of-the-box.

 

Windows 10 is a free upgrade for Windows 7 users. This is huge.

Microsoft just announced that Windows 10 is going to be a free upgrade for all Windows 7 users.

Photo courtesy of The Verge

This is a pretty big deal; Windows 7 -> 8 wasn’t free, but 7 -> 10 will be. It also sets a precedent going forward, though, that Windows will always be a free upgrade – it’ll be interesting to see if that remains true, or if this is a one-time deal to get as many people on the same platform as possible.

While this is an expensive decision, it’s almost certainly the right one – Microsoft already has a user base split between Windows 7 and Windows 8, and adding Windows 10 to that would’ve been unmanageable. Personally, I never upgraded my desktop to Windows 8, since it wasn’t free, and I didn’t see a benefit to doing so. Now, assuming Windows 10 isn’t a disaster, I won’t have any reason not to upgrade – and Microsoft is counting on millions of other users to view it the same way.

That’s the trick, of course – to make Windows 10 good enough that people want to upgrade. Hopefully, Microsoft can pull it off.

 

Daily Drivers Update, January 2015

Another year, another daily driver update. This is a big one (no pun intended) – my move from using an Android phone for almost three years, back to using an iPhone.

Phone

Old and Busted: HTC One (M7)

New Hotness: iPhone 6 Plus

The iOS vs. Android debate is a never ending quagmire that I don’t really want to venture into here, suffice it to say that in January of 2015, I decided to try using an iPhone again, and it turns out I really liked it. There’s a variety of reasons, but really, at the end of the day, it came down to battery life and camera performance. This is a fantastic phone, if you can put up with iOS and the somewhat-absurd size.

 

iPhone 6 Plus Conclusions: Battery, battery, battery. Also camera.

Two weeks ago, I purchased an iPhone 6 Plus, largely due to my issues with battery life on Android phones.  If you’ve been following my posts,  you’ve probably figured out that I’ve decided to keep the iPhone and stick with iOS for awhile. I wish I could say I had some grand, all-consuming revelation, but really, it comes down to the same reason I decided to try an iPhone again in the first place: battery life.

My rule for the last two weeks was a simple one: if I was going to keep the iPhone, it had to last all day, every day, only being plugged in at night when I get to bed.  Day two (New Year’s Eve) was actually a close call – it came off the charger early for work, and was used heavily throughout the day to coordinate my NYE party, stream music, etc. It scraped by with 10% left when I finally went to bed at 2 AM.

Since that day, though, I’ve come nowhere close to hitting that 10% mark. Sitting at home right now, after work, 11 or so hours after my phone came off the charger, my phone is at about 70% percent. When I go to bed, I will likely have more than 50% remaining – probably closer to 60%, actually. That means I could have used my phone way, way, way more, and still had battery to spare.  One morning, I went running for two and a half hours, with RunKeeper tracking in the background the whole time, streaming podcasts to my Bluetooth headphones, and still had 88% battery left.

These numbers are about average from what I’ve seen in my two weeks of usage.  They are also quite possibly irrelevant to you, as we likely live in different places, work in different places, and use our phones very differently.  It’s an apples-to-oranges comparison to anything except my own previous experiences with phones – and in that regard, I can say it’s exceptional. I rarely play games or stream video, but I also don’t baby it – I simply use it when I need it. You know, like a tool should be used.

The key to this is standby time: when the phone’s screen is off, it is actually asleep, unless I’m intentionally doing something in the background, or it’s running one of the apps I’ve decided I want running in the background. It’s a bit of a revelation to use a phone whose battery life I don’t have to worry about, at all – in that regard, it’s more like having an iPad Nano than an iPhone. The iPad is a device I use every day without concern for the battery – and my phone now falls squarely in that same category. Until recently, I never would have thought that possible.

I’m not going to pretend there aren’t Android phones which, under the right conditions, would provide me the same results – I’m sure those Android phones exist. The problem is deeper than that: after owning three Android phones, and an Android tablet, I simply don’t trust Android to manage my phone’s battery life anymore.  Given how I use my devices, I fear that buying an Android phone with a bigger battery would just be a bandaid over the larger problem of Android’s battery management. As long as a background app or process has the ability to wake my device and keep it awake, I will always have reason to doubt my phone’s reliability – and at this point,  that’s an unacceptable scenario.  I don’t own technology to babysit it; I own technology to use it.

Reliability is really what the iPhone 6 Plus is all about. It’s a boring answer, but for many of us, it’s also the only answer that matters. Vlad Savov explained why the iPhone’s camera is still the camera to beat better than I ever could, but it boils down to this: I can take my phone out, snap a random photo, and, 99% of the time, get reliable, in-focus results.  I don’t even get that kind of reliability from my point-and-shoot, the fantastic Sony RX100M2.  Obviously the image quality and shooting capabilities of the Sony camera are still far superior, and the camera still comes along to more important events, but I no longer feel the need to dual-wield a phone and a point and shoot on a day-to-day basis.  On my Android phones, and to a lesser extent on my point-and-shoot, I rely on burst mode shots to make sure at least one will be in focus. I haven’t felt the need to do that with the iPhone; I only use burst mode for capturing motion or trying to get a very specific moment in time. I can hold the iPhone in one shaky hand, take a single photo, and, almost every time, it still comes through completely focused. I took a little video to demonstrate:

Photos from the sample video:

2015-01-13 20.35.22 2015-01-13 20.35.23 2015-01-13 20.35.24 2015-01-13 20.35.25 2015-01-13 20.35.27

It’s frustrating because no Android OEM has managed to replicate whatever software algorithms Apple has – there’s certainly nothing special about the hardware optics, so it has to be done in the software. I imagine it’s quickly taking a bunch of photos when you hit the shutter key and either using that data to piece together an in-focus shot, or choosing the most in-focus of the ones it took, or some combination of those techniques. I honestly thought the iPhone’s camera abilities were exaggerated until I started using one again – but now, I am a believer, and it will be hard to settle for anything less.

It feels like a shame to talk about the iPhone 6 Plus without at least mentioning TouchID. I’d had some experience with it on the iPad Air, so I mostly knew what to expect, and I can’t really add much to what others have said.  Personally, it’s hard to imagine going back to a phone that doesn’t allow me to secure my device in such a way – I put my thumb on the home button, push it down to wake up the device, and it unlocks almost instantly:

2015-01-13 21.17.04 (1)

Trusted Devices on Android is good, but TouchID is fantastic, especially now that third-party apps can leverage it. Paying for apps in the App Store, logging into the Amazon app, opening the Mint and Alarm.com app, paying for stuff at NFC terminals – all secured with TouchID.  Speaking of payment – Apple Pay is probably worth its own post at some point, but man, it is good. I used Google Wallet in the past, but Apple Pay definitely has the advantage when it comes to implementation. I simply point the top of my phone at an NFC terminal, an image of my credit card appears, I put my thumb on the TouchID sensor, and it’s done. This is the future, folks – and it’s kind-of neat.

So, does all of this mean I’m “switching” to iOS? Technically, yes, I guess, but I don’t really like the term “switching”, or the connotations that come with it. I’ve opted to use an iPhone as my daily driver for the foreseeable future simply because, at this moment in time, it’s the best device for my needs. A few years ago, Apple and I diverged – their phones weren’t big enough and the OS wasn’t flexible or interesting enough. Today, enough has changed that using an iPhone again just makes sense for me. I no longer feel like I’m making a major compromise when it comes to software or hardware, and the benefits – incredibly reliable all-day battery life and a best-in-class camera – are impossible to ignore.

I hope this isn’t a permanent change. I enjoy having a foot in the iOS world and the Android world, as I feel it forces me to broaden my perspective, both as a tech enthusiast, and with regards to the services I choose to use. Eventually, I hope to see an Android device released that, like the HTC One X before it, offers enough of an advantage over the iPhone that I can’t resist it.

Today, I am an iPhone user again. Tomorrow? I don’t know what I’ll be, but I can’t wait to find out – and that’s why I find the tech world such an exciting place.

What two screenshots taught me about the philosophies of iOS and Android

I have ranted enough about my frustrations trying to diagnose and combat random Android battery drain, and since a picture is worth a thousand words, I’ll just show the following screenshots.

iOS:

2015-01-06 14.12.47

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Android:

2014-12-30 06.44.13

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s the key difference here? Simple: iOS is kind enough to point out apps that are draining my battery in the background. Of course, there’s another obvious difference, and I definitely miss the battery graph from Android, especially its ability to predict how much longer the battery will last. However, when it comes to actually diagnosing why my battery might be misbehaving, nothing beats telling me which apps, specifically, are performing battery-draining background tasks.  Even better, iOS gives me fine-grain control over which apps can do so.  I quickly identified a few apps that I didn’t need refreshing their data in the background and shut the door on them:

2015-01-06 14.51.20

Oh Facebook – you remain delightfully terrible on ANY platform

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s important to note that this does not prevent push notifications from coming through; it just keeps those apps from running background processes to update their information.

I make this comparison not to bash Android, but rather because I believe it specifically illustrates the different philosophies of iOS and Android. Android and iOS both empower their users, but in different ways. Android empowers them with freedom, while iOS empowers them with control. iOS allows me to specifically limit the behavior of certain apps if I decide I don’t need or want a particular piece of functionality, or if I believe an app is misbehaving.Android takes more of an all-or-nothing approach to permissions – unless, of course, you download a third-party tool to enable that functionality.

Essentially, Android errs on the side of the app developer, while iOS errs on the side of the user.  This difference is perhaps best illustrated in the screenshot below:

2015-01-02 23.31.10

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice the “App Explanation” portion at the bottom. It’s a little thing, but it’s important – what it shows is that yes, Apple will let a developer’s app use your location in the background, but only if the developer is willing to explain to the user why it needs to do so.

This brings us back to freedom: many of the things I can do to limit third-party apps can  be done in Android, thanks to the freedom it provides users. I can root and download a tool to manage permissions or to hibernate apps with something like Greenify. However, it requires more effort on the user’s part, and let’s face it: most users simply don’t want to mess with their phones any more than they have to, which I think is a perfectly reasonable position to take.

Perhaps it boils down to this: iOS attempts to pro-actively protect the user from misbehaving third-party apps, while Android empowers the user to deal with it themselves – if they have the time and motivation. It’s the difference between standing guard in front of your house and warning you about possible intruders, or handing you a sword, walking away, and trusting you to learn to defend yourself with it. Both approaches are valid for difference people.  Personally? After nearly a week of using iOS as my daily driver, I find myself enjoying a mobile OS that seems to have the user’ best interest at heart, even if it means sacrificing some freedom when it comes to what I’m able to do with my phone.

It’s frustrating because I know Android can do better, and it wouldn’t even take that much. The tools to deal with app-level permissions are already in Android, they’re just hidden from the user.  The tools to monitor battery usage are already in Android, they’re just not good enough to pinpoint the behavior of a rogue process.  All it takes is for the folks in Mountain View to put themselves in the user’s shoes and think about protecting the user while empowering them – there’s nothing wrong with handing someone a sword and still making sure you’ve got their back.

To Echo or not to Echo?

This morning, I got my invite to order an Amazon Echo.  Apparently I have 7 days to decide. At $99, it’s almost enough to justify it as a Bluetooth speaker alone, with or without the fancy Alexa voice stuff.   Just a shame it doesn’t natively support Google Play Music streaming, though maybe that will be added in the future.

(Oh, who am I kidding? I’m almost certainly going to buy one…)

The iPhone 6 Plus Experiment: The First Three Days

The following are random thoughts and musings from my first three days of owning an iPhone 6 Plus.

  • Holy Hell, this is thing is big.
  • I’m still torn on the size. For some things, it’s great. For others, it can be frustrating. Most of my smartphone use is generally two-handed, so the lack of one-handed usability isn’t really a big deal, but the weight balance of the phone seems a bit off, so it feels unstable at times even when used with two hands.  If battery life wasn’t a concern, I might actually go with the standard iPhone 6. Of course, after moving from the 3.5-inch iPhone 4 to the 4.7-inch HTC One X, I remember the iPhone felt like a toy.  Similarly, I may not be able to go back to a smaller phone once I’m used to the 6 Plus.
  • Unfortunately, Apple made the same mistake HTC did this year – it made a big, somewhat-slippery phone. Big is fine; slippery is not. It’s not as slippery as I’d been lead to read in reviews, but it’s also not quite as grippy as other phones I’ve used.
  • I generally hate cases, but this time gave in and bought Apple’s official leather case…and promptly took it off again a couple of hours later. It’ll probably going back to Best Buy. It’s fine if you want a case, I guess, and it felt nice enough in the hand, but I very much like the design of the 6 Plus, and dislike covering that up.  It also made the power button annoyingly un-responsive. I might try a clear case but, despite the obvious danger, I prefer carrying my phones case-less.  All of the cases for the 6 Plus will also inevitably ruin the feel of the curved glass on the sides, as well as make edge-gestures less responsive.
  • As I said: I love the design of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus…as long as you don’t look at those lines on the back. Ick. Also, while I appreciate the desire to have the device lay flat on a table, I miss the in-hand feel of a device with a curved back.
  • Because of the pseudo-tablet nature of the device, I find myself using it in landscape more frequently than other phones I’ve used in the past, especially since Apple’s apps have been optimized to use the bigger screen more effectively. Unfortunately, while the home screen displays in landscape, the lock screen does not. This seems like a silly oversight on Apple’s part.
  • The camera is so, so, so good, you guys. It may not take the best possible image in every possible scenario, but the overall reliability is exceptional. I don’t think I’ve taken a single blurry photo with the thing, nor have I taken a shot with poor white balance. It’s also really great to use an iPhone with burst-mode.
  • Android has definitely taken strides towards being a more fluid experience, but Android on top-of-the-line hardware still doesn’t compare to iOS on top-of-the-line hardware. It is difficult to beat the user experience you get when a company is fully in control of a device’s hardware and software. It’s absurd that a device like the Nexus 6 still has performance problems. Yes, this is likely due to the fact that Lollipop is encrypted by default – but if that’s the case, it’s Google’s job to make sure the UX doesn’t suffer.
  • Battery life is very, very solid – I think this the first time I’ve gone to bed with my phone having more than 50% remaining. I still charge it every night, because I’m anal like that, but it’s refreshing to know that I don’t have to.  Still, you certainly can kill it if you try – I haven’t yet, but I came close my first night, since it was off the charger at 9 AM and I didn’t go to bed until around 2 AM.   So far, it seems as though it will meet my needs when it comes to having a phone that won’t die before the end of the day regardless of what I do with it; in that area, it’s feels closer to an iPad than a smartphone.
  • This is the first smartphone I’ve ever had where I don’t bother to recharging after using RunKeeper or in-car navigation.  Of course, I also don’t typically spend my day playing graphically intensive games or watching hours of video – those activities will kill any smartphone pretty quickly, and that’s where tablets shine over phones.
  • I miss Android’s battery graph. The usage-breakdown-by-app is helpful, but not nearly as helpful as seeing what particular locations/activities/etc. drain my battery more than others.
  • Part of me wonders how battery life would be on a similarly-sized Android phone; benchmarks put the Note 4 and 6 Plus at roughly the same levels of battery performance, but I’ve yet to use an Android device (phone or tablet) that didn’t experience much greater levels of battery drain while on standby. It’s really all about that standby time; 1-2% idle drain per hour, rather than 5% or more. It seems like a small difference, but it adds up throughout the day. So far I haven’t had to turn anything off on the phone, either – for example, Google Now seems to have retained almost all of its location-centric functionality without the battery drain often seen on Android.
  • iOS8 has solved most of the issues I had with iOS, with the glaring exception of setting default apps. With the Today view, I don’t even miss widgets on the home screen – the notification pull-down is debatably a more logical place for them, since you can get to them anywhere.  The Today screen feels like a more powerful version of DashClock, which is one of the only widgets I used anyway.
  • Notifications on iOS are in many ways almost on-par with Android at this point, especially with the addition of notification actions, some of which are actually more useful than their Android counterparts.  For example, I’m more likely to want to mark an e-mail as read than delete it. Some things – like replying to an SMS or iMessage directly from the notification – are actually implemented better on iOS.  Unfortunately, some third-party apps – most notably Google’s – still haven’t implemented these features. Why can’t I mark a message as “Done” from an Inbox notification?  It’s not like Inbox is an older app with legacy code to worry about.
  • I also prefer the way Android 4.4 and earlier displays notifications in the status bar without intruding on screen real-estate, but unfortunately, with heads-up notifications in Android 5.0, this behavior is now essentially identical between the two platforms.  That, combined with the lockscreen notifications of Lollipop, means that, notification-wise, the two platforms are more indistinguishable than they’ve ever been. I miss the status bar icons from Android, but badge counts on app icons serve a similar purpose for me.
  • The Settings screen is insane at this point, and really needs a search option.
  • Touch ID is as great as I expected. I hate passcodes on phones to the point where I’d typically leave my phone unsecured, but Touch ID is the perfect compromise. It makes going without Android’s Trusted Devices feature much easier, and is arguably even more secure.
  • My FitBit’s background sync disconnects my headphones the same way it did on my HTC One running KitKat. Apparently this is a known issue; it’s a shame FitBit doesn’t seem interested in resolving it.
  • On the subject of bluetooth issues: once in awhile, the volume of music and podcasts on my car stereo randomly dips for a couple of seconds. This is something I remember happening on my old iPhone 4, as well as occasionally on my Android phones, but it seems more noticeable with the 6 Plus.
  • I forgot how well-integrated media playback is in iOS. iOS does a much better job of remembering what audio app I was using last (PocketCasts or Play Music, for example) and resuming that app when I hit play/pause on my headphones or Pebble.
  • I still really miss my Moto 360…
  • …but that being said, I’m using a Pebble again and the software’s gotten quite a bit better since the last time I used it. It also seems to work perfectly well with the iPhone. Just being able to dismiss notifications from my watch is a pretty nice change, and makes me miss the Moto 360 a little less.
  • I like than I can activate Siri for my Bluetooth headphones with a long-press; on Android, this would, for some absurd reason, launch the voice dialer rather than Google Now, even on Android 5.0. It’s not quite as convenient as voice commands on the Moto 360, but it’s a decent replacement for a quick note or reminder…
  • …speaking of which, I have yet to find a way of replacing my previous habit of adding items to Wunderlist using voice commands. This is one specific area where I expected my workflow to suffer, so I’m not particularly surprised to see it, but it’s still an adjustment.
  • People sometimes cite iTunes as a reason to avoid using iOS, but I still haven’t had any use for it. Podcasts are managed and sync’d by PocketCasts, while my music still lives happily in Google Play Music, and iCloud backups are handled automatically.
  • I miss being able to download apps from my desktop browser, though. Apple desperately need a web-based app store.
  • I also miss Muzei, my old live wallpaper that would randomly select a new background from my Flickr photos every hour.
  • As an iPad and MacBook owner, I loved the theory of Apple’s Hand-off and Continuity features, but actually using them was still a minor revelation. While I was able to replicate much of the same functionality via third-party apps and services on Android, there’s something reassuring about having it work natively. I was also reminded just how many of my friends use iMessage when I watched 90% of my text conversations turn blue – highlighting one of those few major iOS features that Android has been unable to match, even three years after its introduction.
  • iMessage seems far more reliable than I remember it being during its initial introduction, and there are definite benefits to being seamlessly integrated into the same chat experience that most of my friends are using – especially when you’re a social planner like I am.
  • The ability to make calls and send texts from my iPad means that, at home and at work at least, it is now able to serve as a complete surrogate for my phone. My dream of my smartphone becoming a dumb data/text/phone router while at home is almost a reality – the only missing piece of the puzzle is the notification mirroring functionality I’d grown to enjoy with PushBullet.
  • When out and about, the ability to start a mobile hotspot for my iPad or MacBook without having to even touch the phone is one of those small touches that it’s hard to go without once you’ve experienced it.
  • Speaking of Apple services: why does iOS still blow Android away when it comes to full-device backups?  I can plug my iPhone in every night and confidently know everything I care about (including text message history) will be backed up and available on another device.  This is still a fantasy on Android, which is especially absurd when you consider that cloud services is what Google does.

So far, I’m surprised how little I miss about Android – but I also know I’m only three days in, and this could quickly change as little annoyances add up. I’m impressed by the strides Apple has taken with iOS, though – they continue to take the right inspiration from Android, while implementing those ideas in such a way that it’s much less likely for a rogue third-party app to negatively impact my experience.  While it is certainly still a walled garden, it is a much prettier walled garden, and when it comes to the computing device I use most on a daily basis, I’ve become more willing accept some minor limitations in exchange for reliability.

Of course, what really matters is long-term reliability – proving to be “reliable” over the course of three days isn’t particularly impressive. I’ll certainly report back if anything changes in this (or any other) regard.

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