writing about tech

Month: February 2015

Pebble announces a new smartwatch right as I stop caring about smartwatches

Today, Pebble announced its latest product, the Pebble Time, which introduced a decent-looking new interface, a color e-paper display, and a somehow-still-pretty-ugly industrial design. This means my current smartwatch choices are:

  1. Stick with my ugly-but-functional current-gen Pebble.
  2. Kickstart this new, slightly-less-ugly, slightly-more-functional Pebble.
  3. Hope someone brings iOS support to Android Wear, which one enterprising developer has already pulled off in a limited form. Assuming this happens, either in an official or unofficial manner, perhaps my Moto 360 will make a triumphant return.
  4. Hope the Apple Watch is actually decent and justifies its price.
  5. Take a break from smartwatches.

This announcement comes at an odd time for me. I haven’t worn my Pebble on a regular basis for a few weeks, because of some odd conflicts with my Bluetooth headphones, and – somewhat surprisingly – I don’t miss it all that much, except when I’m out on runs or bike rides.  I find myself still wearing it on days when I want to make sure I’m extra-connected – i.e., if I’m the nexus of a social gathering that day – but otherwise, I find my need for immediate notifications isn’t as great as I’d thought it was.

In some ways, it’s actually freeing – I no longer feel the need to respond to things immediately, in the same way I did when I used a smartwatch every day. This may be surprising coming from me, but I must admit, using a smartwatch on a day-to-day basis often makes me more connected than I want to be. There are certainly times where I want to be extra-connected, but there are also times – and, I’ve found, this is apparently the majority of the time – where I want my phone in my pocket to mean that I’m temporarily “disconnected”.

Also, having recently returned to the iOS/OS X world, I find that my most import notifications – text messages and phone calls – are mirrored on all my primary computing devices, making it much more difficult to miss an important call or text. I even have the option, via PushBullet, to get all of my phone’s notifications on my laptop, though that functionality is still a bit buggy.

I doubt I’m done with smartwatches entirely, but having used one regularly for over a year, and then going without one for a few weeks, I certainly find myself questioning the need for their existence or, at the very least, the need to use one every day. They certainly have a time and place where they’re quite useful – I just don’t know if there are enough of those times and enough of those places to justify further personal investment in that space.  At this point, whether or not  I buy an Apple Watch likely depends on how well it works as a fitness tracking device, since that’s my primary use for any wearable device at this point. For me, everything else is a bonus.

What iOS does that Andron’t

Today, Dropbox announced support for iOS8’s sharing system:

You can now count Dropbox among the third-party apps that work with Apple’s sharing system, as of today. The company just pushed out a new update to its iOS app that inserts a “save to Dropbox” option in the sharing pane for certain types of files.

In the comments of that article, someone asked a perfectly valid question:

I’m a rare Android user within my group of friends. I’d say something around 90% of the people I hang out with have iPhones and almost all of them assume their iPhone has the latest and greatest technology available on the market. I’m honestly not trying to troll, but could someone provide a list or a few features that iPhone has than Android doesn’t?

Historically, iOS has been more polished, while Android has been more feature-filled. With the release of iOS8, the two operating systems are closer to parity than ever before, but there are still certainly differences, and there are features my Android phone had that I still miss on my iPhone – the ability to set default apps, more powerful background processing, and custom keyboards that actually work being just some of those. Asking what features iOS has that Android doesn’t made for an interesting philosophical question – when people think about iPhones and iPads, the benefits they think of are usually on the hardware side, not on the software side.  Still, there are definitely things iOS does that Android doesn’t – here’s what I came up with:

  • Touch ID, technically a hardware feature, is worth mentioning due to its deep integration with iOS. As-of iOS8, third-party apps can leverage it, making both unlocking your phone, logging into sensitive apps, and buying products easier than ever.
  • I’ve mentioned this before, but the main reason I switched back to the iPhone from Android was battery life.  While the iPhone’s battery isn’t necessarily  better in my experience, but it’s substantially more reliable, in that I can put it into standby and it actually stays idle, rather than draining my battery in the background. I classify this as iOS-specific behavior, as iOS does a better job at allowing me, as the user, to specify what an app can or can’t do in the background. Facebook is allowed to access my location while in use, but not in the background, and it doesn’t have the ability to update its data while in the background, because I don’t need either of those features. That same permission-centric functionality just doesn’t exist on Android; iOS even goes so far as to warn me when an app is using my location in the background and gives me the option to stop it.
  • iMessage  is something iOS nails that Android stil hasn’t matched. Seamless transfer between data-based and SMS-based communication is pretty fantastic, especially when communicating with fellow iOS users. The ability to send both iMessages and SMS messages directly, and even take and receive phone calls, from a Mac or iPad is also pretty great, and while Android can match some of that functionality with third-party apps, it’s not as well integrated, as it isn’t native.  Interestingly, I find this also helps my phone last longer – if I’m making a phone call or sending an SMS from my computer or iPad, then that’s even more time my phone is spending on standby. I don’t even really use my phone at home for that reason, since my laptop and tablet can seamlessly take over for it.
  • The last one: native OS cloud backups. You’d think this is something where Android would dominate iOS, given Google’s history with cloud services, but nope. While you can re-download all of your apps on a new Android device, the data doesn’t usually come with those apps. iOS does complete cloud backups, with all of your app data intact. Get a new iOS device, enter your iCloud credentials, and you’ll be up and running with everything just as you left it, right down to SMS history. And, if you don’t trust iCloud, you can just as easily run backups to any computer running iTunes. This is a big thing for me, as I love the peace of mind that comes with knowing my iOS devices are backed up on a nightly basis. It’s also frustrating because I think Android needs that functionality more than iOS does. I don’t really tweak my iOS devices, but I would mess around with my Android devices quite a bit. The ability to easily restore all of my apps and data any time I flashed a new ROM would’ve been pretty awesome. There were third-party services to handle this, but they all felt sub-par in some way, and seemed to do just as much harm as good sometimes.

Of course, as I said at the beginning, this is largely a thought experiment – at the end of the day, iOS and Android aren’t all that different anymore, so it’s less about the OS and more about the hardware and ecosystem you want to invest in. There are still some things Android does better, and there are still some things iOS does better, but for the most part, you get roughly the same experience on both platforms, regardless of what die-hards want you to believe.

Breaking news: Hulu takes shitty interface, makes it shittier

The Verge reports:

Today the company announced Watchlist, a new section that combines three existing Hulu items (Queue, Favorites, and Shows You Watch) into a single feature.

My first thought: great! Hulu is finally fixing their shitty interface. My most common complaint is that it’s difficult to order episodes by expiration date – you can only do it on the computer, and it’s incredibly slow to sort.  Unfortunately, if I haven’t watched TV in a couple of weeks, my viewing priority will be determined by what expires next, and Hulu  makes that unnecessarily difficult.

So, how do I sort by expiration date in the new system?  Let me dig into the FAQ and…

It’s important to note that your Watchlist cannot be manually ordered. We’re working on perfecting this feature so that you never need to re-order your list. If the order of your shows doesn’t seem right, we want to hear from you.

Oh for fuck’s sake, Hulu. It’s fine for you to pretend to understand my viewing habits, but at least give me the option to override your choices if those choices happen to be terrible.

The only way this works for me is if Hulu prioritizes episode that are soon-to-expire, but they don’t seem to have that in their list of considerations:

The ordering of your Watchlist is personalized to how you watch your shows and movies. For example:

Shows with newly-aired episodes or that you’re bingeing on will be toward the front
Shows you don’t watch as often tend to be further back
A show that you’ve saved for later, but aren’t actively watching will be toward the back of your list
However, once you start watching the show, it will move toward the front or your Watchlist
Shows you’ve completed will be at the end of your Watchlist
After you’ve finished watching an individual video, it will drop out of your Watchlist

What about ordering it by whether or not I have to watch it this week or not at all, because it’s gone forever? Wouldn’t that be a useful factor?

I get that the future is all about “personal assistants” that tell you what you want before you want it, but until we get that right, we need a fucking override switch.

God dammit, Hulu.

Amazon Echo has arrived!

A week earlier than expected, my shiny new Amazon Echo has arrived!

2015-02-09 18.26.22 2015-02-09 18.27.21 2015-02-09 18.29.32 2015-02-09 18.42.38

Impressions coming in the next couple of days.

Apple may slow down and catch its breath with iOS9

9to5Mac reports:

Following the success of OS X Snow Leopard for Macs in 2009, one of iOS 9’s standout ‘features’ will be a directed focus on stabilizing and optimizing the operating system.

This would be great news, if true. Android and iOS are at near-feature-parity these days – both OSes do certain things a little better and certain things a little worse, but overall they both provide very similar smartphone experiences. We’re starting to reach the end of what these devices can do without some hardware innovation, especially in the battery area. Now, it’s time for both Apple and Google to slow down and do a bit of polishing.

We’re not off to a good start, Amazon Music

I was excited to learn that my Amazon Echo is coming tomorrow – a week earlier than expected – so I started the process of downloading my music from Google Play Music and uploading it to Amazon. I’m not abandoning Google Play Music at all, but currently the Echo only supports Amazon Music, so I figured I’d play along and move my collection there.  I was trying to setup my playlist of “Favorites” and ran head-first into a ridiculous limitation:

Screenshot 2015-02-08 13.21.57

Wait…what? I mean sure, in the grand scheme of things, that’s not a big deal, but Amazon is the cloud service company. Other companies run their entire cloud services off of Amazon. So what is it exactly about their music service that puts an arbitrary limit of 500 songs on a playlist? It’s a rather disappointing start to my Echo experience…hopefully it’s not indicative of things to come.

 

More thoughts on Hearthstone, and why I hate to love it

Today, an Honest Game Trailer was released for Hearthstone, and it’s basically perfect.

I love and hate Hearthstone, depending on the day, the time of day, the phase of the moon, etc. It’s really, really fun, but also quickly devolves when I think about it too much. As you get higher in rank, it becomes distressingly clear that everyone is using some variant of some competitive deck they looked up online. “Oh good, another Warlock rush deck”, I mutter to myself, while resisting the urge to throw my iPad at the wall.

Sure, you have to fill in the blanks if you don’t have certain cards, but it’s really hard to shake the feeling that a CCG in the vein of Hearthstone falls apart in a world where you can just Google for a good deck and then smash that deck up against other people who have also Googled for a good deck. The arena helps mitigate this issue, but it’s also highly reliant on luck, and also isn’t “free” – you either pay for entry, or go back into the world of matched-play to earn the gold to play again.

When I want to play a card game on my iPhone or iPad, I find myself going back to Ascension, which is much less polished presentation-wise, and isn’t even really the same genre, but scratches much of the same itch, while being more fair and balanced than something like Hearthstone.

As much as I enjoy Hearthstone, it might be time for me to admit that CCGs just aren’t for me. Well, maybe after one last Arena run…

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