writing about tech

Tag: iphone (page 1 of 2)

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.

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.

My 10 Second Review of Vainglory

Last night, I was in the middle of  very, very close Vainglory match when, to my horror, the screen froze – my iPad’s battery had finally given out. I ran upstairs, grabbed my iPhone, launched the app…and connected directly into the same match. Despite my nearly minute-long absence from the game, my team and I managed to squeak out a victory.

It was the most memorable moment I’ve had playing a video game in a long, long time.

Apple “Spring Forward” Event Thoughtstream

  • Alright Apple, game time – convince me I should spend (at least) $349 on a smartwatch.
  • Since I’m not really sure how much I actually want to wear a smartwatch, what makes or breaks my decision might come down to how well it functions as a fitness tracker.
  • I mean, let’s not kid ourselves – I’ll probably get one, but I don’t know yet if I’ll actually keep it.
  • Hopefully Apple’s live stream holds up better than last time.
  • Starting with Apple TV? Interesting. Is this just going to be an HBO thing, or are we finally getting a hardware update and/or third-party apps?
  • Oh dang, HBO Now exclusive partnership. That’s one way to get people to buy the Apple TV. Wonder how long that will last?
  • $14.99 a month. Not a terrible deal for cord cutters, especially since you can just cancel once Game of Thrones is over…
  • This Game of Thrones trailer is fucking great. Not Apple-related, just saying.
  • Apple TV price drop is a great move, especially with the HBO deal and competition in the category getting more serious.
  • Yes. More Apple Pay everywhere, please. It’s super-great, and the worst thing about it is that I can’t use it enough places.
  • Apple would like us to know that CarPlay is still a thing that exists, but honestly, unless I can get Google Maps on it…eh.
  • ResearchKit is cool, and I’m glad they’re doing it.
  • Mac stuff!
  • Looks like the MacBook Air rumors were real. Only seeing one port in that video.
  • SLOW-MO KEYBOARD ACTION.
  • I know it’s almost certainly a retina display, but it’d be hilarious if it had the same shitty resolution as the current MacBook Airs.
  • I’m pretty sure every journalist in the audience just had a simultaneous orgasm. I imagine the next Apple event will have a crowd full of people using one.
  • Apple just keeps making their trackpads better and better. Ridiculous.
  • “All day battery life” on this new MacBook seems like less battery life than the existing MBA.
  • The message with the new MacBook is apparently “Everything is wireless now, so we have no ports.” Not sure I buy that for a laptop.
  • $1,299. So much for the “low-cost MacBook” theory.
  • “Also this shitty old MacBook Air gets some upgrades too I guess”.
  • Oh yeah, there’s a Watch today too, huh?
  • Still waiting for features that explain exactly why I need this watch. So far they’re just showing things other smartwatches and fitness trackers do.
  • The marathon runner video hits close to home, as a runner myself, but I want actual details.
  • “Christy would show you her actual Apple Watch, but unfortunately the battery is already dead.”
  • Christy’s blog appeals to me as a runner, but…probably not many others.
  • Still not sold on this interface compared to Android Wear, which I think has the better approach to wearable software.
  • Paying with Apple Watch is surprisingly compelling, but it still requires more places actually acceptit.
  • The fact it works outside of Bluetooth range was a quick note but, to me, actually a pretty important bullet point.
  • Yup, that “floating app list” is still just as awkward as I thought it would be. Why does a watch need so many standalone apps?
  • I still think drawing messages is a cute and overlooked little feature that people will latch onto.
  • “We’re super-excited to see what developers are going to do with this great new platform because we can’t think of anything please someone tell us what to do with it.”
  • “We have a way to charge it that only Apple and a dozen other companies could think of.”
  • OH GOD ARE THEY REALLY GOING TO DO A VIDEO FOR EVERY FUCKING ALLOY PLEASE MAKE IT STOP
  • Unless it’s fucking adamantium, I don’t give a shit how it’s made.
  • Yup, $10,000 for the Edition. Of course it is, because, everything else aside, it’s a fucking gold watch.
  • One place no one will complete with Apple in the smartwatch category is the retail experience: buying a watch is a personal experience and requires a personal touch. This is a huge step above the current “walk into a Best Buy and maybe play with a store model if it’s turned on and charged.”
  • So much for the theory that there’d be someway to update the hardware of the more-expensive Apple Watches. The Edition is for people who think $10,000 is the price tag for a cheap dinner.
  • Still not convinced to spend $350-400 on a smartwatch, but looking forward to trying one out at an Apple Store. As I said, that’s their big advantage in this space. The question, of course, is whether or not anyone actually cares about the smartwatch space. That said, it’s easy to imagine people walking into the Apple Store for something else, and walking out with a watch. The next few months are going to be quite interesting.

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.

 

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.

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.

Why I use an Android phone, but still recommend the iPhone

A poster on The Verge’s forums asks:

So what am I missing? Where is the greatness in iOS?

Honestly, most “normal” people don’t need the power and flexibility that Android offers – they just need a reliable phone that calls and texts and runs apps and takes pretty pictures, and for that, the iPhone is pretty great. There’s also a lot to be said for the quality of Apple products – why bother to decide between half a dozen Android phones, each with their own limitations, when you can just buy Apple’s phone and call it a day? Sure, iOS isn’t necessarily as powerful or flexible as Android, but it’s also powerful enough that it be used for productivity, as long as you’re willing to mold your workflow to work the way Apple wants it to.

This was actually a topic of discussion on the Vergecast today, and the Verge folks said that the reasons to use an iPhone basically boiled down to:

  1. iMessage (including, in iOS8, SMS through Continuity)
  2. AirPlay
  3. Camera performance

It’s hard to argue with any of these, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on iMessage. Android fans like myself can and will go on and on about the power and flexibility of Android, but most normal people never really see that power and flexibility. What they do see is that they can iMessage their friends and send texts from their computer with very little effort, and that’s huge.  This is what people mean when they talk about iOS’ ecosystem.

Can I send texts from my computer with third-party apps? Sure – but most Android users don’t, either because they don’t know about the apps that enable it, or they know but don’t care enough to go through the effort of making it work. There’s a huge value to be placed on making the barrier to entry as non-existent as possible.

PSA: If you downloaded iOS 8.0.1, here’s a fix for your issues

In case you haven’t heard, you probably shouldn’t have download iOS 8.0.1.  Fortunately, it’s already been taken down, so you can’t download it now on accident – but if you already downloaded it, The Verge has a great guide to fixing your issues:

Apple’s already said it’s investigating the issue, but if you’re one of the unlucky souls who downloaded and installed it, there’s a simple trick (via iMore) for getting your phone back up and running, without wiping anything.

Unfortunately, it requires iTunes, but you gotta do watcha gotta do.

I’m starting to understand why Google rolls out updates to their Nexus phones over the course of a few days, that way, any major issues like this are immediately discovered and the damage is contained.

You know, as opposed to potentially breaking 10 million phones.

This is why Apple’s customer service is second-to-none

9-to-5 Mac writes:

Apple’s big week starts with the arrival of iPhone 6 and 6 Plus inventory “as early as Wednesday, September 17th.” Retail inventory specialists (Back of House) have been instructed to “hold back 4% of overall inventory by SKU (minimum 1 device/SKU) for DOA holdbacks.” This ensures that customers will not be let down if their new iPhone has an issue right out of the box. Devices that were preordered for in-store pickup will be set aside so they are not accidentally sold to walk-in customers.

As much as I enjoy using Android, and am now even more heavily invested in it thanks to my purchase of an Android Wear smartwatch, one of the things I miss most about owning an iPhone is the ridiculously high quality of service provided by Apple Stores. Buying an Apple product means never having to question whether or not I’ll receive proper support, while buying an Android device is still a crapshoot, depending on both the OEM and the carrier you bought it from.

Little tidbits, like holding back 4% of every SKU in case of customer issues, shows that they really think about the end-to-end customer experience, rather than just how to make the sale.  In an ideal world, Apple’s level of support would be the rule, rather than the exception.

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