On the iPad Pro and “Work Stuff”

In my review of the iPad Pro 10.5″, I didn’t mention much about the tablet’s utility as a productivity device other than how its Smart Keyboard is better than its predecessor’s. But in the tech press, the reviews have largely centered on a theme: can this iPad replace your laptop? Wait, it’s more like, ”Can this iPad finally replace your laptop?” I didn’t broach that subject at all.

Part of why I didn’t is because so much of what might make it a laptop replacement is still in the future, with many of the major software advancements of iOS 11 coming this fall. I already know how iOS 10 fares in terms of productivity, so there was no new territory there for me, again, beyond the improved typing experience.

But primarily I didn’t address this question because that’s not what I want to use an iPad for. Most of the reviews focus on how much “work stuff” can be done on the iPad Pro, and I don’t want work stuff anywhere near it.

As far as I’m concerned, there is a separation of church and state when it comes to these devices. My laptop is primarily for work stuff. My iPad is for not-work. Reading, drawing, games, writing (non-work writing!), and general screwing around. Yes, there’s overlap, because that’s just life. But the principle is sound.

Of course the functional capabilities of these respective devices create this dividing line, but more to the point, I personally need a psychological separation between these two areas of my life. At the end of the day, I look forward to picking up my iPad and doing whatever the hell it is I need to do with it, be it entirely passive or creative. What I am trying to avoid are the distractions, calls for attention, and mental and emotional associations of work. I want to leave that stuff, closed up in the laptop’s clamshell.

The iPad, however, needs to be a clean slate.

But if I don’t intend to use an iPad Pro for all of the things that make it “Pro,” why even own one, instead of a cheaper iPad-regular or other less expensive iPad or tablet? I mean, these things are NOT CHEAP.

It’s simple, really. I wanted the best stylus experience I could get for drawing, a large and beautiful screen, and enough power to make the whole experience as fluid and seamless as possible, for as long as possible.

Other reviews have either said or implied that if you’re going to shell out for the iPad Pro, you should be using it for your main computer. Nah, I like it too much for that.

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iPad Pro 10.5″: Wonderfully Unnecessary

I had lost interest in tablets for a while. I hate owning redundant possessions, and as large-screen phones became my norm, owning a tablet as well felt decadent. No one needs a tablet.

Eventually I remembered that “need” isn’t the point. As I discussed in my iPad Air review many years ago, the tablet is the device you choose to use when you are no longer compelled by necessity to use a phone or a PC. It’s for the things you want to do as opposed to the things you have to do. Your phone and PC can do things you want as well, but the tablet would ideally be specifically suited to activities of non-compulsion. I’m talking about things like reading (books, articles, comics, etc.), browsing, watching videos, playing certain kinds of games, as well as, for many, drawing, designing, making music, and for me in particular, creative writing.

Not writing for work. I’ve become something of a stickler for intentionally separating my work machine from my leisure machine, even though I work from a home office using my own laptop. Most of the time, the laptop is for work-work, and the tablet is for the writing and creative work that I do by my own whim.

To sum up, here is my Theory of Devices:

  • Generally speaking, though with countless exceptions, phones and PCs (laptops or desktops) are “lean-in” devices of necessity. One squints and scrunched one’s attention (and fingers) on the small screen of the phone in order to accomplish the tasks demanded by the moment. One hunches over the keyboard and display of a laptop, studying the contents of the screen and dutifully typing away to, again, satisfy the demands of the moment. They require a kind of tunnel vision.
  • Tablets (and e-readers like Kindles) are “lean-back” devices of choice. Generally hand-held, but large enough to encourage the user to kick back and absorb content rather than actively scrutinize it. If one wishes to more deeply engage and create or “work,” that’s fine. There is a psychological separation between the work machines and the diversion machine.

This is why I sought a return to the tablet. I didn’t want to play at the office.

Late last year I got the iPad Pro 9.7”. It was more than I absolutely needed, as an iPad Air 2 would have more than sufficed for almost all my tablet needs, but I was too intrigued by the possibilities presented by the Apple Pencil to settle. Having used a couple of Galaxy Notes, I knew very well the vast difference between just using any old stylus on a touchscreen, and having a stylus specifically built for your particular machine, a machine with software and hardware tuned to interact with that stylus. (This is part of why a strongly considered a Surface Pro 4, but decided it was both too expensive and too close to being a work machine.) So iPad Pro it would have to be.

I loved it. I loved it more as the months went by. I kept finding myself impressed by its speed, fluidity, responsiveness, and the sheer loveliness of its display. I made lots of fun pictures with 53’s Paper app, and even made delightful musical arrangements with iOS GarageBand (which has become really quite an astounding application in recent years). I did a little writing on it as well, but not nearly as much as I’d like, partly I think because I failed to find a keyboard solution I was truly comfortable with. More on that later.

But I always wanted a slightly bigger screen than iPads offered. Having seen Surface Pros, the Pixel C, and the pre–2015 Samsung Tab S’s, I knew that a larger canvas would really open the device up for me. The 12.9” iPad Pro was always utterly intriguing, but I knew that it would be too unwieldy to be the lean-back device I needed it to be.

Then Apple announced the new 10.5” iPad Pro, and I was ready to pounce. Not because of any flaws in the 9.7” Pro, but because a slightly-larger super-iPad was What I’d Always Wanted. I would later describe it as the first-worldiest of purchases. But shit, life is short, and this is all I spend money on. And now a very nice Swappa user in New York City now has my 9.7” Pro, and I have his money. Or, I did. I gave that money to Apple. Again.

I’ve had the iPad Pro 10.5” for about a week. I haven’t pushed it to its limits (nor do I know how I would go about that), but I’ve used it for all of the things I would normally use a tablet for, and as you’ll see, I don’t need much else to go on.

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So how is it?

It’s a really good iPad. You already know what an iPad is and does, so, yes, the 10.5” iPad Pro is the best at all those things, with a little bit more room on the screen on which to enjoy those things. It’s the same weight as iPads have been since the iPad Air in 2013, about a pound, and it’s super thin.

The expanded screen size is very nice, and there are times I pick the thing up and turn it on and I’m taken aback by that little increase in visual immersion. But in regular use, it’s not world-changing. It’s a little bit nicer, and it makes the software keyboard easier to use accurately.

If anything, it reminds me of the Google Pixel C, which was my “pro” tablet of choice before the iPad, but I gave up on after it suffered from technical failures (such as a screen that quickly went on the fritz) and abysmally poor customer support for said failures. But one of the great things about the Pixel C was its screen size at 10.2″, so having an iPad with about the same screen size is a way for me to get back some of what I really loved about Google’s tablet.

The iPad Pro, regardless of the change in screen real estate, has kept the same pixel density at 264 ppi. I’m frankly disappointed that Apple hasn’t bumped this up even a little bit since the introduction of the iPad 3 in 2012. I’ve been using quad-HD phones, and the Pixel C had a gorgeous 308 ppi display. Hell, even the iPad mini line has 326 ppi.

It really doesn’t matter, though. I almost never notice the lower pixel density of the iPad Pro, and Apple’s done so much to make this screen crisp and beautiful in so many other ways that no one else even attempts, let alone achieves. TrueTone, though unnecessary, is a nice adaptive-color technology that is better to have than not. The display itself is just about painted onto the glass, so there’s no sense of gawking at your content as though it’s beneath a window pane. I would certainly like the ppi to be higher, and I know I’d notice it and appreciate it, but I have no complaints about the iPad Pro’s display.

I can talk about performance, but honestly, the real test of that will come with iOS 11 this fall, when the operating system transforms from giant-phone-OS to something that genuinely seems ready to be used as a full-power computing device. Other than that, everything is as fast as you’d imagine it to be. But of course the same was true for the 9.7” Pro, so I doubt anyone would perceive any difference between the two.

The bigger change is this boost from a 60hz refresh rate to 120hz. This does indeed make scrolling and animations more fluid. At times it looks so good it’s otherworldly, but you also just get used to it and it’s no big deal. Again, better to have than not, for sure. Some are describing this change as almost akin to the difference between Retina and non-Retina, and I don’t agree…yet. I do really appreciate it, but I suspect that once again its utility will become more apparent with iOS 11.

The refresh rate boost is also supposed to improve the display’s interaction with the Apple Pencil, reducing latency to almost imperceptible levels. I can feel the difference in apps like Apple’s Notes and 53’s Paper, but not in other drawing apps. This might be because they haven’t taken advantage of the new hardware yet and likely will, but right now there’s no difference I can sense in many Pencil-related apps. This is another area where there were no problems with the performance on the 9.7” Pro, and the Pencil on the 10.5” does it a little better.

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I’m trying to decide whether Apple’s own Smart Keyboard is good and useful enough to justify holding onto. I purchased it alongside the iPad, assuming it would be almost necessary to get the full “Pro” experience. But, like the iPad, it was not cheap.

It is much nicer to type on than its predecessor for the 9.7″ Pro, with keys more widely spaced, but also like 9.7’s it also makes for a clumsy iPad cover. It’s heavy for a cover, and its weight is (necessarily) uneven. While it’s wonderfully easy to take on and off, it’s too expensive to casually toss aside like you might do with a plain cover (which are also grossly overpriced). It is somewhat deceptive in that it doesn’t look like an expensive piece of electronics, but it is, and one does not want to have it snap in half because you didn’t know it was sticking out of the couch cushions before you sat or laying on the floor as you smash it with your feet.

As before, it pairs with the iPad immediately upon magnetic contact, so there’s no fiddling. One little annoyance I’ve discovered is that if before you attached the Smart Keyboard you had been using a third-party software keyboard, the Smart Keyboard gets a little confused. I like to use Gboard as my software keyboard, but if it’s the most recent one I’ve enabled when I attach the Smart Keyboard, at least one key (the apostrophe) doesn’t work. Maybe others fail too, but that’s the one I noticed. Cycling back to enabling the default keyboard solves the problem.

Oh, and once again, it doesn’t have a place to stow the Apple Pencil. Argle blargle.

For a couple of years now I’ve had the Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard, and it is very good for what it is, and tablets and phones alike sit nicely in it’s little device slot. I don’t think it’s quite as nice to type on as the Smart Keyboard, and, obviously, it doesn’t have the advantage of being physically attached to the iPad. You have to go get it to use it. The Apple Smart Keyboard is always there, either on the iPad itself or within arm’s reach.

I don’t really trust any of the other keyboard cases I’ve seen because in each of them the keys have at least the potential to rub up against, and thereby scratch, the screen. That’s not gonna fly. With the Smart Keyboard, the keys fold away and make no contact with the display, ever.

I believe I may be convincing myself to keep it. As much as I’d like to recoup that cash. I should experiment with the Microsoft keyboard again, just to be sure, so as I write this, I’m just not certain about the Smart Keyboard.

And quite frankly, I often prefer typing on the software keyboard. I wouldn’t even consider an external keyboard if the software keyboard didn’t take over so much of the screen. But I’m using it now to type this, and I suppose this is another benefit of the 10.5” screen: a more comfortable on-screen keyboard and more remaining space for the content.

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Some smaller things worth noting:

  • I am overly sensitive to devices that get too warm. It was perhaps my greatest source of dissatisfaction about iPads 3 and 4, and was a rollercoaster struggle with the Nexus 6, among other devices. I have yet to feel this tablet get meaningfully warm. The 9.7” Pro never bothered me either, though I could notice changes in temperature. So far, I can only attribute any warmth to the 10.5” Pro to the heat from my own hands.
  • The speakers are excellent for a super-thin wafer of a computer. Better than any other device I’ve used that isn’t itself a dedicated speaker or sound system.
  • I used to much prefer using any tablet in portrait mode, seeing it as the “correct” orientation, particularly for lean-back uses, but something about the increase in screen size makes landscape nice for more passive use as well, in that you can easily split the screen between two apps and still feel like you’re looking at two iPad mini-size devices.
  • The camera is apparently amazing, but I’ve used it almost not at all. I have no idea if this will change, but I am definitely not one of those “omg never use a tablet to take pictures” people. Seriously, use whatever gadget you have the way you want to. Your tablet has a camera and a giant-ass viewfinder. Go ahead and take pictures. (Just don’t be obnoxious about blocking people’s view with it.) It’s supposed to be an iPhone 7-quality camera, which sounds great. Hard for me to see when I’d take advantage of this, but hey, it’s there.
  • There is a problem with Google Photos that hasn’t been addressed yet, where the application grinds to a halt when trying to edit any photo. This did not happen with the 9.7” Pro, and a couple folks online have had the same experience. I have no idea why this would be, but I hope a software update comes quickly.

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Clearly, the 10.5” iPad Pro is a fantastic tablet. Almost certainly it’s the best tablet available, and by several orders of magnitude. It’s more tablet, and really, more computer, than almost any one in the market could possibly need. And that’s good, because if there’s one thing even Apple was surprised to learn, it’s that people buy iPads and they hold on to them and use them for many years. This iPad will fare very well over those year, I predict.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t need this at all. The 9.7” iPad Pro was far and away the best tablet in the world, and upon the release of the 10.5” it became an extremely close second. Almost negligibly close.

Having used the 10.5 for a few days, but before iOS 11’s arrival, I can confidently say that if you have a 9.7” Pro, you’re good right now. You’ll probably be good for a long time. If you’re in the market for a powerful and/or stylus-optimized tablet, but don’t want to spend $700, do go and find a 9.7” Pro. You’ll love it.

I loved it. And I also love this one. The 10.5” iPad Pro is everything I loved about the 9.7”, plus a little more. I’m really glad I got it, I’m enjoying the hell out of it, but I also know I could most certainly have gone without it.

Also, if you want a tablet for just the lean-back stuff, and you want it to last many years, ignore this whole review and get one of those new vanilla iPads for a little over $300. You’ll love it.

Don’t get a Pixel C, because Google’s support it the absolute worst. (Example: In order to help me with a problem with the hinge on my Pixel C’s external hardware keyboard, they insisted I reboot my tablet and put it in safe mode. For a hinge. On a physically separate object. Sorry, no.)

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No one needs a tablet at all. I certainly don’t. But as a lover of technology, as a big consumer of news and writing, as an artist and musician, and indeed as an autistic introvert, there’s something wonderful about these things. I’m so fortunate to be able to scrape together the means to own an object that facilitates so many of the things that bring me joy and meaning in life, and is also comfortable and appealing, such that I am drawn to it and encouraged to play, explore, create, and find a little peace.

I don’t need this tablet. I’m damn glad that I have it anyway.

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The Alpha, the Omega, and the Google

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Photo by Daniel Cukier CC BY-ND 2.0

Rumor has it that Google is set to recast itself as a full-fledged smartphone maker, with the expected introduction of its new “Pixel” phones on October 4. I think I understand what they’re up to.

To quickly catch you up, Google has for years offered up phones under the Nexus brand, but these were devices built by other manufacturers in partnership with Google, mainly intended as a “reference” for other manufacturers like Samsung, LG, HTC, and Sony, and to serve the Android die-hard fanbase. Nexus phones offered the “pure” Android experience, as opposed to the phones made by other manufacturers which usually layer manufacturer-specific alterations to “stock” Android. Nexus phones get software updates as soon as they’re available, and they are usually very well received and affordable relative to Samsung and Apple flagships.

Now it’s being reported that “Nexus” is gone, and the new name is “Pixel.” Pixel is not new, of course, being the brand under which they’ve been producing high-end Chromebooks and one (so far) Android tablet. Google reportedly intends the Pixel line of phones to not just serve as showcases for stock Android, but to assert a new level of control over the entire Android experience. The devices themselves, which will be built by HTC, will not carry any HTC branding. Not Nexus, not HTC’s Nexus, but a Pixel phone. A Google phone.

David Ruddock at Android Police has a piece today in which he ponders what the grander strategy is, and this part grabbed me:

This “Pixel versus Nexus” distinction matters a great deal. By framing the Pixel and Pixel XL as Google products and not as Android ones, and by removing all discussion of “partners,” Google will finally be able to assert that, if only implicitly, it is offering a counterpoint to Apple’s iPhones.

It’s more than a name change, and more than Google simply throwing more weight around. This is part of Google’s overall effort to instill in consumers the idea that it is “Google” that they can trust to make their lives better.

Let’s back up. This past summer, Google unveiled its own take on the digital-assistant-in-your-house thing with Google Home, more or less a googly Amazon Echo. This same digital-assistant tech will also live in its upcoming messenger platform Allo, and already more or less exists in a less-personified form in Google Now on Android phones.

But what’s different about what Google does here than what Amazon or Apple does? I mean apart from whatever back-end, A.I., deep-learning, jiggery-pokery is going on in server farms. When you want to talk to the digital assistant on an iPhone, you talk to Siri. When you want to talk to the Echo, you ask Alexa. When you want something from Google, you just ask Google.

Google doesn’t want to separate itself from its interactions with you. It doesn’t want you to imagine some “character” answering your questions. Google wants you to ask Google. Google is the company and the character.

Google is also the search engine. You don’t look up information at the “Nexus Search,” you google, as in the neologistic verb. Your photos live in Google Photos, your stuff is synced on Google Drive. Google is the agent, the entity, that you look to.

But not with phones. Not now, anyway. Following digital thinking, I’m going to guess that “Pixel” is the name of the phone model. There’s the Apple iPhone, the Samsung Galaxies, the Amazon Kindle, and now the Google Pixel. Not “Google and HTC’s Pixel,” but the Google Pixel.

That means it’s an honest to goodness Google phone, just like the Pixel C is a Google tablet and the Chromebook Pixel is a Google laptop.

And perhaps most importantly, again leaning on digital piece, is that the new phones aren’t “Android phones,” any more than Apple is known for “iOS phones” or Samsung for “TouchWiz (gag) phones.” For years, the tech press discussion has been about iPhone vs. Android, but Android means a million different things in a million different contexts in a million different iterations.

Android is just the operating system, and it’s not the brand that regular consumers seek out. Almost no one other than enthusiasts go into carrier stores and ask for the latest Android phones. They might ask for the latest Samsung or Galaxy phone, but not Android. Again, no more than they ask about the latest “iOS phone.”

I frankly think Android as a brand is more or less alienating to most folks, evoking the image of something geeky and complicated. Notice that the Android device manufacturers almost never mention the word Android in their PR. They know that no one other than techies care about that. Brands like Apple, iPhone, and Galaxy give feelings of bedazzlement over cool, useful things. “Android,” I suspect, sounds like homework.

But you know what people do feel comfortable with? Google. You know what’s a nice, cute, safe word that feels both phone-related and still friendly? Pixel. Androids are semi-humanoid robots who have no feelings and might want to take over the world. Pixels are colorful things that make screens glow!

(Imagine how confused folks will get when their Google phone breaks and and they then google “how to fix dead pixel.”)

Google Home, Pixel, and all these other initiatives are of a piece. They’ve decided, I think, to stop making disparate products under disparate banners. Phones, operating systems, tablets, laptops, browsers, search engines, IOT/home devices, digital assistants – we’re meant to stop thinking of these things as separate brands in various arenas. They’re all just part of one thing, and to integrate them into your life, you just think, “OK, Google.”

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Apple is Both Tone Deaf and in Tune

Settle in as I express my deep disappointment at Apple, and then turn around and vigorously defend them on a totally separate point. On one issue, I find them being arbitrarily and arrogantly dismissive of an enormous proportion of their users, and on another, I find them  with what users need and want from a smartphone. They are simultaneously in tune and tone deaf. I know, it’s dizzying! Join me, won’t you?

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Photo credit: woodleywonderworks via Foter.com / CC BY

As you are no doubt aware, the newly-announced iPhone 7 and 7 Plus do not have standard headphone jacks. No reason they’ve offered up for this decision holds water to me, and the fact that Phil Schiller characterized the decision as an example of “courage” is simply laughable. There’s no feature or innovation of the iPhones 7 that, as far as I can tell, required nixing the headphone jack. And its presence wouldn’t have prevented them emphasizing Lightning port-connected or wireless headphones. They could still have included Lightning headphones in the box, if they really think they’re so much better than analogue headphones.

I know the term is becoming cliché, but ditching the headphone jack is user-hostile. iPhones, to be sure, are high-end luxury devices, and on paper you might presume that anyone who can afford one can certainly make a change to all-wireless or all-Lightning headphones without much pain. But we all know that freaking everyone has iPhones. With carrier subsidies and installment plans, iPhone owners span economic strata. People of all means, ages, and technical acumen own iPhones, and want to have the latest iPhones.

Headphones, meanwhile, are a real democratizing technology. Yes, there are high-end headphones that cost ridiculous amounts of money, and even “mid-range” headphones are out of reach for many consumers. But anyone can afford cheap earbuds and enjoy the audio on their phones. Companies like Panasonic make incredibly inexpensive and well-regarded headphones that anyone can buy and afford to replace if they get lost or break. Headphones can be had by anyone, and enable anyone to hear what their phone can produce.

Apple doesn’t care about that anymore. I know they included a Lightning-to-analogue adapter, but people will lose it. They included Lightning EarPods in the box, but those will also get lost or break. And millions and millions of people already own headphones they already like, and Apple’s decided that it doesn’t really matter. Headphones were the great equalizer for these astoundingly-great, expensive, high-end electronics. Not anymore, as far as Apple’s concerned, and I think that kind of sucks.

This is part of why this is not analogous to Apple’s rejection of previous computing standards, like their nixing of floppy drives from the iMac and the end of optical drives in latter-day MacBooks: the user-base of floppy and optical drives does not begin to approach the universality of analogue headphones. Excluding floppy and optical drives in computers effected a certain subset of consumers who 1) used computers, 2) used Macs, and 3) made regular use of those drives. That’s a fraction of a fraction of a fraction. On the other hand, we have the set if people who use iPhones (approximately 79 bazillion), and the subset of those who rely on the headphones jack (approximately all). It’s a failed analogy.

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Photo credit: Luis Marina via Foter.com / CC BY

Now, they have every right to change their product any way they choose, and the market can decide whether or not such a change is a deal-breaker. But that doesn’t mean I think it’s wise or in keeping with the ethos I feel like they purport to be guided by.

Okay, now, take a breath, I am now going to defend Apple. Here’s the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo on the iPhone 7, who says “Apple’s aesthetics have grown stale.”

As competitors have borrowed and even begun to surpass Apple’s best designs, what was iconic about the company’s phones, computers, tablets and other products has come to seem generic. …

… The bigger problem is an absence of delight. I recently checked in with several tech-pundit friends for their assessment of Apple’s aesthetic choices. “What was the last Apple design that really dazzled you?” I asked.

There was a small chorus of support for the MacBook, the beautifully tiny (if functionally flawed) laptop that Apple released last year. But most respondents were split between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5 — two daring smartphone designs that were instantly recognized as surpassing anything else on the market.

Readers of this blog know that I have not been an iPhone user since the 5S, and have happily been in the land of Android…almost too happy. So I have no brand-identity motivation to defend Apple’s choices. (I mean, I just got finished crapping all over them, so.)

I’ve heard a lot of this kind of hand-wringing over the fact that the iPhone hasn’t changed in its broader design over three product generations. I shared some of this feeling for a while, wondering why Apple hadn’t been going out of its way to blow us all away with some delightful new novelty in phone design. But now I think I get it.

What’s a smartphone, really? It’s a computer with a touch display, meant to be held in the hand. There are theoretically any number of ways one could approach coming up with a form factor for such a device, but particularly when you’re talking about something so utterly ubiquitous as an iPhone, there’s not a lot of wiggle room left after you get down to “thin rounded rectangle.”

Now, I adore some of the more novel smartphone designs of many Android phones. I thought the LG G4 was surprisingly wonderful with its leather back and ever-so-slightly curved screen; Motorola’s 2014/2015 aesthetic with sloping backs, rear “dimples,” and metallic edges I thought was delightfully striking; the Nextbit Robin is beautifully quirky and industrial; and of course Samsung’s current line of Galaxy S and Note devices are almost jewel-like. They’re all great.

But the current iPhone design is great, too. I’ll admit, I at first was a little underwhelmed by the look of the 6-era iPhones when they were introduced. But hold a 6/6S Plus in your hand (without a case) and the cold, smooth feel of it is startling. You almost feel like you shouldn’t be trusted with something like it. Before we switched carriers, my wife had the black iPhone 6-regular, and I was jealous of it. Not for its software experience, but just for that shape and that color.

But even if I hadn’t personally found the iPhone design so evocative and attractive, the market has spoken, and it has said loud and clear with the chorus of tens of millions of voices, “This design is great.” People like the shape and feel of iPhones as they are now.

And that design also just works. People find it sufficiently ergonomic, and the basic form factor allows Apple to put into the phone what it feels like it has to (at least up until its rebuff of the 1/8″ aux port). You know what that also sounds like? Computers. Which the iPhone is, by the way.

Look at Apple’s MacBooks. They fiddle around the edges of the design, but all in all, their laptops have looked more or less the same since 2001. The biggest shift in design was the MacBook Air which morphed to the current-day suffix-less MacBook, and that’s been consistent since 2011. This is because those forms work really, really well and also happen to look really good. And really, the entire laptop industry is essentially made up of products that are variations on screen-that-folds-down-on-keyboard. I mean, tablets haven’t been able to meaningfully hurt laptops because it turns out that the platonic laptop form is just about right.

Here’s more from the Manjoo piece:

The company says it does not change its designs just for the sake of change; the current iPhone design, which debuted in 2014, has sold hundreds of millions of units, so why mess with success? In a video accompanying the iPhone 7 unveiling on Wednesday, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design chief, called the device the “most deliberate evolution” of its design vision for the smartphone.

As much as I have been rolling my eyes at the grand pronouncements of Jonny Ive of late, I agree with him here. The design is deliberate, not the result of a lack of vision. They got it right in 2014, right for the market as it exists. To interpret the fact that they didn’t totally overhaul the iPhone form (perhaps a sphere? or something like this?) as a lack of vision or chops is, I think, short-sighted, and probably a symptom of focusing on a relatively new device category as it starts to mature.

I think it’s enough that each new phone released by any manufacturer is better than its predecessor. There are a lot of ways to be “better,” and only one of them is cosmetically.

And shit, you’re just going to put a case on it anyway.

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The Bridge to the Everything Store: An Epilogue

Damages were paid today to many, many people in the aftermath of the Apple iBooks price fixing case. Paid, specifically, to iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon customers, those whom the government determined to have been harmed by Apple’s collusion with the publishing industry to keep ebook prices high.

$400 million was awarded to customers. About twenty-five of those 400 million were given to me in the form of Amazon credit. Credit I could not use, of course, because a little over a year ago Amazon exiled me for “excessive returns.” I had made several heartfelt entreaties in those days, but was each time denied. I was banished.

Being legally owed today’s settlement credit, but unable to do anything with it, I decided to ask Amazon what should be done. I suggested they might just cut me a check, and if not, I would next ask if they could simply award it to my wife (who got a way bigger credit than me, but whatever). Of course, I also suggested that they might just reinstate me.

Here’s part of the response I got back.

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And that was that. All my sins forgiven, and even an apology given to me for “any inconvenience.”

I am once again welcome to roam the virtual aisles of the Everything Store. Wiser, more cautious, but welcome.

Perhaps this has something to do with the political climate. Perhaps Jeff Bezos, who loathes Donald Trump, wishes as Hillary Clinton does to build bridges, not walls. Or perhaps this was Amazon being in a celebratory mood over their moral victory over the behemoth Apple. Whatever the reason, it’s good to be back.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some heavy Wish List maintenance to attend to.

Oh No, Not OLED

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It is being reported that Apple will begin to use OLED displays in an upcoming iPhone generation, as opposed to the IPS LCDs it has always used. And I’m not at all happy about this.

I’m not an iPhone user at the moment, so in the near-term I don’t really care what Apple does to its phones. But it can’t be denied that anything significant that Apple does with its most important product will likely be aped by most other manufacturers, if they aren’t already doing the same thing.

And the problem is that I seem to have some sort of ocular allergy to OLED. Throughout my Year of Phones, several of the units I tried out had AMOLED or Super AMOLED displays, and I recently spent some time with a Dell Venue 8 7000 tablet, which is OLED. And with only one exception, all of the OLED devices gave me headaches when looking at them for more than a few minutes. Indeed, I feel the strain on my eyes almost immediately.

I have no solid explanation for why this is so. OLED devices with which I’ve had significant experience, Notes 4 and 5 and the Venue 8, while they are truly excellent, each gave me the same problem. I thought perhaps that there might be some difference between Samsung’s proprietary “Super AMOLED” and Dell’s vanilla “OLED,” but no. They both produced the same effect.

And no settings-tweaking helped. Lowering the brightness, lowering the saturation level, adjusting hues, nothing mattered.

Some folks in forums have speculated to me that this has to do with an imperceptible “flicker” that OLED displays produce and LCDs don’t, but that’s just a guess from a few people who are otherwise as stumped by this as I am.

There was one exception, however, the Nexus 6, the device with which I had a stormy relationship. That has a Quad-HD AMOLED display just like the Notes 4 and 5, and yet with all the problems and delights I had with that device, I don’t recall headaches being an issue at all. I have no idea why.

On the flip side are LCD displays, like that on my beloved LG G4, and on every iPhone and iPad ever. I have never had any problem gawking at iDevice screens for hours on end, and my G4 Quad-HD LCD display is so lovely I can sometimes hardly believe it.

Also, I’ve seen far more problems with OLED displays than LCDs. This is anecdotal experience, of course, but on OLED screens I see far more burn-in, ghosting, dark spots, dead pixels, and the like. I do know that it’s currently a fact that they degrade more quickly than LCDs. They seem, from my personal experience, to be far less reliable.

But now Apple will, well, saturate the market with OLED, making it the new normal. OLED displays, at their best, are far more eye-catching and rich than most LCDs (though the G4’s is right up there), so they have obvious appeal. But if they are less reliable, why would Apple commit to them so wholeheartedly?

Boy Genius Reports speculates that Apple is prepared for OLED’s degradation problem, saying, “It stands to reason that Apple is confident that the aforementioned drawbacks can and will be addressed in the years ahead.” But I don’t think that needs to be true at all. Apple has already introduced its own leasing program so that folks can get new a new iPhone model every year, so we know that Apple very much wants to push regular consumers to upgrade at a rate that’s high even for many tech enthusiasts. If they’re confident that an enormous number of their users are going to get rid of their phones after a year anyway, why should they care if the OLED displays start to lose their “oomph”? You’re buying the new one anyway.

But what this all means for me (which is what this is really about, remember) is that the best phones on the market in the coming years will all be OLED in one way or another, which means that, unless they change something as-yet-undiagnosed in the displays or my eyeballs, I will be squinting in agony at the objects I would otherwise hold most dear. It’s like an Van Gogh devotee who gets a small electric shock whenever they look at one of his paintings.

There is still the anomaly of the Nexus 6. Perhaps there’s something in the way its display was made that holds the answer. Or perhaps LG will continue to improve its LCD displays to the point where it’ll be clear that it’s the better alternative.

But with my luck? I’m going to need a new drug.

“Apple Released a Surface, a Roku, and a Samsung Phone.”

Photo credit: Brett Jordan / Foter / CC BY
Summing up the latest Apple event in which a slew of new products were introduced, including a giant-ass iPad, a better Apple TV (low bar), and new iPhones–6 with some odd gimmicks in them. The Verge’s Nilay Patel said on Periscope (and I’m paraphrasing), “Today, Apple released a Surface, a Roku, and a Samsung phone.”

And yeah, they kinda did. I think that’s fine, though, I’m not one of those folks who think Apple or any other company has to be 100% original with every product they produce. I’m glad they rip each other off and learn from each other’s good ideas. It makes all the products, in the aggregate, better.

That said, Patel’s joke was funny because it was largely true. The iPad Pro is Apple’s answer to the Microsoft Surface, which, despite some genuine confusion of what it was for, now seems to be a well regarded device for folks in particular fields and with particular needs. (Anecdotally, I’ve seen a number of them with college students who get a lot out of the tablet-PC combo as well as the stylus.) I’m glad they copied the Surface! Since the Surface was introduced, I hoped Apple would make something like it, and they finally have. I’m glad they took the stylus as an input device very seriously. Is any of this any good? Who knows.

I do know one thing: It’s way too goddamned expensive for me. Baseline $800 without the stylus or keyboard cover, which kick you over $1000. Nope. I’m sure that’s very worthwhile to a great many people, but not me. Halve that, and I’d consider it.

(Kyle Wagner at The Concourse writes of the tablet-PC combo: “I have no idea why you’d try to marry the two, outside of blithe cowing to other people’s dumbass ideas. It is profoundly dumb. They will sell 500 million of these.”)

The Apple TV looks nice. And it does a lot of things other folks already do, but probably very well. That’s about it.

And then the phones, the iPhones 6S and 6S Plus. The big changes here are “3D Touch” and “Live Photos.” Until I use one of these devices myself it’s impossible to know just how useful or interesting either of these new features is, but I’m a tad skeptical. 3D Touch, where additional information can be gleaned about something on screen by pressing harder on it. I’m less interested in the hardware aspect of this, where the device knows how hard you’re pressing, and more interested in the UI side, where the user can now “peek” underneath things, or get quick access to actions or items without opening a full app. That could be pretty cool if done well. Will it be? I thought Apple had answered my prayers when they added third-party keyboards to iOS, but they turned out to mostly do it poorly, so who can say.

Live Photos strikes me as the Samsung-y move here, a kind of Harry Potter move where a photo also gets a bit of video recorded around it. It’s cute, no doubt, and will probably yield a few cool items, especially with kids. But Google, of course, auto-animates a series of photos into GIFs, which is similar in idea but very different in the actual output. And other Android manufacturers have had the photo-as-short-video feature before and no one really cared, including me.

(I’ll have more to say about the ups and downs of Samsung’s approach to iteration in another post.)

So it’s not a reason to buy a phone. Neither is the 3D Touch for that matter. But Apple will expect you to, and chances are, “you” (meaning the general smartphone consumer) will.

So, yes, Apple is (finally?) doing some of the things its competitors have done, and it pretended not to be interested in (like the stylus). That’s good, and they’ll likely do it very well, it’s all in the execution for them, as Josh Topolsky wrote at The New Yorker (I know, I was surprised to see him there, too):

That’s part of the reason why Apple’s “me-toos” end up feeling like “me-firsts.” In the age of digital, execution is staggeringly important, and there isn’t a single company in existence that can pull off polish and simplicity like Apple. While other companies struggle just to get all of their devices and services talking to one another, Tim Cook and friends are worrying over the details that actually make consumers pay attention. The products don’t just work the way they should; they feel the way they should. Reducing friction, even a single click, can change the way a user perceives an entire product.

Yes, but! I’m not so sure Apple is all-in on “execution” like it used to be. If it were, Apple Music wouldn’t be driving people nuts, iTunes wouldn’t be a software shitshow, and the new generations of iPhones wouldn’t start at 16GB. That’s right, those “Live Photos” you’re taking, those iTunes movies you’re downloading, and that 4K video you’re shooting will have more or less no room on that expensive new device. Matthew Yglesias gets why this is a huge mistake, because it sacrifices the quality of experience for short-term monetary gain, which it doesn’t even need:

Killing the 16GB phone and replacing it with a 32GB model at the low end would obtain things money can’t buy — satisfied customers, positive press coverage, goodwill, a reputation for true commitment to excellence, and a demonstrated focus on the long term. A company in Apple’s enviable position ought to be pushing the envelop forward on what’s considered an acceptable baseline for outfitting a modern digital device, not squeezing extra pennies out of customers for no real reason.

The fact that this is still around shows a degree of cynicism and greed that should worry the Apple faithful. As more of a Reformed Apple-ist, I can appreciate and wonder at how well they’ve executed on so many things. But I can also take a step back and ask if they really sweat the details like they say they do. Not giving customers a sufficiently capable device is a big detail to miss.