HTC U11 Review: The Phone Worth Not Waiting For

With the 10th anniversary iPhone looming, with a second Google Pixel coming soon, with Andy Rubin’s debut of the Essential Phone, and with the release of the Galaxy Note 8, little attention has been given to the HTC U11, other than a few obligatory reviews that range from “hey this is great” to “this is good but I don’t care.”

That’s a shame, because people are overlooking a great device. I know this because after a year with my deteriorating Galaxy S7, I was ready for a new device, and I picked the U11.

The red one.

I could have waited to see what was in the offing with all these other big-name releases, but I didn’t need to. It was pretty clear that the U11 was the one for me. And now that I’ve had it for a couple of weeks, I feel even more certain I made the right call. In no particular order, Here are some reasons why.

It’s so red.

Oh my god it’s so red. “Solar Red” is the name HTC gave this particular variant of shining, liquid, blazing red. The other colors available also looked fantastic, but good god damn, that red.

I mean come on.

The software and performance.

HTC’s Sense skin on Android has been shaved down so thoroughly, that if you use a different launcher than HTC’s, you’d almost never know it wasn’t stock Google. And mercy me, it is fast. Now, the Galaxy S7 I had used to be fast, but it never felt as crazy-fluid as, say, my Note 5 did for a time. But the U11 is in a different league altogether. It’s such a pleasure to just zip through transitions, animations, app launches, share menus, and the rest.

The display.

It’s quad-HD and LCD, which is just what I needed. Yes, I’m a stickler for 1440p over 1080p if the screen in big enough to notice, and at 5.5″, this one is. (Would I notice the difference in normal use? Probably not. But I’m not normal, and when it comes to making imperceptible a display’s pixels, I check. Up close.

The fact that it’s LCD and not AMOLED like Samsung and OnePlus use means that the colors aren’t super-saturated and my eyes aren’t put under as much of a strain in just, you know, absorbing all that color. HTC’s LCD screen looks gorgeous, bright and crisp and easy on my eyes. It lacks the ostentatious pop of a Samsung display, which can be quite nice, but it’s truer to life and more akin to an iPhone or iPad display. But, of course, with much higher resolution. It does suffer more under direct sunlight and heavy glare than a rich AMOLED, but I’m cool with that.

It has bezels.

Yeah I said it. I like bezels on my devices. I like that I can actually hold a phone with my human hands made of meat and then operate it without the constant worry that I’m inadvertently making contact with the touchscreen on the sides. The U11 has just enough of a border around the conventionally-proportioned screen to look awesome and remove accidental-touch anxiety. Which sounds dirty now that I see it typed. Hm.

Oh, and HTC was kind enough to include a clear case with the phone, but it’s crap. I’m using, and would recommend, the Spigen Liquid Crystal case.

The fingerprint sensor.

It’s so fast! It’s almost too fast. With the S7, making contact with the fingerprint sensor to unlock the phone was all like touch, wait, click sound, unlock, whereas with the U11 it’s more like touchHOLY SHIT IT’S READY TO GO! It may even be too sensitive, waking the screen when any part of my hand comes near it.

The squeeze gimmick.

If you heard of the U11 at all, you probably heard that it is equipped with something called “Edge Sense,” wherein was literally squeezes the phone to activate certain functions. Most reviews have been critical of this feature, but it seems to me that they’re either not making good use of it or were simply predisposed to think it was silly before they ever tried it.

I think it’s default setting is to launch Alexa, but you have several additional options for what a squeeze does, and you can differentiate between short and long squeezes. Me, I chose the function that seemed the most useful and, frankly, the most obvious.

I made it turn on the flashlight.

I know, right? You’re like, damn, Paul that IS a good idea! I have the long squeeze activate Alexa, but I might even turn that off, since Alexa is also activated by the usual voice command.

The camera.

This is the feature that is being most lauded by folks like Vlad Savov and Daniel Bader, saying the U11’s camera rivals or even bests the Pixel. I have to say, it seems great, I have no complaints, but the S7’s camera was pretty great, too, and it doesn’t seem to my untrained eye to be obviously superior, but that’s fine.

It’s also a lot faster than my previous phone, especially when HDR is turned off, and that makes a huge difference, especially when you have squirrelly kids.

The sound.

I saved this one for last because it’s the area where the phone both enrages and delights me.

Let’s get this out of the way: It does not have a headphone jack.

I always thought this would be a deal breaker for me, the thing that solidified my alienation from the iPhone. I still think it’s stupid and needless to omit the headphone jack, and it will prove, I have no doubt, a pain in the ass for the length of my ownership of this phone. No headphone jack is a strike against it. Yes, it does include a USB-C adapter dongle for wired headphones, but still. (And third party adapters won’t work because of HTC’s proprietary DAC technology. Double-grumble.)

But also included with the phone is a pair of USB-C earbuds. But not cheap EarPod type earbuds (though I think EarPods sound fine for what they are), but truly great sounding earbuds that – get this – have active noise cancellation built in. Now, this is not Bose-level noise cancelling. I think it’s fairer to call it “noise dampening,” but it nonetheless makes for a fantastic listening experience. Ambient noise mostly melts away and the music has the space and depth it needs to shine. I still think I like the sound of my Zero Audio Carbo Tenore earbuds better, but not enough to make me miss them when I have the U11’s included headphones.

(There’s always a lot of attention paid to HTC phones’ hardware speakers and how loud and full they sound for teeny tiny phone speakers. And they’re fine, but I don’t think they’re anything to get excited about.)

The bottom line.

As I said at the beginning, I was pretty sure I was going to like this phone, and while I may be engaging in some post-purchase confirmation bias, fine. The fact remains that not only did I wind up being happy with it, but it delighted me far more than I expected.

The tech press has been pretty unanimous in its warning to consumers to refrain from buying any new phones until the big release season is over. I’m sure the next Pixel and iPhone are going to be stellar, and that the Galaxy Note 8 is a technological wonder to behold. I would simply add to that warning, “unless you plan to buy the HTC U11.” As much as I’ll gaze in a awe at the devices to come, I’ll be happy to do so from afar, cradling my weird and wonderful U11.

And it’s red.

* * *

If you’re so inclined, please support my work through Patreon.

Advertisements

The Alpha, the Omega, and the Google

25919920651_7de9389015_b

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.”

If you like my work, please consider supporting it through Patreon.

“Every stupid thing Samsung does makes Android better.”

Jerry Hildenbrand is the deep thinker of the Android blogosphere. While the default response to everything Samsung does with its phones is to express exasperation, Jerry has a different perspective. In his review of the Galaxy S7 Edge, he says:

I want Samsung to never stop messing around with Android and making it their own. The open source part of Android is made better by companies doing stuff to it and changing it. That’s how open source software works. I wish more of what they do was available to everyone at the code level, but the ideas and the critical changes that improve Android make their way back to Google. They then make their way to everyone. Every good thing Samsung does makes Android better. Every stupid thing Samsung does makes Android better.

I can take 20 minutes and strip away the stuff I don’t want. I can disable or uninstall some of it. I can hide most of the remainder. Buh-bye Milk Music. Adios Gear Manager. Go away forever Flipboard Briefing. You can do the same things to the stuff you don’t want.

It’s the Apple ethos to presume that there is some platonic ideal for a given product, but Google’s has always been about inviting tinkering and elaboration. Despite this admittedly overly-broad distinction, the common wisdom is that Android is best, and indeed only really acceptable, when it’s pure, stock Android straight from Google. 

But that’s Apple thinking. There’s nothing wrong with Apple thinking, it’s resulted in some of the most beautiful and popular products ever made in any category. But it’s not the idea behind the Google ethos…or at least its mythos. 

Hardware companies going all-out to make Android work as well as it can for their devices is the right idea. It happens, alas, that very often (more often than not?) they go too far, or simply do it poorly. The most acclaimed versions of Android tend to be the most untouched, like Motorola’s or Nvidia’s. LG, HTC, and especially Samsung are berated for loading Android up with gimmicks and bloatware.

But just as Jerry says, some of those gimmicks aren’t just gimmicks, but valuable new features. And sometimes gimmicks evolve into valuable features. And sometimes, a variation on Android suits the device in question so well, it’s a revelation. Many will point to Motorola’s ambient display, which was quickly adopted by many other manufacturers. But my favorite is Samsung’s S Pen for the Note series. The precision and usefulness of the stylus is unmatched by almost any accessory I’ve used for any phone.

And that’s because of Samsung’s software, that’s “TouchWiz.” 

So yeah, keep at it, Samsung, and all you other guys. I mean, try to keep it sane. You know, have some mercy. But keep at it.

The Year of Phones

IMG_20150721_115738

One year ago today, I began a weird, fun, stressful, ridiculous, and revealing process of choosing the right Android phone for me. That process didn’t end until just a few days ago, meaning that I had so much trouble settling on a phone to stick with for the long term, the Earth had to get all the way around the Sun before I could bring the project to a conclusion. But this first-world consumerist quest is indeed over – as it must be, because I promised my wife I’d be done, and stick with what I have for at least one year. And that’s okay, because I also happened to have finally nailed it.

On Halloween of 2014, I popped open my newly purchased, lightly used Nexus 5. I had owned a different Nexus 5 briefly earlier that year, but got cold feet over being on Android after being an iOS devotee since the first iPhone. For most of 2014 I was on an iPhone 5S, but Android remained so compelling to me, especially as 5.0 Lollipop was being announced. Feeling increasingly bored with iOS, I sold the iPhone, and just in time for Lollipop’s rollout, I dove back in with this Nexus 5.

There was so much to love about it, but its abysmal camera and poor battery life were frustrating me, Lollipop or no Lollipop. Now that I was skipping the whole carrier-contract rigmarole, and simply buying a device outright, I felt rather liberated to try other devices. I knew that if I shopped wisely, and sold my used devices skillfully (or returned them when necessary), I could freely experiment with different phones until I found one that suited me best, and more or less remain, as they say in Washington, “revenue neutral.” More or less.

This turned out to be mostly true as the year unfolded, if I do say so myself. But this is not to say there were no ill side-effects to what started as a sort of hobby, and turned into something of an obsession.

I won’t go over every detail of every device I tried. I will give a rundown of my impressions of the individual models later in the piece, but as far as the process itself that went from one October to the next, it’s as you might expect. I’d get a device, put it through its paces for some length of time, and decide that some aspect of it wasn’t working for me, and try something else instead. A few times, of course, I would receive genuine lemons, devices that were defective or damaged in some way, which had to be returned. There were a lot of opening and packing up of shipping boxes, a lot of waiting for the UPS truck to pull up, a lot of trips to the post office, a lot of listings on eBay and Swappa, and a lot of accessories bought, sold, and returned as well.

As readers of this blog know, one problem that arose from this process was that Amazon apparently grew weary of my returning items, and exiled me. I have documented this story in detail already, but I’ll simply say here that, as I mentioned, I got quite a few bum devices that simply had to be returned, and I also returned devices that I simply wasn’t satisfied with, which I assumed was fine until they unceremoniously gave me the boot. All of which I may or may not have deserved, but that’s another discussion.

The larger lesson of the Amazon exile, however, was not really about my behavior as a customer, but about my state of mind in regard to seeking out a satisfactory phone. Why was I going to such lengths and expending such mental resources on this project? Couldn’t I have settled at some point far earlier in 2015 and been just fine?

Eventually, it would be my wife that would shake me out of my pursuit of the technological white whale. It was she who pointed out to me the disparity between the effort I was putting into strategizing and researching and buying and selling and plotting for the sole purpose of having a gadget I’d be marginally happier with than I was with the last one, while there was so much else in our life that required those resources. It wasn’t an accusation or a complaint that I was not available, or that I needed some kind of A&E-style smartphone intervention, but a dose of perspective about what it is I was prioritizing in my free time, my limited finances, and my emotional bandwidth. And she was right. It had started out as a fun project, until I gave it too much of myself. This came about as I had One Final Device on the way, and I promised her this would be the last one for one whole year.

I had made that promise before, actually, and wriggled my way out of it in order to give it one more go. That in itself, that I felt the need to weasel out of an agreement with my wife on something so relatively trivial, showed me that I needed to be done with it. Again, not because anything was being hurt by it, but because nothing about a consumer purchase decision should have this kind of gravity in my life.

So, enough about me. Let’s take an overview of the devices that passed through my hot little hands during the Year of Phones.

Photo credit: iamos / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Nexus 5: I don’t know what it is about this device, but it inspires genuine affection not just from me, but from a legion of fans. Something about how it feels and how fast and simple it is, and how inexpensive it is, made me come back to it even after abandoning it. But there was simply no getting past its bad battery life (for a heavy smartphone user, this is a huge pain), and its terrible camera, which simply wasn’t doing justice to my adorable and very fast-moving children. It had to go. But man, that red one.

OnePlus One: When I got ahold of this one, I decided rather abruptly that it was just too big, and this was before I began to become a phablet convert, so I might have a different reaction today. But I also began to feel a little panic over some horror stories I’d seen online about wretched customer service from OnePlus, with many units turning out to have been shoddily manufactured, and I decided that this was just not something I wanted to put myself through. It probably didn’t get a fair shot, but I’m sure whoever I sold it to is very happy now.

HTC One M8: I actually got three lemon M8’s in a row, buying them used off of Amazon and eBay. This critically acclaimed device, I assumed, had to be a good fit for me, but it was not to be. Even after returning the damaged units I received, the undamaged one I tried to use (which was still the wrong color from what I ordered, by the way) was physically slippery and slow in performance. No one else ever complained about poor software performance from the M8 before, so it may too have been a bad apple, but after a fourth try, that was it for me.

Moto X 2014: Bought direct from Motorola, opened it up, saw it had a defective screen, returned it, and never tried again. Though I was often, often temped.

LG G3: This came the closest to being my keeper, such that when one phone experiment didn’t work out, I’d think, hey let’s just go back to the G3. It was by far the least interesting phone. Not much to look at, but comfortable and reliable, with a great screen, a great camera, a swappable battery, and expandable storage. The main reason I didn’t stick with it was that its size, which was big for me at 5.5 inches, convinced me that big phones were in fact the way to go, and that, if anything, I should get something bigger. Which led me to…

Photo by the author.

Nexus 6: My relationship with this phone was a rollercoaster, such that I went through several units over several months. First, because I found that the phone got so ridiculously hot, that surely, surely they must be defective units. A couple returns resulted, until I had to simply face the fact that this is just what this phone is like. But I loved the enormous screen and the pure Android software experience. After rejecting and returning to this phone a few times, I tried my damnedest to mitigate the heat problem, but I finally gave up. But the desire for a big screen was unsated.

Galaxy Note 4: A truly excellent phone in so many ways. But I found that I had trouble reading off the screen for long periods of time, for reasons I could not for the life of me pin down. By this time I had sold my iPad and my Kindle because my big phone (whichever one that was) would now serve all those other device’s purposes. To experience discomfort reading off this phone was a big blow against it.

Xperia Z Ultra: Similar story to the Moto X. A used unit, it came with a bum screen, bad pixels, and it had to go. But I was also pretty sure that it was a little too old of a device, with a crummy camera to boot, such that further investigation was not warranted – despite it’s massive 6.4-inch screen, which I really did appreciate.

Galaxy Note 5: I got this sight-unseen upon release, which turned out to be a mistake. I grew to really love the S Pen, the ability to write on the screen when the display was off, and the raw power of the phone. But I found I was having the same problems with reading off the screen as I experienced with the Note 4, which I really should have predicted. What is it about Super AMOLED, anyway? Whatever it is, I also just felt like this superphone was too precious, too apt to be accidentally destroyed at great cost, and simply uncomfortable to use.

You may have detected a theme. Most of the time, when I’ve rejected a phone, if it’s not because it’s simply broken, it’s because of some physical discomfort. Too hot, too slippery, too breakable, etc. A device that I’m going to use so often and for such lengths of time, to serve as my escape and as the vessel of my augmented self, I felt I needed to be “at home” with it. It should fit me, rather than I having to try and fit myself to it. This is why the Nexus 5 and LG G3 were the only devices I really have “fond feelings” for as I look back on the Year of Phones. They fit me pretty darned well, even if they didn’t check all the boxes.

Oh right, you need to know where I landed.

Photo credit: Janitors / Foter.com / CC BY

LG G4: I am very lucky that my last shot was a bullseye. Purchased October 19 of this year, and I am entirely delighted by this phone. Its display is a joy to read off of for long stretches, its camera is excellent, it has expandable storage and a swappable battery, it looks cool, it performs well, it’s light, it doesn’t feel fragile at all, and perhaps most importantly, it’s really damned comfortable. You might know that the G4 is ever-so-slightly curved, not as severely as its cousin the G Flex 2, but just enough that it feels so nice to hold. And for reasons I don’t quite get, the curve also makes the touch display feel nicer to use. Why??? I really don’t know. Maybe it’s just novelty, but it makes me look at non-curved phones now with a sense of disappointment. As of tonight, as the Year of Phones finally ends, I can really say that I think the G4 is my favorite phone I’ve ever owned.

So that’s where we are. I’m done for the entire year. As of right now, I really do feel like I landed on The One True Device for me. And so it shall be, from here on.

Or at least until October 19, 2016.

Not that I’m keeping track.

How I Learned to Love the Chromebook

Photo by me.

I’ve been singing the praises of Chromebooks for some time, but none of that praise has come from direct experience. The utility and potential of these devices have been starkly obvious to me, though I’d never had occasion to test them on myself. I’ve always had a perfectly good laptop, a phone, and sometimes even a tablet (I don’t have one of those right now, and I kind of miss it), so having yet another device was not something I could justify. Financially. To my wife, mostly.

Then, like a superhero bursting through the clouds to come to my rescue, my former theatre colleague Tom Loughlin suggested I borrow his old Dell Chromebook 11 and try it out. He knows I’ve been bullish on them, and he wanted me to do some writing about what it was like to actually use one, and I was all what? and he was all yeah! and he shipped it to me.

But this was weeks and weeks ago, and other than start the thing up, I did essentially nothing with it.

Because what was I going to do with it? Like I said, I’m already fully decked-out tech-wise. There never emerged an impetus to bust it out, no need arose. So it sat in the box Tom had shipped it in, and I felt guilty.

And then in one day it dawned on me, weirdly, twice.

I work from home, and my office is upstairs in a big walk-in closet in the back of our bedroom. When my MacBook Pro is in full “work mode,” it’s on my desk, hooked up to power, hardwired to the Internet, and connected to my backup external hard drive. Sometimes it’s also got a microphone hooked up (for the podcast usually), and has at times also had a monitor, mouse, or what have you. And this is how it was a few days ago.

And I wanted to make my lunch. Downstairs.

But still be able to work. Because I’m just like that.

As you can imagine, I didn’t want to unhook everything (and of course “safely eject” the hard drive) and bring my MacBook downstairs, only to run it back upstairs and hook it all up again.

That’s when I remembered the Chromebook.

And here’s the amazing part. I had the idea to use it, I opened it up, logged in with my Google Apps credentials, and that was it. Everything was there, and I could just work. I could do everything that I would normally do for work, too. It was almost entirely frictionless.

But of course I didn’t only want my work account set up! I wanted my personal Google account up and running, too. And it took me literally a couple of minutes to figure out how to have two “instances” of Google accounts running on the device at the same time. So now I could work in one account, click an icon at the bottom of the screen and instantly switch right over to the other account. Again, almost entirely frictionless.

That’s how I worked for a little while. And when I was ready, I closed it, and went back to my office.

That was one. The other happened later that evening. We don’t do cable at our house, so we had to get CNN’s live stream of the Democratic debate, and watch it on our living room TV. CNN wouldn’t allow the video to be cast over to our TV, so to do this I had to connect my MacBook via HDMI, which also meant that my computer would be physically tethered to our TV, which meant that I couldn’t use it do the one thing I love more than watching presidential debates: tweeting presidential debates.

And then I remembered: the Chromebook.

Usually, in this situation, I’m stuck tweeting on my phone, which isn’t nearly as easy when you’re doing so in a rapid-fire manner as I do during events like this. But this time, all I had to do was open up the Chromebook, sit back, and knock out my HILARIOUS tweets in a full-function instance of Tweetdeck, just like I would have done on my Mac. No beats skipped. (I also wrote and published this post using only the Chromebook.)

So this is what the Chromebook is to me, right now: a lightweight extra computer. In many ways, it’s what I’d always wanted out of an iPad; a casual computing device that asked very little of me, was smartly limited in its functionality, but could still do the basics without any friction. The iPad was great for, say, reading and browsing, but not for working. The Chromebook is not my reading device of choice by any stretch of the imagination (my phone is now), but for simply getting shit done without being laden with all the computer cruft, it’s great.

That doesn’t mean I can now justify getting one. I still don’t need it, the same way I don’t need a tablet, and yet would still like to have one. But now its utility for someone like me is much clearer. Simply put, it’d be a great second, kicking-around computer.

And truly, if I didn’t have some particular media-creation needs, a Chromebook would serve as my main computer without a problem.

So right now I’m in a mode of “it’d be nice to have one” for Chromebooks, but there’s still some evolution that needs to happen before it crosses into “oh man I really need to sell off some of my valuables to get one.” I think what I’d really like is for the Chromebook to get closer to absorbing more tablet use-cases, where the keyboard goes away (either by detaching or flipping around or whatever) and the laptop becomes a single slate that can be used as more of a casual reading and browsing device; lean-back instead of lean-forward.

Asus’s Chromebook Flip is the right idea, actually, but there’s one problem I have with it: the screen resolution. I’m spoiled by, and now married to, Retina-level resolutions, and especially if I’m going to use something to read off of, it’s got to be crispy. If Asus were to put one of these out with over 300ppi, I’d be all in.

This, really, was my only real problem with the 2013 Dell Chromebook 11: the display is garbage. Utter shit. Not only is it low-resolution, but it’s washed out, with colors rendered, well, vaguely. The rest of the laptop’s hardware was fine. It’s plenty zippy, the trackpad was acceptable, and the keyboard was fine. But that screen, blech.

The point is, however, that even though I was already a Chromebook booster, I’m now a fan. This is a great category of device, and I can’t wait to see it get better, and then to get my own.

(And sincerely, thank you, Tom!)

Magical Thinking Won’t Make the iPad Rise Again

Photo credit: plynoi / Foter / CC BY-NC
A few months ago I made the case that iPads and tablets generally were a product category in crisis. Ever-larger and more powerful phones with ever-slimmer, lighter, and simply more pleasant laptops means that the use-case for tablets severely dwindles. And I say this as a genuine fan of tablets, but also as someone who no longer owns one because of their functional redundancy.

A few days ago, Neil Cybart at Above Avalon, an Apple analysis site, made more or less the same case, but focused as much on sales numbers as on use-cases. (I’m maybe a little peeved that my post was ignored and this one is getting serious attention from the tech punditocracy, but I’m nobody, so whatever.) Cybart emphasizes how tablets are primarily used for watching video, and therefore don’t require frequent upgrades or high-end hardware.

He’s right. They are mostly passive devices, thin little TVs. They are largely not being used for high-end productivity or for the advancement of the humanities. Of course there are exceptions, as power users can certainly make incredible use of tablets, but the mass market is buying them to watch Netflix, check Facebook, and look at the email they don’t want to respond to.

Where I differ from Cybart is in his vision for iPad success and growth:

By selling a device that is truly designed from the ground-up with content creation in mind, the iPad line can regain a level of relevancy that it has lost over the past few years. In every instance where the iPad is languishing in education and enterprise, a larger iPad with a 12.9-inch, Force Touch-enabled screen would carry more potential.

He goes on to lay out potential use-cases in education, enterprise, and general consumer computing, all of which hinge on Apple heavily focusing on making it easier to manage and juggle multiple applications and windows, and more pleasant and ergonomic to type.

I think he’s wrong. I think this particular vision is an example of a kind of Apple-is-magic thinking in which Apple grudgingly stuffs complex functionality into the constricting parameters of its platonic ideal of a “simple” computing device. Geeks like me cheered when Apple added things like third-party keyboards and improved sharing capabilities to iOS, but many (including me) quickly grew frustrated as it became clear that Apple’s efforts were kludgy, a series of half-realized solutions that prioritized Apple’s sense of preciousness over consistent usability.

I feel like this is what Cybart is asking for when he prescribes these more powerful capabilities for a hypothetical iPad Plus or iPad Pro. Barring unforeseeable and massive leaps in input and UI technology, even a big, powerful iPad will remain a rectangle displaying pixels, used by two-handed primates with 10 digits. There’s only so much complexity, and so much productivity, such a thing could ever realize. We’ve almost certainly not seen tablets hit a ceiling in terms of what degree of productivity they can eke out, but I bet we’re damned close.

(And for that matter, why is it so important to envision scenarios of revived success for iPads at all? Why be invested in this? Could it be because some of us are more concerned with identities as Apple aficionados than we are with actually having the best devices for a given need?)

Meanwhile, high-end, slim laptops get lighter and nicer to use, and still maintain all the functionality we’ve been conditioned to expect from PCs. You don’t have to connect a Bluetooth keyboard, you don’t have to buy a stand or a special case to do any of it. You just open your laptop, and there’s your screen, keyboard, and trackpad. And lots of laptops also allow for touch input, in case you really want that too. Even though it’s a more or less “old” idea by technology standards, it’s damned convenient when you think about it.

Phones are getting bigger, with higher-resolution displays, and as I just noted, more and more they’re even being used to read books. They’re great for video watching (as are laptops), for games, for checking Facebook, and for ignoring emails (as are laptops). Oh, and it’s already in your pocket or bag, and goes everywhere with you. No tablet needed. When people derided the first iPad as “a big iPhone,” it turns out that’s really what people wanted, not a replacement for their PC, but a bigger phone.

But even if we assume that iPads will reach the kind of functional threshold that Cybart predicts, they’d still have to be better suited for productivity than laptops, which they can’t be, and perhaps more importantly, be demonstrably better than things like high-quality Chromebooks and Chromebases that can deliver most or all of the features and conveniences of laptops and tablets, including touchscreens.

Chrome-based devices, I think, are the products that are truly on the verge of breaking through to mass adoption in the very areas Cybart sees as fruitful for the iPad. Cheap Chromebooks are already growing in education, and as they become more obviously of a higher quality, there’s no reason to think they won’t make inroads into the consumer and enterprise spaces. And perhaps the biggest irony there, with Chrome more or less being a browser, is that they’ll be simpler to implement and use than an iPad. That’s not the Apple narrative, Apple is always supposed to be simpler and more intuitive, but I think it’s easy to see that their devotion to simple-as-defined-by-us has largely just made things clunkier for their products.

I should note that I really do love iPads and tablets. I certainly wouldn’t turn one down. They’re often pleasant to use, beautifully made, and convenient.

Just not enough to keep dropping over $500 on them. Maybe once, and then not again for a long, long time. (I got my wife an iPad Air for Christmas, and she was happy but a little confused because her old iPad 3 was more than fine for her.) I don’t think Apple finding a way to snap two apps’ windows together on the screen, or vibrating under your fingers, is going to change any of that.

Can Alphabet Ever Mean as Much as Google Does?

Original image: PMillera4 / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Google surprised pretty much everyone today when they announced that, well, they weren’t going to be Google anymore.

Google CEO Larry Page (well, former CEO) said in a statement today that he and Google co-founder Sergey Brin would form a new holding company, Alphabet (with the best domain name on Earth: abc.xyz), of which Google would now be a wholly-owned subsidiary, led by Sundar Pichai, who until today was Google’s head of Android and Chrome.

I have some immediate concerns about it, but I should stipulate I’ve only known about this for a couple of hours. Before I get into that, a bit more on what Alphabet is, and what Google is – and no longer is. Page explained how Google would now be one company among many, each focusing on particular areas and industries that were all once housed under the Google banner:

What is Alphabet? Alphabet is mostly a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google. This newer Google is a bit slimmed down, with the companies that are pretty far afield of our main internet products contained in Alphabet instead. What do we mean by far afield? Good examples are our health efforts: Life Sciences (that works on the glucose-sensing contact lens), and Calico (focused on longevity). Fundamentally, we believe this allows us more management scale, as we can run things independently that aren’t very related.

… Alphabet will also include our X lab, which incubates new efforts like Wing, our drone delivery effort. We are also stoked about growing our investment arms, Ventures and Capital, as part of this new structure.

I should point out first that I don’t have any problem with the idea of a wholesale reorganization of Google. Giving each disparate aspect of the company its own territory, its share of breathing room, could very well be exactly what they need to thrive. I can’t say one way or the other, but it certainly seems that Larry Page, who lusts to be ruler of a magical libertarian island, at the very least could not be content to be the head of a mere search engine company. And Sundar Pichai, though I find him a little frustrating as a spokesperson for his company, is obviously doing wonderful things, as I can only personally attest by my wholesale embrace of Android over the past year and my admiration and fascination with the Chrome OS. So, functionally, this sounds more or less positive.

My concern is more about what Google means to the culture. In a more crass sense, I suppose my concern is over things like “branding” and “marketing,” but I also think it’s about something a little bigger. In the same way that Apple, in the minds of millions and millions of people, stands for something grander and more esoteric than being a really good gadget company, Google is more than a search engine and browser company.

When people think of Google (or at least when people who think about this kind of thing think of Google), the association goes far beyond their products and services, far beyond search results and targeted ads. It’s about all the other stuff, the (gag) “moonshots”: bringing Internet access to the developing world from the air, building automated vehicles to revolutionize transportation, the attempts to lengthen the freaking human life span. All of that, along with Android and Fiber and Chrome and Nexus and everything else.

Now, a whole lot of that, the boldest, craziest, and most out-there, will now be Alphabet. Google, though it will no doubt continue to do great things within its newly confined realm, won’t get the benefit of that association. And Alphabet won’t get the benefit of being Google in name. It’ll be an uphill battle for this new thing to win that kind of mindshare. The insiders will know, I suppose, the tech press of today will more easily make this psychological transition. But for all of those who are just observers or enthusiasts, or even for those who are simply too young to have a long association with Google, there’s an ethos that could be lost.

I could be really wrong. But if it were me, I’d do the reorganization under the Google banner, let the restructuring be an insiders’ story, and keep the (gag) moonshot mojo under the old name.