Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad Air: Yep!

And the pendulum of gadget satisfaction has swung the other way. Previously, I dismissed the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air for its flimsiness in typing mode and its bizarre key-conflations. Still determined to find a suitable external keyboard for my beloved electro-slab, I decided to try out something familiar, Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Cover.

This, unlike the Folio, is not a “case” for your iPad, something that would cover it front and back, but more like a faceplate with keys, attached by magnetic hinges like the Apple Smart Cover. When in typing mode, the iPad docks into a magnetic groove, tilted at a slight angle, just above the keys. I owned the previous generation of this keyboard cover for my earlier iPad, and liked it quite a bit, even though it didn’t get all that much use. When I absolutely needed a physical keyboard for longform writing, it was just fine.

Utterly disappointed by the Folio for the iPad Air, I was a little reticent about the Cover. Surely there would be sacrifices that Logitech had to make in order to fit an iPad that is “full size,” but still significantly smaller than its predecessors. I feared it would be cramped, and perhaps flimsier or feel more, well, cheap. It’s clear that both the Folio and the Cover were made before the Air was even finalized, as the marketing materials for both products note them as being compatible with “iPad 5,” which of course is not what this iPad turned out to be named. (The packaging has the “iPad 5” language artfully labeled over with the correct iPad name.) So there was some trepidation.

I’m pleased to say that not only is the Ultrathin Keyboard Cover working out, but it’s been a delight to use.

First and foremost, it’s a very good keyboard generally, for a “case” or otherwise. I’m typing on it right now to write this review. While it’s certainly a bit more cramped than the official Apple keyboard, it’s not badly so, and the keys feel more solid and responsive than they did on Logitech’s Folio version. This is about what I remember from the previous generation Ultrathin Cover, though it may be a touch more compact. If so, I can’t really tell from memory. I wouldn’t use it for my MacBook’s external keyboard, of course, but it’s a perfectly acceptable keyboard overall.

One thing I particularly liked about the previous generation keyboard cover was that I could, somewhat precariously, use it on my lap. It wasn’t entirely stable that way, but if I stayed mostly still, I could do some prodictive typing from the couch. With this iteration being smaller and lighter to suit the Air, I presumed the experience here would be as good or perhaps a little worse.

Wrong. It’s better – far better. I’ve got the thing on my lap now. Okay, I’ve got it on my lap all the time. It’s perfect for couch use. It’s almost as stable and still as my MacBook Air on my lap, even though the iPad plus the keyboard cover together are lighter than an 11″ MacBook Air. The magnetic groove on this cover doesn’t hold the iPad Air quite as firmly as the previous generation held iPads 2, 3, and 4, but it’s still much better than the Folio’s crummy, non-grooved magnetic strip. Still, it means that the functional angles at which you can work are more limited. For example, the keyboard essentially needs to be flat or angled upward on your lap, as opposed to having the keys tilt at all toward you, or else the iPad could flop out of the groove. But this has yet to be an issue for me.

One notable drawback from the previous version: iPads 2 through 4 were actually fairly stable in the docking groove even in portrait mode, straight up and down. It didn’t “click” in, but it set deeply enough into the groove to be usable. This is not really the case with the iPad Air version. You can prop it up that way for casual viewing on a table, perhaps, but you likely won’t get much done that way, and certainly not on your lap, before it topples over. This is really a landscape-only situation.

Meanwhile, the magnets on the hinge in “cover mode” are incrediby strong – almost too strong, as I sometimes worry it pulls the iPad to it with too much force. So far, no problems, though. But ideally, I’d like to see a tiny bit less magnetic pull from the hinge in cover mode, and a bit more strength on the docking groove.

Speaking of “cover mode,” I have a small concern about using this as my primary cover for my iPad for travel. Normally my iPad lives in an STM Cape, which is mostly fabric and perfectly safe and protective. With the Logitech Cover, I perceive a little bit of give toward the middle of the cover, such that if you squeeze them together a bit, the keys looks like they could mash up against the iPad’s screen. The cover has little rubbery feet that lift any hard pieces away from the screen normally, but it looks like even a little bit of pressure might mean trouble for the screen. Obviously, I’m not willing to test this possibility on my device, so I suspect that for anything other than a quick jaunt to Starbucks, I’ll travel with my iPad in my Cape, and simply carry the keyboard cover as an extra accessory. It’s not exactly obtrusive.

One other nice thing about this being a cover versus a case, is that it wouldn’t be at all odd to separate the saucer section, as it were. You can dock the iPad into the cover, or prop the iPad up with another case or stand you prefer, and still use the Logitech keyboard to type. They don’t need to be physically attached to work together.

And another nice thing, which is thanks to Control Center in iOS 7. There’s now much less friction when switching between docked typing and handheld tablet use. With Control Center being accessible at any time, I can disable the keyboard and Bluetooth without going through the morass of menus from previous versions of iOS. Now I just undock, flick up control center, and turn off Bluetooth. Done.

To sum up, it’s really only as a long-term protective cover that I’m at all iffy on the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad Air. Around the house, it’s fine, but I wouldn’t put it in a tightly-packed carry-on for a flight. But as soon as I’m situated, I’d probably pop it right out, and dock my iPad into it forthwith.

This has turned out to be a great purchase, and I find myself docking my iPad into it regardless of whether I plan on doing any significant writing, for even if it’s just for tweeting, email, or browsing, this keyboard cover is a great overall augmentation to my favorite object.

See my original review of the iPad Air, and my follow-up

Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air: Nope.

I ought to be typing this on a physical keyboard right now, but I’m not. I’m using my iPad’s software keyboard as usual.

It should have been a real keyboard because thanks to a generous Amazon credit from my parents for my recent birthday, I got me a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for the iPad Air, and I was psyched about it. (See my iPad Air review here.) I had owned a Logitech keyboard cover for my previous iPad, and liked it quite a bit, and this time the folio version, a full case instead of just a cover, looked like a neat step up.

When it arrived today, I did an unboxing on Twitter because I’m weird, and I really like to admire good packaging in my electronics and doodads. And I have to say, Logitech did a nice job with this packaging. Pull a little red ribbon on the side of the box, and it lifts up the flap which is held closed magnetically. It’s a nice touch. And inside, the folio itself looked great. 

The material of the case is really sleek and svelte   without feeling slippery. The iPad clicked into the corners of the case very easily. And overall it looked really slick.

And then it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t going to work out.

While like the previous keyboard cover, the iPad is held up in portrait orientation by a magnet along the back of the keyboard, it isn’t grooved like the cover. It’s merely a strip of magnet that keeps the iPad in the right place, but not supported by anything physical. With the device held up only by the folio’s back, the iPad is wobbly in typing mode.

You've got to be kidding me. 

You’ve got to be kidding me. 

Well okay that’s not so bad, right? But then there’s the keyboard itself. The keys feel smaller even than the somewhat reduced size of the previous generation cover’s, and weirdest of all, keys that are normally entirely disparate are now consolidated. So you have the Q and “tab” as one key, and A and “caps lock” as another. The result is that everything feels wrong, as though the keyboard were entirely off center. I tried to compensate by nudging my typing to the left somewhat, but it was incredibly frustrating. I hit the S key almost every time I meant to hit A.

Finally, I realized upon closing and opening the case a few times that the sleep-wake feature is totally inconsistent. Roughly half the time the case would wake or sleep the iPad, and the other half not do anything. I’ve been a little frustrated that, for example, my STM Cape case has no magnets for this feature, but at least I know it’s not going to put the iPad to sleep when I close it. With the Logitech Keyboard Folio, it’d be a guess every time.

So, too many little things are not quite right with this otherwise slick looking keyboard case. Off it goes back to Amazon from whence it came. I may try the Air version of the Logitech Keyboard Cover next time, but now I’m even reconsidering whether it’s worth getting a separate keyboard at all.

After all, I just wrote this without one.

iPad Air, 20 Days In

Twenty days with the iPad Air, and a quick follow-up. I’m still in love, but the sparks of young romance are evolving into a mature and seasoned relationship.

Whoa, that got weird. Anyway, it’s still great, of course, but I will say that despite my delight over the vast reduction in weight, it’s still not really a one-handed use tablet. The narrowed bezels certainly makes for easier thumb typing in portrait orientation, but it also means I’m never sure if I’m letting my thumb creep too far onto the display for the device’s accidental-touch sensing voodoo to keep buttons from being tapped and pages from being turned. If I were a little more sure of that, one-handed use would be markedly easier.

I can certainly hold it in one hand for short bursts, but it’s no iPad mini. Some reviews have said that the weight difference between them is almost negligible, and I just don’t think that’s correct.

Ah, the iPad mini with Retina Display. I got a change to play with one briefly in the Apple Store today, and it is a little wonder of a device. Now that is a fantastic tablet for long-term reading, and yes, holding with one hand.

But it’s also a little too scrunched. I launched the Paper drawing app, and it felt more like a little notepad than a sketch tablet. While text was just fine, and arguably better than on the iPad Air, everything else feels slightly more claustrophobic. Just slightly.

And this is based on only a quick look, but the store model’s display certainly seemed rather dim. I double-checked, and it was indeed turned up to full brightness, and it just didn’t pop. The iPad Air pops like crazy.

So look, I won’t be holding my iPad Air like this no matter what Apple’s marketing images suggest (especially since I haven’t bought my AppleCare yet, and I’d probably drop it), but it’s still a wonderful device to hold, to read with, and to type on (comparatively, of course). It’s still the object I want to use, as opposed to what I have to. I still pine for the unworldly lightness of the Mini, but for the full experience, the Air is still the slab for me.

iPad Air: The Zen Device of Choice

I originally thought of the iPad as a kind of novelty; a neat toy for someone who can afford to have a frivolous third (or fourth) device between a smartphone and a laptop, with a Kindle thrown in for good measure. Nifty, but unnecessary. And probably not that useful, overall. I changed my tune when I better understood where an iPad really does fit into the life of someone who already fills his or her day with computer gadgets. Allow me to greatly generalize with enormously broad strokes.

The PC (meaning your Mac or Windows machine, laptop or desktop) is your headquarters, where you must do your intensive work, likely for your job. A PC is for the times you must be at a PC. (I know that this is an obvious and seemingly redundant statement, but bear with me.) The smartphone is a talisman of freedom, your remote access to computing, be it for work or day-to-day life. Though it, like a PC, can be used for fun, its existence is justified by its necessity. A smartphone is for when you must have a smartphone. (I promise this will make sense.)

The tablet, the iPad, however, is quite different. Maybe it’s the touch interface on a wide plane, maybe it’s a shape reminiscent of a magazine, and maybe it’s because of all it can’t do as much as what it can. Whatever the reason, the iPad is something you choose to use. (I’m generalizing, as I said. Obviously many professions now require their use, but we’re talking about the mainstream computer-using consumer.) At the moment you’re using your iPad, you don’t need to be at your “truck,” your workhorse machine. You don’t need to be accessing highly-specific bits of data while in transit or away from the PC. You’re using the iPad because, at that moment, you want to. The iPad is your escape from those devices of requirement. It is the zen device. The iPad is for when you don’t need to be using anything else, including an iPad.

To be less flowery about it, here’s Nate Anderson:

I find using the tablet a more soothing experience. This is unlikely to be a universal feeling, but as someone who spends my entire day at a computer using a mouse-and-keyboard, my hands welcome a chance to do something different and my back welcomes a chance to recline on the couch. But there’s a mental component, too. Cracking open my laptop in the evening presents me with windows holding to-do lists, open browser tabs for in-progress stories, instant messages, e-mail, and book projects. In short, I feel like I’ve just returned to the office. Using a tablet feels, however illogically, like being at home.

Given the iPad’s role as described here, its hardware design takes on enormous importance. If it’s something you’re supposed to want to use, as opposed to something you are mandated to use, its form needs to fit into your life in a personal way. It needs to suit you habitually and physically. It needs to answer in the affirmative to really simple questions like, “is it easily accessible in my home?” “Is it easy to bring with me when I’m not?” “Is it comfortable?” “Are its displayed contents entirely legible?” It needs to answer in the negative queries such as, “is it too heavy? Too hot? Too ugly or visually distracting?” Etcetera.

I don’t really think earlier versions of the iPad answered all these questions to my satisfaction, though it got closer every time.

Remember when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad at one of his signature keynote events? I watched it again recently, and it was clear to me that the in-house audience, while excited, didn’t quite know what to make of it. So it’s a big iPod Touch? That’s cool, I guess! Yeah, a big iPod Touch!

But what I also remember sticking out to me was how kind of, well, puffy the first iPad seemed. There was Steve, peace be upon him, gripping this new category of device on stage with both of his hands, and I remember thinking that it looked like it was a bit much. Steve was rather thin at the time, surely, but nonetheless, it looked rather awkwardly wide and thick to me.

When I finally got to play with one in my own home, thanks to relatives who’d bought one but had frankly no idea what to do with it, it confirmed my feelings. Not just about the size of the thing, but the relative usefulness of it. It was lovely, no doubt, and it was great, as Steve said, to “hold the Internet in your hands,” as web browsing was rather nice with it. But it wasn’t amazingly nice, not drop-$500-nice. Soon, Apple would release iPhone 4 with its breathtakingly crisp Retina display, and it would only serve to make me less interested in the iPad. Too big, too heavy, not useful enough, and with what I now deemed a sub-standard display — particularly for long-form reading, as I also had a second or third generation Kindle, which was far nicer for that purpose than an iPad of the time.

But like a Medieval English commoner who had been transformed into a newt by a sorceress, it got better. iPad 2 brought a slimmer form, though no change in width, and no improvement in resolution. Still no deal, though meanwhile the iPad was proving itself to the rest of the world to be more than a cute web browser for the rich, but rather a surprisingly useful tool for creation and work. I finally bit with the third generation iPad with its Retina display, and though I did feel I was getting a lot of joy and functionality out of it, I was more and more dismayed by its weight and its output of heat, both of which simply made it uncomfortable to use in the way I wanted to use it.

This led me ever-briefly into the Android universe, as I indulged in a dalliance with a first generation Nexus 7. The weight was certainly an improvement, and it didn’t get quite as hot, but the display was only so-so, its functionality minimal (as Android has yet to mature as a tablet platform), and dammit, I missed not just that Retina display, but the screen real estate of the full size iPad.

So I got a chance to play with an iPad mini for an extended time at home, which I thought might be a good compromise. I was wrong. The lower-resolution display was simply a no-go, and I still longed for the breathing room my eyes got from the iPad-proper. Back I went. While I now more firmly embraced everything the full iPad was, both its vast array of positives as well as its drawbacks, the original reservations remained.

Last month, Apple announced its new iPad line, with a Retina iPad mini (not yet available) and a new version of its full-size iPad, the iPad Air, so called for obvious reasons: significant reductions in weight and footprint. I got one of the latter (and it took considerable concessions from me to my wife, the terms of which I may or may not ever reveal, but believe me when I say they are serious terms).

The iPad Air is, quite simply, about as close to the realization of the platonic ideal of an iPad as I can imagine is technologically feasible today. Design-wise, it borrows from the build language of the iPad mini, and to good effect. It looks gorgeous and sleek (especially the “space gray” version which I have, which is something considering I’ve been lately biased toward white iDevices), and like the mini, very inviting for holding. (More on the mini similarity in a minute.)

At first glance, there is the improvement of how much physical space the damn thing takes up. Unlike the shiny black cushiony thing wielded by The Steve on stage in 2010, this immediately looks, well, correct. There is only as much bezel as seems absolutely necessary, and with the significant reduction in width, it no longer seems like a big legal pad in terms of size, but something of a size all its own. It’s hard to describe it any other way than “iPad size.”

In terms of thickness, to recall Monty Python again, it’s wafer-thin. Indeed, it feels like it’s so thin that it can’t possibly have any structural integrity, it must be doomed to snap in half at any moment. Of course it’s not, but it’s a remarkable feat that this could be one’s impression of a freaking computer.

The weight is the big deal, of course. And it really is frighteningly light. Compare it to an iPad 3 or 4 and it’s night and day. The older models were never “heavy” in the sense of being unwieldy, but they certainly had heft, and you didn’t need to have used an iPad mini to notice this. For wee folks like me, those iPads required at least a little effort to hold up for periods of time, one-handed use being extremely rare.

The heft is no more. Again, it seems like it might be too light, that a stiff breeze or an oscillating fan pointing in my direction might spirit it away. It’s a revelation for a device that plays the role I’ve assigned it, the zen device.

But while the Air is light, for sure, it is not weightless. One-handed use is now an entirely viable option, but it’s not optimal. Though, I never found it to be optimal even on the small tablets like the 7 and the mini, as I’m kind of small myself and have RSI problems with my hands and wrists. iPad Air is heavier than these tablets, but its toll on my own hands and wrists is comparable to those devices. And relating to its similarity in build to the mini, the very far edges of the device are ever so slightly sharp, where the front plate ends and the back chassis begins. Since the Air is not weightless, it can sometimes feel like the edges are digging into my hand in certain one-handed holding positions. It’s not bad, but an occasional annoyance.

For one-handed use, I’d say the couch or a chair, in general seated positions, are better than reclined positions, or when laying down, for that’s when gravity will start to pull the thing toward your head. But don’t be sidetracked by an acknowledgement of the fact that this object has mass like any object in this universe. Compared to previous incarnations, it’s a dream to hold.

As I mentioned, heat was a big concern for me. I found iPad 3 and 4 both to put out an uncomfortable amount of heat where my left hand held the back, and I would find myself turning it upside down or putting it into a case in certain scenarios (I found I had to do this with the Nexus 7 as well). Writing his review, Tim Stevens said that while the Air is cooler — and I asked him to clarify this on Twitter — it still gets quite warm with little difference from the 3 or 4.

This has not been my experience. Doing all the same things on this iPad that I did on the last, it does warm up somewhat, but not at all uncomfortably. I’m delighted by this, and to me it’s a major improvement.

I wonder if it’s the new top-of-the-line processor in the iPad Air that makes it not need to run as hot as previous models. Either way, the A7 chip is supposed to run circles around its predecessor, and while I have no reason to doubt it, thus far I’ve not noticed much in the way of performance boost, though I don’t play graphically intense games or things like that. I will say, however, that choosing new wallpapers no longer suffers from the multi-second lag that the previous iPad did. So I guess that’s something.

Speaking of the software, while this is not a review of iOS 7 by any means (see here for initial thoughts on that), it’s worth pointing out that the A7 chip does not change my perception that iOS 7 on the iPad still feels about three-quarters baked. The bits of the OS that seemed to hesitate and hiccup on iPad 3 and 4 still do on the iPad Air for the most part.

Here’s a couple of smaller things.

I am typing this on the iPad Air right now, and I do most of my personal blogging on iPad (you see, my personal blogging is the thing I choose to do, and the iPad is the device I choose to use, etc.). There’s no change in the execution of the soft keyboard in this generation of the iPad, but there is one difference only perhaps worth noting: the sound of typing. It used to be that finger taps on the iPad, pre-Air, went “tupp-tupp-tuh-tupp-tupp,” and maybe even “tpp.” Muted, dampened. On the Air, the sound is much different, more like, “pap-pap-ba-dap,” more resonant into the body of the device, and also simply louder. This almost entirely doesn’t matter, except that sometimes I’ll have the iPad in bed, want to jot something down or tweet something, but I’m cognizant that my poor wife is asleep next to me, and while with previous iPads I had no fear she’d hear any taps, now I worry. So far, so good though.

And there’s the new Smart Covers, again, following the style of the iPad mini, with no metal hinge, which is fine, and three panels that fold rather than four. How can I put this? While still quite attractive, light, and unobtrusive (I got the pretty red one), overall, it stinks. Again, I am typing this on the Air, and the damn Smart Cover keeps unfolding and flopping on my lap, worse than even previous versions ever did, which was a lot. I’ll likely return it, and get something more like the STM Cape, which firmly holds the iPad in a typing position.

So, should you get an iPad Air? Christ, I don’t know. Who the hell am I? But since you asked. Let’s say for the sake of argument you’re in the market for a tablet, and can manage the funds to be so (not at all to be taken lightly, as I can attest). Let’s say you’re also sane, so you’re already probably going to get an iPad. I wouldn’t think you were weird if you wanted, say, a Nexus 7-mark-2 or a Kindle Fire HDX, but nor would I think you were terribly serious about tablet computing beyond consumption. Which would be unfair, I realize. But I digress. If you already own an iPad 1 or 2, do what you must, sell blood, sperm, or eggs, but get the iPad Air. If you have a 3 or a 4 it’s tougher, and it comes down to the value you place on its physical form. If your iPad 3/4 is a work machine mainly, meh, don’t worry. But if it’s your zen machine, well, if you can square it, give it a look.

So, there it is. I got the iPad Air the day it was available, and I’m delighted with it. I have no fear that the Retina iPad mini would have been a better pick, as I’m still in love with the larger display (and correspondingly larger touch targets). Could it be lighter? I suppose that’d be nice, but physics are now being challenged. If it were any lighter, frankly, I don’t know that I’d feel secure with it–it might not really feel like it’s there. As it is, this is iPad as it ought to be. I know many people feel that way about the now-Retina mini, but I say that the iPad, which for me is my escape-device of choice, serves best when its display is more of an immersive feast for the eyes, not less.

Update: I was reminded that I had not mentioned what storage capacity I opted for, and whether I got an LTE model. The answer is 32GB, Wi-Fi only.

I travel a few times a year, and when I do it’s nice to pack a couple movies onto an iPad. But I realized that with a 16GB model, you’re lucky if you can fit even one HD movie rented from iTunes. I always wound up deleting apps and other things to make room, and it just started to seem silly. As a something that’s not just a toy, but a tool I make heavy use of, spending the extra $100 made sense. Apple overcharges per gigabyte on their storage scale, say I, but I chalk it up to an extra 16GB, or $100, worth of sanity.

Now, what was much tougher was LTE vs. Wi-Fi. With T-Mobile’s entrance into the iPad line, and their devices coming with a free 200MB per month of data, an LTE version was more compelling than ever — even if you never pay for cellular data, just having that extra cushion of connectivity in a pinch makes the extra $130 seem like a much, much better deal.

If money were less of an object, I’d get it no question, and so should you. But if money is an object for you as it is for me, it’s a tougher call. As I discussed in a previous post, these devices are maturing to the point that they need not be replaced as frequently as they once did, or as often as you (really “I”) might feel inclined. So in that sense the iPad is more of a long term investment, and getting the most functional one you can afford seems like a good rule. Get the LTE one now, and even if you don’t use it much this year, for example, you’ve future-proofed yourself a bit for the years ahead. I simply didn’t have the extra $130, so I’m reluctantly going without. If someone wants to hand me $130, however, with no strings or questions asked, I’ll happily go and swap this thing, like, right how. Like, I’ll leave now.

So, 32, Wi-Fi, space gray. But you should get all the bells and whistles you can afford, and therefore be happy with your new device for longer.

I Tried a Quirky iPhone Case So You Don’t Have To

So, iPhone cases.

I actually don’t use one right now. I’d like to — I’d like to find one that both protects what, truthfully, a very expensive device (unsubsidized by a carrier, a new iPhone is actually a $650 computer, not a $200 “phone”), and doesn’t intrude too much on the iPhone’s innate look and feel. I have never found this. 

(On John Gruber’s podcast, he and MC Siegler seemed to tacitly agree with the idea that within tech circles, using a case with an iPhone is a “faux pas,” which only makes me want to use the gaudiest case I can find, as I could never roll my eyes hard enough at an idea like that.)

If I need a case, I generally use a Speck Pixelskin HD, which is dead simple in terms of aesthetic, very easy to take on and off quickly, all the buttons are accessible, and it’s generally inexpensive. Still, with something as nice as an iPhone, I prefer to go without.

The closest I ever came to my ideal was the Twelve South SurfacePad, less a case and more of a “folder,” a thin leather cover that flips around the device, book-like, and can also serve as a landscape-mode stand. It was very sleek, very thin, unobtrusive, and light. Having to flop the cover over was sometimes unpleasant (and folding it back would block the rear camera), but it could also feel kind of cool. The problem was that it frayed very quickly, the layers began to peel, and it started to look like garbage within a couple of months. To their credit, Twelve South gave me no problems about returning it, and they are always super-cool about support.

(And I note with some irony that I wholeheartedly mocked their marketing of the SurfacePad, and I wholeheartedly stand by that mockery.)

So one day I get an email from a company called Snugg that wants to send me an item from their selection of cases and review it on my blog. Goodness, I thought, they must be desperate. Since they wouldn’t let me try out one of their iPad keyboard cases (stingy!) I decided to get something a little quirky to try out: a wooden iPhone case.

The wooden case thing is kind of chic at the moment. You have your DodoCases that look like little wooden moleskins, and Pad & Quill makes some neat things like that as well. So I thought what the heck, let’s give that a go.

This one is actually bamboo. When I got the package, my immediate thought was, no freaking way. This is too bulky. But after slipping on the phone (which is really easy, by the way), I could see the appeal. The wood did feel nice, a refreshing change from less “organic” materials of gadgets. It was far lighter in weight than I would have guessed, and it did look kind of classy. It’s bulkier to be sure, but it’s a tradeoff I presume you’re willing to make for a case like this. Made of bamboo.

Alas, the big problem is one that Speck and other solve so well: Buttons and ports are buried in this thing. The volume buttons, the power button, forget it. You have to dig your fingers in just to make contact, let alone press them. The Lightning port is also way down deep, and nothing but a regular Lightning cable (as opposed to adapters and accessories) is ever getting in there. 

So, nice try, Snugg. It’s not bad, it looks and feels nice, but it’s too inconvenient. Thanks for letting me have a gander at it, though.

Trial of the Nexus 7: Early Impressions

As 2012 rolls into 2013, I’m beginning a trial of a Nexus 7 tablet as a potential replacement* for my beloved iPad 3. Long wishing for a smaller iPad, but not satisfied by the sub-standard resolution on the iPad mini, I’m trying out the Nexus 7 to see if the form factor (packaging a sufficiently-strong user interface and feature set) is enough to trump the many, many strong suits of the iPad 3, which I’m finding too heavy and unwieldy for casual use.
I’ve had the device for a few hours now, and as I did when I got my Kindle Paperwhite, I’m going to offer up a handful of early impressions. I know, you can’t stand it. But control yourself, for god’s sake.

My lovely daughter, taken with the Nexus 7's fairly crummy front-facing (and only) camera.

My only previous experience with owning an Android-based tablet was the first-generation Kindle Fire I got as a gift last year, and later traded up for my current iPad. There was a lot I liked about the Fire, but its bugginess and sluggishness proved to be unacceptable over time, especially coupled with the cognitive confusion of running two devices (iPhone and Fire) with different OSes.

The Nexus 7 runs much, much more smoothly. So far, almost anything that is part and parcel of the device itself and its operating system (home screen, apps screen, settings, native mail app, etc.) runs easily and with minimal hiccups.

Oddly, web browsing remains pretty choppy, and that’s with Chrome or any other browser I’ve tried. And this seems to be the case with every Android device I’ve briefly played with: Apple seems to have figured out how to make even the heaviest web pages slide and scroll fluidly, while Androids are still a little clumsy.

I immediately noticed the breaking-off of my syncronization with Safari across my OS X and iOS devices. Though I do use Chrome on my MacBook, it’s entirely for work, not for, as it were, dicking around (insert your own joke about my productivity here). I wound up feeling a little web-stranded with bookmarks and bookmarklets not where I’m used to having them, but what can you do?

The screen’s resolution is very good. It’s not Retina-level (216 ppi vs. iPad 3’s 264 ppi) but it’s not the eye-scratcher that the iPad mini is. I can see the pixels, but they’re not assaulting me. From the distance I’m working from right now (yes, I’m writing this on the Nexus 7 using an Apple Bluetooth keyboard), it’s as sharp as anything. And brighter than I was lead to believe from many reviews. If anything, I find myself turning the brightness down quite a bit.

Because of my experience with the Fire, the Nexus interface seems generally familiar. Navigating around things like menus and settings is not nearly as intuitive as Apple’s at its best, but not difficult, and I’m quickly getting the hang of it (interestingly, I feel like Android’s have grown easier and iOS’s have grown more byzantine over time).

Most of the apps I rely on in the iOS world are easily available for nothing or a pittance on the Nexus. That means that not too long after I powered the damn thing up, I had things like Instapaper, Flipboard, Dropbox, and Kindle up and running. I still lack an RSS reader that even comes close to iOS’s wonderful Reeder app, and I welcome recommendations. Kind of a big deal (see: “dicking around”).

Of course, not all of those apps work in exactly the same way as they did on iOS, and some not as well or with as many features. There is an unmistakable “bastardized” feel to many Android versions of iOS apps that may simply be my own prejudice, but is nonetheless hard to shake.

There is the problem of a dearth of tablet-optimized apps for Android. On a small-ish device like the Nexus 7, it’s not a huge deal, but it’d be nice if more often than not I was looking at something not designed to be seen on a 3-inch screen.

I use the iPad for work sometimes, and a lot for blogging on my off time, and so it seemed a natural early test of this device to try and blog on it. The previous post to this one was also written on the Nexus 7, for which I used the lackluster WordPress app, which was difficult. I’m at this moment working in Google Docs which a) I totally forgot would probably be a good idea and b) seems to be a good idea. Indeed, so far it’s easier to use than even Apple’s own Pages app.

And I should say something here about what I’m getting a sense of as far as Androids and “work.” I know that iPads are not toys, and that they get used for Big Important Things all the time. But I tell ya, on the Nexus, selecting text to copy and paste lets me select exactly what I want, without suddenly forcing me to choose entire paragraphs or entire documents. When I connect a wireless keyboard to my iPad, I get the sense that somewhere Jony Ive is sighing in disappointment, and the device is only humoring me with the bare minimum of functionality. Connecting it to the Nexus, though, it was like the device perked up a bit and said, “Hey! Your brought a keyboard! Cool! Now you can, like, tab around web pages, highlight text more easily, forward-delete, and use all sorts of shortcuts that you’d use on a regular computer! I’m not kidding! You can even alt-tab through apps! I know! It’s crazy! Share and enjoy!”

So far, I really like it. But I also already kind of pine for the fluid simplicity and gorgeous display on my iPad. In a perfect world, I’d just own both (see the “*”), but I must choose within the 14-day return window. My lovely bride predicted, wryly and with her trademark room-brightening smile, that I would wind up returning it. I actually think that this probably is the most likely outcome. It won’t be a slam dunk, but it’s as good a bet as any.

But dammit, I couldn’t go on wondering. I had to know.

More soon!

– – –

* To remain in good standing with my lovely bride, I have gleaned that owning both tablets would violate some sort of anti-decadence principle that must not be violated on pain of I don’t know what. So as far as I can tell, bringing in the new will mean out with the old.

iPhone 5 and its Trade-offs

Look, the iPhone 5 is great. All the things you’ve read about it already being light, fast, with a richer-looking display, all that’s true, so let’s take that as a given.

But there are real trade-offs. And I don’t mean like the iPad mini’s display. That’s not a trade-off (“swallow” the lower resolution display to get physical compactness), that’s a bunch of crap — how the tech press can be dancing in the streets over something with a two-generations-back-poor display is beyond me, and I say this as an Apple devotee, but that’s neither here nor there.

I mean real tradeoffs, as in, X is worse, but it’s so Y can be better. And these trade-offs are almost exclusively the purview of folks who are already iPhone owners. For newcomers, these will likely matter far less.

There’s two I’m thinking of. The first is the connector. When people first started grousing about what a pain it was going to be when Apple changed to the 9-pin connector from the 30-pin, I rolled my eyes. Life goes on, guys. But now that I have it, it actually is a pain in the ass, and it becomes so almost immediately. 

“Hmm, battery’s low. Guess I’ll plug it in over here…oh wait.”

“I’ll listen to some podcasts in the car. I’ll just dock it here and…gah.”

If you’re an existing iPhone user, you may have several chargers, docks, and cables strewn about your home, car, and office, and now none of them are any use to you. It’s not that this is insurmountable, but there is a huge convenience and even cost factor to consider. If nothing else, your routine, your expectancies about how you can go about your day with this device upon which you so dearly rely, is upset. Again, this is not apocalyptic, but among all the little conveniences of this sleek new device will also be included this constant hiccup you’ll experience throughout your day, unless you immediately replace all your chargers, docks, and cables with iPhone 5-compatible ones. And since you already shelled out for the phone, that can be quite a lift.

I even grabbed an overpriced 30-pin to 9-pin adapter, just to have one, and goddamn it you can’t use it with a Speck case on. So now when I do plug the damn thing into an adapted charger, I have to squeeze the bottom of the case off. This is not worthy of medicating oneself over, but again, it’s yet another bump in the road you’ll be dealing with over and over.

All that said, it’s a better connector, it’s firm, and yet slips in and out more easily, it’s a smaller port for dust to find its way into, and it will likely open the door to all manner of peripherals that can take advantage of the connector’s technology. I have to say that on this score alone, though, the connector change, it’s a net negative. Ask me again in, like, three years when I’m ogling my iPhone 8 or 7S or whatever.

The second thing is that bigger screen, or, I should say, longer screen. Now, I really like it. I was dubious at first of the smidgen of extra room at the top, the extra-row-of-icons’ worth of space. But it really does look better, it really does leave more room for content — particularly when the keyboard or a menu pops up, and most importantly, the iPhone 5 as a result of its longer screen begins to feel like more of a reading device. Like, dare I say it, a “phablet.” I have begun lusting after the real estate afforded by things like Samsung’s Galaxy S III and Note, but it turns out that the extra length, as opposed to also having additional width, is all you need. There is a little more room for your eyeballs to breathe, and it’s great.

But! Actually, before I tell you, let me first show you:

Look, I am a small guy. That means I have small-ish hands. Not tiny, but small compared to most adult men. The pre-5 iPhones fit my small hand perfectly. I could reach every touch zone on the display and the home button with my thumb, no problem. Now, well, goddamn it, I can’t reach the top. In order to tap things on that top row, particularly those things in the uppermost corners, I have to either stretch uncomfortably (and carefully) or change my grip. This is not convenient, and it is, yes, another hiccup. What was once effortless and done without thought is now a thing

But it’s not a deal-breaking thing. Nor is the connector issue. As I said at the start, the plusses of the iPhone 5 are fantastic. It looks better, it feels better, the display is better, it’s faster, and it has a better connection to wifi and cellular networks. These absolutely add up to a superior product to the previous models. 

But they don’t add up to an eradication, an obsolescence of the previous models. There’s a very strong case to be made that for some, perhaps many people, the iPhone 4S is actually a better idea. It’s still fast, it’s still gorgeous, it’s still a fantastic phone — and it still works the way you expect it to, with all your accessories, and you can tap just as you have always tapped. 

I’ve come down on the side of the positives outweighing the negatives, but unlike, say, with a move from the 3GS to the 4, where the change was to something staggeringly and obviously superior, the move from 4S to 5 is definitely a promotion, but it’s to something with new trade-offs that an old-school iPhone user will have to make a conscious decision to contend with. A smartphone of today is an object designed explicitly to smooth out your life, to make as many parts of your daily existence less troublesome. The iPhone 5 does this wonderfully in many ways, but for the first time in this product line’s history I think, it also takes a few steps back.