Success by a thousand cuts

In many initial reviews, the Apple Watch was criticized for being an unfocused product, trying to do too many things without a clear purpose. It’s natural to ask “what is it for” and “do I really need this” when a new product category emerges. Having used the Watch for nearly a month, I’m struck by the similarity to the iPhone. I have found the Watch to be an invaluable addition, but it’s not any one particular function that elevates it to a core piece of technology in my life. It’s rather that it combines a host of useful functionality in a single piece of technology.

I stopped wearing a watch years ago. While it may have been more convenient to glance at my wrist than pull out my phone, it wasn’t better enough to warrant wearing something additional. A traditional watch might display the time and the date, which my Watch will do as well. I also get a timer display, the temperature, and my next appointment (and could choose different pieces of information to use as watch face “complications” if it suited me). Add to this the activity monitoring and workout tracking that integrates with HealthKit, providing superior tracking, heart rate monitoring, and other functionality when compared to competing fitness trackers like the FitBit. This combination would be worthwhile in and of itself, but quickly the watch starts seeming like those late night infomercials (“but wait, there’s more!”). Order now and the Watch also will offer you a more convenient way to use Apple Pay, easier access to important notifications, a convenient speakerphone, and a quick way to reply to important messages.

It’s the opposite of “death by a thousand cuts”. It’s combining functions that in and of themselves are minor conveniences and producing a product that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Watch This Space

My Apple Watch arrived 5 days ago, so I have only had a brief time with it. With such a new product category, it’s too early for me to provide any sort of substantive review, but here are a few first impressions:

Build quality: I have the stainless steel model with the Milanese loop. The fit and finish are fantastic, and it looks great. Men don’t have many ways to “accessorize”, and watches can either be a beneficial stylistic addition or a detractor. The Pebble struck me as clunky appearing and awkward, but the Apple Watch looks like a legitimate piece of jewelry. I wear the smaller 38mm model given my relatively modest wrists, and it does not look bulky or out of place.

The screen: It’s sharp and beautiful, though some of the smaller text can strain my aging eyes. I have not needed to adjust the font size, however. I cannot see the black border around the screen: the screen itself is so dark when off, that it seamlessly blends with the border, an excellent visual effect and an advantage of the OLED technology used.

Battery life: Everyone will have a different experience based on usage patterns, but I’m finding it more than adequate. I have not yet dipped below 50% by the end of the day, despite frequent checks.

Functionality: The main utility of the Apple Watch at this point is to display information that would normally go only to your phone. In that sense, it’s just like a traditional watch, but with a broader scope than just time. I may look at my watch to check the time, but now it also shows me the weather, my activity, my next appointment, or my current timer.

I initially used the “modular” watch face, but soon switch to “utility”, which I find less cluttered. It forces you to be more selective with “complications” (the little information additions to the watch face like temperature, moon phase, etc.), which is a good thing. I currently add the date, the temperature, a timer (which I use frequently), and my next appointment. All have proven useful, but the time still appropriately takes the bulk of the display.

I’m still learning how to take advantage of “glances”, the mini-apps you get by swiping up, but in many cases these seem more convenient and just as useful as many of the full-blown apps. The watch is best for quickly accessing information, not for lengthy interactions.

Easy access to notifications are one of the main advantages of having the watch, and it’s key that you carefully curate what gets pushed to your wrist. Fortunately, Apple’s watch app for the iPhone makes this fairly easy. For example, my watch displays a banner whenever I get an email, but my Watch only notifies me if the email is from someone I have tagged as a “VIP”.

The taptic engine is great, but I wish the notifications were a little more prominent. I have the “prominent haptic” feature turned on, which makes the tactile notification stronger for certain alerts, and this works well, but I sometimes miss alerts that don’t use this feature. This is something that could be tweaked with software updates in the future.

The biggest surprise so far has been how much better Apple Pay is on the watch compared to the phone. I thought it would be awkward paying with the watch, but in fact it’s more discrete and faster than using the iPhone. I want to pay for everything this way. I was initially skeptical about how much time Apple Pay would save compared to simply swiping a credit card, but particularly with the Watch, it’s striking how quick and easy it is.

Downsides? None of the third party apps have been particularly useful so far. I think it will take some time for everyone to figure out the best ways to use this new platform. Trying to replicate iPhone apps on a smaller screen is not really useful, particularly if extended interaction is required. The current WatchKit approach (which will be superseded by true native apps later this year) is also far too slow.

The Air is Dead. Long live the Air.

In 2008, Apple released a new laptop that was simultaneously groundbreaking and ridiculous. Extraordinary lightweight and svelte for the time, it exchewed the typical array of ports that most laptops of the time had, eliminted the standard DVD drive, and was dramatically underpowered. Storage options included an excruciatingly slow 80 GB hard drive and a supremely expensive 64 GB SSD. Many predicted it would fail, but with progressive advancement the MacBook Air has become THE standard Apple laptop (and arguably the standard laptop overall).

At this month’s event, which was ostensibly about the pending release of the Apple Watch, Apple spent a surprisingly long time focusing not on the Watch, but on a new laptop. There are many parallels to the Air’s launch. Performace wise, it is as slow as Air’s from a few years ago. It has only a headphone jack and a single USB port, which is used for power and all output duties. There are a limited range of storage options. In exchange for these compromises, it is thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air, with a superior “retina”calibur screen.

Apple is keeping the 11“ and 13” Air on the market for now, because this radical new laptop is going to be too radical for some people at this time (much like they transiently sold the standard MacBook and non-retina MacBook Pros after their DVD-less successors were launched). This is a temporary transition. I expect that Apple’s line will soon simplify to MacBook and MacBook Pro. The MacBook may gain another USB-C port, and performance will improve over time. Much like the loss of the DVD drive seems of little consequence now, the reduction in ports as we move to an increasingly wireless world will also become irrelevent for all but a subset of users (for whom the MacBook Pros will continue to be avialable).

6 or 6 Plus

I bought the original iPhone on launch day in 2007, and upgrading has become an annual ritual for me.  Each model has been enough of an advancement that the only decision has been which color and capacity to get. This year’s decision is more complex: with the iPhone 6 and the 6 Plus, many people including myself have agonized over the options.

My first thought was to just go for the 6. It’s relatively close in size to the 5 and 5S, which have worked well for me for the last several years. While not as big as the 6 Plus, the screen is larger. It’s a model within my comfort zone. Besides, haven’t I spent the last several years snickering to myself whenever I saw someone holding up a massive Samsung or other similar device to the side of their head?

Yet I am drawn to the promise of the 6 Plus. It’s so much larger than the 5 series that it’s almost a different category.  It has nearly 3 times the number of pixels. When the iPhone first came out, it was a fancy phone that also had  a number of other interesting functions. Now the iPhone is a pocket computer that happens to be able to make phone calls. In fact, I recently took the phone app out of my dock (it’s current filled with Mail, Safari, Overcast and Tweetbot). For modern usage including reading (mail, web, apps, etc.), videos, photos, a larger screen is optimal.

But the 6 Plus is not a straightfoward decision either. At some point, a phone will be too big. Too big to comfortably use, too big to fit in pockets, too big to take everywhere. I thought about the key characteristics for form factor that were important to me. These boiled down to portability and usability.

Portability: the phone needed to be easy enough to carry that it would always be with me. I enjoy the iPad Mini greatly, but it’s not always with me. Many times, I’ll sit down to read and won’t be able to locate the iPad, so I will just end up using my phone. I refuse to go back to using a holster or wearing a jacket just to carry my phone. It needs to fit in my front pockets.

Usability: If the phone is too big to comfortably use in my hands, it’s not worth the increased screen real estate.

So I did what any sensible person would do: I made cardboard mockups of the two devices. I only needed the larger mockup since the 6 is so close to the 5S. It fit, albeit barely in some cases, into my pants pockets without being even partially exposed, so it would pass the first test. Testing usability was harder without the real device, so I turned to comments from friends and people online who have used these devices. The general consensus is that these larger devices require some adjustment to handle (often requiring two handed use), but that any inconvenience is outweighed by the increased screen real estate.

Lastly, there is the novelty factor. The iPhone 6 is a slightly larger iPhone. The 6 Plus really is a new device category, sitting somewhere between a one-handed compact smartphone and a small tablet. The only way to really know if this will be a worthwhile trade off of usability and functionality is to live with it.

So I went with the 6 Plus. I don’t think the iPhone 6 is the wrong choice. It is certainly safer. But I’m all for trying something different this time around.

Rumored iPhone 5S Specs

Rumored iPhone 5S production shots & specs: IGZO display, Fingerprint, NFC, 12MP cam | 9to5Mac

Specs for the iPhone 5S from this same leak include NFC reader (which was taken out of the iPhone 5 late in production we’ve heard), a Fingerprint Reader (which may or may not be causing production delays), Sharp 4-inch 1136×640 (and maybe LG) IGZO display for power savings and better image quality and new 12 megapixel backside camera with dual LED flash.

The lingering question has been what Apple can add to the iPhone to make it more appealing without changing the form factor. These adjustments sound believable. The most compelling sounds like the fingerprint reader, presuming it could be used in lieu of a passcode. The real question is how well it works. The NFC addition is intriguing. The question is what Apple would use it for. Historically, Apple doesn’t add features it doesn’t have a use for.

New iPads in the works?

Analyst claims both ‘thinner and lighter’ full-sized iPad and ‘similar’ iPad mini launching in March | 9to5Mac

Analyst Brian White of Topeka Capital claims that Apple is gearing up to launch revisions to both the iPad with 9.7-inch Retina display and the iPad mini this coming March.

An update to the Mini so soon after its release sounds a bit crazy. My sense is that, if there’s any truth to this, we’ll see a relatively minor tweak – slightly enhanced internals, but no major difference.

The larger iPad is due for a form factor update. One thing that’s striking about the iPad 3 (and its replacement) is how they are actually heavier and thicker than the iPad 2. It’s noticeable, even without using them side-by-side. A focus on weight reduction makes a lot of sense. One big appeal of the Mini is the weight advantage. It’s debatable how much of an advantage the smaller size is per se – neither one can easily fit in a pocket.

iWatch, do you?

As everyone waits for the long-fabled Apple television set, a new, and more viable, rumor has emerged. Today, the blogs lit up with discussion of a potential Apple watch. Just as telephony makes up only a small part of the iPhone’s functionality, this project isn’t about a venture into time-telling devices, but rather an move into wearable computers.

What’s the problem that wearable computers solve? Watch wearing has almost certainly been decimated in the wake of accelerated smartphone adoption. Why wear a time-telling contraption on your wrist, when one in your pocket keeps perfect time and can do much more? The problem is that every time you need to check the time, or a text, or an alert, you must rifle through pockets (or purse, or wherever your smartphone lives) to glance at your phone. A wrist-based screen requires just a flick of the wrist.

Today’s watches don’t do enough – they just tell time. Yet a watch-sized screen is too limiting for the range of activities we now demand of our devices. However, low-power short range wireless technologies like the now-ubiquitous Bluetooth 4.0 offer the potential for the best of both worlds. The brains remain in the smartphone, which remains the main device for composing messages, viewing complex information, or other demanding tasks. For quick viewing of information such as short messages or, gasp, the time, the key bits could be wirelessly relayed to the low-power screen.

Watches are not the only option for wearable computing. Google’s Glass project puts the information right in front of the user’s face in the form of high-tech glasses. While this has some advantages, so many of us already have our faces buried in screens as it is. Glass requires you to wear another screen constantly on your face and has a greater potential of being disruptive. Where else could we place a wearable screen? There are few logical options other than the wrist. Unlike Google’s Glass, the watch can be checked as much, or as little, as the user wants.

The category is a no-brainer, but the execution is critical. It’s easy to make a bad watch. It’s exceedingly difficult to create a new category of device that no one realizes they need. But this is exactly the kind of transformation that Apple has been so good at in the past.

Minified and Retinized

Tuesday is the next big Apple launch, and despite Apple’s usual proclivity for minimizing the number of products released at a single event, it looks like this will be a busy day.

The 7.85″ iPad is the most certain of these products. I agree with the general consensus that the no-brainer name for this device is the iPad Mini: it differentiates it from the full-sized iPad without resorting to numbers (e.g. ‘8-inch iPad’). Gruber has a penchant for iPad Air, but it seems off to me: the iPad is already thin and light. It seems awkward to emphasize this further in the smaller iPad, even if it will be thinner and lighter. The specs seem pretty well known: a non-retina 1024 x 768 screen, allowing compatibility with existing iPad apps. This places the Mini at the same pixel density as the iPhone 3GS, but since iPads are generally held further from the face than iPhones, it will effectively look sharper. Because of the smaller overall screen size, the sharpness will be between that of the iPad 2 and The New iPad (aka iPad 3). Given the pressure to have an inexpensive product to compete with the growing number of small tablets (e.g. Kindle Fire and Nexus 7), a retina screen (which, at this screen size, would require a higher dot pitch than the current reitna iPad) is unlikely to be financially feasible this year.

A refresh to the current full-sized iPad with a Lightning connector also seems likely: Apple needs to make a transition to this new connector, and the sooner they can do this, the better. I also expect we’ll see the iPad 2 killed off as the Mini becomes the new entry-level device.

A new retina 13″ MacBook Pro is also expected. No big surprises: essentially the same machine as the 15″ MacBook Pro, only smaller. I expect a 2560 x 1600 resolution (1280×800 effective pixels), no DVD drive, and SSD-only storage. The 13″ MBP has been a strange machine in the line-up since the 13″ MacBook Air became a mainstream device. Why buy a bulkier, heavier machine with a lower screen resolution (1280×800 vs the MBA’s 1440 x 900)? In the past, one reason was that the MBP offered a DVD drive while the MBA did not. This is becoming less of an issue now and the retina MBP further blurs the lines between these two machines. The weights will be closer, and the storage options will be the same. Why not just introduce a retina MBA and kill off the 13″ Pro? My sense is that the Air form factor just can’t handle the requirements of a retina screen (the power, the screen thickness, and the necessary GPU).

The rumored Mac Mini update is decidedly unexciting. The real question is whether or not there’s a substantial iMac update in store. I think it’s still too optimistic to think a retina iMac would be possible at this stage. I expect that any updated iMacs will essentially be spec-bumped models. No new enclosure, no significant hardware changes other than USB3.

Time to leave

Complaints about AT&T have been rampant since the iPhone launched, but I have been relatively happy with the service over the years. Even after the iPhone launched on Verizion, I’ve stuck with AT&T. AT&T’s 3G has faster data and allows simultaneous data and voice, which kept me away from Verizon despite the widely touted coverage advantages.

With the upcoming iPhone 5, the calculation changes. The new phone is almost certain to support LTE, and Verizon’s LTE coverage is far superior to AT&T’s. LTE on Verizon also allows use of data and voice at the same time. Furthermore, there’s the little issue of actually being able to make calls.

No cell provider is perfect, and dropped calls can be expected with any. However, AT&T has worsened significantly over the past year, at least in the Boston area. I routinely first find out about missed calls via the sudden appearance of voicemails, and there have been several instances over the past months where I’ve been unable to place calls.

Today, AT&T dropped the bomb that FaceTime over cellular, a signature feature of the upcoming iOS 6, will only be available for purchasers of their “Mobile Share” plans. This is not an isolated incident. AT&T was also one of the last carriers to support the mobile hotspot on the phone, and this too was accompanied by an extra charge (though eventually included extra data as part of the package).

I’ve had enough. The ETF is intimidating, but offset by the new user discount obtained by signing up with Verizon.

Safari 6 needs work

I have been using Safari for years. Often I try Chrome for a while, but always end up going to back to Safari. Usually the drivers are the ability to sync with iOS and the far-better native PDF viewing, as well as other little touches. Safari 6 initially seemed like a big step forward to me. I’ve noticed improved performance and one of the big advantages of Chrome, the single location/search field, has been ported over.

However, there are some significant rough edges. Many have complained of crashes, which I haven’t seen. However, I have had the following.

  • New pages will open, but not scroll
  • New sites fail to load, with the blue loading indicator getting stuck part way through
  • Content will get cut off, despite the fact that the page has the appropriate scroll height

Screen Shot 2012 08 02 at 12 13 35 PM

These problems go away when I quit Safari and relaunch which, thanks to the restore-windows functionality introduced in Lion, is not as big a deal as it once was.

While Safari 6 is not unusable, it’s the most buggy version I have ever used. I’m hoping for a bug fix release soon.