Apps with “Pure Black” Mode for iPhone X

As I mentioned in my iPhone X review, iOS apps with “pure black” themes look gorgeous on the iPhone X OLED display.  After a quick search, I realized that there isn’t really a good list of these types of apps anywhere, so I decided to start one.

  • Apollo – This is a reddit client that not only has a pure black theme, but the app in general is the absolute best reddit client I’ve ever used.  The developer taking advantage of the iPhone X’s design to the fullest, even including the volume in the left ear rather than having it pop up over the content like by default in iOS.  You’ll have to enable the regular dark theme and flip a toggle in the settings for pure black mode.  App Store link / Developer site link
  • Today Weather – Weather apps aren’t terribly exciting, but this one is certainly beautiful and provides all of the information I’d expect a weather app to provide.  You can even choose the weather source you want, in case you’re not fond the default weather.com.  The pure black theme is enabled by default.  App Store link
  • Pokemon Go – This is a slight stretch, but Battery Saver mode in Pokemon Go now actually makes sense on the iPhone.  You just have to turn it on in your settings, then flip the phone upside down while you’re not actively playing.  App Store link
  • Unread – Unread is an RSS feed reader with a pure black theme.  It can use your accounts from Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, Feedly, Fever, and Newsblur.  It’s quite well-designed and looks great on the iPhone X.  Full disclosure: It’s not free to unlock the full version with dark theme, and I was provided a promo code to be able to check out the app.  App Store link / Developer site link

This list will be updated as necessary.  If you created (or know of) an app with a pure black theme that I can test without having to buy anything, leave a comment and I’ll add it to the list (I am not against buying apps at all, I just don’t want to list something I can’t test, and I can’t guarantee that I’ll want to buy your app).

My iPhone X Review

Last year, I wrote a post about the iPhone 7, which I did end up getting for reasons I don’t feel like going into detail about.  It was a great phone, but like I detailed in that post, it was still a pretty lackluster upgrade from an iPhone 6, other than the extra RAM.  Anyway, the reason I bring up that post is because I also detailed the reasons I wanted to wait and buy the 2017 iPhone, and of course, the iPhone X ended up being literally everything I wanted out of a phone last year, and then some.  And before we go any further, it is “iPhone Ten”, not “iPhone Ex,” but if you like mispronouncing stuff, I guess call it whatever you want.

It’s been a while since I’ve woken up in the middle of the night to order something.  I suppose the last time would be for the iPhone 6, but it was actually kind of exciting this time around.  The last time I did that, I remember AT&T and Apple’s sites were both slow/unreliable, and now it seems like AT&T at least has sorted it out with a queue system that I have no complaints about, other than not knowing if you’ve got a phone while you’re waiting.  I hear that Apple’s site and the Apple Store app were pretty similar.

For the past few years, I’ve been pretty over Space Gray for my iPhone, but I can’t stand white bezels, so I didn’t have a choice.  This year, Apple finally put black bezels on the iPhone X no matter which color back you get, which makes sense since the screen is OLED, and pure black on the screen practically melts into the bezels.  Honestly, having now seen the space gray iPhone X next to the silver one, I am pretty confident in saying that the silver iPhone X is one of the most beautiful devices ever created.  So, if you didn’t read between the lines yet, that’s the one I got.

I don’t really want to talk tech specs about this phone.  It’s got the most powerful processor in any smartphone and it has enough RAM to background more apps than you’ll care to background.  Specs, as you might be aware, aren’t the selling points of the iPhone – rather, feature sets are.  When a feature makes sense and requires specific hardware, that hardware is added, so the iPhone X is packed full of great hardware.

First, let’s talk about the display.  The iPhone X has a 5.8″ screen, if measured with Apple voodoo that is actually kind of deceiving.  I believe it’s officially measured corner to opposite corner, not counting the curves (so rather than the actual edge of the display, it goes to where the display would end if it weren’t curved), and not taking into account that the notch is there.  That’s minor, of course, but the notch does eat up some screen real-estate, and the screen is a new, taller aspect ratio, so even though it’s 5.8″, the screen’s surface area is slightly smaller than the 5.5″ display on the iPhone 6/6S/7 Plus.

That’s just an interesting side note, though, because the real story with the display is that it’s gorgeous.  It’s the first OLED display Apple has included in a phone, and while it’s a Samsung produced panel, the display driver and the calibrations are all done by Apple, which has resulted in “the best performing smartphone display that [Display Mate has] ever tested.”  Even though it’s a Samsung panel, the iPhone X display is just ever so slightly better than the Galaxy Note 8.  One thing to note here is that Samsung, by default, loads a color profile on their devices that is overly saturated and very “punchy.”  You can change the color profile to “cinema” to correct this, but it’s still not as accurate as the iPhone X display.  Last week, I thought the display on the Galaxy Tab S3 that I regular use was incredible.  Day before yesterday, I turned it on, and my first thought was “why is this display so blue?”

The one downside of OLED is burn in.  Apple recommends leaving your display timeout on 30 seconds and not using the screen on a brighter setting than you need, because OLED pixels age, and there’s only so much that can be done to prevent it.  While Google clearly is doing a poor job with that on the Pixel, Samsung has done a pretty good job on their devices (I believe they randomly shift UI elements by 1 pixel), and I have little doubt that Apple has put some magic in there to keep the burn in away for as long as possible.  I feel pretty confident in saying that because, after over 2 years of use, my old Apple Watch, which also has an OLED panel, has no burn in.  Though, that’s a personal anecdote of course, and your mileage may vary.  I’m also confident there are people out there with OG Apple Watches that do have burn in.

My favorite thing about the display is the drastically improved contrast ratio over LCD.  Of course, blacks are now pitch black since those pixels aren’t lit (yay, improved battery life!), so you can expect some incredible dark-themed apps, like the Apollo’s “Pure Black Dark Mode” (excellent reddit client, if you haven’t tried it).  Again, this is why the bezels are black no matter which color option you pick.

So, what about the notch?  Well, it’s a thing.  if I had to pick between the way that Apple handles it (notch) and the way that others (barring the Essential Phone) handle it, I think I’d take the Apple way, because there is something that’s just wonderful about that feeling of almost having an edge-to-edge screen, as opposed to three bezel-less sides and one side with a bezel.  But of course, ideally we’d be able to eliminate all bezels and notches so the display is unhindered in any way by a bezel, and I would not blame anyone for preferring a bezel to a notch.  Personally, I’ve found that browsing the web on this screen, notch and all, is one of the best-looking web experiences I’ve ever seen.  The only way you really notice it is in landscape mode.  In portrait, you really just…don’t.  Maybe at first, but after like a day, it fades away.

Oh, and one last note on the display – until developers update their apps, the phone displays what I will call a “virtual bezel” and basically makes the phone look like an iPhone 6/6S/7.  It looks a lot better than when the iPhone 5 did it since the blacks are pitch black.

The iPhone X doesn’t have a headphone jack.  Love it or hate it, this is the future.  I’ve already written my thoughts on that in the same blog post about the iPhone 7 that I linked to above, so I won’t write them again.  I’d only add that if Apple’s EarPods fit into your ears and you don’t have AirPods, you are missing out on the single best, most magical product Apple has created in the past 5 or so years, barring only the iPhone X.

Cameras sell smartphones, and the iPhone X camera is as good as you would expect an iPhone camera to be.  If you’ve never used an iPhone 7/8 Plus before (I don’t recall if the 6/6S Plus is included), then it’s better than you’d expect, because portrait mode is pretty incredible.  Of course, the real story with the cameras here have to do with the front-facing hardware, the new True Depth camera, and all of the other components that make Face ID work its magic (and also animojis, which are surprisingly cool, despite being a huge gimmick that no one will use after a couple weeks).

Face ID is, of course, the replacement to Touch ID.  So far, I’ve found that it’s a marked improvement over Touch ID in 85% of situations.  That is to say, it’s definitely better, but there are also cases when Touch ID is more convenient.  The real magic of Face ID is when an app would normally ask you for Touch ID or a password, but rather than doing that, it’s magically unlocked because Face ID has already activated and authenticated you.  This is one of those things that works so well that going back to the old way feels like a chore on my iPad.

There is a lot of fear-mongering being spread about Face ID, so I’d like to address that really quick.  Every iPhone that has had Touch ID, and now the iPhone X with Face ID, has had a special security chip on it called the Secure Enclave.  When you setup Touch ID or Face ID, all of the data that’s collected to make that authentication work is stored in the Secure Enclave.  That data on that chip is not accessible by any app, or by Apple, nor does any data from the Secure Enclave get stored in the cloud.  It never leaves your device.  The Secure Enclave only stores biometric information and sends authentication tokens.  It isn’t impenetrable or anything, but it’s basically the most secure method of biometric authentication in any smartphone.  Apple doesn’t have your face data, because, by design, the Secure Enclave simply doesn’t allow them access to it.  Now, if you run an app that requests access to front camera and starts doing a map of your face, all bets are off, but you do have to approve that, so if you’re paranoid…just don’t do that.  However, I want to make this request of you: please don’t be paranoid about this technology.  Face ID is very secure, and Apple is not spying on you with it (this is not Google or Facebook we’re talking about, where you are the product rather than the consumer, and even then, I wouldn’t be overly concerned about it).  If you don’t believe me, then you shouldn’t own a smartphone at all, because they all have 2 or more microphones, 2 or more cameras, and are on or around your person 24/7.

Two more things that you need to know regarding some FUD that’s being spread around: you can turn this off, but by default, attentive mode is on, which means your phone won’t unlock unless you are looking at it.  So if you’ve got a crappy significant other that likes to spy on your texts, they can’t point the phone at your face while you’re sleeping to unlock it.  If for any reason you need to disable Face ID, you can do so by pressing and holding either volume button and the side button (previously called the sleep/wake button) until the Power Off screen comes up, immediately releasing those buttons (please read this entire paragraph before trying this!), then pressing Cancel.  After that, you’ll have to put your passcode in to get back into your phone.  Make sure you aren’t looking at the phone while doing this (just hold it at an angle away from your face), or it’ll unlock, and disabling won’t work.  That said, and this is a VERY IMPORTANT NOTE, if you are going to try this, you need to be aware that if you continue to hold the side buttons after the Power Off screen comes up, your phone will go into SOS mode, emit a loud siren, and begin a countdown before calling 911 (or whatever your emergency services are if you aren’t in the US).  Don’t worry, besides the attention you’ll suddenly get if you accidentally trigger this, you can cancel it.  Just do so IMMEDIATELY.  I’ve accidentally set it off and canceled it without an issue, but if you don’t, emergency services WILL show up at your house, and it’s not cool to waste their resources.  This is actually a great feature for when it’s needed though, so if you didn’t know about it, it’s great that you’re now aware.

Anyway, Face ID is fantastic.  Any concern about it not working or letting random people into your phone is pretty much for nothing, unless you have an identical twin.  Because the iPhone X uses on-device machine learning, on the rare occasions when Face ID fails and you have to put in your passcode, it uses that opportunity to learn.  Since you know the code, the phone knows that what it saw was indeed you, and it becomes better at recognizing you by incorporating this new data.  This is also, I believe, why Apple only allows one face in Face ID, as opposed to multiple fingers in Touch ID.  The system can’t learn if it doesn’t know which face it failed to recognize.  That’s just my theory though.  I’ve also read a theory that Face ID would be slower if it supported more faces, which makes sense, but I think my theory makes a bit more sense.

On Qi charging, there’s not really a lot to say.  Many high-end Android phones have had this for years (except the Pixel for some bizarre reason).  Apple only supports wireless charging on Qi devices that follow the Qi spec pretty exactly, so that means the Qi charger in my car doesn’t work with the iPhone X (thanks, General Motors!), but many of the $14 mats on Amazon work just fine.  The inclusion of Qi charging is also why the iPhone 8 and X have glass backs.  Current wireless charging technologies can’t pass through metal, so if you want wireless charging, your phone has to have a glass or plastic back.  That means if you use a magnet or any other thing stuck to the back of your phone that has metal, Qi won’t work.  That aside, while Qi charging is much slower, it is SO much more convenient than plugging and unplugging a cable all day.  I am so incredibly happy that Apple has finally embraced this feature.

I haven’t used the speakers all that much, but Apple has done some amazing work with audio technology lately, especially in small spaces.  The speakers in my iPad Pro and MacBook are tiny, yet sound remarkably good.  The iPhone X shares this quality as well.  The one note I will make here is that since the bezels were deleted, the speaker for the phone is higher up, so if you actually use your iPhone to make real phone calls without using AirPods or speakerphone, you’ll have to hold the phone a little lower down than you may be used to.

It’s an iPhone, so it has the same class-leading battery life you’ve come to expect – not as much as an iPhone Plus, but more than a regular iPhone.

Phew!  So, what’s left?  Well, a big thing, actually, and that’s iOS 11.  There are multiple reasons Apple released the iPhone 8 along with the iPhone X, one of which is that since the home button is gone on the X, there are a lot of changes with how certain features are activated.  People that don’t like change, or people that have trouble adjusting, will probably want the 8 for that reason alone.  I say that not because the changes are bad, but rather, that’s just how some people are.  I would hope that those people would be willing to give the changes a chance eventually, because almost every single one of them is better than the old method of doing things.

First, my favorite of the new gestures are swiping up for home and swiping left/right at the bottom of the screen for app switching.  These are both super natural, and while the home gesture is honestly preferable to pressing a home button, swiping left/right for app switching is an entirely new gesture that totally changes multitasking, while leaving the traditional “card” system in place.  Reachability is a little more difficult until you get the hang of it, but it works very well once you do.  Basically, you swipe down somewhere between the middle of the dock and the very bottom edge of the display to activate it (and you have to turn it on in settings, because it’s off by default).  The multitasking menu (the “cards”, (previously activated by double tapping the home button) has been replaced by swiping up like the new home gesture, but then pausing until you get a vibration, or you can just swipe up and then to the right.  You can wait for the vibration, but you can activate it faster but swiping up and over.

Siri is activated by pressing the side button in for a second, but honestly why even both with that when you can activate it with “Hey Siri?”  A screenshot is just a quick simultaneous click of both the Volume Up and the side button.  Those sorts of things do have a learning curve.  It’s not hard, it’s just different.

The one area where the new gestures really don’t work are the gestures that are in the “ears” of the screen.  Swipe down on the top left for notifications, swipe down on the top right for Control Center.  I rarely use the notifications screen, so I don’t much care about that one, but I use Control Center many times every day, and the positioning of this gesture is just…terrible.  Remember, this phone is very tall, so that gesture just doesn’t work with one hand unless you activate reachability first.  Apple really needs to move this, maybe to the first “card” of the multitasking screen so you can easily get to it via the multitasking gesture.  Whatever they could do to fix it, the current gesture is bad. In all honesty, this is my biggest complaint about the iPhone X – this one, stupid UI decision that they can easily remedy with a software update.

So far, my brain has adapted pretty well going back and forth between the iPhone X’s gestures and the iPad’s physical button.  I’ve only tried to press the home button on the phone once, and I’ve only tried to swipe over/up a couple times on the iPad.  That, however, is just me, as I adapt to changes like these somewhat easily.  It’s kind of like going for the clutch in an automatic if you’re used to driving a manual.  You won’t do it often, but you’ll probably do it at least a few times.

Some people online have complained about wasted space with the new, elongated screen, particularly below the keyboard.  Apple clearly can’t move the keyboard down, otherwise typing would be extremely awkward, so right now, when you’ve got the keyboard up, it’s just got this unusual blank gray space below it.  It does feel a little strange to not at least make that space pitch black, but realistically, they should re-purpose it for something useful.  I’ve seen it suggested that maybe it could function like the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pros and show recently used emojis.  The mockups of that seem pretty nice, without looking cluttered, so, hey, Apple – get on that, please?

The iPhone X, overall, is a pleasure to use.  I’m trying my best to go caseless right now, because to cover this thing up seems like a real waste.  I had to use a case on the iPhone 6 and 7 because the size of the phone, combined with the slippery metal backs, just wasn’t conducive to grippiness.  The glass back on this phone, while being exponentially more fragile, is also far more grippy, so holding the phone is much easier.  If I do drop it…I’ve got AppleCare+, but of course, I’d rather not do that.

I know that $999 is a lot for a phone.  The iPhone X is the most expensive iPhone ever, starting at $50 more than last year’s most expensive iPhone, and topping off at $1149 for some additional storage that I guarantee you don’t need because 64 GB is plenty.  Add a possible case and AppleCare+ onto that, and it’s not a cheap buy in, to say the least.  However, I can confidently say that if you’re in the market for an iPhone, willing to spend the additional money, and you’re not married to the idea of physical buttons, I think you will adore this device.  I know I do.

Apple’s fear of touchscreens on notebooks

So…I wrote this blog post for another blog a while back, and that blog has since gone neglected.  I don’t want to lose it, so I’m posting it here.  Enjoy!

 

As far back as 2008, I can remember wanting a Mac laptop with a multitouch display.  After playing with the original iPhone, I knew multitouch technology was finally good enough to put into a real computer, unlike those old, awful resistive touchscreens that had been in PC tablets for years.

iPad vs. RockI, as well as many others, was hoping the iPad would be that magic device that brought touch to OS X, but as we all know, the iPad ended up essentially being a larger iPod Touch and ran iOS.  In another case of “what techies want isn’t always what the market wants,” despite running iOS, the iPad was – and still is – a hit.  I was pretty down about the decision to run iOS, but I bought one anyway, and my parents ended up using it on weekend visits more than I did in general.

It’s easy to see why Apple would push iOS for their tablet rather than OS X.  iOS is built from the ground up for touch, and the iPad is indeed a touch-first device.  You don’t want to fumble with a dense UI designed for mouse and keyboard on a device that will rarely, if ever, have a mouse and keyboard connected to it.  And that’s not to mention that iOS is a way more profitable ecosystem for Apple.

But what about the MacBook line?  With touchscreens coming on more and more PC laptops, it feels like it won’t be long before it’s a standard feature, and having a Surface Pro 3, I can see why.  Touch is natural, and touch is fast.  On a desktop, sure, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense, considering how far away most desktop screens are from the user, but on a laptop, where the screen is literally inches from the keyboard…come on, that’s a no-brainer.

My argument for touch on MacBooks – and laptops in generally – is pretty simple.  Even in an OS that isn’t designed for touch, there are things that are faster and easier, or just more natural to do with touch, even over trackpads with touch gestures.  I generally don’t have issues using “desktop” Windows 8.1 or Windows 10 on my Surface in the first place, even though it was designed for mouse and keyboard, but that’s not the argument I’m making.  For example, to open a file, the workflow is as follows:  place your finger on the trackpad, locate the cursor, drag your finger to the icon, double click.  With a touchscreen, the workflow is: place finger over icon, double tap.

The argument here is that including a touchscreen doesn’t mean you have to use touch 100% of the time, or even 50% of the time, or even 30%.  Just being there when you want to use it for things that are faster, easier, or more natural with touch is the benefit; you don’t have to try to work touch into everything you do.

Touching a picture on a SurfaceSure, you can browse photos with your trackpad, and even use gestures to zoom or pan, but touching photos just feels so much better.  In fact, I’d say that directly interacting with photos is more natural and revives something in the digital experience that was lost in the transition from store-developed, printed photos to pixels on a screen.

Web browsing, for another example, is something that is almost always better with touch, but great to be supplemented by a trackpad and keyboard.  It’s easier and a more immersive experience to reach out and touch a link to open it rather than: touch trackpad, move cursor, click link – but it’s also easier to select text for copying with a trackpad in some cases.

No doubt, Microsoft has realized this, and that’s why the Surface line exists.  However, something like the Surface is not at all Apple-like.  Tim Cook has made it clear that he disapproves of hybrid devices like the Surface (though saying one thing has never prevented Apple from doing the opposite thing a year later), but more importantly, simply “activating” touch on OS X is not Apple’s style.  It’s more Microsoftian to give users what they want where they want it, and it’s more Appleish to guide users to what Apple thinks is best for them (which in this case, is iOS, if you’re in the market for a touchscreen device).  Neither of these is necessarily a better approach, but it does sort of preclude Apple from putting touch into their notebook line.

My verdict:  Apple isn’t going to change OS X, and thus will never put touch into any Mac running OS X, because in their minds, they already have an OS for touch.  If you’re waiting for a touchscreen Mac running a desktop-class OS, you might be waiting forever.  However, that doesn’t mean you’ll never get a touchscreen Mac notebook.  I have very little doubt in my mind that Apple is prototyping ARM MacBooks running iOS in their labs, but who knows if something like that would ever hit the market.  That’s certainly not something I’m interested in, but like I said earlier, what techies want isn’t always what the market wants.

iPhone 7 and “omg I’m switching to Android” thoughts

Let me start this post off by saying that I did not – and have no plans to – pre-order/buy an iPhone 7.  This is the first time I’ve attempted to go 3 years between phone upgrades, and it’s probably not for the reason you’d expect (MUH HEADPHONE JACK).  The reason I’m waiting is because other than the A10 Fusion processor, I find the iPhone 7 to be a pretty lackluster upgrade.  That combined with the fact that my iPhone 6 still works well means I just can’t justify the $649 purchase.  Then, there’s the another big reason: the rumors for the iPhone 8/10th anniversary iPhone/2017 iPhone are all things I’ve been wanting for years: wireless charging, smaller bezels, OLED display…literally some of the only things on the small list of Android phone features I’m jealous of.

But I’ve seen and heard a lot of stuff floating around on the Internet that’s just been ridiculous, and I just had to write about it.  So let’s do that.

The elephant in the room – the headphone jack is gone.

I get it.  You can’t use your favorite pair of $300 headphones anymore.  If you can’t afford or don’t want to buy new headphones to go along with your $649+ pocket computer, then the choice seems obvious:  switch to Android.  Honestly, if I was an audiophile with $300 headphones, I might be weighing my options as well.

But let’s make sure we look at the big picture first.  Lenovo has already dropped the headphone jack from the Moto Z.  More flagships will likely follow.  Not all, but many.  You may only be delaying the inevitable, but that’s just speculation.

I think the real kicker here is something I’ll cover later: Android devices don’t last as long as iPhones.  You might save $300 now, only to spend it later upgrading phones.  Note: this isn’t an empty claim that I will leave hanging.  It will be quantified and qualified later in this post.

“Bluetooth streaming quality isn’t as good.”  Legitimate argument if you’re an audiophile, which is why there are audiophile-quality lightning headphones out there that have interchangeable lightning/audio jack cables.

Yes, it is completely ridiculous and inexcusable that the EarPods you get with the iPhone 7 can’t be used on your Mac.  That’s why Bluetooth is the way to go, in my opinion.  A few weeks ago I pulled my (normally neatly wrapped) EarPods out of my bag and they were a twisted mess.  I spent about 3 or 4 minutes untangling them, and it just hit me: I get it.  Wires suck.  There was a sale on some Aukey Bluetooth earbuds for $9.99, so I bought them, and they’ve been pretty great, actually.  They’re kind of ugly, but I can deal with that until I buy something nicer.

The point here is that the argument that Apple is trying to move to a proprietary standard is completely bogus.  You can enter the Bluetooth earbud market for as little as $10, and you can get Audio Technica 4-star rated Bluetooth headphones from Amazon for $130, and for audiophiles, there’s the Bose QC35.

“I can’t charge my phone and listen to music with my old headphones at the same time.”  You’re right.  You can’t without a somewhat bulky $40 dongle from Belkin.  I’d be surprised if Mophie or someone else didn’t come out with a battery pack case that has a built-in Bluetooth transmitter, so you can plug headphones into the case and stream to your phone, but that’s not really the point.  Apple took away the 30-pin dock adapter and people were pissed.  But lightning is better.  Apple took away the floppy drive, and life is better without it.  If you think that Bluetooth technology won’t leap forward because Apple is taking away the headphone jack, then you don’t understand the precedent here, or possibly just markets in general.

Apple has almost always held a smaller marketshare than their competitors, but they have a dedicated user base.  Honestly, I’m pretty sure the only people that are saying “I’m going to switch to Android” after seeing the iPhone 7 are people that were on the edge anyway.  The iPhone 7 very likely won’t be a flop. Maybe it’ll sell less than the 6S or 6, but that’s not very telling of the headphone jack as much as it is of the 7 in general.

“Welcome to 2014, iPhone users!  Android has had all of this stuff for years!”

I saw this image floating around on reddit, and it’s one of those things that makes me wonder if the creator knew s/he was lying, or they are actually that braindead.  For some reason, some people can’t wrap their head around the fact that a spec sheet is not the end all, be all when it comes to phones.  I guess they have it in their head that “more is better” and there’s no convincing them otherwise.

Look, if I was building a gaming PC, which I have done, clearly I would be spec’ing that rig out.  But when I bought my MacBook, I just wanted it to work.  You could look at the spec sheet for a MacBook (non Pro) and have a fit of nerd rage because it has a Core M processor, or you could breathe and realize that what it’s meant to do doesn’t require more power than it has (which is a point that I’m making as a side note, because the iPhone 7 actually blows every other smartphone out of the water in terms of CPU benchmarks).

  • 750p iPhone 7 / 1440p Nexus 6

Most people can’t tell the difference between 720p, 1080p, and quad HD on a screen that small.  Some can, but most can’t.  I also seem to recall reviews saying the Nexus 6 screen was good, but not great.  Quad HD displays also consume more battery and use more processing power on graphics.  None of these things translate well to spec sheets.  The iPhone is faster, has better battery life, and results in an extremely similar experience as far as how the display looks.  The thing that Apple is sorely lacking in this department is an OLED display, not some ridiculously high pixel density.

  • Water resistant

The Nexus 6 was not rated to be water resistant.  The iPhone 6S had water resistance; Apple just didn’t market it because there was no rating.  I’ve washed my iPhone 5 with soap under a faucet, and it still works (dropped it on a public bathroom floor, nope nope NOPE).  This bullet point is just dishonest.

  • 12 MP camera iPhone 7 / 13 MP camera Nexus 6

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

No, seriously, hahahahahahaha.  You’ve never taken pictures with either phone.

  • Raise to wake

This feature works on iPhone 6S, SE, and 7.  Because iPhones actually get updated.

  • Notifications on lock screen

This one is just bizarre.  iOS has had this literally for years.  This person is clearly just drinking the Kool Aid and hasn’t used an iPhone since like 2009.

  • Contextual word prediction

I have this on my iPhone 6 and I can use 3rd party keyboards?  Why is this here?

  • Photo search

You do realize that Google Photos is available on iOS, right?

 

And then there’s this weird blurb at the bottom: “In 2018, you guys will love wireless charging, VR support, curved displays, multi-user support, selectable default apps, app installs from a browser, and seamless updates!”

Clearly, the wireless charging thing is legitimate.  No Qi charging, lack of OLED displays, and large bezels are my biggest gripes with the iPhone.  You’ve got me there.  But VR support?  You can put goggles on an iPhone.  I have Google Cardboard.  I’m sure it won’t support Google Daydream, but neither did the Nexus 6 that you’re comparing the iPhone 7 to. Google Daydream is releasing this fall.

Curved displays, app installs from a browser…I just don’t care.  I’m not a big fan of the Galaxy Edge and I hope Apple doesn’t do that.  Selectable default apps have been addressed with iOS 10, so try 2016, not 2018.  Multiple user support barely makes sense for a phone, which is literally the most personal device I can think of.  Maybe if you’re handing your phone off to your kid so they can play a game in the car, but that’s it.  iPads have multi-user support, which is where that actually makes a lot of sense.

But the real kicker in this closing remark is “seamless updates.”  I’m really scratching my head over this one.  iPhone updates are a colossal reason that the platform is subjectively better than Android.  How exactly is “Google releases update > handset manufacturer releases update for specific phone model > carrier okays update 3 months later” a more seamless process than just going into your settings and pressing “Install update” the day it’s launched, on any iPhone made in the last 4 years?

The person that wrote this is either incredibly disingenuous, braindead, or is so drunk on the Android Kool Aid that s/he’s literally willing to ignore reality.

 

Remember when I said earlier that I would quantify and qualify my argument that iPhones last longer than Android devices?

I have an iPhone 5 on the shelf across the room.  If I wanted to, I could pull it out on Tuesday, press the update button, and be running iOS 10 on a 4 year old phone.  Find an Android phone – any Android phone – released in 2012 or earlier that will run Android Nougat.  Please, do look.  My 2013 Nexus 7 LTE is already obsolete according to Google, and it’s just 3 years old.  No Nougat for it.

“Why would you want to use a 4 year old phone anyway?”  Some people don’t buy phones every year, some people use hand me downs, whatever.  That’s not the point.  If you’re going to make the argument that Apple is evil for removing a headphone jack that has at least 2 viable alternatives and other less viable alternatives, but you won’t make the argument that Google is evil for declaring 3 year old devices “end of life,” or other Android handset manufacturers taking months to update their flagship phones with critical releases, then you’re the worst kind of person.

Remember how I said specs aren’t everything?  This is a fun one you can’t put on spec sheets.  Android has crappy battery life, and Google has been taking steps to remedy that with Doze and Doze on the Go.  But in the meantime, handset manufacturers have been trying to remedy that with bigger batteries.

So the fanboys look at the spec sheet and say “3,000 mAh battery in my Android and 1800 mAh battery in your iPhone lolololol” when in reality, the phones have the same battery life in terms of actual usage, or the iPhone totally destroys Android in standby.  But wait, that’s still not my point.

So suddenly, batteries in Android take forever to charge because they’re so much bigger (iPhone batteries still charge quickly, something else that rarely makes the spec sheet), so handset manufacturers adopt quick charging formats, and of course, this makes the spec sheets and the Android fanboys go nuts again.

But here’s a fun fact: quick charging technologies literally kill your battery faster than regular charging.  Yes, they degrade your battery life over repeated usage.  Tesla recommends you use their superchargers only when you need them and not all the time for this very reason.  So now, you’ve got a bunch of people out there constantly quickcharging their Android phones, and suddenly their big 3,000 mAh battery isn’t keeping up anymore.  My iPhone 6 is at 93% of original battery capacity after 2 years, and it charges quickly.  Once again, this doesn’t make the spec sheets.

When I switched to the 2014 Moto X (2 GB of RAM), one of the reasons I switched back to my iPhone 6 (1 GB of RAM) after 3 months was because Android got slow.  Very slow.  Apparently there was a bug in 5.0 that was fixed in 5.0.1 or 5.1 or whatever it was, but wouldn’t you know that the update that fixed that bug had to go through Motorola first? (Not only that, if you look at comparison videos, Apple devices consistently perform better than Android devices with double or triple the RAM.)  So I was stuck on a slow Android release at the mercy of Motorola, even though my Moto X was carrier unlocked and didn’t need to go through anyone past the manufacturer.

The fact is if you don’t buy a Nexus device (or I guess Pixel, pretty soon), this is your life.  You’re beholden to the handset manufacturer.  Of course, Google is trying to rally them to commit to updating quickly, but it doesn’t matter if this means a 1 month turnaround on updates, or 2 weeks, or 4 days, it doesn’t change the fact that Apple can push updates immediately.  Even Microsoft is doing this with Windows 10 for Phones, just like they’ve done on computers for years (can you imagine if every Windows update had to pass through Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, etc?  What a nightmare that would be!).

So maybe if you’re an audiophile with $300 headphones, you’ll have have to adapt to the iPhone 7, or maybe you’ll feel like you’re forced to buy new headphones.  But you can buy the iPhone 7 and feel confident, based on an actual track record, that you can use that phone for 4 years.  And you won’t have to replace the phone after 2 years because battery capacity was annihilated by quickcharging, and you won’t feel abandoned after 6 months because Motorola stopped supporting it, and you won’t have to wait weeks for under-warranty repairs without a phone like many Android users fall victim to, and you have access to most apps before Android users do.

Look, I don’t even hate Android.  I just don’t like Android super-fanboys, or people that rabidly hate Apple because ‘muh walled garden’ or whatever the hell it is that makes them so angry about life in general.  A lot of Android devices are really cool and do have features that iPhones just don’t have, but you can’t pretend like Android is objectively better than iOS.  It’s such an asinine outlook to have, and requires such a narrow view on reality to maintain.

Maybe it feels like the iPhone 7 not having a headphone jack is a big deal right now, but rest assured, Tim Cook isn’t on his way to your house to burn it down (I think that’s currently Samsung’s job…whooaaa sick Galaxy Note 7 burn).

Bullet-point 2015 MacBook quick review

The list below reflects the 1.2 GHz/512GB SSD model of the 2015 MacBook.  I mostly use it for web browsing, taking notes, research, and writing, so keep my use case in mind.

  • Performance is great on El Capitan.  Scrolling through photo-heavy sites in Safari suffered a bit in Yosemite.  That was resolved in El Cap.  The Core M CPU was really the only tradeoff on this computer that I wasn’t sure would be a non-issue, and so far, so good.  Future OS X updates will tell if this holds true.
  • It’s so thin and light that sometimes it’s hard to believe there’s a fully-functioning computer in there.
  • Battery life is amazing. 9-10 hours and can be recharged from a battery pack and a USB-A to USB-C cable if you need more absolute portability for some reason.
  • The keyboard is a love it or hate it thing.  I love it, despite the lack of travel.  If you don’t like it immediately, I’d say give it a day or so of casual use.  It’s very satisfyingly clicky.
    • Note: Of the ~60,000 words into the novel I’m currently writing, I’d estimate a third or so was written on the MacBook.  So, I have used it substantially.
  • If you try to run a game on it, it’s going to get pretty hot.  I don’t know why you’d buy an ultraportable laptop to game on, but Steam in-home streaming actually works amazingly well if you have a decent PC to stream from.  I played Fallout 4 for a few hours like this on ultra-high settings.
  • The trackpad is incredible.  Apple has always had the best trackpads in the business and they keep making them better.  Easily the best trackpad I’ve ever used, twice as good as the one on my 2010 MacBook Pro.
    • Note: Force touch is neat, but kind of gimmicky other than to allow the laptop to be so thin.
  • The display is gorgeous, exactly what I’d expect out of a pixel-dense Apple display.  I usually keep it around 60% brightness just because it’s so bright.
  • I’ve used the USB-C port with an adapter only one time in a month and a half (to install Windows).  Having one port is a non-issue for me.
    • Note: USB-C is awesome.
  • I haven’t even used the webcam, so the 480p resolution is a non-issue for me.  No other comments there.
  • The hinge and magnets are so utterly perfect.  The machine opens and closes with exactly the right amount of resistance.  Apple’s attention to detail really shines in these kinds of things.
  • This machine is kind of stupidly expensive.  I only bought it because of some great promos on my Discover card that allowed me to save about $500 off of the retail price of $1599.
    • Note: The less expensive/cheapest model is $1299, which is honestly still a bit much, even for the model I got.  But, you know…Apple.
  • Filed under most surprising feature: the speakers are phenomenal, especially given the amount of space they’re in.  Seriously, they sound better than the speakers on my 2010 MBP by a long shot.
  • I got Space Gray, and it’s a super cool color for a MacBook.  The Gold (which is actually more “champagne”) is surprisingly nice and much more subtle than you’d expect in person (this would’ve been my second choice in color).

Random thoughts on Android, iOS, and Windows Phone

  • There is a lot to be said about how open a platform is.  There are many positives, but also negatives. In Android’s case, I think the positives do outweigh the negatives.
  • Apps are better on iOS.  Period.  Many Android apps feel like an afterthought.
  • Even though you can swipe from the left to go back in most iOS apps, having a dedicated back button is still better since it technically does more than just go back.
  • Windows Phone still destroys Android and iOS in usability.
  • For how much people complain and poke fun at Apple when an iOS update is a bit buggy, Android 5.0 sure is full of bugs…
  • Overall, I think the App Store on iOS is a “better experience,” but Google Play wins hands down on functionality. It’s really nice to be able to tell an app to install on a different device.
  • The ads you get in Android apps remind me a lot of ads targeted to Windows users.  “Computer slow? Download Android phone sweeper!” “Clear your phone of viruses!” So dumb, but one of those negatives of a more open platform.
  • The Bluetooth stack on Android definitely seems to be not quite as good as it is on iOS, but I also have more Bluetooth devices paired to my phone than ever. When/if Google releases Android Wear on iOS, I’d really like to put this to the test.
  • Live tiles on Windows Phone are still the best home screen experience I’ve used to date.
  • Not being able to put icons where you want on the iOS home screen is just stupid.
  • The updating situation on Android is spectacularly broken.  It’s really annoying, and Google/handset manufacturers need to fix this somehow.
  • The approach that Google takes to Google apps and Microsoft takes to Microsoft apps is way better than the approach Apple takes to Apple apps.  I don’t want crap taking up space on my phone that I’ll never use. Let me delete it.
  • I will never understand putting core UI functionality at the top edge/corners of the screen.  Every developer on every platform, first and third party, stop this crap.
  • Google needs to do something about Android’s battery life, which is no doubt linked to memory usage, which is another negative of a more open platform. I get that Android has real multitasking, but needing double/triple the RAM of an iPhone for an Android handset to perform similarly is kind of ridiculous.  Maybe this is unrealistic, but I wish there was a “best of both worlds” solution.

HTC One M8 for Windows and Windows Phone 8.1 review

HTC box

My first smartphone was an HTC Excalibur that ran Windows Mobile 5.  If you missed out on that whole generation of smartphones – the ones with physical keyboards that predated the first iPhone – you didn’t miss much.  The phone hardware wasn’t stellar, and Windows Mobile was a huge pile of garbage – and that’s putting it nicely.

But that was a long time ago.  Back when you could have a smartphone without a data plan on AT&T, and back before Steve Jobs prank called that employee at Starbucks.  The reigning kings in those days were Windows Mobile, Palm OS, and Blackberry.  Ah, how the times have changed.  Now Android is the best-selling mobile OS, and Windows holds somewhere in the ~3.5% marketshare range.  Yikes.

Judging from that number, you can probably tell that Microsoft missed the ball on mobile.  However, the case here is interesting; it’s not that their foray into the space is awful, it’s just that they were late to the game.  Whereas Windows Mobile was more aimed toward enterprise, Windows Phone is more aimed toward consumers, which means Microsoft didn’t even have a hand in the game until their Windows Phone 7 operating system launched in October of 2010, slightly more than 3 years after the first iPhone, and 2 years after the HTC Dream – the first Android smartphone – hit the market.

To put that in perspective, the general consensus on the HTC Dream – also known as the T-Mobile G1 – was that it sucked.  In fact, that was the consensus on Android for a while.  So even if you were of the opinion that Android wasn’t a real competitor to iOS until 2009, Windows Phone still missed the boat by a whole year.  But hey, Microsoft isn’t exactly known for their foresight.  Who were they to be able to predict the rise of mobile?  Or that desktop OS users without a touchscreen wouldn’t like being forced to use a touchscreen interface?

That’s your tech history lesson for today.  But the story doesn’t stop there, of course, otherwise this would be a pretty terrible review of the HTC One M8 for Windows.

Yep, it's pretty.

Yep, it’s pretty.

The hardware for the HTC One M8 was originally released as an Android phone, and for whatever, reason, they decided to port Windows Phone 8.1 to it and release it with a longer name about 4 months later (or 7 months later if you didn’t have Verizon).  Most reviews have been positive about the hardware, and I’d generally agree with those.  The phone is easier to hold than the iPhone 6 due to the flat sides and the curved back, but it is also slightly more difficult to remove from some pockets (and I mean slightly).  Build quality seems absolutely exceptional.

One of the most important things to many people looking to buy a smartphone is the camera, or more importantly, the quality of pictures the camera takes.  I know image quality is an issue with many Android phones, but not with iPhones and most Windows Phones, by which I mean Lumias.  But the M8 isn’t a Lumia.

HTC back

Two cameras, double LED flash, and one nicely etched “Windows Phone” logo.

I am the wrong person to ask about cameras, so I’ll only say that the duo lens camera system seems to work pretty well, despite the low 4 MP spec on the rear cameras (the front camera is 5 MP).  That said, I understand that there are far more important things than Megapixels past a certain point, but I don’t take enough pictures with my M8 since I always have my iPhone 6 on me, and the iPhone is widely considered to be the best way to capture pictures with a phone (by many even better than the Lumia 1020) due to some kind of fancy image processing that I won’t pretend to understand.

 

 

 

 

So, rather than typing more about it, I’ll let you decide.  The following pictures were taken at the same time, at the same place – one with my iPhone 6, and the other with the M8 – with the phones held side-by-side.

iPhone 6

iPhone 6

HTC One M8 for Windows

HTC One M8 for Windows

Looking at those pictures side-by-side on their respective phones, I thought the iPhone was the clear winner.  Looking at them side-by-side on the same display, I think it’s interesting to note that the iPhone 6 photo looks better overall, but truth be told, the color of the paint on the wall is more accurate in the M8 picture.  The clarity appears the same to me, it’s just that the HTC’s lighting feels off.

I am of the (probably unpopular) opinion that speakers on phones (and also on tablets) should go wherever they need to go to make the device as thin as possible or some other functional reason, so HTC’s BoomSound speakers are kind of lost on me.  Do people really sit around watching movies or listening to music on phone/tablet speakers?  It’s almost a given you’re going to use headphones for that, and it doesn’t really matter where the speakers are if you’re just watching a 2 minute clip on YouTube.  Maybe it helps if you use speakerphone a lot, but I use that on my iPhone with no issues, and I can hear my Nexus 7 just fine.

M8 bottom

The headphone jack is weirdly close to the edge.

The bottom of the phone has the microUSB port for charging and syncing, as well as the headphone jack.  As much as I love and am willing to pay for the iPhone’s lightning cable simply because it’s reversible, microUSB isn’t particularly bad.  Of course, the best thing it’s got going for it is that it isn’t proprietary and I can use my Nexus 7 charger on my M8, or vice versa.

One of my favorite features about the HTC hardware besides the all metal body is the tap-to-wake feature.  Hold the phone, double tap the screen, and the phone wakes up.  On the flip side, that feature doesn’t work too well if the phone is lying on a desk.  I kind of feel like HTC is screwing with us by putting the sleep/wake button on the top, where every other manufacturer with a phone over 4″ has moved the button to the side, which is where the M8’s volume rocker button is.  I have frustratingly hit the volume and sleep buttons at the same time far too many times, and on Windows Phone, that just so happens to take a screenshot.  So I take a lot of accidental screenshots.

M8 top

Sleep/wake button and the IR port.

The M8 has a microSD slot on the side, which I’ll never need since this thing has 32 GB of internal storage, and I don’t keep music on it.  So, it’s there if you need it; however, if I could have more battery life, or if they could’ve slimmed down the phone a bit by not including it, I’d rather it not be there.  That’s kind of also how I feel about the IR port at the top, but I think I’d feel differently if Windows Phone had a bigger marketplace.  I kind of almost have to use the included HTC Sense TV app, and it doesn’t appear to have support for changing inputs on a TV, which is really the #2 thing I need a TV remote for, right after power, and right before volume control.  But on the other hand, even if it’s convenient to have, if you’re sitting next to a remote control, why would you pick up your phone, unlock it, open an app, swipe over to the proper control screen, and then finally have access to what you need?  That’s as opposed to picking up the remote control and pressing a button.  Heck, it’s probably easier to use the remote even if you have to walk across the room to get it.

Finally, before I touch on the software, I wanted to touch on the 5″ screen.  The M8 has 441 pixels per inch.  If you’re more familiar with the iPhone side of things, the 4.7″ iPhone 6 has 326 ppi, and the 5.5″ iPhone 6 Plus has 401 ppi.  Holding the M8 side by side with my iPhone 6 and looking at the same content, or just casually browsing different content on each phone, I cannot tell that there’s a difference in ppi.  In fact, the only difference I can see is that the iPhone 6 is brighter with both phones set to maximum screen brightness.  I won’t touch on color accuracy, because to be quite honest, colors have to be way off for me to notice that sort of thing.  The M8 screen appears to accurately display colors, and overall it presents a pleasant viewing experience.

And a final note on resolution and ppi that is less about the M8 and more about this new wave of Quad HD Android phones:  at a certain ppi, you literally cannot tell the difference.  As long as a screen maintains a ppi above the level that the human eye can distinguish pixels from each other, there’s really no reason to go higher unless you’re just looking for a good way to decrease battery life.  720p/1080p is cool, but I’m not seeing a good reason for QHD to exist on phones.  If battery life wasn’t such an issue to most people, sure, why not?  But battery life is an issue, and adding useless pixels to a display provides an overall net loss to usability.  And on that note of battery life, my M8, which is synced with Exchange, seems about on par with my iPhone 5 that was also synced with Exchange.  I only mention Exchange because that seems to decrease battery life a good bit from my experience.

And that brings me to the Windows Phone 8.1 portion of this review.

iOS grid

The relatively boring iOS 8 grid of icons.

One of my least favorite things about iOS is the “grid of icons” paradigm: a fixed grid with static icons that you can’t even leave space between.  It’s like Apple has the mentality of a school assembly, making kids fill in all the chairs, as if it would be so terrible to be able to place an icon wherever you want, rather than having to put it after whatever the last icon is.  But really, that’s the least important of the reasons that I dislike Apple’s approach to the home screen.  The problem there is that it is completely static and treats every app that isn’t in the dock as an equal.

I can’t glean any information from the home screen.  Any useful information is in the notification area, which I have to swipe down to see.  It’s also just incredibly boring.  Android solves this problem by allowing widgets right on the desktop.

The tile paradigm is simply beautiful.

The tile paradigm is simply beautiful.

Windows Phone, on the other hand, tackles this issue with Live Tiles.  The tiles are icons that launch an app, and you can resize them from small to large.  If the developer has enabled a live tile for that app, the tile will display some relevant information to you.  For example, the email tile will display part of an email message.  The weather tile will display the weather.  Better yet, these tiles aren’t bound to single, static grid.  They’re still on a grid, but it’s customizable.  You can skip spaces, you can skip half-spaces, you can make groups of small tiles together next to a medium tile, you can surround a large tile with small tiles…really, it’s the best implementation of a home screen that I’ve seen.  For more important apps like email, you give it a large tile so you can see more information in the live tile or access it more easily, and for less important apps, you give it a small tile so it won’t take up as much screen real estate.  Also, you can set a nice wallpaper and make your icons transparent, which can make for a really aesthetically pleasing home screen.

iOS and Android both group settings by commonality.  Windows Phone also does this, but the difference is that iOS delimits the sections with spaces and Android delimits the sections with headings.  Windows Phone is just one massive list of settings, which makes it more difficult than it should be to find whatever it is that you’re looking for.

Windows Phone 8, Android Kit Kat, iOS 8 settings menus side-by-side

Windows Phone 8.1, Android Kit Kat, iOS 8 settings menus side-by-side

Strangely enough, Android is probably the winner here because the sections are labeled.

I don't understand the design decision here at all.

I don’t understand the design decision here at all.

Windows Phone has three screen brightness settings: low, medium, and high.  There is no in between, no granularity.  This is…puzzling.  On my iPhone, I usually leave my screen brightness as high as it’ll go and manually turn it down as necessary, so while it’s bothersome, it’s not a huge deal.

The design language that Windows Phone encourages makes for a lot of wasted space.  I like the larger headings strewn throughout the OS, but this language has translated over to developers using it in ways that takes up screen real estate in unnecessary ways.  I am totally unfamiliar with Microsoft documentation/APIs or how/if they encourage third party developers to follow this design language, but to make an app that looks like it belongs on Windows Phone, it’s kind of what you’d have to do, so that’s why I say that Windows Phone encourages it.

Windows Phone has a navigation bar like Android on the bottom of the screen, but Windows Phone lets you hide it by default.  Also, instead of a multitasking button (or whatever your fragmented or skinned version of Android has for the third button in the bar), Windows Phone has a search button that you can use to type or speak questions to Cortana, which is Microsoft’s virtual assistant, like Siri or Google Now.  Cortana is, of course, the AI from Halo, which is pretty cool if you ask me.  I haven’t used Cortana much, but I also don’t use Siri or Google Now much.

To activate multitasking, you hold down the back button in the navigation bar.  This is how you can close apps, but apparently if you press the back button after you open an app, that’ll also close it.  I’m not sure that all apps behave like that from my experience, but that’s what I read when I first got the phone.

And speaking of apps, I guess that brings me to what is the most disappointing thing about Windows Phone – not only the lack of apps, but the lack of love that the apps get.  It’s not solely Microsoft’s fault, but it is a part of the platform that is hard to ignore.  The big names are there – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Hulu Plus, Netflix – but the Instagram app is still in beta, Microsoft makes the Facebook app, and neither Hulu Plus nor Netflix support Chromecast – a feature that iOS and Android have had on their respective Hulu and Netflix apps since Chromecast launched.  Google won’t make apps for Windows Phone because they don’t want to legitimize the platform, and when Microsoft created a really stellar YouTube app, Google flat out broke the app on their end for what amounts to bullcrap reasons (“Don’t be evil,” right Google?).  So Windows Phone doesn’t have an official YouTube app.  Microsoft did the best they could and released an app that is essentially a launcher for the YouTube mobile site, and there are many third party YouTube apps (and that’s also the case for Instagram and Snapchat apps), but many of these third party apps are lacking and just aren’t as good as the official apps are on other platforms.

It’s really sad, because despite what Google would have you think, Windows Phone is is a truly legitimate platform.  Google is playing the game though, and so is Microsoft, which is why nearly everything Microsoft is releasing these days is cross-platform.  I have OneDrive installed on literally every device that I own and use: my desktop that runs Windows 8.1, my Surface Pro 3, my MacBook Pro, my iPhone 6, my Nexus 7, and of course, my HTC One M8 for Windows.

I’ve always thought of phone operating systems like this: people that want the cheapest thing available or that love to tinker with their gadgets buy Android phones, people that want something that just works buy an iPhone.  This is also how Microsoft apparently sees the market, as almost all of their Windows Phone marketing targets the iPhone and touts how great Cortana is and how it “just works.”  And, honestly, I’d agree.  If I were buying a smartphone for my parents (who do not currently and have never used smartphones), I certainly wouldn’t buy them an Android phone.  They both have iPad experience, so I know they could easily learn to use an iPhone, but with a Windows Phone, I could make 2 giant tiles – Phone and Messaging – and there would be nothing to confuse them, nothing unnecessary on the screen.  It’s the perfect phone OS for simplicity, while maintaining its ability to satisfy the needs of a power user (but probably not a tinkerer).

So at the end of the day, if you asked me to switch to Windows Phone and completely give up my iPhone, I couldn’t do it.  Not because of some shortcoming of the Windows Phone OS, but simply because the app ecosystem is just so utterly lacking.  Truly, if Windows Phone had an app ecosystem as big as Apple’s or Google’s, the matter of switching to Windows Phone would be a much more difficult one to make, but as is, I just couldn’t – and man, is that a disappointing thing to have to admit.  Microsoft has done a really excellent job at crafting a fantastic consumer phone operating system, but they just can’t seem to get proper acknowledgement from third party developers.  And who can blame those developers, with Microsoft’s tiny marketshare?  Small marketshare > less reason to develop apps > consumers don’t buy Windows Phone because of poor app marketplace > repeat.  It’s an unfortunate cycle.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Review

Microsoft has never been particularly good at marketing.  I actually can’t recall any good commercials for anything Windows-related.  Maybe there’s been some good Xbox commercials, but as far as Windows or Microsoft in general goes, all I can think of is that commercial with Jerry Seinfeld and the churros.  Or the Windows Mojave one where they tricked people into saying good things about Vista.

Honestly, I hate the commercials that Microsoft has been airing for the Surface Pro 3, I hate the way they introduced it, and I hate their website for it.  “Hey world, here’s a 13″ MacBook Air, and here’s the 12″ Surface Pro 3.  These two machines are nothing alike and not even in the same product category, so you should buy a Surface!”  If I want a computer with a touchscreen, I’m not even considering a MacBook Air, so why compare the two?  And vice versa, if I’m wanting an actual laptop, I’m not considering a computer that’s slightly awkward to use in your lap.

My SP3That said, Microsoft may be terrible at marketing, but in the hardware/software space, they’ve actually been up to some interesting things lately.  I really like some of their new applications (they may just be the most cross compatible on the market), and well, to get to the point, I bought a Surface Pro 3.  Not to replace my laptop, but because it’s a cool device.  So let’s get into that.

The Surface Pro 3, which I will refer to mostly as the SP3 from here on out, is not a laptop.  It’s also not a tablet.  It’s a hybrid, convertible device that does a little bit of both.  It’s not the best laptop, nor is it the best tablet, but as a hybrid device, it is really the best of both worlds in a very neat little package.  So what use case does it have?  Well, I have two tablets – an original iPad and a 2013 LTE Nexus 7.  I really don’t use the iPad any more, partially because it’s old, but also because I never really found a place for it in my life.  It is too big to comfortably hold for a long period of time, and in the end, I just found it more productive to use my laptop.  My Nexus 7 is a different story, mostly because I can hold it with one hand easily.  It’s light, powerful, and allows me to be just productive enough to where my laptop usually isn’t necessary unless I need to do serious typing (like writing this article) or use software that just isn’t available on Android.

Kickstand

Kickstand deployed with Type Cover magnetically attached to lower part of screen for angled typing mode

With that in mind, where does the SP3 fit in, being even larger and slightly heavier than my original iPad?  I can answer that question with a simple statement: the kickstand is killer.  Yes, you can probably buy a case for whatever tablet you own that’ll prop it up, but it won’t be as good as the SP3’s kickstand.  Because of kickstand, I can use the SP3 in my lap hands free.  I can’t even do that with my tiny little Nexus 7.  And not only does that mean no fatigue from holding the device, it also means I have two hands free to interact with the SP3’s big, beautiful display.  So, if anything, the SP3 is really – in my life, at least – a killer tablet replacement… that just so happens to be a pretty decent laptop also.

Type Cover flat

Type cover flat on the table, kickstand just a tad farther back

Now, let’s get this part out of the way: how easy is it to use the SP3 in your lap like a laptop?  Simple answer is… it’s a little awkward.  If you pop in the Type Cover and snap the magnetic part to the screen (as seen in the picture above), it’s not really that bad, but the keyboard still flexes around, and with the cover right there, you really can’t swipe up from the bottom of the SP3’s screen anymore to perform any touch gestures, which is frustrating.  I really do like the flexibility of the new Type Cover for allowing that angled keyboard mode, but I actually prefer typing with the cover flat down.  It honestly feels better to me, especially when the SP3 is on a desk.

Type CoverThe Type Cover, aside from the above, is kind of remarkable.  The keys have very little throw in them, which is a little disturbing at first, but I got used to it pretty quickly.  The touch pad is great, which isn’t something I could say about previous Surface Type Covers.  Really, if the touch pad were a bit bigger, it would probably be the best touch pad I’ve ever used on a PC, but here, size is really the limiting factor.  Sorry Microsoft, if you’re going to compare, Apple is still king of touch pads.  One thing I wish I’d have done differently here is to go with a blue Type Cover rather than the cyan.  Cyan is really probably the best looking one, but it’s also the lightest one, and light colors show dirt more easily.  Didn’t really think that one through.  You can clean these things, apparently, but that sounds a bit frightening, what with how water and expensive electronics typically don’t mix too well.

Yes I took a picture of my screen instead of a screenshot, and you can DEAL WITH IT

Yes I took a picture of my screen instead of a screenshot, and you can DEAL WITH IT

The pen is really nice, but it’s kind of a gimmick.  If you’re an artist or a student, I’m sure it’s amazing for drawing or note taking.  I can recall many times in college where just typing notes in Word on my laptop was insufficient, and being able to draw in a quick little diagram or figure would’ve come in handy.  But usefulness aside, it’s really a quality accessory.  There is barely any lag while writing with it, and when all is said and done, it almost looks like my handwriting does on paper.  Plus, when you use the pen, the SP3 is smart enough to know to ignore input from your palm, so you can rest your hand on the screen while writing or drawing.  For storage, the pen either goes in this flimsy little loop that comes with the Type Cover and attaches to it via some adhesive, or you can stick it upside down to the side of the SP3 where the magnetic charger plugs in, but of course, that only works when the charger isn’t plugged in.  Oh, also, push that little purple bottom on the top no matter if the SP3 is asleep or awake and bam, it launches OneNote.  Nifty.

Attached magnetically to the charging port

Attached magnetically to the charging port

Speaking of the charger, the power brick for this thing has a USB port on it.  That… is… amazing.  It’s so simple, yet so obvious.  Every device, regardless of the number of USB ports, should have this.  Yes, the SP3 is limited to one USB port and having that extra one for charging is great, but it also charges faster than a computer’s USB port.  One or two USB ports is pretty standard these days on non-enterprise targeted laptops, with how thin things are getting.

SP3 charger (left), 2010 MBP charger (right)

SP3 charger (left), 2010 MBP charger (right)

As far as the actual charger plug goes, it’s kind of like Apple’s Magsafe adapter (again, Microsoft, you’ve invited all of these comparisons), except it’s… deeper?  Like, the part that snaps into the computer is longer and has more depth than a Magsafe adapter.  I don’t really give a shit if it looks, feels, and acts exactly like a Magsafe adapter as long as it works, because Magsafe is a good product.  I feel like because of the depth, it might not come out as easily as Magsafe, which means more potential to pull the cord at just the wrong angle and fling the Surface off of the table, but that’s really just speculation.  Either way, I like the design, because like I said, Magsafe is great.  Everything should have these types of power adapters.

The speakers are kind of bleh, but really, what can you expect?  At least they’re front-facing.  And here’s a neat example of Microsoft’s attention to detail: when you press the Windows logo on the side of the screen, the device gives a little tactile feedback.  I think – but am not sure – that maybe they’re sending a very low, inaudible frequency to the speakers to vibrate the device, but I’m not sure.  Either way, it’s a satisfying feature.

The front and rear facing cameras are both 5 MP, and they’re both pretty underwhelming.  Not that I really care though, as I don’t use the camera on my laptop or my tablets often, so I doubt I’ll use it on the SP3 that much, especially when I have an iPhone 6 and an HTC One M8 For Windows (review on that coming soon) to take pictures with.

The display on the SP3 doesn’t have the same high PPI count as most newer tablets and phones, and is just a smidgen lower than the retina MacBook Pros, but it is gorgeous.  When I go from the SP3 to my 2010 MacBook Pro, the difference is so strikingly apparent that it kind of hurts (in that oh so first-world-problems way).  I like the 12″ form factor; I think it’s a good size… for a tablet.  For a laptop, yes, still a good size, as long as you have an external display (which the SP3 can easily do) or a desktop to accompany it.

Build quality on the SP3 (Type Cover aside) seems very solid.  I really can’t get over how sturdy the kickstand feels, though I feel like either that or the charger fraying will be the first thing to go, but hey, that’s why I bought Microsoft Complete!  And speaking of Complete, which is the extended and accidental damage warranty for the Surface, it’s $150 for 2 total years, and covers two accidents with a $49 deductible each time.  If you are the type that actually makes accidental damage claims, that works out better than AppleCare for an iPad.

microSD slot (left), kinetic hinge (right)

microSD slot (left), kinetic hinge (right)

Performance has been great so far, but I haven’t really pushed it.  I got the Core i5 128 GB model, which comes with 4 GB of RAM.  These days, I wouldn’t buy a laptop with less than 8 GB of RAM, especially if the RAM isn’t user-replaceable, but the way Microsoft has spec’d out the SP3 line is very… limiting (I’ll get to that in a minute).  If you start hitting high CPU or RAM, the SP3’s fan will kick on, and the device will get hot, especially around the top.  You can feel it more on the back, but the heat is actually very noticeable through the screen.  It cools off surprisingly fast, though, once you stop pegging out the CPU/RAM.  The fan is noticeable, but it’s pretty quiet (if you’re comparing it to a laptop).  I haven’t really felt limited by the specs of the SP3 I bought.  Honestly, I could’ve been very happy with 64 GB of storage since the SP3 has a microSD slot under the kickstand for easy and basically invisible storage expansion (albeit, much slower to read and write to/from), but the upgrade to 128 GB and a Core i5 processor was worth the extra $200.

Which brings me to what is really my biggest gripe about the Surface, and that is its pricing.  The Core i3 64 GB model is $799, Type Cover not included.  I think it’s dumb to bash Microsoft for not including the Type Cover, so I won’t.  Choice is good, some people might not want the Type Cover, so why pay more for them to include it?  So at $799, you’re looking at a 64 GB tablet.  A 64 GB iPad Air 2 is going to run you $600, if you’re going to compare tablets, but there are such huge differences between the two that it’s hard to compare, just like there are huge differences between the SP3 and the MacBook Air – the comparison that Microsoft would have you make.  It’s very difficult to say what I think the SP3 should cost, but… it feels too expensive.  When I said that Microsoft had really limited the configurations available for the SP3, I said so because model to model, the differences are storage and processor-based.  You can’t get a Core i5 model with 128 GB of storage and 8 GB of RAM.  If you want 8 GB of RAM, you have to get the Core i5 256 GB model, which costs $300 more.  Now, maybe I’m alone here, I can and did pay $200 more for a CPU upgrade and double the storage, but $300 for the same CPU, double the RAM, and double the storage?  Yeah, that’s a bit much, especially when – for what the SP3 is – 256 GB of storage seems pretty unnecessary.  I have a microSD card, One Drive, Google Drive, Drop Box, external hard drives…I really don’t need 256 GB of storage on a tablet.  Oh, but Microsoft says this is a laptop, so I guess that’s why.  And, if this was a laptop, I’d probably want 256 GB of storage, but it’s not.

Extra room required by kickstand not a problem in my lap, but I'm 6'1"

Extra room required by kickstand not a problem in my lap, but I’m 6’1″

So let’s get into that, just so we’re clear on why the SP3 is not a laptop.  If you are short, you have a short lap.  If you are in school and are in a lecture hall, you may have used those “desks” with the writing areas that are just big enough for a small Scantron sheet and just about nothing else.  If you’ve flown, you’ve seen how small tray tables are.  All of these are places you could use a laptop (even on those crappy lecture hall desks), but not a Surface Pro 3.  With the kickstand, the SP3 needs extra room to be able to stand up.  There is no hinge, so no friction.  Without being at an obtuse angle to the Type Cover, the SP3 will collapse onto the Type Cover.  I wouldn’t have much of an issue will calling the SP3 a “notebook” computer, because it actually kind of feels more like a notebook than a laptop does, and I was never really a big fan of calling laptops “notebooks.” Names should reflect characteristics, right?

By the way, the SP3 maxes out at $1,949 for a Core i7 and 512 GB of storage.  That is really, truly premium laptop pricing for a device that I can’t consider a laptop.  Generally speaking, I feel like each configuration of the SP3 should be about $200 less than they retail for.  That said, I don’t regret spending the money I spent on mine, it’s just an observation on pricing.  I feel nearly identical about MacBook Pros (finally, a commonality!), but the reason people still buy both of these devices is simple: they stand nearly alone in what they do.  No matter how close the hardware competition is for MacBook Pros, those competitors don’t run OS X, and that’s one of the key selling points.  Similarly, there’s just not another device out there that does what the SP3 does as gracefully as Microsoft’s own device.  Lenovo’s Yoga Pro 3 may come close, but whereas the Surface is more of a tablet than a laptop, the Yoga is more of a laptop than a tablet.  Similar, but different.

Windows is not so good at text scaling, sometimes (left) and pretty good at it other times (right)

Windows is not so good at text scaling, sometimes (left) and pretty good at it other times (right)

Now, here’s the surprise for this review: Windows 8.1 is brilliant on this thing.  I know, this should be obvious, but really, wow.  Windows 8.1 shines on touchscreen devices, way more than you’d think.  I love running “modern” (previously called “metro”) applications on this thing.  I love the live tiles and I love playing with arranging them just right.  If Microsoft had released Windows 8 for touchscreens and only included the new start screen there, leaving the old style start menu on a separate version of Windows 8 for non-touch devices, Windows 8 would’ve been a smash hit.  Like, wow.  It’s so freaking good I can’t even believe it.  It’s not perfect (get your text scaling game on point in desktop mode, Microsoft!), but man, is it good!  The Windows app store is kind of barren, but the big names like Facebook and Twitter both have truly remarkable apps there that are worth using over just visiting in a browser.  Now if only Google would stop pretending like Microsoft doesn’t exist…

Have I mentioned how freaking cool this kickstand is?

Have I mentioned how freaking cool this kickstand is?

I don’t want to give the Surface Pro 3 a __ out of 10-style rating.  Not now, at least.  I want to use this thing much more extensively and get a feel for how this device will continue to integrate in my life, especially since I don’t plan on giving up my laptop any time soon.  I was planning on buying a new MacBook Pro or Air next year, but now I’m sort of putting that on the backburner – not because the SP3 has taken its place, but because I don’t want to spend that much money on computers in such a short amount of time.  For right now, I will just say that the Surface Pro 3 is a very solid device that really brings “cool” back to Microsoft, so to speak.  This odd “convertible” category is in such infancy at this point that I can’t say the SP3 is a slam dunk purchase for anyone looking for a tablet or a laptop, but if you understand the caveats of this category and you’re on the edge, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.  Truly, the Surface is closer to being what I wanted out of the original iPad than anything else on the market; an awesome tablet that also runs a full-fledged operating system.

Nexus 7/Android initial review

I’ve been considering a Nexus 7 install in my car for multiple reasons: as I’ve mentioned, the standard nav unit in the BRZ is terrible for basically everything, and to be able to put an updateable and clean replacement in there would be sweet.  Most head units have resistive touchscreens, and they’re just terrible.  That, plus the lure of a tech challenge, drew me into wanting to try the car install.  Then, T-Mobile went and announced 200 MB of free data per month to any tablet owner, so I bit the bullet and bought a 2nd generation Nexus 7 with LTE.  I am still planning on putting it in my car, but I did end up liking it a lot for it’s intended purpose as a non-car device.

This is my first Android device, so I will be comparing it a lot to iOS.  I’ve never had an Android device because I never had a desire for one, and the car install was really the perfect application of Android, as iOS is simply not as customizable as I would need it to be.

First, the hardware is really solid.  It feels like a good device when you hold it, and that’s important to me.  It’s light and thin, and it’s easy to hold with one hand or easy to type on with two hands the same way I’d type on my phone.  My first generation iPad is not easy to hold with one hand, nor is it easy to type on in that orientation.  The 7″ form factor may be a little small for some people, but it is honestly the perfect size to hold.  In comparison, I went to the Apple store today and held an iPad mini, and it felt just a little too wide.  Not a big deal for two-handed typing, but it is harder to hold with one hand unless you have huge hands.

The Nexus 7 does not have any physical buttons other than the sleep/wake button and the volume button.  This makes the face of the device harder to orient if you’re picking it up when the screen is off, and it is also pretty inconvenient to have to press the sleep/wake button on the side to wake the screen.  I think the device could benefit from a front button to give the user some orientation of top and bottom, and also to wake the screen with less effort.

As far as the operating system goes, I’m still getting used to it and I’m constantly picking out little details that I like or don’t like.  For example, to select a space between characters in iOS, you have to place your finger over the space and a little magnifying glass pops up under your finger so you can see what you’re selecting.  Oftentimes, this turns out to be highly inaccurate, and right as I find the space I want to select, I let go and the selection changes at the last second.  On Android, you begin the same way, but an arrow is placed under the space.  You simply let go and drag the arrow to the space you want to select.  This is, in my opinion, a vastly superior way to handle this task.

The touch screen is very accurate on the Nexus 7, and the device is very speedy, but yet, scrolling seems jumpy, and zooming oftentimes is not very smooth.  On iOS, scrolling and zooming are booth fluid.  It may seem like a little thing, but this honestly needs refinement on Android.

The Google Play store is…interesting.  The first app I tried to download turned out to be a trial app, and I didn’t even realize it until I opened the app.  This is my fault for not completely reading the description, but it took me by surprise.  Some of the apps are ridiculously sketchy, too.  I downloaded a live wallpaper that – when I opened it – would’ve made me scared if it was a website and I was on a PC using Internet Explorer.  It looked and felt like malware.  This is just not an experience you get on iOS, which, of course, has its ups and downs.  Apple’s “walled garden” is nice for feeling safe, even if you know that some things can still slip by Apple.  You also know you’re not getting a shitty app, for the most part.  It may not be a good app, but it won’t look and feel like malware.  This, of course, also means Apple can say no to a lot of really good apps for whatever reason they want, which is bad.  On Android, you don’t have to even use the Google Play store to install apps.

Many apps instantly pop up a changelog when you open them on Android.  In iOS, the changelog is available in the app update screen.  The more user-friendly and less intrusive approach here is Apple’s, hands down, but I feel like a lot of techies probably would prefer Android’s method.  I personally only sometimes look at changelogs and much prefer Apple’s method – the option to look only if I choose to look.

I’m torn on whether or not widgets are awesome or awful.  They’re essentially the entire reason I am using an Android device, since they make a “car interface” possible without a dedicated app or programming skills.  On the other hand, some of them are just…bad.  They don’t seem to stretch like you’d expect them to when you resize them, and the ones that do pixelate badly.  I feel like this may be due to some widgets being developed for smaller screens (phones), so this is probably an example of Android’s fragmentation causing a poor user experience.  On the flip side, I’d rather be able to use the pixelated widgets than be told I can’t because they’re not “compatible” with my device.  I feel like there must be some kind of middle ground here, but I don’t see either Google or Apple moving toward it since both of their models are working for them.

There are certain things about Android that you can change that you can’t even begin to affect on iOS without jailbreaking your device.  You can root your Android device, but I don’t plan on doing this.  I did replace the stock launcher app, though, which gives me the ability to add gestures and hide the dock, which you can’t do on iOS.  I’ve done the whole jailbreaking thing back in the 3GS days, and though you gain functionality, you lose the refinement and stability of the device.  While I may not lose refinement that doesn’t really exist on such a pedestal on Android, I am concerned about stability – especially since the Nexus will be mounted behind my dash panel, as long as I go through with the car install.

All in all, it’s a great device.  And if you’re buying the 16 GB Nexus 7 without LTE capability, unless there’s some reason you need iOS, I can’t see any reason to pay almost double for an iPad Mini ($229 vs $399).  That said, I’m still of the opinion that iOS provides a better user experience.