iPhone X: The Audacity of Function Over Form

Introduction

The last time I reviewed an iPhone, Mitt Romney was running for president, Nokia was still making phones, and Google owned Motorola. While I’ve continued to use and enjoy Apple’s phones in the interim, none of them has inspired me to take to my keyboard and bang out a full review. But it’s 2017, I have been using the iPhone X for a month, and I have a lot to say about it. So buckle up, because this is easily the most interesting hardware that Apple has released in a long time.

Farewell iPhone SE

My last iPhone was the smaller SE model and I continue to prefer the feel of that device in my hand to its larger brethren. When it was introduced in March of 2016 the SE was incredible value for money. Its processor was identical to that in the iPhone 6S and with a few exceptions it was the larger phone’s equal while boasting better battery life. But if you want the latest and greatest that Apple has to offer a year and a half on, the SE just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. Its camera is now meaningfully inferior, its performance lags that of the flagship models, and the battery life gap has closed. Had Apple chosen to keep the balance of features more in line with how it was in early 2016, I suspect I’d still be rocking an SE, but they didn’t, so I’ve said farewell to that lovely form factor for now.

Physical Design      

The iPhone X is slightly bigger than the iPhones 6,7, and 8 although in the hand this difference not really noticeable. What you will notice immediately is the all new edge-to-edge 5.8’’ display. In a first for Apple, the iPhone X’s display is an OLED panel. OLED screen technology has been around for many years and Apple’s competitors have been using it in their phones for a while now. But until this year, Apple stubbornly insisted on LCD panels for all of their phones. So how does the iPhone X’s OLED screen look? Incredible. It brings all of the advantages of OLED-inky blacks, infinite contrast ratios, and overall lower power consumption-while mitigating the traditional disadvantages-severe off-axis color shifts, over-saturation, and burn-in.

Full Screen.jpg

In order to achieve this edge-to-edge marvel, Apple made two consequential design decisions. On the bottom of the device, they removed the iconic home button that has been with the iPhone from day one and on top they introduced a sensor brow that awkwardly cuts into the top of the screen. I’ll get to the cascade of changes that these decisions yielded shortly, but for now, understand that the screen, while stunning to look at, is an odd shape.

The front and the back of the X is glass, which hearkens back to the iPhone 4’s classic design language and the side-mounted sleep-wake button is larger than on previous iPhones. On the back, there is a very large vertical camera bump that makes the phone sit unevenly when placed back down down on a flat surface. On the bottom, there are speaker grills and the lightning port. This is the third generation of phone for which Apple has omitted the headphone jack and they don’t seem to have any regrets about the decision. There are two color options for the X: Silver and Space Grey and to my lights the former is by far the more attractive option. Overall, the iPhone X looks great and feels premium, which it should, given the fact that this is the first iPhone to start at $1,000.

Xv8 Size.jpg

Replacing the Home Button

To fully appreciate the set of design challenges that Apple faced when they chose to remove the home button from the iPhone X, a quick review of that button’s functions is in order. Place your finger on the home button of any iPhone made in the last 4 years and you will unlock the device with Touch ID. This same finger placement will allow you to use Apple Pay as well as authenticate for password managers, banking, and any other app that takes advantage of Touch ID. Press once on the home button no matter where you are in the interface and the phone will take you back to the home screen. Press twice and you enter multitasking. Double tap on the home button of the 4.7 and 5.5 inch phones and the top of the interface will slide halfway down the screen, making it easier to reach with one hand. Press and hold the home button and you will invoke Siri. In short, the home button has a dizzying array of functions mapped to it and every single one of them had to be rethought on the iPhone X.

Face ID

Notch.jpg

Touch ID, especially in its second generation incarnation, was fast, easy to use, and very reliable. To replace it, Apple introduced its own proprietary facial recognition system. Face ID is fast, but not Touch ID fast, and it brings with it some catches. Some of the more immediately felt include the limit of one face per phone and the fact that you have to be holding the phone vertically and at a certain distance from your face for it to work.

Despite the catches, Face ID is impressive. It’s forgiving with angles, it works in total darkness as well as in direct sunlight, and it doesn’t care whether I’m wearing a bike helmet and sunglasses, or if my beard grows. In day-to-day use, Face ID is definitely more temperamental than Touch ID, but not worrying about whether my fingers are wet when I unlock my phone-Touch ID's famous Achilles heel-has gone a long way in making it feel like a wash.

So what about the other Touch ID functions? Apple Pay is now invoked by double pressing the sleep/wake button and the authentication that Touch ID used to provide for that service as well as password managers and banking apps is now handled by Face ID. A really nice bonus here is that Keychain, Apple’s built-in password manager has Face ID support implemented in a way that obviates the need to ever enter username and password information in mobile Safari. Just navigate to a website where you have an account, tap on the Keychain button that appears, and your username and password will automatically be filled in following a quick Face ID authentication.

The promise of Face ID is that eventually it will be fast enough to just work in the background without the user noticing it, thereby providing an ideal balance of security and convenience. We’re not there yet, but Apple got closer on this first shot than I thought possible and it really is a mind-blowing display of technological prowess.

Gestures

To replace all of the other uses of the home button, Apple introduced a series of gestures. Swipe up from the bottom of the screen anywhere in the interface to get back to the home screen. Swipe up and hold for a beat and after some subtle haptic feedback you will be presented with multitasking. For easier multitasking simply swipe right and left on the bottom of the screen to switch between recently used apps. Pull down on the home screen dock to invoke reachability. Swipe down to the right of the notch to get control center and swipe down anywhere to the left of that right horn to get notifications. Hold the sleep-wake button down to invoke Siri.

The gestures, for the most part are a home run. Apple clearly spent a lot of effort on the animations and the result is an experience that is so fluid that it feels inevitable. Given that I’ve been using a home button for ten years straight, I expected the learning curve for these gestures to be steeper, but I needn’t have worried. Within two days of learning the motions, they were second nature. The exceptions are the reachability gesture, which for ergonomic reasons I think no one with average-sized hands should be using anyway and the control center down-swipe. The latter feels a lot more cumbersome than the old swipe up. Oh, and the hard reset key combination, which used to be holding down the sleep/wake button and the home button at the same time, is now a little ridiculous: Quick press volume up, quick press volume down, and long press sleep/wake until the Apple logo appears. No bueno.

Media Playback and Phone Calls

For the past few years, Apple has been focusing a fair amount of effort on improving the speakers across all of their devices. The iPhone X benefits from this effort as its speakers sound really good even at full volume. In fact, at full volume I found them to be good enough to listen to while doing dishes. Video playback is also good, but here the strange dimensions of the screen make themselves felt. Many of the early reviews seemed to indicate that in practice, the sensor notch disappears and is a non-issue. This is true when holding the phone vertically. Apple put the time and system indicators over black to the left and right of the brow, and this helps to mask it in portrait orientation. But turn the phone horizontally and that notch stands out like an incompetent narcissist running the Executive branch. The iPhone X gives you a choice in this orientation for video playback. Either watch content in its correct aspect ratio and have black pillars framing your screen, or zoom in to fill the entirety of the screen and have the notch literally block a portion of the visible content.

Phone calls are clearer on the iPhone X than on any phone I have ever used. This is especially nice when using the speakerphone, which is finally loud enough for my tastes.

Cameras

Over the past few years, there has been a silent revolution brewing in mobile photography. As our phones have gotten exponentially more powerful, camera engineers in the big tech firms have been coming up with increasingly novel ways to improve the image quality coming out of these tiny sensors. This new era of computational photography makes the job of reviewing smartphone cameras complicated. Today, every flagship phone also bakes retouching into its pictures. Think of it like having a really quick Photoshop technician working on every image as you take it.

When I got my iPhone X, I had a number of burning questions about the cameras: How close would they come to the image quality of traditional cameras? How do Apple’s photographic tastes line up with my own? Is the iPhone finally capable of producing usable video? To answer these questions, I spent a few weeks shooting photos and video with the iPhone X. Here’s what I learned.

Still Photography

The iPhone X has two rear-facing cameras, one that has a field of view equivalent to 28mm, and one that is equivalent to 52mm. Both are 12 Megapixels and both have optical image stabilization. The wide-angle camera lets more light in with its fixed 1.8 aperture lens than the “telephoto” which sports a fixed 2.4 aperture lens. The images that come out of the iPhone X are impressive. The colors pop, the details are sharp, and all things being equal, they can look as good as the images coming out of cameras that cost thousands of dollars.

Now this is still a phone, which means that the sensor is tiny compared to what you would find even in a decent point-and-shoot. This means that the image processor in the iPhone has less light, dynamic range, and depth of field to work with. The camera engineers at Apple are of course aware of this and they do all sorts of tricks to compensate for it. In low light situations, they have the phone boost the sensor’s sensitivity and then apply noise reduction. In high contrast situations, they have the phone take multiple exposures and then use tone mapping to create a single HDR image. And for depth of field, they have the phone measure the distance between the photons hitting the two sensors, create a depth map, and add varying degrees of artificial blur to the final image to mimic the shallow depth of field that larger sensors produce.

What Apple is trying to do here is make it more likely than ever that the average iPhone user can get great looking photos every time. It’s hard to argue with the results. The iPhone X is easily the smartest point-and-shoot camera in the history of photography and amateur photographers will take better pictures on an iPhone X than they will on any other camera. But what about the non-amateur? As it happens, I fit neatly into this category and I find some of the moves that the engineers made here to be objectionable. My main gripes have to do with highlight rendering, sharpening, and noise reduction. I find that the built-in camera is too precious about preserving skin tones and as a result, it all too often blows the highlights. I also think it adds a little too much mid-tone contrast, which gives images an overly-sharpened look. Finally, in low light situations, the camera app tends to be too aggressive when it comes to noise reduction, leading to a look that can start to feel like an Impressionist painting upon closer inspection. Having said that, none of these issues have stopped me from using the iPhone X for serious photography, because it’s very easy to download one of the dozens of apps that allows you to bypass all of this processing and shoot in RAW. Shooting this way makes the iPhone a credible professional-quality camera, albeit one with all the limitations of a small sensor. 

Perhaps my most anticipated feature of the iPhone X camera system was portrait mode. When the feature was introduced last year as an  iPhone 7 Plus exclusive I was green with envy. I knew that the plus size would never be right for me, but I wanted the feature something awful. Well I have it now and it’s incredible. Take a look at these two pictures. One was taken with the iPhone X. The other with a Sony A7Sii with a 55mm Zeiss lens. I challenge you to tell me which one was taken with which system. Damned if I can tell without cheating.

Now it’s important to understand that these were taken in ideal lighting conditions and when you shoot in less than ideal lighting, it doesn’t work quite as well.

The really cool thing about portrait mode on the iPhone is that you can see the effect in the viewfinder as you compose the shot. There are no controls to adjust it-although there are already third-party apps available that do give you that flexibility-but you can see how well it’s working as you take the picture. Once you snap the shot, the phone keeps an image with and without the effect applied and it’s really easy to switch between them. While the effect has obviously been optimized for human faces, I’ve had some success with cats and even some more abstract compositions.

In addition to the original portrait mode, Apple also introduced a whole bunch of portrait lighting modes that are designed to replicate the lighting that portrait photographers use in studio. These modes are still in beta and I found them to be underwhelming, but the progress that Apple has made in a single year with the original feature should have the big camera manufacturers shaking in their boots. When it works, it produces images that look very close to what you can get from a DSLR with some nice glass. The writing is on the wall.

So what about the front-facing camera? Well at 7 megapixels, it’s not nearly as good as the rear-facing cameras, but with the new true-depth system that Apple implemented to support Face ID, it does gain , for the first time, all of the portrait modes. In my testing, it does a pretty credible job at the depth effect, although with a wide-angle field of view, it will never produce as flattering a portrait as the 52mm equivalent rear facing camera.

IMG_0317.jpg

A final word here on something that most people won’t notice, but everyone using an iPhone will appreciate. With this latest generation of iPhone, Apple introduced a new image format called HEIC. It is meant to maintain the quality of the old JPEG format in about half the average file size. Some early reviewers said that their HEIC pictures were of lower quality than their JPEG’s from the new iPhones. In my testing, while I could see some subtle differences at 100% magnification, they did not add up to a difference in perceptual quality. This is a big win for consumers, who will now be able to keep roughly twice the number of pictures on their phones with no loss in quality.

The bottom line is that no matter who is taking pictures with it, the iPhone X is capable of producing some seriously beautiful images. Having the two focal lengths is really useful. Not only does it allow for the amazing portrait mode, but it also is really nice to have what we photographers like to consider a “normal” field of view, in addition to the standard wide-angle.

Video Recording

Video recording on the iPhone X is what I would consider acceptable. This is largely thanks to the optical image stabilization on the two lenses, which on a device that’s this small makes the difference between usable footage and garbage. I found the low light performance from both cameras to be impressive, although the autofocus system isn’t as foolproof as I would like and I haven’t been able to think of a good excuse. The smaller sensor size should make autofocus a breeze, especially with Apple’s industry-leading A11 Bionic chip powering the phone. The A11 does, however, allow for some truly impressive slow motion. The iPhone X can shoot 4K at 60 frames per second, a feat that many professional video cameras cannot boast. Unfortunately, the new HEVC codec that Apple is using to achieve this frame rate is not yet supported in most editing applications, including Apple’s own Final Cut Pro X. This makes working with the files a pain as they have to be transcoded to be of any use. Below is a little montage that I put together of footage taken on the iPhone X. Everything is straight out of the camera, without color correction or grading and I think it's representative of what you can expect to get out of the video cameras. 

Could one shoot a feature-length film on an iPhone X? Sure. Would I want to? I wouldn’t choose to use this tool for that kind of a job unless the content cried out for it, but the prospect of incorporating iPhone footage into a film makes more sense now than it ever has. Before we move on from the cameras, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the face-tracking features of the True Depth camera system. In addition to Face ID and selfie portrait mode, the front facing camera system allows for very fine-grained facial tracking. Apple chose to show this off with a feature called “Animoji” which are animated faces that you can send to your friends on iMessage that record your voice, track your facial muscles, and mimic your expressions. Animoji demo really well, but I’m confident that the real potential of having facial tracking on the phone has yet to be realized and I look forward to seeing what third-party developers do with it.

Battery Life

Battery life on the iPhone X is better than what I was getting on my one and a half year old iPhone SE. Obviously the relative age of the two devices is relevant and I remember when the SE was new and its battery life was closer to that of the iPhone X, but even then it was not quite as good. A combination of the OLED display and Apple’s new attention awareness features has made the battery life of the X respectable. Everyone uses their phone differently so take my numbers with a grain of Kosher salt, but I’ve been getting 12 hours during a heavy day of use and 20 hours on a normal day from the iPhone X.

Multiple Charging Methods

There are multiple ways to charge the iPhone X. You can charge it with the included wall wart, you can charge it “wirelessly,”i.e. by setting it down on any inductive charging surface that supports the Qi standard, and you can “fast charge” it. Given the price of the iPhone X, I think it’s inexcusable that Apple didn’t include either a fast charger or a Qi charger in the box. These are add-on accessories that you have to purchase separately to enjoy their benefits.

DSC09083.jpg

While disappointing, it should come as no surprise that the 5W in-the-box wall charger and the inductive mat are the slowest methods of charging the iPhone X. It should also come as no surprise that the 30W Anker charger and the 61W MacBook Pro charger were the quickest at getting the phone to 75%. What was a bit of a surprise was the 12W iPad charger. While it couldn’t quite keep up in the first hour, by the 80 minute mark it had caught up to its higher wattage siblings and tied the MacBook Pro charger in getting to 100%. On the wireless side of things, I should note that I recently installed iOS 11.2 which brought with it 7.5W wireless charging. In my tests, the update didn't make any real difference in wireless charging speeds. I got to 100% 5 minutes quicker than I did with the 5W inductive charge pictured above, but I consider that to be well within the margin of error for my testing methodology.

Untitled.jpg

So what’s the upshot of all this? If you want to take advantage of fast charging on the iPhone X you will need to pop for a USB-C to Lightning cable. Currently, the only way to get this is to buy it from Apple for $25. You will also need to buy a fast charge capable power brick. Anker sells the above 30W fast charging USB-C power brick for $27.99. So for the absolute quickest charging at the cheapest price, you’re looking at $52.99 before tax. But given the above results, it’s hard to argue with $19 all-in for Apple’s iPad charger. All you need is the brick and you can get to 100% charge almost as quickly as you can with the fast charging solutions. As a bonus to all you travelers out there, the 12W iPad charger is also compatible with Apple’s international adapters.

The Ethics of Purchasing an iPhone in 2017

In my last iPhone review, I introduced a section on ethics, because I had become aware of the horrendous conditions under which iPhones were manufactured. I concluded that buying an iPhone is problematic in the same way it’s problematic to purchase many products in our global economy and that this means we need to put pressure on Apple and other companies to insist that their suppliers improve conditions for their labor force. In the interim, the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for their iEconomy series, Apple claims to have cracked down on labor violations, and as I had hoped back in 2012, a real journalist managed to sneak into a Foxconn factory. So where do things stand today?

It’s complicated is the honest answer. Apple will tell you that they conduct regular audits of their suppliers and that they are making steady progress which you can read about in their annual Supplier Responsibility Progress reports. Labor activists like those at China Labor Watch will tell you that the conditions have not really improved and putting together iPhones is still terrible work. The aforementioned journalist, Brian Merchant, describes what he saw at Foxconn in his book, “The One Device,” as follows:

“No, there were no child laborers with bleeding hands pleading at the windows. There were a number of things that would surely violate U.S. OSHA code-unprotected construction workers, open chemical spillage, decaying, rusted structures, and so on-but there are probably a lot of things at U.S. factories that would violate OSHA code too…Foxconn was not our stereotypical conception of a sweatshop. But there was a different kind of ugliness. For whatever reason-the rules imposing silence on the factory floors, its pervasive reputation for tragedy, or the general feeling of unpleasantness the environment itself imparts-Longhua felt heavy, even oppressively subdued.”

What everyone seems to agree on is that the attention brought to the issue by publications like the New York Times did have an impact on wages, as well as underage labor and overtime practices. Just this past month, the Financial Times reported on a situation in which Foxconn were taking advantage of student interns and forcing them to work overtime. Apple seems to have successfully pressured Foxconn into taking remedial steps to compensate the students. Merchant also provides real evidence of Apple’s importance in setting the standards for the whole industry. He quotes Li Qiang of China Labor Watch as saying “I had a meeting with Samsung executives[about labor conditions at their suppliers] and they said they would just follow Apple.”

My takeaway from all of this is that pressure works and pressure on Apple leads to changes across the industry. Is this an argument for boycotting Apple products? I don’t think so. In the first place, the violations are not happening at Apple, rather they are happening at the company’s suppliers. But more importantly, Apple does seem to take these issues seriously. And whether that comes from PR sensitivity, a genuine concern for the workers, or both, they are taking meaningful action and can credibly point to real progress on the issue. Which is not to suggest that as consumers we should be complacent. Apple can and should continue to apply pressure and we should let them know that we're watching.

Wrap Up

The iPhone X marks a major turning point in the history of the product line. For the first time in 10 years, Apple has rethought the physical user interface and in so doing reimagined how its iconic phone should be used. When the iPhones got bigger in 2014, I was expecting a redesign of the user interface to accommodate for the new form factor. Surely, I mused, Apple understood the ergonomic difference between a 4’’ phone and a 4.7’’ phone in the hand! My confidence was misplaced. While the 5.5’’ iPhone 6 Plus did get some user interface tweaks, the 4.7’’ iPhone 6 did not, with the exception of the relocated sleep/wake button.

The iPhone X’s new gesture-based navigation makes this size class more usable. The 5.8’’ OLED display, while not an unmitigated win for content consumption, is the best quality display I have ever held in my hand. More importantly, with the iPhone X Apple is making a statement. The device is thicker and heavier than its predecessors, but it has better battery life. Its glass back makes it more prone to damage from drops, but allows for inductive charging. It has a more prominent and asymmetrical camera bump, but this makes room for optical image stabilization on both lenses. It sports an unsightly unibrow, but this is where the True Depth system and Face ID live. Given the recent vector of Cupertino’s design decisions, none of these trade-offs were foregone conclusions. I can only imagine what kind of a gut check it took to embrace all of these real aesthetic shortcomings for the sake of a better, more usable product. The statement Apple is making with the iPhone X is that function is sometimes more important than form and that is a hell of a relief given the recent history of the company. If you want the very best handheld computer that money can buy, look no further than the iPhone X.

NB: Special thanks to Pennie Ungar-Sargon, Michal Rogson, Amira Hasenbush, and Grey Blavin for their help with this review.

The iPad 10.5: First Look

I had a chance today to swing by an Apple Store and try out the new 10.5’’ iPad Pro. It’s very close in size and weight to last year’s 9.7’’ model. So much so that I understand why they chose to phase out the smaller model from the pro line up. The screen is fast and responsive, but not as responsive as some of the early adopters have claimed. If you scroll a web page quickly, for example, there’s still motion blur just less than there used to be. Where the new screen makes a more significant contribution is in the apparent performance of the Apple Pencil. We’re at the point now where the differences between using the iPad with Apple Pencil and using a pen and paper are down to the feeling of the materials rather than the responsiveness of the technology. I know that iPad sales appear to be in a somewhat disturbing death spiral, but with iOS 11, I really think that this new hardware will be a credible laptop replacement for the vast majority of consumers come fall. The changes that Apple have brought to the iPad’s hardware and software show that they still believe in this platform as the future of personal computing. I think they’re definitely on to something here and I’m encouraged that they are still expending effort in this space. It’s early days, but I suspect I’ll be recommending iPads to many more people in the not-too-distant future as primary computers.

AirPods Review

When Phil Schiller took the stage at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, he had a difficult job ahead of him. Apple had just announced its new iPhone 7 line and he was tasked with defending one of the company’s most controversial design decisions in over a decade. Since the very first iPhone in 2007, Apple had built a standard headphone jack into every model of their wildly popular smartphone. The rumors had been flying for almost a year that they had decided to remove this ubiquitous port and the anger was palpable. The rumors, this time, were spot on.

Schiller’s defense came in waves. First, he reassured the audience that an adapter for existing headphones would be included with every iPhone 7 shipped. Then he moved on to address the issue directly:“Now some people have asked why we would remove the analogue headphone jack from the iPhone. I mean it’s been with us a really long time. I’m sure you know that the source of the mini-phono jack is over a hundred years old used to quickly exchange in switch boards. Well the reason to move on-I’m going to give you three of them, but it really comes down to one word: Courage. The courage to move on and do something new that betters all of us. And our team has tremendous courage.”

The courage line was mocked mercilessly in the media for weeks to come. Despite the sincerity of its delivery, Schiller's spirited defense came across as hyperbolic at best and out-of-touch with reality at worst, but it got me thinking. According to Aristotle, courage, like all virtues, lies in between two extremes. At the one end of the spectrum is brashness (thrasus), and on the other end, fear (phobos). The courageous person knows when it is appropriate to be bold and when it is appropriate to be afraid. Does removing the headphone jack from the iPhone qualify as courage or is it an instance of brashness? I think the answer to that question depends largely on how successful Apple is in realizing its vision for wireless audio and the AirPods are their first articulation of this vision.

The Problem of Wireless

If we were to think about headphones knowing nothing about their real-world constraints, I think we would obviously prefer them to be wireless. In other words, the idea of having independent objects that we place in our ears is obviously preferable, all things being equal, to having these objects in our ears tethered by wires to our devices. This idea is so compelling that a robust market for bluetooth headphones that do away with the wire that connects the earphones to the device, but keeps the wire between the earphones, exists.

Why doesn’t everyone use bluetooth headphones given the obvious appeal of fewer wires? Setting aside the unavoidable issue of price, I think it comes down to the following four issues:

First, you need to pair the bluetooth headphones to your device in a frustratingly laborious process that is far less user-friendly or reliable than the simple act of sticking a connector into a headphone jack. Second, as a result of bluetooth headphones’ reliance on a wireless connection, the sound will from time to time drop out while you are listening. This is a problem that afflicts some sets worse than others, but none are immune. Third, in order to maintain as consistent a connection as possible, bluetooth audio is compressed and this negatively impacts the way the audio sounds. Finally, wireless headphones rely on batteries to work which means that you have yet another device to worry about charging.

My question when I first got my hands on the AirPods was simple. How many of these problems has Apple managed to solve?

Pairing

When it comes to pairing, the AirPods are really great. Hold the charging case near a device running iOS 10 or later, flip open the lid and tap connect. It’s easier than plugging a connector into a headphone jack and the cherry on top is that it then automatically pairs to any Apple device logged into the same iCloud account. This is Apple at its finest. They took an awful, clunky process and made it delightful and easy.

Reliability

To address the issue of reliability, Apple developed an in-house chip called the W1. This chip is Apple’s hardware answer to the performance problems that have plagued bluetooth since its inception. I’m happy to report that it’s another home run. The AirPods are easily the most reliable bluetooth headphones I have ever used. On occasion, I do hear a tiny echo as the individual earbuds sync and they are still not as rock solid as wired headphones, but I’d say that they are 98% of the way to the reliability of wired headphones. And they have very good range on top of that. I have to get roughly 80 feet away from my phone before the signal starts to cut out.

Sound Quality

The sound quality of the AirPods is adequate. They don’t sound great and they don’t sound terrible. They’re just okay with Apple's signature emphasis on mids and neither the highs nor the lows getting much love. I’ve listened to bluetooth headphones that sound better and I’ve listened to bluetooth headphones that sound worse. Whatever hardware magic is happening with the W1 chip, it is obvious that these are bluetooth headphones that sacrifice quality for reliability. If most of your listening time is devoted to music, there are better options out there. For podcasts and audiobooks, however, the AirPods are perfectly serviceable.

The Charging Case

The charging case, which is roughly the size and shape of a container of dental floss, is a very elegant solution to three separate problems. The first, as I’ve already mentioned, is the pairing process. Flip open the case, and you’re ready to go. The second is the problem of losing something as small as an individual AirPod. When you take them out of your ears, you are encouraged to place them in the case by the clever way in which the magnets to suck them into position. It’s just plain fun to do and it’s much easier to keep track of the case than the individual earbuds. The third problem that the case solves is battery life. The AirPods are tiny and together they can give you up to 5 hours of playback. But when you put them back in the case, they recharge. With a fully charged set of AirPods and charging case, you get a combined total of 24 hours of battery life. This mitigates the need to constantly have the headphones plugged in when they’re not in use and has made battery life a non-issue for me.

Fit and Comfort

I find the AirPods to be extremely comfortable. Your milage will vary on this as everyone has differently shaped ears and I really wish Apple had avoided a one-size-fits-all approach here. The AirPods are Apple’s second wearable computer. How cool would it have been if they had set up audiology stations much like the Apple Watch stations at every Apple Store where you could get custom-molded tips for the AirPods? On the other hand, the fact that the AirPods don’t really create any kind of seal with your ear canal, means that you have more situational awareness when walking around in the world. This makes them great for walking outside in urban areas, although they don’t read socially like headphones, so you’ll notice people trying to talk to you when they’re in. The AirPods are now my workout headphones and unlike their wired brethren, they have never fallen out of my ears during a workout. They have also very quickly become my new favorite way to take long phone calls, thanks to some noise-cancelling magic that they are able to pull off with the two microphones.

New Problems

While the AirPods seem to have solved quite a few of the issues that have plagued bluetooth headphones, they have also introduced a new category of problem. In order to make them so small, Apple was either unwilling or unable to put basic physical controls on the earbuds. Instead, they chose to rely on a combination of gestures and Siri to get the job done. Removing an AirPod from your ear will pause playback and putting it back in will resume playback. This is a clever idea that works well when you’re out shopping and you want to interact with a salesperson. For volume control, you need to double tap on one of the AirPods to invoke Siri and say “Volume Up” or “Volume Down”. I find this to be the weakest part of the AirPods experience. First of all, the gesture isn’t reliable enough for something as basic as volume control. Second, double tapping on the AirPod generates discomfort. But worst of all, you are forced to interrupt whatever it is you’re listening to every time you want to change the volume. A workaround for these new problems is to use the Apple Watch to control playback and volume, which is what I do, but even this is an inferior experience to the physical buttons that all other bluetooth headsets offer. Not to mention that those who don’t sport an Apple Watch are out of luck.

Wrap Up

As a first articulation of Apple’s vision for wireless audio, the AirPods are a remarkable achievement. The tech giant has managed, once again, to solve a whole series of existing technological problems in a mostly elegant way that materially improves the user experience. Many of these benefits can only be enjoyed when the AirPods are used in conjunction with other Apple products, but the improved reliability gains of the W1 chip extend to any device that supports bluetooth. These headphones are not for audiophiles. If sound quality is your number one priority, I'd still recommend that you look at a set of wired headphones. But the convenience factor of the AirPods proposition is so compelling that I find myself using them for everything but serious music listening and audio/video work. I think it’s too early to judge whether Apple’s removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone was courage or brashness, but overall, the AirPods are a strong supporting argument for it being the former rather than the latter.

Apple Watch Review

The Apple Watch has landed. It's Apple's first new product category since the iPad(2010) and the company's first new user interface since the iPhone(2007). But unlike previous product launches, Apple is struggling to come up with a coherent marketing message for their wearable. A legitimate question that I often hear is "Why would I need an Apple Watch if I already have a smartphone?"That ordinary people are asking this question half a year after Apple announced the product is evidence that the company has done a poor job telling its story. What I realized when my watch finally arrived was that I had three specific questions:

1) Is it a good watch?

2) Do I want to walk around with a small computer strapped to my wrist?

3) Is Apple's implementation of wearable computing compelling?

I've been living with the Apple watch for two weeks now and here are my answers.

Question 1: Is it a good watch?

The way I see it, a good watch needs to do three things:

A. Tell the time

B. Be comfortable

C. Be fashionable

In terms of telling the time, the Apple Watch is a bit of a mixed bag. As a result of battery constraints, Apple chose to keep the watch screen off by default until it is activated. This puts the Apple Watch at a disadvantage when compared to all traditional watches and even some smartwatches, because the time is not always visible. To address this concern, the Apple Watch's gorgeous display turns on when you raise your wrist to your face, but this gesture doesn't work consistently and often requires an exaggerated arm movement. Moreover, the screen never stays on for more than a 15 second interval unless you are directly manipulating it. This is a big knock on the Apple Watch as a watch. I understand that given the current battery technology, it was a necessary compromise, but in the world of traditional watches, battery life is simply a non-issue and part of the Aristotelean definition of a watch is that it persistently tells the time.

As far as comfort goes, I think the Apple Watch is great. During the long waiting period(I placed what must have been one of the very first preorders back in April), I set up a couple of appointments at the Apple Store to try on the various models and band options. Personally, I find the Apple Watch Sport to be the most comfortable. The Sport's body is made of aluminum which makes it lighter than the stainless steel or gold models and the fluoroelastomer band is really nice and supple. I've worn watches for most of my life and I'd go as far as to say that this is the most comfortable watch I've ever had on my wrist.

Unfortunately, I don't find the Apple Watch to be particularly fashionable. I've always preferred circular faced watches and Apple's is both squarer and bulkier than my tastes allow. While beautifully made, it is shaped like a throw pillow and sits a little high on the wrist. And though it is smaller than it appears in Apple's PR images, it's still a little computer strapped to your wrist and the more expensive models and nicer bands don't change this. Simply put, it's thicker than a watch should be. On the other hand, the actual watch faces are very stylish and far more customizable than legacy time pieces. Apple pushes its digital advantage here by giving you control over elements of the watch face like the color of the second hand, or how detailed the numbers are. On some of the faces, it even lets you customize "complications"-little bits of useful information that you can select to always be available on your chosen face. 

Question 2: Do I want to walk around with a small computer strapped to my wrist?

After two weeks of use, I finally see the benefits of wearable computing. The most obvious come in the form of little conveniences. There is a class of interactions that simply makes more sense from the wrist. Having quick access to weather information and sunrise/sunset times(my chosen complications), being able to quickly reply to a text message, fitness tracking, walking directions, paying for groceries, controlling the TV, knowing the minute a delivery arrives, and calling an Uber are all clear arguments for the convenience of wearing a computer on your wrist. It's true that most if not all of these activities can be done with a smartphone, but add up enough of these time-saving advantages and you reach a critical mass. For me, the Apple Watch, even in its current 1.0 state, crosses that threshold with aplomb. It makes these tasks quicker and more convenient than they are on the phone and therefore earns its keep on my wrist.  

Question 3: Is Apple's implementation of wearable computing compelling?

Having accepted that wearing a computer on my wrist makes sense, a separate question is whether Apple's vision for wrist computing is compelling. To answer my final question, I'm going to focus on the Apple Watch interface.

Hardware

The first hardware novelty here is the digital crown. As a result of the small dimensions of the screen, the design gods at Apple recognized that the navigational gestures that work so well on the phone would not work on the watch, because your fingers would either obscure or miss the virtual objects you were trying to manipulate. To solve this problem, they came up with the digital crown, which borrows from the design language of traditional watches. Depending on where you are in the watch's interface, moving the digital crown will either scroll up and down or zoom in and out. It has a nice feel to it and it's clear that a lot of thought went into the precise manner in which it interacts with the watch's interface. The crown also doubles as the main hardware button on the watch, giving you quick access to the multiple levels of the interface(the second button which looks like the sleep/wake button on an iPhone is dedicated to getting you to your favorite contacts and Apple Pay). The digital crown is a welcome innovation. It works flawlessly and feels necessary on a device of such diminutive dimensions.

The second hardware novelty is a feature that goes by the unfortunate name of "Force Touch". The Apple Watch's screen is the first in the company's product lineup that can tell how hard you are pressing on it. This pressure sensitivity is used to provide a whole new plane in the watch's user interface. By literally adding a dimension to the touch screen, Apple has elegantly bought itself extra space on the watch. Depending on where you are in the interface, a force touch will often reveal hidden options. For the most part, it works like a charm, but every now and again, I find myself inadvertently knocking the watch and activating it by mistake. 

The third hardware novelty is what Apple calls its "Taptic Engine". For many years now, our phones have had a vibrate option for times when audible ringing is socially inappropriate. The Apple Watch takes vibrations to the next level. Unlike an ordinary vibrating motor, the Taptic Engine feels more like a series of subtle taps on your wrist. It's more discrete and far quieter than a phone vibration and it's configurable. Apple spent a lot of time designing the patterns of taps so that with a little practice, you can tell by tap pattern alone what your watch is trying to communicate. One series of taps indicates an incoming phone call, another that you are receiving a text message, yet another pattern signals email. One of the most ingenious uses of this feature comes when you are getting walking directions from the watch. A different pattern of taps tells you at the appropriate time whether to turn right or left. Two weeks in, I'm still learning the different patterns, but I'm most of the way there and it's already proving to be a subtle and powerful way of distinguishing notifications without looking at the watch face. 

Software

There are three layers to the Apple Watch's operating system. The primary layer is the watch face. There are ten faces to choose from and some are more configurable than others. If you do choose a watch face that allows for complications, these will appear directly on the face and act as launchers for their respective apps(the weather complication takes you to the weather app, the stopwatch complication takes you to the stopwatch app, and so forth). Swipe up or down on the watch face and you get to the secondary layer. An up swipe gets you to your Glances. These are little cards of useful information as well as some controls for the watch and phone. You choose how many of these you want and in what order they appear through the companion iPhone app. A down swipe on the watch face gets you to your notifications.

Notifications are one of the Apple Watch's marquee features. It should be stated that the way iOS handles notifications leaves a lot to be desired. Until a few years ago, the user had almost no control over which notifications appeared and even the latest iterations of iOS have been rife with the unwanted intrusion of rogue notifications. The Apple Watch largely solves this problem. It took me a good 4 days to understand which notifications I did and did not want to appear on my wrist. What I realized was that when a person that I cared about was trying to directly communicate with me, I wanted that to appear on my wrist and nothing else. So I left the phone and text notifications on as well as Whats App. And for the first time since the fork, I felt grateful that Facebook Messenger was a separate app, because it meant that I could leave its notifications on while switching off all other Facebook notifications. Email was the trickiest part of this process. What I ended up doing was expanding my VIP list to people who's incoming emails I wanted on my wrist and disabled all other email notifications. 

It's not a perfect system, but I've reached a kind of equilibrium where almost everything that appears on my wrist is welcome. The watch is also smart enough to realize when you are on your iPhone, iPad, or Mac and not duplicate notifications that you have already seen on those devices(Hallelujah). I recognize that not everyone has my communication priorities, but the granularity of the system is such that if you invest the time you will have much better control over your notifications and even earn some peace of mind for your efforts.

The final layer of the watch interface is the app launcher. I do not have the words to express how much I hate this part of the Apple Watch. Click on the digital crown once when you have your watch face up and you are brought to a honeycomb-like array of tiny, circular watch app icons. My theory is that Jony Ive was watching Cosmos and shouted "Eureka! A Universe of apps!" and we're now all saddled with this abomination. An unruly grouping of tiny touch targets that diabolically resist your intentions, the app launcher on the Apple Watch seems to be the very thing that Apple worked so hard to overcome in the rest of the interface. Why is it here? I understand that Apple sees the watch as a new platform and that third party apps will likely come to define the watch in ways that we can't even imagine. But it's also clear that Apple launched the watch well before they were ready for third party development. The Watch Kit SDK that they released is so limited that it all but guaranteed a generation of useless third party apps. And man alive are they useless. Unless you like waiting for apps to load or looking at spinners, I would recommend avoiding third party watch apps at all costs. Apple should have held off on this part of the equation until they were really ready and maybe left the app launcher off the watch entirely. It feels like it's in conflict with the more rational parts of the interface.

Wrap Up

So what do I think of the Apple Watch? I think it's a useful product that will only get more useful with time. I enjoy the zen of having achieved notification equilibrium. I also like how easy it is to quickly respond to text messages and see my heart rate. And I haven't even mentioned Siri, which for some unknown reason works much better on the watch than it does on the iPhone(my theory is that we hold the watch closer to our mouths). I also find the health tracking/motivational features to be superlative.

I would not recommend that anyone buy the more expensive Apple watches. The mid-range model is made of nicer materials(stainless steel and sapphire), but it's expensive and heavy and not really more fashionable. To be honest, I wouldn't feel comfortable wearing any Apple Watch with a suit, and that includes the absurdly priced Apple Watch Edition with its fuck-the-poor gold body. We all know that next year's model will be thinner and more capable, so it just doesn't make any sense to spend more than $400 on a first generation product.

Is the Apple Watch Sport worth $400? Right now, it does an excellent job of managing notifications, tracking your health, responding to text messages, and paying for things. If you own an iPhone 5 or later and this combination of conveniences appeals to you, then $350/$400(38mm/42mm) seems like a fair price. If not, maybe sit this round out and wait for next year's model. The 2015 Apple Watch is like the ambitious, but overloaded first season of a new TV show that's shaping up to have a lot of potential. My bet is that the show gets leaner and more compelling in the second season, and that by the third everyone will be watching.

Apple Watch

It’s been four an a half years since Apple introduced a new product category and the presentation of Apple Watch was without a doubt the most important moment in Tim Cook’s career. Brimming over with pride, Cook gave a nod to his mentor Steve Jobs by telling the packed-to-capacity audience at the Flint Center that Apple had “one more thing” to share. It’s clear to anyone who watched the presentation that Mr. Cook lacks the charisma and polish of his legendary predecessor, but the important question is whether his stewardship of the company lives up to the gold standard that Jobs set. The Apple Watch is our first solid look at Tim Cook’s Apple. It’s not the first product introduction he has presided over, but it is easily the most significant.

There are many things that Apple seems to have gotten right here. For starters, in contrast to Google’s flagship wearable, Google Glass, the Apple Watch is something that normal people will wear. Cook and co. understood that wearing something is a fashion statement and the thought that Apple put into customizability is both incongruous with the company’s our-way-or-the-highway ethos and a necessary condition for success in this space. Moreover, Apple understood that on a device this small, the user interface needed to be rethought. To this end, they invented two new input methods. The first is the digital crown, which ingeniously borrows from the traditional watch interface that everyone already knows how to use. The second is “force touch” which allows the watch’s screen to tell the difference between an ordinary tap and a press.

At a simple level, one could argue that the Apple Watch primarily does three things: It tells the time, it is a fitness tracker, and it is a second screen for iPhone notifications. But Apple has much larger ambitions. The home screen is already populated by a “universe” of apps and Apple introduced the product before it was ready to ship to give third party developers time to design for it. Some of the built-in applications reveal that Apple sees this in part as a new way of communicating. They showed off a doodling app that allows people to send each other simple drawings and animated emoji. As charming as that demo was, I have some concerns about Apple's latest product.

First and foremost, I worry about the battery life. Apple intimated that it would need to be charged every night. That means that in the best case scenario, the battery life will be something like 12 hours. And while I appreciate the thought they put into the charger(it magnetically snaps on to the underside of the device), my current solar-powered watch has literally unlimited battery life and my previous watch lasted 10 years on a single battery. I understand that given current battery and display technologies, this sort of battery life is impossible to achieve on a device as sophisticated as the Apple Watch, but this is a problem. When I wore a Jawbone UP, I found myself having to recharge it every 10 days. While slightly annoying, it was manageable. The way I see it, there is a sort of loose equation when it comes to charging a device. The more important that device is to my day, the less annoyed I am when it comes time to charge it. I don't mind charging my iPhone every night, because it is so important to how I function in the world that it’s a no-brainer. I don’t know that I’ll feel the same way about the Apple Watch. If I only had to charge it once a week that would be a different story, but every night?

My second concern is the larger vision for the product. Apple clearly sees this as a new platform, but I don’t know that a watch ought to be a platform. In a way, I think that Android Wear better understands what people want to do with a watch than Apple Watch. It goes without saying that Apple appears to have nailed all the design details of the hardware and software in a way that Google did not(although it should be mentioned that as of this writing, Android Wear is shipping on products that you can buy and the Apple Watch won't be available until sometime next year). But the fact that the Apple Watch still requires an iPhone to function begs the question of why it should be its own platform as opposed to simply an extension of the iPhone. Perhaps Apple is relying on developers to answer that question and perhaps we will look back at this moment of confusion with 20/20 hindsight. But right now, it seems to me that Apple’s vision is a little blurry.

Will Tim Cook’s Apple continue the company’s streak of category-defining products? Will the Apple Watch become the new gadget that everyone needs? It’s too early to predict, but the ambition, the focus, the drive, and the taste are very reminiscent of Apple’s best work. And only a fool would bet against that.

iPad Air vs. iPad Mini with Retina

When Apple introduced the original iPad Mini last year, they marketed it with the phrase “Every inch an iPad”. What they were getting at was the fact that despite its diminutive dimensions, the Mini could run the rich library of iPad-optimized apps which was and still is the iPad’s greatest strategic advantage over its competition. While technically true, the every inch an iPad line rang a little false. After all, the mini had a last generation A5 processor and its display was not retina quality. True, its new dimensions made it possible for the first time in the iPad’s short history to credibly use the device one-handed, but the reading experience was subpar and the performance was merely adequate.

For those in the market for a tablet, the decision about which iPad to buy last year was therefore rather simple. If you wanted something light to consume content on, the mini was a credible if somewhat overpriced option, but for anything more, you’d have wanted a full-sized iPad. Fast forward a year and both product lines have now received an update. The full-sized iPad is now a full half pound lighter and goes by the name of iPad Air, and the iPad Mini has a retina-class display and the same beefy A7 processor as its larger sibling.

When I walked in to the Apple Store, my expectations were shaped by last year’s disappointment. I noted then that the Mini held a kind of internal contradiction in that its form begged to be used for content consumption like reading books and magazines, but the subpar quality of the display made the experience inferior. This year, Apple has moved the goal posts. The first thing I thought when I held the new iPad Mini in my hand was that line from last year: Every inch an iPad. This year it’s actually true and it makes the decision about which iPad to purchase much more complicated. Not only has the weight differential between the iPad Air and the iPad mini shrunk dramatically, but the performance gap has as well. It’s like Apple saying that screen size should be the only determining factor in the decision. Do you prefer to read paperbacks, or are you a hardcover kind of person? To be sure there are a couple of technical differences between the two models that go beyond screen size. The iPad Air has a slightly faster variant of the A7 processor and its screen has slightly better color reproduction, but in the real world, neither of these factors really matter. The only two factors that you need to think about when deciding between these two models is screen size and weight.

If you are looking for a device to create on, if you plan to draw, or make music, or edit photos, then the iPad Air is still your best bet. The additional screen real-estate is really necessary for these sorts of tasks. Moreover, for many people, the iPad can now credibly replace their laptop. While it hasn’t received as much attention as it deserves, the A7 processor that runs Apple’s new line of products is the biggest innovation from Cupertino this year. Through a series of brilliant decisions, Apple managed to cram an enormous amount of computing power into their new mobile processor. To get a sense of just what a leap forward the A7 represents, understand that its performance is equal to that of high end laptops that were shipping in 2008. If you are thinking of buying an iPad to replace your laptop, the Air is the one you want.

If, on the other hand, you aren’t looking to replace your laptop, but to supplement it, my recommendation would be to go with the iPad Mini. While the weight differential has been reduced and it is possible to hold the iPad Air in one hand for longer periods of time, it’s still not a one-handed device. The new Mini’s display is excellent and being able to hold it in one hand makes it an ideal device for long-form reading. And thanks to the A7 it’s responsive and finally lives up to last year's marketing line "every inch an iPad."

Reading the Tea Leaves: Post-Jobs Apple

The iPhone is Apple’s most profitable product line and it just received an interesting revision. On the surface it’s not that impressive. In the immediate wake of the announcement, the stock took a hit and the narrative that the post-Jobs Apple Inc. can’t innovate appears to have gone unchallenged. Wall Street, however, has never understood Apple and the company’s policy of secrecy forces us to interpret its strategy based on what it does. Here is my take on what this latest move means.

iPhone 5C

Until yesterday, Apple’s strategy was to keep older model iPhones around to offer up at lower prices. This worked well for them in subsidized markets, although it didn’t really do anything for them in markets where people pay full price for their phones up front. When the rumors of a new plastic iPhone emerged a few months ago, most analysts took this to mean that Apple would finally be trying to compete in the unsubsidized smartphone markets with a significantly lower-cost iPhone. While the iPhone 5C is essentially a repackaged iPhone 5 and is cheaper than the new flagship iPhone 5S, it is not built to compete in the unsubsidized markets. Apple has chosen instead to make their midrange phone more attractive by differentiating it from last year’s model. The pundits were wrong. Apple is essentially staying the course. They are building premium devices and ignoring the low-end unsubsidized market altogether.

iPhone 5S

The new flagship device looks almost identical to last year’s iPhone 5 which continues Apple’s tic-toc strategy of innovation followed by refinement. This year’s refinement, however, includes three major components that hint at Apple’s overall strategy moving forward: 

1) Thumbs Up

The most obvious new feature of the iPhone 5S is the fingerprint scanner built into the home button. When rumors of this feature hit the internet, speculation about Apple’s intentions ran rampant. It was clear that this would be a simple way to unlock the iPhone, but two important questions arose. First, would this be another Siri-like moment of over-promising and under-delivering? Given our terrible experience with existing fingerprint scanning technology, would Apple's implementation be qualitatively different? Second, how deeply would Apple integrate this technology into the phone? 

Based on preliminary reports, the answer to the first question is that Apple has achieved a major breakthrough in fingerprint scanning technology. It is accurate, quick, and secure. The answer to the second question is very interesting. While it’s not as deeply integrated into the phone as it might be, Apple is shipping the 5S with the ability to use the fingerprint scanner to purchase content from the iTunes Store. This means that they are confident enough in their breakthrough to use it for their own business. The theoretical possibilities for a fingerprint scanner that works and is secure are tantalizing. Aside from standing in for any password that you would ever need to enter, given the right kind of adoption, it could eventually replace the credit card as the default method of payment.  

2) Photographic AI

The improvements that Apple has introduced to their camera are impressive. With an ordinary camera, even something as sophisticated as a high-end DSLR, the on board computer is clever enough to guess in some situations what the proper exposure ought to be for any individual image. Pro photographers understand that this automatic exposure detection system is mostly useless and with the exception of autofocus, typically do not rely on it for critical photographic decisions. With the iPhone 5S Apple has added a sophisticated artificial intelligence to the equation. The intelligence knows not only about basic exposure, but also about motion blur, color temperature, and skin tones and it uses this information on the fly to make better images. Apple can do this, because they have an incredible custom-built chip inside the phone that is capable of processing hundreds of parameters per second. For amateur photographers, this means that photos will more often than not look right. For pros, it might mean that more attention can be paid to composition. Of course, it’s still a tiny camera with a tiny sensor and a fixed focal length lens. Unlike the company formerly known as Nokia, Apple hasn’t overcome this fact by “reinventing zoom” and it remains to be seen how well the iPhone 5S camera performs against the incredible Lumia 1020. But Apple is pushing the state of the art forward and their moves in this space are slowly but surely redefining the craft of photography. 

3) Motion Detection

Buried in the news about the more flashy features of the 5S was the fact that Apple had included an “M7” chip in the device to precisely track a user’s motion and allow for a whole new class of apps. Products like the Fitbit and the Jawbone Up have been doing this for quite some time, but I think this is Apple tipping its hand toward a new product category. There’s a lot of smoke around the idea of Apple working on some kind of wearable device. I believe these particular rumors and I think that Apple’s move in this field will likely come next spring and involve this new sensor. 

Wrap Up

The question of whether or not Apple Inc. can innovate in the post-Jobs era remains an open one. This coming year will likely bring new product categories which will answer that question definitively one way or the other. It’s possible that Apple are past their prime. Personally, I am encouraged by the fact that they are taking their time and refining existing product lines even as they lay the groundwork for whatever is next. On the other hand, this is the first year in which the iPhone is not the all round best smartphone money can buy. It’s certainly still a contender. But there are three or four other phones out there that are as good or better, depending on your particular needs. And Google has brought the manufacturing of the Moto X back to the US, which makes it a more ethical purchase. Is Apple in trouble? Far from it. They will sell as many of these new iPhones as they can make and have the biggest quarter in the history of the company. But there’s no getting around the fact that they are not as dominant in this space as they used to be. Hopefully this will inspire them to double down on innovation. If the last few years have shown anything it's that the industry needs an Apple that's foolish and hungry.

The iPad Mini

When the iPad mini was announced, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The thing that stood out most was the price. We the Technorati had decided that anything over $250 would simply be too expensive for a small tablet and Apple had the temerity to price it at $329! Nevermind that the mini is Apple’s lowest margin iPad and that unlike Amazon and Google who are content to sell their devices at cost, Apple actually needs to make money on their hardware. Tim Cook’s channel efficiency price-advantage was no longer in play and that meant that to get a mini, you would have to pay a premium over competing devices.

Apple’s pitch at the event was that the iPad mini is actually a different class of device than the competition, because of its wider screen and larger library of apps. The marketing line was “Every inch an iPad” and Johnny Ive made a positively Talmudic distinction when he said that the mini was a “concentration, not a reduction” of the full-sized iPad. Early reviewers generally liked the iPad mini although they all mentioned the lower resolution screen as a major drawback. Meanwhile, on the Apple partisan side of tech journalism, a narrative started to emerge that argued for the Mini being what the iPad always should have been. John Gruber went as far as to say that he was giving up his full-sized iPad Retina in favor of using the mini, because he preferred the form factor. When I went to the Apple Store, I fully expected to leave wanting to purchase an iPad mini. I was surprised after a solid 40 minutes of playing with it that this was not the case. Moreover, I am now convinced that while the mini will definitely sell well, it is not the ideal iPad.

To be sure, the iPad mini’s industrial design is lovely. Taking its cues from the recently updated iPod Touch and iPhone 5, the iPad mini is handsome in both black and white and its newly rounded edges feel great in the hand. More importantly, for the first time, you can really hold an iPad in one hand without fatigue. This, in my mind, is the mini’s greatest asset. But the screen is a real problem. You see it’s wonderful that the iPad mini runs all of the iPad apps while being lighter and smaller than its full-sized siblings, but the reality is that small tablets are for people who want to consume content. Content like books and websites and magazines and newspapers. And staring at a non-Retina screen is a subpar reading experience.

Okay, so we all know that it’s just a matter of time before Apple upgrades the mini to have a retina display. Will it then be the perfect iPad? I don’t think so. I actually think that Apple nailed the screen size on the original iPad. And while a 7.9 inch Retina iPad would be a wonderful small tablet, I still don’t think that it will be as useful as the full-sized iPad. Apple has sold over 100,000,000 full-sized iPads to date. The iPad is becoming a de-facto PC replacement and for that purpose, 7.9 inches is too small. Do I think that Apple made a mistake by releasing the iPad mini? Far from it. We can surmise, along with Gruber, that the iPad 2 is still around, because it continues to sell well. What this tells me is that despite my criticism, the average consumer doesn’t care so much about screen resolution or pixels per inch. Moreover, by dropping the entry level price by $70, Apple can make much more aggressive plays in the education market. 

I have no doubt that in addition to a Retina iPad mini, Apple is working on a new design for the full-sized iPad that we will see some time next year. It will be significantly lighter and more lovely than the current model whose industrial design is starting to feel a little stale. Is it possible to make a 9.7 inch Retina iPad that is light enough to hold in one hand and runs all day on a single charge? I don’t know. But I do know that that would be the ideal iPad.

Slipping into The Masterpiece: A Review of the iPhone 5

It’s been more than two years since I published my review of the iPhone 4 and a lot has changed in the smartphone market: Motorola Mobility is now owned by Google, Samsung's star is rising, the once mighty HTC is struggling, and both Nokia and RIM are on the ropes. Against this landscape, Apple has released the iPhone 5. Is it a worthy successor to the most successful consumer electronics product of all time? Is Steve Jobs smiling down from technology heaven?

Hardware

The iPhone 5 is unmistakably a descendent of the iPhone 4 and 4S, but it feels very different in the hand. The new aluminum back is pleasantly cool to the touch and its chamfered edges make it more comfortable to hold than its immediate predecessors. The Home button, which is an absolutely essential part of the iOS experience, now has a sturdier and more satisfying click to it. The phone is also a little taller and noticeably thinner and lighter than the iPhones 4 and 4S. The added height is there to accommodate an all new 4 inch screen. Over the years, as other smartphone manufacturers moved to larger and larger screen sizes, Apple religiously maintained the iPhone’s screen at its original 3.5 inches. The iPhone 5 is the first in the product’s five year history to change that and while the actual difference may seem small on paper, only 176 vertical pixels, it actually makes a big difference. 

The All New Screen

While the screen is taller, Apple decided to maintain the original 640 pixel width, for the sake of single-handed operation. In my own use, I’ve found that in order to operate the iPhone 5 singlehanded, I need to hold it very differently from how I used to hold the iPhone 4. Instead of simply wrapping my hand around the phone, I find that if I want to reach the whole surface of the screen with my thumb, I need to support the bottom of the phone with the inside of my pinky and use my index finger to angle it slightly. This reads a lot worse than it actually is, but I think it’s fair to say that the iPhone 5 is marginally more difficult to operate with a single hand than previous iPhones.

Having said that, the advantages of having a larger screen are immediately apparent. First of all, those extra 176 pixels mean an entire new row of icons. Apple recently revealed that the average iPhone owner regularly uses around 100 apps. On the old screens, you could fit 16 apps per page. On the new screen, you can now fit 20. What this means is that the average user can get by on the new iPhone with 1 fewer page of icons than they could on the older models. But beyond this simple convenience, the experience in many of the built-in apps is improved by the added screen real-estate. Gone are the days when watching a movie on the iPhone’s screen meant staring at a tiny rectangle of video surrounded by black bars. The aspect ratio of the new iPhone’s screen means that video plays edge-to-edge and while 4 inches is not exactly luxurious, I find myself watching a lot more video on my phone than I used to. 

In addition to the size of the screen, the quality of the screen has also improved. Apple figured out a way to deepen the blacks, increase the color saturation, and reduce glare, all while shipping a thinner device. It’s a remarkable achievement and I often find myself staring at the the home screen, mesmerized by the clarity of the icons.

The Lightning Port

On the bottom of the iPhone 5, one of the things that is obviously different from all previous iPhones is the new Lightning Port. There has been much criticism of Apple’s decision to abandon their old 30-pin dock connector in favor of the new port. The criticism comes in two flavors. First, that Apple moved to a new proprietary connector instead of something like the ubiquitous, non-proprietary Micro-USB. Second, that Apple has inconvenienced anyone who spent money buying third-party accessories over the last decade which were all built around the dock connector.

The first criticism is easy to dismiss. Yes, Apple has gone to another proprietary connection which maintains their control over the accessory market. But I can think of two very good reasons why they didn’t adopt Micro-USB that have nothing to do with control. First, as anyone who has ever used a Micro-USB connector can attest, it is both fragile and fiddly to use. Second, it is very limited in the sort of data it can transmit. You can’t, for example, design a speaker dock that transmits sound over Micro-USB. 

The second criticism is not as easy to dismiss. If you have a lot of third-party accessories, like speaker docks or car chargers, there is no elegant way for them to work with the iPhone 5. Sure you can buy one of Apple’s pricey adapters, but you didn’t pay a premium for your iPhone/iPod accessory to have to come up with kludgy workarounds.

Personally, I think that Apple should have made this move years ago. I really dislike the 30-pin dock connector and the Lightning Port is robust, reversible(there’s no wrong way to plug it in), and easy to operate in total darkness. Technology transitions are often a pain, but sometimes they’re necessary.

Performance

Everything on the iPhone 5 feels fast. This is partly due to the custom-designed A6 processor and partly due to LTE, the faster-than-Wifi wireless data protocol, which has finally landed on planet iPhone. It’s hard to put into words how profound the performance improvement on the iPhone 5 is over its predecessors. In practice, it means that I use my phone a lot more. When you have something that’s this responsive and reliable in your pocket, it just integrates into your life and you focus on what you’re using it for instead of the act of using it. This is technology at its best and the iPhone 5 more than any device I can think of, slips into the background as I use it. The one area that I wish Apple would pay more attention to is temperature. The iPhone 5, like the New iPad, gets hotter than previous models, particularly when relying on its LTE connection for extended periods of time.

Making Calls

So how good is the iPhone 5 at making and receiving calls? This is a difficult question for any one reviewer to answer, because the iPhone 5 ships to a dizzying number of countries and is available on quite a few different carriers. I upgraded from an iPhone 4 on AT&T to the iPhone 5 on Verizon and I can tell you that in West LA, the difference in call quality has been night-and-day. Whereas before, I could only make calls in a very specific area of my apartment, I can now use my phone all over the apartment and my signal strength is solid. Moreover, the quality of the sound on both ends is better than I’ve ever experienced on a cell phone. The speakerphone has also improved in both strength and clarity. One drawback that US customers of Verizon and Sprint should be aware of is that due to limitations in these carriers’ LTE networks, you can’t talk on the phone and use the data connection at the same time, unless you are connected to a Wifi network. This is not true of AT&T’s network.

FaceTime

It’s been a long two and a half years since the introduction of FaceTime on the iPhone 4 and the video conferencing technology is finally realizing some of its potential. With the iPhone 5, FaceTime conferences can be conducted over 3G and LTE. This is a big deal and lest you worry that using FaceTime regularly will eat through your data plan, fear not. Apple has managed to dynamically adjust the data usage of FaceTime so that a full hour will only cost you around 85 MB of data. In addition, the new front-facing camera on the iPhone 5 is HD, so all of your pockmarks and facial hair will come across with stunning clarity.

FaceTime is a great technology and I use it regularly to keep in touch with friends, but there are a couple of ways in which it could be better. First, I would really like to see Apple make good on its promise to release this as an open-standard. FaceTime should be a non-proprietary standard that can be used by anyone with a device that has a front-facing camera, not only those fortunate enough to own Apple products. Second, as the carriers move from pushing minutes to pushing data, I’d like to see an option for sound-only FaceTime. At the iPhone 5 launch event, Apple announced that they were going to start supporting Wideband Audio which is an interesting technology that vastly improves the sound quality of cellphone calls. The problem is that it requires carrier support and infrastructure. The same improvement could be achieved by simply offering a sound-only version of FaceTime and I’m not sure why this hasn’t been implemented. Perhaps we will see it in iOS 7.

Camera

By insisting on making the iPhone ever thinner, Apple has painted themselves into a bit of a corner. This design decision limits the optics that they can use in the camera and the only way out is to compensate with clever processing. I would really love to say that the iPhone 5 is finally good enough to replace your point-and-shoot, but I can’t.

While certainly impressive for a camera phone, the iPhone 5’s images are simply not as good as what you could get from a disposable 35mm camera. Moreover, because the iPhone 5 has lost some heft, the effects of camera shake are exaggerated over what you would have from the iPhone 4 and 4S. And while the new processing does indeed offer better low light performance, it also makes some pretty egregious errors in ordinary indoor lighting conditions(blown highlights seem to be a recurring theme). Having said that, the performance of the iPhone 5’s camera is incredibly fast and the new Panorama mode, where you sweep the phone in an arc to seamlessly create a large 26 megapixel image, works like a charm. It should also be mentioned that there are many excellent and inexpensive camera apps available on the App Store that may mitigate some of the shortcomings of the native Camera app by offering more manual control.

On the video front, I must say that I was mightily impressed. Not only did the iPhone 5 do an excellent job of stabilizing my shaky handheld footage (it uses the Gyroscope to achieve this feat), but I was very pleased with the video it produced. I would go as far as to say that the iPhone 5 finally kills the market for stand-alone fixed lens handheld video recorders.

Maps

Of all the controversial aspects of the iPhone 5, none garnered more attention than the redesigned Maps app. Now it’s important to note that Apple has always been the author of the Maps app on iOS. They wrote and designed the user interface from the beginning and licensed the data from Google. Over time, Apple’s relationship with Google has deteriorated and this year, they decided to stop using Google’s mapping data. The new Maps was supposed to be the exciting new feature in iOS 6 and Apple completely rewrote the app from the ground up, but public transit directions and Street View, both of which are exclusive Google properties, were no longer something that Apple could offer. And to make matters worse, they failed to collate their new data sources properly and embarrassing inaccuracies started showing up all over the place. Tim Cook took the unusual step of making a public apology and recommending that iOS 6 customers use alternative mapping services available through the App Store while Apple worked to improve Maps.

As with call quality, it’s impossible for one reviewer to do justice to the reliability of the Maps app. But I must report that I’ve been delighted by Apple’s new Maps app. I think that the interface is incredibly well thought-out. This is especially true when it comes to Apple’s implementation of turn-by-turn directions where a combination of the larger screen and good graphic design makes it much safer to use while driving solo. I have had no problems navigating around LA and I can even report that on a recent trip to rural Finland, iOS 6 Maps delivered accurate turn-by-turn directions and got me to my destination without any problems.

But my favorite way to use the new Maps app is through Siri. You can now say "Siri, take me to the ArcLight Cinema." or "Siri, where's the nearest liquor Store?" and it works!

Battery Life

As usual, your milage will vary when it comes to battery life. I’ve found that on a typical day of usage, I get around 17 hours of battery life, while on a heavy day it's closer to 12 hours. This is in and of itself a remarkable achievement given that the iPhone 5 includes the notoriously power-hungry LTE. But what I found truly remarkable was that the iPhone 5 managed to charge from dead to full in a mere 1.5 hours.

Ethics

Given everything that we now know about how Apple products are manufactured, is it wrong to buy an iPhone 5? While properly addressing this question goes beyond the scope of this review, I can no longer ignore it. Sure, Mike Daisey was caught lying to This American Life and many technology journalists who are friendly to Apple took great pleasure in his public implosion. But Mike Daisey aside, there’s a real problem here. And I’m not sure that bringing in the Fair Labor Association is sufficient.

The conditions under which Apple products are manufactured are terrible. And while there seem to have been some improvements over the past year, as consumers of these products, we are accountable on some level for what goes on at the Foxconn factories. Is it wrong to buy an iPhone 5? Yes it is. In the same way that it’s wrong to buy any product produced under harsh working conditions. And the terrible truth about the global economy that we live in is that many of the products that we consume are produced in even worse conditions than what can be found in Shenzhen. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that this is a morally acceptable situation. So what can we do? Boycott Apple? I don’t think we’re there yet. Apple seems to be responding to public pressure. Our responsibility as ethical consumers then is to keep up the pressure and scrutiny until a real journalist can con her way into a Foxconn factory and find a morally acceptable work environment.

Wrap Up

The iPhone 5 is a remarkable piece of technology and a worthy successor to the iPhone line. While it may seem like other companies are “catching up” to Apple in the smartphone market, this is not actually the case. It is true that there are many compelling smartphones on the market and Samsung in particular seems to be doing very well for themselves.

But there’s something fundamentally different about the iPhone ecosystem that no one has been able to match since the original iPhone came on to the scene in 2007. Namely, unlike every other phone on the market(with the notable exception of the Nexus line of reference phones that very few people actualy buy), when you buy an iPhone, you are buying a device that is guaranteed to receive major functionality improvements in the form of operating system updates. This is still not the case with other smartphones. In the Android universe, for example, what you buy is what you get. The same is true in the Windows Phone world. There’s no one working behind the scenes to improve the way your phone works and the only guaranteed way to get the latest version of the various mobile operating systems is to buy a new device, or hack your old phone and pray.

This advantage that Apple enjoys means that not only will you get more out of an iPhone over its lifetime, but that when it comes time to upgrade, the device will retain much more value than its Android, or Windows Phone counterparts. My 2.5 year old iPhone 4 fetched half of what I paid for it in 2010. Granted, that’s only half of the subsidized price, but try getting any amount of money for a 2010 Android phone today.

The iPhone 5 is the best smartphone that money can buy and it is an astonishingly lovely object to behold. Unlike the New iPad, Apple didn’t need to make any compromises to achieve their vision for this product. It is light, thin, runs all day, and is so fast it just becomes whatever you need it to be. When I look back at my review of the iPhone 4, every single issue that I had with that device has been addressed over the past two years. The iPhone 5 is reportedly the last product that Steve Jobs ever worked on. What a swan song.

Principled Compromise: The New iPad's Struggle Against Reality

In the two years since Apple released its original iPad, surprisingly little has changed in the tablet market. Many would-be competitors have come and gone, but Apple still owns the space. And while companies like Asus and Samsung struggle to gain a toehold, our friends in Cupertino have moved the goal posts once again with the introduction of the 3rd generation iPad. I've been using a new iPad now for a month now and these are my impressions.

Physical Characteristics

The first thing you notice when you hold a new iPad in your hand is that it is slightly heavier and thicker than its predecessor, the iPad 2. The iPad has always suffered from feeling a little too heavy. When I reviewed the original model in 2010, I speculated that this impression had to do with the fact that most of the objects in our life that are iPad-sized (paper, legal pads, magazines, etc.) aren't quite so heavy. Indeed, Steve Jobs placed a lot of emphasis on how much thinner and lighter the iPad 2 was than the original iPad when he introduced the 2nd generation in 2011. And while the iPad 3 is only marginally heavier than the iPad 2, the change is noticeable. The thinking behind this atypical compromise seems to have been that a much higher capacity battery was needed to maintain the iPad's legendary battery life, while accommodating an all new and vastly improved display technology.

The new iPad (top), is slightly thicker and heavier than the iPad 2(bottom).

Retina Display

The most touted feature of the new iPad is its 2048 by 1536 pixel Retina Display. Having read all of the early reviews, I must admit that my expectations were so high that I was a little disappointed when I first laid eyes on the screen. I held it side-by-side with my original iPad and I wasn't as impressed as I imagined I would be. Nevertheless, after a day of use, there was simply no going back. In fact, with the exception of the iPhone 4/4S, this is the best quality screen that I have ever seen. The new iPad renders text so crisply that unless you're holding it right up to your nose and squinting very hard, you can't see any pixels. This makes reading on the new iPad an absolute pleasure. Not only does text look ink-like, but the screen is also slightly less reflective for daytime reading. In addition, it's possible to dim the display further than was possible on previous models making for more comfortable nighttime reading.This is also the first iPad to have a true HD screen. The best the first two generations could manage was scaled-down 720P video. The new iPad’s screen has so many pixels, that not only can it display full 1080P content, but to do so, it actually has to scale the content up to the Retina Display’s native resolution.

A crop of the crisp, new Retina Display (bottom) makes the old iPad display(top) look like it's out of focus.

Blazingly Fast Wireless Connectivity

The second most touted feature of the new iPad is the speed of its cellular data connection. Apple still offers WiFi-only iPads, but if you choose to pay $130 extra for the option of wireless data, the new iPad can access the new, super-fast LTE networks in the United States.There are two models of cellular-enabled iPads available that can take advantage of these LTE speeds: The Verizon iPad and the AT&T iPad. There is no good reason at this time to buy the AT&T iPad. Not only is Verizon's LTE coverage vastly superior, but they also have enabled the personal hotspot feature which allows you to share your iPad's LTE data connection with other Wifi-enabled devices at no extra cost (AT&T doesn't allow this feature at any price).

 

But as fast as LTE speeds are(in my tests, up to 3X faster than my speedy Wifi connection at home), they pose a serious dilemma. The most natural thing to want to do with a fast internet connection is stream video. Indeed, the streaming services available for the iPad have made it into the most sought after portable entertainment system on the planet. But the carriers have not increased the monthly allowances on their data plans. This means that you could potentially eat through your data plan faster using the new LTE service than you would have on the slower 3G service. To make matters worse, different video streaming services deal with data in different ways, so there's no sure way to know in advance how much data you'll be burning through with a given app. To get a better understanding of how my favorite streaming apps use cellular data, I set up a series of tests. As a baseline, I tested four applications on my home Wifi network which clocked in at 16 MBits/second down at the time of the test.

What you can see from the above results is that were the applications to treat the new LTE networks the way they treat Wifi, I would eat through a standard 3GB data plan in an absurdly short period of time. My next step was to test the same applications on AT&T's 3G network. To do this, I used my iPhone 4 in two separate locations. First, I tested it at home where I have terrible reception. For these tests, the iPhone was only able to manage a download speed of 1.2 MBits/second.

What is immediately apparent from this test, is that all of the applications are capable of dynamically changing the amount of data that they pull, based on the strength of the data connection that they detect. On a practical note, I wouldn't recommend streaming video on a 1.2 MBit 3G connection. The image was so pixelated in many cases, that it was simply not worth the hassle. For the next test, I took my iPhone 4 to a place where it had full reception and was pulling down 4.9 MBits/second.

As you can see, all of the applications sensed the higher data speeds and took advantage by pulling down more. The viewing experience was excellent, although you still wouldn't make it far on a standard data plan. So how did the applications react to my new Verizon iPad? When I set up the Verizon LTE tests, I was pulling 20 MBits/second. In the interests of full disclosure, the HBOGO app does not allow streaming of full episodes on LTE. To get around this limitation, I set up the aforementioned personal hotspot feature and tethered my original iPad to it to obtain the HBOGO result.

This test validated my fears about LTE. The image was beautiful and the video streamed flawlessly. But at these rates, it is simply not cost-effective to use the LTE connection to stream video. Now it is possible to disable the LTE on the new iPad. When you do so, the iPad will revert to the carrier's 3G network. In my case, that was Verizon's 3G network which managed to pull down 1.8 MBits/second. At that speed, these were my results:

Curiously, the applications were less conservative in their use of data on the slower Verizon 3G connection than they were on the faster AT&T 3G connection. The explanation could simply be that the applications sensed that in the latter case, the device was an iPhone and adjusted accordingly. Alternatively, it could be due to the fact that while the Verizon network is slower, it still provides more consistent data speeds. Either way, these were the results. I should mention that the video was perfectly acceptable, when using the 3G Verizon data connection, though not as nice as the video that I got over LTE.

There is no denying the speed advantages of LTE over previous generation wireless data technologies. But if you can't actually use those speeds, because the carriers make it cost-prohibitive, then the advantages remain theoretical. And while it does make surfing, email, and eBook downloads faster, the one thing you really want to use it for- streaming video-is just not possible at this time without spending an arm and a leg on overages.

Heat Issues

One of the most surprising things to me about the first iPad was that no matter what I did with it, the device never generated any heat. This was a welcome break from most modern consumer electronics, including laptops, which tend to heat up upon exertion. I'm afraid that the new iPad no longer defies the ordinary laws of consumer electronics. It must be said that for most tasks, the new iPad remained cool to the touch. However, when playing graphically intensive games, the iPad got very hot indeed. Many have dismissed this as a non-issue, but I beg to differ. As a result of the fact that the iPad is too heavy to hold in one hand, I often find myself leaning it against my belly, or on my legs. And having something that hot against your body for a few hours (playing, for example, the immersive Infinity Blade II) is simply not comfortable.

Epic Games' immersive Infinity Blade II. After an hour or so of this game, the iPad becomes very hot.

I would have dismissed my experience as non-representative, but Apple's official response to concerns about this issue reported in the media was that the new iPad operates "well within our thermal specifications."What this tells me is that heat is another one of the tradeoffs that Apple consciously made to deliver the Retina Display. It is remarkable that the new A5X processor can render four times the number of pixels required by its predecessor the A5 without any lag in performance. The tradeoff seems to be that when you push it, the A5X generates a lot of heat.

Cameras

The new iPad brings with it an updated rear-facing camera. It's a combination of the 5 megapixel sensor found in the iPhone 4 and the optics introduced in the iPhone 4S. In my tests I found that it produced still images that are a little bit better than the iPhone 4, but not quite as good as images I've seen from the iPhone 4S. Either way, I find it awkward to use the iPad as a still camera and despite the fact that it can shoot stabilized 1080P HD video, I think it's even more awkward to use it for video. The size and shape of the device just doesn't work for me when I'm shooting handheld. The screen is so large that you have to hold it at arms length to get a sense of what you're shooting and that makes it difficult to operate for longer periods of time. I almost wish that Apple had updated the front-facing camera instead, as that would make a huge difference in video conferencing apps like Skype and FaceTime. Alas, that camera remains a sub-1 megapixel dinosaur.

The New iPad as Personal Computer

With every passing year the gap between what you can do with an iPad and what you can do with a traditional personal computer shrinks. Over the past two years the iPad's operating system has matured to the point where you can do most computing tasks directly on the iPad. And for those special cases where you can't, there are 3rd party apps that fill in the gaps. Indeed, I would argue that most people can get by today with an iPad as their primary PC. With the new iPad, Apple has even included a system-wide dictation feature, which is surprisingly accurate and significantly speeds up the process of text entry(although I'd still recommend purchasing a bluetooth keyboard if you intend to make this your primary computer). There are, of course, still things that the iPad is not great at. For example, due to the immersive, full-screen experience, switching between apps has never been as simple or powerful as it is on a desktop operating system. Moreover, one of the structural elements that makes iOS such a secure platform is that it doesn't allow individual applications to communicate with each other, thereby limiting one's ability to engage in complex cross-application processes. But these are software limitations which will likely be resolved in the next update to the operating system. I ended my 2010 review with the observation that the iPad may be the future of personal computing. Looking at the landscape in 2012, I think it's safe to say that the future has arrived.

Wrap Up

In retrospect, it is clear that Apple had four goals in mind when they set about redesigning the iPad: First, to deliver the the world's greatest mobile display. Second, to keep the battery life near the 10 hour mark. Third, to maintain the same price points as previous generation iPads. And finally, to offer the option of 4G LTE speeds. In order to achieve these goals, Apple compromised in the following three ways: First, the new iPad is slightly thicker and heavier than its predecessor. Second, the A5X chip gets hotter than the A5 when pushed. Third, the storage capacities of the models have not changed, despite the fact that retina-class files take up more space. Did Apple make the right compromises? I think they did. No single element is more important to the tablet experience than the screen and the Retina Display has to be seen in person to be believed. Moreover, by compromising ever so slightly on thickness and weight, they were able to provide a battery that, in my tests, still lasts all day. Will future models be thinner and lighter than the current model? Undoubtedly. But the new iPad represents the best that Apple could achieve today without compromising on the principles that make the iPad experience so compelling.

The vexing LTE situation, on the other hand, is a little like having a Ferrari that you are only allowed to take on the highway for 30 miles every month. I've heard rumors that some of the streaming video services may actually start subsidizing the use of their apps by paying the carriers, so that the data streamed from them would not count against customers' data plans. This sounds great until you realize that it would compromise the neutrality of the internet. Independent producers who cannot afford to pay such subsidies would, under such an arrangement, be at a structural disadvantage. Whether or not this rumor proves true, I remain (irrationally?) optimistic that the carriers will come to their senses and increase data allowances once their networks are built out. The only question left, is whether anyone will have a real answer to the iPad before Apple crosses the inevitable 100,000,000 unit sales mark later this year. 

Note: Special thanks to Aryeh Cohen for the use of his iPad 2 during the composition of this review.

Final Cut Pro X: One Man's Journey from Denial to Acceptance

Note: This blog was originally posted on Philip Bloom's Website alongside the impression of 6 other professional editors.

When the Final Cut apocalypse hit, I was an independent filmmaker working in LA. Many friends and colleagues would soon jump ship and go over to Premiere, or Avid, but I was curious about Final Cut Pro X. It’s not that I was any less upset than the rest of the Final Cut Pro community. I too had seen the tools that I used for the better part of a decade killed in one fell swoop. But I was in denial and I ponied up the $300 to start exploring Apple’s latest non-linear editing application. What became immediately apparent to me was that our friends in Cupertino had decided to completely rethink non-linear video editing.

I liked what I saw and I decided to take FCPX out for a spin. For three years now, I’ve been working on a documentary film about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As part of that project, we collected 500 street interviews: 250 in Israel and 250 in the Palestinian territories. During the summer of 2011, I tabulated the data from the Israeli side and wrote a 2200 word report based on the results. What I needed, at the time, was a video to accompany the written report. This seemed like the perfect project with which to test out the new Final Cut. I challenged myself to do everything from editing and sound mixing, to titles and color correction inside of FCPX.

At first, things seemed to be going really well. While I had to unlearn some old muscle memory (no more Shift-Delete!), the logic of the new paradigm made sense to me. Nevertheless, the overall performance of the application left something to be desired. I work on a 2.8 GHZ Quad Core i7 iMac with 8GB of RAM and for some reason, FCPX didn’t feel as snappy as FCP6 on the same system. When it came to subtitles, working in FCPX was actually a breath of fresh air. It was really nice to be able to work inside a unified interface without any round-tripping and it did save me time. But there was a glitch in the application and every time I closed FCPX, the tracking of the subtitles would get screwed up. I ended up finishing the video, but the process of making it was incredibly frustrating. I had moved to anger. 

It was clear what Apple was thinking. The concepts in the new paradigm definitely had the potential to make things faster and easier. But their implementation was so sloppy that it made me feel like I wasn’t in complete control of my own work. Moreover, the feature omissions that had caused so many to jump ship, were a problem for me as well. There was simply no way that I would edit a feature-length documentary in a system that couldn’t hand off files for professional sound work. So I left FCPX and went back to editing in FCP6.
 
A couple of weeks ago, I was getting ready to launch an IndieGoGo campaign to raise finishing funds for my film and I needed to produce a short appeal video. I figured I’d give FCPX another shot. After all, it had received two updates in the interim and I was interested to see whether things had improved. Nevertheless, I was nervous about working in FCPX , because of my previous experiences. So I made a rough assemblage in FCP6, exported it as a Quicktime, imported that Quicktime into FCPX, and finished it there. The updated application was much more stable than I remembered it and the editing process was reasonably smooth. I understood, of course, that this hybrid approach (bargaining?) was not a feasible editing strategy for my feature-length film, but at the same time, the siren call of background rendering, automatic audio syncing (all of my interviews are shot with two cameras), and quick subtitling was very seductive. Still, there was no efficient way to move all of my FCP6 work into FCPX.  That’s where I stood until about a week ago, when Apple released its third update to FCPX, 10.0.3.
 
With the latest release, not only have the vast majority of missing features been restored, but a new utility is now available on the Mac App Store which allows you to move legacy FCP projects and sequences into FCPX. I paid the $10, downloaded the application, and moved a sequence over. It wasn’t perfect, but I’d say that 98% of my work made the transition intact and after a little bit of cleanup, I was up and running in FCPX. So far, the experience has been good. The performance is much improved over the first few versions, although it’s still not as snappy as I’d like. Multicam works a charm as do all of the features that originally made the application attractive in theory. In sum, the benefits at this point in time far outweigh the remaining issues and I think that it’s a good time for my colleagues to reconsider Apple’s contender. Final Cut Pro X is a powerful tool that has finally come into its own and I, for one, am well on my way to acceptance.