Laptop Quest 2020: Maybe a better keyboard

I have two laptops currently:

  • A sixth generation (2018) ThinkPad Carbon X1
  • A 2016 MacBook Pro without touch bar

I got the ThinkPad because I a) hated the MacBook Pro’s butterfly keyboard and b) worried that it would fail out of warranty, leading to a $600-700 repair bill, given Apple’s insane (or insanely clever?) design that necessitates not just replacing the faulty keyboard, but basically half of the entire laptop.

Apple then started its keyboard repair program, which covers every model with a butterfly keyboard (this is every MacBook released since 2015, not counting the MacBook Air prior to its 2018 redesign). For four years after purchase, Apple will repair or replace a defective keyboard for no charge.

I bought the MacBook Pro in December 2016, so I am good for 10 more months, after which the cost of repair will again rise to about $700. Or maybe even more, because Apple has never been shy about raising prices.

This whole thing is further complicated by a couple of things related to my writing:

  • I went back to Ulysses, which is Mac-only
  • I still really hate the butterfly keyboard. I find it uncomfortable on my finger tips, and that’s even when I’m not applying my usual “fists of gorilla” approach to typing

I’m wed to macOS, but have begun looking for other writing app alternatives again, because the tool is really secondary to the writing itself.

But wait! In October 2019 Apple updated the 15 inch MacBook Pro to a 16 inch model and brought back the more traditional scissor switch keyboard. Instead of having half a millimeter of travle, it now has one entire millimeter of travel! I tried it out in an Apple store and it’s better, but it’s still not great.

The ThinkPad keyboard feels luxuriously deep and satisfying in comparison (my partner is using the ThinkPad now, as his $200 HP laptop is not running anymore so much as hobbling along intermittently).

So my current options are:

  • Hope that Apple comes out with an equivalent to my current MacBook Pro this year with a “good” keyboard and a price that is not any more outrageous that what it is currently. Rumors suggest the possibility of this is pretty good, but Apple is notoriously unreliable for updates on anything other than the iPhone and Apple Watch. And they have treated the Mac line pretty shoddily post-Jobs.
  • Get a Windows laptop and find other software to use. I’ve been trying out a bunch of new writing apps, as well as noodling around in some old standbys, like the perpetually-in-beta version 3 of Scrivener for PC. For the actual device, the Dell XPS 13 and ThinkPad (7th gen) both seem like strong candidates. The Surface Laptop 3 can be had for a decent price, too, and I’m not concerned about its relative lack of IO.

It’s early, so I’m not really leaning in one direction or the other yet. On the one hand, Ulysses is a really nice app. On the other, I resent having to pay a subscription for it (the updates have clearly not been enough to warrant the cost, which I’ll go into in a separate post). I’m also not a huge fan of macOS. It’s fine and for writing it does everything I need, but I am both extremely comfortable with Windows 10 and really like some of the native features of Windows (it may come as no surprise that windows management is really good, where in macOS it is just short of a disaster).

Anyway, I’m typing this on the MacBook Pro now and my finger tips are starting to hurt, so unless I switch to voice dictation, I am going to end this post here. More to come!

On the Edge

Today Microsoft released the new, Chromium-based version of its Edge browser. Chromium is the open standard that Google uses as the basis for Chrome, so while some think that Microsoft has essentially caved in and started using a reskinned version of Chrome, that’s not true. In fact, Microsoft will now have direct influence over the future of Chromium, helping to reduce Google’s oversized leverage.

Chromium Edge also doesn’t include all of Google’s data-collecting services, too–an important distinction.

While I have used Firefox for a hundred years and will use it for a hundred more, long after I’ve become a floating head in a jar, I am interested in seeing what an actual competitive Microsoft browser looks like. I’ve installed it on my PC and will also install it on my MacBook Pro and mini. I’m going to try sticking with it for a solid week to see how it feels vs. what I’m used to in Firefox.

Realistically, I don’t expect to keep using it, but you never know. I’ve previously used Chrome and yes, Internet Explorer, as my main browsers in the past, so I’m open to change.

Here’s a few things I already like (some of these are common features to most browsers, others are more unique):

  • Pinned tabs
  • Pinned sites on the taskbar. I find this more useful than I thought.
  • Reading mode
  • Being able to use Chrome extensions from the Chrome web store (MS’s store is a bit sparse)
  • The pretty backgrounds you can opt to get on the new tab page
  • The new tab page customization options
  • Nice-looking dark mode
  • Generally speedy, though these are early days. Er, hours.

UPDATE: The new tab page only lets you have a maximum of seven “top sites.” This is fantastically dumb and basically a deal breaker for me. I then spent most of the evening looking at other new tab extensions, but they all had features missing or other issues, such as:

  • Ugly as all get-out
  • Kind of skeevy (usually requiring an account)
  • Locking basic functionality behind a monthly subscription (lol)
  • Lacked customization (icon sizes, etc.)
  • Focusing on widgets and other things over presenting a list of sites

I did a search hoping there might be a way to have more than seven top sites on the official new tab page, but my results yielded nothing. I was using Bing, though.

Tech quote of the day, December 20, 2019

This is from The Verge’s article The 84 biggest flops, fails, and dead dreams of the decade in tech, in reference to the Microsoft Band:

Microsoft’s first attempt at wearable hardware looked more like a prison experiment.

Which is pretty much a perfect summation of how the device looked. Too bad Microsoft never kept developing it, because I think, like the Surface line,. they would probably have nailed it after a few iterations and the thing was loaded with sensors. Alas.

The new Mac Pro wheels

The internet is aflutter over the announced price for adding wheels to the new Mac Pro. They cost $400 ($480 Canadian). The jokes, of course, write themselves.

Could these $400 wheels on a $6,000 computer turn out to be a surprisingly reasonable value?

No, of course not. They’re wheels. I’m pretty sure the fourth wheel will start wobbling in a few years just the same as any cart-like wheels would.

The only weird part is these ludicrous transportation units or whatever Jony Ive might call them (if he still worked at Apple) stand out against some actual reasonable things Apple has done recently, like upgrading the 15 inch MacBook Pro to a 16 inch model without raising the price (though it ain’t exactly cheap to start with), and actually dropping the price of this year’s equivalent to the iPhone XR while improving the specs.

The price doesn’t actually bother me as the Mac Pro is very much in the “maybe if I win the lottery” category and it probably still sucks for gaming. But given Apple’s track record with Macs (inconsistent at best, a disaster of neglect and quality control issues at worst), if I were one of those so-called pros who wants a pro-level machine, I’d be casting back to 2013 when Apple released the last Mac Pro.

It didn’t receive any updates in 2014.

Or 2015.

Or 2016.

Or 2017.

Or 2018 or 2019. It was, in fact, never updated. Apple essentially killed it the day it was released, they just never formally announced its death until four years later, then they continued to sell it for two more years before finally re-inventing a basic, modular PC that optionally comes with $400 wheels.

What I’m saying is if you want to get a new Mac Pro, keep in mind that what you unbox may be the exact same thing you might unbox in six years. And it will be the same price, too.

So will the wheels.

Escaping the Googles

Back in its early days Google had a simple motto:

Don’t be evil.

This motto still exists in their official Code of Conduct, right near the end of the very long document:

And remember… don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right – speak up!

Since changing their official motto to Do the right thing, Google has seen itself increasingly mired in controversy, most of it borne from the fact that the company makes its money through selling the data of its users to companies that then use the data to target users with ads, ads which often follow them around the internet. Google is essentially a series of services—most of which are free to the user—designed to harvest data and sell it for ads.

Put more simply, Google is an advertising company. Nearly everything it does is in service to advertising. This is the code of the company and is likely to remain so into the foreseeable future.

Is this bad? Is it evil? On a relative scale, not so much. To paraphrase Stockard Channing, there are worse things it could do. But what it does is enough to have finally given me pause after years of using their free services:

  • The Chrome browser is near Internet Explorer 6.0 levels of dominating the browser market, with sites increasingly being tailored for and only tested with Chrome. This is not good for the web, web standards and basically everything a free, open web stands for.
  • Gmail, Google search and other free services are tracking users across the web, feeding their surfing habits, random clicks and more to companies that use that information to target the users with ads and services. Most of this is done surreptitiously, without the user being aware.
  • Chrome is easing restrictions on some kinds of ad-blocking, for obvious reasons

Basically, I’m not comfortable supporting this model anymore. I think it makes for an unhealthy web. So I’m making changes. Some are days, some are more difficult.

Let’s start with the easy ones:

  • I haven’t used Chrome as my primary browser for quite awhile, having switched to Firefox long ago. If I need alternative browsers for whatever reason, I can use Edge (!), Vivaldi or Brave.
  • I’ve switched from Google search to DuckDuckGo. Plus DuckDuckGo is way more fun to say. Are the searches less comprehensive? Maybe. I can’t say I’ve never not found what I was looking for yet. In fact, the searches are more accurate because I no longer have Google trying to shape (or contort) the search results to better “fit” what I am allegedly looking for.
  • I no longer use Google Drive for cloud storage (I use OneDrive and iCloud Drive)
  • I have long abandoned Google’s office apps, like Docs and Sheets

And now the harder stuff:

  • Google Maps is still by far the best map site/software, though Google is doing its best to clog it up with services, suggestions and generally getting in the way of what should be simple directions on how to get from A to B. The alternatives are still not quite there. Apple Maps is improved, but it’s limited to Apple platforms (which, honestly, is kind of dumb—Apple should have a browser version, and I don’t mean one that requires Safari). Apple is also way behind on its equivalent to Street View. Then there’s Bing Maps. It’s okay, but it lacks in so many little and some major ways. I will keep using these and hope they improve, but it will be a meaning process. I don’t use maps much, anyway.
  • Gmail. This is the big one. I have had a Gmail account for a long time. I have thousands of messages and many subscriptions and services tied to my gmail address. I can direct new subs to an alternate email address—I have a more “serious” email address at outlook.com, for example, or I can use one from my own domain, @creolened.com, though that looks a little weird, really. This is a long term project, one I’ll probably tackle piecemeal. There is always the fear that whatever other service I switch to could disappear, while Gmail is one of the handful of Google services that seems relatively safe.

All said, I’m making these moves to help simplify my interactions on the web, to get less ads and less shaping, to find what I am looking for, without handing over information that really sin’t anyone else’s business. Excelsior, as they say.

Another “Here’s why Facebook sucks” story you don’t have to actually read past the headline

But if you do want to read it, here’s the link to the story on The Verge.

And the headline that reminds you that Facebook and most other major social media platforms are corrosive, terrible and bad:

Mac mouse mayhem: More and then no more (for the moment)

I don’t actually have a Magic Mouse 2, I just love pictures of them being charged. Image is courtesy of geek.com.

A small but persistent annoyance in writing on my Mac mini is the way the mouse cursor behaves. Or in this case, misbehaves.

I noticed it when I connected my Logitech Marathon 705 via USB wireless receiver. Mouse movement would seem okay, but on closer inspection there is always some glitches in the form of the cursor jumping ahead or stuttering. I installed the Logitech drivers and found no change.

I then switched to a Logitech M720, which connects via the same receiver. The erratic mouse movement was even worse. I tried using both mice directly on my desktop, no mousepad. No improvement. I tried various things like software updates, restarting in safe mode and so on and again, no change. Jiggly mouse syndrome persisted. I did not want jiggly mice.

Searching for troubleshooting tips largely produced results that were obvious and unhelpful (“check to see if there is gunk in your mouse”) or obscure enough to make me wonder if Macs are just really bad with third party mice.

Since both tested mice are wireless and using the same receiver, I decided to try a different approach. I unplugged the receiver and plugged in my old wired Steelseries Rival 300 mouse. When I used this mouse with Windows, I quite liked it and only replaced it when I went wireless (with the Logitech G700, which I adore, save for somewhat short battery life). After plugging in the Rival 300 I waited a few moments, then moved the mouse. It moved exactly as intended. No jumps, no jiggles, no erratic behavior. It was super slow, as is always the case with the default mouse settings on a Mac (why this is so is a question left for the ages). I bumped up the tracking speed and voila, it is working just fine.

So now I wonder, is it the wireless receiver? Is it a Logitech thing? Would this happen with a Bluetooth mouse? I am okay with using the Rival 300 as a stopgap but given the Mac mini and PC share the same desk, I really prefer wireless for both. I’ll probably try digging out my old Microsoft Bluetooth mouse and see how it fares, as soon as I remember where it is. In the meantime, I accept a tail on a mouse to end the mouse mayhem on my Mac.

Also, to paraphrase Phil Schiller, as others have done a billion times or so already, “It just works, my butt.”

Apple September 2019 event: My middling warm take

Here’s my middling warm take on the Apple keynote today, in handy list form:

  • Little in the way of surprises, though there were a few small ones (see below)–this is pretty standard now for Apple events, where all major details leak months in advance
  • iPhone Pro is a dumb name. Apple is good at coming up with dumb names. Is iPhone 11 Pro Max better than iPhone XS Max? Kind of a draw.
  • People will at least stop calling the LCD model the “ex-ar” now that it’s just iPhone 11
  • I’m going to be talking about price for 6 of the next 8 bullet points
  • The price went down for the iPhone 11 from $749 to $699–a good sign that Apple is counting on this phone to shore up flagging sales and is willing to cut the price (and margin) to entice more to buy it
  • Pricing on the “Pro” phones remains ludicrous, even excluding Canadian pricing ($1379 and $1519 if you were curious)
  • The “affordable” iPhone 11 starts at $699 U.S. or $979 (!) Canadian. I did an exchange rate comparison and $699 U.S. works out to about $920 Canadian. Hmm, I say. Hmm.
  • Unless you want the improved cameras and are sticking to iPhones, I can’t think of a compelling reason to buy any of the new phones, unless you have something old, in which case the iPhone 11 makes sense (or get the still-being sold Xr for even less)
  • Prices stayed the same for the U.S. but some products went up in other countries (like Canada). I guess we’re paying for the tariffs (lol)? Example:
    • Series 4 Apple Watch 44mm with GPS + Cellular: $649
    • Series 5 Apple Watch 44mm with GPS + Cellular: $699
  • I want a Series 5 Watch, but I don’t want it for $699. Or even $569 (GPS only). So I’ll stick with my Series 2 (Apple will give me $60 for trade-in if I change my mind).
  • Always On Display for the Series 5 Watch was an actual surprise. It’s nice, but I suspect it won’t push many people into buying who didn’t already have other reasons.
  • Arcade and Apple TV+ pricing are decent and about what I expected
  • Apple giving away a year of Apple TV+ with new Apple devices seems to be both a good idea (it creates a huge, instant audience) and also a sign that they may not have faith in the service to survive on its own
  • iPad: Nice, but kind of meh. Looks like Apple is trying to squeeze maximum value out of the original generation Pencil and smart keyboard cover that debuted with the 10.5″ Pro in 2017. Recycling is good for the environment, why not for peripherals, too?
  • Watching game demos is never not painful for me
  • If you removed all of the adjectives from the presenters, the keynote would have been 30 minutes shorter

Kind of boring overall, which makes the “By innovation only” tagline look even more silly.

App of the Day: No app

I can’t remember the last time I got an app for my phone that actually excited me. As phone technology has improved, I’ve found the way I use the phone has, in some ways, regressed.

I’ve commented on this before, but my phone habits have probably shrunken even more since then.

My typical usage now is:

  • text messages, either with my partner using the default Messages app, with friends using Facebook Messenger (ugh) or at work using Slack.
  • taking photos of things, sometimes work-related (these are typically deleted after, as they are only useful in the moment, but mostly just flowers and scenery I find interesting
  • occasionally checking email
  • occasionally checking something in a browser (usually Firefox)
  • occasionally adding something in the Reminders app
  • using the PayRange app to buy something from a vending machine (I do this at work to avoid long lines in the cafeteria when all I want is a beverage).
  • occasionally taking or (even less occasionally) making a phone call

Everything else, like playing games, checking news, other apps, the weather, maps–are all edge cases I only do once in awhile.

AR (Augmented Reality) is something Apple is pushing but it excites me about as much as putting on socks in the morning. VR is even worse, and doesn’t work for me, anyway.

I am more likely to delete an app than install it. In fact, iOS 13 (coming next month) will offer a new feature that will make this easier, by presenting an uninstall option when an app offers an update. This is kind of clever, really. “Hey, here’s an update for an app I installed a year ago and never use. But look, there’s a handy uninstall option right here, too!” This might make some companies like Facebook rethink their strategy of constantly pushing updates to keep the app in the user’s mind.

Anyway, it could be that I’ve just become a boring old sod and the app world is actually exciting and innovative, but when I look at the upcoming iPhone launch, I wonder why on earth I would spend so much money to do so little, especially when the phone I have now seems to be good enough.

Using my smartphone for good, not evil

Actually it would be more fair to say I’ve been using my smartphone (currently an iPhone 8) for harmless nonsense, which is still better than using it for evil.

I’ve made a few recent posts to the blog during my morning commute, using the Ulysses app to slowly tap out a post and then upload it directly to my blog. I marvel at the technology, even as I lament how few will see my carefully-considered nonsense. I even just recently had a two-day stretch of zero visits on June 21 and 22. This is bad even by my own sad standards. I clearly need to work on the SEO and other acronyms to boost hits. More clickbait! More gossip! More whatever it is people want. Maybe just a redirect to Facebook.

It feels like the writing muscles are finally starting to halt their atrophy, as I am using more little blocks of time to write errant thoughts down, moving ever-so-slightly closer to perhaps engaging in some fiction writing again.

Mainly, though, I am not using my phone for social media, except for using Slack at work, which is not really in any way fun, so doesn’t count. There’s hardly any clickbait.

What do I use my phone for? Here’s a list. I like lists.

What I use my smartphone for, in order of most to least

  1. Listening to music
  2. Sending and receiving text messages with my partner. A lot of this includes Bitmoji nonsense, which I love and adore.
  3. Logging food/water in the MyFitnessPal app
  4. Adding or removing stuff in the Reminders app
  5. Checking stats in the Activity app
  6. Occasionally checking email, either personal (Gmail) or work (Outlook)
  7. Checking calendar appointments (almost exclusively work-related)
  8. Adding errant thoughts using the Drafts 4 app
  9. Adding errant and less-errant thoughts using the OneNote app
  10. Sometimes checking the weather or news
  11. Using the flashlight function
  12. Making or receiving an actual phone call
  13. Playing a game
  14. Writing a blog post (this one may move up the list over time)

What I never use my smartphone for

  1. Making the world a worse place (to my knowledge)
  2. To smash open walnuts
  3. As a level
  4. To play music without earbuds or earphones. Seriously, why do people do this? Do you do this? Don’t do this.
  5. To plug in a nice set of headphones (zing!)