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.

I sat beside Mitchell on the SkyTrain today

I don’t know Mitchell, but I do know he was sitting next to me on the SkyTrain this morning. I know this without having spoken to him and without interacting with him in any way at all.

How did I know his name? Was he wearing a name tag? Did someone nearby shout out to him, “Yo Mitchell dawg, what’s up?”

The answer to these questions is no.

I found out his name because I was writing a blog post on my phone. Yes, it was the magic (and menace) of technology.

The Ulysses app allows me to compose WordPress posts and send them magically to my blog to be published. On the iPhone this is done through the export function. But the first time you use it, the default is to open the share sheet. One of the options that appears here is AirDrop, Apple’s way of allowing iPhone users to easily share files.

And lo, there was Mitchell’s iPhone. He was indeed using his iPhone. I thought about sharing my blog post just to see how he’d react, but opted not to. But it also made me think how people could use AirDrop to creep on others.

Scenario: Unrelated man and woman sit beside each other on train, both have AirDrop enabled. Man opens up Photos app and goes to the share sheet after selecting a particularly appalling example of his manhood. He then opts to AirDrop it to the woman sitting next to him. She puts his phone in a place one might have considered physically impossible.

She could just choose not to accept, but you still get a preview of the image, so Unwitting Commuter is still going to see something grossbuckets before declining. I should test this sometime to see just how it works with someone you theoretically don’t know. With a picture of a kitten, you pervs.

Anyway, now I’m kind of wondering how Mitchell’s day is going.

Collected technology opinions from the internet, Volume 1

Yes, this is shooting fish in a barrel, but sometimes you have a barrel of fish and a loaded gun and you just can’t resist.

There is a larger meta-commentary here about literacy or something, but I’m just amused by glaring typos and people making wildly wrong guesses about how something is spelled, and more generally what people are willing to commit to virtual paper.

On Apple being boring:
“Not boring, rediculuslly gready!”

A browser less likely to be charged with sexual assault:
“it’s like Chrome, but doesn’t rape your privacy”

Sony’s upcoming console, with rows of cartridges in golden fields:
“If Sony goes cartridge for the plantation 5 than those Blu-ray’s will be obsolete.”

On WoW wooing back players and the need for departments:
“You need to fix the class system for those people who quit to come back. Classes need more dept and more abilities that define the class.”

Good advice for your next system build:
“For the graphics card to work, you need to plug it into the mobo.”

On wearing costumes?
“i keep hearing this, it seems that many people only cares about share holders, that’s very nice but what about costumers, i am a costumer that’s why i care about the costumer side”

Fixing MacBook keyboards with insects:
“In real life users are very happy with this keyboard, without even saying that 2016-2017 keyboard “issue” is just fixable blowing air with your moth lol”

Windows 10:
“Windows 10 is nice if you don’t actually have to use it for anything in my experience.”

Samsung vs. Google or The Goggles Do Nothing:
“The Samsung UI is better then Goggles and has a USD storage”

The Mac turns 35

Today is the 35th anniversary of the original Macintosh. Since I am old enough to have lived through personal computer prehistory, I remember the original Mac well.

In 1985–only a scant year after its introduction–I worked on a Macintosh Plus as part of a job entry program in a small publishing/advertising firm in Duncan. The Macintosh Plus came with what was then a staggering one megabyte of ram and this particular model had two floppy disk drives, one internal, one external, so you didn’t need to switch out floppies. Convenient!

I mostly worked on simple ad blurbs and also did entry for a database (I forget the actual software, but it would be pretty easy to find, I imagine). I spent most of my time writing a parody of Friday the 13th using MacWrite. I printed out hard copy on the LaserWriter Plus (this company either had lots of money or lots of debt) and still have that same hard copy kicking around somewhere. I may even have the floppy disks stuffed away in a box.

Since the Macintosh was ludicrously expensive back then (even more than today’s models in relative terms), my own computer was a Commodore 64, which was inferior to the Macintosh in most ways, except it had color graphics and about ten million more games.

The closest I came to owning a Mac back then is when the Macintosh was offered for student discount while I was attending university in 1990. It was around $1,000 as I recall. By then I had an Amiga, which in many ways was a better machine and cost a lot less, so I never went Mac.

That changed in 2013 when I finally got my first laptop, a MacBook Air, then regarded by many as the best all-around laptop. I was too used to Windows, though, and the display was actually not that great, so I ultimately sold it for a Surface Pro 3 the following year.

I returned to the fold (while keeping the SP3) in late 2016 when I picked up the updated MacBook Pro without the goofy Touch Bar (the Touch Bar-free version was the most reasonably-priced–and it still cost $1799). macOS had matured and was a lot more refined, the haptic trackpad was awesome and it had a bright, sharp display. The battery life was only average, but it met my needs. Unfortunately, the ultra-shallow keyboard was something I learned to merely tolerate, not really like, and when you use a laptop for writing, that’s not a great thing. And this was before all the issues with the butterfly keyboard mechanism became known.

I still have the MacBook Pro, with two years left of free service if the keyboard goes south. I’ve actually been using it more recently, as I toy with the idea of going back to Macs for writing (I make the decision tomorrow, per my self-imposed deadline).

When I look at the current Mac line, it makes me a little sad. It could be so much more, but Apple has gotten so big and so reliant on the iPhone that the Mac is playing not just second fiddle, but third, after the iPhone and iPad.

Apple’s attempts at innovation on recent Macs have all been failures:

  • The 2013 Mac Pro was fatally flawed by its design, which led to heat issues and throttling. Apple also seemed to assume “pros” wanted a small computer that they would plug every sort of upgrade into, creating an ungainly mess of cables and peripherals. Nope.
  • The 2016 update to the MacBook Pro introduced the Touch Bar and raised the prices significantly. A couple of years later and the Touch Bar has really been a bit of a dud. It’s never been expanded beyond the Pro laptops and feels like an afterthought now.
  • The MacBook in 2015 introduced the butterfly keyboard, which was divisive due to its extremely shallow keys. Some people love it, as it requires a very light touch, but many dislike it for the same reason. It was also kind of loud for a laptop keyboard. Worse, it was prone to a number of flaws, like keys getting stuck, or registering multiple times, or just not working at all. Apple has revised the keyboard twice and the same issues are still being reported. They really need to chuck the design altogether, especially since it is now used across all of their laptops. I give this a 50/50 chance of happening in 2020.
  • Even the revised Mac mini, after being neglected for four years, emerged with flaws–cheap thermal paste that results in the machine throttling easily, expensive and with piddly specs on the base model. At least they finally killed the 5400 rpm hard drive it came with in favor of SSDs (that are glued and cannot be upgraded or replaced by the user).

So while I consider a return of sorts to the Mac, it’s only as an adjunct to my PC and likely through either a dock with my MBP or through a hackintosh I’d build from an Intel NUC.

Still, happy anniversary to the first personal computer to popularize the graphical user interface. Despite my gripes, the Macintosh had a huge, undeniable impact on personal computing.

It’s 2015 (or 2014 or 2013) forever in the Apple store

In an Ars Techinica guide on building a custom PC, the section on storage features this comment:

Looking at the Tech Specs for the Mac mini on apple.com yields this under storage:

On the one hand you have a guide to building a PC published in May 2018 that acknowledges the ascendancy of the Solid State Drive (SSD) over the traditional spinning platters of a hard disk. It refers to slower 5400-rpm drives as hideous. Then, hopping over to Apple’s web store, you find the base model of the Mac mini and lo, just like those scurrilous OEM vendors, the Mac mini comes with a 5400-rpm hard disk. This is perhaps not surprising when you consider the Mac mini listed has not seen a change in price or specification since October 2014 (as macrumors.com notes, that was 1297 days ago).

This isn’t even Apple’s most outdated computer. The Mac Pro (which the company has promised will see an update in 2019) was launched in December 2013. Even if the new model ships in January 2019 it amounts to a minimum of just over five years between hardware updates. They did it at least cut prices in April 2017. The base model for this vintage machine is now a mere $3499 Canadian.

The MacBook Air, the “affordable” Mac laptop, received a minor processor speed bump in 2017 that was likely due to the slower processor no longer being available in bulk anymore. Other than this–and that CPU bump did not change the actual model of CPU–the Air has not been updated since March 2015, when it was updated to a 5th generation Intel processor (they are on the 8th generation now).

These three models represent distinct segments in the market:

  • Mac mini: affordable, entry-level Mac
  • MacBook Air: affordable, entry-level Mac laptop
  • Mac Pro: high-end professional workstation

By refusing to update any of these machines, Apple has demonstrated it doesn’t care about these segments. By continuing to sell them for years without updates is both an embarrassment for the world’s richest company and a sign that leadership is not managing the product line in a healthy manner. It also shows a certain level of contempt for the customer. I mean, they could at least drop the prices. They did for the Mac Pro, but even at the reduced prices, it’s a poor value for a pro workstation, given design issues and now obsolete expansion (Thunderbolt 2, etc.). But a semi-obsolete Mac mini at half its current price would at least seem palatable.

But even when you look at the product that makes over half the revenue for Apple–the iPhone–you see the same creeping inability to cull older products. Apple might argue that they are covering different price segments, but other companies actually build products for each segment instead of just continuing to sell old hardware. Even Apple has done this–the new iPad is only $329 U.S. because Apple reverted back to the cheaper iPad Air for much of its design and hardware. But the iPhone line is an array of eight models going back to 2015.

What I’m saying is Apple is doing very well for being so indifferent, sloppy and lazy with so many of its products. I’m kind of jealous.

Curious design: Music controls through self-abuse

Apple’s AirPods work like some other true wireless Bluetooth earbuds in that you operate the controls by tapping on the earbuds directly. iOS 11 allows for different controls for the left and right bud, though the controls themselves are limited to only:

  • previous track
  • next track
  • play/pause
  • Siri
  • off

Still, this covers my needs for the most part, especially when running. This MacRumors article on using the AirPods revealed a trick I was unaware of:

Tap Your Ear

You don’t necessarily have to tap right on your AirPod to use the double tap gestures. Many people prefer to tap softly on the back of an ear instead. It’s a little less audibly jarring and it works just as well.

I verified this on my run today and it is entirely weird to control music by bapping on your ear. It was a tad inconsistent, which no doubt made for a strange sight to others on the trail (“Why does that man keep hitting his ear?”) but the same can be said for the controls in general, they just seem a lot harder to execute when jogging.

Still, the novelty of hitting my ear to skip to the next track may never grow old. Or at least not until I remember I can just tell Siri to do it instead.

The people is spoken -or- Google is bad

A comment in response to an article on The Verge about how we should stop trusting Google search:

The people is stupid on the internet.

Stupid indeed.

To be fair the author of the comment was likely being deliberately colloquial or just committed a plain old grammatical error. In any case, his comments and the others, help underscore the main point of the article–people put a lot of trust in search engine results and Google, as God Emperor of Search–seriously, do you know anyone who uses Bing?–regularly trips up by elevating misinformation and fabrication and skewing results to the user in order to steer the user to the “desired” ads/companies/services.

There’s always DuckDuckGo. They take full aim at Google (without mentioning them by name, of course) the first time you hit their site with this card:

I don’t like the new MacBook keyboard

I’ve had a MacBook Pro, officially known as the MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports) model when checking About This Mac from the Apple menu, for the better part of the year, and in that time I’ve grown used to the extremely low travel keyboard it uses, but I’ve finally realized I don’t like it.

Others have mentioned it’s not fun to type on and that may seem somewhat glib, but it’s true, at least as far as my own experience goes. My greatest fear–that the low travel and extreme firmness of the keys would lead to sore fingers during long typing sessions–was unfounded. I’ve typed thousands of words over hours on the thing and my fingers have emerged intact.

But it’s still an oddly joyless experience, something I hadn’t even thought in relation to typing until I started using it. I always feel like I’m on the verge of making mistakes by hitting the wrong keys, it’s annoyingly clicky without any of the benefits of a mechanical keyboard and every time I go back to any other keyboard I regularly use, like the Logitech K780 or even the previous wired Mac keyboard with numeric keypad, I’m reminded of how much more pleasurable the typing experience can be. The new MacBook keyboard feels like something that’s meant to be used only sparingly. Maybe that’s why the touchpad is so gigantic on the newer models.

The 2016 MacBook Pro is kind of an odd thing. Parts of it are great, like the display and touchpad, while others, like the keyboard, are unsatisfying compromises.

It’s actually got me thinking about getting a Windows laptop again because there is no escaping this keyboard now. Apple is on the verge of killing off their last models that used the old-style keyboard (the models date back to 2015).

HP has a new edition of their Spectre x360 coming out later this month. I’ll give it a test drive if it’s carried locally. If the touchpad is tolerable and the keyboard is better, they may just have a sale.

Anyone want a slightly-used MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports)?

UPDATE April 2, 2018: My search for a replacement laptop is documented here and here. I am still mulling over a replacement as of this update.

Now that my MacBook Pro is out of warranty, I am starting to experience what I call KA, which is not related to the mumbo jumbo in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. KA is Keyboard Anxiety, the fear that something will happen to your keyboard, necessitating an expensive repair.

The Wirecutter has a section of their MacBook guide specifically addressing the design and reliability of the keyboard:

And across the scores of professional reviews and hundreds of online comments we’ve seen since this keyboard design debuted, few people say they love typing on it. Many people admit that, like us, they’ve gotten used to the new keyboard, while others actively dislike using it.

Here’s another article on the new MacBook keyboard that highlights issues with the design, which notes how it’s all but impossible to remove the space bar for repair without breaking it, so if the space bar is not working right, you’re likely looking at getting the entire top assembly of the MacBook replaced, since the keyboard is an integrated part of it. The cost of the replacement, out of warranty, can be hundreds of dollars, even if it’s just that single key that is not working. This keyboard design was done in the name of making the laptops ever-thinner and lighter. I think this is probably peak Apple form over function, as they have retreated on their “thin or die” philosophy since the development and subsequent fallout over the butterfly mechanism the new keyboard uses. The iPhone 7/8, Series 3 Watch and new iPad are all thicker and heavier than their immediate predecessors (though not by much).

Also amusing is the official Apple support document on How to clean the keyboard of your MacBook or MacBook Pro. Hold your MacBook (minimum cost $1729 Canadian before tax) at an absurd, near-upside down angle and spray air into it. I especially like the second image where the guy doing the cleaning is apparently palming the MacBook instead of actually gripping it. He’s putting a lot of faith in that left hand:

If reliability problems are as bad as they may be, I suspect this will be a rare case of Apple retreating on a design, though I expect them to spend at least another generation trying to fix it first. If they do abandon it, the result will probably be slightly thicker and heavier laptops, but other companies have demonstrated that light and thin is still quite possible while retaining a more traditional laptop keyboard design.

I am now collecting obsolete Apple devices

A few days ago Apple quietly pulled the iPod nano and iPod shuffle from their online store and confirmed the devices were being discontinued. The only iPod left is the iPod Touch, which is really just an iPhone with the phone bits removed. The Touch itself hasn’t been updated since 2015, though Apple did double the storage without changing the price while killing the nano and shuffle, so it’s at least a better value now. Its days are still likely to be numbered. I predict no more hardware refreshes, maybe another round of new colors (next year) and then bye-bye it goes.

I bought the 7th generation nano shortly after it came out to replace the 6th generation model I had before it. The biggest change was going from a click wheel interface to a touchscreen that aped the look and feel of the iPhone. While the click wheel had the advantage in allowing you to use it by simply clicking without looking, I found it reacted very badly when it got the slightest bit damp when I was using it on runs. And I used mine pretty much exclusively when running (using the built-in Nike+ app). The touchscreen version could also be a bit finicky when wet but not to the same degree. I once extended a run by nearly half a km when I couldn’t get the click wheel to work during a light rain. (The nano had a bizarre history with Apple radically changing the device over its lifespan. The sixth generation model had a video camera included, something that seems completely silly looking back.)

Both of my nanos still work. In fact, I used my saucy green model just this year. I always wanted Apple to make a 32GB version of it so it could hold all of my music and I wouldn’t have to choose what to leave off. But alas.

Perhaps the best thing about the nano was its size, specifically how small it was. I could slip it into a pocket on a run and not even notice it there. There is no smartphone–iPhone or otherwise–that comes remotely close to that kind of portability.

Of course, it had its disadvantages. It didn’t connect to anything. That meant I couldn’t use Siri to set music or change tracks (I do that a lot, especially on runs). It could only sync through iTunes, which is a major downside these days, given how generally awful iTunes is (especially with syncing). And the aforementioned 16GB of storage ultimately proved limiting.

I guess if I had a wish list for the nano-that-will-never-be, it would look something like this:

  • full integration with iOS (ie. a real iOS device)
  • support for Siri
  • 32 and 64GB storage options
  • wireless syncing

Basically it would be a tiny version of the iPod Touch.

Except the only way that will happen is if this timeline splits off into a bizarro world where a lot of people in 2017 still use dedicated music devices. And even then it probably wouldn’t happen. Which means my two nanos now join my 80GB iPod Classic in the dustbin of technology, products that helped Apple become the giant it is today and just a decade later are obsolete, like my 8-track player and Zip drive. (I’d have a tough time deciding which of those two was the worst because, brother, they weren’t no nanos).

Important iPad rumor update!

A poster regarding a story about (potential) new iPads on MacRumors said, and I quote:

But no, Apple is going to wishy wash (being forum appropriate with word choice) and let Microsoft (for one) continue to climb higger.

I’m pretty sure if you go to the Microsoft site right now, the slogan they have displayed there is Climb Higger.

It’s a reference, of course, to the world-famous Mount Higger, the tallest mountain in all internet comments sections. Meanwhile, Apple is going with the wishy wash, a new, magical method for manufacturing processors in super-clean rooms.

These are exciting times for both technology and random people making comments on the internet.

(Ironically, I think the point the person was making as he fought with his keyboard, is not entirely inaccurate, that Apple is being conservative with their technology while Microsoft, with products like the Surface Studio, is championing the sort of innovative design Apple was once known for. Still, I want a new iPad, anyway. Microsoft could still make my socks roll up and down with a Surface Pro 5, but probably only due to its price.)

Apple’s MacBook Pro $trategy

Apple had its “Hello again” event today and much like Microsoft at their event yesterday, Apple used theirs to announce really expensive products.

In all, they revealed new MacBook Pros and new (Canadian) pricing for the MacBook–$100 higher.

The MacBook Pro line-up previously started at $1549 for the 13 inch model. Today Apple showed off two new 13 inch models, a non-fancy one positioned as a sort-of successor to the MacBook Air and a fancy one with better specs and the somewhat controversial OLED touch bar that replaces the row of function keys.

The prices are $1899 and $2299 respectively, or as I like to put it: LOL WUT

These prices make Microsoft’s Surface pricing seem almost reasonable by comparison.

Almost.

It also seems a little weird that Microsoft is arguably being more innovative with its Surface Studio than Apple is with its MacBook Pro. At the very least it feels like Microsoft has done more to earn its premium pricing.

And while the newest Surface Book is too expensive for me, the other models, now with newly-reduced pricing, is something I’m actually considering again. The bang-for-the-buck on the MacBook Pros is way too far out of whack for me to seriously consider them. It’s disappointing but not surprising. Apple seems determined to prop up declining revenue with significantly inflated pricing.

Oh well. At least my iPhone is nearly paid for.

Micro$oft’s $urface $trategy

See what I did there? Ho ho. I actually hate when people write out things like “Micro$oft” but in this case it almost seems appropriate.

At today’s event Microsoft announced some Surface keyboards and mice but the main hardware on display was a Core i7 version of their Surface Book laptop and a new all-in one device known as the Surface Studio that sports an adjustable 28″ super-thin touchscreen monitor with better than 4K resolution.

The starting prices on these are $2399 and $2999 respectively. Those prices are in US dollars. Converting to Canadian at today’s exchange rate makes them $3194.50 and $3993.46 which is firmly in “lol no” territory for the average, slightly above average and slightly more than above average person.

Both are sexy designs with great specs. But the prices are madness. These are clearly aimed at professionals with money to burn. I am sad that they are priced so far beyond my budget that just thinking about them feels expensive, like I’ll get a $50 invoice from Microsoft for lusting after them.

I’m expecting more sticker shock tomorrow when Apple reveals its updated MacBook Pro. The base 13″ model is currently $1549 and I expect its replacement to be higher-priced. In Apple’s favor, though, I’m not expecting it to be boosted to $2399. How odd that Apple’s pricing may seem reasonable by comparison.

May being the key word here. We’ll find out tomorrow.

Meanwhile, my New Laptop Quest will not include the new Surface Book as a potential choice unless I win some sort of lottery in the next week.