Quick thoughts on Apple’s MagSafe Battery Pack (2021)

This week, Apple released an iPhone power accessory that’s been anticipated since the release of the iPhone 12 series late last year. In recent years, they’ve put out “battery cases” shortly after new phones — you’ve probably seen them: rubbery phone cases with a hump on the back, often ridiculed. With the MagSafe infrastructure on the new phones, everyone’s been waiting for a battery pack (or power bank) that you can just slap on the back.

After some delay, it’s finally arrived for USD$99 or S$139 and only in white. Bit of a missed opportunity to add some pops of color there, like the MagSafe card wallets they make in yellow and blue leather. I think it’ll pair quite well with this Cloud Blue silicone case though.

On the price: Apple offers an intriguing spread of products at the $99 mark. You can get a HomePod mini in some countries, which is a great sounding smart speaker with serious processing power equivalent to an old iPhone. Or you could get a first-generation Pencil to use with most iPads still on sale. And least apparently worth the value is the braided solo loop, a strap for the Apple Watch made from recycled yarn. I think this battery pack sits squarely in the middle in terms of value.

The Good:

  • Slim (1.25cm) and lightweight as power banks go.
  • iPhone 12 Pro stays usable and comfortable enough to hold when in use (YMMV, my hands are large).
  • Starts charging your phone when attached; no buttons to mess with.
  • Integrates with iOS and foolproof to manage. Your iPhone will slowly draw power and keep temperatures low, stopping the recharge at 80% or 90% to preserve your battery’s lifespan.

The Bad:

  • Small capacity. Holds about as much power as an iPhone 12’s battery, but due to the inefficiencies of wireless charging, you can only expect it to impart an extra 50% or 60%, based on my experience so far. (Edit: I’ve tested it further and I think it may actually get you close to 80% of a full charge on an iPhone 12/12 Pro.)
  • It does its job pretty slowly, so while traveling and using your phone to take photos, it may make more sense to make a fast-charge pitstop from a regular wired power bank than to go about your day with this slab attached.
  • The pack can’t itself be charged wirelessly with a MagSafe charger or Qi pad. It may be technically possible since reverse charging from an iPhone works, but hasn’t been implemented.

My use case

I’m home most days, and if I were working I’d be doing that from a desk at home with MagSafe chargers, Qi chargers, USB-C to Lightning cables, and all sorts of equipment within reach. Why did I even buy this? Curiosity, boredom, and utter laziness to rise from the couch to plug my phone in as I drain it over the course of the day playing games and checking Twitter.

It’s worth mentioning that my 9-month-old iPhone 12 Pro currently has a battery health rating of 90%, which is abysmal. Most of the time, my iPhones rate about 97% after a full year of use. I don’t know what’s caused this one to degrade so rapidly: a manufacturing defect? My charging routine? My use of a wireless charging pad each night?

I wanted a way to conveniently extend the life of my iPhone so it can make it through a day without draining down past the 20% mark. When I do go out, I’m constantly worried about ending up with a flat battery. I need my iPhone to pay for things, take public transport, or get a cab at the end of a night. But I want to go out unencumbered, no bag, just pockets. With Apple Pay and other mobile payment platforms, I no longer carry a wallet most times.

Alternative solutions

As mentioned, one could use a regular power bank with a cable. They offer much larger capacities, are cheaper, and can charge faster (up to the 18W USB-C PD supported by iPhones). This does require carrying a bag or wearing cargo pants that have wires coming out of one pocket and going into another, though.

Or if a magnetic wireless solution is preferred, then there are again lower-cost alternatives from Anker, Hyper, Mophie, and many OEMs. These are usually half the price of Apple’s, slightly thicker and more unsightly, but offer a little more battery life. They also lack the OS integration and you have to start/stop charging with a button, although it’s easy to imagine future models hacking some iOS support the way fake Chinese AirPods are able to show up in the battery widget.

Personally, I think I’ll be keeping this for the peace of mind it gives when I leave the house empty-handed. It’s easy to carry separately in a jeans pocket, smaller than a phone or wallet, and has enough power to extend even a failing phone battery to last through a day and night of usage. It won’t get you through two days, but I don’t think that’s what it’s for. It’s a safety net, and a solution for lazy couch charging at home.

Dispo Day 1

You may have heard the buzz this week around the new beta version of Dispo, the app formerly known as David’s Disposable, as in Vine/YouTuber David Dobrik’s version of those camera apps that simulate the look (and sometimes also the experience of waiting for photos to develop) of disposable film cameras. David himself notoriously shoots his exciting life with tons of those cameras, so the app made sense as a spinoff business. It wasn’t the first of its kind on the App Store, and there were so many others with knockoff names like Huji (Fuji) and Gudak (Kodak). So while David’s fans probably used it, the first version of the app wasn’t thoughtfully designed or original enough to be an essential camera app. Now, the next version is being taken seriously with millions invested and a full-time team hired.

Side note: This reminds me that one of the first app ideas I had and sketched out in the early years of the iPhone was for something similar. Obviously I never had the guts to make it, which is the main gap between ideas and profit. I was thinking you could “buy” and load rolls of film into a camera (complete with having to thread the initial end bit onto a wind-up spool before shutting the door) and then send them off to the lab when you’d shot 36 or so images. And after an hour or a day had elapsed, you’d return to the app to see a yellow paper envelope slide across a store counter to you, and be able to tear it open to see your shots (and the included negatives). I remember feeling kinda bummed when the first camera app to do the enforced waiting time gimmick came out. It wasn’t as skeuomorphically cool. I think it was 1-Hour Photo by Nevercenter.

Anyway, Dispo 2.0 is currently in beta and I only just got in. My first batch of photos came out this morning at 9am (the predefined time for all photo deliveries), and they look fine. You get a lightly push processed, slightly cool-temperatured shot in a 16:9 aspect ratio. I don’t understand why it’s not 3:2 like normal 35mm film. The flash is on by default as a core part of the disposable aesthetic. All EXIF data is stripped out, including the actual time of capture.

There’s a lot to like here so far, but it’s also a little unusual as social apps go. The tutorial doesn’t cover some of its sharing features, so you have to figure them out. There are “rolls” that can be public or private, solo or with others. I suppose they are really “albums”. Before you shoot a scene, you may load multiple rolls in the camera that you would like to contribute the resulting photo to. Which breaks the metaphor of the film roll somewhat, because disposable cameras don’t normally shoot onto four rolls of film simultaneously (nor do they have replaceable film)! After a shot is developed, however, you can manually add it to any roll.

Each roll can only have 69 contributors, so the emphasis is on doing it with your friend group, but there’s no limit to how many members of the public can follow a roll and see it on their feeds. David Dobrik himself seems to be using rolls to capture short events, like throwaway albums, rather than as curated, ongoing thematic feeds like I see some others doing for their pet, food, or “good vibes” photography. Perhaps the idea is still being tuned, or maybe they’re fine with people using them however they like.

Beta testers are not supposed to share screenshots, so I won’t. But it’s an example of non-cookie cutter UX design that asks you to work a little to figure it out; Snapchat and at least one redesign of VSCO often get credited for attempting personality in a post-iOS 7 world. Outside of games, it seems it’s often camera/photo apps that still go for it.

On the other hand, Hipstamatic has devolved into such a confused and cluttered app that you have to really work to figure it out. No fun at all. I miss the old Hipstamatic, and Dispo looks like it might bring some of that magic back: you’re encouraged to shoot without chimping, frame loosely through a tiny viewfinder, and be happy with even the crappy shots.

It actually reminded me today that Hipstamatic once tried an app called DSPO, pretty similar in concept. You had virtual rolls of film that you’d have to shoot fully before developing, and you could invite friends to share a disposable camera in real time. Two people in two cities could shoot a roll of film together. I remember it crashed a lot for me, and it was a struggle to convince anyone to install it. So it failed. Good idea, wrong time and execution. At least amongst millennials and zoomers in the US now, Dispo seems to have avoided that trap: the TestFlight beta is fully subscribed.

Week 51.20 and AirPods Max review

  • Christmas is just next week now, so there’s a little more meeting up and eating out going on than usual. Although I’m still in the habit of logging every single expense in an app, I’ve decided not to look too hard at December’s outflow this year. Come to think of it, this approach may explain some of the back-and-forth below about whether the AirPods Max are worth keeping or not. Look, you’ve been warned. Skip it if you don’t care about headphone purchases.
  • We spent the weekend at a family staycation, which was another form of meeting up and eating out. Day drinking really doesn’t work for me. Have a glass of wine at lunch and it’s headaches and drowsiness somehow, but if I start after 6pm, everything’s good.
  • It wasn’t all lazing about the hotel. We went out to the National Gallery’s new retrospective on the work of Singaporean artist Georgette Chen (1906–1993), a name I’d never heard before despite what appears to be a fair amount of exposure in recent years, according to the linked Wikipedia article. I should probably consume more local media.
  • Earlier in the week, there was some meeting up and eating out with a couple of colleagues I hadn’t seen in awhile. As I learnt from Grace, you really haven’t got a chance with any bar and restaurant in town these days unless you make reservations, so that must be great for Chope and other similar booking platforms (assuming they’ve figured out workable business models). We wanted Korean BBQ but could only secure a spot at a 3.9-star Google reviewed place. It was a 3 at best, so I think there’s a need for some kind of review correction algorithm across multiple services. For example, I noticed on Foursquare (which has a much smaller user base) that users rating things in Singapore were pretty harsh, so you actually had to add to ratings to get an indicative score of quality. Google, with many more users, probably needs correcting down instead.
  • Speaking of ratings, I said a couple of weeks ago that I was reading Ready Player Two and hoped it would at least turn out to be a 2.5-star book. Well I finally got around to finishing it, and nope. I don’t remember anything about the first book, only the experience of it, that I had fun and enjoyed some of the references because it was the first time I’d seen some of them mentioned in a long while. But it turns out that’s really what Ernest Cline wants to do: string together loads of “geeky” references and get congratulated for it. This second book reads like third-rate fan fiction and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
  • According to Goodreads, that completed my 2020 Reading Challenge. 30 books this year, which I probably haven’t done in over a decade. With any luck, I’ll be able to surpass that next year if the universe grants me lots of free time.

AirPods Max

I got my pair a week ahead of their scheduled delivery date and it’s led to a lot of pointless pondering over the past few days. They sound really good. I did a couple of head-to-head comparisons and they’re the best pair of wireless headphones in my drawer. Everything older or cheaper doesn’t put up a fight in the sound quality department. Not any of the Sonys, Boses, Beats, or B&O Beoplays. I haven’t compared them to the Nurasound headphones yet, but I actually expect those to make a case for sticking around because they feel so physically different and immersive as a listening experience.

I’d love if they could just be The One, and help me declutter, but they fall short in a couple of areas outside of sound quality. The most minor of these is their goofy look with the mesh headband and rectangular cups. I got Space Gray and I don’t think I could be happy with any of the other colors if they got grubby or scratched up.

Comfort: They’re heavy as we knew, but it’s NOT been a big problem. What’s worse is they actually have more clamping force than I’d like. Granted, I have a larger than normal head and wear glasses, but can’t imagine being forced to wear these on an international flight. I once wore a pair of Bose QC35s for almost an entire 16-hour flight, and I’d do it again because although that older model doesn’t sound the best when you’re on the ground, they’re loose enough and the ANC is effective enough to make them perfect for in-flight use. The APMs just don’t work for that use case. I would say they’re actually too tight to even wear at home for more than a couple of hours, which is really sad.

Case/Portability: Everyone has complained about the design and construction of this enough and I have to agree. Their role in triggering the low-power mode complicates usability and their cheapening effect means we’d be happier if they’d left them out of the box completely. I’d much prefer if the headphones themselves could fold up. On that point, if you’ve got both arms fully extended and the cups are folded flat, there’s a point at the bottom-inner corner of each aluminum cup where they collide against each other. So if you wear them around your neck like that, it’s possible you’ll see scratches forming at that spot.

Build quality: Many reviewers have praised the APMs for their solid build quality, but to my touch, the metal earcups on mine have not been brushed/polished properly; I can feel the transition between smooth and rough patches when I run my fingers over them. It drives me kinda crazy that this is happening on a S$900 pair of headphones, even though I already know from first-hand experience over the past 16 years that first batches of Apple products out of the factory are likely to have some defects. Insert big sigh here.

Now, the competition. There really isn’t much to speak of if you want comparable sound quality in a wireless ANC headphone. I’d previously glanced at B&O’s new Beoplay H95 but their price tag was too high for what I thought was yet another mediocre product. My first pair of Beoplays was the first-generation wired H6, which was super comfortable but neutral and not much fun for some kinds of music, and everything since has not really been great. They made the headband smaller from the H7 onwards, so those don’t fit my head as well either.

In the wake of the AirPods Max launching, the H95 is now looking like the only real competitor. The online consensus is that Bang & Olufsen have finally nailed the sound quality and industrial design issues of their past, at greater cost to the consumer than before. They cost S$1300 compared to the $700 of the previous flagship H9 (third-generation).

Compared to the APMs, the H95s look better to some, are lighter, are more comfortable and sound even better (according to the forum folks on Head-Fi), have longer battery life, and fold up inside their included non-shitty metal carrying case. Arguments against them include less effective noise-cancellation, smaller earcups that may not fit everyone, no transparency mode, and none of that simplified wireless connectivity. Oh, and the fact that the brand is kind of struggling and so finding local repair options may not be possible in the long-term. It’s hard to fight formidable Apple’s retail and support network.

If I can’t justify keeping them around for short listening sessions only, then I’ll be returning the APMs for a refund and making do with what I already have. While they really sound terrific and have ruined a bunch of other headphones for me, solid audio engineering isn’t the whole package. An overemphasis on that is what people say* held the original HomePod back, but improving Siri to compete with Alexa and Google Assistant was arguably a much bigger hurdle than giving these a more comfortable fit and designing a better case.

Edit: I wore them the whole time while writing this week’s update, and on reflection, they sound so good that I’m hoping the band loosens up a bit or something so I can keep them.

* Who am I to say, when we can’t even buy HomePods in this neglected backwater that inexplicably has a spherical glass Apple Store?

Backbone One unboxing

As mentioned yesterday, I’ve been waiting for the arrival of my Backbone One controller. It was dispatched at the end of October but took ages to leave the USPS, probably because they had some important envelopes to deliver at the same time. It arrived last night after about 10 days, and I’ve gotta say, first impressions are good.

It’s a good size and feels very nice in the hands, with my only concern being that the er… spine of it cuts directly across the lowest of the camera lenses on my iPhone 12 Pro, and it looks like the lens rests against that bit of plastic. I doubt it’ll cause any damage; those lens covers are sapphire crystal, but it looks a little odd. I’m not sure that it will fit an iPhone 12 Pro Max, but their site claims that it will.

It beggars belief that I could kill 16 people in CoD Mobile without dying once, but that’s just what happened the first time I snapped this thing on. It’s also transformed GRID Autosport from a game that I bought once and regretted immediately into something that feels truly console-like, and I don’t mean a Nintendo Switch. The graphics and haptics on this thing are way ahead of any racing game I’ve seen on that system.

Hold up, HEY

The debut of HEY email has been an interesting case study in launching a new service, in part because it took place on social media — a two-way street that led to them getting public feedback that’s already led to significant changes. As others have done in recent years, the launch was a staggered rollout with invite codes and a waitlist, and the resulting members-only feel and scarcity drove tens of thousands more to join the waitlist. Some say this is intentional marketing, but it’s also legitimately done to manage the experience when someone isn’t sure how much interest there will be.

I took notes on my hands-on experience in a previous post, and have spent a week now getting to grips with it, trying to picture it as my primary email service for the foreseeable future. The commitment isn’t just a new email address to inform people about; it’s also paying a perpetual premium service fee. After 16 years of “free” Gmail, that’s a big decision. Yes, you’re free to leave any time and they’ll forward all emails sent to you anywhere else you’d like, but I wouldn’t use a @hey.com address if I wasn’t actually using HEY.

Everybody’s got opinions

But before the details of my decision (like, who cares, right?), I wanted to comment on the fascinating public launch of HEY that we’ve been spectators to, and how its creators have had to walk back some of their design decisions after product met reality.

As my friend YJ says above, Basecamp and HEY are heavily opinionated products by opinionated people; it’s what allows them to take a well-established thing like email, with its standard organizing paradigms of Inbox, Outbox, Sent, Spam, and Trash folders, and try something new. It’s only meant to satisfy a certain type of user with certain needs and preferences.

It’s not easy building something out of new ideas, at huge scale, and making sure it’s robust enough to carry the personal and business correspondence of paying customers who’ll depend on it for time-sensitive messages. By Basecamp’s account, they’ve been working quietly on HEY for two years before this month’s semi-public launch. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit both for attempting it and for how stable it has been.

When we design services, we know we won’t catch everything or get it right the first time. It’s about having priorities and principles, and optimizing against them every step of the way. If you’ve defined and studied your target audience, and care about pleasing them to the exception of everyone else, then you can make decisions based on their needs. If you put in the work to develop a core experience that will set your business apart, then that becomes the thing you protect even if Apple or anyone else tries to make you change it. Some companies famously put speed over certainty, and while it dazzled a lot of CIOs and inspired them to try and do the same, its pitfalls are now well known.

We don’t know what HEY’s development process looked like, or what they prioritized, and so we can only guess from what they actually shipped and what they’ve done since. Upon contact with the wider marketplace, some of those opinionated ideas are now being challenged as problematic or discriminatory. Could more user research and testing have caught them before launch? Probably. Was catching them before launch a priority for the team, or did they intend to test them in public and fix unintended consequences as they were discovered? To their credit again, they’ve fixed a lot of things very fast in the past week. From adding disposable functionality suggested by Apple to dumping fully built, non-trivial features… their responsiveness has been impressive.


Things that came broken

Let’s look at a couple of Twitter exchanges and changes I’ve spotted. On my first day with HEY, I noticed an unusual option in the “More” menu on every email thread. It was a button labeled something like “Generate Public Link”. This actually published the entire email conversation thread to a public webpage, allowing any third party to read and follow the exchange. I used it to help share a problem I was seeing with their support team, which is a nice way of enabling them to help customers without giving full access to all mail. And while you could always share private emails to a third party with copy/paste, screenshots, PDFs, etc. there was something unsettling about this. None of the other people would receive any notification that they were being “listened in on”, and anyone with the link would be able to see not just all previous emails, but any new ones added to the thread for as long as it was publicly shared.

You could be in a conversation with 20 people and not know if any one of them had generated a link and leaked it. When I explained this in a group chat, there was some disbelief. One person called it a “built-in whistleblower feature”. After others complained on Twitter about the potential for abuse, this feature was completely removed.

Continue reading “Hold up, HEY”

An early look at HEY email

(For Part 2 of this review, check out: Hold up, HEY)

I’ve been pretty keen to see HEY’s rethinking of email, and just got my early access invitation this week (I joined the queue back in February, perhaps on Day 2 of their recruitment drive). I was also an early adopter of Gmail back in 2004, and as they say on the manifesto page, there’s not been much innovation in the world of personal email since. If anything, email has been in decline and most of its use cases now belong to chat platforms (keeping up with friends), workplace project management/collaboration suites (enterprise communications), and services’ own portals (seeing account and order histories). The resurgence of newsletters is one bright spot, and displaying them is one of the main jobs of my email account.

Anyway, I get excited about new things quite easily. When the invitations started rolling out, I was obsessively checking my inbox, and I kid you not, literally dreaming about getting mine to the point where I was waking up in the middle of the night with the urge to check my mail! Part of the anxiety probably came from wanting needing to secure my address of choice, like I was lucky enough to do back in 2004 with Gmail. Just try getting your name now without adding random numbers; I don’t know how the poor kids today deal with the scarcity. My wife also wants any readers to know that she’s heard enough about my two username options, the pros and cons of both, and never wants to discuss email addresses again.

So now that I’ve used it for a little bit, I’m undecided if I should make this my primary email service. On one hand, everything they promise is true. The workflows are elegant, the way it puts you at the center of the experience is refreshing (no stranger can disturb your peace, OCD freaks can bundle threads together, etc.), and the emphasis on privacy and business model transparency is way better than any free alternative. On the other hand, it’s not entirely how I’d like to use email, and some edges are rough to the touch.

Continue reading “An early look at HEY email”