Singapore Gets An Apple Store

Finally.

After years of waiting, Singapore got its own Apple Store on Orchard Road (where else?) in May of 2017.

I’ve been in the ecosystem for about 14 years now, and getting good sales service and support from third-party resellers has been consistently hard. Back when Funan the IT Mall was still around, there were a few small shops that knew what they were doing with Macs, but for the most part, the bigger chains gave people bad advice, installed RAM chips facing the wrong way, and stocked some pretty abysmal accessories at outrageous prices. Apple Retail have done all of the above on a bad day, too, I’m sure, but at least they’re held to higher standards.

The two-level store follows the recent round of store designs by Norman Foster, with lots of large indoor plants and round headphone stands on the far end. You get upstairs via a symmetrical pair of spiral staircases cut into cool stone walls on either side; no glass staircases or elevators here. I read in some press release that the materials are meant to echo the Apple Park campus’s design language, which I guess is … fine.

Processed with VSCO with kp8 preset

While it’s nice to have a place to buy devices and “feel part of a community” with the new Today At Apple events, I think the main benefit of having this here is going to be accessible, proper customer support in the city. I’ve been down to industrial parks way too many times to get my iPhone looked at in the past, and it’s not fun.


 

A word about my current setup, for future reference: I’ve not bought a new Mac in 7 years. The current iMac struggles along and is only used once every couple of months to do the things only a Mac can do for arbitrary reasons. I get most of my work done on a MacBook Pro supplied by the company, but for personal use, my iPhone and a couple of iPad Pros do everything I need or have time for. The 12.9” version gets a lot of use as a desk-bound typing machine and a bed-bound Netflix player, which is really underutilizing it, I know. The smaller one gets taken everywhere because of its size, and I’m hoping for it to replace the MBP for a lot of little things at work like note taking and task management. Who wants to bring a big laptop home every night anyway?

iOS 10 Makes the Timeline UI a Reality

Wired: Apple May Have Figured Out the iPhone’s Most Promising Feature

3D Touch is instrumental to Apple’s newly rethought lock screen, in a way that could fundamentally change how you interact with your iPhone.

But with iOS 10, you’ll use your home screen a whole lot less.

This article from Wired today recalls the thinking of many UX designers who believe that homescreens tiled with app icons will soon give way to a new kind of smartphone UI: the timeline. Over the last few years, both iOS and Android have been making their notifications richer, with simple functions like deleting new emails, quickly replying to texts, or faving tweets, amongst others.

lockscreenBut iOS 10 looks to be taking it to a whole new level. iPhones will light up when you raise them, and interactive notifications can expand into whole widget-like apps with live maps and data, and house more complex options than a dialog box or text input field can provide. And the best place for this new timeline UI to live is on the lock screen of your phone, the starting point of any interaction, and an arguably more valuable space for accomplishing tasks than the homescreen.

And it’s 3D Touch, launched to public disinterest with last year’s iPhone 6S, that’s been the missing piece all along. Without pressure sensitivity and Apple’s Peek & Pop gestures, a self-activating lock screen might be a pretty bad place to have action buttons that can accidentally touched. I’d be interested to see how it works on phones without it, such as the new iPhone SE. Perhaps they just won’t have Raise to Wake.

Also worth remembering that this new timeline of Things That Need Your Attention Most will live beside the Today screen of widgets (swipe to the right), which should do a lot for the idea that we’ll all be unlocking our iPhones a lot less and getting stuff done quicker later this September.

“Onions” Breaks One of Apple’s Oldest Advertising Rules

Apple’s new iPhone ad departs from some of their oldest and most inspiring advertising by making fun of what customers do.

I’m curious what people make of the new iPhone 6S ad from Apple, the comedy one called “Onions”. On the surface, it looks like another one of the fun, irreverent ads that have been made for the 6S series so far — the previous ones leaned heavily on their sassy, self-reflexive voiceovers by the actress Lake Bell. It only has a brief product demo lasting about 3 seconds, followed by nearly a minute of story; it has a celebrity appearance; some humor; and a quirky sign-off that says “Onions on iPhone 6S” before “Onions” becomes “4K Video”.

While I enjoyed it, I think it perverts one of the unspoken rules that have made past Apple ads great. The people in those ads were always more creative, more talented, doing better work, and living fuller lives than the average viewer. But the ads seemed to believe that you were that person, and always spoke up to you. In other words, they assumed the best of their customers.

That’s just a company that knows how to utilize aspiration. You see it in fashion advertising, but you’re either model material or you’re not. When it comes to products that let anyone create, the dream is ever alive!

The Apple Pencil lets an artist draw beautiful lines, an app on the Mac lets a young musician record a touching song for her mom, photographers take billboard-worthy photos on their iPhones, an architect edits blueprints on his iPad Pro at the coffee shop, a misunderstood teenager cuts a family film over Christmas. These are scenes you’ve probably seen, and I’ll bet they inspired you to make more stuff more often, or convinced you that upgrading to the new one would upgrade the quality of your work, or both. The examples were aspirational, but completely relatable.

“Onions” takes a different tone. It’s a somewhat sarcastic, belittling parody that pokes fun at what its protagonist shoots, pretending to have a bit of fun with exaggeration. It says, “this is what YOU will probably make with the power of a 4K movie camera in your pocket, and this is what you probably think it’s worth: an award presented by Neil Patrick Harris. So, please enjoy your comical fantasy!”. Instead of showing an example of great accomplishment, as was the tradition, it goes for the cheap laugh. It fails at showing us something we should aspire to achieve with an iPhone 6S of our own. It’s an odd departure from a winning formula that has long defined the brand’s outlook on technology enabling creativity, and I hope not to see many more like it.


I also watched Samsung’s new celebrity-laden ads for the Galaxy S7 phone, and some of them were really entertaining, well-written, and funny. A couple fell flat.

In comparison with Apple’s style, about 3 of them featured Lil’ Wayne absurdly pouring bottles of expensive champagne all over his waterproof S7, which made the existence of that feature absolutely clear, but didn’t do anything to make me want one. I’m not in the habit of intentionally drowning my phone.

The waterproofing ad that worked better? A script that meanders about how water is everywhere on earth, making up 72% of our bodies, etc. etc. before ending on a scene where a phone gets dropped into a fountain while taking a photo. The owner picks it back up, and continues getting the shot, no beats missed. Anecdotally, lots of phones have been dropped into water by people I know, and I think this crucial point would resonate with them. A relatable real life moment, real people, and a real problem we’d love to suddenly go away overnight.

Apple Watch Dock

My colleague ordered the new official Apple Watch magnetic charging dock yesterday morning and it just arrived (24 hours!).


It has an odd seam where the materials meet, and it’s soft and flexible. I would have thought that the near seamless molding process that Apple uses on their sport bands would have been a nice match.

It’s $118 here in Singapore (USD$84), and pretty much what it looks like in pictures. A white hockey puck covered with soft touch rubber on top, and a felt grey bottom so it doesn’t scuff your expensive nightstand.

Personally I’m not sold on the bright white look because my nightstand is a dark walnut, so I’ve ordered the Sena leather case-dock combo version instead. Would be nice to see Apple offer additional colors or a more premium version at some point in the future.
  

Beats Solo2 Headphones (Space Gray) Unboxing

I haven’t made a video in ages and wasn’t planning to, but my colleague Jose suggested today that since I was about to open my new headphones, we make an unboxing video of it. The coolest thing was that I was able to make the whole thing from start to publish without leaving my iPhone 6 Plus (okay, I looked for music while on my MacBook Pro).

The headphones themselves sound about as good as my Beats Studio 2 (2013), which is to say good enough for daily listening and most modern music types. But they’re nowhere near as comfortable as those, which along with the Beoplay H6, are my favorite pair of headphones to wear for hours at a time. Granted, those are both over-ears, and I guess that’s my personal preference. Still, the clamping force is significant, and is probably best for smaller, non-glasses-wearing heads.

Disappointingly for the price these go for, my pair also has a defective hinge on one side, so I’ll be returning these to Apple next week. These new colorways are interesting though. It reminds me of Nintendo putting out new shades on an old handheld before they launch the next generation. Here’s hoping we’ll see a new Jony-designed model in June alongside the new Beats Music service.

Apple Watch Numbers and Ive’s Materials

Back in December, I wrote a bit of a rambly post about what I thought might happen with the Apple Watch, and the possibility of it having hardware you could actually upgrade to preserve your precious metals investment. I’ve since changed my mind on that, and think they’ll be replaced like any other Apple product: buy a whole new one if you want it. I also had a prediction about how many they’d make:

In terms of mix, I’d wager an approximate 60% Sport, 30% Apple Watch, and a maximum of 10% Edition in the first year. At the prices above, the 10% sales of Edition watches will probably drive half the overall revenue.

The Wall Street Journal (paywall) has just reported some numbers, and my guess was pretty close. They’re saying Apple will have up to 6 million units ready at launch. iMore has reprinted the breakdown:

The report suggests that half of the production run is for the entry-level Apple Watch Sport, which will be priced at $349. One third will be the stainless steel Apple Watch. That would leave the remaining one-sixth of the production run — which comes out to around 850,000 units — for the gold Apple Watch Edition.

If you’ve been active online today, you would have seen (and hopefully made time for) the New Yorker’s epic profile of Jony Ive. Many of the insights are new, and the writing is kinetic and marvelous, with gems like this one about Ive having an opinion about iOS’s skeuomorphic design, and eventually becoming involved in making it over:

He’d had that conversation with Jobs. “He knew, absolutely, my views,” Ive recalled. “I’m not going to second-guess what he would have done if—had he been well.” I asked Cook if, after he became C.E.O., Ive had pressed for a software role. “We clearly spent a lot of time talking about it,” Cook said. “And I think it became clear to him that he could add a lot.” Ive’s career sometimes suggests the movements of a man who, engrossed in a furrowed, deferential conversation, somehow backs onto a throne.

Or this one, which credits Ive with suggesting the new sputtering lightsaber effect in Star Wars: The Force Awakens to JJ Abrams at a dinner party. For the record, I think it’s a brilliant update which gives the business end of the weapon more heft, more fire and laser menace. Ars Technica has a debate in the comments section.

After the release of the film’s first trailer—which featured a fiery new lightsabre, with a cross guard, and a resemblance to a burning crucifix—I asked Ive about his contribution. “It was just a conversation,” he said, then explained that, although he’d said nothing about cross guards, he had made a case for unevenness: “I thought it would be interesting if it were less precise, and just a little bit more spitty.” A redesigned weapon could be “more analog and more primitive, and I think, in that way, somehow more ominous.”

If I wasn’t already sold on the standard Apple Watch (as opposed to the Sport and Edition versions) as my choice this coming April, this paragraph of remarks by two members of Ive’s design team present at the unveiling event would have done it:

“The materials in this thing are insane,” Howarth said. People, he noted, were saying that the watch’s face was made of “sapphire glass”: “It’s not glass, it’s sapphire crystal—completely different structure. And then the stainless steel is super-hardened. And the zirconia ceramic on the back is co-finished with sapphire as well.” He added, “This would cost so much money if a different company was making it—Rolex or something. It would be a hundred grand or something.”

“We sell it for just fifty thousand,” Hönig said, joking.

Thoughts on Apple Watch’s Pricing, Upgradability, and Luxury Positioning

Neil Cybart, at Above Avalon on Apple Watch’s Secret Weapon:

Several luxury watchmakers have given hints that they think a smartwatch’s lack of timelessness guarantees traditional luxury watches will not be threatened by this new crop of wrist gadgets. I’m not so sure that logic will stand the test of time.

The discussions to come after the Apple Watch arrives and sells in numbers (and at prices) alarming to existing watch brands will be focused on luxury as a notion in flux, affected for the first time by technological utility in the form of personalization. Valuing features over the intangible lies in opposition to the definition of luxury, but the wrist may be where the two worlds come together. After all, you can only wear one watch at a time, and a smartwatch’s absence from one day to the next is glaring once its features have become habit. Apart from providing large margins for Apple, the Edition watch exists to allow luxury watch customers the  benefits of a smartwatch. It opens the door of their resistance a crack, but won’t debut in a position to steal meaningful profit share, which is the real danger to a complacent luxury watch industry — it’s a time bomb with years on the clock.

The post concludes with the suggestion that a hypothetical $7,500 Apple Watch Edition will not be designed to last long; predicting that it will not be upgradable as some have suggested it needs to be. In other words, its class of buyers (inference: rich, Chinese, digitally savvy, all of the above) will get a new one every few years despite the price. Despite being made of solid gold, you will not buy one as an investment or potential heirloom.

I don’t think Cybart backs up this assumption very well, leaning largely on the cottage industry that has sprung up around customized gold and wood iPhone 6es, but I am inclined to believe in the same outcome: success whether Apple Watches are upgradable or not, although my personal preference would be for upgradable, owing to the size of my wallet.1

That they’ve announced the opening price of an Apple Watch Sport at $349 signals a belief that it will be a significant mass market seller, regardless of its sporty positioning. A large group of people will choose the Sport version because they want an Apple Watch/are curious, and it’s simply the one within their reach. If the price difference between the Sport and the standard model were relatively insignificant (say, $349 vs. $499), they would probably have announced the standard pricing too. That they didn’t, could suggest a belief that pricing is less relevant in the decision making of Apple Watch and Apple Watch Edition customers.

My guess is that the standard model will be in the range of $800-1200, possibly upgradable for at least one future generation, and the Edition model will be easily upwards of $8000 and upgradable as well. As a point of differentiation, I expect the Sport models will not be upgradable.

I’d like to believe that the straps and their locking mechanisms are also designed to be used for many generations of Apple Watch, which would mean dimensions such as the thickness of the case will be stable for years, but we’ve seen Apple revise accessories/standards without hesitation if it means allowing a better product to come to market. Hence, I wouldn’t be surprised if a third-generation Apple Watch mandated all new straps.

In terms of mix, I’d wager an approximate 60% Sport, 30% Apple Watch, and a maximum of 10% Edition in the first year. At the prices above, the 10% sales of Edition watches will probably drive half the overall revenue.

But I could be wrong about upgrades. In conversation about this a few months ago, as part of an office podcast we’re still trying to get off the ground, I recall speculating that the Chinese luxury factor could be bigger than anyone expects right now. It’s well known that tens of thousands of dollars are nonchalantly dropped on leather bags and other so-called Veblen goods on a regular basis by Chinese customers, and this no doubt includes timepieces costing 10x more than Apple would ever charge for an Edition watch. If the Edition series was expressly designed to take advantage of conspicuous consumption in China (in volume, followed by the rest of the world), then we’ll see it when they announce that the watch cannot be upgraded, and is inherently disposable. What’s flashier than wearing a gold watch that says you can afford to get a new one every year or two?


  1. As I understand it, the recent release of WatchKit details suggested that almost all processing in Watch apps will take place in the CPU of the companion iPhone, not the Watch’s S1 processor. But in a release of the software scheduled for late 2015, the Watch will gain the ability to run native apps. The delay may be down to the software not being ready now, although the shipping hardware may already be equipped to handle it. But it’s hard to believe this later update won’t lead to a degraded experience such as shorter battery life. Having the option of bringing a new and expensive Apple Watch in for a relatively low-cost hardware upgrade in early 2016 seems like a fair proposition. This could mean an annual tech refresh cycle, but a biennial hardware (body) cycle. 

Ten Days with the iPhone 6 Plus

Moving from any of the earlier iPhones to the new 6 Plus is challenging, even if you’re acquainted with one of the larger smartphones on the market. In part, this is because it won’t feel like an iPhone when you first start. Of course, I’m talking about the larger screen and the digital gymnastics required to operate it, although the way it fits in your clothing (you actually notice it for once) will also give you pause. My first experience with a larger phone was in 2012 when I bought (and eventually sold off) a Samsung Galaxy S III.

At the end of that 10-day experiment, I concluded:

I don’t want to mess with battery settings and tweaks. I don’t want the ‘freedom’ to spend hours scouring the web for ways to make my phone better. I want a phone made by a solid company that I trust, optimized to the best of their ability in a combination of software and hardware design, so that I cannot possibly believe that I could do better myself. Because that frees me to do everything else. But I also want that phone to have a larger screen.

I went back to my comparatively tiny 4S, and upgraded to the slightly better iPhone 5 when it came out. But now, with the new 2014 iPhones, I’ve finally gotten what I wished for: A great phone. A big screen. And not as two separate things.

Why the Plus and not the regular 6? Fear of missing out, really. It’s funny how the Samsung’s screen felt gigantic at 4.8” back then, but now Apple’s 4.7” seems so conservative; too small a leap for all the time I’ve waited for them to do this. The iPhone 6 was perfect for 2012, but we live in extreme times, us 2014-ers.

Handling and Design

So, the challenges. It’s been an uncertain 10 days. My theory is that the 6 Plus is a polarizing device if you are a smaller person/have smaller hands. You either know whether you’re okay with the compromises or not. I’ve spoken with women who use Galaxy Note phones, and a common sentiment has been “I can’t use most of the other large phones one-handed anyway (or put them in a pocket), so I just went for the biggest one”. It seems that if you have small hands, you either want a really small phone (iPhone 4-5 series), or go all the way with a 5”+ display and hold it all the time or stow it in a bag.

But if you have larger hands like me (I can just about hold a basketball with one hand), you could technically use the thing one-handed, but that doesn’t mean you should. It’s still a dangerous balancing act each time, and I swear I’m using muscles I haven’t before, causing a slight ache in the forearms. I’ve read laments that you can’t use it one-handed while lying in bed. Untrue; I’ve done it for hours at a time, hence the pain. Deciding whether one should do all the things one technically could is the hard stuff life is made of. Most people aren’t ready for decisions like this until they’ve had a few kids.

And remember how the iPhone 5 looked “terrible” when it first leaked online, and many wished it wasn’t real? The odd two-toned back, the suboptimal placement of the camera lens against the rounded corner and, later, the broken look of an inevitably dinged-up chamfered edge? Now those same people look back and consider it, all in all, a handsome design. I was one of those people, and this makes me feel unqualified to comment at length on the iPhone 6 family now. But damn if it ain’t ugly with that protruding camera module and those fat, rubbery antenna lines!

But the phone’s roundness serves a functional purpose that I appreciate. Many sleek, obsidian phones appeal visually, but don’t feel right in the hands. Sony and other manufacturers have put out a bunch of very nice slabs, but nestle their bottom corners into the fleshy pad under your thumb for a 20-minute news reading session and you’ll see. The iPhone 4 was a similarly beautiful device. It felt pretty good too, but that design wouldn’t hold up when enlarged to accommodate a 5.5” screen. I’d say the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are the “right” shape for what they need to do.

Nevertheless, I very much disagree with the smoothness of its back, coupled with such a thin body. Once you add one of the Apple leather cases, it becomes much easier to pick up, hold securely, and use comfortably. It’s a case that fixes just about all of the phone’s superficial design flaws. Leather’s tactility and softness actually allows you to feel more of a connection to the device.

Others have noted Apple’s adherence to the classic iPhone look for the 6 Plus, with thick top and bottom borders despite the larger screen. This of course allows for a large physical Home/TouchID button, and visual balance. Held in the hand, the phone seems comically tall, and if you can only grasp it below the midpoint, its weight distribution wants to tip itself forward and outward. But use the phone in landscape, and the need for symmetrical weight distribution is obvious. The same goes for the borders: many Android phones have a “right” way to hold them in landscape; merely touch the wrong edge and you’ve accidentally hit a hidden capacitive button that takes you back to the Home menu. I much prefer Apple’s grabbable safe zones.

Give It Time

In the first week, I was completely undecided. I looked at the smaller iPhones my friends and colleagues had ordered, and wondered if I’d made a mistake I would have to live with for a whole year. #Bendgate/#Bendghazi didn’t help, but that worry passed within a couple of days. It’s a strong phone, my tight jeans from Uniqlo have a bit of stretch to them, and most importantly, I have AppleCare+ and faith in their customer service.

I found myself fondling other people’s iPhone 6s, and remembering the times when I could enclose an entire phone in my hand. They grow up so fast! And then at some point after the first week, it just clicked. Somewhat unbeknownst to my conscious brain, it became the perfect size for an iPhone. Later that day, I picked up a friend’s iPhone 6 and waited for the regret to kick in. Nada.

Switching to an inherently inconvenient form factor that prevents you from carrying and interacting with your most-used computer in the ways that you’re accustomed to is bound to be uncomfortable. I figure even if you’ve made rational peace with all the factors you’re well informed about, it takes a little bit of time for the heart to come around. That’s a problem for Apple in the showroom. I wonder how many people immediately chose the 6 when they might have been happier with a 6 Plus. Next year’s 6S Plus sales will tell the story.

Off-Screen Considerations

Battery Life

The second-biggest new feature for many is the 6 Plus’s enhanced battery life. During the final weeks of my old iPhone’s tenure, its inability to stay functional from morning to night was a bigger annoyance than the small screen. Finally, that problem has also been licked.

So far, it’s been tremendous1. Also, if you imagine that you may someday be unhappy enough with the iPhone 6’s battery that you’ll buy a Mophie battery case or similar, remember that it will essentially make for an overall bigger and heavier device than the iPhone 6 Plus, which probably won’t need one. That makes for a pretty clear choice. My best example to recall is one particularly busy day with lots of messaging, photo sharing, a 20-minute phone call, GPS directions for a short trip, playing a 3D racing game for a bit, and streaming Spotify music at “Extreme” quality over 4G during my commute, and still making it home 12 hours later with 20% to spare.

Gaming

If you play games, you’ll find the 6 Plus an amazing machine. Its screen is bigger, brighter, and better than that of any portable on the market, including Sony’s PS Vita and Nintendo’s 3DS XL. There’s a common argument against the smartphone as a challenger to these systems, and it involves the lack of physical controls. I won’t get into that discussion here; suffice it to say I’ve played hours of Real Racing 3 (free) on my phone and never missed the joystick. Also, if you’ve ever squinted at tiny enemies in an FPS on your old iPhone, and struggled with having two thumbs blocking the action, you’ll recognize that the 6 Plus has the potential to help some genres take off on mobile. I’m planning to give X-COM another go now that everything will be more discernible, and keep in mind that was a console game ported over from the Xbox 360.

As I understand it, iOS 8’s “Metal” graphics architecture also allows game developers to squeeze more of the kind of performance out of Apple’s chips that they’re able to on dedicated gaming machines, which don’t have to worry about accommodating many of the other features that a general purpose ~~phone~~ computer supports. Games are going to look ridiculously good.

Photography

It’s better. It’s astoundingly good for a smartphone. Yes, the optical image stabilization gives you an extra f-stop in low light when photographing still scenes, but you shouldn’t be using the default Camera.app for those anyway. The Cortex Camera app takes longer exposures with very good software stabilization, and supersamples/averages out sensor noise in dark scenes almost completely.

Productivity

Everybody talks about landscape mode, but the benefits are still questionable to me, 10 days in. Fire up Mail.app and you’ll see that it’s a little too cramped to be more useful. The information density improves if you turn your system-wide dynamic text size down to one of the lowest settings, which takes more advantage of the HD resolution and 400ppi display. But it’s not for everyone, and I suspect that for a good chunk of people (for example, those over 40), the 5.5” display is best employed as a big screen, not a dense screen.

Typing is a mixed bag because I’d gotten really good at the old iOS keyboard. In apps that haven’t been updated for the new phones, the default keyboard appears larger, which messes with your muscle memory. Since iOS 8 launched, I’ve mostly used SwiftKey (it beat out Swype in accuracy). Its swipe mode helps with one-handed input when that’s necessary — having a thumb in continuous contact with the screen just feels more stable than lifting and tapping.

I think the most productive thing about the bigger screen will be the ability to sketch things of moderate complexity. In the past, you might get some basic shapes down before having to pinch-zoom around a lot to create anything useful. Usually I’d feel stupid within 20 seconds of trying, and give up. Now, I think you might be able to sketch a decent wireframe on your phone. No more napkins.

In particular, I can’t wait for a version of Paper by FiftyThree, or Penultimate, that takes advantage of the 6 Plus. I’d love to complement my Evernote and Moleskine notebooks with some quick and editable digital drawings. I have to mention that every time I’ve tried out a Galaxy Note and stylus, the software has been the most terrible part of the experience. Samsung bundles some in-house notes app with an incomprehensible and dated-looking UI when they really should have partnered with an established third-party app to provide one. I don’t know that there are any on Android, though. Seems like a real miss that they’ve had these larger devices on the market for so longer and didn’t nail the sketching use case.

Conclusion

After 10 days, I’m definitely bullish on this form factor. It took awhile to get over the hump, and if we enjoyed the generous return policies that customers in the U.S. seem to have, I might have been tempted to trade it in for the more familiar iPhone 6. But quite a few pundits have called the Plus a new kind of device (for Apple), one that asks you to reset your expectations of an iPhone in exchange for a more capable companion, and they’re quite right2.

In the years between the iPhones 4 and 6, I was often beguiled by larger devices (in spite of the Android OS), and bought the Galaxy S III, Nexus 4, and XiaoMi RedMi and Mi3 phones for research/secondary phone purposes. Each time, I went back to the iPhone in relief — seeing its small screen as the weakest link in a strong Mac and iOS product ecosystem — and cursed the seeming necessity of compromise in every aspect of this mortal coil. Now at last, that itch is dead.


  1. Although iOS is meant to prevent apps from misbehaving and sucking your battery dry, there are exceptions. Some take every opportunity to wake up in the background, using location data for geofencing and refreshing streams. I’ve found Normal: Battery Analytics to be a useful app, even with iOS 8’s new ability to show which apps use the most power. Normal goes a step further, comparing your battery stats with other users to let you know if your problems are in the minority, and predicting how many hours of standby time you’d claw back by forcing those apps to quit instead of just leaving them in the background. I’d always believed that a backgrounded app couldn’t abuse your battery in iOS, but from the sounds of their literature, I might have been wrong. 
  2. Apart from sketching, writing and editing text on the 6 Plus is itself a very different experience. It’s liberating to see a taller expanse of your document rising above the keyboard, especially in full-screen capable apps like iA Writer Pro, which I used for this post, switching between Mac and iPhone. It feels less like you’re wrestling your phrases into place, and more like they can come out and lie anywhere they want on the floor and it’s exactly what you wanted. 

➟ The Beats Question

Apple’s Pursuit of Beats May Foretell a Shift
By BEN SISARIO, nytimes.com

If Apple makes a major marketing push for Beats’s subscription model — or, even better, if Apple integrates Beats into its ecosystem of online services and physical products — it could mean a big lift for streaming.

Apple entering the streaming music market (virtually overnight) with the clout and installed user base of iTunes would be massive, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say Spotify’s days as currently structured would be numbered. Looks like we’re in for the next phase of music industry economics.

Since the rumor surfaced a couple of days ago, people have tried to rationalize why Apple would buy the headphone and services company. Some good theories and analyses of both brands have resulted; I think it’s fantastic to have lots of smart people simultaneously indulge in a thought exercise, the answers to which we will probably have in the near future.

My resistance to the idea has largely been because I’ve heard several pairs of Beats headphones myself, and haven’t been impressed. It’s not about being overpriced, but being bad experiences, functionally. A pair of BeoPlay H6 headphones at S$700 is subject to many of the same criticisms one might use against Beats: they’re too expensive, they’re made in China, the margins are criminally high, you’re paying for the brand, and so on — except the H6s really do deliver on the music experience. I suppose many Beats owners will say the same, but there are an awful lot of people with taste who disagree. Apple’s brand, to me, has always been on the opposite end of that spectrum. Perhaps this is an effort to change who we currently think of as their customers.

The Beats Music service, on the other hand, has been really impressive in my short time testing it out. There’s a feature called “The Sentence”, where you fill in a statement that defines the mood and situation you’re in, and Beats Music provides the appropriate soundtrack. I wish Spotify had something like it. I said in a tweet the other day that $3.2bn was the complacency tax of being asleep at the wheel of the world’s largest digital music store, and @craigmod noted that it was a rather low price to pay, in that case. Quite true.

The iTunes reluctance to play the streaming library game appears to be a legacy of Steve Jobs’s (and the senior executive team’s) approach to music as a tangible possession. He used to rationalize the download model by explaining how people prefer to own their music, and have collections, possibly informed by his own experiences with vinyls and CDs and so on. While it may have been true in the early days of the iTunes Store, I’ve observed even in my own listening habits as an older person that it’s no longer true. Collections matter, but song access is becoming ubiquitous and hence irrelevant. In a world where everyone pays $10/mo for music, we can build all the collections we want, without having to think about first buying a digital copy or worry about losing access. Why should you? It’s $10/mo for the rest of your life and everybody stays afloat and happy. Sold.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Beats Music became the backbone of a new iTunes Unlimited offering, and the headphones remained a standalone brand, sold prominently (as ever) in Apple retail locations.

[I first wrote this entry on my experimental blog about technological change, entitled T-Axis. I’ll be cross-posting stuff here for awhile.]

Cortex Camera is your best bet for quality iPhone photos

Original iPhone capture
Original iPhone capture
IMG_0506
Cortex Camera capture

It’s hard to believe that you can get different results from the same hardware—the same smartphone camera—just seconds apart. The first photo was taken with the iPhone 5S’s built-in camera app, which employs some impressive software techniques to improve most photos. In this case, a low-light scene forced an ISO sensitivity of 1000.

The second photo was taken with Cortex Camera, which takes a series of images over 2 seconds or so (you don’t have to keep your hands perfectly still, but still-as-possible helps). These are then combined for far less noise, more accurate colors, and higher resolution (12mp on the iPhone 5/5S, which normally take 8mp images). The default Camera.app also combines up to four captures for better photos, but is optimized to work for all situations. For any scene without moving subjects and where you have the luxury of time, Cortex delivers better results.

Camera.app 100% crop
Camera.app 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop

The shots above are 100% crops from the same scene. Note that the Cortex Camera version is both larger and more detailed. It has more potential for processing, and beats a fair few prosumer point and shoot cameras at the pixel level.

The first app to do this “supersampling” was Occipital’s ClearCam, which I used to swear by. However, like their other app 360 Panorama, ClearCam hasn’t received any updates in the wake of iOS 7, and appears to have been abandoned as the company pushes their new Kickstarter-backed project, the Structure Sensor. At this time, ClearCam makes you wait longer and has a cumbersome alignment and enhancement process. Cortex Camera just takes the picture and saves it all in one step. It’s a damn shame, because both Occipital apps were among the first and best of their kind, enabling users to do things with their iPhones that seemingly defied the capabilities of the hardware. They clearly have a knack for clever imaging technology; I just hope they take a longer view of supporting their products some day.

If you’re in the market for a new app to take and share those 360-degree panoramas, Sphere (formerly Tour Wrist) does a good job and is free. Bubbli is also promising, but captures video instead of photos to stitch a scene together, which means you have to pan slowly to get an even exposure. If you’ve got the cash and a love of new gadgets (mustnotbuymustnotbuy) Ricoh’s new Theta camera does the trick in a single click. It’s the first consumer-ready spherical capture camera and looks like a presentation remote. Simply hold it above your head and hit the button, and it takes in the entire scene. What’s more, the $400 device has built-in wifi and beams photos over to your iPhone for instant sharing. It’s not hard to imagine this feature on an iPhone a decade from now.

A Sudden Crop of New iPhone Photo Apps

iPhone photography apps hit a sort of peak with Hipstamatic, Instagram, Camera+, 645 Pro, and Snapseed. The past few months have seen a few quirky apps being released (Gridditor being one that comes to mind), but most have been crappy knockoffs of the very successful but sadly neglected Camera+*, or silly ones for decorating your shots with candy-colored doodles or cartoon stamps.

Very little for the serious photographer determined to replace a compact camera with an iPhone… until these came along!

•••

Blux Camera: The first app I’ve seen to offer the equivalent of what’s called “Auto Scene Mode” on most point-and-shoot cameras. The app applies a compensation scene mode based on what it thinks you need (taking local weather into account too). I’ve been waiting for someone to do this, but Blux seems to go even further with 14 filters, tilt-shift effects, and a futuristic, customizable UI that might prove too fiddly in actual use. Still, it looks very good and it’s free for a couple of days.
Edit: Having tried it now, it’s not worth the trouble. Too much high-tech flash, not enough substance and usability. I’d put this at the top of the cheesy knockoff category.

Alt Photo: This one has some real pedigree, like VSCO Cam, coming from maker of pro Photoshop plugins, Alien Skin Software. It has one of the best-looking brightness adjustment algorithms I’ve seen in an iPhone app (Mattebox has another great one), not to mention some nicely tuned filters designed to emulate film looks.

Perfectly Clear: This just got a big 3.0 update today, with a fully redesigned UI and higher quality results. This is a one-function app — it tunes up lackluster photos with more clarity, color, and brightness — and it does it well. There’s now also the ability to remove noise for no extra charge; it used to be an in-app purchase. It even claims to recognize and brighten eyes, smoothen skin, and whiten teeth. That last one sounds like a joke, but there it is on the page.

Scout Camera: A camera replacement app with a few nice filters, and the welcome ability to see and shoot in 1:1, 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9 aspect ratios, all live. It’s a shame you can’t change filters on a photo after you’ve shot it, and that you can’t import your own photos into its lightbox for editing. Hopefully the developer is looking into these things, because you can get those aspect ratios from 645 Pro too, and there’s little reason to make this your first choice in a pinch.

Beamr: From the makers of JPEGmini, one of the best photo technologies I’ve seen in awhile (it crunches down high quality JPEGs to half their size, and your eyes won’t see the difference) comes this new photo sharing app. The app description is a bit confusing, but I think it uploads your full-size photos using the aforementioned tech, and then creates a flippable online magazine — oh god, those are back? — that you can send as a link to friends and family. The selling point here is high quality photos, not the recompressed junk you see on Facebook or other sharing sites.

Photoset: Another sharing app, this one from Tumblr. It lets you very quickly create a layout of several photos by dragging them around, and then publish them to a webpage on Photoset.com or to an existing Tumblr blog. Pretty cool, and much more versatile than using something like, say, Twitphoto for impromptu sharing.

  • I say Camera+ has been neglected despite having recently been updated because of how unusable its filters look these days on brighter iPhone 5 photos, and because other much needed refinements never materialized. It’s like there’s nobody there looking out to keep it #1.

MacHeist 4 ends today

MacHeist 4 ends today. The annual bundle has gotten bigger and better — just US$29 for a ton of apps and services worth 20 times more — but they’ve struggled to reach the minimum target of 25,000. That was how many needed to be sold before the premium bonus apps became unlocked for everyone. After 8 days into the 10-day window, they gave up and opened them anyway. Now they’ve finally crossed the mark (26,053 at time of writing) with hours left to go.

There’s probably a longer article in here about why this is the case. Bundles like these used to make a much bigger splash, and I remember a period where Groupon-like daily deal sites for Mac applications were like… daily deal sites for free iOS applications. I guess that’s where the attention has gone now, and much of the spending intent has followed the growth in mobile platforms. Prices there are generally lower too, and I wonder if this means independent Mac apps have to start charging less, or more, to keep profits up.

Anyway, I highly recommend you look into MacHeist while it’s available. 25% of the money goes to charity, and you get a 15-month subscription to Evernote Premium as part of it. I usually pay US$45/year for Evernote and find it immensely useful as a place to store all the webpages I see and want to have searchable, shopping and reading lists, wholesale documents for safekeeping, and snippets of data in an offline notebook whenever I go on a trip. It’s essentially a digitized version of your memory for sanity. There are also great games like Braid, Bioshock 2, and the episodic adventures of Sam & Max, Jurassic Park, and Strong Bad, from developer Telltale Games. That’s like… a hundred hours of gameplay.

One great utility was added this morning: Bartender. It’s not a cocktail recipes app, the world hardly needs more of those, but a tool that sits in your Mac’s menu bar and subsumes all the other menu bar items into it. I’ve greatly cleaned up the visual clutter on mine (made somewhat worse by recent versions of OS X preferring to show menu bar icons in monochrome only), moving things like Bluetooth status, Volume, Dropbox, and my Jawbone status monitor into Bartender’s “bar menu”. Good stuff, and normally sells for US$15.