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General

New Power Generation

The rumors about Apple switching from MagSafe to USB-C as a charging port standard are starting lots of conversations, and my own reaction to hearing that was “What? Why?”. But when I think about it, I really like that I can charge almost everything in my bag via microUSB these days, regardless of brand and manufacturer. My Sony camera and PS VitaBeats noise-canceling headphonesJawbone Bluetooth headsetLogitech UE portable speaker. Last I remember reading, the EU had mandated mobile phone makers use a common charging standard, and Apple got around it by supplying a microUSB-to-Lightning adapter for iPhones.

And while Lightning is a great improvement upon microUSB that no one else would have made, the benefits of keeping just one cable in your bag for your power bank can’t be overstated. Less to lose, less to keep organized in a pouch or whatever, and less clutter on your desk when plugged into a charger. The main exceptions in my daily life apart from Apple devices are my wearables (UP24 and Pebble); for obvious waterproofing and form factor reasons they went with proprietary designs. The Apple Watch will probably replace both of them for me, but I’m not looking forward to buying and carrying a second conductive charging thing for it. They don’t look small, cheap, or durable.

Disclaimer: This somehow became a gear post, so I’ve added Amazon affiliate links to see what happens. These are all great things to buy!

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General

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. 
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Reviews

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. 
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➟ 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.]

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General Reviews

Photo: Hong Kong Lingerie Shop

DSC00102

A quick word about the Sony RX100 I bought on vacation: best camera I’ve ever owned. Small enough to put in a jeans pocket, amazing quality output, and fast enough to grab shots like this one — I saw it across the street just as Kim managed to hail a taxi; had literally two seconds to shoot blindly while getting in; pleased beyond words that it turned out sharp and captured the look of the lady in the shop. I don’t think you can buy a better compact right now except maybe the larger RX1 which costs five times more.

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➟ Canon Powershot N

n_1

Canon Powershot N first impressions: Digital Photography Review

Very intrigued by Canon’s latest consumer product shown off at CES. It’s an almost-square, mint tin-sized box with an 8x optical zoom lens, 12mp resolution, and wireless-N connectivity designed to work with your smartphone. Anything you shoot with it can be instantly shared in the ways you are already accustomed to, and the camera even applies a bunch of artistic filters automatically.

This is an interesting and astute reaction to recent trends in consumer photography: namely, people shoot and share an imagebucket load of photos with their smartphones; the more advanced of these photographers care about and strive to eke ever more quality and clarity out of their daily shots, you even see some happy to carry DSLRs around to get shots exclusively for low-res online sharing; the emergence of middle-ground devices such as Micro Four-Thirds cameras, ultra-thin laptops, tablets (hell, even phablets); and of course, the rapid demise of consumer compact cameras for everyday use, having been deemed too much bulk and inconvenience for too little versatility and quality.

This new PowerShot N cleverly defines a new middle-ground: a more ergonomically sound and high-quality experience than shooting with a smartphone’s camera, with comparable quality and superior portability versus other compacts, whilst enjoying all the connected features of your phone.