Should I really have bought a new camera?

You never use the cameras you have as much as you do when there’s a new one ordered and on the way. I’ve just bought a Panasonic LX10 online to take the place of my 6(!) year old Sony RX100mk1—a compact travel camera with a big-enough 1″ sensor and useful 3x-ish zoom range.

Below: a recent shot from my RX100.

Raindrops shot with a Sony RX100

That the LX10 has been on the market for 2 years says something about my changing habits. Buying last year’s model used to be unthinkable, and I’d pay a premium for buying that way. But the industry has changed and now hardware updates come every few years instead of annually, and the average price has gone over the $1000 mark to compensate for the drop in sales. Buying late nets you a nice discount back to pre-smartphone prices.

Anyway, while waiting for that camera to come and prove wrong my fears that I’ve given my money to a scammy HK website, I’ve been using my iPhone X and RX100 a bit around the neighborhood and workplace.

I can’t stress enough how much the Halide camera app + Adobe’s new and improved Lightroom Mobile have changed the way I shoot and edit RAW images on iPhone. (I still love and use Darkroom too, it just doesn’t do RAW as well as Lightroom anymore.)

Shooting koi in a rippling pool with an iPhone requires you to go full manual, and while the thought of fiddling with shutter speeds and ISO and manual focus on a touchscreen used to make me shudder, it’s actually doable with Halide’s well-considered control layout and gestures. I just wish you could lock focus peaking to always-on.

Honestly, I had no idea you could get this kind of sharpness and microcontrast out of an iPhone. I’ll be saving JPEGs and Live Photos for quick grab shots and moving scenes from now on. Given that I’ve taken a few holidays with just my iPhone, this is all making me wonder if I should have bought a new dedicated camera at all.

Okay okay, while shooting in RAW preserves highlights and deals with tricky lighting such as the above shot in the late afternoon, I’ll admit to enhancing that flare with Lens Distortions. It’s all about creating the scene you saw with your eyes, right??

Assuming the camera comes on time, I’ll probably bring it with me to Tasmania when I go in a few weeks. Seems like a landscape kinda place, so I have doubts about bringing my other cameras: a Ricoh GR (28mm) and Fujifilm X100T (35mm). 🤔

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.

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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?

Two Weeks in New York

How’s everyone doing? I recently went to New York for the first time ever, and did a bunch of touristy things. It was also my first time in the U.S. in over a decade, and maybe overestimated how bad the TSA and airport immigration situation would be. It’s the last thing you want after 20 hours of flying: to be stuck in an hour-long line with people barking at you to take your clothes off. But we got in and out of JFK without much hassle.

Having an Uber account is fast becoming the most important thing to a traveler after having maps on your smartphone and watch. It lets you integrate with any city with no more difficulty or delay than if it were your own. There’s no need to plan an airport transfer in advance, find out if tipping’s expected, or get flustered if you’re late for a show downtown.

We got into a performance of Hamilton literally against all odds. The show is sold out for the next year, and resale tickets are pretty much unaffordable, but there’s a daily online lottery where you can get front row seats for $10. I heard somewhere that tens of thousands of people enter each day, and it can take months of trying. Kim somehow managed to win tickets a day into our second week. It was the first day of Javier Muñoz’s permanent run as Hamilton after Lin-Manuel Miranda stepped down, and he killed it. I was sick and shivering with a fever, and it was still incredible and unforgettable.

You can’t take any photos during the show, so I don’t have any. And despite bringing my Fujifilm X100T on the trip, I didn’t even use it once. Not one frame. Maybe it was the summer heat and not wanting to be encumbered or precious about one more thing to avoid banging about/losing/getting stolen, or maybe I just wanted to keep it casual, but my iPhone did everything. Fusion HDR and ProCamera’s LowLight+ mode helped in extreme lighting conditions. For shooting distant subjects in good light, I think it’s really close to what the X100T would have got. As holiday snapshots go, I’m happy with what I got. This fall’s iPhone 6SE/X/whatever will close the gap even more.

The one thing photos can’t do is capture other aspects of the experience, but Live Photos and 360º panoramas can be better at it than the usual 2D stills. We recently got a Ricoh Theta S at work, and now I want to take something like it on my next vacation. Being able to grab everything in a scene with a single button, and re-enter that environment later with a VR headset… why wouldn’t you? I’ll hold out for the next model with better image quality, but it’s one thing your smartphone camera won’t compete with for awhile. If you have the time to stand in one spot for a few minutes though, you can use Google’s oddly branded Street View app to capture spherical photos.

Real talk: I didn’t get to see that much of the city, relatively, but it was pretty cool to visit. In terms of livability, though, it’s not topping Tokyo for me in any of the categories. I’m probably the worst person when it comes to dealing with loud crowds, germs, heat, public transport breakdowns, the threat of impending personal harm — basically i’m a paranoid baby. Living in New York probably wouldn’t play to any of my strengths. But between Ktown and David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam, I think they’re doing a great job with Korean food! It was far from my favorite cuisine before, but now I’m a convert.

Okay, photos.

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The line on the street for Hamilton *after* we got out
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Couple making out in a hotel had an audience below
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Freakily realistic statue on the Highline
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Saw this the day after Philando Castile was shot
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A Starry Night at MoMA
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Nintendo World
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Apple Store in Grand Central Terminal
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Okay this was HK, during the stopover

“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.

Mobile or Console, the Name of the Game is the Same

Playing Oceanhorn on the new Apple TV, with a Bluetooth game controller like the SteelSeries Nimbus, feels distinctly like a traditional console gaming experience. It’s been compared to a modern Zelda title, and if you’re in the mood to explore, its large world lends itself to leaning back on the couch for a good hour or more.

What’s interesting is that you can pick up your iPhone later and continue your savegame synced over iCloud, at which point its modified-for-touch controls and mini quest structure actually turn it into a modern mobile gaming experience.

What might be undersold by a simple bullet point — “Cloud Saves” — is really significant: one game that can be played in very different contexts, made possible by having the same OS in your pocket and living room (and car, one day). It’s probably the future of gaming.

Much like how we now commonly design for the web, going mobile-first in gaming makes sense for companies looking to the players to come. That means not making the mobile bit just a simplified companion app with minigames connecting back to the “proper” console version. The level of control complexity and engagement can and should scale to the device, all within the same game.

Geometry Wars 3

Many of the guidelines for apps on the new Apple TV force developers to adapt the experience to the available controller. Geometry Wars goes from a dual-analog stick shooter on a regular gamepad to an auto-shooter when on Siri Remote, where the player only has to steer. You get what fits, but never less than the whole story.

The experience of seamlessly jumping from a phone to a 60” TV reminds me of how it felt to play the first iPhone games. I remember Crash Bandicoot, in particular, as a sign of things to come. You could get games like it on the Nintendo DS, but they weren’t downloaded over Wi-Fi in seconds, for mere dollars, or paid for electronically. It made the portable gaming systems of 2008 feel dated. And as Apple added more power, multitasking, social features, and cloud saves to iOS, the iPhone overtook them completely.

Games on the new Apple TV have more than a whiff of that to them. Even if the platform doesn’t come to dominate gaming a decade from now, I believe the winner will work and feel like it.

In a sea of diminished companies out-innovated from changes they didn’t see coming, it’s gratifying to think that Nintendo may have played their cards right with the upcoming NX. It’s rumored to be a home console with a detachable mobile device, playing games that also work with smartphones and networks from its rivals. God knows how they’ll do it, but that describes the right shape to survive: experiences designed to shift context, open to different forms of interaction (hey, even VR), ready to fill varied slices of time, long or short, in a busy user’s day.

Unboxing: Moment Case for iPhone 6S Plus

Today I received my new Moment Case (Dark Walnut Kickstarter edition) for iPhone 6 Plus after a long wait following the Kickstarter campaign. They hit a snag with manufacturing, and the release of the slightly thicker 6S series of phones necessitated holding back to make sure the original designs fit.

It works as advertised and is very easy to hold; slips into my jeans pocket comfortably enough too. Here’s a quick unboxing and look at the startup photo taking workflow. Note that you must use the Moment Camera app if you want to use the shutter button. It does NOT function as a regular Bluetooth remote shutter like the kind you use with a selfie stick.

Really Nice Images (RNI) Photo App for iOS

   
 

I came across this app a couple of weeks ago but can’t remember how, and since then it’s struck me as somewhat criminal that more people aren’t talking about it. So this is just a quick post to help you, my reader, discover a new app that brings realistic analog film simulation to your iPhone photos.

Sure, we already have VSCO, Rebelsauce, Faded, Afterlight, Litely, Priime… but there’s always room for one more if it does the job really well; the job being accurate reproduction of film characteristics. Then it’s a much shorter list. Mattebox (when it was for sale and updated) did a marvellous job of handling exposure adjustments in a very film-like way, VSCO Film in their desktop products are designed to emulate certain classic stocks, and a couple others like PicTapGo come from companies that also produce pro-grade Lightroom presets for a day job.

RNI Films falls into this general category easily. Their Lightroom presets are based on close study of classic films, they use real film grain scans and simulate old lenses with blurring, individual packs retail for $49 each (there are 5?), and online chatter from professionals indicate that their work is well-regarded as being competitive with and maybe even better than VSCO Film, now the biggest player thanks to the profile of their iOS app.

Unlike VSCOcam, which intentionally avoids naming its iPhone filters to match/cannibalize their more expensive Lightroom presets, RNI’s new app offers the same film simulations by name: Kodak Gold 200, Fuji Velvia 100, etc. I haven’t compared them, but I’ll guess that the iOS app produces results very close to the desktop product, at a fraction of the cost. Perhaps they have been tuned to the qualities of the iPhone’s camera for best results. At about $3 per in-app purchase pack, they are more expensive than those in most other filter apps on smartphones, but come on. In comparison to $49, we’re talking about a near giveaway.

I’ve been very pleased with the presets, and they look the way I expect them to. The app could use a few more features and a streamlined editing UX that allows for people who’d want to save versions, for example, but as of right now it gets the basics done about as well as the earlier generations of iPhone filter apps. Load > Stage 1 Edits > Stage 2 Edits > Save as new copy. It’s still faster at this workflow than VSCOcam! Hopefully the team at RNI are still iterating on it right now, although I sort of doubt it.

   
    
    
 

RNI Films by RNI (Free, with IAP)

https://appsto.re/sg/Wg7N8.i

Darkroom Photo App Shows Why UX Details Are Everything

A new photo editor for iOS launched today, and it’s called Darkroom (free, with a $2.99 in-app purchase to unlock Curves).

“Another photo editing app? What does this one bring to the table?” I’ve seen a few early reviews of Darkroom begin along those lines. It seems a sense of fatigue has set in amongst people watching this space, and it interests me to find that I don’t feel the same way. I’ve dived into every new release with optimism, because there are still so many ways to improve upon what we can currently do on our mobile devices.

The Verge mentions Darkroom in the same breath as VSCO Cam, suggesting that the latter has a new challenger. That’s somewhat wrong-headed; they aren’t anymore alike than, say, how Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda are as ways of passing time. Both apps allow you to tune the look of a photo, and apply presets, but it’s how they’ve been engineered to do it that counts.

Darkroom’s most exciting development, if you listen to what people are saying, is that it allows you to edit photos by adjusting RGB curves. Except that’s not especially new in the iPhone app space — Photoforge did it years ago, Filterstorm has that and much more in the way of professional tools, and there are others. The next feature to get attention is that you can save any of your adjustments as a custom preset, ready for future photos, and it’s like making your own filters. Again, this is territory that Mattebox, PicTapGo, Mextures, et al pioneered awhile ago.

The reason Darkroom is exciting, is that it seems to have absolutely nailed the UX of these features, and made them feel manageable, comfortable, and pleasurable to use as a whole. I want to emphasize that this is hard, and that their solutions are so subtle and executional, they might not have convinced anyone of their worth if presented as bullet points on a slide at some early point in the process.

Using other apps with curves and pro adjustments can feel claustrophobic and stressful on a small screen. I’ve hated almost every single one (Adobe’s own Photoshop Touch is so awful at it) and keep them on my phone as last resorts. If I’m on holiday and take a problematic photo with potential, I’m more likely to wait till I get home just so I can do it on a Mac than try to fiddle with it on the go. Snapseed is one powerful exception, but that uses its own control metaphors, not curves.

Darkroom’s UI is blissfully open in design. It will likely get more complicated as they add more promised features, but I’m hopeful the team finds a way to keep this incredible simplicity. As you page through its 5 key sections (composition, filters, adjustments, curves, history), you never lose your place in the mental model. Nothing is buried in a submenu or out of sight.

You don’t have to click a checkmark to save an adjustment before tapping another, because everything can be undone to an infinite degree, and one can undo hundreds of minute actions back to the beginning of an edit if necessary. Because that step (so annoying in apps like Afterlight, Faded, and VSCO Cam) has been eliminated, using Darkroom’s tools feels close to direct manipulation of the colors and pixels on your screen. One more nice touch: you can tap to the left or right of a slider knob to nudge it in that direction. Simple, but I can’t remember the last time a photo app let me do that.

Loading up a photo is seamless. The app starts with a view of your entire photo library. Tapping a photo pulls it forward, straight into editing mode. At this point, you can swipe to either side to start editing adjacent photos in your library. Flicking a photo down tosses it back into the pile, and you’re looking at all your photos again. In use, it feels gloriously fast and uncomplicated. As that bullet point on a slide, “Seamless browsing and editing flow” wouldn’t have done it justice. This is the kind of feature that needs to be designed, prototyped, tweaked, and tuned over and over to create something subtle, but innovative. A team rushing their project out would have missed the opportunity.

The difference between Darkroom and apps that require stepping in and out of different editing modes, especially when the placement of those modes is obscured, is like Apple’s own (now discontinued) iPhoto for iOS and the new built-in photo editing options in Photos.app. The former was a confusing mess with plenty of user-undiscoverable gestures and submenus, while the latter gives most users all the power they need in a more approachable UI.

iPhoto Photos

I’ve stopped using half of the other apps I’ve listed above as problematic, and forgotten the names of twice as many more. The ones I remember tend to be the ones I really wanted to succeed; I’ll unfairly single out Mattebox as an app with great technology and features, but suffered from confounding UX design. Countless times, I actually got lost inside the mess of buttons and menus that were hidden at the “back” of its camera mode. Thinking about the Darkroom icon sitting on my homescreen now doesn’t fill me with the same dread. I’m dreaming about using it later tonight, and tomorrow, and anticipating what will be new in the first update. Although its name is generic, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it soon. I imagine it’s the beginning of a new phase of using my iPhone as a camera, one in which I can send better photos home while still on holiday.

Hipstamatic Vault Reopens — Old Friends for Sale

The Hipstamatic iPhone camera app is in the habit of releasing new “HipstaPaks” of gear (each one typically has a new “lens” and “film”; occasionally a “flash”) every month. Some of these disappear awhile later, to keep the available collection manageable and, I suppose, to create some artificial scarcity around their releases.

I discovered this a couple of weekends ago when I wanted the Swedish-themed Södermalm Pak and discovered it missing. I regularly buy everything they offer, not the idea of not having some drove me crazy. I promptly bought the remaining two or three I did not already have, proving their marketing technique works.

So if you also have an obsessive nature and need to have a complete Hipstamatic pack collection, this weekend will feel like Christmas has come early because they’re opening their “HipstaVault”, with almost everything from the past available once more.

As far as I can tell from Googling, the last time this happened was in 2012. I didn’t know it would actually happen again, so… predictably, I’ve now bought everything I missed.

An Old Man Tries Snapchat

If you have even a passing interest in social media and haven’t seen Casey Neistat’s video on how “Snapchat Murders Facebook”, you should.

Like my friend Vicki notes in this post, Snapchat wasn’t something that I immediately saw any value in. I installed it once ages ago, didn’t have any friends on it (a combination of age and geography), and promptly left. Then Instagram’s Bolt soft-launched in Singapore and got some interest going around ephemeral photo messaging, but it still isn’t something that friends in their 30s seem to want.

We’re a generation of digital hoarders; the people who abandoned other providers for Gmail en masse because it promised never having to delete an email again. Cleaning out my harddrive the other day, I found a folder of interesting photos I’d saved off the net in the early 2000s: movie posters, album cover art, photos of global landmarks, and the like, simply because the sight of them were scarce and valuable pre-internet! You have to imagine what it was like to live in that time. I ended up deleting almost all of them because these days, if you can put a name to it, you can find it online.

So behavior is changing slowly amongst older people, and much faster amongst those in their teens, but photo messaging still wasn’t something I needed Snapchat for. Every messaging app offers it now. The ephemeral twist is a footnote.

Snapchat’s Stories feature changed the way I look at the product. It turns it into something of a lifelogging and broadcast platform. I can’t name another app (still) on the market that lets you grab video snippets of your life, and share them in a stream that your friends can tune in to. The fact that clips disappear after 24 hours is actually the part I like LEAST. It seems Vicki’s with me on this, as she’s set up a YouTube channel to archive these Stories to after they’ve been erased. I may soon do the same1.

There are some other nascent thoughts I have on Snapchat’s bizarre UX; the more I think about it, the more brilliant it is — breaking many of the rules we use to design interfaces for users of all ages, in order to create an exclusive, obtuse, game-like experience (inviting the spreading of knowledge by word of mouth) that seems intended to make it a success with a younger crowd. I may be wrong, and it may simply be like this as a result of being designed by a younger team. Additionally, its overall visual clumsiness (check out that ghost icon) encourages you NOT to take it seriously, which makes it totally okay to fire off imperfect, portrait-oriented, poorly-shot, but authentic moments without too much thought.

If you’d like to follow me, I’m on there as “sangsara”.


  1. Sharing these vertical videos on another platform poses a slight challenge. I tried every video editing app on my iPhone, and just about all of them failed to stitch the short clips together without cropping, unexpectedly rotating, or distorting the videos. Even Apple’s own iMovie produced only a black screen with audio playing, probably because Snapchat’s video encoding/metadata in non-standard in some way. Amusingly, the app that finally managed to do the job perfectly was YouTube’s own Capture app

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. 

LINE Pop-Up Store Singapore, May 2014

Japanese-Korean messaging app LINE has opened their first pop-up store in Singapore, on a prominent stretch of the core shopping boulevard of Orchard Road. It will run for a month and reap immeasurable marketing value from the high visibility and sure-to-grow lines of fans eager to buy their cleverly designed character merchandise.1

I dropped by on its first evening tonight with some colleagues, and we spent between $20–60 each. I would have spent $100, but put down a pack of 100 art postcards ($55) at the last minute. This is on top of the $40 I’ve spent on in-app purchase stickers over the last year or two of being on the platform. I don’t think any other messenger currently comes close in terms of having built brand loyalty or monetization potential that doesn’t involve serving ads or selling personal data.

Standing outside and watching the crowd, I remarked to a UX designer colleague that no other messaging app could pull off something like this in the middle of town, not WhatsApp, not WeChat. He correctly observed that none of the others have strong IP from which to make their own merchandise to even sell in a store.

“And it’s all this bloody kiddy stuff!”, I said, clutching a plastic bag filled with stickers and a pair of mugs that look like the faces of a bear and a bird. “It’s not kiddy,” he started to protest before going, “Oh alright, I guess it is.” Takeaway: “Kiddy” is largely irrelevant in Asia.


18-to-29-year-old females are its “core target,” says (U.S. CEO Jeanie) Han, explaining that in Asia, once girls were using Line, boys followed – and then this young “hip” user base helped bring in older users “like a domino effect.”

“People, especially young folks, are really adopting our stickers,” she says. “The ratio of people who are buying things online like our stickers is actually quite high in the U.S., as well as the people who are using our games inside our platform relative to the total number of users, so we’re quite optimistic in terms of our market in the U.S.” — Techcrunch, March 2013


The crowd lining up tonight was about 2:1 female to male, which seems in line with LINE’s targeting strategy. There were a few people who definitely looked over 40, and everyone present was walking out with stuffed toys, diaries, notebooks, plastic folders, tote bags, mugs, badges and the like, all emblazoned with Brown, Cony, Moon, Leonard, Sally, James, and other characters I can name because I see and employ their images in chat conversations on a daily basis. LINE is lovable, obsessionable. Few others are by design.

Against Facebook Messenger’s 200M monthly active users, LINE is said to have virtually the same MAU (out of 400M registered accounts). In comparison, WeChat (dominant in China) has 355M MAU, and WhatsApp has over 500M. I don’t consider WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger users to be the same thing2, and LINE has the greatest growth potential outside of its home country, especially in Asian countries with an affinity for Japanese culture, whereas the Chinese WeChat is likely to have a harder time. I’m pretty bullish about LINE’s success, even if their apps have a lot to improve on. For the record, LINE also reports significant revenues — $338M in 2013 — versus about $200M for KakaoTalk and $20M for WhatsApp.


  1. Within minutes of our arrival, I overheard a mom asking her two teenaged daughters, “What’s this about?”, to which they replied, “it’s kind of like WhatsApp.” 
  2. For one thing, WhatsApp is not functionally part of a platform, and probably won’t be merging with Facebook’s in the near future for various reasons. All the other messaging networks are at some stage of offering content, ecommerce, games, and enhanced communication services such as video-calling.