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.

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. 

Some Recent Games And Storytelling

I’ve had the luxury of some console gaming time these past few months, and managed to complete Metal Gear Rising, BioShock Infinite, and the rebooted Tomb Raider, while making progress in Devil May Cry, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon, and Super Mario 3D Land.

The observation here is that in my advanced age, the definition of fun has changed. I used to be excited for sandbox experiences, building/business simulations, and multiplayer combat. I think if Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet existed when I was younger, I’d totally see the point of building a giant robot’s head in a mountainside. Now, the thought of spending hours on that kind of play instead of catching up on reading or working on other projects is out of the question.

Open-world games are in a precarious position. Five years ago, I could spend hours collecting Crackdown’s Agility Orbs. I’d mess about in Assassin’s Creed and forget the main quest entirely, writing my own inner narrative about Altair being a medieval pickpocketing Batman. When life next comes collecting, these games will be the first to go.

So when the nights are short, what games make the cut? The aforementioned games on Xbox360 (Metal Gear Rising, BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Devil May Cry) are marked by strong, cinematic narratives, or at least entertaining ones in the case of MGR and DMC. The remaining Nintendo 3DS titles succeed on pure mechanics, where joy is extracted purely from the timing of button presses, helped by exuberant character animations and inventive set pieces.

LuigisMansionDarkMoonReview_Pic2

Luigi’s Mansion 2 might be one of the most charming games I’ve ever seen, and like most portable titles, it satisfies in a different way than a blockbuster console title. Each level is polished and detailed to the point that it vibrates. From one minute to the next, you’re constantly having your assumptions challenged by experimental level designs, new enemies, and ingenious puzzles. There’s a simple set-up about why the ghosts are loose, but the game’s real Story is located in the way that these parts interoperate, and in how the characters react, much like how design was famously said by Steve Jobs to be the craft of how things work, not how they look.

Stories are perhaps the best reason to engage with any entertainment medium; often they function perfectly being the only reason, but videogames call for a balance between play and involvement to be fully realized.

Take BioShock Infinite, one of the year’s most highly rated games, if not the highest. To experience a playthrough is to see an ambitious, first-person SF story with many smart things to say about games, politics, gender, religion, and whatever else people want to see in it. As a game, mechanically, it’s mediocre for a lack of innovation. Fights play out in the usual fashion, with a few superficial gimmicks. When the supporting character, Elizabeth, throws you a health pack mid-firefight with a press of your "X" button, it’s an Auto Heal/Use Potion action in disguise. Much like how artists can throw new textures atop a game engine to create an expansion pack, BioShock’s gameplay designers have reskinned a generic FPS using emotion and worldcraft.

bioshock-infinite-20121207035233984-000

Finding the combat somewhat boring, I started to cynically see places where narrative paint was employed to make the shooting gallery journey seem shinier than it was. It’s sad that a week after finishing the game, I mostly remembered its central conceit and frankly awesome ending sequence. This doesn’t happen in Luigi’s Mansion 2, because the gameplay itself is what you think about when not playing.

Why is BioShock Infinite so overloaded on the story side of things, constantly trying to shove more story in your face with voice recordings, environmental artwork, snatches of conversation, meaning-laden anachronistic pop song covers, in-game exposition cutscenes, etc., but so underdeveloped as an action game? I’m pretty sure the experience of watching someone play the game is >90% as satisfying as playing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be your hands on the wheel. I’ve played games where after a momentous moment unfolded on screen, I was left acutely aware of a lingering sensation under my thumb where things had been set in motion. The button press echoed through flesh and time. Triumph seemed to reside directly in my actions. Because of how little I cared for and enjoyed the gameplay, BioShock felt like pressing Play on a rented movie.

The-Village-with-Radio-Tower-in-Backgroung_620x350

Tomb Raider is more successful in several of these places. While well-written, the story isn’t mind-blowing in the way BioShock’s is, but it has its own surprises and is superbly paced: you always feel like the game’s climax is drawing near, and then the story horizon stretches out in front of you again like a challenge, taunt, and gift all at once. Traversing the world, hunting with a bow & arrow, scouting for hidden objects… did I just get tricked into playing an open-world game I said I didn’t have time for? As a combination of story and fun, and critically, by allowing enough freedom for its player to feel a sense of grace and mastery of the world, it succeeds.

Although progression is linear, how you navigate Tomb Raider’s world feels under your control. Lara is continuously gaining new abilities that open up previously impassable areas. It’s the old Metroid design, and a sound one. You could argue that the superpower-granting Vigors in BioShock play a similar role, but they are few, and the fun is taken out of them by the ammo limits. Tomb Raider doesn’t charge you for the joy of shooting a rope arrow across a chasm and zipping down it. Incidentally, where the ropes go is largely predetermined, but because the player personally installs them, the feeling is completely different from BioShock’s steel skyline cables, which herd you heavy-handedly around the map like the rails they literally are. A minor difference, design-wise, but one with an outsized impact on the experience.

A brief review of headphones using the metaphor of photographic reproduction

Audio-Technica M50
Audio-Technica M50

Imagine you could take a photograph of sound; bass, in particular.

AIAIAI Tracks on-ears would be a very good tracing of that photograph. One gets the idea, and knows what the photo would look like, but it’s not the same as experiencing it firsthand.

Incase Sonic over-ears: Now the photograph has been nearest-neighbor resized in Photoshop to 150%. So you get its presence and some detail, but with jagged edges all over the place. The bass is plain to see, but not particularly nuanced.

Monster Beats in general are a printout of the photograph at 200% size on a color inkjet printer that’s missing a few ink tanks and in need of a head cleaning, then rolled up for sale in a $1,000 faux-crystal gift box.

Klipsch Image ONE over-ears are like the photograph enlarged for display on the side of a skyscraper which has exploded and is collapsing in your direction.

The Audio-Technica M50 headphones are like finding great photo paper at a closing down sale and printing out a realistic reproduction that you’ll put on your wall for years. But the plastic frame it’s in is really ugly.

PSB Speakers’s M4U 2 noise-canceling over-ears in ’active’ mode is the work of a DSLR camera viewed on a Retina display. While you’re looking, someone squeezes your (large) head to the point of moderate discomfort. Your wallet also vanishes.

Lastly, the Harman Kardon CL on-ears are a beautiful replica to stare at, but you’ll always wonder if springing for the real thing would have made a difference.