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iphone

The iPhone 8 Plus’ glass is not all it’s cracked up to be

This morning, I was thinking about putting a clear screen protector on the iPhone 8 Plus, just because I had one that came with one of the cases I purchased. While cleaning the glass, though, I noticed something disconcerting: My iPhone 8 Plus is already showing fine scratches on the glass.

Compare my year-old iPhone 7 (top) with the weeks-old iPhone 8 Plus (bottom)…

Both phones are in similar cases that extend above the edge of the glass—I tried two minimal cases on the iPhone 8 Plus, but have only used the full-sized cases out in the “real world.” Both phones have been used in similar ways, sitting in my pants pocket or in a tray in my car. After a year of such treatment, the iPhone 7 glass looks practically brand new. The iPhone 8 Plus glass, however, is already showing fine scratches. (There are similar scratches near the bottom of the phone, too.)

These scratches aren’t—yet?—visible in day-to-day use, but it concerns me that they’ve developed to this degree after only a couple weeks’ use. How bad will things get after a few months?

Are any other iPhone 8 (Plus or non-plus) users seeing such scratches on their displays? I’m tempted to go visit the Apple Store with my phone, because I can’t believe this is normal, especially given how well the iPhone 7 (and all my prior phones) have resisted scratching.

A handful of iPhone 8 Plus case mini-reviews

Across these years of plus-sized iPhones, I’ve never owned one. But with the release of the iPhone 8, I decided I really wanted the dual cameras, so I chose to get the Plus. I did a lot of pre-testing in the Apple Store—using an iPhone 7 Plus— before I ordered. The size seemed doable, but the phones were definitely slippery—except for jet black, which was nicely grippy.

So I knew I wanted a case (no jet black iPhone 8), but I also knew I didn’t want to make the iPhone much larger than it already was. In advance of my phone’s arrival, I did some shopping on Amazon, looking for relatively thin and inexpensive cases to test. I wound up ordering five…

It’s important to note that none of these are specifically designed for the iPhone 8 Plus, though most mention that phone in their description. The size differences between the 7 Plus and the 8 Plus are minimal—the 8 Plus is .1mm both wider and thicker—aren’t great, and with a couple noted exceptions, I had no size-related issues with these cases.

Total cost for all five was $65—not dirt cheap, but certainly well under the $40 to $80 you can spend for a single “nice” iPhone Plus-sized case. Given that I’ve had the phone for only a few days, what follows are not full-on case reviews, but some initial thoughts on each of the five…

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My thoughts on the new Apple Watch, Apple TV, and iPhones…

In their September 2017 keynote, Apple launched the Apple Watch Series 3, the Apple TV 4K HDR, and three new iPhones—the 8 and the 8 Plus, and the X.

Here are my quick thoughts on each, and my buying plans…

Apple Watch Series 3

This is a nice evolution of the watch. The LTE doesn’t really interest me, as I’m sure it’ll require another $5 or $10 a month to my wireless carrier, and I almost always want my phone with me. (If I swam regularly, I might feel differently about that.) The much-faster CPU would be a nice upgrade over my original-generation watch, but the Series 3 is nearly a full millimeter thicker than the original…and honestly, I think the first version was already borderline too thick.

Will I buy? At this time, the outlook is doubtful; my watch is working fine, and a faster CPU isn’t worth the added thickness and $359 of my money.

Apple TV 4K HDR

Support for 4K is welcome, and long overdue. I’m not so sure about HDR; sometimes I find HDR images tend to look artificial, and I don’t know if I’d find the same issue in moving images. A real added bonus was Apple’s decision to provide the 4K version of movies you’ve purchased for free—this from a company that charged us to upgrade the quality of our music files a few years back.

I wish Apple wasn’t so damn set on streaming everything, though—I would much prefer to store movies directly on the device, to make it more portable and not subject to the vagaries of wifi, device positioning, and network load. Those times are gone, though, so now the only choice is whether or not to spend $20 more for the 64GB version.

Will I buy? Yes, and I’ll spend the extra $20 for the extra 32GB. I’ve been moving an Xbox One back and forth from the game TV to our 4K TV to watch 4K content, so this will be a simpler solution.

iPhone 8 and 8 Plus and iPhone X

Let me get this out of the way: I do not like the iPhone X. Well, that’s not true. I think almost all of it is absolutely stunning, and I really want one. Unfortunately, that’s “almost all,” and there are two things that aren’t perfect that will keep me from buying this phone…

The Notch. I absolutely, positively hate the cutout at the top of the phone for the sensors. In case you (somehow) missed it, this is the notch…

I would have much preferred if Apple just blacked out that entire region, giving up that marginally-usable pixel space for a cleaner appearance. I understand that videos can play cropped, so as to not be “notched,” but it’s the presence of the notch in other normal views that really gets to me. It’s everywhere.

Many people won’t notice, or won’t care about the notch. I wish I could be one of those people, but I can’t. During the keynote, all I could focus on whenever the phone appeared was the stupid notch. It simply grabs my eye, and I cannot unsee it when it’s there. (Maybe a future software update will stop drawing the desktop up there, which would make it look much nicer to my eye.)

Face ID. Apple has told us facial recognition is more secure, and I have no reason to doubt them. They also told us it’s fast, and it seemed to be in the demo. But secure and fast can’t override the absolute convenience of Touch ID. I can use Touch ID as I remove my phone from my pocket (press plus press-click), and it’s ready to go as soon as it’s out of my pocket. I don’t have to look at my phone unless I want to; if I have to look at my phone every time I want to unlock it, that’s going to get annoying. Very quickly.

Apple Pay is even worse. Today’s system is as near-magic as any tech I’ve ever used: Hold the phone near the register, rest finger on the home button, and you’re done. With Face ID, it appears (based on the demo in the keynote), I’ll have to both double-tap the side button and look at the phone to use Apple Pay. Ugh.

There are also some security considerations with Face ID, as pointed out by Ian Schray. The police cannot compel you to put your finger on your phone without a warrant…but can they compel you to simply look at your phone?

Other than these two no-go items, I really like everything else about the iPhone X. It’s only marginally larger (.20 inches taller, .15 inches wider) than an iPhone 7, yet has a screen that’s 30% larger and has more pixels than the gigantic Plus model phones. It also has the double cameras, which I would love to have on my next phone.

While you may not consider the notch and Face ID as deal breakers, they really are for me. I’ll go look at one in person, of course, but I simply cannot unsee the notch, and I hate the idea of having to look at my phone to unlock it, and taking more steps (and time) for Apple Pay.

So that leaves me with the 8/8 Plus versus my current 7. I think the new CPU, faster Apple-developed GPU, better cameras and sensors, 240fps slow-mo 1080p video, wireless charging, and the glass design make the iPhone 8 a compelling upgrade. As noted, I’d love to have the dual cameras to work with, but I think the Plus-size phone is just too big for daily use, so I think that’s out of the question. (I will visit the Apple Store again to see the 7 Plus before I decide for sure.)

Will I buy? As of now, yes, I plan on buying an iPhone 8, and hoping that…somehow…Touch ID survives for a long time to come, lest that iPhone 8 be my last new iPhone.

Apple giveth, and Apple taketh ($50) away

The new iPhones—both the 8/8 Plus and X—now come with either 64GB or 256GB of storage space. On the low end, the move from 32GB to 64GB is long overdue, and makes a ton of sense. Most iPhone users I know who have 32GB phones are always bumping up against the storage limits, so thank you Apple.

However, on the other end, the move from 128GB to 256GB is harder to understand, especially in a phone. 256GB is a lot of apps and videos and music and photos. I’ve yet to meet someone who said “I wish my iPhone had more than 128GB of RAM.” My personal phone is a 128GB model, and even after a year, I’ve yet to come close to filling it up—it’s at roughly 90GB today. But I’ve always got over 64GB of stuff on it, so the small phone isn’t an option.

The bad news is that the now-192GB step up (vs 96GB before) from the small to large capacity means you’ll be paying $150 for the upgrade, instead of the old $100 charge. I understand Apple has higher costs for this, and on a cost per gigabyte basis, the new upgrade is much cheaper than the old ($0.78/GB vs $1.04/GB). But I dislike paying an extra $50 for space I’ll more than likely never use, so this strikes me as nothing more than a move by Apple to drive up their average selling price.

What’s the answer? I really would have liked to see Apple keep the 128GB option; it’s the perfect size for many iPhone customers…and the cynic in me says that’s why they killed it, so they can drive all those consumers to spend an additional $150 on their next phones.

A modest proposal to improve the iOS Settings app

One of the things about the iPhone I don’t like is that Apple requires (recommends?1)Many apps now have settings within the app, which I love, so this “separate settings” thing doesn’t seem to be a hard requirement. that apps keep their preferences (settings) in the Settings app.

While I understand the theory (don’t clutter the app with prefs, all prefs in one spot), the reality is that this structure quickly turns the Settings screen into an endlessly scrolling nightmare. I hate opening the Settings screen, knowing how much flicking it’ll take—simulation visible at right—to get to the app whose settings I want to modify.

With some apps having some of their prefs within the app, and some of their prefs on the Settings screen, I find I often have to look in both places to see if the pref I want is available.

What I’d love to see is Apple recommend (require?) that apps do not use the Settings screen, and instead keep their prefs within the app. After all, if you’re using app XYZ and you want to change something about its settings, the most logical place to look would be within the app itself. This would greatly clean up the Settings screen, too, restricting it to just Apple’s stock apps and system-wide settings.

But barring that change, I’d like to see a more-usable Settings screen. How can it be more usable? By splitting the apps into alpha buckets, so I could tap into a letter/number, and then see only those apps on the list. Something like this very-rough mockup…

A horizontal flick on the alpha row scrolls through the letters (and numbers), then vertical flicks scroll within the chosen letter. This index would appear with the first entry in the third-party apps section, then stick to the top as the user scrolled down.

I’m sure there are better ways to do this, but something needs to be done, especially as device storage sizes increase.

On the subject of Apple devices and battery life

In one of his recent “Hey Apple Fix This” columns for Macworld, Kirk McElhearn wrote about Apple’s seemingly never-ending pursuit of thinness and its affect on the battery life of its products.

When I got this laptop, replacing a 13-inch MacBook Pro, I was very happy that it was thinner and lighter, but my goal was not to own a computer that could give me paper cuts; I wanted a computer that was practical.

While I completely agree with Kirk about the stupidity of pursuing thinness at the cost of better battery life, as a work-at-home person, the battery life of my Apple devices isn’t usually an issue…until I have to take a trip, that is. Recently, I headed to San Francisco for a special “Thanks Sal!” dinner, thanking Sal Soghoian for all he’s done for Mac automation over the last 20+ years. This was a very short trip—a 75 minute flight, one night away from home, then 75 minute flight back home. (Plus approximately 2,500 hours in the two airports.)

Because we’re a small two-person company that writes Mac software, and it’s my job to support our customers, I always have to bring my Mac (a late 2013 13″ Retina MacBook Pro). And my iPhone, to contact my family/friends and check email. And my watch, because I’ve gotten used to having it around for notifications and weather and such. And to pass a bit of time in the hotel room, I’ll usually bring my iPad.

Because of Apple’s thinness decisions, only one of these devices (the iPad) can make this very short journey without needing a recharge. That meant I’d need to bring a Lightning cable (iPhone/iPad charge from computer), my Apple Watch charging cable (charge from computer), and my MacBook’s power brick with wall adapter (I did leave the extension section at home, though).

All of that to support a simple overnight trip. Two-day battery life out of my devices would be so worth some extra thickness. (If I owned a newer laptop, it would have been even worse, as I would have needed some USB adapters, too, I’m sure.)

As an aside, what I didn’t bring was an in-car charger, and that turned out to be a mistake. I drove a roughly 60 mile round-trip (2.5 hours in the car, with traffic) on Friday to see a friend, using my iPhone for navigation both directions. The rental car didn’t have any USB jacks, so I was using my iPhone on battery power.

By the time I got back to the hotel, my phone had entered power saving mode. Thankfully, I was back early enough to charge it before the evening’s festivities started. This seems like unusually high battery drain, but I don’t do a lot of in-car navigating with my iPhone, so I don’t know. (I used Apple Maps on the way there, and Waze on the way back.)

See the actual strength of the iPhone’s cellular connection

This is a very old tip, but I’d never seen it before, so I figure it might be new to some others, too. My home has a relatively weak cell signal, varying between one and three dots on the iPhone’s display. But sometimes, even when I have three dots, the quality of my calls seems spotty.

While looking for some tool to try to analyze the cell signal’s actual strength in my home, I stumbled on this useful tip at Lifehacker: It’s possible to make your phone display its actual signal strength in decibel-milliwatts, or dBm. Here’s my phone, showing the stock display on the left, and the dBm value on the right:

And this explains a lot: While two dots of five seems like a decent connection, the actual value of -116dBm is bad. (Signal strength goes from a best of 0 to a worst of -140 or so.) How bad? According to this site, it’s an unusable signal. So, yea, don’t try to call my cell phone when I’m at home!

If you’d like to set your phone to display the actual signal strength (you can tap the indicator to flip between values and dots), read the above-linked article (or any of the thousands of other sites that have the same tip), or just read the rest of this post, where I’ve recreated the simple steps.

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Useful site: iStockNow finds Apple products

During today’s recording of our The Committed podcast, Ian mentioned a site he uses to check for sometimes hard-to-acquire Apple products. The site, iStockNow, is very nicely designed and makes it really simple to check availability not only at your local stores, but also globally.

Start by clicking the left-side filters section for the products you’d like to check on, then view the map on the right to see where they’re in stock. For example, a search for the 15″ MacBook Pro Touch Bar in Space Gray shows that it’s available throughout North America, except in Mexico City:

But if you search for a 42mm Apple Watch in Stainless Steel in retail stores, you’ll see that most of North America is a sea of red. Zoom in on the map, though, and there are some stores with stock:

When you find a store with inventory—the green pushpin—click on it to get the details of that store’s inventory:

If you’re looking for something particularly hard to find—cough AirPods cough—iStockNow may just help you secure your item. According to Ian, at least, that’s exactly how he got his AirPods!

I have completed my first—and last—marathon

Last weekend, I ran (along with about 7,000 other entrants) the Portland Marathon. This was my first ever marathon, and also my last-ever marathon. I finished, in 4:12:53 (1,365th place, of 4,295 finishers), which is about how long I thought it’d take me. What follows is a brief look back at how I got to the point where I willingly chose to run 26.2 miles; you may find the information useful if you’re contemplating running a marathon yourself someday.

About the race

The Portland Marathon is a great race, now in its 45th year. It’s actually two races in one, as there’s a half-marathon with the same start and finish points. As seen on the course map (caution: 2.8MB PDF), the two races share the same course until the 11 mile mark. At that point, the half marathon returns downtown for the finish, while the marathon heads into Northwest Portland, then loops up and over the St. John’s Bridge, which would typically provide some amazing views. Of course, it was pouring rain and cloudy all day, so the views weren’t quite so good for us.

The course then follows along a bluff (again, typically scenic) overlooking Portland before descending down into the east side industrial area (running right along the rail yard), then returning to downtown (over the much less scenic Broadway Bridge) and on to the finish.

Why did I decide to run a marathon?

When this year started, I had no thought of running a marathon. I have thought about it in years past, when I was running regularly—and my dad had run them when I was younger, so they intrigued me. (My dad was quite fast; his best was a 2:40, which is an insane 6:08 a mile for 26.2 miles!) But as of the start of the year, it’d been roughly four years since I was running on a regular basis, so running even one mile seemed ludicrous.

To force myself to get in shape this year, I set a pretty ridiculous goal: I decided I’d walk or run 2,016 miles in 2016. This meant averaging 5.5 miles a day, every day, for the entire year. From someone who had probably ran a total of five miles in 2015. Yea, it’s a pretty insane goal.

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The iPhone 7 and third-party battery pack cases

One aspect of Apple’s decision to remove the headphone jack from the iPhone 7/7 Plus that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is the impact it will have on third-party battery pack case makers. Traditionally, third-party battery pack cases plug into the Lightning port, and typically provide a micro USB connector in its place. They also then usually have a headphone passthrough, either via a port extender or a special headphone cable extender, to allow you to plug in headphones without removing the battery pack.

I was curious how the case makers were going to address this for the iPhone 7, because blocking the Lightning port means that users will have to use wireless headphones when using a battery pack. I searched Amazon for iPhone 7 battery case, to see what might be in store. However, the results were disappointing—basically, every single product uses micro USB for charge and sync. I could go on, but you get the idea: None of the manufacturers seem to be worried about blocking the Lightning port with their battery cases.

The only exception I found was the SOLEMEMO Ultra Slim Charging Case, which isn’t actually designed for the iPhone 7. But as designed for the iPhone 6, this case uses an ultra-slim bottom with a tiny Lightning pass-through, as seen in the photo below (borrowed from one of the reviews on Amazon).

This style of connector would allow you to connect wired headphones (either Apple’s Lightning pods, or standard headphones via Apple’s Lightning to 3.5mm adapater cable). I don’t know if this company will be making an iPhone 7 version or not; the iPhone 6 case should fit the iPhone 7, but the camera opening won’t line up with the camera’s new position on the iPhone 7.

(I checked Mophie, too, but they’re early on in their iPhone 7 case building process; their iPhone 7 link takes you to their Explore our Process page, which describes the method and timeline they follow in making products for new devices.)

So if you’re buying an iPhone 7, and you want a battery case right now, and you want to use wired headphones with that case, as of today I see three solutions:

  1. Buy the SOLEMEMO Ultra Slim Charging Case for $35, knowing you won’t be able to take pictures. Note that this is a 2400mAh battery pack, so it’s not as large as some of the others (but it is very slim).
  2. Buy Apple’s $99 iPhone Battery Case. This is an 2365mAh battery pack (up from 1877mAh for the iPhone 6s), and it nicely integrates—at the iOS level—with your iPhone. But it’s pricey, underpowered, and has The Hump. For the cost of the Apple pack, you could get two SOLEMEMO packs and have $30 left over!
  3. Buy any of the forthcoming iPhone 7 battery cases and use wireless headphones. OK, so that totally skips the ‘use wired headphones’ requirement, but it’s really the only other option at this time.

I’m hoping we’ll see someone come out with something truly innovative here, such as Lex Friedman’s suggestion on Twitter:

Adding an actual headphone jack would probably be a home run product; I have no idea if it’s technically possible to split the Lightning port’s signals in that way (I would bet it’s not). Even lacking that, though, it’d be nice to see more third-party cases that pass through the Lightning connector, so that wired headphones could still be used.

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