Or listen to the podcast version.
Any post about Android updates is going to be meet with some snarky folks say "ummmm, Android updates are like a year late if they come at all 🤓" Yes, we get it, iOS is much better at getting updates to more devices faster, but hey, people own Pixels and for them this isn't a problem. Let's try and talk with out reverting to fanboy stuff?
Just over a week ago, the first Android 11 developer beta came out and I remarked on how many features looked like iOS features. Based on iOS and Android getting closer together in terms of feature parity, this isn't a huge surprise, but what is a surprise is that Pixel owners get a lot of those updates today.
Google has been doing these "feature drops" for a few months now, and this one brought along a few features we first saw in the Android 11 beta:
- Play/pause through Motion Sense gestures.
- "Rules" for making your phone change some settings based on location or Wifi networks.
- Cards & Passes for a more Apple Wallet-style experience.
- Dark mode scheduling based on sunrise/sunset (so hard coded times yet, though).
- New emoji.
None of these are tent-pole features, but they are all quite nice (except you, Motion Sense) and make the phone experience a bit better. This is just nice for Pixel owners since they don't need to wait for the fall to get all the new goodies they first saw in a beta.
Well, it’s been almost 2 weeks since I got my new PC and wanted to give an update. Specifically, how well is it doing compared to the 4 primary needs I had for it?
- $1,000-sh price tag
- Great performance, specifically for Creative Cloud apps
- Top shelf gaming potential
- Web development
$1,000-ish Price Tag
As I said on my podcast episode last week, I wanted to spend no more than a bit over $1,000 on this machine. I ended up dropping $1,200 after tax which puts this in line with a low-end Mac Mini and the absolute lowest end iMac. In terms of specs, it’s not even close. We’re talking 2x the CPU performance, 2x the memory, and literally 10-100x the graphics performance.
But what impressed me about this is that the $1,200 I spent is actually less than basically any other comparable system I could get from anywhere I can find online. For example, the apparently well-priced NZXT would bill me almost $300 more for the same machine, and buying the parts myself would have saved me just a couple bucks.
TLDR: I was happy with the pricing from Dell when I bought it, and I’m even more impressed with it now.
Performance for Creative Cloud Apps
I’ve used Photoshop a few times and it’s been night and day compared to using it on my 2012 Mac Mini, which makes sense considering the age difference between these machines. But beyond that, it’s definitely much faster than the maxed out 2015 MacBook Pro I use at work, so for me it’s the fasted Photoshop Machine I’ve ever used, so I’m happy.
The Intel Core i5 9400 seems plenty quick for now, and since this is a totally modular PC, if I ever feel I need an i7 or anything else that’s faster, I can just buy the chip and swap it in.
Top Shelf Gaming
This has been an unbelievable home run. I’ve spent most of my time playing Forza Horizon, which runs at a silky smooth 60fps at 1440p and all graphics settings set to ultra. The hardest game I’ve thrown at it is probably Call of Duty Modern Warfare (2019) with also does 1440p and 60fps with all graphics settings, including ray tracing, turned all the way up.
My next game on the list is Control, which might be the first game to show any limits at all, but we’ll see. My hope was that this machine would play CyberPunk 2077 better than my PS4 Pro and it looks like that is going to happen, which is awesome.
If there is one area that has fallen down for me, it’s web development. This part has nothing to do with the specs, it’s the software. Windows is just hot garbage compared to macOS in my opinion for web development.
The first issue is the command line, which is not the UNIX-based system I use everywhere else. I need to just install the Ubuntu…something on my machine so I can do what I want, but it’s annoying to work from a system that has such a fundamentally different terminal experience from my websites.
The second issue is the garbage collection of apps for doing dev work. I’m poised by things like CodeKit and Transmit for the Mac, and nothing on Windows gets even close to these for me. Local dev work is a pain and for FTP I need to use CyberDuck because apparently that’s still the easiest to use, nicest looking FTP app for Windows in 2020, which is just insane.
At least Visual Studio Code is here and works as wonderfully as it does everywhere else.
Overall I feel great! In terms of price-to-performance, I think I came out way ahead, and in terms of the computer being able to execute the games and software I wanted it to, it’s an absolute champ. I still don’t love Windows, but since I’m mostly jumping into game launchers and Photoshop or XD files, it’s not hurting me that much right now.
Below is last week's Birch Bark issue. I'm sharing this one here so you get an idea of what my new weekly newsletter is like. I don't plan on posting all of these here, so make sure you subscribe to see these every Friday!
Welcome to week two of Birch Bark! Thank you to everyone who signed up and gave feedback on the first issue. Let's just jump into the links!
The latest iPad rumors are that the next Smart Keyboard will have a version with a trackpad. As many have already stated, this takes the iPad Pro into a remarkably similar form factor to not only the current Surface lineup, but the original Surface from 2012.
And before the snark monsters come in and complain about Windows not being a touch-first operating system, yes, I get it. Windows 10, despite it’s affordances for touch, never feels quite right when using it with a touch screen. But the original Surface shipped with Windows 8 RT, a touch-first version of Windows that required developers to integrate to a new type of Windows. Your old Windows apps simply didn’t work on this machine. The good news was that they had an app platform that developers could use to write apps that ran on phones, Surface tablets, and desktops with one shared code base.
We all know the story here, though. The market didn’t want Windows but without all the bullshit that comes with it. Reducing the software you could use and changing the UI that dramatically were not acceptable to a Windows user base who is large and incredibly inflexible when it comes to change. In subsequent years, the hardware got better, and the software changed to the point that the Windows I run on my desktop PC is basically identical to what I ran on my Surface Go last year.
Where Apple Is Now
With things like Swift UI and Catalyst, Apple is now at a place where you can have one code base relatively easily run on phones, tablets, and desktops. With the Smart Keyboard, Apple made the default iPad form factor something that looked very much like a laptop. With the rumored introduction of a trackpad-equipped keyboard this year, Apple will get even closer to the traditional laptop design.
And if they add a kickstand so you can have a much smaller keyboard case, then they will have completed the transformation of the iPad into the Surface.
Again, we can argue about the specifics here, and you can rail about how Microsoft has no vision and Apple dominates all innovation, but it’s impossible not to recognize the shift in the past decade: iPads in 2020 look more like Surfaces in 2012 than ever before.
Apple’s Commitment and Flexible User Base
There has been much talk in the Apple world lately about how terrible the iPad is for many things, and it’s a conversation that’s frankly tiring and typically held in bad faith, but despite this consternation, the Apple user base in general has been much more welcoming to the iPad than the Windows user base was to the Surface and Windows RT.
While Microsoft had to pull back on Windows RT and turn Windows into something that was the same everywhere, Apple has never given up on iPad software. Yes, Mac people want it to be more like the Mac, but Apple is not going to do that anytime soon. They built something new with iOS and introduced the world to the first truly mainstream interface. The paradigms set on the iPhone have carried over to today and it deserves tons of respect for that.
Meanwhile, the iPad has grown up kind of in the iPhone’s shadow, but Apple has always remained true to its original software vision for the product. It is a touch-based OS that cane be used with other accessories, but it is definitively not a clone of what Apple’s legacy OS. In fact, while I think the anti-iPad sentiment is often expressed poorly, I don’t think anyone is asking for Apple to throw in the towel and just make the iPad run macOS.
It’s a testament to Apple that they have not gone the easy route and just shipped macOS on iPads. It’s a testament to the Apple user base that they are not demanding this because they can’t handle change. Hell, it might even be a testament to Time Cook’s product vision that he has not pushed the company to make an iPad that runs macOS because it would probably be easier from an operations perspective to make all their laptop-style devices run the same stuff.
The Surface lineup is a very compelling collection of products, and were I buying a Windows portable in 2020 it would almost certainly be a Surface Pro. But at the same time, I don't like Windows as it has existed for decades, and that's what you get with a Surface. It kills me that Microsoft tried to start fresh in 2012 and gave up almost immediately when they didn't stick the landing on their first attempt.
I appreciate that the Apple community tends to take a more “yes, and…” approach to new products. No, the original iPad didn't do as much as the Mac, but people were excited by that, not terrified by it.
So for the past 10 years the iPad has been evolving, but has never lost touch with its original vision as a next generation computer that is not beholden to the expectations on the previous generation. Microsoft definitely saw, to borrow a phrase, where the puck was going, but a combination of execution and user demands made them change that vision, even if the hardware looks very similar.
As any number of business experts will tell you, ideas are only worth a little. It's all about execution, and Microsoft needed either their users to be flexible enough to see where they wanted to go with Windows RT, or they needed to execute so well that their users would come along for the ride. Neither came to pass, so while the Surface gets tons of points for vision, the iPad is clearly the more successful product, both in terms of market success and commitment to vision.
Unread is one of those apps that just has an incredibly loyal following. It’s not the biggest player in the RSS space, but so many people I respect love it that it is always an app on my radar. Despite this love, Reeder has remained my go-to RSS app for iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I use Reeder for a few specific reasons:
- I subscribe to a lot of feeds and Reeder has a UI optimized for getting through lots of content quickly.
- The app simply looks wonderful and has a style that has naturally evolved from its pre-iOS 7 days without losing it’s personality.
So Unread 2 sparked my interest, but I didn’t think it would take over Reeder’s spot as my favorite way to catch up on the news of the day. Ultimately, I think that is still true, but I see a place for Unread 2 in my life.
RSS Service Support
Because this review becomes immediately useless to you if you can’t sync your feeds with it, here’s the list of services you can use with Unread:
- Feed Wrangler
There is no option to sync over iCloud, if that’s your jam.
Fundamentally, Unread is the same app as it was before, and as someone who doesn’t use it that often, it was hard to notice the changes at first glance. If you enjoyed how the old app was laid out, then you’re not in for much of a surprise here, and you’re still going to enjoy it. This is an app that simply looks fantastic, and it does a great job of making you enjoy your time in it.
The headline feature for me is being able to manage your feeds from inside Unread. The previous version of the app required you to add feeds in your syncing service’s website, but now you can add them from within Unread and put them in whatever folder you have set up.
Another big feature is that Unread will attempt to display full text articles for feeds that truncate the content in their RSS feeds. For example, the 9to5Mac feed is truncated, but Unread shows you everything in the app, which is nice. There is some UI weirdness where the app will flash the full website on screen for a moment and then display the text nicely, which is a little distracting, but is also nice since it’s loading the source URL and giving the publication the page hit they want from the truncated feed, but the user gets the nice in-app reading experience.
And then there are a few other changes that are smaller, but mostly welcome. They have integrated to the big read later services, so you can save to Pocket, for example with one tap less than before. They’ve added a “double-tap” gesture you can use to save to read later, mark unread/read, or star an article (I have this mapped to saving to Pocket).
Form Over Function
There were numerous times in the beta period where I thought the app was unable to do something because I couldn't find a control for it. All of the user interaction items are hidden behind gestures with no indications of where you can do said gestures. For example, I like to sort my feeds from oldest to newest, and I went through the settings for list view in the app settings page but didn't see the option to change this. I was about to submit a feature request before seeing in the release notes that this could be done by swiping left on the article list view and toggling it there. Why this one view setting is broken out from the others, I don't know.
There has been a lot of talk lately about discoverability and intuitiveness on the iPad lately, and I think Unread leans too far in the “custom and undiscoverable” end of the pendulum. I believe this is a case of not wanting to mar their admittedly beautiful UI, but now we're at a form vs function debate. You don’t want a cluttered UI, I get it, but buttons are not the enemy.
I’ll get dragged over the coals for this if I didn’t bring it up, so here’s the big thing for a lot of people. Unread is now a subscription app and it will run you $19.99 per year.
Unread 2 is a new app on the App Store, so if you're happy with Unread 1, you can just keep using it. I don't believe the old app has any web services it relies on, so it should work well, it just won't get updates going forward.
If you bought Unread 1 after Jun 1, 2019, you can get the first year of the new app for free. This expires June 1, 2020, so if that's you, you probably want to make sure you get that redeemed on time.
Did It Steal Me Away from Reeder?
Sadly, I still don’t think Unread is the reader for me. I think it looks great, and if you have a small number of feeds, it’s great, but my needs are more intense and I don’t think Unread keeps up.
For example, their iPad app got some love this year, adding keyboard shortcuts and multi-window mode. These changes are welcome, but the keyboard shortcuts are not standard so you'll need to learn all of them from scratch, but the more glaring miss is that the UI is precisely a blown up iPhone UI. Again, this is maybe more of a me thing, but the UI does not take advantage of the 13” screen in running it on and that's a shame.
If my primary reading was on an iPhone, it would be more compelling to me personally, but I don’t think it’s the right option for me on the iPad.
My review skewed a little negative, but I don’t think this is a bad app by any means, I just don’t think it’s the app for me, and I worry that some of its UI decisions make it hard to understand for new users. John Gruber recently complained about a UI element (that is typically a “set it and forget it” feature, but whatever) on the iPad that was hidden and he therefore went years without knowing it was there. Unread hides 90% of it’s interactions behind non-standard gestures, and for me that’s not a good design choice. The app looks amazing, and when I’m casually browsing a few items, it’s really delightful, but the choices they made don’t line up with what I need from an RSS reader.
But if you enjoy that design and are used to the gestures, then this could be your favorite app in the world! This review was strange to write because I know this app is adored by many, but it still doesn’t quite click for me.
Here's an interesting anecdote about discoverability. Below is a very rough mock up of a web app I manage at work:
The only things you need to know are the two places you can get to "General Settings."
- A menu item which is hidden on page load and is only made visible by clicking on the "Options" item, watching some more options animate in, and then clicking on General Settings. This has been this way for the better part of a decade.
- Click the big old General Settings button on the home page which is immediately visible and takes one click to get to the same place. This was added about 2 years ago.
Currently, the vast majority of users who were using us 2+ years ago and had gotten used to the old way of getting to this page still use the two click method that's objectively slower and less discoverable.
The vast majority of newer users who have always had the home screen icon available use that because it's faster and more obvious on screen.
I was concerned about this behavior when we originally rolled this out because we spent all this time making the things people did all the time one click away, but so many users continued to do it the older, slower way. Some of them even reported not noticing they could do it from the home screen because they just know how the menu works. Even after being told why the new way was easier, most didn't change their behavior.
Again, this is not that the new feature was worse, it was better, and our data on people who had the choice from day one clearly shows they prefer it, but people were not willing to change to save themselves a click and a second or two.
So if and when you hear someone tell you that something is inherently more discoverable than something else, remember that there is a whole lot of personal experience and bias behind that ascertain. We can do our best to be objective, but it's not really possible, and you certainly can't use a sample size of one to assert "I didn't know this existed, therefore it's not discoverable."
We have a couple Mac users in the office so I went around and asked them how to do some things on macOS, which as we all know, is much better than iPadOS at making important, useful UI elements easily discoverable. I talked to 3 people who have been using Macs for years at work and home.
First up was a finder window with many items, but a hidden scroll bar. 3 out of 3 knew they could scroll, so good so far. I asked how they would know if they could scroll in another window, and they said you basically just try to scroll, and that's how they find out.
Next up was previewing this image without opening Preview. 1 of 3 could do it, with the others really impressed that Quick Look was a thing and said they never would have guessed to hit space at to do it.
When I asked them how to right click on a folder, and 1 knew how with the Magic Mouse, but the other 2 agreed they needed to do it on their trackpad because Apple’s mouse only has a single click. None knew you could also Ctrl+Click to bring this up.
While here, I right clicked on a PNG file and asked how to make that file type always open on Photoshop instead of Preview. None knew you had to hold Option while using the “open in” option.
Next up was asking them to enable DND. None were able to do it, even when I said it was in the notification panel. Hint: you need to scroll down to see it and night shift.
Next up was to see if they could navigate to the folder above the one they were in. No one was able to, and telling them that they could by hitting Cmd+up arrow or Cmd+clicking on the directory name in the title bar was deemed the most hidden thing thus far.
I stopped there because we had to get back to work, but without even leaving the Finder and Desktop I was able to find a bunch of things that long-time Mac users had never known about because they never discovered them in their daily use.
None of this is meant to say macOS is garbage or anything like that. It's just interesting to see when people who love the Mac and are so critical of "discoverability" on the iPad. I'm not even saying the iPad is better than the Mac here, I'm just saying that "discoverability" is one of the big things that has people in a tizzy right now about the iPad, but I think some are laying into the iPad harder than is warranted.
Another thing I can't get out of my head is the idea that we can be power users on one platform, and casual users on another. The fact that someone is amazing with the Mac does not mean they are automatically a power user on the iPad, Windows, or Android. So when you use something casually and expect yourself to know its ins and outs as well as someone who is more invested, then you get frustrated. I sympathize with this every time I use Android; "is this bad, absent, or do I just not know my way around here as well as I do my iPhone?"
I don’t think I was prepared for just how good Forza Horizon 4 is. I’m not a big fan of racing games, but games like Gran Turismo 4 and Burnout Paradise spent tons of time in my PS2 back in the day. Since then no racing game has managed to capture my imagination like those, and I’ve bounced off all of them pretty quickly. I mean, I’ve dropped more than 100 hours into Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, but I think cart racers are a whole different category.
That 15 year drought ended this week when I started playing Forza Horizon 4 for PC. I got the game through Game Pass and honestly just wanted to play it for a bit to test out my new PC and see how beautiful it looked. Well, the game certainly looks good, and it’s optimized to run really well on my system, but I didn’t expect to have sunk 15 hours into the game already and have no intention of stopping anytime soon.
I think the thing that Horizon gets right for me is that it’s kinda of a simulation racer with insane objectives. I like simulation style racing games, because I enjoy driving real cars that feel realistic. I like the danger in taking turns a little too fast and having to hold on for my life, but I get bored pretty quickly by the relatively unexciting tracks I have to do this on. It’s certainly satisfying when you figure out the best angles to attack each turn on a race track, but I don’t personally derive that much joy from doing time trials and trying to get new personal bests.
Forza Horizon 4 has a bunch of real cars and they handle in a way I’d describe as hyper-realistically. They feel realistic, but they’re far more forgiving than these cars would be in real life, and the consequences for running into a tree at 100mph are basically nothing. But for me that’s great! I get the realistic feel of a sim racer in a world where everything is fun and over the top. The game is mostly made up of normal races, but these races are quite varied, and then there are a bunch of speed traps, massive jumps, and hidden goodies all around the world you can find. And then there are the highlight events which have you racing crazy things like hover-boats, trains, and planes. These are more scripted sequences than the standard races, but they lead to some really amazing moments and I looked forward to each new one as they appeared on my map.
And can we talk about how this game starts?! The hook for this version of Horizon is it’s seasonal system, which has the map go from Summer to Fall to Winter to Spring, and the map changes in interesting ways all along the way. To get you into the game and to make sure you experience all the seasons quickly, there is a 5-10 minute opening scene where you’re dropped into 4 separate races with the seasons changing between each one. It’s an absolute thrill, and you get to do some street racing, cross country trails, and dirt rallies all within this super small window of gameplay, and it does a better job than almost any game I can think of at getting you hyped for what’s coming in this game. It’s effectively a tutorial, but it’s also something I desperately wanted to play again after it was done. Game developers of the world take note, this is how you do a tutorial.
Forza Horizon 4 has much more going on, and I’m only scratching the surface here. This is a beast of a game, and there is so much to do that I haven’t even touched yet. We’ll see how long this game can keep its hooks in me, but as of right now it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had with a racing game and I’ve instantly become very invested in the franchise. Turn 10 Studios did a bang up job on this title and I hope they have something even more amazing cooking for the inevitable Forza Horizon 5.