How I Use Things 3 To Organize My Life

How I Use Things 3 To Organize My Life

Intro

First things first, I am a strong believe in the idea of “offloading your brain” into a task management system. This means everything I need to do in the future, and I do mean everything, gets logged as a task in my task manager. I find this frees up space in my brain to not think about what I have to do at any given time, I can just refer to my system and do what it says.

Some people like to set higher level tasks and have like 2-3 todo items per day, and that’s a valid system too, but it doesn’t work for me. I typically have 15-30 tasks to complete each work day. For reasons I’ll get to soon, Things has some features that make this very easy to manage.

The Inbox

The inbox always baffled me, but last year I finally read David Allen’s Getting Things Done and it clicked for me. I add things to the inbox when they come up and then I have a recurring task set up to triage my inbox every day. Sometimes I’ll often triage throughout the day, but there is a repeating task at 7:30am each day to make sure that everything is out of my inbox and somewhere else.

I also value being able to add to the inbox easily. Since I add so much, it needs to be simple and quick.

It’s very quick on the iPhone and iPad, and the Mac’s Ctrl+Space shortcut is hugely useful. The Mac app even has another command (Ctrl+Opt+Space) that does the same thing, but pulls in the website you’re currently looking at in your browser, which is really nice for saving tasks with linked web pages.

After the Inbox (Areas and Projects)

After a task is put in the inbox, it needs a few things to escape. First of which is an “area” (I think OmniFocus calls these “Contexts” but they’re the same thing). An “area” is where a task falls in my life. I have 5 set up now:

  1. Morning (things I need to do before the rest of the day)
  2. Home (things around the house or just things I need to do for me/family/friends)
  3. Work (all the stuff I do for my employer)
  4. BirchTree (blog post ideas, podcast schedules, YouTube posting steps, etc.)
  5. Freelance (any work I’m doing on the side)

Every single thing I want to do falls into one of those areas, and if I ever make a task that needs something else, then I’ll simply make a new area.

Projects are sub-categories of areas. So for example, “Release Notes” is a project under my Work area, “Shopping List” is a project under my Home area, and “Birch Bark” is a project under my BirchTree area. These can either be finite projects that will come and go, or they can be ongoing things that will never end.

All tasks get assigned an area, but not all tasks get assigned a specific project. For example, I have a task on my list today to clean up the shoes by our back door. I could theoretically have a project for “Chores” or something, but I just assign it to the Home area and consider that good enough.

Oh, and as a rule I give all projects an emoji to help pick them out of a list quicker. You don't have to do this, but it helps me a ton.

Due Dates

I assign due dates to almost everything. I tend to live my day-to-day in the “Today” view of the app, which predictably shows me what I have to do today. Due dates mean that I see what I need to do on specific days whenever that date hits (duh).

One thing I really like about Things over OmniFocus, which I used before this, is that I can assign tasks a due date without a time associated with it. I have a task today for work called “Give feedback for test mode ticket” which I need to do today, but it doesn’t really matter if I do it at 8am or 9pm. The dev is going to work on the changes tomorrow, so as long as it’s today, then I’m all good. An alert that goes off at a random time today is not useful here.

Of course there are also tasks I do that are time-sensitive, and those get timed alerts. I have a task where I keep my daily standup notes and that alerts me at 10am each day, right when the standup starts.

And then there are things without dates. These tend to be lower priority things that I want to do someday, but there’s no rush right now to get them done. For example, I have a task to replace the spare tire in my car. This is not something I need to do right now, but I don’t want to forget about it, so it lives in my “Home” area and I’ll set a date for it down the road (more on this in the “weekly review” section below).

Weekly Review

I used to balk at this idea of a weekly review. “I don’t have time for that!” I would think. But I’ve figure out a way to do it that is quick (less than 5 minutes most times) that helps me make sure I understand what I’ve done, what I have coming up, and if there’s anything I’ve missed.

This is of course a recurring task at 3pm on Fridays, right before I pack it up for the weekend.

  1. First, I go through the “Logbook” section of Things, which is a log of all the tasks I’ve marked complete. I don’t get much out of this 15 second activity other than satisfaction at seeing how much I was able to accomplish this week. Sometimes it’s a quick dopamine hit to see a few important tasks marked as done.
  2. Second, I look at what I have upcoming in the “Upcoming” tab. This shows what I have next week, and this lets me get some info in the back of my mind so I’m not surprised at something when I come in next week.
  3. Third, I click through each area and project and see if there are tasks that do not have due dates that really could use a due date. I set those and move on.
  4. Finally, take a second and look at my projects and brainstorm anything I haven’t logged yet that needs to get done. If I need to send an email on Monday, I make a task. If I’m all good, then I wrap up.

Again, this whole process takes a couple minutes most weeks. It's just meant to be another task that takes a lot of time, it's just something to take stock quickly on what I've done and what's next.

Recurring Tasks

Things gets a lot of grief for how it does recurring tasks, but it's method works for me. The recurring logic is pretty powerful, and I have some tasks repeating every weekday, every week, and every month.

One thing I really like is that I can have notes automatically added to recurring tasks, like my daily standup task:

This appears everyday for me, and everyday I enter a list of things I want to talk about at the standup, and when I mark it complete, that note stays forever in the logbook, but tomorrow's task still only has the "1. " to start the new list. Notes edited on the day a task is due are only applied to that version of the task, and changes made to the recurring task before it's due are saved for all occurances afterwards. Not sure I'm explaining this well, but it works great for me, and is unlike how I've seen other apps handle notes of recurring tasks.

Organization

Here's my view of work tasks today:

I've masked a good portion of it, but you can still see the structure. Basically, I have 4 general work tasks, one task for Collect Checkout, and a bunch of them for something else. I like having my projects clearly organized, and since many of these tasks don't have specific times they're due, I'm able to sort them however I want.

I also like that Things organizes tasks into their respective projects/areas. This helps me keep my work stuff and home stuff separate (although OmniFocus has more power here).

Forecast

To see what's next, Things has an "Upcoming" page where you can see every task from tomorrow until the end of time. I don't use this a ton, but I do like being able to see what I have coming up on Monday before I sign off for the weekend.

Shortcuts

Finally, I use Shortcuts to automatically add a bunch of tasks at once when certain things need to be done. For example, 2 weeks a month, I am responsible for collecting and posting release notes for my company's products. It's not 100% consistent though, and setting recurring tasks would only lead to a mess. Also, I have a bunch of little things that I need to do. They're the same every time, but I can't miss any of them lest the whole thing fall apart (yes, this should be better automated, but it's not yet).

I have a couple shortcuts that have actions to add about 5-6 taasks to the following Monday or Wednesday. Things, like most other task managers out there, has good Shortcuts support that lets me create these tasks, assign them to the right areas/projects, and give them due dates without me needing to do anything besides tap the button.

Takeaway

I don't think my system is the One True Way to Get Stuff Done. in fact, you may think I'm a crazy person after getting this far. I'll say three things in my defense:

  1. This is what works for me. I've never been more productive than I've been in the past year since adopting a lot of the behaviors described above. I manage a design job, this site, a podcast, a newsletter, a YouTube channel, a social life, and freelance work, often fielding questions like "how do you do all this?" Well, the last 1,700 words should give you an idea how I keep things straight most of the time.
  2. I've tried a ton of other systems and apps and nothing else has worked as well for me. Name the app and I've tried it, I've paid for it's premium subscription, and I've come back to Things. A few other apps could do it (OmniFocus is clearly my #2 option, with Todoist a distant, but doable third).
  3. This is my work calendar this week. To say that I task switch a lot is a massive understatement, and I really need a way to keep everything, including the really small stuff, straight. My head is shifting from thing to thing too much to "just remember" everything.

What is the iPad to You? Let Me Count the Ways (Magic Keyboard Review)

What is the iPad to You? Let Me Count the Ways (Magic Keyboard Review)

I think the iPad Pro’s new accessory, the Magic Keyboard, has helped bring some clarity for me as to what makes the iPad so special for me. This is why critics seem to not be able to agree on how good the keyboard is, and it’s why I think Tech Twitter is struggling to talk about this disagreement and why there are so many thoughts.

What Makes the iPad Great

What I love more than anything else about the iPad is how it adapts to you. Steve Jobs once said the iPhone’s all screen design lets the iPhone become that app while you’re using it. When you go to another app, the iPhone completely morphs into that new app too.

Similarly, I think the iPad does this same thing, but it does it at a hardware level. I can use the iPad as a drawing tablet, plop it into a keyboard case to make it more of a laptop, connect it to a monitor to use it like a desktop, and I can wirelessly connect a mouse and keyboard to make it work exactly like a desktop. When I’m tired of that, I can unplug it and start using it like a tablet again.

And not only does the hardware allow for me to change the physical context of the device, the software comes along for the ride as well. Apps work differently depending on if you have a keyboard attached, if you have a mouse/trackpad available, or if you’re using an Apple Pencil. Oh, and it is completely fine with you turning the iPad on its side, flipping it upside down, and using it however you want. Occasionally I find myself reading on the iPad Pro in portrait mode and it takes me a long time to realize I’ve been holding the device upside down. Does it matter? Not really because iPadOS just came along for the ride with me. “Upside down” is just like, your opinion, man.

How This is Distinct from PCs

At this point you may be asking “how is this different from a Mac/PC?” You reference something like the Mac Pro and how you can configure it with different hardware and different accessories to make it the exact platform you need. I would counter and ask “ok, what if I want to use the Mac Pro totally different than normal? How long would it take to use it on my couch?” Obviously it’s not going to do that, to which you would tell me to get a laptop instead.

Ok, now I’ve got myself a MacBook Pro and it’s plugged into an external monitor so I can work at my desk on a big screen and I can take it anywehere else because it’s portable. Better, for sure, but what if I want to read a book? What if I want to draw? What if I want to hold it in portrait orientation? What if I want to use it as a digital board game? The MacBook Pro can’t do any of that, while the iPad is never more than 2 seconds away from adapting to those use cases.

Now you think you have me cornered. “Get a Surface then,” you reply, thinking you’ve got me. And in fairness, this is a close as you’ve gotten so far, but this isn’t the product for me. It doesn’t run the apps I want, the apps it does run are old-school in comparison to iPadOS, and the touch experience is way, way worse than the iPad. But if you like Windows, then yeah, the Surface line is pretty comparable to this quick context switching, although I really feel that the touch stuff still feels hacked into Windows.

A Diversity of Users and Use Cases

Myke Hurley recently posted this photo of his iPad Pro setup. This works great for him, but it looks nothing like my iPad setup, which I’m guessing looks nothing like your iPad setup. The freedom to switch between use cases I mentioned above doesn’t mean that everyone needs to use every use case; you pick and choose which ones you care about and are free to ignore the rest.

I personally use my iPad in a keyboard case 80% of the time, with the other 20% being completely out of the case and using it like a more “traditional” iPad. That 80% time is broken down between at my desk, at the kitchen table, on the couch, on the road, and at coffee shops. Portability is huge for me, as is the ability to start using the iPad as “just a tablet” at the drop of a hat.

Most of my time is spent writing, so a good keyboard holds more value to me than other elements of a keyboard case. This is what works for me, it may or may not line up with you.

The Magic Keyboard

I spent almost 1,000 words talking about everything that isn’t the Magic Keyboard, so now it’s time for the nitty gritty details in the review, right?

Nah.

Many other people have reviewed the technical specs of the Magic Keyboard, and there’s no reason for me to rattle off specs or say the things you already know in slightly different words. No, instead I I’ll say that if you read everything to this point, you can probably finish the review for me, you don’t need me to write it. With that in mind, I’ll say that the way I use the iPad Pro lines up very nicely with what the Magic Keyboard enables.

The keyboard is solidly constructed, which comes with the downside of being notably heavier than I was expecting, but is a necessary trade off to get the stability and solid typing experience this thing provides. It allows for both of the viewing angles of the Smart Keyboard Folio I was using before, but also allows all angles in between, so it’s more often angled perfectly for me. The keyboard itself is better than the Folio’s, and is maybe the best “laptop keyboard” I’ve ever used. The inverted-T arrows alone are a welcome return to usability over symmetry! And the trackpad is small, but gets the job done and is as responsive and accurate as you’d expect from Apple.

The solid construction of this device means I can use it at my desk and everywhere else I use it, including on my lap, very well. It’s heavier in my bag than before, but it’s not the end of the world. And while I can’t flip this around to put it into a tablet mode, I can pretty easily rip it off the keyboard and it immediately is the thinnest, lightest tablet out there. I do have to find a place to put the Magic Keyboard when I take it off on my kitchen table, at the coffee shop, or on the couch, but again, it’s not the end of the world, and the iPad experience I’m left with is excellent, so it’s a cost I’m willing to pay.

Value Proposition and Final Thoughts

The Magic Keyboard is a $299-349 accessory to a ~$1,000 computer, so it’s going to get a lot of criticism, and rightfully so. When you pay 88% the cost of a new iPhone on an accessory, you had better be getting a ton of value from that device. For me, the value is clearly there. The amazing keyboard is a major benefit for me since I do so much typing on my iPad. The trackpad being built into the keyboard is a major benefit to me so I can use things like Figma and other apps better than before, all while sticking with touch and the Apple Pencil for other apps where those work better for me.

But this is not universal, and if you need to prop up your iPad a little bit to draw on it then this is not going to do that for you. If you want something as light as possible, this isn’t going to do that either. If you think that iPadOS is still a baby OS for content consumption only, then this isn’t going to convince you either, although I think it’s another body blow to an outdated idea.

I can’t tell you if the Magic Keyboard is right for you, but if your values for what you want the iPad to be line up with what I laid out above and this pandemic has been kind to your pocketbook, then yeah, you may really enjoy this product and get serious value from it.

Logitech MX Keys Review

Logitech MX Keys Review

The Logitech MX Keys is my current favorite desktop keyboard, and it's a brilliant keyboard for me during the great work from home adventure of 2020. Even if you're switching between a Mac and an iPad in your normal day-to-day, this is a great keyboard.

Compatibility

The MX Keys works great with macOS, Windows, and iPadOS, and acts like a first class citizen on each platform. The modifier keys are all printed with Mac and Windows symbols, so pairing with either system is intuitive, and the special function buttons at the top right for taking screenshots, opening the calculator, and locking the screen all do exactly what you'd expect on each platform.

Logitech makes this multi-device support a breeze too, as you can have it paired with up to 3 devices at once. It will only connect to one at a time, but you can toggle between your devices in literally a second by using the 1, 2, and 3 buttons on the top of the keyboard. The change takes no time at all, and it's really a matter of how quickly your new device sees the new Bluetooth signal, which for me has been a second or less almost every time.

My current working situation has me at home and I'm using the same monitor for work as I am for my gaming PC. So at night my keyboard is paired with a Windows computer and does all the Windows things you'd expect, and then I work in the morning and all I have to do is tap the "2" button to switch to my Mac and I'm immediately switched over and all the keys work like they should on a Mac. At the end of the work day, just press "1" and I'm back to the PC.

Feel and Layout

Alright, this is not a mechanical keyboard, nor will it trick you into thinking it's mechanical. That said, it feels quite nice to type on and there is more than enough key depth here. For context, the keys go down a little more than the Magic Keyboard. Apple's excellent Magic Keyboard has about 1mm of travel, and the MX Keys has 1.8mm, which is solid. Which you prefer will be a matter of taste, of course.

And these keys feel excellent! The keyboard is surprisingly heavy and acts as a solid base for these keys to plunk down into. They're less "sharp" than the Magic Keyboard, but I actually find that to be a little easier on my finger tips. The concave key caps were a concern going in, but I'm happy to report that they actually feel really nice and help me know where on each key I'm pressing so I can more easily find the center of each key. I just love it.

In terms of sound, it's a very quiet keyboard, so while I get a little tactile bump when I press a key, my office-mates (well, my one day office-mates) don't have to be bothered. This is a membrane keyboard, yes, but it's not a mushy one.

And the layout is pretty much just what you'd expect, which is a good thing. The only real complaint I have is that the top right of the keyboard is devoted to special function buttons. I made great use of the F13-19 keys on my Magic Keyboard using Keyboard Maestro, and I can't do the same thing with this keyboard. I lose F13-15 to the device switching buttons, and F16-19 turn into special functions.

Software

This is something that bothers a few people, but I like the Logi Options app, and it's what helps me make the keyboard (and mouse) behave more how I'd like. While I can't customize every key, I can change all of the function keys, as well as the 4 special action keys to do other things. You can change them to open specific applications or to simulate any keyboard combination you want.

I mapped mine to Ctrl+Opt+Cmd+Q and a few other letters which I then mapped to automations in Keyboard Maestro. This is a bit of a hack, and I suspect the vast majority of users will just stick with the default behavior, but I like that I had an easy-to-use UI to change these my way. I would love it if Logitech updated this app to let me map these to simply F16-19, but I doubt they'll do that.

Lights and Power

The MX Keys uses Bluetooth (awesome) and USB-C to charge (double awesome). You can also pair it via Logitech's classic(?) USB dongle if you'd prefer. As far as I can tell, it does not have a wired mode, and pluggin in the USB-C cable only charges it, it does not actually set up a wired connection to your computer. This is slightly frustrating for those times you need to press a button during boot up as this keyboard simply will not do.

If you use it unplugged, it will last for a couple weeks on a charge, which is actually very short. I have the backlight on and I get about 2 weeks of power out of it, so I have been charging it over the weekend. When the Magic Keyboard (which is what this replaced for me, if you were curious why it keeps being my reference point) lasts for months, this feels like a big downgrade.

The keyboard also has some sensors to turn the backlight on when you bring your hands towards the keyboard, and turn them off when you take your hands away. It's pretty clever, and is a way to save battery life, but my 2 week number is when using this power-saving feature. I have to think it's even shorter with it off.

Oh, and those backlights? They're fine. They are not RGB and just come in a nice white, and they immuninate the keyboard well. I don't know what else to say here, they're backlights that don't suck.

Buying Advice

The MX Keys is $99 which is objectively expensive for an accessory that comes for free with the computer you're using this with. But considering the nice key feel, great construction, good software integration, and easy device switching, it makes a really compelling case for that price tag.

And if you're looking for a good Mac keyboard, this $99 price tag isn't that crazy. The Magic Keyboard, which I've referenced all over this review, goes for $30-50 more than this, and mechanical offerings like the Keychron line are only $10-20 cheaper. From what I have used, this is the best balance of features, price, and delight.

watchOS 7: A BirchTree Concept

watchOS 7: A BirchTree Concept

It’s no secret that I think the Apple Watch is a great product and that I believe Apple has done a very good job of evolving it over the years to be the premier smart watch on the market. Frankly, if you are using an iPhone, I think there is no question on which smart watch you should get. And if you’re on Android and are debating which smart watch to get, I suggest converting to the iPhone and getting an Apple Watch instead of dealing with that mess entirely.

But this lead isn’t permanent, and it’s not something Apple can hold onto by standing still. We’re obviously going to get watchOS 7 this autumn and Apple will have an assortment of new features they’re pushing to all of our wrists. Below is basically what I would pitch to my boss if I worked on the watchOS team at Apple on what I thought we should be doing. Since I don’t work there, though, this is my public wish list for the platform and I hope you agree and pass this along so it’s more likely to get in front of someone on the actual team as inspiration.

Also worth noting here that this is the 5th year I'm doing a concept like this. Check out the past versions below!

Fitness Enhancements

As has been clear since the very beginning, the Apple Watch thrives as a fitness device. As most Apple Watch users what they like about their watch, and almost everyone will tell you something about filling their rings, losing weight, or learning how little they stand throughout the day. As they do every year, Apple should work on enhancing the fitness offerings of the watchOS platform.

As a quick note, there could be more they can do here by adding hardware to the Series 6 hardware that surely will come out this fall, but this article won’t hypothesize about those features.

Sleep Tracking

I’m going to keep asking for this until it happens, but I think Apple should add native sleep tracking into watchOS. Apps like Autosleep and Napbot already do this, but there is so much headroom to do more in the space. I think Apple did an amazing job of moving the conversation from steps, a fine, but often unhelpful measure of health, to that of activity tracking. Their red “move ring” isn’t perfect either, but it’s a whole hell of a lot better than steps.

I’m simply going to resubmit my idea from last year since Apple did nothing since then and the requirements for human sleep have stayed, well, the same.

Customize Your Activity Rings

Since the very beginning, the Apple Watch has had 3 rings:

  1. Move: user-customizable number of “active calories” burned everyday
  2. Exercise: 30 minute goal of “active” minutes
  3. Stand: stand for at least 1 minute during 12 different hours

I think this year not only will Apple let you customize these rings more than before, but they’ll also add more rings. Want to add sleep or mindfulness: go right ahead.

The Apple Watch face is only so large, so I think they’ll have all 5 of these rings available, but you’ll have to choose which 3 show up in your rings. Maybe you want the traditional 3, or maybe you want to swap out the stand ring for sleep. Maybe you find 30 minutes to be too easy to hit each day, and setting your activity ring to 45 minutes might be more useful. Any combination would be possible in this new Activity app.

Manage Workouts from the iPhone

One of the things I run into on a semi-regular basis is forgetting to stop a workout after I’m done, and then getting a 60 minute workout on the books when I actually just walked for 20 minutes. Auto-stop should catch this, but it doesn’t always, and if you miss the notification that confirms you’re still working, then you can have an abnormally long workout.

Other times, I wish I could tell my watch I started walking or running a few minutes ago. There is a workout detection feature that was added a couple years ago, but it waits up to 10 minutes to ask you if you’re working out, so sometimes I’m 5 minutes into a walk, want to get credit for the walk, and have to decide, “do I start the workout now and lose the last 5 minutes, or do I wait and hope it asks me in a few minutes and potentially lose even more?”

I should be able to start a workout and tell the app that I started X minutes ago. it should use either my GPS data or extrapolate from my average speed/intensity to tell how much distance and calories to add. Along the same lines, after a workout I should be able to go into the Activity app on my phone and chop off the start or end of my workout to capture only the time I want.

Finally, and this is a small one, but I would love to be able to perform the basic mid-workout actions from a notification on my iPhone as well. I’d have this live as a persistent notification on my lock screen with some interaction, similar to the Now Playing controls. This is rarely an issue since the watch is already on my wrist, but sometimes it would be easier to use the phone.

A Web UI and Data Export

I don’t think Apple will do this, but it would be great to have a way to see my activity data from iCloud.com, and while I’m there, how about a way to export my activity data into a CSV? Again, probably not something Apple has any interest in doing, but it would be nice to not feel like my workout data is so tied to Workouts. If I want to download my data as a CSV and run my own analytics on it, I should be allowed! If I want to start using RunKeeper and transfer my run history over there, I should be able to do that too.

A Damn Day Off

This has been a request for a long time as well, but the Apple Watch should allow us the ability to be human and take a day off every once in a while. People get attached to their streaks, and breaking one because you’re either sick or in a situation where you can’t work out should be more okay. Activity++ addresses this by giving you a rest day every week so you can take a break on Sunday and get back to it on Monday and not lose any active streak. This would be completely fine by me, but any solution that makes it so streaks don’t terminate after a single bad day would be great.

Communication Optimizations

Tell me if this sounds familiar to you:

I feel a tap on my wrist, I look at my Apple Watch, and see a new iMessage has come in. I read the message and immediately drop my wrist to grab my phone so I can actually respond.

I feel like this is how 90% of my message interaction is on the Apple Watch and I think it’s a huge opportunity for improvement. In terms of interacting with a 2 inch screen, I get that there are limitations, and Apple has done a good job of expanding the number of ways you can input text into it, but I think it’s still too hard and they could make things better in both easy and exceptionally hard ways.

Better Response Suggestions

At the bottom of every iMessage thread, there are dozens of options to reply with a single tap. I love these sometimes, but they’re not always useful, nor do they match my style of speaking in messages. Here’s a great example: my wife just texted me “my head hurts” and the top reply options are:

  • Thank you
  • Thanks
  • Ok
  • Yes
  • No
  • Talk later?
  • Hold on a sec…
  • BRB

None of these are right, and some of them are going to result in a conversation with my wife later if I accidentally chose one of them.

First, watchOS should look at the last few messages in a thread and offer suggestions that are tailored to what is going on. I’d expect to see something like:

  • I’m sorry
  • Oh no!
  • I’m so sorry
  • How long has it hurt?
  • Feel better!
  • 😞

All of these would be more helpful than “Thanks!”

Second, watchOS should tailor the style of these messages to how I typically write messages. If I never capitalize my first letter or call my wife by a nickname, it should know that. Maybe that changes the responses to:

  • I’m sorry, boo!
  • oh no!
  • I’m sooooo sorry!
  • aw, boo, how long has it hurt?
  • hope u feel better!
  • 😢😭😤

This is obviously really hard to do right, and I might be asking too much, but I don’t think it’s wildly out of reach, and I think a lot of what Siri does with context detection must be useful in determining messages’ intents better than the totally generic stuff we have today.

Scribble with Autocomplete

One of the nice things about iOS’s keyboard is that it suggests words to you as you type. Want to type “suggestion”? Type out s-u-g and the keyboard will almost certainly have the word there so you can tap it to finish the work quicker. Scribble on the Apple Watch is the fastest way to type something into the Apple Watch, but it still isn’t quick enough.

Apple should start suggesting words on screen as you scribble out your letters. Once you see the word you want, tap it and start scribbling the next word.

Battery Life

You may be asking, “how can we improve battery life without new hardware?” I’d answer that the Apple Watch needs a “low power mode”.

The simple truth is that the Apple Watch does far more than most people ever use it for, so I think there is room to cut functionality without creating too detrimental an experience for many people. Additionally, while I’m generally fine with charging my watch everyday, there are some cases where it would be nice not to have to worry about charging for 2, 3, or even 5 days.

There are currently 2 power modes on the Apple Watch:

  1. Normal, which is what we all use
  2. Battery saver, which turns off everything and shows the time when you click a button

Normal mode promises 18 hours and typically gets a bit more than that for most people . Battery saver mode effectively makes the watch useless, even as a watch since it takes about 2-5 seconds for the time to even show up after you press a button, which feels like an eternity. There should be a new mode between these that makes the Apple Watch useful, but sucks up a lot less power.

Introducing Weekend Getaway

This middle mode would make the Apple Watch function with most capabilities disabled, but would allow a few things to happen so that it still felt like a smart watch.

First on the chopping block is of course the always-on screen. This only helps the Series 5, but I don’t see how a lower power mode exists without this getting cut.

Second, I think we disable the ability to launch apps from the watch. Complications can continue to work, but you can’t tap them to launch into their apps, nor can you go to the “app honeycomb” page to even see anything else installed.

Third, all activity tracking is disabled. This one is going to be a hard hit, but I think disabling the pedometer, GPS, and heart rate monitor is a big win in terms of making the overall watch last much longer.

Fourth, kill all other watch faces, so you can’t swipe between them anymore. Maybe there is even a watch face you are required to use when in this mode.

Fifth, disable all iPhone connections and notifications, with the exception of messages (iMessage, SMS, WhatsApp, Telegram, etc.) and phone calls.

With these things removed, that basically leaves your watch face and essential notifications. You will be able to raise your wrist and see the time, basic complication data, and messaging notifications are they come in. It’s pretty basic, but for many people I bet it wouldn’t be too big of a change from how they use their watch most of the time. The biggest hit would come from activity tracking disappearing, but if you’re going to be out of town for a few days (and you’re not obsessed with your streak), that might be worth sacrificing.

The use cases for a mode like this are plentiful. I was out of town for 4 days recently, and it would have been nice to be able to leave my watch charger at home. If I’m going out of town overnight, it would let me keep the watch alive without bringing a charger. Camping for a couple days would be really nice to leave the charging puck and external battery pack at home. Or maybe I’m just at home, but forget to charge my watch daily and would like a little more room for error.

Maybe the ideas above don’t move the needle too much when it comes to conserving power, but I think there is a lot of potential here to make the watch more than a 1-day product.

---

I think Apple could do everything above and have a killer release in watchOS 7 this year. But there is more that I’d like them to do, so here are a few other ideas for making watchOS better across the board.

Always-On Improvements

The only real new feature in the 2019 Apple Watch was the always-on screen. As I wrote in my review, I think Apple has the best implementation in the game already, but there is definitely room for improvement.

First off, I’d like to drastically cut down on how often I see the generic always-on screen; aka the “a random app is on screen so I’m going to blur it out and put a white clock in the top right” view. Currently, you get a nice always-on mode when:

  1. On the watch face
  2. In the middle of a workout (in Workouts only, not Strava, for example)

That’s it, and that seems like a major missed opportunity. I get the argument for privacy and that you don’t want a notification showing to the world when you lower your wrist, but at the same time I feel like I see it far too often. My fix would be to add always-on support for a few more apps, and I think that would go a long way.

First, let’s add it to the timer and stopwatch apps. If you’re timing something, then you probably want to be able to see it at all times. Next, I’d add it to navigation in the Maps app so that I can see my next move on the always-on screen and not have to flip my wrist to see the next direction. Now Playing and all other media apps should get it so I can see what’s playing, as well as how far along in my book/podcast/song I am.

Along a similar line, I often get a notification, raise my wrist to read it, and then lower my wrist. When I do this, the weird “white clock on blurred background” mode stays active for about a minute, so when I go to look at my wrist again it looks janky. I’d like it to change so that if I raise my wrist to see a notification and then lower it, dismiss the notification in 5 seconds and return to the watch face.

And the other change I’d like to see is a bedtime mode for the watch. I use the always-on screen all day and love it, but I kind of hate it in bed. It’s quite dim, but in the pitch black of the night, it’s way too bright and it’s woken my wife up on a few occasions. I’d love it if it could get even darker, but in lieu of that, I’d be content with just being able to toggle a bedtime mode (link it with the downtime feature on iOS, even) that turns off the screen and only lets certain apps deliver notifications.

Third Party Watch Faces

How many times do we need to ask?! You know the reasons this would be good, so I won’t bore you with those, but if Apple wanted to breath some life into watchOS development, letting developers make watch faces (aka the main thing most people use) they could make opportunities for tons of people to express themselves in fun and interesting ways. This is their “most personal device ever” after all.

As an alternative, Apple could also ship some sort of “build your own watch face” tool on the Watch app for iPhone. While you can kind of do that already with the existing watch faces, maybe Apple could make a tool for dragging whatever complications and other elements around the screen to your heart's content. I don't know how useful this would be, but it could help people get closer to their perfect watch face.

At the very least, let's make it easier to share our watch faces. If I make a watch face with a certain color combo and complication set and let me share that on Twitter so anyone else can get that instantly.

Quicker Interactions

This one is pretty vague, but Apple should make a run through of the things you do on the watch and try to remove one tap from the process. This “one tap less” initiative would look at analytics for what people do on their watches most and would simply try to remove one tap from the process. We’re not rewriting the whole OS yet, but optimizing flows so people are more likely to do them on the watch than pull out their phone would help a lot.

Oh, and whatever is going on with Siri needs to be fixed. Most of the time Siri is great on my Series 5, but even now I get some occasions where I get the dreaded “I’ll tap you when I’m ready” messages. I’m not sure what the technical limitations are here, but they need to be sorted out so that Siri can be as fast as it should be.

Better Wireless Speeds

This is another technical issue that has plagued the Apple Watch forever, but for whatever reason, the Apple Watch takes forever to transfer data. Updates take forever and syncing podcasts and music is an exercise in frustration. Even the cellular watches that just talk to the cloud directly take much longer than my iPhone to download everything. This update may require hardware, but if there are any optimizations they can make on the software side, I’d love to see them.

Shortcuts

Currently, I’m not able to do anything really with my Apple Watch from Shortcuts. I’d like to be able to have actions like:

  • Toggle theater mode
  • Silence notifications
  • Open a specific app
  • Start a specific workout
  • Turn off the always-on screen

iPad and Android Sync

The Apple Watch has had a good run with the iPhone, but much like the iPhone and iPad broke free of the Mac, I think the Apple Watch should get some more freedom from the iPhone. I don’t know if it’s ready to run entirely on its own, but it would be great to be able to pair it with different devices.

First, and more likely, is the iPad. There is no reason I couldn’t see my watch data on my iPad, especially if I have a cellular Apple Watch that doesn’t need an iPhone around at all times to handle the cellular connection.

The more pie-in-the-sky option would be to have Apple release an Apple Watch app for Android that let you set up and manage your watch from the Android device of your choice. Samsung’s devices show how deep into Android you can hook into, and while this will never be as good an experience as it would be when paired with an iPhone, it would instantly be the best option for Android users the world over. If Apple is interested in giving Apple Watch sales a shot in the arm, then this is how they could do it.

Oh, and making the Apple Watch work with Android sure feels a lot like Apple making the iPod work with Windows. It’s a “halo device” that gets people in the door with an Apple Watch purchase this year, and maybe an iPhone the next…

Conclusion

There’s a lot here, and if you made it this far, thank you! Please share this as far and wide as you can so that Apple sees some of these ideas and takes them into account as they continue to work on this platform that so many of us love. Apple is full of smart people and they do great work, but I can’t help but put my thoughts out there. Mocking up these concepts helps me think critically about the Apple Watch as a platform, and I hope it gave you some of your own ideas for what the future of this product can be.

History suggests I’m going to be let down on getting the exact things in this concept. Apple has their own plans and I hope that the actual watchOS 7 has a handful of features and enhancements that surprise and delight me.

In my review of watchOS 6 last year, I said:

The Apple Watch is at its best when it’s helping you do things quicker than you expect, so I’d love to see a whole UI redesign that focuses on this concept. The current app-centric model has served them well, but I think the platform is ready to do more.

I guess what I’m saying is that Apple is moving the Apple Watch forward, but it feels like it’s advancing at a comfortable pace right now, and maybe that’s just a cost of being a successful, 4 year old platform with very little real competition.

I still think there is a chance for Apple to make a bigger change to the Apple Watch’s fundamental interface than what I proposed here. My concept is an evolution, not a revolution in smartwatch design. If Apple decides to make a more dramatic change this year, I’ll be on the edge of my seat, just like you.

Seven, Eight, and Nine

Seven, Eight, and Nine

This article includes spoilers for all 3 films in the latest Star Wars trilogy. Also maybe Episodes 1-6, so just read this if you have seen all 9 mainline Star Wars movies. Cool? Cool.

The Force Awakens

There was a lot of apprehension about Star Wars in the years leading up to The Force Awakens. By most accounts, there had not been a good star wars movie in 30 years, and the recent sale of the Star Wars brand to Disney created a combination of excitement and concern of what that would mean for the series. On the one hand, Lucas was clearly not making the types of films most people wanted from Star Wars, so people were happy to see someone, anyone else get a shot at it. On the other hand, we had no idea what Disney would do with the license. We hoped they would do better things with it, but there was always the chance the franchise could sink lower.

In a way, all The Force Awakens had to do was prove to audiences that a good Star Wars movie was still possible. They didn’t need to hit a home run, they just needed to get on base. By that measure I think The Force Awakens was a massive success. Yes, it was very similar to A New Hope, and yes it leaned relatively hard into nostalgia, but it was a good movie that laid out tons of new characters, worlds, and storylines at the same time. It created the foundation for the last two films to build on, and I think it did that really well.

And that foundation set up by The Force Awakens was really solid. Rey is a great heroic lead, BB-8 is a revelation, Poe and Finn are both fun and fascinating, Maz is mysterious, Hux is a fun bad guy, Kylo Ren is the complex villain I wanted, Snoke is Emperor-esque…the list goes on and on. Abrams also did a good job of including Han, Leia, and Luke in ways that did not take the attention off of the new series leads.

Yes, this film leaned on nostalgia, but moments like Han telling Chewie, “we’re home” when re-entering the Falcon played very well, and are cinematic moments that I won’t soon forget. Yes, Starkiller Base is a clear stand-in for the Death Star, and it’s something I’d complain about if the rest of the story didn’t hit home for me, but it did, so I forgive it.

J.J. Abrams and team had one job when making The Force Awakens: bring back Star Wars in a way that appeases old and new fans, and above all else proves that Star Wars can be great again. I think they pulled it off wonderfully, and the critics and fans generally agreed. The faults in the movie bugged some people more than others, but I don’t remember finding many people who hated the film (assholes who didn’t like a female lead or a black stormtrooper aside).

The Last Jedi

That unified enthusiasm didn’t last long, huh? The Last Jedi came out in December 2017 and ever since then we have been living in a bifurcated Star Wars fan base. And this has not been a friendly disagreement, but rather a toxic hellstew of “conversation.”

But this isn’t about what the rest of the world thinks, it’s about what I think, so let’s leave that behind.

I fucking love The Last Jedi. It was my 10th favorite movie of the decade and I think I’ve enjoyed it more each time I’ve watched it since. I think that much like The Force Awakens had a very clear benchmark it needed to hit, The Last Jedi had to show that Star Wars could do things new and interesting again. By that measure I think the film was a massive success. The fact it’s also the most beautiful Star Wars movie by a long shot, is the funniest film in the series, and has emotional climaxes that hit me harder than anything else in the 9 film saga were just icing on top.

Luke’s now famous line “this isn’t going to go the way you think” holds true for more than Rey’s story, it’s true for effectively everyone’s tale in this chapter. Luke is not who Rey or we the audience think he will be. Rey is not from the royal family she and we think (more on this later, of course). Holdo is not the ignorant leader Poe believes she is. Rose and Finn’s elaborate plans to get New Order intel does not go at all how they expect.

In large part, this is a story about failure as well. Many of these storylines do not go according to plan because the characters fail, sometimes miserably, at achieving their goals. It’s a movie that has our heroes fail because of very human things: pride and ignorance lead to failure after failure in this film, and it’s damn relatable.

This is also the story where we get the pay off for who Rey’s parents are. This has been a question since very early in The Force Awakens, and there were tons of fan theories about who they were. In a crushing moment, Kylo bluntly tells Rey her parents were “no one.” They were, in fact, nobodies from a far off planet no one cared about. She had no birth right to be important in this tale, but she was. Here’s a clip from Binge Mode Star Wars on this:

It fully subverts the expectations of Rey being a Skywalker, a Kenobi, a Palpatine, a Snoke, some bold-faced impactful Star Wars name. And crucially, taps into an absolutely essential elemental fantasy idea that anyone can be special. And as core as that is to the fantasy story experience, not every story actually has the courage to make that choice. Anyone can make a difference, it doesn’t matter who you were born, it matters who you become. And Rey being no one, and becoming someone, is not a slight on the Skywalker name or the Skywalker saga, it is a reminder that anyone can go from farmer to savior.

I adored this plot choice and it tied so much of what The Last Jedi was all about together. The past is important, but not perfect. Learn from the past, but look forward. What you do today is more important than what you did long ago or what family you come from.

And did I mention how god damned gorgeous this movie is?

Yeah, it’s a looker.

The Rise of Skywalker

The internet seems to think you either need to be on Team J.J. or Team Johnson, so many people knew how they were “supposed” to feel about this movie going into it. As someone who truly adored what both writer/directors had done with the last two movies, I was totally on board to enjoy this film. Sadly, while I don’t think this movie falls into prequel territory, I would not say I enjoyed this movie.

I walked out of The Force Awakens saying “oh my god, Star Wars is awesome again!”

I walked out of The Last Jedi saying “Star Wars can still surprise us and add so much depth to characters we know and love!”

I walked out of The Rise of Skywalker saying “well, I guess that’s how it ends.”

I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t feel moved by it. I felt as though the events on screen were whizzing by me and I wished that I felt something, but nothing really landed.

My biggest feeling coming out of this film was that wow, they really leaned into nostalgia on this one. The fan service was strong, as unlike The Last Jedi, which gave our new characters a chance to really take over, this movie was more like “let’s give you Lando, more Chewie, more R2-D2, how about the same bad guy in all the other movies even though he has not been set up at all and just is kinda…here?” This felt too much like a greatest hits record, not something new.

I also thought this movie tried to do way too much. The first hour of this movie feels like it’s constantly moving a mile per minute and you only half understand what’s going on, and you definitely don’t have time to “live” in any of these spaces. There’s just so much exposition done at the start of this movie that it really seems like this would have been better served in two movies rather than one (more on this below). A prime example of this are the Knights of Ren, who are created in this opening and look menacing, but ultimately don’t do anything interesting in the film besides look cool.

I didn’t like how new characters from The Last Jedi were basically cast aside (namely Rose) so we could go back to the same arrangements we had before. Not to mention that The Resistance was down to about 40 people in a cave who no one would come to help at the end of The Last Jedi, but at the opening of this movie they seem…totally fine again. Why? What happened?

Oh, and Rey’s lineage? Strike everything great I said about making her a nobody-to-somebody story from the last movie, she has royal blood and was always going to be special. This was a punch in the face, as far as I was concerned, and was the equivalent of someone in Return of the Jedi telling Luke that Darth Vader actually wasn’t his father. Either (a) Abrams undid that plot point from The Last Jedi or (b) this was the plan all along, but either way I like the series as a whole less because of this decision.

This all pains me because there are pieces here that I could see turning into a truly amazing moviegoing experience for me. The ending scene where Rey chooses the name Skywalker despite not technically being one is something that works for me in theory, but the execution didn’t hit home. Also the moment when Kylo Ren pulls himself out from the hole he fell down and uses his last bit of power to bring Rey back to life. This was set up earlier in the movie and the moment is objectively a great moment of sacrifice and redemption, but subjectively I didn’t care about what I was seeing.

What hurts me the most about this ending to the series is that everything is cranked to 11 here. There is a desire in this film to do everything bigger than we’ve ever seen before. You’ve seen a few star destroyers at once, sure, but have you seen 10,000 star destroyers at once? You’ve seen one planet destroying laser at a time, but what about if we strapped one of those to all 10,000 of those star destroyers? You liked a little nostalgia, so how about unending heaps on nostalgia?

It didn’t have to be this way. The Last Jedi was a big, epic movie, but the dramatic elements of it’s story were smaller and more complex. By killing Snoke, effectively the Darth Sideous of this trilogy, Johnson left the conflict between Rey and Ren in a place that was more interesting to me than “the bad guy is the actual embodiment of evil” thing that Sideous does. I like me some Darth Sideous, but I think there are more stories to tell than this same guy keeps coming back to do the same thing.

But that’s not the ending that Abrams wanted to tell, and he went bigger and more explosive. I think that’s fine, and obviously many people will like this decision, but for me it was not what I was looking for and it felt shoehorned in. In the next section I’ll get into why I think this was the case.

I really think this movie would have been a lot better if there was going to be an Episode 10 in 2021 and everything could breathe a bit more. If these story elements had some more room to breathe, I think I would have enjoyed this story a lot more. Like I said, the elements of something I’d love are here, but they felt like someone was like “okay, I only have a few minutes to tell you this story, so let’s go fast.”

How the Sausage Got Made

My understanding of the way this trilogy was produced is that there was no overarching story from the start and each writer was able to do basically whatever they wanted with the story. So when Episode 7 came out, there was not a plan for Episode 8, and Episode 9 was not mapped out until after Episode 8 was complete. I’m sure producers and studio folks made sure some things stayed within certain bounds, but based on everything I’ve read, it seems like J.J. and Johnson had a shocking amount of autonomy over the stories they told.

In retrospect, I think that was a major creative mistake by Disney. It feels like Episode 7 laid a foundation, Episode 8 built on that foundation and developed the characters, but it didn’t set up Episode 9 in a way that J.J. felt he could finish things up how he wanted. Did Abrams and Johnson have different visions for what they wanted the series to be? Maybe…probably. So if that was the case, why hire both of them to do films in the series? And if you wanted them both, why let them go in different directions and not build towards an agreed upon destination?

I’ll also note here that Colin Trevorrow was originally slated to take on Episode 9 before getting replaced by Abrams. I was always anxious about this choice because I really did not enjoy Jurassic World, but one wonders if he and Johnson were more on the same page and he would have used the pieces given to him more than Abrams did. We will never know for sure.

I know many will blame Rian Johnson for “ruining Star Wars”. I don’t think those saying this believe Johnson to be a terrible filmmaker, and I suspect many of them will cite Looper, Brick, and this year’s excellent Knives Out as wonderful films, but I think that the real culprit is the studio navigating all of this. I really think they should have had a singular creative force behind this whole trilogy. While Lucas didn’t direct Empire or Return of the Jedi, he wrote all of the first 6 episodes and though the quality varies wildly, the vision is consistent throughout; that is unquestionably Lucas’s story.

I don’t know why Disney chose to separate the duties for this trilogy to different people. Maybe they could not get one person they liked enough so they split it among their favorite options. Maybe they didn’t think any one person could pull it off so they spread out the responsibilities to hedge their bets. The result I think is more of a studio who says “we have this license and we want to use it” rather than a creative person saying “I have an amazing vision for a third Star Wars trilogy.”

And again, I thought the first two parts of this new trilogy were amazing pieces of art that brought be incredible joy. It’s just that when we got to the end, no one was ready to take it over the finish line. If you’ll permit me one more sports (volleyball) metaphor, Johnson set the ball up for Abrams to spike it, it just wasn’t on the side of the count Abrams wanted.

watchOS 6: The BirchTree Review

watchOS 6: The BirchTree Review

The Apple Watch has grown up quite a bit in the past 4 years, evolving from a piece of hardware that was woefully underpowered and software that was barely ready, to a very capable smart watch with very solid hardware and software. Even from its humble beginnings, watchOS has been the best smart watch platform by a mile, and with watchOS 6 Apple extends that lead over the competition.

watchOS 6 is not a massive update to the platform, and you will likely use your watch in largely the same way you always have, but there are some new apps, nice usability updates, no real regressions, and frameworks that will allow third party apps to get better in the future. Basically, it won’t all change your life, but there is probably at least one or two things that you’ll really enjoy in this new update.

Let’s take a look at the highlights of watchOS 6.

Health

As always, Apple has put an emphasis on health-related features this year. For my money there are four really notable changes:

  1. Apple Research
  2. Activity trends
  3. Cycle tracking
  4. Noise tracking

Apple Research

Apple partnered with Stanford a few years ago on the Apple Heart Study, which took heart data from over 400,000 participants and looked into atrial fibrillation. From Stanford’s summary of the report:

“The results of the Apple Heart Study highlight the potential role that innovative digital technology can play in creating more predictive and preventive health care,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. “Atrial fibrillation is just the beginning, as this study opens the door to further research into wearable technologies and how they might be used to prevent disease before it strikes — a key goal of precision health.”

This year we see Apple take this to the next level with an upcoming Apple Research app which they will be able to use as a platform for future studies. And given the Apple Watch’s massive, and engaged user base, these will hopefully see even more enrollment. There will be 3 studies:

  • Apple Hearing Study being lead by the University of Michigan
  • Apple Women’s Health Study lead by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Apple Heart & Movement Study lead by the American Heart Association and Brigham Health’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital

These are coming later this year and I plan on enrolling in the two of them that I’m eligible for.

Activity Trends

The Apple Watch and Activity app have done a great job of giving you a look at your activity over the course of a single day, but it never did much in the way of showing you how you were doing over time. They had streaks which were nice, but didn’t mean a ton, especially if you took a day off regularly (like I do), and they also let you look at a calendar view and go “wow, look at all those rings,” but that was really it.

The Activity app, paired with watchOS 6 allows you to more easily see how you’re doing not just today, not just this month, but for the past year. If you go to the new Trends tab in the Activity app, you’ll see up to 8 metrics on how you’re doing over the past 30 days and how that compares to your previous behavior. These metrics are:

  • Calories burned
  • Minutes active
  • Stand hours
  • Stand minutes
  • Distance travelled
  • Walking pace
  • Running pace
  • Cardio fitness

The app will tell you if you’re doing better, worse, or about the same as you have over the past year. It’s worth noting that you won’t have trends for stand minutes and cardio fitness, as both of those are new in watchOS 6 and therefore don’t have any historical data to look at. You need at least 6 months of data for each stat for it to show up as a trend.

You can tap into any of these stats to see a chart for how you have done over the past year, which helps you see longer term trends. I dig this, and it let me see things like how much more active I am in the summer, as well as how much more I’ve walked since getting a dog at the end of 2018. This is all cool stuff and it’s not useful everyday, but I’ve incorporated it into a monthly review I do for myself and it’s been very rewarding to have what feels like actionable information when I check this out.

Workouts

As of watchOS 6 there are 77 total workout types, which is the same as last year1, but none of the ones I’ve been asking for years for! I am still waiting for things like snow shoveling, lawn mowing, leaf raking, and dog walking to be added The full list of workouts is below.

  1. American Football
  2. Archery
  3. Australian Football
  4. Badminton
  5. Barre
  6. Baseball
  7. Basketball
  8. Bowling
  9. Boxing
  10. Climbing
  11. Core Training
  12. Cricket
  13. Cross Country Skiing
  14. Cross Training
  15. Curling
  16. Dance
  17. Disc Sports
  18. Downhill Skiing
  19. Elliptical
  20. Equestrian Sports
  21. Fencing
  22. Fishing
  23. Fitness Gaming
  24. Flexibility
  25. Functional Training
  26. Golf
  27. Gymnastics
  28. Hand Cycling
  29. Handball
  30. High Intensity Interval Training
  31. Hiking
  32. Hockey
  33. Hunting
  34. Indoor Cycle
  35. Indoor Run
  36. Indoor Walk
  37. Jump Rope
  38. Kickboxing
  39. Lacrosse
  40. Martial Arts
  41. Mind & Body
  42. Mixed Cardio
  43. Open Water Swim
  44. Other
  45. Outdoor Cycle
  46. Outdoor Run
  47. Outdoor Walk
  48. Paddline
  49. Pilates
  50. Play
  51. Pool Swim
  52. Raquetball
  53. Rolling
  54. Rower
  55. Rugby
  56. Sailing
  57. Skating
  58. Snow Sports
  59. Snowboarding
  60. Soccer
  61. Softball
  62. Squash
  63. Stair Stepper
  64. Stairs
  65. Step Training
  66. Strength Training
  67. Surfing
  68. Table Tennis
  69. Tai Chi
  70. Tennis
  71. Track & Field
  72. Volleyball
  73. Water Fitness
  74. Water Polo
  75. Water Sports
  76. Wrestling
  77. Yoga

Cycle Tracking

Now obviously I’m not the target market for this feature, so I deferred to my wife who gave this feature a quick once-over. Her review basically boils down to: this looks fine, but I’ve been using other apps for years and I don’t see a good reason to switch over.

The only thing I’ll add here is that there may be people out there who prefer to keep this information with Apple vs some of the other companies who make apps for this.

Noise

I didn’t think I’d have much use for this app, but it turns out I’m fascinated by how noisy certain things are. I went to a concert and confirmed that while it was indeed louder than is ideal, I wasn’t going to ruin my hearing immediately2. I also realized just how much ambient noise there is all the time. I could sit in what felt like a very quiet room and still see 35-40db going on. This was a little distressing until I remembered that decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale and that actually what we consider “quiet” still usually has quite a bit of ambience.

I didn’t use the app that much, but instead opted to use the complication that works on most watch faces. Seeing a live noise meter whenever I raised my wrist was oddly addicting and I still have it on a few of my watch faces for fun.

New Watch Faces

Apple still didn’t give us third party watch faces this year, but they did their best to fill the gap by adding more new watch faces than they have any year since watchOS 1.0. Depending on your Apple Watch model, you’ll have more or less new watch faces. If you have a Series 1, 2, or 3 then you’ll get:

  • Numerals Mono
  • Numerals Duo

These are nice watch faces, and I use the Numerals Duo face on weekends, but these aren’t that exciting. The real excitement is for Series 4 and 5 owners. They also get:

  • California
  • Modular Compact
  • Solar Dial
  • Gradient
  • Meridian

You can use the screenshots to decide for yourself which ones you like best, but what I think makes these really nice is how much they can be customized. For example, here are just some of the variants of the California watch face. There are 6 colors, 6 numeral, and 2 shape choices, adding up to 72 combos before you even start looking at complications. Similarly, the gradient has 6 variants, Numerals Mono has 8, and Numerals Duo has 9 (plus all the color options watchOS offers). Modular Compact has fewer options and Solar Dial has basically nothing to customize, but overall this set of watch faces is the most flexible Apple has created yet.

And what have I landed on, you might ask? I’ve become partial to California with the circular watch face and 5 total complications. I also like Modular Compact, but I still prefer the Infograph Modular since it has 2 extra complication spots. For weekends, I’ve been using the California in full screen mode, as well as the Numerals Duo which I think has a fun, sporty style.

Series 5 owners will have the added benefit of getting all of these watch faces, as well as all the existing watch faces in always-on varieties. I’m writing this before I have hands on with a Series 5 watch, but what I have seen encourages me that Apple is doing this well and the watch faces will be very “complete” in even when they are in the power-saving mode, showing even the complications on your watch face.

Of odd note, the Siri watch face, one of my favorites, appears to have gotten more confusing since last year. You used to be able to go to the watch face configuration page in the Watch app on your iPhone to customize what apps can appear on the face. This is gone in watchOS 6/iOS 13, and had me fooled for a bit (thanks to David Brown for showing me the light). Now you need to go to your iPhone's Watch app and go to "Clock" and scroll to the bottom. There you'll see "Siri Face Data Sources" which you can edit like before. I wonder if this is something Apple saw basically no one used and therefore wanted to tuck it away, because this is not discoverable at all.

New Apps

Apple shipped a few brand new apps with watchOS 6 and each is a pretty good in its own right, although which ones people actually find useful will surely vary from person to person.

Voice Memos

This one has proven surprisingly useful for me. I don’t often use Voice Memos on my iPhone, and I’ve actually recorded more memos this summer on my Apple Watch than I may have ever on my iPhone.

The app doesn’t have much to it, you just open it, tap record, and then stop it whenever you want. The recordings are synced back to your iPhone and appear in the Voice Memos app on all you Apple devices. That’s it, there are no settings and things just kinda work as you’d expect.

What makes this app work for me is how damn easy it is to use. I always feel weird recording with my iPhone because I have to make a show of getting it out and starting a recording. Then I have to leave my phone alone for the whole recording to avoid weird audio dips and noises as I tap out messages that the microphone picks up. With the watch doing the recording, I can just tap my wrist and then do whatever I want when the recording is going on. As long as I don’t bang my wrist on a wall or something, I get a very clean recording that sounds really good.

For example, this was useful while I was in the emergency room with my wife (everything’s fine, don’t worry). The doctor was telling us what we needed to do at home and I was able to record the instructions on my watch and take written notes on my iPhone. The recording was on my iPhone by the time we got home3 and we were able to listen back to the conversation and remind ourselves what was said.

Calculator

Listen, this is a basic calculator and works…fine. It really only does addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, but really how often will you do this on your watch? There’s also a tip function that doubles as a bill-splitting function, but again, I would expect most people would use their phone for this. Then again, the watch is better for having this as an option if you ever need it, but I suspect this will not be used by most people.

Books

Books?! On a watch?!?!?!?

Relax, these are not ebooks, but audiobooks, which makes total sense on the Apple Watch and I’m happy to report the app works well. It’s very basic, and is basically just a list of your audiobooks and a now playing screen, but what this really allows is the ability to sync books directly to your watch. So if you want to go for a run without your phone, you can load a book onto your watch and listen to it while you’re far from your phone.

One downside is that you can’t stream books over cellular, so for example if you forget to load your book before a run, then you simply can’t listen to it.

The other downside is really the elephant in the room: Audible. I personally own 3 audiobooks in Apple Books and my most recent one is from like 10 years ago. I, and basically everyone I know, uses either Audible or library-affiliated apps like Libby. If you like to get your audiobooks from Apple Books, good on you, and this update will make you happy, but I suspect this is a pretty small subset of iPhone owners.

Reminders

Reminders isn’t a new app, per say, but it has gotten a pretty substantial update this year to match the changes made in the iOS 13 version of the app. This isn’t a huge change, but the main screen uses the big, colorful icons and everything from iOS and lets you add tasks and mark them done from the watch. It’s easy, simple, and works well for your basic reminders tasks. You’re not going to want to do serious work in the app, but for quick interactions it’s pretty nice.

I still think Things is the best GTD app for the Apple Watch, but Reminders works for a ton of people and they will all find this update to make their workflows a little nicer.

Compass

This app is exclusive to the Series 5 watch and therefore I have not been able to use it yet. Apple showed it on stage and basically it will enable you to see what direction you're facing at all times, which will be doubly useful when using the watch for something like navigation.

You can also plop the compass on your watch face as a complication and see your heading at any point. You probably won't use this often, but I could definitely see this being useful if you were camping or hiking for a day or two and wanted to just have easy access to this at all times.

App Store and Independent Apps

This is something that I think made more than a few people raise an eyebrow during its reveal this summer: the App Store on the Apple Watch. Oh yes, you can indeed search for an app from your wrist, and the App Store even has a Today view like iOS and macOS where there are featured apps Apple really likes. You can of course also search for specific apps with your voice or scribbling out whatever you’re looking for.

The App Store is surprisingly full featured, including every watchOS app out there, as well as reviews, descriptions, release notes, version history, privacy policies, and more. Are you going to use this often? Probably not, but it’s nice to have in a pinch, and is an essential brick in the road to a fully independent Apple Watch.

Speaking of independence, the App Store also allows for something I found difficult to test in this pre-release period: independent watch apps. These are apps that are installed on your watch, from your watch, and may not even have a corresponding iPhone app.

For example, think about the Workouts app as it has existed for the entirety of watchOS’s life: it’s a watch-only app that has no interface at all on the iPhone. Apps like RunKeeper and Strava could do this as well, and even apps like task managers, podcast players, or meditation apps could update their apps to not require anything on the iPhone.

Sign in with Apple

One of the big obstacles for watch-only apps in the past has been authentication. Without an iPhone, how do I sign into my RunKeeper account? Apple has you covered with their new Sign in with Apple feature, which works much like the other single sign on buttons you are likely familiar with from Google and Facebook. This new authentication method will be enabled with iOS 13 and watchOS 6 and will let you sign into whatever apps support it with a single tap.

Time will tell how much traction this authentication method gets, but Apple has said that any app that offers Google or Facebook sign in buttons must add Apple’s option, so I have expectations that this will show up in tons of your favorite apps.

All the Small Things

And then there are all the little things that you’ll notice here and there when using watchOS 6.

Updates can now install directly on the watch. Previously, you always had to initiate and check for updates to the watch from your iPhone, but watchOS 6 lets all this happen directly on the watch. Just go to Settings, General, and then Software Updates to see any available updates and install them from there. You still need to be over 50% battery, must have the watch on a charger, and they still take longer than makes any sense, but this is a move in the right direction.

Siri has more power than before. There are now fewer questions that will kick you over to the iPhone to see the results, and you can ask Siri to show you a specific website. Maybe you’ll notice these changes or maybe not…I’m guessing not.

There is a new animation when you put the watch on a charger.

Your face and name appear in the Settings app, but they don’t do anything. Why? Who knows, but there you have it.

The list app view looks better than before. It’s a subtle change, but I prefer this new look over the previous list view.

The Now Playing app makes it easier to control devices besides your iPhone. For example, I can easily start controlling my HomePod from my watch with 2 taps while this used to take a very specific, yet mysterious set of moves on your iPhone and watch to get this to work before.

The incoming call screen has a new look. This lets you auto-reply with some canned messages, which is much more discoverable than before (where you had to scroll the page to see replies), but it also makes the decline button smaller and makes me paranoid about hitting the wrong button when I just want to ignore a call. I haven’t yet, so either I’m more nimble than I expect, or they’re doing some “touch targets aren’t exactly as big as the visible buttons” magic. Either way, it’s fine by me.

Maps has an optional visual mode. By default, you still just get basic visual and audio cues on what your next move is, but you can tap “back” after starting navigation to see your real time location on a map on the watch. Rotate the crown to cycle between the upcoming moves, or just watch the first “card” to see yourself move around. I would not recommend this for driving, but it’s actually quite useful when walking. I used this when walking to Summerfest in Milwaukee this summer and it was nicer than trying to guess “how far away in 1000 feet?”

This is a teeny tiny one, but the lock icon is now a lighter, greener blue than before. I know, I know, I saved the best for last!

Conclusion

watchOS continues to grow up, and each year it gets objectively better than the year previous. The team behind this product have done a fantastic job of maintaining its simplicity all while adding on genuinely useful features that don’t always feel like much at the time, but have added up to an improved platform in almost every way.

That said, the techie in me feels like the Apple Watch is kind of in need of a complete rethink. watchOS 1 was the result of a company who didn’t know exactly what that product was and they threw everything against the wall to see what stuck. A few things like activity and workout tracking, watch faces, complications, and communication ended up being the biggest hits, and they’ve evolved those from their initial incarnations very well. But I feel more than ever like we’re getting to the point of diminishing returns and each update is proving less and less impactful on the product as a whole.

While I have written close to 4,000 words about the changes in watchOS 6, and there are still things I didn’t touch on at all, after 3 months of using this update everyday, I can’t say I feel much different about my Apple Watch than I did a year ago. I still use it fundamentally the same and if Apple simply cancelled watchOS 6 and we had watchOS 5 for another year I’m not sure my general satisfaction with my Apple Watch would drop much at all.

Additionally, Apple’s own apps continue to be much better in almost every way than third party apps. This is not due to a lack of trying from other devs, but the fact that Apple doesn’t offer them sufficient tools to make apps that are as good as Apple’s.

I think we’re ready for a big change on the Apple Watch. Apple keeps selling more and more of these things every quarter, and I’m very happy with its success, but I’m slightly worried that the platform is going to stagnate and die off like the iPod if they can’t figure out how to make it a more transformative experience.

I think the Siri watch face back in watchOS 4 was a great step in the right direction, as they dipped their toes into a watch face that dynamically changed based on your current situation, and I’d like to see them continue pulling on that thread. The Apple Watch is at its best when it’s helping you do things quicker than you expect, so I’d love to see a whole UI redesign that focuses on this concept. The current app-centric model has served them well, but I think the platform is ready to do more.

On the other hand, things like the new Apple Research app and studies it will allow, as well as the work Apple continues to put into things like watch bands and new watch face designs makes me think they are putting their efforts into different things. There is even a patent floating around out there about a watch band with sensors in it that will enable god knows what.

I guess what I’m saying is that Apple is moving the Apple Watch forward, but it feels like it’s advancing at a comfortable pace right now, and maybe that’s just a cost of being a successful, 4 year old platform with very little real competition.


  1. I’ve heard some people with watchOS 5 have all of these, and some who don’t have them all, so honestly I’m a little confused by this one. My wife, for example, doesn’t have fitness gaming, not did I on watchOS 5, but some people on Twitter say they see it, so who knows. 
  2. It was outdoors, which surely helped. 
  3. It was probably there sooner, but I wasn’t exactly in full on “watchOS reviewer mode” in that situation. 

Google Pixel 3a Review: The MacBook Air of Smartphones

Google Pixel 3a Review: The MacBook Air of Smartphones

Most phones are judged on 4 things:

  1. Build Quality
  2. Performance
  3. Camera
  4. Software

If you buy an $800+ phone then you can usually get all of those but spend any less and you’re going to have to compromise. The $400-$700 phone market is interesting because it’s full of phones that are making compromises to appeal to the most people while sacrificing enough to turn a profit. In most cases, phone makes will stuff the bet sounding chips into their phones and will skimp on build quality, software, and the camera. This gets headlines like “a top-of-the-line processor in a mid-range phone!” headlines and surely moves some devices from tech enthusiasts.

Google chose to go a different route as I think they are the only major phone maker who has leaned 100% into the camera and skimped on raw performance. As a result, they have created a midrange phone that’s hard to compare to anything else.

I think that the Pixel 3a has immediately made it hard for me to recommend anyone looking for a midrange phone look at anything else right now. If your budget is $400 then this is a no-brainer, and even if you’re willing to spend a little more and you bring the OnePlus 7 Pro into play, I think this phone will hold its own very well for a lot of people.

That said, this is not the phone for me personally, nor is is a “flagship killer.” Let’s take a look at why that is and if the compromises it makes are the right ones for you.

Camera

We have to start with the camera because that’s the simgular thing that makes this phone the most interesting. There is literally no compromise here as Google put in the same back camera that they have on their $1,000 flagship. Basically, if you think the Pixel 3 takes the best photos of any smartphone, then the Pixel 3a takes exactly those same photos, so you’re going to love them.

I’ve compared this camera to the iPhone XS and despite liking the photos from the iPhone more, the fact I’m comparing the cameras on a $400 phone to a $1,000 phone and they’re basically neck-and-neck is a huge compliment to the Pixel 3a.

This review is going to be read mostly by iPhone users, so here’s how I’d say the cameras stack up to Apple’s latest iPhones (which again, cost 2-3x more):

Just like the iPhone, you can basically trust this camera to get at least a good photo every time you snap an image. I miss the telephoto lens from my iPhone, but I also appreciate having Night Sight, which adds a whole new type of photo I can take.

If I had to simplify it way down, I’d say I’d prefer to use the iPhone during the day and the Pixel at night. The iPhone gets incredible photos during the day, and I think its HDR capture is way ahead of Google here. As I’ve said many times now, Google’s camera algorithm “optimizes for drama” which can be good, but can also lead to photos that look artificial or lose data due to the extra contrast applied to each photo. Here’s an example:

Which of those photos do you prefer? People will differ on this, but I greatly prefer the bottom photo, which was taken on the iPhone XS. The Pixel 3a image is crushing the shadows to create an image that looks decent, but (a) removes details that I can’t get back in editing, (b) does not reflect what this actually looked like in real life, and (c) is less saturated than what made the scene look so nice in real life.

There was also a time I switched my profile photo in Slack at work to a selfie taken on the Pixel 3a and people came out of the woodwork to ask me how many Photoshop effects I applied to that photo because it looked super fake. I had to tell them that none were applied and that’s just how selfies on the Pixel look. I ended up changing the image.

At night time though, I’ll take the Pixel 3a every time. In the standard camera mode it does pretty similar to the iPhone, although the iPhone usually has better white balance at night. But the Pixel separates itself by having a solid flash mode as well as Night Sight, which gives you another option to get a photo if the main shooting mode isn’t cutting it.

Moving past stills on the back camera, we get to places where I think the Pixel 3a falls well behind the iPhone. The selfie shooter is fine and has a wider angle lens than the iPhone, but I think this wider lens produces less-flattering selfies as people’s faces are shaped weird. This is the nature of wide angle lenses, but that wide angle lens also makes it easier to get selfies with more of the background in them or to cram more people into a shot.

Video on the Pixel 3a is quite good, although I’d say it falls well short of the iPhone XS and even the Galaxy S10e I used before this phone. That said, the 4k 30fps footage looks very good and Google’s stabilization is really solid. I don’t think it’s best in class, but it’s damn good video that you’ll enjoy watching.

This is what I remind you that this phone costs less than half of the iPhone XS, barely over a third of the XS Max, and basically exactly half of the XR. The fact that I’m splitting hairs here with $1,000+ phones is a victory in and of itself for the Pixel 3a. This is truly a no compromises camera for a phone in this price range and it’s what sets this phone apart from the rest of the mid-range market. Frankly, this is the only mid-range phone I could ever use as my daily driver for any extended period of time since the camera is so important to me. Kudos, Google.

The Build

The Pixel 3a absolutely feels like a less expensive phone. The plastic body is light in the hand and feels good, but you don’t think of it as a “precious object” like you can with some of these more premium phones. This is totally fine, as phones in this market don’t need that premium feel to bring value, but it’s worth noting.

Despite the less luxurious feel of the phone, it’s built well and feels quite nice in the hand. It’s a bit slippery and its top and bottom bezels make the 5.6” screen a bit harder to handle than on the bezel-less phones out there, but pretty much everything else is a win here.

The colors are here are great. I got the “Purple-ish” model and the name does not lie, this is just barely purple. Most people think it’s a white phone and it’s not until I tell them and they look closer that they say “oh yeah, I guess it’s a bit purple.” And then there’s the accented green power button that just looks great. It’s a slick and distinct look and I totally dig it.

The Display

The display is an extra tall 1080p screen with rounded corners. It’s 5.6” and has a pixel density of 441 pixels per inch. This is basically the same as the iPhone XS and much higher res than the iPhone XR. The screen just looks fine overall though. It’s a good screen, but not a great one. Colors appear pretty accurate, but are boring when set side-by-side with higher end devices. This isn’t something you’ll notice much when using the phone like normal, but there are fewer “wow” moments here.

The biggest problem with the display is using it in sunlight. It’s not terrible, but it does not seem to get as bright as the iPhone or Galaxy phones I’m used to and it becomes difficult to see outside.

One last note on the display, this phone has what I consider the best always-on display functionality in the game. It looks nice, displays notifications well, and has the flat-out brilliant “now playing” feature that tells you what song you’re listening to1.

Fingerprint Reader

The fingerprint reader on the back of the phone is top notch. It’s fast and seems quite accurate. In the spectrum of authentication methods, I prefer face unlocks over anything else, but if I have to have a fingerprint reader, I prefer them on the front of the phone, then on the back, and then on the side. The Pixel 3a has it on the back, so it’s not my favorite method, but it’s fine. This is what I said in my Pixel 2 review and it holds true for this phone as well:

People say this location is great because it’s were your index finger naturally is when you’re holding the phone, but my index finger simply does not rest there when I’m using the phone. I can put my finger there easily enough when I pic up the phone to unlock it, but my hand shimmies down the phone to actually use it. I’m about an inch below it and need to stretch to reach it, which is not comfortable.

Battery Life

Full disclosure, I do not have real battery life tests since I have not moved my SIM card over to the Pixel 3a, but I can say that it holds a charge better than my Galaxy S10e which is also in WiFi-only mode right now. Here’s what I said about that phone:

Coming from the iPhone XS, this is pretty much what I’m used to.

So yeah, if you have an iPhone XS then the Pixel 3a will probably get slightly better battery life.

Buttons and the Squeeze

I mentioned the buttons in passing already, but they are all on the right side of the phone which I quite like and they are nice and clicky. The iPhone has the best buttons in the game, but the Pixel 3a has good buttons that hang with the best of them.

And then there’s Google’s “active edge” feature which lets you trigger Google Assistant by squeezing the phone. I hate this feature. Despite setting it to every sensitivity option and trying my best to work with it, I accidentally trigger it about 10x more than I do so intentionally. It just makes me feel like I need to baby my phone and not grab it too hard, lest I get Google Assistant asking me what I want to do when all I wanted was to check the time. Maybe you’ll enjoy it, but for me it’s never convenient enough to make up for the constant annoyance it causes for me.

I/O and Charging

There is a USB-C port on the bottom of the phone which does all the USB-C things you’d expect, but you’ll probably just be used for charging, which is fine. I’ll also mention that this phone does not have wireless charging and I miss that feature more than I realized I would. My life is all in on wireless charging, with my iPhone (and Galaxy) sitting on a charging mat at night and a charging stand during the day. The Pixel 3a made me add wires to these setups and I personally hated it. Outside of reviewers like myself, I don’t know who else is going to go from a wireless-charging phone to the Pixel 3a, but it’s hard to do back.

And last but not least…well, actually yeah, least…there is a headphone jack on this phone. Just like wireless charing, my whole life has moved on from wired headphones, so this port was basically useless for me, but I’m sure plenty of people will enjoy having it. I do need to talk about its placement though, which is on the top of the phone and seems stupid.

Why, Google, why?

Storage

This story is pretty simple as the 3a and 3a XL only come in one storage size: 64GB. I think this is fine and makes perfect sense for the price point they’re hitting. Would I love more storage? Sure, but 64GB is going to get the job done for most people and I think the only real problem here is that you can’t throw another $100 at this phone to upgrade to more if you want it. There are no higher storage options nor is there a micro-SD slot for additional storage.

Android does a pretty good job of not absorbing all of your storage so this has been okay for me so far. I have been using this for my podcasts, music, audiobooks, and games, and I currently have 43GB free.

Performance

If you were waiting for me to get to the MacBook Air comparison from the title, then wait no longer. This is where Google saved some cash and you can tell it’s not a top-of-the-line phone when it comes to speed. That sounds like a dig, but it’s not meant to be. Some people want/need a specced out MacBook Pro, but many people are perfectly fine with a MacBook Air. Different products, different categories, and different customers.

The Pixel 3a ships with a Snapdragon 670, which doesn’t mean a whole lot on its own, but the important bit is that this benchmarks a tad slower than the 2017 Google Pixel 2. This is according to Geekbench and all the web benchmarks I could throw at it. In terms of iPhone speeds, that’s somewhere between an iPhone 6 and 6s for single core and and close to the iPhone 7 for multicore. If you were curious, the iPhone SE benchmarks 33% faster than the 3a in single core, and is a little slower in multi-core.

But benchmarks only matter so much and real world performance is what is actually important in a phone. Sadly, the benchmarks tell the story pretty well here as the Pixel 3a feels very much like a slower phone than the higher end options out there. This is one of those things that you have to let sink in for a while, as most phones, including this one, feel perfectly fast up front. Watch literally any review of any phone ever and they’ll say something like “and it handled everything I threw at it without any trouble.” This line bugs me so much and is the sort of thing you say after using a phone for a few hours.

After 3 weeks with the 3a I can confidently say that this will do anything you want it to, but it’s going to do it all slower than you’ll get with a higher end phone, as well as many of the similarly-priced budget phones out there.

Apps usually launch quickly…until they don’t, and animations are basically always a bit choppier than I’d personally like. None of this is a disaster, and you can absolutely get your work done on this phone, but the difference between a high end Android phone and this phone is absolutely noticeable.

But here’s the thing about this phone’s performance: if you are a more average customer and are getting your phone from a carrier, then this phone contends much better. Look at what Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint have in the $400 range and this is going to keep up with or beat most of those options. It’s only once you get into some of the Huawais and Pocofones on Amazon that you get phones that really smoke this thing in terms of performance. Of course, getting those phones means a far worse camera and pretty darn objectionable software layers over Android. If you care most about power, then the Pixel 3a isn’t for you, but if a great camera is worth tolerating acceptable speeds, then the 3a is really hard to beat.

Software

Bringing up the rear is software, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s simply not going to be my favorite part of any Android phone. Also, as a Pixel phone, we don’t have much to talk about since it’s really just stock Android.

Ultimately I think this is a good version of Android but it lacks some things I’ve grown to like about, and I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, Samsung phones. I miss the lock screen customizations Samsung offers, I think the dark mode is better, I miss the health tracking features, I miss the UI tweaks of One UI, and I even miss Bixby routines.

But the Pixel line is not all about having tons of features right out of the box. You can download apps to add a lot of power to the device, so it’s not that big of a deal. And Google would probably tell you that Google search and Assistant already give you tons of power on their own.

One of the great things about Pixels is that they are not overwhelming and I love that about them. As far as Android phones go, the Pixel 3a has a good stock experience, not a big one.

Recommendation

If my phone budget was sub-$500 then the Pixel 3a would absolutely be the phone I would buy. I appreciate speed and love having it in a phone, but the most important to thing to me is a camera, and it’s what has prevented me from using cheap phones as my “daily driver” for very long. I need my phone to have a great camera and the 3a delivers here like no other phone in the price range. Despite my gripes about performance, I’d rather trade that for a good camera any day of the week.

I’d also recommend the Pixel 3a to any iPhone user who is Android-curious. I think you can get a good idea about Android from this phone without breaking the bank on a flagship. I suspect this will not convert you and make you want to sell your iPhone, but if you have the budget to have a second phone, then this is a very good option.

If you must have more speed then something like the OnePlus 6T is a good option and will cost you $100-150 more. And if you want to spend what flagships used to cost before they got insane, the iPhone XR and Galaxy S10e are great choices in the $650-750 range. I’ve never used it personally, but if you want to spend a little less than $400 and get better performance, then the Pocofone F1 seems to be the winner.


  1. To clarify, it tells you what song is playing in the world around you, not the song playing on your phone itself. 

Samsung Galaxy S10e: An iPhone Fan’s Review

Samsung Galaxy S10e: An iPhone Fan’s Review

A little over a year ago I said this about the Pixel 2:

If you’re looking for a change and want to see what Android is like, I don’t think there’s a better phone out there than the Pixel 2 to get the best that Android has to offer.

I still think the Pixel 2 is a great phone, assuming you can handle its massive bezels, which look downright shocking in 2019. But I also don’t think that’s the best Android phone to get anymore.

As far as I’m concerned, there are three phones most people should get if they’re choosing Android in the US this year: the OnePlus 6T, the Pixel 3 or the brand new Samsung Galaxy S10e. The OnePlus 6T is cheaper, runs more “stock Android” software, is really fast, and will get faster software updates than just about any non-Pixel phone. The Pixel 3 has the most up to date version of Android and a killer camera. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S10e has excellent construction, a better camera, top-of-the-line specs, and a software layer over Android Pie that enhances things instead of degrading things like their software has in the past.

Let’s talk about how the Galaxy S10e earns this recommendation1.

Oh, and this review will focus mostly on hardware and not software. I have fundamental issues with Android, so this review is not going to address those issues. I’m going to focus all software discussion around things Samsung does on top of Android.

TLDR Version

This review is over 5,000 words long and I know not everyone has time to read this, so my overall thoughts are:

The Galaxy S10e is the best Android phone I’ve ever used and excels in terms of display, raw performance, design, and yes, even software. The only serious downsides of this phone are battery life and the camera. The camera issue can be mitigated with third party camera apps, but the battery is really bare minimum for 2019.

The best thing I can say about this phone is that I’ve been using it for almost a full month and feel no real rush to run back to my iPhone. Considering how I’ve felt at this point in literally every other “Matt switches to Android” endeavors, that’s a major victory for this phone.

Why the S10e?

Why Samsung? The company really impressed me with their announcement event for these phones and I could not get them out of my head. The hardware looked excellent, and seemed like a meaningful upgrade over what had come before. I was also intrigued by One UI which looked to be a total rewrite of their custom skin over Android. I hated TouchWiz and the Samsung Experience, but this one somehow gave me hope.

Why the S10e? It was cheaper and the things it lacked didn’t interest me that much. After seeing other people’s reviews, it seems the in-screen fingerprint reader and curved screens are more hindrances than features, so this phone almost seems superior. I do miss the telephoto lens, though.

Build Quality

As an iPhone user, I’m someone who is more than willing to pay more for nice phone hardware. The Galaxy S10e is not quite up to the quality standards of my iPhone XS, but it’s very close in almost every regard, and really trades punches nicely with the similarly priced iPhone XR.

The Display

The S10e has an amazing display. With a 1080x2280 resolution on its 5.8” screen, it’s nearly identical to the iPhone XS screen. It also has HDR10+ which is great, but in my experience everything looks basically the exact same as the iPhone XS which has the standard HDR10 tech built in. For my money the only time I can tell them apart is when I’m outside on a sunny day. the S10e gets a little brighter and makes it easier to read in direct sunlight.

The curved corners on the display look quite striking as well, and compare well to the iPhone’s similar tech. I will say that the S10e has a slightly larger chin than the iPhone, which I don’t think is a big deal and is not something I ever thought about. I know it annoys some people, so it’s worth mentioning that indeed Apple has eliminated the chin better than Samsung here.

The Hole Punch

Where things get a little more divisive is in how Samsung handles the front-facing camera. They have gone with a “hole punch” method instead of the now commonplace notch. I made a video about why I prefer a notch, but my big complaint with this implementation is that it inherently pushes the cutout lower on the screen so it encroaches on more content than a notch that is as high on the screen as possible.

This is most visible when watching videos. Lots of content has a 16x9 aspect ratio, and that all looks good with the notch or hole punch, but the issue comes with any video that’s shot at a wider aspect ratio. Tons of YouTubers have converted to 2:1 (or 18x9) which takes advantage of most notched phones, but the lower hole punch on the S10e means that this overlaps on these videos. And you can’t zoom in or out to fix it. The same goes for watching basically any movie, since those are even wider most of the time.

I’m also put off by how they integrated the hole punch in the status bar. It looks fine in Samsung’s apps, but most third party apps (and some of Google’s) show a background color on the status bar and the hole punch is not center-aligned with that bar, it’s resting on the bottom of it. This isn’t the end of the world and I don’t know how else they could do this with the hole punch design, but it speaks to how awkward this hole punch is.

My overall feelings on the hole punch are that it feels new and fancy, and that’s cool, but I don’t think it added anything practical over a notch and actually made some things worse. This feels very much like it was developed by a team with “anything but a notch” written on a white board in the design room. It is indeed not a notch, but I think this phone would be better if it had one.

Hardware Details

I just wanted to call out a few small things about the hardware that I found notable.

  1. The buttons are all way too high on the sides of the phone. Why, oh why are they pushed all the way to the top?! This is more egregious on the power button which doubles as the fingerprint sensor, which requires me to reach way up to the top of the phone every time I want to use it.
  2. The USB-C port is inexplicably misaligned with the other holes on the bottom of the phone. Just a minor complaint, but why?
  3. The camera bump on the back is pretty small, and since it’s horizontal and centered, the phone sits very well on flat surfaces. This is way, way better than the iPhone XS without a case.

Authentication

This is not something I would normally put so high in a review, but it’s worth mentioning here as it’s actually a little complicated. On iOS, all authentication methods (Face ID, Touch ID, PIN, or password), but the Galaxy S10e has more authentication methods and those methods have varying levels of security.

For example, I can use my fingerprint to unlock the phone, authorize payments in Google Pay or Samsung Pay, and get into password managers like 1Password. I can also use my face to unlock the phone, but not to authorize anything else. And then there patterns, PINs, and passwords which go from least secure (patterns) to most secure (passwords). This flexibility may be welcomes by some, but I personally find it annoying.

As someone who has gotten used to Face ID on the iPhone, I love that I can use it to authenticate anything I do on my phone. I don’t have to waste any brain power on remembering if I’m in a situation that requires my finger or face. I like the ability to use both, but I wish that the facial recognition was up to snuff for all authentication needs. I say this because I get so used to unlocking my phone with my face and then I get prompted to use my fingerprint and have to shimmy my hand up the phone to reach the side-mounted fingerprint reader.

All that aside, the fingerprint reader is nice and quick, although I really don’t like its placement. I’ve also reviewed the Nextbit Robin which had a side-mounted fingerprint which I hated it on that phone, and I don’t like it much more here. The sensor is nice and quick as you’d expect, but I find I have to put my finger on at specific angles for it to read it properly. This could just be a me thing too and will get better as I use the phone more, but it’s not a problem I usually have with fingerprint readers, so it feels like a regression to me.

The facial recognition is nice as well, and is what I use to unlock the phone almost every time. It’s pretty quick, and requires me to look more directly at the camera than my iPhone or OnePlus require, but I’m still quite happy with it. You can speed it up a little by going into settings and toggling the “reduce security” feature which promises to unlock faster, but also means it’s easier to trick with things like a photograph. Use this at your own discretion, but I left it on the more secure setting.

Battery Life

The S10e has a 3,100mAh battery, which is 17% bigger than the iPhone XS battery but delivers basically the same results in my use. I’m a pretty heavy phone user, and I don’t jump through any tedious hoops to make my battery life better2.

Here’s may battery life from two days where I did basically the same stuff on my phone and compared battery life with and without the always-on display:

So yeah, not amazing, although I was happy to see that using the always-on screen had negligible impact on the actual time I was able to use my phone. Coming from the iPhone XS, this is pretty much what I’m used to. It does sound like the S10 and S10+ get notably better battery life, so it might be worth spending more on one of those just for the battery if that’s important to you.

Camera Quality

The camera is the biggest letdown for me with this phone. I don’t think it’s a fault of the hardware either, as the sensors Samsung is using is top notch.

The Camera Hardware

Specs (thanks to GSMArena):

  • Main rear lens
    • 12 MP, f/1.5-2.4, 26mm (wide), 1/2.55", 1.4µm, Dual Pixel PDAF, OIS
    • Video: 4k 60fps, 1080p 240fps, 720p 960 fps
  • Wide angle rear lens
    • 16 MP, f/2.2, 12mm (ultrawide), 1.0µm
  • Front facing
    • 10 MP, f/1.9, 26mm (wide), 1.22µm, Dual Pixel PDAF
    • Video: 4k 30 fps

These are all the specs I’ll get into, as I’m not a camera hardware expert and all I can really say is “these should be good.”

The Camera Experience

Samsung is among the many companies boasting about how much A.I. is going into their imaging systems and how they know what you’re shooting and optimize the end result for whatever you’re looking at. While I see this working wonders on my iPhone and Pixel phones, Samsung’s results are far less impressive.

The default camera app on the S10e is nothing if not feature-rich. There’s everything from 960fps slow motion video to portrait modes to professional settings with RAW capture to Instagram integration to even plain old still photos. If you want a default camera app that does it all, then this will have you covered. It’s a shame then, that the fundamental act of taking simple pictures is a bit of a letdown.

The problem here is inconsistency. The app is sometimes nice and quick, and sometimes it’s slow to load, slow to switch lenses, and most importantly to me, slow to take the photo when I hit the shutter button. This all adds up to be killer sometimes as I have missed a bunch of photos that I would have really liked to have because the damn photo took literally a second or two after I pressed the button. Worse, there have been a few times where I tap the shutter button and literally nothing happens at all. I have had to tap the button 3 times or more to get something to actually take. This is frankly unacceptable for a camera app in 2019.

When the camera does work, it seems to vary wildly in quality depending on what you’re shooting. Landscapes and objects look pretty darn good, and match up quite nicely with the best the iPhone XS and Pixel 3 can do. However, it’s people where the results are far less enchanting.

I have gone into the settings to confirm I don’t have any beauty modes turned on or anything, but the S10e just takes miserable photos of people. This is a problem, to say the least. I love me some landscapes, but the most important photos I take are of the people in my life, and I don’t think the Samsung camera app lets me take photos I’m happy with. My first warning sign was the very first selfie I took with this phone:

This was at around 5PM and the sun was going down relatively soon, but the lighting was still pretty decent. Still, the S10e made me look like a Ken doll and not a human being. Time and time again, people in my photos look unnatural and frankly a little unappealing compared to what they look like in real life3.

But wait, there’s hope! Since a phone is more than the camera app it ships with, I installed the Google Camera app for the S10e and the results were incredibly different.

Twitter link

Yes, the Google Camera app, which is effectively the same APK as found on Pixel devices, delivers shots that feel very much like the Pixel in terms of quality and processing style. Frankly, the photos I got from the S10e using the Google Camera app are pretty indistinguishable from the ones on my Pixel 2 and 3. Oh, and you do indeed get Night Shot, which takes photos you simply can’t get with other cameras right now.

This is a kind of annoying setup, but if you love the look of photos taken on the Pixel but want the S10e (or any S10 phone) then the Google Camera app will get you what you’re looking for. It’s annoying because the Google app doesn’t get access to everything you can do with the Samsung app, and more critically, the Google app treats the wide angle lens as the standard lens, so you always have to zoom in when you open the app to get the normal lens. Annoying and hacky, but sometimes worth it to get the photo you want.

And oh, that wide angle lens! I was most excited about this lens as it allowed me to take photos that were simply impossible on the iPhone. This lens is a little lower quality than the main lens, but it delivers such a wide field of view that this wasn’t a real problem for me. The shots this takes are just incredible!

There is some distortion around the edges, but this is a wide angle lens, there’s only so much that can be done here. All I know is that I was inspired to take shots I never would have tried before and ended up loving them more often than not.

And then there’s the video, which I found to be quite good. Not as good as the iPhone XS, which is industry-leading as far as I’m concerned, and far better than the surprisingly average video from the Pixel 3. I don’t have much to say here other than to say I trust this video camera just about as much as my iPhone XS, which is a high compliment. Even then, things like 960fps video is something the iPhone XS can’t do, as well as the super-steady mode which stabilizes video very well with a bit of quality loss, but nothing terrible.

Twitter link

Camera Odds and Ends

The camera app has a ton going on, with modes for basically everything you ever imagined. You have:

  • Photo
  • Video
  • Pro (manual controls for still images)
  • Slow Motion (240fps video at 1080p)
  • Super Slow Mo (960fps video at 720p for 2 seconds)
  • Hyperlapse (moving time lapses)
  • Live Focus (portrait mode)
  • Panorama
  • Food (enhanced colors)
  • Instagram (jump straight into Instagram after snapping a photo)

Thankfully, Samsung includes a settings page where you can trim these down to only the ones you use.

The biggest issue I had with the camera actually had nothing to do with image quality and everything to do with shutter lag. Coming from phones like the iPhone and Pixel that have effectively zero shutter lag, the S10e has upwards of a full second of lag at times, which feels like an eternity sometimes. It seems to have nothing to do with lighting or shooting mode either. Just taking a photo in broad daylight lead to noticeable lag.

Along the same lines, videos take a second to start recording and also lock up the app for a second or two after you stop recording. Presumably it’s saving the file to disk, but it really should not do this.

Samsung has a feature called AR Emoji which is very similar to what iPhone users are used to with Animoji. You can create an avatar that looks…sorta like you and put it on your face in real time and take pictures and videos as a cartoon-human hybrid. Here are a couple examples of what I was able to make:

So yeah, I didn’t do much more with this.

Oh, and this doesn’t really fit anywhere else, but I find important: the screen brightness it pushed to 100% whenever the Camera app is open, which I adore. I can’t tell you how often I’ve screwed up the exposure on other phones as I tried to adjust things based on the screen being dinner than normal and making the photo look underexposed. Some people may not have this issue, but it’s a real thing for me and I’m super happy that Samsung though to address it.

Performance

Smartphone performance is a hard thing to measure in a review because you don’t really understand this until a few months, or even year has gone by. Most phones these days perform well at the start, which is why every single phone review you read or watch says “and performance seems solid.” Samsung reviews often follow that up with the line “although last year’s Galaxy phone became sluggish within a few months.”

I have been using the Samsung Galaxy S10e for almost a month now and I can say that it seems to be a very quick phone for almost everything. It’s rocking the Snapdragon 855, the latest processor available, and easily the quickest available for Android devices, so it should be quick. But the big win here is that One UI does not make the phone feel slow at all.

Beyond simple app launch times, things like the face unlock and fingerprint readers are quick as well. The fingerprint reader is lightning fast, and is easily the fastest fingerprint reader I’ve ever used. Seriously, you just tap it for a half moment with your finger and it unlocks. And face unlock, while incredibly insecure, is just about as fast as Face ID in getting me into my phone. The OnePlus 6 is still king at face unlock speed, although again it’s worth noting how incredibly insecure that system is too.

And as I’ll get into in the next section, Samsung’s UI doesn’t do much to slow things down either, so you’re really getting best in class performance in all things besides the stock camera app.

Software

I don’t want to talk about software too much, since it’s hard for me4 to fully separate out my preference for how iOS does most things to Android from the phone itself. Still what is a phone without software, so I’m going to touch on a few notable things, of course with the perspective of someone who knows both OS’s very well and prefers iOS by a wide margin.

I have enjoyed the software on the Galaxy S10e more than any other Android phone I’ve used before. Yes, more than the OnePlus 6 and more than the Pixel 3. Since the very first Galaxy S phone, which I flashed “stock Android” ROMs onto almost a decade ago, I’ve always been a fan of the standard Android experience. OEMs simply were no good at enhancing the software, so leaving things as they came from Google was usually the best bet. One UI on the S10e is the first time I’ve used a heavily modified Android phone that I actually liked.

There a so many nice touches throughout One UI I’m relatively shocked it came from Samsung. Let me just hit a few of my favorites.

  • First off, they have a very tasteful always-on display feature that is highly customizable.
  • The lock screen can have a collection of photos selected instead of a single image, and it cycles through these every time you turn on the screen. I thought I would hate this, but I really love it.
  • Their launcher is quite solid, supporting easy gestures for opening the app drawer and notification shade. It also supports app shortcuts, which is pretty standard fare these days, but still worth noting. iOS users will be impressed with the level of customization, but Android enthusiasts will likely want something they can tweak like crazy.
  • The skin Samsung puts over Android Pie looks very nice and sports good typographic choices and silky smooth animations on everything. Android nerds will tell you to set the animations to 2x speed, but I say they are perfect.
  • Samsung did not follow Google’s lead with the “pill” multitasking, which I would normally criticize, but in this case is a good call. I really dislike Android Pie’s gestures, so losing them here is more a blessing than a curse.
  • The weather app looks excellent.
  • The dark mode is truly dark and looks slick. I prefer light modes, so I only use this at night, but it makes the UI and all of Samsung’s apps look great.
  • Bixby Routines are super useful. Yes, Tasker does this stuff and probably does more, but I hate-hate-hate that app and can’t stand using it (especially since it likes to show permanent notifications which are maddening. I should write something separate about this, but think of Shortcuts, but with far less functionality but you can have them automatically trigger at certain times/locations with zero input from you. It’s super useful for a few specific situations for me.
  • The Galaxy Store app was featuring wallpapers that played with the hole punch in fun ways, which I thought was kinda fun.

But not all is perfect, and there are some things that are pretty rough. While I don’t like Android Pie’s gestures, I do enjoy gestures over buttons, and Samsung really punted here. They have gestures, but they’re just swiping up in one of three places on the bottom of the screen to do exactly what the buttons do.

Bixby is more of a disaster than I expected5. Bixby Home tries to be something like the old Google Now, and sits on the left of your home screen, but if Google Now specialized in showing useless information and ads for apps you definitely don’t want in the Galaxy Store. And Bixby as a voice assistant is wildly useless. Here’s what it gave me when I asked it to navigate to the nearest Starbucks:

I could not for the life of me get it to select the right location with my voice, and the cards it gave me on screen were zero help in determining which store was the right one. Spoiler, neither was the closest and each were in totally different towns.

Oh, and even though Google Assistant works well when using the phone, any accessories, like headphones, that let you do something to pull up a voice assistant can only use Bixby.

Supposedly saying “Hi Bixby” should let me pull up the assistant at any time, but this worked maybe one in twenty times for me. Even then, the phone makes you unlock it to actually do anything (even things like checking the weather) so it felt useless and easier to just pick up my phone.

I’m going to eject from this feature before I start to really rant, but Bixby needs a lot of work and I truly wish I could just use Google Assistant instead.

There are small things like the fact that even after you’ve authenticated with your face or fingerprint, if you tap a notification on your lock screen, you need to make a second swipe up gesture to actually open that notification. Two actions to get into a notification is a small, but constant annoyance for something you do dozens of times a day.

Of how the notification bubbles can only be made like half opaque, so some lock screen wallpapers in the stock set make the text of these notifications a little hard to read.

Let’s also talk about dark patterns for a second. One UI is full of screens like this:

That bottom option sure looks a lot like it needs to be checked to proceed, but it’s actually completely optional and opts you into a bunch of marketing and analytics programs you probably don’t want to agree to. You may not see it from this screenshot alone, but even when I knew it was a thing I still tapped this button on a bunch of screens in numerous apps and almost agreed to a bunch of marketing stuff I certainly didn’t want.

Finally, there is the standard Android issue of relatively poor third party software. There are a ton of apps, but every single app I use on this phone has a better version on iOS. Fanboys, this is your chance to come at me, but the gulf in software quality for the things I use a phone to do is enormous.

Does Samsung Even Like Android?

One thing that’s really clear when using One UI is that Samsung is not that into Android. They really guide you through setting up a Samsung account, using their own document and photo storage tools, and push their own apps on you. On first boot, there are two app stores, two browsers, two messaging apps, two emails apps, and more on the home screen. Samsung has their app and then there’s a Google folder with a few of their apps if you’d prefer. I like the choice here, but it’s pretty clear that Samsung would prefer you use their apps, thank you very much.

This is fine, but it’s a little jarring when you go between Samsung’s apps and all other Android apps. Samsung is using entirely different UI paradigms for their apps, so their apps work one way and anything from Google or third parties on the Play Store works totally differently. Samsung has a pretty clear vision for that makes a good One UI app and nothing you download for your phone is going to follow those conventions.

It’s like Samsung set out to make the best operating system they could, and only built it on top of Android because they needed the Play Store. The Galaxy Store is okay, but there are far fewer apps there than the Play Store, and I would imagine everyone is going to need to go to Google’s app store to get everything they need. Microsoft has a bunch of apps in the Galaxy Store, but almost nothing else of note is there.

There’s just a bit of friction between Samsung and Google’s apps, and it’s something I feel all the time when using the phone.

All the Small Things

This was the first phone I’ve used Android Auto with in any meaningful way, and I have to say I’m disappointed. The car UI is pretty clunky and despite having the fastest phone money can buy, the UI is choppy. Also, the UI has noticeable jagged edges on a lot of elements, which is in part due to my car’s display (driving a 2018 Chevy Cruze), but is not something I noticed was an issue on CarPlay for iOS. I also got numerous instances of audio getting choppy, which makes no sense since all content was downloaded to the device and I was using a wired connection. I guess Android Auto was just a less reliable and weird experience for me than CarPlay. Not Samsung’s fault, but something I noticed.

What I do love is that I can run the Android Auto app on the phone itself, so I get the same UI without needing a car compatible. My wife drives the Cruze and I am in a 2013 Hyundai that doesn’t have any smartphone connectivity, and using this makes my car feel a little fancier.

The camera bump on the back of the phone is much shallower than the iPhone XS’s and it’s so much nicer day-to-day. I use my phones without a case most of the time and the reduction in wobble is welcome.

There’s a headphone jack on this phone! I never used it!

Samsung Health is pretty decent. It does automatic sleep detection (only track time asleep, not how you slept) that’s pretty accurate. It also does workout detection and gives you some decent data on your walks/runs. If you have a Galaxy Watch, then you basically need to use this app.

I love the little animation that plays around the camera cutout when it’s trying to read your face.

I hate how the hole punch is bottom aligned with the status bar. Nothing else does that and it feels unintentional. The only other option would be to bump the status bar even lower, but that would be worse from a usability perspective. It’s almost like they could have added a notch and avoided this whole problem…

I hated Samsung’s emoji set at first, but it’s really grown on me. I still think of Apple’s as the canonical set, but Samsung’s looks really good at small sizes. Certainly better than Google’s set in my opinion.

Conclusion

It’s not a slam dunk, but I think the Samsung Galaxy S10e is a killer phone and is easily my favorite Android phone right now. While I normally struggle to use an Android phone for most than a month before dying to get my SIM back into the iPhone, this time I’m quite comfortable sticking with this phone until WWDC this June (I’m a sucker for iOS betas, so iOS 13 will bring me back). That’s three months, which is pretty damn impressive.

I didn’t talk much about the other S10 models, but considering the big omissions are6:

  1. The in screen fingerprint reader
  2. The curved edges
  3. The telephoto lens

The first two are frankly things I’d rather not have on a phone. All accounts are the fingerprint reader is slow and unreliable and I don’t like how many accidental touches I’ve had on every curved Samsung phone I’ve used. I do miss the telephoto lens though, and that’s the only real thing that would get me to upgrade.

So all in all, $749 for most of the good stuff and none of the bad of the more expensive phones, this really feels like it’s the best option in the lineup. Unless you want a huge phone, in which case the S10+ will be more up your alley.

I think the S10e is the best Android phone for the most people, so long as they’re prepared to spend $700+ on the phone. If they want to spend less, I would point them to the OnePlus 6/6t, but that’s a more barebones experience. For nerds, that coupled with much faster software updates makes it more appealing, but One UI makes me feel like prompt Android updates are less meaningful on this phone. If you want the best camera, get the Pixel 3, but that’s really the only reason in my opinion.


  1. Worth noting here that I have found it hard to recommend a Galaxy S phone since the S2 or S3. Despite their financial success, I never liked their hardware and truly disliked their software. 
  2. I don’t think battery life is something we should need to aggressively manage. I could always install things like Tasker and try to set up things to shut down Bluetooth and Wifi all the time, but I have no interest in using my phone this way. I don’t want to “manage” my phone, I want it to manage itself. If you don’t think that’s reasonable, then I don’t think you have high enough standards for technology and have a fundamental misunderstanding of how the vast majority of people treat and think about this stuff. 
  3. My family and friends aren’t super keen on their photos being used in reviews like this, so you’re stuck my my ugly mug for most of these example photos. 
  4. Or more often, people who aren’t familiar with my extensive Android usage, coming in hard with “this Apple fanboy doesn’t understand Android” and trying to ruin my day. 
  5. And my expectations were very, very low. 
  6. It also starts with 6GB RAM instead of 8GB, and the screen itself is marginally lower resolution, but these are frankly unnoticeable for most people, and are specs I don’t feel move the needle at all in terms of how these phones are in daily use. 

watchOS 6: The BirchTree Concept

watchOS 6: The BirchTree Concept

We're very likely 3 short months from seeing what Apple has in store for the next major version of watchOS, and as has become tradition for me, I wanted to take this chance to go through some of the things I hope to see in this next update to the platform I love so much. watchOS 6 is likely to be a smaller update, as the odd numbered watchOS versions has tended to be bigger, while the even numbered ones have been more iterative. With that in mind, most of my suggestions are enhancements to things that already exist and not major game-changers.

I hope you find things here that you'd enjoy as well. If I missed anything, I am more than willing to keep this as a living document and update it with more ideas, so let me know on Twitter if you think there's something awesome I missed.

New Siri Watch Face

The Siri watch face was one of my favorite additions to watchOS 4 and it remains one of my go-to faces in watchOS 5. But I think it's time for an update to this watch face's UI to make it a little cleaner and a little more useful.

This new version of the watch face keeps the same card metaphor as today, but instead of using the blue/purple cards that many people don't love the look of, instead this should use the new modular infograph complication style. This will let apps show more customized UIs on this page, as well as remove a lot of the color that turns people away from the current version.

Sleep Tracking and Well Being Rings

Sleep tracking is one of those things the Apple Watch does quite well, but as my friend Mark Miller has lamented, the apps that track your sleep don't do a great job of turning that sleep data into easily-parsable information. My mockup doesn't do much in this regard either, but this seems like the sort of thing that Apple could do and likely will tackle.

I expect this to either be a totally separate thing from the activity rings we all know and love. It may be a bit of a reach, but I would not be surprised to see Apple create new "Well Being" rings that includes sleep information as well as meditation. They've had the Breathe app for a couple years and the addition of sleep might give them a reason to include it in this new ring. People are addicted to "filling their rings" and getting people to sleep more and meditate even for a bit more than today is not a bad thing at all. Excluding it from the current activity rings also means you don't have to feel like you're missing out on something if this new tracking isn't something you're interested in.

Grid Layout for the Dock

I’ve never been fully satisfied with the dock on the Apple Watch. I liked the original variant when it was a horizontally scrolling list, and felt it was a slight regression to go to the vertical card system we have today. I get that vertical scrolling makes more sense on the watch, but it’s such an inefficient use of space.

My proposal is to convert the dock to a grid system, at least on the Series 4 and newer models. The 44mm model especially has more room than ever, and those pixels could more effectively be used to show full previews of your recently used apps and let you get into them with bigger touch targets.

In my mockups, I was able to get 4 apps on screen at a time and still easily make out the contents of the app and tap into it with ease. The list should still scroll, of course, and your last 8-12 apps should show here.

This change would also take us back to the original idea of the dock. It was supposed to be a place to quickly get info from your favorite apps without actually launching them. With this change, the ability to see the contents of these apps would get that back to us, all the while making it a better app switcher for people who prefer to use it like that.

New Watch Faces

This is kind of a given, but I hope to see more focus put on adding new watch faces, as well as updating the existing watch faces Apple already has. Most of the watch faces we have in watchOS 5 are the same, or slightly modified versions of what we had in the very first version of watchOS in 2015. Now that we have larger watch faces and new design elements, I think it’s time for Apple to spruce up the classics.

But let’s not stop at updates to the current watch faces, let’s get some new blood in there too. We got 2 new faces exclusive to the Series 4 watches, and both of those are very data-dense. I hope to see some new watch faces that are more about looking nice than getting as much data on screen as possible. I know this is very vague, but last year’s infograph watch faces showed Apple is still happy to experiment with design here.

iPhone Continuity and Companion Apps

Audio players and workout apps already have this, but I’d love to see the concept of keeping your iPhone and Apple Watch in sync be able to grow out a bit. For example, when I open the camera app on my iPhone, either open the companion app automatically on my watch, or add a one-tap button that takes me to it when I raise my wrist. Similarly, if I start a stopwatch on my iPhone, start the same one on the watch so I can keep track of it there as well.

This really speaks to the idea of the iPhone and Apple watch behaving more as a unit and not individual products that have their own things going on. My favorite moments with the Apple Watch are when it seems to know what I want before I even ask for it, and something like this would make those moments more frequent.

Better Data Transfers for 3rd Party Apps

One of the major pain points of watchOS is getting data from your phone to the watch. Sometimes it’s pretty good, with say a podcast syncing over in a minute or so, but often it is terrible, with sync taking many minutes, hours, or simply not working at all. This inconsistency is frustrating and makes you trust the feature less. I have a WiFi-only Apple Watch and I hardly ever bother to try and sync things like podcasts or music to it because I don’t trust that it’s going to get the job done. This means all of my workouts involve me taking my iPhone with me even though I’d much rather leave it at home.

The best I can tell this seems to be something to do with transferring data over Bluetooth and not WiFi, and watchOS makes weird decisions on which one to use at times. WiFi is supposed to be faster but use up more battery, which is why it often switches to Bluetooth, but here’s my thing: just use the damn WiFi all the time. Any battery advantages Bluetooth has must be somewhat offset by a shorter transfer, not to mention people actually using the freaking feature because it no longer feels like using a 56k modem to load The Verge.

The Little Stuff

As I have asked for over the past few years, please bring always-on watch faces to the watchOS. I’ll accept this as an opt-in feature and will check a box that says “I know this will make my battery life worse.” I just want to be able to see the time 100% of the time when I want to, not 95%.

Another repeat request is the ability for third party developers to make their own watch faces. I would even accept a super-strict approval process from Apple where they only accept faces they deem acceptable, but we need to get more designers working on digital watch faces. Here’s my idea from last year and I still think it looks nice.

Improvements to auto-workout detection is a must. The watch does a good job of guessing when I’m done with a workout and asking me if I want to stop it, but I still end up with 3 hour strength staining workouts from time to time when I miss that notification and it goes “well, I guess I’ll keep this going forever then.” Especially when it’s a walk/run/bike workout and I haven’t moved in 10 minutes, just close out the workout.

Let me see my iPhone’s battery life from the Apple Watch.

Let me read full articles in Apple News.

There should be more “domestic” style workouts. Snow shoveling, lawn mowing, yard raking, construction, and furniture building are all physically taxing, but can’t be tracked easily. I don’t need anything crazy like “pounds of snow moved” or anything, but some way to track this besides “other’ would be nice.

Finally, this is more a note, but I think we’re getting very close to the Apple Watch being able to operate entirely on its own. Much like iOS 5 let you finally set up and manage an iPhone entirely without a PC involved, we feel like we’re getting to a similar point with the Apple Watch. There’s still too much that would need to be decoupled from the phone, but the idea of an Apple Watch being set up and used entirely without pairing it to an iPhone seems like something Apple could make happen in the next year or two. I don’t know if they want to do this, as the Apple Watch helps keep people from switching to Android, but if Apple finds a good reason to want these to sell to more than just iPhone users, then this could be something we see relatively soon.

Conclusion

I think watchOS 7 next year will be about time for Apple to introduce some more fundamental changes to the Apple Watch, but for now I think the changes above will help make the Apple Watch more useful to those who already have it and entice more people to jump on board and get one for the first time.

We don’t know what Apple is going to show off at WWDC this June, but regardless of how close they adhere to my hopes and dreams, I just hope they still feel like they are treating watchOS as a priority and grow it beyond where it is today.

Apple Watch Series 4 Review: Bigger is Better

Apple Watch Series 4 Review: Bigger is Better

Every year since 2015 Apple has released a collection of Apple Watches, each with a standout hardware feature. The Series 2 brought GPS, Series 3 had LTE, and this year’s Series 4 has a vastly improved screen. The question on everyone’s mind this year is whether that screen makes this a worthwhile upgrade.

Jumping to the end, I think the Series 4 is a very good upgrade to the Apple Watch lineup, and for a lot of people it seems to be the Apple Watch update they’ve been waiting for. But that said, the Series 3 this is replacing was not exactly in desperate need of a revamp, at least in my opinion.

Let’s jump into it.

That Screen

This year’s update is really all about that new screen. It’s a little over 30% larger and has a slightly higher pixel density1. What this means is that everything looks notably bigger than it did on the previous Apple Watch models. Outside of the 2 new watch faces2, Infograph and Infograph Modular, very little in the operating system takes the opportunity to show more information than before. Individual notifications still take up all of the screen, workouts display one at a time, and the dock still has the card system that only shows you half an app at a time.

I find this a little disappointing because I was really hoping to get more data at a time. Maybe my eyes are good enough that I like smaller text (I have my iPhone’s dynamic text set to the smallest value), but I feel like most of watchOS was simply zoomed to 130% scale rather than leaving the UI the same size and showing more stuff.

For many people this is likely the right thing to do, but I am disappointed that there is no option like there is on the iPhone Plus/Max models that lets you choose whether to zoom content or show more content. For some examples, here are some screens from a Series 3 and 4:

Now all that said, the screen itself looks more amazing than ever. Because everything is bigger and it’s displayed on a higher resolution screen, everything looks a little sharper than it ever has on the watch. Everything looks absolutely beautiful, at at 1,000 nits, the screen is always legible, even outside on the sunniest days.

In my limited experience with Android Wear (wearOS?) and Galaxy watches, the Apple Watch has always seemed to have a nicer screen than anything else on the market. With this year’s models, Apple pushes even further ahead.

Design

For the first time since the Apple Watch’s debut, we finally have a physical redesign. As I expected, Apple is sticking with the rectangular form factor, and simply enhanced it. The new watch is both wider, taller, and thinner than the models it replaces. I got the 44mm option and was worried the additional height would be a big deal, but I hardly noticed a change on my wrist, and I’m someone who has worn a 42mm Apple Watch every day since April 2015. I can clearly see the difference when they’re side-by-side, but it’s so slight on the wrist that it’s hard to tell at all.

One of the reasons the added height and width are hard to notice is that the watch is now thinner than it was before. They’ve reduced the thickness of the watch by about 9% and I think this combines with the 8% increase in surface area to basically cancel out. Your sensitivity may vary, but I am very happy I stuck with the larger model instead of going down a size.

In addition to the size differences, they also changed the shape of the body. The Apple Watch Series 4 is more rounded than ever, and that change actually stood out to me more than the size difference. It’s still clearly an Apple Watch and it’s very much a rectangular face, but it’s a little softer. To put it in web developer terms, if the old Apple Watch had a border radius of 8px, then the new ones have a border radius of 12px. I personally like this, and it makes my Series 3 look a little blocky in comparison.

It’s worth noting here that even though the sizes have changed, all old Apple Watch bands will continue to work with the Series 4 sizes. 38mm bands work with the 40mm model and 42mm bands work with the 44mm model. The fit is pretty darn perfect too. The above photo is a band made for the 42mm watch used with the new 44mm Series 4.

Then there’s the back side of the watch. The heart rate sensor has gotten a redesign, but it’s not a big deal as it’s not something you ever look at for more than a second or two. The bigger change here is the fully ceramic back, which makes the watch feel a little more premium, especially on the base aluminum model that I got. I’m not good at measuring this sort of thing, but it also does feel like the sensor pokes out a tiny bit less than it did before. That might be a placebo, but looking at it now, it does appear a little less pronounced.

And finally, there is the side button and Digital Crown. The side button is similar to how it’s been since the start, but it now sits flush with the side of the watch body. I like that this makes the watch look a little more like it’s one piece of metal, but it makes it so I’m a bit less confident I’m pressing it every time.

The Digital Crown got a more notable update. The crown itself sticks out a tiny, tiny bit less than before, and the pronounced red dot from last year’s LTE models has been toned down to being a red ring around the border of the crown. I got the non-LTE model this year and that model also has a glossy ring around the border, but it’s black and basically invisible unless you really look closely.

The bigger change to the Digital Crown is that it now has haptic feedback when you use it almost anywhere in watchOS. It’s supposed to simulate a click for each item on screen, and for the most part it does just that. The feedback does manage to feel localized around the crown and it does not just feel like another buzz on the wrist. It’s quite impressive. My biggest complaint is that it’s inconsistent. On the Siri watch face and Workouts app, the haptics clearly indicate each item as I scroll through the list, but when I go to notifications, there seems to be no relationship at all as to when the haptics trigger. It’s not a huge deal, but it doesn’t feel like they totally implemented this yet.

Performance

A big change we can expect every year from the Apple Watch is performance. Apple has been making these tiny computers for just the last few years, and the tech they can cram in there is growing very quickly. Last year’s Series 3 was what I called a turning point in the Apple Watch in terms of performance:

The Series 0 felt like it didn’t have the hardware resources it needed to do basically everything. Sometimes it would be quick, but that was the exception, not the rule. The Series 1 was notably faster, but it felt like it was barely hanging on for dear life. Some things went fast, while others remained slow. The Series 3 just feels fast all the time.

That watch represented a 70% increase in speed over the previous model, and a year later, I still felt like that was the case. The Series 3 remains a plenty capable watch and I rarely experienced slowdowns that hindered my use in any way. Now the Series 4 and S4 chipset claims 50% more performance over that.

Without getting into any speed tests, I will say that the Series 4 is clearly the fastest Apple Watch yet. Duh, I guess, but considering I thought last year’s Series 3 was still pretty zippy, this didn’t land with me the same way as it may have for others. I can see the differences here and there, but my watch doesn’t feel much different to use day to day. This isn’t a complaint, but a compliment to the Series 3, which is still a great deal.

Workout Tracking

What’s an Apple Watch review without a little discussion of workout tracking? Happily there isn’t much to say here. The Series 4 does about the same as the previous Apple Watches in terms of being a workout companion. Basically, if you were happy with it before, you’ll be happy with it now.

I’ve seen a few people say that they have experienced better heart rate tracking than they ever did with the Series 3, but that has not been my experience. Here are the last 3 workouts (runs and walks) I did with the Series 3, and the 3 first workouts I did with the Series 4:

The tracking looks essentially the same to me and I’m getting very comparable cretic for the same workouts as I did with the Series 3. For my money, it’s working exactly the same as before.

The X-Factors

When you have the screen off, the size difference is hardly noticeable, but it becomes much more apparent when the screen is on, especially with the old watch faces. I had gotten used to things like Utility and Modular being certain sizes, and the difference in size is very noticeable there. You also really notice it in things like Maps where the UI actually takes up the entire screen.

The haptics feel ever so slightly different than last year’s model. They’re a little more delicate, but not in a way that makes them harder to notice, just different.

I think Apple missed an opportunity to revamp their whole watch face lineup this year. The 2 new faces are the only ones that get to use the new complication types, which make me far less likely to use anything else. The other watch faces feel old now and I feel like I’m compromising the new stuff when I use them. Hopefully watchOS 6 will address this, but it’s a let down this year.

Speaking of complications, I really like the new style that Apple has introduced this year. The colorful bar graphs are a great way to visualize data. I like them a lot for temperature and I love them for the timer. I would very much like for devs to be able to indicate a direction on the line as well. For example, being able to show which direction the temperature is heading. I’d also like to be able to set these to use monochrome colors since the wild rainbow of colors is not to everyone’s liking.

Battery life is not something I can say much about since it's only been 11 days, but I'm still getting well into a second day with it. That said, I have noticed the charge being a little lower than I'm used to at certain points, but not by much and not in any way that would make me get less than the advertised 18 hours of battery life, even with 2 hours of workouts tracked. I also moved from the cellular model to a non-cellular, so that's another variable that's hard for me to track.

The ECG functionality is exciting, but as of this review was not available, so I have not been able to try that out yet.

Finally, I need to mention the price. All the aluminum models cost $100 more than they did last year. That means that I spent $429 on my Series 3 with LTE Watch last year, but this year that same $429 bought me the non-LTE Series 4. It’s not the end of the world and I’ll be fine, but I was a little upset that we had a 20-25% increase in cost from year to year. I loved having LTE on my Apple Watch, but apparently the proposition of saving $100 up front and then $180 over the course of the year to T-Mobile was enough for me to downgrade.

Wrap Up

This is where I’m supposed to tell you whether or not the Apple Watch Series 4 is worth the money. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the Series 4 is the best watch Apple has ever made (duh) and if you are in the market for a new watch, this is a great product. It’s the best of the best and warrants the praise it has received from basically every tech outlet.

That said, the Apple Watch Series 3 now starts at $279, a full $120 less than the Series 4. That’s a significant price difference and I think it’s still a great buy for most people. If you must have the latest and greatest, then the Series 4 will make you happy, but if $400 is a hard pill to swallow, then I think the Series 3 is a good place to test the waters on if an Apple Watch is right for you.

I think that if you really love the Apple Watch already and you aren’t scared off by the upgrade cost, then by all means, the Series 4 is a worthwhile upgrade from any previous Apple Watch model, including the Series 3. But if you are a first time buyer or are upgrading from a Series 0, 1, or 2, then I would seriously look at the Series 3 to see if that would work for you. No, it’s not the latest and greatest, and it may get one year fewer watchOS updates (until watchOS 7 in 2020 would be my guess), but it’s a fast, high quality Apple Watch as well.


  1. Incidentally, at 326ppi, the Apple Watch now has the same resolution as the upcoming iPhone XR and all previous non Plus or X iPhones in the “retina age.” 
  2. And to a lesser extent, the new material-based watch faces, which mostly just show off the smaller bezels.