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. 

watchOS 5: The BirchTree Review

watchOS 5: The BirchTree Review

Every September since Apple released the Apple Watch, we’ve seen a brand new version of watchOS come out that improves the experience. Here’s a brief recap:

Which brings us to this September and watchOS 5. This isn't as big an update as watchOS 3, but it’s probably the next biggest update watchOS has received to date. It combines everything great about the platform and makes most elements of it better, while adding a number of key features that people have been asking for. Oh yeah, and they had to spend a non-insignificant amount of time adjusting the whole OS to work on the new Apple Watch Series 4.

The Apple Watch journey has been all about figuring out what people like to do on their smart watches and optimizing watchOS to match. Those categories seem to have settled on activity tracking, listening to audio, handling notifications, communicating with others, and getting general information quickly. watchOS 5 addresses all of those categories and almost all changes are for the better. The worst thing I can say is that a good number of these updates require third party app developers to update their apps to use them. Given how much better this makes the watch experience1, I’d expect to see updates very soon that include these changes.

There are a lot of changes to activity tracking and workouts, including things that FitBit users used to be able to lord over the Apple Watch. Automatic workout detection is only the tip of the iceberg here, there's much more. The Siri watch face, my favorite new feature from last year, got the best update it possibly could: third party app integrations. This means that all your favorite apps, not just Apple’s, will be shown on your watch face. Podcast and audiobook apps can now make honest-to-goodness amazing apps on the watch, and they can even download content and play in the background. And if you don’t want to use a third party app, Apple’s brand new Podcasts app for the Apple Watch is quite nice.

There is so much more to talk about, so let’s get into the meat and potatoes.

The Little Things

watchOS lives and dies on the little things. Small interactions that create delight or frustration define how much people enjoy the Apple Watch, so let’s kick off with some small changes in watchOS 5.

watchOS 5 drops support for the original Apple Watch. This isn't so much a fun update, but it's worth noting up front that this update will only run on the Series 1 and newer models of the Apple Watch. While it is sad that the original model won't get any of these benefits, many of the changes listed below were only possible because Apple no longer needed to make everything work on the original model anymore.

Bold text mode is less bold than before. Not everyone will notice this because using bold text appears to be a relatively niche thing, but I personally love bold text and think it makes everything on the watch more legible. It's not a horrible change, but it's definitely one that I noticed right away.

“Hey Siri” is now optional. This is mostly cool, as I can just raise my watch to my face and say “remind me to XYZ.” This somehow feels less nerdy than prefacing every request with “Hey Siri.” On the other hard, this feature has been triggered accidentally quite a few times in my testing. I was stretching during a meeting at work once, and it thought I was talking to it, only to reply audibly to the room. It was annoying for me, but lead to a minute of “oh Siri, you’re so dumb,” comments from the room. This happened a number of other times outside of meetings, and while it was never as horrible as that one time, it’s always obnoxious.

Series 3 and 4 users can change how loud Siri’s voice is. I love this myself, as I always want Siri to respond at full volume. Others can use a lower volume if they’d prefer, though. If you are using a Series 1 or 2 watch, Siri still will not be able to speak back.

Walkie Talkie is here, and it’s good for very specific uses. You have to set a status for walkie talkie, and people can only reach you when you are set to available. This is necessary since you really don’t want to have people sending you real time audio messages just whenever. I’ve only used this a few times, but I got my wife on the beta late in the game and used it to talk to her when she was coming home from work so I could meet her by the car right when she got home. The voice message was in real time, and was a lot easier to notice than a basic text message, and required less interaction than a phone call. I get that many people won’t see the value in it, but every once in a while it has been something I enjoy having2.

You can quickly access the Now Playing screen from the watch face. Like Workouts before, Now Playing will appear on the watch face as a red icon whenever media is playing on your iPhone. Tapping it takes you to the Now Playing app, or the app for whatever is playing audio (Overcast, Castro, Audible, etc). This is way more convenient than the previous method of opening the app honeycomb and finding the app icon.

App developers can put the Now Playing screen in their own apps. This is big for workout apps, as they will now be able to show the now playing interface inline in their app, instead of having to build their own media controls, which were never as good as the stock option. Developers also have the option to style the widget with their own colors for a consistent experience with their app.

Non-Apple apps can now change the volume with the digital crown. This is the reason why I always deleted the Overcast/Pocket Casts/Castro apps on my Apple Watch before. I need to have auto controls on my watch and now that third parties can do what the Now Playing screen has always done, these apps will be able to come back to my watch.

Transferring files to your watch is faster and easier to track. Transferring things from your phone to your Apple Watch was a major pain before for 2 main reasons. First, it took forever; so long that it actually felt broken most of the time. Transferring an hour long podcast to your watch could take well over an hour to finish. Second, and to make that process even worse, there was no way to see the progress of that transfer, so you never knew if it was still going, how much longer until it was done, or anything to even confirm it’s working.

Apple fixed both of those things in watchOS 5. Transfers are now much faster: I was able to transfer this week’s 87 minute episode of Upgrade to my Apple Watch in under 3 minutes. Not only that, I was able to see the exact progress of the transfer all the way through.

Timers and alarms have slightly different interfaces. These new apps have had their contrast boosted, a few buttons rearranged, and a few quick actions made easier. Here are a few comparisons.

Your favorite timers are easier to set than before. Now, instead of just having the pre-suggested timers of 1/3/5/10/15/30/60/120 minute timers, you will also see up to 4 of your previously used custom timers when opening the Timer app. This will be particularly useful for those of us who use similar timers over and over again.

You can load full websites in Messages. Here’s what it looks like in practice.

This only works in Messages and websites don’t look great in this view, but it is nice to have in a pinch. This is a full HTML web browser, so this is indeed a real website and not just a “screenshot” of the page that’s been rendered out for the watch. Yes, you can tap links and see things styled as they are intended.

There are of course limitations. One notable limit is that web fonts are not supported, meaning most websites (including this one) will not look exactly correct. Also missing are videos and service workers.

But the biggest hurdle is that websites just aren’t coded to look good on screens less than 320 pixels wide3. Apple’s solution is to display most pages in reader mode first, which will just render text and not the full styled page. In cases where this doesn’t make sense or the user overrides to the full page view, then it uses a logical pixel width of 156px and attempts to scale the content to resemble the site’s 320px width view as much as possible.

This is more or less successful in many cases, although I would never suggest browsing the web this way. It’s just a good way to see a little more content from your watch than you could before.

Mail can show HTML-formatted emails. Along the same lines, Apple Mail can now render HTML emails instead of just the text from them like it did previously. I actually found this to be more useful more often, as emails come in throughout the day and seeing them with a little more context is nice to see.

Control Center can be rearranged. This is a minor change, but one that you will probably use once and then never again. At the bottom of Control Center is an “Edit” button that allows you to shift these buttons around however you’d like.

I used this to move sound, theater mode, and battery status higher on the page since I interact with these the most.

Updates will install overnight. This is not something I’ve been able to test in the beta, but watchOS 5 will give you the option to let the whole update process take place overnight while the watch is on its charger. This avoids the pain of waiting for the watch to update, which by the way is still as long as it has ever been, even on the Series 3 model.

There are some new watch faces that don't totally suck! The new ones are Breath, Fire and Water, Liquid Metal, and Vapor. The 3 latter ones have multiple color options, and you can have them randomly cycle through their variants or choose over version you'll see every time. These will go edge-to-edge on the Series 4, but they display in a smaller circle on the Series 1, 2, and 3 watches, presumably to not make it so obvious how big the bezels are on that device.

Check them out running on a Series 3 below.

https://twitter.com/mattbirchler/status/1040972426509733894

And then there are all those Series 4 enhancements, none of which I can include in this review, unfortunately. The recently announced Apple Watch Series 4 will include many changes to the user interface, and I'll certainly take a look at those when I get my hands on this new device later in the week. Oh yeah, and there is this rad new watch face:

Activity Updates

Apple put a lot of effort this year into Activity updates. As this is one of the major selling points of the Apple Watch, that just makes a lot of sense from Apple’s perspective. What does watchOS 5 bring to the table that will get people excited about the Apple Watch? Let’s take a look.

A New Workouts API for Developers (and Apple)

Trust me, this is a little nerdy but you care about this one! Previously, Apple had a workout API that third party developers could use, but it wasn’t super easy to use, was a little flaky, and was not what Apple themselves used for their own Workout app. This changes in watchOS 5, as not only has Apple created a new API for third party developers to use, but they have rewritten their own app to use it as well.

What does this mean for you, the end user? It means that third party apps like RunKeeper, Nike Run Club, Strava, and more can use the same data Apple uses. This is good because that data is easier to process so you are more likely to get better workout data from these apps.

Apple has also done something cool with how workout data is collected. To make sure that you never lose your workout data because of an app crash, they have updated the data collection this year so that even if your workout app crashes, the workout data is not lost. If you are in the middle of a run in RunKeeper and Runkeeper crashes, watchOS 5 will detect that, relaunch the RunKeeper app automatically, and feed it back the workout data so that it can pick up where it left off. It’s a really cool solution and one that workout apps get basically for free, so you can feel comfortable using whatever app you’d like now, not just Apple’s own.

Competitions

While the enhanced workout API is a great technical enhancement, the biggest user-facing update in my eyes is competitions, which lets people compete with one another to see who can be more active over a 7 day stretch. You can compete with anyone your have set up as a friend in the Activity app, and the competition is based on a point system, not your raw calories, active minutes, or steps taken. Essentially, points are the percentage of your daily move, exercise, and stand goals that you achieve. So if you do 120% of your move goal, 90% of your activity goal, and 100% of your stand goal, you’ll get 310 points (120 + 90 + 100 = 310). This acts as a good leveler so that the score is based on how you push past your own goals, not just who takes more steps. So if you want to challenge your marathon-running friend to a competition, you can stand a fighting chance, even if you associate the word "marathon" with Netflix more than running.

Inviting someone to a competition is easy enough, as you just need to tap their name in the Activity app on your iPhone and select the new “Compete with XYZ” button. The other person gets a notification on their watch that someone wants to compete with them and they can accept or reject the offer. If they accept, the game is afoot and the competition starts the day after they accept. Keep this in mind, as I once asked to compete with someone, saw they accepted, and went for a 10k run, only to find out that my epic run, which left my legs useless for a couple days, would not count in our contest.

For the 7 days that the competition is running, you can check your progress in the Activity app on the iPhone. Somewhat humorously, Apple gives you an option to remove friends from Activity sharing right from the competition screen. So if someone is really trouncing you, you can…uh…cut them out of your life???

You will get notifications throughout the week to let you know how you’re doing compared to your competitor, and at the end there are awards to be handed out. You will always receive a badge for completing a competition, whether you win or lose, but the winner will get a second badge called “Victory over XYZ”. I don’t want to get into it too much, but there are quite a few people who have a “Victory over Matt” badge in their collection today.

One big miss with this feature is that you can’t do larger competitions. My favorite Fitbit competitions were where we had 8-10 people competing together. It was more fun than a one-on-one battle because you didn’t have to beat everyone to feel like you were doing well. With one-on-one competitions, you either win or lose, which isn’t as exciting to me.

I also wish you could configure your competitions more. Right now it’s always a 7 day competition with points as the metric. I’d like to be able to do one day competitions or even one month ones. I’d also like to be able to choose what metrics we’re competing on. How about something weird like a stand competition? Or just a competition on how many active minutes we can have, or an old-fashioned steps battle?

Auto Workout Detection

This is a really cool feature that I would have loved to see Apple prioritize earlier, but I’m happy it’s here now. The watch will now detect when it thinks you’re working out and will prompt you to start a workout. In my experience, it does a pretty good job of figuring out what type of workout I’m doing. Whether I’m walking or running, it seems to get it right every time. I also do strength training workouts and it has never detected those, so I’ve had to start those manually. Considering that workout is under the “other” category, I’m not really surprised it doesn’t figure it out.

Usually it just takes a few minutes of working out for it to notice that you’re doing something and present the notification. The good news is that it gives you credit for the entire workout, not just from when you confirm you are indeed working out. So when it asks you 5 minutes into a run if you are indeed in a workout, you get credit for the time, distance, and calories burned for those 5 minutes. It’s pretty slick.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Apple Watch will detect when you’re done working out. This is a little less magical, as it takes longer than I’d like to notice that I've stopped. Usually it takes 5 minutes or so from when I actually stop a workout to when the watch asks if I’m done. Additionally, when I tell it that I was done, it counts the workout as done when I tapped the confirmation, not when I actually stopped working out. I get that they probably don’t want to accidentally guess wrong and delete some of your actual workout time, but a little interface to choose how long ago I stopped working out would have been nice. This is really only a problem with getting an accurate pace for a run.

This is absolutely a win overall, though. The auto-start means that I no longer lose workout data when I forget to start one, and auto-stop means I no longer have accidental 3 hour walks in my history when I forget to stop them.

The Small Stuff

There are some smaller updates to Activity that might be notable. First, there are 2 new workouts, yoga and hiking. I don’t do yoga, and I don’t hike, so I’m not the target audience for these. Hiking is like an outdoor walking workout, but it also tracks elevation changes. Yoga acts basically like a generic workout (time and calories).

One feature I really enjoy is the recovery heart rate tracking, which will show you how your heart rate changed in the 2 minutes after your workout ended. It's interesting to see how quickly my body recovers from a hard workout. This will show up automatically on the Siri watch face once the data is collected, and it will be saved to the activty itself so you can always view it in the Activity app on your iPhone.

There are updates to running workouts as well. You can now show your cadence (steps per minute) during the workout, which is important to some runners, and you can also show your rolling mile (or km) time.

https://youtu.be/cdoDpltB9j4

There are new workout and activity animations throughout the watch apps. There are new details in the stick figures that animate while you’re doing a workout, and there are new variants of the “you filled your move ring” notifications when you achieve 200% or more of those goals. They’re cool and unexpected, and I love them. Apple is definitely into particle effects, because they’ve got all of them cranked to 11 for this release. I could not capture these on video for the review, so you should go out and crush your move goal to see these.

And finally, the awards page in the Activity apps got a small update. The page is much better laid out, with all of your badges organized by type. Your most recent ones are at the top, but then you have ones you earned from competitions, limited editions, monthly challenges, and the like. The page also shows you when you earned a specific badge, while “personal best” ones will show you what your best actually was (ex: 300% of your move goal).

Siri Watch Face

The Siri watch face was one of my favorite additions to watchOS last year, and I’m extremely happy to see that they addressed a bunch of my issues with that version in watchOS 5.

New Look

The classic Siri color scheme is cool, but it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. To combat that, Apple has added a grayscale theme for the face, allowing you to have a more subtle look. It's not a huge change, but it might get a few more people to feel okay about using this very cool watch face.

Sports

This is kind of a weird one, but I’m happy to see cards about my favorite sports teams appear on the Siri watch face. It’s weird because your favorite teams are set up in the…TV app. You’d think this might be in the main settings app or something, but yeah, any teams you have set as favorites in the TV app will show on your Siri watch face when they have games going on.

You will get cards that show when the next game is. It was baseball season during the beta, and because I told the TV app that I like the Cubs, I got cards showing when and who they were playing almost every day of the summer (because baseball’s crazy like that).

If you turn the digital crown to see further into the future, you can see upcoming games as well, which I find more useful now that the NFL season is upon us and I constantly ask “who are the Packers playing this weekend?” Siri can also tell me this, but it’s not always convenient to ask Siri a question, so having it easily accessible is nice.

Finally, and kind of the coolest feature, is that if my team is in the middle of a game, I’ll have a card near the top of the “pile” that shows the current score and time remaining. This isn’t a totally live score, as the card seems to update every 5-10 minutes or so. If you want to know what happens every moment, this won’t be good enough, but it’s perfectly fine for keeping tabs on a game. Fortunately, the card tells you how many minutes ago it was refreshed, so you always know how close to real time you are.

Third Party Support

This is the real winner here, and it’s exactly what I was hoping for when I reviewed watchOS 4 last year:

To be truly useful to everyone, Siri is going to need to start supporting non-Apple apps. During this beta I have moved more of my workflow to Apple apps so that I can get more value from the Siri watch face, but I shouldn’t have to change how I work to get the most out of this feature. It seems like we’re on the cusp of Apple opening Siri up to more and more app types on iOS, and I can only hope that will be followed in suit by Siri on the Watch. [...] Having calendar events and todo items appear here as needed has been fantastic, but I crave more.

Happily, Apple felt the same way and has opened up the Siri watch face to basically any app that wants to use it. Even before the official launch of watchOS 5, I’ve seen over a dozen apps show up in the “data sources” section of the watch app on my iPhone. These range from OmniFocus, Facebook, Jira, Overcast, Shortcuts, WhatApp, and more. App developers still need to do some work to actually make their stuff show up there, but it seems pretty trivial to do so. Developers can’t force things to show up on the watch face, but they can tell the system “hey, I have something the user might want to see around 3PM” and watchOS will decide whether that thing is worthy compared to what every other app wants to show at that time.

The only third party app I’ve been able to use that does this already is OmniFocus, which just so happens to be the task management app I use already, and its integration is everything I wanted. If I have a task due soon, it appears on my watch face, complete with the name of the task and when it’s due. I can tap straight into the task from the watch face and mark it cleared quickly.

Apps can also make themselves appear based on your location. For example, Starbucks can have its card appear when I'm close to one of their locations and allow me to pay quickly. Siri Shortcuts work with this too, and I have seen my "At Work" custom shortcut appear when I pull into the lot at work in the morning. It's super slick.

Enhanced Functionality

Previously, tapping a card on the Siri watch face would launch the corresponding app. Now that Siri has “intents” and “actions” developers can streamline this process even more.

Cards can still take you into the app, but if at all possible, Apple is suggesting apps allow you to simply tap the card on the watch face and then perform the action. This lets you do things like toggling your "Good Morning" HomeKit scene when you wake up with a single tap on the watch face. Similarly, task managers could display a task that's due and then allow you to tap it once to mark it as complete.

Actions that involve things you may not want to do on accident can display a confirmation message on screen that shows you a little more detail and lets you approve the action. For example, you could have a Starbucks card that says “Order your normal coffee.” When you tap this, you probably want to confirm the order, so Starbucks can have a pop up that shows a picture of the drink you're ordering, some text describing the specific drink and size, and buttons to approve or cancel the order. When you approve, the pop up simply drops out of view and you’re back on the watch face.

Podcasts

Apple added some really nice features for apps that deal with “long form audio” in watchOS 5. Part of this is Apple is finally bringing their own Podcasts app to the Apple Watch, but they’re giving all developers the tools they need to make truly top-class apps themselves.

Native App

The big news for most people is that the native Podcasts app, which is by far the most popular app in the world for listening to podcasts, is now installed on the Apple Watch. The good news: it works great!

The Podcasts app is my 4th favorite podcast app for iOS (behind Castro, Overcast, and Pocket Casts, in that order) but using its Apple Watch companion over the past few months has been almost uniformly excellent.

If you have used the Apple Music app for watchOS then you know what you’re in for here. Like Apple Music, you can browse your collection (of podcasts, in this case) and easily pick a recent episode to listen to. iOS and watchOS will coordinate while you’re on WiFi to sync episodes over to the watch so you don’t have issues if you lose internet access. The sync is not immediate, and as with all iPhone-to-Watch communication, this takes a long time.

The good news is that the Podcasts app for Apple Watch has full internet access and can stream episodes if you have not synced them already. This is nice on the standard Apple Watch, but it’s amazing on the cellular model. I have taken up the habit of going fo runs with just my Apple Watch and AirPods. I don’t worry about syncing first or anything, I just know that my current queue of shows will be there. If they haven’t synced yet, no problem, they’ll just stream over LTE and I won’t even notice the difference.

In addition to shows you have already subscribed to, you can also ask Siri to play any episode you’d like from the iTunes Podcast library4. Just like on the iPhone, it’s hard to get a specific episode to play besides the most recent episode, but I have found I have almost always been able to play whatever I wanted with Siri.

In terms of controls, Podcasts really only lets you change the playback speed in the app. Chapters and episode notes are nowhere to be found. I get that notes aren’t there, but I really wish there was a way to skip to the next chapter with a tap or two. Hopefully third party apps will get updates to support some more advanced podcast features for people like me.

For most people, this new app will solve the podcast problem with the Apple Watch. It’s not perfect, but it’s good to see Apple’s first effort here turn out quite well.

Third Parties Can Actually Make Good Podcasts Apps!

As mentioned above, Apple has also added hooks for developers to use to build their own first-class podcast apps. There are a few keys here:

First, apps can now play background audio and know that the system will not kill them a few moments after the user’s screen turns off. It will also let these apps access the standard watchOS system process of playing audio. That sounds a little weird, but the gist of it is that your favorite non-Apple podcast apps can now make apps that work great when your iPhone is not around.

Transferring data between the iPhone and Apple Watch has traditionally been terribly slow. It was slow for smaller files, but it was excruciatingly slow for larger files like podcast episodes. There were apps that let you sync audio files to the watch, but the process was so incredibly slow, and the user never knew how far along the sync process was. You basically saw when the transfer started and then when it ended. The problem is that these transfers took upwards of 30 minutes sometimes, and it was impossible to know if it was still going or if it was stuck.

As mentioned in the "little things" section of this review, transfer speeds are much faster than before. Because of that, I'm now able to sync an hour long podcast to my watch in a few minutes rather than an hour or more. Overcast, the popular podcast app, takes advantage of this improved speed and also displays the transfer progress so you know exactly how far along your sync is.

Overcast had syncing to the Apple Watch for a few months last year and the feature was removed because users hated it and there was nothing the developer could do to make it better. Syncing now works far better and I think users who were let down by the feature the last time it was added to Overcast will be very happy with this implementation.

Finally, podcast apps now have better media control options and they can even control system volume with the Digital Crown. This is far better than the previous custom playback controls apps had to make, all of which were too limited and slow for most people. Now, developers will be able to make better media controls. Or if they’d prefer, simply drop in the system Now Playing screen into their own apps and let Apple handle everything. I used to uninstall all podcast apps from my watch because the apps lacked volume control and were slower than the standard Now Playing app. Now I'm using the native apps and they're working great for me. Playback controls are just as fast as the Now Playing app and volume controls are just as easy to use.

Notifications

Many of the updates that notifications got in iOS 12 have also been applied to watchOS 5. Grouped messages, muting, do not disturb, it’s all here, as well as a few watch-only bonuses.

Grouped Notifications

Notifications from the same app will now have their notifications grouped to save you space and improve the overall organization of what’s coming into your watch. I like this feature a lot, especially when it comes to things like Twitter, Activity, and Messages notifications, which tend to come in quite fast sometimes. Having each type of notification grouped together means I can more easily find what I’m looking for instead of scrolling and scrolling and scrolling and…

Another related improvement is that when you are looking at a notification and another one for that app comes in, the new notification will be appended to the one you’re already looking at. This is more noticeable in messaging apps where I can be looking at the last message someone sent me, a new message can come in, and it’s just added below what I'm reading. Previously, this would take over the entire screen as a new notification, making it hard to read in some cases. Apple's Messages app did this before, and now all messaging apps can do it as well.

Managing Notification Access

Also new is the ability to manage specific app notification permissions from each individual notification. Simply swipe left on a notification and tap the 3 dots to change its permissions. You can say “deliver quietly” which will make it appear in your notification center on the watch, but it won’t buzz you or make noise when it comes in. Alternatively, you can select “turn off on Apple Watch” which will simply make it so that app never even gets to your wrist. This doesn’t turn it off for your phone as well, so keep that in mind.

Critical Alerts

”Critical Alert” is a new notification type that will do a more prominent buzz to get your attention, and can even make noise even if the watch is silenced. You need to approve each app’s ability to do this, and it’s a separate permission from normal app notifications.

Most apps should not need this, but it can be useful for things like health apps which may want to give you a critical alert when your heart rate starts doing something unexpected. I could even see some task managers using this to really, really let you know that it’s time to do something.

Inline Actions and More Dynamic Content

Apps have always had to include text and some basic images in their notifications, but this year Apple is allowing even more here. Apps can now display interactive content in notifications, including things like buttons that the user can use to execute actions. Previously, doing something like this would send the user to the watch app and the action could actually take place, but this year developers can indicate they just want to perform whatever action the user wanted right from the notification and not launch the app at all.

Additionally, apps can present more elaborate things in their notifications. Instead of just text with an optional header image, there can now be video, dynamic text sizes, custom fonts, and even some interactive UI elements like buttons, payment options, sliders, and gesture recognizers.

These functions were specifically called out by Apple as a reason that watchOS 5 no longer runs on the original Apple Watch models. The computational power needed simply wasn’t there. By knowing they’re only running on newer devices, they were able to blow out notifications a ton.

What’s Missing?

Apple hit most of the big things people were asking for with this release, and I’m struggling to find much to be disappointed about, but there are a few things that I wish we had seen.

As ever, I’d like to see more watch face options, specifically by allowing third parties to build their own. I wish I could freshen up the look of my watch more often.

I also wish that there was some sort of always-on functionality with watch faces. The OLED screen on the Apple Watch is primed for always-on faces and the battery on my Series 3 lasts about 2 full days, and I’d love to be able to use these to see the time even if I don’t turn on the screen.

More workout types would be great too. Moving the lawn and shoveling the driveway seem like ones that could get lots of use, but for now it’s setting a generic workout type for another year.

I wish there was sleep tracking and some sort of “rest day” feature where I could take a day off without breaking my workout streak.

I wish the dock, which shows your recently used apps, would convert to a grid system so I could see more apps at a time. I often have to scroll longer than is convenient to get something I used recently.

These aren’t crazy asks, and some of them have been requests for years. Apple keeps chipping away at what the Apple Watch can do, and I’m happy to see more and more people come to the watch because of that. But it’s not perfect, and it’s not complete yet. We have a long way to go.

Conclusion

watchOS 5 is a strong update for all Apple Watch users5 and no matter what you use your watch for the most, you will almost certainly have numerous updates that make you enjoy wearing this smart watch even more.

I do feel a little like I'm not able to address all of the notable changes to the platform yet since the upcoming Apple Watch Series 4 brings a bunch of changes including a new hugely customizable watch face, a modified UI for all system apps, additional heart and activity tracking features, new complication types, and more. But even without those new features enabled by the new hardware, watchOS 5 is a strong update to a constantly evolving platform.

Personally, I find the enhancements to podcasts to be a game changer. I can finally, finally leave my iPhone at home when I go for a run because I can take my podcasts with me. Even more, the surprising fact that I can stream any podcast in existence over LTE just by asking Siri to play it for me is huge!

Beyond that, the Siri watch face is even better this year, and as a devout user of it already in watchOS 4, the addition of third party apps makes it the only watch face I have eyes for anymore. The updates to activity tracking makes the official Workouts app and all third party apps better, and competitions are a nice way to compete with your friends (even though I wish they would add group competitions badly). And of course, notifications are more powerful and easy to use than ever before.

Apple did nothing to address the “app honeycomb” which remains a less-than-perfect UI and the omission of third party watch face support, but overall I think they did a very nice job of making changes that needed to be made. watchOS 4 was already the most advanced, user friendly wearable operating system out there, and watchOS 5 made notable refinements to extend its lead. Install this update immediately.


Thank you for reading! My annual watchOS review takes more time and effort to create than anything else I do all year for BirchTree. If you are able, it would mean a lot to me if you considered supporting my work on Patreon and sharing it via whatever social networks you enjoy.


  1. And how fast Apple Watch sales seem to be growing. 
  2. Or earlier in the beta season, wish I had. 
  3. Presumably this will be slightly higher on the new Series 4 watches, but I’ll have to learn that when I have the new watch in hand. 
  4. AKA basically ever podcast in existence. 
  5. Except Series 0 owners, in which case watchOS 4 was the end of the road. 

Android Pie Review: All the Little Things

This was originally going to be a longer review with more than 2 short parts, but as I looked at what else had changed in Pie compared to Oreo, I found myself at a loss for how much could be said about each change. There’s a fair number of things happening behind the scenes, but from a user’s perspective, the changes amount to a bunch of smaller things.

So instead of going into a great detail about everything, here are some notable changes and how I found them to impact my usage of Android.

Screenshot editing

This is a big one for me, as I take a lot of screenshots when I’m using my phone. I have used Annotable for years on iOS, although my use has dropped a bit since Apple added their own system screenshot editor in iOS 11. All markup apps on Android suck, so it’s nice to see Google take this into their own hands and adopt basically the same thing that Apple does with iOS.

Now, when you take a screenshot, you see a notification with the image, and you can tap “edit” to edit the screen before it’s saved/shared. The tools are the same as you’d expect, with crops, lines, and shapes, and gets the job done for me.

Not a thrilling change, but a nice addition to Android that I appreciated.

Volume controls

Another small, but welcome change is that the volume keys now only control media volume. When you change the media volume, the ringer status comes on screen as well, showing whether you’re on silent, vibrate, or ring. You can tap to toggle between those 2 states, but you need to go into the Settings app to change the ring volume.

This seems like the right way to do things, which is what this has been be behavior on my iOS devices for years 😉

You also see any Chromecast devices at the same time, and can quickly change their volume independent from your phone. It’s easy, intuitive, and delightful.

Notifications show fewer icons for notch room

This is another very minor one, but in order to make room for notched phones, Google has reduced the number of icons that will appear at the top of the screen, to only 4. Previously, this would show you all your apps with notifications, and could fill up basically as much space as you had up there.

Google’s decision to reduce this number makes sense for notched phones, but why is it also like this for phones without a notch? If the explanation is to clean up the top bar, I think it’s a supreme half measure. It’s still messy up there, but a little less messy and a lot less useful, since you only see the last few apps to notify you of something.

This isn’t the end of the world, but it seems like the most half of half measures they could have done here.

Small design changes

Android Pie is brighter than any Android version that came before, and I think it looks very nice. I recently sold my Pixel 2 (hence the lack of tons of screenshots in this article) and had to downgrade it back to Android Oreo before shipping it off. Oreo looks downright bland in comparison.

Many icons are more bold and curved than before, and there is more white and blue contrast instead of a general grey and dark gray that previous versions of Android had going on.

The animations are also really nice this year, with some really nice looking animations for everything from opening apps to bringing up the multitasking page.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzjzNW9kHp8

Rotation lock

This is a small one, but worth mention. When you have rotation lock on, your phone will not rotate when you turn it (duh, I guess), but a small icon will appear next to the home button that lets you rotate the phone this one time. Tapping it will make the screen rotate appropriately and then lock the phone into that rotation until you tap that rotation button again.

It’s a small thing, but it’s nice to have when you want to keep you phone in portrait mode, but also want to have it change for YouTube videos.

App Actions

These are very similar to Siri Shortcuts coming in iOS 12, with the idea being when you go to your app drawer, you see your apps, 5 apps that Android thinks you might want to use, and 2 actions inside your apps that might be useful at the time.

Despite using this for the whole summer, I never found myself using this feature because the suggestions were never on point for what I actually wanted to do at the time. I did get suggested navigation in Google Maps when I was going home, which was nice, but most of the time it was “launch Assistant” or “open a playlist in Pocket Casts” or “open Slack to this channel.”

I like the idea of this feature, and I’m impressed with what a more robust version of this allows in iOS 12, but so far it’s not doing much for me. Hopefully more apps will start working better with it and it’ll become more useful.

Adaptive brightness and battery

This is the poster child for “things Apple and Google do the same, but only Google gets credit for WOW SUCH WONDERFUL AI” from some segments of the tech press.

Adaptive brightness has been a part of Android for years, but sometimes it would think the screen should get lighter or darker than you would think in a certain situation, and you’d override it. Now, Android will notice that you adjusted it’s suggestion and the next time will make a similar adjustment to be more in line with what you want. iOS does this too and it’s nice.

The adaptive battery feature is more inscrutable, as the noticeable impact is lesser, but the idea is that it will be more efficient with when it does things, will shut down background processes more aggressively, and generally get you better battery life.

I used this all summer and my battery life seemed fine; about in line with my normal experiences. I honestly didn’t notice any changes in my phone, so I kept it on.I saw one YouTube reviewer report their push notifications for background apps was spotty with this on, but I never experienced that.

Digital Wellbeing

This didn’t make it into the public release, nor did the beta launch in time for me to use it, so I unfortunately can’t speak to this. All I can say is that I like the idea of it and hope that it helps people understand how they use their devices and decide if they’re using them well.

Conclusion

And that’s about it! Pie is getting largely positive reviews, with most noting that this is a relatively minor update to the overall package. Since it is a small change, the results of these reviews are expected: Android fans like it and Android cynics (like me!) don’t. This is undoubtedly a better version of Android than Oreo, so if you liked Oreo, I expect you’ll like this better. But Pie does very little to win someone like me over.

All the same problems with Android still exist. It doesn’t have the services and apps that I love on iOS, and while the design is getting better, it still feels way behind iOS in terms of actually getting work done. That’s just how I feel and I know not everyone feels the same, but if you tend to have similar tastes in operating systems, I hope you satiated your curiosity enough with this mini-review to feel okay with your platform of choice this year.

HomePod: The BirchTree Review

HomePod: The BirchTree Review

Introduction

The HomePod is an interesting product from Apple. It’s a smart speaker that Apple is going out of its way to make you think is not like other smart speakers, which is a classic Apple maneuver1. Apple is partially right to do this because it leans into what the HomePod does incredibly well and diverts attention from the features that are not as fleshed out yet.

This review will treat the HomePod as fairly as I think is possible, but I will not ignore the smart speaker stuff just to line up with Apple’s marketing. This is partly because Apple literally said you should buy a HomePod instead of an Amazon Echo, but also because one might argue that the speaker and smart speaker markets are basically the same thing at this point. Also, as the sage John Gruber aptly put it:

No one other than a gadget reviewer is going to put both a HomePod and Echo in their kitchen. They’re going to have one. It is, most certainly, a competition.

The nitty gritty details are below, but here’s the tldr version:

Pros

  1. Sound is amazing! HomePod punches above its weight class.
  2. Apple Music integration is great, and musical selections are on point.
  3. A bunch of little details make the day-to-day experience delightful.
  4. It looks good on just about any shelf.

Cons

  1. This is only for loyal Apple fans; Spotify and Android users need not apply.
  2. AirPlay connections only means using this with non-Apple devices is a PITA (an app like Allcast might work okay).
  3. Siri is often frustrating to use, and must improve quickly.
  4. Listening to podcasts sucks unless you just AirPlay from your phone.

Set Up

https://youtu.be/wqJUIV0DAVk

Setting up the HomePod is trivially easy. As with all recent Apple products, you can simply hold another iOS device near the HomePod and it will automatically set itself up in just a few taps. The HomePod has a slightly more extensive setup as you need to choose whether to allow personalized requests and what room you are placing the speaker.

The whole setup took maybe 2 minutes and I was all set. It’s counterintuitive, but I kind of miss the days when you brought a new gadget home and it took you an hour or more to get it set up. Kids these days just wouldn’t understand.

HomePod Settings

There isn’t much in the way of settings for the HomePod; it basically is what it is. The settings can however be found in the Home app on your iOS devices (it took me forever to figure this out) and this is what you can control:

There isn’t much there, and notably there are almost zero settings for audio. The only setting that will change the audio in any way is the “sound check” setting that will try to normalize the volume of all content. For a speaker aimed at audiophiles, it’s disappointing to have no meaningful control over the sound. I understand that Apple is doing some elaborate stuff here to make the sound as good as it can be, but I would love to see a slider on this page that let me adjust how prominent the bass is. I find the bass to be too much at even medium volume in my apartment, and my dad found the bass to be too light in his house. Even if it made tiny adjustments, it would be a huge help.

Build Quality

The HomePod is a wonderfully designed piece of hardware. As many others have said, the device is much heavier than you expect it to be. It’s almost exactly as tall as an iPhone 6/7/8 Plus, but it weighs as much as a brick. Seriously, if this thing didn’t have this soft fabric on the outside, this would be a good tool for breaking through a glass window.

Everyone and their mother was talking about the power cable on this thing, and as far as power cables go, this is a really nice one. It’s braided with a similar fabric to what is on the HomePod itself and feels quite sturdy. It’s a little shorter than I would like, although at about 6 feet long (eyeballing it here) it gets the job done in almost all situations I had for it.

The top of the device has a touch screen with a few semi-static LEDs beneath a frosted glass. Plus and minus buttons appear whenever something is playing and these let you adjust volume. A Siri “paint smudge” appears when Siri is listening or talking as well. The entire top portion is touch-sensitive and can be tapped to play/pause whatever is playing, and just like inline controls on most headphones, double tapping skips forward and triple tapping skips back. This is very sensitive and the HomePod always remembers what you were listening to last, so be prepared to just graze it with your hand and have something from hours ago start playing immediately.

The thing just looks good too. I have an Echo Dot, which the best thing I can say about it is that it is hard to notice. The Google Home looks better, and the HomePod looks better still. I’m a big fan of this design and am super happy with the white model I chose.

I should note that people are reporting rings forming on their finished wood furniture in some cases, but I have not experienced this in my testing. I have the benefit of only using this on non-treated light-colored wood, though. And while this is not a HomePod-only problem, this is not an excuse for this not being properly communicated to users.

Sound Quality

I honestly don’t have much to say here, and the less I say the better; others have more than covered this to death, so I’ll be brief.

The HomePod sounds amazing. I don’t know much about sound quality and the most expensive pair of speakers I ever owned cost $99, so this sounds way, way better than everything I had in my apartment. I did take it over to my parents’ house and compared it to a $500 Bose Soundtouch 30 and I thought it sounded better than that too (my dad disagreed, but said it was close).

My only complaint here is that the bass on this thing is not built for people in apartments. I have had to keep the volume way down because the bass was too intense and could definitely be heard in the next units over. And when I had it on my desk for a few minutes2, it vibrated the desk so much that even at 5% volume the vibrations could be heard from the hallway. Wow!

Oh, and I don’t know what people were tripping on when they said this thing has “3D sound” or that “stereo” is an antiquated term after hearing this. The HomePod sounds great and it does a fantastic job of making things sound good everywhere in the room, but this is a mono speaker no matter what fanciness the embedded A8 chip is doing.

I should also note that AirPlay 2 features as well as being able to pair multiple HomePods together to create a stereo sound experience is coming soon, but is not here yet. Since I have but one HomePod to test, I will not be able to use these and they don’t impact me at all, but know that they are hopefully just on the horizon.

Music Playback

As you likely know, the HomePod only has support for voice commands with Apple Music. As a longtime Apple Music subscriber, this isn’t an issue for me, but it may be an issue for you if you use Spotify or another music service. The HomePod acts as an AirPlay device, so any of your Apple products can connect to it and play whatever media you want, but it was clearly designed to be controlled with a voice and it’s at its best when you’re doing just that.

Playback is a breeze, with songs playing quickly after request and Siri is mostly accurate in guessing what I mean when I ask for a song or artist. It’s not perfect, such as when just today I asked it to “play songs by Elliott Smith” and it replied “ok, here’s some songs from All American Rejects.” Ooooookkkkkkk. But that is by far the exception and not the rule. Siri has proven excellent at understanding what I’m asking for.

https://youtu.be/ne_tu_H2u64

This extends to non-specific music requests too. If you just say “hey Siri, play” it will start up a personalized radio station based on your taste. Asking it to “play happy music” or “play something quiet” or “play popular songs from 2007” worked great. As far as a digital assistant for music, this thing does better than Google or Alexa.

Podcast Playback

Podcasts are about as good as they are on any other smart speaker, which is to say not very good at all. Super casual listeners might be satisfied, but anyone who is advanced enough to have installed a podcast app besides Apple’s own app will likely find it wanting.

First off, HomePod has no voice input support for other podcast apps, so users of Overcast, Pocket Casts, and the like will not be able to say things like “resume the latest episode” and have HomePod pick up where you left off in your app. The good news is that iTunes has the most complete library of podcasts out there, so you can almost always say “hey Siri, play the latest episode of The BirchTree Podcast” and it will find and play it right away.

The next bit of bad news is that the HomePod does not remember your progress, so playing long episodes is a pain. It appears to occasionally sync my play location for shows I have subscribed to in the Podcasts app for iOS, but not always, which is weird behavior. At least you can say things like “fast forward 47 minutes” if you know the timestamp for where you left off. That’s a hacky solution and feels way less magical than this product is supposed to feel, but it works in a pinch.

These limitations lead to me just opening my iPhone and AirPlaying Overcast to the HomePod. It’s not ideal, and it certainly feels less elegant than the music interactions with it, but it gets the job done.

And it goes without saying that podcasts sound astoundingly good on the HomePod. Also, while the playback speed defaults to 1.0x, you can ask it to play faster and it will go faster.

Using it as an Apple TV Speaker

If I could justify the cost then I would buy a second one of these to be my full time Apple TV speaker (and would also turn off “Hey Siri”). Movies and TV shows sound amazing on this thing, and far outpace anything built into a TV set. But the experience is not perfect and I have disconnected my HomePod from the Apple TV except when I’m watching a movie.

My biggest issue with using this as an Apple TV speaker is that it’s awkward to have your voice assistant and TV tied to the same audio source. Watching TV means I can’t ask it to do anything for me, lest it freeze the video or at least dip out the audio while it listens and answers my query. This may not be a big deal to you, but it always felt like the HomePod was doing one too many things at once and it was just kind of uncomfortable.

Additionally, while the HomePod works as an Apple TV speaker, it has no other inputs, so you can’t hook up your TV in general, game consoles, other streaming boxes, or BluRay players to it. I’d love to play through Horizon Zero Dawn though the awesome sound of the HomePod, but sadly I will need to buy speakers from another company to do this.

This is really reaching at this point, but would also be nice to be able to say “hey Siri, pair with the Apple TV” to get it to connect. Instead you have to go to the settings app in the Apple TV itself and select the audio output device. It’s a pain when you just want to start watching a movie.

Smart Speaker Catch-All

Apple has built basically all of Siri into the HomePod, so let’s take a look at how Siri performs here. I’m just going to list everything of note that I’ve found.

How you doing, Siri?

Siri is the same old Siri you know and love/hate/tolerate (choose one). It’s not remarkably smarter or dumber here, so don’t expect it to be able to change you mind on Siri overall.

That said, more important than just about anything else is adding new abilities to Siri. More third party developers should be able to tap into Siri via SiriKit, especially audio apps of all varieties. There should also be iCloud settings for Siri where I can choose default apps to perform certain actions. I should be able to have “remind me to talk to Brian at 8am tomorrow” create a todo item in Remember the Milk if I’d like. I shouldn’t have to add “in RTM” at the end of the request. Adding the ability for podcast apps and other music apps to perform requests would make it easier for most people reading this review3 to listen to their podcasts seamlessly between their iPhone, iPad, Mac, and HomePod.

“Hey Siri”

The 6 far-field microphones do a great job of hearing me. I can be in the next room and it hears me just fine, and I can even turn up the volume on music it’s playing and still ask “hey Siri” at a reasonable tone and it will hear me. I have not experienced the “supernatural” voice pickup some others have reported where you can basically just mouth the words and it hears you, but it’s good. It’s unquestionably better than Google Home or Alexa at hearing me, though.

The HomePod is just another device in my life that responds to “hey Siri,” and I continue to be impressed with Apple’s ability to figure which device I’m talking to:

  • All devices at rest: HomePod responds
  • Using my phone: HomePod responds
  • Raising my phone and asking right away: iPhone responds
  • Raising my wrist: Apple Watch responds
  • Manually trigger Siri on phone/tablet/watch: that same device responds

Basically, it works 99.9% of the time. This is great, because HomePod is most likely the device I want to respond.

It can be a problem when something is asked that can’t be done on the HomePod, though. For example, I can ask for something that I know will trigger a web search4 and it will politely tell me it can’t do that. It should instead either run the request on my most recently used iOS device that can do this, or push a notification to my iPhone/iPad to complete the action. This is not impossible, as the Apple Watch already does this today.

HomePod needs to recognize multiple voices ASAP

The lack of multi-voice recognition is crushing on multiple fronts:

  1. The personalized data access (messages, notes, and reminders) becomes completely open to anyone when I’m in the house. It’s one thing for my family and friends to be able to access my sensitive information, but even a burglar could see a HomePod on the shelf and access all of my messages and notes just because I’m sleeping and my phone is on the Wifi. Pardon the language, but this is shitty security.
  2. Because Siri does not recognize different voices, anyone else in the house using Siri on their own devices will accidentally trigger the HomePod to repeat the same action. All that beautiful logic I listed above is broken when anyone who is not me uses Siri in my home. I saw this first hand when my wife was using Siri on her iPhone to set a bunch of reminders for herself. I realized the next day that HomePod heard all those and added them to my reminders as well. Faaaaantastic.
  3. HomePod is supposed to be very good at giving me music I want based on my tastes and listening history. This works well for me most of the time, but now that my wife has also been using this, my recommendations both on the phone and HomePod are less for me, and more and average of the both of us. When I ask for something it should influence my Apple Music library, and when she asks something it should influence her separate library. I can only imagine how messed up this will make parents’ recommendations who have kids asking the HomePod to play god knows what.

The ideal solution to the above problem is to let the HomePod learn multiple people’s voices and perform actions based on who’s asking. If I ask something use my data and accounts, if my wife asks something use her accounts, and if anyone else asks something make sure it has no access to either of our sensitive data or influence our music recommendations. I was able to think of this solution in like 5 seconds because it’s how Google already handles multiple voices and Apple needs to catch up. HomePod is a fundamentally less useful and delightful product without this.

Smart Home

I’ve made a conscious choice over the years to make sure all my smart home stuff (mostly wall plugs and lightbulbs) work with all 3 major smart assistants. Because of this, my Belkin, iDevices, iHome, and Philips Hue devices work flawlessly with HomePod. All the settings carried over from my iPhone and I can turn things on and off with ease.

Some reviewers have expressed concern with HomeKit having a smaller footprint in the smart devices market than Alexa and Google, but in my experience it has not been difficult at all to find devices that work. Alexa is the clear winner here, as basically everything work with it, but Apple is no slouch.

How about multiple timers?

We 👏 need 👏 multiple 👏 timers 👏 now. And no, reminders are not the same thing and do not solve the same problems. I should be able to set multiple timers at once (throw this “advanced” feature into iOS too) and I should be able to name them.

Turning off the mic

There should be a better way to mute and unmute the HomePod. You currently have to say “hey Siri, stop listening” and it will mute the mic (notably, “turn of the mic” and “turn off the microphone” confuse it beyond all get out).

  1. There is no indication on the HomePod that the mic is actually off, which makes it easy to forget what state it’s in. Maybe this would be useful for people who want this to be just a speaker and never use the voice features, but most people will only turn off the mic in certain situations and the indicator would be nice to have for those folks. Google and Amazon have this on their speakers and I love it.
  2. A hardware switch may not be coming to the HomePod, but it would be nice to have a better way to toggle this on and off without having to ask or going into the Home app on my iPhone to flip a digital switch. This isn’t essential, but it would be nice at times.

Compared to the other asks here, this is a super low priority, but I thought was worth noting.

Need for a “night mode” so I don’t blow my eardrums at 1AM

Google Assistant devices have a concept of “night hours” which has the speaker automatically behave slightly different at night. This dims the top-mounted LED and quiets the volume of music and voice feedback during the hours you request. While the LED issue isn’t an issue, as I think the LEDs are pretty mild, even at night, but the volume change would be hugely welcome. Listening to loud music at 5PM and then asking a question at midnight should not result in Siri yelling her answer to me5. Maybe don’t even make this a setting, but something it automatically does.

Where are the calendars?

This is a gimme, but why the hell can’t HomePod access my calendars? This is lame, especially since this is something natively built into the Calendar app for iOS. Siri on all other devices can do this, so it’s bizarre that HomePod doesn’t.

Connections to other Apple devices

HomePod should also be more aware of my other devices. I should be able to ask “where is my phone” and my phone will make a noise like it does when I press the button on my Apple Watch to find it. It should be able to talk to my Apple TV and do things like turn on, opens apps, and open media from the TV app. These are the sorts of advantages you get from going all in on Apple products, and again it hurts a little more because things like this are possible with Google’s competing Home and Chromecast devices.

A better wake up routine

If you ask HomePod to tell you about your day it will tell you it can’t do that. Alexa and Google Assistant have features that not only tell you the weather, your calendar events/reminders for the day, how long your work commute looks, and quick news summaries from the media outlets of your choice, but let you customize which of those elements you want to hear and in what order.

Siri can tell you the news by playing a short daily podcast from either The Washington Post, New York Times, Fox News, or NPR. Google offers 110 news sources for this same feature and while Apple’s news sources are usually political shows, Google has options for finance, entertainment, sports, and more in addition to the standard news options.

Who is this for?

The above graphic is as close as I can get to suscinctly stating who this is for. If you are an iOS-only user and if you subscribe to Apple Music and if you care more about audio quality than a robust digital assistant, then the HomePod is for you. That sounds a little harsh, but I think it’s accurate.

If you use Android, you can’t even set it up. If you get an iOS friend to come over and walk through the setup process for you, then it will only work via voice and your phone will never be able to talk to it.

If you subscribe to Apple Music, then it works great, but if you are an iOS user who uses Spotify, Pandora, or Google Play Music then you will have to use this speaker as an output device for your phone. This would be fine 2-3 years ago, but when basically all other speakers coming out today have native support for those services, then this makes the HomePod a worse option.

Finally, if you are happy with Siri’s more limited abilities, then it will be a sufficient assistant for you, but those looking for more will currently have more luck from a speaker with Google Assistant or Alexa built in. For me, Siri has the benefit of being able to see all of my Apple-centric data, but I do still have my Google Homes and Echo Dot plugged in and listening for occasions where Siri just can’t cut it.

In my opinion, the optimum setup right now is to have a HomePod in the living room for music and movies, and Google Home Minis all over the house; not because these are fundamentally different products, but because the HomePod can’t do everything well yet and Google is just too far ahead.

Final Thoughts

The HomePod is ripe with potential, but is not something I think anyone needs to run out and buy today. The good news is that the hardware is incredibly solid and there really isn’t anything I can complain about; it sounds great and looks good.

All of my complaints with the HomePod can be fixed via software updates. Siri can get smarter on the server and not even involve the user in updating anything, after all! I think Apple can get an easy win by adding calendar support first, then add a bass slider in the settings so I can tone down the bass in my apartment, and then move onto multiple voice recognition. Those two changes would make me a lot happier about the product overall. I think the other pain points I mentioned in this review need to be addressed as well, but we’re not going to get it all on the same day, so hopefully they’ll prioritize the right things.

All this said, you should choose to buy or not buy the HomePod based on what it does today, not on the promise that Apple will surely fix anything mentioned above. At $349 it’s not a cheap device and Apple does not have a history of advancing Siri as fast as people would like, so make sure it will make you happy today. There are plenty of people out there for whom that will be the case, but it’s not everyone. Apple has a tendency to make products that have almost every human being on the planet as their target market. With this product though, they have a more niche device that many people, even Apple fans will have to look at and say “that’s not for me,” and feel okay about it.

Apple, you’ve made a killer speaker that sounds amazing. All your work now has to be centered around improving voice interactions. The HomePod has the potential to dominate the speaker market (smart and otherwise), but it needs to get better on the “smart” side and I personally think they need to make a less expensive model to get in the price range of far more people. $349 is a hard sell for anyone, and most people would never spend that much on a speaker, no matter how good it sounds or how smart it is.

I say it all the time, but watch this space; Apple has entered the smart home game.


  1. If you can pitch your wares as peerless, then you can set whatever standards you want, so I see why Apple would do this. 
  2. My desk is a slab of wood screwed into 4 metal legs from IKEA. 
  3. I’m making a guess people reading a tech site like this are not satisfied with Apple’s app, but I could be wrong. 
  4. “search the web for potatoes” for example. 
  5. I should note that you can change the volume of the HomePod by asking Siri to go to a certain percent, but remembering to ask this every night and then raising it up again the next day is a bit of friction I wish it didn’t have. 

watchOS 5: A Relatively Modest Proposal

watchOS 5: A Relatively Modest Proposal

Every year I like to collect my thoughts on the Apple Watch and what software features are holding the product back. I did this for watchOS 3 in 2016 where I asked Apple to double down on health tracking, enable third party workout apps, improve communication options, improve the app ecosystem, and add third party watch faces. I then did it for watchOS 4 in 2017 where I asked for better media controls, better Activity sync in the cloud, podcast support, and third party watch faces. So now I’m back in 2018 with another list, and looking over these previous articles, it’s actually quite refreshing to see how many of these things Apple has addressed.

It strikes me this year that we’re hitting the 5th major version of watchOS. This is not a brand new platform anymore, even though the Apple Watch feels relatively new in the grand scheme of things. Add to that the fact that Apple’s direct competitor here, Android Wear, has all but exited the market as Wear 2.0 barely got released and basically no one is making Wear watches anymore, and you get the feeling that watchOS updates don’t need to be that substantial anymore. The market is growing well for Apple, and they don’t have a competitor who is eating their lunch right now in terms of market share or functionality. Apple is basically the king of both sales and features when it comes to smart watches. There simply is not a better option out there today.

Now that said, watchOS is far from perfect and there are tons of things that could be done to make it not only a better experience for those who already own one, but to draw in more people to the platform. The Apple Watch is one of the largest reasons I’m loyal to iOS for my smartphone, and since Apple is pretty darn invested in people buying more iPhones, they probably want to get people to love their Apple Watches even more so these customers never change sides.

Without further ado, here are some of my suggestions to Apple that I think would make the Apple Watch a better, more appealing product.

I also recorded a companion podcast episode about this topic.

Siri Watch Face

The number one thing I want from watchOS 5 is for third party apps to be able to tap into the Siri watch face. As I mentioned in my watchOS 4 review last year, the Siri watch face is one of the best additions to the Apple Watch last year. It’s one of my most used watch faces, especially when I’m at work and have a ton of items on my calendar. Being able to tilt my wrist and see the next couple events instantly is massively useful.

Beyond calendars, the Siri watch face taps into a bunch of Apple’s own services like Reminders, Apple News, Weather, and more. This is nice, and I find these other apps to work well with the face in general, but I don’t use Apple’s own apps for a bunch of these things. I use Remember the Milk for my task management, not Reminders, so I never see my tasks on the Siri watch face. Likewise, the Weather app does an okay job of showing me the weather when the conditions are about to change, but I’d prefer a third party app to be able to pop up a card on the watch face when it’s about to rain, complete with a graph showing how much and for how long.

Essentially, Apple should be making the Siri watch face the smartest, most useful watch face someone can choose. It already is the smartest, but to be useful to everyone, they need to make the apps people are actually using work with it.

Watch Faces In General

I ask for this every year and every year I’m disappointed, but I’ll ask anyway: please give us always on watch faces! Seriously, I charge my Series 3 LTE Apple Watch for about a hour or so every night. I then wear it from 10PM to around 8PM the next day. I can’t remember the last time I took this watch down below 50% in a 24 hour period. Hell, I went out of town on a Friday night and returned Sunday night and didn’t even bring my watch’s charger because I knew it would last. It did, and I probably could have made it to the next morning if I had needed to.

Long story short, the battery is fantastic on the new hardware.

Now Apple, please spend that battery surplus on always on watch faces! I don’t always need this, and the Apple Watch turns on 95% of the time when I want it to, but it’s not 100% and it is always a pain when it doesn’t turn itself on. With always on faces, I may not be able to see everything on the face, but at least seeing the time would be hugely useful.

I’d also like to see third party developers have the ability to make their own watch faces. The watch faces included in watchOS are good, but they don’t fit the bill for everyone. I’d love to see what The Iconfactory, Tapbots, Flexibits, Snowman, or any number of other development houses would do with the opportunity to make their own faces. I’d like to see what fitness-focused faces RunKeeper or Nike or Adidas would come up with as well. Hell, even if it’s some sort of partnership thing where only a few developers make the cut and can release watch faces deemed good enough by Apple would be enough. I at least want to see new watch faces hit the Apple Watch between major watchOS releases, and I don’t want all of them to have to be made by Apple.

Workouts and Activity Tracking

Apple addressed a good number of my complaints last year by adding media controls in the Workout app, doing more seasonal badges, and backing up activity data to iCloud. This year there really isn’t a whole lot I think they need to do.

That said, I would like them to add automatic workout detection. Some activity trackers do this already, and while it’s not perfect on any of them, it’s always good to have as a back up in case you forget to start or stop a workout. For example, if I start a run and forget to start a running workout on my Apple Watch, the watch should send me a notification after a minute that asks me if I am running and if I want to start tracking this as a workout. When I tap “yes” it should start a workout and know what type of workout I’m doing.

I’d also like to see Apple add some winter activities to the Workout app. As someone who lives in the Midwest, I’d love to be able to select “Shoveling” as my workout, because believe me, that will take it out of you. I’d also add Ice Skating and Sledding to the mix.

This may be getting a little greedy here, but I’d also like to see even more “seasonal” activity badges. They did a few more in 2017 than the year before, but people get really excited for these, and I think they can add a few more per year without them losing their specialness. It would also be cool of some of these achievements were competitions. Like one could be for a weekend 5K, and on Monday you could get a notification telling you how you did compared to everyone else in the world who participated in the run. That would be some next level activity tracking that some of their peers are doing already.

Speaking of achievements, I love the move streak badge that I currently have a 78 days, but there really should be some sort of “rest day” function in here so I can take a break every so often. Sometimes people get sick and they can’t work out like they usually do. This isn’t a “failure” of the person to keep working out, it’s just a thing that happens to everyone. And yes, for the record I was sick exactly 79 days ago. I laid on the couch and watched movies all day because I was too sick to even sit up. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s silly to lose a long streak because you had the audacity to take it easy one freaking day.

Finally, it would be nice to have watchOS track my sleep automatically. I currently use the app AutoSleep to do this, but a native option would be very convenient. Much like automatic workout detection, I would like the watch to automatically know when I go to sleep and wake up in the morning.

Podcasts

Give us a podcast app! I have no specific requests at this point. You’d had 4 major releases with no way to play podcasts on the Apple Watch, so I’m literally take anything at this point. It would be nice to have smart syncing between my iPhone and Apple Watch so that my episodes were always available, and I wouldn’t hate it if third party apps like Overcast and Pocket Casts could make their own apps support local playback.

I wish I was in a position to make specific requests, but I’ll take what I can get.

The Little Stuff

And then there are a bunch of little things I think would make the Apple Watch a more pleasant product.

Siri should always be listening for “Hey Siri,” thereby removing the need for me to raise my wrist to ask a question or make a request. Since Siri can now talk to you (at least on the Series 3) then it should be able to answer me without the need to ever look at the watch face.

Apple does not use the same tools as app developers to make their apps, and that makes Apple’s built in apps better than third parties almost all of the time. Apple should update the frameworks and interface elements that third party developers can use to match what Apple themselves can do. This would lead to a better, faster, and more distinctive lineup of software for the watch.

I’d love for third parties to be able to use their custom notification sounds that they have on iOS over on the watch as well. Right now everyone just uses the same “ding” sound.

Improve the Dock with some sort of grid system or something. The new dock in watchOS 4 is not great, and is a definite downgrade from what we had before.

The Breath app didn’t meaningfully change from it’s original version in watchOS 3, and I’d like to see it get updated with more guided meditation sessions. It could even get a dot in the activity rings too, in order to indicate whether you meditated that day. Ideally, third party apps like Headspace could tap into this and log meditations in this category.

The Apple News app is nice, and I love its integration into the Siri watch face, but it does not let me read entire articles on the watch itself. I know it’s a bit odd, but it would be nice to be able to read more than just the first line of some articles without having to get my phone.

I’d like to be able to see my iPhone’s battery life from my watch. Sometimes I’m away from my phone, or am just in a situation where my watch is more accessible than my phone and there have been many times when I wanted this but could not get it. As a bonus, it would be even nicer to be able to see the battery life of my AirPods at the same time. Note: Apparently the Apple Watch can show you AirPods battery status already. I don’t see it on my device through, which is weird, but it also why I didn’t know it was there!

I should be able to select custom colors for the flashlight. Right now the options are white, flashing white, or red. That red one should be able to be configured to use whatever color I’d like.

Theater mode should also set my watch to DND. Maybe this could be a toggle so people can do what they want here, but I always use this feature when I am either going to sleep or I’m actually in a movie theater. In both cases, I also don’t want to be buzzed while the mode is enabled.

My final want is a crazy one, but I’d like the ability to watch YouTube videos on my watch. yes, this is stupid, and yes this is definitely not happening, but every once in a while I would actually like a video to play on my wrist and I can’t do it today. This would require Apple to make it possible and for Google to make it actually happen, and neither of those are likely, but hey, what are wishlists for?

Conclusion

I don’t know how much of this Apple will actually do this year, but even knocking a few of these off my list of requests would make me very happy. watchOS is maturing, but it has so much more it can grow, so I hope Apple has a decent sized team working on their “most personal” device’s software this year.

What do you think, though? Did I mention anything crazy? Did I miss something obvious? As always, you can let me know on Twitter!