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!

An iPhone Lover's Review of the Google Pixel 2

An iPhone Lover's Review of the Google Pixel 2

As I have made quite clear in this blog, I am a fan of Apple’s hardware and software, but a big part of this website has long been about trying competing products to make sure my opinions are based on facts and not blind loyalty. In a world where people are increasingly loyal to one side or another with little regard for reality, I find my forays into Android to be very beneficial to me and hopefully to you as well.

With that in mind, this is a review of the Google Pixel 2 after just under a week using the phone. Please note this is a review of the Pixel 2 hardware, not Android itself. This isn’t about Android or iOS being better, so the only times I’ll mention software differences is when it is directly related to Pixel-specific hardware, such as the camera app.

I definitely have criticisms of the phone, and I will mention them below, but I will say right up front that I really like this phone overall, and while it’s not better than the current iPhones on the market1, I think it’s better than just about any Android phone you can get. And if prompt updates and the purest form of Android is what you’re looking for, you can’t do better than the Pixel.

Camera

I have a lot of thoughts on the camera in the Pixel 2, and I think they can actually be summed up quite nicely like so:

https://twitter.com/mattbirchler/status/924616013022400512

The photos that come out of the camera app on the Pixel 2 often look good, very good even, but you should know that they are very heavily processed in the camera app and are not particularly “natural” looking photos. While Apple and Apple fans will tell you that the iPhone does its best job to replicate the real world and to create images that look natural, Google is taking a completely different approach with their sensor. Every photo that comes out of the Pixel looks like someone went into Lightroom and cranked up the contrast and clarity sliders.

Now as someone who often boosts clarity and contrast a little on many of my photo edits, this means the Pixel 2 photos tend to look good to my taste. But what bugs me about this decision on Google’s part is that because they are doing this processing for me, all of the subtlety in my images are gone and I can never get them back if I decide I want an image to have a different style. Here’s an example:

iPhone Pixel 2

The Pixel cranked up the contrast so much that the trees in the background are black instead of green. If I take this photo into an image editor, I can’t make those trees anything but black or gray because their color has been removed. Maybe you’re fine with this, but the Pixel’s tendency to remove image detail without giving me a choice is frustrating.

That said, the images that I get out of the Pixel are usually quite good, and I’m impressed with its ability to take a good photo without me even trying to do anything special. Open the app, aim, and shoot. It almost always gets the right focus and it generally makes good decisions on what subject to optimize the exposure and shutter speed for. This is a great camera for people who don’t want to think about setting up photos, they just want to tap the shutter button and know they are getting a good image.

If you want to see a side-by-side comparison of the Pixel 2 and iPhone 8 Plus cameras, this expansive post from a few days ago should be helpful.

Portrait Mode

Portrait Mode on the iPhone 7/8 Plus/X is one of my favorite camera features, and I can’t see myself ever using a phone camera that doesn’t have this. You may find it silly, but I find it to be a valuable tool to get photographs that I never thought were possible on the phone. The Pixel has this feature, and it aims to best Apple at their own game by doing it with a single lens and also including it on the selfie camera.

First off, I have to mention that when we talk about “portraits” we are typically talking about two things; shallow focus and focal length. The Pixel 2 replicates the shallow focus, but does nothing to address the different focal length. The iPhone and Pixel both have main camera lenses that are designed to simulate a camera lens of about 30mm. 30mm is a common focal length for general photography, and is reliably good in most situations. Portraits however, are not usually shot in this ~30mm range, they’re shot in something closer to 50mm or even higher. This gives portraits a different look than your average Instagram selfie. When you take a portrait shot with the Pixel 2, the shot is from a ~30mm lens, not the more common ~50mm.

I bring up the differences in focal lengths because I think it’s indicative of Google’s approach to this mode. They did it in the most technically impressive way they could, but didn’t consider the other half of what makes portraits distinctive. The results are portrait mode photographs that I simply don’t like as much as the iPhone 8 Plus’s shots. In general, the Pixel does a surprisingly great job of detecting what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background (although it’s still usually worse than the iPhone) but the images look more fake to me. the Pixel’s images look more like a filter was applied to the image rather than something natural.

But while the portrait mode is a little unnatural to my eyes, that doesn’t mean I don’t use it or that I’m not impressed by it. The fact that Google has managed to get as close as it has to Apple’s portrait mode in terms of foreground/background detection with a single camera lens is really impressive. Google says they’re using a dual-pixel image sensor which means each pixel on the sensor is collecting light from two slightly different (like a couple microns) angles. It’s the same concept as the iPhone’s dual lens system, but at a much smaller scale. As I said in my camera comparison post, the iPhone still tends to be better than the Pixel in this regard, but Google has done wonderful work to get to this point with less impressive hardware and their camera software team deserves huge props.

An advantage the Pixel 2 has over the current iPhone 8 Plus is that the portrait mode works on the selfie camera as well. The example photo I used at the top of this section was taken with it and it works pretty well most of the time. It’s not quite as clear as the back camera, but it gets the job done most of time time.

It’s also worth noting that the Pixel does not let you preview the blur effect while you’re taking the shot. The photo looks like normal and all the blur processing happens after its saved to your library. The processing takes 2-4 seconds in most cases, which isn’t bad, but it would be nice to see what you’re going to get before you take the shot. When the iPhone can not only show you the blur but also all of its lighting effects in real time before you take the photo, the Pixel limitation is slightly annoying. You really appreciate the iPhone’s real time preview since you don’t know what the camera is going to focus on all the time. For example, here are 2 images I took that had a clear subject and the iPhone got completely correct:

The good news is that just like the iPhone, the non-blurred version of portrait photos are saved as well (you can turn this off to save space if you want), so even if a portrait photo fails hard (as it definitely will sometimes) you have a fallback option that probably looks fine.

Video

Video on the Pixel 2 is much less impressive than the photos. I’ve also written about this before and the long and short of it is that the Pixel 2 has the best image stabilization I’ve ever seen on the phone, the 4k footage it takes is generally crisp, and it will probably be perfectly fine for most people. But if you’re debating between this and the iPhone 8 Plus or iPhone X, this is a definite downgrade.

The Pixel 2 shoots up to 4k footage at 30 frames per second, which is about par for the course on high end phones these days. I miss my 60fps 4k on the iPhone 8 Plus, but I can certainly live with 30fps. As for slow motion, the Pixel 2 will do 240fps at 720p, again pretty standard for 2017, but also trailing behind the current iPhones which do 240fps at 1080p.

While the Pixel 2 is a disappointment to me since I happen to have an iPhone 8 right next to it to compare it to, I don’t think the video on this camera is bad by any means. Video looks nice and crisp in most situations, and it does amazing work when it comes to stabilizing footage. Like seriously, check out this comparison and look at how stable the Pixel footage looks!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d95u1Di2kaA

The footage on the Pixel often looks like it was taken from a steadicam and not just my cell phone in my hand. I do think the electronic image stabilization (EIS) overcorrects and does not like it when you turn the camera. You can see that in the first clip in the above video, as the camera fights to hold onto each angle even after you’ve moved to another subject.

There also appears to be a lot of image compression being done here, as I’ve noticed many instances of pixelation on moving subjects and changes in backgrounds. it’s only for a moment when it happens, but it is not something I’ve seen to this extent on other flagship smartphone cameras.

On the plus side, I find the Pixel 2 to be better than the iPhone when it comes to low light video. Check out this quick comparison I did over the weekend while walking around on a nearly pitch black night.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KcxTOhydrQ8

The iPhone is more moody and has much less noise, but I appreciate that the Pixel errors on the side of over exposing so that I can at least see something.

Performance

The benchmarks for the Pixel 2 are quite a bit slower than the iPhone 8 Plus, but don’t let that make you think this is a slow phone. Th Pixel 2 is the fastest Android phone I have ever used. There is a zippiness to the operating system that i really enjoy. While iOS emphasizes a smooth experience with nice animations that take you around the interface, Android Oreo on the Pixel has universally faster animations that make every task feel quick.

I won’t say the phone is perfect, as some things are the same as they’ve ever been. Scrolling, for example, is is the best I’ve ever experienced on an Android phone, but it feels choppier to me.

https://twitter.com/mattbirchler/status/923675492326232064

I believe Apple is doing something with motion blur (or something similar) to make moving around the OS feel more natural, but that said, I would not call Android on the Pixel 2 slow…it’s just different.

Most apps open just as fast as they do on the iPhone 8 Plus, which is to say basically instantly. The briefer animations mean that some apps will be active before they are on the iPhone. The only place the Pixel 2 falls behind is when it comes to really high end tasks. Editing and exporting images from Lightroom is about 2x faster on the iPhone, and editing video is worlds faster on the iPhone and the Pixel. but these are more niche tasks and most people will not run into these differences. If you are a regular smartphone user who uses Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, the camera, and a few other apps, you will be more than happy with the performance here.

I have a sorted history with Android phones starting quick-ish and then degrading in performance after a few weeks, so I’ll be sure to report back on how the Pixel holds up over more time. As of now, I’m completely happy with how well it runs on a daily basis.

Display

As a non-XL owner, I don’t have much drama to report when it comes to the screen on the Pixel 2. The 1920x1080 5 inch OLED screen looks great to my eyes. It’s bright, crisp, and has great viewing angles. There’s honestly not much more to say here, as this screen is just good.

I really like the always on display that the OLED screen affords. It’s a small thing, but always being able to see the time, some notifications, and music all all without turning on the screen is a nice option. The time is just nice to have, and the music detection feature is either awesome or creepy, depending on your opinion. I have it turned on and I find it quite helpful. I’ve heard the system checks every 60 seconds for music, so depending on when a song starts playing, you may see it appear within a few seconds on the screen or in a full minute. The music feature does not have online access, so its reliant on a local databases of music, and because of that only really mainstream songs are able to be detected. Google says the number is about 10,000 songs, and I’ve had luck with new and old music, but most things outside of the mainstream befuddle this feature.

When I compare this screen to the iPhone 8 Plus, I think it falls a little short. One area it definitely wins is in black levels, which are basically pitch black. This is an advantage of OLED, and it really is nice to see. Beyond that, the higher pixel density (441ppi vs 401ppi) is nice on paper, but is not noticeable in daily use. The screen does not get as bright as the iPhone’s, and I’ve come to really appreciate Apple’s new True Tone display tech when holding these two phones side by side. The iPhone looks much more natural indoors and the Pixel looks blue and more artificial. This isn’t an issue outdoors, and if you don’t have and iPhone to compare it to, you’ll likely not even notice this. But now that I have seen it, it’s impossible for me to unsee this difference.

Also, the Pixel does not do as well as the iPhone when it comes to very saturated red hues. Take this photo as an example:

This was taken on the iPhone 8 Plus and is a picture of a skull painted with what is supposed to be the pinkest pink possible. The iPhone sensor does its best to capture this level of pink, and looking at it on an iPhone 8 screen looks pretty close to reality. The Pixel 2 really struggles to show the detail in the skull though. While I can see the brush strokes and reflections on the wet paint clearly on the iPhone, the Pixel 2 screen loses a lot of this detail, as it essentially seems to be maxing out the pink values and can’t show as much detail here. This is impossible to show in this review, but if you happen to have an iPhone 8 and a Pixel 2 as well, you can replicate this at home.

It’s a good screen overall, but it has not bowled me over. My only real complaints are with how it stacks up to the stunningly good iPhone display, which is not that big of a complaint in the end.

It’s not really a display thing, but the Pixel-exclusive “Living Universe” wallpapers are pretty neat. They look mostly still, but each has a small amount of motion that is kind of fun. This really makes me want to see Apple adapt some of its “Areal” screensavers on the Apple TV into similar style wallpapers for iOS.

The Squeeze (and other hardware stuff)

Now let’s talk about all the other hardware stuff going on with the Pixel 2.

Build Quality

The Pixel 2 may cost the same as an iPhone 8, but the difference in build quality is night and day. That’s not to say I don’t like the Pixel 2’s design, but we’re talking about a Honda vs a BMW here.

The Pixel 2’s distinguishing design characteristic is its two tone back. I’ve seen people poopoo this, but I think it looks great! I think it’s a good look, and it immediately separates this phone from everything else out there. You know this is a Pixel the moment you see it.

The metal back is coated in a plastic material that is somewhat grippy, but also lets the phone slide into my pocket easily. It feels comfortable without feeling cheap. I do find it odd that they would make a metal back to the phone and then cover it with plastic though. If they had just used plastic for the entire thing they could have added wireless charging, something I very much miss from this phone. I had just gotten used to it with the iPhone 8 and had converted most of my charing spots to wireless. Being forced to use a wire for all charging needs feels like stepping backwards.

The back of the phone also has a fingerprint reader. This is far from the first phone to do it, but it’s the first phone I’ve owned with a rear-mounted fingerprint reader. I haven’t been using it for too long, but I don’t love it personally. 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. This is most noticeable when trying to authenticate 1Password to fill a form or to make a payment on the Google Play Store.

I also have an issue with the back mounted reader when I’m at my desk at work or driving in the car where my phone is on a stand. The back-mounted fingerprint reader is not accessible in either of these common orientations, so I see this screen a lot:

I’ve entered my PIN more in the past week on this phone than I have in the past year on the iPhone because the reader simply isn’t in a place I can always reach.

Android also allows for some gestures on the fingerprint reader to bring up the notification center, and I thought I would like this, but ended up having to turn it off. It is nice at times to be able to swipe the back of the phone to check my notifications, but I’ve accidentally triggered this so many times it drove me mad. it especially happened when I was trying to take pictures with the selfie camera. There is nothing more frustrating that getting a group selfie lined up and then not being able to take the picture because your damn notifications just pop up and say “WERE YOU LOOKING FOR ME?” This feature is 80% cool and 20% sucky, but the when it sucks, it really sucks. it made me feel like I had to treat my phone like a precious flower and only touch it where it was safe to touch.

The plastic coating wraps around the sides of the phone and transition very smoothly to the chamfered edges. The screen is well, just glass. There are substantial bezels on the top and bottom, but they’re almost identical to the ones on the iPhone, so they don’t bother me. I’d like the phone more if the bezels were smaller, but it’s not a big deal.

The buttons feel just ok, but they honestly don’t feel any different from the $200 phones I have played with, and are a little mushy. When you compare them to the metal buttons and switch on the iPhone, it’s not even close. “That’s no big deal” you may say, but the difference is important when I have the phone in my pocket. I can easily press any of the buttons on the iPhone through my pants pocket because they are distinct and clicky when pressed. I simply can’t do this on the Pixel 2, I always end up raising the volume when I meant to turn it down, hitting the power button, or completely missing the buttons entirely.

And even the single USB port on the bottom of the phone does not grab onto cables very well. Check out this video I took last night of how loose multiple cables (the included charging cable and headphone adapter) are in the phone. It just feels cheap.

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

The phone has dual front-facing speakers, and I like this about as much as the iPhone ones. I prefer the Pixel’s placement of the speakers, both on the front, since it’s much harder for me to block one of them. The iPhone has dual speakers as well, but one of them is on the bottom, and is easier to cover up and muffle because of that. As for loudness, the Pixel 2 gets quite loud for a phone, but again is a little quieter and less bass-heavy than the iPhone 8.

Finally, the Pixel 2 does not have a headphone jack and comes with a 3.5mm to USB-C adapter. The lack of a headphone jack is not a problem for me, and I’ve been using my AirPods with the phone instead. The Pixel 2 does not come with an headphones in the box, which feels little cheap, but okay whatever. The adapter works fine and is just a slightly chunkier version of the adapter Apple provides, but I have noticed a sever POP sound that happens ever time I unplug the adapter from the phone while media is playing. It hurt my ears the first time it happened, and I’ve since replicated this on 2 pairs of headphones and my car stereo. It’s weird, but appears to be only something I’ve experienced, so maybe I just have a bad adapter.

Squeeze for Assistant

You didn’t think I was going to skip the squeeze, did you?

One of the more unique features of the Pixel 2 is that it has sensors on the sides that let you squeeze it to bring up Google Assistant. I actually quite like this feature in theory, but it’s a little more complicated than I wish it was. It’s nice to have a simple way to bring up the Assistant and the gesture is more natural then I expected, but as with the fingerprint reader swipe gestures, there are unexpected consequences here.

The problem with this feature is that the phone has no concept of when you do and don’t mean to be squeezing it. I trigger this gesture way too much, and I don’t have a good solution to fix this. I trigger it when I pull the phone out of my pocket, and have had to make a point of reaching further into my pocket to grab the part of the phone that doesn’t have the sensors. I’ve also run into this simply picking the phone up off a desk, and it’s a real problem when I’m i the car and have it in a mount.

I’ve had to adjust the sensitivity of this feature to a post where I have to make a serious vice grip on the phone to get it to trigger. This is not super comfortable and turns this from a natural interaction into something that feels anything but. I would love to see Google put out an update that adds some smarts to ignore squeezes when it thinks you don’t actually want it, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Battery Life

I don’t have much to say here other than to say I’ve made it though each day with battery to spare, and I’m a pretty heavy user. It’s not quite up to Plus model iPhones, but it’s right there in the ballpark.

And when you do want to charge this phone, it charges as fast as the new iPhones, but without the need to go buy an expensive charging brick and USB-C to Lightning cable, Google gives you everything you need in the box. You can read details here, but here’s a graph showing how fast the bundled charger does. Zero to 18% in 10 minutes, and all the way to 50% in about 36 minutes.

Conclusion

I really, really like the Pixel 2, and am happy that I bought it (dbrand doesn’t hook me up like it does seemingly every YouTuber out there). It is without a doubt the best Android phone I have ever used. I absolutely have qualms with it and these qualms make it very unlikely this will be the phone that steals me away from the iPhone.

But don’t let those issues scare you away from this great Android phone. If you want the best version of Android available with some of the best tech specs around (and don’t mind a little extra bezel), this phone is going to check all your boxes. When you consider the excellent still photos and solid video you get from it, it really becomes hard for me to recommend any other Android phone out there besides the Pixel 2 XL (which has a larger screen and smaller bezels, but a shittier screen) or one of the high end Galaxy phones (which have better build quality and nicer screens, but Samsung’s overbearing software).

If you are an iPhone user who’s on the fence and is wondering if the Pixel 2 is the phone that can steal you away from Apple’s camp, I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. If you’re wondering if the Pixel 2 beats Apple at it’s own game (hardware) then the answer is a resounding NO. The Pixel 2 hardware is not as good as the iPhone in basically any way, and the software tricks Google uses in features like the camera only get it close, not into the lead. But 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.

My plan is to continue using the Pixel 2 as my main phone at least though the end of 2017. After that expect to see a full review of Android Oreo, which should be fun.

You can get the Google Pixel 2 for $649 for all major carriers from the Google Store or Verizon directly.


  1. I mean the iPhone 8, not the upcoming iPhone X. 

watchOS 4: The BirchTree Review

watchOS 4: The BirchTree Review

Last year's watchOS 3 was met with glowing reviews as it was a jam-packed release that drastically improved the Apple Watch experience. My own review was one of the most complete reviews out there, and even at over 6,000 words, it didn't hit everything Apple added. watchOS 3 was a stellar release, and singlehandedly changed the conversation about the Apple Watch itself.

Today we have the release of watchOS 4 and I will say up front that this is not the same type of giant update like we got last year. While I have to acknowledge that it's unreasonable to expect massive changes every year, watchOS is still a young platform and has a lot of room to grow. This contrast sums up much of my feelings towards watchOS 4. This is a satisfying update that improves on the previous version in almost every way, but it doesn’t move the needle as much as some, including myself, would like.

And it’s not just a matter of quantity over quality. watchOS 3 sported a huge list of improvements and I would argue 99% of them were objective improvements over what came before. watchOS 4 has a shorter list of new features, but I don’t think Apple’s success rate is as high as it was last year. They didn’t “blow it” on any specific feature, but there are definitely some questionable choices made this year that made me grumble more than a few times.

Of course you should update your Apple Watch if you own one, it’s free and makes the Apple Watch a better product than it was yesterday. But set your expectations properly because this release will make your Apple Watch better, but it will not change your life.

Siri Watch Face

The most impactful update in my opinion is the addition of the Siri watch face. This is a watch face that only lets you set two complications on the top left and top right, shows the time, and devotes the rest of the watch face to Siri. This is not just a Siri button, but a whole new version of Siri. It's a brand new Siri who tries to help you before you even ask.

In very broad strokes, the Siri watch tries to show you the information you need exactly when you need to see it. This is the biggest thing I have been hoping Apple would do with watchOS for the past year, and it's great to see them move in that direction with this watch face. A good assistant doesn't just hang around for you to ask for things, it gets things ready for you so you don't even need to ask. The Siri watch face is a statement from Apple that they think Siri is up to the task. While this is a great new feature, and Apple has done fantastic work here, it's not perfect and they have a lot of room to grow in this space.

This watch face works with a card system, displaying a stack of “cards” for the things you have coming up on your schedule or things that the watch thinks you would like to see right now. If you have used something like Google Now or a Pebble smart watch in the past few years then you probably have a good idea of what this is like. For those who haven’t this system is basically a timeline of content relevant to you.

This watch face gets me excited because it brings the Apple Watch one step closer to being the smart assistant we’ve all wanted it to be since its launch in 2015. It’s also something that Android Wear has arguably done better than watchOS until now. Surfacing what you want to see before you ask for it is an important goal for any smart watch (and maybe any operating system, for that matter), and I’m very happy to see Apple move in this direction with watchOS 4.

Passive Notifications

The Siri watch face introduces a concept I’m calling “passive notifications.” Passive notifications are things that you have not explicitly said you want to know about, and they don’t buzz your wrist like regular notifications, they just appear on the watch face throughout the day if they have something interesting going on. A simple example of this is the Stocks app. I don’t care that much about stocks myself, and I don’t have the iOS Stocks app tell me anything most of the time. I have, however, added a half dozen of my favorite companies in the Stocks app on my iPhone and check their value from time to time. With the Siri watch face, I will sometimes see one of those companies’ stocks appear on my watch face when they have a particularly good or bad day. If I were investing in these companies I could see that being very valuable information, but even for me, this is a subtle nudge that I should probably check the news for that company to see what happened today to make their stock move.

The above example is not terribly exciting, but that’s kind of the point. I don’t want to be disturbed by stock news, but if you give me a hint that something interesting has happened, I may take the time to look into that. If I decide not to take action then it’s no difference to the watch; the stocks card in the list will just disappear in a few minutes to be replaced by more pertinent information for me.

Here’s what you can see on the watch face:

  • Alarms
    • Upcoming alarms will appear.
  • Breath
    • Everyone’s favorite breathing app can give you passive suggestions to breath throughout the day.
  • Calendar
    • Events on your calendar will appear in order, and include location information as well.
  • Home
    • It’s listed, but I’ve never seen one item on the watch face in months of testing. It’s a bit of a mystery right now.
  • News
    • Passive news alerts based on your favorite news sources. These are not to be confused with breaking news notifications you can already get via the iPhone app, but smaller stories or just an option to look at the top 5 stories of the moment. I use this one a lot.
  • Now Playing
    • Quick access to the Now Playing screen to access media controls. This can appear whenever media is playing. This nicely shows the artwork for whatever you're listening to.
  • Photos
    • Passive reminders to look back on some memories Apple Photos has created for you.
  • Reminders
    • Your upcoming reminders will appear shortly before their scheduled notification.
  • Stocks
    • Notable daily changes in the stocks you follow in the Stocks app. More often then not I got to see the DOW go up or down more than 100 points.
  • Stopwatch
    • If the stopwatch is running but has been moved to the background it will appear as the top card on the watch face so you don’t lose track of it.
  • Timer
    • Like the Stopwatch functionality, the timer will appear at the top of your cards while any timer is running.
  • Wallet
    • I’ve seen a Starbucks card appear once or twice here and tapping it brings up my Starbucks barcode. This is not consistent though, and it does not appear every place that the Wallet app for iOS shows a persistent notification.
  • Weather
    • There seems to be no rhyme or reason to this one, but sometimes I’ll see the weather appear here. Once it was for rain that was coming in 2 hours, but I think that was just a fluke. I could be wrong, but this appears to just show you the weather sometimes and I can’t tell what triggers it.
  • Workout
    • If it’s late in the day and you have not filled your activity rings, this card will show you what sort of workout could get you to your goal. These workouts are tailored to the types of workouts you actually do, so if you run and walk all the time, you won't get something silly like a suggestion to go rowing to meet your goal.

Now while that list is rather extensive when I write it out like that, you may have already noticed an Achilles’ Heel here, which is that the Siri watch face does not support third party apps. This means my Reminders will appear on the watch face, but not OmniFocus or Things or Todoist. Apple News can give me hot news, but Feedly can’t do the same. I can see my Activity progress, but MyFitnessPal can’t show me my calorie count for the day. I can see the Weather from Apple’s app, but not my own Today’s Forecast, Dark Sky, or CARROT. I think you get it.

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. The Siri watch face is a very exciting advance in watchOS, but it still has a lot of room to grow. It has become my go to watch face for when I’m at work and have a lot to keep track of. Having calendar events and todo items appear here as needed has been fantastic, but I crave more.

Apple is really onto something here, and I'm already looking forward to next year to see what their next step is here. Next year should be all about fitness (like always) and Siri as the best damn assistant on your wrist. They can do it, they just need to let thing parties help them make this thing amazing.

Music

One of the core functionalities I think the Apple Watch should really excel in is music. The company recently killed the non-touch iPods, and some have suggested that the Apple Watch can fill the gaps left by the tiny iPods of yore. I’m happy to report Apple has made some helpful changes to the Apple Watch that make it a more useful music player, as well as a better iPhone media companion for all apps than ever before.

Media controls are finally easy to use

The first big change to music (and media in general) in watch OS 4 is that the system will now automatically launch media controls for anything you start playing on your iPhone.

🎆🎆🎆🎆🎆🎆🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎉🎊🎊🎊🎊🎊🎊

Why the fireworks? Well, this has been something I’ve been complaining about since the very first watchOS 3 beta last June! It’s simply too hard to bring up media controls on the Apple Watch, and it’s something that should be stupid simple. I know that everyone uses their Apple Watch for something different, but I would put a lot of money down that every single Apple Watch user uses it to control their music, podcasts, or audiobooks.

Now in watchOS 4 whenever you start playing audio on your iPhone, watchOS will automatically launch media controls so they are accessible to you the next time you raise your wrist. In practice this means that if I start playing a song in Apple Music (or Spotify) and decide midway through the song that I want to skip ahead, all I have to do is raise my wrist and tap the next button. The controls are already on screen, and I don't have to find the right app to do this. In watchOS 3, I would have had to find the Now Playing app either in the dock or in the app honeycomb launcher, wait for it to launch, and then tap. watchOS 4 is so much better than this it's stunning.

Apps that have a native watchOS app will launch to the controls page of their app, so an app like Overcast will launch Overcast on the watch. But other apps such as Audible that do not have a watch app will just launch the Now Playing app. This requires no effort from the developer, so you don’t even need to wait and hope that your favorite apps will update to do this, they’ll just work.

This solution is clever in its simplicity, but it’s also a little frustrating and could use a little fine tuning. While I appreciate that Overcast and Pocket Casts have built Watch apps, I also have to recognize that their apps are not as responsive as Apple’s Now Playing app on the Apple Watch. Tapping on the skip forward button on Overcast typically works well, but I somewhat regularly get delays where nothing seems to happen when I press the button. Sometimes nothing will happen and other times it will skip forward after 10 seconds and I go “what just happened?!” I would love it if Apple gave me the option to always choose the Now Playing app when media starts playing.

Another serious downside to this feature is that because third party developers don't have access to volume controls from their apps, launching into Overcast feels even more hampered. As someone with AirPods that don't have volume controls, I really love being able to spin the crown on my Watch to change volume quickly. The Apple-made Now Playing app lets me do that, but third party apps can not. I've actually uninstalled the Overcast app from my Watch so that I can just use the Now Playing app instead. While this is a decent workaround, it would be better if this feature made me install more apps, not fewer on my Apple Watch.

I should also mention this happens for all audio in non-game apps on your iPhone. That means that even that freaking frustrating auto-playing video on CNET will make your watch pull up Now Playing. This is a little obnoxious as it’s not really what I would expect to happen, but it hasn’t been a major pain for me.

Apple Music enhancements

The other side of the coin is Apple Music, which has gotten some important new functionality since last year. A major limitation of Music support on the Apple Watch since version 1.0 has been only being able to sync one playlist to the watch from your phone. For those unfamiliar, a synced playlist can be accessed when you are not connected to your iPhone. This essentially forced you to sync one giant playlist to the watch and hope that it has everything you want.

Now in watchOS 4 you can sync as many playlists as you would like (up to 2GB total). watchOS will automatically suggest syncing your heavy rotation, new music, favorites, and chill mixes. I’ve left all of these on because it means I always have a fresh set of music synced to the watch for iPhone-free listening. Now that we have an LTE Apple Watch coming very soon, there are going to be more instances of people going iPhone-free with their watches, so this enhancement is very welcome. You can also sync over specific playlists, artists, albums, genres, or compilations that you want synced over.

Note that watchOS still limits you to 2GB of music stored locally on the watch, so this update won’t let you send more music, but it will make it easier to do so.

Finally, I have to admit that I have no idea what time watchOS and iOS talk to each other to sync this music between them. My suspicion is it happens overnight and/or when the watch is on the charger, but I can’t guarantee that. All I know for certain is that I always had the music I expected on my Apple Watch when I went to listen to it.

Activity Updates

watchOS 3 saw a lot of improvements to the Activity and Workout apps, and Apple has continued to make meaningful updates to these essential apps this year.

Online Sync 🎉 🎉 🎉 🎉 🎉

Now Apple didn’t give me the full Activity website I was hoping for, but they have added the ability to sync your activity and workouts to iCloud.

I’m going to stop and let that sink in for a second.



I know, right?! No longer does restoring your iPhone result in you losing all of your health data! Maybe this doesn’t come up that often to most people, but I restore my phone a few times a year (for betas and testing a bunch of things) and because of that my Activity history never goes back more than a few months. No more!

All you have to do is go to your iCloud settings on your iPhone and check to see if Health is syncing to your account. If it is, then you're good to go. You don’t have to turn this on if you want this data to stay on your device only, but I turned it on immediately and deeply appreciate this feature.

Better Notifications

Apple has done some work this year to send better notifications that you might actually find helpful. Previously all activity-released reminders were relegated to stand and breath notifications. In short, you’d be notified at the 50 minute mark of each hour if you had not stood up that hour, and the breath notification would happen a few times a day (however many you asked for) at regular intervals.

With watchOS 4 Apple is getting a little more fancy with activity notifications, and I think they’re better off for it. First off, you will now get notifications in the afternoon to early evening with suggestions for how to achieve your daily calorie goal. If you have just a few calories left to fill that red ring then you might get a recommendation of a 13 minute walk. Or maybe you’ve been a bit of a couch potato all day and your rings are in miserable shape. In that case the watchOS might suggest a 35 minute run.

I have found these reminders to be quite welcome for two reasons. First, they let me know if I’m about to fail to fill my rings before it’s too late. I’m not as obsessive as some people about building a huge streak, but it’s nice to get that push of “hey, are you aware of how much you exercised today?” at a time where I can actually do something about it. Sometime no, I don’t know how little I’ve moved around and a little nudge to do it is welcome.

The other reason I like these notifications is that they are specific. “Go forp a 13 minute run” and “do strength training for 18 minutes” are actionable items and are more easy to respond to, even if that response is “no thank you.” It’s like how “do you want to eat at XYZ tonight?” is a much easier question to answer than “where do you want to go for dinner?” These suggestions seem to be based on the workouts that I personally do, which is much appreciated. The watch has never suggested I use the rower or go swimming or use a stair stepper because it knows I don't do those and probably don't want to do them now.

These notifications also extend to monthly challenges. I’ll get notifications about how I’m doing compared to last month and they will include motivating messages to get me to achieve longer term goals than just filling my rings today.

New Workouts App

The Workout app has been completely rewritten this year, but don't worry, it will be familiar to anyone who has used the previous version. The new interface is built around getting you into and out of workouts faster than before. watchOS 3 brought quick start workouts, and watchOS 4 extends that concept.

There is now no difference between quick start options and the regular workouts. Each workout type on the list is a quick start by default, so tapping onto the main part of the workout card will begin a workout immediately. For workouts that you have done before, it will set the same goal you had last time. Workouts that you have not done before will just start with an open goal.

However, if you tap the little dot-dot-dot icon in the top right of a workout’s card, it will load a screen where you can set a specific goal for yourself. Depending on the workout type, you will get up to 4 options for a goal: open, calories, distance, or time. The rest of the interface should be the same as before.

I like this change since I tend to do similar workouts every time. I have a routine, so I do a 30-40 minute run each time I go out, so letting me automatically select a 30 minute goal each time is perfect. Good workout apps remove friction, and this is another step towards making Workout the absolute best app for exercise tracking I see out there (minus some power user features).

And Apple has added more options for exercise tracking from last year. Swimming has been improved with the ability to track laps, something not possible before. Additionally, they’ve added Tai Chi, hand cycling, and high intensity interval training which appears to be the cool workout type people do to get “ripped” but I personally take no part in. I was not able to test the swimming tracking since I don’t have a Series 2 Apple Watch and my one attempt to do the “HIIT” workout seemed fine, but it didn’t really track any differently than a normal strength training workout.

As a final nice touch, you can make Workout start a specific playlist every time you start a workout. If you have a “KICK OUT THE JAMS 2007” playlist (I’m not saying I do, but I bet that would be rad) that you listen to all the time when working out, then this new feature can save you the step of going to Apple Music and starting that playlist.

Thankfully, this feature is smart enough to know that you probably don’t want to switch away from what you’re currently listening to when a workout starts, so it won’t do anything if you’re in the middle of something else when the workout begins. Unfortunately the playlist will always play in order, which some people may like, but I would have liked the option to have the playlist shuffle automatically instead. I don’t really use this feature in large part since I don’t want to listen to the same 30 minutes of music every time I go out.

Apple News

I really love Apple News, and now there is an official Apple Watch app for the service. The app is somewhat limited, but I don’t fault it for that. It really breaks down into a few sections:

Siri watch face: Apple News headlines of note will appear on the Siri watch face as “passive notifications” and you can choose to look at them or ignore them. These tend to be general news stories, so you may or may not want to turn this functionality off (Watch.app > Siri watch face > Data Sources) depending on your tolerance for Trump news. This feature does seem to respect your Apple News subscriptions, so you probably won’t get news stories from totally random sources.

Breaking news notifications: You’ve always been able to get Apple News notifications on the Apple Watch, but now that there is a native watch app the notifications have become much nicer. They now include images and better article summaries. Again, these are tied to your Apple News settings, so only your publications you’ve given permission to do this will appear in these notifications.

The app itself: At any point, you can launch the Apple News app itself and look at the top 5 stories right now. These are the same 5 stories that would show up at the top of the iPhone/iPad app if you were to launch it at the same time.

I find this feature to be really nice, but my one suggestion for next year would be to let me read the whole article on the watch if I really want to. I almost never want to do this, but there are certain cases where it would have been convenient to read at least a little more than the headline and summary of a new story. I know, I know, reading a full article on my wrist sounds like exactly the sort of experience I would say your watch app should not encourage, but what the hell, I’d like to have it!

The New Dock

While I think most of watchOS 4 is a modest improvement over what we had before, the Dock is something that has moved decidedly in the wrong direction. watchOS 3 brought the concept of the Dock, which was a way for you to essentially pin up to 10 apps on the side button for easy access. Not only would these apps be accessible from a more decipherable interface than the app honeycomb, but those apps are also “always running” on the watch and launch instantly. Last year I called the Dock “the single biggest innovation to all of watchOS in this release” and I still believe that’s true. I know numerous people who are still using their original Apple Watches because the Dock made their experience so much better. Sadly, the Dock in watchOS 4 is far less usable.

The cardinal sin of the Dock is that it now has a different default behavior. After upgrading your watch to watchOS 4, your Dock will now be more of a “task switcher” like you have on iOS. The last 10 apps you have used on the watch will appear in reverse chronological order. On the face of it this seems like a rejection of the concept Apple introduced last year, and I bet a lot of people reading this today will not like this change. I certainly don’t. I have two main concerns with this change.

Concern 1: The Ever-Changing Dock

First, it removes all muscle memory from the Dock. My Dock in watchOS 3 had a selection of 8 apps ordered exactly how I wanted them and I never changed that. This meant that I always knew where my favorite apps were and allowed me to see whatever I wanted very quickly. Using this default behavior completely breaks this and requires me to scroll through a list of apps, a list that will be different every time I use it. And if an app I want to use is no longer on this list, well then I guess it’s back to the app honeycomb for me. Ugh.

This is wildly frustrating since it makes me think more about every interaction with my watch. The Dock is now an unpredictable mess.

Concern 2: The Dock is No Longer Glanceable

Apple does give you the option to switch the Dock back to the old mode, and you would think that this solves my problems, right? Nope.

The other problem with this new Dock is that because it’s now an overlapping cards interface, I can not see full previews of the apps in my Dock without actually tapping into them. One of the things Apple bragged about last year was that the Dock allowed you to get updates from your apps without even needing to “launch” them. They were always updated, so you could scan the apps in your Dock and see everything you needed. I personally kept a few apps in there that gave me weather, subscriber counts, web analytics, and more, and I added them to the Dock specifically so I could scroll through the Dock and get an update on my day. This workflow is hindered quite a bit in watchOS 4.

Apps are always overlapping, and this means my view is always obscured. I can fiddle with the digital crown to line the apps up juuuust right so I can see the app I’m looking for, but it should not be this hard.

Why Apple Did This

My theory as to why Apple made these changes is that many people just weren’t using the Dock as intentionally as I was. It’s very possible that the Dock went unused by millions of users, and the amazing work Apple did last year to speed up watchOS 3 was never realized by many Apple Watch users. Considering most Apple Watch users only use a few apps on their watches in the first place, a Dock that shows the last 10 apps may in fact provide more value to people who don’t want to set up the Dock themselves. Additionally, since docked apps are kept in a “running” status, they continue to update in the background and users will get performance improvements they would not have seen in watchOS 3 had they not added these manually to that Dock.

I have no inside info on if this is indeed the case, but it make sense to me. Many people never even customize the apps on their iPhone home screens, so why would they organize the Dock on their watch?

The Little Things

Before we close this thing out, we must look at a bunch of the little things in watchOS 4 as well. Some of this will be a big deal to you, and some things may not be of any interest at all, but I could not call this review complete without mentioning them.

Battery life

I wish I had something more interesting to say than this: battery life is basically identical to what it was on watchOS 3. I get about 24-36 hours of normal use which is exactly what I got before. This just means I charge my watch for about 45 minutes every morning while I'm getting ready for work and it never dies on me.

If your battery does get low and you feel you need to put it into low power mode, that is improved this year. Just like in watchOS 3, you can wipe up on the watch face to bring up a few system toggles. One of these is the current battery percentage, and tapping it will bring you to the battery app, and you can switch to low power mode from there.

Overall performance

watchOS 4 feels very similar to last year’s software, although I do think they performance has taken a small hit with this release. Certain actions like swiping between watch faces and navigating workouts screens feels ever so slightly slower than they were before the update. This is more in regards to animations chugging a little more than before, and not actually doing anything slower, so it’s not the end of the world.

To counter balance that, some things that I’ll talk in depth on below make the overall Apple Watch experience seem faster. Quicker access to media controls, better Siri performance (much less ‘I’ll tap you when I’m ready” than last year), and docked apps actually make the watch feel faster.

Overall it’s a wash. If you were happy with the performance of your Apple Watch yesterday, you’ll be just as happy after updating. Just don’t expect a “THIS UPDATE WILL BREATH NEW LIFE INTO YOUR OLD APPLE WATCH” like we had last year.

New pairing interface

This may be something you never see on your Apple Watch if you just restore from a backup, but the new pairing interface is a little nicer than before. Similar to AirPods, you can start the pairing interface by holding the watch and phone close together and they will see each other. You still have to hold you phone’s camera up to the watch and match the swirling images, but you don’t have to dig the Apple Watch app out of whatever folder you stuck it in years ago to start the process.

Another small nicety is when the installation starts up, it will walk you through a few things you can do with the watch. The stuff they demo in this sequence of screens may not be super exciting to experienced Apple Watch users, but it’s a much better on boarding experience for new users.

[gallery type="slideshow" ids="3504,3505,3506,3507,3508,3509,3510,3511,3512,3513,3514,3515"]

Smart heart notifications

I haven’t been able to test this yet, but Apple mentioned on stage at their Apple Watch Series 3 reveal last week that the new Watch will be able to send you a notification when your heart rate rises significantly and the Watch doesn’t detect you are being particularly active. This could be very helpful in letting people know they have a problem before it gets too serious, and I’m very excited to see this in action…even though I hope I personally don’t see it myself.

Apple Heart Study

The Apple Heart Study is something Apple has also announced that has not been enabled yet, but this will be an app you can download from the App Store later this year and opt into help collect heart data. Apple is partnering with Stanford and telemedicine company American Well to analyze the data they collect, and the goal is to make the Apple Watch the best and most popular device for tracking, and diagnosing heart conditions such as AFib.

This combined with Apple’s open source ResearchKit makes Apple’s health angle with the Apple Watch truly best in class.

Kill the app honeycomb, use a list instead

If you hate the “app honeycomb” screen as most people, then you might be interested to hear that the honeycomb layout can be removed and replaced with a scrolling alphabetical list of all your installed apps.

I won’t personally use this since the honeycomb allows me to cluster all my frequently used apps together near the center of the page for easy access, but I'm sure there will be many people who will call this a major improvement over what we had before.

Make kaleidoscope faces from your photos

The kaleidoscope watch face is controversial at best and horrific at worst (I’ll let you guess where I stand on that), but the good news is that you can make any image into a kaleidoscope watch face from the iPhone.

Simply go to the image you want to use in the Photos app, hit share, and choose the make kaleidoscope option. This will create a new watch face for you and it’s either going to be pretty cool or pretty horrifying, you never really know until you put it on the watch.

You can download 15 images I think make for great kaleidoscope wallpapers here.

Toy Story watch faces

There is a certain type of person who these watch faces are made for and I am not that person. While the Micky and Minnie Mouse watch faces embrace the uh, classic(?) look of Disney watches, the Toy Story watch faces embrace the 3D animation this series pioneered. Woody, Buzz, and Jessie all animate in fun little scenes, but they don’t really do much for me. I love the series…like, really love it, but I don’t want cartoon characters on my watch face. Sorry, I’ll try to be more fun.

Keypad in the phone app

This is a smaller one, but one that might be very important if you are using your Apple Watch without a phone nearby, or have one of Apple’s fancy new LTE-enabled watches. The previous Phone app on the Apple Watch allowed you to take and make calls, but you were limited to people in your contacts. With the addition of a keypad, this allows 2 important things:

First, this lets you call anyone in the world from your watch. Want to make a customer service phone call to a number you obviously haven’t saved to your contacts? No problem at all! I know it’s 2017 and like nobody makes calls anymore, but this is a nice thing to add, and something that it’s a little surprising we were totally fine with not being there before.

Second, this keypad is available from inside the app while you’re on a call, so you can interact with automated systems that require you to “PRESS 4 TO TALK TO A HUMAN”. This again is not required functionality, but it removes some of the limitations the watch used to have when making phone calls.

The 25 people who make phone calls with their Apple Watch will be very happy about this update 😉.

Timer updates

There are also 2 small updates to the Timer app this time around. The first is that you can now set timers for hours, minutes, and seconds (seconds are new this year), and the second is that you can repeat a timer as soon as it finishes.

The addition of seconds speaks for itself, but the repeat function is something I wasn’t asking for but I find myself using more than I expected. This can be good for when you’re exercising, and I’m a little surprised that it didn’t make it into the Workout app this year. I do some light weight training and meditation, and I’ve been using the repeat function in the timer to time my reps. It works great, and it’s one of the best small updates to this year’s watchOS update.

Flashlight

Add this to the list of things I thought were silly to add when I saw them at the reveal in June, but have proven to be welcome additions. The flashlight can be activated from the control center on the watch face, and I’ve actually found it to be a very nice indoor flashlight. It’s not nearly as bright as the iPhone’s flashlight, but by turning the Apple Watch’s screen to full brightness, you get more than enough light is most areas to at least move around.

It should be noted that Series 2 and 3 owners will get a markedly improved version of this feature since the screen on that model can get brighter (1,000 nits) than the Series 1 and original models (450 nits). I personally own a Series 1, so as good as it is for me, the Series 2 is likely twice as powerful.

As a nice clever touch, the brightness for the screen turns down a little when you turn the watch face towards your face so you don’t blind yourself and then will go back to full brightness when you turn it back away from you. Nice touch, Apple.

Messages complication is now somewhat useful

Instead of always showing a message bubble icon, the Messages complication will now show you the number of unread messages you have waiting for you.

Apple Pay enhancements

All the new Apple Pay features in iOS 11 are also here in watchOS 4. You will be able to give people money via Apple Pay and access your Apple Pay Cash card for purchases. Sadly this has not been activated by Apple for watchOS or iOS yet, so this is still something we're looking forward to using soon.

Connections to gym equipment

This is more theoretical at this point, but Apple has agreements with some of the major gym equipment manufacturers to enable Apple Watches to easily connect to them and collect data directly from the machine. This sounds like a much better way to track indoor workouts, but I sadly have not been able to test this yet since none of the gyms around me have this equipment yet.

Activity ring notifications mid-workout

This is a small one, but you don’t have to wait until after you ned a workout to know if it has gotten you to your goal for the day. Now as soon as you hit your calories or active minutes goal, even if you’re in the middle of a workout, you will get a notification right away saying that you achieved your goal.

This is great when you are doing a workout with the express intent of getting to your daily goal. You can work out as much as you need to and then stop dead in your tracks en you reach your goal. Or whatever, keep going because those rings don’t own you. I swear they don’t own me...

New tools for developers

Outside of the new features from Apple’s own apps, third party developers get a few new tools this year to make their apps just a little better. Here are a few highlights:

  • Apps can now record audio in the background
  • Apps can access your location
  • The heart rate sensor is accessible to apps
  • Full screen apps are possible
  • Workout apps have access to the water lock feature
  • Apps can enable auto-rotation so you can turn your watch towards someone and the screen with flip right side up for them
  • And of course, general enhancements to the underlying system should make all apps launch faster and be more responsive to inputs

There are so so so many other tiny features not worth mentioning here, but those are the small but notable features. Now let’s get on to the big stuff!

Conclusion

So after all that said, how do I feel about watchOS 4? I think this is ultimately an update similar to watchOS 2. It’s a small update that makes some key features better, but it does not change the smart watch game in any meaningful way. I don’t mean that totally as an insult, but you should know that this update is not going to revolutionize the world of smart watches and make them something everyone just must have.

But while watchOS 4 is not a revolution, it is a good step in the right direction. This feels like a refinement year to me, which just means that you are going to enjoy your Apple Watch more than you did already. Media controls are a big win, as I now feel like my watch and my phone are more aware of what each other are doing. Workout is a more refined, faster app than before and has me tracking workouts even easier than before. The Siri watch face is the closest thing to a revolution in this release, and I feel like we are just a year or two away from it really coming into its own. The Siri watch face could very well change the way we think about smart watches, but we’ll have to wait and see if it achieves its potential later down the line.

For now though, watchOS is advancing at a modest pace. With Android Wear receding into the background and Apple Watch sales continuing to rise, I don’t think Apple feels a great need to blow out every release of the watch’s software right now. At this point we’re really waiting on more advanced hardware for Apple to cram into the Apple Watch to enable watchOS to do more than it does today. On my Series 1 model everything is relatively quick, but it’s clear that this thing is operating at 100% capacity right now. I’m really excited to see what Apple can do in the software if they have 2x or more powerful hardware to work with. I think we’re still in the very early days of smart watches, but I think we’re also on the cusp of some great things happening in this space. Give the watchOS team some higher end hardware to work with and I think we’ll start to see some larger steps start to be taken in this space.


Like this review? The best way to support my work is to buy Today's Forecast on the App Store. It's a couple bucks and is a pretty damn good looking app!

The Lofree Keyboard Review

The Lofree Keyboard Review

The Lofree keyboard wastes no time making a first impression. From the first moment I laid eyes on it, it's clear this is the most distinct and unique keyboard I had ever seen.

This is seriously a one of a kind keyboard, and is a rejection of just about every assumption you have about computer keyboards in 2017. This is a mechanical keyboard, but it is incredibly compact. It's a mechanical keyboard that frankly, while we're at it, doesn't look either horribly ugly or like it was built for “gamers.” This keyboard is truly something to behold.

https://youtu.be/soHl6t3_8Xo

I think those deviations from the norm of modern keyboards is going to turn a lot of people off, and I certainly wouldn’t blame anyone for trying this keyboard for 5 minutes and deciding they can’t make it work for them. The keyboard layout is really a matter of style over substance, as there are some quirks that make you think about your typing more than the average keyboard.

You can see this in the left shift and return keys, which are double the width of a normal key, but they have an odd peanut shape that actually spans 2 key switches, which makes these keys feel different than everything else on the keyboard. Similarly, the arrow keys have an unfortunate layout where the up arrow is not directly above the down arrow, again because the offset grid layout doesn’t allow keys to be directly on top of each other.

But I’ve found myself getting used to these quirks in just a couple days, and I no longer feel hampered by this keyboard. Whether you can legitimize the time to get used to this keyboard really depends on how much you like this design, so let’s hop back to that.

This keyboard looks absolutely stunning! It looks really good in the promo shots you can see on Lofree’s website, and I’m happy to report it looks just as good in person. The curved plastic feels solid, and looks great on my desk. The body is heavier than I expected, and weighs in at about 800 grams. For comparison, that’s almost 4x Apple’s Magic Keyboard which weighs in at 231 grams. Even crazier, the 12.9 inch iPad Pro weighs 677 grams, and is only 100 grams lighter than the MacBook. But don’t take that as a reason not to buy this, the wight makes it feel substantial in a very good way. With the help for 4 rubber feet on the bottom, this keyboard feels locked down to the desk and isn’t going anywhere.

Now I’m not an expert in judging key switches, so as far as typing goes, I’ll just say that these use Gateron Blue switches that sound and feel great.

There are a few different color combinations you can get, and I went with the black-on-mint combination, and I think it looks stunning. It looks really nice on its own, but the keyboard really comes to life when you turn on the adjustable backlight. Every key is lit up in a crisp white light and I’ve found this light top be essential for learning this keyboard layout. All keys are labeled but they are in a faint gray font that’s almost impossible to read except in the brightest light.

The lights under the keys are great, and give the whole keyboard a kind of sci-fi look that I’m completely in love with. My only problem with the lights is that some keys are mysteriously half lit. The brackets and braces buttons are the most egregious example of this. It’s not a big deal, and you don’t notice this unless you’re looking closely at the keys, but it’s a slight imperfection in an otherwise brilliant build.

On a more practical level, the Lofree’s ability to work with multiple devices over many different operating systems is fantastic. This was definitely designed for Apple platforms first, as all of the keys have Apple-style gliphs on them. You can toggle the keyboard into a Windows/Android mode which will change the button layout a little bit and the keyboard will work just fine with those systems too. Windows users even get their option and Windows keys on the front of the Command and Alt keys. It’s a little bit of a compromise for Windows users, but hey, Mac users have been doing the same thing with many other mechanical keyboards for years, so I think it’s only fair. When you do need to switch between modes, there is a simple little switch here on the side to flip back and forth.

You can also sync the keyboard to up to 3 devices at once. You hold fn + 1, 2, or 3 fora ferw seconds to make the keyboard discoverable, and then connect like you would any other Bluetooth device. Then when you want to switch devices later on, just tapping fn + # works instantly. Alternatively, you can plug the keyboard directly into a computer with the included micro-USB wire and it will operate as a wired keyboard.

Speaking of micro-USB, the keyboard will also charge itself when you plug it into a computer. It has a 4,000mah battery that will last 6 months without the backlight, and anywhere from 1-3 weeks depending on the brightness level you use for the lights. There is no way to see the keyboard’s battery at a particular moment in time, but the USB plug on the side will start to pulse when you get below 20%.

I was able to plug it into my MacBook Prop and it charged up just fine, but you can also use basically any micro-USB charger that’s come with any smartphone in the past few years.

Finally, you can choose to turn the switch to the off position every time you stop using the keyboard, but it will automatically put itself to sleep after 5 minutes of down time, so you really don’t have to.

As a side note, you’ve probably noticed I have accent keys on the Escape, Delete, and Return keys on my model. I backed this project on Indiegogo and one of the stretch goals was to have a selection of alternate key caps. They shipped with the keys I’m using, as well as for all function keys, the space bar, and for F and J keys. They’re nice to have, but totally not necessary.

The Lofree keyboard is a hard product to give a definitive “buy” or “don’t buy” review. If you are looking for a keyboard that is optimized for efficiency or has the most features, then this keyboard isn’t for you. But if you are looking for a keyboard that looks amazing, is satisfying to type on, and works well with multiple devices, then this is a really special keyboard. I like this thing more the more time I spend with it. The learning curve is real, and you may have some doubts at first, but if you are smitten by the looks of this thing, it’s definitly worth considering. I know I’m personally very happy I got one.

RAW images and why smartphone camera comparisons are just plain complicated

The Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6 just came out, which of course means the camera comparisons are hitting the web faster than you can check them out. So why not jump on this train and do my own camera comparison?

Here's 2 photos I took today, and I want you to decide which ones you prefer.

In this case, we have 2 very nice shots. Both images are in sharp focus, and the background has a nice blur to it, which helps the flower really pop. The image on the left is definitely more saturated, and the contrast looks higher. This makes the image pop a little more, and is a better image in my eyes. You may prefer the righthand image through, and I wouldn't blame you. It's more subdued, and a more level image, but it's just as sharp.

Here's the other shot:

We have a very similar situation here, with one image with a much flatter look, and the other with a lot more contrast and saturation. I think the top image is a lot more realistic, but the bottom one sure looks more exciting. Again, they're both good, but you probably prefer one over the other.


Okay, so which do you like better? Ultimately it doesn't really matter, because they were all taken with the same phone. My iPhone 7 Plus took all of these shots.

The less contrasty, flatter images are the exact image that came out of Apple's built-in Camera app, and the more colorful ones were taken with Adobe's Lightroom app. The difference really comes from the fact that I took the RAW files from Lightroom and edited them to punch up the colors, contrast, and clarity a bit.

So essentially what we're looking at here is a difference in post-processing. Apple's camera app is taking the same data I got from the RAW image, and they do some manipulations to the image to make as pleasing an image as possible. Meanwhile, the RAW image I get from Lightroom lets me set everything how I like it.

Because I don't think most people appreciate what a RAW image from a smartphone looks like, here's what the Camera app and I (with Lightroom) started working with:

Now I don't think any of use would say either of those images are really what you'd like to share on social media, so it's a really good thing that Apple and I did some processing on them to make them look reasonable. I mean, look at these side by side (edited on left, RAW image on right):

The RAW images that come out of the camera sensor are not ready for prime time, and it's the job of software to translate that image to something that looks like reality. To Apple's credit, both of the images that I took straight from the Camera app look great. They are incredibly accurate representations of what these things looked like in real life. Apple's decisions around image processing appear to be focused on recreating reality as closely as possible, and they do a really good job of it. I personally like my images to pop a little more, and to evoke a heightened reality. I want them to reflect what my brain remembers that flower, or that tree looking like. So I move a few dials back and forth until I get an image I'm happy with. Based on the number of people who use filters on their images on social media, I don't think I'm alone.

Additionally, I edited a RAW file using Lightroom because RAW has more data, which essentially means I can make bigger changes to the file without things getting all wibbly wobbly. For some context, the RAW file Lightroom produces is 32.7MB, while the JPG image the Camera app exports is 4.1MB. That's a lot more data to manipulate.

That said, the fact that the Camera app outputs a relatively neutral image that doesn't make too many stylistic choices for you, means that you have more flexibility in making your own changes. This means that you can add contrast, remove saturation, or simply apply an Instagram filter and the result is likely going to look really good.

Ultimately, the question you need to answer is whether you want your smartphone maker to make these decisions for you. I personally like the freedom the iPhone camera gives me to take photos I know will look good, and realistic, but I can then take and stylize with ease. The Samsung Galaxy lines of phones have long gotten high marks from camera comparisons in large part because people like the over-saturation their camera app uses on images. As you can hopefully see now, it's not really a matter of the Galaxy having a better lens than any other phone, they just made different choices in post-processing. This also explains why you sometimes see different phones with the same lens in them produce different looking images. The companies using those lenses made different post-processing choices.

The next time you watch a camera comparison, watch it knowing that anything having to do with color is mostly down to decisions manufacturers made in regards to post-processing rather than a difference in lens quality. Things like noise, poor focus, and blurry action shots (due to slower shutter speeds) are better comparisons between cameras. Honestly, it's probably best to just pick the camera that has the fewest straight up bad photos. You can almost always make a good photo great with a tiny tweak here or there, but it's much harder to take bad photos and make them good.

Concept: iOS 11 Home Screen

Earlier this month I mocked up what a refined version of iOS 11's lock screen could look like, and that got my creative juices flowing, so I decided to tackle iOS's white whale: the home screen. The home screen is certainly more advanced than it was in 2007 in the first iteration of iPhone OS, but it has not grown at the same rate as the rest of the platform. This has caused significant fatigue from some users, especially those in the tech press, and Apple is overdue to make some serious changes to this basic UI.

Here's my take.

1. Freely place app icons wherever you want

The fact that my iPhone 7 Plus requires apps to be placed as high on the home screen as possible is insane. I have to fill up the top few rows with apps just so that I can get the apps I really want easy access within my thumb's reach.

This is nuts, and it needs to be fixed. Even if Apple does nothing else on this list, they should allow this.

2. Bring complications from the Apple Watch to the iPhone

When Apple released the Apple Watch in 2015 I figured it was only a matter of time before they brought complications to iOS as well. It's been 2 years and there has been no movement in this space, but I hold out hope.

In this mockup, complications would be configured just how they are on the Apple Watch, and you would be able to choose between having 3 small complications, or one large (wide) complication on the top of your home screen. In this example, I have complications for:

  • Weather
  • Stocks
  • Activity

These all have realtime data that's relevant to me, and this would go a long way to making the home screen more than just a simple app launcher.

3. Widgets are liberated from the Today View, and come to the home screen

Android has had this forever, and I don't use them much on my Android phones. However a big part of that is that the widgets on Android are generally pretty shitty, and are god-awful ugly. Meanwhile, I think Apple has done a good job of making a widget system in iOS 10 that looks very nice, and gives developers a lot of freedom in the way they present data to users.

Bringing widgets to the home screen would certainly be a controversial move for the company, and Android fanboys will rightly claim they have had this for years, but it's the easiest way for Apple to create a more informational home screen in ways app badges simply never can.

4. Richer notification badges

This is a carry over from my lock screen concept, but I think it's high time Apple addresses the badge they put on app icons.

This mockup has 2 apps with notifications, Snapchat and Slack. Slack is a messaging app with multiple ways people can get in touch with you. This person has 4 @ mentions, and 2 direct messages in the app. This would show as a simple "6" badge on iOS today.

Snapchat shows I have a new snap from Mike, and it's a photo. If it was a video, Snapchat could use the video camera emoji, and they could also dynamically just use numbers if more than one person has messaged you.

It's not a lot of space, so you couldn't get too descriptive, but developers are creative, and this might get more people to turn on notification badges.

5. Reinventing Siri

Siri is in need of a major UI overhaul, and this could be just the kick she needs. In lieu of an app drawer button like Android has today, I would stick a Siri icon in the middle of your dock. This is not a regular app, and tapping it would bring up a nearly full screen window that has everything Siri can do for you.

Siri App Suggestions

Siri already has this when you pull down on the home screen. She will guess what apps you probably want to use, and she actually does a pretty good job.

My Siri Update

This is where Siri would present location/time-based information for me. In this situation, Lisa, Frank, and Stephanie are nearby and I can start iMessaging them with just a tap from this screen. Additionally, I have a flight coming up and Siri is reminding me of the time.

A new Siri interface

Finally, we have a new interface for interacting with Siri directly. This will keep a log of the questions I have asked so I can reference them later, and it also adds the ability to type in queries instead of speaking them. This would help a lot with people who can't seem to get Siri to understand them.

This version of Siri is designed around speed. Gone are the snarky comments and flowery language. Now she gives you your answer in as few words as possible.

You likely noticed the green bubbles sticking out from Siri's responses. These are situations where Siri can present additional functionality or information about your request. I asked how old Samuel L. Jackson was, and Siri presents me with "Learn more" because she found his Wikipedia article and I could jump to that if I wanted more info. The "My store" option next to the grocery store request would open the Reminders app and show my grocery list. I could also set what my grocery store is so that Siri could bring up the reminders at the right time.

6. Bring some Siri to the home screen

In addition to allowing apps to have widgets on the home screen, I would add a Siri widget that has 100% dynamically generated information based on your location, time of day, nearby friends, and apps with recent notifications.

At this size, the widget can display 4 things, and Siri has selected the 4 things I most likely would want to use right now. Again, my flight is here, but I also have my Starbucks barcode since I'm at a Starbucks.

It also noticed I have 3 apps with a significant number of notifications. None of these apps are on my home screen, so Siri presents them to me here so I don't forget about them.

And finally, Siri also knows that 3 people in my contacts list are within AirDrop distance, and shows me them. This of course is a privacy thing, so it would behave similarly to AirDrop today, where you can set yourself to off, available to contacts only, or to everyone.

Conclusion

I would expect and hope that Apple has a more dramatic change planned for the home screen down the line, but given what they have now, everything I have mentioned feels like a natural evolution of what they have already done. I don't imagine this is exactly what Apple has in the labs right now, but I do really hope they are on a similar page. The iOS home screen needs to grow up.

An Android Review for iOS Users: Conclusion (Day 5)

This is part 5 of a 5 part series on Android from the perspective on an iOS user.


After a month of using Android as my daily driver, where do I stand? As I've let slip a few times in the earlier articles, I did put my SIM card back in my iPhone basically at the stroke of midnight when my month was over. I'm an iOS guy, and iOS simply works better for me. But I knew that going into this whole month of Android, what I really wanted to find out personally was if Android had improved on the things that had long made it not my preferred platform. After this experiment, I'm sad to say that despite it's strides in some areas over the years, I still find Android to be a less capable, less enjoyable mobile operating system in almost every way.

I think at the crux of my position can be best summed up by how fans of each platform talk about "power" features. If you asked me to give examples of the "power" of iOS, I would bring up:

  • Extensive library of app extensions that let you share data nicely between apps.
  • iMovie is a full consumer-grade video editing app.
  • Ferrite is a shockingly powerful audio editor.
  • Apps like Workflow and Launch Center Pro enable automations unlike anything we've seen on any computing platform before, and they make that power accessible to everyone.
  • A rich third party ecosystem of apps built on powerful APIs are enabling people to slowly ditch their PCs for iPhones and iPads full time.

And when you ask me about the "power" of Android, this is what comes to mind:

  • Ability to side-load apps not available on the Play Store.
  • Custom launchers let you have a custom home screen
  • Tasker allows me to make my phone do things based on the time of day, location, or other trigger.
  • Ability to change default apps.
  • Access to the file system.
  • Ability to flash custom ROMs onto your device.

The notable difference in my two lists is that the iOS advantages have to do with you actually getting things done with your mobile device, while Android's list is more about customizing the look of your device, as well as bringing over some more traditional PC features (file system and non-store software).

This is where Android has already lost the fight. I don't feel more capable on my Android phone because the things it allows me to do that I can't on iOS has very little to do with actually getting my work done. I do the vast majority of my work from my iPhone and iPad these days, with my Mac being the place I go to do the things that PCs are still better for. All my video and podcast work happens on my MacBook Pro because that's the better platform for those tasks, but most other things happen on my iPhone during the day and my iPad at night. And no, it's not just writing that iOS is good for. It's also where I read the news, browse the web, manage my tasks, update my website, edit photos, track things in Google Sheets and much more.

I use a utility called Rescue Time to track my computer usage, and the results of the past few months are rather telling for how my Mac usage varies. I'll be the first one to tell you "correlation does not equal causation," but the below chart at the very least shows that for the 5 weeks that I used Android as my phone, my Mac usage went way up. This is my weekly Mac time in hours for the past 20 weeks:

This is hugely telling for me. You can probably guess what 5 weeks were the Android weeks, but just to clarify:

My computer usage has increased recently in part due to my new interest in video work and spending a lot more time in Final Cut Pro X and Motion, but I'm doing that just as much as before, but my overall Mac usage is still down after going back to iOS. Digging deeper into the numbers, I see that my web browsing, YouTube time, news reading, and Twitter times were the major differences between my Mac use before Android, with Android, and post Android.

This data confirms what I was only feeling when using Android: I don't enjoy using it for as many tasks as my iPhone.

https://twitter.com/mattbirchler/status/815622910048108546

This is really how I still feel after my new time with Android, it is better than it's ever been, but it's not really focused on the sort of things that I expect in the personal computer in 2017. It's a solid phone platform, but the stakes feel different. It's not trying to be your next PC at all, it just wants to be a phone you can customize.

The most criminal part of the Android experience though is simply the quality of apps available for it. I spent the entire first part of this series ripping Android apart for this deficiency, so I won't go down that rabbit hole again, but know that it's a huge problem.

Finally, I was disillusioned by the fact that the power users I talked to didn't even seem to take advantage of the features that make Android unique from iOS. When looking for the best browser, I found most people use Chrome because it's the best. When looking for an email app, I kept being told to use Gmail because it's the best email app. When I was looking for a Twitter app, I kept going back to the official one since all third party ones had some severe trade-offs. Most non-casual users do in fact install a custom launcher, but that's about the only default you can be pretty sure has a better alternative out there.

Meanwhile, most people I've talked to only use side-loading apps to either install video game emulators, and install apps before they are officially released. There are emulators you can side-load onto iOS, but I do admit it is nice to be able to get those super sneaky SDKs for apps that shouldn't really run on your phone.

And all that system automation that apps like Tasker allow, well most of the useful actions people set up are things like triggering Wifi/Bluetooth on or off based on time or location, or a bunch of other menial tasks. Controlling the utilities and system settings of my phone are not what I would call real power user features, they're tweaks and minor conveniences. For some people, this sort of stuff may be one of the things they love about Android, but it does nothing for me. My iPhone tends to make it so I don't even worry about most of the things Tasker lets me automate.

Oh, and the fact that Android Nougat was released on August 22, 2016, and now 5 months later it's still not on 99.3% of phones is insane. I have a Moto G4 which is running almost stock Android, and even it is still unclear when Motorola is going to release Nougat. It was going to be before the holidays…then it was going to be before New Year's…then January…and now who knows when. Meanwhile the last 5 generations of iPhones all got iOS 10 the day it released in September.

And that's it, folks! I hope you found this extended look into Android helpful. It is far from comprehensive, as I didn't even have time to get into the digital assistant stuff, smart home capabilities, lock screens, system settings, and more, but I tried to cover the things that would be of most interest to iOS users.

I'm sticking with iOS for the foreseeable future, as Android did little to make me think it's nearly as good for me as iOS. As someone who cares about getting real work done on my mobile devices, Android falls far short of my needs. My needs aren't the same as everyone else's but if you're anything like me, you'll probably feel the same. Android is not the platform for me, not by a long shot.

An Android Review for iOS Users: All the Little Things (Day 4)

This is part 4 of a 5 part series on Android from the perspective on an iOS user.


We're going to take a little detour today from major features and shift focus to all the little differences I experience every day and just felt were worth noting. Before you get grumpy about something on this list, I'll note that this is the most opinionated piece in this series, as basically everything on this list could be taken the other way by someone else. So while I think third party apps and notifications are objectively better on iOS, and home screens are objectively better on Android, let's talk about our feelings!


I miss having swipe from the edge of the screen perform a back/forward action in 99% of apps like it does on iOS. Most apps either don't support edge swipes at all, or they use it to pull out a hidden menu from the side of the screen. Neither of these is particularly useful in my use. There are some apps that have swipe to go back, but they feel like they're using custom actions, and are not playing nice with the system.

I didn't know how much I loved this feature until I lost it on Android. The back button is good, but it's not a sufficient replacement for me.

One of my favorite folks over at TWiT, Jason Howell tweeted about how stupid it is that back buttons are always at the top of the screen where they're not conveniently accessible:

https://twitter.com/jasonhowell/status/823650895657209856

He's totally right that navigation at the top is dumb for the size phones we have these days, but the fact that I can always swipe left to go back in any app makes me not even notice this is a thing.


Speaking of back buttons, iOS recently added a "Back to XYZ" button at the top of the screen when one app shoots you over to another. I like having this so I can hop back to the app I was using quickly. A daily use case for this is going through my emails in the morning. I tap every link in my emails one at a time, and each link opens Safari over my email app. That "Back to Spark" button lets me zip back and forth between the apps quickly and then read everything in Safari once I'm done.

Android instead has a system back button that will always take you back to the last screen you were on. People say this creates confusion since sometimes it takes you back one page in an app, sometimes it takes you to a whole other app, and other times it takes you to the home screen. While that sounds complicated in writing, it's always quite clear what will happen in practice. I never find myself confused about what will happen when I try to go back.

Android gets the edge here since the back button is a larger target, is easier to reach, and works in all situations, not just when going from app to app.


I miss the smooth feeling of iOS. I know I'm using a Moto G4, which is not a high end phone, but my problems have nothing to do with load times or frame rates, and everything to do with "feel" (I told you were were going to talk about our feelings).

The best way I can describe the difference between the two platforms is to say that Android feels like you're giving instructions to a computer to move the content of the screen up, down, left, or right, while iOS makes you feel like you're manipulating something physical. The momentum of scrolling a simple list in iOS just feels so much more natural than Android's cold, erratic motions. Scrolling to the top of my Twitter timeline on iOS, and having it stretch and settle into place is always satisfying, even though we've had this same animation for 10 years. The way you can accelerate your scrolling by flicking the screen in rapid succession feels right, and moving objects around the screen always feels just a little more smooth.

Even when Android is rendering everything at a buttery 60 frames per second, everything still feels artificial somehow. I'm sure many people prefer Android's way better, but for me it's not even close. I'll take the feel of iOS any day.


You never know how wonderful tapping the top of the screen to scroll to the top is until it's gone. I can't believe Android hasn't stolen this tiny, perfect feature.


Messaging is a mess on Android. iMessage, despite its flaws, is worlds better than what Android has going on. If 100% of your chats run through WeChat or Facebook Messenger, then either platform will work, but I'm guessing you still send regular old text messages to more people than you'd like.

iMessage has been here for years, and is probably one of my top 5 favorite things about iOS. It's definitely one of the things that it hurt the most to lose when going to Android. The simple fact that my iMessage conversations and SMS conversations live in the same app is brilliant. This allows me to have Apple's best messaging platform and their legacy SMS app in the same package. I don't have to think about whether I'm sending a message to someone with iMessage or SMS because if I have their phone number, iMessage figures out what one they can use and decided it for me.

The story is different on Android though, as this mixing of SMS with regular messaging is not brought together the same way. Google's newest messaging app is Allo, which released late last year and…well, no one uses it. But it is Google's premier messaging app and it has all the latest and greatest features from Google built in. This is their much hyped AI-powered chat app with Google Assistant built in. It can help you get dinner, give you the news, or do a whole host of other things, but it's completely useless to me because literally no one I know uses it.

Instead I can choose from a host of messaging apps from Google and third parties that will handle my SMS messaging for me. My phone defaulted to Messenger, but I could also use Google's own Hangouts app. Hangouts is as close as you can get to an iMessage-style merger of SMS and non-SMS chat, but again it's only useful if people you know use Hangouts…I'll bet you can guess how many of my friends/family do.

What's really cool about Android is that third parties can also build apps that will handle your SMS messages, and I tried a bunch. Textra was my favorite, and is what I usually use, but it's SMS only. You can set up Facebook Messenger as your SMS app, which could be good if you use Facebooks messaging platform.

Then getting those SMS messages synced to any other device was a nightmare. Having my iMessage and SMS messages synced instantly, and reliably to my iPad and Mac is something I take advantage of daily, and hated giving up. Pushbullet tries to do a good job with this, but too often it would get confused about what messages were sending and which were not. I had messages show once in Pushbullet's interface, but they sent twice, and I had other sequences of messages show up as delivered in Pushbullet only to learn they were never sent at all.

Ultimately, iMessage is a better product for me in just about every way. And with iOS 10's enhancements to the platform, it it's just a fun app to use with the people in my life.


Do Not Disturb is way better on Android. It blows the doors off of iOS, actually. You can schedule DND to happen at certain hours, just like you can on iOS, but it goes deeper than that. I can set DND on a timer, so I can set it to go DND for 30 minutes while I'm in a meeting and I don't have to remember to go off DND afterwards, my phone does it for me.

Going further, Android has a really convenient option to go DND until the next alarm. This is great for when you're done with your phone for the night, but want it to go back to normal in the morning.


Android also wins when it comes to timers, and it wins exclusively because you can set multiple timers at the same time. It amazes me that iOS still only lets you have one timer going at a time. It's madness! Android lets you set as many as you would like (or at least as many as I have dared to create!).


Notifications are a little more sticky on Android's lock screen. When you get a notification on iOS, it will appear on your lock screen until you unlock your phone. Then it's in your notification drawer until you clear it, but it will never appear on your lock screen again.

On Android, your lock screen notifications and your drawer notifications are the same thing. In a way you would think it's annoying, and it sometimes is, but it's also a good way to force you to triage your notifications regularly instead of letting them pile up in a drawer you don't always check.


I hate on screen buttons the way Android does them. The home, back, and multitasking buttons are all on the bottom of the screen, and I accidentally hit them about 1000% more often than I do the home button on my iPhone. I dream of these buttons being there with iPhone 7-esque pressure sensitivity to avoid these errant taps.

Related, but equally frustrating, is that there is a weird dead space between the home button and the space bar on the Gboard keyboard that I hit more often than you'd believe.


I miss the health and home automation stuff that iOS has built in. Love or hate the Health app on iOS, it's leagues ahead of what Google is doing on Android. Google has an app called Google Fit that I really don't enjoy. And iOS's HomeKit features are not as universally compatible as I would like, but they are at least there. I can't use Google's voice assistant to control anything in my house. Google Assistant is getting more support, but again, Assistant is Pixel-only at this point…


Google's apps are all in the Play Store, and the company updates them all the time. This is a big difference from iOS where system apps are tied to system releases, so for example Safari will only get updated when iOS has an update. On Android, Google can roll out updates to Chrome whenever it wants.

A big reason for this is that Google knows most of their Android users never get system updates at all, but that doesn't take away from this being a nice feature.


Day 4 wrap up

If you are a big Apple fan, you're probably a fan of the little touches in software that make it a delight to use. The deeper I look into Android, the more I see just how few of those things Android has in comparison. Don't get me wrong, there absolutely are some nice little touches in Android that I would like to see Apple adopt, but the list is not terribly long. Most importantly, while I spent most of my time with Android pining for those things I love in iOS, now that I'm back on iOS I hardly think about these things I miss in Android.

I would be very curious to hear what little things you enjoy about iOS or Android, so hit me up on Twitter if you think I missed something delightful.

An Android Review for iOS Users: Notifications (Day 3)

This is part 3 of a 5 part series on Android from the perspective on an iOS user.


I know that this piece may come under some criticism for being a comparison of notifications in iOS 10 vs those in Android Marshmallow, and I agree that the comparison is not as complete as it could be, but I also know that 99.3% of Android devices are running 2015 Marshmallow release or older, so while it's not the most state of the art, it is what basically everyone who isn't on a Google-branded phone is using today.

With that out of the way, let's talk about notifications on iOS 10 and Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

The basics

Android and iOS share quite a bit in common when it comes to notifications. Many apps have them, and their ultimate functionality is quite comparable. Which ones you prefer seems to be a matter of taste. Like iOS, Android lets you set per-app settings for what apps can do with notifications, you can dismiss them with a swipe, you can clear all with a single tap, and you can perform some limited actions right from the notifications themselves.

At a basic level, you know what you're getting into here, as notifications will behave quite like you're used to.

Google's own notifications

Google does this really cool thing where they deliver notifications that you never asked for…and I love them! These are based on your Google Now setup, so you'll see stuff like local traffic conditions here around travel times, you'll see sports scores when a team you like is playing, quick access to navigate home, and even some relevant information about the very building you are standing in.

Here's a few of them:

You don't have a ton of control over these, but I don't find myself ever being annoyed by them. This is a prime example of Google putting it's vast web of information about you to good use. Apple talked about proactive features in iOS 9, but Apple has not done a lot with this, mostly being able to predict what apps you want to use at a certain time. Google's ability to know where I am and what information might be relevant to me at a specific time is pretty impressive.

I find myself missing these notifications now that I'm back to using my iPhone, and wish there was a way to integrate them into iOS somehow. Maybe Apple should try to get a little smarter with what they're collecting.

Bundled notifications are almost perfect

One thing I really do like about Android's notifications is that it bundles each app's notifications together, which makes it easier to parse your notifications at a glance. All my Twitter mentions are together, and my SMS messages are on their own. iOS 10 adopted a simpler, chronological list of notifications, but I find this approach to always lead towards madness.

I personally prefer the bundled method, and don't understand why Apple decided to totally remove that as an option in iOS 10 since they had bundled notifications in iOS 9. I get that you ideally want to see the newest stuff at the top, but Android's system works better for me in this regard.

That said, there is a down side to notifications getting bundled up like this. Like iOS, Android allows apps to let users perform certain actions straight from the notification itself, but once 2 or more notifications get bundled, those options disappear. So if I get one email in Google Inbox, I can archive or reply to it right from the notification, but if a second email comes in (and oh yes, they will come in!), then I can't because those two notifications are bundled together. It's just obnoxious.

The only way I have seen to get around this is for the developer to build their app not to take advantage of bundled notifications, so each one is actionable on it's own. So ultimately you can have one of the cool features but not the other. Not ideal, but not a deal breaker.

iOS 10's rich notifications are unparalleled on Android

This is something I've raved many times about since summer last year, but iOS 10's rich notifications are just stupendous! I could go on for a bit about how great these are, but let's look at some of them in action.

Not all apps have adopted these notifications, but a good number have, and they are one of my favorite new things about iOS in this latest release.

Android Marshmallow doesn't come close to this, and Nougat is a little better, but doesn't really touch what Apple is doing here in terms of power for developers, as well as convenience for users.

Level of control

iOS also leads Android in the amount of control it gives you over how each app handles notifications. Here's a comparison to the notification settings I have for Todoist on iOS and Android:

Android

iOS

iOS lets me toggle notifications on or off in the first place, what sort of display style to use, whether they should show in my notification drawer, if they should make noise, if they should show on my lock screen, and whether they should badge the icon on my home screen. Phew!

Android has some good settings as well, such as the ability to set an app as a priority so it can still buzz you when in do not disturb mode, as well as whether you want them to display a pop up when the screen is awake, or just go straight to the notification drawer without obstructing your view.

But while those features are nice, badges are not a thing in Android, if the app can take up room in my notification drawer, if they should make a sound, or if they can be displayed on the lock screen. The two things that Android does better than iOS don't make up for all the things it lacks for me. In general, I feel much more in control over what apps can and can not do when it comes to notifications.

Screenshot notifications are beautiful

One feature that Android has had for a long time, and I think really speaks to how well they understand their users is the fact that you get a notification every time you take a screenshot. I can already hear you saying "that sounds annoying" but it's not, it's beautiful.

See, whenever I take a screenshot on my phone, it's because I want to do something with that screenshot like, right away. ON iOS I have to go to the Photos app, select the screenshot, and then share it wherever it's going, but Android cuts out a couple steps. After I take a screenshot, I simply pull down for notifications and the top one will always be that most recent screenshot. From there I can share it directly to wherever I want it to go.

This is great for sharing things to Twitter when they're funny, or directly to a developer via email when a bug pops up. My only request (and maybe this is me being greedy now) is that I wish I could set screenshots to delete themselves from my device once they're shared.

How much do you value a clean menu bar?

When you let an app give you notifications, you have control over whether it shows those on the lock screen or whether it makes a sound/vibrates when it comes in, but if you say "yes, please give me notifications" then you're giving that app permission to clutter up your menu bar with its icon. One app isn't that bad on its own, but notifications add up fast, and my menu bar is constantly full of icons.

The idea of these icons is to give you an idea of what apps have notifications, but once you have more than a couple up there it's completely useless. I find myself clearing all notifications not always because I've read them all, but because I want to just clear things up. I doubt that's Google's intention here.

I like this idea in the abstract, but I'd love to have the ability to pick and choose what apps get to show their icon in the menu bar. I want to see SMS notifications, missed phone calls, and a few select task management/todo apps up there. I like the idea of this menu bar space being reserved for "VIP apps" who I really want to know have unread notifications.

Day 3 wrap up

Android has a very solid notification system, and one that rivals iOS. Depending on your taste, you could easily prefer one or the other and I wouldn't call you crazy either way. I personally think iOS has more power in their notifications, and offers a little more control over wrangling them.

The killer feature for Android is it's Google Now notifications, which were one of the most surprisingly delightful things I have found in Android. It's something that shows off Google's edge over Apple in stark detail. It makes you feel like your phone is looking out for you and trying to help you out before you even ask.

On the other hand, iOS has a lot more power available to developers where they can display a ton on information in their notifications. 3D Touch makes these even more powerful, to the point where the MLB app actually has full video clips in their notifications. It's something special.

In the end, if you're used to iOS notifications, Android's will be immediately intuitive, although a little more limited in scope.

An Android Review for iOS Users: Home Screens (Day 2)

This is part 2 of a 5 part series on Android from the perspective on an iOS user.


Today's post is going to be quite a bit more positive than yesterday's, as home screens is somewhere Google definitely has Apple beat. Frankly, if I could have Android home screen with iOS's everything else, I'd be a very happy camper. Android has a stock launcher that is better than iOS's, and also has the ability for third party developers to create their own launchers so that if you don't like what Google offers, you can change it up.

PSA: Your default launcher probably sucks

Let's get this out of the way up front. Unless you have a select few phones, your phone likely comes with a default launcher that isn't so hot. Samsung has their own launcher, as does LG, HTC, and most other OEMs. None of these launchers are all that great, as they lose all the benefits of Google's launcher while gaining none of the customization options you get from a third party one. You should at least install the Google launcher, or maybe one of the many other third party ones out there.

Remember there's an app drawer

While iOS adds all apps to your home screen for you to sort out, Android has what they call an app drawer. All of your apps sit in this drawer and you can pick and choose what ones get added to your home screen1. This is wonderful for someone like me who has many apps installed and doesn't like them taking up a ton of home screen space.

This means that all of my frequently used apps appear on my home screens, while everything else sits in the app drawer for those rare occasions I need them. It's subtly different than putting everything in an "Extras" or "Junk" folder like most of us must do.

Not all launchers have this feature, but the standard ones all do, as well as basically every other third party launcher, and for good reason.

Google Now Launcher

This is the one you're going to want to install for most normal people on Android. It's simple, and fast. It's also the only launcher that can use Google's vaunted Google Now service.

The home screen itself is just as simple as the iOS home screen, but it has a couple advantages over iOS. First is the ability to place icons wherever you would like. iOS makes you place icons on each page from the top down. This made some sense when screens were 3.5 inches and your thumb could easily reach the entire screen, but it doesn't so much in 2017 when iPhones are pushing 5.5 inches. This is a big win for usability on Android.

In addition to icons, Android also allows for widgets on the home screen. This is something that has long been a difference in the platforms, and while I don't use them myself, I do see their value. I personally don't use widgets because they are not useful in general for me. Still, I'd rather have the ability to have widgets on the home screen if I want then not have the option at all, so point for Android.

Finally, this launcher gives you Google Now, which is Google's assistant feature to compete with Siri. You can say "Ok Google" from the home screen to trigger the voice assistant, and you also get a page to the left of your leftmost home screen that displays information Google thinks would be relevant to you at the current time. In the screenshots I have for this piece, they came during the depressing Green Bay vs Atlanta NFC Championship game. That score is sad, but the feature is nice. Google knows I am interested in Packers scores, so it shows it to me there. Apple has made some moves with this in their "proactive" features since iOS 9, but it's not even close to the same level.

The one note I have here is that I have come to really enjoy iOS 10's widget page on the home screen. I like being able to put exactly what I want there so that when I swipe over to that page I know exactly what I'm going to get. Google Now is good as guessing what I want to see, but it's not always right, and is therefore unpredictable.

I like the Google launcher quite a bit, and it would be my favorite launcher if it were not for the next on I'm going to mention. Google has refined this launcher experience for years, and has arrived on something pretty good. Not amazing, but good, and definitely better than what Apple is offering with its home screen.

Action Launcher 3

Now we're talking! Action Launcher is my go-to launcher because it's fast and clean like Google's own launcher, but it's also very customizable. I've set mine up to act as much like the Google Pixel launcher as possible, but I could pick and choose what parts of the home screen I want to make certain ways. I can have the search bar at the top look like Google's, like it's own thing, or totally remove it, and I can also change the icons with icon packs, change the icon size, decide how dense I want the icon grid to be (I go 5x5 over the stock 4x4 for my device), and there are theme options for how I want all UI elements to look.

It's pretty solid.

I also appreciate Action Launcher's commitment to bringing the newest Android features to old versions of Android whenever it's possible. My phone is running Marshmallow, which is 2015's Android hotness, but Nougat is out, and has been for months. Sadly I'm like the vast majority of Android users and liver perpetually behind the curve.

The most notable example right now is the ability to swipe up on an icon to bring up its quick actions. For example, here's Twitter's quick actions:

Just like the same feature we're had on iOS since the iPhone 6s, this is a great feature that I use all the time, and it's only possible on my device because of Action Launcher. We could get into how almost no non-Google apps have implemented this feature yet, but let's not bring down the party (seriously developers, this is great, and you should support it).

And all the rest

These are just the 2 launchers I have found myself gravitating towards, but suffice it to say you've got options. Nova and ADW are longstanding leaders for those who want to have an old-school launcher with tons of customization options. These launchers are very similar to the stock Android lunchers of years ago, but give the options to make the look exactly how you'd like. People who are big into a custom look to their phone tend to gravitate towards these launchers.

And then there are the launchers that break the stock Android mold and give you something different. Launcher 8 is out there if you want to make you home screen look a lot like Windows Mobile (🤢 but okay), and Yahoo's Aviate and Z Launcher try to fill your home screen with apps based on your time and place. It's trying to guess what you'll need at any specific time, which is cool, but none of these work the way I want them to.

I'm happy all of these launchers exist, and I'm happy that presumably all of them make at least one person out there happy, but none of these special launchers do anything for me. This flexibility is what makes Android good, but it also means that there's going to be a bunch of things out there that just don't land with you personally.

Day 2 wrap up

This is a much less apocalyptic area than the third party app situation we dove into yesterday. The iOS home screen has hardly changed in 10 years, and it's due for an overhaul ASAP! It's not a reason to say "iOS doesn't innovate anymore" or "Android is better because of this" but it is definitely a point in Android's column.

I don't think Apple needs to open up custom launchers as a thing in iOS 11, but they do need to take a good hard look at what they have now and make some long-needed changes. Get a small team working on new home screens and see what they come up with. Get a little crazy with things and mix it up a bit. If Apple was making the first iPhone today with a 5.5 inch screen, there is no way they would settle on the home screen they have now. We're only using this home screen design due to years of momentum. It does technically still work, but it's a part of the OS that needs to have its second wind.


  1. Note that the default behavior actually does add those to the second home screen, just like iOS, but you can change the behavior as well as being able to remove them at any time without uninstalling.