Android 10 Review

Android 10 Review

Android is not my favorite mobile operating system. You know that, I know that, but that doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of time with Android and have feelings about it (both good and bad). If you don’t believe me, check out my Oreo review from 2017 or my shorter Pie review from 2018. In general I’d say I’m happy with the direction Android is headed, but none of their changes are enough to swing someone like from from the iOS camp. How did Google do this year? Read on to find out.

New Gestures

It may be hard to believe, but we are just one year past Google trying to reinvent navigation, but it was indeed only Android Pie where they tried a two-button system that was less than ideal. I said in my review at the time:

I’m sad to report that this change leaves both of the problems there were before (confusing back and too much space) and doesn’t improve on any of the things that were already good.

I stand by that today. The change made no actions easier and everything else harder. Android 10’s gestures are far better than before, but they are still not up to the standard set by iOS. Here’s the best way I can sum it up:

By completely stealing iOS’s gestures, Android has made navigating home and between apps easier and more intuitive than ever before, but the new back gesture piggybacks on the old back button’s behavior is is just as confusing as ever.

It’s hard to explain this experience in writing, so I won’t dive into it here (there are plenty of videos showing this off) but I would say it’s like they replicated the macro part of iOS’s back gesture, but they weren’t able to address any of the micro elements that make it so intuitive. I’ve gotten used to it over the summer, but it’s not great yet.

The home and multitasking gestures are pretty great though and I’m totally into them.

Dark Mode

I’m all in favor of dark modes, and many third party manufacturers have been shipping their own dark modes for a while now, but it really matters for the platform owner to do their own. For example, my Galaxy S10e has a dark mode, and all Samsung apps use it, but nothing else on the phone does. With a standard way to do dark modes, I expect more apps to implement this in a predictable way.

The mode itself is well done, as Google has done the same with Apple and used a pure black theme, not the “dark gray” version some people (like me) prefer, but that’s fine, and it does look very good.

The one thing that raises an eyebrow for me is that many Google apps do not seem to care about dark mode. Google Assistant, which is built into the phone, is still bright as the sun, as is Google Home, the Google Play Store, and YouTube do not care at all what mode you’re in. Presumably these apps will be updated in due time, but it feels far less complete than something like iOS 13 where basically every single Apple app is converted (and certainly every built in app is).

Surely Google will keep updating their apps to integrate dark mode, but it would have been nice (and pretty expected IMO) for this to be there at release. It's also unclear how long it will take for third parties to adopt this mode. I'd like to assume quickly, but if using Android for many years has taught me anything it's that new features get added all the time that devs simply have little interest in supporting. Fingers crossed on this one.

Sharing

The share sheet in Android 10 got a big update this year and I think has become more usable, but still not as good as what I’m used to in iOS. One change I like is that you now get a preview of the thing you’re sharing in the share sheet, which I find quite helpful in keeping track of what you’re moving around.

I also like that the list of apps is less shuffled than in years past. I used to feel like I got a new arrangement of share options every time I tried to share something in Android, but that’s better this year as you get a row of “people” to share to, a row of “likely actions” and then an alphabetical list of other apps. Additionally, if you’re sharing some form of text, like a link or paragraph, you see the option to copy that right at the top, which is very often exactly what I want to do.

I still think that the “people” sharing options are terrible and never show me useful things, and in fact mostly show me Slack channels I rarely post to1, and I also wish I could manually sort these options so that the sheet always has the things I do most at the top.

But despite my gripes here, I think this is the best Android sharing has ever been and I hope it continues to get better.

The one straight up omission is Android Beam, which was Android’s super slow, but at least convenient way to share flies between tow Android devices. You tapped your phones together and whatever you were sharing would send over Bluetooth. This was okay for links and text, but images or god forbid movies took forever! Google talked about a new method of sharing back at I/O this summer, but while Android Beam is gone, this new direct sharing method is nowhere to be found in this first stable release of 10. I hope it comes soon because Android could really use a real AirDrop competitor.

Privacy and Security

One area I can not fault Google on is their new privacy and security features. There’s quite a bit here, and while some of it is causing consternation amongst the Android faithful, I think these are all good changes overall.

First up, and the thing you’ll likely notice first is the fact that apps now have to ask permission to access your location. I know, right!? Now when an app, including those you already have installed, tries to use your location, the system will prompt you to either let the app use location all the time, just when you’re using it, or block it entirely. It’s crazy Android has not had this before, but I’m happy it has it now.

You can also go to the Settings app and review what apps have access to your location and change their settings on the fly. This will all sound very familiar to iOS users, but it’s an objective good to have them in Android now.

Additionally, you can now control access to your health and activity data, which again will sound like old news to some, but is a good update for Android.

On the security front, Google is doing stuff like preventing apps from kicking off processes when they are not in the foreground. This will be a problem for some apps, but Google has added some official APIs for apps like Skype that need to be able to take phone calls and bring up an “incoming call” interface. Fewer hacks and more official integrations is good for users overall and I’m happy to see Google making these changes, even if they upset some diehards.

Announced at I/O, Currently Missing

Right after I/O this year I mentioned that I thought the thing they showed off that would not ship this year was the super-quick Google Assistant phone navigation, and that proved to be correct. This amazing demo of someone doing things on their phone with just their voice and using natural language to tell it what to do is not in Android 10 right now. But that wasn’t all that was missing from this initial release. According to Google, we can expect this to release with the Pixel 4, likely coming out next month.

Honestly, this isn’t too bad considering how many I/O features don’t quite make it to the initial launch of the new version of Android in the summer.

All the Small Things

And now we’re on to the small things. I’m definitely going to skip over some things, but these are the things I noticed and made a noticeable difference in my use of the phone this summer.

Night Sight is now a top-level mode in the camera app. Instead of diving into the “more” tab, you can now access this mode just like you would portrait mode on the iPhone.

Your estimated battery life remaining will now show when you pull down the notification shade. It gives you the specific time it expects your battery to last until based on your current usage. I found this to be accurate enough for me to make an educated decision on how desperately I need to charge up.

Speaking of battery, if you turn on batter saver mode, you’ll automatically also switch into dark mode (to save that teeny tiny amount of battery from black pixels). Your phone will also turn itself back to normal mode when it hits 90% battery life so you can turn on low power mode at night, plug in your phone when you go to sleep, and then not have to remember to turn it off when you wake up to a full charge.

Snoozing notifications is dead. Well, kinda. You can turn on this feature in settings, but it’s hidden pretty well and likely is on its way to being wiped out. Interesting how snoozing emails is all the rage and in basically every mainstream app these days, but snoozing notification never caught on.

Notifications 2: You can now hold down on a notification to change that app’s notification permissions quickly.

Notifications 3: You can tell notifications to deliver “quietly” which means they will show in your notifications tray, but won’t buzz you. Again, for iOS users, this is the equivalent of “deliver quietly.” What’s nice here is that these notifications will show at the bottom of your notifications tray, which I think makes a whole heck of a lot of sense.

Since there is no home button anymore, you need to trigger Google Assistant a new way this year. Pixel owners can still squeeze their phones, but everyone else has to swipe up and in from the bottom right or left of the screen. It’s a little weird, but is really just a variation of the lock screen gestures many Android phones have already. I don’t love these, but they totally work fine.

Focus mode lets you decide that apps you want to disable at certain times. This is similar to iOS’s downtime feature, but this mode lets you toggle it on and off more at will than the shcheduled time that iOS allows.

Finally, Live Transcribe is here and enables those with issues hearing to quickly enable this mode and see a real time transcription of whatever is going around them.

Conclusion

Writing this review made me realize that iOS and Android are more in lock step with each other than I think they ever have been before. Things like dark mode are getting added to iOS and Android literally like 2 weeks apart and each of their digital wellness features are growing up at about the same time and pace. Meanwhile, lots of the new and welcome updates to Android 10 had this iOS user going “finally!” more than a few times. Updates around security, privacy, and gestures all made this iOS fan like Android more, all the while feeling very familiar. This is neither good nor bad, but inevitable. These platforms are getting quite mature and there is only so much low hanging fruit to be had.

All this is to say that I think Android 10 is a fine update to a platform I like well enough, but do not personally prefer. I think the new gestures are going to rub some people the wrong way and they will continue to use the three button option for as long as Google keeps it around. I also think the changes around security and privacy will upset peoples’ workflows who rely on certain apps to things, but I think these are wins for the platform and will hopefully prevent bad actors from doing things they aren’t supposed to do.

The Essential Phone and Xiaomi’s Redmi K20 Pro got updated to Android 10 today and the OnePlus 7 Pro got a new beta, so hopefully We’ll keep seeing more phones get this sooner rather than later2. It almost goes without saying, but this is the best version of Android to date and while I don’t think it will convert anyone who prefers the other horse in this race, I think it will make most Android fans happy.


  1. iOS 13 adds more of this type of sharing and does it much better, in my opinion. 
  2. I’m not holding my breath for my Galaxy getting an update this calendar year though. 

Google Pixel 3a Review: The MacBook Air of Smartphones

Google Pixel 3a Review: The MacBook Air of Smartphones

Most phones are judged on 4 things:

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

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

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

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

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

Camera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Build

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

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

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

The Display

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

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

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

Fingerprint Reader

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

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

Battery Life

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

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

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

Buttons and the Squeeze

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

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

I/O and Charging

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

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

Why, Google, why?

Storage

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

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

Performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

Software

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

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

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

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

Recommendation

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

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

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


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

SliceCharge 2 Wireless Charging Mat Review

SliceCharge 2 Wireless Charging Mat Review

I recently picked up the SliceCharge 2 from Hard Cider Labs and thought it warranted a quick review. I normally don’t review charging products, but this one is worth a look.

Shipment

I don’t know anything about Hard Cider Labs, but they have had a few products funded on Kickstarter and they seem to deliver on their promises so far. That said, I bought this straight from their website long after the Indigogo campaign was over and it took 7 weeks for my order to ship. I emailed them about this and they said they had a wave of orders after the AirPower cancellation and orders were just backed up.

Hopefully this is not a normal thing, but the shipping was so delayed I had to mention it here.

The Setup

The SliceCharge 2 looks like AirPower from the outside, but it is not a 1-to-1 replication of what Apple was going for their their defunct charger. Here’s how the device is set up:

There are two standard wireless charging coils on the left and right of the pad and a magnetic Apple Watch charging puck in the middle. None of Apple’s magic “place the devices anywhere you want” here.

The pad comes with a 30W charging brick and a USB-C cable you can use to plug it into the wall. The instructions clearly tell you to only use a 30W charger and that you should really just use the one in the box.

What this gets you are 2 Qi-compatible spots that will charge up to 10W on each coil. This will max out the wireless charging speed on phones like the Galaxy S9 and 10 lines, and will of course get iPhone up to their 7.5W max. The Apple Watch charged at 3W, which I believe is the same as the standard Apple Watch charger, but I can't find hard numbers on that.

Usability

Those specs sound pretty good, but how is the SliceCharge 2 to actually use? Well, I’m happy to say it’s pretty good. No, it’s not as beautiful as the dream of AirPower, but if you’ve used wireless charging before then you should have no trouble using this.

The “sweet spots” on either side of the mat seem totally average for wireless charging pads and those worked for me without a problem.

The Apple Watch charger is a little harder to mail as you need to line that up just right. It’s magnetic, but only slightly and it’s very easy to miss by just a few millimeters if you’re not careful. Ideally, this magnet would be super powerful and lock the Apple Watch into place, which is exactly how the official charging puck works. Update July 8, 2019: After a few months of use, the Apple Watch charger has become incredibly slow. It takes up to 12 hours to go from zero to 100%, which is just insane. I’ve tried to fix it every way I can, but it’s basically uselessly slow now. It was fine at first, but it has degraded over time. The phone chargers remain the same as before.

No matter what you’re charging, you’re going to need to use the device’s feedback to see if you are charging. The mat itself has no visual indicators to tell you it’s charging. From an aesthetic perspective this is great, but from a usability side it’s a bit more challenging. My Galaxy S10e makes this easy with a nice animation and a small bit of text on the always-on display telling that it's working. The iPhone is a little more difficult as the screen shows it's working for about a second before turning off. The Apple Watch is similar here but at least it has a pretty big animation that plays when it hits the charger.

Looks

I think this charging mat looks great! The navy blue model I got looks very clean on my dresser and the little leather tab that sticks out the side is a nice, subtle flourish. Even the USB-C cable that comes in the box feels like it’s made out of metal (not sure if it actually is) and feels very nice.

Basically, this is exactly my aesthetic.

Conclusion

I bought this for $80 and it came bundled with a red Apple Watch band. For me that price seemed fair. It’s maybe a little much to ask for a charger, but as someone who needs to charge more devices than the normal person, this product is super useful.

At the time of writing, the SliceCharge 2 is $20 off, which might make it more compelling to a wider audience. Check it out.

3 Reasons Journey is a Legendary Video Game (review/retrospective)

Warning, this video and article shows footage from the final moments of the game Journey, as well as a description of the entire arc of the game. Please continue only if you have played the game or are okay with spoilers.

Journey is a masterful game that crams more emotion and moments of euphoric gameplay into one hour than most games achieve in their 40 plus hour runtimes. On top of that, the game achieves this without uttering a single word to the player. I don’t think every game can do this, and a large part of why this game is successful is in how it embraces being different from most other games, but I think it provides some lessons in game design that lots of other game designers could learn from.

I want to talk about 3 things the game does extraordinarily well: direction, empowerment, and multiplayer.

Before I get into those, I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Journey has some of the most striking visuals ever created for a video game, and the soundtrack, composed by Austin Wintory, pair together perfectly to create a unique and unforgettable audiovisual experience.

But great visuals and audio can only take a game so far on their own, so let’s talk about what actually makes Journey such a special game.

First up is direction. Journey has no dialogue and there is only written text 3 times in the game by my count. One that tells you to press X to start the game, one that tells you to hold down O to sing, and one to hold X to jump. That’s it.

And in terms of user interface, well there is none. Your character wears a scarf that tells you how much more jumping capability you have left, but that’s it. There is no life bar or experience meters to fill up, and there are no maps or waypoints telling you where to go.

Despite all of these traditional elements being missing, you are unlikely to find yourself lost or wondering what to do next in this game. The game world is wonderfully designed in a way that it encourages you to always head the right direction. From the very beginning you are coaxed into moving towards a small platform on the horizon. You could conceivably walk off in any direction, but the game world does not encourage this. The dessert is beautiful, but there looks like there is nothing to do anywhere other than where you are supposed to go.

The game also uses ease of navigation as a way to funnel you towards where it needs you to go next. You can walk through the sand, but it’s a heck of a lot more expedient to slide through the sand dunes, and many of the larger areas make it so you will naturally get to where you need to go to advance by embracing the slide rather than trudging through the sand in the wrong direction.

And there there are world markers throughout the game. At a fundamental level, the game asks you to get to the top of the mountain in the distance. Again, it asks you to do this without uttering a word, but it’s very clear that is the objective.

You also are guided with things like giant scarfs that looks a heck of a lot like the scarf you yourself are wearing. These turn out to be what you use to build bridges to get to the next area. The game’s dessert world makes it easy to always find these with ease.

Other things such as conveniently placed lights help you along the way too and it all just adds up to an experience that does not feel like it’s holding your hand despite it doing a lot of work to get you to do exactly what it wants.

Next up is empowerment. Journey does a masterful job of making the most of the powers it gives you. The basic actions you can take in this game are jumping, gliding, and sliding. At the start of the game you can’t do any of these. Your scarf isn’t even there yet and the landscape is flat so you must just walk through the sand at first.

You soon get the ability to jump, which in turn gives you the ability to glide down from your jump. The initial jump is relatively small so you can’t do a ton with it, but soon you’ll be discovering extensions for your scarf with let you jump higher and glide farther. You can combine this with some larger, more sloped areas to jump, glide down, and slide you way across the world in no time. The jump is incredibly rewarding and each upgrade you get to it makes a meaningful enough difference to make you feel overpowered each time you find an upgrade.

You continue on this path for the first 2/3 of the game, getting more and more powerful and feeling like you can take on the world. But then you come to a new area that’s totally different. The sand is replaced by snow and everything is suddenly a literal uphill battle. Not only does the game remove all of the rolling hills and raised platforms you became accustomed to using to literally fly around the world, it makes the world so cold that it literally saps your scarf of all its power. Not only does your scarf constantly lose its energy, but it even slowly shrinks until there is just a stub left. That thing you put all your effort into growing as big as possible is stripped away from you and you have to push on without it.

Your power is eventually taken away from you entirely and you take ever slower, smaller steps up the mountain. The controller vibrates with every step, where previously you could run and jump without a care in the world. Now the game makes you feel every step, makes you feel the impact it has on you. You really feel the struggle of the character. You do this until you can’t make it any further and you collapse in the snow, nothing left to give.

The game built you up and then tore you down, and in its final moments builds you right back up again, this time with more power and more freedom than you have ever had in the game. Your scarf is longer than it’s ever been and the world you’re navigating has the scarf’s regenerative magic filling the air you breath. Your power is effectively limitless and you no longer have to think about what you do, you can just do anything you want. The music is euphoric here as well, which only helps to accentuate the moment.

I just love how the game builds you up wonderfully, only to tear you down, all of which makes you appreciate even more the final sequence which gives you more power than you know what to do with. This is grade A game design.

Finally we have to talk about this game’smiltiplayer, which is anything but a traditional multiplayer experience. You can’t party up or anything and it’s not even explicitly clear that these are other human beings you’re seeing in the world. There are no usernames, no voice chat, and most importantly, no negative ways to interact with each other. Again, since your only actions are to jump and sing, you can only really sing at one another, which if they are close enough to you, will also recharge their cape if they need it.

On top of this, you’ll become inexplicably attached to these unnamed wanderers. Whenever I ran into someone I would feel compelled to stick with them and help them find hidden things in the world or recharge their cape if they needed it. I’d also just stand there and sing to get their attention. And I’m not an anomaly or anything, this is how everyone I’ve played with has acted too. Everyone is nice to each other, in part because the game doesn’t give you a way to be bad, but mostly because the game puts you in a state that makes you feel like you want to have a positive experience.

Now I’m someone who always mutes other players in multiplayer games, but even I found myself compelled to interact with others in this game and even wait for them to catch up to me so we could go to the next section together. On one play-though I was with one person for a good chunk of time and I felt genuinely sad when we got separated somehow along the way. That’s really impressive for, again a game with no words.


And that’s what I think is so amazing about Journey. It’s a fantastic game that does so much right in such a small package. Despite the one hour run time, Journey is a game that stay with you long after you put down the controller. And if you don’t want it to end, the game lets you kick off a new journey immediately after your first journey ends.

Samsung Galaxy Buds Review (or The AirPods Cage Match We’ve All Been Waiting For)

Samsung Galaxy Buds Review (or The AirPods Cage Match We’ve All Been Waiting For)

I recently published my Galaxy S10e review and made a point of making that article mention the iPhone as few times as possible. I’m taking a different approach here; this entire review is going to be a comparison to Apple’s industry-leading and pop culture phenomenon. Let just jump right in.

The “Experience”

Yes, we’re starting with the experience of using these, since that’s what makes AirPods special. People aren’t buying them up in droves because they sound amazing or have a billion features, they’re getting them because using them is an effing delight.

My overall feelings about my time with the Galaxy Buds are mostly positive. I think they look good and they have a nice charging case, and using them brings me a lot of the same “I don’t miss wires at all” feeling that AirPods brought me when I first got them. I’m a big fan of the touch surfaces on each earbud, which makes controlling media a breeze and easier than it is on AirPods.

That said, there are some fundamental issues that keep these from ascending to AirPod-level heights. Connection issues have plagued my pair, reminding me that wireless technology is an achievement, not something that magically “just works” like AirPods. Weird pairing issues and notification oddities also mar the overall experience and have lead to numerous cases of me troubleshooting my headphones when all I want to do is listen to some music.

Oh, and I should probably mention audio quality! Well, if you’re heard AirPods, you’ve heard these too. The only advantage they have is that they block out ambient noise better than AirPods.

Setup

Setup is pretty quick, and while it’s not the one-tap setup that AirPods have, it’s certainly better than most Bluetooth devices. You open the case and just like AirPods, your nearby, unlocked phone sees them and asks if you would like to connect.

Once you choose your buds the Galaxy Wearable app opens and lets you set some preferences for the buds and walks you through some of the basic controls. The experience is pretty smooth and was done within a minute.

Just like with AirPods, these work with any Bluetooth device, so you can use these with non-Samsung Android phones and iPhones as well, and the process will be slightly more traditional there. I never did this so I can’t speak to how smooth this is, though.

The Buds

Looks

The Galaxy Buds look good and fit pretty well in my ears. They also sound totally fine, but are nothing special. In terms of looks, well the picture above shows how they look and in my opinion, they look pretty good. I have the black ones and they are definitely a more subtle look than AirPods. I’ve never had a problem with how AirPods look, so it’s a wash for me, but I’m sure there are plenty of people who will prefer this look.

Fit

In terms of fit, this is almost needless to talk about in a review since it’s so personal, but these fit okay in my ears. I have gone for runs in them and they stayed securely in my ears, as do AirPods. They go into your ears with a kinda fun little twist motion and they really feel like they’re locking into place. It’s cool!

One serious disadvantage in terms of fit for me is that these really start to hurt my ears if I wear them for more than 30 minutes at a time. I don’t enjoy wearing in-ear earbuds in the first place, and that combined with the rubber fin that pushes into the top of my ear means they get very uncomfortable for me after a while. Again, this is a me thing, so take it with a grain of salt, but AirPods fit perfectly in my ears and don’t get uncomfortable even if I wear them all day. If you feel the same about AirPods, then this is relevant info for you, but if not, sorry.

Touch Controls

One big advantage Galaxy Buds have over AirPods is in how you control media. AirPods have an accelerometer that you need to tap to do things. Apple limits one action to each bud, so you can choose between play/pause, next track, previous track, and Siri. You may pick two and the rest need to be done with your phone.

Galaxy buds have touch-sensitive sides and use pretty standard tap patterns for media controls. on either bud you can tap once to play/pause, twice to go to the next track, and tap three times to go to the previous track. This means you can always perform all actions, even if you’re only wearing a single bud at a time.

In addition, there is a “tap and hold” action that can be assigned to either:

  • Voice assistant (Bixby in the Galaxy S10e’s case…shudder)
  • Volume controls (left can be set to down, right to up)
  • Quick ambient sound

That last option is the most interesting. If you want to hear the world around you better for a moment, you can tap and hold to have the earbuds use their microphones to amplify the sound around you and turn down you music.

What I chose to do is irrelevant because this tap and hold action basically never works for me. Maybe this is an issue with my buds, but the other tap controls work perfectly but this one almost never seems to kick in.

That said, I quite prefer these touch controls to AirPods’ “bang on my ear” interactions. Unlike Google’s Pixel Buds, which made me hate touch controls, these work very well…at least for taps.

Sound

And finally there’s the audio quality, which I found to be completely average in every way. I use AirPods every single day of my life and have for over 2 years. I know precisely what the things I listen to sound like in those earbuds. When I started playing things through the Galaxy Buds I honestly had to check my ears to make sure I had the right earbuds in. They sound exactly the same to my ears.

The only real advantage they have over AirPods in terms of sound quality is that they isolate you better, which is good for using them in noisy environments. For example, AirPods are almost useless on an airplane since all you hear is the plane noise, but these are a good amount better.

And if you don’t like the default sound, there are 5 total settings you can select from, ranging from tons of treble to tons of bass. I’m not one to mess with equalizers, but I thought everything besides the default setting sounded bad. These have very little bass (probably the only notable difference from AirPods, which has more bass than you’d expect), so the “bass boost” mode really just sounds like they are turning down the highs even though the bess stays exactly the same.

Notifications

One of the cool features of Pixel Buds was that they would read your notifications to you if you wanted. This was probably my favorite feature on those otherwise terribly flawed earbuds, and Samsung has a similar, but much less useful version of this on the Galaxy Buds.

You can turn on notification alerts in the earbud settings, and this will just call out the name of apps as they deliver notifications to you. Someone sends you a text message? Your music will drop out and Bixby will say, “Messages.” Get an email? Bixby will say, “Gmail.” There is no way I can see to get the content of these notifications, which I don’t find super useful. But it’s here if you’d like it.

The Case

A large part of what makes AirPods so great is the case that you use to carry them around. The case is tiny, fun to use, and provides plenty of recharges. Samsung’s case checks more boxes than most, but is not up to AirPods standards. Let’s hit them up one at a time.

The case is indeed small, and it’s the first headphones case I’ve used that fits in the little coin pocket thing in my jeans. The AirPods case slides in without effort, and the Galaxy Buds one takes a little more effort, but gets in there too. It’s quite a bit longer than the AirPods case, but not to a detrimental degree.

In terms of “funness”1 the Galaxy Buds case isn’t nearly there. It’s totally functional and works, but the AirPods case is a delight to spin around in your hand, open and close to hear that satisfying “SNAP” sound, and has super-satisfying motions for both placing the buds in the case as well as taking them out. Every action is fun and makes you enjoy them before they even get into your ears.

Galaxy Buds’ case technically has the same stuff, but the buds kind of just fall into place and I can’t help but fumble with them when I take them out of the case. The hinge on the lid is also very loose so it flops around as you handle the case. None of this is a deal-breaker, and it’s not something you really need from a case, but AirPods have raised the bar so high here that it’s hard not to notice the differences in user experience.

And then there is the charging aspect. You can plug these into a USB-C cable and charge them up, of place them on any Qi charger out there and they’ll charge up wirelessly. And as Samsung really wants you to know, you can use your Galaxy S10 to wireless charge them as well. This is really cool, and something I am glad I can now also do this with AirPods2.

The Buds case disappoints in how much charge it holds, though. AirPods get 5-6 hours of charge and the case holds about 4-5 full charges. This effectively means you can use AirPods for upwards of 30 hours before needing to top up the charge. The Galaxy Buds last the same 5-6 hours per charge, but the case only has a single charge in it, so you get 12 hours tops out of these before needing a charge. It’s not a big deal, and having wireless charging means I’m more likely to just drop it on a pad when I get home, but it’s still a pretty stark difference.

Technical Difficulties

My time with Galaxy Buds has been mostly smooth sailing, but there have been enough problems to warrant their own section in this review.

First and most common, is that the Bluetooth connection seems to be pretty spotty. I never lost connection completely, but I somewhat regularly have instances of the audio cutting in and out briefly when my phone is in my pocket. This isn’t great, and when it gets bad it makes it impossible to listen to anything. If I take my phone out of my pocket it goes away immediately.

Along those same lines, I’ve had a few times where only one earbud would connect to my phone. For example, the left one would connect and start playing audio, but the right one would just stay dead. The phone claimed to not see it and no amount of putting the bud in and out of the case would get it to connect. Each time this happened I had to reboot my phone, at which point it would connect immediately and work fine.

These buds have gotten two software updates since I bought them a few weeks ago and these are a bit of a pain too. I put them in once and my phone showed me a notification that I would not be able to use my earbuds until I performed the update. Having updates is good, but blocking me from using my headphones until I install them is dumb.

Also on the update front, the case needs to remain open while updates install. If you have the gal to close the case while it’s trying to update, your phone will show you a warning that says it is unable to connect to your Buds. You need to keep the case open or take the buds out of the case while the update is performed.

Come on…

Finally, that notification feature mentioned above is crazy unreliable. Most apps don’t even seem to work with it, despite my settings saying they should work. For example, Gmail notifications get through to me, but Outlook does not. Messages works but Signal doesn’t. It’s totally random and the settings page where you can turn specific apps on or off doesn’t seem to do much at all.

Conclusion

I think that AirPods are a better earbud for Android, despite being made by Apple and losing a lot of their extra fancy features on Android. Enough of the experience is still superior that it makes it hard for me to personally choose the Galaxy Buds over them.

That said, Galaxy Buds are $129, while AirPods are $1993 so the price difference is pretty significant. Also, if AirPods don’t fit in your ears, there’s a good chance Galaxy Buds fit better. And if you want better media controls or more sound isolation, then the Galaxy Buds will be your best…er, buds.

This all comes down to personal preference, so take my opinionated review with a grain of salt. No, these are not as good as AirPods in the ways that matter most to me, but they are certainly good enough to make a lot of people happy. My biggest concern is not with the actual feature set but with reliability. If these didn’t have connection issues and pairing problems then I’d give these en enthusiastic endorsement. Given that I have gotten two updates already, I have high hopes that Samsung will keep plugging these holes and make these more reliable. There’s no guarantee of that of course, and I can only review these as they exist today.


  1. My writing app tells me that isn’t a word, but I’m sticking with it. 
  2. Well, as soon as I update my AirPods. My original ones are still fine so I’m holding off. My wife got the new case though since she managed to discolor her case quite a bit. Makeup spills in purses are not fun… 
  3. $159 if you don’t want the wireless charging case. 

Samsung Galaxy S10e: An iPhone Fan’s Review

Samsung Galaxy S10e: An iPhone Fan’s Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

TLDR Version

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

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

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

Why the S10e?

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

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

Build Quality

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

The Display

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

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

The Hole Punch

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

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

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

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

Hardware Details

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

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

Authentication

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

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

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

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

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

Battery Life

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

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

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

Camera Quality

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

The Camera Hardware

Specs (thanks to GSMArena):

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

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

The Camera Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter link

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter link

Camera Odds and Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performance

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

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

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

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

Software

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Samsung Even Like Android?

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

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

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

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

All the Small Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

My Review of Resident Evil 2

This is my review of the 2019 remake of Resident Evil 2. Spoiler: I love this game and it’s absolutely going to be in contention for my favorite game at the end of this year.

iPhone XS Non-Review

iPhone XS Non-Review

This is not an official review of the iPhone XS, but I’ve had the phone for a month and figured it was about time i share some of my thoughts on Apple’s latest and greatest phone. For some context, I’ve bought every iPhone since the iPhone 5 and, not that it matters a ton for this review, I spend close to half of my time with an Android phone, most recently the Pixel 2. I’m upgrading from the iPhone 8 Plus.

The Screen

The biggest difference between this phone and my last iPhone is the screen. This is old news to iPhone X users, but I am still in love with the nearly edge-to-edge screen on the XS. It looks outstanding, with colors that look sharp, but not exaggerated. It looks a smidge better than the screen on my iPhone 8 Plus, but frankly the difference is smaller to the untrained eye than I think some people make it out to be. It’s better, no doubt, but going back to my iPhone 8 Plus after a few days, I didn’t think it looked that bad in comparison.

And then there’s the compromise that screen is best known for: the notch. I am personally not bothered by this at all. It’s absolutely a compromise and in a few years we’ll surely be able to get rid of it, but for now I see it as an acceptable compromise to get more screen without sacrificing functionality on the front-facing cameras.

How people react to the notch is really a “glass half full or glass half empty” situation in my opinion. If you look at the notch as encroaching on your rectangular screen, then you’re going to have a more negative impression of it. On the other hand, if you’re like me and see the extra screen on either side of the notch as bonus pixels, then you are more accepting of it. Neither is wrong, but it’s why people have differing opinions on the notch.

In a similar vein, the rounded corners are a cause of some grumpiness as well, but I love them. I think that they give it a more friendly vibe and seem more futuristic than the squared off corners we have on most screens. My iPhone 8 Plus’s harsh corners look way too “clinical” for me after spending a little time with the XS.

Face ID

98% of the time I’m very happy with Face ID. The 2% is when I’m waking up in the morning and am trying to look at my notifications before getting out of bed. For whatever reason, Face ID almost always fails to recognize me right when I’m lying on my side in bed.

But all other times I’m totally in love with Face ID and have never had the slightest wish that the phone also had Touch ID. I get that other people have different experiences, but I can only speak for me and in my use it’s been perfect. It’s to the point where I often find myself forgetting that I even have any authentication at all on the phone. I just pull my phone out of my pocket, swipe up to unlock, and I see my home screen. There’s no delay, and I’m just in my phone. It’s great!

Also, I set up my “alternate look” as my wife’s face and she’s able to unlock it just as easily.

The Cameras

The worst thing about the iPhone XS cameras is how big the bump on the back of the phone is. I like to use my phones case-less, especially the iPhone XS because it just looks so damn cool, but the amount of wobble you get on a flat surface is worlds more than in any recent iPhone I’ve used. If you use a case then this isn’t really a problem, but it’s an annoyance every day for me.

But the photos these cameras take are amazing! Yes, they produce generally softer images than what you’ll get from the Google Pixel 2 or 3, but that’s a stylistic choice, and it happens to be one that I prefer. Without getting too far into the technical aspects, here are a few shots I’ve gotten in the past month.

I’m taking most photos with the stock camera app, but if you want to get a different look, there are a myriad of third party apps that let you prioritize data differently and produce different images. I personally like using Adobe Lightroom to capture RAW image files and edit them to my heart’s content, but Halide is also a great app for taking photos with tons of different options.

On the video front, the new cameras take in more light and get much better video in harsh conditions. At night, things are way better, and things like going from light to dark and back to light situations work so much better than before. I’d highly recommend using 4k 30fps video to get the highest quality shots. This mode technically shoots at 60fps and combines frames to get a better overall picture, which is especially useful in lower light situations or spots where there is a lot of contrast between light and dark spots. You lose some of that magic when shooting at 60fps.

Gestures

This is old news for people who jumped on the iPhone X last year, but it’s new to me. The new gesture-based UI for iOS is excellent in almost every regard. I love the swipe up to close apps, as well as unlock the device.

I also adore the swipe left/right on the home indicator at the bottom of the screen to move between recent apps in a flash. This gesture is particularly useful since it essentially replicates Android’s back button, but in a way that actually makes a lick of sense. Swiping from the left edge of the screen on the indicator takes you back to the last app, which swiping from the left edge anywhere else on the screen takes you back in the app you’re currently in. It’s predictable behavior, which is what I want from a UI, and it’s not what Android allows.

Speaking of Android, the gesture controls overall are far more intuitive and enjoyable in iOS. When I use these controls I think “this is nice,” but when I use the Android gesture controls, I think “I guess this is the way it is now…”

Not all is perfect though. The gesture to bring up the app picker is a bit slow. Swiping up and holding is effective, but takes a hair too long for my liking. You should never feel like you can move faster than your computer, and the swipe up and hold gesture makes me feel like I’m waiting on my computer to understand what I’m asking it. I know you can do a swipe up and to the right gesture, but that’s a little more precise than I wish it was and I don’t find it to be as reliable.

Also, moving control center to the top of the phone makes some sense, but it absolutely makes getting to that part of the UI more difficult. I have to shimmy my phone around in my hand to make some basic system changes, and That’s a bit annoying. Also, because the control in control center are aligned to the top of the device, that means things like media controls are also way at the top and harder to access with one hand. The iPhone XS is the small iPhone in the lineup this year, but a tall 5.8” screen is still hard to reach with one hand.

Takeaway

And that’s it! My feelings overall are very positive on this phone. I am never happy to drop $1,000, and it would be lovely if this was still a $650 phone like iPhones were a couple years ago, but that’s not what the market was willing to pay and Apple is not leaving money on the table. That said, I do think this phone was worth the money. When I go back and pick up my 8 Plus I’m shocked by how old it feels, even after just a month. The bezels feel massive and the screen looks too squat.

The cameras also make me feel most like I’ve made a good decision in upgrading this year. I’m still flabbergasted by the photos I’m getting from this sensor, both from the stock camera app and through RAW apps like Lightroom and Halide.

My wife will get getting her iPhone XR delivered this Friday and I expect to play with it a little to see how noticeable the differences are from the $250 more expensive model I am enjoying immensely.

Apple Watch Series 4 Review: Bigger is Better

Apple Watch Series 4 Review: Bigger is Better

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

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

Let’s jump into it.

That Screen

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

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

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

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

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

Design

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performance

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

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

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

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

Workout Tracking

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

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

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

The X-Factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrap Up

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

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

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


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

watchOS 5: The BirchTree Review

watchOS 5: The BirchTree Review

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check them out running on a Series 3 below.

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

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

Activity Updates

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

A New Workouts API for Developers (and Apple)

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

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

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

Competitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auto Workout Detection

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

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

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

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

The Small Stuff

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

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

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

https://youtu.be/cdoDpltB9j4

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

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

Siri Watch Face

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

New Look

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

Sports

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

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

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

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

Third Party Support

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

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

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

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

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

Enhanced Functionality

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

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

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

Podcasts

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

Native App

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Parties Can Actually Make Good Podcasts Apps!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notifications

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

Grouped Notifications

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

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

Managing Notification Access

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

Critical Alerts

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

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

Inline Actions and More Dynamic Content

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

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

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

What’s Missing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


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


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