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. 

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Conclusion

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


The Microsoft Surface Go is a product rife with contradictions. On the one hand it's a delightfully portable PC with high end hardware, excellent accessories, and the flexibility to work in many situations. On the other hand, it is slow as a dog, runs an operating system not optimized for the hardware, and costs more than it should.

For a device intrinsically linked to the "no compromises" moniker, it sure feels like there are a lot of compromises here.

If you love Windows and want the most portable version of Windows available, then this could be an okay choice. The hardware is undeniably wonderfully constructed, and it does indeed run the full Windows 10 experience. But I worry that the performance and battery issues hold it back from being a good buy for a lot of people. You really have to be comfortable with quite poor performance if you're going to truly enjoy this product. Even typing this article right now, typing into a plain text file and no other apps open has the letters appears on screen about a second after I type them from the Type Cover. It's sloooooooow, and it's basically unacceptable for a computer in 2018.

The cost for this performance is also hard to justify. I paid $630 for the Surface Go, Type Cover, and Surface Pen. I think that's exactly what Microsoft expects you to get with this device, and for that cost I'm hard pressed to think of another PC for the same price that runs this badly.

As I mentioned in the parts on hardware (build quality) and accessories, these are very nice physical goods you're getting, but they're betrayed by the Intel chipset running it all.

If you want this hardware and accessory quality with decent performance, the Surface Pro is going for $599 right now and looks to be a much better performer for only $200 more. That may be a notable difference for some buyers, but I also think that computer will last you much longer. The Surface Go is wildly sluggish today; I can't imagine how slow it's going to be in just a few months. I can't even reliably watch YouTube or Netflix videos on this thing without dropped frames or complete crashing.

My personal opinion is that the Surface Go was made to hit a price point, not to deliver a certain quality of experience. I think Microsoft wanted to sell a $400 tablet and they refused to say no when the hardware clearly wasn't there to get their users a great experience. Because of that, I really can't recommend the Surface Go to almost anyone. It's super portable, but I think the jump in performance from the Go to the Pro line is well worth the small upgrade price.

On the other side we have the iPad 2018, which is $70 less expensive than the entry level Surface Go, and performs much better and does basically all of the same things people are going to buy a Surface Go to do. If you can't stand iOS, then this isn't really an option for you, but if you like iOS at all, I really think the iPad is a better tablet if you're looking for something portable and well made.

All this said, I actually plan on returning my Surface Go and exchanging it for a Surface Pro. I have enjoyed having a Windows system in my life and the flexibility of a tablet that can convert to laptop and desktop interfaces is quite nice to have. If I do go through with that exchange, then you can be sure I'll share my (far more abbreviated than this 7,000+ word review) feelings on it right here on BirchTree.

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Maximum Flexibility

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


Using the Surface Go for the past month has not made me want to give up my iPad Pro and switch to the Windows life, but it has made me look at the Mac with new eyes. Not so much macOS, which I still prefer over Windows for many, many reasons, but instead I'm looking at Mac hardware a bit differently.

From a hardware perspective, the Surface Go is very much an iPad competitor; it's a 10" touch screen that's exceedingly portable. But when it comes to software, this really is a traditional PC. That may be good or bad depending on what you want from a device like this, but I think it puts it in a weird middle ground that Apple is not covering right now, but I find very interesting.

So if you want a portable Mac today, you can get a MacBook, MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro. These are all very similar devices with varying levels of speed, screen size, and weight. There are other details, but we're essentially talking about 3 different clamshell devices that take up slightly different amounts of space in a bag. If you want a portable Mac, that's all you can choose from.

What the Surface Go (and much of the Surface line in general) offers is a full Windows experience in a form factor that's wildly flexible. Here are the many ways I've used the Go:

  • "tablet mode" with no accessories and manipulating with touch
  • "tablet mode" but with the Surface Pen
  • "laptop mode" with the attached Type Cover
  • "laptop mode" with a Bluetooth mechanical keyboard and mouse
  • "desktop mode" by plugging into a 27" monitor

All of these setups are possible via an iPad and a Mac, but none of Apple's hardware can do it all. So despite my personal feeling about Windows, I would really enjoy this flexibility on a platform I enjoy using more.

My personal dream here is that the iPad grows into a desktop experience more than the Mac shrinking down into a tablet form factor. Almost 3x as many people buy iPads as Macs, so I'd expect that's the market Apple wants to grow too.

The bottom line here is that Microsoft has a device that has wonderful build quality, is super portable, and transitions to a desktop experience with ease. I don't plan on ditching any of my Apple hardware for this right now but what Microsoft is doing here with a device that works however you want, wherever you want is very appealing. Apple can get you here with a Mac and an iPad, but I'm very hopeful that they have a solution that matches the Surface Go's flexibility in the near future.

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Performance, Where Art Thou?

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


The first few sections of this review have been all about the Surface Go's best aspects, but this section sadly takes us into what I see as the biggest challenge for the device: performance. Look, I get that this is a $399 device and it's not going to be the fastest machine in the world, but I personally found the performance issues to be relatively shocking for a device sold straight from Microsoft.

The Surface Go is sporting an Intel Pentium Gold 4415Y processor, which is a dual core processor from the Kaby Lake family of processors. It's a year old processor at this point and it was already a super low end processor when it came out, but let's see how it fares in late 2018.

The Intended Use Case

The Surface Go is not meant to be a high end computer that multitasks with hundreds to Chrome tabs and another 10 apps all running at the same time. Instead, the proposed use case is for a user to do one or two light tasks at a time. So maybe have Twitter and a browser open, but maybe don't try to also run Word at the same time.

As an iPad user, I figured this would be a simple transition. I use an iPad Pro with no more than 2 apps at a time, and things a great, it's my favorite computer ever. Sadly, this 1-2 apps at a time lifestyle is harder to implement on Windows than you'd expect, and even when I used one app at a time, I still experienced performance issues that made the device borderline unusable.

The "Single App at a Time" Lifestyle is Hard to Stick With

The first problem I had was that even if I was able to get great performance from a single app at a time, I had to use my computer in a very unnatural way to achieve this. Many app like to run minimized or lose all your current data when they're closed, which means the process for switching away from one app was typically to save my work to a file (old school, and only if the app supported it) or finish what I was doing because my status would be lost if I closed the app entirely (Edge tabs, for example). Then I could manually close the app with the window close button and launch the next app.

That process feels annoying to me, and negates much of the benefit of having a traditional PC operating system. One of the big draws of Windows and macOS is the ability to run multiple apps at the same time and have full control over what is running. With the Surface Go, I felt like I had all of the overhead of a traditional operating system (file management, app management, slowdowns, etc.) with all the limitations of something like iOS or Android. It felt like the worst of both worlds and not the "no compromises" experience one is supposed to have with Surface devices.

Even with One App at a Time, Things Are Slow

https://twitter.com/mattbirchler/status/1030287386239033344

I posted that video to Twitter after going into a slight rage about single app performance on the Go. The cardinal sin for computers, in my opinion, is to have the text on screen lag behind your keypresses. This happens in Twitter, Word, and numerous other apps at times, and I can't explain why it's happening, but I can say it's super annoying.

The problems continue with Chrome, which is basically unusable on the device, even with a single tab open. The app locks up constantly and scrolling is a hellscape of sadness. I had tons of issues with YouTube videos stuttering in Edge, so I bought the much-loved MyTube app and gave it a shot. It is definitely better in terms of performance, but it too sometimes has issues displaying smooth video after 10-15 minutes. It's not a problem 100% of the time, but it's enough that I don't trust the device to even play videos every time.

For a real shocker, here's what the CPU usage looks like as I edit a single text file (this article, actually) in Caret, a plain text editor:

Even if we move out of apps themselves, the operating system itself just feels like it's struggling to keep up. Every action has a delay from opening the Start menu to launching apps. Part of this is likely due to the eMMC storage in my baseline model, but considering the CPU shows 100% usage whenever I so much as move the mouse, this computer feels like it's always working as hard as it possibly can.

Cheap Doesn't Need to Mean Slow

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-werjTSYGs

I made the above video to show the differences between the performance of the Surface Go and an 18 month old iPad. The iPad costs over $100 less than the Surface Go, so the fact that it beat out the Surface at every test was disheartening. And for what it's worth, the Surface Go was as fast as I've ever seen it when I recorded that video. That's the best case scenario for it, while it's often less impressive than that. Meanwhile, the iPad is consistently about the same.

The problem here is pretty clear, Windows 10 is simply too heavy to run on lower end hardware like this. There is too much going on at a core level, and the low power, fan-less hardware to handle well.

External Displays

The Surface Go has a USB-C port which can output video, and I have it hooked up to a 27" 1440p 60hz monitor. I was a little worried about abysmal performance when pushing more pixels over a wire, but it holds up perfectly well here here. That's not to say it's amazing or anything, but I didn't notice any degradation in performance between things on the tablet vs the external display. Games, of course run miserably at the full resolution, but that's to be expected.

The bottom line is that if you are okay with the performance on the tablet, you can plug it into a display and it'll be alrioght there too.

Let's Play Some Games

Now I know the Surface Go is very much not a machine you should buy to play games, but games are a common task for tablets, so I had to test out a few games to see how they did. This isn't a "gotcha" section where I run Far Cry 5 and complain about bad frame rates, I'm looking at some lower end games that might work okay.

This is a super random assortment of games, but they're what I was able to run and mostly that I already owned in Steam and GOG.

Fortnite

No gaming test in 2018 would be complete without Fortnite, and I'm sad to say that the Surface Go simply can not play this game at all. Here's a quick demo of the performance:

https://twitter.com/mattbirchler/status/1034642439225659392

It's really not good, and this is on the absolute lowest settings the game has.

Hearthstone

The game is locked at 30fps and it ran that way much of the time. The game defaulted itself to medium settings, and maxed out at a lower resolution than the Go's native 1800x1200 resolution. I did notice that after about 10 minutes of playing, the back of the device heated up to uncomfortable levels and the frame rate dropped to 15-20fps.

Also worth noting that the touch controls for this game are excellent. Whether you use a mouse and keyboard or your fingers to play, it's a good experience. Just know it's going to lag a bit if you play more than a couple rounds.

Splinter Cell Chaos Theory

This is a 13 year old game, but it's one that I really enjoyed as a teenager. thankfully, this runs at over 60fps on the default settings, which are basically 720p and medium settings. If you want to play on high, it's going to run about 10-15fps, which is a little bit of a bummer.

Asphalt 9

This is a mobile game brought to the PC, and it expectedly runs perfectly well on the the Go. It typically runs at 30fps, but when crashes happen and a decent number of particles are on screen, it drops for a fe seconds. Another game totally playable with touch controls.

Diablo 3

This 6 year old game runs like a dog on the Surface Go. Even on the lowest settings and a miserable 480p resolution, I still didn't even get 30fps. Using anything higher resulted in a completely unplayable experience.

Starcraft 2

Similarly to Blizzard's Diablo 3, this game runs terribly, even at lower resolutions.

Gunpoint

This is a really cool indie game that came out in 2013 that runs perfectly well on the Go. 60fps locked.

Left 4 Dead 2

Valve's old, but still fun zombie shooter runs well if you turn down the graphics and resolution. If you're willing to do that, the game is a pleasure to play, ranging from 330-60fps most of the time, although I experienced the same overheating issues which made the frame rate tank after about 20 minutes of gaming.

Guacamelee

This game is a champ on the Go! I got a full 60fps at 1800x1200 resolution and it never dropped. I only played like 20 minutes, but it was damn impressive.

Star Wars Episode 1 Racer

We're getting into super old games here, but this relic from 1999 plays expectedly great, never dropping from 60fps. It looks absolutely terrible by modern standards though.

Final Take

I have complicated feelings about the performance on the Surface Go. On the one hand, if you baby it aggressively and truly only do super low intensity stuff, it can be okay. I'd like more in a $400 computer, but the benefits of the tablet form factor and premium build quality meant they had to make some trade offs. As for gaming, it runs old games mostly fine, and you just have to know that almost no new games aren't going to happen.

But at the same time, the $329 iPad shows that you can ask more from your sub $400 computers than you get from the Surface Go. I think that asking someone to use Windows and only use one app at a time is a pretty major annoyance and negates many of the benefits of having Windows in the first place. Even if you stick to that one app lifestyle, the fact that you still routinely have major performance drops and significant lag on a regular basis is hard for me to swallow.

The Surface line is supposed to be Microsoft's vision for computers, and while the higher end Surface line might do well, but if this is what Microsoft deems acceptable performance for a Windows experience, I'm truly surprised. As I mentioned earlier, the culprit here is partially the processor, but it's also a fundamental issue with Windows itself: it's just too much, and requires too high a baseline processor to run at a good clip.

If you are getting this as a device you'll be using for small tasks here and there, it might work for you, but I really worry about people who buy this expecting it to work for many years. People buy iPads every 5 years or so. This thing is barely hanging on right now. I can't imagine what it'll be like 5 years down the line.

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Surface Type Cover and Pen

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


While the hardware of the tablet itself is quite impressive, the official accessories that go with this tablet are pretty damn impressive as well. Microsoft has 3 official accessories for the Go, a new Type Cover, the Surface Pen, and the brand new Surface Mobile Mouse. I think that is the appropriate order for them as that is how important they are to the overall experience of using the Surface Go.

One cool thing here is that these accessories can be purchased in your choice of 4 colors.

I chose to get the burgundy ones, but I could have also gone with platinum, cobalt blue, or black. The black Type Cover is $30 less than the other ones and is all plastic instead of using Alcantara.

Also worth noting that I did not buy the new mouse as I don't have any need at all for it. By all accounts it sounds fine for a $29 mouse, but it's not something I'll be able to cover in this review.

Surface Go Type Cover

I would go so far as to say that you really shouldn't even buy the Surface Go unless you intend on buying a Type Cover as well. Without it I really don't think you're going to get a complete experience. I know I said I wouldn't, but please indulge s single paragraph about Windows 10.

Windows 10, despite shipping in a tablet device, is still very much the same old Windows we've known for decades. It is intended to be used with a mouse and keyboard above all. Yes, you can touch the screen and some things are genuinely enjoyable via touch, but this device feels at its best with a good old fashioned keyboard and mouse or trackpad. I wish this was not the case, I really with Microsoft was forging ahead more quickly into truly touch-first interfaces, but the market has slowed them on this front and it's a shame.

Alright, back to the keyboard.

Let's start with how this thing connects, which is very satisfying. It snaps into the Go with a thunderous THWACK every time, and connects even stronger than the iPad Pro's Smart Keyboard. I might say it's even too much, as taking it off requires a relatively serious tug, but you know it's not going anywhere when it's connected.

It immediately connects (no wireless here, the connector plug is rumored to be just an oddly shaped USB 3 port) and the keys light up momentarily to let you know it's ready to go. I've yet to have a connectivity issue, with makes sense because again, it's a wired connection.

When it comes to actually typing, the keyboard feels very good. You should know that I am a big fan of the Smart Keyboard and Magic Keyboard, so low-travel keyboards are my preference, but if that sounds at all like you I think you're going to like this one too.

There is a full function row at the top that doubles as media/brightness/etc controls, and they're lovely to have, even if they're a bit small. They didn't have more space to make them bigger so I'm more happy to have them here than for them to be missing entirely.

One thing I find odd is that the keyboard likes to be put up at an angle, elevating the keys every so slightly, but I really don't like this. A smidge of an angle is okay, but I mostly think keyboards should be flat. The bigger problem is that this creates a small air gap between the bottom of the keyboard and the surface it's sitting on. This leads to a little bounce as the keyboard flexes under your fingers as you type. It's not a lot and it's honestly not a big deal, but it's enough that I have taken to actively not propping up the keyboard and simply using it flat on the table. This makes the key presses feel much more solid and more comfortable for me overall.

Moving down a bit further is the trackpad, which I will simply say is far and away the best trackpad I've ever used on a non Apple device. It's seriously not even close, and while it's not quite as good as my MacBook Pro, it's shockingly close. It's big enough and smooth, and has a physical click.

And the final bonus is that the keyboard lights up when it's dark! It does it automatically based on the surrounding lighting conditions, and you can set it to any one of 3 brightness levels manually. I love this and really, really wish the iPad's Smart Keyboard had this.

The Caps Lock and "fn" keys also have persistent lights that show you when they're active as well. Another nice touch.

Surface Pen

The Surface Pen is a very good tool for drawing, but unlike the Apple Pencil, I find it to be far less compelling as a general input device. Despite this limitation, it does actually have some nice features that make it work better with a mouse-based operating system than you might expect.

The first thing I noticed about the Pen was that it works right out of the box with no pairing required. The buttons don't do anything right away, but the basic touch stuff works great. You do have to go to the Bluetooth settings to pair the device to get its full functionality, but it was a nice first run experience to just have it work right away.

Another nice feature is that the Pen is magnetic and is also round with a flat edge, both of which help make it so this doesn't go rolling around where you don't expect it. The magnet is very strong and is meant to stick to the side of the Surface Go itself, but you can stick it to basically anything metallic. The flat edge also helps make it so this doesn't roll around when you put it on a flat surface.

The Apple Pencil is not magnetized and is perfectly round. I find the round build to be slightly more comfortable than the Surface Pen's flat edge, but I really appreciate how much better they Pen is at staying where I put it. The Apple Pencil is weighted to prevent rolling, but it's far less effective than the Pen.

But let's get back to the Pen for input. I made this video about the differences between the Pen and Pencil and it's pretty dramatic.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgN1vZuRG3I

The Surface Pen does double duty as a touch device and a mouse replacement. This is cool as it let you do things like hover over things (particularly nice on the web), but it's less convenient for quickly navigating the user interface. You really have to tap with "intention" any time you want to select something with the Pen, and that frankly got tiring for me. I felt like I was slowed down when using the Pen for navigating the UI, and I ended up electing to just use my fingers for touch navigation. Again, without getting too much into the nature of Windows here, this is more frustrating that it could be because Windows has a lot of UI elements that re quite small, and other things that simply only work with hover events, which touch as no substitute for.

If you are an artist or just enjoy doodling now and again, then you're going to like the Pen quite a bit. While there is a an annoying delay an intentionality around navigating the UI, this is not a problem for drawing situations, and the Pen is very responsive there, and has nice palm rejection.

https://youtu.be/v5F9va0JF9w

Microsoft advertises an absurd 4,096 levels of pressure (Apple doesn't say for the Pencil), and 21ms latency (Pencil is 20ms), and as someone who uses the Apple Pencil everyday, the Pen immediately felt familiar. I wouldn't say it was more responsive than the Pencil, but it was basically a wash for me in this regard. Ultimately, they're both fantastic for drawing on screen.

Also notable on the Surface Pen is the button at the top. Clicking this button at any time can bring up the Windows Ink Workspace, which lets you choose to open any of your Windows Ink-enabled apps or take a screenshot and mark it up with the Pen. You can also set it up to do different things, such as taking a screenshot and immediately jumping into the screenshot markup app, or you could have it launch an app of your choice. If you want more, you can also set rules for what happens when you double click and hold down the button. My setup is:

  • Single click: take screenshot
  • Double click: open Edge
  • Hold: nothing…yet

All of this can be set up in the Settings app under Devices.

As another bonus, and this is really cool, the button doubles as an eraser in almost every app. Just like a…pencil, ironically…you can flip the Pen around and erase basically anything. Apps handle this slightly differently, with some erasing entire lines/objects when you touch them with the "eraser" and others that do a more direct "erase the pixels under the eraser" interaction. The inconsistency isn't really a problem in practice, and you figure out how each app works in seconds.

And finally, the battery life on the Pen is very good. Microsoft quotes a year's battery on a single AAAA battery (included). I obviously have not had this long enough to test this, but it is nice compared to the Apple Pencil's quoted 12 hours of battery, which needs to be recharged far more often. It's nice to never have to worry about charging this thing…ever. I rue the day it does die and I need to find a store around me that sells AAAA batteries, but hopefully I'll get a notification long before that happens and I can take the necessary steps to get one delivered in time.

The Combo Conclusion

While I would say the Type Cover is an essential purchase for the Surface Go, the Pen is more of a nice to have item. I think I like the Surface Go a bit better for having it, but I've had to change my expectation for what a stylus does on Windows to make it work for me.

Both of these devices feel very premium and are a general delight to use. I think the Type Cover is a great Windows keyboard full stop, and I really enjoy writing on it. The Alcantara fabric feels nice and gives this a different feel than more technology these days. I really appreciate the details here all of which add up to a very nice typing experience all around.

The Pen is more of a mixed bag for me, but almost entirely because of Windows decisions and not the Pen's tech itself. The Pen feels good in the hand, and while I prefer the Apple Pencil a bit overall, there are certainly things Apple's stylus could borrow from the Pen to make it even better. I love the button with customizable actions and the feel in hand is excellent. The single flat side is a win overall, but makes me feel like I'm always holding it slightly wrong, but it's not enough to keep me from really enjoying this gadget.

Microsoft makes some great tablet hardware, and I'm happy to say that their accessories for these devices are just as strong.

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Hardware

Microsoft Surface Go Review: Hardware

This is a multi-part review. Make sure to check the whole thing out with the links below!


Easily the most impressive thing about the Surface Go is its hardware. Everything about this device feel premium, and is way nicer than any other sub-$500 computer I've used in my life in the PC space. Now, the iPad is less expensive and just as premium, if not more in some ways, but for PC, this is as good as it gets. Hell, even if this was a $900 tablet, I'd say the exact same thing: this tablet is awesome to handle.

The Surface Go has a magnesium case that feels really good to the touch. It just feels premium in the same way that Apple products always have that special "something" that makes them feel a cut above the rest. I really like it to say the least.

Inputs Are Excellent

In terms of inputs, there is:

  • 1 USB-C port
  • 1 Surface Connector
  • 1 headphone jack
  • 1 Type Cover connector
  • 1 micro-SD card slot

That's a bit more than the iPad Pro, and it might even be more than your Mac. This is a decent number of ports for a tablet, but I never found they got in the way at all. They're all well cut into the device and don't make themselves notifiable in general use.

The USB-C port works for connecting accessories, powering the device, or acting as a display out port. I typically use it for that last reason, docking the device in my 27" HP display and treating it like a desktop computer when that makes sense. I love this ability and I wish it was something I could do with my iPad Pro. It's worth noting this is not a Thunderbolt port as well, but that's expected on such a low cost device.

The Surface Connector is something I've only ever used for charging, but you can also use it with the Surface Dock which gives you many more ports, if that's the sort of thing you need. Even if you just use it for charging, it's more than capable, charging the Go quite quickly. I wasn't able to get any exact times, but as an iPad Pro user, it seemed about the same to me as what I was used to. Oh, and it's a magnetic connector that pops out with a tug, so MagSafe fans will like this.

The headphone jack...works, and the Type Cover connector works wonderfully, and I'll talk about that in the next part of the review.

Finally, the micro-SD slot is nicely tucked away beneath the kickstand and you don't even notice it's there. I have the 64GB model, which can fill up very fast, especially since Windows takes up a lot of that on its own, so adding a 128GB card for about $30 off Amazon seemed like a good call. I've installed a few apps and games to it and it works fine for me. It's just another internal drive and you can set apps and games to install to it by default instead of the small internal drive. I'm glad it's there.

Battery Life Struggles...Hard

That quick charge from the Surface Connector good to have, because the Surface Go does not get very good battery life. Just now, as I'm writing my review and have Edge and a text editor open, my 65% battery life is going to get me just 2 hours and 19 minutes. Not only that, I find that when the computer says I have 20 minutes left, I actually have less than one minute left. This is a far cry from the 8 hours that many modern laptops get, and the 10+ hours that a modern iPad gets.

I really think the culprit here is more the operating system than the tablet's battery itself, as Windows is just a much heavier operating system than we we have in something like iOS on the iPad. But I said this wasn't going to be a review of Windows, so let's just leave it at: the Surface Go gets poor battery life, often about 4-5 hours tops.

The Kickstand is Wonderful

As I have written about numerous times, I'm a huge fan of the kickstand built into the Surface Go. I like that it's easy to use, it's well integrated into the device, and it makes it a more usable device in more situations.

At a core level, I love being able to stand the Surface Go at whatever angle I want, and I especially love being able to do this without having a case. I can just use the Surface Go "naked" and transition from handheld use, to standing it on a counter, to angling it down even more to draw on it, all without involving any accessories. This means I get more flexibility without needing to add any bulk in terms of a case or cover like I would on the iPad.

As a bonus, the stand works at any angle between 0 degrees (closed) and 165 degrees, which is basically every angle I could ever want. It holds firm in whatever angle I set and never drifts into another angle after time passes.

My only complaint is with how sharp the edge of the stand is. In order for the stand to be as invisible as possible on the device, Microsoft had to make it very thin; like 1 or 2 millimetres thin. While I find this to be good in most cases, it's not super comfortable on my lap, especially when wearing shorts. It really can dig into your legs after only a few minutes of use and is genuinely uncomfortable. If I'm wearing jeans, it's not a problem at all.

And because you're definitely curious, yes, it does work pretty well on my lap. It's really neck-and-neck with the Smart Keyboard with the iPad Pro in terms of how many angles it works with, which is to say most. But people who want a clamshell laptop's worth of flexibility will be a little let down. It does need to be treated a bit gingerly in a way a laptop doesn't. As someone who lives with an iPad and has no real issues, this wasn't a issue for me but it could be for you.

Windows Hello Gets the Job Done

This is diving a bit into Windows itself, but the Surface Go has a front-facing camera that can be used to unlock the device with your face. I do not have an iPhone X, so take this impression with a grain of salt.

The feature tends to work pretty fast, and is reliable enough that I have come to rely on it instead of my password most of the time. It probably works about 80-90% of the time, which isn't perfect, but it's decent. If this was my phone, I wouldn't find that good enough, but I unlock this thing maybe 5-10 times a day, so it's less of a hassle.

It seems to struggle the most when either in very dark or bright situations. It has yet to work outdoors for me (again, would be unacceptable for a phone), and while it's not perfect, it's surprisingly adept at getting me in the dark. I've been in the complete dark with only the Surface Go's screen illuminating me, and it worked.

The Cameras are...Yikes

As weird as it seems to many people, there are a ton of people who use their tablets to shoot photos, so one would hope the Surface Go had decent cameras on it. Sadly, this is by far the weakest part of the product.

There are 2 cameras here, one rear camera that shoots 8MP stills and 1080p video, while the front-facing one does 5MP stills and 1080p video, but only in Skype. Neither camera is good by tablet standards, but the front-facing one at least stacks up well compared to most laptops on the market.

I would love to do a full comparison, and I do plan on doing one on its own, but just know that if you want to get a device for doing Skype and Google Meet calls, this will do you quite well. If you are looking for something to take to your kid's school event, then this is going to leave you wanting way more and something like an iPad or definitely your phone will do you much better.

Here are a few simple (unmodified) examples:

The Speakers are Pretty Normal

Microsoft advertises "2W stereo speakers with Dolby® Audio™ Premium" and that translates to speakers that sound nice, but not amazing. Most things sound quite nice, although there is a major lack of low end sounds to my ears.

When I did side-by-side comparisons with a couple iPads and a MacBook Pro, it came out closest to the iPad (2017), which makes a lot of since as that is also the device closest in price and form factor.

The dual speakers are both 2/3 of the way up the bezels on the sides of the Surface Go. I didn't find my hands covering them often, and covering them purposely didn't totally block them out, it just made them a bit muffled. Sadly, they don't match up with the iPad Pro's 4 speaker array that shifts to make sure you are always hearing things in stereo, but since there are only 2 of them, they simply can't always be in the right place.

Overall, the speakers are totally acceptable and would only be a disappointment to an iPad Pro user who likes to crank it up, because the Go doesn't get nearly as loud or as full.

That Tablet is Thick! And Have You Seen Those Bezels?

So there are two things about the Surface Go that are going to stand out immediately to Apple fans, and those are the bezels and the overall thickness. I get it, but I've saved these for last because I honestly don't find them terribly annoying.

First, the bezels. These are definitely more iPad 2 size and not iPad Pro or even the current standard iPad. They're thick, yes, but I am kind of surprised how little I mind them. I notice them sometimes, and it would certainly be nicer if the screen was a tad bigger, but in general use I never even think about it. Full disclousre, I had to make an edit to this part of the review because I completely forgot to even talk about them!

Then there is the thickness, which is 8.3mm. By most standards, that's pretty thin, but the current iPad Pro is 6.1mm thick and the cheap iPad is 7.5mm. Especially compared to my daily driver, the iPad Pro, the 36% thicker Surface Go is noticibly more substantial in the hand (it's also 11% heavier than the Pro). But that also doesn't really bother me much at all. The difference is noticible, and when holding them next to each other the iPad is the clear winner in terms of form factor, but the Surface Go holds it's own just fine. When you consider that the Smart Keyboard then adds more thickness than the Surface Type Cover, they end up being almost the same thickness when each is folded up with their keyboards.

These may be concerns for some people, but they have not bothered me in any meaningful way.

Takeaway

The hardware on the Surface Go feels like it's punching above its weight class most of the time. The build quality is plainly excellent, and there are plenty of specific features that are very, very nice. The kickstand (ahem) stands out to me as a big win for this device, and I really want to see Apple add this to the iPad.

If you know what you're getting into in terms of performance (see the next part of this review) and Windows in general, then I can't imagine many people being let down by this overall package. The cameras and battery are the worst aspects, but the overall package is quite appealing.

Android Pie Review: All the Little Things

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

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

Screenshot editing

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

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

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

Volume controls

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

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

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

Notifications show fewer icons for notch room

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

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

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

Small design changes

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

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

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

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

Rotation lock

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

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

App Actions

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

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

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

Adaptive brightness and battery

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

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

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

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

Digital Wellbeing

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

Conclusion

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

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