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apple

AirPods after 18 months

I’ve owned AirPods since soon after their release in late 2016. After a year and a half of daily use, I jotted down some thoughts:

Pleasures

Happy little habits

In an earlier post, I celebrated the “ritual” of AirPods—the tactile, repeatable “nano-gestures” that makes using them so much fun:

Retrieve the case and turn it over in my palm like a glossy worry stone. Thumb the lid and feel the magnet give way. Nudge the AirPod to jar it free from its alcove. Pinch and lift, feeling that slight friction as the stem slides free. Spin the AirPod between my fingertips and align it to my ear. Settle it into its place by feel alone. Hear that happy little hum when the Bluetooth connects. Get that satisfying SNAP as the case is thumbed closed. Then repeat the whole process in reverse when I’m done listening.

Months later, that ritual remains a simple pleasure.

Utility

The AirPods aren’t just fun, they’re functional. For quick YouTube hits, they’re far better than their wired counterparts, which require constant detangling and rewrapping. Because they’re so easy to pop in and out, I find myself turning to them more frequently. Even if I’m just washing a single pan, I’ll catch up on a news podcast. On a road trip with sleeping passengers? AirPods make it easy to stave off boredom—without snaking a wire across the cabin.

Durability

The AirPods are surprisingly sturdy. I have snapped the AirPods case shut literally thousands (maybe tens of thousands?) of times. The mechanism still feels completely solid—with no sign of looseness or wear.

And I’ve dropped the things more times than I care to admit—often from waist height or higher. They’re none the worse for wear, physically—although the reliability issues discussed below could be related to these many falls.

Overall, though, I’m impressed with the AirPods’ build quality over the long term.

Pains

There’s a lot of delight in AirPods, but they also cause their share of headaches. Here are a few additions to an earlier list of quibbles, after eighteen months’ use:

Dis-connected?

More and more frequently, it seems, I’ll put in both AirPods and hit play, only to discover that one (or both) of them aren’t receiving audio. I’m left with three fixes, each more desperate (and cumbersome) than the last:

  • Wait it out. Sometimes, the offending unit will recover its connection after a few seconds. Too often, though, that recovery never happens.
  • Manually AirPlay to the AirPods. This requires that I pull out my AirPods and fiddle with the clunky Control Center interface for audio targeting.
  • Return both AirPods to the case and try again. Even this doesn’t always fix the issue. Occasionally, I’m forced to do this dance again and again.

In other words, the AirPods connection process isn’t rock-solid. I want it to be automatic and I want it to happen faster. As things work now, I don’t trust them to work every time.

Even aside from reliability improvements, Apple could improve the AirPods connection experience. Each AirPod should emit the “connected” chime independently, as they’re inserted into your ear. Too often, I’ll hear the sound in one ear before I get the other one out of the case. That leaves me unsure as to whether both units have connected—or whether one missed the wireless memo.

Corrosion and water resistance

The AirPods are the best running headphones I’ve ever owned. I didn’t realize how annoying that dangling wire was until the AirPods severed it for me.

But runners get wet; it’s nearly unavoidable. I sweat like mad in warm weather, and that moisture inevitably drips from ears onto my headphones. Plus, running outdoors means venturing into rain, fog, and snow, which all find their way onto my earbuds, as well.

To be fair, Apple doesn’t market these devices as water-resistant. But I had hoped that AirPods would cover all the use cases of their wired predecessors. Plus, various YouTube videos have proved that it’s possible for the AirPods to survive being submerged in a washing machine. I hoped they’d prove similarly resilient to raindrops.

Fate may have caught up to me recently. I began to notice that my right AirPod frequently ran low on power. I would head out running, only to hear the sad little “low charge” chirp after just a mile or two. After experimenting with the case, I realized that the right-side earbud wasn’t making a reliable connection to its charging element. Looking closer, I spotted greenish-blue corrosion on the metal tip of the AirPods stem.

Thoroughly cleaning both the case and the AirPods themselves has made charging more reliable (but not foolproof). Again, that’s more my fault than Apple’s, but it’s still irritating.

Earwax-orange clashes with AirPods-white

Last week, my family trekked to a family-friendly amusement park, several hours away. At day’s end, my daughter begged for one more ride: the log flume, which ends with a watery splash. Hoping to avoid further water damage to my AirPods, I handed the case to my wife and jumped in line with my eager kiddo.

After splashdown, we found my wife relaxing a nearby bench. Handing the AirPods back to me, she teased, “Your headphones are gross.” Snapping open the AirPods case, I realized that she was absolutely right.

In my earlier list of AirPods quibbles, I explained just how filthy AirPods can get. Earwax collects in the speaker grills, migrates its way to the AirPods stems and eventually starts to stain the charging case, too.

Now, in Apple’s defense, I apparently produce a lot of earwax. Not to get too scatological here, but I’ve occasionally had to ask my doctor to clean out build-up from my ear canals. That’s not Apple’s fault.

But you could hardly pick a worse color than Apple White™ if you’re hoping to hide otic excretions. Here’s to hoping they offer black or (even better) (PRODUCT)RED alternatives next time around.

Conclusions and AirPods v2

Despite all my complaints, after eighteen months of daily use, AirPods’ positives outweigh their negatives. I’m eagerly looking forward to the product’s next iteration. Rumored features would address at least two of my earlier quibbles:

  • Wireless charging (coming to a future AirPods case, as announced at last September’s iPhone event) would eliminate the fiddly plug-in process.
  • Built-in noise cancellation (recently predicted by Mark Gurman) would make the AirPods a more viable option in high-noise environments. As things stand, it’s nearly impossible to hear the AirPods over the roar of a lawnmower or a jet engine.
  • Water resistance (another Gurman-sourced rumor) would be welcome. The current product is too difficult to keep bone-dry. ■

Categories
internet

Best buy: on Facebook and Instagram

Back in 2012, many observers scoffed at the billion-dollar price that Facebook paid for Instagram. Who’s laughing now? That acquisition seems more and more prescient as time goes by—as M.G. Siegler remarked recently, “The smartest thing Facebook ever did was buy Instagram.” The social networking giant managed to secure its own life raft, long before most of us noticed that the seas were getting choppy.

Now, Facebook itself is sinking. My friends, at least, have long since stopped posting there. The conversations that do happen on Facebook tend to be politically-charged and impolite. As Seigler notes, many teens never even join the service. At the same time, the company faces increasing pressure from government watchdogs—both for its role as a Russian lever in the 2016 election and for alleged censorship of particular political viewpoints.

Happily (for Zuckerberg & Co.), Instagram has avoided these problems. The service’s exclusive emphasis on photo-sharing—formerly Facebook’s best feature—has made it irresistibly sticky—even to the Snapchat generation. Plus, because Instagram only does photos (i.e., no text posts and no links), its conversation threads are less political, less controversial, and generally less fraught than on Facebook. Meanwhile, the branding firewall between the two companies has prevented Facebook’s regulatory controversies from engulfing Instagram. Six years post-acquisition, many users still don’t know it happened.)

Facebook’s strategy has worked perfectly on me, at least. I visit Facebook only rarely—and often only for a few seconds each time. There just isn’t much there for me.1 But Instagram remains a daily habit; who doesn’t love seeing snapshots of friends and family?  ■


  1. To be fair, I may not be the best anecdotal example, since I’ve worked hard to detach myself from Facebook these past few years. I’ve deactivated my account multiple times, I refuse to install the app on my phone, and I run content blockers to prevent the news feed from showing up on the web.

Categories
health

Does a treadmill desk make losing weight easy?

Every week, I walk between 60 and 70 miles on my treadmill desk. That’s the equivalent of 2 1/2 marathons or a three-day weekend of intense backpacking. For someone my size, that translates to over 12,000 extra calories burned—roughly equivalent to three pounds of body fat.

Based on these numbers, you might think that a treadmill desk would make weight loss automatic. Alas, no.

Or, at least, not over the long haul. Yes, when I first installed the desk back in 2014, my weight plummeted. I lost thirty-five pounds in the first eight months! However, I eventually hit a plateau. Despite keeping up the same daily distances, my weight began to creep slowly upwards again. Twelve months later, I had regained nearly half the weight I had originally lost.

I realized that I had experienced a dispiriting truth about weight loss, first-hand: physical activity isn’t a panacea. Eat irresponsibly, and I will gain weight, no matter how far I walk at work or run before breakfast.

Why is that? Why doesn’t burning thousands of calories give me a license to eat whatever I want? Here’s my guess, in short: the more I move, the hungrier I get. Our bodies and brains seek out equilibrium; if I burn 1,500 calories on the treadmill desk, my instinct is to consume 1,500 extra calories as compensation.

So—whether I walk or not—maintaining a calorie deficit requires dietary self-control. I’ve found only one way to reliably burn off extra pounds: watch what I eat. I track my calories, measure my portions, and avoid “bad” foods, including extra salt, refined grains, and added sugar. It’s not super-fun, but it is effective: I’m down forty-five pounds from my all-time heaviest weigh-in.


I haven’t stopped “treading,” though. While it doesn’t give me a license to gorge, it does raise my daily “calorie ceiling.” Earning the occasional unhealthy splurge makes portion control a little bit less painful. ■

Categories
apple

Is it too late to switch to the Mac?

After a quarter-century using Windows, I’m finally getting a Macintosh.

Wait, does “Mac” even stand for “Macintosh” anymore? Or is “Mac” more like “KFC”—an abbreviation that eventually supplanted the original name? You’ll have to forgive my ignorance; my last Apple computer was the venerable Apple IIGS of the late 80s and early 90s. Since my early teen-aged years, I’ve computed exclusively on Windows PCs—everything from beige, bargain-bin boxes to high-end portable workstations. I’ve never owned a Mac.

Oh, over the years, I’ve occasionally lusted after the Mac’s build quality, thriving indie software community, and visually consistent interface. And yes, as an iPhone owner, I’ve often wished for a computer that played nicer with my smartphone. But despite the Mac’s attractiveness, switching always seemed financially or professionally impractical.

As my career has shifted into more creative fields, however, the Mac has become a more reasonable option. Among machines geared for creative power users, Macs still cost more—but not dramatically more, relative to comparable PCs. My new 15″ MacBook Pro should arrive within the next week or two.


In some ways, it’s an odd time to shift platforms. I’m swimming against the current; bloggers, podcasters, and creative professionals have grown increasingly frustrated with Apple’s stewardship of the Mac. Some have openly speculated whether the Mac will eventually be deprecated in favor of an iOS-flavored replacement.

So, before making the leap, I considered the risks in terms of both software and hardware:

Switching to Mac software: am I moving to a ghost town?

Depending on who you ask, the Mac ecosystem has either reached maturity—or it’s gone completely stagnant. Whatever your perspective, it’s hard to deny that Apple invests more engineering resources in iOS than macOS these days. Yes, the Mac still gets new OS features (e.g. Mojave’s welcome Dark Mode), but these updates are relatively minor compared to those introduced for Apple’s flagship product, the iPhone.

Third-party software development on the Mac has slowed, too. The Mac App Store may not be a ghost town, per se, but it’s not exactly a bustling metropolis, either.

As a new switcher, the Mac’s decline as a developer platform bums me out. But it’s not all bad news. Most big software houses (including Adobe and Microsoft itself) support Mac and Windows with equal gusto. And the Mac remains a better platform than Windows for indie-developed productivity apps and creative utilities. UIKit’s upcoming release on the Mac (slated for 2019) will likely widen this gap, as devs port over projects that were previously iOS-only.

One particular indie app is almost enough, all by itself, to make me switch to Mac. I’m talking about Omnifocus, the to-do tracker that maps most neatly onto the Getting Things Done productivity method. The app really is that critical to my workflow these days. I’m pumped that I’ll soon be able to use it without hacks or workarounds.

Switching to Mac hardware: did I miss the “golden era”?

The Mac’s software ecosystem may be languishing, but it’s Mac hardware that has Apple bloggers most alarmed. Longtime developers are openly criticizing Apple’s irregular Mac releases. Last year, lamenting the state of the Mac Pro, Sebastiaan de With wrote,

[Apple] let the Mac languish, with a lack of updates to the hardware making it increasingly difficult to use the Mac for demanding work. …. And year after year, without any word from Apple, the professional desktop Macs got older without updates. Four years passed. Four years. An eternity and a half in computers. Creatives started to leave. Most of my friends that are in 3D, film and other creative industries have switched to PCs. And more continue to leave.

The Mac laptops haven’t escaped criticism, either. Power users frequently deride the current Macbook Pros for their shallow, unreliable keyboards and irregular update cadence.

I share their worries. I’ve only typed on the new “butterfly ”keyboard style once or twice (in Apple retail stores), but I’m not a fan of its “clicky” (rather than “clacky”) feel. Plus, I find the Touch Bar (Apple’s little-loved touchscreen function row) distracting and somewhat pointless. Finally, I resent the fact that my “new” machine will have year-old internals. But I don’t have much of a choice—I need a machine now, not “whenever Apple gets around to refreshing its laptop lineup.”

Conclusion

Despite all the concerns and caveats, I’m excited. My very first computing experiences as a kid happened on Apple-designed machines. Adopting the Mac now, thirty-odd years later, feels like coming home.

I’m just hoping the house doesn’t come down around me. ■

Categories
meta

Podcasting on the run (literally)

What’s it like to record a podcast while running? I found out.