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Dark mode: better on the iPhone than the Mac?

In the most recent release of iOS, Apple added dark mode, and I’m a fan. At nighttime, dark backgrounds seem less glaring; they’re also less likely to disturb my partner sleeping beside me on the bed.

But I’ve actually taken to “running dark” all the time—day and night—on my iPhone. I spend most of my time indoors, where dark mode is perfectly legible and less distracting than its older, brighter cousin.

I’m not quite as enamored with dark themes on the desktop, though. I think it’s the overlapping windows that give me trouble. In dark mode, I can’t tell apps apart at a glance; they seem less differentiated.

Why is this? For one thing, it’s difficult to paint a shadow (like the one macOS uses to mark the active window) on a background that’s already dark. It doesn’t help that I spend most of my workday in Microsoft Office. Those apps support dark mode, but when it’s turned on, the interfaces are near-identical, dropping their distinctive “light mode” colors for a uniform gray.

Dark mode works on iOS because you don’t really need to tell apps apart by their interface appearance. On the iPhone, you only have one thing open at a time; you’re probably not going to forget what app you’re currently using. Even in the app switcher, the system helpfully pins each app’s icon to its thumbnail, so there’s no mistaking one for another. ◾

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“And you can preorder it… today!”

With both the Apple Watch Series 5 and the AirPods Pro, Apple offered preorders on the very same day they introduced the product.

With a turnaround that short, customers face a dilemma. You can preorder the device, but you have no guarantee that the bauble will live up to Apple’s hype. There are no third-party reviews to guide your decision. Questions about the device’s capabilities inevitably linger. You’re literally buying sight unseen.

On the other hand, if you wait to order, there’s a decent chance the product will sell out and that you won’t get it on Day 1. Case in point: the AirPods Pro currently have a two-to-three week back order.

I wonder: how did Apple decide that these devices would be available for preorder immediately? Why not a few days later, as with the new iPhones? Here’s a cynical theory: maybe less expensive items (like the AirPods or the Watch) are more likely to be impulse buys. The customer doesn’t get a chance to weigh her purchase carefully. Instead, she acquiesces to the lizard-brain desire that Apple’s marketing engenders.

If that was Apple’s strategy, it worked—at least on me. ■

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Does the Series 5 have worse battery life than every previous Apple Watch?

Siegler’s right. I wouldn’t give up the Series 5’s always-on display, but it comes at a high price: significantly worse battery life than its predecessors. I didn’t buy the original (“Series 0”) Apple Watch, but I’ve owned the Series 1, 3, 4 and 5. The S5 is easily the poorest battery performer of that bunch.

Case in point: it’s currently 8 PM, and my Series 5 Watch has fallen “into the red”—18% charge left. Now, to be fair, I haven’t charged the Watch since last night (I wear it as a sleep tracker). And, thanks to the time change here in the U.S., this day has been an hour longer than normal. But I’m still disappointed to be skating so close to “power reserve mode” each evening.

For now, the Series 5’s battery life is… adequate. But I’m not sure that will be true two or three years from now, after a thousand charge cycles. Those are big charge cycles, too; fully depleting the battery day after day will take a toll on battery health.

How much better does Apple Watch battery life need to be? With the Series 3, I could expect 50–60% battery life at the end of an average day. That seems just about right—that extra juice helped the device last through more demanding days. It also left some headroom for the inevitable battery degradation endemic to lithium-ion technology.

Let’s hope that Apple can clear that bar again someday, with some future Watch hardware iteration.

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AirPods Pro observations (that I haven’t seen elsewhere)

I resisted the temptation to buy the AirPods Pro… for an hour or two.

Oh, I still resent the fact that my three-year-old, first-gen AirPods last barely an hour before the batteries die. And I hate adding yet another device to my list of frequently upgraded technology. Most of all, I feel guilty about dropping $250 on the very definition of a luxury item.

Despite all that, I hated the thought of reverting to wired earbuds, with their doorknob snags, cord rewraps, and constant tangles.

So, yes, I’ve re-upped my AirPods subscription and upgraded to the AirPods Pro. In lieu of an actual review, here are a few thoughts that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere:

  • The AirPods Pro are harder to remove from their case. You can still dislodge them with a carefully placed finger, but the rubber tips make nudging them just a bit more awkward.
  • Speaking of those tips, they really draw attention to earwax. With the old AirPods, your excretions filled up the speaker grilles, whose dark color hid some of the grossness. Unfortunately, the AirPods Pro’s lily-white silicone makes earwax easy to spot.
  • The noise cancellation is decent but not miraculous. I’ve never owned “real” over-ear, noise-cancelling headphones, so I don’t have a good comparison point. But don’t expect AirPods Pro to silence the obnoxious speakerphone near your bus seat or the pop soundtrack at Starbucks. AirPods Pro can take the edge off those noises, but it can’t eliminate them altogether.
  • The new gestures aren’t a slam-dunk. Like many others, I didn’t love the old AirPods’ “slam your ear” gestures. However, I was able to execute those gestures in a wide variety of situations—with an open palm, with wet hands, or even wearing full mittens. The new AirPods aren’t so forgiving; gripping the stem with two fingers requires some finesse. I expect this to become even more annoying on winter days, when I’m likely to have gloves on.
  • I’m glad one of the new AirPods gestures allows you to toggle noise cancellation on or off, but I wish it were easier to do this on the Apple Watch. The instructions: swipe up to access Control Center, hit the “Choose audio output” button, choose your AirPods Pro, and then select your noise cancellation option. As with many things on the Watch, that feels like two steps too many.
  • EDIT: With the old AirPods, you could flip each earbud upside-down and place it in the opposite ear. This was useful for placing AirPods under noise-blocking earmuffs—as I did when mowing the lawn. There’s good news and bad news on this front with the AirPods Pro. On the one hand, the “flip the AirPod” trick doesn’t work; the units don’t sense that they’re in my ears, likely because of a shifted proximity sensor. However, as I was happy to discover while leaf-blowing this afternoon, the AirPods Pro fit under my earmuffs in their normal, right-side-up orientation, thanks to their shorter stems.

All in all, I like my AirPods Pro. The improved sound quality and noise cancellation features are welcome additions. But we’re still well short of “peak AirPods.” No doubt Apple will continue to iterate on the product. I just hope the next major revision comes before my AirPods Pro lose their battery capacity (as they inevitably will).

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Caught between computers

Caught between computersIn terms of computing platforms, I‘ve been set adrift.

On the one hand, I don’t really want to return to Windows. Don’t get me wrong; unlike many Apple converts, I like Microsoft’s OS, and I frequently miss features and workflows from that platform.

But I left Windows for a reason; my favorite apps—OmniFocus, Procreate, Drafts—are exclusive to Apple’s platforms. There are no real equivalents on Windows, and I’m tired of “making do” with half-baked imitations.

On the other hand, it’s not a great time to have shifted to macOS. Yes, it’s true that Apple has suddenly remembered to make new hardware (see the new Air and Mini or the promised Mac Pro). But the software platform has stagnated, the App Store is eerily quiet, and Mac unit sales have declined in eight of the last twelve quarters, year-over-year. Settling in “Mac land” now feels like buying beachfront real estate in an era of rising sea levels—OK for now, but unsustainable in the long-term.

So what about iOS? Might I make “landfall” there? The short answer is, “Not yet.” Yes, the new iPad Pros are amazing kit, and the software has slowly matured. But too many of my workflows depend on a ‘real’ web browser (e.g. administering SharePoint) or ‘real’ Outlook (building pixel-perfect email templates).

Besides, even if I didn’t work in the enterprise, iOS would be a frustrating place to settle. I want legit external screen support, more robust keyboard shortcuts, and easier font installation. Hopefully, these power user features are on their way. But until they arrive, I can’t make permanent camp on iPad Island. ■

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Smarter AirPods gestures

It’s one of my favorite AirPods features: slip in a single AirPod, and iOS will send a mono-mixed signal to the active unit, while ignoring the other.

I use this all the time. For example, if my AirPods are running low on power, I’ll continue to listen in one ear while charging the other unit in its case.

AirPod rainbow Or consider the road trip scenario: we’re rolling down the highway, mile after mile. As the driver, I’m getting bored, but I can’t fire up the car’s built-in stereo without disturbing my snoozing passengers. Wired headphones are too fiddly to safely set up while driving. But I can easily pop in a single AirPod—without taking my eyes off the road. And because iOS mixes down to mono, I can leave one ear free for key safety signals: a blaring horn or the tell-tale thump-thump-thump of a tire that’s about to blow out.

However, there is one drawback to wearing a single AirPod: playback controls. I’ve set the double-tap gesture on each AirPod to separate functions: bump the left AirPod, and the audio pauses; bump the right, and I jump to the next track (or skip past the boring bits of podcasts).

But when wearing just one earbud, I’m stuck with just one gesture. Either I can’t play/pause (when using the right AirPod), or I can’t skip ahead (when wearing the left).

AirPod options I’d like to see Apple add another setting to the AirPods’ “Double-tap on AirPod” options: “Single.” When I’m wearing just one AirPod, whether it’s the left or the right, let me choose the double-tap action. (I would likely set the option to “Next Track,” since I can pause the audio in a pinch by pulling the AirPod out.) ◾

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Buying an iPad Pro

Happy consumer

We visited family near Philly this weekend; in between activities, I slipped out to visit the Apple retail store at the nearby King of Prussia mall.

As an aside, if you ever have the chance to visit this edifice of consumerism… don’t do it. This is the Mall Experience™ taken all the way up to 11, from the impossible hunt for parking to the shoulder-to-shoulder congestion in the Apple Store itself.

Given the size of that crowd, I was surprised to find a bleached-white table of iPad Pros available—my own personal demo station. I experimented for a solid fifteen minutes, hefting the two sizes, flipping and fingering the Smart Keyboard folio, and sketching with the Apple Pencil.

As you may have guessed, it wasn’t just curiosity driving my visit. I had skipped a planned phone upgrade earlier this fall, and that left some cash in our gadget savings fund. I’d been considering a reentry into the iPad ecosystem, so I almost wanted to fall in love with the 11-inch. I half-expected to leave the mall clutching a wee iPad Pro, the Pencil, and the Smart Keyboard Folio.

That didn’t happen. As I played with the devices, I realized that the 11-inch iPad Pro makes compromises in all the wrong places. If you want a tablet for content consumption and occasional sketching, the 9.7-inch iPad gets you 90% of the way there—at just one-third the price. Sure, you’d be stuck with chunkier bezels, but are slightly thinner black bars worth $500?

On the other end of the spectrum, if you want “more iPad” than the 11-inch iPad Pro offers, the 12.9-inch model retains its advantages over its smaller counterpart—sketching and multitasking are better on the big screen. And thanks to the shrunken bezels, the new 12.9er is suitable for couch computing in a way its predecessor never was. It’s lighter, its footprint is smaller, and it’s surprisingly easy to handle. It’s a compromise you might be willing to make.

The other advantage to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro? Its Smart Keyboard is superior. The arrow keys on the 11-inch’s keyboard felt like tiny, cloth-wrapped chiclets—toy keys on a toy keyboard. Based on some brief experimentation, I also preferred the 12.9-inch keyboard’s viewing angles (though I would want to try both models while sitting before deciding on this).

As I compared, I realized that I didn’t want—and couldn’t justify—buying the 11-inch over its 9.7-inch entry-level sister. I knew that I could probably pick up that model for something like $250 on Black Friday, so I left the mall without making a purchase.

After getting home, however, doubt set in. No, I still didn’t want the 11-inch. But what about that svelte 12.9-inch model? It had felt surprisingly manageable. And If I wanted to buy it, now was the time; Apple’s online store is back-ordered, and we live too far from the nearest retail store to make a sojourn later.

Long story made short, we stopped by the mall again on our way out of town, and I bought the 64GB, WiFi-only, 12.9-inch iPad Pro in Space Gray, along with the second-gen Apple Pencil.

I’m still questioning the decision. $1,200 is a lot of money to spend on a device that could get squeezed out by my phone and my laptop. Fortunately for me, Apple’s generous return policy means I get a 14-day “trial” period to decide whether this iPad will earn a place in my computing workflow. ◾

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The “$100 iPad Pro”

The iPad’s “jobs”

There are digital tasks for which the iPad is better-suited than a smartphone or laptop.

For example, drawing on the iPad (with the Apple Pencil) is fantastic. Not so much on the other devices (even if you pair a Wacom to your Mac). Or consider minimalist text entry, for which the “iPad + Smart Keyboard” combo is uniquely suited. The Mac feels over-built for that simple job, and the iPhone’s software keyboard falls short.

Despite these legit use cases, I didn’t preorder an iPad Pro last week. Honestly, the inflated entry price scared me off; sure, I like to draw and to write without distractions, but would I do those things enough to justify that much cash? Probably not.

The $100 iPad

Other (cheaper) tools for the same job

I’m bummed to miss out on the hotness, but here’s the thing: I can meet these “needs” without dropping $1,200 on an iPad Pro, a Smart Keyboard, and an Apple Pencil. It simply requires some creativity—and some willingness to compromise.

Here’s my recipe for a “$100 iPad”:

Use Case #1: Drawing

  • A new 7” x 10” drawing pad. No, I’m not talking about a Wacom device or an Android tablet. This is literally a $7 book of drawing paper!
  • A few color markers for “funning up” my line drawings. Total cost for 72 fine and extra-fine colors: about $30.
  • I already had some nice graphic pens, pencils for sketching, and a big honking eraser, but you could pick these up for $20 or less.

Use Case #2: Minimalist text entry

The iPhone works perfectly well for distraction-free writing. In fact, that’s pretty much how I took notes in grad school—on an iPod Touch, paired to an old Palm keyboard. That screen was much smaller than that on my iPhone X.

Here’s what I picked up this time around:

  • A folding stand from Anker to hold the iPhone upright. Eleven bucks.
  • A new folding Bluetooth keyboard. (Unfortunately, I immediately shipped this back to Amazon; its build quality and typing feel failed to measure up. I’m still on the lookout for a decent keyboard that folds into a pocketable form factor. In the meantime, I’ll use this less portable AmazonBasics model, which isn’t awful. It cost $26 when I bought it.)

All told, then, since I already own a smartphone, I can cover the iPad’s core uses for less than $100.

The obvious disclaimer: the real iPad is better

If cost weren’t a factor, I’d rather have an iPad Pro than a bag full of markers and phone accessories. It’s convenient to have one device that can do it all in a portable, compact package. But, as a novice artist who doesn’t need a dedicated minimalist writing device, the convenience of the iPad Pro is not worth $1,000+. ■

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Mindless: the sorry state of meditation apps on the Apple Watch

When the Apple Watch first launched in 2015, it wasn’t clear exactly what the device was for. Was it a mini-iPhone, intended to replicate its big brother’s features on your wrist? Or was it a tool for informal communications, punctuated by scribbles and heart beats?

Eventually, the device’s purpose become more clear. Apple sells the Watch as a fitness and wellness tracker with some convenient peripheral functions (e.g. notifications and quick replies).

Given this emphasis on well-being, it’s surprising to me that there seem to be no great meditation apps for the Apple Watch. Oh, these apps exist; they’re just really bad.

Breathe

Well, not all of them, I guess. Apple’s first-party Breathe app is well-designed and fun to use for quick hits of mindfulness. But it’s not really designed to serve as a full-featured interval timer. For that, I’ve turned (without much success) to a variety of third-party apps:

Headspace

Take Headspace, for example. It’s the king in the mindfulness space, raking in tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually. You’d think they’d have the resources to deliver decent Watch app; the company has two dozen open engineer positions at the moment.

But, no, Headspace’s Apple Watch app is pretty sad. Even though its iPhone app is whimsical and well-designed, on the Watch, it’s ugly and weirdly spartan. It boasts two underbaked features: a “Touch” exercise that doesn’t quite work and “SOS”, a single guided meditation for emergencies (e.g. panic attacks).

In an ideal world, Headspace offer its rich library of guided sessions on your wrist; at the very least, I wish I could continue a meditation series from where I left off last time.

Insight Timer

Like Headspace, Insight Timer offers its own diverse library of guided courses, but I prefer to set up my own meditation sessions using its interval timer. I love being able to assign different bells to different stages of my meditation practice: high tones for preparation, deeper chimes for focused breathing, and even a gong to round out the exercise.

On the Watch, Insight Timer offers none of these features. I wish I could launch my preprogrammed sets of bell-marked intervals. Instead, the app offers generic timers for meditation and yoga, alongside a shortcut to launch their guided, seven-day introduction to meditation.

Seconds

The Watch app that comes the closest to meeting my needs isn’t actually a “mindfulness” app at all. It’s an interval timer called Seconds. Its target audience is fitness buffs who want to time complex workouts like high-intensity interval training.

But Seconds also supports interval sets for mindfulness sessions. Unlike with the other apps, it allows you to create any number of intervals of arbitrary length and sync the program to your Watch for “playback.”

Unfortunately, it has a few fatal flaws as a meditation timer. First, it really is meant to be a workout app; at the end of the meditation, the app shows the calories burned—hardly a relevant statistic for pillow-sitting. More problematically, custom alert sounds on the Watch seem to be broken. Seconds will play both my custom “Tibetan bell” and a harsh mechanical beep—a dissonant combination that I find distracting.

Closing thoughts

The dearth of Apple Watch meditation apps may be a symptom of a deeper issue. There are plenty of other app categories in which there isn’t a single decent option, and many high-profile companies have removed Apple Watch support altogether. Three and a half years after the device’s initial launch, the Apple Watch app ecosystem may be getting worse, rather than better.

That’s harshing my zen. ■

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Skipping the iPad Pro

I just can’t justify buying the new iPad Pro.

Don’t get me wrong; Apple’s new tablets are gorgeous. I’m impressed by the edge-to-edge display, the Braun-inspired squared edges, and the overall thinness. And the new Apple Pencil fixes all of my biggest complaints: the cylindrical (roll-prone) profile, the fiddly end cap, and the awkward charging method. Overall, the iPad Pro looks like an incredible upgrade.

But it’s also incredibly expensive. Jaw-droppingly expensive. Prohibitively expensive (at least for me). Not only Apple raise the cost of entry by $150, they also tacked $20–30 onto the price of each accessory. All told, even if I bought even the cheapest model,1 an Apple Pencil, and the new Smart Keyboard Folio, I’d be dropping just shy of $1,200.

That’s some serious cash—enough to buy a beefy Windows PC, ski passes for the whole family, a passable mountain bike, or a long weekend at the beach, steak dinners included.

If I honestly believed that I would use an iPad Pro, I might be been able to justify its exorbitant price tag. Unfortunately, the evidence is stacked against me. I’ve purchased three iPads in the past, and each one ended up gathering dust. I’ve just never found a great use case for an iPad; my Kindle is better for reading, my laptop is better for writing, and my phone is better for everything else. There was nothing in today’s keynote that makes me think this iPad would be different. (You know, like external touchscreen support?)

The iPad Pro is great for drawing, of course. And I do occasionally doodle. But why plunk down $1,200 when a $15 drawing pad works just as well?

So I’m sitting out this Apple launch, despite a gnawing gadget envy. I’m bummed that I can’t take another crack at the “iPad lifestyle,” but I’m excited to save that money for something I’ll almost certainly enjoy more. ■


  1. I’d get along fine with 64 gigs of storage, but it’s lame that only the 1TB models have 6GB of RAM. ↩︎