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Apple

Careful Tech 091: Give Screen Time some teeth

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Apple Tech

Careful Tech 089: The next step in iPad productivity

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Apple

Careful Tech 088: Praise for the Watchsmith app

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Apple

Careful Tech 087: What would make me buy a cellular Apple Watch?

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Apple

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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Apple

“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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Apple

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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Apple

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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Apple

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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Apple

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.) ◾