Categories
Apple Tech

Punching down: should Apple fans mock the Pixel 2’s missing headphone jack?

Yesterday, Google announced two new flagship phones: the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL. Because they offer the premiere stock Android experience, and because they boast great hardware (like a terrific camera), the devices will likely prove very popular with those outside the Apple bubble.

Some pundits inside the Apple ecosystem weren’t quite so receptive. Instead of praising Google’s improved design chops or its industry-leading AI features, they mocked Google for removing the Pixel’s analog headphone jack.

Now, maybe turnabout is fair play. Last year, Google poked fun at Apple for nixing the 3.5mm port on the iPhone 7. So why shouldn’t Apple-focused writers do the same thing, now that the Pixel has followed suit?

For me, the problem lies in Apple’s dominant market position. Apple’s handset business dwarfs Google’s in both unit sales and profit.[1] Whereas the iPhone has made Apple tremendously powerful, supremely confident, and unfathomably rich, the Pixel remains little more than a side project for Google.

So when Apple fans snarkily ridicule other companies’ devices, they do so from a lofty perch; it feels like “punching down” on Apple’s behalf. That may not be wrong, per se, but it’s not very funny, either. The world’s most dominant technology firm doesn’t need an army of apologists, patrolling the Internet for proof that Apple was right. Apple can look out for itself; it’s no longer the downtrodden underdog of the 1990s, struggling just to stay afloat.

Yes, this is a double standard. Is it fair if Google aficionados snidely deride the iPhone, while Apple’s followers hold their tongues? Maybe not. But when your team is winning, good sportsmanship demands that you dial down the trash talk. After all, nobody likes a sore winner. ■


  1. Google has likely shipped 1–2 million of the original Pixel since its October 2016 launch, whereas Apple sells over 200 million iPhones each year. Its dominance doesn’t end there; from a marketing perspective, Cupertino owns the mobile mindshare and can suck the atmosphere from the room with every announcement. Technologically, Apple’s A-series chips decimate the competition in benchmark tests. And finally, Apple’s strategic decisions steer the entire industry, charting the course in everything from hardware deprecation (e.g. the headphone jack) to accessory sales (the iPhone will make Qi chargers ubiquitous) to software features (every flagship phone now includes a ‘portrait mode’).

Categories
Apple Culture

Putting the iPhone’s expense in context

Ten years ago, I had just started grad school, and the newly-released iPhone seemed like an unimaginable extravagance. Hundreds of dollars upfront, then a recurring bill… forever? It seemed like a device targeted at the rich and foolish.

But by the time I finished grad school, three years later, I had bought the iPhone 4. Since then, I’ve upgraded every two years: iPhone 5, iPhone 6, iPhone 7. And from here on out, I may buy a new iPhone every year, starting with the recently-announced iPhone X.

How did this happen? How did I move from “the iPhone is a ridiculous expense” to “I want a new one very year”?

First, there’s the coincidence factor: the iPhone rose to prominence just as our careers were getting started. My wife and I scraped by during our grad school days, working stints in low-paying administrative jobs to support each other’s studies. Back then, tacking $100+ onto the monthly budget seemed impossible; paying the rent and affording groceries were difficult enough. Now, a decade later, both of us work steady jobs, and we have more discretionary income to apply to gadget purchases.

But even if our financial situation hadn’t changed, the iPhone would have been difficult to resist. The device has grown more capable and usable with each passing year, replacing a variety of standalone devices that we would have otherwise purchased. Consider:

Device Price per year Notes
Camera $200 ($1,000+ every 5 years) Our iPhones have relegated our old point-and-shoot to the junk drawer. And we almost certainly would have bought a DSLR by now, in order to document our daughter’s early years. The iPhone X’s chief appeal is its dual-lens camera system; it’s tricky to capture a toddler’s madcap antics without a zoom.
iPod / MP3 player (x2) $166 ($500 every 3 years) We each owned various digital music players before our first iPhones. My beloved iRiver iHP-120 gave way to the iPod touch, the bridge device that first convinced me how useful a pocket computer could be.
Dedicated GPS $67 ($200 every 3 years) I’m astonished that there’s still a market for these standalone navigators. I’m more astonished that the Wirecutter thinks they’re better than just using your smartphone.
Document scanner $50 ($250 every 5 years) For light document scanning needs, Scanbot does the trick. It’s not as fast as a dedicated device like the ScanSnap, but it easily bests a a flatbed scanner. This is definitely a case where “good enough” wins out.
Portable voice recorder $20 ($80 every 4 years) I would want this to record the Careful Tech podcast when I’m traveling.
Mini flashlight (x2) $10 ($40 every 4 years) In high school, everyone carried the Maglite Mini. Now, for everyday purposes, the iPhone’s built-in flash does the job.

That’s over $500 in annual gadget expenses that our iPhones render unnecessary. And that ignores the new uses that standalone gadgets can’t match—in particular, the iPhone’s portable computing ability, whose value is hard to overstate but difficult to quantify.

In other words, the iPhone X’s $1,000 price tag is deceptive. Yes, that’s a lot of money. But to some extent, it’s money that would otherwise be spent buying less flexible devices.[1]


  1. Most of the functions listed above could be handled by an older smartphone—one that costs a fraction of the new hotness. There is a tax for living on the bleeding edge. But some of that extra expense can be recovered by reselling your old phone to pay for the new.  ↩


Categories
Apple TV

Does ‘Planet of the Apps’ mean that Apple is bad at producing TV?

On a recent episode of The Talk Show, John Gruber argued that Apple’s potential as a TV content producer shouldn’t be judged by its first two (underwhelming) efforts, Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke. “What was Netflix’s first show?” he asked, “No one fucking remembers, right?”

On the one hand, citing Netflix undermines Gruber’s argument. Netflix’s first original series was House of Cards, whose excellent first season premiered to universal acclaim. Weighed against that show, Planet of the Apps comes up wanting. Apple’s reality show debut hasn’t attracted enough critical attention to be scored by Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, but those reviewers who bothered to weigh in panned the show.

On the other hand, there is precedent for a streaming service achieving success after mediocre first efforts at original content. Hulu’s first few web-only shows generated hardly a ripple of interest. But The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian drama from Hulu that debuted earlier this year, just won the Emmy for best drama series—the first and only streaming series to win that honor.

Presumably, Apple’s hoping to follow in Hulu’s footsteps. First, produce a few low-budget, under-the-radar web series. Then, once you’ve debugged the content production assembly line, hire more proven talent and pump in the cash. Time will tell whether Planet of the Apps has primed the pump for Apple’s future television success.


For comparison’s sake, here are the Metacritic scores for several streaming services’ first original series:

Company First original streaming series Premiere First season Metacritic rating
Hulu If I Can Dream March 2010 N/A
Netflix House of Cards February 2013 76
Amazon Betas April 2013 69
CBS All Access The Good Fight February 2017 80
Apple Planet of the Apps June 2017 N/A

Categories
Apple

A watch watcher reviews the Apple Watch Series 3

Benjamin Clymer of Hodinkee reviews the Apple Watch Series 3.

As he writes,

One of the most amusing things about doing what I do for a living – writing about and working with mechanical watches – is the reaction that other watch guys expect me, or really any other reasonable watch person, to have about the Apple Watch. They think we should hate it. I don’t hate the Apple Watch, nor should anyone else. If anything, the build quality versus price ratio on the Apple Watch is so embarrassing for the Swiss that I genuinely think it will push mechanical watchmakers to be better.

Even this small insight, this peek into the world of Swiss manufacturing and watch aficionados, is worth the click.


Clymer’s review adds something unique to the online conversation about the Series 3 Watch. Tech blog reviews too often follow the same boring pattern; I can only read about watchOS 4’s new workout app so many times before my eyes glaze over. As a mechanical watch expert, however, Clymer deftly surfaces a new, thought-provoking set of expectations, delights, and complaints.

For example, the reviewer discusses the “incredible tolerances and smooth corners” on the packaging for the Apple Watch Edition, then compares it to boxes from the luxury watchmakers. He also weighs the Watch Edition’s ceramic case against similar materials on far more expensive mechanical watches. Clymer’s able to provide context that the average tech expert just can’t.

Even his less esoteric thoughts prove fascinating; he lists his daily carry items in the wake of acquiring the Series 3: the Watch, a wallet, house keys, and a single AirPod (!). That last detail took me by surprise, as a gadget nerd (“What about stereo music?!”). But it’s a great example of how different priorities (e.g. valuing fashion over technological utility) lead to a different way of using a digital device.

We need more tech reviews like this! Give me a iPhone X review from a doctor doing her rounds. A HomePod review from a concert violinist. An Apple Watch review from a professional athlete in off-season training. An Amazon Echo review from an elderly retiree. As Clymer’s article proves, getting outside the tech bubble could help us view our gadgets in an entirely new light. ■


  1. One quibble: Clymer confuses the first-generation Watch (the “Series 0”) with the 2016 Series 1. It’s a mistake that an expert in smart wearables probably wouldn’t make. But why be pedantic? Clymer’s review is fascinating not because of what he doesn’t know, but because of what he does.


Categories
Apple

More thoughts on the affordability of upgrading your iPhone every year

A few days ago, I explained how upgrading your iPhone annually can be surprisingly affordable, once you figure in the device’s depreciation and resale values.

Here are some follow-up questions:

What about upgrade cycles longer than two years? How do they compare to upgrading annually?

In the earlier post, I concluded that upgrading annually (versus upgrading every two years) costs about $80 total ($40 per year of use). We can do this same math for a three-year upgrade cycle by starting a year earlier (with the iPhone 6):

One-year upgrade cycle Model Date
1st iPhone retail purchase iPhone 6 9/2014 ($649)
1st iPhone sale via Swappa iPhone 6 9/2015 $411
2nd iPhone retail purchase iPhone 6s 9/2015 ($649)
2nd iPhone sale via Swappa iPhone 6s 9/2016 $411
3rd iPhone retail purchase iPhone 7 9/2016 ($649)
3rd iPhone sale via Swappa iPhone 7 9/2017 $411
TOTAL ($714)
Three-year upgrade cycle Model Date
1st iPhone retail purchase iPhone 6 9/2014 ($649)
1st iPhone sale via Swappa iPhone 6 9/2017 $186
TOTAL ($463)

Compared to an annual upgrade, the three-year upgrade cycle saves you $251 over the three years. That’s more savings per year ($84) compared to a two-year cycle ($40); a new phone loses more value in the first year of ownership than in the second.

A few thoughts:

  • Three years is a long time in the gadget world. Your mileage may vary, but I would rather not use a three-year-old handset. Don’t judge me.
  • One thing I didn’t address in the previous post? Warranties. I don’t buy Apple’s “AppleCare+” protection plan, which means I only receive the default, year-long warranty. That works out great if you upgrade annually; your phone is never more than a year old,[1] so it’s always covered. Obviously, your risk increases if you hold onto your phone past that warranty window. You’re more likely to experience hardware failure in years two and three; if something breaks, you’ll be stuck paying for out-of-warranty repairs.
  • What about a four-year phone upgrade cycle? I have a friend who’s planning to upgrade his 5s this fall. Swappa says that a baseline AT&T 5s is worth about $92. By my math, he saved about $99 per year ($395 total) versus upgrading annually. Then again, retaining a phone for four years has some serious drawbacks. After 1,400+ charge cycles, a lithium-ion battery will be in rough shape.[2]

What about the new iPhones, with their higher prices? How will the upgrade math work out?

Both the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus saw price bumps over the equivalent 2016 models, and the iPhone X’s $999 starting price is a complete wild card. How will the resale values for these devices track after a year on the market?

The short answer is “We don’t know.” However, we can look at legacy Plus models to see if our math applies to the higher-priced phones. Based on a quick glance at Swappa, both the iPhone 7 and the 7 Plus retained about 73% of their retail value after eleven months on the market, and the 6 and 6 Plus retained somewhere around 45% of their retail price after twenty-three months. It seems reasonable to assume that the 8 and 8 Plus resale values will trend similarly.

Keep in mind, though, even if the higher-priced models lose a similar proportion of their value, you’ll lose more in actual dollars over time, compared to the cheaper devices. A new iPhone 7 purchased in September 2016 depreciated $177 (i.e., 27%) in its first eleven months of ownership, while a 7 Plus lost $207 in value (again, 27%) during that same time span.

What about the iPhone X? Will it be worth just $730 (73% of its retail price) a year after its release? It’s hard to say. We don’t know how well the devices will sell, and, critically, we don’t know Apple’s plans for iPhone pricing in 2018. If consumers balk at paying $1000+ for a new phone, might Apple release an “iPhone XI” at, say, $899? If so, the original X’s resale value would immediately take a hit. ■


  1. Unless Apple breaks its pattern of releasing the new phone at the same time every year, which it did this year with the iPhone X. That flagship phone won’t ship until November.  ↩
  2. It is possible to replace an iPhone battery, which would help make an older phone more usable.  ↩
Categories
Apple

Upgrading your iPhone every year is surprisingly affordable — if you’re willing to do some work

As I wrote yesterday, I’ve been saving to buy a new iPhone since last September. My iPhone 7 was the first phone that I didn’t buy under the legacy two-year contract model. Instead, I opted to pay full retail price so that I could easily resell the phone this year and buy a new one.

Here’s why: if you resell your old phones, an annual upgrade isn’t much more expensive than going “new every two.” Consider:

One-year upgrade cycle costs Model
1st iPhone retail purchase iPhone 6s ($649)
1st iPhone sale via Swappa iPhone 6s $411
2nd iPhone retail purchase iPhone 7 ($649)
2nd iPhone sale via Swappa iPhone 7 $411
2-YEAR TOTAL ($476)
Two-year upgrade cycle costs Model
1st iPhone retail purchase iPhone 6s ($649)
1st iPhone sale via Swappa iPhone 6s $253
2-YEAR TOTAL ($396)

In other words, upgrading annually costs approximately $40 more per year than upgrading every two years. Considering how much I use my phone, $3–4 more per month doesn’t seem like an unreasonable premium.

Of course, there are some caveats (aren’t there always?):

  • The equivalent carrier models of the iPhone cost the same, but they don’t all retain their value at the same rate. Your mileage may vary.
  • Adopting this approach requires being willing to resell your phone yourself, which can be a hassle. Services like Gazelle make things easier, but they also offer far less than you’ll get selling to buyers directly through Swappa, eBay, or Craigslist.
  • Reselling demands that you keep your phone in great shape; no one wants to buy a scratched or waterlogged phone. A rugged phone case and a screen protector are reasonable investments. Holding onto the retail packaging helps, too. Then again, these are smart moves whether you’re planning to resell at one year or at two.
  • To calculate the resale values, I used the Swappa sale prices for equivalent baseline AT&T models. For example, for the first iPhone sale under the one-year upgrade cycle, I looked at the Swappa sales trends for the 32GB AT&T iPhone 7; the average selling price in August 2017 was $472. Subtract $15 (Swappa’s seller fee), plus another 10% for depreciation from August to September, and you get my $411 figure. I did similar math for the two-year upgrade cycle, using the iPhone 6s instead.[1]
  • Both the carriers and Apple itself now offer upgrade plans. But there’s a catch: the companies require you to trade in your old phone to get the new one. That makes them significantly pricier than the approach outlined above (pay full price and sell it yourself). Plus, paying retail also means you can preorder on day one, without jumping through any hoops. Still, for those who can’t front the phone’s (hefty!) retail price or who don’t want to bother with reselling old devices, the official upgrade plans might be worth exploring.
  • This plan doesn’t account for Apple making radical changes to its iPhone price structure—which, by all accounts, they’re going to do today. In my next post, I’m hoping to chew on this a little bit. ■

EDIT: I’ve labeled the chart with model numbers instead of dates.


  1. Swappa’s fee is only $10 for devices sold for less than $300.  ↩
Categories
Apple Tech

On Apple event spoilers

On Friday night, the “Gold Master” release of iOS 11 leaked online. As nerds have waded through the code, secrets about Apple’s soon-to-be-announced devices have come to light. This is the second time this summer that prerelease software has escaped into the wild and tipped Apple’s hand.

There are still some details about the new devices that we don’t know.[1] But enough cats have slipped out of Apple’s bag that the event has lost some luster. We’ve peeked into the presents before Christmas morning. Or, to put it another way, the leaks have “spoiled” the new iPhone announcement.

Using “spoiler” language may seem odd. That’s a term from the entertainment world, not the tech sphere. Does an iPhone announcement event really compare to, say, the upcoming Star Wars sequel or an episode of Game of Thrones?

Sure, maybe it’s silly (or even a bit sad). But these product announcements are high holidays for tech enthusiasts. I’ve had September 12th circled on my calendar for over a month. I’ve followed the online speculation since the first “tenth anniversary iPhone” rumors surfaced over a year ago. And I’ve been saving to buy a new phone since the day I bought my last one.

So… yeah, I do look forward to iPhone events as if they were blockbuster movies. That anticipation is a testament to Apple’s crack PR team and how carefully they design these announcements. A well-crafted product event is a roller coaster worth riding, and it’s more fun when I don’t know that hairpin left turn is coming. As both a gadget fan and as a communications professional, I’d rather be surprised.[2]


  1. For example, while most pundits agree that the base model “iPhone X” (which is apparently the official name) will start around $999, any price from $899 to $1199 remains in play. The top-end phone’s release date also remain unclear. We haven’t yet seen legit final versions of the phone hardware (although we have seen an image of the LTE Apple Watch). Finally, while we may know the names of many new features, we don’t know exactly how they work.  ↩

  2. I only have myself to blame. After all, I’ve managed to avoid major Episode VIII spoilers so far by steering clear of sites like Making Star Wars. In the same way, if I had simply ignored the Apple rumor mill, Tuesday’s event would still be a mystery to me. Unfortunately, I don’t have that sort of willpower. And the pre-event speculation is part of the fun. ↩

Categories
Apple Tech

Justifying an LTE Apple Watch

Tech rumormongers claim that Apple will announce an LTE-equipped Apple Watch at its September event. I’m intrigued to see how Apple makes the case for adding the cell radio. What is a cell-equipped Watch for? Or, put another way, when would I be willing to leave behind my phone?

For me, the only answer is, “When I’m working out.” I hate bringing my iPhone on runs. There’s no good way to carry it; arm straps are awkward, and hip belts make the phone’s heft hard to ignore.

Theoretically, an LTE-enabled Watch could make it easier to leave my iPhone on the dresser when I go running. I could still send and receive urgent messages. If I were an Apple Music subscriber, I could stream any song on the go—not just the playlists I presync to the Watch.

But there are other reasons I bring my phone along on runs—things that even a cell-connected Apple Watch couldn’t do. For example, I occasionally stumble across something interesting while I’m out: a glorious sunrise, a gnarly snapping turtle, a dew-starred spider web. I whip out my phone and snap a photo—a nice reward for my exercise efforts. What happens when the “camera that’s with you” is no longer with you?

Another problem? Podcasts. There’s currently no good way to play podcasts from the Apple Watch itself. Apple inexplicably continues to ignore podcast playback as a potential Watch feature. Meanwhile, third-party apps, hindered by the platform’s limited APIs, haven’t filled the gap. If I want to catch up on my favorite shows while I run, the iPhone needs to come along for the ride.


For me, then, an LTE-equipped Apple Watch seems to create as many problems as it solves. That makes it tough to justify the added cost, particularly if the carriers charge a per-month fee (which is likely).

To be fair, Apple hasn’t made their pitch yet. There may be a use case here that I can’t think of—a benefit that would outweigh the drawbacks of running phoneless. Or maybe they’ll find ways to replace more of the phone’s functionality than currently seems possible. In any case, I’m looking forward to hearing their argument on September 12.

Categories
Apple Tech

Handling the notch

Apple-watchers agree that iPhone Pro’s screen will feature a hardware “notch”—a cutout in its otherwise bezelless design for the camera, earpiece, and other sensors. But there’s less agreement on how the notch will be handled in software. The current status bar doesn’t seem to fit. Where will the omnipresent, centered clock go—if it remains onscreen at all?

One potential approach, which I’ve hacked together and included above, is to adopt a “two-row” status bar. This would take advantage of the vertical screen space to the notch’s left and right. Here, I’ve center-aligned the various indicators, since the rounded top-left and top-right corners made left- and right-alignment look odd. The clock gets pride of place at top left.


Thanks to Evan Blass for the iPhone Pro render and to Olivier Charavel for the notch mock-up. ■

Categories
Tech

A better iPad lap stand

Yes, there are already 1,001 tablet stands out there, ranging from $5 cardboard easels to aluminum docks that cost nearly $200. But very few existing models work well on the lap. Either they’re fixed at limited, inconvenient viewing angles (e.g. Apple’s Smart Cover), or they’re too narrow to span the gap between your thighs (a la my beloved Satetchi R1).

Here are the key features of my proposed alternative:

  1. This stand offers a place to rest your keyboard—but does not include the keyboard itself. Although I liked the BrydgeAir keyboard dock while I had it, I don’t like plunking down $100+ for an accessory that may not be compatible with future iPad models. This stand invites the user to add his favorite Bluetooth keyboard rather than rely on a proprietary port or form factor.
  2. The BrydgeAir keyboard dock inspired the drawing’s hinge design. These pivoting arms grip the iPad across its widest bezels, so that its screen remains unobscured. They’re rimmed with a rubbery material to prevent scratches on the iPad’s screen. They allow the iPad to be removed quickly (unlike bulky keyboard cases). The hinges rotate 180 degrees, allowing the user to lock in her preferred viewing angle. And these arms would ideally slide sideways along a channel or rail, so that the stand could be used with smaller tablets—or with the iPad Pro in portrait orientation.
  3. Because the iPad Pro is fairly heavy, the base would probably require some counterweight to prevent the assembly from toppling over. Admittedly, this would make the lap stand less portable. The anchor weights could be extra batteries—to charge the iPad on the go. But that would add complexity, inflate the cost, and (most critically) impact the stand’s longevity (since batteries lose their capacity over time). Better to embed some other dense material near the stand’s front edge in order to counterbalance the iPad itself.

There are probably engineering concerns that make this design impractical, and the market for 12.9″ iPad accessories may be too small to justify much experimentation from third-party manufacturers.

But something like this stand would go a long way towards making the iPad Pro a true laptop replacement—i.e. by letting it perch on my app.