Apple just gave me a new smartwatch, for free

Well, not quite, but the latest update from Apple might as well be a new watch. The new operating system, watchOS 3 is one of the best operating system updates I’ve ever seen in the 18 years or so since I’ve been interested technology.

There was a time when a new OS update meant inevitable slowness until you finally succumbed to the marketing and upgraded by either stuffing more RAM into your PC, or shelling our for a brand new machine. This changed in the PC world with Windows 7, which famously had the same operating requirements as it’s then 2 year old predecessor, Windows Vista. Apple hasn’t always been so kind, with new versions of iOS regularly slowing down older hardware, though this hasn’t been so much of a problem since the 64-bit era (2013 iPhone 5S or newer), but even now an iPhone 6 doesn’t feel as snappy as it did 3 years ago.  So it was a nice surprise when Apple announced back in June that its latest incarnation of the operating system for the Apple Watch, watchOS would be focused on performance. This was long overdue. Apple Watch’s main failure was it’s slowness. Unlike a laptop or a phone, a slow smartwatch can be physically painful to use. So for the most part people didn’t it seemed – 3rd party apps were few and far between.

The new version of watchOS achieves this speediness by keeping apps in memory for as long as it can. You now get to choose your 10 favourite apps and place them in a ‘dock’, and they’ll be prioritised over other apps to not only stay in memory but also receive more frequent background updates. Frequent background updates also apply to ‘complications’ (widgets on the watch face). What is striking though is the amount of fit and finish that’s been applied to the system. Now apps do really launch instantly, for the most part. If like me you only use 4 -5 apps of a regular basis, then it’s likely those apps will always be in memory. This results in a much more usable device.

Siri, the voice controlled virtual assistant is now much more efficient at communicating its status as when you ask for something. Instead of having to watch your wrist to see if it managed to understand what you said, you can now drop your wrist and it will subtle tap you when it has your answer, or to tell you if it didn’t understand. A small change, but it makes a big difference to the usefulness of the feature.

You can now draw characters onto the screen to transcribe text. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s a nice way to quickly reply when your phone is out of reach. Reminders are now available on the watch, and stay on the screen for up to 8 minutes after you last used the app, so I can walk round the supermarket checking off my shopping list on my wrist. The watch now feels more useful then it did before, when I was only really using it for notifications and fitness tracking (which are still first class).

On my smaller 38mm machine battery life still isn’t great. It seems to be slightly worse than before. Where I would have previously been at 25% at the end of the day, I’m now at 10%. This may well be because I’m using it a lot more now. I’ve long been in the habit of a post-lunch charge at my desk, so it’s not an issue most of the time.

I’ve always been compelled by the idea of having a computer strapped to my wrist, accessible at any time. This ‘ambient computing’ experience is finally realised with watchOS 3. What is really needed now is a watch with it’s own cellular modem, so the phone truly becomes an optional extra.

First Day in San Francisco

On my first day In San Francisco I decided to visit as much as I could on foot, given my jet lagged body state and the uncompromising value of the pound to the dollar making taxis (even Uber) very expensive. I started off by taking a walk to the Coit Tower. It was only a fifteen minute walk away, but I was quickly astounded by how steep the roads in San Francisco are – some of them even have steps instead of pathways because it would be impossible to walk up. I would not want to drive a manual car over here. With thanks to walking directions on my Apple Watch, I found the tower with no trouble and paid $8 to ride up in the lift. As I’ve always found on my trips to anywhere in the USA, the guides who work at these types of attractions are brilliant – brimming with a genuine love of what they do. The lady looking after the queue was as friendly as ever and gave me plenty of tips for other places to visit after this one. Once at the top of the tower the views were breathtaking – it’s not the tallest building in SF, but nevertheless the view is stunning.

After spending a good 20 minutes taking in the view and getting some good photographs (I was paranoid about dropping my iPhone from the top – I wonder how many people actually do that?) I went back down and headed towards the bay, assuming there would be something interesting to see there. I was not wrong. Pier 39 was brimming with live music (I got a signed CD from a band called The Luck – I’m sure they will be huge one day), performers, shops and stalls selling donuts, cookies, pretzels and everything else you want to eat but know you shouldn’t.
After watching a show and some excellent music, I mooched around for a bit, soaking up the atmosphere, before walking on to Fishermans Wharf. From here I caught a tour boat that took us out under the Golden Gate Bridge and around the former prison island of Alcatraz. It was a really fun trip, and the audio narration was decent. It did start to get rather choppy as we got all the way out to the Golden Gate Bridge, but this only added to the sense of fun.

After this, feeling pretty exhausted (my body thought it was 3am still), I sat looking out over he bay and read a little on my Kindle, soaking up the sun (I am now bright red and have since picked up some some tan lotion from Walgreens!). After this I went and ordered some dinner in the Hard Rock Cafe on Pier 39. I have a thing about Hard Rock Cafe – wherever I see one I’ve not been before I like to visit it. So far I’ve been to about 5 around the world from Florida to Barcelona. I like the fact that they don’t jus pop up in any old place, even if the menu is a little limited. Now feeling tied, my body thinking it was 5am (the locally brewed larger probably didn’t help with the tiredness) I started the two mile walk back to my hotel, where I promptly fell asleep.

Improving digital media rights

In an age when streaming services are all the rage –Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify et al, I still feel as though there are certain works of art that I want to own and not just rent. With music, this is a pain free process as most digital music is available to purchase is free of DRM (Digital Rights Management). DRM stops digital files being copied, with an aim to stop piracy. In reality though, if you look hard enough (you don’t have to look that hard) you can still find most popular digital media available for free on pirate sites. DRM doesn’t work. Thankfully the music industry saw the light and you can now buy DRM-free music from iTunes, Amazon and many other providers. The film, TV and book industry haven’t been so forward thinking however. There are no services that let you purchase a film legitimately without DRM. Why is this a bad thing? DRM stops unauthorised copying, which is fine by me because I don’t want to make any unauthorised copies. The problem is, DRM also promotes vendor lock-in. This means if I buy a TV show from my iPad, and then years later decide to switch to Android, those videos are stuck within the Apple ecosystem. If I buy a book on Kindle, but decide I would rather use some other make of e-reader, I’m not able to take my Kindle collection with me.  
Some services like Amazon Music and Google Play do offer cross-platform apps, so if I bought a TV series on an Android phone, I could watch it on an iPhone – but only using the Google app. If one day Google decides to stop supporting iPhone, I’m out of luck.

So what to do? Our governments seem keen to pass laws which promote and support DRM – I can understand this. An economy where goods are easy to steal and stealing is virtually undetectable – an economy based on good will if you like, is probably not an experiment they want to attempt. But what if they also passed laws that promoted consumer rights; rights not to be locked into a single platform? In this world, any digital goods purchased from one platform would be available to download again from rival platforms at no cost. If the other platform is somehow better (e.g. higher definition) then of course users would be expected to pay for the upgrade (though, I would expect the original version to still be available), but if it’s like for like, then consumers would have the right to transfer their purchases to as many platforms as they wish. This could be backed up by a common verified email address or block-chain style database, with safeguards in place to prevent abuse. It could be done, and it would make digital media much more competitive, improving the experience and price for consumers overall.  

Will it happen? Let’s say I’m not optimistic.

On the plus side

Over the past year or so you may like me, have found that it has been easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we’re all doomed. For me in particular; on the eve of becoming 30, I went from being someone who was in a steady relationship with aspirations to buy a house and have children, to being single and living in a rented room. This, coupled with constant negativity in the media can wound up making me feel at times a bit down and hopeless. Climate change, terrorist attacks, rising rents, rising house prices, the increasing disparity between rich and poor – it can all get a bit too much. Especially when all of your friends seem to be buying houses, getting married and making babies, while at the same time you just seem to be getting older.

Take a step back however, and you may realise that this doom and gloom is often nothing more than a distortion of reality. The human brain is hardwired to focus on what it hasn’t got and to always want more. It’s why the human race migrated and populated each and all of the continents on earth and eventually landed on the moon. To be dissatisfied with what you have and to strive for better a is natural behaviour. That doesn’t mean it’s always a useful behaviour. Just as aggression can be put to use in driving someone to do well at sport , it can also be incredibly destructive.

One-hundred years ago, my great-grandparents were born at a time when the average life expectancy in the UK was around 55 (This figure is sadly skewed because so many unfortunate children died young of diseases which have now thankfully been eradicated.) In just four generations the quality and length of life somebody can expect to live in the UK has increased dramatically. This really is a good time to be alive. Being born in the UK, one of the most prosperous countries on the planet is incredibly lucky. Most of us have the opportunity to visit many wonderful places – if I were to put my home ownership ambitions on hold for a bit, I could probably afford to visit many more far-flung parts of the world.  Low cost travel is something we now take for granted, but it’s something our ancestors could only dream of. You only have to go back a few more generations to find a time when visiting the next town was a special event. 1

So why am I writing this? Because frankly, over the past year I found that I became obsessed with what I thought was missing in my life, and forgot to be grateful  for what I actually have. If you have good friends, good health and a good job, then count yourself lucky too.

Show 1 footnote

  1. While saying that, I do think it’s important not to define oneself based on where you’ve been. The ‘where’ is meaningless. If you visited Mexico and spent the entire time in a 5 start hotel complex, then did you really visit Mexico? You might have a good tan, and if you enjoyed yourself, then that’s all that really matters – this underlines why listing places you’ve been in an effort to define yourself is a futile exercise.

7 Years of iPhone

I realised this week that it has been seven years since I got my first iPhone, a 3GS model, back in 2009. I happened to be in the same place, Newport, Isle of Wight, which made me reminisce about how much has changed in 7 years.

Back then I had a Nokia N95, which had a brilliant camera and proper GPS – none of which could be said for the iPhone 3GS. Back then it was so unbelievably cool to be able to download a entire web page on a phone, or even a large file such as a podcast over 3G. My network plan included something like 500MB of data, but I never got anywhere near that limit. My iPhone changed this. At the time I was familiar with iOS, having owned the first generation iPod Touch, so getting a phone that did the same but more – an always-on Internet connection, a compass, a camera, and it was so much faster too (the ‘S’ in 3GS was for ‘speed’ remember) was absolutely brilliant. At the time I’d been working as a junior developer for just over 18 months – my first proper job as I like to say. 

It’s amazing what a difference 7 years makes. Back then, sitting smugly on a train or in a dentist waiting room surfing the Internet was only something us geeks did. Tweeting what you had for lunch was a novelty. Now technology has gone mainstream. Everyone is on the Internet all of the time. The iPhone was to mobile phones as broadband was to the Internet. It redefined normal. 

I do wonder what will be next. Yes there is the cloud, there’s deep learning and VR/AR, but these are technologies that have yet to be productised in the way that capacitive screens and low-powered ARM chips were with the iPhone. All I know it, the world we live in will be exciting in 7 more years. Roll on 2023.

Manic Street Preachers – Swansea Liberty Stadium

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I’ve been a fan of the Manic Street Preachers ever since I heard their first number one hit “If you Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next” back in August 1998, aged 13. I subsequently received the album on which that single resided – “This is My Truth Tell Me Yours” the following Christmas. When was 13 and living in the middle of nowhere, having the means to the get to a shop and buy the CD was not something that occurred frequently. This was before the days of the iTunes Store and downloadable MP3s. Napster wouldn’t be released for another 6 months, and it would take the good part of a day to download an album on a 56K modem. (Not to mention without a CD burner or portable MP3 player, the best you could do with an MP3 was listen to it though some crummy ‘multimedia’ speakers on a PC). I fell in love with the CD. From the opening track “The Everlasting” to the closing “SYMM”, i loved its rich texture and atmosphere. I soon acquired the previous album “Everything Must Go” and shortly after that, the rest of their back catalogue. What drew me to the band was not just the brilliant music, but also the intriguing lyrics about politics, civil wars and depression. A stark contrast to what you’d hear if you tune in to radio back then where the lyrics would be either about a) falling in love b) braking up or c) wanting to have sex (and still today – Capital FM is dire, but thankfully the Internet and BBC 6 Music have balanced things out) Unlike a lot of music around at the time, the Manics’ lyrics were (and still are) staunchly political while also poetic.
So it was with great excitement that I set off for Swansea on the morning of the 28th of May 2016. I’ve seen the Manics plenty of times – at festivals, greatest hits tours, intimate album tours, an entire singles gig at the o2 – but never like this, on their home turf on a beautiful summers day in Swansea. There is something about being a Manics fan that you don’t feel with other bands – you can’t help but have a degree of respect and comradery for anyone you see at the gigs, not just for their good taste, but also their dedication (it’s been 16 years since their commercial peak) and ostensible intellect and curious  mind needed to follow such a band.

The gig started with the first of two support acts – Public Service Broadcasting. I’d seen them support the Manics before and was mildly interested, this time however their music really struck a cord (I’ve since had both their albums on non-stop). They’re an odd band to watch live – a but like I imagine it must be like watching Daft Punk or the Pet Shop Boys – they are pseudo-anonymous and only speak through a computer generated voice. This ties in nicely with the band’s core mastery – putting old public service broadcasts to music. I probably haven’t done it justice the way I’ve just explained it, but suffice to say they’re bloody brilliant so check them out.
Next on to the second and final support act, the Super Furry Animals. I’d never been a fan, and 20 years on from their commercial peak, I can’t say I am now. It was a chance to go and grab a hotdog from the friendly staff at the Liberty Stadium. Finally at about 8PM, the Manics appeared and played the entire album “Everything Must Go”. It flew by. It was odd because the song they nearly always play as a set closer “A Design For Life” is the second track on the album, and it didn’t quite work as well so early on into the gig. But hearing classic such as “Kevin Carter” and “Enola/Alone” which I’d never heard live before was just breathtaking. The highlight for me was the last song on the album, “No Surface All Feeling” for which I was hoping they’d do a 10 minute Swansea special extended version (sadly not). After a 5 minute interval the boys then want on to play a second half, which included the Wales Euro 2016 theme and many other amazing songs. The most memorable moment of the night had to be Nicky Wire, who as the rain started getting heavy shouted in defiance “you’re not going to let the weather spoil the fun” (or words it that effect) – and at that exact moment there was a clap of thunder and flash of lightening. If it hadn’t been so damn loud I’d have sworn it was a special effect and part of the show.

As the rain fell and the night went on the atmosphere was ecstatic – it was like a festival just for fans of the Manic Street Preachers. As “Tolerate” rang out and I left to get the last train, I thought back to that day in 1998 when I first heard the song, and wondered how I would feel back then, aged 13, knowing that I’d one day hear the song live aged 31. Can’t wait for the next gig.

iPhone SE

I did it. I bought a an iPhone SE. Not just any old iPhone SE, a Rose Gold one.

Why this madness?

iPhone SE, Rose Gold
iPhone SE, Rose Gold

The last phone I bought was an iPhone 5 back in December 2012. I was pleased with the phone and only gave it up last November when I decided to start using my company issued iPhone 6 as my main phone. The reason for switching was mainly because its ageing A6 processor was beginning to start showing its age, and the lack of M-series motion co-processor meant any motion tracking applications needed to keep the entire phone awake when in use, so battery life wasn’t that great for me. The iPhone 6 also has a much better camera. I’d refrained form upgrading my personal phone for so long because the iPhone 6 and the 6S did nothing for me – they don’t look particularly good, and they’re way too expensive for anything but the 16GB model, which I would not recommend to anyone but my worst enemy.

Modern processor niceties aside, I wasn’t too happy with the size of the iPhone 6. It was awkward to use with one hand, and impossible to put in a pocket while running – I needed to strap it to my arm instead. So when Apple announced the iPhone SE a few weeks ago, I knew this was the phone for me. The classic, beautiful iPhone 5 design and more importantly a usable size, but with the far superior camera and processing smarts of the iPhone 6S. I feel like this is a product Apple made just for me.

Upon going back to the smaller size everything felt so much nicer. The phone just sits in the hand much more naturally, and I can reach any part of the screen without using two hands or performing a balancing act in order not to drop it. There is also something particularly cool about using such powerful applications as Pixelmator, iMovie and Numbers on a 4 inch screen – there is a certain elegance in making an app that can do so much with such little screen real estate.

I went for the 64GB mode, which makes this the first iPhone I’ve ever owned with more than16GB of storage space. What a difference it makes. 16GB was fine back in 2009 when I had a 3GS, but in 2012 it made no sense, and it’s worrying that Apple still sells them. I can for the first time actually install apps without needing to delete something else first. Before I had to consciously keep applications installed to a minimum, in order that I could have 2 albums downloaded (for running) and space ready to take photos (usually 500MB or so). Now I don’t have to worry, and I can even install games. If anything, the storage upgrade is more significant than the superior processor and camera.

Finally I went for Rose Gold – why? I just felt like a change. I’ve always had the black iPhone, and Rose Gold was this year’s “new colour”. People can joke that it’s a girly colour, but honestly, I’m confident enough with my own masculinity to use a pink phone and not give a damn what anyone else thinks.

Overall I think it’s a brilliant upgrade over the iPhone 6. More usable, nicer camera and much faster. It is missing the barometer (sad face) and the front-facing camera isn’t as good, but that’s a small compromise, there’a also no camera bump.

The iPad isn’t a PC replacement for everyone, yet

 

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When Apple announced the new iPad last week, Phil Schiller made a point of highlighting it as a replacement for the 600 million PCs that are over 5 years old.

While I like that Apple is pushing the iPad a PC replacement – for many people it is (including myself, mostly); I do think that people still using a 5 year old PC are likely to be in the ‘technologically conservative’ camp and will therefore run up against limitations if they tried to use an iPad as a replacement.

For example:

  • They may still have an older generation of iPod or MP3 player that needs to sync with a PC.
  • They may still buy CDs, and want to rip them so they can play them on such an MP3 player.
  • They may want to print things, and seeing as they have a 5-year old PC, they probably don’t have a wireless printer.
  • They might own a lot of legacy media such as video tapes and vinyl records. They may want to use a USB conversion device to modernise this media, which won’t be supported on iOS.
  • iPads still need iTunes in the event of an unsuccessful update, although rare, having to drive to an Apple Store or relative’s house to restore an iPad would be very inconvenient.

Not to mention that the cheapest iPad Pro with a keyboard cover is an extraordinary £628.00!

Yes, it has many, many benefits over a PC – low maintenance (the only real maintenance iOS devices require are OS updates and managing the puny amounts of storage they have) – and best of all there’s no antivirus software or other crapware preloaded.

So nice a nice idea, but in reality anyone who hasn’t updated their PC in 5 years probably isn’t going to blow £628.00 on a device that isn’t a dead cert to cover all scenarios. Also I’d expect a £628.00 laptop to have more than 32G of storage.