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.

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.

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

 

Screen Shot 2016-04-05 at 21.17.14

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.

The future of commerce is so close

A couple of months ago Apple Pay was finally enabled for my bank account and credit card, which meant I was finally able to pay for things by either placing my phone on the card reader, or by bashing my watch against it instead.

I look forward to a day when I can leave the house with nothing in my pockets – my watch will have a cellular radio and be capable of keeping me in contact with the people that matter, so too will it allow me to unlock my car/house, in addition to letting me pay for things. While the first two in that list might be a few years away (decades at the rate I upgrade cars), my watch can actually make payments today, how cool is that?

The reality is somewhat less cool. The problem is the payment limit. Since Apple Pay uses the existing 'Contactless' payment systems, it's also hampered by the same £20 limit. While this limit makes sense with a contactless debit card (there is zero authentication), both the Apple Watch and iPhone are secure; the iPhone asks for your fingerprint, and the watch asks for a PIN when you first put it on, as long as it says in contact with your wrist it is authorised for Apple Pay.

This authentication is also a hindrance – why would I fiddle about trying to get my phone to detect my fingerprint (while everyone in the queue is staring at me) or roll three layers of sleeve up to try and get my watch to be recognised when I can whip out my wallet and tap my debit card? The key point is that I still have to have my wallet on me in case the shop in question doesn't support contactless, or the amount comes to over £20. Don't get me wrong, Apple Pay is much better than entering a PIN, it's just not as fast as tapping your card.

So what needs to happen? I'd like to see the limit raise for Apple Pay purchases to something more reasonable, most cash machines allow you to take out £300 in a day, so why not the same for an arguably more secure system such as Apple Pay, while keeping existing contactless limits where they are of course

Better software, not a bigger screen, is what the iPad needs

The iPad Pro

 

The iPad Pro is now available, with its much larger screen. Admittedly I haven't had a chance to try one yet, and having only purchased a new iPad last year, I probably wouldn't consider such a purchase so soon anyway. But as someone who does try and do real work on an iPad, (I enjoy stepping away from my desk from time to time to focus in on something, and the iPad is perfect for this.), I am not frustrated by the iPad's lack of screen real estate (though I've no doubt more is better, it usually is) but by its limited software.

This 'limited software' is not always the fault of Apple, developers purposely try and simplify their iPad releases in an effort to route out the bloat that dogs their desktop equivalents. This is mostly a good thing, as someone who runs complex software projects for a living, I am always a proponent of the KISS philosophy (Keep It Simple, Stupid). However, there haven been numerous times when I've had to walk back to my desk and grab my laptop because something just isn't possible on an iPad.

Take Microsoft Excel. The desktop version may be a horrible, bloated and full of legacy code (it seems to have its own rules on when to wipe your clipboard unexpectedly), but to its credit, it does make a lot of complex, routine tasks very quick and easy. If I have a list of stuff and I want to remove duplicates, it's one click. If I have a CSV file (or values separated by another delimiter), converting this to columns is only 2 or 3 clicks. None of this functionality exists in the iPad version. Microsoft OneNote on the iPad doesn't have Outlook integration (the ability to pull in meeting details), and while Microsoft have recently added support for audio recording to OneNote, it's modal – meaning I can't take notes while I am recording – which is one of my favourite features of the desktop version, because it synchronises your note with the timestamp of the audio recording, meaning you can quickly seek to important parts of a meeting when you're trying to remember what was going on. Again, back to my laptop.

I don't want to pick on Microsoft, they make some of the highest quality iPad software out there, and I know all too well that quality, time to market and the number of features are all opposing interests, and Microsoft has made the decision to go for quality over features. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact it's the best decision they could have made in my view, but it doesn't change the fact that the iPad just can't do these seemingly simple things a laptop can. Adobe and Apple both have examples too. I was sent a wireframe that had been hand-drawn and had been scanned and emailed directly from a networked printer/scanner. I wanted to annotate the resulting PDF. On the Mac I would use Preview, on Windows I'd use Adobe's Reader application. Preview on iOS doesn't support annotation, so I used the Adobe Reader app for iOS. It did support annotation, but due to the way the image had been scanned in, it was upside down. Surprisingly, there was no way to rotate the PDF. Back to my laptop, again. Yes with a little help from Google, I'm sure I could find an app that lets me rotate a PDF, but will it also support all the other things the Adobe app does? The bottom line is, it's not feasible to go on an app hunt every time one of the simplified versions of an app comes up short. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 he made a big deal out of the fact other smartphones only showed you the 'baby web' and the iPhone didn't – we have the same situation on iOS now, we get baby applications.

Then there is the inability to have more than one document open at once. I can now have Twitter and Pages open at the same time, but not two Pages documents. Even just a way to quickly switch between documents would be nice. At the moment I have to close the first document, find the other one (navigate a long list of files and folders), load it (and wait while it loads), and then repeat the process when I want to return to the original document. Writing one document when referring to another is not an uncommon computing task, and yes there are workarounds like exporting one of them as a PDF and opening it in a separate application, but this isn't very clean, and what if I want to edit both documents?

I don't want to take way from the iPad what is is great at; web browsing, writing this blog post, simple spreadsheets, reading books, playing games, managing email, task lists – the list goes on. While I'm sure the iPad Pro is a beautiful device, and if money was no object Id buy one today, I don't think having a bigger screen is going to turn it into a laptop replacement. I would love to be able to work solely on an iPad, but until the software improves, I can't see this happening, no matter how big the screen is.

 

Making the Apple Watch more ‘glancable’

One of the biggest annoyances I find with the Apple Watch is that despite being billed as a 'smart watch', it's often not very smart at all. Take for example complications (widgets that go on the watch-face). Currently you have to manually choose what goes where, like so:

The weather is set to show at the bottom

 

This one shows that I have just over 2 minutes remaining on that timer (very useful when cooking, or when you've paid for park for a fixed amount of time):

I could also configure it to show the remaining battery percentage, my favourite stock price, sunset time or various other tidbits of information. So what's the problem? The problem is i need to configure it every time. It's not just a case of setting a timer, and the watch automatically replacing the weather with the timer, I have to manually edit the settings each time (unless I save a different watch-face with each combination, in which case finding the right one would take just as long).

Instead I should be able to say 'show me one of these things, depending on what's happening'. So if I've set a timer, show that. If it's going to rain, show the weather. If my battery is low, show the percentage. This would be a really cool addition in my view, and as far as I know it's not been announced for watchOS 2.

 

Apple Watch Battery Saving Tips

If you have the smaller version of the Apple Watch, then you may find the battery just about gets you through the day. Over the past 6 weeks of using it I've been experimenting with the various settings to find the best way to save battery life.

Note: Like with battery saving tips for phones, these tips will reduce functionality, so they're not meant for daily use. Apple Watch has a built in power save mode, but with that switched on the watch is less useful than a £10 Casio watch (at least you don't have to press a button to see the screen on one of those!). These tips are meant for those long days or weekends where you want to keep the watch going for as long as possible, while maintaining the fitness tracking and ability to receive notifications (these things are not possible in Power Save mode).

Turn off Wrist Raise

On the watch itself, under Settings > General you can turn off Wrist Raise. This makes the watch a lot less useful because you will have to press a button to see the screen, but if you are out and about on a weekend and don't particularly care about the time, but want to make sure your fitness progress still gets tracked, it's a great way to save significant battery life.

Use the X-Large watch face

If you can do without seeing the weather or other useful widgets on your watch face, the X-Large's use of lots of black and no widgets means it uses far less battery juice, in my experience at least.

Use Power Saving Mode for workouts

In the Apple Watch app on your phone, choose the settings for the 'Workout' app, and select power saving mode. This stops the watch from continuously reading your pulse during workouts – very useful if you're doing long runs or walks, as the heart rate monitor sucks battery life. It will mean however, that your calorie burn stats wont be as accurate.

Turn on Airplane Mode

This one is only slightly better than Power Save mode. You'll still be able to track your activity, receive stand notifications or notifications for appointments already synced to your watch – obviously you wont get any alerts that come from your phone (such as messages). If you're away camping for the weekend, maybe that's OK?

Stay near your phone

I've noticed the battery life is a lot worse when I spend a lot of time away from my desk at work, but leave my phone at my desk. This makes sense – when the phone is within Bluetooth range, the watch will use this connection for things like alerts. When you move away from your phone, it instead has to connect to Wi-Fi directly. Wi-Fi is much less power efficient than Bluetooth.

 

 

Apple Watch – First Thoughts

I know that it seems everyone wants to blog about their experience with an Apple Watch, so why would I need to too? Well, I’m not a professional journalist (as if you can’t tell) – just an everyday person with an interest in technology, so perhaps I’ll offer a different perspective.

So after 3 weeks, what does a ‘normal’ technology enthusiast think? Well… I went for the 38mm black ‘Sport’ Model as I figured fitness would be my main usage scenario.

Wearing a watch

I’ve always loved watches. Not for the bling factor – for me something being expensive doesn’t equate to it being stylish or useful. Ever since my Granddad introduced me to a Casio watch at the age of 8 I’ve loved a good gadget watch, and so the Apple Watch was right up my street. I actually have a Casio which I wear at weekends. It’s a radio controlled analogue/digital hybrid. I don’t wear it to work during the week since I’m usually at a computer all day long, it doesn’t really add much utility. So wearing a watch isn’t a habit I’ve had to get back in to.

 

With the classic buckle strap

Needing the phone

So a major factor in anyone’s purchasing decision is going to be ‘do you own an iPhone 5 or newer’ – if you don’t you can’t make much use out of an Apple Watch. My two and a half year old iPhone 5 still does the job (and until Apple increase the base storage from 16GB, I won’t be upgrading), so I was fine.

The iPhone is needed for a number of things – most apps require the phone to either be in Bluetooth range or the watch to be on the same WiFi network as the phone. This is fine for me as my office has WiFi throughout the building, so I can easily leave my phone in a draw and walk anywhere in the office (even outside) and receive notifications – pretty cool. Some apps don’t even need your phone, they only need a WiFi connection. Messages is one of those apps – I left my phone in my car at the gym, but was able to send and receive iMessages from the watch no problem. Siri also works like this. Maps didn’t work, although it was able to determine my location (from the WiFi base station, I assume), just not show me the map.

Overall the ‘need’ to be tethered to an iPhone is overstated in my opinion, though one thing to note is that the watch will only connect to a WiFi network your phone has previously connected to. So you can’t just head to a coffeeshop with only your watch and expect to get online.

Apps

Most of the built in apps seem well thought through, though with some annoying limitations. I can reply to text messages, but not emails. Both the BBC News and Guardian apps only show me a paragraph before requesting I take my phone out. I’m sure people can make that choice for themselves, so why not show the whole article?

Battery

If you use it like a watch, the battery will easily last you all day. If you use the Workout app or play with apps a lot, you’re going to struggle to get through the day. My Casio is solar powered, so I’m used to feeling the warm rays beat down on my watch and thinking about all that goodness it’s doing charging the battery, however that’s sadly not the case with the Apple Watch. If anything the heat will kill the battery’s longevity. I do hope Apple add solar charging in future iterations.

Workout

It seems to be pretty accurate (once trained by running outside with your phone’s GPS). I tested it on a treadmill and it was a few percentage points out. I have a tendency to rest on the side of the treadmill for 10 seconds while I switch tracks, it knows I’ve stopped running unlike a treadmill. The ability to leave you phone at home when you go for a run is great, you can play music from the watch via Bluetooth headphones. Unfortunately changing a track while running is not easy (it made me pine for my iPod classic). You have to exit the ‘Workout app’ by pressing home, tap the Clock icon and then swipe up to get to glaces, then swipe across to the ‘Now Playing’ glance. You could also open the music app from the home screen, but it’s way too complex and an odd oversight from Apple.

The daily activity goals are good, however the recommendations are a bit basic. For example I had a daily active calorie burn goal of 400 – On 5 out of 7 days in a week I exceeded it, however it took my average calories over the entire week and suggested a new daily goal of 220 (I had a very lazy weekend). It seemed more logical that it would know that a lot of people will have different behavioural patterns on weekends and suggested something a bit more realistic.

Run

 

Style/Cost

I went for the cheapest option, the black Sport model (I went 38mm not for price but because I have skinny wrists). I looks pretty nice, even with the leather buckle. I probably wouldn’t wear it to a  formal occasion such as a wedding, but for business, or social it’s absolutely fine.

Calendar

Notifications

The best thing about notification is I never have to check my phone any more, since I know I will have gotten a tap on the wrist if anything of note has happened. I had to make sure all but the most critical apps were turned off however, I don’t really want to be interrupted because someone followed me on Twitter.

Text Input

The only way to input text is via voice-dictation. This is fine if your a technology journalist who works from home, or an exec who has their own office – but for the average person who works amount other people (this applies to social occasions too), it’s not polite to start dictating messages to your girlfriend in front of other people. I value my privacy, and so unless I’m alone I generally don’t enter text into the watch. What this device really needs is a way to enter text, Microsoft have the right idea, and I’m disappointed Apple haven’t even included this in watchOS version 2. (I guess it did take the iPhone OS 3 iterations to get copy and paste).

 

The Watch

One of the coolest things about the watch is the customisable watch faces. You can add widgets that show the weather, sunset time, battery life, next appointment and more. In this sense, the watch really has utility that makes it worth wearing. I can look down on my wrist and see my next appointment or the current weather conditions.

Watch Face

This is the one I use when I’m not at work – it shows me sunset time (how much time I have left to go out for a walk or run before it gets dark), the battery level,  the day of the week and my activity for the day.

Watch Face

When I’m at work I like to use this face, which gives me the timezone of our other office, in addition to putting the date front and centre.

Overall, I’m impressed and don’t regret the purchase. Plus, future versions of the device can only get better .👍🏻

Can an iPad replace a laptop, seriously?

Ever since I was convinced to buy an iPad 4 years ago, I’ve been a massive fan and predicted they would eventually replace laptops for most consumers. Just as not everyone needs a truck, not everyone needs a laptop right?

It turns out however, that iPad sales are falling. This is more likely a combination of people having much larger phones, iPads being reliable and not needing replacing, lack of innovation (today’s fifth generation iPad does the same as a second generation, only faster), and the fact that the vast majority of consumers don’t need anything more powerful than a phone. It saddens me that despite the Internet being a place where anyone can publish anything at very low cost (or for free in many cases), most people use it to consume TV and post frivolous Facebook updates that don’t require much more than a mobile phone – but that’s another topic altogether.

At the other end of the scale you have business and professional users, who tend to use laptops because they offer much more power. Processing power isn’t as far off as you might think, the power difference is now in the software. Take for example a simple task I needed to achieve last week – downloading an MP3 from a web site (legit I might add! It was to accompany a course I was taking) and add it to my iTunes Match Library so it would be available on all of my devices. This is easy to do on a Mac or Windows laptop, but impossible on an iPad. That’s ridiculous.

The other software issue that holds back these devices is the transient nature of applications. At any time your application might get terminated due to lack of memory. This rarely results in any loss of work, as developers usually code with this in min (until iOS 4, this happened overtime you left an app). Not many developers both to restore the state of an application (as they are suppose to), and even when they do having to wait for it to load again is painful.

So the answer is no, an iPad can’t replace a laptop at the moment. I would like to see Apple push forward with this vision. Why not have a simplified version of Xcode for the iPad? It could be a great way to introduce people to programming (and could feature the Playground function introduced last year). The built in applications should be updated to support ‘Open In’ so I can open that MP3 file in the Music app, for example.

For many users, nothing will beat a dual screen setup with a mouse and keyboard – but I can’t help thinking that 90% of my non-work computing needs could be done on an iPad if the software were better.

Update: 31/5/2015

I’ve been using an external keyboard with my iPad a lot recently, so hardware wise it’s more on par with a laptop. Here’s what I miss most from a full blown Windows/Mac laptop:

  • The a ability to have more than one document open within a single app. Some apps such as Mail support having mutipe drafts open at once, but all the apps I use most frequently such as Microsft Word, Pages and Excel can only open one document at a time. It takes about 30 seconds to close a document and to load another, which just slows me down.
  • Lack of keyboard shortcuts – such as being able to press ‘Enter’ to send a message, or CTRL + Enter to send an email. Also being able to switch between documents / apps using the keyboard would help too.
  • Applications getting unloaded from memory. Or rather lazy developers not bothering to reload the state of an app when it gets reloaded. Again, like with the document switching – it gets in the way when you return to a presentation and find the app has gone back to the open screen.