Scammy: A Public Service Reminder

The malware scam has a long and ignoble history. We’ve talked about them before, most notably in the context of confusing the scammers. Back then (2014), we were seeing the rise of the robo-scammer. Surprisingly, it seems that was a short-lived phenomenon.

For the record, I keep an eye on what scams are making the rounds both out of personal curiosity and as part of my day job. A rare occurrence, being paid to do something I’d do anyway (that doesn’t involve writing).

Anyway, in the absence of data, I speculate that people hate talking to a computer so much that not enough people pressed 1 to allow the auto-dialer to connect them to a human being. It seems logical, anyway: the reason these scams are so successful is that the caller has a well-written and well-practiced script to panic the recipient into forking over their money and opening up their computer. No one is going to trust a robotic voice that says “Your computer is under attack.”

Heck, most people are going to assume that the robotic voice is the one that’s doing the attacking.

So we’re back to more traditional methods of scamming. But there are still new wrinkles.

Remember those popups that claim you need to install a special codec to see the video you’ve clicked on? They’re still around, but they’ve been joined by a new come-on. With the long-awaited and well-publicized demise of Flash, now we’re seeing popups telling would-be viewers that they need to reinstall the Flash player that has been removed from their browser.

I would have thought people would stop to ask themselves why Flash was removed in the first place, but apparently there’s a sufficiency of people who aren’t that self-inquisitive. Sufficient enough to keep the scammers happy, anyway.

Of course email spam is still a potent venue for scammers. The “I’ve hacked your webcam and will send your family pictures of you masturbating” letters seem to be on the decline. And good riddance. The current popular approach is a subscription renewal. “Hey, this is [large corporate entity]. Your subscription to our service is about to expire. Your card will be charged [outrageously large fee] tomorrow.” This scam works well because the fee is so high. “Five hundred bucks for a magazine/website/streaming service?” If the victim is actually a subscriber, they call to correct what they figure must have been a typo; if they don’t have the service, they call to prevent the large charge. Of course, if they aren’t a subscriber, the scammer is set with a script to apologize for the incorrect message, pitch the service in glowing terms at a much more reasonable price, and get a credit card number that can then be wildly abused.

Oddly, while the scammers go to great lengths to make the emails look like they’re coming from the real company, incorporating stolen graphics and boilerplate legal text lifted from actual emails, they often don’t make the slightest effort to forge the “From” on the email. Though the evidence suggests that they don’t need to make the attempt. People seem to be quite willing to assume that “john.smith@yahoo.com” is fully authorized to speak for Netflix, Fox News, or Xfinity. Or, more likely, nobody even looks at the sender’s address. Those big numbers apparently attached to their credit cards exert a magnetic attraction on the eyes.

The big winner from a scammer’s perspective, however, is still the phone call. Yes, Sam and Nancy and their ilk are still in business. Apparently, however, enough people have figured out that Microsoft and Apple aren’t monitoring their customers’ computers and phones that claiming to be “Sam from Apple” doesn’t work well enough.

Today, the caller is much more likely put a gloss of plausibility on their claim. “Hi, this is Jolene from Norton Security Services.” LifeLock is popular with the scammers, since so many people have subscriptions to LifeLock, either directly or through their association with Norton. Other name-brand security companies’ names are being abused as well: McAfee (many computers come with a trial version of McAfee antivirus installed, so people are used to seeing or hearing the name) and ADT–“Hey, I got my burglar alarm from them, I guess they’re protecting my Internet too”–are at the top of the list.

So let’s be careful out there. Remember, when someone says they’re watching out for you online, they’re telling the exact truth. They’re watching out for you and your wallet.

WWDC 2021

I gotta say I’m underwhelmed by what I’m hearing from Apple. Unlike previous WWDCs, this year’s seems to be totally focused on software. Which, yes, needs to be updated and improved. But it sounds like what we’re going to be seeing from Apple is a bunch of minor evolutions with no revolutions in sight.

iOS 15 is bringing us such goodies as using audio positioning to make it sound like people’s voices are coming from where they’re shown on the screen in FaceTime and automatic filtering of ambient noise. Links to FaceTime calls that can be emailed or added to calendars are handy, but hardly the sort of thing to make someone run out to buy an iPhone. Some of the tweaks to Notifications sound handy–scheduling certain kinds of notifications so you’re not bothered with them when you’re focused on something else, for example. But again, would that be enough to encourage you to buy an iPhone if you were on the fence? I’ll admit “live text” sound sweet. Being able to select text in a picture, even one that’s part of a web page, so it could be copied, pasted, and even clicked if it’s a link is a really helpful tweak. But again, not the stuff of which dreams are made.

Then there are the enhancements to the Apple Wallet app. Sorry, but I have no interest at all in putting my work badge, hotel keys, or driver’s license on my phone. Privacy implications aside–and there are plenty of those–the practical issues are disturbing. Getting locked out of my room because my phone ran out of juice on the conference floor is bad enough. But fumbling with my phone if I get pulled over for speeding? Sounds like a good way to get shot–and I’m not even Black.

Then there’s iPadOS. It’s getting widget support like what iPhones got in iOS 14. Hurray? Oh, wait, they can be bigger and show more information, since the iPad screen is larger. The UI improvements to multitasking are nice, I suppose, but for the most part they’re adding new ways to do the same things. Granted, keyboard support is useful–necessary, even, with the way Apple is pushing keyboards for iPads–but again, not revolutionary.

Speaking as a former software tester, I’m dubious about the ability to build apps on an iPad. Agreed, a nice learning tool. But the ability to submit apps directly from the iPad to the App Store? Apple better exercise some editorial control, or we’re going to be buried under a flood of redundant MyFirstApp apps.

There is one area where I’m totally in favor of Apple’s moves in iPadOS 15, and that’s with the privacy enhancements. Blocking your IP address and location from websites is a plus. One that should have happened years ago, IMNSHO, but it’s here now, and I hope Google follows suit. Private Relay sounds like it’s stealing a trick from the anonymous Tor browser. Slick. Good for Apple.

Moving on to watchOS. Pardon me. Let’s skip that. I find Apple’s continuing fascination with the Breathe app and its progeny disturbing enough that I tuned out that whole section of the presentation.

As for the ability to let you unlock the door to your house by tapping your phone or watch… Uh, let’s just say I’m sure it’s more secure than any of the standalone Bluetooth locks out there. But that doesn’t mean its secure. Too much room for error here–I’ve double-tapped icons accidentally, turning something on and then immediately back off, way too many times to want to literally make them the keys to my castle.

And, of course, Apple is introducing a new version of MacOS. What comes after Catalina and Big Sur? Monterey, of course. All the whiz-bang feature updates from iOS and iPadOS seem to be making their way to the desktop as well. No surprise there. A few other little tweaks. You’ve been able to use your iPad as a second monitor for your Mac for a while. Now you’ll be able to move your cursor from one to another and drag and drop files seamlessly. Really making the iPad (or a second Mac!) work like a second monitor. That’s cool. And if you’re already in the Apple ecosystem, I can see it being a way to persuade you to expand your hardware portfolio.

I’m going to skip the developer-oriented updates. Most of you won’t care, and those of you who will have probably already seen all of them. I could snark a bit about them, but really, some targets are too easy. (App Store, I’m looking at you.)

Bottom line, the new OSes–coming to public beta next month for a Fall release–will make existing Apple users’ lives easier in small ways, but by themselves, they’re not going to sell hardware. And there’s no word from Apple when they’ll be announcing new hardware.

Google I/O 2021

Sorry about the late post. I’ve been trying to get a handle on all of the critical news coming out of yesterday’s Google I/O keynote. Unlike years past, nobody’s done a live-blog of the presentation–not unreasonable, considering that it’s online for anyone to watch, but annoying for those of us who don’t want to be limited to realtime speed. (I don’t know about you, but I read a lot faster than I watch, and I don’t have much patience for videos that are, in effect, advertising.)

Anyway.

Google wants to be helpful. Well, Google wants to make lots of money, but if they can do it by being helpful, why not? So they’re introducing features like Google Maps routings that are optimized for fuel efficiency or weather-and-traffic safety. Seems like a useful initiative. I don’t have any more qualms about it than I do over any use Google makes of the information they’re gathering about us.

Google Workspace–the business-oriented set of tools that includes Docs, GMail, Meet, and so on–is getting something called “Smart Canvas”. It’s supposed to allow for better collaboration. For example, having a Meet video conference while collaboratively editing a Sheet document. Again, useful, at least for that subset of the world that needs it. And not hugely more intrusive than any of the individual tools alone.

Here’s one that really looks good: Google is adding an automatic password change feature to Chrome. This builds on the existing feature that alerts you if your password has been exposed in a data breach. Now it’ll have an option to take you to the site and walk through the password change process for you. I do wonder if you’ll be able to use it to change your Google password periodically; that’s something you should do anyway, and especially if you’re using the password manager built into Chrome. Speaking of which, that Chrome password manager will soon be able to import passwords from other password managers. Handy if you’re using Chrome everywhere, but those of us who use other browsers occasionally will probably want to stick with a third-party manager.

Some privacy additions here and there. A locked folder for Google Photos is a natural; we should have had that years ago.

Then there are the counter-privacy features. The keynote highlighted updates to Google Lens that will let you take a picture of somebody and find out where their shoes are sold. Because that’s not creepy at all.

What else?

New look and feel in Android 12–which will probably be released in the Fall–and some iOS-catchup features. Showing on-screen indicators when an app is using the camera or microphone is worthwhile, but they’re also introducing one of my least-favorite iOS features: using your phone as your car key. That’s coming first to BMW, which somehow doesn’t surprise me a bit. I suspect Lexus won’t be far behind. But I digress.

One useful update (for a small subset of users) is the ability to use your phone as a TV remote control. Mind you, it’ll only work with devices running Android TV OS. That does include the Chromecast with Google TV and NVidia Shield devices, so there’s a decent pool of users, but it’s unlikely to replace all your current remotes. There’s an opportunity here for somebody to step up and fill the universal remote void that Logitech’s decision to stop making Harmony remotes is leaving.

And that’s pretty much it. No hardware announcements. We’ll probably get those sometime in late summer, when we get close to the Android 12 release.

Not the Whole Reason

So, not the only reason Amazon is conquering the world, but a big part of it is that they make it easy to order.

A couple of counter-examples.

I recently placed an order with Retailer A (name concealed because it’s irrelevant). There were four items in my order, three of Item 1 and one Item 2. Here’s what I had to do after I added the items to my cart:

  1. Click the cart.
  2. Click to confirm the items were correct. All items were set to in-store pickup.
  3. Click again to switch Item 2 from in-store pickup to shipping.
  4. One of the Item 1 had changed from In-Store to “How do want to get this item?” It took three clicks to set it back to In-Store. And doing that changed Item 2 from shipping back to in-store, one more click to reset it.
  5. Click to confirm the order.
  6. The confirmation page reloaded with a message informing me that some of the delivery dates had changed. Click yet again to confirm the order with the changed dates.
  7. Click to confirm my payment information.
  8. Click again because one of the Item 1 had changed delivery dates back to the original date.
  9. Which, naturally meant I had to reconfirm my payment information.
  10. One final (amazingly!) click to confirm my address for the item being shipped.

Later the same day, I placed an order from Retailer B. Because I’ve shopped with this retailer before, I know I need to buy $35 worth of merchandise to get free shipping. No problem: I need a bunch of the same small item, so I’ll get enough of them to total $35. I go to the product page. There’s no ability to put more than one in the cart, so I add one.

  1. Click the cart.
  2. Change the order quantity to ten.
  3. Realized the price had dropped since I last bought this thing, and ten of them was still a bit under $35.
  4. Tried to change to a dozen. Discovered the system wouldn’t let me order more than ten. This was not documented anywhere.
  5. Returned to the product page and tried to add it to the cart again. Only at that point did I get a pop-up informing me I already had the maximum number of the item per order in my cart.
  6. Gave up, ordered one of something I didn’t need but can use because it was still cheaper to get that with free shipping than to pay for shipping.
  7. One click to confirm my address.
  8. Another click to confirm my payment information.

To be clear, these are not little Mom and Pop outfits; they’re both chains with national footprints and extensive experience in online sales.

Now, let’s contrast the experience with shopping on Amazon.

If there’s an item limit, Amazon tells you so on the product page right below the price.

The delivery date never changes during checkout. If there’s a change–to an earlier or later date–they tell you after the order has been placed and give you an opportunity to change or cancel the order.

Different items can have different shipping options and changing one never affects the others.

So even if you leave the one-click order process out of the discussion, it always goes like this:

  1. Click the cart.
  2. Click to confirm the address.
  3. Click to confirm the payment info.
  4. Click to confirm the shipping info.

Why would anybody shop anywhere but Amazon? In my case, the only reason I used Retailers A and B was because they had merchandise I wanted that Amazon didn’t. If I’d been able to get it from Amazon, I’d probably have given up at Step 5 in both cases. Given the way Amazon aggressively expands, “we have something they don’t” is never more than a temporary advantage.

And, really, who needs the hassle?

Nobody is going to compete with Amazon on price. You need to bring something to the party that Amazon doesn’t.

Something that customers want.

Nobody wants to be annoyed.

Not How It Was Supposed to Work

Cord cutting via online streaming services was supposed to free us from the stupidities of cable and satellite.

You know the ones I mean. Paying for dozens of channels you don’t want in order to get the two or three you actually watch. Losing channels because the channel and the carrier are feuding.

And yet, here we are.

Want to watch Food Network? You either need to have a subscription bundle from a streaming provider such as Sling, YouTube TV, or Philo, or you need to be signed up with a Dish, Comcast, or some local cable system.

Because if you don’t have a streaming bundle that includes the channel, Food Network’s standalone streaming app requires a sign-in via “your TV provider”. And may still be subject to blackouts for some shows.

Ditto for other popular channels.

There are some channels that have their own services. You can get ESPN+ for a mere six bucks a month. Not bad–but wait! That’s not the ESPN TV channels. It’s extra content and on demand access to the talk shows and other not-actually-sports content. Want the familiar channels and the sports from your local listings? You can stream ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, and ESPNEWS and the other channels in the ESPN family if you sign in via your “content provider”. What’s that? Yup, your streaming aggregator, such as Sling, YouTube TV, Fubu, or your satellite or cable provider.

Then there’s that lovely reminder of days not-so-gone-by, the carriage dispute.

Remember those? Your cable provider would threaten to drop a channel because of the cost; the channel would claim the cost was necessary to pay for the content; the cable system would remind everyone that if the popular channels didn’t subsidize the niche content, it wouldn’t be able to carry those small channels; and then they’d raise the cost of the cable subscription or drop the channel. Or both.

Now our streaming world has raised the ante. Instead of threating to drop channels, they threaten to drop whole streaming aggregators.

Seriously. Roku is currently feuding with YouTube TV and threatening to force them off of all Roku streaming boxes. Google is responding by complaining about Roku taking negotiations public.

And the viewers simply roll their eyes, well aware that there are plenty of other ways to get YouTube TV’s content on their televisions. Roku may be the big name in streaming boxen, but there are smaller companies playing in that pool. You might have heard of some of them: Google. Apple. Amazon.

There are only two ways this can go. If Roku gets too aggressive and throws too many services off their hardware–or starts charging a monthly fee on top of the cost of the box–customers are going to migrate to cheaper and/or more flexible systems. Or they can stay the course, keep themselves an open and independent portal, concentrate on convenience and ease of use, and they’ll still be around, still making money, years down the road.

Right now, though, the posturing and threats are a pain in the rear–or, more accurately, a poke in the ear.

Annoying that the brave new world looks and sounds so much like the old one.

Apple Springs Into Action

Kind of an odd place to start, Apple.

Kicking off a round of (primarily) hardware announcements by rolling out changes to the Apple Card is weird. Not that they spent much time on it–but I’m sure we’re all relieved to know that you can now share your Apple Card with your family. How this differs from every other credit card in the world allowing you to get additional cards for family members is unclear. I’m sure Apple will explain eventually, given their dedication to transparency and open access.

Anyway.

We all know the most important news goes up front, right? So apparently the biggest thing coming out of Apple is a new color for the iPhone 12: purple.

I like purple. I might buy a purple phone if I was looking for a new phone (I’m not). But I can’t help but think Apple is indulging in a bit of lede burial.

What else did they spring on us?

After literally years of speculation, Apple has finally released the AirTag. This is, of course, Apple’s version of the Tile and TrackR devices*. As long as you’re using it with a reasonably recent Apple device (maybe a purple iPhone?), you can get actual directional information. That right there puts them miles ahead of TrackR. It’s unclear how large AirTags are, but it’s worth noting that they use a CR2032 battery. Easy to find (sorry) but does impose a certain minimum size not all that much smaller than a quarter.

* Yes, TrackR is still around. Their latest product is the “pixel” (what is it about their refusal to use capital letters?) which they call their “lightest and brightest” tracker. It’s “about the size of a quarter” which isn’t much smaller than the old product I reviewed four years ago. I don’t plan to review them to see if they work any better.

What else? Hey, a new Apple TV. 4K, of course (I can hear all of the enthusiasts/first adopters asking why not 8K. Shush.) More powerful than any previous Apple TV and it comes with a new remote that doesn’t include the damn trackpad–actually it seems to be a callback to the much-loved iPod Classic with its five-way click wheel. That right there seems like sufficient reason to buy the new model if you’re looking for a streaming box.

Then, of course, there are the new Macs.

Remember the original iMac? The one that came in all of those cool colors? Check out the new iMac. Twenty-four inch screen with a more-than-4K resolution. Thinner than many TVs. And, of course, boasting the same M1 chip found in last year’s MacBook and Mini–that’s good and bad. On the plus side, they’ll be fast and not too power-hungry. On the down side, they’re limited to the same 8GB of RAM as the MacBook and Mini–that may be a bit limiting for a machine that’s historically been pitched as a good starting point for people who want to experiment with video.

And, as you may have gathered, a literal rainbow of colors–with matching keyboards and mice. Personally, I’d like to see an ability to mix and match. Purple computer with blue keyboard and red mouse, anyone? Or am I the only one who likes to get away from color coordination from time to time?

Anyhow, Apple also announced a new iPad Pro. With an M1 chip.

Way to blur the lines between computers and tablets, guys.

Though, as a friend of mine pointed out, pairing the new iPad Pro with a keyboard, and you’re getting awfully close to the touchscreen laptop Apple fans have been demanding for years. If you don’t mind being limited to the iPad version of apps. That’s probably a dealbreaker for me; I know the iPad versions of Office and the various Adobe apps are getting better and better, but there are still things you can only do with the computer versions of the programs. Hey, Apple, how about an iPad Pro variant running MacOS?

And that’s about it.

Most of the hardware will be up for preorder at the end of the month, with shipping in late May. Not too long to wait.

Oh, and if you gotta have a purple iPhone, you can pre-order it this Friday and get your hands on it April 30–assuming they made enough to keep up with the demand.

Taking Note

There are a few things that annoy me about SiriusXM–most notably the amount of time spent reminding listeners that there are no commercials and their programmers’ habit of preempting channels for special events (and rearranging the channel lineup with little or no warning).

Even so, as you may have gathered, I like the service. It could improve–less channel segmentation, or at least more channels that cover a range of genres would be nice–but it’s worth the annual subscription.

It’s starting to scare me, though.

Not too long ago, on a cold, gray day when I was more than normally ambivalent about going to work, I got a station break as I backed out of the garage. That ended as just as I shifted into Drive, and I headed up the hill listening to “Mama Told Me Not to Come”. That was followed by “Old Man” and then “Stairway to Heaven”.

At this point, having been informed that I shouldn’t go to work because I was old and going to die, I was seriously considering turning around and going back to bed. Unfortunately, at that point I was halfway across the bridge, where turnaround points are non-existent–and besides, I’d already paid the bridge toll.

So I made the decision to go on, only to be reminded that “People Are Strange”. I could only agree. And change to the 40s channel. Which had, of course, been preempted in favor of “Holiday Traditions”.

I managed to switch to an 80s alternative channel before succumbing to the urge to rip the radio out of the dashboard, but it was a close call.

Despite the warning and the obstacles SiriusXM put in my path, I did make it to work, survived the day, and made it home in one piece, but the next time the radio gives me a warning like that, I think I’ll take its advice. Far easier on the nervous system.

Actually, I should clarify one thing.

My car radio is an older model–I got it at Circuit City, back when there was a Circuit City. So, no touchscreen, no bluetooth, no voice or steering wheel controls. What it does have is a simple segmented LCD panel just wide enough to show eleven characters in all-caps.

So my warning was actually “MAMA TOLD M”, “OLD MAN”, and “STAIRWAY TO”.

Generally not a problem, but it does mean I occasionally get a bit of cognitive dissonance. Did you know The Kinks had a 1966 single called “SUNNY AFTER”? After what? The lyrics don’t give much of a clue.

Then there’s that immortal Stones’ classic “LETS SPEND “. I hadn’t thought the song was quite that explicit about what Mick and Keith were planning.

The real prize, however, was learning that “JEFFERSON A” had a top-ten hit in “WHITE RABBI”. I didn’t know Grace Slick was Jewish…

Despite its limitations, I have no plans to replace the radio with something newer and more capable.

Something else I won’t be getting: Apple’s new AirPods Max* headphones.

* Yes, that is the official name for them. The hazards of applying a single name across a product line. “AirPods”–plural–makes sense for a set of those things you stick in your ears, but rather less so for a single device that covers both ears.

Even if Apple is correct in calling them the greatest auditory experience since “musician” meant “that guy who bangs two sticks together” (I’m paraphrasing their advertising, if you hadn’t guessed.), we can’t lose sight of the fact that, like the rest of the AirPods line, they’re Apple-only.

There’s also–and I can’t believe I’m writing this–the price tag: $550!

That’s more than half the cost of a new M1-based MacBook Air or an iPhone 12.

Reminds me of those legendary restaurants that are so expensive they only need one party of four to pay their rent for the month.

Granted, Apple has always had a reputation for expensive gear, but even by their standards, this is excessive.

If you have to have Apple-made headphones to go with your Apple-made electronics, stick with Beats. Unless you’re in the hundredth of a percent of the population with absolutely perfect hearing you only listen in an acoustically-sealed room, you’re not going to hear the difference.

Apple Hardware Redux

And here we are again, talking about Apple’s latest hardware releases. Another symptom of a weird year. I mean, isn’t this about the sixteenth time?

Anyway, this announcement is for the first Macs running Apple’s own CPU–with the distinctive moniker “M1”–instead of one made by Intel.

The major feature of the new CPU, at least from Apple’s perspective, is that it combines all of the silicon into one convenient package. It’s not just a CPU, in other words. It’s also the security manager, the memory, the input/output controller, the machine-learning “Neural Engine”, and sixty ‘leven other things.

That allows for smaller motherboards, lowers the cost of production, and may simplify repairs.

On the down side, it also eliminates certain upgrades. Specifically, increasing the RAM isn’t going to be possible. Apple is confident that, rather than upgrading their machines when they get older, the majority of their customers just replace them. Which is probably a safe bet, given the cost of Apple-compatible memory.

There are three new machines: a MacBook Air, a MacBook Pro, and–the biggest surprise of the day–a Mac Mini. Interestingly, while the MacBooks will be selling at the same price point as the Intel-based models they’re replacing, the Mini will be $100 cheaper. Since I’m on record as considering the previous generation of Minis to be significantly overpriced, this is definitely an improvement.

Worthy of note: the Air and the Pro are nearly identical. The only differences, as far as anyone can tell until we get our hands on the machines, is that the Pro has a cooling fan–which may allow it to run faster for longer stretches than the fanless Air*–and at least some models will have faster graphics processing.

* Now there’s an irony for you: a mobile computer named “Air” that doesn’t move air around.

Accompanying the new machines is, of course, a new Mac operating system. Big Sur will be out tomorrow for all Macs (at least all made in the last five years or so).

It’s got the usual laundry list of new features: new look and feel, new privacy features, and so on, ad infinitum. The biggie, at least if you buy Apple’s thinking, is that it can run iPhone and iPad apps.

Was anybody really asking for that?

Granted, Google’s done a nice job in allowing Android apps to run on Chromebooks; they’ve shown the idea can be done well. But Apple’s history in cross-platform app support isn’t encouraging. Let’s be blunt here: the iPad came out in 2010. And yet, the best it can do when running an iPhone-only app is to show it at double its normal size with little support for rotation. And Apple hasn’t done much to encourage developers to add iPad-functionality.

To be fair, Google has done a lousy job of convincing developers to support Android table-specific apps either. But the wide variety in Android phone capabilities forces Google’s infrastructure, and thus phone-oriented apps, to be more flexible in terms of resolution and layout than is the case in Apple’s world.

I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot of people experiment with iOS apps on their MacBooks, decide the experience isn’t all that great, and give up. Developers will then say “Hey, nobody’s using apps on their computers; why should we waste time and effort on making it better?”

Bottom line: The new Macs sound good, but even with Apple’s experience in custom-designed silicon–the M1 is, after all, a variation of what’s been running iPhones and iPads for years–there are going to be teething problems.

Similarly, even if you ignore Big Sur’s need to support those new devices alongside the existing Intel devices, it’s still a major revision to the Mac OS (major enough that Apple is declaring it version 11 after seventeen years of version 10). Remember how rough the transition to Catalina was last year, when the biggest change was the move to eliminate 32-bit apps?

My advice is to wait until at least 11.0.2 to upgrade–Apple is already working on 11.0.1; odds are they won’t start building in fixes for real-world problems in the new Macs until 11.0.2 at the earliest.

And unless you’re comfortable dealing with random computer misbehavior, hold off buying an M1 Mac for at least six months to give Apple time to work out–or work around–the inevitable hardware bugs.

Google and Microsoft Hardware

So I could get all schadenfreudian, but what would be the point? You all know what I’d say, he isn’t going to care, and besides, there’s no telling what new nonsense he’ll perpetrate between Tuesday night (when I’m writing this) and Wednesday morning (when I post it).

Instead, let’s talk hardware. After all, I gave Apple some airtime. It’s only fair that I do the same for Google and Microsoft, right? Right.

Google announced new hardware last week. Two phones, the “Pixel 4a with 5G” and the Pixel 5. A new take on the now-venerable Chromecast, the “Google Chromecast with Google TV”. And the “Google Nest Audio”, yet another smart speaker.

The phones are, well, whelming. Certainly not overwhelming, but not especially underwhelming. They’re there, they’re an improvement over the previous generation, but not by a huge amount. They’re arguably overpriced and underperforming–especially the 5–if you compare them with other flagship phones, but the value looks better when aligned against other phones with similar performance.

Frankly, I think a large part of the bad press they’re getting is due to unhappy reviewers who were hoping for another big step forward in camera technology. Which was, IMNSHO, a misplaced hope: Google has made it clear that they’re focused (sorry) on improving their phones’ cameras through the software, rather than the hardware.

Bottom line, I don’t think anyone’s going to be selling their current phone just to get a P5 or P4w5G. But if they’re in the market for a new phone anyway, the new Pixels are well worth considering.

The speaker is a smart speaker. Louder and with better sound quality than Google’s previous generation, but overall, it’s a forgettable entry in a forgettable category.

Then there’s the new Chromecast. The highlights here are that you no longer need to use your phone to control the playback and if you set up multiple media sources (Netflix, YouTube TV, and so on), you can see an overview of what’s available across all of them without digging into the individual apps.

That latter is a slick idea, but it’s a convenience, not a gamechanger. And if Google had come out with this device a couple of years ago, it would have been a fabulous advance over the original Chromecast family. But today it has a distinctly “me too” feel: “Hey we’ve got to keep up with the Rokus, Fire TVs, and Apple TVs.”

Moving on.

Microsoft also rolled out new toys last week.

A few accessories–keyboard, mice , wireless number pad, and a gadget to mirror your computer screen wirelessly to a TV or other HDMI-equipped display.

That last could be handy, as long as your computer supports the Miracast standard. If your phone does–and some Android phones do–that could make it very handy for both business and pleasure.

There’s an updated version of the Surface Pro X–Microsoft’s ARM-based laptop. Which has not, I suspect, sold in the kind of numbers Microsoft was hoping for. Not too surprising, since it’s not hugely cheaper than the Intel and AMD laptops it’s competing with.

The interesting device out of Redmond is the new Surface Laptop Go. As the name implies, it’s a smallish device–about halfway between the Surface Go and a cheap Chromebook–with a CPU suited to a standard laptop.

With a price similar to the Surface Go (and to a high-midrange Chromebook), it’s an easy choice if you need a highly portable machine that can also function as your main machine with a USB-C docking station.

Yes, granted, I’m still using my Surface Go as my daily machine. Beside the point. I’m talking about suitability for people who don’t have my patience for a slower computer.

I’ll be very interested to see how the Surface Laptop Go fares once people get their hands on them. If the keyboard is good and the screen doesn’t wobble unpleasantly, Microsoft might just have a winner.

Apple Hardware (sans iPhone)

I’m going to give you my usual recap of Apple’s latest hardware unveiling in a moment, but first, a public service announcement.

Ahem.

I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU’VE HEARD ABOUT TOILET PLUMES. IF YOU USE A PUBLIC BATHROOM, FLUSH THE DAMNED TOILET WHEN YOU’RE DONE!

Okay, on to Apple.

As expected, Apple is coming out with a new Apple Watch. All the features of the previous versions, and now adds blood oxygen level monitoring, an always-on altimeter, new faces, new bands, and one big new feature.

That’s Family Setup, which lets you set up watches for other people who don’t own iPhones. This could be really nice–though I suspect anyone willing to buy their kid a $500 watch isn’t going to balk at getting them a $400 phone to go with it. But I know plenty of older people–who can really use the health-monitoring capabilities of the Apple Watch–who don’t feel the need for an iPhone each. One phone to handle the watches of both members of the couple? Win!

The other big watch announcement is the Apple Watch SE. Like the second-generation iPhone SE, it’s got most of the hardware of the new watches, but at a significantly lower price. In the case of the phone, the SE’s cost savings are the display and camera; for the watch, they’re in the CPU: it’s faster than the Series 3 phones, but not up to the speed of the Series 6. (It looks like the SE is replacing the Series 5 watch; the 3 is still around at an even lower price, but the 5 appears to be gone and the SE will use similar or identical components.)

Moving on to the iPad, we’re getting a new generation with (surprise!) a faster CPU, the dedicated machine learning chip, support for the Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil. Nothing really new here.

Ditto for the new iPad Air. More colors (whoopie!) and a USB-C port instead of Lightning. New CPU–faster–and larger. I thought the selling point of the Air was that it was light and easy to handle. At eleven inches (diagonally), it’s definitely getting into the “rest it on a table or your lap” territory. I do like the idea of a fingerprint sensor in the power button. No more Home button, but still keeps the ability to unlock the device without removing your face mask.

iOS 14 comes out today (Wednesday), along with the iPad, Watch, and Apple TV variants. Nothing new there we didn’t already know about from WWDC and the last couple of months of public betas.

No iPhones, thanks to (according to rumor) problems testing the 5G capabilities. No doubt, those will be coming later this year, along with the new Apple-CPU Macs and a few other little projects in the pipeline.

Usually there’s one product line that looks generally good, and the rest are highly snarkworthy. Certainly this set of announcements is no exception. It’s nice to see the Apple Watch finally getting out of the snark category (“Breathe” app, anybody?) but we’ll have to see how long that lasts.