Some People Never Learn

Bet you thought I was going to talk about the Apple Watch.

You’re almost right. Apple didn’t really say anything new yesterday. OK, so now we know when we can buy the watch (preorders start today, actual orders and in-store purchases start in two weeks). We also know how much it’ll cost (anywhere from $350* to well over $10,000, depending on model and features). Everything else was revealed at last September’s “event” or has been discussed ad nauseum since then.

* OK, OK, $349. You can use the extra dollar to feed the parking meter while you stand on line outside the Apple Store on the twenty-fourth.

I’m still less than fully-whelmed. I’m sticking with my Christmas Kidizoom watch–thanks, Erin!–until I see a feature that will benefit me, rather than just Apple’s bottom line. That shouldn’t take more than three or four iterations of the Apple Watch. By which time, I’ll have charged my Kidizoom less than fifty times–have fun tethering yourselves to yet another charger, oh lovers of all things Apple. Yes, I’m getting more than two months per charge. The Apple Watch is expected to get eighteen hours–in a device that’s intended to monitor your health.

What I did find interesting about Apple’s “Spring Ahead” event was how tone-deaf they are. Their customers have been complaining for years about having to delete their own data to make room on their devices for iOS upgrades. So what did Apple do with yesterday’s iOS 8.2 update? They included an Apple Watch app which is installed on every iPhone that takes the upgrade. Wait, it gets better: like other critical Apple-installed apps (Game Center, iBooks, and Clock, for example) the app cannot be uninstalled. Didn’t Apple learn anything from last year’s U2 fiasco? Even better, if you don’t have an Apple Watch, the app will display an advertisement.

Oh, well. At least the Apple Watch app doesn’t get installed on iPads and iPods. Mind you, there’s no reason why it should be on those devices, since the Apple Watch only works with iPhones. But this is Apple, after all. If they can put an non-deletable advertisement on the phones, why shouldn’t they put it on other devices as well. After all, if you’ve got an iPad, you really ought to have an iPhone too, right? And as long as you’re picking up that must-have iPhone 6 Plus, you can pick up a gotta-have-it watch as well…

More tone-deafness: Apple finally realized that the $99 price tag on their Apple TV device wasn’t competing well against the $50 Roku, $39 Amazon Fire TV, and $35 Chromecast. So they drastically reduced the price: effective immediately, you can pick up an Apple TV for only $69. Yes, Apple has always cost more, justifying it with claims of “It just works” and “It’s aesthetically awesome”. Unfortunately, their competition also “just works”, and aesthetics are a personal matter. At this point, Apple TV’s only real distinguishing feature is the ability to be a receiver for AirPlay. Is that really worth a 40% price premium to the average consumer?

Watch This!

Why is it that I only seem to get the urge to do product reviews around Christmas time? Last year it was the USB aquarium. This year, how about a smartwatch? Specifically, the VTech Kidizoom Smartwatch”.

I got one of these for Christmas (by request; I figured that it would be likely to do everything I need a smartwatch for at a price point well below what Apple and the various Google affiliates* are demanding. So far, my expectations have been met.

* In the feudal sense, naturally.

It might just meet your needs too. Apple lists five features of their offering. Let’s see how the Kidizoom stacks up.

  1. Timekeepingksw“Apple Watch is first and foremost an incredibly accurate timepiece.” Man, I’m glad to hear that. I’d hate to think Apple might release a watch that doesn’t keep time. Yes, the Kidizoom also keeps time. Apple doesn’t offer any specs on exactly how accurate “incredibly” is, so I can’t offer a direct comparison, but the Kidizoom is still accurate to within a minute after a week (it doesn’t display seconds). Apple’s watch also allows you to “Choose a face and customize it” and to set alarms, check the weather, and see sunrise and sunset times. The Kidizoom offers dozens of faces, in both digital and simulated analog formats. I’m currently using a face with a selection of cheerful monsters. Beat that, Apple! The Kidizoom, like the Apple Watch, also features an alarm. It doesn’t do weather or astrophysics, but I don’t regard that as a major failing: there are so many other sources for that information (including looking out the window), that I’m not missing it on my watch, and I doubt you will either.
  2. New Ways To Connect – “With Apple Watch, every exchange is less about reading words on a screen and more about making a genuine connection.” Good for Apple. If I wanted my watch to be filled with words, I’d also want new eyes to be able to ready teeny type. Mind you, I’m not hugely impressed with most of the types of connection Apple offers. Emoji? Recordings of my heartbeat? Writing e-mails and text messages for me? Really? My Kidizoom displays photos, matching Apple’s offering in that respect. And, like the Apple Watch, it has a voice memo feature, but unlike Apple’s weak effort, the Kidizoom comes with five different voice modification presets, including the ever-popular robot voice!
  3. Health & Fitness – “Apple Watch is designed…to keep you moving.” I’d rather my watch didn’t order me around, thanks. The Kidizoom is water-resistant, so I don’t have to stop playtime just because it starts raining, but it doesn’t order me to get up and move around. Nor does it record every calorie I eat and report back to my health insurer.
  4. Design – “There’s an Apple Watch for everyone.” The Apple Watch comes in two different sizes, six different colors, and at least six different bands styles. There are so many variations that even Apple can’t keep track; they’ve had to create three “distinctive collections” to keep it all under control. The Kidizoom comes in one size and six colors. Simple and easy–and don’t forget that you can buy all six Kidizooms for less than one Apple Watch.
  5. Technology – “…we invented all-new ways to select, navigate, and input…” Do you want to learn a whole new interaction model to use your watch? Or would you rather just put it on and, you know, use it? Can you tap and swipe the screen? Can you push a button? If so, you can use the Kidizoom.

Not bad, huh? I’ll admit that the Kidizoom lacks a few features Apple offers. It doesn’t connect to my phone to let me make calls by talking into my wrist. It doesn’t monitor my calendar to nag me about meetings; I still use my phone for that. And it nag me to read my e-mail, so I can’t throw away my computer. But it does have one killer feature Apple forgot to put into their so-called smartwatch: a camera. Yep, I can take pictures–still and video–without pulling out my phone. And even add photobooth-style overlays. Slick.

Ball’s in your court, Apple.

Bottom line: I love my Kidizoom smartwatch, and there’s a good chance you will too.

New Toys

So now we know. Yesterday Google announced that the next version of Android will be the deliciously un-crossmarketed “Lollipop”. It’ll roll out around the beginning of next month along with several new devices (more on those in a moment).

Last year, I suggested that this would be an unsponsored release and implied that I thought Lollipop was the most likely name, ahead of the ever-popular Lemon Meringue Pie. So a point for me. We’ll see if the next release is indeed co-branded with Mounds candy.

On to those devices.

We’ve got the expected new phone. Or phablet. The Nexus 6 ups the stakes in the size battle. At 5.96 inches, it makes Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus look tiny. Forget about putting it in your pocket. Consider yourself lucky if it fits in your backpack.

We’ve got the expected new tablet. A nine inch (OK, 8.9 inches if you’re going to insist on precision) model, it’s clearly intended to compete with the iPad Air: slightly lighter, front-facing speakers, multiple colors, etc., etc.

Apparently, Google considers the seven inch form factor to be obsolete. Don’t want a nine or ten incher? Great, get a phablet. All models of the Nexus 7 are showing as out of stock in the Play store, and there are no indications that they’ll be back. That’s a shame. The larger models are, I’ll admit, better for video–I use my iPad for most of my video needs–but seven inches is, IMNSHO, the perfect size for ebooks and web browsing. Six inches is just a little too small to get enough letters on the screen at once to keep up with my reading speed.

So, no upgrade for me this year. I’ll wait until next year, when the size war brings the new phones to seven inches.

Google’s final device announcement yesterday is the Nexus Player, because the world really needed another streaming media player. From what I’ve seen, it’s basically an Android-powered tablet without a screen: install any standard Android app (primarily games, presumably, though of course it’ll come with the usual selection of Google apps, including the media players) and display them on your TV. Oh, and it’s got Chromecast functionality, so you don’t have to find a vacant HDMI port on the TV. Unplug your Chromecast, plug in your Nexus Player, and you’re ready to roll. Joy.


That was yesterday. Today, Apple held another product launch meeting. We’ve got iOS 8.1. We’ve got Yosemite, the new version of OS X. (Sorry, Apple, I still miss the big cats. Much more engaging than chunks of geography.) They work together via iCloud. Which is, of course, perfectly safe. (They also work together via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, which are also perfectly safe.)

Mind you, we already knew this stuff. There’s nothing about the OSes that wasn’t announced at WWDC or the iPhone 6 / Apple Watch launch. The only news is that Yosemite is available today, and iOS 8.1 will be out on Monday.

On to the good stuff (new toys, in other words).

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Apple’s got new iPads coming. Brace yourself for the iPad Air 2, even thinner than last year’s antiquated iPad Air. Because the most important thing about a tablet is how thin it is. I mean, yeah, it’s faster and has a better camera, it’s got TouchID–but no NFC, so you can’t use Apple Pay in stores. Not that anyone cares about that. The important thing is that it’s thinner! (There’s an unanswered question here: how much does it weigh? Remember, the Nexus 9 will come in at 418 grams, 50 grams lighter than last year’s iPad Air. Weight is at least as important as thickness for long periods of use.)

There’s an iPad Mini 3. It comes in three colors. That’s about all Apple is saying about it.

Moving on.

How about an iMac with Retina Display–yes, that’s the official name. A twenty-seven inch screen at 5120×2880: seven times as many pixels as your HD TV. All the usual spec boosts over previous models. Only $2499–which isn’t that bad a deal if you compare the cost of a 4K TV, or 4K PC monitor. Fans of the late, lamented oviod iMacs will be disappointed to hear that there are still no plans to bring back the rainbow colors.

New Mac Mini. Faster, cheaper.

Is it just me, or are the mini versions of Apple’s products not getting much love this year? I guess they’re just not very exciting compared to the tininess of the Apple Watch. And the lightness of the iPad Air 2.

An Apple a Day

Here we are at Apple Announcement Day again. Ready for my usual cynical take on the latest hype out of Cupertino? Too bad, you’re getting it anyway.

Apple had three and a half things to announce. Let’s take them in order. For the record, all quotes are from Apple’s “Event” as reported by Ars Technica. If there are any misquotes, please blame Ars, not me. I’ll take responsibility for my misinterpretations, though.

As everyone expected, we’ve got two new iPhones, the 6 and the 6 Plus. They’re bigger than any previous iPhone and have have higher resolution screens than any previous iPhone. Will someone please wake me up when the size wars are over?

Apps written specifically for the new phones can use the extra screen space to display more information, while apps written for the iPhone 5 (and presumably older phones as well) will automatically scale up and just look larger. I’m not sure how well that’s actually going to work out. The aspect ratios on the new phones are slightly different, and neither one is the same as the iPhone 5, let alone earlier devices. Given Apple’s horror of visual sloppiness, I suspect they’ll work around it by turning off a few pixels at the edge of the display.

The new phones will support landscape orientation. With the capability there, users are going to demand that apps use it. That means developers who support the new phones’ screens will have to code for four new resolutions, not two. Lucky them! More new icons, more new screen layouts, more QA engineers trying to figure out how to do more testing in less time. And, of course, more new customer complaints. Fun!

Hey, here’s a new feature that actually is innovative, as far as I can tell. Apple designed the new phones with an eye towards one-handed operation (and I’ll skip the obvious jokes here). One of the key aspects is “Reachability”: double-tap the TouchID button and the screen will scroll down to bring the top half into reach. Nice idea, but I wonder how easy it will be to double-tap the button with the same hand you’re holding the phone with.

Nor do I envy Apple’s QA team, who have to explore the interaction of Reachability with landscape orientation. One hopes that when the phone is rotated, the screen slides horizontally, not vertically… For the sake of the poor third-party developers and QA, I really, really, hope that the OS handles this functionality transparently. If it needs to be coded and tested in every app, there are going to be a lot of missed shipping dates.

There are, of course, tweaks to the camera. Most of them sound incremental, but I do like the sound of the optical stabilization on the 6 Plus: the lens will actually move to counter your hand jiggle. Should make for a whole new level of sharpness in drunken selfies.

The new phones will be up for pre-order this Friday at prices ranging from $199 for a 16GB 6 to $499 for a fully-loaded 128GB 6 Plus. After the obligatory crash of Apple’s servers, expect scam sales to show up on eBay Saturday. Actual shipments will start the following Friday.

Oh, and iOS 8 will start going out to customers a week from tomorrow. Developers and QA folks who want to see how your apps behave under the GM build*, keep waiting. It’s not available yet. Have fun with your last-minute checkouts.

* For those of you who are not steeped in the technological tea, “GM” has nothing to do with the auto maker. It stands for “Golden Master,” and it’s the final beta release, which is supposed to be identical to what actually goes to customers. Sort of the software equivalent of showing the final draft of an e-mail to a friend before you send it to your boss. Apple hopes the developers examining the GM build will find the show-stopper bugs, just like you hope your friend will find the typo that changes your purchase request into a grievous insult.

Moving on.

Announcement Number Two is “Apple Pay”. Apple reminds us that credit cards are insecure and inconvenient. Instead, use your new iPhone 6 to store all of your credit cards and bank accounts, and pay by tapping the phone against a kiosk.

That’s gotta be more secure, right? Especially because Apple has been “working with retailers like Target” to enable Apple Pay for online purchases too!

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the security of your information is only as good as (a) the security of your phone (we all know that there are never any security vulnerabilities in Apple’s software, right) and (b) the retailers and credit card processors (nobody could possibly crack the security on Target’s servers. Or Home Depot’s. Or Visa’s.)

Seriously, all this does is remove one point of vulnerability (the card reader) in exchange for adding a new one (the phone and its secure storage) while increasing the attractiveness of the credit card processors as targets for hacking.

Moving on again.

Then we have Apple’s most-eagerly awaited announcement. The iWatch. Oh, wait. It’s the “Apple Watch”. Kudos to Tim Cook and the gang for not forcing another “capital letter in the middle of the name” name on our long-suffering spell-checkers.

Regardless of the name, it’s coming in early 2015 at prices “starting at $349”–we’ll find out what the upper range is later. Don’t expect it to be cheap: one version of the Apple Watch has an 18K gold case, “designed to be twice as hard as standard gold”. Apparently Apple’s signed some kind of deal with Mother Nature to produce unusually hard gold. Nice!

While your figuring out how to finance your watch, don’t forget to budget for a new phone. Unless you’ve got an iPhone 5 or newer, you’ll need to pick up an iPhone, because the Apple Watch isn’t a standalone. It needs the phone to do anything, apparently. Fortunately, when the 6 and 6 Plus go on sale, the price of a 5s will drop to $99, and for the real cheapskates among us, the 5c will drop to $0–with the usual two-year contract, of course.

Even if you’re a cheapskate and get the entry-level Apple Watch and a free 5c, expect to experience “new intimate ways to communicate with your wrist”. I don’t know about you, but I don’t let my wrist speak on my behalf.

There also a “new way for you to connect intimately with others.” Tap your watches together to share information. Lovely. So much more intimate than talking…

It’s got a new paradigm for interaction: you twist the crown! Never mind that people have been interacting with their watches by twisting the crown for at least 150 years. It’s no longer about setting the time. Now the crown is for scrolling and zooming! Oh, and clicking to return to the home screen. A revolution in UI! There’s a lot of twisting involved, it seems. No word from Apple on how (or even if) the Apple Watch accommodates lefties, or anyone who prefers to wear their watch on their right arm.

Of course, the Apple Watch has a variety of sensors built in to monitor your health. Apple wants to keep you healthy so you can continue to buy their merchandise. The watch will monitor your activity, estimate calories burned, track how often you stand up, and suggest “personal, realistic, achievable [exercise] goals”. Oh, and share the information it gathers with the Health app on your phone so that your health-care provider can stay informed about your progress.

I’d be the first to admit that I could stand to lose some weight, but I don’t want my watch nagging me to get more exercise. I’m a lazy slug, yes, but if my watch starts interrupting my thought processes to remind me to stand up and walk around the office, it’s the watch that’s going to get sprinkled with salt.

Apple also took pains to talk about third-party apps that are already in development for the Apple Watch. First on their list: Starwood Hotels. Their app will let your watch work as your room key. Um. Yay? What’s the range of this thing, anyway? I’d prefer that my door not get unlocked every time I walk to the bathroom.

Oh, and don’t forget that Apple Pay works with your Apple Watch. Twirl that crown to select your credit card, and tap the watch against the payment kiosk to pay for your groceries. Careful! Don’t get too close to the kiosk while you’re bagging. Wouldn’t want to pay for the next guy’s groceries too!

Hey, can I tap my watch against yours on the subway to share credit card information?

Moving along, one last time.

The half announcement was, of course, music-related. Because “music is in Apple’s DNA.” U2’s new album, “Sounds of Innocence”, is an iTunes exclusive from now until mid-October. And it’s free. Or it will be whenever they put it up. Despite the statement that it will be “available throughout the day” I’m not seeing it yet. No worries, it sounds like it’ll be free at least until the Apple exclusive expires. Whether it’s worth the price is another question, but I’ll leave that to fans of the band.