Sunday, December 10th, 2017

Introduction

The next-gen evolution of the iPhone was bound to cause some excitement. Apple is marketing this device as representing a glimpse into the future of the line. I couldn’t wait to find out what that means for one of the most important products of the decade.

It turns out that the future is expensive – this is by far the priciest phone Apple has ever offered. Starting at $999 for the nearly useless 64GB model, the X brings back fond memories of everyone freaking out over the $499 price tag on the original iPhone ten years ago.

The X’s $300 premium over the also-brand-new iPhone 8 (or a $370 premium if you get AppleCare) gives even the most enthusiastic technology fan pause. When you’ve finished adding everything to your cart, the actually-usable 256GB model with AppleCare comes out to just short of $1500.

That is a significant amount of money. In evaluating my own purchase, I find myself asking not only “Is this worth so much cash?” but also “Is this worth the premium over the also-flagship 8 or 8+?”. During the last three weeks as I’ve lived with this phone, questions about price vs. value have inevitably informed all of my thoughts around the X.

Design

As glass rounded rectangles go, there’s not really much to say about the iPhone X. There’s a lot of screen and not much else and it’s nice. But Apple has been marketing the phone with the phrase “It’s all screen.” and that’s simply not true.

Even giving them a pass on the notch, the bezels around the screen take up a lot more space than one might expect from the marketing hype. Surprisingly, this means that the phone actually looks a lot better when the screen is powered down.

When off, the X is an imposing glass monolith. When on, it looks oddly (and, thanks to the notch, unevenly) framed.

Visually, I think Samsung’s S8’s “infinity screen” is a nicer looking iteration of the “solid glass rectangle” form (although it’s obvious that Samsung made a lot of other design compromises on their latest flagship). Samsung’s standard chin-and-forehead design doesn’t allow for an edge-to-edge screen, but it gives the phone a pleasing symmetry that the X is lacking.

But looks aren’t everything. As we all know, design is how it works, and this is where the X really starts to fall down. The all-screen design does not avoid stacking up some unfortunate losses of functionality.

The most obvious compromise is the notch. I am not a notch-hater: I came to grips with it while it was still just a flat icon in Guilherme Rambo’s twitter feed. And while the notch doesn’t bother me from an aesthetic point of view, I can’t help but be wistful about the status bar of old. I miss my battery percentage indicator and the bevy of icons telling me the various options I’ve switched on.

The missing home button is a more egregious misstep. I’ll talk about the new gestures a little later, but the edge-to-edge design also means that the remaining hardware buttons have gotten a bit more overloaded. You now have to use different combinations of multi-presses or long-presses on the buttons to do various things.

I still don’t know how to power down the phone or take a screenshot (I just try different combinations until it does what I want). And even though I don’t actually know the gesture, I still manage to take a few accidental screenshots each day. I am not alone. And because of how awkward it is to hold the phone while double-pressing the button, I can no longer reliably activate ApplePay one-handed.

The lack of a home button also means that the X is reliant on the old raise-to-wake and new tap-to-wake features to actually make the screen turn on (although that’s also another function of the side button if you want a real button). When these features are working as-intended, it’s great. My phone is basically on whenever I want it to be.

But that also means that my phone turns on if I just glance at it wrong. The screen is constantly lighting up during my daily life. And since the edge-to-edge screen lacks non-screen handholds, that makes for a lot of inadvertent presses. I’ve sent gibberish text messages, lost my place in podcasts, and closed Safari tabs — all without realizing it.

By now, I’ve mostly adapted to these unintended-input issues by learning to treat the phone a bit like I might treat a poisonous snake. But I am not convinced that a $1500 device should require that sort of behavioral modification.

The other side of the phone is also not without its challenges. The glass back is stunning (at least, as long as it’s not covered in fingerprint grease) and really makes the phone feel substantial and luxurious. And though it provides a nice tackiness for human hands, it is extremely slippery when set down on anything else.

I’m accustomed to tossing my phone into the passenger seat for my commute; but the X slides violently around on my cloth seats during even mild cornering. I also can no longer put this phone on the little shelf next to my bathroom sink: I guess the sink is slightly tilted so the X crashes down to the counter almost immediately. Neither of these were issues with the metal back on my 6S+ and I again find myself needing to adapt my behaviors for this phone (the phone now lives in the center console in the car and I have to prop it up in a drawer while I’m brushing my teeth).

The glass back also makes the phone feel incredibly fragile. While I was usually able to use my old 6S+ one-handed (albeit with some hand-shimmying), I just can’t do it with the narrower X. The smaller body should make it easier to hold; but in reality, it’s too delicate to devote anything but both hands and my full attention to.

Between the slipping+sliding and the 100% increase in shatterable surfaces, I am strongly considering putting a case on this beautiful phone — something I’ve not done with any of my past phones (although I did have a bumper on my 4S to keep from holding it wrong).

Apple made a lot of compromises in order to create a great-looking phone. But those compromises mean that I’ll probably just stick it in an ugly case (there’s a few on my Christmas list). So what’s the point?

Finally: while writing this section, I hit the “I can’t charge my phone and listen to headphones at the same time” problem for the first time. Two years later, ditching the headphone jack is still just a terrible choice. (I am dismayed to see this trend has mostly taken over the Android flagship designs as well. Is there no safe harbor for a headphone lover?)

While Apple’s design culture has always seemed to have had internal struggles with form vs function, the recent trend has had form winning the day. It’s not that these devices don’t work: it’s that you can see obvious ways that they could work better with only small sacrifices to their appearance. I think this is trend is a mistake and look forward to the eventual overcorrection with uglier phones that work amazingly. Also: make the phone thicker.

Screen

This screen is amazing. Full stop.

I don’t actually have much experience with other OLED screens (the only one I’ve really been able to study is in my Apple Watch; spoiler alert: the Watch’s screen is not as good) so I don’t know how it compares to the competition. But this is easily the best screen in my life and when experts say it’s the best screen on the market, I can believe it.

Because it’s an OLED screen, it’s able to actually show black (instead of the “lit-up gray” of an LCD). And while it might be a novelty that will eventually wear off, I find showing true black on this screen to be simply stunning. I changed my wallpaper to a dynamic image that’s mostly black. I’m using the “samurai night” theme in PCalc. Whenever an app updates to add a true-black theme, I switch to it immediately.

Mostly-black interfaces make the X feel like it’s a real piece of the future — to the extent that weeks later, I still identify this phone with the LCARS UI system from Star Trek. I just love it.

Knowing that Apple plans its hardware roadmap years ahead of time, it’s a little strange that the big iOS 7 redesign was so light and pastel. That design language has continued into the current iOS 11 and it’s simply wasting the screen of this phone. I’ve got my fingers crossed for a darker redesign in iOS 12.

Apps with “dark modes” designed for LCD screens are also wasting this display. So many use a color that’s almost but not quite RGB #000000 which works fine with the low-contrast levels of the older technology but is simply disappointing on this new flagship. On an iPhone 8, nothing is ever going to actually be black. So dark gray works with the backlight to present an acceptable compromise.

But on this OLED screen, true black pixels produce no light. By using a dark gray, the app is turning those pixels on and producing light where there really shouldn’t be any. It makes dark modes muddy and bright instead of crisp and, well, dark. It’s kind of a shame.

Because I don’t have the best color perception in the world, I am mostly unable to comment on colors other than #000000. I think photos and graphics look great, but you shouldn’t take my word for it.

The rounded corners look cool and futuristic but they ultimately subtract a lot of usable pixels from images of non-rounded rectangles. I think they’re a mistake (at least on the bottom) and hope to see actual corners phase back in a few years after Apple’s hand enough of this new design.

At the top of the screen, the notch creates a mostly-rectangular “safe area” so the rounded corners on the ears don’t matter as much. Should Apple ever solve the notch problem, though, these rounded corners are also going to be a shame.

The screen size is also not ideal. Moving from a 6S+ to an X, I was hoping that the additional screen height (even accounting for the safe areas) would help make up for the overall smaller screen.

It hasn’t really worked out. Apps like Kindle haven’t been updated at all, leaving me with the exact screen area of an iPhone 8 screen (as opposed to the 8+). There there are apps like iBooks which have been updated but leave such large margins at the top and bottom of the screen that they may as well not bothered.

It turns out that comic book aspect ratios (for both the entire page and also the average frames) tend to be limited by their width and not their height so the extra height is mostly wasted here as well. So far, the best content app I’ve found is Safari Queue which just fills the screen with text from top to bottom and allows clipping along the corners and notch.

I think a Plus-sized screen of this caliber would be amazing; but Apple will undoubtedly charge at least $2000 for that model. (I think a Plus-sized rectangle screen would even better but I just don’t foresee Apple doing that.)

Gestures

When Apple removed the home button, they replaced it with gestures. And I no longer feel like I am in full control of my phone.

Just on the lock screen:

  • Swipe up from the bottom to go home
  • Swipe up from the bottom and pause to do nothing
  • Swipe up from the middle to see old notifications
  • Swipe left from the middle to see dashboard widgets
  • Swipe right from the middle to bring up the camera
  • Swipe down from the sensor housing to do nothing
  • Swipe down from the right ear to bring up control center
  • Swipe left or right along the bottom to do nothing
  • Swipe down on the bottom to do nothing

And if you have notifications or the now-playing widget on your lock screen, you have to be sure to dodge the buttons and sliders for those while swiping your thumb around.

Since all of these gestures are combined with the screen-is-always-turning-on features of raise-to-wake, I basically find that my phone is constantly just doing things (usually losing my place in a podcast).

I also routinely use the wrong gesture to do things. I want to bring up control center and end up unlocking the phone. I want to bring up the camera and end up replying to a text.

When you’re not on the lock screen, some gestures do different things (especially the gestures that start from the middle of the screen since you would be interacting with whichever app you’re in). There’s a lot to memorize here and a lot of contexts to learn.

Some apps use a feature called “edge protect” which means that it can take a few swipes to leave the app and go home. This is most common in full-screen landscape apps like games or video players.

But I like portrait mode so I almost always keep the rotation lock turned on. Sometimes I like to play a game of Chameleon Run, a game which locks the screen in landscape mode and turns on edge protection. While playing, I may get distracted, lock my phone, and go do something else.

Later, I’ll wake my phone to do something else and it will be on the portrait lock screen. I swipe up from the bottom to unlock it. But now suddenly in landscape mode and the bottom edge of the screen is now the logical left edge of the screen. Swiping “up” won’t help at all. I’ll either need to swipe from the right (the logical bottom) or rotate my phone and then swipe from the now-bottom edge.

But even that won’t actually work. That simply enables the edge gesture. I have to swipe again in order to actually leave that game and go on about my business. Sometimes, I’ll forget that I was playing this type of game and I just start swiping around on autopilot to get home. It doesn’t work so I rotate the screen and it still doesn’t work.

I eventually feel like the only real way to get home is to swipe a few times on every edge. That’s obviously not true but once the frustration sets in, it might as well be.

Three weeks on, I long for a button to take the pressure off. In a few years, I think even Apple will admit that this evolution presents important usability issues and I expect them to place 4 hardware buttons along the bottom of the screen. It will be amazing.

Until then, I’ll probably just feel inept whenever I need to use my phone. And that’s not a great feeling for a $1500 device.

Face ID and the TrueDepth Camera

I have a Surface Pro (5th Gen) with Windows Hello. And it’s quite good. I almost never have to type in a password for my Surface; and once you get used to technology recognizing you, you kind of start to expect it everywhere.

Face ID is even better than Windows Hello. I don’t know if it’s Microsoft’s implementation of the technology or just an indictment of Windows 10, but Hello takes a few seconds to unlock my Surface when I wake it from Sleep.

Face ID is practically instant. Most of the time, I don’t even notice that it’s unlocked. The early reviews of the X noted that Face ID offers the same experience of just not having a passcode – and I found that I absolutely agree. The vast majority of the time (once I remember the gesture, anyway), I just swipe up and my phone is unlocked. I don’t have to think about it.

Face ID doesn’t always work for me; but TouchID didn’t either. They fail in different scenarios (TouchID was worthless after just washing my hands; Face ID fails when my head is smushed into a pillow) but I feel like the failure rate is mostly comparable. Determining which set of failure scenarios is right for you is a matter of personal taste and usage habits. For me, Face ID is a clear winner (although I can’t help but think that a home button would have allowed them to keep both – a win for everyone).

I’ve also enjoyed the TrueDepth camera that makes Face ID possible.

I’ve had a lot of fun with apps like Focos or even the new scenes in Apple’s own Clips. These apps are mostly about fun effects and are supposed to make things extreme and silly. The built-in portrait lighting effects, in contrast, are designed for “real” pictures, but they still feel a bit too artificial me to take seriously.

Animoji makes for a great tech demo, but I haven’t used it much other than doing some karaoke in the first days of having the phone.

I’m really excited to see where it goes both as the technology gets better and third parties iterate on app ideas. Personally, I’m hoping to eventually have a mobile recording studio with instant chromakey-like effects driven by the depth map. Clips actually does that in an interesting way but you’re stuck with their pre-chosen backgrounds and AR aspirations. I’d like a bit more freedom.

Conclusion

The iPhone X is an interesting device. Apple says that they think it represents the future of the iPhone (and since they know their own future hardware plans, I don’t doubt it). As an enthusiast, I had to have one to see just where they’re going.

But as an enthusiast, I also find it a little disappointing. It’s a clear step-back from the other enthusiast-level iPhone (the 8+) in many ways. The innovations like the TrueDepth camera are cool but also mostly a novelty right now. Others like the kinda-edge-to-edge screen feel more like a solution in search of a problem.

The quality of the screen is the best reason for the non-enthusiast to get this phone: if you want your pictures and other images to look as good as they possibly can, this is the one to get. But the iPhone 8 also has a nice screen (especially with the addition of True Tone this year) for a lot less money. It’s hard to imagine the non-enthusiast really wanting to step up to that pricing tier.

And if you think you might be in the market for the 8+, then the X is really no competitor at all. The taller screen on the X just can’t beat the wider screen on the 8+ in real-world information density.

Given the price and the compromises, I can’t really recommend the X. And I sort of wish I hadn’t waited until I fell out of Apple’s 14-day return window to reach that conclusion. It’s an expensive lesson about the limits of the reality distortion field.

Sunday, April 23rd, 2017

I needed some Clemson wallpapers for my new Apple Watch. So I made some.

I’m not sure happy with how the orange looks on the OLED display, but I’m not enough of a designer to fix it. These are for the 42mm Watch (312px x 390px) since that’s what I have.

And here’s how it looks:

Saturday, September 10th, 2016

I finally received my big-box-of-things-to-plug-into-the-CHIP. So I started plugging things into my CHIP.

So far, I’ve figured out how to control LEDs and wrote a small Ruby gem to do so from Ruby.

The end result?

Red and Green Blinking LEDs

It’s not much, but I have some more interesting plans for where to go next. Stay tuned!

Links:

I bought a CHIP computer! It’s a little ARM-based Linux computer in the style of the well-known Raspberry Pi.

And I didn’t just buy it. I bought it ages ago. It was a Kickstarter that I backed in June 2015. It arrived a year later in June 2016. And then I didn’t touch it until late August 2016 when I realized that I wouldn’t have to find a monitor to plug into it: I could just connect over serial using a USB cable. I didn’t even know screen could *do* that but it was in CHIP’s documentation and everything.

So I was able to get my CHIP onto the WiFi and start SSHing into it. And now the hijinks ensue!

I haven’t actually done much with it, but I’ve started poking around. With the help of trailblazers before me, I figured out how to blink the status LED in patterns of my choosing. I figured out how to interrogate the power controller and get all sorts of fun information back.

And I’ve started reading up on what might be next. I have some plans to figure out how to control external LEDs and even analog meters. Anything interesting I learn will be posted to github and the CHIP forum (ask for “willia4”).

At the moment, I’m in sort of a limbo: I’m placing an order for all sorts of components and more exciting things like a multimeter and a soldering iron. While I wait for that to arrive, I’m continuing to read and learn and poke. And to watch my status light blink, just to let me know that it’s there.

chip_blink_smallest

Sunday, September 13th, 2015

One Hundred Years of Solitude
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the amazing things about a great piece of art is that everyone who sees it experiences something meaningfully different.

My experience of this book is wrapped up in my own dreams and fears: fears of aging and forgetting and losing what little competence I possess mixed in with dreams of mattering to the world and leaving a memory after I’m gone. I can say that this book is the most powerful expression of that which I’ve ever found. The promised one hundred years pass emphatically in a way that I’ve never seen represented on page or screen before. Time feels weighty and its effects are heavy.

Much could be said of the themes of cyclical history or pride or family. But, for me, all of those pale in comparison to the theme of everyone’s personal yet relentless march to become nothing more than dust. And it’s brilliant, if in a sad and lonely way.

I am certain that this work will travel with me for the rest of my days. This is one to put back on the shelf to take down in a decade’s time and see what I take from it when I bring so many year’s worth of spent life to it. At thirty-two, I wonder if I read it too young.

On a more practical note, One Hundred Years of Solitude was an extremely slow start for me. To emphasize the repetition of stories through the years, Márquez gives his characters repetitive names: José, Arcadio, Aureliano, Amaranta — he provides clues to help distinguish one character from another; but, for me, the combination of most of those names starting with “A” while also being foreign to my monolingual brain meant that all of the characters sort of blurred together.

I struggled for a long time trying to keep everyone organized in my head. Eventually, though, I gave up and simply read without worrying too much about who was who. I don’t know if there’s a “right” way to read a book, but I feel that this is at least an acceptable way to read this book: by allowing the characters to blur in my head, it reinforces the idea that history repeats over and over and that all of them are heading towards the same end just by different means.

If you’re struggling in a similar fashion: relax. Let the words wash over you and just see what experience you can find in these pages. It will be worth it.