Apple Laughs at Your Usability Concerns

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I've been perturbed and entertained by the ongoing anti-headphone-jack debate raging in the tech news lately. A quick summary:

If that weren't enough, I have a couple more points for you.

For one (and Andrew mentioned this as well), headphones using Lightning have access to much more than just two channels of audio; they can draw digital data and power too. It's not hard to imagine headphones with integrated sound cards and/or amplifiers drawing power from the phone, nor is it hard to imagine features like surround sound or noise cancellation (without the headset needing its own batteries).

Now, remember that Apple owns Beats as well. Imagine, if you will, Apple announcing that the headphone jack is going away, followed immediately by the introduction of a new range of headphones with new, innovative features competitors can't match without also using the Lightning port. Depending on the features, this may make stereo, analog headphones seem old and outdated to the average user - and this would work to Apple's benefit, perhaps enough so that they'd toss out the analog port to get adoption rates up.

The second point is that Apple has a storied history of making changes that are user-hostile, often for reasons rooted solely in aesthetics. Take the buttonless iPod shuffle, which forced users to control their iPods with voice commands just because it made the iPod itself look pretty. Or to a lesser extent the 6th generation iPod Nano, which at least had a touch screen. Or the latest MacBook, with one port on it because two would make too much sense, and an inferior keyboard caused by saving an extra millimeter or two of thickness that no sane person would have noticed. (But hey, it still has an analog headphone port!)

Taken in that context, the fact that there's actual technical justification for ditching the headphone port aside from "it looks prettier this way" makes me wonder why Apple hasn't tried it already. This is totally something they would do, and they actually have legitimate reasons this time to do so.

And to be clear: I'm no fan of this idea. For all the reasons Nilay mentioned, but also because I like being able to charge my phone and listen to audio at the same time.1 I'm also worried that Apple may give Beats de facto exclusive rights to that port (perhaps by making the process too difficult for third parties to adopt it), which is also something Apple would do. That would be a very sad moment indeed for people who appreciate audio quality - few of whom appreciate Beats.

If there's any glimmer of hope, it's that Apple does thankfully also have a history of walking back some of its more controversial omissions - both of the iPods mentioned above were eventually reverted to their previous forms with physical buttons, for instance. With any luck, they'll eventually settle on the scheme that makes the most sense for both Apple and their users.

  1. You can actually do that today with Lightning - but it involves a Lightning to 30-pin adapter, a 30-pin to USB/analog audio converter, poor quality audio output, and no way to change the volume. That's no way to live.

Snobbery

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I'm not a fan of snobbery.

People will swear that something is "the best" of a category - like pizza, or TV shows, or programming languages. For you personally, that's great, but once you insist that your choice should be everybody's choice, you ignore two fundamental truths: that people have different value systems than you do, and the things that make up those values - taste, disposable income, spare time, nostalgia, etc. - do not stay the same over time. This is what snobbery looks like.1

The most recent Accidental Tech Podcast episode is a spectacular case in point; their arguments about fast food and pizza were an excellent showcase of rejecting other people's tastes and values. Casey seemed to have the right idea, but the overall message from the other two was "Stop eating this garbage you lunatic." I'm sure they said that more for laughs than to try and make Casey confess to crimes against cuisine, but I don't like the implication that ridiculing someone's choices is totally OK.

As with ATP, let's take pizza as an example. The best pizzas I can have right now are my homemade pan pizzas, or pizza from a New York style place nearby - but those are time consuming and/or expensive. However, if I'm short on time or cash, I will often get Little Caesar's hot-and-ready, or a frozen Jack's pizza if I have it in the freezer. When I'm craving pizza, and I don't have time on my hands, those are the best choices possible - and if you want to mock me because they don't have award-winning flavor, then you can bite me, because they are the best decisions I could have made; I damn well know it, and you should too.

Like I said, I'm sure Marco and John were having those arguments all in good fun, but I don't accept that it's OK that someone's choice is wrong because you wouldn't make it yourself. You're basically telling someone that they screwed up, which is bad enough. On top of that, you're probably not even correct, because their situation is not your situation.

Did you hear that PHP is a terrible language? Marco writes most of his stuff in PHP, so he must be totally, totally wrong, and he should never write another line of PHP ever again, right? Yeah, no. It turns out that Marco has solid reasons to stick with it, and in his world it makes a lot of sense to use it for many things. All you would accomplish by saying this is being a jerk.

The best response is to investigate and inform - ask them why they made that ridiculous choice, and offer alternatives. Explain why you wouldn't make that choice, but in a way that doesn't reject their beliefs. Nobody's insulted, and maybe one of you will learn something new about your choices. That is, unless you're debating politics - in which case, you're screwed.

New Star Trek TV Series in 2017

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After far too long, we're going to see a new Star Trek TV series in January 2017. If Reddit is anything to go by 1, the general reaction to this is excitement blended with skepticism, and a dash of offense at having to pay $6/mo to view it through CBS's streaming service. How dare they make you pay for yet another thing?

The way I see it, however, using it to relaunch a streaming service actually gives me hope.

The typical TV show has one mission: to get as many viewers as possible, for as long as possible. This means that as a network, you generally try to keep the show's appeal as broad as possible, and the shows in primetime reflect that. They make choices to bring in new viewers at the expense of the core audience, because the core audience is still going to watch it anyway. They have to like it, but anything more means little to the network.

Star Trek has an entirely different mission, however: it has to effectively sell the entire streaming service. That makes the barrier to entry much higher - you won't get random people dropping by to check it out, and too many who do will decide that it's not worth $72/year. This means that it's not enough to just like the show - you have to love it.

That works against something with broad appeal, in favor of something that really appeals to the core audience. That's practically Star Trek's reason for being - few other shows have such an enormous appeal to those who watch it.

If you need to get more people to buy your streaming service, you need the kind of show that is beloved. That's likely why Amazon paid $250 million to get Jeremy Clarkson and his team when he punched out of Top Gear. I would bet Yahoo bought Community for the same reason, and I would also bet that's why Star Trek is going to this streaming platform.

So why does that give me hope? Because CBS is more incentivized to make it a show that some people love, rather than a show that everybody kind of likes. To do that, they'll be forced to rekindle at least some of the magic of the old Star Trek series. I, for one, will hold out just a little hope that CBS realizes this.

  1. It usually isn't.

Cheap & Cheerful: The Moto X on Republic Wireless

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If money were no object, I'd still have my iPhone that I had for the past few years. I think. A month ago I gave that up, and found myself needing a smartphone and a cheap phone bill. After weighing my options, I went with a Moto X on Republic Wireless.

The reason I went with that is pretty simple: my phone bill is around $15/month. Achieving this requires keeping your data usage around 500MB or so per month, but that's easy enough if you're careful. Verizon charges $50/month for their cheapest 1GB plan, so your phone bill is 70% cheaper on Republic. Over two years, you'll have an extra $840 to spend. Hard to pass that up!

The biggest catch is that Republic Wireless devices can only receive affordable data over Sprint's data network. However, they can call and text over not just other CDMA networks (Verizon mainly), but over WiFi too. Anywhere in the world that you have WiFi, you can receive calls as if you're at home. If you don't rely on data a lot, you may find the WiFi call feature is worth more to you.

Another catch? You can only choose from two phones that have Republic's custom cellular logic, required to make WiFi calling work. Fortunately the phones are two of the better phones out there: the Moto E and the Moto X. The E at $130 is much better than it has any right to be at that price, but I sprung for a 32GB Moto X for $400 all-in. 1

It's worth noting, by the way, that you can go with Ting if you're set on an iPhone. You'll pay about twice as much for the cell service as you do for Republic, but you can get almost any phone, and you'll still save money over a major carrier.

So what is the Moto X like? Design wise, I prefer it to the iPhone. The ergonomic shape with the thin aluminum frame around the edges make it somewhat easier to hold, and the optional leather back is grippy enough that I won't easily drop it. The phone size is in between that of the iPhone 6 and the 6 Plus, which turns out to be ideal for my hands. With no hardware buttons to take up top/bottom space, the screen gets to be almost as large as that of the 6 Plus without being too awkward to hold.

That screen - with the same 1080p resolution as the 6 Plus - is an AMOLED display. Anandtech was disappointed with the color accuracy, but I don't notice that in most situations. What I do notice is the inherent lack of backlighting. Using this phone in the dark is a revelation - it's easier to read and you can dim it to crazy levels with the help of a screen filter app. If you're driving at night, you can keep the screen on without ruining your nightvision. I'm reluctant to ever go back to an iPhone on this basis alone; I love having an OLED screen.

The phone also has a nifty feature called Active Display, enabled with IR sensors around the display. Wave your hand over it, and it lights up with recent notification icons & the time. Tap them to get more details, or drag down to unlock your phone. I find myself using that feature all the time.

Android has come a long way since I last used it in 2011. The OS is very responsive in most places, a change from the constant stuttering of only a few years ago. It's also much more stable; I've had more reboots on my iPhone 6 Plus than on my Moto X.

The quality gap between the best Android apps and the best iOS apps is much narrower than I expected. They used to feel like they were barely adequate for the job and were designed as an afterthought. Now they have the quality I would expect from most iOS apps. I can find better iOS versions of most Android apps - but usually only a single app, and the difference is not that pronounced in most cases. An example would be Android's Press versus iOS's Reeder. Press is worse than Reeder, but only in that the design is a little less refined - and I do mean a little; Press is still a nicely designed app. Functionally, both work equally well.

The nature of Android also allows for features that iOS doesn't permit:

  • All my photos are automatically (over WiFi) uploaded to Amazon Cloud Drive. To sync photos on iOS the application must be manually opened.

  • I hate the icons on some apps, so I simply set their icons to new ones from a popular icon pack called Rondo.

  • One of my home screens features widgets providing detailed weather information from Forecast.io and speed dial buttons; a simple swipe takes me there and I don't have to wait for anything to load like with iOS's notification center.

  • When it gets dark, I use the Darker app to apply a filter to cut down on blue light - similar to the wonderful f.lux app on the desktop.

It's not all fun and games. Without badge notifications, it's too easy to remove all trace of a notification you received. On iOS, though, there's no meaningful persistence of notification banners & alerts at all - that badge is all you can depend on. I would call that a draw. Another annoyance is that playback of podcasts, at least from Pocket Casts, is very glitchy over Bluetooth. In addition, iOS allows extensions for Safari and content blocking; Chrome for Android has none of these. It's strange to see iOS have more extensibility than Android in that area.

Nor is the hardware perfect. Battery life is always Apple's trump card; the Moto X's battery is barely adequate - like most Android phones, depressingly. The camera is also not very good; I don't use it much but this is not the phone for an Instagram addict. No Touch ID should be very irritating, but Android's Trusted Devices & Trusted Locations features allow you to get around that. If you're at home or own a nearby Motorola Keylink, your phone will unlock itself, thus removing the need for it in most cases. Also, I'm no fan of Micro USB after being spoiled by Lightning. However, the included Micro USB cable tells you which way is up by feel, so the frustration is reduced.

I really don't know how I feel about this versus an iPhone. When I add everything together, I get very similar results. The higher-quality apps and hardware on the iPhone are counter-balanced by the affordability, more practical design, OLED screen and greater extensibility of the Moto X. If money is no object I think I'd go back to the iPhone, but as it is, the Moto X works wonderfully for me. I wouldn't blame you if you got one either.

However, you may want to hurry. This Moto X is going out the door soon; the next one, already on sale elsewhere, is a 6" device and has a traditional LCD display. Proof that newer is not always better in the Android world.

  1. For the love of God, don't buy a 16GB phone!

My Home Office Setup

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I'm getting settled into a new software development role at an extremely awesome business, working remotely from my apartment near Green Bay, Wisconsin. This requires a great setup for my home office1. My setup process is pretty much complete, and I thought I'd show it off to the world.

My Setup - Overall

You may notice that the cables are a little bit messy in this photo. There's two reasons for that. The first is that this setup is for two computers - my custom-built PC to the left of the desk, and the 15" Retina MacBook Pro underneath the first display. The second is that the cables for power and the PC need to have sufficient slack for when the desk elevates.

Oh, did I mention that my desk is a motorized, adjustable-height desk? Well, it is! It's IKEA's new Bekant sit/stand desk with electric motors in the table legs. Here's the desk elevated:

My Setup - Elevated

Some of the things here that I'm really glad to have:

  • LED Lighting Strip: Stick it to the back of your desk like I have, and it makes you feel like you're living in the future.

  • Das Keyboard 4: Once you've typed on a mechanical keyboard, you'll never go back (until you get RSI that is). The newest iteration of the Das Keyboard has an awesome volume knob and handy media keys. Literally on top of that, I've replaced the included keys with custom UV-printed keys from WASD Keyboards, which look really cool and feel great to press.

  • Philips Fidelio X2 Headphones: Undeniably expensive at $299, but they're so so good. They have a heavier, warmer sound than the average high-quality headphone, which I prefer for the rock & metal that I typically play. The build quality & comfort are both superb - exactly what >$200 headphones should be, but even among those it's not exactly common to see this kind of quality.

  • Logitech Performance MX Mouse: I've never met an Apple-made mouse that didn't drive me mad. Logitech have been building the best high-end mice for the past several years now; this and the Anywhere MX were superb mice. Logitech has replaced both of these with inferior models, and I hope mine don't die anytime soon.

  • Twelve South HiRise Deluxe Dock: When you switch phones because you realized that you can save $70/mo on another carrier, you'll be glad that you spent a little extra a dock that fits any phone and connects with either Lightning or Micro USB.

  • IOGEAR USB 3.0 Switcher: I've got a total of six USB devices that would be very irritating to reconnect from my laptop to my PC whenever I switch machines. This switcher solves that nicely, and comes with a cool wired remote so you can try and hide it behind a monitor. (I didn't succeed; my USB cables were too short!)

  • Ollie the Twitterrific Bird: Ollie is awesome!

The aforementioned MacBook Pro is my new work laptop. After work I usually flip over to this PC box that I built a couple years ago:

My Setup - PC

My Setup - Guts

The components aren't all that fancy. I do have two video cards, but they're about 3-4 years old now and I don't intend to upgrade them anytime soon. Thankfully, few video games stress them. Likewise, the Core i5 Haswell CPU and 12GB of RAM are not mind-blowing hardware components. For my uses - moderate gaming and running Visual Studio - this is usually overkill as it is. 2

Finally, the best part of any office: the refreshments bar.

My Setup - Fridge

On top of the fridge is a Sweethome-recommended electric tea kettle, and several kinds of tea. I'm fairly new to tea-drinking so don't go calling me a tea snob yet! Inside the fridge is pop & iced tea for when I can't get away from the computer long enough to prep a hot drink. Also, there's some Two Hearted Ale in there to enjoy after work is done.

Most people work in a cubicle, on a single screen connected to a discount HP desktop, with a disposable keyboard and mouse attached. I've raised my standards so high now that I think if I had to go back to that, I would literally cry.

  1. Well, when I say home office, I mean the half of my bedroom available to dedicate to office use. When my lease is up I'll be seriously considering to a two-bedroom apartment so that I have a dedicated office to use. In the meantime, I have a portable divider in my bedroom that works quite well to keep my "office" feeling like it's the office.

  2. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that there's a SATA cable not connected to anything there. Disconnecting the other hard drives is a precaution I take these days whenever I install a new OS on a dual-boot system; I must not have remembered to plug that one back in when I was done. Whoops!