Pluss/Minus Reports

AirPods

I’ve been using my AirPods for about 3 months now and my overall impression of them is positive. In this review I’ll cover the pros and cons of this revolutionary new product by Apple.

Price

The first thing I’d like to address is the price. Many people think that they are overpriced, however when you consider how much technology goes into these earbuds, you will likely change your mind. First off, the W1 chip is a true leap forward for bluetooth connectivity. Typical pairing procedures for bluetooth devices is terrible – but with the W1 chip on board the AirPods, it makes all of this much easier. After your first connection to your iPhone (or iPad/Mac) the AirPods are linked to your iCloud account, and will automatically show up as an available output on all of your iCloud devices (except the Apple TV). Going forward, you can easily switch between your devices in an instant. This type of setup is simply not possible with any other bluetooth headphones. The next breakthrough in technology comes from the fact that the AirPods must act completely independent of each other while staying perfectly in sync. Typical bluetooth headphones are connected with either a wire or a headband, and while one earpiece acts as the bluetooth receiver, the other earpiece is simply connected via a wire to keep audio in sync – this greatly reduces the amount of technology required. So in order to compare the AirPods on price to other headphones, you must compare apples-to-apples. Once you start looking for truly comparable products, you will realize that AirPods are more than a fair price. In fact, it’s my opinion that Apple wants to drive the cost of these down as quickly as possible, so that one day soon they will be including them with every new iPhone sold – the same way they did with the iconic white wired earbuds in the past with all iPods and iPhones.

Battery Life

In 3 months I have never had to worry about battery life once. According to Apple, they will last 5 hours of continuous use before requiring a recharge. In the time since I’ve purchased them I haven’t listed to them for 5 hours straight. However, I have listened to them for a full 10-11 hour workday. Here’s how – I listen to them for a couple hours, at which point I’ll stop for a break/food/whatever. Before walking away from my desk I put them in the charging case so I don’t lose them. If I’m gone from my desk for 5-15 minutes, they’ve sufficiently charged enough to listen for another 3-4 hours! At which point I would have taken a break. The same pattern would hold true on an international flight. Watch a movie, listen to a podcast, then get up for a stretch and a bathroom break. By the time you’re settled back into your seat, you’re good to go for another few hours. Unless you’re in a marathon working session where you refuse to get up to eat, or go to the bathroom at least once in 5 hours, you will be likely have very few instances where the battery dies and they are unusable – unless of course you forgot to charge the case which is a whole other issue. Battery percentages are available for the AirPods and the case via the Today View widgets on iOS which should further help you manage your battery life.

Build Quality

In 3 months I’ve only dropped the case once, and an AirPod once – both on to concrete floors from about 3 feet. Because they are relatively light and well built, I didn’t have any issues. However, if you step on them or roll over them on your chair, you will likely break them. Luckily Apple will replace each piece individually, so you can avoid having to buy the whole package over again. Overall, I have been satisfied with the build quality. I do hope apple will one day make the charging case out of aluminium though 🙂

Sound Quality

Last but obviously not least – is the sound quality. If you liked the sound quality of the EarPods, you will definitely like the sound quality of the AirPods. In my opinion, they offer improved sound quality over their predecessor. I’m not an audiophile by any stretch, but I can still notice the slight improvement between the two. I was already happy with the audio from the EarPods, and the AirPods are no different. If you want to get a feel for what the sound quality will be, test out some readily available EarPods, and you’ll have a good idea of what they will sound like (and fit like as well!).

Issues

The main issue I have experienced with these is remembering to carry them with me. I want to use them at the office, and again when I get to the gym. This requires me to always make sure I put them in my jacket pocket before I leave the office. Sometimes I forget and have to resort to EarPods – which is painful when you have experienced the freedom of no wires at the gym! The other (albeit superficial) issue is how they look – some people think they look like earrings, and someone thought I had a cotton swab in my ear one time. In general, they are a bit futuristic for some people, but I’m hoping the perception of them will change in the near future – until then, you will get a few stares here and there.

Overall, I am very happy with the AirPods. I am curious to see where Apple will go next with these. Different colours? Different case/AirPod materials? Advancements in the W-series chip line? Time will tell. For now, I will continue to use these daily, and carry them with me everywhere.

iPhone 7

The all new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus were released on September 16th, 2016. While the basic shape and design of the phone hasn’t changed dramatically, there are a ton of great new features and improvements. Below I’ll give my thoughts on the major changes this year.

Camera Systems: The iPhone 7 and 7 Plus both received significant enhancements to their cameras this year. Both have been upgraded to a wider f/1.8 aperture, a six-element lens system, two focal lengths (iPhone 7 Plus only), Optical Image Stabilization, an improved sensor that is faster and more efficient than it’s predecessor, and a new quad-LED True Tone flash that’s 50% brighter than the flash of the iPhone 6S. On top of all these improvements to the rear camera, there’s even an upgraded 7MP front camera that incorporates deep trench isolation technology. It’s remarkable how much time/effort Apple spends each year on improving their camera systems, and this year’s camera improvements could arguably be the most important feature of this year’s release. Having used the camera’s for just one week, I can already tell you that the improvement is extremely noticeable. It handle’s low light incredibly well, and has a noticeable increase in it’s ability to capture scenes with high dynamic range. While it hasn’t been talked about much, the camera is also extremely fast to load as well – likely due to the improved camera sensor, and the new workhorse of a processor, the A10 (more on this below).

3.5mm Headphone Jack: I’m a big proponent of progress and change when it comes to electronics, so this was a welcome change for me. Yes I will have to deal with a few (temporarily annoying) issues, the same as everyone else. But I’m ok with that. I like what the future has in store for us, and I don’t want to stay in the stone ages just because I don’t want to change. And yes, Bluetooth is not the most reliable system in the world – however Apple understands this and as such, has augmented the Bluetooth experience by creating their own W1 processors which will power their upcoming AirPods. The biggest reason I’m happy with this change is that it will move the industry forward! The iPhone is a major driver in consumer technology, and when the iPhone makes a big move like this, it has a giant ripple effect. For instance, today I learned that some brand new, off the line 2016 Lexus vehicles are shipping with antiquated bluetooth modules – this is ridiculous! The car industry has been extremely slow to adopt new technologies, and I’m still appalled when I look at brand new cars that come with hideously designed, resistive-touch “infotainment” systems /end rant. To summarize, while many people will look at this like a step back or just another annoying thing to deal with, I look at it like a push forward – which I think many industries need.

A10 Fusion: As it was expected, Apple has improved upon the A9 chip from last year, and has come out with the A10 Fusion processor this year. It uses an all new quad-core architecture that allows for hyper fast processing via two high-performance cores when needed, or via two high-efficiency cores for less taxing jobs. This configuration allows Apple to provide the longest battery life in an iPhone yet. This year I upgraded from an iPhone 6S to an iPhone 7 Plus, so my battery life has increased dramatically! The other day, I used GPS navigation for 1 hour, spoke on the phone for 2 hours, used my device normally throughout the day, and still had about 20% charge left when plugging it in before bed.

Capacitive Home Button: I was excited when I heard about the changes to the home button. Mainly because I am so incredibly impressed with the Force Touch trackpad on my 2015 MacBook, that I knew Apple would do a great job of this. The first day of use was interesting – it certainly felt different than the old mechanical button, but there was no learning curve at all – it works exactly like the old button. This meant that the transition was a quick and easy one, and I found myself playing around with it just for fun. There are a couple of instances when it didn’t work like the old mechanical button – i.e. hitting it with your nail from odd angles, etc. but these situations are rare, and nothing to worry about.

Stereo Speakers: I’ll start by saying that these things are LOUD! This was such a good idea to use the top earpiece for the location of the second speaker, instead of making a new grill for it at the top of the phone. It’s just as effective, and leads to a simpler and more streamlined design of the phone. I don’t use the speakers at loud volumes very often with my phone, but for times when you need it – calls on speaker, podcasts in a car that doesn’t have Bluetooth, etc. it’s perfect.

Water Resistance: This is going to be a tough one to get used to for many. However, at this point it’s primarily designed as a contingency plan for all intents and purposes. Apple does not advocate that you take your phone in the shower or bathtub with you, or shoot videos underwater. However, as seen on various YouTube videos – the phone holds up extremely well under a few feet of water for 15-30 minutes. We’ve been told our whole life to keep electronics away from water, but this time we don’t have to be as anxious. I’ve yet to drop any of my phones in water in the past, but knowing that this one is highly water resistant, is very comforting.

New Design/Colours: Apple introduced two new colours this year – Black and Jet Black. The black iPhone is much darker than any version of Space Grey that Apple has released in the past, and look extremely nice in person – it is the colour that I chose to go with as it most suits my tastes. The Jet Black version is a new finishing process that Apple has created that makes Aluminum look like plastic – it is truly remarkable. It’s shiny, and the whole phone just looks like one continuous piece of material – blending the glass, with the body. The only downside is that it picks up fingerprints rather easily. It’s certainly something you have to see for yourself – if only to appreciate the quality of the craftsmanship.

Upgraded Haptic Engine: Now that the 3.5mm headphone jack is gone, Apple has now upgraded and increased the size of the haptic engine. This is particularly important for the iPhone 7 now that the home button is no longer a physical button, and instead relies on haptic feedback to simulate a click. I really like the improvements Apple has made here, and you really have to experience the upgrade to understand where this technology is going. For instance, when you rotate a selection wheel in any app, the haptic engine provides feedback at each new selection of the rotation while you spin the wheel. It’s something that’s easy to show people and get an immediate response of awe.

Let me know if you want me to touch on anything else, or if you have any specific questions related to the iPhone 7 Plus that I can answer for you. Thanks for reading.

iPad Mini 4

Apple quietly introduced the iPad Mini 4 last week at their September 2015 press event held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. I say quietly, because they didn’t spend more than a few minutes on it during the course of their 2 hour keynote. This update to the iPad Mini line was very important, because it brought back feature parity˚ to the iPad lineup (not including the iPad Pro). For those that don’t know, last year Apple made substantial updates to the iPad Air, bringing about the iPad Air 2, while only adding Touch ID to the iPad Mini 3. This left many to wonder if the iPad Mini was on the way out. For me, the iPad Mini is the perfect sized device for home-based casual reading, game-playing, and travel, so I was hoping the iPad Mini would live on. After the announcement of the iPad Mini 4 last week, it’s apparent that it’s not going anywhere just yet.

˚Both the iPad Mini 4 and the iPad Air 2 share the exact same specs, including screen size, with the exception of the processor – the iPad Mini 4 runs the dual-core A8, while the iPad Air 2 runs the triple-core A8X. Thanks to Kyle Smith for pointing this out.

Items that are a PLUS

Fully Laminated Display: The display on the iPad Mini 4 is absolutely stunning. This is the first year that Apple has fully laminated the display, and it has a much more accurate colour gamut compared with prior year models – this can be seen by comparing side-by-side images of the iPad Mini 3 with the iPad Mini 4 – click here to see such an image. You’ll notice that the depth and clarity is much better. In addition to being a fully fused display, it also has a new anti-reflective coating which helps eliminate (albeit only slightly) glare on the screen. It’s also worth noting that I am upgrading from the original iPad Mini with a non-retina screen, so this screen is a monstrous jump for me.

2GB of RAM: Apple increased the RAM of the iPad Air 2 last year to 2GB – thus setting a new benchmark for future iOS devices. This holds true this year with the iPhone 6S, iPhone 6S Plus, and the iPad Mini 4 all being shipped with 2GB of RAM. The added RAM helps with things such as Slide-Over, Split-Screen, and Picture-In-Picture – but it also aids in the performance of the new iPad Mini 4 all around. Safari tabs stay cached longer, switching between multiple apps is faster, and various other performance related tasks that rely or benefit from the additional RAM really shine through.

Battery Life: This is not specific to the iPad Mini 4 – but it’s worth noting that the battery life on all of Apple’s iPad models are absolutely phenomenal! One of my favourite features of the iPad Mini is how long the battery lasts. It’s the first thing I pack when I go on a trip, as I know it will always be a good companion for killing time while travelling.

Bluetooth 4.2: The iPad Mini 4 ships with Bluetooth 4.2. This brings Low Energy data packet length extensions, Low Energy privacy upgrades and Low Energy secure connections. Increases to Low Energy data packet lengths means 2.6x faster downloads than Bluetooth 4.1. Low Energy privacy upgrades moves address resolutions from the host CPU to the controller, which reduces power consumption on private devices. Bluetooth Smart chips will now only ‘wake up’ when someone designated as trusted is within a user’s proximity – this leads to more privacy, as well as decreased battery demands. Last but not least, Low Energy secure connections adds full public key cryptography for authentication in LE using FIPS compliant algorithms. With this update, dual mode devices (Bluetooth LE & Bluetooth Classic) only need to pair once and have the same fully secure connection regardless of which mode was used to authenticate. With more and more Bluetooth devices hitting the market these days, it’s good to know that Apple is committed to bringing us technology that protects our privacy and keeps us secure.

Items that are a MINUS

Removed Mute/Orientation Lock Switch: With the iPad Mini 4, Apple has removed the side mute/orientation lock switch that was on the previous 3 version of the iPad Mini. This means that screen orientation lock needs to be set by sliding up the Control Panel, and mute is accessed by pressing and holding the volume down button. I’m listing this as a minus only because it might be a deterrent for others looking to upgrade, but after a couple of days of using the iPad Mini 4, I don’t miss it one bit.

As you can tell from most of my Plus/Minus reports on Apple products, there are very few minus’ – even this review was a far-fetched minus. That’s because Apple truly makes a solid effort to ensure that the usability of their products is as high as it can possible be given the available technology at the time. If you’re in the market for an iPad Mini, I can definitely say that this is a great time to pick one up!

Apple Watch

The Apple Watch debuted to the public on April 24th, 2015 (10 days ago at the time I started writing this). I was one of the fortunate ones to get my hands on one on the first day, and after 10 days of using the watch daily, I have to say that I am very impressed with it. I decided to go with the 42mm Apple Watch with the Milanese loop band. While it’s extremely comfortable, I am looking forward to getting a few more bands to swap out with. Let’s get to it.

Items that are a PLUS

The Screen: It’s absolutely stunning how crisp, clear, and bright this screen is. For those that don’t know, this is Apple’s first device to feature an OLED display. OLED displays work without a backlight, which allows for extremely deep black levels which you can’t get with traditional LCD displays. What this means for the watch, is that the edges of the electronic display portion are nearly invisible leading to the illusion that the watch face is edge-less, blending perfectly into the surrounding watch structure. It’s really quite nice!

The Battery: Many people were doubtful that the battery would last the day (including me) prior to the watch being released. However, after wearing the watch everyday for the past 10 days, I can say for sure that as long as I have 100% battery when I strap it on in the morning, I will have no problems getting through the day. On my first full day of usage (8:30am to 12:30am), when I was using the watch more than I typically would – playing with every feature, making calls, sketching, etc. – I still had 51% battery left at the end of the day! Another day after wearing it all day, I played an hour and a half pickup hockey game while wearing the watch and tracking the activity (meaning the heart rate sensor is checking for my heart rate every 6 seconds), it STILL had over 40% battery at the end of the day! I was (and still am) pleasantly surprised with how long the battery lasts in the first-generation Apple Watch – great job Apple!

The Band Attachment Mechanism: This is one of those things that blows my mind that no one has done before. Considering that the watch industry has been around for over a century, I can’t believe no other company has come up with an ingenious new way to attach watch bands. We have been stuck with that silly tiny spring pin mechanism for as long as I can remember! Why does it take a company from a different industry altogether to drive innovation? I guess that’s just what Apple does – they don’t settle for the status quo – instead they truly think outside the box, and come up with new solutions to old problems. If I haven’t made myself clear, I am extremely impressed with the innovative new band attachment mechanism – the fact that you can swap bands out in mere seconds with no tools is absolutely phenomenal!

Notifications: I know notifications aren’t new, but having them on your wrist is a whole new experience. Side note: Yes, I owned a Pebble smartwatch which had notifications when it first came out, but the Apple Watch is on a whole other level! Having your watch give you rich, detailed notifications that you can respond to right from your wrist in seconds, is what makes it truly awesome. Even when you can’t respond from your watch, just having the ability to glance at the notification while not interrupting your task at hand (compared with taking out your phone) is really great. I’ll mention here though, that you will need to cull through the type of notifications you receive from time-to-time, or else you could have an overload of wrist-top notifications leading to missed notifications. My recommendations is to have only your MOST important apps providing notifications on your wrist – that way, when your watch vibrates or makes noise, you know it’s worth looking at.

Force Press: Although it takes some getting used to – as there are no prompts to remind you when it’s available – I think that Force Touch is an excellent new way to interact with our touch-screen devices. And once you get used to using it on certain apps (the home screen, notification drawer, workout apps) it become second nature. I still think there is some work to do on behalf of app developers to make certain Force Touch actions standard, but I do think it’s the start of something great!

Haptic Engine: Apple reportedly slaved for over a year on the new Haptic Engine included in the watch. Their goal was to make it so that any vibrating notification would only be felt by the person wearing the watch. Other watches simply threw in a standard vibrating motor, which often times is audible from across the room. Apple’s goal was subtlety, and I think they nailed it. When I have sounds turned off on my watch, no one else can tell that my wrist is being tapped when a new notification comes in. As far as I’m concerned, this is exactly how a smart watch should work. The introduction of the Haptic Engine will set a new standard for other smart watch manufacturers.

Items that are a MINUS

3rd Party Application Performance: Under WatchOS 1.0 and 1.1, 3rd party applications are not able to be run natively from the watch. What this means is that all the computations and data handling is done via the connected iPhone, and passed over to the watch via bluetooth. This results in some slow response times with third party applications. The spinning progress wheel when loading a 3rd party app can sometimes feel like forever. I understand why this is happening, but many new watch users won’t and may become frustrated at times. However as of June 2015, Apple has announced that Watch OS 2.0 will support native applications on the watch, which will help speed apps up considerably. Update: Watch OS 2.0 is due out on September 16th, 2015.

The Favourites Button: Apple decided that the long narrow button on the side of the watch would be the dedicated favourites button for your contacts. While this may have seemed like a great idea during inception, I don’t find it very useful in real day-to-day life. I find that I have not used this button all that much (maybe once every week or two). I find that I don’t initiate many interactions with my favourites via my watch – and when I do need to make a quick call or text message, I simply use Siri. I would have liked to have seen an option in the settings menu to choose what this button was for – a colleague of mine suggested that it behave like a soft button, and have different actions depending on which application you are using. While I think this might be confusing also, it would be handy for applications like the stopwatch, workout application, etc.

That wraps up my original Apple Watch review. This is an interesting new category for personal electronics, and I think there is a bright future ahead for it. Many people that I show the watch to still think it’s not for them, or couldn’t see themselves spending ~$500 or more on a watch, but I imagine this will change over the next 3-5 years, as prices come down and more options are introduced.

Apple iPhone 6

The iPhone 6 & 6S are among us, and they are absolutely beautiful. I have been using the Nexus 5 for the past year as a filler device because I wasn’t too stoked about iOS 7 or the iPhone 5S – it kinda felt as though Apple had lost its way – so I thought it was the perfect year to try something new. I don’t regret trying Android for a year, but I am beyond happy to be back to iOS and the hardware that runs it!

Items that are a PLUS

Hardware Design: My favourite aspect of the new device is the design of the hardware in general. The attention to detail that Apple puts into it’s products is second to none, and the iPhone 6 proves that yet again. This is hands down the best feeling phone I have ever held in my hands. It’s thin, has beautifully rounded edges, and an excellent (if not perfect) weight distribution. I do wish that they would have dropped the antenna break lines on the back, but obviously that’s not feasible at this time or else I’m sure they would have. They have still managed to work them in in a way that does not look out of place though. I especially like the new rounded edges of the front glass panel – and I agree with others who have said that this improves upon the experience (and intuitive-ness) of swiping in from outside of the screen edge to navigate around certain apps.

NFC & Apple Pay: This one is HUGE for me. I have been waiting for Apple to introduce NFC and some sort of actual digital wallet (not Passbook) for what seems like forever. However, I do know that the main reason for the slow uptake in digital payments is due to overly-cautious banks, money hungry service providers (i.e. Rogers), and the largely fragmented payment processing industry. Even still, I have been anxiously waiting for the day that Apple enters the market, and does what it does best; convince big industry players that what they are going to introduce will change the industry like nothing before, and get them on board. It seems that they have finally been able to do this for the mobile payments industry, and I’m excited to see how the next 12 months pan out for Apple Pay.

Screen Size: Yes, other device manufacturers have had larger screen sizes for a while now, and yes, there are countless jokes about how only Apple could release a larger phone, and claim it is revolutionary. All that aside, it was a good move by Apple to increase their screen sizes, and I think they picked two great sizes. While there are still some who will prefer the size of a smaller phone, I think generally, people will be happy with the 4.7″ and 5.5″ options. I do think that phones (from Apple and other manufacturers) will stick around these sizes for at least 3-5 years to come – there is just a natural limit to the size that people want to carry with them everyday.

Processors: The iPhone 6 comes with Apple’s custom 64-bit A8 chip along with an M8 motion co-processor. I believe that the advancement in these chips will allow the battery to last longer for simple tasks, as well as perform more complex tasks than prior generation iPhones/iPads. However, from a daily usability standpoint (checking email/twitter/rss, responding to messages, etc.) it’s hard to notice a speed improvement as older processors were already really quite good at these types of things in the past. I think the newer chips will really shine with more advanced games, video editing, slo-motion recording, etc.

Camera: The new camera on the iPhone is truly great. With the addition of 1080p at 60fps, 240fps slo-motion video, and time-lapse, it just keeps getting better and better. Also the new auto-focus method supports Focus Pixels, which significantly speeds up the auto-focus time for most photo situations. I still think Apple leads the way in mobile phone photography – and I’m sure we’ll see that trend prove itself again this year when we look at Flickr’s stats on the most popular smartphone device.

Radio Improvements: Upgraded LTE speeds (up to 150mbps), and support for 802.11ac (up to 3x faster than 802.11n). These are real world improvements that you’ll really only notice when you pick up a phone that is a couple years old and notice that it is quite a bit slower feeling. However, you will also need to be sure you are using upgraded infrastructure (appropriate cellular markets, and Wireless AC compatible routers) to take advantage of these improvements.

Storage Increase: This year Apple bumped the storage capacity to 128GB at the top end, 64GB as the mid end, and 16GB on the low end. While I think they should have killed the 16GB option, and bumped it up to 32GB on the low end, it’s still great to see the 128GB option. This is another area, where we are likely to see a halt for the next few years – as more and more services allow you to store files in the cloud, thus reducing the need for much more local storage. Of course in a few years, 1TB iPhones could be possible thanks to cheaper storage technology, but we’ll wait and see if they’ll even be necessary 🙂

Items that are a MINUS

Protruding Camera Lens: While this may not be a minus to others, it’s one of only things I don’t love about the iPhone 6/6S hardware. The Nexus 5 also had a protruding camera lens, and I disliked it from day one. My biggest caveat with this, is that the phone will not site flat on it’s back when placed on a table or flat surface. Instead, when tapping on the phone, it will teeter-totter like a table with a missing foot. Again, this is just a minor complaint, and I’m sure if Apple had their way they would have opted to have a flush mount camera lens.

NFC Limitations: As Apple has done in the past, they have introduced an awesome hardware feature, but have somewhat limited it’s capabilities. Apple did this before with it’s camera and Touch ID hardware – but have since opened these up to developers. So the good news here is that I’m almost certain they will open it up in the future to other uses. Two things that come to mind is wireless charging, and having the ability to use an iPad as an NFC reading device. On the flip-side, I also understand why Apple rolls out these hardware improvements in stages – to ensure the stability of the system. Side note – this paragraph is basically just here to add bulk to the minus column of this review as I can’t really think of any other minuses 😛

So that does it for my iPhone 6 Plus/Minus report. Overall, I feel like the iPhone 6 was a massive step forward for Apple, and for the smartphone industry in general. There are not many phones that compete with Apple on a hardware level, and for the ones that do, the iPhone 6/6+ will certainly make them step up their game even more. If history repeats itself, we will see an iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S+ have the same form-factor and design as the iPhone 6/6+ which will be ok with me – but what really fascinates me at this point is what the iPhone 7 or iPhone 7+ will look like. If I had to make a prediction, I would say it will have a bezel-less screen, be a few tenths of a millimetre thinner, have a combined lightning/headphone port or no ports at all, have a sapphire display, and incorporate some type of nano-waterproofing system.