From Abner Li, 9to5Google:

What could have been starts with Google Now, a proactive feed that showed the weather, upcoming calendar events, birthdays, commute and travel information, package alerts, movies/concerts you might like, nearby events/places/restaurants, news updates, and much more, including information from third-party apps.

All this was displayed via a powerful card metaphor that showed just the relevant pieces of information. Users had one feed accessible to the left of the main Android homescreen or quickly launched by swiping up from the home button to keep track of their day and see what was next.

You didn’t have to jump into different apps to see upcoming flight details, check email to see when a package was arriving, or open a multitude of first and third-party apps to see your information. In those applications, you’re subjected to different layouts and have to learn different behaviors to access what is fundamentally your information.

Google Now was the high water mark of the “smart assistant” craze that started in the early teens. Since then, we’ve seen both smart home speakers and smart watches move toward more of a “question and answer” approach where you query your device for information or you’re pushed information about your tastes in a “feed” of some kind. I have a number of smart speakers in my house (and I’ve tried Siri, Google and Alexa) but I’ll be honest – I almost never use them becuase they’re a pain in the ass to use and they’re not very smart. At this point I bet 90% of my commands are comprised of adjusting volume, turning on/off a few lights and setting timers. Not exactly an intelligent assitant.

What I wish we saw more of was the Google Now approach – proactive data, notifications and reminders about things going on in your world. The watch is a great place for this because the interruptions can be unobtrusive, customizable and almost always with you. Apple has a Siri watch face that tries to accomplish what Google Now was going for but it feels like a ghost town – no real updates have been made in a long time.

I’m hopeful that increaesd competition in the watch field with Google giving their strategy a reboot will allow for more experimentation and pressure to make both platforms better digital assitants than some speaker could ever be.

Google Now, Glass, & Wear — The future we lost by making watches miniature phones

From Abner Li, 9to5Google:

What could have been starts with Google Now, a proactive feed that showed the weather, upcoming calendar events, birthdays, commute and travel information, package alerts, movies/concerts you might like, nearby events/places/restaurants, news updates, and much more, including information from third-party apps.

All this was displayed via a powerful card metaphor that showed just the relevant pieces of information. Users had one feed accessible to the left of the main Android homescreen or quickly launched by swiping up from the home button to keep track of their day and see what was next.

You didn’t have to jump into different apps to see upcoming flight details, check email to see when a package was arriving, or open a multitude of first and third-party apps to see your information. In those applications, you’re subjected to different layouts and have to learn different behaviors to access what is fundamentally your information.

Google Now was the high water mark of the “smart assistant” craze that started in the early teens. Since then, we’ve seen both smart home speakers and smart watches move toward more of a “question and answer” approach where you query your device for information or you’re pushed information about your tastes in a “feed” of some kind. I have a number of smart speakers in my house (and I’ve tried Siri, Google and Alexa) but I’ll be honest – I almost never use them becuase they’re a pain in the ass to use and they’re not very smart. At this point I bet 90% of my commands are comprised of adjusting volume, turning on/off a few lights and setting timers. Not exactly an intelligent assitant.

What I wish we saw more of was the Google Now approach – proactive data, notifications and reminders about things going on in your world. The watch is a great place for this because the interruptions can be unobtrusive, customizable and almost always with you. Apple has a Siri watch face that tries to accomplish what Google Now was going for but it feels like a ghost town – no real updates have been made in a long time.

I’m hopeful that increaesd competition in the watch field with Google giving their strategy a reboot will allow for more experimentation and pressure to make both platforms better digital assitants than some speaker could ever be.

Matt Birchler:

My ambitious, but largely practical concept for what I’d like to see from the next generation of watchOS.

A pretty neat concept that includes a few things I’ve really hoped for: integrated sleep tracking, the idea of a “day off”, smarter auto-replies and an improved low power mode.

I use AutoSleep but would love to see if Apple could add to this space – either adding new APIs or rethinking the way sleep tracking is done.

watchOS 7: A BirchTree Concept

Matt Birchler:

My ambitious, but largely practical concept for what I’d like to see from the next generation of watchOS.

A pretty neat concept that includes a few things I’ve really hoped for: integrated sleep tracking, the idea of a “day off”, smarter auto-replies and an improved low power mode.

I use AutoSleep but would love to see if Apple could add to this space – either adding new APIs or rethinking the way sleep tracking is done.

As we head into the holiday season, I thought I’d throw my hat in the “best of the year post” ring with a list of a few of my favorite personal tech items of the year. Some of these are bigger than others, but I wanted to list out some things I’m thankful for this year.

Apple Watch Series 5

I’ve owned the Series 0 (review here and here) and a few Series 3 versions before pulling the trigger on the 5 this year and the always on display is a game changer. I’ve gotten into sleep tracking by using the fantastic Autosleep app alongside the built-in fitness tracking and it’s really been illuminating. I’ve changed my sleep habits as a result and feel like I have more of an understanding of my exercise, eating and sleep habits by simply creating a habit of quantifying all of the things I do.

AirPods

I actually got gen 1 AirPods last year for Father’s Day but my use has really skyrocketed in the past year. I have noise-cancelling QC35s and almost never use them because the AirPods are just so darn convenient. The AirPods Pro seem like game changers, and I’m hoping my gen 1 models last until there’s a second generation of the pros.

Siri Shortcuts

With iOS 13, Siri Shortcuts have gotten super powerful. I’ve been setting more and more of these up over the past few months and it’s helped me automate a lot of little things that Tasker for Android used to allow me to do (and more!) A few examples:

  1. Bus commute: when I leave my work on weekdays between 3-6pm. It checks my departure time in that area against the bus schedule and assumes I’m on the nearest one before the current time. It then sends a text to my wife with my departure time and expected arrival time.
  2. Reading time: I’m asked how long I’d like to read and in which app (Kindle or Apple Books). It then turns on Do Not Disturb for that time period, turns on dark mode, adjusts the volume/brightness and starts up some chill instrumental music. Finally, the app I chose launches.
  3. Create packing list: this shortcut pulls from a Bear note template that I have and creates a new packing list based on the type of trip and prefixes it with a lot of metadata. That way, each trip I go on I update the template with any things I typically forget or need.

Chromecast / Nest Hub music management

Chromecasts can finally “hand off” to other groups/speakers like you can with Airplay 2. So I can be in the Kitchen and say “play this on all speakers” and it’ll keep playing the same music but throughout the entire home. Additionally, the Nest Home Hub now allows you to have more control over speakers from the UI so you can adjust volume for groups and individual speakers. I use this a ton, so I’m super thankful it’s here.

DuckDuckGo is finally good enough

I’ve mostly stopped using Google for search in the past year. DuckDuckGo is a super powerful search engine with privacy at it’s core, and the results are finally good enough for me to put my digital information eggs in multiple baskets. A recent Wired article makes the point better than I ever could. I still use Gmail and Calendar, with an occasional Google Maps search so I’m not burning anything down. Heck, as you can see above, I’m still using Nest stuff so I’m not going anywhere. But I’m also wary of the idea of Surveillance Capitalism being something we’re okay with.

My favorite 2019 tech things

As we head into the holiday season, I thought I’d throw my hat in the “best of the year post” ring with a list of a few of my favorite personal tech items of the year. Some of these are bigger than others, but I wanted to list out some things I’m thankful for this […]

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About 6 months ago, Google announced a slew of consumer-grade products geared squarely at Apple and Amazon. At the event, they presented the Home, the Pixel, and Google WiFi and they all caught my eye for different reasons. I’m intrigued by the concept of mesh networking rather than throwing a router in one corner of the house, I’ve also had my eye on the connected home being controlled by voice, and I’ve been waiting for a truly premium heir to the Nexus line of phones to see if it was really worth making the switch (again).  I alluded to this in a recent post about my slow breakup with the Apple ecosystem, but I’ve been slowly making purchasing decisions based on what works best for me and my family, not what works best just with Apple stuff. A few examples of this is Todoist instead of OmniFocus, Spotify instead of Apple Music, Roku Streaming Sticks instead of Apple TV, and so on. At this point I’m heavily invested in Apple hardware (MacBook Pro, iPhone, Apple Watch) but from an ecosystem angle I’m pretty well spread out amongst a number of services. So, what was it like to try out Google’s latest and greatest?

Google Home

I’ve been interested in a connected home setup for some time but wasn’t sold on the Amazon Echo given the price point and lack of integration with the way I listen to music at home – we have a number of Chromecast Audios hooked up to speakers throughout the home as well as Chromecasts on our TVs. When the demo of the Google Home was shown at the 2016 I/O, (although some of the functionality isn’t baked in yet) I was definitely interested if the price was right. When they were announced at $129 each, that was all I needed to know.

I immediately bought 2 Homes – one for our kitchen and one for our bedroom. We use these things constantly for tasks as simple as setting timers and controlling our Nest thermostats but also for things like controlling multi-room audio, getting general trivia and weather from the web, and turning lights on and off. The voice recognition works very well, even when music or TV audio are playing, and it gets my commands right a vast majority of the time. We’ve gotten into the habit of using it pretty frequently when in the kitchen or getting ready for work. It’s really been a joy to use, and the capabilities are improving every week.

That said, it’s got a long way to go before it can truly challenge the Echo on the number of features it has. But for me, I wanted something that looked good in our house and has the potential of being smarter over time with a company like Google backing it. The thing that really sold me was the integration with Chromecasts – instead of buying a Sonos system in our house we saved $2k by just hooking up existing speakers to Chromecasts. I also play a lot of podcasts throughout the house, which I love do to on the weekends. It’s been freeing to have the ability to have smart home products from multiple vendors that all work together. Sometimes it’s not as easy as just logging into your iCloud account, but you have more choices.

A few things I hope make their way into the Home is the ability to queue music better, multi account functionality (so my wife and I could each do Google account specific stuff), the ability to send messages, and a way to have voice feedback set to one level and media set to another. If you’re looking to get into voice controlled assistants or even just want something to play music on, this is a great option at $129.

Google Pixel XL

I also took the plunge on a 128gb Pixel XL. I had 14 days to return it, so I figured I’d give it an honest look to see if the battery life, camera, OS features and build quality made it worth it to switch.

The short answer is that the Google Pixel XL better than my iPhone 6s Plus in nearly every measurable way. Now I know that isn’t the fairest comparison as the 6s Plus was released in September 2015 and the Pixel XL shipped last November but the only real unfair comparison there would be camera quality and performance. That said, I’m floored with how great Android 7.0 is now compared to iOS 10 and how fantastic the camera is on the Pixel.

The longer answer is a bit more complicated.

Build and screen quality of the Pixel were on par with the iPhone – it’s nothing flashy, with similar bezels to the current Apple offerings, but it’s fine. I don’t mind the fingerprint sensor being on the back, but I do think it’s faster for me to have it on the front. It can be annoying to have to unlock with your PIN when your phone is laying flat on the desk for sure, but it’s not the end of the world. The saving grace for this difference is that Android lets you set trusted unlock locations and connections so you aren’t forced to use the fingerprint sensor constantly. Android has a concept of a “Smart Lock” that allows you to set trusted locations, devices, voices and more to allow you to not require a pin or fingerprint if you’re paired to your car’s Bluetooth, or you’re at home.

The actual feel of the hardware is great, to the point where I don’t need a case. Battery life is a tough one – the standby time of the Pixel was fantastic compared to my current phone but was slightly worse on days where I’d be heavily using the screen. I never struggled to get through the day but I was constantly in the 30% range by the end of the day, compared to maybe 40–50% range with my 6s Plus. Fast charging makes up for any issues here though, as a good 20–30 minutes can get you from 30% to 85% easily. Knowing that’s an option removes any possible battery anxiety.

The camera is the best phone camera I’ve ever used, and the ‘smart burst’ functionality of the phone means that you always get a really good shot when dealing with quick moving targets like a kid or two. I already use Google Photos as a backup for my photo library, so getting free ‘for life’ storage for anything shot from the Pixel XL is something Apple should be doing for iPhones.

On the software side, I firmly believe that Android is now better than iOS for my needs. The way notifications work and are grouped, the organization of the home screens, the default keyboard and overall UX make my time on my phone much more pleasurable. Things have evolved to the point where visually I like the look and feel of Android as well from a color, animation and layout perspective. Little things add up, too. Persistent notifications for chat conversations and media playback mean it’s very easy to switch contexts. After using Android for a few weeks, it feels like everything in iOS takes a few extra taps to accomplish. The app ecosystem really isn’t a problem anymore, either. There are a few apps here and there that I’ll miss from iOS (Day One, Reeder, Fantastical and Pennies come to mind) but it’s not a deal breaker like it was for me 3 years ago.

Other than the above mentioned apps above, the biggest things I missed from iOS was a good messaging solution (iMessage is so amazing and I have no idea why Google can’t find a way to merge Allo, Hangouts and SMS into a unified ‘thing’) and iCloud photo sharing (but I could still do this from my computer so no huge loss). The biggest gripes I had with Android and the Pixel mostly related to missing my watch being integrated (time to start shopping for an Android Wear device!), Average battery life under heavy use, having to use Pushbullet to get text notifications on my work computer (which is a great service, just not as nice as a native app like Messages on the Mac), and the location/volume of the one speaker on the bottom. Lift to wake also wasn’t super reliable in my experience, which is amazing on iOS.

Having a phone with a voice assistant that responds well, is more open (creating tasks in Todoist was dead simple), and gives good contextual answers is really a game changer. I found myself using voice for a ton in the past few months because of the Google Home and always disappointed by Siri. Having a seamless system that truly works everywhere is fantastic.

As an aside, not having notifications on my wrists for messages and other important apps was a big negative. Next time I go for an Android device I’ll have to get a smart watch as well.

As the 2 weeks came to a close I started thinking hard about if this phone or any phone is worth the $4–500 I’d have to spend to buy it (after selling my current iPhone to recoup some costs). I think that answer is no, but I am sad to move back to iOS and return the Pixel XL. Other than some battery gripes it’s really better in every way. So, in the short term I’m happy enough with my iPhone 6s Plus and iOS in general to not invest $900 on a new phone with new hardware less than 6 months out. If I were buying a new phone today I’d get the Pixel XL and I can recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a new phone. I’m going to have an eye on Google I/O, WWDC and the fall hardware announcements from each company with an even sharper eye than ever before. If I were a betting man, when it comes time to replace my current iPhone I’ll be buying the Pixel XL 2 or whatever it’s called unless Apple really wows me with their hardware and software. The things Apple needs to do with iOS 11 and the next iPhone aren’t out of reach, but I’m not super confident they’ll deliver.

At a higher level, it’s fascinating to me how well Google has gotten at walking and chewing gum. I’ve been using more and more of their services and with most of their hardware offerings looking so good, it’s not too hard to imagine a scenario where the only Apple products I own in a year will be my 3 year old MacBook Pro.

Google Home & Pixel XL

About 6 months ago, Google announced a slew of consumer-grade products geared squarely at Apple and Amazon. At the event, they presented the Home, the Pixel, and Google WiFi and they all caught my eye for different reasons. I’m intrigued by the concept of mesh networking rather than throwing a router in one corner of […]

Continue reading →

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a very interesting trend in the personal technology space. A pretty big shift has occurred – with Apple slowly becoming less reliable, less intuitive, and less interesting (to me) and Google has slowly become better designed, more thoughtful, and better at addressing consumer’s needs.

The race between Apple and Google has always been centered around who can shore up their weaknesses faster – Google needed to ‘get’ design and have a cohesive consumer strategy and Apple needed to ‘get’ cloud infrastructure and have ‘good enough’ AI to keep up with the competition. I feel like Google not only has ‘gotten’ design, I think they actually have a better designed, more thoughtful UI right now. While I’m not quite ready to switch from my iPhone quite yet, I do find myself using a ton of Google’s apps and services in my daily life, further weakening my dependence on Apple going forward. I use Google Photos, Keep, Docs, Maps and Inbox over their Apple counterparts for a few reasons. First, they’re cross platform and work on iOS, Android, Mac or Windows without a hitch. Second, they are updated more frequently and are ‘smarter’ for the most part than the versions from Apple. Finally, I trust them to actually work. Apple lost the ‘it just works‘ battle when computing moved to the cloud, and (this shouldn’t come as a surprise) Google has a huge leg up here.

But it’s not just software. I never really set out to do make any huge switch myself but over the past year or so, I’ve moved away from hardware that ties into the the Apple ecosystem and have instead sought out or accidentally ended up using something more cross platform. Over time, it’s become easier and easier to find better alternatives and I’ve been a lot happier as a result. Last year we had a situation where we needed to come up with a way to watch movies in our home and we ended up buying a Synology and Chromecasts for our TV sets to stream all of our ripped DVDs + Blu Rays. Using our phones as remotes has actually proven to work quite well, and in hindsight I’m super thankful I didn’t go the route of setting up a Mac Mini as a home PC instead. Further, I’ve abandoned iTunes & Apple Music for a combo of Spotify, Chromecast Audio and the occasional Google Play Music use. I love how seamlessly the Spotify + Chromecast Audio setup works in our house – you can control what music is playing from anything that has Spotify installed on it, you can control a multi-room setup for a fraction of the cost of Sonos + Apple Music, and I just like the way that the Spotify service works over what Apple has to offer right now. Add into the mix upcoming Google Home voice integration (I’ve preordered 2 of them) and things get even more interesting.

One could argue that Apple is just the king of the hill in a way that they weren’t 10 years ago so of course they’re a bit more boring now. And let’s face it – the product line is more varied, more complicated, and has a user base an order of magnitude larger than it had a decade back as well. Google or any other tech company isn’t exactly perfect, either. I get all that, but I feel more and more like I’m making compromises when using Apple stuff, and I find myself rolling my eyes at Apple apologists and bloggers more than ever these days. Their mission, the products they make, and my needs are diverging. Honestly it kind of bums me out to say that, but it’s true.

I still have my 1st gen Apple Watch and wear it almost daily. I really like the fitness and alerts side of it, but declined to update to the next version for now. I do like the direction Apple is going with their watch but I just don’t think it’s good enough for me to drop another 3-500 dollars. I got rid of my iPad Mini a few months ago and haven’t missed it a bit. I have a generation old iPhone and won’t be upgrading for a while, if at all, to another iPhone. I’m not even sure how current my Macbook Pro is, but I’m 100% content with it and don’t really see a need to upgrade for a while.

Unfortunately, the iOS 10 and watchOS 3 updates that came out recently have made my desire to get out of the Apple ecosystem grow. Battery life is now an issue on both of my devices and I can’t say that I like the changes that were brought to iOS 10 even if battery life wasn’t an issue. 3D touch means that discoverability is lower, it takes more work to get through to just through tasks that are way easier on Android. Overall, I find a lot of tasks take longer for me in iOS land, and the hardware design advantages Apple once had are starting to deteriorate (the new Samsung 7 and 7 edge look amazing, as does the Pixel). Apple still makes amazing hardware, but I’m not sure that it’s enough to make the compromises that I feel I have to make by opting into an Apple-only ecosystem.

This isn’t all to say that I’m going to sell all of my Apple stuff tomorrow and start using Windows and Android or something like that (especially the Windows part). Instead, I have my personal tech eggs in multiple baskets more than ever before. Apple stuff works quite well when you buy in 100% to their ecosystem but as soon as you use that one app or device that doesn’t fit their way, things have a tendency to fall apart pretty quickly. On the other side of that, simply choosing to use whatever tool is the best has my ‘risk’ spread out in a way that I’m much happier with. I think that when the next Pixel phones come out next year, there’s a very good chance I could switch to Android instead of getting an iPhone 7s or whatever they’re called. 10 years after the iPhone was announced, it’s possible I’ve gone full circle to being only a Mac user again when it comes to my investment in the Apple ecosystem.

That said, if we had a time machine and could check out my blog posts from the next 12-18 months, I think they’d look a little something like this. Or this, depending.

The slow breakup

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a very interesting trend in the personal technology space. A pretty big shift has occurred – with Apple slowly becoming less reliable, less intuitive, and less interesting (to me) and Google has slowly become better designed, more thoughtful, and better at addressing consumer’s needs. The race between Apple and […]

Continue reading →
Google I/O has come and gone, so now it’s time for Apple to have their annual developer conference.  I feel like most of the areas for innovation isn’t at the OS level anymore, it’s with services and apps as part of the OS. Unfortunately for Apple that isn’t really their strong suit. With that in mind, here are the things I think Apple might do this year to catch up in areas that they are lagging (and a few things that just bug me about my favorite OSes).

iOS 10

  • Hide stock apps. This may also introduce an opportunity to make default apps as they’d need to account for scenarios that tried to open Mail but it was hidden.
  • Siri API to allow users to perform custom actions via voice
  • Smart grouping of events in photos app
  • Roll out transit for more cities (Ahem, Atlanta)
  • Better 3rd party keyboard support. Currently it can randomly stop working or revert to the default.
  • Add a swipe-style keyboard
  • 3D Touch to clear all notifications from the pull down notification center
  • Allow me to close all Safari tabs easily (3d touch?)
  • Granular cell data use, much like battery section. Let me see daily / weekly data use per app & overall
  • Better “now playing” integration on home screen & in mission control. Allow 3rd parties to add actions like iTunes currently has. I’d love to be able to add a song to my library with one tap, or star a podcast in overcast.
  • A ‘Car mode’ similar to what Google announced at I/O – optionally allowing me to launch a CarPlay type UI when driving to minimize distractions and ease in tasks like navigation, calls and texts.
  • Proactive, travel history, workout & health data should be able to be backed up to iCloud or your computer separately so you don’t lose that information when moving to a new iPhone.

Mac OS X 12

  • Add Siri to OS X.
  • Siri API to allow users to perform custom actions via voice
  • Photos app should sync faces & do a better job of guessing who a person is.
  • Photos app should auto create albums like Google Photos does
  • Brand new iTunes / Apple Music split. Let me do all the things iTunes currently does in iTunes and split Apple music into a new place for my cloud needs.
  • More progress on dark mode
  • iCloud sync status in the menu bar

watchOS 3

  • Simplify the interface – swipe down for notifications and swipe up to view recently opened apps.
  • Get rid of honeycomb app launcher and make something more usable.
  • Allow users to set what the contacts button does (launch app, change watch face, etc). I’d love to have the button open up runkeeper or OmniFocus.
  • 3rd party watch faces
  • Location-based watch faces. I’d love to have a work and home face that automatically changes when I enter a geofenced area.
  • Speed. No idea if it’s even possible but the fact that the apps are so slow is a killer
  • Make Siri faster. I currently don’t even bother because it’s so slow. And seemingly has gotten worse over time (although I think it’s actually that my 6s Plus is that much better)
  • Wrist flick sensitivity settings. Id be willing to sacrifice some battery life to have my watch be a little more sensitive to my wrist movements.
  • Auto detect when I’m running
  • Make it easier for devs (Spotify, Overcast) to put audio on the device. I’d love to be able to listen to either of those apps without my phone.

Misc software

  • Apple News: make tab bar persistent at bottom to more easily get home
  • Apple Music: all of this.
  • Contacts app is super sluggish as of the most recent OS. Hope they clear that up.
 

WWDC 2016 Wishlist

Google I/O has come and gone, so now it’s time for Apple to have their annual developer conference.  I feel like most of the areas for innovation isn’t at the OS level anymore, it’s with services and apps as part of the OS. Unfortunately for Apple that isn’t really their strong suit. With that in […]

Continue reading →

A few months ago, I posted my initial review of the Apple Watch after using it for a few weeks. It’s been nearly 9 months since I’ve had the watch and I thought I’d give a follow up based on what I’ve learned after using it daily.

The hardware

While aesthetically I think the hardware is one of the stronger parts of the Apple Watch, the underpowered processor is by far the biggest thing holding it back. One issue that has begun to frustrate me is the fact that the Taptic engine is a little underpowered, and it seems to be getting less powerful over time. It’s very rare, but I do miss taps on my wrist occasionally. I tend to only allow notifications for texts, calls and a few other things, so it’s important to actually get those notifications when they come in.

Battery life is mostly fine – I’ve never even hit 10% battery in one day of use, and over the course of one weekend I was able to make the watch last by turning on airplane mode for most of the time and finally going to power reserve. I’d love a situation where the watch could last for 2–3 days of normal use but it’s not a deal breaker as it currently stands.

In the same vein of things that could be better but aren’t show stoppers, I think that an always-on display would be great – the wrist flick motion works pretty well but it’s just not flawless. There are tons of times during the day where I legitimately just want to check the time but instead have to some convoluted arm flick to see the time.

I hope that in the future, more and better sensors are added to the device. Realistically, a focus on making the thing just load what you expect it to in a reasonable time frame is all I ask for.

The software

A lot of the promise of the Apple Watch falls short with the overly-complicated watchOS software. This hasn’t changed in watchOS 2 – while some changes were made, the overall way the system works still relies on you to browse a series of ‘complications’, ‘glances’ or a nearly impossible to use view of all of your apps. I use complications a lot (OmniFocus, Dark Sky, Calendar and the Activity rings all are super useful) but the apps aren’t even a consideration to me 99% of the time.

I wish Apple (and by extension, app makers) would think of software on the watch as powerful, actionable notifications that allow me to quickly act on information as it comes in if I see fit. A great example of this sort of power is the Outlook app on the watch – not only does Outlook do some Google Inbox-esque priority mail filtering to only show you important emails, but it also allows you to archive, mark as read, reply and more quickly from the watch when you do get a notification about an important email. I can’t see many scenarios where I’d be using my watch to actually scan all of my emails but I love getting important notifications I can quickly do something (or not) about.

The way that Google handles their interaction model actually makes way more sense to me, as I’m in it more for notifications and quick interactions rather than lightweight apps that aren’t all that easy to get to. I’d much prefer it if Apple were to focus on making the notification layer more useful while de-prioritizing apps and even glances, really.

Speaking of glances, I hate the way you have to scroll back and forth to get to glances. It makes having more than 2 or 3 impractical (which is one reason I only use Now Playing, iPhone Battery, OmniFocus and Shazam). Instead, how cool would it be if swiping up to get to glances it would act normally but there would also be an icon in one of the corners that zoomed you ‘out’ to a circular view of your glances much like the contacts view. You’d be 2 taps away from any glance. Even better, I wish you could change what the contacts button did, so it could either view contacts or glances. This is the thing I think that Apple could and should do with watchOS 3.

Overall, I find myself using fewer and fewer of the 3rd party apps on my watch but the core functionality of the watch is still fantastic to me. I love having a step counter on me at all times, the ability to get notifications regardless of my phone’s location within the house, and a quick way to do small tasks (send texts, set reminders, etc) via Siri.

A few other things I love and hate

Am I the only person who takes way too many accidental screenshots on my watch? When the watch gets low on your wrist, bending your hand ‘up’ forces the crown and the other button to press your hand at the same time, triggering a screenshot.

I’ve used the watch for walking directions a few times and it’s really fantastic to get the taps when it’s time to make a turn. I hope that with iOS 10 + watchOS 3 that Apple Maps continues to improve so I can start using it more often. Currently, I just don’t trust it that much over Google Maps.

A few other things I wish could change about the platform:

  • Change the ‘contacts’ button on the side to do other things (quick launch an app, load a complications overview, etc)
  • Complications are choppy when swiping between. Wish it were easier to get to any complication as opposed to swiping from start to finish.
  • Hope that watchOS 3 allows Overcast and Spotify to keep media on the watch so I don’t have to run w/ my iPhone
  • The Workout app should have basic interval timer.
  • I’ve started switching to Apple Defaults more, interested to see if that sticks through iOS 10s release. For now, that’s Contacts & Maps away from Fantastical and Google Maps.

Overall – there’s potential, but I’m souring on the watch

In short, I think that the Apple Watch is a very nicely built, somewhat stylish device that does a few things pretty well, but I’m not sure what the future holds for the future of the platform. I think that it may or may not turn out to be a huge new category but instead a really nice accessory that’s great for fitness, notifications and a few voice activated commands. If Apple would listen to my advice it would be to improve the battery, bulk up the processor, strip the OS down and make Siri work more regularly. It’s still an amazing way to get a lot of great functionality out of your phone without having to actually dig it out of your pocket, or feel like you have to carry it everywhere you go. For me, there’s a ton of value there, even if it only ever did notifications / dictation / basic complications.

Overall, if my excitement level and satisfaction was an 8/10 a few months ago when I got the thing, it’s more like a 6 or 7/10 now. I’m still happy with the device but I’ve actually found myself limiting the use to the things it’s actually good at, and not trying to force new functionality on it. If Apple were to find a way to simplify the interface, speed it up, and make the Siri integration truly special I think the watch would be something I would wholeheartedly recommend. I’ll be very curious to see what Apple has in store for current Watch owners as well as the future of the hardware this summer and fall.

Apple Watch, Revisited

A few months ago, I posted my initial review of the Apple Watch after using it for a few weeks. It’s been nearly 9 months since I’ve had the watch and I thought I’d give a follow up based on what I’ve learned after using it daily. The hardware While aesthetically I think the hardware […]

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Luke Wroblewski (who, by the way, is worth a follow on social media and on his blog) talked about Redesigning the Apple Watch UI:

When wearing an Android Wear smartwatch, I found myself keeping up with more than I do when wearing the Apple Watch. A simple scroll up on Wear would give me the latest content from several apps ordered by relevance. In their current state, Glances on the Apple Watch don’t give me that lightweight way of staying on top of the information I care about. Their inclusion in the Apple Watch interaction model seems, instead, to complicate moving between tasks (and apps).

Some great suggestions on ways to make the Apple Watch a platform to more easily keep up with notifications, especially the ones you care about. I agree with him that 3rd party complications will help with this when watchOS 2 is released.

Redesigning the Apple Watch UI

Luke Wroblewski (who, by the way, is worth a follow on social media and on his blog) talked about Redesigning the Apple Watch UI:

When wearing an Android Wear smartwatch, I found myself keeping up with more than I do when wearing the Apple Watch. A simple scroll up on Wear would give me the latest content from several apps ordered by relevance. In their current state, Glances on the Apple Watch don’t give me that lightweight way of staying on top of the information I care about. Their inclusion in the Apple Watch interaction model seems, instead, to complicate moving between tasks (and apps).

Some great suggestions on ways to make the Apple Watch a platform to more easily keep up with notifications, especially the ones you care about. I agree with him that 3rd party complications will help with this when watchOS 2 is released.

Craig Hockenberry:

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I love my Apple Watch. I find myself working out more and having a better understanding of my overall health.

I’m also thrilled that the watch is working so well with my favorite workout: swimming in the ocean. Despite some hiccups in functionality, I still get enough information to improve my performance and extend my goals.

I hope this the information in this report will help others understand what the watch can and cannot do in the presence of water. I also hope my experiences will help Apple improve the watch’s capabilities for swimming workouts.

Pretty cool to see how well the Apple Watch performs in the water overall. I’ve avoided really doing much more than rinsing mine off after running but it’s encouraging to know it can stand up to way more than that.

A Watch, Water and Workouts

Craig Hockenberry:

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I love my Apple Watch. I find myself working out more and having a better understanding of my overall health.

I’m also thrilled that the watch is working so well with my favorite workout: swimming in the ocean. Despite some hiccups in functionality, I still get enough information to improve my performance and extend my goals.

I hope this the information in this report will help others understand what the watch can and cannot do in the presence of water. I also hope my experiences will help Apple improve the watch’s capabilities for swimming workouts.

Pretty cool to see how well the Apple Watch performs in the water overall. I’ve avoided really doing much more than rinsing mine off after running but it’s encouraging to know it can stand up to way more than that.

About 2 weeks ago, my wife handed me a box that contained a 42mm stainless steel Apple Watch w/ a black Sport Band. It was an early Father’s Day / 5 year Anniversary combo gift, but it had showed up about 2 weeks early and she knew there was no way my impulsive self would have been able to function knowing that box was somewhere in our house. So, thanks to her generosity I’ve had a few weeks now to put things through their paces and report my initial impressions.

But first, I wanted to back up to what my expectations of the Apple Watch are to provide some context to my thoughts. After the keynote in September of 2014, I was excited about the future of wearable tech and definitely thought that the actual hardware looked fantastic. However, I wanted to see it in person before making any decision.

What I was looking for in the Apple Watch

The things I’m looking for in a device like the Apple Watch, roughly in the following order:

  1. Fitness
  2. Use my phone at home less
  3. ‘Fashion’
  4. Apps

In the past 6 months, I have started running 5 days a week, and combined with watching what I eat I’ve lost over 25lbs. I want to keep that going – 15 more pounds to go!, and I’m the sort of guy that needs data to keep me motivated. I was previously using a combination of my iPhone and a FitBit, but I wanted something a bit nicer to track distance run, heart rate, steps walked during the day, etc. I’ve been relying on Apple’s HealthKit to be the glue that holds together apps like MyFitnessPal, Runkeeper and Pedometer++ to give me an overall picture of how much I’m active, how much I eat, and how my runs are going. Finding something more portable than an iPhone and more powerful than a FitBit sounded like a good reason to try the Apple Watch on its own. Add to that the motivational features like reminders to get up and move, goals that change over time and ‘badges’ for sticking to a workout regimen and I was sold.

Additionally, I’m a bit addicted to having my phone on me when at home or at work. I wanted to find a way to break that tether a bit and thought a device like the Apple Watch would allow me to leave my phone behind while I’m not out and about. Being able to see and respond to simple texts and see/dismiss notifications from my wrist seemed very appealing to me, and I was hopeful this would reduce my dependency on an iPhone while at home.

I’ve also just wanted a new watch. My wife bought me a watch as a wedding gift but it’s a bit too dressy for daily wear. I wanted something that could counter that for daily use and also add some of the above benefits.

Finally, I was at least somewhat interested to see what the first generation apps on the Watch looked like. I had pretty low expectations given the early reviews and the architecture behind the WatchKit apps (essentially, the ‘apps’ are nothing more than projections of UI from your phone to your watch via bluetooth. Any data, computations or new views would have to make a round trip from your phone to your watch. I expected this to be slow and generally useless for most tasks). I think that the future of apps on the Watch is exciting but didn’t expect a lot for 1.0.

My first two weeks

The first few days I found myself tinkering with everything – watch faces, apps, notifications and settings – for the better part of the day. I nearly killed the battery every day because of this, but I never got to 0%. That definitely impressed me, as most folks were fearful of what would happen in real-life use. Once I started to ‘forget’ about the watch on my wrist a bit more, average battery life was at about 40–50% at the end of the day (a day for me starts around 7am and ends around 11pm, with a 30 minute run 5 days a week).

I’ve had to re-train myself to use Siri more often, but now that I’m getting into that habit, dictation is fantastic. I was mowing the lawn recently and was able to respond to a few messages from my mom while the mower was going. I just had to turn away and speak very close to the watch, and my messages were transcribed perfectly. Totally dorky, but I felt like I was living in the future. I’m responding to texts, setting calendar alerts, asking for directions and issuing lots of other commands very frequently with the watch and it works very well.

A few odds and ends:

  • It took me a few weeks to get used to the UI – it’s so easy to think of the Watch as a tiny iPhone but it really is a whole different paradigm.
  • The Apple Watch app on the iPhone is (other than the icon) pretty well done and makes managing the device a breeze.
  • My kingdom for a systemwide concept of VIPs. I would love to only show notifications via text or email from folks I really care about.
  • The watch face brightness level can be turned down to the lowest setting and is still great even in direct light. I’d imagine it helps with battery life but I haven’t really seen a difference yet.
  • I used my Watch to buy from a vending machine, as a boarding pass at the airport and to make a few purchases at stores. Compared to the reaction I get with my phone, people think I’m a spy from the future (and probably kind of a dork too)

Fitness

The fitness tracking is great – subtle reminders to get up to move around and the visible ‘fitness circles’ on the watch face keep your activity front of mind.  I love how easy it is to start and stop a workout from your wrist, as well as control your music.  Right now, I still run with my phone in my pocket for podcasts but I’ve also taken the watch for a spin on its own to see how things work when it is unpaired.

I’ve been very happy with the workout app on the watch as it gives you glance able info about your run/walk/bike ride but also tracks heart rate very accurately as well as calories burned.  I do wish it handled intervals like runkeeper, but for now I’m just glancing to check my pace from time to time. I’ve also done a few runs using the runkeeper app on the watch and it works quite well if you’re doing interval training.  The downside is that it’s reliant on the phone so if you want to be as minimal as possible while running that’s a problem.

Overall I am very happy with the workout features and it feels like Apple is walking the walk on making this a great device for people looking to take more control of their personal fitness. The workout app on the iPhone gives a great overview of how you are doing and tracks the ‘awards’ you unlock as well.  Very polished app, and another one in that new ‘dark’ theme. Hmm…

Putting my phone down

I look at my phone way less often than I did pre-Watch. When I’m at home now, I tend to leave my phone on the table on whichever floor I’m on instead of keeping it in my pocket most of the time. When I get things like texts, notifications or emails I can now quickly look down and see if it is important and either respond or get back to playing with my son. The same applies for when I’m at work and want to quickly see when/where my next meeting is or what the weather is going to be like if I’m about to step out of the office. The reason that this sort of thing is important to me is that I have the awful habit of getting ‘sucked in’ when I pull out my phone to do something fairly innocent like checking the weather and end up screwing around on Twitter for 20 minutes. Removing these huge distractions gives you tons of time back to focus on things like doing puzzles with your 2 year old, paying attention in a meeting, having a conversation with your wife, or simply improving your phone’s battery life.

To the last point, my iPhone’s battery life is much better since I’ve settled into a rhythm. I look at my phone way less now. By setting important notifications to come to my wrist, the two OCD things I’ve done in the past (checking the time and seeing if I have any new notifications) don’t require taking the phone out of my pocket. By not picking up my device and turning the screen on so often, I’m noticing I end the day with about 45–55% left, where previously I was in the 30% range. There was one glitch on the 3rd day that I owned the Watch, however – I had to unpair/repair when I noticed an issue with the iPhone’s battery life. In short, something was causing the phone to never go into ‘idle’ mode and was trying to keep a constant connection with the watch, causing the battery on both devices to drop pretty significantly. After a fresh re-pairing, I’m noticing great battery life on both the phone and the watch.

It does seem like driving with my watch wrist (left) is causing some battery drain. I guess it’s turning the screen on more than I notice, which is dropping the juice considerably.

Fashion

I tried on a handful of models in the store before deciding this was something I wanted, but that’s only a few minutes in a store. After wearing the 42mm stainless model for a few weeks, I do like the way it looks on my wrist. It’s a great size, it’s not too heavy and the Sport Band is super comfortable. I plan on getting a leather or nylon strap pretty soon to replace the Sport Band as my ‘daily’ band and using the Sport for working out, but even the default looks pretty good (at a distance it looks like leather, honestly). I’m very happy with the way this looks and since I plan on owning this model for the next few years (my goal is to own it until it’s obsoleted by a software update or when proper GPS is added, whichever is later) I’m hoping the stainless will age well.

The Apps

As stated above, I wasn’t super optimistic about the 1.0 Apple Watch landscape going in for a few reasons. I was fearful that a lot of the developers were rushing to have their apps available on day 1 at the expense of using the device and then designing/building an app. Further, the technical limits of WatchKit 1.0 had me pretty lukewarm on the whole idea. If the whole point of a smartwatch is quick, 3–5 second interactions, I’m not sure super laggy interfaces and latent data transmission via bluetooth is really going to lend itself to a great experience.

Unfortunately, my fears were mostly spot on. A huge chunk of watch Apps are mostly useless. It should be noted that ‘glances’ are a bit better – these are the data sources you get from swiping up from the bottom of the screen. I use the following glances: Settings, Battery, Power (for iPhone), Now Playing, Heartbeat, Activity, OmniFocus, Pennies, Calendar, Weather, NYTimes, Maps. All of these provide quick bits of data or singular actionable buttons that are mostly a pleasure to use. I barely touch the actual apps at this point, though.

Great Apps:

  • Overcast
  • Fantastical
  • Twitterrific
  • Pennies
  • Most stock apple ones.

Not So Great Apps

Most of them. Almost any app that needs data from my phone struggles to deliver it in a timely fashion unless the phone is very close by. I’m hoping watchOS 2 addresses this with native apps and better wifi networking.

The future with watchOS 2.0

A lot of the issues I have right now are performance based and I’m really hopeful that watchOS 2.0 squashes a lot of those. Custom complications, time travel and native apps alone are huge updates and I can’t wait to try them out. It’ll be interesting to see how long each generation is supported – are they going to try to position Watches as longer term investments or just another consumer device you should upgrade every few years? I’m not hopeful it’ll be sold/marketed any differently but it’ll be interesting to see how the next few rounds of software and hardware releases unfold.

So, is it worth it?

To me, the biggest selling points when folks ask me “do you like it?” is that I genuinely feel more motivated to be active because of the Apple Watch, and I have noticed a significant drop in the amount of time I’m just staring at my phone. As the watch starts to ‘disappear’ and become less of a novelty in your life, the more value it actually brings to your day to day life. That’s a huge value proposition, and one that Apple has struggled to make in my opinion. I get it – selling a thing that makes one of their other things used less seems like a bad pitch, not to mention admitting how addictive smartphones can be. I can’t stress how much I value not having to worry about missing a notification but still being able to set my phone aside.

In short, the apps kind of suck and probably will continue to do so until watchOS 2 is released. Data transfer of info to glances and apps can be glacially slow at times. Sometimes the watch won’t wake up unless you master a fairly demonstrative wrist flick gesture. The UI can be confusing at first. The lack of custom complications make some of the watch faces kind of useless.

And yet I love this thing. It’s totally a 1.0 product but I am very happy that I got one, and can’t wait to see where things go from here.

I think that anyone who is fairly invested in the Apple ecosystem and wants something akin to a FitBit but is willing to pay a bit more should look at the Apple Watch very seriously. For $350/$400 you can get something that is extremely well built – without hesitation, I think this is the nicest Apple device I’ve ever owned – and gives you tons of fitness possibilities. You can mostly ignore the apps for now and still have something worth owning for the price, and I think the usefulness of these types of devices is going to skyrocket over the next 6–12 months. Investing in the stainless or gold versions are a bit riskier given how quickly this sort of tech turns over, but I think that anyone who is somewhat tech savvy and physically active would benefit greatly from owning an Apple Watch.

The Apple Watch

About 2 weeks ago, my wife handed me a box that contained a 42mm stainless steel Apple Watch w/ a black Sport Band. It was an early Father’s Day / 5 year Anniversary combo gift, but it had showed up about 2 weeks early and she knew there was no way my impulsive self would […]

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