Is this thing on?

It’s been nearly a year since I last wrote in here but more than anything this post is about accountability.

One of my goals for 2018 is to mess around on social media less and instead read and write more. Not everything I’ll write will be public but I’d like to start posting a couple of times a month at the very least, with a goal of once a week. Stay tuned.

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 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.

Trumped

What just happened?

We just elected a man who ran a campaign based on fear, hate, racism and misogyny. Devoid of any content other than a few catch phrases and intellectually too lazy to learn more about the issues, Donald Trump is going to be our president in 2 short months.

I’m terrified, and at a loss in a way that I haven’t felt in quite some time. I didn’t sleep a lot last night.

This isn’t Democrats v Republicans – if Romney or McCain had won in previous elections, I had full faith in their ability to govern. I would have strongly disagreed with some of their decisions, but my faith in those men, in our nation, and who we are as a people would not have been shaken. They are both ultimately decent men.

Trump is not a decent man.

So much about what makes our country strong, free and diverse is at risk if Trump gets his way:

  • Climate change progress, gone
  • LGBT equality, at risk
  • A woman’s right to choose, gone
  • Civil liberties, at risk
  • Freedom of the press, at serious risk
  • 50+ year alliances around the world could be dismantled
  • The end of real discussions on demilitarization of our police forces
  • A fragile but long recovery from the 2008 collapse will probably evaporate as well

That doesn’t even take into consideration that he’s a vindictive, childish bully that now will have access to the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.

What I’m struggling with the most right now is a path forward that is constructive. 2018 will be here soon and Trump has to be held in check somehow between now and then. But so many people are completely dismayed and don’t know what to do. I plan on making an impact so I can look back on these years and say that I didn’t sit idly by while Trump and his cronies turn this already great nation into an authoritarian nightmare for those that don’t look a certain way or believe in a particular deity.

We have a lot to think about and a lot of work to do, folks.

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 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.

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 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.
 

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 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.

On Forming Habits with Tech’s Help

I was recently listening to the Ezra Klein Show and the app Way of Life was mentioned during a conversation about habit building. I have a handful of things I’m always trying to get better at doing (or not doing), so I figured I’d give it a shot.

In short, you pick some activities that you think are good and bad for you and keep track of how you’re doing. Personally, I’m a very big believer in the idea of The Quantified Self: so using an app like this means when I track stats on my activities, I tend to do a much better job of following through.

A few of the things I added were:

  • No soda
  • Fewer than 2 cups of coffee per day
  • Run every day
  • Avoid afternoon snack
  • Avoid evening snack
  • Floss daily
  • No video games at night
  • Less than 20 minutes per day on social media
  • Read a book for an hour

After a month, the things I struggle the most with are the snacking. The ones I thought I’d struggle with the most but haven’t are the last two. I moved my social apps off of my home screen, turned off notifications, and replaced them with the Kindle app for iOS. I’ve been plowing through books when commuting and haven’t really had a ton of FOMO from avoiding social media. Every time I do check in, I notice that I missed nothing. I do feel a little less plugged in with what some of my friends are up to but that’s about it.

This isn’t anything even close to an “I am quitting social media” post – I love Twitter and Instagram (and Facebook is OK I suppose), but more on how quickly habits can change if you try to prioritize healthier things over the impulse to check in on social media during any down time you may have. If you’re like me, the power of “checking off all of your goals for the day” in a stupid app somehow actually keeps me on track with those goals & Way of Life is a huge help.

Can Apple Music be fixed?

Apple Music is slowly being exposed as a bit of a shitshow under the covers. I’ve been fortunate not to have run into many of the issues folks are bringing up, but I definitely feel the pain of a poorly executed user experience, especially on the desktop. The bad news is that a lot of the structural issues, especially those related to the Match portion of Apple Music, are big and difficult problems to solve. However, the good news is that I think there are a lot of smaller issues that can be solved in way that’s independent of a lot of the data issues.

Big picture stuff

I still think that the way Google Music handles their service is the best approach. Their only real drawback from an architecture standpoint is the fact that we won’t see a desktop application anytime soon, which leaves us with a good web version but nothing more. This is a downer for me as I like to stream music throughout my house using AirPlay (although I’ll be switching to Sonos sometime soon, so I might be back). Google asks you to install a small client on your computer that looks at your iTunes library and has a ‘match’ process much like Apple’s where they copy unique songs to their servers but otherwise just add songs to their library. The nice thing about this is that it’s nondestructive given Google can’t actually use your iTunes library for their service. Hindsight is 20/20 but I wish Apple had created a separate ‘Apple Music’ app that would have scanned my library and simply added everything to my new Apple Music account, in a different application, without actually touching my iTunes music.

There are a lot of reasons why iTunes has to exist and why it has to exist in the fairly janky state that it’s in right now. Think of the dozen or so tasks it has to handle – iOS App Store, iOS sync, iTunes Store, iTunes Match/Apple Music, device backup, and more. While I think Apple could break these tasks into smaller apps on the Mac, it’d be a much tougher task on the Windows side. However, I feel like this was their one chance to break with the past and create a new application that could have slowly added new features like they did with iWork and are doing with Photos. I talked about this a little bit in my initial impressions of Apple Music, and given the way things have gone out of the gate, this poor decision on their part is even more glaring now. Even if your library completely shot with the new service, long time users would have known their iTunes library is intact.

The main issues other than the ‘junk drawer’ approach taken by trying to cram all of this alongside existing iTunes Store are more skin deep and hopefully can be resolved over time. I’ve bucketed those into the following categories: UX/Design, Search, Integration, Consistency and Reliability. Forgive me for being a little lazy here – in an effort to make this fairly short, I’ve just listed items in bulleted lists.

UX and Design

In my mind, the UX decisions made are part of a larger and troubling trend in Apple-land, which is to focus on design for design’s sake rather than creating easy-to-use products. Below is a list of things that need to be fixed or rethought by the team to make the experience easier to understand for end users.

  • I should be able to add songs to a playlist without adding to my library.
  • The search UI should not have multiple tabs. Instead, it should separate what is in my library vs what is in Apple Music. Alternatively, make 3 tabs that have “all”, “my music” and “apple music” with “all” being the default.
  • Better integrated calendar in all apps/on the web for Beats 1 shows. I’d love to be able to pick shows I like and have them notify me when they are about to play.
  • Ability to have folders with both Apple Music and my own playlists. Currently these are broken out into 2 groups and Apple Music playlists are first. It means you have to scroll down very far on the desktop
  • Rename “new” to “discover”, “browse” or “explore”. “New” makes no sense.
  • Some sort of badge or color difference between tracks I own and tracks from Apple Music
  • The order of the tabs should match we we see on iOS in iTunes. Currently they are different between iPhone, iPad and Mac.
  • I should be able to like any song played on beats one and add to my library.
  • There should also be a list of all songs I’ve ‘loved’, regardless of if they are in my library or not.

Mac-specific issues

The Mac is where Apple Music really shows how flimsy the entire system is. The good news is that my initial list was about twice as long as what I have now, so I do know they’re working to squash issues within Apple Music.

  • As long as you have songs that you don’t have in your collection visible in iTunes (expanded via the ‘show songs not in my music), you can add them to ‘up next’. If you close this (clicking the ‘hide songs not in my collection’), the song instantly stops playing and it is removed from your queue along with other songs in the album.
  • Can’t click on the ‘related artists’ to view their page sometimes.
  • Can’t see artist’s Connect posts from their page at times. This is very unpredictable.
  • If I close something in iTunes (I’m looking at you, Apple Music Playlists), it should stay closed when I come back to that tab.
  • On iTunes, everything should be a link – artist names, albums, composers, etc. All of the other major services nail this and it makes discovery much easier.
  • Better persist scroll position when navigating back within iTunes. Currently, if I view a playlist from within the ‘For you’ section and then click back, I jump to the top of the list.
  • When I search for an artist and view their results, i’d like to easily be able to queue some or all of the ‘top songs’ listed. No way to multi-select from this view.
  • I constantly run into issues where there is a network error presented in a blocking modal, which means the remote app won’t work while the modal is in place. I can typically know how many times may laptop has woken up based on how many of these are stacked up when I open my laptop.

iOS-specific

  • The now playing tab needs to be larger, I often click on the play/pause button when trying to click on one of the tabs below it.
  • ‘Up Next’ shouldn’t be a small little modal, it should be an entire view on iOS.
  • Offline tracks need clearer iconography to show what is and isn’t downloaded.  I have a playlist of 100 songs that I have asked to download and I know for a fact I’ve downloaded the entire playlist but they don’t show up as downloaded. If I set the library to only show offline tracks, they still show up so I assume they are.
  • Make better use of iconography and spacing, especially on popup dialogs in iOS. A lot of the labels aren’t easily scannable.
  • Swipe between tracks on album and playlists
  • Ability to put playlists into folders from iOS
  • The ‘Up Next’ queue should persist until it’s played through or I clear it. I’ve made a little ‘drive to work’ playlist ahead of time
  • When I set my library to only show offline tracks, it’d be preferable to hide any empty playlists. Currently it shows all of the playlists but the contents are empty as there are no offline tracks.
  • Search results screen should live load results, don’t make me choose a search term first.
  • As I mentioned above, make the results one screen, not a tabbed result.

Integration

  • Apple watch needs heart button so I can quickly rate tracks while running or playing music at home.
  • There should be a global history of what I have listened to – I know iTunes metadata has this but I mean radio, playlists and my music. There should be a unified view that allows me to see every song I’ve ever listened to.
  • I’d like a section that shows you new releases from artists you follow/have in your library. Maybe a tab in connect? Ideally, I’d get push notifications every time a new artist releases a new album that I follow. Spotify and Rdio do this and it’s indispensable.

Consistency

  • Anything should be queue-able by a quick click/hold or right click – both songs in my library and part of Apple Music.
  • Anything should be easily addable to a playlist or library by the same action. This is currently fairly inconsistent.
  • Make it easier and consistent to view an artist or the album a song is in from any instance of a song or album being displayed.
  • Heart-ing a track should add to library, maybe add to a playlist of all songs that I’ve loved (regardless of if they are in my library or not)
  • Shuffle doesn’t seem to work very well. If I’m shuffling a playlist of, say, 100 songs, I’ll hear the same song play twice before I hear other songs for the first time.
  • Albums that I own should be clearly reflected as such on all platforms. Right now, albums I know I have bought from Apple sometimes don’t show up as something in my collection when browsing Apple Music’s library.
  • Phase out the star rating system in favor of what Beats & Google Music have: love, neutral, hate.

Reliability

  • Fix issues where service has network issues and cannot continue playback
  • Sync play counts, metadata changes and ratings more quickly. At times, it takes a day or more for play counts and other metadata to properly sync. This is a relic of iTunes Match so I have little hope it’ll change any time soon. The odd thing is that ratings and ‘hearts’ sync in near real-time while play counts / playlists sometimes take a day (if ever) to sync up properly.
  • Lots of times my up next queue just disappears and playback stops. My guess is that this is a separate process that has some stability issues.
  • Switching to a radio station shouldn’t clear your up next queue.
  • Seeing / hearing horror stories from smart folks that had their library ruined by Apple terrifies me. This should not happen. Simple as that.

It’s not all bad, but can it all be fixed?

I have discovered more new music in the past few months than I ever have with any other service I’ve ever used (Rdio is a close second). Beats 1 is way better than I thought it would be. However, the iTunes team really needs to focus on user experience and reliability – it’s amazing that after nearly 3 months of using this service I still feel lost much of the time. Every time I click on something I’m not quite sure what I’m going to get. Spotify lacks some of the features I want in a streaming service, but it’s a consistent, usable suite of apps. If Apple wants to truly win me over, iOS 9’s Music app and iTunes 13 (or whatever they call the next big release) needs to be a massive improvement.

I don’t expect to wake up one day to a suite of applications that have all of these problems solved for, but my confidence in Apple’s ability to write quality software has diminished a lot lately. Can they right the ship? I realize how difficult of a challenge they are up against – their user base is massive, the number of functions iTunes has to support is huge, and the expectation from each audience is large. Apple is a smart company and has a ton of talented designers and engineers. However, I feel like this might be a scenario much akin to Microsoft in the early 2000s – they’ve accumulated too much technical debt and may not be able to dig out without a complete rewrite of their client software (especially on the desktop). Their lack of desire to do this at the one time where it makes the most sense gives me pause. We’ll certainly see incremental improvements but this might be what we’re dealing with for the foreseeable future. If that’s the case, I might be back on Spotify or even Google Music. I still think I’m going to subscribe as it nails a lot of what I’m looking for in a service and I also feel like this has to be the worst state Apple Music will ever be in, so sticking it out will be a constant improvement over time … right?

Cutting the cord

At the end of last year, my wife and I decided to cancel our U-verse service and move to Xfinity internet only. We had talked about this for a while but ultimately decided that the cost (and overall lack of interest in watching TV most of the time) meant that we were throwing a decent amount of money away. Like most folks, we watch Netflix, Youtube and the occasional HBO or network show when friends or family recommend them to us, but we’re not really the type of people who sit down and spend any real significant time in front of the TV during the week.

There is one exception, however. I’m addicted to college and professional football. More on that in a minute.

We were paying over $150/month for U-verse and just didn’t’ see the value. The TV service was fine, but the internet was comically slow. So, we decided to check out Comcast. The speeds were drastically improved, and we landed a 1-year promotional deal of less than $50/month. All was well in our household until May rolled around, when I got a bill for nearly $200. Comcast, like other ISPs, have a monthly data cap in their terms & conditions but actually enforce them strictly unlike some of their competitors. The shocking thing to me was that we received notifications only at the comcast.net email address issued to me, so I wasn’t aware that we had blown through our 3 ‘mulligan’ allotments earlier in the year and were now on the hook for a $10 per 50gb over the 300gb monthly cap.

Looking back, it’s obvious why we went over. We both used (have since cancelled) BackBlaze to back up our computers – my wife is a photographer so you can imagine the huge files going back and forth all of the time – and I had just bought a new computer which has a 500gb HDD and was backed up when I migrated over. On top of that, iCloud Photo Library had just come out and in the winter months we had been plowing through tons of Netflix shows. 300gb is a joke up against that tidal wave of data. I’m at a spot now where we watch what we use pretty vigilantly and have only gone over a few times since then. However, a new set of challenges have arisen: football season.

My plan all along was to use a service like Sling TV to allow me to watch most of the games that mattered to me as Sling gives you access to the ESPN networks for $25/month. It’s actually a fantastic service and also lets you use the WatchESPN app as you are technically using a cable provider. This means I can watch almost any game that’s not on CBS/NBC/FOX with ease. Since there’s no contract, I can just sign up in August and cancel after the season is over. Another angle was to sign up for the NFL Game Pass, which is a $99/year service promising you on demand (after the game is concluded) access to every game by every team. This is great for me, as I could never watch Tampa Bay Bucs games in Atlanta anyway. I’m ok with watching Sunday evening anyway.

I’ve run into a few issues though – the location of my house means I’m unable to get over-the-air HD signals from most major local channels. This means a lot of the marquee games NOT on ESPN are not accessible to me right now without investing hundreds of dollars in an antenna on my roof (and still no guarantee things will work). Also, this weekend was my first trying out Sling TV while games were on. I didn’t sit in front of the TV all weekend but I like to have the games (or ESPN Goal Line) on while I’m doing things around the house. From Thursday night to Monday evening I watched 4 full games and had Goal Line on for a few hours as well. After checking my data use on the long weekend, I found we had used 70 gigs! That’s roughly 1/4 of my monthly cap in a 4-day weekend.

There comes a point where cutting the cord isn’t cost-effective when you do the math on all of the services, antennas, overages, dongles, apps and more you have to deal with just to save a few bucks. In fact, you’re adding a lot of cognitive overhead, worrying about your use when you should just be enjoying whatever it is you’re sitting down to watch. If you’re not a sports fan I still feel like there are fewer and fewer reasons to pay for cable but live sports is proving to be a difficult landscape to navigate when a data cap is in play.

We have a few options we’re exploring right now – the easiest solution is to find a good promotional price for cable + internet service and just deal with it for a few years. Right now, this is what I’m leaning towards. I figure by the time the promotional price expires in 24 months, the landscape will be drastically different. Other options include switching back to U-verse for Internet and hoping they don’t enforce data caps but I still have to deal with a lack of local TV coverage. Obviously, another option is simply changing my consumption of football in the fall, but that ain’t happening.

I’m going to do a little more research before making a decision but I’m leaning toward going back to Comcast with my tail between my legs. I think that the next time my contract expires, the landscape will be drastically different.

Sublime Text Power User

About a year ago I bought an eBook + video series from Wes Bos on leveling up in Sublime Text. I read about 20% of it and somehow forgot about it after the fact. Well, about a week ago I decided to finish up and it’s taken a text editor that I was actually on the fence about (I have lately been flirting with Atom for a while) and made me feel like I’m in complete control of the application.

In particular, the chapters on workflow, packages and quickly moving around the editor with the keyboard have made me much more efficient on the current project I’m involved with at work. If you’re a Sublime Text user and want to up your game significantly I highly recommend this book.