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.

How to destory Programmer Productivity

George Stocker, on How to destroy Programmer Productivity:

Ultimately, each of us controls what makes us unproductive. I suck at peaceful confrontation. I either come of too strongly, or I sit there and let the other person walk all over me. I’m really not good at it at all. As such, I don’t have any good advice for handling the external forces that contribute to not being productive, but I do know this: Whatever I can control, I should control.

This is a constant struggle for any developer – not only the external forces in an office that cause tons of issues, but the personal preferences around how software is set up. Being a morning person, I try to get into the office early and that gets me a long way. But I’m still a mere mortal, so I have to do everything in my power to reduce other distractions.

Keeping my dock hidden on my Mac alone is such a huge boon to my productivity – having an office and the ability to blast music all day goes a long way as well. I’m also super careful about what apps are on my home screen – I keep all social media on the second screen – and which apps can actually send push notifications.

Switching to the iPhone

Joe Casabona writes about 2 months with an iPhone:

But as I use the iPhone more and see how well it actually works, it’s clear that Android is great for some things. But needs to mature in other aspects. And I think Google knows that too. The change in treatment of Android over the last few years has been noticeable. It’s like Google said, “GUYS. We need to fix this mess.”

 

Good take on the good and the bad of using an iPhone 6 after spending years on the Android side. Seems like most articles these days are Apple folks who are fed up and switching to Android, so it’s interesting to see the other side of the coin from time to time. While we all have our complaints about the Apple world, the integrated nature of Apple products can be a huge peace-of-mind boost if you buy in.

Heck, even I’m tempted to switch to Android sometimes – the new Moto X looks particularly outstanding. But when I really think about it, I feel like iOS is still the place for me. Who knows, I may still switch back to Android one day. But at this point, I feel like the perfect setup is Apple hardware backed with Google services.

This hamburger is made of mystery meat

James Archer writes about the Hamburger Menu:

As an industry, we had somehow gotten “confusing and difficult navigation” mixed up with “fun and engaging user interface,” and convinced ourselves that people would put up with frustratingly vague navigation because it was cool and animated. It took a long time for the industry to finally break that habit.

I feel like I fight this battle with every new design concept comes my way these days, and rarely is it done with user experience in mind. More often than not, it’s put in place to satisfy multiple stakeholders who all want their pet page/project front and center. Out of options, the designer chooses a hamburger navigation option to appease all involved. The user doesn’t win here.

Mr. Archer gives a lot of good examples of why this style of nav is rarely a good idea, as well as a few good solutions for simplifying when you’re on a mobile layout. Definitely worth a read.

Ghostery and the ethics of blocking ads

Marco Arment, talking about the ethical dilemma of using ad blockers:

I recently started using Ghostery on my computers, and a simple homemade iOS content blocker that I may release for iOS 9’s launch. The web performance improvements with these are staggering, and the reports of quite how much Ghostery is blocking on most pages is shocking and disgusting.

I struggle with the similar ethical quandary. I have been using Ghostery for a while as well, and I’ve decided to allow Google, the Deck and a few other Ad publishers through. I want to support sites if they have chosen an ad-supported model as long as they do it in a moderately tasteful way. But to me, web tracking and retargeting is a bridge too far.

What’s great about Ghostery is that it allows you to choose to either block all 3rd party trackers/ads or specific ones, and you can even choose to do so one a per-site basis. This lets me show ads from certain networks I know of and ‘trust’ on some level, while blocking all of the shadier services. It’s a simple add on for Chrome, Safari or Firefox and it dramatically decreases the load time on most web pages, and gives you some level of peace of mind.

As others have pointed out, trackers and ads nowadays aren’t just something you can simply ignore. It’s code, executed on your machine and dramatically slows down the load time of an average web site by a few seconds most of the time. This has costs in terms of time, bandwidth, privacy and even on an ethical level.

I’ll keep tweaking my Ghostery settings to let some types of ads through, but undecipherable tracker names with no obvious benefit … you’re on notice.