Apple Watch coverage as a spectator sport

I didn’t see or touch an Apple Watch until yesterday–when I played with a couple in an Apple Store, just like anybody else could.

Apple Watch close-upThat was a somewhat unavoidable consequence of my freelancer status intersecting with Apple PR’s choosy habits (as seen in 9to5mac’s fascinating chart of which places did and did not get review hardware before earlier iOS device launches): An outlet big enough to merit early Apple Watch access will already have a full-time staffer ready to review the thing.

It happens and doesn’t really bother me, although it did when I was at the Post and felt that One of America’s Most Important Newspapers was being snubbed. To the Apple reps I yelled at over decisions made by their bosses: I’m sorry.

Anyway, it’s been positively relaxing to sit out this round of the new-Apple-gadget media circus and instead read everybody else’s reviews at my leisure. I started with those from my regular clients–David Pogue’s at Yahoo Tech, Ed Baig’s at USA Today–and then proceeded to check out John Gruber’s reviewJoanna Stern’s critique at the Wall Street Journal, Nilay Patel’s lengthy assessment for The Verge, and Farhad Manjoo’s evaluation in the New York Times.

Apple Watch reviewsAs ever, it was fascinating to see what issues each reviewer focused on and which ones didn’t merit a mention. Fun fact: None cited the watch’s thickness (at 10.5 mm, or .413 inches, it’s thinner than the Moto 360 I did not like enough to buy). Maybe I’m an oddball to be so persnickety about smartwatch thickness?

I also enjoyed seeing the Verge’s designers get to play with the layout of that piece, and I thought the day-in-the-life-of construction of that review and the WSJ’s was a good way to unpack the Apple Watch’s utility–and the limits of its battery life.

So now that I’ve played with the Apple Watch up close, am I tempted to buy it? Of course not: I have an Android phone. And even if I’d broken my streak of never owning an iPhone, this entire category of product still looks at least one update cycle away from earning a spot on my shopping list.

 

All of my aging gadgets

As I’ve been plugging away at my taxes this year, one thing’s become blindingly clear: I’m not doing my share to prop up the electronics industry. My Schedule C will show only one gadget purchase for all of 2014, a $35 Google Chromecast.

Old laptop and phoneEvery other device I use for work is older, sometimes a lot older. I have my reasons for not upgrading, and some of them may even be valid… while others probably just testify to my own persnicketiness.

 

The oldest one of the bunch is my late-2009 iMac. I really should replace it–trying to edit a RAW image file taken with a friend’s camera made it painfully apparent how its processor has aged.

But buying a new iMac or Mac mini would require me to get an external optical drive, as if it’s 1997 all over again. (Doing without is not an option: Have you seen the lifespan of a DVD in the hands of a toddler?) One thing’s for sure: Whenever I do purchase a new Mac, there’s almost no chance I’ll pay Apple’s elevated price for an external DVD burner.

My 2011 ThinkPad X120E has not held its value nearly as well–the AMD processor inside was never that fast to begin with, and these days I only run it to test things in Windows 8. What I should do is replace it with a convertible laptop like one of Lenovo’s Yoga series–that’s a kind of device I can’t buy from Apple at any price. Maybe once Windows 10 ships?

The 2012 MacBook Air I’m typing this on shows its age on the outside–I’ve let this laptop pick up so many scuff marks that it’s unclear whether I even deserve a MacBook. But while its battery life has faded a little bit, it remains a great travel companion overall. I suspect I’ll wait to upgrade this one until I can get a new model with that charges via USB-C.

The upgrade calculus is simplest with my first-generation iPad mini. When I can buy a replacement that has not just the Touch ID sensor of the latest iPad mini but the better camera of the current full-sized iPad (or something close to it) and, ideally, a default storage allocation bigger than 16 gigabytes–boom, I’ll be throwing down my credit card.

 

On the other hand, I’m seriously anxious about how I’m going to replace my Nexus 4. This phone has aged remarkably well, not least since Android 5.0 Lollipop seems to have stretched out its battery life (I’ll write more on that separately). And I’ve somehow only dropped it onto an unyielding surface once, with the damage confined to a small crack on the back that I fixed in place with a bead of Krazy Glue.

But the Nexus 4’s camera remains mediocre in most situations, and the phone doesn’t have enough storage. Unfortunately, I can’t replace it with a newer Nexus model–the Nexus 6 is almost offensively enormous if you value one-handed use. So are most of the other high-end Android phones. If I shattered the screen on my generally-beloved phone tomorrow, I guess I’d buy the second-generation Moto X… which itself no longer ranks as new.

Finally, there’s my Canon 330 HS camera. I bought that bargain-priced model because the Wirecutter liked it at the time–and because the larger-sensor point-and-shoot models I initially coveted all required trade-offs. As far as I know, that’s still the case with the two leading candidates: Sony’s pricey RX100, now in its third generation, still can’t geotag photos from Sony’s smartphone app, and Canon’s S120 and newer G7X can’t take panoramic photos.

Now that I’ve described my intentional technological backwardness at length, I’m sure some of you would like to explain why I’m mistaken or which new gadgets I should be considering instead of the potential upgrades I listed above. Please have at it in the comments.

Smartwatch withdrawal

For the first time since last summer, I’m about to depart for a trip without including a smartwatch and its charger in my luggage: I returned the Moto 360 and Samsung Gear Live I’ve been trying out to Google PR on Wednesday.

The 360’s face picks up a lot of glare.(I took advantage of having to go to NYC for the day to hand-deliver those Android Wear watches and a few other loaner devices to a Google publicist–less because of the money I’d save on FedEx, more because I wouldn’t have to find a box and enough bubble wrap for all of these things.)

I don’t miss having to charge a smartwatch–always with a proprietary adapter that’s easy to misplace, not easy to replace–every day. But I do miss the soothing sense that if something important happens in my digital life, a device on my wrist will tell me about it and relieve me of the need to grab my phone.

Somebody used the phrase “digital triage” to describe that aspect of smartwatch usage, and that sounds about right: Unlike a beep or a buzz from a phone, the name and subject of an e-mail flashed across a watch’s face tell you instantly if the message is something that demands quick attention or can wait.

That use case seems as compelling to me as it did after two months of trying the Gear Live–maybe more so after I realize how often I was checking my phone during a dinner Thursday night. Fortunately, I was with other tech types, so I’m sure my fellow diners weren’t offended. Much.

And, sure, I once again have to reach for my phone to tell the time.

This trip will take me to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, where I expect to see a new crop of smartwatches–Apple’s excluded, as that company doesn’t show off its products at other people’s events.

Some of them should be thinner and lighter and run longer on a charge than the Motorola and Samsung watches. Some may do away with the need for a proprietary charger, either by accepting a standard micro-USB charger or using wireless charging. Some may even look sharp enough to wear with a suit. With each of those advances, the odds of me buying one of these things will tick forward another notch.

4/8/2015: fixed a broken link

Why yes, I did get your CES PR pitch.

I’ve gotten seriously behind in my e-mail, even by my usual pathetic standards. To save time, I will use this post to answer an entire category of messages: e-mailed requests for my time during CES in Las Vegas next month.

CES 2014 tablet manAre you still going to CES?

Yes. Why should this January be any different from the last 16 17?

Will we see you at our press conference?

Good question! On one hand, the waits to get into big-ticket press conferences (that are more like lectures, what with the lack of time for Q&R or even hands-on inspection of these products) often preclude going to earlier events. On the other hand, I don’t know what my various editors will want me to do. Sorry, it’s complicated.

Would you like to schedule a show-floor meeting with [giant electronics company]?

Yes, probably. When one company’s exhibit space is a large fraction of an acre, getting a guided tour of the premises can be a real time-saver. If I haven’t gotten back to you yet, I will soon. Probably.

Can we schedule a show-floor meeting with [small gadget firm]?

Most likely not. The point of vendors paying exorbitant amounts of money for show-floor exhibit space is to provide a fixed target for interested attendees. So as long as you’ll have somebody there who can answer questions, I’ll get to you when I can. Hint: Telling me where to find your client in your first e-mail helps make that happen.

This general outline of my CES schedule may also be of use:

  • Tuesday, the first full day of the show, I probably won’t go further than the Central Hall of the LVCC.
  • Wednesday will find me there and then in the North Hall.
  • Thursday will probably be the soonest I can get to the South Hall’s two levels and to the Sands exhibit space.

We’re scheduling meetings at [someplace not at the convention center or walkable distance from it]. 

You do know how much CES logistics suck, right? The odds are not in your favor, not unless some attendance-required event pulls me off the show floor and near your event.

Can we set up a meeting at [ShowStoppers/Pepcom]?

Those two evening events, in which an outside PR firm books a hotel ballroom, rents tables to various gadget vendors and caters food and beverages so journalists can have dinner on their feet, constitute an efficient use of my time because I don’t have to find these companies and find time for them. Can we please not then get all OCD by booking a meeting inside an event at a spot inside a location?

Any interest?

I’d make fun of this follow-up, but I’ve used the same lame line when checking up on freelance pitches to potential clients.

Technology from a toddler’s perspective: “What’s an iPod?”

As I was working in my office earlier today, our almost four-and-a-half-year-old walked over  and picked up a worn old pair of white headphones from my desk drawer. “These are for travel,” she said. “They’re for my iPod,” I corrected.

Old iPodI should have predicted my daughter’s response: “What’s an iPod?”

Of course she wouldn’t know what one was. My iPod nano stopped working before she arrived, and my wife’s did not survive a trip through the washing machine a few months after our daughter’s birth (see also, parent brain).

My iPod was still collecting dust on my desk (don’t ask), so I handed it to my daughter. She picked it up, spun the click wheel a few times and said she’d written me a note. Somewhere, an Apple engineer reading this is laughing, because that was an interface possibility the company considered when it was designing the iPhone.

Seeing my daughter’s expectations of technology play out amounts to a constant source of amusement. While I’ve yet to see her swiping a printed page as if it were an iPad’s screen, she does assume that any computer’s display will respond to touch–resulting in a Microsoft-commercial moment when she tapped my MacBook Air’s screen and nothing happened.

My digital kid also treats streaming video as a given, which led to some upset moments on a plane when we had to explain that no, the Netflix app on mommy’s iPad wouldn’t be able to play Thomas the Tank Engine videos. I imagine that having to wait for a Christmas special to air on broadcast TV can be confusing for her as well: why can’t we just watch now?

And because our daughter has never known our living room to have a stereo system separate from the TV, I should have expected her to insist on playing her CDs through my mom’s DVD player and TV over Thanksgiving. The CD player and the better speakers one room away? No interest.

It all takes me back to the wonderful essay Berkeley economics professor Brad DeLong wrote for TidBITS in 1995 about how his five-year-old had internalized the day’s computing possibilities well enough to pretend to be a help system: “If you want to play with dinosaur toys, click over here.” For all I know, DeLong’s son now writes some of the code that has been programming my daughter’s perspective on technology.

And yet: I must admit that our little one also knows what VHS is like. We had neglected to rid of one old VCR collecting dust under a TV upstairs–because who wants one these days?–and then a friend of my wife’s offered a set of kid-friendly movies on videotape. That’s how in 2014, I have become reacquainted with the joys of rewinding and fast-forwarding.

The fable of the one-handed phablet

For most of the last three years, I have been fighting a battle against “phablets” and losing it badly. Not only have people flocked to buy supersized phones after each negative review I hand down, the dimensions of these displays have steadily crept up.

Phone size inflationThe 5.3-inch screen of the first Samsung Galaxy Note, the one that I mocked at the time for its enormousness, now ranks as just a bit over medium-sized. And that 2012-vintage hardware seems positively compact next to the 5.5-in. LCD of the iPhone 6 Plus, the 5.7-in. screen of the Galaxy Note 4 and the 5.96-in. display on Google’s upcoming Nexus 6.

Minimum sizes have gone up too. The 4.7-in. touchscreen on my Nexus 4 once seemed quite the expanse of glass but is now approaching minimum-viable-product material.

All along, my core complaint against enormophones hasn’t changed: How do you use these things single-handed? Here are some common situations where it’s difficult or impossible to wield a phone with both hands:

  • Holding a shopping basket at a store
  • Pushing a stroller
  • Wheeling your luggage through an airport
  • Standing in a train or bus and holding on to a handrail or stanchion
  • Eating a slice of pizza or other no-utensils-needed food
  • Standing in a coffee shop, bar or restaurant with a beverage in one hand
  • Holding your child’s hand
  • Walking a pet

And no, wearing a smartwatch doesn’t help unless you’re willing to annoy everybody around you by issuing voice commands to your computer of a chronograph.

But with millions of people choosing to pay what’s often a non-trivial price premium for plus-sized phones, I have to allow for me being the person who doesn’t get it.

So I’ll ask this: If you have a phone with screen that exceeds five inches across, how do you work its touchscreen when you don’t have both hands free? Has the act of tilting the phone in your hand to let your thumb reach a corner become so natural that you no longer notice, do you put down or let go whatever has your other hand occupied, or is there some other trick I’ve been missing?

Halfway around the world in less than two weeks

I racked up 13,686 miles in the air over the last two weeks–with about 21 hours on the ground between each trip–and yet the experience didn’t physically destroy me as I expected. Color me pleasantly surprised.

Thinking of homeThe stage for this exercise in propping up the airline industry was set last January, when the wireless-industry group CTIA announced that it would consolidate its two annual conventions into one and run “Super Mobility Week” in Las Vegas right after IFA.

I tried not to think about the scheduling until this summer, and then I gulped and booked my tickets: Dulles to Berlin via Munich and returning through Heathrow, then National to Houston to Vegas and back.

The flying was actually pretty good. The perhaps embarrassing amount of time and money I’ve spent on United paid off when I could use an upgrade certificate to fly across the Atlantic in business class on a flight going as far east into Europe as feasible.

Not to sound like every other travel blogger, but the lie-flat seat really is one of commercial aviation’s better inventions. I slept sufficiently well on the way to Munich that on waking, I momentarily wondered where I was. That rest, followed by being able to shower and change out of slept-in clothes at Lufthansa’s lounge in Munich, helped me feel human again sooner than usual; instead of napping that afternoon in Berlin, I wrote an extra column for Yahoo about Apple’s iCloud security breach.

I almost fell asleep at dinner that evening and then had one obnoxious night when I woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep for another hour or two, but that was about the end of my adaptation to Central European Time. And then an exceedingly rare, free “operational upgrade” at the gate bumped me from an oversold economy section into business class for the return. (Thanks, United!)

Even with a great nap on the way home, I could barely type a sentence in one try by the time I fell asleep in my own bed after 11 p.m. that night–5 a.m. CET. But I zonked out for seven hours straight, woke up feeling fine, walked our daughter to her pre-school (a big reason why I didn’t book a direct but early flight to Vegas), did a few chores and then headed off to the airport.

I was a bit of a zombie on the first flight, but from then on the jet lag was only slightly worse than on any other trip to the West Coast.

Flying home on Sept. 11So apparently I can function on that kind of schedule.

But over the last two weeks, no amount of frequent-flyer travel hacking could stop a lot of things from slipping. Back at home, the lawn grew untidy and the vegetable garden became a mess. I couldn’t use my ticket to an exciting Nats game.

On my own screen, I gave up keeping up with my RSS feed after a week; it’s probably now groaning under the weight of 2,000 unread Apple-related items.

Even without companies committing any major news in Vegas, my ability to fulfill my regular obligations decayed to the point that I filed today’s USA Today column on Friday evening. That should never happen with a non-breaking story, especially not when that haste apparently results in an avoidable error in a piece.

This post, in turn, was something I’d meant to write Saturday.

And I missed my wife and my daughter something fierce when I had to say goodbye to them twice in six days.

Next year, CTIA’s show will again follow IFA by a day. Should I once again fly more than half the circumference of the Earth in less than two weeks? That will require some careful thought.