A Year With the Apple Watch

Until a year ago, I don’t think I had worn a watch since high school, if not earlier. I was interested in an Apple Watch for nebulous reasons of “that looks kind of cool,” but I wasn’t going to buy a first-generation product. By the time the Series 3 came out, I was sorely tempted, but I held off until the beginning of 2019, when thanks to a gift card to B&H the price of a Series 4 was far more palatable.

My main interest in the Watch at that point was as a fitness device; while there are certainly cheaper fitness bands out there, the Apple integration with the Health app appealed to me, and I was dissuaded from some of the cheaper options by the experience of friends and family members burning through plastic FitBits at a rate that made an Apple Watch actually seem more cost-effective.

At the time I was working a remote job, and so my main interest with the Watch was having something to prod me into more activity. The Apple Watch’s Activity application, in particular, seemed like it fit right into an achievement-hunting and gamification strategy for success. But I still didn’t know if I would find the hassle of another device to charge and the cost of the device to really move the needle for me.

After a year with my Series 4, I can confidently say that I love the Apple Watch, and more importantly, it has made a difference to my day-to-day life, in ways both expected and totally unforeseen.

Since I’m not one to spend a ton of cash on items of unknown value (and B&H was selling White Apple Sport models for $15 less for whatever reason) I picked up a 40mm Apple Watch Sport in silver. I have small wrists, and when Apple unveiled the larger Series 4 case dimensions I was a bit concerned about not having a 38mm option. Overall, though, the 40mm fits me well without looking ridiculous.

The fit and finish of the Watch itself is still interesting to me. It’s the only Apple device I own I want to be thinner, but it sits far better on my wrist than I would have expected given its bulbous proportions. The ideal Apple Watch of multi-day battery life in a slim package still isn’t here, but with the Series 5 it’s inching closer (and I think Apple’s right to prioritize battery life and processing power over thickness at this point.)

Roughly half a year into owning my Series 4, I made an ill-advised decision to remove the watch in my bathroom, with the end result being a drop onto tile and a smashed corner and crack across the face of the Watch. This hasn’t resulted in any noticeable performance or display degradation (besides, you know, the crack across it) and I’ve lived with the cosmetic damage; really the only downside is I’m pretty sure the water resistance of the thing is shot, but that just means a little more consideration when it rains. Apple’s repair quotes for the screen (and the cost of doing it yourself) are ridiculous, and so I’ll keep running with the battle-scarred version I have until I eventually replace it.

Even before the smashed screen, however, I’d ended up with a fair few minor scratches across the watch face. Training my brain to walk around with a wristwatch again took longer than I expected, and I’m pretty sure the majority of the scratches were accumulated by just running into doors or walls with my wrist because I’d gotten used to being able to do that without consequence. The stainless steel or Edition models with their sapphire glass would probably have survived that damage, but on the other hand, they may have fared worse in the drop. Either way, I don’t think these devices are hardy enough (nor long-lived enough) at this point to make a more expensive watch worth it. When I was purchasing the Watch, there wasn’t really any question I’d get aluminum anyhow—leaving aside the cost, the stainless steel models felt like too much flash for a guy who doesn’t wear any jewelry otherwise. The Series 5’s titanium finish looks higher-end than the aluminum without tripping that flashy line for me, so in the future if that material sticks around, I might consider it.

As a fitness device, the Watch has absolutely served its purpose. I was averaging only around 6,100 steps a day in 2018. For 2019, I averaged 10,280, and ended this January with in excess of 11,000. The Watch prodding me to get up and move around a bit also helps get in more activity and sit a bit less. The achievement aspect especially proves a tremendous motivator; I’ve reached an unbroken streak of 380 Move goals, which enforces a much higher minimum amount of activity to my daily routine. That sort of push was not there just using my phone’s tracking capabilities. The other health aspects are a mixed bag. I turned off the Breathe notifications within a week, but the newer noise monitoring feature has been great whenever I’m out at a bar or concert. I do not have a large social circle using Apple Watches to compete against, but fortunately personal motivation works just fine.

More interesting has been the ancillary benefits of the Watch beyond its fitness functions. I would regularly miss notifications when out on a walk or placing my phone down in my apartment; the Apple Watch makes it much harder to not see notifications when I’m on the go. It’s also amazing how nice it is to be able to deal with some things from my wrist and not pull out my phone—especially things like calls from unknown numbers, or sending a quick voice message or acknowledgement thumbs-up to a text update that doesn’t need a substantial reply. These are saving just a few seconds at a time, but once you’re used to that convenience, it’s hard to let it go. The ability to send directions to my watch and have it quietly tap me where to go when I’m out walking so I’m not running around with my phone out is also a very nice benefit.

That said, there are some annoyances with the product. Battery life is of course always less than I’d like it to be, and I’d prefer a more slim look for my wrist, but many of my nitpicks come from software, not the hardware.

I’ve bounced between several different watch faces. WatchOS has added more options and ameliorated some of my concerns, but the jump between faces has less to do with a sense of style and more that no single Watch face does exactly what I want it to.

I appreciate the visual component to time-telling, so I’m an analog watch face guy. But the Simple and Utility faces have some deficiencies; the utility doesn’t let me fine-tune which numbers show up on the face as much as I want, and the Activity complication is stubbornly colorful in the corner. The Simple watch face banishes the color, but I’m left with two complications on the bottom which don’t provide as much information as the single one on Utility. Infograph now comes in a monochrome option, but its analog face is hard to read quickly with its very thin hour and minute ticks, and populating the complications just makes it feel like information overload. Recently I’ve settled on Meridian; while it still isn’t monochrome, it’s at least two-toned. The complications being in the middle of the watch face makes them a bit harder to read depending on where the hands are, but they are generally fuller-featured (the temperature complication gives me the high/low plus current temperature like Infograph, instead of just current temperature like Simple and Utility.) As part of the trade you get a more legible analog face that takes up the entire screen, which certainly looks much nicer and embraces the fact that the Apple Watch is square rather than pretending it’s round.

Still, this all screams for richer complication customization, and true custom or modular watch faces. It’d also be great to have a machine that feels more capable when away from the phone. But the Apple Watch has become one of my favorite gadgets, and I’m looking forward to Apple continuing to push the frontier of health.

Maxon and Red Giant merge

This is interesting news for the motion graphics community that I missed over the holidays. Red Giant makes the universe of After Effects plugins that are pretty much essential, such as Particular and Form, along with the random and niche, like Psunami.  Maxon, of course, is the company behind the very popular 3D program Cinema4D. Perhaps most interesting is this isn’t an acquisition, like how Maxon acquired Redshift earlier this year, but a merge. I wonder what this will all mean in the near future, if anything.

Mac Pro Day

After six years since the last revision, two years since Apple admitted they whiffed on said revision, and six months since they unveiled it at WWDC, Apple’s new “Wrath of the Cheesegrater” Mac Pro is available for order. You can spec it out to an eye-watering $50K, although I imagine most setups will be south of $10K. Since RAM and extra SSD space (via PCIe cards) can be purchased from third-parties, the gulf between the price Apple offers and speccing a machine yourself is vast.

As is, the higher-entry level price—it went from $3000 base price to $6000—makes it pretty hard to justify buying for me. But I’m hopeful that the Mac Pro gets back to a regular update schedule and marks a return to Apple fighting for the high-end business. It’s a beautiful machine, and I hope—unlike like its diminutive predecessor—it’s not a one-off.


I’ve played many good to great video games in my life, but the ones that left me inspired, or reeling, or kept me up at night thinking about them after completing them is a much shorter list. One such game was Oxenfree, from developer Night School Studio. It was another entry into the surprisingly large “story-based games where Pacific Northwest teenage girls encounter the supernatural” genre, but it ditched the standard “game stops so you can make a dialogue” choice dialogue mechanics of previous games and let you have natural conversations while traversing beautiful, hand-painted landscapes, set to a chilling soundtrack by scntfc that merged digital and analog sounds into a haunting mix. Add a dash of timey-wimey looping action and a mind-bending New Game+ ending, and it was my game of the year for 2016.

Night School is back, and last month they released Afterparty. The game can be boiled down into a high-concept pitch: “Two dead people attempt to escape Hell by outdrinking Satan.” The dead, in this case, are best friends Lola and Milo, celebrating the end of college one moment, and then the next, finding themselves in the Underworld. The only way out is through the aforementioned contest with the Devil—but the remarkably chummy Lucifer isn’t interested in making it quite so simple, so Milo and Lola end up traversing Hell’s neighborhoods to make their roundabout shot at escape. And when the chance to get out of hell finally arrives… it doesn’t feel like the victory Milo and Lola hoped for.

Like Oxenfree, the walk-and-talk mechanics comes over pretty much unchanged, but the difference with Afterparty one of your dialogue options only appears when you’ve been drinking, and that third dialogue option is influenced by just what you drank. You could sound like a pirate, a lovesick Romeo, a quippy movie star, or a sports-obsessed doofus. You can also choose to give yourself liquid courage or unrelenting aggression, and in some cases these choices unlock the paths forward. The characters and voice actors are up to the task, and by far the most enjoyable part of Afterparty is the denizens you come across and how they are portrayed.

There were a few criticisms of Oxenfree, and Night School seems to have taken them to heart with improvements here. Oxenfree didn’t have a whole lot of gameplay beyond the dialogue options; mostly it was just walking around, and then tuning some radios. Afterparty adds a bit more to the toolbag. While it never really feels quite like a LucasArts item-based puzzle game, there are more branching paths and mini games (such as beer pong, dancing, and building shot glass towers) to spice things up for the people who don’t just want to talk through every beat. As a result, Afterparty feels a bit more varied and less linear.

The shame is that, despite these changes, and keeping many of the same ingredients as Oxenfree (scntfc returns as composer, and some of the same voice actors return as well) Afterparty feels like a pale imitation. The problems start with the setting: Hell is populated with a number of demons and other souls, but you can interact with very few of them, and the game doesn’t offer the same rewards for exploration that Oxenfree did. Hell ends up feeling… rather pedestrian and ordinary. Barren, even. The story, too, never really embraces the setting. Satan is depicted as still smarting from his breakup with dad, but the game surprisingly avoids a lot of interrogation of what Hell represents. Here, people end up tormented eternally for minor jackassery, and Lola and Milo themselves don’t really ever learn exactly why they’re down there. The justness of Hell versus Heaven, how Demons are forced into the job of torment, and how everyone just goes drinking after work hours—it ends up feeling rather low-effort and low-stakes for the characters. Add in technical issues and poor performance on many of the platforms the game was released on, and it just feels underdone. It’s a more ambitious throw than Oxenfree, but Afterparty doesn’t really sink the shot.

Photoshop for iPad

Bloomberg has a piece out today that suggests the iPad version of Adobe Photoshop is coming soon, and profoundly disappointing in its featureset:

Adobe has been testing Photoshop for iPad under the codename Rocket with a small group of beta testers since earlier this year. Participants have told Bloomberg News that some beta versions don’t include well-established features they expected to be part of the release. They complained about less advanced or missing features around core functionality like filters, the pen tool and custom paintbrush libraries, vector drawing, color spaces, RAW editing, smart objects, layer styles and certain options for mask creation. Their disappointment about these limitations stems from Photoshop’s established reputation as a leading professional photo-editing program on the desktop.

To be fair to Adobe, Photoshop is an ancient program that is the bedrock of a huge chunk of all media production on the planet. You can’t easily replicate that featureset in a 1.0 release on a platform with a different user interface paradigm.

But Adobe is also nearly a decade late to the party here. After the success of the iPhone and the instant success of the iPad, it should have been obvious which way the wind is blowing in computing, and Adobe was still trying to keep a dead platform limping along rather than embrace the future. Since Adobe hasn’t stepped up, smaller developers have made very nice programs that are great in part because they are designed for the iPad first.

I’m starting to wonder if Adobe is paving the path for its future ruin by its relative inaction. The switch to a subscriber revenue model and the power of the interconnected Creative Cloud synergy between applications is not to be trifled with, but while some parts of Adobe CC have no real peers, that’s not the case with Photoshop. A lot of work will continue to be done on the “real” computers of yesteryear, but if Adobe can’t demonstrate that it can produce a first-class tablet experience, it’s basically ceding the market and the mindshare of an emerging generation.

Apple’s iPhone Event to be Streamed on Youtube

This story courtesy 9to5Mac:

Over the last several years, Apple has gradually been expanding the ways people can tune into its various keynotes. This year, Apple is further expanding its efforts and will stream the September 10th iPhone 11 event on YouTube.

For those with long memories, for a long time the only way you could actually stream Apple’s events was through Safari and/or an Apple device, and then Microsoft Edge. Grabbing the direct stream via something like VLC was possible but required a level of technical know-how; expanding to Youtube dramatically boosts the potential audience for this. A fun little historical footnote on the slow trend of a far more open Apple under Cook.

Insights From Wikipedia’s Pageviews Tools

The use of Google Trends to document interest in topics is well-understand, but using Wikipedia for the same purpose is less common. To be fair, Google Trends exposes far more details about search terms—where people were looking, and what other searches were paired—but Wikipedia offers an interesting extra detail given that it’s very often the end-result of those Google searches. The result is that it can often tell you more granular insights than Trends can provide. Let’s look at some examples:

League of Legends is the most popular multiplayer online battle arena (or MOBA) video game out there, followed by Dota 2, the official sequel to the grandaddy of all MOBAs. The Google Trends graphs gives you an indication of both game’s ebbs and flow:

But Wikipedia via the Pageviews analysis tool surfaces some more interesting details:

The peaks in August of each year show spikes in traffic to Dota 2, which correspond with their yearly International tournament—still the biggest prize pool in eSports. What isn’t clear from Google’s graphs is there are similar constituent spikes for League as well for its own yearly tournaments in October and November, but it’s dwarfed by Dota‘s spikes—during those months, Dota is more popular—sometimes much more so—than League, despite being less popular overall the rest of the year.

While just like Google Trends, you’re not necessarily mapping popularity per se but discovery and surfacing of key words, in some ways I find Wikipedia’s trends more useful because Google tells you inputs—what people are searching for. Wikipedia has the advantage of telling you what people landed on, at least on the site (which is a limited view, but given that Wikipedia is the fifth most popular site on the planet, isn’t nothing either.)

Apple’s Acrylic Era

It may be hard to remember, but before the iPhone and the modern era of Apple1 Apple made computers not of highly recyclable BFR-, PVC-, and beryllium-free, low-carbon aluminum and glass, but of that boogeyman of our more environmentally-conscious world, acrylic plastic. It was with acrylic that Jony Ive first made his mark at Apple, and it was acrylic that ultimately saved the company entirely.

The first hints of what was to come were found in small touches across Apple’s product line in the late 90s. The Power Macintosh 8600/9600 and successor Power Macintosh G3 all had small translucent plastic touches; more heavy usage was found on the eMate and LCD display. Perhaps most infamously, there was the G3 All-in-one or “Molar Mac”, which in many ways feels like the Postosuchus to the iMac G3’s Coelophysis—superficial cousins, but an evolutionary dead end. The Molar Mac was heavy and unapologetically still a Platinum-era Mac, despite its translucent shroud.

(Image by Stephen Hackett)

Then the Bondi Blue iMac came along, and everything changed.

(Image by Rama, CC-by-SA)

With the iMac’s success, Apple quickly moved to a completely different design language, but it was expressed in different flavors. The first short phase I’d call “smoky”. This was expressed in the original iMac and Blue & White G3, which were less translucent and more understated compared to what was to come.

The second phase was “clear”, and it was exemplified by the more transparent, more saturated colors of the later iMacs, along with the introduction of the Apple Studio Display and PowerMac G4 in 2000. The pro Macs were more restrained in colors (the early G4s had a pinstriped, vaguely blueish-grey called “graphite” that changed to a more neutral “quicksilver” in 2002) and used clear plastic prominently for handles and accents, while the iMacs went through a total of 13 variations, including the still-bananas Flower Power and Blue Dalmation, before settling down. The iMacs introduced in 2000 did have a harbinger of the next phase of Apple’s products, however—the white “Snow” color.

(The “snow” iMac G4s. Image by Omega21, CC-by-SA)

After this exuberant use of acrylic, Apple began a slow migration away from it. The PowerBook, which never got a clear acrylic makeover, was the first to switch in 2001 to an opaque grey metal-and-plastic enclosure—first titanium, and then the now-omnipresent aluminum. The PowerMac line would follow with the G5 “cheesegrater” in early 2003. What followed was the “opaque” phase, where Apple’s products became defined by opaque white plastic and/or aluminum across all their computers, monitors, and peripherals. In retrospect, this period seems less a serious design era on its own, and more a slow evolution to where Ive and the rest at Apple really wanted to go. The iMac added aluminum in 2007 and became fully jacketed in 2009. The Mac mini followed in 2010. The iPhone became glass-and-metal with the iPhone 4, and the final vestige of the plastic era was the polycarbonate MacBook, which was discontinued in 2011.

(Though ultimately a failed product, the Power Mac G4 Cube was perhaps the apotheosis of Apple’s acrylic Macs. Photo by BinarySequence, CC-by-SA)

In retrospect, the acrylic era really only lasted roughly five years as the predominant look of Apple’s products, but that timeframe was the key turning point for the company. It saw Apple kill its old products and start over with the simplified 2×2 product matrix, the introduction of the iPod and the very start of Apple’s iTunes empire, and the creation of the “digital hub” strategy that would define Apple until the success of the iPhone. And it might just be nostalgia speaking, but those computers still look great. While some PC makers have in recent years gotten much closer than ever before to getting close to Apple’s fit-and-finish with metal or carbon fiber computers, no one has touched Apple’s use of acrylic in the nearly twenty years since they showed what could be done, and it’s entirely possible no one ever will.

  1. What is the modern era of Apple at this point? It’s easy to use Steve Jobs’ death as a marker, but now we’re nearly eight years out from that moment—Jobs’ passing is closer to the release of the iPod in 2001 than the present. With Ives’ departure, it’s possible we’re entering a new epoch of Apple history—but like with all history, it’ll be a while before we can truly see the differences.

On Jony Ive and Apple’s Future

The big Apple news of last week was ruminating over the announced departure of Jony Ives, Apple’s longtime chief designer. John Siracusa opined that no one save for Steve Jobs himself was more instrumental in Apple’s renaissance in the late 90s and early 2000s, and I’d agree. While his designs have always been occasionally divisive, there’s no one in the 21st century who has had as large a role in shaping the look and feel of technology everyone uses—because where Apple goes, most other manufacturers follow.1

From the outside-in it’s incredibly hard to say how much this really matters, but I’m inclined to think “not much.” While Apple clearly didn’t want to dwell on this news—you don’t drop it late in the week for no reason—they also clearly have a plan in place for Ives’ departure, and there has always been a team of talented designers at Apple who have had to realize Ives’ visions, and who now have a better shot at realizing their own.

The punditsphere is of course filled with contradictory takes of “Jony Ive was hurting the company” smashed together with “…and Apple is doomed,” but I feel like neither approaches the truth any more than they can harmonize. Ives was ultimately responsible for design under his watch, and Apple put out some lemons—but they *always* have, and every criticism that can be thrown at Apple’s current lineup can be thrown at the Jobs-Ives golden era as well. Stripping legacy ports? Ill-advised miniaturized machines without internal expansion? Chasing thinness to the point of leaving out old features? They’re all there in Apple’s history.

Leaving aside the problems with Apple’s recent crop of keyboards (which are certainly serious, from a public relations perspective if not in terms of absolute numbers)2 I’d say that Ives will be leaving an Apple doing better than it has recently during his tenure. A large number of Apple’s deficiencies recently were in operations and strategy (a confusing lineup of products) and software (buggy yearly releases) whose connections to Ives are not directly clear. Even if they were caused by Ives, they’ve been getting steadily better. While I’m still not convinced yearly MacOS updates are a good thing, there hasn’t been a problem like borking your networking in quite a while.

More than anything, I’m excited rather than fearful. Apple is or should be too big for any one departure to irreparably harm it, and invariably you need new voices to have a chance of keeping things fresh.

Speaking of Apple’s woes, they’ve been addressing a lot of them recently. The biggest was simple: not updating their Macs. 2018 and 2019 has seen the revival of previously neglected models, as well as welcome minor spec bump and refreshes that make getting a new Mac feel like a good deal rather than fretting over when you might actually get a new product to buy.

Today was another welcome stitch in that pattern, as well as dealing with one of the most frustrating elements of Apple’s recent Mac strategy: a confusing mess of old ‘zombie’ products and overlapping offerings. Apple killed off the old MacBook Air, updated its retina replacement while dropping the price, and in one fell swoop removed the Retina MacBook Pro without Touch Bar (or MacBook Escape) as well as the one-port, ultraportable Retina MacBook (or MacBook Adorable.) Last fall there were three Macs around $1200–1300 to buy, and none of them were great—the MacBook Escape hadn’t been updated, the MacBook Adorable was underpowered (and also hadn’t been updated), and the MacBook Air was expensive compared to what you got for the money versus just buying said outdated MacBook Escape. Now, with a lower $1099 starting price, the MacBook Air carves out a better niche, and the Touch Bar model drifts down to the $1299 line instead of being a more expensive feature locked away (some people probably prefer the physical function keys, but I wager far more care about TouchID to unlock their Macs.) Given that the Air was less than 12 ounces heavier than the MacBook Adorable but more powerful and featured, its loss is not keenly felt unless you were a road warrior who absolutely prioritized size above everything. The end result is that with the new Mac Pro at the high end and cheaper portables at the low end, the Mac lineup is finally starting to shape up and feel vibrant in a way it really hasn’t since 2012.3

There’s still issues, to be sure—while the higher-end flash storage options also got a welcome price cut, getting 256GB of storage still costs $200 extra, so that’s basically a $200 increase to all Apple’s low-end products to make them decent machines for most users.4 The iMac, meanwhile, still has spinning 5400RPM hard drives standard (and the entry-level model is now the only device Apple sells without a retina display.) But it’s heartening to see that, even as its steward of the past twenty years departs, Apple seems to be course-correcting its way out of the reefs.

  1. It’s hard to imagine what phones would look like today without the success of iPhone, or laptops without the PowerBook 100. It seems obvious they’d end up where they are, but that’s just it—they are so successful because they felt like obvious designs in retrospect.

  2. John Gruber has gone so far as to say the MacBook keyboards are Apple’s worst product ever. I’m not sure I buy that, but given Apple’s massive reach these days it’s possible that it’s one of Apple’s costliest mistakes. The first-generation MacBook Air or Titanium PowerBooks all had their issues, for example, but they simply didn’t sell in the volumes of current MacBook Pros.

  3. That year gave us the retina MacBook Pro and the last solid update to the Mac mini until four years ago, as well as the last (minor) revision to old cheesegrater Mac Pro.

  4. This stubborn resistance to boost base storage on their machines reminds me of Apple’s similar stubborn resistance to boosting their iOS devices’ storage past 16GB.

The Talk Show Live From WWDC 2019

This year at WWDC John Gruber hosted Craig Federighi and Greg Joswiak on-stage for the live edition of The Talk Show. Some impressions:

  • The ASIC in the Mac Pro used to accelerate ProRes workflows is reprogrammable. I wonder if Apple’s going to offer different flavors for other industries to try and help push adoption into areas that Apple has very little toeholds in; while they remain very strong in desktop and web publishing, video, and color correction, high-end post production and niches like scientific modeling are often dominated by UNIX or specialized tools.
  • No price on the Mac Pro’s wheels were given.
  • With Sidecar, Apple is doubling down on the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, offering it in virtual form on users’ iPads regardless of the Mac you’re using the iPad with. I’m guessing that alongside the rumors of a 16″ MacBook Pro that retains the Touch Bar and only adds back the escape key, they are going to keep it around, and having it be “universal” even to Macs that don’t have it is a way of encouraging developers to use it.
  • There are some good tidbits about crafting the keynotes, including the fact that there are metrics for how many slides each presenter can get through in a minute.
  • Apple will probably never be able to replicate Jobs’ personality and showmanship, but I think it’s inarguable that Federighi is the most entertaining of Apple’s presenters and certainly the one who seems to have the most rapport with the WWDC especially. Joswiak and Federighi’s banter is part of what gives Apple a real personality instead of feeling scripted.