All posts filed under “Apple

Don’t ask me what I use my Apple Watch for – you’ll only be disappointed

Predictably, understandably, laudably, the question I’m always asked about my Apple Watch is what I use it for. This presents a tricky social situation.

Some people might as well have asked “Pff! What do you use that overpriced twatbangle for, you gullible first-world bumboy?”

Some ask with doe-eyed, kawaii enthusiasm, wagging their tails like sparkly cartoon puppies, desperate to be told that I use it for EVERYTHING and that it’s AMAZING and that I LOVE IT AND I LOVE YOU AND WOULD YOU LIKE AN ICE CREAM‽ 🍦🌈😍

Some are genuinely curious. They’re open. Interested. Ripe.

My real answer will please none of them. The real answer is that there is no big, spectacular thing that I use my Watch for in the fortnight I’ve had it. All I can offer are personal anecdotes.

The thing that prompted this post happened when I was preparing dinner earlier tonight. I had put some rice on, and when it came to the boil, I turned the heat down to low then lifted my wrist and said “Hey, Siri; set a timer for 10 minutes.” That was it. I didn’t touch the Watch. I didn’t wait till Siri tapped me on the wrist to confirm she was listening. I actually didn’t even check she’d heard me till a few minutes later when I glanced at my wrist to see how long remained on the Complication on my watch face. (That surprised me.)

I don’t like the Apple Watch because it’s overtly impressive. Actually, it’s the opposite. It is – or perhaps more accurately, might just conceivably prove with hindsight to be – one of the first examples of technology whose job is to impress you by its very ignorability.

And nobody who asks me about it wants to hear that.

Visual directions on the Apple Watch

After communication, probably the thing I value my iPhone for the most is in helping me navigate – Maps, Citymapper, boarding passes, planning train journeys and so on. I love that I simply don’t have to stress about that stuff in the slightest any more. Moving some of that stuff onto the wrist makes a huge amount of sense, and it was going to be one of my key uses for an Apple Watch too.

Having watched the tour for Maps, though, I’m just a little disappointed. Functionally, completely fine, and the haptic feedback will doubtless work well. But I’m disappointed because the turn-by-turn directions are presented non-visually. It’s ‘in 30 yards, turn left onto Durham Road’ stuff. As I say: functional, will get you there, and is doubtless suited to how many people navigate.

My mind, though, is better-suited to visual cues. When I’m using a satnav in my car, I turn voice prompts off and I rarely read any road names; instead, I’m just glancing to see where the wiggly blue line of my route is leading and translating that into the landscape I see out the window. I’d far rather be able to glance at my wrist and see a visual confirmation of where I should be going, just like I do on my iPhone while driving, rather than having to think consciously about distances and hunt for sometimes missing or obscured street names around me.

It might be fixable; I can’t imagine that showing 2D visuals would use any more power than the current system, even if it’s decided that showing a live 3D representation is too much of a trade-off. I note too in that video that there are two paging dots at the bottom of the directions screen, so it’s possible that there’s a nice visual map on the other tab Apple just isn’t showing in the video.

And indeed it might be, as is so often the case, that Apple knows what I want better than I do myself, and that I’ll quickly and completely become comfortable without that visual crutch, happy to depend utterly on the haptic feedback. Only a few days left before we can find all this stuff out!

I’m excited about the Apple Watch – and that’s okay

As a technology journalist – or at least, a certain type of technology journalist – you subconsciously internalise a lesson: never be excited about anything. Because as soon as you are, people will rush to tell you two things: the first is that the thing you’re excited about is to a given extent stupid and pointless (and so by extension are you, both for being excited about it and just in general), and the second is that you are an unthinking shill for the company which makes it, hell-bent on brainwashing the public with your hagiographies – and so completely corrupt and untrustworthy.

I’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with (read: ignoring) both over the years, but I’m still not strong or arrogant enough for them not to bother me at some level.

However, I’m hugely excited about buying an Apple Watch, and anyone who would seek to make me feel small about that can fuck off. I am quite aware of the criticisms of smartwatches in general and the Apple Watch in particular, and I acknowledge at least the possibility that it will prove to be an expensive bauble, an ultimately doomed gewgaw, even though it seems unlikely.

But I’m excited to find out for myself. I’m a technology enthusiast – a discerning one, not a blind one, I think. I’m looking forward to finding out what the Watch does, how it changes me and those around me; having a front-row seat for the show sounds like fun.

On Friday, when I preorder my Apple Watch, I will be excited. I can understand why the public would find that an unseemly emotion in a journalist, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of objectivity, and personally I would far rather read something suffused with enthusiasm and delight than something so constricted by dispassion and neutrality that all the life has been squeezed out of it.

This is the Apple Watch I’m getting

Enough people have asked me what Apple Watch I’m getting that I thought I’d note this down – in part in case in helps anyone else, and in part so I can just direct askers to this post!

Picking the edition is easy. Before the prices were announced, I had liked the look of the Apple Watch in space black with a link bracelet. But that’s nine hundred quid or more, and I just can’t justify that outlay, especially for a first-gen product whose utility I can imagine but which is unproven. Had it been five or six hundred, I might have talked myself into splurging, but nine? Nah.

So Sport it is. I naturally switched to the closest equivalent, the space grey Sport model. But weeks later when I went back I started thinking it was a bit dull and a bit heavy, visually. What’s more, since the case for this model is black, I can’t see that it would look good with anything other than the black band, and I do like the idea of getting a couple of bands.

So a non-black Sport it is. I actually quite like the green band (though I know many hate it), but ultimately, having dismissed it out of hand originally, I think I’m going to go for the white band, on purely personal aesthetic preference; I like the mix of black, white and silver, and I’ll probably buy a green band at the same time. (Plus, if it’s good enough for Tim…)

But then the tricky bit: what size? I don’t have big wrists, so I assumed I’d buy the 38mm, and even when the Apple Store app started showing you the faces at actual size, the 38mm looked better when I squinted and tried to imagine it. Actually, though, it’s not the ‘footprint’ of the Apple Watch that worries me, it’s the thickness, and partly on that basis I’ve decided to get the 42mm; my thinking is that the bigger footprint will wear, will balance that thickness better. The proportions will, I hope, look  less cubic.

The 42mm will also, I think, be easier to read (remember; it’s not just physically bigger, but has more pixels) and we know it will have slightly better battery life. Plus, it looks okay on my wrist according to the visualiser in the Apple Store app.

So: 42mm Apple Watch Sport with a white band. £339. Sold! (Nearly.)

The strength of the dollar

I realised today that the dominance of the US media in tech – or, arguably, the fact that my circle of influence is likely skewed to the US – has a slight, unavoidable but definite effect on my purchasing decisions.

Fantastical 2 is out for the Mac today, and by all accounts it’s superb. I don’t doubt this; Fantastical in all its incarnations has always been meticulously put-together, and I bought it without hesitation on my iPhone. It’s so much better than the stock app it’s quite embarrassing.

Much as been said, unsurprisingly, about the price. This, though, isn’t a rehash of the well-worn arguments about sustainable software pricing. Instead, I noticed today that even I winced at the price – $50 – but that’s because I apparently just see the ‘50’ rather than the ‘$’.

Fifty quid is a lot of money. £33.56 (at current global exchange rates as I write this) less so. The actual price of the application on the App Store in the UK (with the launch discount of 20% applied), £29.99, is less so again.

And yet because the predominant price I see around the web is $50, there’s something that sticks about that figure. Fifty. Fifty things. Fifty currency units.

It’s not fifty pounds, but somehow I internalised it as such, and that dissuaded me from buying.

The dollar’s financial strength waxes and wanes, but it’s still a strong cultural force.

UPDATE I pinged this post to Fantastical’s creator, Michael Simmons, who read it as ‘Fantastical costs too much’ and as a result ‘I won’t buy it’. It upset me that I upset him! Neither take is true, so let me be completely clear: this is a post about the psychological effect that comes from the dominance of the dollar in tech reporting and how I realised that I (daftly!) apparently sometimes subconsciously just switch the $ for a £, subtly affecting my behaviour. It is, if you like, a post about how dumb I am.

It’s definitely not a post about Fantastical costing too much. Again, I’m going to assume that you know the arguments for sustainable app pricing and agree that pricing apps realistically is basically good for everyone. I don’t think $50 is ‘too much’ (I wonder what figure I would say is?), and I intend to buy the app shortly – at, remember, £29.99. (Rereading the post I wish I’d written ‘…and that didn’t incentivise me to launch the App Store to find out more and then buy, upon realising that we were talking thirty quid rather than fifty’ instead of ‘…and that dissuaded me from buying’; same basic meaning, but a more accurate if less pithy angle.)

I don’t blame Michael for taking the post in a way I hadn’t intended. For one thing, the point I was making was quite a subtle, thought-experimenty one, and for another since he will be getting hit with a lot of ‘this app is to expensive lol’ today, it’s understandable that he’d parse this as such; when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

The PowerBook Duo

The PowerBook Duo might just be my favourite Apple computer of all time – although ask me on another day and I might say it was the Macintosh Classic, the iMac G4, the G4 Cube or something else again – and I wrote a bit about why at Macworld this week.

I picked the Duo for this week’s Think Retro because like the just-announced new MacBook, this was Apple trying to make a slim, lightweight, focussed laptop. Back when this new machine was just a rumour, though, I wrote about how Apple could reinvent the Duo concept for today, and on re-reading it while writing the Macworld piece, I was still happy with some of the ideas I proposed. Often this kind of thing leads to patently absurd, technology-for-its-own-sake-style visions of the future, but I still think my proposals sound broadly sensible, useful and feasible.

One of the obvious areas where laptops still lag is in graphics performance, and it’s at least theoretically possible to use an external graphics card hooked up over Thunderbolt – in some ways a spiritual successor to PDS – so that’s the first thing we spec into in our imaginary dock.
What’s more, with an increasing reliance on GPGPU – using a graphics card for general computing tasks – a big, meaty dedicated graphics card in the dock to augment a battery-boosting weedy graphics card inside the laptop will boost overall performance too.

And while we’re about it, let’s hook up a load of internal storage as well. I’d love to see Apple put a Fusion Drive in place – a hard disk paired with a PCIe SSD, in this case inside the laptop – but leave additional bays for more hard disks. When you filled it up, you’d slot a new drive into an empty bay (a bit like the old Power Mac G5 or Mac Pro) but the clever bit is that the OS would take care of expanding the storage dynamically so you’d only ever see one drive. The speed of the SSD would keep everything fast and responsive.

When you undocked, the files on those hard disks would still be ‘there’, just greyed out, and you’d use Apple’s Back to My Mac tech seamlessly to pull it over the internet. The same tech that tells a Fusion Drive what files you regularly use in order to ‘cache’ them on the SSD means that you should have most stuff you actually need on the laptop’s internal SSD anyway. The only difference from a Fusion Drive inside an iMac is that here the hard disk is external to the laptop (inside the dock, over a Thunderbolt bus) rather than internal alongside the SSD – something you can actually do yourself today if you want to.

Indeed, one of the internal bays could be used for a dedicated Time Machine backup drive that would also work over your local network or even the internet, CrashPlan-style, when you’re undocked. And since we’re wishing, let’s finally make this the first Mac that has built-in 4G, so that the remote file grab thing works wherever you are.


One of the demos that lodged itself in my brain from the most recent Apple event was when Kevin Lynch used the Watch to remotely open a garage door to let in his daughter – who’d forgotten her key – while seeing a live feed from a security camera to confirm it was indeed opening. I finally twigged why I found this so compelling.

From the earliest days, technology has always been about giving ourselves extra abilities, about allowing us to transcend the limitations of our basic biology. Computers have played a dramatic role in this, but it’s always clear that we’re using them as a crutch; when we sit down in front of a desktop PC we’re acknowledging that we need this external technology’s help.

In making computers smaller – from the room to the desktop to the laptop to the pocket and now the wrist – I wonder if subconsciously we’ve been trying to make it less obvious that we need the help of other agents. There’s something about the nature of a smartwatch – not just that it’s discreet and unfamiliar as a computer-with-a-capital-c, but also that it’s permanently attached to you – that suggests the wearer has natively assimilated its powers.

With this demo, Lynch showed that not only could I see things happening on the other side of the world and physically reach across continents, but that I can do all that without apparently using a computer. Or at least, without as apparently using a computer as I would if I used a desktop PC, laptop, tablet or even smartphone.

We’ve always been obsessed with the idea of beings who can do fantastical things that we can’t. Gods. Superheroes.  And I think the reason this demo struck me is that as technology becomes less and less apparent, as it more seamlessly empowers us to reach across space and time and do ever more spectacular things, we become superheroes ourselves.

“Power users”

Even though I find the phrase a bit unpleasant – mostly because it’s used by willy-waving wankers, which is quite a trick if you can, as it were, pull it off – I’d probably call myself a power user. As it applies to me, that phrase means that I use my Mac a lot, that I use it quickly, confidently and productively, that I know lots of tricks and shortcuts to make my use of it even more productive, and that a sluggish computer would frustrate both me and my earning potential.

What I don’t need, as a power user, is power. My main Mac is a 2008 MacBook Pro, quite an ancient machine by tech standards, and much as I’d like to replace it with a 13″ Retina MacBook Pro, I can’t justify doing so when it works so very well. ‘Power’ to too many people means not just a fast CPU but a CPU based on the latest chip architecture for little reason other than the fact that it is. It means having Thunderbolt 2 even if what you attach to it is a printer. It means replaying the same worn-grooved ‘Apple has lost the plot’ record – the one we heard when Apple ditched the floppy disk, when the iPod didn’t have an FM radio, when the iPad didn’t have a USB port – when Apple announced a new laptop without an SD card slot.

CPU, GPU, super-fast interconnects and the like, though, are broadly irrelevant to me. Sure, on those occasions when I’m exporting video, I wish my MacBook Pro had more grunt, and I might be forced to upgrade it to keep me relevant as a tech writer. In general, though, I’d use it until one of us died.

And that’s because the ‘power’ my Mac has is responsiveness, and that comes both from a decent amount of RAM (though only 8GB, nothing extravagant) and because I long ago replaced the hard disk with an SSD.

You don’t need power to be a power user. And you don’t need to be a dick to be one either.

iOS feature request: AirPlay video stream locking

Much of what I watch on our television is streamed from my iPhone – usually from the iPlayer app, or from Air Video HD – via an Apple TV using AirPlay. In general, the system works wonderfully well, but there’s one major irritant. Both iPlayer and Air Video HD allow the stream to persist even when the phone is sleeping or when the app is ‘in the background’, and that’s great, of course, but the stream can get disrupted when using another app. I’m not daft enough to load YouTube and start browsing for other videos – of course they would take precedence over the existing background stream — but if I scroll past an autoplaying video on Facebook or Instagram, say, or tap on an image in Alien Blue that turns out to be a GIF, they’ll try to hijack the stream.

So I’d like some way of telling iOS ‘protect this video stream over AirPlay; play other video content on the iPhone itself’, but I don’t know what the UI would be for this. There’s a temptation to add another switch to the AirPlay overlay, similar to the Mirroring switch, but then that’s a system-wide control rather than app-specific. There again, if I understand correctly, the streaming will be handed-off from an app to a system-level process anyway, so maybe that’s not a bad thing; maybe a ‘protect current stream’ toggle isn’t a bad solution.

It may be that solving this problem is just too inelegant, and that may be why it hasn’t been solved yet. But if Apple does, I’ll be delighted.


One of the first features I commissioned as editor of MacFormat was on ergonomics, and one of the pieces of advice Shelby gave in it really resonated, not least because it had simply never occurred to me. She pointed out that the numeric keypads which cling to the right hand side of most keyboards are bad ergonomics, since it forces [those of] us [who are right-handed] to stretch out to the right to use a mouse.

Since that Damascene moment over two years ago, and given that I use the numpad so infrequently I wouldn’t mourn its loss, I’ve been on the lookout for a keyboard like the one you see above. It’s taken me so long to find one because Apple only made them – bundling them by default with Early 2009 iMacs – for a short period. You can find US-layout ones comparatively easily – I wouldn’t mind ‘losing’ £, but I’d hugely miss the UK-layout Return key – and of course the Bluetooth version is still made so getting one of those would be trivial.

However, I use a KVM and also don’t especially like feeding even rechargeable batteries to a keyboard, so I both wanted and needed a wired one. I finally bought one (in essentially new condition) by the simple expedient of setting up a search for its model number – A1242 –plus ‘Apple’ and ‘UK’ in eBay and then subscribing to the results in RSS. (Did you know you can turn any eBay search results page into an RSS feed by adding &_rss=1 to the end of the URL? Here’s the URL for my search if you want one of these keyboards too.)

Although ergonomics was the motivator for getting this keyboard, however, there are other reasons I love it. There’s always something pleasing to me about using just-enough-but-no-more to do something, and this keyboard is a writer’s keyboard.

It’s also so small and light that if I pause for a moment in writing, my pinkies can stretch out easily to lightly grip the sides and, with my thumbs resting on the bottom lip, I can nudge or twist the keyboard by a few fractions of a millimetre so it’s in the perfect position for typing.

It’s a lovely little thing, and I’m delighted I’ve finally found one.