Blog Posts

Watch the irony

Benjamin Clymer of Hodinkee, with an interesting insight while reviewing the Apple Watch Series 3 Edition:

In thinking about this new Apple Watch and what it might mean to Apple, the traditional watch industry, and to us as consumers, let’s look back to 2014 to see how much has changed since then. We knew Apple Watch was coming, and yet it seemed to take the industry by surprise. The usual suspects were dismissive, disrespectful even. And then we saw many of them follow in Apple’s footsteps by creating their own versions of a smartwatch.

And then there’s TAG Heuer, who was among the first, and certainly the most successful, at tackling Apple on their own terms by producing the so-called Connected Watch at $1,500 that used technology found in several other watches that could be had for a literal fraction of the price TAG was asking. But you know what? It worked. And as it stands right now, the Connected Watch is in fact the number one selling watch by volume for TAG Heuer in the United States. Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that.

So again, the Swiss were dismissive of the Apple Watch because it’s not even a watch, right? How could someone who appreciates a fine timepiece ever want a disposable digital device on their wrist?

Still, we now have smartwatches from two of the three big luxury watch groups, and likely more to come. And that’s before we actually talk about sales numbers of Apple versus the traditional players or the fact that all of theirs use what is the equivalent of an off-the-shelf caliber in Android OS while Apple’s is, to borrow a term they’ll understand, completely in-house. Ironic, really.

I love mechanical watches. But I don’t necessarily like most of the large companies, especially whose egos match the brand.

A digital watch can never compete with a mechanical watch and vice-versa. Both can co-exist at the same time. The former provides a level of an interaction and integration with your devices that cannot be matched. But a mechanic watch ticks in its own way, and provides timeless design, both aesthetically and functionally.

Benjamin is astute to point out that the same “watch” companies which harped on about ‘in-house’ production are now using the most common Android software, akin to a quartz watch. And don’t get me wrong here, there’s nothing wrong with a quartz watch — Tag sells plenty of them to people who don’t care about the difference — but it’s one thing to diss off-the-shelf components and then use your own.

Apple’s smartwatches, like all their products, are completely in-house. In-house by human design and machine production yes, but in-house nonetheless. But that is not a golden rule to what works and what doesn’t.

iPhone 8 Plus camera review

Austin Mann, demonstrating where the iPhone Plus earns its value:

I’m writing to you from a small hotel room in India having just experienced a magical adventure in western India orchestrated by friends at Ker & Downey. I’ve shot thousands of images and countless portraits with the iPhone 8 Plus and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned.

While the iPhone 8 Plus looks essentially the same as the phone we’ve had since the 6 Plus, there are some new features in the 8 Plus which really impact creative pros across the board — most notably Portrait Lighting, along with a few other hidden gems.

Head up to the link for some amazing photos.

When the iPhone 7 Plus first introduced the second camera, it was an experimental year where it was aping the ‘SLR’ bokeh-type effect. While it does achieve outstanding results, they’re finally stepping out of shadow of professional photography tools with features like Portrait Lighting where they’re doing something SLRs can never match – computational photography.

In fact, the improvements with the second camera are that good, Matthew Panzarino doesn’t even recommend the regular iPhone 8:

The marquee feature of the iPhone 8 Plus is Portrait Lighting. Using deep learning and computer vision, this mode finds faces in an image, detects the planes and angles that need to be lit and applies a variety of different lighting styles that a user can choose from either before or after the picture is taken.

It works better than it has any right to.

It can produce images that feel professional and would take dozens of lights and pieces of equipment to pull off.

This is the first year that I’m not saying ‘if you like bigger screens get the bigger one, otherwise get the smaller one’ about iPhones. I flat out recommend the iPhone 8 Plus if you’re in the market for an upgrade and can possibly stand using the larger phone.

I’m sure the purists will always persist, but give it another 7-8 years, and we’ll probably see mobile come out on top.

Google to buy part of HTC’s smartphone team for $1.1 Billion

Srivatsan Sridhar, reporting for Fone Arena:

After rumors, Google has officially announced that it has signed an agreement with HTC to acquire team of HTC talent for US$1.1 billion in cash. This includes some of whom have already been working on the Pixel smartphone line. The deal also includes a non-exclusive license for HTC intellectual property to support the Pixel smartphone family.

HTC said that it will continue to have best-in-class engineering talent, which is currently working on the next flagship phone.

The transaction is expected to close by early 2018 after regulatory approvals and customary closing conditions.

This is very different from Google’s acquisition of Motorola in 2011, which was mainly for patents. In fact, Google intentionally kept Motorola out of the loop in few matters to avoid nepotism (for lack of a better word).

However, the HTC deal is like it sounds; for concentrating more efforts at the top-end to challenge the iPhone. My gut feeling is that Google doesn’t intend to make the Pixel line a high volume business; it’s more likely a halo effect to convince users that Android phones can compete with iPhones at their own game.

The next step – developing your own silicon.

Google launches its new UPI-based payment app ‘Tez’ in India

Ben Schoon, writing for 9to5 Google:

Google is no stranger to offering payment services, but its traditional offerings don’t work perfectly in developing regions. Today, the company has unveiled Tez, a new payment app for users in India that can transfer money between two users without any special hardware required.

It uses ultrasonic audio to pair two devices together and transfer money. The audio is inaudible to the human ear and can quickly connect the two devices to negate the need for transferring any information such as banking details, email addresses, or even phone numbers. Simply pair two devices and transfer the money.

Tez connects directly to a user’s bank account, ditching the need to refill it at any point and instead just drawing directly from that account. Google says that Tez works with the United Payments Interface, meaning it will work with any bank in the region that supports UPI.

Google has also built a few other features into Tez beyond just sending money. For one, there’s Tez Shield, a security feature which is always active and designed to prevent fraud or hacking.

Currently, Tez is only available in India, but Android Police points out that recent trademarks by Google seem to point toward a wider launch to other Asian countries in the future.

Pretty interesting how India is becoming the first market for many of Google’s offerings. You can find out more on their website.

Jackass of the week: An app developer adds the iPhone X notch to your Android phone

Ben School, writing for 9to5 Google:

Apple is seeing quite a lot of backlash surrounding the much larger cutout on the iPhone X. Now, thanks to the work of a developer, Android users can “embrace the notch.”

The “notch” on the iPhone X houses the sensors used for Apple’s “Face ID” facial recognition system.

Github user idoideas put together a simple app for Android devices which simulates the “notch” on anything running Android 6.0 Marshmallow and above. Once installed and enabled, a virtual version of the “notch” appears at the top center of the display, complete with camera sensors and all. 

Face ID, explained

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But sometimes, by breaking something, there might just be a better solution. And you’ll never know it till you try.

Face ID on the new iPhone X works the same way. Apple could very well have waited to implement a secondary (and reassuring) Touch ID sensor under the glass or simply move it to the back of the device like most Android phones, but they claim that they somewhere along the development of the technology, they felt that sweet spot of accomplishment. And now they’re (probably) never turning back.

However, Apple is also good at PR and marketing, so they do feel that assuring potential $999 and up customers of Face ID is the right way to go and answered some of the common FAQs to Tech Crunch, which is worth reading in full for an in-depth understanding:

On how it’s trained across a wide demographic:

“Phil mentioned that we’d gathered a billion images and that we’d done data gathering around the globe to make sure that we had broad geographic and ethnic data sets. Both for testing and validation for great recognition rates,” says Federighi. “That wasn’t just something you could go pull off the internet.”

There have been plenty of examples of theoretically accessible technology not living up to the actual cultural diversity of our world. A recent example that went viral was a soap dispenser that didn’t recognize a man’s hand because his skin was dark. Apple has gone through some efforts in hardware and software to make sure that this doesn’t happen with Face ID.

On privacy:

When it comes to customers — users — Apple gathers absolutely nothing itself. Federighi was very explicit on this point.

“We do not gather customer data when you enroll in Face ID, it stays on your device, we do not send it to the cloud for training data,” he notes.

There is an adaptive feature of Face ID that allows it to continue to recognize your changing face as you change hair styles, grow a beard or have plastic surgery. This adaptation is done completely on device by applying re-training and deep learning in the redesigned Secure Enclave. None of that training or re-training is done in Apple’s cloud. And Apple has stated that it will not give access to that data to anyone, for any price.

On security, law enforcement requests:

The simple answer, which is identical to the answer for Touch ID, by the way, is that Apple does not even have a way to give it to law enforcement. Apple never takes possession of the data, anonymized or otherwise. When you train the data it gets immediately stored in the Secure Enclave as a mathematical model that cannot be reverse-engineered back into a model of a face.”

“On newer phones like iPhone 8 and iPhone X, if you grip the side buttons on either side and hold them a little while — we’ll take you to the power down [screen]. But that also has the effect of disabling Face ID,”

On how well it works:

One anecdotal thing: If you lift your phone and swipe up immediately, there’s a good chance that the Face ID system will have performed its authentication fast enough to have unlocked your device by the time you finish your swipe. That’s how fast it is.

Face ID is not a simple image recognition system. It looks at a three-dimensional model of your entire face, recognizing features at a level of detail high enough that Apple is confident that masks will not fool it. It’s a different ballgame entirely.

What if you wear sunglasses or are visually impaired?

But the speed isn’t the only question. Sunglasses, for instance, are fairly commonly worn outdoors. Federighi had mentioned in an email to a user that “most” sunglasses would work fine. “There are some lenses whose coatings block IR. In those cases the customer can just use a passcode or take them off.”

He notes there are some people for whom the “attention” feature just won’t work. If you’re blind or vision impaired for instance, you may not be able to stare directly at the phone to communicate your intent. In those cases, where a face is recognized (even with sunglasses on), but it can’t see your eyes, you can just turn off the “attention detection” feature. You still get Face ID, but at a lower level of overall security because it’s not ensuring that your eyes are directly focused on it.

Tough luck for people who cover their faces (not to be confused with scarfs around the head):

“If you’re a surgeon or someone who wears a garment that covers your face, it’s not going to work,” says Federighi. “But if you’re wearing a helmet or scarf, it works quite well.”

This means that Face ID is not going to be a viable option for people who wear a mask for work or wear a niqab, for instance. They would need to use a passcode. Federighi notes that this limitation is similar to Touch ID, which simply didn’t work if you wore gloves or had wet fingers.

On the range of angles and distances:

“It’s quite similar to the ranges you’d be at if you put your phone in front-facing camera mode [to take a picture],” says Federighi. Once your space from eyes to mouth come into view that would be the matching range — it can work at fairly extreme angles — if it’s down low because your phone is in your lap it can unlock it as long as it can see those features.”

This is why it won’t work when you’re asleep if someone tries to unlock your phone, or if you’re talking to someone and a third party tries to point the phone at your face to unlock it. You have to be paying attention.

On additional benefits:

As far as the TrueDepth camera, there are also some side benefits for developers that use ARKit or the depth map to create effects.

“With both the rear-facing cameras and front-facing system [on iPhone X] we expose to developers a depth map, so ARKit will take depth from a photo and create a mesh, but it’s not raw sensor data. It’s depth that can be used for photographic effects,” says Federighi when I ask about other uses for the array. “It’s designed to be very good at close range where the rear-facing cameras are good at greater distances. It’s different technology with a different purpose — as far as selfie range — the probing dot pattern provides a great solution [for a depth map].”

And that by itself should be a no-brainer over Touch ID; I would bet that Portrait Mode with the selfie camera will be used far more than the rear camera.

iPhone 8: Reviews round-up

Matthew Panzarino for TechCrunch, on the camera quality:

Nearly every iPhone upgrade for the past several years has been driven by the camera. There have been impressive updates in hardware and feature additions, but anecdotally I cannot count the number of times people have cited the camera as the primary reason that they’re interested in updating their phone.

So, how does the camera in the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus stack up?

Killer.

Farhad Manjoo for The New York Times, on performance:

So here’s my conclusion, after nearly a week testing the 8 and 8 Plus: The 8s feel like a swan song — or, to put it another way, they represent Apple’s platonic ideal of that first iPhone, an ultimate refinement before eternal retirement.

Unsurprisingly, both the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus are very good phones. Most of Apple’s improvements over the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are minor, but if you have an older model, either of the 8s will feel like a solid upgrade. And if you are considering upgrading from an Android phone, there’s one area where the new iPhones still rank head and shoulders above their competition — the processor, the engine that runs the entire device, where Apple is so far ahead that it almost feels unfair.

Jim Dalrymple, on the speakers:

If there is one thing about the new iPhones that surprised me the most, it would be the stereo speakers—they are loud.

Apple says the speakers are about 25 percent louder than before and that sounds about right to me. In fact, I had to turn the speakers down a bit when I was listening to music on the iPhone 8.

John Gruber, on True Tone:

There’s one major difference between these displays and those of the iPhones 7 — True Tone. This is a feature where the device uses a 4-channel ambient light sensor to detect the color temperature of your surroundings. It then adjusts the color temperature of the display to match.

True Tone, though, is the sort of feature that you don’t notice, but rather that you notice the absence of in other devices. It ruins you. When I flew home last week, I spent the first few hours of my flight using the iPhone 8. Two or three hours into the flight, I needed to check something on my personal iPhone 7 — I don’t remember what it was exactly, but it was something from an app I didn’t have installed on the review unit. When I took my iPhone 7 out of my pocket, my first thought was “What’s wrong with the display, why is everything gross and blue?” Then I remembered: True Tone.

On wireless and fast-charging:

So with fast charging (Apple’s 29-watt charger and a USB-C-to-Lightning cable) you get about 2 percent charge per minute. With Qi you get about 0.5 percent charge per minute — but that might improve in a future iOS update.

And further, his takeaway:

There’s a lot to love about them and nothing to dislike. But they did debut alongside the iPhone X, and because of that almost nobody is excited about them. There’s no use pretending otherwise.

But it’s worth noting that it’s just as instructive to compare the iPhones 8 to the iPhone X as it is to compare them to the iPhones 7. The iPhone X certainly has much to offer: the edge-to-edge 5.8-inch OLED display, the form factor that’s easier to hold and pocket than the Plus, the front-facing sensor array for Face ID and depth mapping with the front-facing camera, and an even better camera system on the back (with optical image stabilization for both lenses — the iPhone 8 Plus only has OIS for the wide angle lens).

But the A11 chip (including the improved image processing that I described above), inductive charging, True Tone — all of these things in the iPhone X are also in both iPhone 8 models.

Last year, Apple refreshed its MacBook Pro line-up to introduce the Touch Bar and raised the prices across the board by $300. The iPhone X follows suit, albeit maintaining the previous price point with the iPhone 8.

The iPhone 8 is like any other S series phone; an incremental upgrade in looks but substantially better in every other way [more so this year]. Not only is the primary camera and processor the same as the X, True Tone is a bigger upgrade in screen niceness than having an OLED screen. [I do think it was ‘saved’ for this year; the iPhone 7 could well have got it; similar story with no OIS and lower f-stop on the secondary camera of the 8 Plus.]

On some level one needs to understand that the X was ready — even just as an example for Apple to show what they’re capable of and where the iPhone is headed — and we’re better off in a world with it than without. It’s similar to the higher priced Samsung S Edge [more cool and less functional though], where it took 3 years for the design to become the de-facto standard of the series. The iPhone X will need a similar time frame. Till then, the 8 will have to do, which can still smoke any Android phone out there today in terms of screen, camera quality and performance. It’s also worth noting that the available screen estate on the 8 Plus should be the same (or slightly more) as the X despite the smaller size (5.5″ v 5.8″), as the former gives way to more interface elements at the top and bottom.

However, it’s hard not to feel undone if you’re pulling your purse strings to the limit to buy an iPhone that’s clearly not the best.

Note: Head over to this video for a detailed look at the physical design of the iPhones 8, including the new gold colour option. Is it just the review units, or does the back just say “iPhone” now?

Weekly Vision: September 17, 2017

The Weekly Vision is a collection of stories that are worth consuming as whole, or just not worth the time editing. You’ll find out either way.

1) A few Florida gun owners were encouraged to ‘shoot the storm’ and fire their guns at Hurricane Irma

2) In images, how Hurricane Irma crashed Northern Cuba

3) Nikon selects 32 professional photographers to promote their new camera; not a single woman photographer

4) Apple CDO (Chief Design Officer) Jony Ive discusses process and how phones are more than just a product

5) A white security officer told police he was shot by a black man; turns out, he had shot himself

THE SMARTWATCH — NOT THE PHONE — IS TURNING A CORNER

It’s safe to say that after Apple’s September event, the iPhone X captured most of the attention and fanfare. But there were two other product announcements; a 4K TV with HDR support, and an Apple Watch Series 3:

Answer a call from your surfboard. Ask Siri to send a message. Stream your favorite songs on your run. And do it all while leaving your phone behind. Introducing Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular. Now you have the freedom to go with just your watch.

First, let me throw caution to the wind with two disclaimers.

One, I have never owned a smartwatch. I do not plan on changing my time anytime soon either, as I have a fascination for mechanical watches that should hold strong for at least the foreseeable future. I do however, like most technology products, keep close tabs on the progress and developments of the smartwatch industry. Also, as a reviewer, you never look at products through a personal use case scenario anyway.

Two, I’ve long held the opinion that technology-wise, the internet and the smartphone have been the most life-changing events in the last century, and there are very few instances of other products / services matching them. AI seems to be the next frontier but I don’t think any of the smart products we see today will eclipse them.

Back to the event; let’s concentrate on two of Apple’s product announcements:

The iPhone X stripped away one of it’s most iconic and pivotal user-facing control, the home button. Instead it relies on a completely new swipe interface to switch between apps and return to the home screen. Physically, it eschews the much-loved Touch ID sensor in favour of a facial recognition system and debuts an (almost) all-screen design, a new aspect ratio, wireless charging, and a gorgeous glass-and-steel body.

The Apple Watch Series 3 adds cellular data and a better processor (as the norm) to the existing design; same shape, same thickness, and same battery life.

One evolutionary and one revolutionary. And in that order.

The iPhone may be the most radically looking phone since the original but let’s face it. Things were already heading in this direction. Mobile performance have been slowly creeping into laptop territory. Screens are getting bigger and better, bezel-less or not. Ditto with cameras. Face-ID is contextually a partial step-up in convenience.

What we’re actually getting carried away is how cool it looks and feels.

The Watch on the other hand, is a phone on your wrist. It’s always been a computer, but now it’s an independent device (or almost there) that can make calls, stream music, and track your health data constantly. All on your wrist. And all within the same shape, same thickness, and same battery life.

One of Louis CK’s very apt ‘insights’ on technology is this one about WiFi in planes. We complain about how the WiFi coverage is under par compared to our homes, but we lose sight of how unbelievable it is to have internet “in the sky.”

The smartwatch is similar. Data connectivity was inevitable, but one cannot overestimate what a breakthrough this is for the product it is. Adding LTE within the same body and battery life is unbelievable. Since it’s not virtually attached to the phone anymore, it’s capable of performing actions by itself which translate to: making calls and messages, apps loading faster, a faster and more reliable Siri, and music streamable from anywhere.

Apple’s much hyped iPod campaign was about having 1000 songs in your pocket. The Watch now has 40,000 songs on your wrist.

This is how Tim Cook prefaced the iPhone X unveil:

… it is only fitting that we are here, in this place, on this day, to reveal a product that will set the path for technology for the next decade …

That statement could very well stand for —and be more apt for — the Watch.

It’s finally pulling away as the phone outside your pocket, outside your phone.

President Flip Flops: Moving back-and-forth through tweets

Honestly, I don’t care if this is a product worth buying for utilitarian purposes or whether this company will be successful; I just love the idea.

The President Flip Flops is “a lighthearted poke at the political flip flops the President makes on Twitter,” available for purchase.

What I enjoy the most, is that the name itself is very suited for its function.

Site Footer