Imagining external touchscreen support on the iPad Pro

apple

Ever since rumors first surfaced of USB-C support in the forthcoming iPad Pros, I’ve wondered about what that means for the iPad’s future.

Most likely, this riddle has a simple (and somewhat disappointing) answer: the new iPad Pros will allow screen-mirroring to 4K displays over the USB connection. (The current Lightning AV adapter only supports mirroring at 1080p).

But what if “external display support on iPad” represented something more interesting? Something like… this?

iPad Pro touchscreen concept

(Excuse my crude drawing!) To summarize what I’m proposing here, I’d like to see the iPad Pro support external touchscreen displays—effectively turning a touch monitor into a giant iOS device.

The basic form factor would resemble Microsoft’s Surface Studio—especially its sweet tilting hinge, which swings the display from a traditional, perpendicular alignment down to a drafting table angle, right at your fingertips.

Unlike the Studio, my imagined setup would put the “brains” of the operation into the iPad (rather than into a weighted base). Another change from the Studio: =Apple could take advantage of the “docked” iPad to display a virtual touchpad and/or some accessory controls (like Photoshop palettes or a zoom dial).

Questions

Do you really think Apple’s ready to debut something like this?

Nope. But wouldn’t it be amazing if they did?

Why not just buy a Surface Studio?

Well, for one, the Studio starts at $3,500. That’s awfully steep.

Even if it were cheaper, I’m still not convinced that porting touch support to a legacy OS was such a great idea. Check out this preview of the brand-new Surface Studio 2; I can’t help but notice the jittery scrolling and laggy stylus support. And, while Windows grows more touch-friendly with each release, you don’t have to dig very far to find decades-old cruft that’s ill-suited for finger manipulation.

Would this external iPad display require touchscreen control—or would iOS also gain support for external pointing devices—mice and trackpads?

Who knows? A few months ago, I might have guessed that Apple would never add a legit mouse cursor to iOS. But the UIKit-based “Marzipan” apps in macOS Mojave prove that Apple’s not above allowing iOS(ish) apps to be controlled with a mouse. Plus, as many others have observed, iOS already supports a “cursor mode” in text fields; this could simply be expanded to allow clicking and dragging across the entire UI.

Finally, there’s that enigmatic reference to a “Puck” input method unearthed by (who else?) Guilherme Rambo a few weeks back. Could “Puck” be a tongue-in-cheek reference to iPad mouse support?

Even if iOS does add mouse support, I expect that it would be a secondary input method—an addition to touch (rather than an alternative). That’s why I would bet on external touchscreen support happening before (or alongside) mouse support. For a different take on the “external touchscreen or mouse” question, though, listen to the last few minutes of Matt Birchler’s most recent podcast episode.

Why not just build a bigger iPad?

I struggled with this. Apple’s already proven its preference for self-contained systems, from the original Mac to the iMac to the iPad itself. They like to own the whole widget, so why not build a really big iPad widget, with the “guts” of the computer embedded behind the screen (or in the base, a la the Surface Studio)? No wires, no dongles—no muss, no fuss.

That’s possible, of course. But my gut tells me that the iPad should remain a portable device. There’s real value in being able to disconnect your accessories and carry your computer with you. After all, isn’t that a major reason the laptop has hung around so long? It’s convenient to have one device that fits in your backpack and can drive big screens. Why wouldn’t that be true for the iPad, too?

It’s also probably easier to convince customers to buy an iPad accessory (that would work with future iPad purchases) than to sell a “desktop iPad” (that would be outdated within two or three years).

What about an iPad “extended desktop”?

Power users of macOS (and Windows) rely on the platform’s support for multiple monitors, side by side. But on a touch-first OS, such a setup presents a problem: how do you deal with the physical separation of the two screens? How, for example, would you drag and drop a file from one display to the other with your finger? You’d hit one screen’s bezel and be left with no way to “bridge the gap.”

In my sketch above, the iPad itself becomes an accessory to the external display. iOS might use the smaller device to display app-specific controls or a virtual touchpad. This side-steps the “gap” problem while still making some use of the “docked” iPad.

What about ergonomics? Wouldn’t this “drafting table” design wreak havoc on users’ backs?

I’m not sure! But artists and architects have used these sorts of desks for many decades. It’s a proven design, and it answers the “gorilla arms” objection Apple has raised about PC touchscreens in the past.

How much would this thing cost?

A lot—more than the iPad itself, I would guess. The Apple Cinema Display was listed at $899 in 2010. Given that my hypothetical device would include capacitive touch, Pencil support, and maybe a Face ID sensor, I would think it might cost at least that much.

Final thoughts

Again, this is wish-casting to the nth degree. We haven’t heard any rumblings from the supply chain that would point to such a device, and I wouldn’t bet on seeing its debut at Apple’s October 30 event.

But something like this seems inevitable in the not-too-distant future. Until the iPad can drive big, honking, external displays, iOS will struggle to supplant its older sibling as Apple’s primary pro computing platform. ■

My one complaint about the Apple Watch Series 4 hardware

apple

There are plenty of things I love about the Apple Watch Series 4’s hardware: its thinner profile, its faster processor, and (especially) its larger screen.

What don’t I like? I really only have one gripe: battery life.

Based on my few weeks of use, the Series 4 has noticeably worse battery life than its predecessor. I rarely cracked the 50% barrier after a full day wearing the Series 3. With the 4, however, I’m often down to 40 or even 30 percent by day’s end.

That anecdotal evidence jives with more measurable figures; according to Apple itself, the larger Series 4 has 16.5% less battery capacity than the comparable Series 3 model. Presumably, Apple shaved away battery volume in order to produce a thinner aluminum enclosure. Honestly, I’m OK with that compromise. After all, the Watch still easily makes it through a busy day.

However, the decreased battery life does degrade my Watch experience in at least one way. In the past, I could set the Watch on its charger when I climbed into bed, and by the time I would get sleepy, it had fully charged. That meant I could slip it onto my wrist before drifting off, use it to track my sleep quality, and still wake to more than 90% charge.

Alas, that’s not possible anymore. It’s rare that the Series 4 has reached 75% charge by the time I get drowsy. I either have to (a) forgo sleep tracking altogether or (b) don the Watch for sleep and start the new day with handicapped battery life. ■

My rules for tipping on those iPad “cash registers”

ipad

Working from home has many perks, but it can be lonely. Realizing this, a few months ago, I resolved to spend my Friday afternoons working from our local coffee shop. Changing venues boosts my productivity, reconnects me to my community, and gives me an opportunity to think strategically about the upcoming week.

The baristas there know me by sight at this point, and they’ve memorized my order, too: a 16-ounce mocha latte with ¾ shot of chocolate syrup and 2 shots of espresso. I’ll typically add a maple-walnut scone (perfect for dunking).

After the clerk keys in my order, she flips around the iPad that serves as the shop’s cash register. I’m then faced with one of modern retail’s most awkward exchanges: the tip touchscreen.

Jennifer Levitz reflected on the dilemma in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

Tip jars have long sat on counters, but consumers have all sorts of viable excuses for avoiding them or tossing in just a few coins, such as not having the right change, according to Michael Lynn, a professor and tipping expert at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Not so, he says, with the electronic tip prompts that explicitly require consumers to opt out of gratuities. “You can’t even pretend like you forgot,” he says. “It clearly ups the social pressure to tip.”

Here are my rules for navigating this situation from now on: if the barista concocts a custom drink—frothing a latte or blending a smoothie—I tip a dollar per cup (or maybe a bit more, if the total is already close to an even dollar amount). For food that requires prep work—say, toasting a pastry—I’ll tip a modest amount. 10–15% seems fair.

However, if the clerk simply rings up my order, or if they’re just grabbing a pre-made item from behind the counter, I’m probably not going to tip.

What do you think? Are these rules reasonable—or do they make me a cheapskate? ■

Is checking luggage a life hack?

travel

I don’t currently own a suitcase small enough to serve as a carry-on for most domestic flights. For my work travel, then, I typically check my bag—and cough up the thirty-dollar charge (thank goodness for reimbursable expenses).

For most people, though, that checked-bag fee has changed air travel. To avoid paying extra, many passengers opt for carry-ons instead. On every flight I board, the overhead bins are jam-packed.

The bag fee’s side effects extend beyond the cabin. Because there are fewer checked bags, tarmac employees have less unloading work to do after a flight arrives. They can quickly clear the plane’s luggage compartment and promptly deliver the bags (via carts and conveyers) to the baggage claim. In fact, by the time I’ve disembarked from the plane, stopped by the restroom, and found my assigned baggage claim area, my bag is often already there!

This is a stark contrast to years past, when retrieving a checked bag guaranteed a twenty-minute, shoulder-to-shoulder wait, glumly watching as other people’s bags toppled down the chute.

Now, though, there’s no real penalty to checking a bag (beyond the added cost). There’s no extra travel time, since I have to pass through the baggage claim to leave the airport, anyways. And my journey is more convenient; I don’t have to clear a suitcase through security, or keep tabs on it during airport bathroom breaks, or maneuver it through the Starbucks queue, or steer it down the narrow plane aisle.

Eventually, I’d imagine that airports will reconfigure themselves to accommodate the new luggage economy. Does it really make sense to build and maintain twelve baggage claim stations that barely get used? Do you really need the conveyor belts at the check-in counter, or could you have passengers haul all their luggage (whether carried-on or checked) straight to the gate?

Until that happens, though, I’m reaping the benefits of an air travel infrastructure built around checked luggage. ■

AirPods are everywhere (except for here)

apple

I’ve been traveling a lot for work lately. While on the road, I’ve noticed some differences between my current hometown (in the rural, remote West Virginia mountains) and the wider world. For example, I’m always encouraged to see more racial and ethnic diversity, compared to the near-monoculture closer to home.

I noticed less profound differences, as well, particularly in the adoption of technology. Take the AirPods, for example. At home, wearing Apple’s wireless earbuds feels awkward, since I rarely see others wearing them. But when traveling, I see AirPods everywhere: in the airport; on city streets; coffeeshops; etc., etc. AirPods have clearly broken through in a huge way—but you wouldn’t know that, walking around my neighborhood.

Why the discrepancy in AirPods adoption? On the one hand, differences in discretionary income probably factor here.All other things being equal, rural West Virginians are less likely to have the financial flexibility to spend $150+ on headphones—especially since perfectly serviceable alternatives come free in the box.

But AirPods’ rarity here may have something to do with lifestyle, as well. Travelers and city-dwellers are more likely to need the AirPods’ flexibility and portability. Commuters spend big chunks of their days sitting on the bus, waiting in airports, and pacing city blocks. Those are ideal use cases for AirPods, but they rarely apply in rural locales. ■

“More experiences with people I love. Less validation from strangers.”

meta

My online audience is minuscule, and it’s likely to remain minuscule for the foreseeable future. My Twitter follower count stalled out years ago, my blog gets precious little traffic, and my podcast boasts very few subscribers. When I write or record, it feels a bit like shouting into the wind. Is anyone listening? Does anybody care?

Marshall’s tweet reframed this feeling for me. Yes, I’d love a larger audience, but would that really make me happier? Would strangers’ appreciation make me feel more loved or less isolated? I suspect not.

I want to use that feeling—of underappreciation by the internet—as a cue to invest in relationships that have a guaranteed return: my family. My friends. My hometown.

The next time my follower count threatens to bum me out, I want to be mindful enough to shut my laptop and go wrestle with my daughter instead. I want to silence my phone and sip a quiet latte in my neighborhood coffeeshop. I want to close Twitter, leave behind the iDevices, and invite my family on a rainy-day hike. ■

Apple preorder thoughts (2018 edition)

apple

It’s 4:30 in the morning here, and I can’t sleep, so I might as well jot down some thoughts about the Apple Preorder Dance:

  • Preordering jacks up your sleep schedule—especially on the East Coast. It’s not just the interruption of a 3 AM alarm. After all, the order itself took less than five minutes—shorter than a late-night pee break. No, the real problem is that preordering floods my brain with adrenaline. It’s the mad scramble, knowing that any delay could make the difference between having a shiny, new device on Day One or getting it three weeks later. By the time my order actually goes through, I’m wired.
  • My purchase? A Series 4 Apple Watch in space gray. I already own the Series 3, so I certainly don’t need an upgrade. Still, I’m excited about the larger screen, smaller bezels, and improved information density of the new edition.
  • I skipped out on cellular (again). It’s not that I can’t see the utility. I would love to stay connected on my runs—without lugging my phone along. And it would be nice to know I could summon help if I get hit by a car or have a heart attack while exercising. But I just can’t justify the extra cost: $100 more up front, then $15 or so tacked onto my cell phone bill every month, forever. On top of that, to add an Apple Watch to our AT&T family plan, we would have to ditch our grandfathered shared data pool. That would raise our bill at least another $35. It’s would be tough to justify that price hike to the other family members who split the monthly bill.
  • I opted to trade in my Series 3 as part of the purchase. I thought the $175 credit would be automatically deducted from my purchase price, but that didn’t happen. Apparently, I’ll need to wait until Apple’s vendor actually receives my unit. That’s not a big deal, but I might hunt around to see if I can get more for it by reselling through Swappa.
  • One nice perk: Apple’s trade-in program doesn’t force you to return your accessories. I’ll get to keep the gray Sport Band that shipped with the Series 3. Knowing that, I ordered my Series 4 with the nylon Sport Loop instead. I can’t say I’m pumped to try out the “sweat pants of watch bands,” but I am looking forward to a change.
  • I’ll also retain my current Watch charger, which means I’ll have two charging disks for the first time. It’ll be nice to leave the extra charger in my travel bag permanently.
  • After making a fuss about adopting an annual upgrade cycle, I’m holding onto my iPhone X for another year. The Xs just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the outlay. Plus, I haven’t saved enough to buy both a new phone and a new watch, and the Series 4 was by far the most interesting product announced on Wednesday.
  • If Apple had announced new iPad Pros this week, I would have faced a dilemma: new Watch or new iPad? But it’s likely that I would have chosen the Watch (which I wear everyday) over the tablet (I’ve owned three iPads and ended up selling each one).
  • For whatever reason, the shipping address and email associated with my Apple Pay account were incorrect, but I didn’t realize this until after my order was processed. The physical address is close enough that I think it’ll go through, but the email address no longer exists. Hopefully the mistake doesn’t derail my order; if I had to submit a new one, I’d be waiting well into October at this point.

One last thought: as tablets and smartphones inch toward maturity, I see less less and less reason to upgrade annually. I don’t feel much FOMO looking at the Xs vs. last year’s iPhone X. So it might make sense to adopt a longer-term upgrade cycle—say, two years for my phone and three or four for my tablet (if I ever end up buying one again).

But the nascent smartwatch category is still growing by leaps and bounds every year. In 2016, the Watches got significantly faster. In 2017, the device gained standalone cellular capability. This year, the form factor changed radically.

Given that, if I had to choose one device to upgrade annually, it would be the Apple Watch. That’s a testament to the gadget’s utility, considering I didn’t even own one two years ago.  ■

Should we feel bad for loving Apple keynotes?

culture / tech

Today is the “high holiday” in Apple’s liturgical calendar: iPhone keynote day. In a few hours, Tim Cook and his cardinal executives will unveil the new devices designed to drive Apple’s business during the upcoming year. Apple devotees around the world will attend (virtually), eager to heap adoration on the innovations heralded from Cupertino.

That may sound a bit cynical, but the whole Apple scene is a little silly. We’ve spent the past year speculating about today’s event on podcasts, on Twitter, and in blogged think pieces. We’ve chased down a thousand supply-chain rabbit trails. Today, we’ll salivate over devices that are only incremental improvements over the ones already in our pockets and strapped to our wrists. And in the weeks to come, we’ll exhaust ourselves in post-event analysis—then prepare to hand over piles of cash to buy into the hype.

Honestly, we invest too much time and money in these keynotes, considering the serious news unfolding in the “real” world. While we focus on Apple, a hurricane is bearing down on the East Coast. Free speech is under threat throughout the country. Refugees struggle just to survive.

Should we geeks feel guilty about our self-absorption and shallowness? The answer is “Yes, probably.”

But technology enthusiasts aren’t unique in enjoying frivolous distraction from more important things. Others, for example, follow the celebrity fashion scene. They visit TMZ every hour, follow faux-celebrities on Instagram, and plan their TV-watching around which starlets guest-star on which talk shows. This world has its own “high holidays,” too—for example, the red carpet preshow at the Academy Awards. As at the Apple keynote, industry leaders parade for the cameras, sporting fashions that viewers will eagerly buy in the upcoming year.

Or consider the world’s preeminent distraction: sports, into which so many Americans enthusiastically invest free time. Every team, for example, is orbited by a cadre of sports radio hosts, newspaper writers, podcasters, Twitter personalities, team-focused TV shows, and (most of all) fan bases that consume all this media. Hardcore fans gladly plunk down thousands for game tickets, cable TV packages, team jerseys, and memorabilia. And the “high holidays” come fast and frequent: home games tailor-built for tailgating, draft days, playoff runs, bowl games. It’d be hard to argue that sports deserves this level of attention (and consumption) any more than technology.


Of course, other people’s obsessions don’t justify our own. The existence of fashionistas and sports nuts doesn’t mean that it’s okay that geeks spend so much time and money on tech.

But it helps to know we’re not alone in our penchant for expensive hobbies.  ■

Playgrounds are deserted

culture

My daughter is a connoisseur of fine playgrounds. Often, when we’re driving through somewhere unfamiliar, we’ll hear an excited voice from the backseat: “Look! Over there!” Sure enough, there’ll be a tell-tale yellow slide or a row of swings on the horizon.

What we typically won’t see? People. Wherever we go, whatever the day or time, America’s playgrounds seem empty. No new parents feeding newborns on benches, no infants swaying in the baby swings, no top-heavy toddlers stumbling up the ramps, and no grade-school kids leaping brazenly from the uppermost parapets. Of course, there are exceptions—well-placed, unique parks that still attract a crowd—but more often than not, we’re the only family at a playground.

Why is this? Was it always this way? If not, what changed?

One explanation I can rule out: kids didn’t abandon our parks because playgrounds somehow got worse. Yes, they’ve removed the jagged metal edges and concrete pads of decades past, but playgrounds have undeniably improved over the years. They now feature double curly-Q tunnel slides, massive subterranean mazes, bouncy bridges, two-person swings, climbing walls, and countless other “play-ventions” that didn’t exist when I was a kid. Even fast food playgrounds have evolved into four-story-tall wonder-worlds.

Our playgrounds are better than they’ve ever been. So what it is it? What’s keeping the kids away? Here are some guesses:

  • We’re too busy. Parents are stretched thin and can’t spare the time to prioritize their kids’ outdoor play. For their part, kids have overpacked schedules, too, bouncing from one extracurricular to the next: sports, music, dance, etc., etc.
  • We’re scared. In another era, many parents wouldn’t hesitate to let their children walk a few blocks or ride their bikes to the neighborhood playground and stay there for hours on end. That sort of “leash-free” parenting is pretty rare these days, in an era when cable news amps up our suspicion and anxiety to irrational levels.
  • Blame the screens? As our daughter grows, she’s increasingly obsessed with watching TV and playing simple video games on her tablet. “I just want to watch TV all day,” she pouts, when we take her Kindle away. We’re not alone in this struggle, I know. The kids missing from the playground may well be cooped up inside, staring at a TV screen or poking away at an iPad.

The truth is that all of these explanations probably factor into the exodus of children from the public square.

Of course, on the one hand, we like the fact that playgrounds are uncrowded. Our daughter never has to wait for her plaything of choice, and there’s plenty of room for us to join her, without any worry about stomping someone else’s munchkin.

But on the other hand, town councils and municipal committees are bound to notice that their pristine playsets are nearly always empty. Will they continue to spend precious tax dollars on building and maintaining playgrounds, when so few residents patronize them? ■

The best treadmill desk shoes aren’t “shoes” at all

health

When I first cobbled together my treadmill desk back in 2014, building the desk itself wasn’t the hard part. Yes, it was tricky to hoist my IKEA tabletop onto those crates. And yes, the treadmill unit itself has proven remarkably unreliable over time.

But the real challenge was my feet. I struggled for over a year to find footwear that didn’t leave me limping at day’s end.

At first, I tried running sneakers. It made sense: athletic shoes are built for intense exercise, right? I presumed that they could handle slow-motion walking well enough. However, within a few hours of treading, I was in agony. With each step, the bumps on my heels grated against the hard plastic embedded in my trainers. Of course, that happened when I exercised, too, but I only jogged for an hour or so at a time. Eight hours on the treadmill proved torturous.

Next, I tried walking barefoot. This initially provided some relief—no shoes means no shoe-induced hot spots, after all. But the treadmill itself rubbed against the balls of my feet, and that friction created mammoth blisters by the end of my workday. Given a few weeks, I might have developed calluses—literally, some thicker skin—that would prevent injury. But I didn’t have the patience to wait. I continued my footwear searcb.

I tried traditional sport sandals (i.e. Chacos), but the thick nylon straps created their own special blisters. At one point, I wrapped my feet in duct tape. Obviously, that wasn’t sustainable, if I didn’t enjoy yanking out leg hair every night.

Eventually, almost accidentally, I discovered “barefoot running” footwear from a company called Xero. Their products barely qualify as “sandals” (let alone “shoes”), consisting of a thin, rubbery pad, held in place by a few nylon cords.

I had initially purchased Xero Clouds after reading a book called Born to Run, which advocates for ditching heavy, cushioned trainers in favor of more minimalist running gear and techniques. I soon realized that barefoot running wasn’t for me (gravel is my kryptonite)—but barefoot treading? That was just the ticket.

The Xeros’ flimsy soles offered just enough protection to insulate the bottoms of my feet from the treadmill’s abrasive surface. Their thin cords stayed in place, preventing the friction that causes blisters. Before long, I was knocking out 12+ miles in an eight-hour workday. Now, years later, I frequently hit sixteen or seventeen miles without undue effort.

I’m on my fourth pair of Xero Cloud sandals in three years. I wish they lasted a bit longer, but I can’t judge too harshly. After all, I’ve put thousands of miles on each pair, and it’s hard to put a price on pain relief. When my current pair inevitably breaks or wears through, I’ll plunk down $60 to replace them without a second thought.

That’s high praise for a flappy piece of rubber and some nylon twine.  ■