In the most recent release of iOS, Apple added dark mode, and I’m a fan. At nighttime, dark backgrounds seem less glaring; they’re also less likely to disturb my partner sleeping beside me on the bed.
But I’ve actually taken to “running dark” all the time—day and night—on my iPhone. I spend most of my time indoors, where dark mode is perfectly legible and less distracting than its older, brighter cousin.
I’m not quite as enamored with dark themes on the desktop, though. I think it’s the overlapping windows that give me trouble. In dark mode, I can’t tell apps apart at a glance; they seem less differentiated.
Why is this? For one thing, it’s difficult to paint a shadow (like the one macOS uses to mark the active window) on a background that’s already dark. It doesn’t help that I spend most of my workday in Microsoft Office. Those apps support dark mode, but when it’s turned on, the interfaces are near-identical, dropping their distinctive “light mode” colors for a uniform gray.
Dark mode works on iOS because you don’t really need to tell apps apart by their interface appearance. On the iPhone, you only have one thing open at a time; you’re probably not going to forget what app you’re currently using. Even in the app switcher, the system helpfully pins each app’s icon to its thumbnail, so there’s no mistaking one for another. ◾
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. ■
“Barclays says it’s ‘widely understood’ that 3D Touch will be removed from iPhones with OLED displays in 2019—aka the third-generation iPhone X and second-generation ‘iPhone X Plus.’ However, they caution that the plans aren’t finalized yet, so they could change.”
Adding fuel to the fire, David Barnard points out that iOS 12 adds an alternative method of entering “text cursor” mode—one that doesn’t depend on force-pressing:
In iOS 12 you can move the cursor with a tap and hold on the space bar. It’s possible they made that change knowing 3D Touch was going away.
— David Barnard (@drbarnard) August 27, 2018
It might seem surprising that Apple would ditch 3D Touch, just a few years after celebrating the “revolutionary” technology. To be honest, I’d be surprised myself. But I wouldn’t be particularly heartbroken. Here are some reasons why Apple should consider axing the pressure-sensitive tech:
- I would guess that novice iPhone users (i.e. the bulk of Apple’s customers) never really get the hang of 3D Touch—or even understand that it’s different than the long press gesture. What percentage of 3D Touch activations happen by accident? 10%? 25%? More?
- I’m not even sure that 3D Touch made much of an impression with power users. For me, it’s always been a feature in search of a use case. I never use the “pop” and “peek” gestures, which saved little time over simply tapping a link. I don’t use app shortcuts on the Home screen, either; I could never get over the fiddliness of invoking 3D Touch without doing a long press.
- And “fiddly” really does sum up the 3D Touch experience. “Press down,” the OS demands, then barks, “No! Not too hard!” Or, “No! You took too long!” Or consider “peeking,” which requires the user to maintain “half-pressure” while she checks out a piece of content, which pulses in and out as her force touch wavers. There’s an unpleasant “analog” quality to the gesture; you’re always on the edge of either releasing the content, or accidentally popping into it.
- Finally, there’s the matter of consistency across the iOS line. Apparently, engineering challenges have prevented Apple from bringing 3D Touch to the iPad. That leaves the user experience bifurcated; you can 3D Touch on the phone and watch—but not the tablet. That’s irritating; the iPhone encourages one set of gestures, while the iPad demands another approach. Given that iOS 12 aims to unify the UX, it makes sense that Apple would drop 3D Touch now.
Will Apple actually kill off 3D Touch? Who knows? Even Barclays is hedging its bets; they’re careful to include a disclaimer, reminding us that Apple’s plans could change.
But if 3D Touch really does get force-pressed out of existence, I won’t mind. ■
Portrait mode and corollary features (e.g. portrait lighting) are halting first steps towards a true AI-augmented camera. Here’s a fanciful look at our smartphone future:
It’s April 4, 2027, and Julie is making good progress. For the seventh time that day, she clambers up the squeaky attic ladder and crouch-steps her way to a tall pile of cardboard boxes. She squints at the next box in the stack, just making out her mother’s scrawl: “FAMILY PHOTOS.” It slides easily across the dusty floorboards, and Julie descends the ladder, flopping the box from step to step above her.
With a heavy sigh, she sets the box down on a dining room chair. Her kitchen scissors make quick work of the duct tape; Julie glances inside—and winces. No neat stacks, no carefully-curated photo albums. Instead, the box is full to the brim with loose snapshots, unlabeled and unsorted. Just a few years back, organizing these photos would have taken an entire weekend.
Fortunately for Julie, times have changed. She works quickly, plucking photos from the box and tossing them into a messy grid on the table. Within a few minutes, she has strewn hundreds of memories across the oak panels. They’re arranged in no particular order; Julie spots a baby photo of her grandmother from the 40s, adjacent to a faded Kodak print of Aunt Susie driving in the mid–70s. The very next snapshot in the row is a Polaroid from Christmas 1991; her little brother triumphantly lifts a brand-new video game console package above his head.
With a nostalgic smile, Julie whips out her smartphone and opens the photo enhancement app that makes this spring cleaning possible. The real work begins; she waves the device over the table, lazily panning its viewfinder across the rows and columns of snapshots.
As she does, the camera does its magic. Each individual photograph is extracted, cropped, and saved to its own file. The process is nearly instant; after just a minute or two of haphazard scanning, the app beeps and confirms that it’s captured all the data it needs. Julie sweeps the impromptu collage into a waiting trash cash.
It’s almost hard to believe how much she trusts the phone to capture these photos. Once, she would have been horrified to throw away such precious memories. Now, in a single day, she has filled a half-dozen garbage bags with old snapshots.
As she breaks down the empty cardboard box, the phone app (and the cloud service that powers it) does its own tidying up. First, it leverages machine learning to automatically recognize every object in every photo: that’s a baby beneath a maple tree in late fall. That’s a 1976 AMC Hornet. That’s a Sega Genesis.
With that context in hand, the service can clean up the photos. First, the easy stuff: wiping away physical scratches. Removing decades’ worth of discoloration and fade. Filling in missing, damaged details using robust healing algorithms. The AMC logo on the Hornet’s hood, obliterated by a coffee stain on the photo, is now recreated from a library of vintage car logos. A gouge in the leaves gets repaired too; maple leaves have a distinctive shape, and the app generates a few more to fill the hole. The Sega Genesis, motion-blurred in the boy’s excitement, is sharpened using actual product photography.
The restoration isn’t limited to inanimate objects, though. The app knows that it’s Aunt Susie who’s sitting behind the wheel of the Hornet, even though she’s obscured by glare on the windshield and some lens flare. Using Susie’s existing visual profile, the tool sharpens her face and glasses and fills in the blown-out highlights with data from other images.
The service automatically assigns metadata to each image, too. Every calendar, clock, Christmas tree, or party hat in the background helps the service narrow down the image date. Less obvious visual clues can help, too; the app might recognize that ’76 Hornet from previous scans and assign the photo of Susie to the same era. Even the girl’s tight perm could help to date the photo; given enough data, the app might know exactly when she adopted—and abandoned—that distinctive look. In the same way, visual cues could help pin down each photo’s location, too.
As Julie sets the last of the trash bags by the curb, she feels a twinge of bittersweet guilt. The garbage truck is on its way; soon, the original photos will be gone for good.
But based on experience, she’s confident enough in the restoral to let them go. The digitized shots are far more portable, more flexible, and more interesting than the paper copies ever were. She can make edits that would otherwise have been impossible—like tweaking the exposure level or even the location and brightness of the original scene’s light sources. Or altering the camera’s focal length, decades after the shot was taken; the app’s AI has used the source image to extrapolate exactly where each object sits in three-dimensional space.
Finally, Julie can even perform that “Zoom… enhance” magic promised by science fiction movies for decades. As she steps back into the kitchen, she grabs her tablet and plops down at the counter. Time to take a closer look at Aunt Susie’s unbelievable 70s curls. ■
- Portrait Lighting effects on steroids
- AI-powered photo enhancement is already happening.
<!––>The release of the $1,000 iPhone X has renewed a tech nerd debate: is AppleCare+, Apple’s extended warranty and accident protection service, worth the price?
The iPhone X’s sky-high repair costs change the calculus somewhat. Shatter the screen of your X (sans AppleCare), and you’re out $279. Break anything else, and Apple will charge you $549(!) to replace the phone entirely. That sticker-shock price may scare some consumers into dropping another $199 for AppleCare.
Numbers that high make me nervous, too. Still, I’ve never sprung for AppleCare+. Here are some reasons I’ve been stingy:
- I’ve never broken a phone. In seven years of iPhone ownership across five different devices (iPhone 4, 5, 6, 7, and X), I’ve never actually damaged a phone (beyond a scratch or two). My screens haven’t shattered, and the phones with glass backs haven’t busted. That perfect track record makes me cocky.
- I’m obsessive about cocooning my devices. When I order a new phone, I order a sturdy case and a screen protector to go with it. My iPhones literally go straight from their original packaging into a case, and they don’t come out unless I’m cleaning the device or preparing to sell it. Of course, cases can’t prevent all damage, but so far I’ve been lucky. Even some significant drops haven’t noticeably damaged my ensconced handsets.
- Those AppleCare coverage charges add up over the years. If I had bought AppleCare for each iPhone I’ve owned, I would have spent something like $555 in about seven years—with no actual benefit beyond peace of mind. Given this savings, I feel pretty comfortable “self-insuring” my devices; I’ll keep doing it as long as my out-of-pocket repair costs (currently $0) remain lower than than what I would pay adding AppleCare.
- My credit card makes AppleCare somewhat redundant. My Chase Freedom card offers an extra year of extended warranty protection for anything I buy. That perk eliminates one clear benefit of the AppleCare plan and further diminishes its potential value.
- Annual iPhone upgraders enjoy perpetual warranty coverage, anyways. By the time the iPhone X’s one-year warranty expires, there’s a good chance I will have sold it and upgraded to a newer device (with its own year-long warranty). So AppleCare’s extended warranty offers no real benefit.
- AppleCare is less attractive for those who live far from an Apple retail outlet. For many Apple customers, it’s reassuring to know that there’s a bleached-wood-and-frosted-glass palace nearby—a place to have your busted phone serviced, often in a single day. But those who live in the sticks (like me) face a week-long wait, a back-and-forth with Apple via the package couriers. In other words, phone repairs are a pain, whether I buy AppleCare or not.
In the end, I’m betting on my own ability to prevent iPhone catastrophes. As long as I don’t bust my phone more than once every few years, that gamble will continue to pay off. ■
Tech pundits occasionally suggest that some gadget purchases are driven by conspicuous consumption. In this view, a device like the iPhone X serves as a status symbol—a way to assert that you have (and can afford) the best.
This mindset is completely alien to me. Does anyone actually want to broadcast their buying decisions in this way? Both my wife and I hail from lower-middle-class families, for whom frugality is a (perhaps the) prime virtue. We pinch our pennies, drive our cars until the wheels fall off, and fix things ourselves—even when we’d be better off hiring an pro.
This thrifty mindset extends to gadget purchases. Our tribe takes pride in not carrying the latest and greatest devices. From that perspective, the so-called “stagnant” design of the iPhone 6, 6s, 7, and 8 was actually quite appealing. Toss that device in a case, and no one else could tell if you were rocking a three-year-old handset (nice!) or a brand-new device (for shame).
Not so with the iPhone X. Between its bezelless screen, dual camera, and unmistakable notch, Apple’s flagship is easily identifiable. Even someone who’s only casually familiar with Apple’s handset lineup can pick the X out of a crowd of devices.
This “recognizability” was a reason I considered avoiding the iPhone X. A device this expensive serves as a negative status symbol among our friends and family. Most people know by now that the X is the “thousand-dollar phone.” Owning it sends adverse signals about your character; others may think you’re either flaunting your discretionary cash, or that you’re spending your hard-earned money foolishly.
So, given the choice, I’d prefer inconspicuous consumption over status shopping. Give me gadgets that feel luxurious but don’t look luxurious. I’d rather buy my iPhone in a cavernous, filthy, fluorescent-lit, bargain warehouse than the glass-walled, immaculate boutique of an Apple store. ■
On Friday afternoon, UPS dropped off some new toys: a 64GB space gray iPhone X and an equivalent silver model for my wife. After setup and a weekend of normal use, I wanted to jot down some thoughts:
iPhone X delights
Ever since Apple announced the dual-camera iPhone 7 Plus, I’ve lusted after its telephoto lens and Portrait photography feature. But I had no interest in carrying around a phone that bulky.
In the iPhone X, Apple has added dual lenses to a more svelte frame; for me, that was enough to justify paying such a high price premium (over the “normal” iPhone 7/8).
So far, I’m fairly impressed by the iPhone X’s camera performance. Low light photos are much-improved over the iPhone 7. Portrait mode (new to me) is amazing when it works well. On a hike yesterday, I was reluctant to switch out of that mode for a single shot. However, when I had the opportunity to view the results on a larger display, it was clear that Portrait mode’s blur masking is hit-and-miss on complex subjects.
Apple’s framework for third-party keyboards has some major limitations, but one in particular has always stood out: you can’t jump from a third-party keyboard straight to another third-party keyboard. Instead, you’re left pecking at the switcher icon to cycle through keyboards until you stumble across the one you want. To make matters worse, some keyboards style this switch button differently or even place it in odd locations.
Happily, keyboard-switching works better on the iPhone X. On apps optimized for the taller screen size, you’ll find a dedicated system switcher in the empty space beneath the keyboard itself. This feature offers two advantages: first, the switcher is always easy to find. Second, you can tap and hold the button to see quick shortcuts directly to each keyboard. For me, this simple change means that third-party keyboards are usable for the first time.
Nice perk of the iPhone X: the system keyboard switcher is always available, allowing you to avoid cycling through the list. pic.twitter.com/GYT4Zs5Asp
— Matt Hauger (@matthauger) November 4, 2017
Alas, these keyboards are still less stable and responsive than the native UI. And third-party keyboard setup is still frustratingly unintuitive. Baby steps, right?
iPhone X gripes
The X is easier to handle than the 5.5-inch Plus. But for one-handed use, it’s clumsier than the 4.7-inch non-Plus phones. My fingers have to stretch just a bit too far to hold the phone securely. And because the screen now stretches from top to bottom (notch notwithstanding), I’m forced to reach for the device’s extreme edges more often. When I do, the phone threatens to topple out of my grip.
Speaking of edges, the iPhone X’s swipe gestures are a mixed bag. The new ‘go home’ gesture (swipe up from the bottom edge) works okay (although the phone can feel like it’s perched precariously while you do it). Worse is the new gesture for Control Center (swipe down from the top right corner); this is a disaster for one-handed use. I can’t execute it without invoking Reachability, which slides the entire UI down. Plus, Reachability itself is tricky to invoke, too, thanks to its tiny, often-hidden touch target. Maybe that’s why Reachability is no longer enabled by default.
While my wife’s AT&T activation went through almost immediately, my phone couldn’t join the network for hours on Friday afternoon, thanks to overwhelmed carrier servers. I mashed the ‘Try again’ button hundreds of times, with mounting frustration. Even after the process went through, my problems weren’t resolved. My old phone (and SIM) hadn’t surrendered the connection, and my iPhone X couldn’t make calls or download data. I was eventually forced to open a support ticket to resolve the issue. Needless to say, if AT&T tries to stick me with an activation fee, I’ll be giving them a call.
As far as the phone setup itself, both my wife and I started from scratch this time around. Yes, it’s a pain to reinstall all apps, authenticate dozens of services, and re-tweak system settings. But our iPhone 7 battery life had gotten so poor by last week that we each wanted a fresh config on the new phones.
Setup went smoothly, with one exception: my wife had some trouble stepping through the FaceID registration process. Apparently, that “rotate your face” gesture isn’t particularly intuitive if you haven’t been watching iPhone X preview videos for the past two months.
Despite the months-long hand-wringing about the sensor housing, I never even think about the notch when using the phone in portrait orientation. Non-issue.
Landscape mode? Not so much. While you can zoom in and take videos full screen, I’d recommend against it. That mode lets the notch and rounded screen corners eat your content. If (like me) you abhor “overscan” mode on TVs, you won’t want to watch videos in fullscreen mode on the iPhone X.
Random observations (and niggles)
- FaceID works well; I’ve had very few issues with authentication, and I’ve almost stopped thinking about logging in at all—except when I’m lying in bed. Based on some experimentation, FaceID fails in that context because I’m holding the phone too close. (At night, I often use my phone sans glasses, and I can’t read the screen if I hold it more than a few inches from my eyes.)
- With the Home button gone, Apple moved the Siri invocation gesture to the side button. That, in turn, displaced the ‘power off’ gesture, which now requires that you hold down the side button and ‘volume up’ simultaneously. Unfortunately, that’s also how you trigger Emergency SOS. Early on Saturday morning, while trying to reboot my phone, I invoked SOS and jumped when my phone produced an ear-ringing alarm klaxon. How did this clear usability testing? 911 dispatchers will be receiving a lot of unintentional calls from iPhone X users.
- Animoji are fun, and the face-tracking API holds a lot of promise. I can’t wait to see what developers come up with here. I was a little disappointed to discover that a full beard can throw off the tracking.
- I refuse to carry around a $1,000 phone without any protection. So, immediately after opening the boxes, I applied tempered glass screen protectors to our iPhones. My advice: do this when the screen is on and white; otherwise, you’ll have a hard time getting the sheet aligned with the OLED screen edges, particularly near the notch. ■