iPhone X delights and gripes

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

Camera quality

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.

Keyboard switching

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.

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

Awkward edges

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.

Activation nightmares

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.

Notch watch

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. ■

Apple Watch Series 3 review: podcast problems undermine the marquee features

Selling my old Watch

Over a week ago, I reluctantly listed my old Apple Watch for sale online. My Series 3 wouldn’t arrive till Friday, and I dreaded going watchless for the better part of a week, but I also hoped to eke out the best return I could, so I posted my space gray Series 1 to Swappa.

Selling it proved harder than I expected. Days passed, and no serious buyer even nibbled. I dropped my price: $180. $170. $160. Still, no takers. Finally, at $150, a Swappa user bit; I netted about $128 after subtracting the listing fee and my shipping costs. That’s about $100 less than I spent when I bought the device last December. I’m not thrilled with its steep depreciation, but $0.37 per day seems pretty reasonable to lease a device with the Watch’s feature set.

The Series 3 arrives

I didn’t buy the LTE model (see my earlier post. Even if I had wanted that feature, I didn’t have enough cash set aside to afford its $80 price premium. (I save for these purchases very intentionally!)[1]

My 42mm, space gray, non-cellular model arrived via UPS on Friday. As a quick aside, I’m amazed at the logistics required to deliver a state-of-the-art gadget to my rural doorstep on the first day of its worldwide availability. We live in a little log cabin in the remote mountains of West Virginia, an hour from the nearest big box retailer and nearly three hours from the closest Apple retail store. Yet when I finished work on Friday and stepped out onto my porch, there it was: a long cardboard box, fresh off the plane from China.

First impressions

Over the course of my nine months with the Series 1, I grew bored with my black sport band. It looked okay, but it didn’t have a lot of character. This time around, I opted for gray. I know, I know; that’s not very flashy, either, but it was the only other option.

In short, I like the new band; its shade includes a hint of brown, and it’s a bit brighter than the Watch’s aluminum case, but the two pair well. Hopefully, this sport band wears better than the last, which had started to flake by the time I sold it last week.

Based on my earlier comparison, I had worried that the Series 3 would feel significantly thicker than my old Series 1. But I’m happy to report that I haven’t noticed a major difference—it feels identical on my wrist, and I don’t notice its added bulk when I glance down. Now, that doesn’t mean that this Watch’s thickness is “ideal”; it’s a little chunky, and I hope Apple can break the 10mm barrier in the not-too-distant future.

New (to me) features

Compared to the Series 1, watchOS 4 feels snappier on the newer device. Apple claims 70% better performance; for me, the gains are just enough to make third-party apps feel consistently responsive. Dumping the honeycomb (a new option in watchOS 4) helps tremendously. Whereas finding and launching an app could take thirty seconds or more before, now it takes just a few seconds.

I’ve been enjoying the Series 3’s improved water resistance (versus the Series 1, which was splash-proof but couldn’t be immersed). I don’t really want to wear my smartwatch in the shower, but I love being able to rinse off the Watch every time I wash my hands. A clean device is a happy device, right?

Another improvement: the Series 3 screen apparently gets far brighter than that of the Series 1. But I never found the Series 1 to be too dim, and I keep my brightness level too low for this to matter much to me.

Then there are the location-based features; the Series 3, like the Series 2, includes standalone GPS. In addition, it boasts a barometric altimeter for tracking elevation. As a runner, these features appeal to me. But there’s a problem.

Podcasts: the Apple Watch’s Achilles heel

Stated succinctly: the inability to play podcasts from the Watch severely limits its utility. For whatever reason, Apple has declined to build an official Apple Watch podcasts app, and the dearth of audio-related, developer-facing APIs in WatchKit means that third party apps can’t fill the gap. Even the workaround that some podcast apps leveraged in watchOS 3 has been deprecated.

When I run, I listen to podcasts. I don’t have a commute, so that half-hour of exercise is often my only chance to catch up on my favorite shows. A great episode of ATP or Upgrade transforms my workout from a boring slog to a tolerable jaunt. Yes, if I listened to music on my runs instead of podcasts, the Watch could work as a playback device. But that’s not my thing. Podcasts are my thing.

So I’m forced to bring the iPhone, slung into its fanny pack, along for the ride. I feel the its dense heft with every stride, and the running belt somewhat restricts my breathing. Together, these irritating sensations serve as a constant reminder that I’ve got a $700 computer jostling around at my waist.

This podcast drawback effectively means that I’ll never go anywhere with my Watch without bringing my iPhone, too. The Watch’s GPS and altimeter are superfluous, since I’ll always have a phone that includes the same features. And buying the LTE version wouldn’t have made sense (why pay for another cellular connection, when my phone is always in my pocket?).

If Apple ever fixes the podcast problem, everything would change. I could leave the phone at home, and the Watch would suddenly be the perfect running companion. It’s maddening that that Apple is so close here and yet has gone another year without closing the gap. ■

  1. Saving for a potential Apple Watch Series 4 starts now.  ↩



A watch watcher reviews the Apple Watch Series 3

Benjamin Clymer of Hodinkee reviews the Apple Watch Series 3.

As he writes,

One of the most amusing things about doing what I do for a living – writing about and working with mechanical watches – is the reaction that other watch guys expect me, or really any other reasonable watch person, to have about the Apple Watch. They think we should hate it. I don’t hate the Apple Watch, nor should anyone else. If anything, the build quality versus price ratio on the Apple Watch is so embarrassing for the Swiss that I genuinely think it will push mechanical watchmakers to be better.

Even this small insight, this peek into the world of Swiss manufacturing and watch aficionados, is worth the click.

Clymer’s review adds something unique to the online conversation about the Series 3 Watch. Tech blog reviews too often follow the same boring pattern; I can only read about watchOS 4’s new workout app so many times before my eyes glaze over. As a mechanical watch expert, however, Clymer deftly surfaces a new, thought-provoking set of expectations, delights, and complaints.<!–[1]–>

For example, the reviewer discusses the “incredible tolerances and smooth corners” on the packaging for the Apple Watch Edition, then compares it to boxes from the luxury watchmakers. He also weighs the Watch Edition’s ceramic case against similar materials on far more expensive mechanical watches. Clymer’s able to provide context that the average tech expert just can’t.

Even his less esoteric thoughts prove fascinating; he lists his daily carry items in the wake of acquiring the Series 3: the Watch, a wallet, house keys, and a single AirPod (!). That last detail took me by surprise, as a gadget nerd (“What about stereo music?!”). But it’s a great example of how different priorities (e.g. valuing fashion over technological utility) lead to a different way of using a digital device.

We need more tech reviews like this! Give me a iPhone X review from a doctor doing her rounds. A HomePod review from a concert violinist. An Apple Watch review from a professional athlete in off-season training. An Amazon Echo review from an elderly retiree. As Clymer’s article proves, getting outside the tech bubble could help us view our gadgets in an entirely new light. ■

  1. One quibble: Clymer confuses the first-generation Watch (the “Series 0”) with the 2016 Series 1. It’s a mistake that an expert in smart wearables probably wouldn’t make. But why be pedantic? Clymer’s review is fascinating not because of what he doesn’t know, but because of what he does.<!– ↩–>

technology Uncategorized

Review: the BrydgeAir iPad keyboard cover

My laptop is too big for blogging.

My work machine, a Dell Precision M4600, is a powerhouse desktop replacement. But it’s also a behemoth—far too chunky to use comfortably on the couch or to cart around when traveling.

I could get a lighter laptop—something like the Macbook Air. But I can’t justify buying a second laptop just for home use. Instead, I settled on the BrydgeAir, a premium keyboard dock designed to transform an iPad Air 2 into a tiny Macbook clone.

First thoughts

It’s a handsome devil.

The BrydgeAir is beautiful. It matches my iPad almost perfectly—down to the “space gray” aluminum finish. The keyboard’s brushed metal, black trim, and simple lines make it look like something Apple designed. In fact, I wish Apple did sell this product; it would prove their commitment to iPad productivity.

Brydge really sweated the details here—straight down to the unboxing experience. Magnets embedded in the lid produce a pleasing little thunk when it opens and shuts. That’s a fun touch, although I couldn’t help but think, “I’m paying for those magnets”—when some packing tape would have done the job.

Why the BrydgeAir?

Choosing the BrydgeAir took months—or years, if you count the time I spent nailing down my priorities. Below, I break down my wish list into sections; in each, I explain how the BrydgeAir met the need—or didn’t.


Since I acquired my first iPad in 2013, I’ve relied on an inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard from Amazon. It works reliably, and the keys feel fine. Most impressively, it uses very little power; I’ve never replaced the AAA batteries that came with it. Since the iPad can’t stand upright on its own, I added a sturdy, foldable little stand—the fantastic Satechi R1.

This keyboard-plus-stand setup works great on a desk, but it’s maddening to use on your lap. A few months ago, I decided I wanted to blog from the couch, but that meant constantly juggling the keyboard, the stand, and the iPad. Shifting positions risked toppling the whole rig onto the floor, and standing up required two or three separate break-down steps. My frustration mounted, and I started hunting for an iPad keyboard solution that worked better on my lap—with no shuffling, minimal futzing, and the freedom to move around.

The BrydgeAir fits the bill. It’s a clever design; the iPad slides into two rubber-coated aluminum arms, which grip the landscape-oriented tablet securely. The iPad feels firmly anchored when “docked”; I can pick up the “faux-netbook” from either end, without worrying whether it will slide apart. The hinges pivot from closed to completely flat (0 to 180°) and hold their position once set. And because the BrydgeAir weighs about the same as the tablet itself, the iPad can’t tumble backwards, out of my lap.

One downside? When open, the hinges stick out, downward from the base. They thus serve as “legs,” akin to those found on many desktop keyboards. That’s inventive, but it’s not particularly ergonomic (experts recommend that you angle your keyboard the exact opposite direction). Fortunately, I’ve never suffered from RSI issues. Still, there’s another related annoyance: these little legs make the BrydgeAir less stable on my lap; it tips and bounces as I type. I eventually got used to the movement, but I wish the BrydgeAir lay flat instead.

Not a “case”

Other iPad keyboard solutions require that you clip the iPad into some sort of case—often one that can’t be detached from the keyboard. That was a non-starter for me; I prefer to use my iPad sans protection. Plus, I didn’t want to pry the tablet out of plastic armor every time I wanted to read.

The BrydgeAir handles detachment fairly well, although the same friction that secures the iPad while typing also makes the combo tougher to pull apart. I typically unfold the clamshell to 180°, grip each device with one hand, and pull in opposite directions.

There’s one disadvantage to the BrydgeAir’s detachability: what should I do with the keyboard when it’s not attached? Aluminum’s not the most durable material; it seems unwise to toss it into my bag with months-old bananas and car keys. Fortunately, because the BrydgeAir’s profile is nearly identical to the iPad itself, my WaterField sleeve holds it just fine. Then, when I’m ready to head out, I can dock the two devices and slip them both into the sleeve (the combo just fits). That’s more fiddly than I’d like, but it’s no worse than handling a standalone keyboard, the iPad, and a stand.

Great typing experience

My AmazonBasics keyboard works great, but it wouldn’t win any awards from the local chapter of the Typists Union. It’s got the mushy, plasticky feel I’d expect from a $25 keyboard.

As for the BrydgeAir… maybe my expectations for a chiclet-style keyboard are unrealistic. It doesn’t feel like a significant upgrade over the (far cheaper) Amazon alternative. The keys snap a bit more, but they’re noticably spongier than the full-size keycaps on my Dell workstation.

Another issue? The iPad occasionally registers two key presses for a single keystrike. This is endlessly irritating, but I don’t blame Brydge—that happened with other Bluetooth keyboards, too. Hopefully Apple can improve the reliability of its Bluetooth stack in upcoming releases. Or, better, perhaps we’ll see Brydge support the new “Smart Connector” when it migrates from the flagship iPad Pro to smaller devices. Hardware connections trump wireless every time—at least for reliability.

Because the BrydgeAir mirrors the iPad’s profile, the QWERTY keyboard gets compressed into a fairly small footprint. Those with big hands may find it cramped (though I haven’t had trouble adjusting). And shrinking the keyboard requires other, more irritating tradeoffs. A few useful keys—all included on my Amazon keyboard—are absent from the BrydgeAir. There’s no backspace, for example; I miss being able to delete both forwards and backwards. Function (Fn) is missing, which makes the Fn + Delete backspace shortcut impossible to perform. Finally, escape (Esc) is gone, too, which makes it tricky to dismiss dialog boxes and (especially) the over-helpful Siri.

Speaking of Apple’s “intelligent assistant”, the BrydgeAir boasts a dedicated Siri button at the bottom left corner. I use Siri too rarely to justify such prominent placement. Plus, it’s immediately adjacent to the Ctrl key; I frequently invoke Siri by accident, when I meant to cycle through Safari tabs. Siri would have been better relegated to the device’s function row, located above the numbers.

Useful function keys

The BrydgeAir’s top row of keys groups together convenient, iPad-specific functions. Here’s the run-down, in order:

  1. Home. Equivalent to hitting the Home button on the iPad itself. I understand why this is here, but you can’t really do anything from the Home screen without lifting your hands from the keyboard. Apple doesn’t support keyboard navigation outside of apps.
  2. Lock. This key puts the iPad to sleep–which proved surprisingly useful. Although some reviews claim that closing the BrydgeAir clamshell will automatically put the iPad to sleep, that never worked for me.[1] With the dedicated lock button, I can quickly lock the iPad, close the BrydgeAir combo, and go. And when the iPad is sleeping, hitting this lock button summons the PIN keypad (which can be filled out via the external keyboard).
  3. Backlight control. The BrydgeAir boasts built-in backlighting, which is handy for couch computing in a dim environment. I’m a touch typist and a battery life miser, so I don’t expect to use this feature very often. Also, for what it’s worth, I notice significant “light bleed” around the keys (rather than through them). That could be a common problem for backlit keyboards (I’ve never had one before).
  4. iPad brightness controls. My old Bluetooth keyboard didn’t have this feature, but it’s a must-have from here on out. These keys are especially critical with the BrydgeAir; tight clearance between the iPad’s screen and the keyboard base makes it difficult to perform the “swipe up” gesture that surfaces iOS’s native brightness controls.
  5. Software keyboard show-hide. Typically, I wouldn’t need the software keyboard when using the BrydgeAir. However, iOS 9 allows users to “two-finger touch” the onscreen keyboard to move the typing cursor. If I were determined, I could invoke the software keyboard via the BrydgeAir’s dedicated key, lift my hand to re-place the cursor, then hit the key again to hide the onscreen UI. That seems clunky, but it does work.
  6. Search and browser (?) keys. Weirdly, these two buttons do the exact same thing: switch to the Home screen and show the Spotlight search interface. I wonder if Apple changed something in recent versions of iOS that made the browser key (marked with a globe) stop working correctly? In any case, it’s now wasted space. That’s especially painful, given the other keys that are missing (see above).
  7. Media controls. I don’t often listen to music on my iPad, but these are fairly standard controls on external keyboards these days.
  8. Volume controls. Ditto.


Here are a few quibbles and notes that didn’t fit above:

  • The BrydgeAir boasts a pair of built-in, Bluetooth stereo speakers. These are wasted on me, since I bought the device solely for its keyboard / stand functionality. In fact, I hadn’t even tried the speakers before writing this review. My take? You’re better off using the iPad’s onboard unit. The BrydgeAir’s speakers sound relatively tinny and clipped, although they’re loud and stereo (unlike the iPad’s single speaker). Honestly, I’m surprised this feature made the final product; Brydge would have better off dropping the speakers—and the price.
  • There’s a groove at the front of the BrydgeAir designed to make opening the clamshell easier. It’s a nice thought, but you’d need very long fingernails to use this indentation.
  • The iPad-BrydgeAir combo feels great when closed. It’s heavy—but substantial, solid and secure.
  • Brydge designed the BrydgeAir to match the original iPad Air—not the Air 2. On the first Air, the volume rocker and mute switch mirrored the BrydgeAir’s power switch and pairing buttons exactly. Apple dropped the mute switch with the iPad Air 2, but the BrydgeAir wasn’t updated, eliminating this little symmetric touch. The obsessive user might wrinkle his nose.
  • I wish Brydge sold through Amazon. Yes, I’m spoiled, but I’ve grown accustomed to Amazon Prime’s two-day shipping. I ordered my BrydgeAir on a Saturday, and it didn’t arrive till the following Friday.

Final thoughts

The BrydgeAir is a premium product in more ways than one. On the one hand, it’s pricier than the average iPad keyboard. The BrydgeAir typically retails for $149 through Brydge’s website. It’s on sale ($129) right now for Black Friday, and the right coupon code brings the total cost under $100.[2] Still, that’s quite the price tag for a tablet accessory.

But, setting aside minor complaints, the BrydgeAir is also “premium” in terms of build quality and functionality. The device trumps nearly everything else on the market.

I’ve found my dedicated blogging machine.

  1. I reached out to Brydge’s support team for this issue. They wrote that both devices have to be “perfectly aligned” for this function to work. Then, they added this: “Some batches of iPad’s [sic] did have the magnetic polarity altered which has caused many accessories that offer the auto off function to not work. This is why we do not advertise this function as a feature of the Brydge.” Welp. Even if the feature worked, I probably wouldn’t rely on it. I need to know that the iPad is turned off, since I set a long auto-sleep timeout in Settings. I’ll stick to powering down manually.  ↩
  2. The code I used, “GoDoMore”, offers a discount of $30 on the BrydgeAir. It appears to work with the Black Friday discount.  ↩
movies Uncategorized

The Princess Bride is a bad movie.

I’m dumbfounded when friends list The Princess Bride among their favorite movies. How did such an awful film earn cult status? Its flaws are glaring:

  • Bad acting. Andre the Giant was not hired for his acting chops. Mandy Patinkin (Inigo) substitutes a funny accent for fine acting. Cary Elwes (Westley) smirks his way through every line. Wallace Shawn (Vizzini) gives me a headache.

Giant? Yes. Thespian? No.

  • Horrible music. The Princess Bride fakes an orchestral score with cheesy synthesizers. Compare its soundtrack to scores from other films of its era—Back to the Future, for example. Bride’s Casio-generated, forgettable pseudo-melodies just don’t stand the test of time.
  • Terrible special effects. Laughable, rubbery monsters. Soulless sound stages. Toy boat models. This Bride ain’t much to look at.
  • Drama-less ending. At the film’s climax, our heroes finally come face-to-face with the hated villain, and… they ignore him and escape out the window. The End. Wait, what?! Who’s writing this stuff?

The only way to enjoy Bride is to laugh at it—to point out how god-awful it is. It’s the Plan Nine from Outer Space of the fantasy genre, fit only to be spurned by snarky talking heads.