Category Archives: Apple

Macbook & USB-C Review

macbookI’ll start by saying I’m writing this on a 12″ Macbook in space grey. The screen, weight, size, and weird keyboard have captured my heart and I’m enjoying using the machine. It has replaced a 15″ Retina Pro as my primary laptop for about 2 weeks now, with most of that being on the road.

For better and worse, it’s a lot like an iPad — the size and weight feel very natural in your life, and the screen is really gorgeous. It’s also not worth plugging anything into it besides its charging cable. It feels great to open and pick up right where you left off. The speed feels more than adequate for everything I’ve thrown at it so far, though I haven’t tried video editing or photo management outside of the new Apple Photos app. If there was a perfect iPad and keybard combo, it would feel and look like the new Retina Macbook.

The second thing I’ll say is I wouldn’t recommend this laptop for everybody yet. There are some trade-offs, for example I can get 5-6 hours from the battery but it’s a little shorter than I expected. It’s refreshing to have a computer that’s totally silent with no fan, and I’ve only had a heat warning once when it was sitting in hot direct sunlight for about 20 minutes. I moved into the shade because I was also wilting a bit from the direct LA sun.

The main reason I’m not sure if I’d recommend this Macbook right is hopefully ephemeral: USB-C. One of the very coolest things about the new Macbook is it charges (quickly) with a new standard called USB 3.1 with a Type-C connector, which is open for anyone to use, is reversible, and I think is going to be the future as I’ve written about on this blog before.


Today, however, USB-C is bleeding edge. I actually have one other device that uses it, Google’s new Chrome Pixel laptop, but when you search on Amazon for “USB-C” there are almost no results except sketchy or not-in-stock generic things, and Apple doesn’t have any USB-C stuff in stock, even in their stores. (Perhaps related to the general stock issues I ended up writing about last time I tried to pen this Macbook review.) I was able to get a cable that had male old USB and male USB-C on Amazon, that was pretty much it. The promise of USB-C is incredible: standard cables for charging everything super-quickly, a battery pack that could charge your phone or laptop, smaller power bricks, a next-gen Thunderbolt display with one cable for all data, display, and charging. You can see and imagine a really perfect ecosystem around USB-C, but it doesn’t exist today. Some cool stuff has been announced but isn’t coming until the summer, even thumb drives.

The problem in one sentence: it is impossible to buy a cable, from Apple or otherwise, that let’s you plug an iPhone 6+ into the Macbook. They’ve announced but not shipped (to me at least) an adapter for old USB stuff (Type-A), but the last thing I need in my life is another dongle.

I thought I would miss this but in practice it has been a surmountable problem. Instead of using my laptop as a battery, I’ve been using a battery to recharge miscellaneous electronics on-the-go, and everything else including transferring photos from phone to computer is now happening wirelessly.

apple-line-upI think the most perfect tech combo in the world right now might be a 5k iMac at home, an iPhone 6+ as your phone, and the Macbook as an on-the-go device. (The iPad isn’t in my must-have list anymore.) The strengths of each of these products complement each other, and as Apple gets better about the cloud with things like photos, tethering, keychain sync, and continuity it’s really becoming a pleasure to use these products together. I also have an Apple Watch in the mix, but still forming my thoughts on that one.

The thing I might be most excited about is when some of the new tech in the retina Macbook around the keyboard, screen, trackpad, and battery is applied to their “Pro” series, which will probably be a bit more in my wheelhouse.

Who is Steve Jobs?

I checked out the new book Becoming Steve Jobs by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli because there had been some interesting excerpts published to the web, and apparently those closest to Steve didn’t like the Walter Isaacson book, with Jony Ive saying “My regard [for Isaacson’s book] couldn’t be any lower.”

Along with about a million other people I bought and read the authorized biography, and didn’t think it portrayed Jobs in a way that made me think any less of him, but there must have been some things in there that someone who knew him closely felt were so off that as a group they decided to coordinate and speak with a new author to set the record straight, as Eddy Cue said of the new Becoming book, “Well done and first to get it right.” I will never know who Steve Jobs really was, but it is interesting to triangulate and learn from different takes, especially Isaacson’s biography that Jobs himself endorsed but might not have read and this new one promoted by his closest friends, colleagues, and family.

As an independent third party who doesn’t know any of the characters involved personally, I must say that I felt like I got a much worse impression of Steve Jobs from Becoming than from the authorized biography. It was great to hear the direct voices and anecdotes of so many people close to him that haven’t spoken much publicly like his wife Laurene — he was a very private man and his friends respect that. But the parts where Schlender/Tetzeli try to balance things out by acknowledging some of the rougher parts of Steve’s public life, especially the recent ones around options backdating, anti-poaching agreements, book pricing, (all overblown in my opinion) or even when trying to show his negotiating acumen with suppliers, Disney, or music labels, they make Jobs look like an insensitive jerk, which seems to be the opposite of what everyone involved was intending.

The direct quotes in the book could not be kinder, and it’s clear from both books that Jobs was incredibly warm, caring, and thoughtful to those closest to him, but Becoming tries so hard to emphasize that it makes the contrast of some of his public and private actions seem especially callous. The personal anecdotes from the author are the best part: one of the most interesting parts of the book is actually when Jobs calls Schlender to invite him for a walk, as one of the people he reached out to and wanted to speak to before he passed, and Schlender — not knowing the context — actually chastises him for cutting off his journalistic access and other trivia, and then blows off the meeting, to his lifelong regret.

It’s tragic, and it’s very human, and that’s what makes for great stories. No one suggests that Steve Jobs was a saint, nor did he need to be. His legacy is already well-protected both in the incredible results while he was alive, and even more so in what the team he built has accomplished since his passing, both periods which actually amaze and inspire me. Becoming Steve Jobs tries harder and accomplishes less to honor the man. It is worth reading if, like me, you gobble up every book around the technology leaders of the past 40 years and want a different take on a familiar tune, but if you were only to read one book about Jobs, and get the most positive impression of the man and his genius, I’d recommend Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.

Apple Loyalty Program

So I finally got my hands on a the new Macbook, finally resorting to Craigslist to find someone who had pre-ordered and pay them a small premium. I was going to write a review, and still will, but ended up writing a bunch on the process of buying things from Apple as a loyal customer.

I have done the second-market Craigslist dance with probably 90% of new Apple tablets and phones before, but never for a laptop. I’m sure every ounce of effort has been expended to capitalize on the hype of the announcements and ship as many of these as possible, but this Macbook/Watch roll-out still seems especially rough with the stores having zero inventory or knowledge of if/when they’re getting anything in, and ship dates now slipping into the summer. There’s a deeper issue though: it speaks to a lack of Apple’s knowledge and connection to their customers, even though they have all the data.

A great restaurant will track every time you’ve eaten there, how much you spent, your preferences, and use that to prioritize reservations and tailor service on subsequent visits. Airlines, for their terrible reputation, actually are decent at this too with their loyalty programs. On United I’m a Global Services level flyer and get some really nice perks as a result, with the knowledge that if I don’t fly a certain amount of miles and spend a certain amount of dollars with them in a calendar year I’ll lose those perks (as I did for a few months earlier this year) and so when choosing between two flights to somewhere I’m more likely to pick the United one. (Also I think some of airlines bad rep is undeserved, they are flying human beings miles in the air inside tin cans where the cost of an error is catastrophic, everything is highly regulated, and many service factors are literally dependent on the weather.)

I am an unapologetic, unrepentant Apple customer ever since I could afford it. One of the first things I did when I got my job at CNET in 2005 was upgrade my Mom from the inexpensive Linux box I built for her (all I could afford) to a Mac Mini. I get almost every new version of everything, including usually 4-6 phones a year (myself and family), at least a dozen laptops, iPads, Thunderbolt displays, iMacs, Mac Pros… at this point I’m probably a cumulative $100k customer of Apple, in addition to the millions we spend on Apple hardware at Automattic (everyone gets a new computer when they join, and we refresh them every 18-24 months, and a special W version at after 4 years of tenure). And I’m late to the game! There are Apple customers today who bought their first product decades ago.

However when pre-orders creak open at midnight, or people start queueing, the order of access to the latest and greatest from Apple is by whoever shows up first, or now online it’s essentially random depending on how lucky you are to load and complete the checkout process. In some ways there’s a beautiful equality to that, but for example when I went with Om in London for the 2013 iPhone release, 95% of the line was people just there to buy and flip it, either locally or ship overseas — the very front of the line was Apple lovers, but in the rest of the line I saw people using Android.

There is some sort of rank ordering inside Apple — Karl Lagerfied and Beyonce have Apple Watches already, reviewers from Gruber to Pogue get devices a few weeks early to test — but imagine if there was an Apple Loyalty program for the rest of us? More than almost any other company Apple has been sustained through tough times by the belief and devotion of their best customers. It would be great if you could earn status with monetary (dollars spent) and non-monetary (impact on the world) points that give you priority ordering access, faster Genius bar appointments, maybe even access to events.

Maybe the truth is Apple doesn’t need to do that, I’m going to keep using them because they make the best products, and when things are rough in the early days (like with the new Macbook, a few recent versions of OS X and iOS) I stick it out because I know it’ll get better. To my knowledge no other tech product maker has done a great loyalty program before, though there are hints in Asian players like Xiaomi and OnePlus. Most luxury brands from Hermes to Patek are also bad at this, because they don’t understand technology and data. But how cool would it be if Apple did reward, or even just recognize, their most loyal customers?

Retina 5k Mac

imac-retina-step1-hero-2014 To me one of the most meaningful shifts in computing the past few years has been how the resolution of displays is getting higher and higher, and interfaces are starting to become resolution independent. I feel like when pixels disappear there’s less of a wall between people and the technology, it starts to blend and meld a bit more. It’s something I’ve been personally passionate about since the first retina iPhone, tirelessly beating the drum at Automattic to make everything we do shine on hi-DPI screens, or leading the WordPress 3.8 release that brought in MP6 project to make WordPress’ aesthetics cleaner and vector-based.

I’m sitting in front of a Retina 5k iMac right now typing this to you. (It was supposed to arrive on Friday but came a few days early.)

It’s the most gorgeous desktop display I’ve ever seen, breathtaking at first and then like all great work becomes invisible and you forget that there was ever a time when displays weren’t this beautiful. (Until you look at some lesser monitor again.)

I’ve been using 4k displays, the Sharp and the ASUS, with Mac Pros for a few months now, and to be honest they come close, but this takes the cake in every possible way, including the design and aesthetics of the computer/display itself which is laptop-thin at the edges. If you’ve been on the fence, and you’re okay with the tradeoffs an iMac has in general, get one. I can’t wait for them to do a 5k Thunderbolt display (but it sounds like it might be at least a year away).

P. S. If you’re looking for a gift for the iMac that has everything, consider a slipper to keep its feet warm.

What’s Next for Apple

I have no inside information or insight, but historically Apple’s product improvements have strongly broadcasted where they’re going in the future. Here are six things I think are inevitable for Apple to do over the next decade, from most to least obvious: maps, iCloud, payments, TVs, search, and cars.

1. Maps

When the iPhone was first released Steve Jobs called Maps on iPhone the best version of Google Maps on the planet, with emphasis on what Apple’s designers had brought to Google’s raw technology (can’t find that link). Four years later, you can’t imagine such a core piece of the mobile experience reliant on their largest competitor. Hopefully this will also give Apple a chance to fill usability gaps in the maps experience today, like that you can’t click from the “where” field in a calendar appointment straight to maps. (Drives me crazy.) Note that the only “Google” branding in maps today is in the bottom left, they know they’re getting replaced and have done an admirable job on the Safari version of maps on iPhone and iPad.

Google Maps + Navigation on Android is my favorite mobile app of the past 3 years (haven’t used Siri yet) — it’s what Garmin should have built $8 billion in revenue and R&D ago. (Remember the Garmin Nüvifone?) Apple was smart to partner in the beginning, but they can, and should, raise the bar.

2. iCloud

The abstraction of documents, photos, videos, their equivalents in “bought” media (iBooks, music, movies, and TV shows from the iTunes store), the deemphasis of the filesystem with every iteration of OS X, and the rough ideas of things like MobileMe’s dock syncing, points to the combination of services that will ultimately disrupt the “magic folder” providers like Dropbox. I love Dropbox, but it’ll be impossible for them to do the deep OS integration needed to match the direction Apple is heading — never thinking about what is where, ever again, just having everything you’ve ever created or used available in the same place on all your devices.

They know this is best for consumers. My friend Rene told me how when his hard drive crashed last year he contacted Apple support and they gave him a link to re-download the past 4 years of music he’d purchased on iTunes. That’s obviously the right thing to do, even if labels have had to be dragged kicking and screaming toward it. By this time tomorrow it’ll just be part of the experience when he signs into iTunes on a new computer. Update: Apple released iTunes 10.5 a day early with this feature.

3. Payments

Your phone becomes your credit card. Apple doesn’t replace Visa or Mastercard, but they do replace all of those scammy rewards and branded cards that prey on unsophisticated consumers. Google will probably do this first, but it’ll be like Microsoft Surface, brilliant but two sandwiches short of a picnic.

4. TVs

I recently got one of the new Thunderbolt displays and man, a super-sized version of this would be killer in my living room. (The speakers are surprisingly good.) TVs are just so bad, not so much in the hardware which can be beautiful like Samsung’s C9000 but in the mediocre software, un-features like Auto Motion (which makes beautiful films look like they were shot by a Jersey Shore cameraman with a beer in his other hand), and interfaces that just don’t do anything you would expect. Hello — you can detect when a cable is plugged in, don’t make me switch between 15 sources when only one is connected. My TV takes 5-10 seconds longer to turn on than my iPad. “Smart TVs” look like “smart phones” did in 2005 — completely lacking in imagination or joy.

But to really imagine the strategic importance of this you need to think beyond a super-sized Thunderbolt display and imagine what replaces iMac, one of Apple’s most beautiful creations. People’s need for a desktop is seriously declining for the first time since pundits started predicted the decline of the PC a decade ago. The post-PC ecosystem is in place now — touch, battery life, mobile-first applications, ubiquity of internet access, flash memory. (In Steve Jobs introduction of the first iPod, two things stand out to me: that terrible font, and the fact one of the main features is 20 minutes of skip protection.) Mobile works and is getting better, and you won’t have what we call a desktop 10 years from now.

Now imagine Apple has a shining 55″ monolith smack dab in the middle of your house. How big of a wifi antenna could they put in there? Could they crush all that lame Cisco teleconference stuff with TV FaceTime? Is there room for a few disk drives that don’t need to worry about skipping plus a SSD to make it fast? If you look at the direction Apple has been heading with Time Capsule locally caching software updates it’s not hard for something similar to work in the other direction, a digital hub that’s your media server for the house, a large-format display, a time capsule, and an Airplay target all in one. Imagine just one power cable coming out of it, and everything else wireless, just like the iMac, and a few killer apps we can’t even imagine yet.

Finally, home theatre needs disruption — this is a land of $200 Monster HDMI cables and similar gouging that functions like a state lottery, an intelligence tax. When I walk through Best Buy, which I try to do once every few months, it feels like it’s technology at its worst, the magic of progress used as smoke and mirrors to confuse and dupe consumers rather than make their lives better. The Apple TV is just another form factor for the unified experience Apple wants to create every time you touch an electronic device.

5. Search

There are hints of this in maps, but just like Craigslist is being killed not by a Craigslist-like clone but rather by a thousand highly focused replacements, so too Google will face its existential crisis not from another webpage with a centered white box, but from the interface and context of search changing completely. Many of Google’s searches aren’t that valuable, and a huge percentage of the ones that are aren’t going to happen at the desktop anymore .The context of your location (which your phone already knows) the “results page” of a fantastic map application and the input of a next-generation search interface, like Siri, completely changes the rules of engagement. Google’s not investing in mobile because they wanted a better phone.

6. Cars

This is the most far-out, but I think most certain. Voice-controlled search through Siri and Apple Maps provide the hands-free framework for a rich interactive experience while driving. Walk down the car stereo aisle in Best Buy and see what $800 gets you, or a $300 GPS from Garmin, vs an iPad or iPhone. The screens feel like a TI-92 calculator. The typography makes my eyes bleed. I find it morally reprehensible how bad these products are because it’s one of the areas of technology where a bad interface is most directly tied to injuries and deaths. Car folks are making their iPhone/iPod integrations better and better, which may be a glass of ice water in hell, but they’ll never make the jump to providing a beautiful marriage of media, search, and navigation that a great in-car experience needs. Right now you can spend 110k on a Tesla Roadster, a car of the future, and for an additional $4,500 (9 iPads!) get this Alpine head unit. (Watch that video and try not to laugh at how bad the interface is.) Retail it only sets you back 1.4 iPads. That’s just sad.

“People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.” — Alan Kay, 1982. People who make hardware should get their software act together before Apple does for them.

Discussion on Hacker News.

Mac Woes

After a security update my 12″ Powerbook asked me to reboot, after which it decided that it will only boot to a command line. I have no idea how to even start to fix this, I can navigate around it like it’s Linux but there is no indication of what went wrong or how to fix it. I’m going to take it to the Genius bar in hopes they can do something, but all-in-all this is pretty disappointing.