Category Archives: Review

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.

Best Headphones Spring 2015 Edition

Since my last headphone post I’ve been trying out lots of different models, and have settled on two new ones as my daily drivers: the PowerBeats 2 and the Sennheiser Momentum 2 Wireless.

beats_by_dre_pr_sentiert_lebron_james_in_re_established_powerbeats2_wireless_01I’ll talk about the Beats first because it’s easy: before I used a Plantronics set for exercise, but the battery life wasn’t great and they would often fall out when running. The Powerbeats 2 are light, have great battery life (they claim 6 hours, that feels about right), stay in place even when running in the Houston heat, charge fast, and as a bonus they look cool. (Beats has always been great about that.) The sound? They’re bad, but good at it. There’s basically no isolation so you can hear traffic and things around you at lower volumes, which is actually a bonus, and if you turn up the volume they get loud enough to drown other stuff out. Buy these for the function, not the sound quality, and you can pick them up from any Best Buy kiosk in the airport or Apple Store if you lose or forget them, so they’re pretty ubiquitous.

71mNNnOhCKL._SL1500_-2I heard about the Sennheisers from Carl Hancock who tried them and gave them a high recommendation. I had trouble finding them but there was a pair local to me at B&H in New York so I got them delivered and I was immediately impressed with them. They’re better than my previous wireless over-ear recommendation the Samsung Level Over in every way: sound, size, compatibility, aesthetics, usability, noise canceling.

The sound is the best I’ve heard from wireless headphones so far. Just the right balance. The noise canceling apparently uses 4 different mics and I’ve found it more than sufficient on dozens of plane rides, including passing the noisy baby test. My only complaint is they don’t “grip” my ears as much, so some sound leaks in that way. They fold up to be pretty small, and I just toss them in my backpack. 81FYeTRjv4L._SL1500_-2The battery goes forever, or as they claim 22 hours. You really forget to charge these things for a while and they still have plenty of juice. The volume and other controls actually work with the iPhone, and bluetooth calls have sounded great and people can actually hear me. Only downside is they have basically a proprietary connection for their 1/8th inch cable, so you have ta carry that around, but they charge with standard micro-USB. The only possible challenger I can think to these are the BeoPlay H8s, which I haven’t tried yet.

tl; dr: If you want to exercise and get sweaty, get the Powerbeats 2 in your favorite color. For traveling, listening to music, talking, and generally enjoying amazing sound without worrying about wires, try out the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless.

I think it’s interesting that both of these recommendations are version 2.0 of a product, it’s good to see companies iterating and improving on products even if they’ve already been successful in the marketplace.

Beats Studio Wireless vs Samsung Level Over

I listen to music pretty much constantly, and it’s not unusual to see me on the road with just a carry-on and still have 3 or 4 headphones on me that I’m testing.

First off, Bluetooth changes everything. It’s so nice to not ever worry about cables, or even proximity for the most part, like having your phone charging by the laptop and still able to walk around the room. Audio quality is great now, only downside is having to charge something, but they’re all pretty good about battery now.

I’ve been enjoying a category I’ll call: Bluetooth, over ear headphones that let people know not to bother you, that you feel kind of cool wearing, that are great for planes, and cost around $300-400. The pioneer in this category is Beats, and I bought a pair of their Studio Wireless (in matte titanium, natch) after Apple bought them because I wanted to see what the fuss is about. More recently I got some horribly named but well-reviewed Samsung Level Overs, so this is a comparison of those two. (Another contender in this category would be the Parrot Zik ones, but just skip those. Great idea, annoying in practice.)

Beats Studio WirelessLet me start with how the Beats are better: they fold up, look cool, sound pretty decent on calls, and everything works nicely with the iPhone. For me they have two fatal flaws: comfort and noise. The earcups are kind of small, or my ears are kind of huge; whichever it is, sometimes after wearing them for a few hours my left ear starts to become quite sore. Second is they have active noise cancellation (ANC) that causes what can only be described as a constant hiss you can hear both while music is playing and while it’s off, it’s like like noise addition rather than noise cancellation. The fit and finish of the Beats are nice, as well as the accessories like cables, how it indicates how much power is left, et cetera.

Samsung LEVEL overThe LEVEL overs (wow that’s awkward to write) are big, and they don’t fold, but they float around in my backpack pretty much the same as the Beats, especially if you don’t use the included case. The battery seems to go forever. The ANC can be turned on and off (battery goes longer with it off), and when it’s on it’s good, like miss-the-announcement-for-your-flight good. For me this is the deal-maker — I didn’t realize what I was missing with mediocre ANC before on the Beats, I’m now able to concentrate and relax much better on planes. I’ve flown every third day in the past month, so this is a big deal to me. They also feel like they’re better made — less plastic feeling than the Beats. The have a touch gesture control on the right cup like on the Zik, but it actually works well. The cups fit completely over my ears and in general it feels more comfortable on my head, I can wear it for hours at a time and it’s totally comfortable. I don’t think they look as cool, but that’s probably because I haven’t been conditioned with pictures of my favorite musicians and athletes wearing them. (Though not in football anymore.)

Main downsides: the cable it comes with doesn’t “work” with an iPhone or Mac as a mic or control device, and is also clunky. (Bluetooth control works fine.) This is apparently because the remote control resistor on Apple-targeted cables work differently from everyone else’s, which I think we can all agree in 2014 is ridiculous for both sides. My fix for this was to use the cable from the Beats, which you can also buy online, which looks cooler, is smaller, and works great with my Mac for G+ Hangouts and Skype calls. Perhaps related to this is when the Beats or many other Bluetooth headsets I’ve used are connected to the iPhone there’s a battery indicator and the Samsung doesn’t support this, but since the battery life is so good I don’t worry about this too much.

Matt with SamsungsToo long; skipped to the end: The Samsung sounds better, is more comfortable, and is better made. Try it out if you’re considering buying headphones in this category. I don’t expect this to be a long-term advantage because I’m fairly certain Apple will do amazing things with Beats in the future, even if that just means a lightning connector, but I’m guessing that’s a 2015 thing.

Extra credit: What headphones do I use in other categories? (An update to my 2009 post.) For in-ear wired I use Ultimate Ears 18 Pro Custom molded to my ears, but I also recommend Sennheiser IE 8i for friends who don’t want to go to audiologist, for running/exercise or when being discreet like on a subway I use the Plantronics BackBeat GO 2 with charging case, at home I like the Auduze LCD3 usually with a Red Wine Audio amp. I agree with many of the assessments in Marco Arment’s mega-review, and I got turned on to the Samsung’s by Wirecutter’s noise cancelling review.

Jawbone UP vs Basis

Jawbone UP I’ve always been into personal analytics. From Wakemate to the Nike Fuelband I’ve tried pretty much every device that’s come on the market to help you become more self-aware of your activities, and hopefully improve them as well.

Lately I’ve settled on two that I think are really high quality: the Jawbone UP and the Basis watch. I would recommend either above the Nike Fuelband or Fitbit, but let me share some brief thoughts about my experiences with each:

The UP is beautiful — it’s easy to wear with pretty much any outfit, even with formal wear I find I can move it up my arm a little bit inside my sleeve above my shirt cuff thanks to the flexible nature of the band. The social app they have for it is cool, though it can be a little weird to see your teammate’s minute-by-minute sleeping habits (“Hey! I noticed you were up between 3:32 and 3:50 AM last night. How ’bout them Giants?”).

I'm very proud of my sleep.
I’m very proud of my sleep.

The battery life is over a week so you never have to think about it, but you do have to carry around a proprietary connector for it which I keep losing leaving me (like right now) with an uncharged and useless device. To sync you plug the band into your phone’s headphone port and the sync takes a few seconds, it’s a fun process I do usually first thing in the morning to see how I slept the night before and it’s also fun to demo to friends. The first one I had was in their “mint green” color and I ended up wearing it out — it started to look dirty and I broke it where the headphone jack comes out making it difficult to charge and sync. That said, I was pretty rough on it. My new one is blue and I like it much better. My only big complaint about how the whole thing works is it doesn’t detect when you go to sleep, you have to press and hold the button on the end to put it from wake to sleep mode, which I would frequently forget to do. I really like the idea of the smart alarm and power nap features even though I never used them.

Basis B1 BandThe Basis is a bit clunky and retro looking, but functionality-wise it provides some really cool data: it tracks your heart rate, skin temperature, perspiration level, steps, and sleep. It detects automatically when you’re asleep, no buttons to push. The data is presented in a really cool web app that lets you compare some of the data points and that I learned cool things from, like my heart rate jumps about 20 beats per minute when I wake up, and I’m most warm about two thirds into my sleep cycle. There don’t appear any social features that I’ve seen in the software, though its habit formation tracking seems pretty slick. The way the “buttons” work on the device is pretty cool, the silver dots in the corners are touch-sensitive. There’s a button on the side that I haven’t figured out what it does yet. Syncing and charging is much worse than the UP — it’s got an even clunkier proprietary USB thing that both syncs to your computer and charges, but because the display can show you how you’re doing as you go throughout the day I don’t feel the need to synchronize it as often. The heart rate tracking is by far my favorite feature. It’s comfortable to wear, but doesn’t disappear like the UP. Finally, as an added bonus, it tells the time. (Surprising useful.) If it somehow merged with the Pebble I’d be in geek heaven.

If I had to pick between the two I’d just use the Basis. The awkwardness of the device is outweighed by the richness of the data it provides. For right now I’m not choosing: I wear one on each wrist and compare the data. (It’s always within a few % of each other for things they both do.) If I were hiking in the woods for a week I’d probably just take the UP as its battery would last the entire time. It’s really illustrated for me what a silo each of these systems are, they don’t talk to each other at all and it appears unlikely they ever will.

Long-term I think we really need an open source package you can run on your own servers that can ingest the data from all of these services, say from back when I used to use a Wakemate sleep tracking to today’s Fitbit Aria scale, the meals I track in the UP app with my Basis heart rate data and Runkeeper and Hundred Pushup logs, and provide you with a single data store for all the personal analytics you generate across various services. I think there’s going to be a lot of competition in this space in the next few years.

Nathan Myhrvold and Modernist Cuisine

Nathan Myhrvold, an interesting character I’ve following for a few years now, has been in the news lately for his co-authorship with Maxime Bilet and Chris Young of the new food bible Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking (Amazon link). (Peep that beautiful, 100% WordPress-powered site.) I pre-ordered it forever ago, a fact that may surprise friends who know how little I cook, but I do love food and I was as interested in the pictures and the result of a detail-oriented and science-driven obsession with quality that goes all the way down to the stochastic printing process as the articles/recipes .

The books are, in a word, stunning. I’m probably a lifetime away from attempting a 30-hour burger, but last night I did try a sous-vide approach to a New York sirloin and it turned out amazing. (Though that photo probably won’t be in a future edition of Modernist Cuisine.) The fact I can barely scramble eggs but made a super-good steak might portend the apocalypse. I think sous-vide cooking is something that will appeal a lot to engineers or analytically minded folks because it’s a controlled process with predictable outcomes.

Here are some interesting links and videos I’d recommend around Modernist Cuisine, sous-vide cooking, and Nathan Myhrvold himself:

If you made it this far, two bonuses:

At the EG Conference in 2007 I interviewed Nathan Myhrvold about the Dvorak keyboard layout, which I’ve used about 11 years now, and here’s that video:

Second, Mark Pearson of Pear Press (also associated with one of my other favorite authors John Medina) recommends the Pizza Nepoletana technique in volume 2 page 26 as an accessible dish, and the tip on decanting wine in a blender.

Thanks to many friends for the links, and also for listening to me blather on about this for the past week or two. You may also be subject to more experiments in the future.

I’m just going to keep updating this post with more links:

Peplink Multi-WAN Routers

Update Sept 2014: My favorite Peplink is now the Balance One, and my favorite router if you’re super-techy and want to configure networking stuff is the Ubiquiti Edgerouter Lite. Read more about Ubiquiti here.

I live and work on the internet, so when I have trouble connecting it really slows me down. About a year or so ago I started looking into multi-WAN routers that would, at least, support two internet connections and failover to the other one, and as a bonus maybe provide some speed benefits as well. Here’s the story of that journey.

Continue reading Peplink Multi-WAN Routers

First Impressions of Sony X

I’m a little addicted to gadgets, especially Sony laptops which have served as my primary on-the-go machines for the past few years because of their power and portability. When I first saw the Vaio X, Sony’s new ultra-thin and ultra-light laptop, I was taken aback. It looked beautiful, but so was the Envy 133 and the Envy was a complete waste of time and money due to a really bad trackpad and performance. Anyway, I’ve been playing with the X1 for 5-6 hours now, and here are some unordered thoughts:

  1. It is the sexiest and most elegant laptop I’ve held or seen. Feels like it’s from the future.
  2. It feels almost too light, I actually threw it up and caught it, particularly with the normal-sized battery.
  3. I got the champagne color, which was a good choice.
  4. The ethernet port works in a really interesting way.
  5. Speed of browsing, installing, everything feels pretty good with Windows 7, but it’s obvious the graphics card is pretty underpowered. The moment you turn transparency on or get a flash video on Blip going it starts to stutter a bit.
  6. That said, I could imagine using this as my primary machine for short and medium trips.
  7. The keyboard takes a bit of getting used to in a way I haven’t run into before: the space bar is hard to hit. The keyboard is very compressed in vertical space so your thumb falls below where the space bar is, and you have to retrain your hand to be in a different position which isn’t as comfortable. The shift button can be hard to hit but that’s much easier to get used to, I’ve done it on other small keyboards. I’m not sure why they made it so small, it feels like it could stretch out a bit more.
  8. Other big annoyance is the trackpad — it’s really narrow. Windows machines do the trackpad scroll on the right and bottom edges of the pad and I find myself triggering that accidentally because the tracking area is so tiny. Again, lots of apparent space toward the bottom of the laptop just a really narrow tracking area. This is easier to get used to than the keyboard, though, and the trackpad feels nice like most Vaios and unlike the Voodoo Envy.
  9. I love that it has two USB ports, and a regular VGA connector instead of some weird micro-display-port you need a dongle for. (An Apple decision that bugs me almost as much as the recessed headphone connector on the original iPhone.)
  10. Screen is gorgeous, like all recent Vaios.
  11. Did I mention it’s drop-dead gorgeous? It’s the first laptop I’ve had in 5 years that I don’t want to put stickers on.
  12. Hardware-wise, way better than the Air.

So while it won’t be replacing my Z890 as primary workhorse for now, the X is so light I might take it on my next few trips and use it as a day-top. I’m especially excited by the prospect of the 14 hour battery life (probably 10 in real life use) giving me freedom from power cords through even a whole day at a WordCamp. We’ll see in a week or two if I’m able to comfortably adjust to the too-small keyboard and trackpad.