Two weeks with Apple Watch

Time for Apple Watch

Time for Apple Watch

I didn’t have the happiest starts with Apple Watch. As I blogged 10 days ago, setting up Apple Watch was painful. But this post explains that we’ve got on better since – even if Apple Watch is a work in progress, by contrast with the original iPad in 2010.

The watch itself is a delight. It’s beautifully made, as you’d expect from Apple. Battery life is better than expected: after heavy use today, it’s still showing 47% battery remaining. I’m beginning to think I needn’t have splashed out of that spare charger.

For me, iPod in 2004, iPhone in 2008 and iPad in 2010 were a revelation. They both made an instant impact. Apple Watch has had nothing like the same affect, which makes me think sales will be slower after the initial rush from early adopters. I had no hesitation recommending those earlier devices to family and friends. I won’t be doing the same for the watch – simply because I’ve not yet seen a similar benefit. I knew that the iPhone was dramatically better than my old Sony Ericsson and BlackBerry phones. I can’t yet say that the Apple Watch meets a compelling need not fulfilled by your smartphone and traditional watch.

Here are my reflections on two weeks with Apple’s watch.

Apple’s apps for the Apple Watch need more work You’d have thought that Apple would have the best apps for its own watch. In my experience, Apple hasn’t applied its usual attention to detail to its Watch apps. And it hasn’t thought enough about what people might want on the watch.

Activity doesn't add up...

Activity doesn’t add up…

The Activity app on the watch is a mess. After two weeks I still don’t understand it – or trust its findings. On Monday, for example, it said we walked 9.47 miles in London (we were doing the wonderful Shaun the Sheep in the City trail) and burned 729 calories – yet claimed we only exercised for 34 minutes. Tuesday was similar, with the app discounting an eight mile bike ride. This is not uncommon.

Siri – so unreliable Siri, Apple’s voice recognition tool, should be a vital part of the Apple Watch ecosystem. Apple rightly recognises that no one will want to type on the tiny watch screen. What could be better than to say what you want the watch to do? Well, anyone who has found Siri wanting on a larger screen may need convincing. Sure enough, Siri is even more unreliable  on your wrist. Oddly, it is more reliable in some Apple Watch apps than others. It seems to understand me well when I’m dictating a text message. It does slightly worse when I ask it to play a music track. And it does really badly when I try to navigate. That probably reflects the ongoing failures of Apple Maps – as bad as ever almost three years on. Here’s an example. I asked Siri for directions to the local household waste depot. The nearest it located was over an hour’s drive away. By contrast, Google Maps spotted the nearest was seven minutes away.

Anyone worked out Maps for Apple Watch yet?

On my first morning with the watch, I was amazed that the watch’s map app told me I was 10 minutes from work. How did it know I was going to work? (I hadn’t set up any directions.) The same thing happened going home. But the wonder was tarnished by the fact that the timings failed to take account of the (very usual) traffic. And for some reason it stopped telling me the time to destination with half a mile left to run.

Most apps need work

I tried the Strava Apple Watch app today. I was impressed by the way that my ride was transferred to Strava on my computer. Syncing that info was certainly a lot easier than on my Garmin. But I was left crying out for more. At one point, the Strava watch app showed a nice map of my ride. I opened the app later to show this to a friend. But I couldn’t see an option to do anything more than start a new ride. Similarly, The National Rail watch app gives departures times from stations – but nothing else. Pointless: I want to know journey times and where the train stops. Last rant: I started the activity app before launching Strava for this afternoon’s bike ride, but the app didn’t seem to capture anything.

Summary: an intriguing novelty that needs serious work

If you’re not an early adopter, don’t rush to buy an Apple Watch. I don’t regret my purchase, as I know Apple and others will do amazing work on Watch apps in the coming months. The likes of Garmin and Fitbit can rest easy knowing that Apple hasn’t (so far) done anything to threaten the position of dedicated health, fitness and navigation devices. But, knowing Apple, they can’t assume this will continue. Cupertino will throw money at making Apple Watch the must-have smartwatch before it moves on to its next big thing.

PS: it’s hard to illustrate Apple Watch without its natural habitat. Sorry for the hairy wrist…

How I solved my iPad storage full problem

It was so frustrating. My two year old 64GB iPad 4 running iOS 8 was constantly flashing ‘storage nearly full’ warnings. I couldn’t understand why: the first generation 64GB iPad it replaced always had around 50% capacity free. What was going on?

Today, I bit the bullet and did a reset to factory settings (Settings/General/Erase all content and settings) after doing a back up. As a result, I now have 31.5GB free space. It appears that the device is storing data from multiple back ups. Either way, I now have a working iPad again.

How I organised my iTunes music library for Sonos

As I blogged last week, I love my new Sonos Play:1 music speaker. It’s such an elegant and simple way to play my music. But it has forced me to tame the iTunes monster.

The reason? The Sonos system won’t play music from iCloud. Any music in your iTunes music library has to be on your device rather than the cloud. (By contrast, Spotify and other streaming services work fine, although Spotify has proved temperamental with Sonos.) This revelation showed how much of my 10 year iTunes collection is in the cloud.

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Mourning the iPod Classic

According to The Guardian, the iPod Classic is one of 2014’s hottest Christmas presents, even though Apple stopped making it earlier this year. The paper claims people are paying up to £670 for a Classic.

It all seems a little far fetched (especially as the Apple Store is offering a refurbished one for £162). But I understand the appeal of the music player that changed everything. I still use mine (bought in 2009) every day in my car. If anything, the iPod is becoming more useful even in the Spotify era. Back in 2010, I was able to store my entire music collection on my first generation 64GB iPad, along with a year’s photos and a few movies, with 20GB to spare. Its successor – same capacity – is frequently at capacity despite having just playlists not my full collection. (What’s to blame? Photostream?) So one device to do everything isn’t such a great idea. I’ll continue using my iPod Classic, with its ability to store 40,000 songs in my pocket.

PS: I still mourn my first iPod, a Christmas present from Karen in 2004. It was my first Apple product. I left it on a plane in San Francisco in 2008. My 2009 Classic isn’t as smooth to the touch.

It’s true: Apple is losing its way

I was sceptical when the first stories appeared claiming Apple was losing its way. Styling the modest improvements in the iPhone 5 as evidence of a company on the slide seemed overblown. Yet recent experiences suggest that Apple products are becoming unreliable – the curse that Apple fans have long attributed to Microsoft products.

Take the iLife suite. A bargain, as it comes with every Mac. But Apple hasn’t updated iLife for two and a half years – an eternity in the IT world. And many of the iLife apps are showing their age in frustrating fashion.

I loved emailing iPhoto images to Dad. But no matter how many tweaks I make, iPhoto has stopped emailing. No point checking email account settings – it just doesn’t work.

iPhoto won't email Photos any more

iPhoto won’t email photos any more

It’s a similar story in iMovie. Sometimes it will post movies to YouTube. Usually it won’t. It seems to be related to the Mac going to sleep during the upload.

This kind of frustration is par for the course with Microsoft, but Apple claims higher standards. But as the Maps fiasco showed, Apple’s attention to detail is failing. It doesn’t mean that Apple is in crisis, but it is a warning sign. Apple needs to pay more attention. Otherwise we’ll hesitate to pay premium prices for below premium products.

Newsstand: another Apple failure

Apple’s Newsstand application for iPad and iPhone is a great idea. It provides automatic downloads of digital newspapers and magazines. This is a brilliant way of reading content on the go – it’s a lot easier to take the digital edition of the Sunday Times on flight or train than the hefty print version. And the Guardian iPad edition is beautiful as I blogged a year ago.

But in my experience Newsstand is very unreliable. Automatic downloads often don’t happen, leaving me without the latest edition – or frantically downloading it before leaving the house.

Newsstand nonsense

I found a new glitch today. While I watched Owen playing in the London Transport Museum, I opened today’s Sunday Times – only to find this infuriating ‘computer says no’ message. I had to log into iTunes to read content I had downloaded and opened earlier today. Luckily I had internet access – if I’d been on a plane I’d have screamed at my iPad. Can you imagine a print newspaper failing to open?

Scott Forstall, the executive in charge of Apple’s iOS software (the software that powers the iPad and iPhone) lost his job this week for the iOS 6 Maps fiasco. The Maps and Newsstand experiences suggest Apple is far too quick to release software before it has been properly tested.

The Guardian: too much Apple coverage?

iPhone 5: does it get free and easy publicity from the media?

The Guardian’s readers’ editor Chris Elliott today devoted his Open door column to respond to reader criticism that the paper has, in Elliott’s words, been,'”brainwashed” by Apple to give the company and its products excessive amounts of favourable publicity.’

Elliott makes a comparison of the paper’s coverage of Apple phones compared with the rival Android mobile phone operating system over the past 12 months:

“There were 900 references to Apple in the paper and on the website in total; 470 of those were in print. There were 340 references to Android phones, of which 30 were in print.”

Elliott’s article was balanced without reaching a verdict on the claims of Apple bias. He quotes the paper’s technology editor Charles Arthur:

“The statistics show that people read about Apple stuff. If a story involves the company, it gets huge readership. We aim to write about it fairly. If it gets a lot of coverage, that’s because what it does can move entire markets – stock markets, other companies’ shares (eg suppliers who win/lose contracts), how we use devices (so it might not have been the first company with a touchscreen phone, but it set the standard all the others followed).”

Arthur was criticised heavily by readers last month for posting a 5 star review of the iPhone 5 that didn’t mention the flaws in the new Apple Maps app that replaced Google Maps in the iOS 6 operating system that powers the new phone. Arthur reassured readers who may be concerned about switching to the Apple app: “Don’t worry – it’s very good.” Within 24 hours, his colleague Juliette Garside reported ‘significant glitches’ in Apple Maps, including the disappearance of Stratford upon Avon, new airports and relocated towns.

Charles wasn’t the only reporter to publish a glowing review that didn’t mention the maps fiasco. The Telegraph’s Shane Richmond wrote a similarly euphoric write up the same day. The challenge tech writers like Shane and Charles face is that readers and publishers demand an instant appraisal of new tech products. They don’t always get enough time to get under the skin of the latest phones and other devices. It was much the same with the last truly new iPhone model – the rumpus about the reception problems of the iPhone 4 (the predictably named ‘antennagate’) broke a couple of weeks after the launch, long after the glowing reviews had appeared.

UPDATE: Shane has pointed out in response that he wrote a parallel story the same day as his iPhone 5 review highlighting that iOS 6 isn’t as good as it could be: “Unfortunately, in the version I tested, Apple’s Maps are missing places such as railway stations and frequently misplace cafes and restaurants, often putting them streets away from their actual locations.” Charles has highlighted his piece last week asking ‘Why do some people really hate Apple?”

The cult of Apple … and Android

It can’t be easy to be a tech writer. Anything you write about Apple or Android leads to an torrent of vitriol from fans of the rival systems that is literally beyond reason. Take one comment on Chris Elliott’s article:

“For most purposes Apple products suck. If you want to do any serious professional work using a computer you do not use Apple, but instead PCs running Microsoft Windows or a version of Linux…The only people who use Apple products are those who buy the product as a fashion accessory, or because they think it is cool and rebellious not use Windows.”

It’s hard to think of any other type of consumer product that provokes this kind of religious/cult style over-reaction. Do Ford car owners condemn Vauxhall or Mercedes owners as stupid for their choice of car? Or Canon devotees about Nikon users? It seems unlikely.

My view is that Android and Apple phones are amazing devices. They offer features that we could only dream about five years ago – and are so much more user friendly than earlier smartphones. (Just try using a BlackBerry if you want to see how awful smartphones were before the iPhone.) iPhones are brilliant for people who want a simple yet powerful user experience but aren’t bothered about customising how everything works. Android is terrific for anyone who wants more flexibility – in handsets, software and customisation. You choose.

iPhone 5: another winner?

Apple’s new iPhone 5, announced yesterday, doesn’t look like a breakthrough. That should help rivals Samsung and Nokia. Yet the changes Apple made to the phone that changed everything in 2007 may still prove significant.

Giving the iPhone a bigger screen is a smart move: after using a tablet – or a Samsung Galaxy S2 or S3 – the iPhone 4 seems too small for photos and video especially. Improving the camera is important, given that the current phone lags behind its main Android rivals.

Some were surprised that iPhone 5 didn’t include NFC (near field communication) functionality. Many in the payment and tech industries mistakenly assume that mobile payments equal NFC, and were hoping Apple would add NFC to the new iPhone. But Apple remains a sceptic about NFC. There’s no consumer cry for it. True, Apple has a record of giving consumers what they didn’t know they needed – the iPad especially. (Innovators don’t wait for demand – they create it.) But NFC remains a solution in search of a problem. As I blogged in May:

… this belief in the potential of NFC is almost certainly misplaced. It’s a classic case in focusing on the technology, rather than what it does, and what consumers and businesses want. Or, putting it another way, the classic mistake of assuming that if you ‘build it, they will use it’.

That said, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the iPhone is losing its position as the poster-child of the mobile phone market. Fans will buy it – I expect to upgrade later this year. But my decision will mainly reflect the fact the iPhone complements my other Apple products: Mac and iPad. In the jargon, I’ve too much invested in the Apple ‘ecosystem’. In plain English, I love the way Photostream shares my photos on all my devices. And in my view, Apple’s iOS operating system is more elegant and easy to use than Android, although I was otherwise impressed by the Samsung S2 that I tried earlier this year. Apple shouldn’t assume that this will be enough to stay ahead of the game.

Apple’s retina MacBook is laptop’s future (but not because of the display)

Apple’s flagship notebook – a screenshot from mine

Apple’s new MacBook Pro laptop has won huge praise from tech writers since its launch in June at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference. The device’s high resolution (‘retina’) display grabbed most of the attention. The Guardian’s technology editor Charles Arthur admitted to being heartbroken at the thought of going back to lower resolution computers after returning his review model.

Apple’s marketing claims the MacBook Pro retina version is a new vision for the notebook. I think Apple is right – but not because of the display, gorgeous though it is.

I bought my own retina MacBook a week ago. I love it with an intensity that I’ve not felt for a technology product since getting my iPad in May 2010. (Though my Garmin Edge 800 cycle computer comes very, very close…) It’s been a wonderful companion on our Cornwall holiday this week. I’ve loved watching and editing holiday videos and photos on it, as well as reading webpages.

I didn’t expect to buy this particular MacBook. I’d long drooled over the MacBook Air, but was concerned that the Air would prove too slow for video editing. The latest Airs looked great – but the retina Pro looked even better. So it proved.

The display is stunning. But as I hinted above, it’s just part of the appeal. It may be my eyesight, but I’ve not been able to discern a dramatic difference between so-called retina display iPhones, iPads or Macs. No, for me me the solid state (flash) drive is the winning feature. I’ve loved the instant-on nature of the flash-driven iPad since 2010 and wasn’t prepared to go back to a slow starting laptop. But I was equally unprepared to endure a computer that couldn’t cope with video and image editing. That made the MacBook Air a risky purchase. (I’m still smarting at the dreadful performance of my first personal laptop, a HP Pavilion Vista. It couldn’t cope with Office 2007 – launched with Vista the year I bought the HP. That drove me to buy my the Mac.)

But the retina MacBook Pro’s appeal goes further than the flash drive. It’s very light for a high-spec, 15 inch machine. Not as feather-weight as an Air, or some other laptops. But light enough to carry around for a day. This is a brilliant combination of performance and design.

The only criticism of the retina MacBook Pro is the price and the inability to upgrade after purchase. (The battery and the memory are glued in place.)

I’m very lucky to be able to afford this extraordinary computer. And the spec means I’m unlikely to feel the lack of upgrade options for a very long time.

In short, the latest MacBook Pro is the future of the laptop. Expect a machine that fires up almost instantly, has the power to handle everything you throw at it – yet won’t hurt your back when you carry it. In time, this kind of wonder computer won’t break the bank either…

Smartphone wars: why Apple doesn’t fear Android

My first iPhone: goodbye Nokia, goodbye Sony…

If you believe the stories, the battle for dominance in the smartphone market is between Apple’s iPhone and Android phones, based on Google’s mobile operating system.

Android phones still outnumber iPhones, but a fascinating post by BBC technology reporter Rory Cellan-Jones today suggests that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Instead, we should be looking at how much money mobile phone brands are making. The answer is that only Apple and Samsung are making any money. (See also Lance Whitney’s CNET post.)

Rory links to analyst Horace Dediu‘s infographic that shows smartphone makers’ profit share over recent years. In 2007 – the year Apple launched the original iPhoneNokia enjoyed over 50% of the market’s profits. Nokia no longer turns a profit. Sony [Ericsson], Blackberry maker RIM and LG used to share some 20% of the market by profit. Again, they’ve all seen profitability disappearing. In return, Apple has gone from nothing to 73% of market profits. (Samsung has the remaining share aside from a consolation 1% for HTC.)

Back to Android. Samsung has that part of the market sewn up. Cheap Android phones are unlikely to make money for their makers anytime soon. Apple’s focus on the high end of the market, combined with its brand appeal and consumer-friendly approach, have created a revolution in a market long dominated by Nokia.  Nokia has bet its future on offering Windows Phone handsets, yet killed sales of its Symbian-based phones by declaring its plans way ahead of the switch.

It will be fascinating to see whether anyone can break the Apple and Samsung duopoly.