Tag Archives: apple

(Th)Air and Back Again – A MacBook’s Tale

What 13″ laptop is 1.1″ thick and weighs 5lbs?

An Apple MacBook, from 2008.

Why is that relevant? To put the MacBook Air into context. When the MacBook Air was released in 2008, its svelte 3/4″ “thinness” and 3lbs was a revelation, showing what mobile productivity could feel like. Today, nearly every consumer 13.3″ notebook >$500 is 3/4″ thick and less than 3.5lbs, touchscreen included. Even the MacBook Pro, which is a distinctly more capable machine, than the Air, is hardly thicker at all and only 0.5lbs heavier.

Meanwhile, the new 12″ (retina) MacBook is 25% thinner and 1/5 lighter than an 11.6″ MacBook Air and provides 12.5% more screen area (not to mention a drastically increased resolution). In comparison, the new MacBook is once more a mobility revelation. Importantly, the form factor size and weight reductions did not come at the expense of solidity, much performance (within 15% of a latest generation MacBook Air) or battery life. I played around with a co-worker’s MacBook, recently, and it is mind-boggling object to behold.

And it’s because of this progress that I believe we will soon see the MacBook Air, as we know it today, go into retirement. I’m guessing two versions of an “all new” MacBook will take its place, one with the same 12″ size as the current MacBook, and another in the 13.5-14″ range and 1/3 pound heavier, to give it some distinction from its smaller counterpart. Similar to the original announcement, the release should happen in late Q1, in time to address the college graduation season and continue to be fresh, going into back-to-school.

Skylake-Y seems like a shoe-in, with its performance profile very similar to Broadwell-U, in all but the most intensive, long-running operations, where the limited thermal headroom will crimp performance. In order to hit the psychologically and advertising-important “starting at $999″, I think the smaller, 12″ version will come with 8GB RAM and 128GB storage. The larger ~14” version likely starts at $1299, with an upgraded processor and 256GB storage.

The odd-duck MacBook Pro with optical drive notwithstanding, Apple hasn’t long carried 3 notebook line-ups for long, so unless one believes instead the new MacBook or the MacBook Pro line will disappear, it’s only natural that the in-between MacBook Air merges into the more distinctive option, shortly. It’ll also help with the naming, back to good old Pro and non-Pro.

iPhone 6 – First Impressions

I’ve been using an iPhone 6 as my primary device since launch day, 9/19, and iOS, at length, for the first time since the iPhone 3G-era. That was during the days of iPhone OS 2.0, which brought along the App Store, officially supporting third party apps for the first time. For the past 9-10 months, I’ve used a Lumia 1520 and Nexus 5 interchangeably, getting to know their hardware, software and ecosystems. At this point, I understand what each Windows Phone and Android have to offer, and surprisingly, after nearly a year, neither device feels outdated (a sign of slowing generational leaps in smartphones, surely?). However, I’ve been itching to see where Apple is and experience the “just works” commentary I hear from users and the top-rated app ecosystem. Here are my early thoughts in two sections, Hardware and Features.

Hardware

  • It looks less “distinctly-iPhone”, with its larger size, rounded and curved corners and nondescript back. The Apple logo and the round home button on the front remain, so don’t worry, folks will still know you’re using one. Given so many phones are using the chamfered-chrome-band look, recently, perhaps this move to less glamorous accoutrements will, ironically, make it more distinctive.
  • First impression upon taking it out of the box was one of amazement of its thinness and lightness, having come from primarily Lumia devices over the past couple years.
  • My second impression was that it’s hellishly slippery. The very finely anodized aluminum contributes, as does the fact that it’s so thin (and rounded). I don’t even have clammy hands to help; it’s like holding a wet rock.
  • Apple barely met the competition on display resolution this generation (and undershot a bit with the iPhone 6). However, the selection of in-cell touch (LCD display + capacitive sensors being one and the same) and cover glass make displayed contents appear to be splayed directly on the glass’s surface. Contrast is also very good, maximum brightness very high, meaning viewing quality, both indoors and outdoors, is relatively high.
  • When the rumored iPhone 6 chassis first leaked, I was convicted that they were fakes, due to the unsightly plastic antenna domain dividers. Unfortunately, that’s not the case; they were the real thing, and the lines remain ugly. I specifically picked the color variant that I thought would make it show up the least, Space Grey.
  • The aesthetic problem with the antenna lines are two-fold, in my opinion: first, they’re too thick to look well-integrated, and second, the way they wrap around the top and bottom curved portions of the phone make them appear less like a deliberate part of the design. Instead, it’s as if the phone was designed without them, then realized, shoot, antenna performance sucks!
  • I picked Space Grey, and the curved black display and bezels blend together into a smooth, monolithic mass. From the front, it’s nice and minimalistic. I like it.
  • The camera bump is a non-issue (thus far).
iPhone 6 - DisplayiPhone 6iPhone 6 - Camera

Features

  • I’m now addicted to unlocking my phone with Touch ID. One lazy press of the home button, with my thumb, and I’m taken to the home screen, even though I have my work Exchange connected and corporate security policies applied. It’s also a fantastic way to skip typing passwords. It might be my single favorite feature, because it’s fast and reliable (camera performance rivals for this prestigious award).
  • Regarding display resolution, mentioned above, one way Apple makes up for no-longer-class-meeting specs is in font rendering. In apps that are updated for the display resolution of the iPhone 6 (largely the first party apps, at this point), text is incredibly narrow, smooth, and clear. Reading web content maintains this crispness, while fitting more content onto the display, now that it’s larger.
  • The rear image sensor remains 8MP in resolution, but optics and processing have been marginally improved (see this wonderful comparison of iPhone family camera IQ). Most significantly, phase-detect autofocus (on-sensor) has been added, helping in two regards: faster autofocus and more reliable focus tracking (with continuous autofocus). The second benefit supports grabbing in-focus, fast action, 240fps video.
  • The practical benefits, for me, (I care largely about stills) are insanely quick and accurately focused photos. The focus and shot-to-shot performance difference versus my Lumia 1520 (which, albeit isn’t known for quick autofocus) is similar to a DSLR versus a point and shoot camera. And though the final image quality isn’t as good as what the Lumia 1520 can achieve, it’s more consistent, giving me more confidence I can get at least a shot. Additionally, taking panoramas is an incredibly smooth experience, and the stitching speed and quality are top tier, as I discovered first-hand at Mount Rainier, the first weekend out with it.
rainier_ios_pano
  • I’ve become unfamiliarized with iOS since I last used it many, many years ago. I’m still a huge kludge, not yet habituated with the information and interaction hierarchies, particularly, as some common actions are quite different from Windows (Phone) or Android. For example, I constantly look to the bottom of apps for more options, settings, only to have to remind myself that they’re largely in the central settings store. I’ve not yet decided whether one is worse or better, just different, at this point.
  • Most interactions in iOS are highly polished, though. At least on latest-generation hardware, all the animations and transparency effects are smooth, menus well thought out, and a general air of cohesiveness and consistency is found throughout. The icons and colors haven’t grown on me, yet (it feels a bit… amateur?), but at least they’re everywhere. A few head-scratchers and complaints do exist:
    • In the notification drop-down, I really want a single gesture to dismiss items. Instead, you swipe to the left, then hit a small (x) target.
    • In the same area, app notifications are not cleared after visiting the app directly and viewing the reason for the notice in the first place (a very common example of this is email). Instead, one must manually dismiss the notification.
    • Speaking of notifications (:)), if I step away from my phone for a while, during which time, I receive a notification, no indication is made in the status area that I have pending notifications. It’s a surprise every time – ooohh, do I have notifications? Ahhh, not this time!
    • The little bubbles atop app icons indicating the number of missed items does not get dismissed after entering the app; only when your email inbox is clean, clean, clean, will that number go away. So, it’s a perpetual reminder that I’m very bad at triaging my inbox.
    • I’ve been spoiled by Windows Phone’s amazing handling of contacts, intelligently linking them if you have multiple input contact services, (such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Lync, etc.) and reducing clutter in your contacts list. iOS does nothing of the sort. Not only is the contact list a bee’s nest to navigate, it also complicates other apps that use your central contact list. For example, I ended up with 2-3 duplicate “favorite” entries for many, many contacts in WhatsApp. I went from 99 suggested to 43 real.
    • I’ve also been spoiled by the fantastic inbox productivity apps in Windows Phone, particularly as it pertains to supporting Exchange (the reason might be a no-brainer). Neither iOS nor Android do as a good of a job of exposing rich options for managing email-calendar invites and neither do a job at all of displaying Information Rights Managed email. I’m pretty sure there’s an app for that, though…
  • Top tier apps are impeccably polished, not to mention anything you’ve heard of is available, of course. They’re all fast and fluid, use reasonable layouts (although very, very few take advantage of the increased screen real-estate of the iPhone 6, much less the 6+), and I haven’t seen app crashes, thus far.
  • I’m not blown away by having so many apps at my fingertips, though. I don’t seem to have the urge to explore a bunch of apps. Perhaps that’s what using an app-deprived ecosystem does to you. You don’t know how to behave in the presence of them anymore. Assuming battery usage is a good indicator of what I use on my phone and how frequently, my iPhone is where apps go to die: 39% Email, 22% Safari, 11% Home & Lock Screen, 6% Messenger, 4% Stocks, 2% Calendar, 2% Gmail, and nothing else creeps above 1%.
iOS Utilization

Summary

There’s generally much to like about the iPhone 6, and while I’m not certain I’m any longer a representative smartphone user, I’ve had my memory refreshed as to why so many people prefer iOS and the iPhone hardware ecosystem. They generally look nice, developers put the most effort into their iOS app manifestations, and there are some genuinely excellent capabilities that many people care about, from a consistently good camera to simplifying security with Touch ID (and I’m looking forward to Apple Pay, as well). It’s also interesting to note that it’s been the first time in many generations since Apple’s hardware industrial design prowess has been questioned, with both the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch questioned for the camera bump, antenna lines, indistinctiveness or gaudiness of design.

It will bear watching whether this is a temporary bump in the road, one smoothed out by the evolution of tastes over time, or something more persistent, an indication of a missing filter in Steve Jobs. iPhone 6iPhone 6iPhone 6 - Curved DisplayiPhone 6

Resolutionary?

That’s the tagline for Apple’s new iPad, announced earlier today, and while it, of course, refers to the higher resolution display (2048×1536), one tidbit tucked in the spec sheet is perhaps more shocking: a 42.5Whr battery.

Now a 42.5Whr battery in itself is nothing to get excited over, but in this form factor, it’s a huge advancement over the typical ~25WHr. It’s not a marginal increase. It’s a 70% increase. Almost double. Apple has clearly invested heavily into the battery to have fit it into the 9.4mm thick casing. It also shows that there is no magic in physics. The higher resolution display, higher horsepower graphics, and LTE connectivity draw a heck of a lot more power, close to 70% more than iPad 2 + 3G, if the advertised battery life is accurate.

I also wonder if the new iPad will compress margins somewhat. The 2048×1536 display is a difficult manufacturing challenge, with yields almost certainly nowhere close to the 1024×768 used previously. Additionally, the battery should cost quite a bit more.

That battery size still gets me. The 11.6″ MBA has a 35Whr battery, while the 13.3″ version has a 50Whr battery. Just imagine what the next generation laptops could be outfitted with.

Magical, Revolutionary Folders

It’s the day of the highly-anticipated WWDC keynote, and I’m parking myself in front of a computer to read the live-blogs of the event. I am curious about a fourth generation iPhone as well as whatever else Apple decides to announce today, but as always, I can’t help but chuckle at the promotional posters Apple hangs at the Moscone center.

iPhone OS4 FoldersCourtesy of Engadget

Oh boy, folders! Only Apple. 🙂

Graduation Present

Apple iPad

Taken in my home-made lightbox, wireless flash triggered.

I picked up a preemptive graduation present for myself, after completing my undergraduate degree this past week, although marks have yet to be seen. The last final (ECE 429) was the most difficult exam in recent memory. It seems only fitting that the last gasp would be representative of the difficulty of the program. Still, passing shouldn’t be a problem 😉 (knock on wood). It’s been heaven and hell for the past 5 years (more the latter than the former, unfortunately), and I’m glad to be moving on to the next phase of my life.

The conclusion of this final semester was celebrated with a significant portion of the class, which was awfully nice. Many of my classmates I won’t see in the future, aside from convocation later in the summer. That was a conclusive farewell for many. It’s a shame I haven’t gotten to know more of them better. One of my regrets.

As for the iPad, I’m just getting some time with it now, but the screen and battery life are immediate stand-outs. The IPS panel is gorgeous, and brightness is set at something around 30%. Plenty bright at that setting. I’ve been out of the loop with the whole App Store growth, so I’ve been rediscovering the whole application ecosystem. There are some pretty cool applications, but the vast majority are very expensive, simply because they’re for the iPad. Some careful picking and choosing of paid apps will follow soon, no doubt.

I’m looking forward to the Vancouver Canucks game later this evening. Let’s wrap this series up in 6! Go Canucks!

The Guy Who Lost the Next-Gen iPhone

Gizmodo already got the hands on with the apparent 4th generation iPhone, but now they go further to ruin the person who lost it, by outing him publicly.

Aside from public ridicule, I’m not sure what Gizmodo stands to gain, oh wait, millions of page views. It’s disgusting that breaking this story takes precedence over a person’s livelihood and respect. Sorry, I’m not going to link to the article and Gizmodo is now removed from my feed reader.

Application Stores – Purveyors of Innovation

One of the reasons I’ve remained enamoured with the computing space is the potential for software to do amazing things. It’s one of the few subjects in which a single person can formulate a vision, undertake its design, and carry out the implementation of a complete, functional system, a system that can change the way people use technology to solve real world problems. However, the software developer is faced with a pretty big challenge.

Distribution.

How does that developer, with near-zero capital, get his application into the hands of people who might find it useful? In the past, it was nearly impossible to reach more than a handful – you could host the application on your personal webpage, and hope people find it. If you were giving the program away for free, you might get a few nibbles. If you were charging for it, you’d have to think about a secure payment system (PayPal, perhaps?). You’d almost certainly get very few users, unless you were discovered by some larger publication.

In fewer words, it was difficult as hell to make any money from your software development efforts.

And that’s why there were relatively few indie developers making anything decently worthwhile. The distribution method for most successful software has been shiny media in retail stores, or bundled on OEM computers.

Shiny Media

Say what you want about Apple’s closed application ecosystem on the iPhone OS, it opened up the floodgates of eager developers who had amazing ideas but no way to show the world their creations. More importantly, the Apple App Store provided these individuals and small organizations a way to effectively monetize their work. If necessity is the mother of all invention, but then (monetary) incentive is probably the father.

Apple iPhone Applications

It is my firm belief that the App Store is a purveyor of innovation, not in the platform itself, but the applications that are enabled by the model. No longer does a developer question whether they can make some money from a great idea. Don’t read this wrong. The App Store model doesn’t guarantee earnings from just any idea.

Many other software platforms are either in the process of, or have already imitated the App Store model. It’s unreasonable to assume the developer of any platform is going to be able to implement or even determine all the potential use cases for their software system. The centralized application store provides a community that creates its own demand and provides its own supply. It’s a circular effect, and creates new scenarios in which that software system is useful to the masses. The system that emerges is significantly more agile, not relying on a single entity to provide functionality, and even more so than an open platform, with no proper distribution method. Furthermore, many of the applications that come about arise from grass-roots movements, evolving with community input. These new use cases help sell the devices, as Apple has shown.

Whether that application store needs to be the only source of applications is debatable. I contend that it is the small minority of developers that would actually take advantage of 3rd-party distribution, but the possible issues of code quality, security, and dilution of one key characteristics of the application store, singular, centralized repo, outweigh that advantage, for less general-computing platforms such as the iPhone and iPad.

Apple Application Store

Long story short, the Apple App Store has empowered individuals and small organizations to create software solutions to their problems. These applications were previously undiscoverable, and thus lacked the monetary incentive necessary to foster this sort of interest in development by non-traditional developers. Whether the closed-platform model is the right one is contentious, but it’s hard to argue against the innovation that exists in 140,000 applications in the Apple App Store today.

The next step is to bring the development learning curve and overhead down even further. There are about a billion computer users who have a better way to do something with their computing devices, but can’t turn those ideas to reality.

Apple iPad a Low-Margin Product? Nah.

I’m not certain where news sites have gotten the idea that the lower-end iPads will ship with razor thin margins (or as a loss-leader) for Apple. Let’s do a quick analysis.

Based on what we know about the iPhone 3GS’ components, we can extrapolate a significant portion of the iPad’s hardware cost. ISuppli’s analysis shows that the 16GB iPhone 3GS costs Apple around $178 to source and manufacture. Based on the specifications and feature-set of the iPad, it’s not a giant leap to assume that many of components are shared between the iPad and the iPhone/iPod Touch, such as the NAND and controller, BlueTooth, audio decoder, and more.

Now, the entry-level iPad doesn’t have a camera (-$9.55) or 3G module (-($13+2.80+1.35)). That brings the cost down to close to $150.

Clearly, there are elements which add significant cost to the iPad. The much larger display, touch panel and the chassis material will cost more than their equivalent on the iPhone/iPod Touch.

The display + touch module on the smaller devices cost approximately $35. Looking at area and resolution, the new panel is around 6-7x the size. Yields of panels decrease with increasing sizes, but at the same time, the cost of the display controller doesn’t scale linearly with panel size. Plus, the panel itself probably has pretty high yields, considering there’s a plethora of ~10″ panels out there. The touch overlay may be another story, with its thousand-point multi-touch sensors. Let’s assume overall cost is just about linear with area, which brings us to around $200. That estimate is likely quite high, assuming worst case scenario.

That brings the cost of the iPad to approximately $320. Now, factor in the added cost of the larger battery and casing, plus some additional licensing cost for the ARM A9 core, if that is indeed what the Apple A4 processor is based on, and $350 is a reasonable estimate.

That means Apple is pulling in around 30% margins on the entry-level iPad. Upselling to the 3G models or more storage only increases that number. Most hardware manufacturers would harm small animals for that sort of pricing power.

Of course, this is all a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation, and in particular, my estimation for the panel may be off by quite a bit. However, an analyst at BroadPoint AmTech seems to think along the same lines. Apple is not going to take a huge margin cut on the iPad, even the entry-level model. His $100 estimate for the 9.7″ panel and touch overlay is also far more aggressive than mine.

We’ll see what the component list for the iPad looks like for certain, come late-March. I doubt Apple’s pushing its first loss-leader piece of hardware.