A few days with Windows Phone 8.1 and a Nokia Lumia 925

Tech Life

Nokia Lumia 925

I misjudged Microsoft. When they presented Windows Phone 7 in 2010, my mind was elsewhere. And when it wasn’t elsewhere, it was prejudiced. As Joe Belfiore showcased the Metro UI and apps, I thought it was fairly interesting, but superficially I just saw it as a mere derivation of the Zune UI, and found hard to believe it could withstand the weight and scope of an entire mobile operating system. I also remember thinking It’s Microsoft: this thing will also be counterintuitive and unreliable. In my defence, my scepticism was mostly informed by the terrible, terrible experience I previously had with Windows Mobile 6.x on an old Samsung smartphone (which my wife had given me to play with after upgrading to an Android phone). Windows Mobile 6 on that phone felt like using a miniature Windows 98 or XP on a 3.5-inch display with a toothpick-sized stylus. To say it was awkward is the greatest understatement.

Recently, and unlike with new Apple products introduced in the past, the whole debate around the iPhone X was leaving me utterly exhausted. I tried to go back to this little project I’m slowly putting together, a short book containing observations on the evolution of iOS’s user interface, but in the end I felt like trying something completely different. So an idea came to me: let’s take a belated look at Windows Phone, provided I can find a suitable device without spending too much money. I asked around, and shortly after a kind soul was sending me a well-used Nokia Lumia 925 basically for the price of shipping.

A brief aside, before proceeding further: this piece doesn’t want to be a comprehensive review of Windows Phone 8.1, nor does it intend to serve as a guide to the operating system. For that, among other resources, Matt Gemmell did a great job with his article from 2015 titled Windows Phone. If you want to have an idea of what it’s like to set up a Windows Phone device and perform a first exploration through its main features and first-party apps, do check Gemmell’s guide, filled with clear explanations and an abundance of screenshots. In this article, I’m merely offering a series of observations and impressions I had while discovering what is an entirely new place for me, and in the process I’ll share a few screenshots of things and details that surprised me in a positive way.

My current Start screen
… scrolling …
My current Start screen (cont'd)

 

Let’s go on then. When the Lumia 925 arrived, I was instantly impressed by how good it felt in the hand. It’s slightly wider, slightly thinner than my iPhone 5; the feel is different, the way you handle the two phones is different, the hardware buttons are positioned differently, but you quickly find your way around it. The Lumia 925 feels both light and solidly built. It has a polycarbonate back like many other Lumias, but the phone is encased in a rounded aluminium frame that gives it a more ‘flagship’ feel. I’m also glad to have received a model with an AMOLED screen rather than LCD because I was curious to see the difference between this display and my iPhone’s. The Lumia 925’s display is very nice and bright, more readable than the iPhone’s in direct sunlight. Like with many displays of this type, colours do pop and are vivid, but not as sickeningly saturated as I’ve seen on some Samsung phones.

Also of interest is that the Lumia 925 and the iPhone 5 are of similar vintage and have comparable specs. The iPhone 5 was introduced in September 2012 and discontinued in September 2013, while the Lumia 925 was introduced in June 2013 and discontinued two years later. The iPhone 5 has a dual-core 1.3 GHz Apple A6 CPU; the Lumia 925 has a 1.5 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Krait CPU. Both phones have 1 GB of RAM. The Lumia 925 display is bigger — 4.5 inch with a resolution of 768×1280 pixels (15:9 aspect ratio); the iPhone 5 display is 4-inch with a resolution of 640×1136 pixels. Pixel density is slightly higher on the Lumia — 334 ppi versus the iPhone’s 326 ppi. The Lumia’s main camera is 8.7 megapixels. The iPhone’s is 8 megapixels.

The Lumia 925 appears to have come with a stock version of Windows Phone 8 preinstalled, which immediately auto-updated to 8.1 as soon as I connected the phone to my home WiFi network. As far as I can tell, the process was fast and straightforward. What happened next, I honestly did not anticipate.

As soon as I started exploring the OS, the initial impression was much, much more positive than I expected. Everything was fluid, smooth, responsive. Scrolling, swiping, jumping in and out of apps… The whole phone felt, well, newer than a 4-year old device. I had previously carried out a similar experiment, trying out a Sony Xperia phone with Android Ice Cream Sandwich to have a better understanding of the Android platform. And now that I’ve experienced Windows Phone as well, I can say that, while Android’s user interface strikes me as being fairly derivative of iOS’s in many aspects, Windows Phone’s UI feels fresher, more original, from the very start. Matt Gemmell sums it up nicely:

The interface of Windows Phone is clean, high-contrast, readable, and uses large text and flat colours throughout. There’s almost no embellishment at all, instead providing information spaces rather than discrete screens or objects.

The aesthetic really speaks to me. It’s easy on the eyes, and very sci-fi.

It also uses animations and transitions sparsely, and that’s another good thing in my book.

And mind you, the Windows Phone interface doesn’t look original simply for the sake of it. Just like rounded rectangles are Apple’s trademark shape, Microsoft here makes the square tile the foundation of the visual language of Windows Phone’s UI. Tiles, squares, sharp rectangles are everywhere, from the Start screen, to the icons, to certain controls, to the shape of the keys in the virtual keyboard. Even the transition when opening an app, with all the UI elements shifting in position, looks like a tile floor that is summoned beneath your feet as you step forward. And I like how this even ties to the Microsoft logo — basically made up of four tiles itself — which is also the Start button.

Here are some examples:

Tiles applist

On the left, you can see a screenshot of the app list view. You enter this view by swiping left on the Start screen (or by tapping on the right arrow that appears at the bottom of the Start screen), and this is where you actually see and access all the apps you’ve installed. The tiles on the Start screen are essentially shortcuts (aliases for you, long-time Mac users) to the apps you typically access most frequently. If you have a lot of apps, it can be tedious having to scroll down all the way if you want to launch, say, an app whose name starts with ‘W’ (like Weather). The quicker way is to tap any group-heading letter, and you’ll be presented with the screen on the right, where you can jump to any desired section. It’s really faster to carry out than to explain, really, and in some cases it’s even faster than swiping five app screens on the iPhone to reach the desired app. As you can see, tiles everywhere.

Tiles are also present in apps like Music and Store, where they act as tappable category labels:

Tiles in apps

 

Other examples:

Tiles alarm keyboard

On the left: setting an alarm. On the right: the virtual keyboard. The tile metaphor again.

You can see much more examples by scrolling through the already mentioned Windows Phone article by Matt Gemmell. You’ll see tiles and squares everywhere throughout the system.

As you can see, this is beyond flat design — it’s positively 2D. There isn’t even a hint at a drop shadow. All these angular shapes, big typography, high-contrast elements, bright flat colours, instantly reminded me of many film title sequences designed by Saul Bass — and that’s perhaps one of the reasons I immediately liked Windows Phone’s UI. But it’s not just that. It’s the consistence, the rigorousness. At first glance, it looks as if Windows Phone had a simpler set of human interface guidelines than iOS, but, by sticking to it without deviations or concessions, it has resulted in a more coherent, predictable interface. Predictable is good, because once you familiarise with the position of the main interface elements system-wide, you’ll know what to do and where to tap in whatever app you’re in. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I was able to pick up gestures and navigation.

While some find it off-putting, another aspect of the interface I like so much is the emphasis given to text and typography. This is where the ‘transit system information’ aesthetic joins the tile element in being foundational in the UI (it was originally called ‘Metro’, after all). The main goal of Windows Phone’s user interface is to provide clear information and clear visual cues above everything else. Icons, where present, are essential, stylised like street signage or information panels you find in public places.

Clear labels in OneDrive

But what if, as it sometimes happens with apps, some icons are a bit obscure or ambiguous? (See, for example, the OneDrive app above.) No problem, because as you invoke additional menus by tapping on the three dots in the bottom right of the screen, explanatory labels always appear under every icon. You always know what a round button does.

By the way, one detail that strikes me about the OneDrive interface is how the invisible grid design of the elements creates a self-sustaining architecture in the page’s white space. The big tiles suggest the grid, as does the clean placement of labels and item names; there’s no line separating the bottom bar (navbar) from the rest, but your eye uses the 3-dot handle as a reference point, and that’s enough to suggest where the main page ends and the navbar begins. When you tap the handle, the expanding section is revealed as a thin, icy layer overlapping the page.

Using the Nokia HERE suite of navigation and transit apps is fun, and it’s perhaps the best example of the use of colours and typography. Here’s an example of detailed directions in the HERE Transit app:

HERE Transit directions

The big text headers are tabs, so you can tap them and see the next travel solution. The colours match the actual colour code of the Metro lines here in Valencia. I find information displayed this way to be very readable, immediate, and cool. (I chose a dark theme for my phone. If you prefer a light theme, the background will be white and the text dark, of course.)

I also love the use of typography in the Dictionary app by Flow Simulation. This is an example of a third-party app that gets the spirit of the 2D and typographic ingredients of the user interface in Windows Phone 8.1:

Dictionary

The main interface, on the left, shows a sort of ‘word cloud’ that isn’t just ornamental — each term is tappable and you get the definition. If you start a search in the traditional way (on the right), words start appearing below as you type. Nothing earth-shattering, sure, but I really like the effect. It’s a nice app, fun to use.

 

Another simple, yet surprisingly effective interface element in Windows Phone is the accent colour. It is used to give the whole system a dominant colour of your choice, but it also highlights specific elements of interest and indicates an ‘active’ state wherever present: if you see the accent colour on a switch, it means it’s active. On text, it could mean that the highlighted word or words are tappable and do something (like Read more in an app description in the Windows Phone Store); or, in the case of the email client, that a message is unread.

Here are the start+theme settings, and the picker for the accent colour. Tiles, again:

Accent colour

 

A matter of apps

Every time you bring up Windows Phone, the song remains the same: its failure was 1) the lack of apps in general and good-quality apps in particular; 2) the consequent vicious circle where people lose interest in the platform because ‘there are no apps’, and developers are not incentivised to write apps if there are so few people interested in the platform; and 3) some strategic choices on Microsoft’s part that didn’t help much in making the platform more widespread, and alienated many in the already small user base — especially in the transition from Windows Phone 8.1 to Windows 10 Mobile (at least, it’s what I’ve been told by other Windows Phone users).

Some people warned me about this when I announced my intention to take a dive into Windows Phone 8.1, but I must say that what I found wasn’t exactly the ghost town I was led to expect. I was prepared to the mess that was the webOS App Catalog when I got my Palm Pre 2 (just a few months before HP destroyed everything) and while it’s true that compared to iOS or Android, the choice of decent apps in Windows Phone is limited, my experience was pretty much the same as Matt Gemmell’s — and I’m writing this two years and a half later. His remark:

The Windows Store certainly has far fewer apps and games than either the iOS App Store or the Google Play Store on Android, but in terms of the apps I use every day, I actually didn’t find many notable omissions.

I haven’t either, and thankfully what I found still works (unlike on webOS). You have to explore a bit, read the reviews (which I found refreshingly articulate and helpful), and sometimes just try an app and see for yourself. My rule of thumb — if an app has a crappy icon, it’s very likely a crappy app — proved to be right most of the times. The flip side is that I did find mediocre apps with nice icons. But all in all, I can’t complain. At the moment I have about a hundred working apps installed in total, which is not bad at all. I’ve found good photo editing apps, good camera apps, clients for my cloud services of choice (Dropbox, Box, and now I also have a bit of space on OneDrive), the official Telegram client, the official Twitter client (spartan but functional), a great Instagram client (6tag), podcast apps, weather apps, dictionaries, news apps, unit converters, ebook readers, even a minimal Instapaper reader and a Simplenote client, a great YouTube client (Tubecast), PDF readers, barcode scanners, VLC for playing videos, and so forth. I’m not really a gamer, so I can’t say anything meaningful in this regard.

Ultimately I feel I ended up with a system configured with just the essentials, but a functioning system nonetheless, and that works just fine for me. Yes, because — and this is what truly left me astounded — I could definitely use this phone with Windows Phone 8.1 as my primary device should something happen to my iPhone. There are a few minor things I’d miss, no doubt, but nothing absolutely crucial.

(The funny thing is, a lot of people crave choice in an app ecosystem, but since we’re creatures of habit, in the end we keep using the same subset of smartphone apps for 90% of our daily activity. On my iPhone I have 150 or so apps installed, but in terms of apps I use heavily or extensively every day, I’m guessing they’re not more than a dozen. Having 30 different photo apps is cool, but when you keep using the same four or five, while the other 25 are on the device ‘just in case’ or because there’s one that gets occasionally used for a particular filter which works very well only with specific subjects, well, in the end it’s not so different from having six photo apps installed. Sure, maybe having just six apps is more boring. People bore easily, too.)

Other miscellaneous bits, and things I especially like about Windows Phone 8.1

  • Emoji suggestions to replace words was already a feature in Windows Phone 8.1 before arriving on iOS.
  • Tap to wake, too.
  • The Notifications + Quick Actions screen (Action Centre): In Windows Phone 8.1 you have Action Centre, which, from an iPhone user’s point of view, can be considered a merge of Notification Centre and Control Centre. You access it by swiping down from the top of the screen. And while it isn’t as feature-rich as the combination of those two in iOS, it’s faster to access, and its Quick Actions are customisable:

     

    Action Centre

     

    On the left: Action Centre. In the top area you have quick access to a set of controls, just like iOS’s Control Centre. These are the default four, but you can customise them by picking from the selection shown (partially) on the right. What I also like is that from Action Centre you have direct access to All Settings. Below the Quick Actions area is where notifications will appear (a new email, in this example).

  • The Camera app supports ‘lenses’, allowing third parties to skin and add features to camera interface. This was implemented in Windows Phone 8.0 (2012), two years earlier than Extensibility, a similar feature introduced in iOS 8 that allows filters and effects from third-party apps to be accessed directly from within a menu in the standard Photos app, rather than having to import and export photos through each respective app to apply effects. (Source: Wikipedia)
  • I’m pleasantly surprised that Windows Phone apps appear to weigh much less than on iOS/Android. Dropbox is 13 MB, for example, and a lot of the apps I’ve installed so far weighed on average 2 to 8 MB. I realise that, once downloaded, the apps get unzipped and end up taking a bit more space than the nominal download size, but they’re still more lightweight and less bloated than on iOS or Android. The proof is that, with the operating system and a hundred app installed, I still have 6.71 GB free on this 16 GB Lumia 925 (note that I also transferred 1.7 GB of music on the phone). A 16 GB smartphone running Windows Phone 8.1 is therefore more usable than a 16 GB iPhone, as far as software bloat goes.
  • There are free trials for paid apps in the Windows Phone Store. The implementation is seamless. Usually, during the free trial, an app will have only a limited set of working features, and/or it may display advertisements, but at least you can have an idea of the experience that is not limited to a bunch of static screenshots.
  • The ability to easily add a word to the phone’s dictionary (and therefore to the predictive keyboard).
  • Speaking of the keyboard — I never understood how people could claim to type faster by just swiping on the keys without lifting their fingers. I tried third-party keyboards on the iPhone with this feature, but I’ve never been able to type fast this way — I was actually slower and making a lot more mistakes compared with typing in a traditional fashion. But the Word Flow keyboard on a Windows Phone 8.1 smartphone is another thing entirely. I don’t know if it’s the physical shape of the smartphone I’m using, if it’s the keys that are taller than on the iPhone, or their shape, but after a few attempts I noticed that it’s quite effective and I really can type fast. Maybe not actually faster than typing the usual way, but certainly faster than using a third-party keyboard on the iPhone.
  • I really like the ability to customise the Home screen (or rather, Start screen) with tiles and live tiles. I find this approach much more useful than what iOS offers (Android has widgets at least). Not only can I choose which of my most-used apps to put there, but 1) I can decide to have bigger tiles for the things I need to access most quickly (bigger tiles means bigger buttons to tap); 2) Apps featuring Live tiles can provide additional, real-time information on the screen without even having to launch them (e.g. Weather, News headlines, RSS feeds headlines…); 3) I find satisfying to be able to change the layout however and whenever I see fit, rearranging tiles to my taste and needs. An acquaintance still using a Windows Phone device told me that he has arranged his Start screen tiles ‘ergonomically’, i.e. in a way that the most used apps are all represented by 1×1 tiles he can reach without moving his thumb after unlocking the phone. You may object that this little game gets old soon. I can respond by saying that iOS’s Home screen has been essentially the same since 2007.
  • I like that I still haven’t found a UI element that is too tiny to tap accurately. I have small fingertips, yet I’ve always had trouble tapping the little ‘x’ button to clear up notifications under iOS. No such problems on Windows Phone 8.1 so far.

Conclusion

My Windows Phone 8.1 experience on this Nokia Lumia 925 has been a complete surprise. I went in rather ‘blind’, not knowing exactly what to expect, but at the same time with a baggage of scepticism and prejudice because it was something made by Microsoft, and I’m a long-time Mac user from the Jobsian school of thought (“Microsoft has no taste”). And boy, was I so wrong.

I’m going to quote Matt Gemmell one more time, because his experience closely resembles mine:

Windows Phone is a compelling and surprisingly mature mobile platform. Its aesthetics are bold and information-focused, and it has all the functionality that a truly modern mobile OS needs. I’m very comfortable when taking a Windows Phone device out with me instead of an iPhone.

There are little differences that require some mental adjustment, and there are some rough edges. There are idiosyncrasies, as with anything — but on the whole, I really could switch full-time. I didn’t expect to be able to say that.

Maybe I’m just used to iOS, rather than bored with it. Maybe I don’t need the customisation and personalisation of my Live Tiles. Maybe Apple will finally do something with the stale, static Home screen in iOS 9 [They did not.]. I’ll certainly be watching, and I’m not throwing my iPhone away.

What I’ve learned, though, is that there are absolutely other viable options — including one from Microsoft. It’s not corporate, or jargon-filled, or business-centric. It’s not cluelessly enterprise-focused, to the exclusion of regular users.

What it is, though, is a boldly different yet mature and capable mobile platform, with an aesthetic that I find exciting, and an obsessive dedication to presenting information cleanly to the user.

Perhaps my experience was very positive also because I got the right hardware (this Lumia 925 has solid specs compared to cheaper Lumia models) — but still, no complaints. I expected I’d be fiddling with the new toy for a couple of days or so, then put it aside, but I keep returning to it. These days I’ve been carrying both my iPhone 5 with iOS 10 and this Lumia with Windows Phone 8.1, and one of the things that kept amazing me was how smoothly everything worked on the Lumia. Nothing stopped working unexpectedly. The OS never froze, got sluggish, or displayed strange or unexpected behaviour. I don’t know how multitasking works in Windows Phone 8.1 at the technical level, but assuming that apps and processes are frozen like on iOS, then I can say multitasking on Windows Phone 8.1 appears to work well.

The Lumia 925 never stopped being responsive under heavy load or with many apps open (CPU-intensive tasks made it noticeably warm, however). More importantly, Windows Phone 8.1 and the Lumia overall felt snappier and smoother than iOS 10 and the iPhone 5, especially when transitioning from an app to another, and when typing on the virtual keyboard. There are moments on the iPhone when the lag during typing becomes apparent, even annoying. In Windows Phone 8.1 with the Lumia 925, the keyboard kept up all the time without exception. This assessment may be a bit unfair towards the iPhone — in the end, it’s running iOS 10, a much updated version of the OS it originally shipped with (iOS 6), while the Lumia 925 shipped with Windows Phone 8.0 and can’t be upgraded past 8.1, so the hardware/software integration is tighter. If I could make a test with an iPhone 5 running iOS 6, it would probably be just as responsive. On the other hand, I must say that Windows Phone 8.1 hasn’t aged that badly and it’s certainly more viable than using an iPhone with iOS 6 today.

To be honest, I thought the experience with the Lumia and Windows Phone 8.1 would turn out to be like other tests with vintage hardware and software from other platforms (Android, webOS): a fascinating study of the user interface, but ultimately something I couldn’t be comfortable using day to day. I thought the amount of working apps would be limited, like on webOS. I thought I would have had to babysit background processes and watch out for stuck apps draining the battery, like it happened with Android when I tried out that 2011 Sony Xperia with Ice Cream Sandwich. Nothing of the sort. This Windows Phone setup and the Lumia 925 are definitely going to become my secondary/backup phone — at least until apps and services stop working or get abandoned.

Now that I’ve used (and own) iOS, Android, webOS, and finally Windows Phone devices, I think it’s really sad that today it’s just iOS vs Android, basically. The real pity is that, UI-wise, the ‘loser’ platforms are, in many aspects, more innovative, creative, daring, and in most cases more consistent than the two giants.

I was prejudiced, and underestimated Microsoft’s efforts when they introduced Windows Phone 7 and the following versions. After giving it a fair try and extended use, I’ll say that Microsoft has done a great job with the UI. My experience has been enjoyable and satisfactory, and I didn’t see that coming. Maybe if fewer people in tech hadn’t been equally prejudiced and sceptical, things could have taken a different turn and Windows Phone could have been a more successful platform overall.

The next mini

Tech Life

Next mini

Prompted by a MacRumors reader on the future of the Mac mini, Tim Cook replied that the mini will be “an important part of the company’s product lineup in the future.” Remember the mini? It was last updated in October 2014, which in tech years is a long time ago. That last refresh was a bit controversial, too, because the 2014 Mac mini was a step back in terms of upgradability and versatility when compared with its 2012 predecessor (take a look at this comparison review published by Macworld UK three years ago to have an idea of the differences).

It’s a true pity that Apple has been neglecting this Mac. I still think there’s a market for a compact, affordable Mac such as the mini, though I presume the dream of Apple’s current executives is that people would all choose an iPad over a Mac mini in that price range. I think Bob Burrough (who previously worked at Apple) has best articulated Apple’s lack of interest in the mini when he tweeted: In my opinion, the Mac mini is supremely damning, because the minimum effort is just updating the CPU, RAM, storage each year. They didn’t. Like how would they answer “Why didn’t you update the Mac mini?” “We’re undergoing a difficult and sophisticated redesign.” I don’t think so.

I don’t think so, either. Still, Cook says they’re not leaving the Mac mini behind. What’s next for this machine, then? I’ve been thinking about a few possible scenarios:

  1. The first scenario is the laziest: the mini basically maintains the same design and simply receives a speed bump with hopefully up-to-date, decent specifications. This could be ‘good enough’ from a pragmatic standpoint, but it would certainly create another round of criticism towards Apple (e.g., We waited more than three years to get a new mini that has the same design as the 2010 model, come on!).
  2. The mini gets worse. By worse, I’m thinking of a physically smaller machine, something resembling an Apple TV, available in two configurations — ‘underpowered’ and ‘okay’ — with soldered RAM, SSD, USB-C ports (2 or 3), and that’s it. ‘Worse’ is obviously subjective here. It would be for me, because I prefer expandable, versatile machines; but perhaps such a Mac might be a good option for people who just want something small and powerful enough on their desks.
  3. The mini gets better. I’m thinking of a sort of ‘poor man’s Mac Pro’, a rather expandable yet compact desktop Mac, something in the spirit of the Mac mini from 2011–2012 (or even of its glorious predecessor the Power Mac G4 Cube); a machine that would be cheaper than an iMac, but not much less powerful. It could be the choice for those who don’t want a big all-in-one computer, or have already a good standalone display. And when I say ‘poor man’s Mac Pro’, I mean it from a design standpoint, too. Just like the upcoming iMac Pro shares the same design as the iMac, the next Mac mini could have a similar design as the next Mac Pro, but in a more compact package, and with less power/expandability to avoid cannibalising Mac Pro sales.

I’m not sure which of these three options is the most likely. When it comes to the Mac, Apple has been getting increasingly inscrutable in recent years. The company so far seems particularly averse to expandable, serviceable machines, so scenario №2 could be what eventually materialises. I might even be okay with a locked-down Mac mini equipped with immutable internals, but in such case I think the smart move would be to make this new mini a truly affordable Mac, something like the iPad 5 in the iPad product line. An entry-level model at $329 and a more powerful model at $429 — I believe they could be appealing to a lot of people, especially non-pro users with a limited budget.

Of course, I’d love if something like scenario №3 could come true. Imagine a Mac Pro Mini that is a bit narrower and taller than the current mini, with a hot swappable drive bay, easy access to RAM slots (and RAM expandable to 32 GB), plus one PCI expansion slot, just to give it a bit of expandability. This kind of mini would command slightly higher prices than scenario №2 above, but I’d say that keeping the current price tags ($499, $699, and $999, with the $499 model offered without the expansion slot, for example) would be quite fair.

Who knows, maybe Apple will end up surprising everybody by introducing some unexpected feature or design. Maybe the next mini will be the first Mac sporting an ARM chip. Maybe it’ll be cheap and it will come in colours. Maybe it’ll have the array of sensors and cameras of the iPhone X and come with FaceID technology. But really, the Mac mini doesn’t necessarily have to be a playground for innovation. The basic formula is still a winner — a powerful-enough, general-purpose, truly affordable desktop Mac. It’s just waiting to be refreshed to be more up-to-date. There’s really no wheel to reinvent here, Apple.

The MacBook keyboard: I can’t say I’m surprised

Handpicked

Both Casey Johnston and Stephen Hackett have detailed the problems they’ve faced with their MacBook Pro’s keyboard. They’re just two prominent examples, but they’re far from being isolated cases.

It turns out that my concerns about the post-2015 MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards — which I voiced since first trying out a 2015 retina 12-inch MacBook — were not unfounded. When that MacBook came out I was excited, and I gave it a serious thought when deciding which Mac to purchase next. But after trying it out in person, the keyboard disappointed me right away:

[T]he keyboard is really the deal-breaker here. It’s maddening. What I kept thinking was This should be the perfect computer for a writer and at the same time I was thinking I just can’t write on this MacBook all day.

In June I argued that, thanks to that keyboard, the 12-inch MacBook couldn’t be really considered a laptop for writers. Later in 2015, I added:

In the design of a keyboard, in my opinion, function and comfort should always trump æsthetics. Flattened keyboards might look cool, but may not be suitable for long writing sessions. Short key travel might reduce stress in the fingers, but in my terrible experience with the 12-inch retina MacBook’s keyboard, it also leads to striking the keys with a bit more force, which in turn is painful for your fingertips.

In early 2016, a friend of mine told me that she had to bring her 6-month old 12-inch MacBook to an Apple Store because the ‘V’ key had stopped registering, and the spacebar was stuck. I wrote her that this was troubling, but that somehow I wasn’t surprised. Later, when she asked me for advice (“Do you think I should try selling the MacBook after they fix the keyboard? I’m bummed, but I also love it for its lightness…”), I urged her to buy AppleCare if she wanted to keep it, because I feared the problem could return in the future.

It’s October 2017. She still has that Early 2015 MacBook. She had the keyboard replaced three times. She’s grateful to have followed my advice about getting AppleCare.

I’m always wary of treating a few anecdotes as valid statistical data, but the fact is that in the last two years at least a dozen people I know, friends and acquaintances, have purchased MacBooks and MacBook Pros with that horrendously thin keyboard, and many (many more than I expected, frankly) have had some issues with it. Another friend with a 12-inch MacBook had the keyboard replaced once. An acquaintance with a 2016 13-inch MacBook Pro had to go back to the Apple Store three weeks after purchase because the Enter key had become unresponsive.

Another fellow writer got his 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar in February 2017; like me, he usually engages in long typing sessions on a daily basis, and the MacBook Pro’s keyboard never really impressed him. But he needed a portable machine, and a display that was both retina and bigger than 13 inches. He considered buying the mid-2015 model with the ‘better’ keyboard, but didn’t want to invest money in a Mac that had 2-year old technology in it. After having to replace the keyboard twice, in May and in late September, he told me he’s seriously considering selling the MacBook Pro and getting an older one. Decades as a Mac user, and I’d never met other Mac users willing to take a step backwards this way.

Other three people I know had to bring their MacBook Pros (both 2016 and 2017 models) to have the keyboard replaced once. In one case, the whole keyboard had become unresponsive, and at least the Apple Store genius didn’t blame ‘a piece of dust’ for it, saying instead that it was ‘probably a defective connector’.

Long story short, of these twelve friends and acquaintances that got in touch with me regarding this particular matter, seven had serious keyboard issues, and the remaining five told me that their MacBook/MacBook Pro keyboard feels different now than when they purchased their Macs: some mentions uneven feedback when typing, others say that certain keys — despite still working and being registered after pressed — have kind of lost what little clickiness they had at the beginning.

Casey Johnston observes:

The problem with dead keys is that, unless you can stop what you’re doing mid-paper or report or email or game and have a physical tiff with your computer, the temptation to just slam a little harder on those delicate keys to get the N or B or period you need until you reach a stopping place is high. But there is no logical at-home remedy for the consumer; when one key on a butterfly switched-keyboard becomes nonfunctional, unless you can dislodge whatever dust or crumb is messing it up without being able to physically access it, the keyboard is effectively broken. If you remove the key to try and clean under it, you stand a high chance of breaking it permanently, but if you leave it there and continue to have to pound the key to type one measly letter, you also might break it permanently. A single piece of dust can literally fuck you over.

And the reason, in case you didn’t pay attention, is that:

If Apple decides to replace the keyboard, it sends out the computer to replace the entire top case; there is no such thing as replacing an individual key or just the keyboard. On a Macbook Pro, the top case retails for $700, but the computers haven’t been around long enough for anyone to be out of warranty yet. In regular MacBooks, which were first available in the spring of 2015, Apple has quoted as much $330 to replace a top case out of warranty. The path from “a piece of dust” to “$700 repair” is terrifyingly short.

This is bad design, simple as that. The butterfly switch mechanism is a design solution dictated by compromise. The compromise here is Apple painting themselves in a corner after making laptops that are thinner and thinner, and thinner. Two years ago it took me three days of intensive testing to understand where this was going — forgive this little bout of immodesty, for once — and if I remember correctly, Apple has machines in place to conduct this kind of stress test. Perhaps they simply concluded that the keyboards were robust enough to withstand all typing styles; but really, nobody had a clue that by introducing dirt and dust in the equation, things would go awry sooner rather than later?

To conclude, another thing concerns me — that Apple’s way of fixing the problem (they created) in next MacBook iterations is to introduce an even lower-travel keyboard with Force Touch-like sensors. As MacRumors noted two years ago, Apple was granted a patent for it, so it’s a plausible path. Who knows — maybe it’ll end up being a better keyboard than the current one; maybe it’ll break much less frequently. Yet I’m guessing that, should something go wrong, it will still be a matter of replacing the whole top case of the computer. As for the typing experience, I doubt it’ll be as pleasant as a keyboard with physical switches. This is all hypothetical of course, but somehow I’m not convinced Apple is going to address this problem by making thicker laptops with more thoughtfully designed keyboards.

Website refresh

Briefly

A few months back, when WordPress launched version 4.8, I updated right away rather impulsively. Of course I always keep a backup copy of my materials, but it’s always a bit of a shock when things go unexpectedly, spectacularly wrong on a generally stable platform that never gave me a problem since perhaps version 2. WordPress acknowledged that new code and features underlying version 4.8 may break some sites, and indeed, after the update, I was presented with a blank page. Even attempting to log into the admin panel was futile. Blank pages, blank pages everywhere.

After a long, painful troubleshooting session where I tried every suggestion outlined in the support forum, I deduced that the problem had to be related to the WordPress theme I was using. After another long session — mainly spent watching paint dry as folders and hundreds of files were re-uploaded on my server via FTP — I finally reverted to version 4.7.x and the site was back and working again.

The march of software updates never stops, though, and I realised the site with that theme was living on borrowed time. Today, WordPress is at version 4.8.2, and I noticed in the admin panel the news that there’s already a version 4.9 Beta 2 available. My concern is security updates: WordPress may still release security updates for version 4.7.x while 4.8 is around, but perhaps when 4.9 launches, 4.7 will be considered out of date. So, while I theoretically could check every PHP file in the problematic theme and try to fix things through a trial-and-error method, the kind of trial-and-error method involved here would have been absurdly time-consuming.

This is why I chose to look for a more modern and supported theme and (begrudgingly) opted for a website design refresh.

In reorganising some of the site elements, I tried to follow an important statistic: where people click when they visit my site. I may not care about the number of visitors I get on a daily basis, but what they look at and what they click once they’re here, that’s an intriguing indicator. And what I have noticed is that visitors are rarely interested in whatever is located outside the boundaries of the article they’re reading. The previous design featured a main menu on top of the page, a few widgets on the right sidebar, and an elegant, yet somewhat cluttered footer. By looking at the statistics for the past few months, I saw that the footer elements got less than five clicks against hundreds of visits. It was time to simplify things a bit.

Some widgets are gone now. Some of the information they displayed has been discarded, while other things have moved elsewhere. There are two new pages in the main menu on top: Archives lets you navigate the site’s archives with more obvious fine-grained options. You can directly access the last 30 articles, or browse the contents by month, category, tag. I think it’s more useful and friendlier than a simple pull-down menu on the sidebar. Contact & RSS Feeds is another short, self-explanatory page. I think that putting contact information and the links to the various feeds in a standalone page was better than cramming the same information in two footer widgets, so there you have it.

Other advantages brought by the new theme:

  • The ability to post bigger images. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of those blogs where you always get this huge intro photo no matter what the article is about and how long it is. It’s that every so often I like to discuss design and UI elements, and it’s better to be able to display bigger images in the first place, instead of having to post small images you have to click to enlarge.
  • This theme does a much better job at being responsive and mobile-friendly than the previous one.
  • Thankfully, this theme proved to be much easier to customise than previous ones, and was almost perfect for my needs right out of the box. The amount of tweaks I had to perform in the CSS have been really minimal.
  • This theme has many tricks up its sleeve, and through shortcodes it lets me easily do some text stylings (like asides, and left or right pull-quotes) that required a lot of CSS noodling in past iterations of this site.

But most of all, I was able to finally update to WordPress 4.8.x without issues.

There are still a couple of things I may change down the road, some information in the main pages to be updated or rewritten, and I can’t guarantee you won’t find broken links or layout glitches in past articles. But at the time of writing I deemed the site to be ready for prime time and to be put out of maintenance mode. If you encounter strange things while navigating, and they persist after clearing your browser’s cache, let me know.

iPod shuffle (3rd generation) — a post-review

Tech Life

IPod shuffle 3GII

I’m calling this a post-review because I don’t like the term post-mortem, which perhaps is technically more correct.

The other day I made an impulsive purchase. In the window of a local second-hand shop, I noticed this little buddy at €15. I know this iPod is possibly one of the quirkiest Apple products, but at that price I thought it was foolish not to seize the opportunity. Sadly, the iPod didn’t came with its original box or packaging. I was simply given the unit and its connection cable — and that I consider one of the coolest dongles Apple has made. Look at it:

iPod USB cable

Anyway, this is a third-generation iPod shuffle, first introduced in March 2009, and discontinued in September 2010. It is the model with the shortest lifespan of all the iPod shuffles. Even the first-generation (the white stick) lasted a couple of months longer. But it’s also the model with the most daring design of all. For how it looks and how it works.

Apple made a bold move at the time. They retired the successful second-generation iPod shuffle (the second from the left in this image) and introduced a new iPod shuffle that lacked physical controls entirely. The only one is the ON/In order/Shuffle three-way switch on top of the unit:

At a glance

For all media controls, you relied on the included Apple Earphones with Remote. The iPod ‘revolutionary’ feature was VoiceOver: after enabling it in iTunes, the iPod could speak song names, artist names, album names, playlist contents, and even battery status in 20 different languages. This iPod shuffle was also smaller and lighter than its predecessor, and it’s also the smallest and lightest (10.7 grams) product Apple ever made.

The third-generation iPod shuffle was introduced in two series. The first came in March 2009, with 4 GB models in silver and black. The second came in September 2009, and came in colours — black, silver, blue, green, pink models available in 2 GB and 4 GB capacities, plus a more expensive 4 GB stainless steel model, exclusively available through the Apple online Store. My recent purchase is one of these third-generation Late 2009 models, a silver 2 GB iPod.

Small talk 032009

From Apple.com homepage, March 2009

 

Now in 5 colors 092009

From Apple.com homepage, September 2009

 

Stainless steel

The stainless steel Special Edition model

 

 

Using the iPod

While I appreciated Apple’s will to innovate, at the time this iPod shuffle was presented I thought that moving all controls to the earphones was too drastic a move, and that having only the three physical controls on the earphones’ remote was a step back usability-wise, in that you had to memorise additional gestures to control media playback. Finally being able to use this iPod eight years later, I can say that:

1. Having all the essential media controls on the earphones and not on the device was not a good choice on Apple’s part. Of all the earphones and headphones I own, only the Apple Earphones with Remote work with this iPod. The current Apple EarPods work only partially: the central button is recognised, but the Volume +/- buttons are not. A no-brand, third-party pair of earphones with a similar remote aren’t recognised at all (you can only listen to music; no play/pause, no volume up/down). If you acquire a third-generation iPod shuffle today, make sure you have a pair of Apple Earphones with Remote. According to this paragraph on the iPod shuffle Wikipedia page, Several months after the third generation release, several third-party companies, including Belkin and Scosche, released adaptors which can be used to add the controls to standard headphones. I believe they’re an essential addition if you want to use the iPod shuffle with your favorite earphones. The Belkin adapter mentioned before looks like this:
Belkin adapter

 

2. For basic playback control, things aren’t so bad. The volume buttons on the earphones are self-explanatory. Then, all you have to remember is to click the Center button once to play or pause, double-click it to play the next track, and triple-click it to play the previous track. If you want to hear artist and song title, press and hold the Center button. The iPod manual gives you the basics:

Basics

Navigating playlists with the VoiceOver feature feels more complicated. From the manual:

To choose an item from the playlist menu:

  1. Click and hold the Center button on the remote.
  2. Continue holding after you hear the current song announcement, until you hear a tone.
  3. Release the Center button at the tone. You hear the names of your playlists.
    When you’re listening to the playlist menu, you can click the Volume Up (+) or Volume Down (-) button to move forward or backward in the playlist menu.
  4. When you hear the name of the playlist you want, click the Center button to select it. You hear a tone, and then the first item in your playlist plays.
    To restart a playlist, follow these steps to select the playlist you want.

All this dance of clicks, pauses, double-clicks is a bit confusing. This happens when you have only three buttons to accomplish several tasks of varying complexity. That’s why Apple produced a Guided Tour video, explaining the interactions in the clearest possible way. I remember some people back then complaining about the lack of intuitiveness of this iPod’s controls — they felt the navigation to be awkward and frustrating. I tend to agree, although I want to point out that, if you keep things simple (play/pause/skip and volume up/down), the third-generation iPod shuffle is rather intuitive to use.

3. When it debuted in 2009, I thought the VoiceOver feature was essentially a gimmick, but its usefulness was quickly apparent to me the first day of use. The night before, I had filled the iPod shuffle with random selections from my sizeable iTunes library, and when I was listening to the music the day after, there were some songs I didn’t immediately recognise (probably picked from the least played in my collection), so hearing artist and title via VoiceOver was helpful.

4. It is no surprise that the aspect I find most amazing about this iPod is just how small and lightweight it is. I own other ‘wearable’ iPods — the 2nd-generation shuffle and the 6th-generation nano — which aren’t exactly heavy devices (15.5 and 21.1 grams respectively), but this shuffle truly disappears after you clip it on what you’re wearing. And you can easily fit earphones and iPod in a small pocket of your jacket, trousers or backpack when you’re not using it. Imagine if Apple had added Bluetooth capabilities to this minute iPod. Coupled with wireless earphones, this solution would feel even more invisible.

Conclusion

The third-generation iPod shuffle is without doubt one of the most peculiar and unique iPods. It seems rather obvious that its success at the time was limited: the fact that Apple went back to the design of the second-generation iPod shuffle when they introduced the fourth-generation model is a clear indicator that people were not happy with the user interface and interaction of the third-generation model. Some didn’t like the limited choice of headphones; some didn’t like the revolutionised controls; some didn’t even like its size, too minuscule for their taste. I admit I was sceptical, too, back in 2009. After a few days of use, however, I’ve definitely warmed up to the little guy, finding it quite practical and inconspicuous when out and about, its interface less weird than anticipated. At €15, it was an irresistible purchase (this particular model was €55 new), but I think I’ll have to look for one of those aforementioned adapters if I want to be able to use the iPod with more than just one pair of earphones…