We’re back after a long hiatus, and while there’s quite a bit of new shiny Apple gadgetry to be had (and I’ve been rabidly looking forward to some of it- that new Apple TV in particular) I wanted to take some time to bring you news of something outside of my normal scope.

The Apple Watch would seem to be a more fitting subject, but I’ve never been one for wearing accessories. In the distant past before cell phones I opted for a simple pocket watch– it was the best of all worlds. It sated my dislike of wearing accessories, provided a way of keeping track of time, and was unusual and eye catching enough to make me feel a bit special. Now that the majority of us rely on our phones or a booming number of smart devices for time telling, it would be easy to assume that devices like a pocket watch would fade into obscurity and antiquity. Thankfully, that isn’t necessarily the case.

The good folks at Starling Watch recently sent me an announcement  that made me nostalgic for my old pocket watch yet piqued my interest with something a bit tech-y and shiny. While you typically won’t see many pocket watches in the wild, there are quite a few to be had with a simple Amazon or eBay search. There has to be some special facet, some unique value to make a new yet retro device noteworthy, and Starling has done so in more ways than one.

Their lineup of six watches are eye catching, sporting a strongly Steampunk-influenced design. The specifications are reassuringly nondescript- the zinc housing is sturdy without being too bulky or heavy, and the quartz timing mechanism provides accurate timekeeping without winding. The design belies the Disney background of co-designer Imagineer Terri Hardin Jackson as well. The crowning jewel (so to speak) of the design is the creation of the other co-designer Frank Cohen dubbed the Chillovean Lighting System.

It operates as a sort of ambient background illumination for the watches, creating an Aurora Borealis-like effect with a reported 67 million possible color combinations. The soothing hypnotic-appearing patterns fill the watch face behind the clock hands, and is even visible through some of the watch design enclosures (like in my favorite, the Inception).


For those with a bit of the romantic in their persona Starling Watch has included a free story about the background and tale of the watches, star-crossed lovers, and the evil inventor seeking to further his power.

So if you’re in the mood for something both retro and new, or something unusual but practical check out the Starling lineup. Whether it’s to complete an outfit or add that extra flare to your Steampunk this might be just the thing you’ve been looking for.

I’m a month into my three month free trial of Apple Music, and I’ve been a very happy customer so far. With a few caveats (you can’t load Apple Music tracks onto an iPod Shuffle? Really?) it’s been a fantastic service that’s exceeded my expectations. The addition of yet another monthly fee for a streaming service did give me pause. I fled traditional media sources (mainly cable TV) because it had become so obnoxiously expensive without providing a level of value I felt matched the cost. With the explosion of streaming services (and more on the way) will things just go back to the way they were?

In short, I seriously doubt it. While I can envision a day that I pay as much for my streaming services as I did cable, the market is structurally different. Should I find that any of the streaming services don’t live up to my expectations or just aren’t used that often I can easily end that particular service. Comparably, I might have kept Comcast’s TV service had I been able to rid myself of the chaff and pay for what I was going to watch. In years past when I had one of the huge old C-band satellite dishes it was possible to do just that; ESPN, movie channels, and a few select others came to $200 A YEAR. Between surcharges for premium channels, HD content, and DVR I have friends that pay almost that much per month.

Selecting different outlets/services allows you to better tailor your media experience as well. Each video service tries to differentiate in certain ways- Hulu has movies, but specializes in TV. Netflix is primarily known for movies but is branching out (very successfully) into original content. Sling TV was the first serious effort at providing traditional TV service via internet, but providers like Comcast have already jumped into the market (and Apple is still hotly rumored to have a service coming in the near future). While Spotify and Apple Music try to be everything to all listeners there are boutique streaming services for special niches. Even audiobooks (Audible) and books (Oyster) have online services.

While most content is readily available (save football- get with the future, NFL) consumers need to be aware of all of their options and the mounting cost of subscription. That $10 monthly fee may seem like nothing, but it can add up quickly- Hulu, Netflix, Crunchyroll, HBO Now, and Apple Music (my current providers) come to over $60 a month. Much like cell phone plans or TV services you can minimize your expenses by keeping an eye on your habits and what you really use. Relying on iTunes or Amazon movie rentals can be more cost-effective if you love movies but don’t watch that many. Opting for Spotify’s or Pandora’s free ad-supported service can be a better option than a paid Spotify or Apple Music account for some. As an earlier post indicated I’ll be saving a couple hundred a year by allowing my complimentary Sirius XM account to expire in favor of streaming Apple Music from my phone.

No matter what your tastes are there’s a streaming service that can cater to your needs. The first hurdle is the switch from passive enjoyment (just turn it on and veg out) to active enjoyment (having to consciously play a role in what media you get, and what content you want to experience)- one that I believe pays dividends through better quality entertainment. The second is understanding what options are available to you and making an educated selection: would cord cutting save money and provide more of what you’d like, or maybe a traditional media source fits your needs better? Would buying/ripping CDs (or even vinyl) suit you, or do you prefer buying from digital sources like iTunes, Amazon, or Google Play? Do you crave to ‘own’ your music, or would having access to a colossal library through a subscription service suit you better? Only you know your needs. There are so many options, and each can be deceptively priced, so caveat emptor- those subscription fees can add up quickly.

Apple has release their latest non-hardware product, and the reviews have been mostly positive. While I haven’t opted to jump fully into the world of Apple Music (I’ve been an iTunes Match subscriber for a couple years now, and have been happy with cloud access to my music and iTunes Radio) the future of this service seems bright. Apple highlights its music app on all iOS devices and Macs, giving it an almost insurmountable lead in the millions who own their devices. While reports have come out recently of Spotify and Rdio both attempting to create value that Apple doesn’t offer, they aren’t the business that is most imperiled by Apple’s music service.

While I do use iTunes on my Macs regularly to listen to music (the addition of a bluetooth or Airplay speaker makes any device an instant personalized jukebox) my iPhone is my primary music device. iTunes radio and iTunes Match have made it almost perfect, as my full collection of music, audiobooks, and podcasts is too large for any but the largest capacity device (and I’d rather pay $25 a year for iTunes Match rather than the extra $100 to double the internal storage of my phone just for that one task).

All of that music begs to be listened to, and like most people that don’t live in a metropolis with a good transit system I do a good deal of  my listening while driving. Most new cars feature bluetooth streaming to your car stereo, and almost all cars made within the last 10 years have an audio jack allowing music to be wired in.

My newest purchase- a 2015 Mini Cooper S- goes a step further, providing a USB input affording more control and information than bluetooth or a patch cable provides. Control of the music library, including playlists, podcasts, and my iTunes Radio channels have made plugging in my phone the second step after starting the car (seat belt comes first). The Mini Cooper’s large LCD screen and easy to control menus have made me opt for my iPhone over other options, including my complimentary Sirius XM radio.

At one time I considered Sirius/XM to be the pinnacle of automotive music. Immune to the limits of radio station range (perfect for long road trips) and offering a far wider (and mostly commercial free) selection of listening it seemed like an even better option than plugging in an iPod, provided you could afford the specialized stereo and subscription fee. This is my second vehicle with satellite radio, and to date I had been mostly satisfied with my experience.

I’m not sure if it was the better quality of the Cooper’s speakers or spending more time listening to music on my phone, but the quality of the audio listening to Sirius had become noticeably poorer. Talk-based stations like Comedy Central had noticeable compression sounds- much like MP3s downloaded when Napster first appeared, audio sounded distorted and ‘watery’. Certain tones in music betrayed digital compression as well; cymbals in particular sounded off. Switching to my iPhone to listen to the same song gave a noticeably better sound, even without turning off the additional compression the Music app uses when streaming via cellular (saving data is always a good thing as most of us aren’t on an unlimited plan).

While satellite radio did provide far more than terrestrial radio, it just can’t match the utility of even iTunes Match. The control and interactivity is a hard benefit to top; you can either listen to exactly the song you want in your library, or make an iTunes Radio station to match the mood you’re in. Add in the additional functionality of Apple Music and you have a service that Sirius really can’t match: access to curated playlists, a library that would take a lifetime to listen to (and new music added regularly), live radio DJed by some of the biggest names in music via Beats1, and voice control via Siri- all without needing to buy a Sirius-capable stereo and antenna. Some vehicles will provide additional perks like album art or additional track information.

Now compare the cost: Sirius/XM’s cheapest plan, giving access to 80 channels is $10.99 a month. For full access including streaming to your computer or portable device (more comparable to what Apple Music would provide) the cost jumps to $19.99 a month. That’s for a single subscription that can’t be  shared with others or enjoyed in a different vehicle without resorting to streaming from a phone. That makes the $9.99 monthly fee for Apple Music seem a whole lot more affordable.

The only caveat with relying on something like Apple Music in your car lies in the fact that it uses a phone. You need cellular coverage to stream, and there are areas where this just isn’t available. Secondly, you have to pay for that cellular data. For those on an unlimited data plan or a carrier like T Mobile that don’t count streaming services against your data plan this isn’t a problem, but for most of us streaming hours of music each month could get expensive.

Even though its not a perfect solution, opting for Apple Music as the primary source of entertainment in your car is already a viable one that provides utility nothing else can touch. If you listen as much as I do, being able to continue the experience even when you leave your car provides the final deciding factor: Sirius just can’t do what I’ve become accustomed to.

While casual gaming has been a large part of the iOS experience for many, I’ve never been one to do a great deal of it. Sure, I have some time-wasters on my iPhone and iPad, but they are far down the list of things I’ll be doing when I pick my device up. Each has certain tasks best suited to it; the iPad is the device of choice for entertainment and media consumption, as the larger screen provides a better watching and reading experience. The iPhone is a far better communication tool; not only due to the fact that it’s the one that can act as a traditional communication device but due also to its smaller form and portability.

With the recent addition of Crossy Road and Planet Quest I’ve started opting for a game when I have a bit of time to spare, instead of sifting through my various news sources. The change in default behavior got me thinking- what is it that makes a game enthralling (and ultimately successful) on iOS?

There have been some huge hits in the App Store- Angry Birds, Where’s My Water, Monument Valley, Flappy Bird, and so on. What do these and other successful titles have in common? I’d argue that it’s two main factors.

First, simplicity; each game may be engrossing but each of the aforementioned titles are much simpler in appearance and game play than your average console or PC game. Each has a primary mechanic, like Angry Bird’s and Flappy Bird’s gravity and inertia or Monument Valley’s spatial and dimensional mind play. Graphics can range from the amazing complexity of the Infinity Blade series to the banality of Flappy Bird provided they fit the tone and experience of the game.

Secondly, the game needs to emphasize the touch interface. All of the titles mentioned not only take it into account, they make it a seamless part of the experience. Tapping on the screen for Flappy Bird or Planet Quest provides some sense of tactile feedback without requiring the player to hit a specific faux button that can easily be lost due to the physical sensation of doing so. Swiping the screen is another excellent control that takes advantage of the medium, from the simpler one used by Crossy Road to the more complex one used by Infinity Blade (more complex swipes corresponding to a wider range of actions in the game).

Lastly, one facet that’s not limited to iOS gaming but is just as important as the two previously mentioned- your game needs to be CLEVER. That term is a broad tent, encompassing the ultra kawaii/cute, to brain teasingly challenging, to anxiety-inducing tenseness. iOS won’t directly compete with a console in terms of graphical power for a long time, if ever, so you need to compensate with some sort of emotional appeal in order to make it to the coveted front page of the App Store.

Easier said than done, isn’t it? Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.

There are many avenues for the clever and inventive to get their ideas to the public thanks to the proliferation of electronic devices and media. Pulling out a flip phone instead of a smartphone is a sign of age, and crowdfunding has become a primary means of both publicity and finance for many successful ideas. While my plethora of devices and online exploration have brought me some clever and useful new devices, there have been some significant misses.

Case one: NuPlug. The combination of extension cord, USB ports, and secure placement seemed like an obvious device, and one that I would use in my home on a regular basis. I gladly chipped in to the Kickstarter campaign, expecting the device to be quickly funded and in production- possibly widely. Then things started to spiral out of control.

Some blame has to be shouldered by the developers, as communication with backers has been spotty and occasionally incomplete. The device has gone through multiple redesigns (for a variety of reasons) to the point that it barely resembles the original. Patents were apparently difficult to secure, and business partnerships foundered. All of these factors (documented in their infrequent emails to Kickstarter backers) resulted in manufacturing delays to the point that the NuPlug can almost be considered vaporware. The creators still insist it will reach production, but backers have almost reached the pitchforks-and-torches level. As with any crowdfunding effort, caveat emptor.

The App Store may be carefully curated, but it has its share of flops as well. While I read a huge number of app reviews for both iOS and OS X, I rarely explore them personally unless they offer some significant utility to me. TokenLock seemed to do just that- it promised effortless proximity-based unlocking of you Mac via Bluetooth pairing with your iPhone. Just install the app on both devices, pair them, and the presence of your iPhone within Bluetooth range (about 30 feet) would automatically unlock your computer. Allowing your Mac to go to screensaver or if your iPhone was not detected in a preset interval would lock your device for you as well. Because I use my Macbook almost exclusively at work and have to leave my lab on a regular basis it sounded like a perfect app, providing an additional layer of protection to a personally-owned device that can access both personal data and HIPPA protected portals.

Configuration was simple and quick, and I was optimistic that TokenLock would be a great addition to my must-have software. Sadly, it didn’t live up to its promise. Detection was sporadic at best, and the app would occasionally lock my Macbook during use. Even with shorter detection cycles it often didn’t unlock my Macbook at all. While they do have a decent FAQ section to offer support, the problems persisted to the point that I just uninstalled the app from both my devices and returned to relying on my Macbook’s screen saver and sleep mode to secure it if I forgot to lock it manually. The issue could easily be due to problems between the devices (the website references known issues with the iPhone’s Bluetooth connections), but ultimately if a product doesn’t meet expectations it simply won’t be used.

Both of these examples (and many more I could reference) seemed like great ideas at the time. To be honest, they still are; I’d gladly add them both to my repitore if they could meet expectations. Sadly, even the best of ideas will have hurdles on the way to production- something to bear in mind when opening your wallet for an unfinished or untested idea.

Apple had yet another product announcement keynote, loosing the Apple Watch on the world- and harking the possible beginning of the next incarnation of laptop forms. The Apple Watch offers a great deal of promise, providing more functionality from the onset than any other wearable on the market- and the heady promise of explosive development that the iPhone and iPad had in their short lives. Consider the first generation iPhone to the 6- while they sport the same DNA, the evolution has been so profound that it would have been inconceivable at the time the first gen was released to even dream of what the 6 and 6+ are capable of routinely.

Garnering less press but with equal implications for Apple and their competitors is the new Retina MacBook. The 12 inch form is an almost complete fusion of iPad and Macbook Air- the thin, solid state, no-moving-parts form of the iPad coupled with the functionality of a full sized keyboard and Apple’s new multitouch trackpad. The new laptop very well could be as much a glimpse at the future as the first Macbook Air was. At the time it was mocked for what it didn’t have: optical drive, raw processor power, upgradability, and ports. Fast forward to today; every major manufacturer has at least attempted to produce an ultralight laptop in the vein of the Air, and some of the supposed weaknesses of the Air have spread almost osmotically to ‘regular’ laptops. The new Retina’s lack of moving parts (namely the fanless construction) while still offering full laptop functionality will likely be quickly aped. The sharing of the iPhone color schemes is interesting (and I have to admit I covet the space grey model), and the laptop has numerous innovative improvements that aren’t readily obvious (new edge to edge keyboard, miniaturized logic board, sculpted battery). The big question I kept returning to is has Apple overreached on the matter of ports.

Much like the iPad and iPhone the new Macbook is touted as a modern, wireless device. Gone are the standard USB ports, the ethernet port, and even Apple’s Thunderbolt port that hasn’t been widely adopted. All of these have been consolidated into a single USB C port to provide external power, physical input, and wired output. That’s a lot to ask of one little port that absolutely no one has supported to date. While the emphasized wireless workflows could very well provide a superior experience, the existing wired options are deeply ingrained in most computer users. Thumb drives and SD cards have been replaced by cloud storage for a couple years now, but they still offer off line functionality and physical reassurance that some crave. Would anyone but bleeding edge adopters be happy with a device that at the very least will make their wired peripherals much less convenient to use (as well as more expensive, thanks to the adaptors that would be required). The USB C port is intriguing; it seems like a sleeker version of the Thunderbolt port providing any sort of data transfer AND power to and from the Macbook. The adoption makes perfect sense when the razor thinness of the device is considered- there’s simply no way they could have slimmed the Macbook down to its dimensions and still provided traditional ports; the size of even a standard USB slot is too large. The biggest disadvantage to me (even considering the loss of input ports) is the lack of MagSafe power. The protective nature of the MagSafe connection has saved my current Retina Macbook an unplanned trip to the floor more than once.

It’s entirely possible that Apple has overreached here, it wouldn’t be the first time. Anyone that’s followed Apple for any length of time remembers the emphasis on Firewire; the Apple-preferred port was faster than USB but failed to catch on outside of Mac-dom and now isn’t even an option on new iMacs, much less the smaller MacBooks. Thunderbolt offers functionality that no other option can match currently, but third party accessory manufacturers haven’t exactly been flooding the market with Thunderbolt devices.

Time will tell if the new Macbook is a hit. I’d wager it will be more successful than the first gen Macbook Air but won’t reach Macbook Pro levels of success until some of its shortcomings (namely processor and graphical power) have been addressed. That being said, I’d gladly take one if it were offered to me for a test drive.

A look back at iOS 8

It’s been a while since iOS 8 has been introduced to the world so I thought it was time to look back at how impactful one of Apple’s bigger mobile OS releases really was. At the time it was touted as groundbreaking and (as many other Apple things are described) “magical”. While it did offer quite a few new features, like so many other things in the world sometimes promise and reality are starkly different.

The biggest story over the past few months has been the buggy nature of iOS 8. There have been numerous stories about its issues, in particular network problems. From my limited perspective it was much ado about nothing, as my iPhone 6 hasn’t had any more network issues than I’ve experienced with prior iPhones (and those few instances were solved by a reboot). For the most part it has run smoothly, with the biggest problem being crashes from non-iOS 8 optimized apps.

As for the laundry list touted by Apple at the press conference, there’s good and meh:

Photos: I don’t take a great deal of photos with my iPhone, so the changes didn’t impact me in any noticeable way. The image quality has improved dramatically, but I take that as more a product of improved hardware than software. Photo stream has been a welcome addition, and I’ve used it for both personal and professional purposes (being able to take a photo on my iPhone and then use it in iWork on my Macbook without importing it is great). My photo editing is typically limited to cropping, so the improvements there are wasted on me. Overall rating: nice, but no biggie.

Messages: BIG improvement. Being able to send (and receive) SMS to anyone from any device has been a huge boon for my work communication. I do wish they would swap out the voice message button for a voice dictation one; if I want to speak to someone I’ll call, but I use voice dictation in text daily. Overall rating: A welcome improvement.

Design: I realize they needed to refresh the look of iOS, and I don’t mind the flat look but theres no lasting impression. iOS 8 is a pretty OS, but a lot of the graphical flash (like the parallax “floating” icons on the home screen) quickly lose their shine and become overlooked. Overall rating: meh.

Keyboard: A nice improvement on a couple fronts. The predictive type is markedly better, and I use it often to complete longer words. Autocorrect can still be hilariously wrong at times (especially if you’re using dictation), but the incremental changes have added up to a much better experience that can be easy to overlook. I still use the stock keyboard, but the ability to install third party keyboards was long overdue. If I were going to install a third party one it would likely be Swype, as pecking away at the keyboard can be trying with overly large fingers. Overall rating: Thumbs up.

Family Sharing: A really welcome addition, but one I can’t really review as I haven’t had a chance to use it. Would like to see them expand it further, and I hope this would open the door to a guest or multiple user accounts on an iOS device as competing operating systems currently offer. Overall rating: TBD.

iCloud Drive: I use Apple’s cloud storage for iWork documents and Photostream, but that’s about it. For the limited use I have I have no complaints; it’s worked as designed and has been a nice addition. They’d need to improve the free storage levels to be a serious competitor to Google and Dropbox, but for many users the limited free storage might work fine. Overall rating: nice, but not groundbreaking.

Health: A great idea, but as of right now it’s just potential. I had limited experience with it while testing a Garmiin Vivosmart but wasn’t too impressed; the data didn’t mean much without something to compare it to or deeper interpretation. Should health care providers embrace Health Kit it could be huge. Many patients I see on a daily basis need regular monitoring, and an electronic “coach” might be of significant value in steering them to better health choices and improved communication with their doctors and other health care providers. Overall rating: to be determined, but it could be a game changer.

Handoff: I don’t really use it beyond Messages, so I can’t pass judgement. I thought it was a great idea when I watched the Keynote, but in use it hasn’t provided any real value. I do use Safari Cloud tabs to pick up on web pages on a different screen, and the cloud keychain has been a very welcome addition, but I just don’t use my iOS devices for productivity as I did in the past- those tasks are done on my Macbook now. If I did use my iPad at work this new feature might be more useful to me. Overall rating: Nice, but again no game changer.

Spotlight: I use it quite a bit on my Macs, but on my iOS devices it acts solely as a way of launching apps I don’t want to be bothered searching for (now just what folder did I leave the Notes app in?). Again, to some it might be an invaluable addition but for my daily use it’s an afterthought. Overall rating: nice, but no biggie.

So there you have it. Much like my overall Apple experience, there are numerous nice features, but not too many mind blowing ones. Thankfully, those small features add up to an overall superior end experience that you may not be able to isolate a single reason why it’s better, but would be missed immediately if you lost it. Much like the MagSafe power cable or multitouch controls on the Mac, many of these highly-touted new features aren’t as “magical” as the hyperbole paints them as being, but in the end they keep me as a customer.


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