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The Value-Add of Apple TV

Jason Snell over at Six Colors recently asked the question, “Why does the Apple TV still exist?” In the course of answering the question, he noted that Apple TV lets consumers:

  1. Play some games;
  2. Use Homepods for a nice, if somewhat problematic, Atmos sound system;
  3. Use HomeKit on their TV;
  4. Use the…remote?1

He goes on to discuss some of the things that could make the Apple TV a bit better, including turning it into a kind of gaming system, make it better at doing HomeKit things, or maybe even something to do with WiFi. Key is that as Apple’s content has migrated to other platforms and AirPlay 2 has rolled out to manufacturers’ TVs there is less and less need to have an Apple TV to actually engage with Apple’s own content.

I think that Snell’s analysis misses out on a lot of the value add for Apple TV. It’s possible that some of the following items are a bit niche, but nevertheless I think are important to subsets of Apple customers.

  1. Privacy: Smart TVs have an incredibly bad rap. They can monitor what you’re doing nor are they guaranteed updates for a long-time. Sure, some are ok, but do I trust a TV company to protect my privacy or do I trust a company that has massively invested its brand credibility in privacy? For me, I choose Apple over TCL, Sony, LG, or the rest.
  2. Photo Screensavers: I use my Apple TV to display my photos, turning that big black box in my living room into a streaming photo frame. Whenever people are over they’re captivated to see my photos, and frankly I like watching photos go by and remind me of places I’ve been, people I’ve shared time with, and memories of past times. There’s nothing like it on any Smart TV on the market.
  3. Reliable Updates: As Apple develops new features they can integrate them with TV environments vis-a-vis the Apple TV, meaning they’re not reliant on TV manufacturers to develop and push out updates that enable features that Apple thinks are important. Moreover, it means that when a security vulnerability is identified, Apple can control pushing out updates and, thus, reduce the likelihood that their customers are exploited by nefarious parties. TV manufacturers just don’t have the same class of security teams as Apple does.
  4. Family Friendly: Look, it’s great that lots of TVs can stream Apple content and that you can throw your screen/content onto Smart TVs using AirPlay 2. But what about when not everyone has an iPhone on them, or you don’t want to let people onto the same wireless network that your TV is on? In those cases, an Apple TV means that people can find/show content, but avoid the aforementioned frustrations.
  5. HomeKit: I know that Snell mentioned this, but I really think that it cannot be emphasized enough. Apple TV—and especially an updated one that may support Thread—will further let people control their Internet of Things in their home. Assuming that Thread is included in the new Apple TV, that’ll also make the Apple TV yet another part of the local mesh network that is controlling all the other things in the home and that’s pretty great.
  6. Decent Profits: Apple TV has long been a premium product. While Apple won’t earn as much on the sale of an Apple TV as on an iPhone, they’ll earn a lot more than what is being made when someone buys a Sony, TCL, or LG TV.
  7. Brand Lock-in: Let’s face it, if you have a lot of Apple products you’re increasingly likely to keep buying Apple products. And providing an alternative to Google or TV manufacturers’ operating systems is just another way that Apple can keep its customers from wandering too far outside of their product line and being tempted by the products developed and sold by their competitors.

On the whole, I think that there continues to be a modest market for Apple TV. I’d bet that the biggest challenge for Apple is convincing those who have abandoned their Apple TVs to come back, and for those who are using their Smart TVs to pick up an Apple TV that offers a lot of similar uses as their existing TV operating systems. That’ll be a bit easier if there are cool new things associated with a new Apple TV—such as positioning it as a gaming platform with AAA gaming titles—but regardless there is value in the Apple TV. The challenge will be communicating that value to Apple’s current and potential customers but, given their track record, I’m confident that’s a challenge that Apple’s teams can rise to!

Update: Snell catalogues many of the above reasons to get an Apple TV–as well as some others–in a new post based on what his readers told him.


  1. I actually really like the remote, but recognize I’m in the minority. ↩︎

AirPods Max Ain’t For Me

Reading early first impressions of the AirPods Max, such as the ones by Matthew Panzarino and John Grueber, has made clear that Apple’s designers have biased the new headphones for audio quality at the expense of everything else that tends to be found in consumer-grade headphones. Reading the impressions, they definitely make it sound like the AirPods Max are designed for someone who’s just going to sit in a stationary position and enjoy the sounds they produce. That is…not how I use my headphones.

What design properties am I looking for? I want a H1 chip for easy shifting between my Apple devices, active noise cancelation, decent-enough battery and sound, and the ability to wear them around the house, at the gym (whenever that’s possible again), and walking around the city without getting ear fatigue. While I’d love to have 3D sound, that just isn’t a requirement in my life with how I tend to use headphones to listen to music and podcasts.

Given local sales on Beats Solo Pro at the time, I think that my decision is made, though I admit some small degree of worry about ear fatigue that can apparently crop up when wearing the Solos Pro for prolonged periods of time.

Apple Services Subscriptions Confusion

Perhaps I should know better than to adopt any Apple product—or service offering— until the company has worked through the bugs and inconsistencies in whatever it’s selling. Nonetheless, I signed up for Apple One because it actually was a bit cheaper than the services I was already paying for, plus came with some additional storage.

However, the pricing/subscription rollover is incredibly weird. I signed up for Apple One, which was supposed to shift my individual subscriptions to the bundle offering, but that seemingly hasn’t happened. So now I have the pleasure of once again—twice in two months!—trying to resolve billing weirdness in Apple’s part. As lovely as Apple’s customer support representatives are, this is not the delightful experience I signed up for.

I get that Apple is historically bad at services. But this is a level of incompetence that I’d expect of a telecom company and not one of the largest and most customer-focused companies in the world. And, perhaps more problematically for Apple, it definitely means that I’m not about to recommend Apple One to anyone in the near future given that Apple can’t even get their payment processes reliably worked out.

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Apple and a Deep Dive into LIDAR

Timothy B. Lee has a good deep dive into how Apple has managed to get LIDAR into the newest version of the company’s phones and high-end iPads, and more broadly what the advances in the technology mean for integrating LIDAR into cars.

Lee notes that while it may take another 2-4 years, we can expect to see such sensors more prominently featured in motor vehicles so as to improve on existing driving assistance systems. Left unstated, however, is how more advanced LIDAR sensors will enable next-generation content experiences of the type that Apple (and other technology companies) have been promising are in the wings for the past few years.

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WatchOS’s Basic Failure

Elizabeth Lopatto, in January 2018 for The Verge, writes:

The Move goal is adjustable — I can lower it at any time — but there’s no way to program the Watch to consistently honor my rest days. I just have to manually lower the goal for that day, and then raise it for the next one. Unfortunately, this requires too much of my attention. I have actual things to do that are more important than manually telling my fitness app to let me rest, so mostly I forget to do it until it’s too late. Even when I remember, I wind up with a different problem: I forget to reset the Watch to a higher Move goal the next day. I spent one week being psyched that I hit my goal only to discover that I had only hit the lowered goal.

It’s two years later, and several versions of WatchOS have come and gone, with another is forthcoming. And yet Apple hasn’t fixed this very common and very basic problem with their wearable line of products.

Apple has repeatedly stated that it recognizes that the Apple Watch is a super popular device for fitness tracking, and I can attest that it’s about the best wearable that’s currently on the market. But when the world’s richest company can’t even get the basics of their product right it raises questions about what it’s really focusing on, and why; pushing people to exercise each day, and forego rest days, is harmful to health and fitness alike. Sadly, it doesn’t look like the current Watch betas fix this problem, though maybe Apple will surprise people with some extra promise when they reveal their new devices in the coming days.

Aside

2020.6.25

After 3+ months of using a janky Apple keyboard—keys sticking, not registering presses, adding double characters, etc—I’m finally able to get it to a service centre next week. I cannot wait to have a reliable writing device to work on once more!

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2020.4.17

For the last few weeks I’ve been jarred awake by an overly loud alarm; it didn’t seem to always be so loud, but maybe I’d forgotten?

Nope. Not the case at all. When I updated to iOS 13.4 it set my ringer and alarm volumes to 100%. Now that I’ve reduced the volume I’m hopeful that my wake ups will be a lot more peaceful than they’ve been for the last few weeks.

To change the volume of the built-in Apple alarm: Go to Settings > Sounds & Haptics. Under Ringers And Alerts, drag the slider left or right to set the volume. As you drag, an alert will play, so you can hear how the volume changes. Turn on Change with Buttons to use the volume buttons on your device to change the alarm volume.

An Amateur Photographer’s Review of the iPhone 11 Pro Camera System

I bought my most expensive camera system last week: an iPhone 11 Pro. While the screen and battery life was something I was looking forward to, I was most looking forward to massively upgrading my smartphone camera. The potential to shoot portraits with a 52mm lens (as well as landscapes, street shots, and architecture…50mm is my preferred focal range), plus general shots with a 26mm and a 13mm equivalent was exciting. I’ve printed iPhone photos in the past and been happy with them, but would the new camera system live up to the marketing hype?

My Background

To be clear, I am by definition a very amateur photographer. Which, I think, actually makes this review a bit more useful than most. I’m not reviewing the iPhone 11 Pro as a phone or the entirety of the underlying operating system. I’m just focused on how well this device helps me make photos.

For the past few years I’ve shot with a bunch of cameras, including: an iPhone 6 and 7, Fuji x100,1 Sony rx100ii, and Olympus EM10ii. I’ve printed my work in a book, in photos of various sizes that are now hanging on my walls,2 and travelled all over the world with a camera in tow. I have historically tended towards street photography (broadly defined), some ‘travel’ photography (usually nature and landscape shots), abstracts, and admittedly relatively few portraits. If you want to get a rough assessment of the kinds, and quality, of photos that I take then I’d suggest you wander over to my Instagram profile.

I should be pretty clear, upfront: I make photos, not videos, and so have pretty well zero comments about the video camera functionalities on the iPhone 11 Pro. Also, if you’re looking for some raw technical stats on the iPhone cameras, I’d suggest you check out Halide’s assessment.

Body, Controls, and Handling

The iPhone 11 Pro is considerably larger in hand than the iPhone 7 that I came from. It’s also, with the Apple-branded clear case, quite slippery. This means that I’ve been super cautious in taking photos where dropping it might mean I’d lose it forever (e.g., shooting outstretched over rivers and major highways). The buttons are significantly more solid than my iPhone 7 and, as such, I’m disinclined to use them as a shutter button for fear of messing up my composition or introducing camera shake. Though if I’m being honest, it was pretty rare that I used anything other than the on-screen shutter button on my iPhone 7.

The screen of the iPhone 11 Pro, itself, is bright and beautiful. It’s night and day between it and the iPhone 7. To activate the camera from the lock screen you press and hold the camera icon; after a second or so, the camera app will open and you’re probably ready to shoot. Probably, you may ask? Yes: there’s a glitch in iOS 13 that means that sometimes the camera app launches but the image of what you’re trying to capture isn’t shown on the display. The solution it to take a shot and, afterwards, the display should display the image the camera is showing. Usually. But not always.

If you used burst mode a lot to get the right shot in a burst, get used to a lot of missed shots. In iOS 13, you press the shutter button in the camera app and slide to the left to initiate bursts; holding down on the shutter button start recording a short video (slide to the right if you want to record video and not hold down on the shutter button in the app). In actual use, I’ve ended up accidentally taking a bunch of short videos instead of a burst of shots, which meant I’ve missed capturing what I wanted to capture. A ‘Pro’ camera should let me set photo controls. The iPhone 11 Pro fails, seriously and significantly, in this regard.

When composing a shot, you’ll routinely see what is beyond the focal length you’re using. This means that, as an example, when you’re shooting with the 26mm lens, you’ll see what would be captured by the 13mm lens. On screen, the extended parts of the scene which would be captured by the wider camera is slightly desaturated and on the outskirts of the grid you can enable in the Camera app settings. Some reviewers have said that this looks like what you might see when looking through a rangerfinder-style camera, like a Fuji x100. I fundamentally disagree: those reviewers have not clearly used a rangefinder for extended periods of time, where you can see to the left and right of the frame when looking through the viewfinder. It’s helpful to have that in a camera you’ve raised to your eye, because the rest of your vision may be obscured and so you may not realize what’s about to step into your frame. This is less of an issue when shooting in a smartphone. Much less of an issue.

If you rely on a tilted screen in a mirrorless or DSLR to get the shots you like, while, you’re going to be out of luck. It’s a camera phone without an articulating screen. Maybe Samsung’s folding phones will integrate this kind of feature into their camera app…

I haven’t shot using the flash, so I can’t comment on what it’ll be like to use.

If you’ve used the iPhone Camera app, you’ll find that few things have meaningfully changed. The ‘big’ changes include a notification along the top left corner if night mode is activated (along with how many seconds it’ll take to use the feature) and an arrow along the top of the app that, if tapped, will let you switch some of the default features (e.g., flash on/off/auto, live images on/off, timer, or filter). Despite being a ‘professional’ device—which has a pile of internal gyroscopes!—the camera app doesn’t include a horizon level, though if you’re taking flat shots you’ll get an indicator to show if you’re perfectly level.

I tend to see the stock photos app as part of the control of an iPhone camera. Some of the additions are good—tilt shifts in particular!—but I loath losing how iOS 12 ‘grouped’ features into categories like light, colour, and black and white. And I really miss being able to adjust neutrals and tones in the black and white setting. Why’d you take those away, Apple? WHY!?

The battery life when I’ve taken the iPhone 11 Pro for a day of shooting has been great; I was out for about 7 hours one day to just shoot and took about 250 photos, while listening to podcasts and reading news and such. I had 17% after a full days normal use plus shooting, but I was shooting with a brand new battery in ideal temperatures for batteries (20-24 degrees). The real test will be when winter hits in countries like Canada or the northern USA and we see how well the batteries hold up in semi-hostile environmental conditions.

Image Quality

I’ve been super impressed with the camera system included in the iPhone 11 Pro. Despite being impressed there are definitely areas where computational photography is still very much a work in progress.

I’ve been taken aback by just how much dynamic range is captured by this camera when I’ve been making photos. This is especially the case when I’ve used the camera in low-light or sheer dark conditions. As is true of almost all cameras, it generally performs admirably in well lit situations. What follows are a selection of shots taken over a three day period; they are all edited to my taste, using just the stock photos app. What follows is a (broad) selection of those photos in indoor, high day, and sunset conditions.

I also did a late evening photowalk. It was pitch black (for a major urban city…) and so the following images are good representations of what urban photographers can probably pull off without a tripod.4 In many of the images I was resting the camera either tightly against my body or something in the natural environment (e.g., a tree trunk) to reduce camera shake.

I did run into some computational…weirdness…in some of the shots. When shooting the Cinesphere, I sometimes got this weird yellow arc that stretched along the top. Also when shooting scenes with the Cinesphere and the Japanese Temple Bell, there were times when it looked like the upper right of the frame (proximate to the Cinesphere in the shot) had extremely severe vignetting. Also, I noticed that I got lens flare when shooting at night; while this could be corrected in post using something like Snapseed I can’t ever recall dealing with flare on a regular basis on prior iPhones.

Also, don’t buy this camera and expect to get cool light trails using the default camera application. While night mode takes a lot of exposures to create the final shot, you’ll only get the slightest of blur from moving vehicles. Similarly, due to the fixed aperture of the cameras you’re not going to get any cool light flares or sun stars , nor can you seriously control the depth of field as you could in a camera with much more manual control.5

Conclusion

The iPhone 11 Pro is a marvel of a camera system. Seriously: it’s spectacular for the size of the sensor, though it damn well better be given its sheer cost!

I can see this camera fitting into the lives of a lot of creative amateurs. (Probably professionals, too, but with grumbles.) For me, and people with at my skill level with photography, this is a major equipment investment that I think will be pretty great: it’s a supplement to, not a replacement for, the aging Sony rx100ii I carry with me on a day to day basis, and it’s genuinely fun to shoot on. The Photos app, while annoying in some of its reconfiguration, is generally more powerful than in its last version. And the ability to easily and quickly shift between the 13-52mm focal ranges cannot be appreciated enough: it’s like having a permanent kit lens attached to your smartphone, and that’s just awesome.

Should you upgrade or buy this camera system? I dunno. I had an older phone and totally could have stuck with it for another year or so, and I’m happy with my upgrade. But for around $2,000(CAD) you could get some really nice new glass, which might be a better investment if you’re always carrying your mirrorless camera or DSLR with you, or if having better control of aperture, camera levels, or other ‘niceties’ are the core thing you’re looking for. But if you’ve increasingly been leaving your ‘big’ camera and glass at home, but still want a lot of functionality when making photos on your smartphone, and have the disposable income, then you’ll probably be pretty happy with the iPhone 11 Pro.

  1. In honesty, it was too much camera for me at the time, but it taught me to really love and want to work on my photography. ↩︎
  2. My largest prints are 24×36, from my Sony rx100ii and Olympus EM10ii (using an Olympus 17mm 1.8 lens). ↩︎
  3. Why won’t Apple bring the camera filters in Messages straight into their camera app? Oh hey! Did you even know Apple had a pile of filters for fun stuff in Messages? I bet not given how buried they they—open messages, tap the star button in the lower left side, then tap the three concentric rings, fight with the stupid UI a bit, and tada!↩︎
  4. If using a tripod, the internal gyroscopes will detect this and let you take up to a 10s ‘exposure’. ↩︎
  5. Some of this might change as Halide and other competing camera app manufactures update their applications. But the stock camera app is pretty limited in computation control of the aperture, especially for landscape or street photography. ↩︎