Smartphone Mid-range war

This week at Google I/O, they announced a new phone that has been taking the tech press by storm, the Pixel 3a (and 3a XL). This pared down version of the Google flagship Pixel 3 is priced starting at $400, which is half the (list) price of the Pixel 3. The 3a cuts out a lot of the top-of-the line specs, and leaves you with a phone that is an awesome deal for people looking for a mid-range level phone. The camera from the higher level phone comes down to this model, and creates a really compelling option for people looking to get a better phone than some of the other $300-$400 phones on the market.

One of the stranger things that I’ve seen, is how the press is comparing this phone to the iPhone Xr, which is Apple’s lowest price flagship phone. They look at the affordability of the 3a and lament that Apple doesn’t have anything near that price range. However, this just isn’t factually accurate. Apple has adopted a different model for it’s mid-range phones. They simply keep supporting, and updating, their older phone models, and downgrade them from being a flagship phone, to something more mid-range and affordable.

Currently, you can get the iPhone 7 (a phone I still use) for $449, and the iPhone 8 for $599. This puts them solidly in the mid-range price bracket, and a much better comparison to the Google Pixel 3a. From a performance perspective, the iPhone 7 is actually slightly faster on Geekbench scores, despite being an older model phone. The more expensive iPhone 8 scores nearly twice as high as the new Pixel 3a on milti-core Geekbench ratings.

I’m not here though to start a flame war between the two camps. What I want to accomplish with this short blog is show that there’s more than one way to the same goal, which is a full range of smartphones that span the gamut from mid-range to flagship. Whereas Android manufactures often design different lines of phones to meet the needs of both ends, Apple chooses to simply move their phones down the line and support them as long as it’s feasible. Even today you can put Apple’s latest operating system (iOS 12) on the iPhone 5s, which was introduced in late 2013 (though I wouldn’t really recommend it).

Android takes a different approach, and companies like Samsung have their Galaxy S line for their flagships, and their Galaxy A line for their mid-range. They then increment each line in turn, and deprecate the older models in each line. One big advantage of doing this is that even the mid-range phones get small pieces of new tech, because they get to come along for the ride with the new flagships. The Pixel 3a benefits from having the latest and greatest Google camera, because it’s available, and apparently cheap enough that Google can put it into the 3a. In the iPhone line, you’re stuck with the tech that was available when the phone was launched, and that includes whatever camera was considered state of the art a few years ago.

It’s an interesting contrast of philosophy, and it means that when we’re talking about the mid-range cell phone war, we can’t just compare Android to Apple. They’ve taken very different paths to cover the mid-range and flagship market. However, as a consumer, it’s important that we understand the distinction, so that we can make more educated choices about where we spend our money. It’s not just about grabbing the latest and greatest. There is a real choice that we can make, and that’s refreshing.

In defense of the mini tablet

In a recent episode of The Vergecast, the hosts were talking about the event that Apple held recently, and the new iPad that was unveiled. One of the hosts, I believe it was Casey Newton, commented that if you have an iPhone X you basically have an iPad Mini. As someone who loves my iPad Mini size and form factor, I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that the 7-8 inch tablet size is still a viable space, and one that requires something bigger than a phone, but smaller than a full 10″ tablet.

Let’s start though with breaking down the silly argument that Mr. Newton made, and we don’t have to go any further than screen size. The iPhone X has 8,568 square millimeters of area to it’s screen. I’m not getting into pixel density, but just the physical size of the viewport. When we contrast this to the iPad Mini we find that the Mini is at 19,560 sq. mm of space, which is 235% more physical area to interact with than on a the iPhone X. That’s not a comparison of two devices in the same product category at all. There’s simply no way that you can look at these two devices side-by-side and conclude that they are targeting the same type of interaction.

With that silly comparison out of the way, then what is the primary target of the iPad Mini, if not to be a bigger iPod Touch? Form factor is key for how humans interact with technology. Despite our desire to be a completely digital society, we still need tools to interact with the digital space. We’ve chosen tools such as keyboards and mice as the methods that we interact with traditional computers. We’ve added the dynamic of touch and ultra-portability with laptop/tablet hybrids. However, there is also the basics of ergonomics that can play a big role in how we interact with tech.

In the case of the iPad Mini (and to be fair, other small tablets in this space), the ability to hold the tablet with one hand is a defining factor in the ergonomics of how it’s designed. Much like we often hold a book, or a notepad, with one hand, the iPad Mini simulates this type of tactile experience. It’s easy to hold while sitting, or resting it against a leg or pillow while we interact with it. It creates space for a different type of interaction than other piece of technology in our lives.

My phone, as powerful as it it, is most often used as a way to communicate. That communications might be through a phone call, or text messaging, but more likely is through social media and email. It’s a small portable device that has a screen just big enough to get the job done for short bursts of communication. The screen works well for these interactions, but it’s not the best for things like movies or books. There just isn’t enough real estate to be comfortable.

On the other end of the spectrum, larger tablets are often capable of mimicking the capabilities of full laptops. Tablets with keyboards, and laptops, are powerful computing machines that allow us to create large pieces of work. We can write large works, or create amazing videos and music, on full size computing devices, much easier than small phones. Despite the power of phone apps, they still pale in comparison to the power of a full computing device.

In the middle we have the iPad Mini (and other tablets of this size) which fill a unique niche. The ergonomics of the device create a wonderful experience for consuming media. The form factor of the Mini means that it is comfortable to hold in many situations, and mimics the feel of physical media such as a comfortable book. Additionally, the slightly larger screen size means that media is easier to look at and often is easier on eyes than a smaller phone screen.

Therefore, I see the Mini size as the perfect media consumption device. Reading books, viewing videos, and even touch-based games, are all very natural on a device the size of the Mini. It’s comfortable to sit and hold the Mini with one hand, sitting on a couch, or lounging in bed. It just feels good in your hands.

One thing I (and many others) would love to see is support for the Apple Pencil on the iPad Mini. Just like a small sketchbook, the size of the Mini would be be ideal for small drawings, note taking, and other things that you would use a small notebook for. The addition of a pen style input would bring the Mini into another new realm that aligns well with its form factor.

I hope that the Mini continues to be supported. I know that there are many Android devices, such as the Amazon Kindle, that could meet much of my needs for this form factor. However, I still like the Apple iOS ecosystem, and would like to remain there. Perhaps Apple will also see this value and even offer some better priced iPad Mini’s, and really adopt the strengths of this great form factor device.

Apple’s Education Event

Yesterday I took the time to watch the live blog of Apple’s “Field Trip” education event. Apple in education has been something that has been near and dear to me since my childhood. The very first computers I worked with were Apple IIe computers in our computer lab. I was even lucky enough to have a teacher-aide in the family who was able to bring one home for me over the summer for me to work with. Although my first computer that I owned was a Commodore 64, the Apple line was always present in my educational settings.

However, in recent years Apple has been getting it’s butt handed to it by Google in the education space. Specifically, the advent of the Chromebook and it’s associated Google services. Google took their model of cheap computers that can access web based applications, and brought it to schools that were suffering from lack of funds to keep expensive Mac computers refreshed. Google’s GSuite is a robust set of tools that allows for all sorts of productivity, and isn’t dependent on any specific piece of hardware from any specific manufacture. This is a perfect situation for schools that are often strapped for cash, and for system administrators. Google’s user-based design means that devices can be passed around from student to student, and everyone’s content stays with them, no matter which device they’re on.

Apple is still married to the old way of doing things, with documents stored locally and then sync’d to the cloud. Despite Apple’s best attempts at web based versions of their productivity suite, the best experience is still the locally installed fat clients on either a Mac or an iPad. This means that you’re tied to an expensive Apple device to use these services to the best of their ability. There is one area though that Apple shines… content creation.

Apple and MacOS/iOS have always been the king of creative digital creation. Ever since the first iMovie and Garageband apps hit the scene, they have ruled this lower-to-middle end of the creator space. Apple still has to compete in the high-end, professional market, but for the regular guy/gal, tools like iMovie and GarageBand are more than adequate to create amazing content, quickly and easily. This also applies to students who need nice and easy tools to learn and create things for school and for their budding creative endeavors. This type of simple creation just too hard to accomplish on a Chromebook, and get the same level of results.

Where I think many schools are landing is with a hybrid approach. They have dozens of Chromebooks lying around for students to do writing and create presentations. But then for creative content creations, such as music or video, they have a few Mac’s that students can use for those purposes. This is what one of my son’s school’s does, and it seems to work really well. The kids are able to move between the devices just fine and context switching just seems natural for them.

I feel bad that Apple has lost their lead in the education field, but they got beat fair and square by Google, who offers a better solution for cash and resource strapped schools. However, if they keep their focus on creativity, and things that simply can’t be done on the web, they still can have an important role in schools for a long, long time.

The iMac saga has a happy ending

I finally got a message from the Apple Store that my iMac was ready to be picked up. I called them up to find out what they did and how much is cost. Originally, when I started this whole endeavor, I wanted them to replace the video card. First, they told me to wipe my OS which I did, and it didn’t solve the problem. This last time when I brought it in they suggested it might be the mainboard that is the problem. The mainboard was around $500, the video card was $200. I wasn’t willing to spend more than $200 on a 2011 computer, no matter how nice it was.

So I waited for them to do some more diagnostics and see if changing out the video card made a difference. I got a call about a week ago saying that they were going to swap out the video card, but they accidentally broke a part that connected to the entire internal computer frame, so they would need to replace that part and frame as well (at no charge to me). Yet another week later I finally had the computer back in my hands, with a new video card.

The only comment that the tech made to me was that they thought that the temperature sensor on the hard drive was broken because the HDD fan kept kicking on. When I put in my aftermarket SSD, it came with a digital temperature sensor that attached to the hard drive cable and transmitted temperature data from the SSD, since the SSD didn’t have a temp sensor built-in. I figured that the temp sensor had simply failed and ordered a new one with same-day shipping from Amazon (on a Saturday no less). A couple of my memory sticks had failed tests as well, so I ordered those as well.

Saturday night I get the memory installed, and then crack open the case to put in a new temp sensor only to find that Apple had disconnected my after-market temp sensor. That’s the whole reason it wasn’t working. They hadn’t hooked it back up. I re-attached it, put the computer back together and lo and behold, everything works like a dream. There are no graphics artifacts (thanks to the new video card) and the fans are silent. It cost $200 for the new video card, which felt like an OK price to pay for a few more years of life from this old beast.

I’m still sitting on a completely wiped OS, and instead of restoring from Time Machine, I decided to just go with it and start over fresh. It’s allowed me to get rid of a LOT of crap that was just clogging up my drive and frankly, completely un-needed. I’m a little frustrated that it took me weeks to get Apple to fix what I knew was wrong in the first place, but in the end I’m glad it’s fixed, and the saga is thankfully over.

More iMac woes

On Friday night I got a call that the Apple store wasn’t able to confirm that my video card was dying and so they suggested that I wipe the drive and start over. I was incredibly frustrated with this because I know this isn’t an issue with the operating system. I get weird graphical artifacts in both Windows and Mac on this same machine, but they wouldn’t believe me. So I brought the device home and began the tedious process of starting over.

Because this is a machine from 2011 that meant starting over with OS X Lion. Then I was able to move up partway to El Capitan before finally getting to install High Sierra. After hours of installs I started to use the machine again, and sure enough, the problem was still there. Weird graphic artifacts all over my screen. It seems to be worse when the computer is cold, but then when I push it graphically it starts to appear again. I logged on to Apple’s support chat and sure enough the only thing they could do for me was to recommend that I bring it back in to the store. So back I go on Tuesday.

Since I was re-installing everything I happened to come across a nice old B&W photo I took back 10 years ago at a park near my house. Figured I’d share it so that this post isn’t all just complaining.