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© Rakhesh Sasidharan

Elsewhere

New MacBook Air

So I finally dipped my feet into the Mac ecosystem and bought myself a MacBook Air. Yes, I know it’s 3 years old but what the heck – it was the cheapest Mac I could buy! Went for the 8GB/ 256GB i5 version as that’s the one I found on a deal with our local online shopping provider. Might have gone with a different spec if I decided to go with the version available officially with Apple but a) that had a UK English keyboard and b) the same model there was about 33% more expensive so if I were to get a better spec’d one I’d be spending a lot lot more (bringing the costs up to the MacBook range). 

One thing about MacBook purchases though – it isn’t easy. I mean, with an iPhone. you only have to choose along the color & size, and then pick the capacity you want. But with Macs I have to worry about size, CPU (i5 or i7), RAM, and storage; and each choices ups the price by so much! And more than the price the choices just exhaust. It’s the paradox of choice concept (I’ve read the book) and the feeling is similar to Windows laptops where there’s so many choices and you just get bogged down trying to pick what you want and eventually let go of the idea itself. Which is what I had done here (let go of the idea) until my wife suggested this MacBook Air model that was on a deal and I thought what the heck and just purchased it. My focus here is to get something that will get me a toehold in the Mac ecosystem and probably settling on price as a criteria than anything else was what was needed. 

Oh, and the MacBook Air is the only one with a decent set of ports. Yikes! All the other MacBooks have just USB-C ports so there’s the additional cost of dongles and the hassle of having to carry them around. If it wasn’t for the dongles and the fact that the MacBook has a 2nd generation butterfly keyboard which is known for problems (which is fixed in the MacBook Pro’s 3rd generation keyboard) I might have gone for the MacBook. It has more colors too. 

Anyways, back to the MacBook Air. I’ve had it for less than a day now so these are just initial thoughts. 

  • I love the keyboard and size. There’s a lot of room for the hand, and the keys feel good to type on. It’s a very “lapable” laptop. 
  • I thought I’d be put off by the 1440×900 screen as I am so used to full HD nowadays and when I had recently tried using a 1440×900 external monitor I didn’t like it at all, but no I don’t mind this screen. Yes I notice the difference but I don’t mind it. 
  • I like the feel of the OS. I had various people tell me it is complicated and unintuitive etc. but I don’t see that. I love the two finger way of scrolling up and down pages and going back and forward, and the three finger way of moving across apps. That feels very intuitive and much better than having a touch screen. There’s a lot more gestures but I am yet to get the hang of that. I tried to memorize those initially but then figured I’ll pick them up as I go. I think I know the main ones that I am interested in at least. 
  • It’s a jarring experience going to the App Store and seeing all the prices! Boy. It’s like the pre-iPhone days when software used to be expensive. Pretty much everything is US$10 and above, and if something is free it is bound to have a in-add purchase. Even the same app which for iPhone & iPad is (say) US$5 would be US$50 or above here! I imagine it is because the code base is different and so there’s more effort? I don’t know. That’s something I am having trouble getting my head around. The Windows OS store apps are much cheaper (but yeah there aren’t many). Anyways, the App Store is like a trip back in time to expensive software. I don’t think I’ll be buying much apps. Or I hope I won’t be buying much apps – it is not a sustainable option. 
  • The laptop came with MacOS High Sierra 10.13.1 and I couldn’t update to the latest 10.13.6 via the App Store. I downloaded it and tried to upgrade manually, but that failed saying the volume doesn’t meet some pre-requisites. I downloaded 10.13.2 and 10.13.3 and was able to upgrade to them manually, but 10.13.4 fails with the same error. That’s when I came across the macOS Recovery options, especially the Internet Recovery option which you get to by pressing Option-Command (⌘)-R (instead of just Command (⌘)-R for regular recovery). Internet Recovery actually connects to the Internet (it prompts you for Wi-Fi details etc) and can download the latest version and do a fresh install. When I tried this it complained my disk was still being encrypted and so it cannot upgrade. Am guessing that is why the update previously failed so I’ll wait for the encryption to finish and try again. That is so cool though, being able to connect to the Internet and do a recovery! Windows recovery options are nothing compared to this. Even the Recovery screen has a good GUI etc. (of course, that’s easy for Apple to do as it controls the hardware; versus Microsoft which can’t cater for every single display where Windows might be installed on). 
    • Update: After encryption completed I was able to install 10.13.4 successfully. I tried to just to 10.13.6 directly but that failed. I realized that these updates are deltas so I’ll just have to install 10.13.5 and then 10.13.6. Tried that and now my system is finally up to date. Yay! Pity MacOS doesn’t do cumulative updates. 
  • What else? The Finder is good, the uniform way in which each app shows a menubar where you can go and find its options etc. is good. I love the UI as expected for its consistency and sleekness. I also loved how I could just click on the Apple icon and go to “About this Mac” to quickly find its OS version, free storage etc. I don’t know why I liked that, but I found it incredibly thoughtful of Apple to present this information via this option. 
  • There’s still (obviously) a lot to pick up. Keyboard shortcuts and gestures etc. 
  • Oh, forgot. Installing apps from outside the App Store is cute in the way you download the DMG file and then (in most cases) just drag and drop the application to the Applications folder. I remember reading somewhere that in the Mac each application is sandboxed to its own hierarchy or something so it’s not like Windows or Linux where everything just writes to a common place and there’s dependencies and DLL hell etc. 
  • I love how the MacOS restores all my previously open apps after a reboot/ shutdown. It’s just the other day I was wishing Windows could do something similar (my laptop crashed and I had to restore all my Windows) and it was pleasant to see the MacOS do exactly this whenever I’d reboot. Such a user friendly and useful thing to do!

More later!

New AirPods

So I finally purchased a pair of Apple AirPods. There was a deal going on and I got a good additional 20% as there was an offer on my credit card.

  • I can’t control the volume with it (except using Siri).
  • I have to choose between whether I want to be able to pause the music via double tap or go to previous or next tracks. I can customize the double tap on either side AirPod so I only have two choices really.
  • Good thing though is that I can pause by removing either of the AirPods.
  • The fit is good too. I expected it to fall out as Apple EarPods have never fit me; but no, this one stays. Good job!
  • Audio quality is ok as expected. No large sound stage. No bass (I don’t mind that). Good for podcasts and audiobooks which is my use case.
  • The lack of much controls customization irks me though. No other vendor would have been able to get away with that in my opinion.
  • Update after using it for a day: I love the fact that I can use it just one AirPod at a time. That’s super handy. That alone plus the small size and that it’s light and that it fits in my ear and I barely notice it makes it a very useful gadget.

[Aside] A great discussion on copyright and patents

Check out this episode of the Exponent podcast by Ben Thompson and James Allworth.

Ben Thompson is the author of the stratechery blog which is an amazing read for Ben’s insights into technology. James Allworth, I am not much aware of but he was terrific in the above episode. I began following this podcast recently and have only heard one episode prior to this (on Xaomi, again a great episode; in fact the one on copyrights and patents continues on a point mentioned in the Xaomi episode).

This episode was great for a couple of reasons. I felt Ben was caught out of element in the episode, which is unlike how I have read/ heard him previously where he is confident and authoritative. In this episode he was against abolishing copyrights – which is what James was advocating for – but he didn’t have convincing arguments. So he resorted to the usual arguing tricks like prop up examples and try to get the argument to be about the example (and when it still failed he would withdraw the example claiming it wasn’t appropriate here). Or he’d just take a firm stand and refuse to budge. Or incite James by insults and such. Or try and win by conflating the argument with something else which had no relation to it. Basically, usual debating tricks I believe, but it was fun to hear and I was surprised to hear him resorting to these.

Eventually when Ben clarified his point it made sense to me. His argument is that patents are harmful when they apply to “ingredients” (parts of an invention, e.g. pull to refresh) but he has no issues when it applies to a whole thing (e.g. medicine). Moreover, the question is whether the presence of the patent is required to spur invention (not required in the case of technology, required/ preferred in case of medicines) and whether society would be better off without the monopoly afforded by patents (again, no in the case of tech as it leads to barriers of enter and unnecessary patent wars and trolling for new inventions). Copyright, for Ben, is neither harmful to society nor will its absence spur more innovation, so he doesn’t see why it must be abolished. He seems to agree that copyright has its negatives and is harmful in some cases, but he still feels it is useful to make supply scarce (by preventing others from copying the work).

James agrees with most of these but his point is that the same effect can be arrived at without copyrights. Maybe by innovation in other areas, or by agreements between the creator and audience. His argument is more about considering a world without as an option, and to look at how things can be done differently. Moreover, such a world will lead to more creativity and he feels that’s better in the long run.

I can’t write more as I have a flight to catch, so I’ll end this post now. And it’s better to hear the arguments than my summary. Go check out the podcast. It’s a great one! Skip the first few minutes as it is some user feedback etc.

New gadgets

The Internet is full of people praising the new iPhone 6 Plus and how it’s larger size is great and how they are much more productive with it. I am tempted to buy it, and my wife has very sweetly offered to gift me one as she knows I love iPhones (thank you Sari!) – but I am holding off so far.

Couple of reasons really:

1) I am happy with the iPhone 5S. It’s barely 8 months old with me and I feel bad giving it up just because a new device is around the corner. A silly notion probably – these are just devices after all – but I love them and I feel heartless leaving behind the 5S so soon.

2) The iPhone 5S is still performing well. I haven’t moved to iOS 8 yet (due to lack of space for an OTA update) and maybe the upgrade will slow things, but as of now I am happy with it. Mind you, I was in a similar state with the 4S too when I switched to the 5S last year, but then I had used the 4S for two years and the 5S had many newer features. After switching the 5S I realised what I had been with the 4S and how slow the latter is, so keeping that in mind I wouldn’t give too much importance to the current point.

3) I like the small size of the 5S. Sure a bigger device has it’s conveniences and maybe I will love the 6 Plus once I begin using it, but why change if I am already happy? I was one of those people who preferred the smaller size of the iPhones. And I appreciated the fact that iPhone 5 only added an addition row of icons while keeping the width same.

4) I like to skip Apple’s first iteration devices. Like the first iPhone, first iPod Touch, first iPad, and am pretty sure the first Apple Watch. I feel (and this was mentioned by John Gruber I think) that the first iterations are where Apple releases it with some features missing or not optimised and by the second iteration they fix all that. Anyone who’s used the first iPhones and iPads will attest to it too – how they had many limitations and how the second versions were way better.

As a corollary to this I skip the odd iPhone releases too as that’s why Apple makes new changes. Examples: iPhone 4 (Retina and other changes such as the body and internals), iPhone 5 (size and other changes), iPhone 6 (size and a whole lot of software changes). The S versions of all these improved upon the previous version. So I always associate the S with “subtle”. To me they are subtle improvements of their predecessors. That’s one more reason why I would prefer waiting for the iPhone 6S Plus (what a mouthful! I think Apple might just make the Plus the main device by then depending on sales).

5) For the money spent on the new iPhone – which I have no real craving for – I can buy a Nexus 6 when it’s released. Or the new Sony Xperia Z3 or the soon-to-be-released HTC M8 variant with the better camera. This way I get to use an Android phone too for a while. Hopefully the Nexus 6 is also cheaper than the other two. I have an eye on Nokia Windows phones too but the good ones are very pricey – same level as the iPhones and high end Android, and while that’s justified I find it unreasonable considering those phones don’t have much market share or apps. Microsoft should reduce the price so more people adopt it for that reason at least.

Speaking of Windows though I placed an order for a new device today. A tablet laptop called Cain by an Indian manufacturer called Notion Ink. This is one of those convertible devices and the price seems reasonable (a bit on the higher side though). I love Windows 8 but haven’t used it as a tablet yet so this would be a good opportunity to do so. Moreover being a convertible I can use this as a laptop too when I am travelling. No need to carry my usual laptop along. (Me thinks in the future laptops will be what people use instead of Desktops nowadays. The device they use at home and maybe longer travel. Tablets and convertibles will be used for travelling and on the go. And Desktops would be for advanced people who want to upgrade the hardware or custom specs etc. Plus a second hand market where the Desktops can be upgraded or faulty parts replaced and resold. Of course this is probably the near future. Much later Desktops will be obsolete as Laptops too become upgradeable and/ or cheap so that no one cares about upgrading or repairing).

The Cain uses Intel Bay Trail SoCs which supposedly combine the performance of Haswell and such with mobile device features. The Cain also comes with one USB 3.0 slot and a microSD slot. Since it only has 32GB free space I ordered a small 64GB USB 3.0 flash drive as well as a 64GB microSD card to beef up the storage. Useful for storing movies when travelling.

I ordered all these today so am excitedly looking forward to them now! This is the period when you order a new toy and keep refreshing your tracking page to see if they have shipped it and where the heck it has reached. This is followed by a few weeks/ months when you are always playing with this new toy and constantly gushing over it. And that is followed by a phase when you finally get used to it and it becomes a part of your life like everything else. :)

Update: There are some reasons why I might buy the iPhone 6 Plus. Maybe in Jan.

1) I use the iPhone 4S as my travel phone and with the latest iOS 8 update the phone sucks. Sometimes the keyboard is slow, sometimes Safari slows and hangs, the phone in general feels so lethargic. I’ve got angry at it numerous times this past month as I am traveling and use it exclusively, and I hate having to do that. Apple should have just left this device at iOS 6. Heck, I should have just left this device at iOS 6 jail broken, which is what I was at before upgrading to iOS 7 last year. Upgrading was a bad idea! iOS 6 plus custom themes were giving me a near identical look anyways; the only reason I upgraded was because many apps started asking for iOS 7 as a minimum requirement (as they are now with iOS 8).

2) If I buy a 6 Plus I will be going for the 64GB version and that’s useful. When I bought the 5S I was cheap and went with the 16GB version (in fairness the larger versions weren’t available in Oman either). A 16GB version has limitations in that I can’t keep too many songs on the phone, I have to constantly keep copying away photos and videos, I can’t keep too many apps around, and so on.

3) It’s unlikely I will be buying an Android device. They are great, but I use many iPhone specific apps such as Fantastical (and the iPhone reminders), Prismatic, Byword, Litely, etc so I don’t want to go through that hassle.

One advantage the iPhone 4S has is it’s micro SIM. Much easier to get a micro SIM (or chop a regular SIM to micro) when travelling. Nano SIMs are harder to come by.

[Aside] Nokia saw the future…

… but couldn’t build it

Came across the above Verge article a few days back. Remembered it yesterday. It’s a good article on how Nokia didn’t make because it had good hardware but crappy software.

Being a Nokia user of long myself, I would also add that even though their hardware was good they didn’t put their best into it. I remember the Nokia phones of my youth – even the priciest one would have some feature or the other missing or compromised. It was as though Nokia had so many phone models that they didn’t want to put everything into one device. They spread their bets among many devices and so there was no one device a user could pick up as the best Nokia phone. Sometimes the camera was lacking, sometimes small features like FM radio or transmitters were lacking, sometimes the CPU was slower… and so on.

When the iPhone came out on the other hand, there was just one device and it was the best Apple had to offer. Sure the initial iPhone had many missing features but there was no other iPhone which had those features. Only one device, and Apple had put everything into it. When they improved the device next year there was again just one device and Apple put everything into it.

By the time Nokia changed this strategy it was too late. The world had moved on.

Even now, for instance, they have so many models it’s confusing. Sure if you go through the spec sheets and compare you can find one you want – but at first glance it’s confusing and is a chore.

Running out of time so I’ll cut short here.

iPhone 4S under iOS 7 is slow…?

A few days ago I had remarked that I don’t find the iPhone 4S under iOS 7 slower than before. Now I am wondering whether that comment was in haste.

The past 5 days, while I am on vacation in India, I have been using the iPhone 4S exclusively. And it does feel slow. Not extreme slow like my Galaxy Nexus, but definitely slower compared to the 5S and also possibly compared to how the 4S was before.

I have to qualify my statement with a “possibly” because I am not really sure. I feel the 4S is slower under iOS 7 than iOS 6.x but I am aware that could partly be perception too. After using the iPhone 5S for a month I am used to its faster speeds and so the bar is set higher in my mind. Now I expect apps to open with the speed of iPhone 5S and animations to be as smooth as the 5S, but the 4S being a slower phone can definitely not live up to that expectations.

A few days ago for instance I took out my old iPod Touch 2nd generation and installed whited00r, a custom firmware for such old iDevices that include enhancements from newer Apple firmware. I expected this firmware to be fast on the iPod Touch, but it was not. I disabled all the extra animations and tools, and while I can see the device is not sluggish it just does not match up to my expectations. Which is where the idea first cropped in my head that maybe the problem is in my head. I know the iPod Touch was a great device up to the time I used it last, so if it feels slow now with the same version of firmware it was on (whited00r is based on the 3.x series) it can’t be an issue of using a more demanding firmware on an older device – it has to be my expectation. This is why I qualify my statement about the iPhone 4S and iOS 7 with a “possibly” above.

Apart from that, the iPhone 4S is actually probably slower on the iOS 7 than iOS 6 due to the extra features and gloss and animation. Even the iPhone 5S has a bit of slowness opening folders and some apps, so one can expect it to be worse on iPhone 4S. I feel this slowness is slower than bearable, and I don’t like it much, but I also feel if it’s fixed on the iPhone 5S (I hear iOS 7.1 fixes all these) then it will probably improve on the iPhone 4S. These are quirks with iOS 7 itself – manifesting in both devices – and fixing these quirks will make the iPhone 4S behave as it should. Slow, yes, partly due to perception and partly due to slower hardware, but not as noticeably slow as I have been finding it the past few days.

Hope iOS 7.1 indeed makes the 4S faster. I hate being unable to use the 4S as happily as I used to before.

I believe Apple does not sell you a phone. It sells you an experience, which is why Apple tightly controls the hardware, software, selling channels etc, and so a sub par performance on the 4S is something Apple can’t ignore as other manufactures might, because experience is central to Apple. Even on an older hardware users expect bearable performance from newer firmware as long as Apple officially supports it. Some performance loss would be there due to perception, but apart from that it should work smooth. If Apple feels certain features might not work well on the older devices they are welcome to disable it on such hardware, but everything else should work as expected.