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Posts Tagged ‘Apple’

Reactions to the iPhone7 Announcement

A couple people have asked me what I think of the iPhone 7. I upgrade every other year, and this is my year, so I’ll be getting one.

I’m going to take Apple’s 10 points in roughly reverse order of how much I have to say about each one of them.

Apple Pay in Japan

Look, I love Apple Pay. I’m sure this is a big deal for Apple, but since I neither live in or travel to Japan, I don’t really care.

Jet Black and Matte Black Finishes

Uhh, cool, I guess? The real question is whether the jet black is just a vehicle for making fingerprints and scratches look prominent and awful. I’m going to risk it.

Water Resistant

About.

Freakin’.

Time.

Seriously. Thank you. Not that I get my phone wet a lot, but it’ll be nice to not worry about this.

Stereo Speakers

I’m going to have a lot to say about audio later, but this feature, while nice, isn’t really a big deal. I rarely listen to music directly out of my phone. Now, maybe I would more often if the speakers were better, so maybe this will make a difference, but I’m not expecting much. They’ll still be tiny little crappy speakers.

New Display

Brighter and with a wider color gamut. I’ve seen one of the iPad Pros that has this wider gamut and it is, indeed, beautiful. However, I’m not sure that it will really matter all that much in my normal daily use. I’m a terrible photographer (more on that in a moment) and it’s just not my primary concern, though I’m glad Apple worries about it so much. I am, however, interested in it being brighter, which hopefully means that it’ll be easier to see in bright sunlight. Any help there is actually useful, so I’m looking forward to that bit.

New CPU/GPU

The most relevant part of this is indirect, which is battery life. It’s always nice that it’s faster, but we’ve now reached the point where I have a two-year-old iPhone 6 and for the first time I’m not chomping at the bit for a new phone because my current one feels slow. Nope, it’s actually pretty much fine most of the time. So, while being way faster is cool and all (woohoo, 400 flying monkeys… except that I almost never play compute-intensive games), it’s less important to me than it has been before. Plus, you know, it’s kind of expected. They get faster every year. I mean, really, do you expect Phil Schiller ever to get up on stage and go, “oh, yeah, same CPU as last year.”

New Camera

As noted above, I’m not a particularly good photographer. And much like the new CPU, there is always a newer, better camera every year. And don’t get me wrong, I like that there’s a newer, better camera every year. It makes my crappy snapshots look a little less crappy. I am particularly pleased with this year’s improvements, though, as image stabilization will probably make a real difference for me (I get a lot of slightly blurry pics, so I guess I tend to jiggle the camera when I go to press the button), and better low-light capabilities are always welcome, as apparently I see better than most cameras do because I end up with a lot of dark pictures in circumstances when I feel like I can see just fine. So this is welcome but not really earth-shaking for me, as it’s just snapshots anyway.

New Home Button

So, up to this point, most of the new features have not been major (other than water resistance), but have all been at least not worse. I won’t know for sure about this one until I get a chance to play with it, but I’m worried that this could actually be worse. The presentation was suspiciously light on details and early reports from press folks who got to play with have been… well, mixed. Including one that basically said it was horrific. There’s something to be said for physical buttons. I mean, I get why not to have a physical keyboard—I was behind that one from the beginning—but if you are going to have a single* hard, dedicated button, seems like it wouldn’t be bad for it to be a real button, not just a sensor with a motor underneath it. We’ll see.

* This is actually kind of a bone I have with the iOS design, the single button. While Android certainly has its share of foibles (in particular, can a phone I buy this year run next year’s OS? Probably not? Hmm…), a universal “back” button strikes me as a really good idea, and I wish iPhones had this.

No Headphone Jack, and Airpods

These are both part of the same thing, and this is certainly one of the things that has gotten a lot of attention. And this one is a big one for me, too. See, I’m a bit of a headphone guy. As in, I own probably a dozen pairs of headphones (including $350 ones and multiple $200+ pairs), several sets of earbuds, dedicated headphone amplifiers, that kind of thing. I semi-regularly read a web forum (head-fi.org) devoted pretty much exclusively to headphone gear. I’m kind of invested in things that have a traditional headphone jack, and while most of my gear isn’t mobile stuff that I’d actually plug into a phone anyway, some of it is, including my beloved Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7s and ATH-ANC9s.

(Warning: Skip this paragraph if you already know what a DAC is and why it matters.) A little sidebar on what it means, from a technical standpoint, to not have a headphone jack. What the iPhone outputs over the lightning connection is not an analog audio waveform, it’s just bits—you know, 1s and 0s. The Apple 30-pin connectors that were on older iPhones actually did output analog audio, but the lighting port doesn’t. So, to get an analog signal out, you need two things: a DAC and an amplifier. The DAC (stands for “Digital to Analog Converter”) turns the bits into an analog waveform, and the amplifier amplifies that waveform so it’s loud enough to be audible. The iPhone has always had a DAC in it, and still does (it has to in order to get sound out of the on-board speakers). There are quality differences in DACs (high-end audio DACs retail for thousands of dollars), and the DAC in previous iPhone models was actually a pretty decent one for something as small as a phone. (The amplifier was nothing special, though.)

The upshot of all that is now you need a DAC and amp to listen to music out of your iPhone. While Apple has historically used pretty good DACs (given size constraints), I have my suspicions about how good the DAC/amp combo is in Apple’s included $9 adapter, mostly because it’s really small and really cheap. Plus, ugh, yet another adapter/dongle. I wonder how many of these I’ll lose, or be without when I need one. And let’s be clear, I’m probably mostly going to be using the dongle. One of the problems here is that while I generally like Apple stuff, their EarPods suck. No way I’m using Apple EarPods over my beloved Sennheiser MX760s (unfortunately discontinued) or even my Yuin PK2s.

So the other offered solution is Bluetooth. Unfortunately, Bluetooth technology also sucks. Every year it keeps sucking, and every year the Bluetooth consortium says “wait until next year—it’ll be great then” and every year it still isn’t. I’m even willing to believe that Apple has actually solved this problem with their custom W1 chip, but until someone else licenses those, it’s still not going to result in a great solution, because everything Apple is likely to put those into is also probably going to suck. I understand that Apple now owns a headphone company, Beats, and Beats has access to the the W1 chip. Unfortunately Beats is not an acceptable option in my book—Beats also sucks. Well, that’s a little unfair. Some Beats products are actually tolerable, but not at the price points they hit. As I said to John Gruber on Twitter, Beats doesn’t sell $300 headphones, they sell $100 headphones for which they charge $300. Seriously, go listen to a Beats Pro (retail $400 but easily findable for $300) and then compare it to the $100 offerings from companies like Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, or AKG. And that’s pretty much the top of the Beats line. Not exactly compelling.

Thus, for the time being, the most likely decent solution (from an audio quality standpoint) is an outboard DAC/amp like the Oppo HA-2 or the TEAC HA-P50. Not exactly something I will be able to carry with me all the time, and not particularly cheap. I’ll probably end up lugging one of these around when I’m bothering to lug around the MSR7s, but that’s only some of the time.

Now, maybe Bluetooth solutions that are along the line of the Bragi “The Headphone” will eventually be good, and Apple dumping the headphone jack will almost certainly spur a lot of development on this problem. I’m sure the universe of options will be much improved in a year or two. But I bet they won’t ever be as cheap as even good earbuds like the Yuin PK2 (under $50 if you can find them on sale) and definitely not the dirt-cheap but still decent Sennheiser MX385.

So, maybe this will be good for Apple because they end up selling a lot of AirPods and lots of wireless Beats (probably at a pretty good margin). But I have a hard time seeing how this will be good for me, particularly in the short term. I do understand that Apple says they could not have gotten the new camera and better battery life if they had kept the headphone jack (good article about this here) but it’s still a pretty steep cost. I mean, I don’t think it’s worth the apoplectic fury of the more virulent Apple-haters, but it’s certainly a substantial minus.

Redux

My wife and I each upgrade our phones every two years, and one of the kids gets our orphaned phone. That means right now my younger son’s phone is 4 years old and it’s dying. While I’m actually pretty happy with my current 6, he really needs a new phone. So no matter what I think, I’m upgrading anyway. (In fact, I already put in the order. Got up just after 2am on order day to put in my order for a 128 jet black regular 7, then went back to sleep.)

Were it more of a choice, I’m not sure I’d upgrade this year. While I’m thrilled to see it be waterproof (water resistant, whatever) and pleased to get a better screen, faster processors, and a better camera, I’m not so sure about the home button and I’m definitely in the camp of people who is put off by the lack of a traditional headphone jack. I knew it had to come eventually, I just wish the wireless offerings were better and cheaper.

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My iOS Apps, 2014 Edition

So, the list of Mac apps hasn’t changed all that much since I last did this in 2012.  I’m still using many of the same iOS apps, but there’s been more churn there, and so I’m going to re-do the list from scratch, but using the same categories as the 2012 list. New entries are marked with an asterisk.

Hardware

First, though, my current iOS hardware. I am still on the every-other-year plan for most of these, and so this year I just got an iPhone 6.  I am still using last year’s iPad, though, a 1st-generation iPad Air. I’ve made some comments about the phone elsewhere and I’m still in love with the iPad Air, which is just a fantastic little machine. When I really need a keyboard for the iPad I just use the little AmazonBasics Bluetooth keyboard, which is portably small but does not have the keys in weird places like many other small bluetooth keyboards (in particular, many of them have the “up arrow” key next to the “shift” key in such a way that mistyping up arrow for shift is simply way too common.

5 Must-Haves

These are the apps I’d miss the most if they went away:

  • GoodReader. It is still true that the thing I most do on my iPad is read, especially journal manuscripts and student papers. I still love this for marking up PDFs and the developer has not only done a great job of keeping up with the latest iOS stuff, but it’s now a universal app for both iPad and iPhone, which is a real win.
  • OmniOutliner 2.  Still one of the greatest pieces of software on the Mac (that and BBEdit), and while the iPad version is still not quite all I would want it to be, it’s still a vital tool for me. The added bonus is that an iPhone version is planned for 2015—I’m really looking forward to that.
  • 1Password. Still the king of password management, working across iOS and MacOS in a seamless way. Rocks the house.
  • Check the Weather. Still my favorite weather app, though the free Forecast.io site is now pretty reasonable competition.
  • Decked Builder. What can I say, I’m an MTG nerd.

Cross-Device

Some of the best other apps I use work on both iPhone and iPad, and I use them both places. Some of them you actually have to download two apps, one for each device, but some of these “just work” on both. In cases where there is more than one version, the link goes to whichever device I use the app on most. This is in alphabetical order, not by priority or anything.

  • Drafts 4. I actually find this version slightly worse than Drafts 3, but the things that make it worse are just violations of my own personal preferences (I don’t want to let Facebook crap all over my address book by linking it to the OS).  Otherwise, still great. Oh, what is it, you ask? It’s a text utility—you get a blank page, start writing, and then later figure out where you want the text to go, such as Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox, email, etc.
  • Draw Pad Pro. If you need a quick sketch with your finger, this is the way to go on iOS. The 3.0 update was a real advance, and now I like it better than Penultimate.
  • Evernote.* Since I dumped SpringPad, this is the new cross-platform note system of choice.
  • Movies by Flixster. Still my go-to app for movies.
  • Parcel.* I use this to track deliveries. I’ve heard good things about the “Deliveries” app as well, but Parcel was free.  I’ve since upgraded to a premium subscription, but that’s still cheaper.
  • PCalc. There might be other calculator apps out there, and they might be good. But PCalc is awesome and has been awesome for a really long time, and I have no plans to go another way unless the developer shuts down.
  • Prizmo.* I don’t use this a lot, but I’m always glad to have it when I need it. Great little OCR app.
  • SoundHound.  I’ll say what I said in 2012: I know Shazam is more popular for identifying songs, but I seem to get better results with SoundHound. There is both a free and a paid version of this app, and I got the paid version when it was either free or $1. Not sure what the difference is, but the one I have does what I want.
  • theScore.*  I used to use ESPN’s “ScoreCenter” to track sports scores, but the iPad version sucked very hard, and when it started to require an account, meh.  theScore is actually only OK.  The UI is good, but the server it uses is unreliable.  Open for other suggestions on this one.
  • Tweetbot.  This used to be on my “must-have” list but the free Twitter client has caught up a lot, and the iPad version of this is lagging pretty far behind, so if I were to start today I’m not sure if I would buy this or not.
  • Wikipanion. If I’m at my computer and have my iPad handy, it’s a tossup which I’ll use to look something up on Wikipedia. A very nice front end, and free.

Notably absent from this list is Notesy, which used to be a favorite but is in dire need of an update for iOS 8.  And again, while I have OmniFocus on both devices, I’m really still looking for a good to-do list app, as OmniFocus seems a little too much for me.  I also have the Apple suite of Pages, Numbers, etc. but I don’t use them very often under iOS.  And like in 2012, I rely on Dropbox as a service, but I rarely actually use the app.

iPhone Only

There are more changes here than anywhere else, driven in no small part by the step-tracking ability of my most recent phone.

  • Camera+. I still usually take pictures with the built-in app, but there are times when I want this because it’s easier to shoot one-handed with this than the default app.  Also, with iOS 8, Camera+’s filters are available in Apple’s photos app, and that alone is worth the price.  And still some of the best release notes anywhere.
  • Fantastical 2.*  This is available for iPad as well, but there I find Apple’s calendar to be just fine there, but on the iPhone Apple’s calendar just isn’t even close to Fantastical.
  • FitPort.*  Yes, I actually paid money for what is basically a better presentation of Apple’s health data.  Decent software is worth money, so I don’t mind this at all.
  • United.*  Pretty good airline app.  I fly almost exclusively on United because I live in one of their hub cities, and while lots of people seem to like Southwest, I’ve consistently had bad experiences with them.  United is actually pretty awful, too, but at least their iPhone app doesn’t suck.
  • Walkmeter.*  OK, so one of the big changes for me this year is that we now have a family dog.  I really enjoy walking her, and am shooting for 3 miles a day.  Best tracking app I’ve found, though most of them I delete right away since they either require a log in or ask for personal information, neither of which are in any way necessary for performing the function of GPS tracking a walk route, so they all got deleted immediately.

iPad Only

  • iBooks.  Still my favorite ebook platform, but again, I don’t read much on my phone.
  • Instapaper.  Still my favorite “read later” service, and again, while there is an iPhone version of it, I never use it there.
  • Feedly.*  Since Google Reader died, I just use Feedly.  I dislike their Web app on the desktop and use ReadKit there, but on the iPad their free reader is good enough.
  • MacJournal.  This app is getting to feel long in the tooth with its archaic Wifi sync and separate iPhone and iPad versions, but I still use it regularly, so here it is.  If Day One supported encryption, I’d probably drop this, but it doesn’t, so I haven’t.
  • Twitch.*  I know I mentioned earlier that I’m an MTG nerd, and this app is now stable enough that I’m willing to list it.  Already missing Legacy on Sunday nights from SCG. <sigh>

Under Consideration

There are a few pieces of software I’m considering buying, or have recently installed and am considering whether or not they deserve more prime-time love.

  • Editorial.  Supposed to be the hot editor on the iPad now, and with Notesy bowing out of the game, this might become my go-to.
  • Launch Center Pro.  I got this on sale for $1 and it looks intriguing, but maybe not enough of a win to bother with configuration, which could be time-consuming.
  • Todoist. Giving this a try as a to-do list manager.  Pretty unthrilled with the Mac desktop version so far, but the iOS version seems better.

I’m not going to bother with a full “Games” category this time since it’s pretty much just Ascension and Civilization Revolution 2 on the iPad and very little else these days.

So, what critical things am I missing?  Anyone got a to-do list manager that they love (not including OmniFocus, Things, or Clear, all of which I’ve tried and am just not into)?

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My Mac Apps, 2014 Edition

So, two years ago, I thought I’d start an annual series on the apps that I use on Mac OS and on iOS. I didn’t update either of them at the end of 2013 because not much had changed. On the Mac side, that’s still surprisingly the case.

So, instead of re-iterating the whole list, which hasn’t changed much (go read that first), I want to highlight what’s new to the fold and what’s been dropped.

New Hardware
Only two changes, but they’re pretty big

• It was finally time to get a new home machine, so I’m now on a shiny still-feels-new late-2013 Mac Pro that I still call “the wastebasket.” It’s gotten more stable with each update of Mavericks (I finally just upgraded to Yosemite yesterday) and I’ve gone from being mostly unhappy with it (despite the blazing speed) to now tolerating it. Still flaky for a lot of USB things from time to time, but overall most of the kinks are out.

• I’m now using a CODE Keyboard, the model with the Cherry MX Clear switches (105 keys). The feel is very good. It’s still not as quiet as I’d like, but it’s tolerable. I actually still keep the old Logitech DiNovo Edge around for when USB dies on the wastebasket or when I’m on a telecon and really need a quiet keyboard. I wasn’t sure how I’d like this, but within a week or two of having one at home, I had to buy a second one for my campus office.

• The one downside to the CODE keyboard is the lack of, or rather somewhat klunky solution for, media keys. Thus, I un-mothballed my Griffin PowerMate for handling audio controls. Works fine under Yosemite, too.

New Software
Again, surprisingly little has been added to the fold here over the last two years. The Big 5 are still BBEdit (now at version 11, which is a highly-recommend upgrade), OmniOutliner Pro (now with the useful OmniPresence and hopefully with an iPhone version coming soon), LaunchBar, Keyboard Maestro, and Dropbox (though I rely on this slightly less now).

However, there are a few new things that have made appearances:

• DEVONthink Pro Office. Probably overkill for what I use it for, but it has its uses. In particular, I use it to archive old email, to manage my PDF library of academic journal articles, and as a storehouse for scanned documents.

Evernote. Last time around, I was using SpringPad for cross-platform storage of notes and snippets, because the Evernote TOS were horrible. They’ve changed their TOS and the software has improved a lot as well, so I’ve been using this a little in place of the defunct SpringPad. Again, this seems like a powerful tool that I’m only scratching the surface on.

• ReadKit. I’m one of those holdouts who still reads a lot of Web content via RSS. With the death of Google News, I needed a new client, and this was the one I went with. Nothing to rave about, but no complaints, either, and since I am indeed one to complain about crappy software, that’s saying something.

• Bartender. Laptop displays just aren’t big enough for all the crap in my menubar these days. Well, with this, it’s all good.

Software Gone or on the Way Out
In addition to the small number of new things, there are pieces of software on the 2012 list that I either don’t use anymore or am in the process of getting rid of. I’ll provide a brief explanation of the issue with each one.

• Yojimbo. Ahh, Yojimbo. This is actually one of my favorite pieces of software—so why drop it? Because, essentially, data stored here is trapped on the Mac. Technically, there’s a version of Yojimbo on the iPad, but it is, unfortunately, not very good and it never syncs properly with the Mac version—and the sync is manual rather than automatic. Bare Bones offers a sync service for Yojimbo but that’s only between Macs and has a monthly fee. This is just not a tractable situation, so I’m going to be migrating to a mix of other applications: 1Password for software serial numbers and passwords, DEVONthink for PDFs that I don’t need mobile access to, and probably Evernote for short notes and other miscellany. It’ll be a very, very sad day when I complete all this, but I think it’s necessary. When I travel not for work I don’t bring a Mac, and I’ve just had too many recent episodes where there’s data I need, but it’s stuck in Yojimbo and I can’t get to it. Sad but them’s the breaks.

• RStudio. I use R more than ever (but still not for big repeated measures analysis, alas), but I have given up on RStudio. Basically, while I like the IDE framework and some of the tools, the editor is just a piece of crap that has years-old known bugs in it that I just couldn’t stand anymore, so now I just use BBEdit and the raw R software. There are things I miss about RStudio, but not enough to justify going back to it.

• NetNewsWire. My favorite old RSS reader just would not keep up with the times. No Feedly or any other form of cross-machine/cross-device sync? Really? In 2014? Bye.

• OmniGraphSketcher. When the company that makes it stops, it’s time to give up. Not much of a loss, though, really.

• Interarchy. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it—I haven’t replaced it or anything—I just find that I never use it anymore.

Under Consideration
While I still like MacJournal, it’s a little limited as a blogging tool when you want to mix images and things like code snippets, so I’m thinking about taking the plunge with something like MarsEdit or Desk.

The other thing that I’m still searching for is a good to-do list manager—just like I was at the end of 2012. I own OmniFocus but I basically never use it because it’s just so klunky. It’s tied to the GTD productivity cult, which I guess is OK, but I’m not really into that, so it’s just extra hassle. I’m told Things has similar issues. Basically, what I need in a to-do list manager is:

  • Hierarchical lists that can be re-organized by dragging (not by “priority values” or due dates whatever OmniFocus uses)
  • Dated, recurrent items (but dates don’t force order in the list)
  • Automatic sync between Mac, iPad, and iPhone
  • No GTD cruft, or at least the ability to ignore that stuff
  • It would be nice if it didn’t cost a small fortune like OmniFocus (and Things)

Right now I basically just use OmniOutliner to keep a list because it’s the best hierarchical list editor I have access to, but it doesn’t have recurrent items and doesn’t sync invisibly with my iPhone, so that’s why I’m still looking. I’m planning on checking out Todoist and Clear. What else should I look at? I tried Wunderlist but it doesn’t handle hierarchy in a way that works for me.

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Quick Review: So, How Do You Like Your New Phone?

2014.09.25 1 comment

So, a week ago, I got an iPhone 6, and since then, I’ve gotten this question a lot. Some initial thoughts/reactions:

Size
I’m going to come right out and say it: it’s just a little bit too big. I wasn’t unhappy with the size of the 5 I upgraded from and was not one of those people clamoring for a bigger phone. In fact, I had some misgivings about the larger size. Overall I don’t hate it or anything, but it’s just a little bit bigger than I would have liked. If Apple could have figured out some way to split the difference between the 5 series and this, I think that would have been fine. The fact that it’s so thin does help offset the overall size, but I don’t have particularly large hands and I use my phone one-handed pretty often, and it’s just a smidge too big at times. The double-tap on the home button (not a double press, but a really light double-tap) to scroll the top of the display down so you can reach it one-handed is something, but just doesn’t seem like quite enough of a solution.

The one real up side to the larger phone is the increase in the number of apps that appear on the first page of home. I do like that a lot, but otherwise I’d actually like it to be just a bit smaller. I could not imagine getting a 6+, but I would guess that the people who are interested in such a thing have a somewhat different usage profile. (I already have, and love, my full-sized iPad, and I’m not really in the market for a middle-sized device. I kind of don’t get the iPad Mini, either, but again, I’m not the target user.)

Favorite Features
The top of the list is Touch ID, no contest. This is not a new feature on the iPhone, but it’s a new feature for me, since I’m coming from a 5, not a 5S. I simply love this. I understand it’s not 100% secure, but neither is a 4-digit PIN, and this is probably at least as good as that, which is what I had before. I know I can use a longer PIN, but my threat model is not a dedicated hacker, but rather me leaving my phone somewhere and a casual passerby picking it up. Touch ID is so fast and so easy. This totally rocks.

My second favorite thing is the better camera. I’m not really much of a photographer, but it’s always nice to be able to not think about it and just have the thing take better pictures. And this camera seems to do better for me, and I’m not even trying to do crazy awesome stuff like in Iceland.

The other thing I love is that it’s blazing fast. The 5 was no slouch and I wasn’t actually unhappy with the speed and itching to move up to a faster phone (I had that in spades when I replaced my first iPhone, a 3G), but this thing just screams—everything is just so responsive. I find the whole “oh, everything on the iPhone 6 has been available on Android for a year now” thing really annoying. Tell me, which Android phone benchmarked like this a year ago? And still has decent battery life? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Dumb lazy argument is dumb and lazy.

Next is the motion co-processor. I’ve never invested in a FitBit or anything, but now that we have a dog I go for a decent walk every day and it’s interesting to see the step count. Again, not new to the 6, but not something that was available on the 5, and I like it.

Oh, and one more win for Apple on this is the increase in storage. The mid-priced phone (which is what I usually get) went up from 32G to 64G, which is awesome. I was really pushing on the 32G on my 5, and it’s nice to have some breathing room.

The Display
The screen is truly excellent. The screen on my 5 was perfectly good, but this seems even better. I didn’t go with a 6+, which I’ve heard has an even better screen, but this one still seems great. Of course, it’s also bigger, but I’ve already covered that. The thing about the bigger and even higher-quality display is that I find myself slightly less drawn off the phone to do reading-based tasks, which is really what my iPad is for—serious reading. I never, for instance, read books on my phone. Now I might. The only down side here is that apps that haven’t been updated for the new screen size look a little clunky—the text looks huge on these. I’m sure most of them will sort it out relatively soon.

Battery Life
No contest that this is much better than on my 5. Battery life on the 5 was always decent, but nothing great, and so far the 6 just blows it away. In normal usage so far, I’ve never even come close to needing to charge it during the day. (I charge my phone every night while I’m asleep.) I didn’t often need to charge the 5 before the end of the day, either, but I don’t think I’ve even gotten the battery down below half. Very nice work. I guess this is the other upside for the larger form factor—space for a bigger battery.

iOS 8
Technically, iOS 8 is not really an iPhone 6 feature in that I had already installed it on my 5 and my iPad the day before I got my 6, but the 6 requires it and so I kind of think of it that way. So far, it just doesn’t seem that much different than iOS 7 (which I thought was a very mixed bag vs. iOS 6—some things got better, but some got worse). HealthKit isn’t really active yet (oops), other than the basics (although as I mentioned, I like the step tracking).

So far there aren’t enough extensions for that to be a big deal, though I am tickled to see PCalc in the “today” view. This will probably pick up as more apps are updated for iOS 8. I think photo editing on-camera via extensions is probably going to be a big deal.

The predictive keyboard is actually pretty nice. It’s not always accurate, of course, but where I find it particularly shines is when it correctly predicts words that have punctuation (for example, “we’ll”) in them, because punctuation sucks on a mobile keyboard. I haven’t tried any of the third-party swipe-based keyboards yet, and I’m not sure that I will because I don’t often type anything substantial with one finger, and as John Gruber observed, I’m not sure how much that’ll do for two-thumb typing. Plus, given the larger form factor, I think I’m even more likely to two-thumb type than before. We’ll see.

The tweaks to Messages and Mail are all nice, but not anything major. Family Sharing and Continuity are not things I can use because my Macs aren’t on Yosemite yet and the rest of my family isn’t on iOS 8 yet. Continuity seems cool, though, but we’ll have to see how it really plays out—the devil is in the details, and I haven’t yet gotten to play in the details.

The place where I think Apple really blew it is with iCloud Drive. I’m going to just come out and say it: Apple is generally not good at the whole cloud thing. I used to think Apple should have worked harder to buy Dropbox because of how awesome Dropbox is, but now I’m really glad they didn’t—I think Apple probably would have screwed it up. Anyway, when you install iOS 8 for the first time, it prompts you for whether or not you want to upgrade your iCloud account to iCloud Drive. The idea of iCloud Drive isn’t exactly new for Apple (remember iDisk?), and the warning it gives you is pretty tame, but in fact if you agree to “upgrade” to iCloud Drive, it effectively hoses your iCloud storage if you access iCloud from a Mac that isn’t running Yosemite. Since Yosemite isn’t actually released yet, this is a really bad idea. As an added bonus, this “upgrade” isn’t undo-able. Ugh. Would it really have been that hard for Apple to have put in another layer of warning that said something like “You should only do this if you run Yosemite on your Mac” and defaulting to “no, don’t upgrade” rather than defaulting to “upgrade?” Any decent UX person knows that users frequently don’t read warnings very carefully and that the default should never be to mess up something that already works.

Overall
So, while I find the new larger form-factor not quite ideal and iOS 8 to be a mixed bag, on the whole I’m pretty happy with the new phone. I’m pretty inelastic on this, because I use my phone constantly (usually not as an actual phone, of course), so I’m bad with concepts like “is it worth the $300?” but on balance I certainly don’t regret the purchase.

Background Notes
I’m on the every-other-year plan with the iPhone. I didn’t get the original but have stuck to that plan otherwise, so I have had a 3G, a 4, and a 5 previous to this. I’ve never had an “S” model (3GS, 4S, 5S), but my wife is on the every-other-year plan on the “S” cycle, but she started later, so she used to have a 4S and now has a 5S. So I’ve at least fiddled with every model except for the original and the 3GS.

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Quick Reactions to WWDC 2014

Just some off-the-cuff thoughts.

New “Yosemite” UI
What, new icons and transparent window title bars? Not much there, really. Vaguely pretty, I guess.
I guess the piece of real UI that might make some difference are the changes in Notification Center. Looks like Dashboard is going away and widgets will live there. Frankly, I’ve never like Dashboard so this is probably an improvement.

Oh, and the new Spotlight? Seems nice, I guess, but other than the Wikipedia suggestions, many of us already have very similar functionality with LaunchBar or Alfred. I can’t imagine using a machine without LaunchBar, so I guess this is good for people who aren’t already in on that.

iCloud Drive
File this under “duh.” It sounds a lot like what we used to have with MobileMe’s “iDrive” and what we currently have with Dropbox. Given the relatively small amount of storage, since all photos are now going here, I’m not that excited. I also suspect it’ll be slower than Dropbox. Feels late to the party.

Continuity
Hooray, real meat! This stuff looked great, and will probably help sell boatloads of Macs. I’m already vested in the all-Apple computing ecosystem, but this will be a real incentive for people who aren’t. And for those of us already there, this just looks sweet.

Tweaks to Mail.app
MailDrop actually looks pretty cool, and since my employer’s mail servers is one of those that blocks large attachments, I’m hoping my friends and collaborators will get this sooner rather than later. Marking up emails seems nice, but what I really want to do is add metadata to my emails—kind of like with MailTags, but one that actually works with the current OS.

Tweaks to OS X Safari
Nice but nothing overwhelming. The “overview all your open tabs” thing is probably the big winner, but that’s “big” in a relative sense—nothing too thrilling here.

OS X Yosemite Redux
Overall, outside of the “Continuity” stuff, pretty underwhelming. What I really hope this means is that Apple has spent more of their engineering effort on quashing bugs, as Mavericks is one of my least favorite OS X versions so far—very flaky in many regards. I really really hope this is where the real effort went.

The iOS 8 stuff generally seemed more significant, but was still nothing overwhelming.

Misc iOS 8 UI stuff
The new predictive keyboard stuff seems mildly clever but not exactly revolutionary. Widgets in Notification Center seem like an upgrade. I don’t do a lot of multi-person SMS so I won’t use those features often, but they do seem really good for people who get into those a lot. I can’t see much use for the in-line audio and video, though. HealthKit strikes me as actually kind of creepy. I’m not sure I’m all that into having my medical data flying around all the time. Changes to Siri seemed pretty trivial, unless of course you speak one of the 22 new languages, in which case it might indeed be a big deal.

Extensibility
This seems like a pretty big deal. One of the big technical drawbacks of Apple so heavily sandboxing everything is that inter-app communication seems pretty limited, and some of the clever system hacks that developers have generated for other Apple systems haven’t found their way to iOS. This has always struck me as correct, as the last thing I want is a crashy phone. However, if Apple thinks they’ve found a way to get back at least some of that in a safe way, I’m all for it. I’m looking forward to seeing what developers can do with this.

Family Sharing
Greatest idea since sliced bread? Well, probably not, but a very good one, and I’m looking forward to it. We’ll see how easy it really is to configure, but I think this is going to be a win.

Under the Hood Developer Stuff
New APIs are always good; the Extensibility stuff I already mentioned was the most interesting, but I’m sure some of the other new stuff will be good, too. The second-most interesting is “Metal,” Apple’s new… well, I’m not sure exactly what to call it—graphics accelerator engine? I’m not a huge video gamer or anything, but the notion of console-level games running on A7 hardware is certainly interesting from the perspective of the next generation of Apple TV.

Swift
Warning: computer programmer geek alert.

Closures? Generics? REPL? Namespaces? Multiple return values?

Looking at the trajectory of C to C++ to Java to Python it has long been my contention that eventually the dominant computer language will simply be Common Lisp but without the parenthesis-based syntax that many people (myself not included, though) dislike.

That’s sure what Swift sounds like to me: all the Lisp language features, but with procedural syntax.

I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

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How Do You Like Your New Mac Pro?

2014.02.06 1 comment

Recently, my desk acquired a new wastebasket:

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Oh, wait, that’s not a wastebasket—that’s a new Mac Pro! I’ve had the same machine at home for a little over three years now, and of course computer years are like dog years, so after over two decades, it was time for something new. Plus, the Dean’s office owed me a new machine anyway. I keep getting asked how I like it, so I thought I’d present a little review. I’m going to do this in Q&A form.

Is it really fast?
First, the machine I was coming from was a 2.66 GHz 12-core monster from the 2010 line. The wastebasket is a 3.5Ghz 6-core CPU. Is it a lot faster than the old one? Well, for the most part, yes. Certain operations are stunningly fast, like waking from sleep, which feels nearly instantaneous. When running something that really seriously taxes the multicore, the fact that it has six fewer cores means the difference is barely noticeable. But for a lot of normal things, especially anything that hits the internal SSD, which is just stupid quick, it blazes. Here’s how fast it is: Even Word and Excel launch quickly, which seems like a violation of the natural order. So, I’m totally satisfied with this.

Wow, pretty.
OK, true, that’s not actually a question. In principle, yes, it’s a pretty piece of hardware. But that’s the view of it on my desk, and that’s the way I see it. What I’d really like to be able to do is turn it around so that I don’t have to look at all those cables and can just see the glossy black aluminum in all its glory. However, that’s not feasible, because of where the power button is. See that little glowing spot near the bottom, just to the right of the center? Yeah, that’s the power button. Fantastic placement, Apple. (That’s sarcasm in case that’s not coming through adequately in writing.) Seriously, not only do I have to dodge all those cables to actually push the power button, but it means I have to keep what sure looks to me like the back of the machine facing me. This is a totally inexplicable bit of industrial design. Yes, I understand that I’m not actually supposed to have use the power button all that often, but, unfortunately, I’ve had to use it rather a lot so far, so I’m not optimistic on that score.

What about storage? Didn’t your old Mac Pro have four filled drive bays in it?
This is my single least favorite thing about the wastebasket. Yes it’s small and pretty and everything, but there’s almost no on-board storage. Yes, you get a single SSD, and upping the size of that is something you pay dearly for. This is one thing the Pro towers did better than any other machine I’ve ever owned. Those four sleds that allow you to slide in bare SATA hard disks, and space for a full four of them without having to sacrifice optical drives was just excellent design. I loved that. So, my old Pro had about 6TB of storage on board. This was internal storage so it ran at full SATA speed for the time, 3Gbps.

Well, you can’t get 6TB of SSD storage on a new Pro, and if you could, well, it’d probably cost the GDP of Estonia. So, one of the four disks in my old Pro could be copied onto the internal SSD, fine. So what to do with the other three drives? This is my fundamental frustration with the new Pro. What did Apple think current Pro owners were going to do, fit everything in their old bays into the on-board SSD? I think not. So why doesn’t Apple sell, or strongly lean on some third-party vendor to sell, a three-bay Thunderbolt enclosure with no disks in it? Would that have been so hard? Apparently.

So, before considering a wastebasket, one must consider what to do about the other three disks. They have to be external enclosures. There are three possible options:

  • FireWire. Affordable, but even FireWire 800 is noticeably slower than 3 Gbps.
  • USB 3.0. Cheap, probably not quite as fast as Thunderbolt, but should be fine.
  • Thunderbolt. Very fast, but bloody hell, external Thunderbolt enclosures are expensive. Consider the same two-disk enclosure with the same basic feature set: one Firewire, one Thunderbolt. I get that the Thunderbolt chipset is more expensive and the black paint is very chic, but $190 more? Seriously?

So, I had a plan: put the one drive that has stuff on it that really needs to be fast in a Sonnet Echo dock, which I had on order, since that would give me both an optical drive (which I still need), and a Thunderbolt-speed access to one of my old hard disks. I figured I could take the FireWire performance hit on the other two drives since one of those is just my iTunes library.

However, because Sonnet decided that they’re still not shipping the Echo until “Summer 2014” (originally slated to ship “Summer 2013”), I had to ditch that idea. So, FireWire means anything disk-limited would actually be substantially slower than on the old machine, so I had to (a) order an optical drive separately, and (b) try a USB 3 enclosure for the drive I wanted to run a little faster.

Well, I don’t know what the story is, and maybe it’s because I have a bad machine, but I tried two different USB 3.0 enclosures from different manufacturers, and neither worked. The machine either couldn’t see the disk at all, or thought it had to be initialized, or it’d crash during a read, and the whole machine would hang. (This is why I the power button had to be within reach, as I had to hard reset the machine multiple times.)

OK, so Thunderbolt. Look, I generally like Apple, I do, but sometimes… grr. Thunderbolt is definitely a grr-inducing Apple kind of thing. Sure, yes, it’s really fast, and it’s nice to have one small cable over which you can run anything. But, wow, are Thunderbolt enclosures expensive. And nowhere could I find a Thunderbolt enclosure that didn’t already come loaded with disks I don’t need.

So, I finally settled on the CalDigit T3, despite the fact that you cannot buy it empty of disks. So far it seems really nice, but it was a really smack in the pocketbook. The sad thing is that I don’t really need the RAID functionality, I’m just using it JBOD mode anyway. So, yeah, grr.

So, side note: it is now two days since my T3 arrived, and I just saw this on the OWC site: a 4-bay Thunderbolt enclosure not already loaded with disks. As of this writing, it doesn’t actually seem to be shipping yet, but it seems like just the ticket, and “only” $500. Yay Thunderbolt.

Is it really quiet? Doesn’t it use less power and generate less heat?
Yes, actually, it is amazingly quiet. I can’t hear it at all, and it most definitely draws less power and generates less heat than the old Pro. My UPS typically said 25-30 minutes of run time for the old Pro, and the wastebasket plus the T3 yield 45-50 minutes, so it’s clearly using a lot less power. I’ll be able to say more (almost certainly good) things about the heat issue once we get into the hot months here in the Houston area, which should be pretty soon now, it being February and all. The power and heat performance are all significant improvements.

However, in practice, while the machine itself is quieter, it hasn’t made my computer setup quieter. Why? The external drive enclosures and optical drive all have fans, and the total of all of those fans is actually subjectively louder than the old Pro was. Part of this is probably because the old Pro went under the desk, rather than on it. Also, this might be slightly improved once I get all my data onto the T3 and off the OWC FireWire enclosure. One of the reasons I got the T3 is that it’s rated at a nice quiet 17 dB, and the fan on the OWC enclosure is a bit louder.

Still, the less power and heat thing is nice, but don’t get too excited about the quiet.

How about connectivity?
One of the nice things about the old Pros is they had a lot of ports on them. Oodles, front and back. While the wastebasket has a whopping six Thunderbolt ports, which is good, it still has only four USB ports. This means hubs, and in my experience USB is a slightly flaky technology and sometimes hubs don’t quite work properly—some things just seem to only work right when plugged directly in to the machine. It would have been really nice if Apple had put on a few more USB ports.

Also, there’s no optical audio in jack. Why on earth not?

On the other hand, props to Apple for the Bluetooth. I use a Bluetooth keyboard and trackpad, and the old Pro had recurring problems staying connected to them (particularly the keyboard), especially through multiple sleep/wake cycles. Absolutely no problem with that here, so whatever Apple did differently in terms of Bluetooth, it’s certainly working for me.

Any compatibility issues?
Directly, so far, no. Indirectly, yes. The wastebasket requires Mavericks, which is not exactly Apple’s best effort on the OS stability front. I upgraded to Mavericks before the new Pro arrived so I’d be ready, and it’s just a pain. First, Mavericks seems to have taken away a few things, is seriously buggy in multiple places, does certain things very slowly (AppleScript, in particular, seems really sluggish), and breaks certain other pieces of software, sometimes in subtle but annoying ways, and other times in really serious ways—I can no longer print to the departmental printer at work, for example. (This is, however, the first time I can remember where a .x upgrade to OS X didn’t break SPSS, so that’s something positive, I guess.) I thought Mountain Lion was one of the best updates to Mac OS ever, since it broke almost nothing and provided useful new functionality. Almost nothing that’s new in Mavericks seems of any use—I had high hopes for the “Maps” app but then I remembered that it still uses Apple’s map data, which is very dated—and the bugs and missing/broken functionality are simply not worth it. I wish I could have stated with Mountain Lion.

But still, it’s really fast, right?
Yes, yes it is. Is it fast enough to justify the major expense and the storage hassle? Frankly, no. Maybe I’ll have a better attitude about it once all my data are actually migrated to the T3, but right now it’s been a very expensive and time-consuming process with insufficient upside. It might have been better to wait a while for better third-party storage support and another round of bug fixes.

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My iOS Apps, 2012 Edition

My last entry was about the apps I use most on the Mac. Same idea here, but for iOS. First, a few words on my iOS devices: I’m on the every-other-release plan for these things. I did not get a first-generation iPhone, but did get a 3G. I skipped the 3GS, got a 4, skipped the 4S, and now have a 5. I was not initially going to get an iPad, but I ultimately caved and got one (a truly fantastic decision), and I skipped the iPad 2, and now have a 3rd-generation (Retina) iPad. I will also add that I find both my iPad and my iPhone generally fantastic, bordering on indispensable. I cannot imagine not owning both of them, in no small part because of how well they integrate with the Mac. I strongly suspect Apple has sold more Macs on the back of their iOS devices than the other way around.

Note that I’m not including built-in apps like Maps or Mail or Safari. I obviously use those, but everybody has those anyway. Mail on the iPad in iOS 6 is actually a pretty nice mail client. Also, my iTunes library says I have 225 apps—that’s fiction, I probably don’t actually even use half or those. (Lots of them are games for the kids that I never play.)This is the list of stuff I actually use on a regular basis.

Anyway, on to my lists:

5 Must-Haves
These are apps that I would now be very hard-pressed to do without, or at least would hate to do without.

  • Check the Weather. I have had numerous free and paid weather apps on my iDevices over the years, and I almost never use any of them anymore now that I have this. Just the best weather app I’ve seen.
  • GoodReader. The #1 thing I do for work that I would rather do on my iPad than in any other way I’ve found—and this includes both paper or laptop—is review documents: student papers, submissions to journals, proofreading my own stuff, whatever. (This is, incidentally, why the Retina display is a necessary feature on the iPad.) GoodReader is the best I have found for marking up PDFs. (Yes, I also tried iAnnotate PDF, but I like GoodReader better.) The killer app for the iPad for me. Dropbox sync mandatory!
  • OmniOutliner. As I mentioned in my Mac review, I often think in outlines, and do planning and note-taking this way as well. What’s amazing is that this app could actually be a lot better, and even with its notable flaws, it still ranks in my must-haves.
  • 1Password. Again, I have 373 passwords. No way I can possibly remember them all. Here’s where they live for me. Critical that this has good cross-platform (that is, Mac OS and iOS) integration—through Dropbox, of course. Feels even more important to have this on iOS than on the Mac, where I think there are other viable options.
  • TweetBot. If there’s any platform that was designed for Twitter, it’s mobile devices. TweetBot is the class of the Twitter apps. I tried many of them, and was never happy until TweetBot. Bought it on both devices and have never looked back. (The link goes to the iPhone version, but there’s an iPad version as well.)

Cross-Device
Some of the best other apps I use work on both iPhone and iPad, and I use them both places. Some of them you actually have to download two apps, one for each device, but some of these “just work” on both. In cases where there is more than one version, the link goes to whichever device I use the app on most.

  • DirecTV. If you are a DirecTV subscriber and an iOS device owner, you need this. Not all service-specific apps are actually all that great, and this one has some of its own issues, but the ability to remotely make the DVR record is something I use frequently.
  • Drafts. I jot down a fair number of quick notes that I’m not immediately sure what I want to do with them. Email? Post to Twitter? Facebook? Somewhere else? Just save as text? Often more than one of these will apply. If you’re like me in that, then you need Drafts.
  • DrawPad. Sometimes you just want to draw a quick sketch with your finger. DrawPad makes that easy. (In actual fact, I actually think Penultimate is better, but that’s iPad-only and so I end up using DrawPad more.)
  • Flixster. My go-to app for movies. If there are alternatives I stopped looking at them so long ago I’m not even aware of them anymore. Also, free.
  • Notesy. For longer bits of text and, of course, Dropbox sync, I use Notesy. There are lots of text editors out there for iOS and they are constantly leapfrogging each other in terms of features and such, and I just gave up on the rat race and settled on Notesy and I have no complaints, so they’re doing something right.
  • PCalc. The best calculator for Mac OS got ported to iOS, and while I rarely use it on the Mac anymore, I do use it when mobile. I only wish Apple would let me delete their stupid and useless built-in calculator. PCalc is a little on the spendy side, but I need RPN.
  • Remote. I have an Apple TV. If you have an Apple TV, you want to be able to control it with your iDevice rather than the somewhat weak few-button physical remote that Apple provides, particularly for navigating a music library with thousands of tracks.
  • SoundHound. OK, I almost never use this on the iPad, but it is there. I know Shazam is more popular for identifying songs, but I seem to get better results with SoundHound. There is both a free and a paid version of this app, and I got the paid version when it was either free or $1. Not sure what the difference is, but the one I have does what I want.
  • SpringPad. I don’t like the Evernote terms of service (last time I checked, they own all your data and can do whatever they want with it, yet nobody seems bothered by this) or all the garbage that the Evernote Mac app installs (or did, when I tried it several versions ago), so I use SpringPad instead. I’m not a heavy user, but sometimes it’s the right way to go for me.
  • UrbanLight. Everybody has their favorite flashlight app, right? This is mine.
  • Wikipanion. If I’m at my computer and have my iPad handy, it’s a tossup which I’ll use to look something up on Wikipedia. A very nice front end.

Note that I do own Pages, Numbers, and Keynote for iOS, but I don’t actually use them that often, so they don’t get their own entries. The United Airlines app has improved a lot in the last few months and might make the list if I were feeling more generous. I also have Flipboard, which is really pretty, but I find myself not actually using it that often. Like with Mac OS, I also have OmniFocus for iOS, but I don’t really use it that much because of the overabundance of GTD cruft that just adds overhead. Finally, there is the Dropbox app itself. Dropbox as a service is fantastic, but I rarely use the actual iOS app.

iPad Only
There are a few apps that are iPad-only, or that I basically only use on my iPad, so they get their own category.

  • iBooks. I debated whether or not to include this since it is a free Apple app, but I included Remote, so I guess it gets a spot. (Yes, there is an iPhone version, but I never use the iPhone version). This is now my preferred way to read books. While Amazon’s Kindle app has a much wider selection, the iBooks app is a much better app and I strongly prefer it. Beats lugging around 700+ page tomes that I like to read.
  • Instapaper. Again, there’s an iPhone version of this, but I never use it. I love harvesting links from Twitter and then reading them later, and Instapaper is the way to go for that.
  • MacJournal. Very close to a must-have for me. Syncs with the Mac version (though not via Dropbox so it has to be done manually, which is why it’s not a must-have), but it’s where I take notes when I’m not going deep enough to need an outline.
  • Reeder. I don’t like reading RSS feeds on my phone, but the iPad is great for this. I never liked the NetNewsWire implementation on iOS, and I don’t like the Reeder implementation on Mac OS, but Reeder is how I like my RSS when mobile.

I also use OmniGraffle occasionally, but not enough to consider it critical.

iPhone Only
Again, there are a few that are iPhone only, or that I only use on the iPhone, and those go here.

  • Agenda. On the bigger screen, being a little wasteful with screen real estate is OK. On the phone, less so. This is much better for at-a-glance views of my calendar than the built-in Calendar app, so it gets a space.
  • Camera+. There are a few editing filters that seem to really work in Camera+ and sometimes it’s easier to frame and shoot with this, so it gets a spot here. Worth owning just for the release notes with each new version. Really, they’re hilarious.
  • TicketMaster. I know, I know, they’re evil and all, but hear me out. The iPhone app is actually easier to use and faster than their awful Web site, and it will dump your tickets into Passbook very neatly, so while the service fees are still outrageous, the overall ticket buying experience is actually better on my phone than elsewhere. How weird is that?

Games
A special category. I’m not really that big into video games in general, but there’s something about mobile computing that makes games more attractive here than on any other platform. I have a few favorites:

  • Ascension. Absolutely awesome game. Even if you’re not really into card-style games, you should check it out. Great fun.
  • Catan. I don’t even own the iPad version, but because the iPhone version is Retina-compliant, it actually looks basically fine when scaled up on the iPad. A classic game with a reasonable implementation.
  • Civilization Revolution. Versions of Civilization are the closest thing I’ve ever had to a real love for video games as an adult. I have to be very careful with this game, because the mere act of launching it can cost me many hours of lost usefulness. Note that I never play this on my phone, though, as I can’t stand it on that small a screen.
  • Infinity Blade II. If you have an iDevice with the horsepower for this game, it’s worth playing just for the graphics alone.
  • Magic 2013 (a.k.a. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013). If you’ve ever seen Magic: The Gathering played but thought it looked too hard to learn, try this game. And if you’re an old-school MTG junkie, you should still get it because even then it’s still fun!
  • SolForge. At this point, just a demo, but a very promising one that will hopefully soon be a full game, and should be fantastic once it is.

I’ve killed a few hours with the usual stuff like Angry Birds and poker games and such, but those are the ones I really love that might be a little more under the radar.

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