A quick thought on Google's Inbox videos

They both suck.

Here's their announcement video. The app is displayed for about 10 seconds total in the 60-second spot, and those 10 seconds are chunked into tiny, incomprehensible pieces. The rest is just filler of people with great fashion sense having the time of their lives while I'm sitting here in my dark room fiddling with emails.

And here's the introductory video that Google says will help you "quickly learn how to make the most of your inbox". Every new Inbox user receives an email with a prominent link to this video, and it does a terrible job of teaching anything.

I've watched it 3 times, and I still don't understand what's going on. It doesn't help at all that the narrator's finger clearly doesn't match up with the animations, and that certain transitions seem to be completely missing (like at 0:51). By the time the narrator started talking about flipping a switch to see things you've pinned and adding reminders to your inbox, my brain was long gone.

Every time she demonstrates how "simple" doing something is, her finger taps on 3-4 additional things that she assumes you're already familiar with. That's not how you teach people - that's how you waste their time.

Compare these to the announcement videos of Google Now and Google Glass that I discussed a while ago. Google Now was introduced with realistic actors doing realistic things, and Glass was too (although to a lesser extent). Both were far better than Inbox's introduction, and although they didn't demonstrate the specifics of an app's interface, something tells me the producers of those videos would've done a better job explaining the human-centered why of Inbox, and the contexts in which it can be better than regular email.

iOS 8 can get dimmer than dim

Lifehacker just brought my attention to an awesome tip discovered by Quinn Nelson of Snazzy Labs.

iOS 8 includes a new accessibility feature that adds a dark filter over the entire screen. This means that for the first time ever, you can make your screen become even dimmer than the lowest brightness setting available in Control Center, and you can activate it from anywhere with a simple triple-click of the Home button.

Here's how to set it up:

If you're a night owl who likes to read at night, this additional filter is huge. My Nexus 7 became my primary nighttime reading device as soon as I discovered an app called Screen Filter, and I've been wishing for the ability to make my iPhone's screen dimmer ever since.

That day has finally come. This is awesome.

Thoughts on Apple's October 2014 event

This year's iPad and Mac keynote was pretty tame. The first 35 minutes re-iterated stuff we already knew about iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, and the last chunk was devoted to the Retina 5K iMac and iPad Air 2.

I have just a few thoughts.

iPad Air & iPad mini

Removing the mute/rotation switch is a good idea

When Apple changed the default behavior of the iPad's rotation lock to be a mute switch instead (I'm not really sure why - maybe user confusion?) the writing was on the wall for its removal. A dedicated switch for mute makes little sense on a device that already has volume buttons and doesn't vibrate like the iPhone. Pressing and holding the volume down button does the same thing as the switch, just a tiny bit slower.

"Better" means thinner to Apple

Immediately before showing the video above (which refers to their Pencil ad), Tim Cook asked the audience:

What do you do when you make the best tablet in the world, how do you make it better?

The answer, clearly, is by making it even thinner. While I can't disagree with him, I'd say a lot of what's better about the iPad Air 2 is on the inside, although that's much harder to advertise.

(Side note: notice how the laser sound becomes higher-pitched when it's cutting through the pencil's metal cap. I like that attention to detail.)

The performance of the A8X chip is impressive, and Metal looks to be useful for something other than gaming


The A8X has a 40% faster CPU and a 250% faster GPU than the previous generation. Their processor team really kicks butt.

I still find it interesting that Phil Schiller continues to talk about game developers porting their console games to iOS while other apps like Pixelmator or Replay (both with compelling on-stage demos) are benefitting from Metal even more clearly right now. Apple really wants to attract console game developers it seems, but aside from BioShock (which doesn't even use Metal) they don't seem to be biting yet.

The lack of an update to the iPad mini is surprising

Touch ID alone isn't worth the $100 price jump from last year's model to the iPad mini 3. The fact that Apple isn't bothering to update the mini's specs to match the Air like they did last year is pretty weird. Frankly, the best thing about the the new iPad mini is that it makes the older mini even cheaper at just $300 to start.

It's odd that Apple is seemingly abandoning ship on the size that arguably made the iPad mini the better of the two iPads for iPad-like activities. The mini's one-handed holdability made it more manageable than the iPad Air for reading and light web browsing, and it seemed to be the perfect content consumption device (from what I've read, I don't own one).

I guess the iPhone 6 Plus really is putting the squeeze on the mini, and the iPad Air (and eventually the iPad Pro/Plus) will be the only iPads going forward. I don't see why Apple would intentionally leave the iPad mini a generation behind the Air in specs, so I'm not confident we'll see a big update next year either.

iMac & Mac mini

The Retina 5K iMac is a very good thing for everyone

The most exciting thing about the iMac going Retina is that it sets a new standard for the quality and prices of high-resolution desktop displays. At just $2,500 with a high-specced computer built in, the prices of current 4K monitors will have to plummet to stay competitive, and we as consumers reap the benefit.

Unfortunately the iMac's form factor isn't quite right for me personally - I much prefer the customizability of a Mac mini with an external monitor - but at least the Retina iMac's announcement makes the high-res desktop timetable a bit clearer. External 5K displays will need the next version of DisplayPort, which needs Intel's Skylake chips, which means 2016 is when we may finally start seeing decent 5K monitors unless manufacturers push Intel to step things up.

The Mac mini update is a disappointment

Phil Schiller spent a single minute talking about the Mac mini, and although what he presented on-stage sounded great, the reality of the update is very bittersweet.

I thought the RAM not being user-upgradeable was a terrible thing, but because Apple tweaked their RAM prices it's not too bad. If you go for the mid-rage 2.6GHz model (with Iris Graphics), you'll pay about $200 for the 16GB RAM upgrade - only about $50 more than you'd pay if you bought the sticks elsewhere. I can deal with that.

The unconfirmed rumor that it drops the second hard drive slot, however, leaves me heartbroken. We'll have to wait for a teardown for confirmation, but if it's true it'll be the equivalent of Apple erecting a concrete pylon in the middle of a driveway. Unless the insides of the Mac mini are radically different, removing support for a second hard drive doesn't make a lot of sense. We can only hope that they've left all the necessary connectors intact and are simply keeping the second hard drive bay a secret from the general public.

The 4th-gen Intel processors it uses will be outdated as soon as the (delayed) Broadwell chips arrive early next year. They also removed the 4-core option because it would've required them to make additional internal changes to accomodate the new chip. Adding to that, the multi-core performance of the new model is worse than the previous one by 70-80%. Crapola.

The positives? PCIe-based flash storage is a really nice upgrade that boosts disk performance considerably, 802.11ac Wi-Fi is also great, and that's pretty much it. Two Thunderbolt ports isn't all that special considering how few (acceptably-priced) accessories are out there, and it's still just one bus (meaning a weird dual-cable 5K output stopgap wouldn't be possible).

It's just not so great overall. If you're thinking of a Mac mini, the time to act would be right now while refurbs are still available in Apple's store. The resale price for previous models is still really high.

Finally, this product lineup slide is perfect


This one slide contains the entirety of Apple's product family. Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad, MacBook and iMac. A bunch of lines and shapes arranged from small to large on a familiar Keynote canvas.

The best slide of the whole event, and a nice way to conclude it.

Wreck-It Ralph


In the same way that Toy Story imagined what toys do when their owners aren't around, Wreck-It Ralph imagines what videogame characters do when their games aren't being played. As much as I love the Toy Story trilogy, Wreck-It Ralph's bubbling creativity, lovable characters and beautiful world make it an even better execution of the same concept.

Although Wreck-It Ralph will never be as culturally significant as the original Toy Story, it successfully captures a lot of the same magic we experienced back in 1995 and brings it to the current generation of iPad-toting kids. If it weren't for its moderately complex plot, I'd even go so far as to say that Wreck-It Ralph is a better film overall.

The teaser trailer above does a really job of covering the jist of the story (don't bother watching the other, spoiler-ific ones). After 30 years of being unappreciated as a videogame villain, Wreck-It Ralph abandons his game in order to become a hero. The resulting journey is an incredibly detailed, explosively colorful, and deliciously sweet film that both you and your kids will enjoy.

You should watch it.

An enormous, creative and beautiful world


I have to commend the makers of Wreck-It Ralph for their creativity. The subway-like system of power cables and extension cords that connects all the machines in the arcade together is quite clever, and I bet the writers had a lot of fun thinking about all the possibilities it creates. With so many worlds and game genres to explore, the potential for an interesting sequel is pretty high.

The few game worlds that we get to see this time around are really well-done, and they show off the technical expertise of the animators at Disney. Everything from the 16-bit colors and glow effects of Fix-It Felix's arcade cabinet to the swarming bugs of Hero's Duty and candy cane forests of Sugar Rush look fantastic.

Remember that one colorful and happy scene in Toy Story 3 when they arrive at the daycare and greet all the new toys? Wreck-It Ralph has ten times as many of those moments. It's the most visually impressive animated film I've ever seen.

Fun and relatable characters


The characters of this film are just as diverse as the games they originate from, and the voice actors all fit perfectly into their roles. It's pretty clear that the voices were determined early on - maybe even during character modeling.

Vanellope - the adorable young girl who eventually plays a big part in Ralph's story - is particularly great, and I'm sure a lot of young kids can relate to her experience of being made fun of by a bunch of sugar-coated fluffheads. Sarah Silverman's voice works really well with Vanellope's teasing and playful demeanor.

Ralph, in my mind, is almost a co-main character with Vanellope. His story gradually merges into hers, and they're both equally compelling. For the fathers in the audience, John C. Reilly's voice and cadence make Ralph an obvious father figure, and the fact that he hates his dead-end job (a classic complaint) makes that pretty clear.

I thought the love sub-story between Fix-It Felix Jr. (Jack McBrayer) and Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) was just plain stupid, but I still enjoyed their characters and radically different personalities. Calhoun's tragic backstory honestly had me cracking up (my humor is a bit twisted) and watching Fix-It Felix Jr. deal with his ocassionally-unfortunate superpower was entertaining as well.

Overall the characters in the film are great - even the minor ones like Q*bert, or Clyde from Pac-Man. There are plenty of little touches and personality quirks that make these digital characters feel very analog.

A story that's a bit hard to keep track of


If Wreck-It Ralph 2 ever turns up, the one thing I hope they tweak is the complexity of the story. I suspect they will, because Wreck-It Ralph's multi-dimensional plot is just barely held together with enough rubber bands to make sense. That said, they somehow mixed a mid-life crisis, a risky heist, a (stupid but excusable) love dynamic, a sketchy kingship, an apocalyptic alien invasion, a journey of self-acceptance and a high-octane race into one gorgeous piece of tasty eye-candy, and I'm thankful for it.

I'm sure the writers knew this as well. Characters repeatedly remind one another that dying in a different game means dying for good, and Ralph grumbles about getting his Hero's medal a bunch of times in the second half.

Surprisingly, despite its complex story, I was never annoyed by any glaring continuity errors or plot holes (which I'm usually a stickler for). The young kids who watch this film won't care too much about the story, but adults may get a little confused even though all loose ends eventually get tied.

Where Toy Story focused on just one goal - getting back to Andy - Wreck-It Ralph presents a series of goals and kinda-sorta expects the viewer to remember them all. That's a problem, but not a huge one, and in the end I'm thankful that the writers didn't rely on deus ex machina to resolve all their problems.

A film you should watch


I wasn't expecting much from Wreck-It Ralph, to be honest. The 86% it got on Rotten Tomatoes seemed promising, and as a gamer I was supposed to like the concept, but I went into it expecting to see a bunch of lame videogame references and obvious "levels" that would fit into the inevitable videogame tie-in.

Instead, the videogame turned out to suck, and the film turned out to be great!

Wreck-It Ralph is a pleasant mix of Toy Story adventure with DreamWorks-like comedy and pop culture that both kids and adults can enjoy. The universe it reveals is expansive and exciting, the characters it introduces are delightful, and although the plot is a few too many layers deep, that doesn't stop Wreck-It Ralph from being very, very sweet.