I've been keeping close track of the new and interesting widgets that've been coming out recently, and frankly I'm surprised by how readily the tech media exalts widgets as being one of iOS 8's greatest features while ignoring the fact that they're being put in an entirely nonsensical place.
Yes, calendar and to-do widgets are both perfectly logical additions to the "Today" view in Notification Center. But does a calculator, your latest Dropbox changes, or an app launcher really mesh well with what the "Today" view is supposed to be about? Do those widgets present useful, at-a-glance information about the things you need to worry about "Today"? Do they have even have anything to do with the word "Today"?
No they don't. They have no logical place being there. If Apple really wanted these kinds of widgets to be in Notification Center, they should have put a "Widgets" tab at the top and and let developers run wild. Instead, they seem to have allowed Widgets and Today view to merge into a clumsy mess.
If you're thinking, "but the widgets are opt-in, it's not like users would get confused when they manually add a calculator widget," I'd say that's beside the point. Apple neglected to build the right home for widgets in iOS 8. They imagined a world where Fantastical could replace Apple's own calendar widget in "Today" view, they built that world, and then for whatever reason decided to allow calculators and file change trackers to live in the same house. Those widgets simply don't belong in that tab.
I feel for these developers, because Apple outright wasted their time. PCalc and Launcher are being rejected simply because Apple neglected to establish the ground rules that would've prevented Today view from becoming the Widget view it is now. They witheld that ugly conversation from the exciting keynote of WWDC 2014 and ended up bringing something like OS X's ill-fated Dashboard directly to iOS.
Now Apple has to take a PR hit for it, and rightly so. At this point I really do wonder if Apple will add a new tab to Notification/Action Center in iOS 8.2; at which point James Thomson's excellent work won't be for naught after all.
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:
Go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Zoom and toggle Zoom on
Triple-tap the screen with 3 fingers (yes, it's a very weird gesture) to bring up a dark-colored popup
Tap "Full Screen Zoom" and then drag the zoom slider all the way to the left
Tap "Choose Filter" and then tap "Low Light" (your screen will get darker)
Tap outside of the popup to close it and go back to the Accessibility menu
Scroll all the way down and tap "Accessibility Shortcut"
Triple-click the Home button and the screen will return to normal
Exit Settings and enjoy
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.
A well-done short film from Google that covers the history and current state of speech recognition systems. A good primer on the field.
When we started out we thought that things like chess or mathematics or logic; those were going to be the things that were really hard... The things that we thought were going to be easy for computer systems, like understanding language, those things have turned out to be incredibly hard.
Virtual reality presents all manner of brand-new technical and narrative challenges. Whether or not we’re consciously aware of its existence, we’re all fluent in the language of cinema. We’re native speakers. Virtual reality is in such a germinal phase that to use it as a medium to tell stories is to participate in creating a whole new language. The morphemes of cinema — framing, cutting, close-ups, pans, zooms — disappear or stop making sense. It’s no longer obvious how a filmmaker directs attention or advances plot. What about perspective and point of view? Should the viewer be free to explore a world or follow a set path through a story — on rails, as gamers say? Should characters respond to your presence?
“It’s bigger than color,” said Chris Milk, the influential music-video director, multimedia artist, and technologist. “It’s bigger than sound. It’s the audience literally inhabiting the narrative.”
There's a lot to learn and think about in here. Apparently Framestore - the visual-effects studio that made Gravity - was an early Kickstarter backer of the Rift and is already creating VR scenes similar to the first 13 minutes of Gravity (which I haven't seen).
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.
A neat project from Microsoft Research. LightRing combines a gyroscope and an infrared proximity sensor to let you move a mouse cursor naturally without actually having a mouse in your hand.
The demo at 1:30 sums it up, and the key behavioral insight that makes it work is at 3:30.
When people use mice, they move their wrist for horizontal movement and push/pull the mouse with their middle and index fingers to make the cursor go up and down. With these two sensors built into a ring, those slight movements can be measured and used to manipulate the cursor just like a real mouse.
Clicking wouldn't be possible with this setup, but it's pretty clever nonetheless.
They're priced to compete - not to please developers
The Nexus 5 was $350 for 16GB and $400 for 32GB. The new Nexus 6 is $650 for 32GB and $700 for 64GB. For comparison, the 64GB iPhone 6 is $750 and the 64GB iPhone 6 Plus is $850. They're still ~$100 cheaper than Apple's devices, but they're way closer than the previous generation.
Last year's Nexus 7 tablet was $230 for 16GB and $40 more for 32GB. The new Nexus 9 tablet is $400 for 16GB and $80 more for 32GB. Once again, a lot more than the previous generation, and for some weird reason their storage pricing doubled. Their base tablet is now more expensive than the $300 iPad mini and just $100 short of the full-sized iPad.
Google has previously said that they wanted their Nexus devices to be priced low for developers' sake. That approach bought Google a lot of goodwill with the tech crowd, but those low prices didn't click with the broader market (or Verizon/AT&T, who didn't sell it in their stores). To me, Google pricing these devices way higher means they want to compete more directly with Apple's devices and attract their market. The new gold colors are a pretty big hint at that.
I like the move to front-facing speakers
This is becoming pretty common in the Android world, and I approve. I neglected to mention it in my review of the Nexus 7 (2013), but forward-facing rather than rear-facing makes sense to me. I'm constantly aware of the fact that the sound I hear is actually louder to the rest of the room, and cupping my hands over the speakers is quickly getting old.
I'm skeptical of Motorola's 'Turbo Charge"
The Nexus 6 will supposedly get an additional 6 hours of battery life after just 15 minutes of recharging thanks to Motorola's new tech. If that's true then that's great, but I can't imagine that's great for the long-term life of the battery. We'll see.
The Nexus 9's 4:3 aspect ratio and first-party keyboard make it a "work & play" device... kinda
I'm pretty surprised that Google didn't announce the rumored multitasking support in Android Lollipop. Maybe they're waiting until after Apple's event tomorrow?
The 4:3 ratio and keyboard (which looks junky, by the way) are clear productivity improvements, but without any new OS-level features I don't see why Android tablets are any better for work than they were a year ago. I'm a bit confused.
I'm a fan of Lollipop's Material Design
I haven't written much about this yet, but I'm looking forward to trying out Android 5.0 and seeing where Matias Duarte is taking things. Recent updates to Chrome and the Play store have offered little tastes of the new approach, but I'm ready to see all of Lollipop in action.
The Nexus Player's game controller will probably fail
The Nexus Player and Android TV are still mostly a mystery, but the fact that Asus/Google is creating a standard game controller for Android developers to use is interesting to me. I haven't really discussed this yet, but I think the only way Apple will get the type of triple-A games they're looking for on iOS will be by doing something similar with the next Apple TV.
The fact that the controller is labelled "Asus" on the front and looks like a typical, cheap Xbox 360 controller knockoff doesn't instill confidence, however. It's pretty clear that Asus just made the controller quickly and announced it in tandem with the Nexus Player, despite Google having little to do with it.
Jonathan Shariat found a few screenshots of the Windows XP-based computer interfaces that hospital nurses often use. His conclusion is that designers are sorely needed in "untouched" fields like medicine or aeronautics:
When most of us design a User Interface, and fail at basic usability, the worst that happens is that our product fails. Yet, when the designers of this system, or even an airplane’s cockpit, fail at their design, there are real physical harms. With so much on the line, you would think these industries would have hired the best designers in the world to carefully craft the User Experience. But they don’t.
These interfaces are good examples of how lopsided the distribution of power was between engineers and designers in the early 90's. Windows XP software programmers were kings back then, and designers were on the team just to add some color to whatever the engineers gave them. They didn't have nearly as much say in the planning stages because software programming was too inflexible and rudimentary to accomodate lofty, human-centered design thinking at the time.
"The client needs an entry field for weight? Alright, that's easy enough. They need one for height as well? Let's just copy the same text box for weight and use it for height. Waist circumference too? Whatever, let's just use the same box. Heart rate? Another box. Peak Flow? Not sure what that is, but if we put another box there they'll know what to do. That makes 5 new features total!"
Performance and functionality trumped usability back then because it was more marketable. Today the tables have largely turned, but these old systems now have decades of baggage and data that need to be migrated to whatever new interface is designed. Nurses and doctors also can't spend much time learning these new systems, so the new interface has to be a natural progression from what's already being used, but also work on tablets and smartphones.
Doing all of that takes a lot of time, and a lot of time costs a lot of money, and a lot of money is quadrupled in the ridiculously high-priced field of medicine. That's the reason why these decades-old healthcare interfaces still exist.
I still agree with Jonathan's main idea though - there are plenty of other "untouched" fields out there that could be improved with some human-centered design. They're harder to spot, but they're far less crowded than the typical app and startup-type jobs you're used to seeing.
With recent rumors of a 6" Nexus phone and 9" Nexus tablet, this newest rumor of Android L including splitscreen multitasking isn't all that surprising. Productivity seems to be Google's next focus with Android, and I bet we'll see Apple take a similar angle with the next iPad and iOS 8.1 on October 16th.
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.
CGP Grey makes a great point. Dark Modes are far more prevalent in Android apps that iOS apps for whatever reason, and it's a trend I'd like to see changed. Thinkerbit's Dark Mode was added for eye strain reasons, but the accessibility angle is another interesting bit I hadn't thought of.
A fun-to-watch but incomplete video of the periodic elements of "design".
The word 'design' quickly entered the public's vocabulary with the launch of the iPhone, but it seems like the vast majority of people still think that design is how things look, and not how they work or feel. This video is very stereotypical in that it tries to explain design using the same vocab words that artists would use to describe their work. Line, texture, color, and symmetry are important in many design disciplines, but those things are taught in Design 101. There's way more to the field than that.
If this video were extended to what design is really about, it would include words like hierarchy, order, mental model, user experience, affordances, information architecture, cognitive load, and many more. Words that you never hear in an art gallery.
Two specific complaints:
"Design is not a science"
This simply isn't the case.
Like engineering problems, design problems have to be solved within a set of constraints, and well-developed methodologies are used to determine whether or not the design of something is quantitatively worse or better than an alternative. The actual creation of those designs usually isn't very mathematical, but the process of designing, making, and improving products certainly should be.
Process and scientific analysis are why designers get paid to do what they do. Designers who ignore process and don't collect data are pretty much artists, yes, because for artists it doesn't matter how other people interpret their work - nobody gets hurt, becomes confused, loses time or money, or dies because of a painting. They do when things are poorly designed. All the time.
"Just move things around until it feels right"
Once again, this is a bad notion to spread. Designers shouldn't just move elements around until things "feel right" - they should refine whatever it is that they're designing until it is right for the problem that they're trying to solve. Data from user testing and surveys is what tells them when they've arrived at a solution - not an internal sense of completion.
There's an ambient light sensor which allows the Voyage to dynamically adjust the brightness depending on your settings.
The ambient setting is actually smarter than you'd expect. If it detects you're reading in the dark — say, in bed — it will slowly lower the brightness. The idea is that your eyes naturally adjust to darkness over time, so what seems bright enough at first will be too bright once your pupils dilate. It's a thoughtful, clever feature, and Amazon also says that you can fine tune the behavior if you don't like the default.
I'm cautious of a devil lurking in the details, but I really like this human-centered touch.
An impressive-looking app from Panic, and something I'll probably buy when it's released. I use Coda for Mac all the time, which has Transmit built-in.
The only thing that gives me pause is the current state of Panic's iOS version of Coda; Diet Coda. That app got a similar amount of praise when it was released, but as of today it still hasn't been updated for iOS 7 and uses the old keyboard style. I still trust that it's on their radar, but thus far their track record for iOS apps hasn't impressed me.
I initially thought offering video ads was a strange move for a music-focused app/company like Spotify, but it actually makes a fair bit of sense.
Video as a medium for advertising is way more interesting and attention-grabbing than sound, and therefore pays a lot more. Spotify knows this.
Big companies like Coke and Pepsi spend a lot of dough making well-produced video ads, but unless it's the Super Bowl, many people skip them entirely. This is partly why ads run for multiple weeks at a time - companies want to ensure that enough people actually see the ad to make it worth it.
Making the video ad opt-in every time means that people are actually pretty likely to watch the ad in its entirety. Way more likely than if the ad were the second or third in a TV ad block. This means advertisers won't need to run the same ad for as long to get the reach they're looking for.
A half hour of uninterrupted music is very valuable. For me, I could listen to my daily dose of music for the price of around 6 video ads, and during those ads I could stand up and take a quick break.
There are a number of ways this could be messed up (I haven't actually seen one yet) but it's an interesting experiment. So long as the 30-minute offer is communicated properly and the user doesn't see the same ad over and over again, this could actually be pretty good for everyone involved.