Tagged: Apple

Why You Shouldn’t Believe That You Shouldn’t Buy AirPods

Back in September, shortly after Apple announced the new AirPods, the folks at Lightning Cans posted a lengthy article explaining why you shouldn’t buy Apple AirPods.

Their conclusion is based on two claims. Unfortunately, both are wrong.

“Because AirPods use Bluetooth, and Bluetooth ‘Is Terrible,’ Thus AirPods Sound Terrible”

First, they claim that AirPods will produce terrible audio because they use Bluetooth, and Bluetooth produces terrible audio. In both theory and in practice, sending an audio signal over a wire is much better than sending one over a wireless connection. As the article notes, “Audiophiles have long been repulsed by Bluetooth audio. The frequency range is limited, the sounds are distorted, connecting can be a nightmare and audio can stutter or stop mid-stream.” But Apple might have overcome many of these challenges, not by sending a raw audio signal over the wire, but instead sending a digital audio stream that is decoded by the new W1 chip.

In practice, these standard criticisms against Bluetooth headphones aren’t there with the AirPods. The quality of the audio is about the same as what you get with the wired EarPods. I wouldn’t have expected any less (or any more) than that. However, there are some issues with audio dropping out from time-to-time. I notice this mostly when I’m streaming audio in busy areas, such as Union Square in Manhattan, for example. I’m not sure if this is because my iPhone can’t stream the audio, using the cellular radio, and send the digital audio signal to both AirPods, in a crowded area with a lot of radio interference.

Also, while it is true that pairing a Bluetooth audio device, such as headphones or a speaker, can indeed be difficult, connecting these AirPods take no time. I opened the case with one hand while I had my iPhone in the other, and after one tap to connect my AirPods, I was listening to them in a matter of seconds. This process also invisibly paired my AirPods with my other devices: my iPad, my Apple Watch, and my MacBook Pro. This was the ultimate Apple experience: It Just Works.

In short, compared to the wired EarPods, AirPods sound just as good, and they work almost as well for keeping an audio stream going. However, there’s one difference between AirPods and EarPods: there’s no tangled wire that becomes a white bird’s nest in your hand.

“AirPods Require a Wired Connection for Charging”

Second, they claim that although AirPods are wireless, they require a charging case that is wired. They write, AirPods “have an internal lithium ion battery that works for a whopping 5 hours (so like, maybe a couple days), and then when they die, you need to put them into their special ‘charging case,’ which then needs to be plugged into a power source via a cable.”

This misrepresents how one charges AirPods. While it is true that you have to use the case to charge the AirPods, the case itself has its own battery. The charging case itself does not have to be connected to anything to charge the AirPods. However, because the case has a battery, which does become depleted after about five AirPods-charging cycles, it does need to be connected to a Lightning cable and a USB power source. You can use the same charging cable as the one you have for your phone. Moreover, charging the case takes a very short amount of time, less than an hour.

At some point, yes, charging AirPods requires a wired connection. But this is similar to what you have to do with just about any mobile device but less often. If you have an iPad, you normally don’t have to charge it on a nightly basis like you have to do with your phone. This is similar to what you do with the AirPods charging case. An occasional wired charge will suffice. But otherwise, using and charging AirPods is a wholly wireless experience.

Conclusion

This is the danger is writing a review of a product before it is released. Having used AirPods for a little more than two months, I can tell you that this is the best new Apple product the company has released in a long time. The audio is comparable to what you get with wired EarPods. Apple has produced wireless, Bluetooth earphones that sound as good as the wired ones. No doubt, EarPods provide a more reliable connection, but the convenience of going wireless outweighs those occasional connection issues.

Ultimately, consumer goods succeed not just on quality but on convenience. CDs provide superior audio fidelity than MP3/AAC files, but carrying around CDs is inherently inconvenient. And if you don’t believe that Bluetooth can succeed in the consumer space, I will admit my early skepticism about WiFi nearly twenty years ago: “isn’t Ethernet more reliable?” It is, but imagine what a smartphone would be like if we were tethered to a network router, untangling bird’s nests of Cat-6 cables.

And, no, they don’t fall out of your ears.

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Apple Pay Offers a Free Suburban New York Train Ride

Despite using Apple Pay since getting an iPhone 6 in 2014, I didn’t know until today that Apple maintained an offers page, or at least that they posted one for the holidays.

There’s some very compelling offers, such as…

That last one comes about a week too late for me. I did take an MTA Metro North train after Thanksgiving, returning from an short bike ride to Tarrytown, but this offer didn’t take effect until December 1.
Also, the offer expires on January 1, which is a shame. I would have appreciated a discount on the $36 round-trip fare to Greenport or Montauk when cycling season begins anew next year.

OS X-Files

I have been slowly catching up with the tenth season of the X-Files, otherwise known as the thing that Fox needed to air after the NFC Championship Game wrapped up in late-January.

The fifth and penultimate episode of the tenth season, “Babylon”, bears an uncanny resemblance to the recent events in San Bernadino and the aftermath of gathering information from one of the terrorists. In the episode, a couple of young Muslim men detonate a bomb an art gallery in Texas, exhibiting a painting that depicts Allah “sitting on a toilet defecating radical Islamists.” One of the suicide bombers barely survives the attack. The FBI is interested if he has any information about a larger terrorist cell or a possible future attack, but because he is in a persistent vegetative state and imminently close to death, he is not talking. To gather any possibly useful intel, Mulder and Scully each separately try to “listen” to his thoughts to uncover any useful information.

This reminded me of the FBI and Apple.

I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a stretch to relate this to the protracted battle between the FBI and Apple. In both the real-life and the X-Files cases, the FBI is seeking information from a “dead” terrorist. The real FBI is asking Apple to defeat its own security protocols to unlock his phone, while the TV FBI tries two different methods to read the bomber’s mind. To no one’s surprise, Mulder’s method seemed a lot more fun than Scully’s: we see a few familiar faces during “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Mulder.”

I won’t spoil how they try to get the information or whether they succeed, but I wonder what kind of software can the FBI compel someone to write to read someone’s thoughts. Is that covered under the “All Writs Act,” too?

A Simple Software File

Yesterday, a court in California ordered Apple to assist the FBI with bypassing the iPhone’s encryption and security features to recover the data stored on an iPhone 5c used by one of the San Bernardino gunmen. The court order requires Apple to write and install a special software file.

This software file, which one astute observer labelled as FBiOS, would enable the FBI to…

  • bypass the auto-erase (“poison pill”) feature that kicks in after ten incorrect password attempts;
  • enter a series of passcodes electronically, without doing so by hand on the iPhone touchscreen;
  • eliminate the delay that the iPhone introduces after more than four incorrect attempts.

Apple vigorously opposes the order and has vowed to challenge it.


Evidently, there is a fix to Error 53 that angered the world this month. iFixit has learned that replacing the display on a newer iPhone requires that both the Touch ID sensor and the cable joining the sensor to the display panel be paired. Before, the best practice for replacing a broken display screen was to replace the whole display assembly, including the cable that connects to the Home Button (which is now the Touch ID sensor). When a new display assembly is installed, the new cable attached to the Touch ID sensor will not match, thus bricking the iPhone. Apple does this to prevent a fake Touch ID sensor from allowing unauthorized access to an iPhone.

iFixit’s solution to fixing “Error 53” is to remove the old Touch ID cable from the old display and transplant it to the replacement display assembly.

Did you catch that?

After showing us how simple it is to regain access to your iPhone by matching the Touch ID sensor to its cable, the iFixers insist that Apple needs to hear our voices and to write a “simple software tool”:

The request is simple. What we need is a software tool that allows you to re-authenticate your…new Touch ID cable and the Touch ID sensor with the Phone. If they make that simple software tool available, it will un-brick these thousands of phones…

Presumably, iFixit’s request for Apple to write a software tool to bypass security will have to wait until Apple finishes dealing with the FBI’s request for Apple to write a software tool to bypass security.

Update: Apple has in fact released iOS 9.2.1 that fixes “Error 53,” though Touch ID will remain inoperable unless repaired by an authorized Apple service provider.

iPhone “Error 53,” or Security > Convenience

In information technology, there’s almost always a tradeoff between security and convenience. The more convenient something is to use, the less secure it is. Otherwise, you could leave your front door unlocked, leave your car running, and have 123456 be your password for everything. However, as you know, that is far from secure. You need to lock your front door, you need to turn off the ignition, and you need to have unique, strong passwords for each of your online accounts. This inconvenience yields some measure of security.

The Guardian reported last week about a “fury” from iPhone users against Apple for bricking iPhones that have had their screens replaced by an unauthorized, third-party repair outfit, which inadvertently tampered with the Touch ID sensors during the repair process. Thereafter, the phones stopped working altogether.

The Device Shop on Mercer St, New York City

If I were to open a repair shop, such as this one, I would call it “Error 53.”

According to various users quoted in the article, an iPhone 6 or later will report an “Error 53” and not function if a third-party repair person has replaced the screen or the home button and if the user has upgraded the phone’s operating system to iOS 9. The issue is prevalent enough that iFixit reports over 180,000 queries to their user forums about “Error 53.” The maligned users and Miles Brignall, the Guardian author who reported on the “fury,” all but accuse Apple of bricking these repaired iPhones in order to force users to only repair their phones through Apple or to buy a new replacement.

Could Apple’s move, which appears to be designed to squeeze out independent repairers, contravene competition rules? Car manufacturers, for example, are not allowed to insist that buyers only get their car serviced by them. Apple charges £236 for a repair to the home button on an iPhone 6 in the UK, while an independent repairer would demand a fraction of that.

Pointing to an economic motive is all too simplistic. Although Apple is certainly concerned with being profitable, these accusations always surface when Apple does something to “brick” someone’s computing device or peripheral. It happened when Apple…

  • replaced the serial port with USB and rendered a lot of printers obsolete,
  • eliminated the floppy disk drive in favor of optical drives on the iMac,
  • replaced SCSI with FireWire,
  • eliminated swappable batteries in their notebooks,
  • and, most recently, replaced the 30-pin connector with Lightning.

And when these changes occurred, critics accused Apple of doing so in order to sell expensive adapters.

Instead, these are moves to destined improve the product and the experience. USB and FireWire were far superior to the serial port, ADB, and SCSI, as Lightning has been over the previous 2001-era iPod connector. Similarly, the only reason anyone ever needed a swappable notebook battery was to work longer than two hours, and the built-in batteries in the newer notebooks far exceeded that runtime, making toting those bulky batteries obsolete.

In this case, “Error 53” is to protect the security of the device. An Apple spokeswomen, quoted in the article, says as much:

We protect fingerprint data using a secure enclave, which is uniquely paired to the touch ID sensor. When iPhone is serviced by an authorised Apple service provider or Apple retail store for changes that affect the touch ID sensor, the pairing is re-validated. This check ensures the device and the iOS features related to touch ID remain secure. Without this unique pairing, a malicious touch ID sensor could be substituted, thereby gaining access to the secure enclave. When iOS detects that the pairing fails, touch ID, including Apple Pay, is disabled so the device remains secure.

Emphasis mine.

However, Brignall scoffs at this explanation, labelling it overloaded with “jargon.”

But, to any reasonable technologically competent person, this explanation is certainly sound. Apple’s own philosophy is that iPhone users store all kinds of private information on their devices, and that is Apple’s responsibility to prioritize the security of that device, even at the expense of user’s going to the corner repair shop to fix a cracked screen.

Four Weeks with the Apple Watch

My first Apple Watch Sport, in all its Space Black glory.

My first Apple Watch Sport, in all its Space Black glory.

After kvetching about its purpose, my need for one, and its place in the personal computing ecosystem, I recognized that having an Apple Watch could serve a very important purpose: it would free me from retrieving my iPhone in specific situations, such as when riding a bicycle. Like other commenters, I saw its primary function as the computer-you-have-on-you so you can stay off your computer.

The smartphone exploded because, like its built-in camera, it was always with you, and because it was always there, you used even more than a computer and in ways you never used a personal computer. The watch isn’t there yet, and who knows if it will ever approach that level of utility. But in the last four weeks, I’ve really appreciated some of the things Apple Watch does that a smartphone, such as my iPhone, does not do.

The following are not revolutionary differences, but instead are minor tweaks to my own personal computing.

The Alternative Version of that Bob Mould Song from No Alternative

Earlier today, during a break from grading papers and writing exams, I poked around my iTunes library and got a hankering for listening to some music from my youth. One title that came up was No Alternative, the compilation of “alt-rock” bands to benefit the AIDS charity Red Hot. Although it was released in late 1993, it made its impact in 1994—one of the greatest ever years in popular music—and most of the songs still resonate with my aging ears.

One of the songs on the compilation that has unsettled those same ears is Bob Mould’s “Can’t Fight It.” I closely listened to this meditation on breaking up because it seemed to fit the melancholic mood of this cool, foggy day in New York City. For years, I’ve listened to this song and there has been a moment of silence at about 1:02 into the song. It’s not a pause; it’s as if the audio is just missing.

Having bought the CD from a reputable dealer, I reasoned that the silence was a dramatic, though disruptive pause in the middle of a very emotional song. Although I knew very little about Husker Dü or Sugar, Mould always struck me as an unconventional artist so I thought the pause was part of this artistic intent.

I was wrong.

Years ago, I ripped the No Alternative CD into my iTunes library, and although I have been an iTunes Match subscriber since 2011, I didn’t much pay attention to the “Matched” status. In iTunes, “Matched” means that iCloud had recognized that track as “Can’t Fight It” and that it would play on any of my authorized devices, such as my iPhone or any other Mac I control. It also means that I can download a fresh copy from the iTunes store should I delete the original audio file.

Wondering whether the iTunes version had the same moment of silence I’ve heard for over twenty years, I deleted the mid-2000s–era rip I made from my copy of No Alternative and downloaded a copy from the iTunes Store. Not only did the iTunes copy sound a little “richer,” it also played without that silent moment.

Well, I’ll be damned. My CD was defective all this time. I wonder how many other people got a CD with this silent moment in such an emotionally touching song.

As a qualified audio purist, I now have a bunch of questions. Which is the authentic recording? Is it the one with silent pause from my twenty-one–year-old CD? Is it the uninterrupted version? Is this an issue on the cassette version?

Or, should I just be happy that after over twenty years, I finally listened to this song as it was originally intended?

About Apple Watch, About MacBook, About Face

Almost immediately after the Apple Event on March 9, I had formed two basic opinions about the two most noteworthy products introduced that day. First, I was ready to jettison my trusty old 2009 MacBook Pro for the new 12-inch Macbook with Retina display. Second, now that Apple had announced more details about the Watch, including pricing, I was intrigued but not convinced I could use one. I was also interested by the third big announcement, regarding HBO Now as a standalone product, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the runaway hit some had predicted it could be. However, in the two months since the Apple event, I have almost completely reversed my thinking on all these fronts.

The Apple Watch now seems like a must-have device

Many of my Apple-obsessed friends listed having a “Dick Tracy watch” as their primary reason for wanting an Apple Watch. They might be disappointed as some early reviews judge the sound quality as, shall we say, suboptimal. But as I wrote a few weeks ago, I realized the utility of the Apple Watch after taking a bike ride. It will save me from having to fetch my phone from my pocket or bag: something we do, according to David Pogue, over a hundred times a day.

The new MacBook seems like an overpriced and underpowered device

I have to admit that, despite keeping up with iOS devices and knowing a bit their specs and performance metrics, I am relatively uninformed about recent Mac desktops and portables. Sure, I know that these things were getting thinner and lighter. Yes, I knew that Apple had banished the optical drive and spinning hard disk from most of their notebooks. And, of course, I was absolutely convinced that a Retina display would be a must-have feature for my next computer.

However, I didn’t know exactly how much had changed since 2009. RAM has not only become more capacious, but also a lot faster. Apple has ditched SATA for a much faster PCI Express bus with multiple “lanes” for increased throughput. And for all that performance, it is now common to get through ten hours of work on a single battery charge, compared to four hours with my 2009 MacBook Pro. All of the reasons I liked the new MacBook were already available in a more powerful device: a Retina MacBook Pro. However, the most compelling reasons for getting a MacBook— the remarkable thinness, the lightweight two-pound frame, and fanless design—all come with a stiff performance penalty.

Despite sacrificing performance for portability, the pricing is not all that different between a new MacBook and a Retina MacBook Pro. Consider that the new MacBook retails for $1299 for 8 GB of RAM and a paltry 256 GB drive of storage. For $300 more, you get a more reasonable 512 GB of solid-state storage with a slightly faster processor. I would have only considered the latter model because that small storage can’t be upgraded.

On the other hand, the top-of-the-line 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, with a much faster processor, similar battery life, 8 GB of RAM, 512 GB of storage, and lots of ports, retails for $1799. But a lifetime of computer ownership has taught me to get as much RAM. Because Apple solders the RAM to the logic board, you are either stuck with 8 GB or you have to shell out another $200 to “future-proof” your computer with 16 GB of RAM. Upgrading to 16 GB of RAM is not possible on a new MacBook.

Product Display Max RAM Storage Battery Weight Price
MacBook 12-inch Retina 8 GB 512 GB 10 hours 2.0 lbs $1599
MacBook Pro 13-inch Retina 16 GB 512 GB 10 hours 3.5 lbs $1999

Andrew Cunningham, of Ars Technica, has come to a similar conclusion when reviewing the new 12-inch Macbook:

if you want better battery life and don’t mind the screen, go with the 13-inch Air. If you want a nice screen and don’t mind the weight, go with a 13-inch Pro. If you want a Mac on a (relative) budget, try the 11-inch Air. If you want the size, weight, and screen and can live with the dongles, performance, and battery life, that’s when the MacBook becomes a viable option.

I fell into the second camp: the user who really wants a nice screen and doesn’t think 3.5 pounds qualifies as heavy. And, although I do have an elegant solution, I hate carrying dongles!

Yet, the most compelling reason for going with the Retina MacBook Pro instead of the new MacBook is that Apple quietly updated the 13″ MacBook Pro on March 9. Not only does the Early-2015 13″ MacBook Pro come with a faster Intel Broadwell U processor, faster RAM, and an improved PCI Express bus for speedier solid state storage, it also comes with that intriguing Force Touchpad. It’s hard not to get excited about this first-generation MacBook, but at this stage, I’d prefer a more mature product over a completely new one with a lot of promise.

Or at least I do prefer that with computers. I already ordered an Apple Watch, and I’m running through the first-month trial of HBO Now.

There’s Cheap, and then There’s Cheap and Ugly

A market research firm based in New York sent an email soliciting participants for a focus group on consumer electronics. To adorn their communique, the author of the message included an illustration of a notebook computer, a tablet, and a smartphone, suggesting that this workshop would be on personal computing devices.

Way to Keep it Real Fake.

Way to Keep it Real Fake.

The image, however, looks really cheap for a few reasons. In fact, the image offended me to the point that I did not even sign up for the focus group and have taken to write this post.

First, the devices in the photo are pretty obvious knockoffs of Apple devices. The notebook looks a lot like a MacBook Pro, complete with the silver aluminum unibody case, the off-color trackpad, the black keycaps, and the black bezel surrounding the display. The mobile devices look different enough from an iPad and iPhone, mostly because they each bear three marked buttons below the display, whereas Apple mobile devices stubbornly have only one slightly recessed button.

iPad has only one button.

iPad has only one button.

Second, the desktop backgrounds of each of these devices bear a pretty striking resemblance to an old version of iOS. The scattered water droplets look a lot like what Apple used to market iOS 5, back in 2011.

iOS 5 was cutting edge in 2011.

iOS 5 was cutting edge in 2011. Way to keep it current, guys!

The devices depicted in the illustration reminded me of Engadget’s Keeping it Real Fake series on clones and imposters of more popular and expensive products.

Ceci n’est pas iPhone

Third, the watermark identifying the stock photo agency on the illustration made the email communique look even more cheap and ugly than the knockoff devices depicted therein. The image is available for purchase from Dreamstime. Had this market-research firm paid the photo agency for the image, which seems like a justifiable business expense, the image would not have had the watermark, and it would have been of higher resolution. In short, it would have looked less ugly.

Despite being overly educated in film, I would hardly call myself an aesthete, but this solicitation offended me to the point where I felt compelled to shame the author. I regularly encounter this with students who don’t give much thought to the look of their papers. Why do they all have to be written in Times New Roman or Calibri (you know, the Times New Roman of Google Docs)? Why not take a few minutes and make your paper look nice and distinct from the others? The same goes for stock art. It’s bad enough when generic looking stock images infiltrate emails, newsletters, or webpages because rather than enhancing the work, the stock images taint the message with corporate blandness. And in the case of this particular email, it also looks sloppy because the author apparently just did a quick Google Image search, ripped the image off the web, and stuck it in the email composer.1

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the linked survey is done in a garish orange and blue color combination, accented with lime-green buttons. This medley of colors shouldn’t be a legal combination in HTML and CSS: browsers should instead render the colors in black and white.

Screenshot 2015-03-18 20.33.15

I wonder if this is what the kids today mean by Internet Ugly. Or is just ugly?


  1. I have no way to prove this, of course, but it appears that this was likely the artist’s workflow.