Heavy Airs, Big Minis, and Pro iPad Pros

On the 30th October 2018, an almost unending troop of Apple (and guests) presenters took to the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music within the Howard Gilman Opera House, New York City, to show us there was ‘… more in the making‘. They were not wrong!

Night of the Living Dead (Mac’s)

Apple opened the show with a rundown of some new Mac hardware. This signalled the resurection of some long abandoned hardware, namely the Mac Mini and MacBook Air.

The Mac (not so) Mini

As I’ve alluded to before, Mac’s are not an area of focus, or interest, to me personally. That being said, however, it’s good to see these much loved hardware devices receive a well deserved refresh. It’s surprising to me that the Mac Mini is still so … not mini, given modern devices such as Intel’s NUC’s and others. As is often the arguement when it comes to Apple hardware these days, the fact you can get something smaller, cheaper, and possibly more powerful from another company is a moot point. None of these devices run macOS, so they are not going to appeal to the majority of Mac entusiasts, no matter the hardware.

With that said, the Mac Mini looks fantastic, and there are some options available to really push up it’s performance (and price) if you so wish. It’s amusing that, when discussing the new Mac Mini, the presenter mentioned, and I paraphrase:

‘It’s Pro because it’s Space Grey’

I understood what he was getting at, in that Apple’s Pro devices, such as the iMac Pro, do now come in these colours, but I found it quite amusing at the time. All in all, if this is the form factor you’re looking for, I’m sure you’d be very happy with the new models.

An Air by any other name

Alongside the Mac Mini, Apple also revealed the long rumoured MacBook Air refresh. As with the Mac Mini, there are plenty of other options available for a lower end, super portable laptop, but if this is the ecosystem you’re interested in there is again an interesting, viable option. Strangely, given the Air moniker, this device is actually heavier than the current basic MacBook model. The current MacBook line up is a bit of a confusing mess, to me, with very unclear distinctions between each device and what the logical progression is between moving from the cheapest / lower end device up the chain. This is, quite possibly, a symptom of me just not keeping up with the Mac hardware, however.

The Pièce de résistance

After a (rather random) update about some more in-store initiatives coming to an Apple Store near you, Apple moved onto the real star of the show. New iPad Pro’s (I’m sorry, I refuse to write ‘iPads Pro’). These beauties are really something to behold …

I wont bore you here by simply listing out the tech specs and the sales pitch on these devices, you can read all of that from Apple themselves. Done? Good. Now, onto some of my thoughts.

To get things started, I will tell you that I currently have an iPad Pro 12.9″, Smart Keyboard Folio and Apple Pencil Gen 2 on order. I’ll be getting the keyboard and Pencil on release date of the 7th November, though after a bit of a mess up my end, the iPad will be coming a week later.

The iPad

Prior to the event starting it felt like we knew very little about the iPads we would be seeing at the event, but as soon as they were revealed it struck me that we did actually have a very good idea what we were going to see. This didn’t, however, stop my jaw from hitting the floor when I actually saw the things. Good Lord, they are nice.

The design is very reminiscent of the iPhone 5 era design with a more squared off, angular design. You’d imagine that, given this similarity to such old iPhone hardware, the device would look dated, but that’s far from the truth. It looks extremely sleek and interesting. The pitch video sold it as an edge to edge screen, now that the homebutton has finally been removed. This, to me, is pushing it somewhat. If you watch the product video, that was strangely narrated by Phil Schiller instead of Jony Ive, the remaining bezel does seem considerably smaller, but there is still a fair bit that remains.

As is now par for the course with Apple and their own chipsets, the A12X chip that ships inside the new iPad Pros seems to be incredibly powerful once again. For many years now, the iPad Pro hardware has outstripped the development speed of the software side of things, but this feels like a real turning point year. The new hardware, along with the new USB-C connector, seems to line the device up for some powerful new features in iOS 13, or beyond.

On the software front, I’d love to see some more flexability on app management, in terms of how many apps you can run, how these can be windowed, and what can be shared and interacted with on an external monitor. Right now, options are limited, but Apple has all they need to now start addressing this come iOS 13 in June (for those of us brave / stupid enough to jump on the betas).

All in all, the device itself looks amazing. The 12.9″ model I’ve ordered has a greatly reduced footprint (almost 25% I believe) than the last 12.9″ iPad and is thinner and lighter than ever. This size, to me, seems like the logical one to go for and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

Sharpen my Pencil

Alongside the new iPads, Apple also unvealed a new, redesigned Apple Pencil. This, again, looks like a lovely new design. Even more exciting than a new design is the great new storage and charging method. The device finally now connects to the iPad magnetically to not only store, but charge, it.This looks, and acts, far more like the Surface Pro Pen now, which isn’t a bad thing in my book at all. I ordered one of these, despite the fact my current Apple Pencil is very rarely used. I can see this being the same, to be completely honest, though the new ‘button’ functionality you can access by tapping the device could open up some very interesting interaction methods. Once again, this is very reliant on software enhancements. The flat side will also prevent the bloody thing from rolling everywhere, which is a big bonus!

Keyed In

Now that the Smart Connector has, randomly, moved to the back of the device, Apple had yet another accessory to tempt me to spend more of my, and our, hard earned money.

The new keyboard, called the Smart Keyboard Folio, now covers the entirety of the back of the device, which actually looks pretty nice. The keyboard part, it seems, looks to be essentially the same as the previous generation, though it does have a new viewing angle (one for watching media, one for typing) which is pretty interesting.

I’ve worked my way through, at one time or another, pretty much all of the main iPad Pro keyboards (Brydge, Logitech’s various offerings etc.) and while many are great, I’ve always come back to the Apple Smart Keyboard. It’s simple, connects (and disconnects) extremely quickly and it’s just nice to type on. I’ve always hated ‘clacky’ keyboards, so it suits me just fine. At £199 it’s absolutely ridiculous, but in for a penny in for a pound I guess.

Wrapping up

As mentioned, I’m extremely excited to physically get this device. It looks amazing, and I can now bump up from a 10.5″ model back to a 12.9″ version without gaining quite as much size and weight. That, to me, sounds pretty exciting in of itself. I do, however, feel we’re only seeing half of the story that is this generation of iPad Pros. The hardware is, once again, a massive leap forward, but I think we’ll see the next chapter come the release of iOS 13. Like it or not, the Mac has clearly had it’s hayday. The iPad’s, however, has yet to come. I, for one, am very excited to see what comes next for my favourite bit of kit.

When I do finally get hold of my new iPad Pro I’ll be sure to share some thoughts both here, in writing, and on the podcast for those that are more aurally inclined.

Are You The Product?

As the big technology companies we know and love today continue to grow, there are fewer and fewer facets of their businesses and models to differentiate them. Almost all of the huge technology companies today harvest us for our personal data (both knowingly and sometimes even unknowingly to help fund, and enhance, their offerings.

These companies will often give you a service or feature for free, though they are very rarely really free. Just because you don’t physically pay for something, it doesn’t mean it’s free, however. Companies like Google and Facebook have a need to collect, share and monetise the data you’re giving them, to better sell ads, which is how they ultimately make their money. You are not a customer to Google or Facebook, you are a commodity. You pay for the use of all of Google’s services by providing them with a ‘data currency’. Much like I cannot dictate to Apple what they spend the money I have given them for my iPhone on, I also cannot dictate where Google spends my ‘data currency’.

For many people, this is both obvious, and completely acceptable. For most, the return you get from Facebook or Google is well worth the cost you pay, in terms of privacy and control of your personal information. This is, of course, a completely valid way to do things, and I’m not here to tell anyone otherwise. I’ve been a heavy user of Google for many years now, though I am trying to find alternatives to many of my use cases, so I can take back control of my data a little.

The point of this article isn’t to convince anyone that they shouldn’t use data harvesting services, it’s more a Public Service Announcement that there are alternatives out there which are completely viable. While Facebook and Google are at one end of the spectrum, Apple has positioned itself well and truly at the other end. I have, clearly, very much brought into the Apple ecosystem and find myself sharing many of the same beliefs and viewpoints when it comes to how my data is used. If you want to read into Apple’s own stance on privacy across their devices and services they have a fantastic micro site which I would highly recommend running through. They clearly take this very seriously.

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Finding Alternatives

Many of the services we use today, for the various things we do one the web, are so engrained into our brains, and even muscle memory, that it’s difficult to even consider using something else. When someone says they are going to look something up online they don’t say ‘I’m going to go and look that up online’ they say ‘I’ll just go and Google that’. It’s become second nature, so it’s easy to see why people often won’t even consider alternatives, or even know where to look. The list below, and the rest of this article, is just an informational piece about what else is out there, that will respect your desire for privacy, but that will also help you to be productive online. Take from it what you will.

Search Engine

Even for people that don’t generally use Google services, it’s often hard to escape Google as a search engine. As mentioned above Google is search for many people. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of alternatives out there. Seeing as this is an article about privacy, however, there is really only one recommendation I can make, and that’s DuckDuckGo. While this search engine is near enough the least used of the major players trailing Google, it’s seen some massive growth recently. It was a big spike a few years ago when Apple added them to its list of built in search engines in iOS and again, more recently, following some high profile privacy issues from Facebook et al. I’ve been using DuckDuckGo on and off over the years, and it’s really grown a lot better over this time. It’s my default on iOS now, and the occasions I have to fall back to Google are few and far between. DuckDuckGo doesn’t track users, it doesn’t show you ads and it’s got a few interesting unique features. To save taking up too much space and time here, I’d recommend checking out their About page which has a lot of great information.

Maps / Navigation

As an iOS user, you don’t have to look very far for a Google Maps alternative. Apple Maps launched with iOS 6, way back in 2012 and, whilst it took a lot of heat at the time, this also has been steadily improving over time. Lane guidance has been added recently and Apple are in the middle of a huge redesign operation. I’ve been using Apple Maps as my default navigation and mapping system for a year or so now and it’s been very good in my experience. The navigation side of it is slowly improving as well, with ETA accuracy now getting very good. If you haven’t used it for a while I would recommend checking it out.

There’s more to Maps than just navigation, however. The Google timeline can be very helpful or interesting to some people. This feature shows you all the places you’ve visited, thanks to the 24/7 tracking Google can do of you, and your phone. If you want this information, but you don’t particularly want Google (or others) having it also, you’re in luck. I recently discovered a small little app called Visits. Visits tracks your location throughout the day and presents a local copy of this in the app. You can then simply browse through your timeline whenever you want.

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You can edit each location to give it a custom name, also, which is a nice touch. The developer stresses that your data is your own, and that privacy is very important to them. You can only trust this so far, I guess, but it seems legit and it’s a nice, streamlined way of getting some interesting metadata in your life.

Photo Storage

Google Photos is a service which is pretty hard to beat. As long as you’re happy with some quality degradation, you can store as much as you want in Google Photos. Not only that, but Google’s algorithms will parse your photos and put them into albums, or even add some automatic editing effects. Why would Google give you such a robust system for free? Well, once again, this is far from free, in many ways. You can get away without paying a penny, but this cache of millions of people’s photos must be an absolute goldmine for feeding Google’s AI / Machine Learning juggernaut. While, presumably, no real humans are pouring over these images, Google’s AI system most certainly is.

As with Maps, iOS users again don’t have to go far to find a powerful, alternative to Google Photos. iCloud Photos / Photo Library allows iOS (and macOS) users to store as many photos as they like (storage space permitting of course, unlike Google’s free tier). With Apple’s offering, however, you’re again a customer, not a ‘data cow’, ready for milking. So, while there is a cost associated (once you’ve used up your meagre free 5GB) you remain in control of your content. Apple does recommend some tweaks, or will create smart albums (called Moments) everything is handled on device.

What can’t be replaced … yet?

What’s pretty self evident from the above is that, for the most part, not only are there great third party alternatives to many Google / Facebook / other data gathering companies products, there are also great first party ones too. The iWork suite can replace Google Docs and Sheets. iCloud Drive can handily take on Google Drive and Maps is getting there when compared to Google Maps. There are, however, certain products or services that seem to have no real counterpart whatsoever.

YouTube has a complete monopoly on ‘home made’ video content. Your best bet in this case is to use YouTube logged out, though this does still allow for a modicum of tracking. Many tracking companies use some pretty sophisticated ‘digital fingerprinting’ these days which aim to match your data across services you’re logged into, with those you’re not, by analysing behaviour and even the IP of the device you’re logged into. There really is no escaping it.

The market is crying out for a viable alternative to YouTube, though it’s a service that, I would imagine, is never going to get a privacy focused version. No one is going to pay for a YouTube competitor at this point, and I can’t see how else you could fund something like that without it, without resorting to ads. This is one you’re likely stuck with I’m afraid.

Beyond this, it’s clear that we have a lot of options in what services we use, if we want to have privacy at the forefront of what we do. It’s also clear, sadly, that Apple are one of the few major tech companies that, on the face of it at least, are really taking this seriously and giving their customers the power to control this. It seems that, by using iOS / macOS, which I assume you do if you’re here, you’ve already taken one of the biggest steps you can to ensuring you’re the customer not a commodity.

Designing Apple Watch faces on the iPad

If you’ve been on Twitter over the the last week or so you may have seen an explosion of Tweets from various developers sharing some new Apple Watch face designs.

It all came about after prolific iOS botherer (I hate the term spelunker for some reason), Steve Troughton-Smith, created an Xcode project, utilising SpriteKit, which can simulate custom Watch faces. The key term here for me is simulate, however. These are not real Watch faces in the classic sense. These are basic apps that’s only function is to display a Watch face. I know this seems like a petty distinction, but it’s an important one. Once you’ve used Xcode to side load the apps onto your Watch, the nice custom face will only display as long as that app is open. If you open something else, or if you set your Watch to not keep the last open app active indefinitely, you’ll be back to whatever real Watch face you had active.

While these faces are fun, they are not the (long overdue) real custom Watch faces many Apple Watch fans have been asking for. They are, as said, still getting a lot of traction online and it seems many developers are having a great time creating some really interesting designs.

I’ve been watching (pun not intended) this transpire via Twitter, from a distance, not really caring that much about it. That changed today, however, when Steve Troughton-Smith once again tweeted something very interesting:

As soon as someone mentions ‘iPad‘ my ears instantly prick up, so I’m quite excited to download the Playgrounds Book from Steve’s GitHub Page this evening and have a play with this. It wont be possible to put these onto an actual Watch, which is a bit disappointing (and greatly reduces the usefulness of this to be fair), but it’ll still be fun to have a play around with. I’m no developer or designer, but if I come up with anything interesting looking I’ll be sure to share.