Monday, September 19, 2016

iPhone 7: To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade, That is the Question

Apple has officially announced the iPhone 7 and now we're left with the next round to grand decisions -- to upgrade or not to upgrade. Last year, I enrolled in Apple's Annual Upgrade program, so from a finance / carrier perspective, upgrading to the newest model is an easy consideration for me. And yet, as with so many Apple updates these days (hardware and software), the upgrade decision is not so straightforward.

The main reasons why I have to upgrade:

The Phone is Too Damned Big! After holding out on upgrading my iPhone 5 for an extra-long time, wooed by the idea of a much better camera, extra battery life, and a display I could actually read, last year I opted for the iPhone 6s Plus. My year with the iPhone 6s Plus has been a mixed bag. The battery life on the big phone has been great -- I've never once managed to run the battery down to empty, even on very busy days of talking, browsing, and using location services. The display size hasn't really delivered as much of a benefit though, as Apple's iOS user interface doesn't really scale in any proportional way (You can increase the font size and make some adjustments, but it doesn't scale like the display interface on your computer). As for the camera, it's probably nicer, but frankly, even if it was crappier, it's still the integrated camera, so you'd use it just the same as you did with the camera on the phone for how many generations back. But the worst thing about the iPhone 6s Plus is that it's just too damned big. I can't count the number of times that I've dropped the phone -- or watched others drop the phone -- simply because it's so big, it's awkward. I could give lots of examples, but the long and short is that the iPhone Plus model is just too damned big. When I upgrade, I'm going to get a long-overdue smaller phone.

I think I have other reasons, but I they aren't coming to mind -- other than the phone is too damned big.

Why I would refuse to upgrade if I could:

Following Apple down their upgrade path is a validation of a host of design decisions that I don't agree with. Increasingly, it seems like the company is hell bent on designing to "change for change sake" because "we're Apple, and we have the 'courage' to do things". Even if they're wrong. After all, if they had the courage to make a real improvement, why not make the phone a bit thicker and slightly heavier for longer battery life? Why not "smooth" out the back side so that the stupid camera lens doesn't stick out as a prominent bump? Why not move the power button back to the top instead of keeping in opposed to the volume controls? If Apple had the courage to do these things instead of chasing Samsung and trying to out-Android the various Android phones, that would be a phone that I would want to buy. Imagine a phone that was 50% thicker, but with something like double the battery life.

But back to the upgrade. Let's talk about the stupidest of stupid, the reason why, if it weren't for my current phone being too damned big, I would probably not upgrade.

Removing the analog audio port
During the keynote, Apple describes this as a courageous decision. Instead of the "look how old this analog audio port is" spin, let's distill this down to what it really is -- any wired headphone that plugs into the phone now must use Apple's proprietary Lightning Connector. Or you can use a dongle -- because we all love carrying those! But as you'll note in the dongle post that I've linked to, now you can't listen and charge unless you use a special dongle or you get one of their new docks.

In his review of the iPhone 7, on charging and listening Walt Mossberg says Apple's explanation for the removal is, "Apple says very few people do charge and listen at the same time. I respectfully disagree." I don't just disagree, I think that that explanation is complete horseshit. I think the removal of the analog port is one of those moments when the arrogance of the modern Apple company shines through. It's the rationalization that says "very few people charge and listen at the same time" and "you can still use your existing products, your noise canceling headphones, all your old Beats Audio stuff that we've sold you, everything... you just have to use this dongle," and tries to pass that off as a bold design.

Here's what Apple's not saying. Where once you only needed to carry one set of headphones to use on your iPhone, your iPad and your Macbook (or your PC), now you have to carry two because there isn't a Macbook with a Lightning port. But hey, Airpods (coming soon). Wireless audio is cool and a nice idea for the future, but you know who doesn't like Bluetooth Audio? Airlines. Not to mention that, if you happen to be lucky enough to be on one of those airplanes with power, you're probably going to be one of those few people listening and charging.

In short, I hate the removal of the analog audio port. As the rumors of removing it were flying around, I hoped that launch day would prove them wrong. I hoped that maybe there would be an innovative solution that made the removal not so terrible. Instead, we get dongle. And an incomplete dongle at that.

My Upgrade Path
With my auto-upgrade program, I was able to reserve an iPhone 7 for pick-up on Friday, the first day of availability. And yet, the more I thought about the things that I wanted in a phone -- and the things that I didn't want -- I realized that I just didn't want the iPhone 7. For me, the greatest frustration was that the iPhone 5se was released after I had already upgraded from my iPhone 5 to the iPhone 6s Plus. Had I waited just a bit longer, I would have opted for the SE.

At the same time, my wife needs a new phone. While she has the iPhone 6, she uses her phone much more frequently than I do, and she plays a lot of games on her phone. While she continues to push the performance limits of what her phone is capable of, I've found that the phone has become increasingly less useful for me. And that's where I crafted this a different solution path. Since I already had my iPhone 7 upgrade reservation and since she was interested in the iPhone 7, I gave my reservation to her. And me, I'm switching to an iPhone 5se. Would it be nice to have the newest processor and the newest camera? Sure, but the more that I weighed the impact of the loss of the audio port, the more I felt like the impact on me would be far worse.

So how bad is the removal of the audio port? Answer, for me, no audio port equals no phone upgrade. But after over 25 years of using Apple products, I find that they are increasingly not being designed for my needs.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Sling TV: Cord Cutting has it's Issues

After many years of sharing an apartment with roommates and a requirement to have enough cable TV to be able to watch all of the local sports teams, a little over two and a half years ago I moved into my own apartment for a planned limited stay. Since it was just me, I decided to forgo television service, something I'd done in my own room of the apartment years before. What I had found was that, if there was a TV that could be turned on, it often was -- and only the tiniest fraction of content on it was actually worth watching.

While I've missed lots of things on broadcast TV over the past two and a half years, live sporting events, the last Jon Stewart Daily Show, Letterman's retirement, I've never really felt like it was a great loss, particularly given what I've seen when I have tuned in. Meanwhile, I've had Netflix, Amazon Prime video and HBO Now, all of which provide service that makes up for crappy TV and way too many commercials. But I've always wished for just a little bit more.

Which brings me to Dish's SlingTV. Last week I came across an article about how they were expanding the promotion on this service -- essentially a way that you can get a limited number of channels delivered OTT (Over The Top, i.e. through your Internet Connection). Paying for a limited number of HD channels seemed like an interesting prospect. Not giving Comcast stupid money for crappy TV also seemed like a win. Best of all, the site offered a free 7-day trial of the service.

Sling TV offers one bundle of channels for about $20 per month, one for $25, and then a whole block of what they have available for $45 per month. Their options include ESPN if you're so inclined, plus a bunch of Food channels and others. You can also add Cinemax for $10 per month, something I wish they would do like the HBO Now app, but anyway -- that being said, I decided to sign up.

The Results
I really wanted to like SlingTV. I really did. But my experience with the service has been colossally frustrating. Of course, sign up was a breeze. A quick plug in of my information and a credit card and I was on my way. But that's where the joy of the experience ended.

First, the bad: SlingTV offers apps for the iPhone, iPad, and AppleTV. Oh, but not the old AppleTV, only the new one. Want to watch on your older AppleTV, you need to use the iPad app and mirror it through Airplay. That took a bit to work out. They also offer an App for the Xbox One -- which we tried, but the performance was worse than the iPad through Mirrored Airplay. Specifically, the movie that we started to watch appeared to only run in stereo, not surround, and it had more frame drops than an oversubscribed online game. Even the iPad App has suffered through frequent lock-ups and buffering issues. Contrast this with Netflix, Amazon Prime, or HBO Now, and you'll quickly realize that you don't want to pay for this service.

But it get's worse. The app is so poorly designed that, every time we've tried to use it, we've been frustrated. Take the Cinemax channel as an example. We were trying to binge-watch our way through an on-demand series and every time you launch the app, it jumps to the live broadcast. You then have to work your way through the interface to get to the show you were watching and relaunch it. Pop out of the app for just a second, like to check your email, and when you return, you're dumped back into the live TV feed.

But wait, there's more. The entire interface is set up on a layered set of scroll wheels. At the top is the channel selector, below that, the programs that appear, first live, then on demand below that. When you want to choose a channel, you need to move the slider from left-to-right or right-to-left, and whatever it lands on in the center, it will pause a few seconds for in order to attempt to buffer in the info on what's live. If you're trying to scroll through the channel list, this can take a while. And with all of these delays and buffering, you can probably imagine that the app hangs. A lot.

Perhaps the worst was, on one of the iPads we were watching SlingTV on, the app just crashed at one point and would no longer function. We tried rebooting the app, rebooting the iPad, nothing. We restarted it on a different iPad and everything worked again, but if it you didn't have a second iPad, I suspect you would have had to delete the app and reload it... maybe.

Over the seven day trial, we barely managed to get through binge-watching one series. And it goes without saying, not once were we wowed by the app -- unless it was being wowed by how bad the software was.

Also funny was, in the process of canceling the service, they offered to give me a Roku2 if I signed up to a 3-month commitment. Unfortunately, my blood pressure couldn't handle 3 months of the service, so I had to opt out -- but your mileage may vary.