It’s been ten years, and I still love the design of my old black MacBook. In many ways, all subsequent Apple laptops inherited the design language that this model started. From the chiclet-style keyboard, to the magnetic closing. But there’s one thing I loved about this model, that none of its descendants had : it was matte black.
Sure, the matte finish was prone to chipping with small bits of laptops missing. Sure, it was also a fingerprint magnet and the thing never looked clean from the moment my grubby hands touched it. But matte black !
After disappearing for a while, matte black made a comeback with the iPhone 5. But once again, this was a durability fiasco as the phone was very susceptible to scuffing, exposing its natural aluminium color underneath.
Then matte black disappeared once again for some time, only to come back 3 years later with the iPhone 7. It now seems Apple has finally found a way to make aluminium that doesn’t bend, and a black anodization that doesn’t scratch too easily (it is still a huge fingerprint magnet though).
So, dear Apple, please make matte black laptops again ! That would look super rad.
The next Apple Christmas is imminent : on september the 7th, the internet will explode under the load of the raging flamewars raging the new product announcements. I have obviously planned to be stop all social activities at that time, and hide in my secret Apple shrine to watch the event live.
So what can we expect from this event ? Well, I think the message on the invite is pretty clear : iPhone 7, bokeh. So the obvious conclusion is that Apple is going to promote the shit out of the new iPhone cameras, whose headline feature is rumored to be a dual-lens camera, giving it some kind of improved focusing capabilities (presumably with bokeh and depth-of-field effects). There will probably be some other announcements (including an Apple Watch 2) but the spotlight will be on Apple’s darling : the iPhone.
So what the fuss about dual-lens cameras is all about ? In april 2015, Apple had bought LinX Imaging, an Israeli technology company that was notable for creating multi-aperture camera modules which could enable effects like background focus blur, parallax images and 3D picture capture – or in Reality Distorsion Field parlance : DSLR quality on a phone.
The principle is somewhat similar to how humans see in 3D with two eyes using parallax : you take two (or more) slightly offset pictures of the same scene, and then you can map depth in the picture. Roughly speaking, the more an element is offset from one picture to the other, the closer it is from the camera (remember in those 2D side-scrolling games how the background moved slower than your character ?). Off course, this implies that you know how to identify and locate similar elements in each picture (a process called image registration). Once you get a picture complete with the depth of each pixel, you can focus on any chosen level of depth and blur the rest (even possibly after the picture is taken). You may thus create a digital bokeh effect. It would be even more exciting and impressive if those new features worked in real-time, and were also available in video mode.
Digital bokeh would hardly be the first imaging algorithm to take several pictures and combine them in a resulting photo : for example taking two pictures at different exposures is used to capture more details in the light and the shadows (this is High Dynamic Range, or HDR), or taking several consecutive pictures in a burst is used to reduce motion blur. Dual-lens camera could also enable to increase the resolution of the resulting picture, or reduce noise. Essentially, more pictures is more information, and more information is more information.
From what the various part leaks seem to indicate, the regular 4.7″ iPhone will not feature a dual-lens camera. So does this mean its camera won’t get any advanced focusing capability ? Well, theoretically there could still be a focus mode that would take two consecutive pictures as you slightly move the phone in one direction. Such a mode is already implemented in some camera apps (the Google camera app in my Nexus has it), but it’s quite impractical and very unreliable, so I wouldn’t bet on that being included in the iPhone. To soften the blow, it seems Apple is going to include optical image stabilization, a feature that was previously exclusive to the plus model, and might also introduce a sleek new glossy black model. But even then, the 4.7″ model might really feel like an iPhone 7 minus. Oh well, it seems the phablet is here to stay.
Phablets ! What an ugly word. This is term we usually utter to mean that a phone is too damn big to be considered a phone, but a bit too small to get into tablet territory. So it fits in the gap (if there ever was one) between those two worlds, just like those new gadgets trying to fit somewhere between a laptop and a tablet.
Buying a phablet
I have a confession to make, I own a phablet. Yes it’s true. I never thought I would be one to own such an absurd piece of technology, but here I am. I could justify how this came to be, try to find an excuse but let’s just be honest, I wanted to try one. By releasing the 5.5″ iPhone 6+, Apple had validated the idea of phablets as a legitimate category, thus giving me their blessing to own one. So when the failed Nexus 6 was heavily discounted last Christmas, I took the opportunity to buy that humongous device.
The social stigma of owning a phablet
Owning a phablet is a great conversation starter. Each time you take it out of its pocket (well, it’s actually too big to really fit inside a pocket) you get the same reaction from people.
Gosh, that thing is huge !
And then, you usually make up a lame excuse for having this phone (it was cheap, I was forced to buy it against my will, I didn’t know it was that big…), or worse try to deflect the disparaging comment with a really bad joke, an attempt that’s not convincing anyone.
Yeah, that’s what she said.
You end up having this conversation about how they used to miniaturize phone, and now they’re making it bigger again. What crazy times we live in ! Someone will also inevitably tell you about how great and indestructible his good old Nokia dumbphone was. I never understood how people can get so nostalgic about such a piece of junk. Don’t you remember how dull it was before the iPhone came to save us all ? I hated that Nokia brick with all my guts, and I’m pretty sure you did too.
People are making a big deal out of one-handed use on phones. Apple was the first one to tote this argument to justify not making bigger phones : the iPhone 5 was supposed to be the perfect size for one-handed use. Until they caved in to the big-ass phone craze and released the iPhone 6 and 6+, and then a smaller phone again with the iPhone SE.
Except there were two major flaws in the one-handed argument. The first flaw is that one-handed use is a feature, and not a requirement for every one. Sure, being able to use your phone with just one hand is great, but it turns out there are many other features that you might be missing out on if you limit yourself to a smallish screen. The second flaw is that the size limit for one-handed is actually above 4″, provided you alter you grip on the phone : instead of firmly gripping the phone with your palm, you let it rest on your fingers, thus elevating your thumb above the screen and allowing it to travel longer distances. As it turns out however, the size limit is below the 6″ size of the Nexus 6. But for me, the limiting factor turned out not to be the height of the screen, but rather it’s width. Truth is, you get used to it. Although it’s not a great experience, I can manage to do almost every thing with just one hand. But there is a catch : because of the dexterity it requires I can only do that with my left hand, I can’t use that phone right-handed.
Coming to the big screen
That seems however like a fair tradeoff for the decadent device you get in exchange. If the iPhone 5 was a dazzling display of common sense, then the Nexus 6 is a dazzling display of hubris. It is the smartphone equivalent of a monster truck. Where Apple designers would ask themselves why they should put a given feature in the iPhone, Motorola designers were asking themselves why not. As a matter of fact, the device was internally codenamed after the killer whale Shamu when it was conceived by Motorola with just one instruction from Google : make the screen as big as possible. Everything in this phone feels excessive from its specs, to its weight and size (not to mention its price). I love this vast screen, whose resolution feels like a brutal overkill (also overkilling your battery in the process), except when I hate it. Watching YouTube videos of cute kittens on a 6″ qHD screen is totally rad. But most of the time, you just get the exact same content you would on a smaller screen, only scaled to fit the bigger screen.
It doesnt ‘t really help that being an Apple fanboy, I have to hate Android. Objectively though, there are very few features currently in Android that take advantage of the large canvas, and none of them were present when the device launched in 2014. Google recently introduced a one-handed mode for the keyboard in may (which is a narrower keyboard), and Android 7.0 (currently rolling out) is coming with support for split screen multitasking. In my experience, performance and autonomy were quite disappointing with a lot of lag and loading times in the most trivial operations, constant crashes of the camera app, and a battery that barely lasts a day under heavy use.
As useless and decadent as they may be, gigantic screens are addictive, and I already feel it would be hard for me to go back to a puny miniature device after using this mammoth. I think your brain is just programmed to be drawn to big moving pictures. And that’s probably why big phones exist : we want them even though we might not need them. And the customer is always right, even when he’s wrong. Even the mighty Apple had to follow the trend. Hopefully, the commercial success of phablets will probably allow them to be refined over time to become less bulky and more useful. If so, my next phone could very well be another phablet. Unless it was just a fad, like that time Apple thought people wanted brightly colored iPhones, when it turned out they actually just wanted pink.
The Nexus 6 is compatible with wireless charging. But I can’t even count the ways in which its implementation of wireless charging sucks. Your phone has to be in contact with the charging cradle, in very specific position, with no indication whatsoever of where this position might be, and nothing to hold it in place. Holding your phone while keeping the cradle in the right position is almost impossible. Charging is very painfully slow (plus you don’t even get an estimated time of charge, unlike with wired charging), and creates a lot of heat. So using a wireless charger is just like using a wired charger, except its slower, less energy efficient, and the slightest move is going to stop the charge. The technology makes sense in a waterproof device like the Apple Watch (to allow it to not have any visible port ) but seems completely pointless in the Nexus 6. This is a prime example of what this device is : full of half-assed features that were included just because they could.
From the look of things, the iPhone 7 is looking pretty depressing : similar design as the iPhone 6 (save for some slight change to the much maligned antenna lines and camera bump), removal of the headphone jack (which might even be a step backwards in some regards), and a force touch home button. Sure, the phone will probably be waterproof, and that’s nice, but that’s hardly something you will benefit from on a daily basis. Not a very exciting prospect.
There’s still hope however that the plus model will bring an innovative dual lens system, that would bring a big improvement to the camera, but the regular (or should I say smaller?) model might not get it.
If all of that turns out to be true, there’s a very real possibility that the iPhone 7 will simply suck. Now don’t get me wrong, the iPhone 6S is a good phone. So the iPhone 7 cannot be that bad, if it’s similar. But it could be a huge disappointment, and more importantly it could end up being a worse phone than its predecessor. That would be terrible news because the iPhone isn’t supposed to be a good phone, it’s supposed to be the best phone.
Well, let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that. There are actually some features that I hope Apple will bring this time around :
- Improved battery life : I’m betting that is one of the top requested features by many users. Since the phone isn’t getting any thinner, the battery is probably not going to shrink, and it’s likely the autonomy will get a boost from the updated silicon. And who knows, there may even be more room inside for a slightly bigger battery (who needs a headphone jack anyway?).
- Acceptable storage : we all know 16 Go of storage is not enough for a high end phone. It’s time for Apple to ship its phones with a decent amount of memory.
Will this generation bring true tone display? Even with those features, the iPhone 7 would be a pretty boring update, and one that will probably stir a lot of controversy. Grab the popcorn.
Rumor has it that Apple is once again going to kill a legacy technology : the headphone jack. The next iPhone will supposedly get rid of it, to only keep a single lightning port.
Nothing has happened yet, but there’s too much smoke not to believe it. Moreover, removing an ubiquitous technology from a mainstream product seems like a very Apple-y thing to do. They have been known to kill so much technology over the past. Just to name a few : the floppy disk, the 30-pin iPod dock connector, the disk drive in laptops, or more recently pretty much all the ports in a laptop.
Apple Giveth, and Apple Taketh away. (Steve Jobs 1:21)
The outcry on the internet is already pretty loud and toxic. This is decision is called user-hostile and stupid by some (among them, Nilay Patel from the Verge), while others argue this in the order of things to finally get rid of an analog port (among them, Apple’s fanboy #1 John Gruber for daring fireball) . It’s the floppy disk all over again, they say. A full on fanboy flamewar is about to rage over the ternetz, grab the popcorn.
Like any technology transition, it will kind of suck at the beginning, but then we’ll get used to it. The only real question is : after the dust has settled, will we be better off in the end ? Well, digital headphones will hopefully bring some welcome improvements (Vlad Savov has made a list of some of those). Sure, the headphone jack has evolved over the year to offer more possibilities by adding pins to the connector (it enabled new functionality like being able to add a remote control on the headphone themselves), but it seems we’ve reached the limit of what can be achieved with a century old standard. Because of the striving headphones and speakers business, there is great market pressure to move things forward.
Lightning vs. USB-C
There is for sure a major annoyance : the Lightning port. This port is not a standard, not even across Apple products (only iOS devices have one). This means dongles, adaptators, and incompatibilities. For example, Lightning headphones would not work on your Mac (let alone on non Apple device). One way out this mess would be to get rid of wired headphones altogether, but let’s be realistic, Bluetooth sucks and that will probably not change anytime soon. Another solution would be to standardize everything around a single port to rule them all. There was great hope last year when the new MacBook came out that the USB-C port would be our savior. But this has not happened yet. The MacBook is still a niche product, there are still very few USB-C products available, and the many different flavors of USB-C are very confusing. For these reasons (and whatever other technical reasons I might not know), I’m guessing the iPhone is sticking with the Lightning port and its lucrative MFi accessories program for the foreseeable future. So I guess the last remaining question is : will Apple put a lightning port on Macs ?
Wow, one year without an update on this blog ! In retrospect, WWDC 2015 was indeed pretty boring. WWDC 2016 seems to have been about rebooting some of the stuff from last year : the Apple Watch and Apple Music. A tacit admission on Apple’s part that those products were lacking ? Well, of course no, Apple is never wrong, ever. It’s just that they are more right now.