Thinner, lighter, faster

John Gruber, on the “thinner, lighter faster” Galaxy Book S compared to the MacBook Air:

Well, there’s the small notion of, you know, the operating system. And let’s see if it really does get 25 hours of video playback. But the point stands. A lot of people using MacBooks today aren’t devoted to the MacOS experience, and might switch, based on hardware alone. The ARM revolution for notebook PCs is coming, whether Apple is ready or not.

John’s right that a large chunk of people using MacBooks today aren’t devoted to macOS. But… macOS also just isn’t as good as it used to be. That’s not about software quality, something that bothers technical users more than ordinary ones. It’s just that Windows 10 has got better, to such a degree that unless you’re bought into the whole Apple eco-system there’s not much point in going for a Mac.

The Mac is now Apple’s weakest link.

So I got a Surface Pro X

Earlier this year I bought myself a shiny new Mac. This was the first Mac I’d bought since 2015, when I bought the 12in MacBook, a machine which lasted me four years but which was starting to struggle a little with battery life and a few other things.

The Mac I chose was one of the new retina MacBook Airs, the base model. As you can guess from the fact that a Core m3 MacBook was capable being my main machine for four years, I’m not a particularly demanding power user. I’m not running Photoshop, I don’t have to compile code. Mostly, I write, I do spreadsheets, and I browse the web. Mostly spreadsheets.

The Air is nice. Having TouchID built in is great, the keyboard is adequate, it’s fast enough and although it only has 128GB of storage, in the age of cloud applications and sync engines that are smart enough to work out what to sync and what you don’t ever use, that’s actually not as much of an issue for most people as you’d think.

But I don’t love it. Unlike the MacBook, which for at least two of the years I used it was an absolute darling of a machine, the MacBook Air has just always felt a little half hearted. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s probably the first Mac I’ve ever owned that I just don’t love.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Mac/Windows divide, Microsoft has released the Surface Pro X, and it’s as if they basically created a computer purpose-built to press all of my technology lust buttons. It’s light and portable – I love light and portable – and at the cutting edge thanks to its ARM processor. It’s got LTE built in, something I’ve been desperate for on a Mac for years, and something that made me use my iPad a lot. Oh and it’s a tablet too, and I absolutely adore tablets.

I don’t think I’ve prevaricated about buying a computer more than over the Surface Pro X. On the day it was announced, I added it to my basket on the Microsoft store. On the next day, I took it out. Repeat that three times and you’ll have an idea of how much I agonised over whether to buy one or not.

The reviews, when they came out a week or so before release, should have made up my mind that this was not a device for me. And yet… Reader, I bought one. And not just the lowest end one: I went for the fully tricked out 16GB of RAM and 512GB of SSD version, because if this thing is going to be my main computing device for a few years, I want some future proofing.

Pricey. No, REALLY pricey

You are of course paying through the nose for all this. Even for the base model, you’ll barely get change out of £1200 once you’ve bought the keyboard (yes, you need this) and pen. Even if you’re lucky enough to get an education discount, you’re still looking at a machine that starts expensive and moves quickly to the level of pricing that will make trigger automatic offers by your credit card company to raise your limit. If you want the fully-loaded 16Gb of RAM and 512GB storage version, you’re going to pay the best part of £2,000.

What you get for that money is basically what all computers should be like in 2019. Silent, always connected, light, with a great typing experience and an amazing screen. Usable in a variety of modes, and equally adept in all of them. It’s a computer that makes you feel productive.

I’ve always believed that Apple makes the best hardware in the business, and in some areas this is true (the new iPhone 11 is shockingly good). But when it comes to computers, Microsoft now beats it, pretty easily. It’s arguably better than the design of the iPad Pro, and I love that device.

Hardware without software is a paperweight

As an iPad user allow me a moment of schadenfreude: One of the biggest criticisms of the iPad from the Windows community has been its failure to run “real” desktop apps “like Photoshop”. Now, the leading edge of Microsoft devices is something which also can’t run Photoshop.

The good news is that the vast majority of applications that I use on a day-to-day basis are already ported to 64-bit ARM, which means I get good performance out of them. Using ARM applications also improves the battery life: whatever emulation system Microsoft is using to run Win32, it pushes the processor hard enough to significantly decrease how long you’ll be using the Surface Pro X without plugging it in. It’s still not bad – but you’ll definitely get a better experience if you can go ARM-only or ARM-mostly. 

By and large, if you’re using ARM applications you’re going to find the experience of using the Surface Pro X really positive. That means most of Microsoft’s own apps, including – of course – Office (but weirdly not Teams), plus some staples like Spotify and WhatsApp Desktop.

The Surface Pro X can also run 32-bit Intel apps… but “run” is sometimes a generous way of putting it. It’s hit and miss whether an app will run properly, and if it does run at all, it can be prone to random freezes and crashes.

iTunes is a good example of this. It’s a Microsoft Store app, and it’s Win32, so it should work fine. But whenever I used it, it would randomly lock up while trying to do innocuous things like switching to a playlist. 1Password works, but the desktop client is slow and painful to use.

However, there’s now an ARM version of the new Edge browser, and Edge lets you run pretty much any web site as an application that appears in your task bar, you can run apps like Apple Music and Slack as web apps rather than their native equivalents. Because Microsoft has got into Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) in a big way, this is actually a good experience. And 1Password has a Chrome extension version – 1Password X – which is almost as fully-featured as the client, which means you can run it as part of the browser since Chrome extensions work well with the new Edge.

The right device for me… but maybe not for you

If you’re the kind of person who lives in Office 365 and browser-based applications, you’re going to find performance on the Surface Pro X is good, battery life is excellent, and built in LTE is wonderful. Microsoft has built the best device for experiencing its own software, and if you live a Microsoft life you’re going to love it.

This describes my computing world at the moment, so unsurprisingly I love this device. Ironically, it was my experience with the iPad Pro that helped me understand the Surface Pro X could work for me. I’ve never had a problem using the iPad Pro for almost all my work and a sizeable bit of play. I’m mostly deep into the Office 365 ecosystem, and the iPad Office apps are good. And I also knew from the iPad that ARM is capable of more than enough performance to support everything I want to do.

And remember too that for three years a MacBook was my everyday carry work machine. I’ve lived the life of USB C-only for a while. I know that performance is less important to me than lightness. The iPad taught me that integrated LTE and an all-day battery was also very high on my list of requirements.

All computers are inherently a compromise between size, design, performance, mobility and ease of use. You can buy a beast of a gaming “laptop” that weighs a tonne but absolutely screams at

So does anyone want to buy a barely-used MacBook Air?

The Pixel Slate and why I still really love it

Google Pixel Slate

The Pixel Slate has had a rough ride. When it was initially revealed, there was a level of excitement around it which built a big bubble of hype. When it was finally released that bubble burst, spectacularly.

The Slate had a lot of problems. There were performance issues in tablet mode, which meant doing something as simple as having two windows snap side by side was a laggy experience. There was the design of the Keyboard Cover, which made the device almost impossible to use in your lap unless you had the kind of length of thigh bone that would place you into NBA levels of height (or extremely weirdly shaped legs).

But the biggest and most damaging question was one that should have been obvious to Google prior to launch: why should you buy the Pixel Slate when the Pixelbook still exists, and even though it has an older processor and bezels as wide as the Grand Canyon it actually did everything that anyone would want from a Chromebook, in a more familiar form?

I have both a Pixelbook and a Pixel Slate. I had expected the Pixel Slate to effectively replace the Pixelbook. All the things the critics said are true about the Slate, and that’s why I never sold the Slate — but despite the Pixelbook being, in many ways, a superior device I still love using the Slate, and just when I think I’ve put it down for good it finds a way to sneak back into my life. 

Why? The first reason is the screen — and no, I’m not talking about the bezels. I can live with the bezels on the Pixelbook, and the reality is that those on the Slate are not that much smaller. But the screen itself is genuinely joyful to look at over a long period of time. The only screen that I’ve ever used that rivals it is the iPad Pro, which is the best screen on the planet for ordinary use at the moment. 

Images on the screen are soft without lacking sharpness or clarity. Colours are absolutely perfect. I can look at this screen for a long, long time without wanting a break (note: I do take breaks anyway, and you should too!)

The second reason the Pixel Slate keeps luring me back is the keyboard. Yes, I know: you can’t use it in your lap, and it has to lie flat on a table because there are no clever magnets to keep it angled up like there are on the Surface Pro keyboards.

But the keys themselves are brilliant to type on. Round keys take a little while to get used to, but Google’s user testing was right. I find myself making less typing errors on it, and when you type all day that adds up to a lot of time spent not doing corrections. 

Also, one for Apple: find a way to steal the bit from this keyboard that lets you put it at any angle. The two angles on the iPad Pro keyboard are a big improvement, but they just don’t cut it when you’re used to being able to work at any angle, as you can on the Pixel Slate.

I can’t speak for the lower end versions but the Core i5 that I have in my Slate performs perfectly well now, in laptop or tablet mode. Everything feels as snappy as you would expect. And battery life is fine: you can never have enough battery life, but the Slate will get me through a full typical working day. 

I think the biggest problem the Slate faced was that Google never really answered a simple question for themselves: Why make a tablet at all? What role is this device going to play in someone’s life? If it’s going to replace a laptop (or even “replace a laptop 80-90% of the time”) then it needs to be better than a laptop at a wide range of tasks. The iPad is the best example of this: it’s got a better screen, it’s easier to use, the battery lasts and lasts, it’s more powerful given the price, it has really good software, it integrates brilliantly if you have an iPhone, it’s hugely better for consuming content, and thanks to that processor power and easy to use software  it’s often better for consumer-level content creation. 

And yet… I doubt I’ll ever regret buying the Slate. It’s a big barrel of contradictions and half thought out ideas, but it’s also just one of the most pleasant and compelling devices I own. Even when it’s frustrating you over some little thing, it’s a joyful piece of design that misses the mark in places but delivers in others. 

My week with the Pixel 3 XL

Never let a bunch of people decide anything that you have to do via a Twitter poll. In my case, very definitely don’t let them condemn you to a week-long trial of any product other than the ones you favour.
That’s how I ended up spending a week or so using the Google Pixel 3 XL rather than my beloved iPhone XS Max. My Apple Watch sat on the sidelines and in its place on my wrist came a Fossil Sport watch running Wear OS.
I gave it a shot. But how did it actually do? And did I end up tearing my hair out?

What’s better

I’m going to leave the camera to one side for a while, but there are a few areas where the Pixel 3 XL is a clear winner.

Top of the list: Google Assistant. Although there are a couple of ways that Assistant is worse than Siri, by and large it’s a huge step upwards. Even though it still hasn’t got totally to grips with my accent (no, Google, “hole” does not mean the same thing as “hall”. I do not have any lights in my hole) Assistant’s ability to answer queries and generally get things done is outstanding.

What did I miss?

There were quite a few things though which made me constantly want to run back to iPhone. Mostly, they were small, but when you start to add up the small things, they matter.

First, there was FaceID. Once you’ve got used to just glancing at your phone and opening it up instantly, going back to having to press your finger on a fingerprint reader makes you feel like you have gone back to some kind of technological dark age.

Next there’s Siri. Now I know that I said Google Assistant was way ahead — and it is — but there’s one area that Siri still stands head and shoulders above its Google rival, and that’s home automation. Even after all this time, Google Assistant does not understand that homes have different regions where you might want to turn off and on a bunch of lights: or, as we sometimes call them, “upstairs and downstairs”.

Apps, too, are still behind. There are plenty of streak trackers, but none as good as Streaks. There are plenty of task lists, but none as good as either OmniFocus or Things. Google Fit is fine, but as a hub for all your health information, it’s laughable compared to Apple Health and as a fitness app it’s not as good as Fitness.

Then there’s the hardware and software eco-system and how everything just works together. You would think this might be an area where Google could lead, but instead it lags. Android and Chrome OS still feel like strangers sitting next to each other on a train, rather than a couple.

Then there’s Apple Watch: boy, did I miss Apple Watch. Although I used a pretty decent recent wear OS device (the Fossil Sport), it’s pretty laughable as a wearable. Design-wise, the hardware is fine: this, after all, is a company that knows how to make good looking objects for your wrist. But the software and speed of the device itself are probably compatible to a first generation Apple Watch. Google Assistant, which should be a star on the wrist, is a laggy joke. And the lack of decent applications makes it pretty useless on the whole.

That camera

Of course, there’s one thing that I really haven’t touched on much here: the camera. The Pixel 3 series is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, camera on a smartphone at the moment. Google achieves this not through hardware – although there’s certainly nothing back about the 12 megapixel rear-facing camera – but through its “computational photography”, machine learning algorithms which use multiple shots, the shake of your hand, and other features to improve every single image.

And it is a really good camera, capable of producing consistently excellent images across a huge range of lighting conditions. You just won’t get many duff shots out of the Pixel 3.

However, what you are not getting is anything close to images that are true to life, and every now and then the computational photography approach just completely messes up. Portrait mode, for example, will do wacky things like blur out the frame of someone’s glasses rather than correctly interpreting them as part of the face. Occasionally, the Pixel’s desire to make colours pop out at every opportunity also betrays it. For example, taking a wide picture of a kitchen while a friend was cooking, the Pixel decided that because they were wearing a yellow sweater, it should also add a pale yellow tinge to their face. Perhaps that algorithm needs to learn that “jaundiced” isn’t a natural human skin tone.

Portrait mode is also an interesting area. When the iPhone XS Max first came out, Apple’s algorithms for portrait mode over-smoothed skin to a crazy degree. Apple has tweaked these since, and now it’s the Pixel 3’s face smoothing looks over done. It’s not bad: but as soon as you look closely at an image, it’s pretty obvious what the Pixel is trying to do.

Then there’s Night Sight. This is widely – and rightly – regarded as something of a miracle. Even outside, on a pretty dark night with little illumination to work with I can get a clear shot of what’s going on in the garden. But it’s also weird looking, like Jeff Brouws work, and looks absolutely nothing like what you’re seeing in front of you.

There’s no optical zoom on the Pixel 3. And amazingly, you will very rarely care, because Google has done an absolutely amazing job of creating a digital zoom that’s almost as good as having a second lens. Almost – but not quite. This is an area where optics will always beat computation, but unless you’re constantly using zoom, the digital zoom on the Pixel will make you very happy indeed. Good job, Google.

At the end of the day, you are not going to go wrong with either of these cameras. Is the camera better than the iPhone XS Max? It depends on what kinds of images you prefer. Do you want something that looks more or less like what you’re seeing in front of you? The iPhone is your better option. Do you want something that’s “better” in the sense of brighter, more energetic and with lighting that looks bright but not over-lit? The Pixel is probably the camera for you. The colours you end up with on screen will look great – but they will be nothing like the colours that your eye will have seen at the time.

What next?

So am I going to stick with the Pixel? Nope. I’m too embedded in the Apple hardware ecosystem and too much in love with Apple Watch to make that leap for too long. But I am going to spend some more time with it, and in particular I’m going to spend some time with Android Q.

Android Q’s third developer beta just came out, and for a bit of fun I decided to install it – and I very much like what I’ve seen so far. The gesture interface (which is so copied from iOS) is more consistent and coherent than the current version, and I like the dark mode even if – as yet – not many applications support it.

Now you’ll have to excuse me, as I have some SIM swapping to do…

The Pixel 3 XL experiment

Here’s a lesson for you: never, ever ask your Twitter followers whether or not you should use a particular kind of hardware or software. Ever more so, never allow them a Twitter poll vote on whether you should do something or not.

Last week, I did this:

Don’t do this. Ever.

For the next week, starting from today, I’ll be forsaking my beloved iPhone XS Max in favour of the Pixel 3 XL. Perhaps more painfully, I’ll also be putting my Apple Watch on to charge and leaving it there, with a Fossil Sport WearOS smartwatch taking its place.
Next Sunday, I’ll write up what I think about it. I’m trying to keep an open mind, and I know that there are some aspects of the Pixel that I like already (the camera).

This is all your fault, Twitter followers.

Learning to love silence

I’ve always been someone who has background noise around them. Growing up, the TV was always on, and my dad spent his time singing around the house – he couldn’t hear a silence without filling it with a song. My mum said that she knew my dad was seriously ill when he stopped singing.

I’ve been the same. Get home, turn the TV on, or – more recently – turn the radio on. When I lived in houses where the TV wasn’t the centre of the world, or I didn’t have one (strange to think I’ve lived in places with no TV!) then I would sing, or listen to music. I swam in noise.

Silence was a stranger.

And deeper than that, silence made me feel lonely. I used to listen to the radio late at night, while going to sleep, because the soft background hubbub of quiet voices made me feel like I wasn’t alone in the world. Noise, and especially talking, showed me the world was still alive, that things were still as they should be.

Since starting to meditate regularly I’ve become much more comfortable with silence. I still lapse into singing, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but the ongoing song in my head in no longer automatically there. I can be silent inside, and sometimes just appreciate silence around me – as I am now, with no one else in the house, the cat fed (so not filling my ears with her “starved” little voice) and nothing on. No radio, no TV, no music. Just me and the sounds of my fingers clacking across the keyboard. There’s a certain comfort in that, too.

Remembering Project Marklar

Nick Wingfield mentioned something which took me back a long way:

It’s well worth reading the whole thread, as much of it typifies Steve Jobs, but describing the reporting of Nick dePlume and Matthew Rothenberg at eWeek on Project Marklar as “rumours” is wrong. In 2002, they absolutely nailed the details of the nascent Intel project. I know the work that went into that story, because I talked them about it at the time.

I was tangentially involved in it. At the time, I was news editor on MacUser UK, and a year before they broke the story, Nick called me to see if I’d heard anything about Transitive, the UK-based company whose PowerPC to Intel code translation software Apple was using.

Nick and Matthew worked on that story for a good 18 months before publishing anything. It was solid, dogged reporting. Calling it “rumours” is what Apple did at the time – basically, anything Apple didn’t want you to report, they called “rumours”.

Worth remembering: Jobs was so pissed off about the Marklar story (and many others) that he made closing dePlume’s site a priority – and eventually sued it out of existence. And way too many journalists covering the Mac gave Apple a free pass about this, effectively shrugging their shoulders.

Coda: one of our reporters, the wonderful and much missed Paul Nesbitt, asked Jobs the same question in about 2004. He got barred from Apple press conferences for it. Jobs had many fine qualities, but tolerance for a free press was not one of them.

Extra coda: there were quite a few writers about the Mac at the time who insisted that “it’s a rumour until Apple announces it”. This is a great tell that a writer isn’t a reporter and doesn’t understand that by that standard, Watergate was all rumours till Nixon resigned.