Escaping Apple’s Luxury Prison part 443,211: Google Pixel 2 XL and Fitbit Versa

So, this happened:

Great Googly moogly..

The biggest problem with Apple’s ecosystem (aka the luxury prison) is that it doesn’t tend to work well with others.  I’ve been scratching my head over how to integrate iCloud Photo Library with Windows properly, but it is slow and a pain in the arse to use under Windows.  I don’t want to use iTunes to connect my phone to the computer – a straightforward USB to use-as-a-disk is fine.  The iPhone X did not let me do that.

The Google Pixel 2 XL has been receiving many rave reviews over the past few months.  It’s stock Android which means that there is no bloat from the phone manufacturer or telecoms company, and it receives the very latest security updates ASAP as well as the latest feature updates too.  And you know where you stand with their update policy – this phone is supported up until late 2020.  Apple seems to keep moving things forwards and backwards and forwards with their support lifecycle for various products.

Now, I picked up my Google Pixel 2 XL at a bargain price.  Carphone Warehouse had knocked off a good £170 off the RRP, so I decided to go with them.  I also bought a Google Home Mini to replace the Apple Homepod.  I’ve got to say, Google has absolutely nailed it with the home assistant.  Not only is she responsive, but the response is natural and quick.  For example, when I ask how best to get to Woking, she tells me the correct bus number to take, when the next bus is, and the nearest stop.  And as it integrates with various smart related technologies around the home, it Just Works(TM).  I always found the Apple HomeKit system to be far too overly complex to operate.  The UI is a mess, and Siri has to think about things before responding.

The Pixel 2 XL itself is great.  The images it takes are the sharpest of any smartphone I’ve ever used, and even some compact cameras.

Everything’s peachy with the Google Pixel 2 XL camera
Dog keeping me company while I eat a ham sandwich.

The device is larger than the iPhone X, and also offers a greater number of app icons to be shown on screen at once.  All apps I’ve had on the iPhone are available under Android.  It took about 2 hours to transfer everything and set-up the phone as new (never trusted these transfer processes).  Instead of Apple Pay, there is now Google Pay.   Again, same support from the banks and credit card companies.

Gone is Face ID and replaced with a fingerprint scanner again.  This time around the back.  Its placement feels natural enough and makes looking at the phone at 3am in the morning much easier than trying to get Face ID to recognise you with your face against the pillow.

Another change Apple made without telling anybody is Wi-Fi calling.  Thanks to the hoo-hah over batterygate and Apple slowing down older phones whose battery is wearing out, they made a change to Wi-Fi Calling which meant that Wi-Fi Calling on iPhones will use cellular if it’s strong enough and fallback to Wi-Fi Calling if not.  There is no way of overriding this.  On the Google Pixel 2 XL, this works full time if you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network regardless of cellular signal strength and you enable Wi-Fi Calling.

The G-Team

But what about the Apple Watch?  I’ve replaced it with a Fitbit Versa.  This looks to be a device formed from the assimilation of the Pebble watch team.  It’s a lightweight watch that incorporates the usual fitness tracking.  But it works with both Android and iOS, and unlike the Apple Watch has a battery life of up to 4 days between charges.  So far it’s been great – though the Fitbit app is rather confusing.  The GPS connection warning started up immediately even though I wasn’t exercising, and I couldn’t figure it out, though it seems that it has something to do with the Always Connected versus All-Day Sync option.

The Fitbit Versa’s wrist straps are relatively straight forward to change.  I had to swap out the smaller strap for the included larger one, but to do this requires fiddling about with pins in the straps.  I managed to cause my fingernails to bleed when applying pressure to the pin heads.

My one concern is that of how tough the front glass is – there are many reports of the face getting scratched easily, though so far I haven’t managed to ding mine and I’m quite rough with it.

A short iPhone 8 Plus review..

I took the day off today to await the delivery of my new iPhone 8 Plus and Apple Watch Series 3 watch.  The first thing to note is that I’m coming from an iPhone 7 Plus and Apple Watch series 2.  So why do this?  All devices run iOS 11 and WatchOS 4, so what’s new?

The iPhone 8 Plus has the A11 “Bionic” processor which is, according to benchmarks, the fastest processor ever in a smartphone – on par with the performance of my MacBook Pro 13″.  As this article quotes, “it is legitimate to directly compare scores across platforms” but “laptops are better at delivering sustained performance over a longer period, as opposed to the shorter max burst performance that benchmarks like Geekbench 4 are designed to measure. In other words, the iPhone 8 simply doesn’t have the thermals and heat dissipation necessary to replace your laptop.

Holding the iPhone 8 Plus you’ll notice that it is heavier than the 7 Plus.  This is because Apple has returned to using glass on the back – necessary for wireless (read: induction) charging to function properly.  But the extra weight feels right, and it makes the whole phone look very professional.  That said, I’ve stuck it in my old 7 Plus Apple leather case.

Moving to the 8 Plus couldn’t have been easier.  As soon as the phone had switched on, the 7 Plus knew its time was up.  It immediately offered to transfer its data to the new phone, and I didn’t have to do very much.  So within about 10-15 minutes, I had a fully working iPhone 8 Plus.  Passwords for the various services one uses don’t transfer – so you’ll have to re-authenticate.  That was the longest part of the process.  Setting up two-factor authentication again is a PITA.

The 8 Plus’ True Tone display is brilliant.  Formally only an iPad Pro feature, you won’t notice it in day to day use – but comparing it against the 7 Plus was like night and day.  The 8 Plus display looked so much better regarding colour balance.

The camera on the iPhone 8 Plus is perhaps one of the biggest features I wanted.  And no wonder – it’s just been rated the best smartphone camera on the image quality rating site, DxOMark.  It comes in with a mark of 94.  I’m sure that the iPhone X will outdo that a little, but for now, you’re getting the best smartphone camera on the market.

I’m not going to do much testing of the camera myself until next week – I’m waiting for MacOS High Sierra to be released.  The iPhone 8 Plus uses the new JPEG container format, HEIF (high-efficiency image format) which compresses photos up to 2 times without losing any quality.  And likewise, it also uses HEVC (high-efficiency video codec) for video – which is fast becoming the de facto standard for video (and especially 4K / UHD).  High Sierra will support that out of the box, but in the meantime, the 8 Plus can export to older formats for systems not capable of handling HEIF/HEVC.  I’m not holding my breath for Google (such as Chrome) to support it – they’re using their own codec, and this is a contention point for the new Apple TV 4K – it won’t be able to play YouTube videos in 4K because Google uses something called V9, and Apple uses HEVC.  I do think Google is being silly here since all TVs support HEVC.  I don’t know any that supports V9 or at least both HEVC and V9.

Overall, I like the familiarity of the iPhone 8 Plus.  I use it as I would the 7 Plus, but under the hood is a beast of a system that will keep on top of things for the next couple of years.

The iPhone X factor – not for me

Nope.  Not yet, anyway.  But I’ve decided to go ahead and switch networks again anyway.  Now seems a good time to do so.

I’m moving back to EE, and I’m picking up an iPhone 8 Plus and Apple Series 3 Watch with cellular to go with it.  I’m getting a whopping 100Gb of monthly data (the watch gets unlimited data – principally you can’t really do that much with it – e.g. you can’t watch movies or use other data-intensive applications), Apple Music for 6 months (£60 value), and the ability to roam in the EU as well as the USA and Canada (which Three doesn’t cover, strangely enough).

I’m ditching the monthly iPad Pro data and moving to pay-as-you-go (also via EE).  I don’t use 3G/4G data much on the iPad and it doesn’t make much sense to pay monthly for something I don’t use.

I chose the iPhone 8 Plus for the reasons I’ve already mentioned in my last post.  I think the iPhone X is too big an expensive gamble at this time.  I’m sure Face ID will be fine, but I still think it’s a little early. What’s app support like, for example?  How will existing apps that utilize Touch ID work with Face ID?  How much work will developers have to do to replace Touch ID with Face ID?  Do they have to develop two methods?  Or do you even have to do anything at all?  This should have been announced back at WWDC.  But then again, that would have spoilt the surprise.

Besides which, my new contract with EE also includes an annual upgrade – so if Apple produces an iPhone XI next year with everything fixed from the iPhone X – all will be well. Until then, I personally cannot wait to try the new camera sensor in the iPhone 8 Plus.  I am big on smartphone photography and even though I love my Sony RX100 V to bits, I tend to use the iPhone to “mark” geographical locations so that when I import footage from both the iPhone and RX100 V, Apple’s Photo apps groups them all under one geographic heading.  I’m terrible at annotating my photos after taking them, and this is one little hack that works for me.  Which is probably why I’ve never moved over to Adobe Lightroom…

And of course, there is wireless charging.  When I next visit The Hub by Premier Inn in Edinburgh, I’ll be able to charge my iPhone on their wireless charging pads whilst I eat breakfast.  I think that this, for me, is the biggest and more important new feature of the new iPhone generation.

As for the CPU, it’s rumored that the A11 Bionic processor meets or slightly exceeds the processing power in my 2017 13″ MacBook Pro.  Which is just insane.   A phone having the potential to beat a general purpose computer.

Reviews coming as I get the kit.  If I get the kit.  Delivery times are dependent on supply, and we all know what that’s been like in the past! (That I’ve only managed to pick up AirPods in the past month despite being released nearly a year ago is just insane – imagine what the supply constraints of the iPhone X will be!)

The Samsung Galaxy S8+ is the Note 7 I wanted..

.. but, alas, it is too late.

(Update: Having thought about it, plugged in some figures into a spreadsheet, I am able to switch.  I am giving Samsung one more chance.  So I’ve pre-ordered the Samsung Galaxy S8+ and the Gear S3 Frontier smartwatch.  Stand by for a review at a later date.)

I would have absolutely remained on the Note 7 had it not been for the battery issue.  But it forced me back to Apple’s iPhone and Apple Watch ecosystem as I was already familiar with it, and given that I went back to the Mac, it made sense at the time.

The Note 7 was a beautifully designed phone – it felt good in the hands, the display was absolutely gorgeous, and Android felt properly polished.  And looking at what Samsung has done with the Galaxy S8 and S8+, they’ve absolutely taken the best design parts of the Note 7 and put them in the design of their new phone (obviously without the S-Pen).  The display is bigger, and the shape and size of the S8+ feels as though it’ll fit into my hand without any issues.  Well, maybe one.  I’m not entirely convinced that the fingerprint scanner is positioned well.  And I have my doubts about the face and iris scanner recognition – the iris scanner on the Note 7 wasn’t accurate (since I wear glasses).  It’s possible that Samsung may have fixed it for the S8 series, however.

So the S8 series looks to be lovely phones.  But I still cannot switch because I’m still too heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem at this time – which includes any possible upgrade to the iPhone 8.  Of course, if Samsung were feeling generous and felt like giving me an S8+ and a Gear 3 Frontier smartwatch – it may convince me to switch (since no outlay on my part until the next cycle of Samsung devices).  But the chances are so remote that it is highly unlikely I’ll switch back to Android for another 3 years.  By then Google will have had the Pixel 2 out on the market.  Possibly even the Pixel 3.  The Pixel was a lovely Android phone too – let down by flaws in the camera lens (lens flare galore) and wireless issues (Bluetooth).

Anyway, here’s hoping that Samsung turns around the misfortune of the Note 7 with the S8.  There’s certainly much to love with with the S8 for those that loved the Note 7 as much as I did.

BTW, the upgrade to iOS 10.3 is well worth doing.  Apple have switched to a new filesystem called APFS which replaces the 30 year old HPFS+ and the whole system feels a lot more responsive (of course, Apple have also tweaked animations too).

Vitality Insurance’s Apple Watch Offer fails to reliably read Apple Health data

Update: Having submitted Apple Health data from the past few months (via a series of screenshots) direct to Vitality by email, they added it to my account and the system now appears to be working by itself. However, it’s too little/too late because I’m going to pay the balance off manually and move over to Samsung Gear S3 + the Galaxy S8+.

Technology.  It can be such a pain in the gluteus maximus at times. And no more so when as an insurance company, you’re trying to innovate within the health insurance market by offering customers a heavily discounted Apple Watch in exchange for the user getting fitter (which means they’re less liable to make a claim).

For that very reason I sold my old Apple Watch and traded it in for the Vitality Apple Watch – a 42mm series 2 Nike model for £99.  I figured that an incentive like this would help me walk (including fast walking) more if I didn’t have to pay any more than I already had.

In terms of the watches, there is very little difference between the regular Apple Watch and the Nike branded model other than the straps and watch face, which I love.

Along with the Withings smart scales, I’ve been recording my steps within Apple Health and it’s been working just fine.  But I’ll be darned if I can get the Vitality app on my iPhone 7 Plus to read data from Apple Health so that they can track my progress and decide – if at all – I need to pay any further for the watch.

Things have got to the point where BBC News has picked up on the problem. The app tells me that it’s connected with Apple Health, but no data is ever exchanged between both apps.   You’re supposed to collect 10 points for connecting Apple Heath and the Vitality app, but nope.  Absolutely nothing.  Nada.  Kaput.

Vitality released an app update yesterday, but that did nothing.  So we may be in for a long wait before things start working properly.  I’ve already been in touch with Vitality about this, so they are aware that I’m having problems – as to what they’ll do with the payments remains to be seen.

As a side note, why is the Vitality main web site hosted in South Africa?  Member details appear to be stored within a datacentre based in Slough, however.  Very odd.  But at least my health data remains in the UK.  Hopefully.  I doubt my health data on the Watch or iPhone is shared with Apple in the US.