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!)

Apple’s September 12th presentation – some thoughts..

As a massive Apple fan who occasionally wishes he wasn’t (hence my failed attempts to go back to Windows, move to Android, etc.), yesterday’s announcements of the Apple Watch series 3, the Apple TV 4K, the iPhone 8/8 Plus and the iPhone X made for interesting viewing.

I think I may well be replacing my current 4th generation Apple TV with the 4K model for several reasons:

  • Apple is finally showing commitment to UK TV content.  Maybe they had to step on a few feet at a number of UK broadcasters to do this, but regardless of however they did it, us Brits are getting access to the Apple TV app at long last.
  • 4K HDR content that costs the same as HD content.  That’s a HUGE deal for two reasons – we should be able to get more 4K content and it won’t cost us the kind of prices being charged on UHD Blu-Ray.
  • Following on from the above – if you buy a Apple 4K TV, if there is any matching content you’ve purchased that’s available in 4K – you’ll get an upgrade from HD to 4K absolutely free of charge.

So I’m happy.  Or rather, I’m not entirely happy, as the prices of the boxes are rather steep.  But hopefully, an Apple TV 4K should last a good number of years without having needing another major hardware refresh.

The Apple Watch series 3.  For me, this isn’t that important.  I’m happy enough with my series 2.  I don’t need a cellular connection.  The one and only thing that’s of interest is the ability to charge it wirelessly.

Which brings us onto the iPhones.  I’m a bit confused with what Apple is trying to achieve here with the iPhone X and the iPhone 8/8 Plus.  The iPhone X seems very experimental.  While I’m sure Apple has solved the biggest problems with facial recognition (which Samsung absolutely has not), I think there will be problems.  The iPhone X is the first generation of its kind, and there are bound to be a few issues here and there – and while the OLED display with super thin bezels is appealing, the lack of a touch ID (at least as a backup/alternative for Face ID) and the silly pricing puts it out of my reach.

What really has put me off the iPhone X are people inevitably using Face ID at the barriers of London Underground stations and when boarding London buses.  I can just see it now – the phone doesn’t unlock, or they’re leaving the unlocking until the last minute and it delays the flow of traffic through the barriers or boarding the bus.  This is the first generation of Face ID.  I expect there will be issues.

Then there is the iPhone X’s Super Retina Display.  One of the biggest problems I have with iOS at the moment is that there are still too many developers not updating their apps to make full use of the FHD (full high definition) iPhone 6/7 Plus display.  Take National Rail’s iOS app, for example – it looks big and chunky because the development team hasn’t updated the app to take advantage of the higher resolutions of recent phones.  There are quite a few other developers guilty of this.

What I think will happen is that we’ll see one last iteration of the iPhone 6/7/8 form factor in the iPhone 9, then we’ll see the iPhone 11 which will merge everything together and will see a much lower price point as Apple fixes everything from what’s been gleaned from the public using the iPhone X.  I do not wish to be a paying beta tester for Apple (not while I have to pay through the nose for their equipment – hence why I never run any of their public betas), so the iPhone X is out for me.  Which is cool.  It’s not for everybody.

But the iPhone 8 Plus.  Now that’s tempting.  While it looks like an iPhone 7 Plus (which in itself is no bad thing), it gets wireless charging.  When I’ve briefly had Samsung phones, the ability to charge the device wirelessly was a tremendous benefit.  Now Apple is going wireless charging, this is going to be HUGE.  The True Tone display of the 10.5 iPad Pro is beautiful, so I’m glad that the iPhone 8 Plus is getting that (though it’s a shame that none of the new iPhone models are not getting the 120Hz ProMotion technology).  I’m also pleased to see the cameras get some subtle upgrades too, including new sensors and filters.  Will it surpass that of the Galaxy Note 8?  I’m not so sure, but Apple has always had pretty decent cameras and they’ve been good enough for me.

The next few months are going to be very interesting indeed as people get their hands on these new devices.  I really do hope that Apple has solved the facial recognition problem – but it’s far too early, and far too expensive, to be taking a gamble at this time.