From the insane to the mundane

Mon Sep 28, 2020

So I’m not even going to mention that thing by name, because we’re all pretty sick of it. Yes, that thing is still going on and I’m still working from home. Now that the kids are back at school, life is a lot quieter and more introspective. Definitely feels like autumn. It’s good. Life is good and I’m grateful.

Look, I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t a huge mental health crisis going on right now. A rise in things like domestic violence and substance abuse is alarming and disheartening. But for introverts, the prolonged abstention from social events can be rejuvenating. Perhaps these times will kickstart a wave of innovation from all the cloistered deep thinkers in the world.

One personal change I’m not so sure about: at some point this year, I switched from being a diehard tea drinker to a coffee drinker. It just kind of happened without me even noticing. But the coffee is so good. And I don’t think I could handle the caffeine downgrade to tea right now.

Normally we’d be talking about the new iPhones at the end of September. But, unsurprisingly, they’ve been delayed by a month or so this year. That doesn’t mean there’s no new tech to talk about - far from it. From the insane to the mundane, this month had it all.

The “insane” category is almost too easy - if you hate living in the future, then you’re really going to hate Ring’s new sentinel drone. I still can’t stop laughing at the promo video where a bungling burglar who breaks into a home is chased off by the drone that comes to investigate. The dude looks like he’s auditioning for a bad Home Alone reboot.

Ring’s security drone hasn’t been released yet, so my many questions about this thing won’t be answered for a while yet. Autonomous security drones are so ubiquitous in science fiction, I hadn’t even fully realized we don’t have them IRL yet. And now they’re coming, so maybe the idea isn’t so insane after all. Let’s be honest - it won’t be long before somebody slaps a taser on this puppy.

If you want my opinion, I think that security guards should start working on their résumés.

In other news, pricing for the next generation of consoles has been announced, and it’s going to be an interesting console war.

Microsoft’s watered-down Xbox Series S (for 1440p gaming) is going for $380 CAD and their beefed-up Series X (for 4K gaming) will be going for $600.

Sony’s PS5 without a disc drive will sell for $500, and the version with a disc drive will sell for $630. Both support 4K gaming.

I’m currently a PS4 guy, but I have some conflicted thoughts about my next gaming hardware upgrade. Firstly, I’m not interested in switching to the Xbox, so that’s out. Secondly, given the limited time I have for gaming these days, I’m not planning on upgrading to the PS5 anytime soon. Also, I watch a fair amount of TV, but I don’t have a 4K TV capable of 120fps, so it would be very nice to have that big screen upgrade in place to take advantage of the PS5’s capabilities. Given the expense of all this, now we’re talking about a multi-year plan.

I’ve heard disgruntled chatter about how the digital PS5 essentially locks you into the PlayStation Store ecosystem whereas a Blu-ray drive allows you to purchase used discs and get better deals. This take is true enough, but for me, I find the convenience of digital downloads trumps going to the mall and digging through the bargain bin. Since I only play a game or two annually, Black Friday PlayStation Store sales normally keep me going for the year.

To complicate my conflicted thoughts further, I’ve been itching to build my own PC. With all the many giveaways and bundles out there, PC games are literally free these days and I have thousands of unplayed titles in my collection. But I don’t have a Windows machine to play them on. Building my own would be a fun project. I love my 2015 MacBook Pro, but it can’t handle more than a few indie games with 8-bit graphics. Maybe that’s okay though, since I’m a grown-ass man who doesn’t have time to game like I’m 14 again?

I’ll let you know what I end up doing in a later post. I’ll also talk later about my recent obsession with mechanical keyboards.

I mentioned earlier that there were no new iPhones this month, but Apple did release a new Series 6 Apple Watch and announce a new iPad Air. They also released iOS 14.

The new iPad Air is only coming out next month, so reviews aren’t out yet, but it looks great. I have the original first-gen iPad Air and despite being kind of slow and stuck on iOS 12, it still works fine as a Netflix/YouTube machine. Unfortunately, I still can’t see a reason to evolve my iPad usage beyond watching videos at this point, so I won’t be upgrading.

The new Air is sorely tempting though - the bigger screen-to-body ratio, the blazing-fast A14 chip, the updated design with squared-off edges, and most especially, that stunning new sky blue colour.

The new Apple Watch, on the other hand, falls into the “mundane” category of this month’s new tech releases. With the same design as previous years, the two main new features (among some other minor additions, such as a 2.5 times brighter always-on display in daylight) are a slightly-faster processor and a somewhat-gimmicky blood oxygen sensor. I say gimmicky because early reviews say it just isn’t as accurate as a finger pulse oximeter.

But perhaps calling the new Apple Watch “mundane” is unfair. Sure, barring tech reviewers, you have to be either rich or stupid to upgrade from a Series 5 to a Series 6. However, if you add up all the iterative updates over the past six years, the sum is an extremely impressive wrist computer.

I’m seriously considering getting my first Apple Watch, not only to tackle my softer covid-bod with a return to better health and fitness, but also because my current fitness tracker (the Gear Fit 2) is so damn awful. Samsung has given up on supporting or developing the three-year old Gear Fit any further. I never did get proper integration with my iPhone.

I still really like the design of my Gear Fit, and it is a really nice first fitness tracker. But for iPhone users who want any functionality from their smartwatch beyond looking at the time, there’s little choice: the Apple Watch works best in the closed Apple ecosystem. A shocker, I know.

There’s more choice now too, with the Series 3 being even cheaper and a new Apple Watch SE taking up the middle ground in the lineup. The SE doesn’t have an always-on display though. I just can’t get John Gruber’s voice out of my head, talking about the Apple Watch prior to the Series 5 with an always-on display:

My collection of traditional watches is small, but the ones I own, I adore, and when I do wear one, it serves as a constant reminder that when I’m wearing my Apple Watch, I can’t always glance at it for the most basic purpose a watch serves: telling the goddamn time.

And even if I were to wear my Apple Watch exclusively, there are too many scenarios in daily life where I glance at my wrist to check the time but can’t raise my wrist to wake the Apple Watch display. A common one: walking home carrying a full cup of coffee in each hand — one for me, one for my wife.

Either way, I’m going to wait for the new iPhones before making a decision. If the rumours are correct though, the iPhone 12 is going to be very nice, but not amazing. Maybe I should clarify that. I could, of course, make the same argument I just made for the Apple Watch. An upgrade from my 6S to the 12 would absolutely be amazing.

But you know how I feel about the notch, and if there is even a small chance that next year’s iPhone ditches it… well, perhaps another year of Notch Watch might keep the dream going. Earlier this month, the first commercially-available smartphone with an under-display camera was released: the ZTE Axon 20. And Xiaomi is planning on releasing phones with under-display cameras next year. So, the technology is coming, but it’s taking longer than I thought to embed those sensors under the display. The current pace of development, as well as Apple’s slow and deliberate engineering cadence, leaves me thinking that the notch may stick around for a few more years yet.

My hesitation to upgrade this year also owes no small part to the fact that iOS 14 runs just fine on my 6S. The underlying message I get from this continuing support is that Apple has full confidence in the 6S as a capable device that I can rely on for another year. Such an endorsement is a testament to Apple’s in-house silicon design team. Nobody can argue that an equivalent Android device from 2015 has equal performance to the 6S today.

Where the 6S falls short is in the battery department and with it’s anemic single camera. But I can live with it I think. A battery case solves the inevitable power drain when leaving the house. And in good daylight conditions, the camera works to capture memories as well as any other. I just can’t take pictures of my dinner in a moodily-lit restaurant.

Yes, iOS runs just fine, and the widgets give the UI a fresh coat of paint, if nothing else. If you go by all the teenagers on TikTok posting vids of their customized home screens, you’d think Myspace theming was making a comeback. The truth is, I really enjoyed tinkering with my Android home screen back in the day. But now that it’s possible on iOS, do I have the time or the inclination to fiddle endlessly with colour-coordinated icons and widgets? Not really.

This is what I said after getting my 6S in 2015, and it still holds true five years later:

Instead, the iPhone has sort of faded away into the background. It doesn’t have a distractingly large screen. There are no widgets to fiddle with. But when called on to perform a task - it is on point; the iPhone does it well and it does it fast. Like a well-oiled weapon that never misfires - the iPhone can be counted on when you need it most.

I’m sure the new iPhones will arrive in October, so we’ll talk about them then. In the meantime: Stay sane. Stay grounded. Wear a mask.

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