Wednesday, November 1, 2017

iPhone X Review Strategy and Roundup

We’re only halfway through the week and Apple has been throwing nothing but curveballs — fitting since game seven of the World Series is tonight (go Dodgers!). Before we dive into a few of the reviews, here’s what I think could be happening.

Apple’s iPhone X Review Strategy

Typically, all major tech publications, independent publishers, etc. receive evaluation units for new Apple products about a week before pre-order of the product itself. Then, there’s an publishing embargo put in place until the week of on-sale. Once the embargo lifts, the proverbial floodgates open to a multitude of reviews. 1 This time, Apple has forgone the same old formula and opted to provide varying degrees of hands-on time with iPhone X.

Review Types

Three distinct types of reviews can be derived from Apple’s strategy.

  • First Impressions. Quite a few small-time YouTubers and non-technical publications were invited to an Apple-hosted event where they had hands-on time with iPhone X. This resulted in quite a few repetitive videos showcasing the design, Face ID, Animoji, and the TrueDepth camera’s portrait lighting mode. Less technical in content, these videos are sure to appeal mostly to the followers of said groups (read: millennials and the non-technical masses).
  • 24-Hour Reviews. A second group of technically-minded folks and publications received a mere 24 hours with iPhone X, resulting in madly-dashed quasi-reviews or first impressions.
  • Standard Reviews. The third and most privileged group received a week with iPhone X, the typical pre-embargo timeframe.

Why the change?

There has been much speculation (mostly negative) as to why Apple would change their standard formula for this important part of a new device’s launch. Not helped by questionable articles such as this, most theories center around the concept that the reasoning could be to temper expectations for Face ID not working as well as promised. My gut tells me this isn’t exactly right, but not far from the path. Most that have spent time with iPhone X have indicated Face ID works well, while a few have been more vocal about its misses.

There doesn’t seem to be an exact correlation as to which publishers received more or less time with iPhone X. For instance, John Gruber only received his within the last 48 hours, and he is generally regarded as the go-to for Apple coverage. On the other hand, Steven Levy spent a week with iPhone X — quite fitting, he being one of the three early-access reviewers for the original iPhone. Further adding to the confusion, David Pogue, another one of the early-access reviewers for the original iPhone, only received 24 hours. 2

My theory is this: Face ID meets Apple’s expectations, but after the hoopla that resulted from the Apple Watch Series 3 Wi-Fi bug which was largely a non-issue in practice, Apple may have wanted to better control the experience most reviewers would have with iPhone X by restricting their hands-on time. This is where the strategy starts to take shape.

  • First Impressions. Obvious opportunity for non-technical thoughts and opinions that increase overall hype, but should only be taken at face value. These should be seen as nothing more than a brilliant marketing move, even if technically-minded folks don’t care much for the content (e.g. yours truly).
  • 24-Hour Reviews. Given to publications either more critical of Apple than others or typically-positive Apple publishers as to not appear biased. For example, Nilay Patel from The Verge is a notoriously nit picky reviewer, especially when it comes to Apple. In his review, he was very vocal about issues he had with Face ID, and went on to wildly speculate as to the reason. I’ll quote him below to provide more context. As for not appearing biased, this could explain why Apple reviewer staples like Gruber, Pogue, and Rene Ritchie also fell into this category.
  • Standard Reviews. Steven Levy from Wired and Matthew Panzarino from TechCrunch were among the small number of folks to receive a week with iPhone X. This is Apple’s way of providing what is typically expected while taking into account the oddities described above.

This is a huge launch for Apple and a major change to the iPhone line unseen since its genesis. The message here has to be very controlled and this was their way of doing it. Before review units went out, a lot of people thought Apple would only seed a small amount of devices to reviewers. We now see they’ve done quite the opposite by offering varying degress of access while still retaining a semblance of control. I would be very surprised if this format becomes the new normal for typical product launches. HomePod and iMac Pro are expectedly up next, so we’ll see.

Review Roundup

Without further ado, on to the reviews.

Matthew Panzarino for TechCrunch:

At several points, the unlock procedure worked so well in pitch black or at weird angles that I laughed out loud. You get over the amazement pretty quickly, but it feels wild the first few dozen times you do it.

It works so quickly and seamlessly that after a while, you forget it’s unlocking the device — you just raise and swipe. Every once in a while you’ll catch the Face ID animation as it unlocks. Most of the time, though, it just goes. This, coupled with the new “all swipe” interface, makes using the phone and apps feel smooth and interconnected.

This has been my favorite review. Matt took his iPhone X to Disneyland, which is a real workout for any phone. As a result, you’re left with an extremely palatable sense of what it’s capable of.

Steven Levy for Wired:

Filling the phone surface with the screen has another effect: There’s no longer room for the home button, an integral part of the iPhone interface since the start. Its sudden removal is one of those jarring deletions that Apple is famous for, and it requires some relearning. But that’s not necessarily bad: Any upgrade which doesn’t require new behavior is almost by definition not terribly dramatic. Plus, Apple hates buttons. In any case, Apple now requires us to swipe upwards to get to the home screen. That was easy enough. A little trickier is the swipe-and-stop required to get to the carousel of open apps; it took me awhile to get the hang of pressing down on one of the little cards representing an app in order to evoke a minus sign that allowed me to close it.

I knew I’d mastered the gestures when I found myself trying to use them on my iPad. Oops. My finger no longer drifts to the home button, but pathetically swipes upwards, to no avail. And now there’s that awkward moment when I expect the iPad to unlock itself when the camera looks at my face.

Rene Ritchie for iMore:

Apple is also individually calibrating every iPhone X before it leaves the factory. That’s not something most vendors do. (Some barely sample at all, others only a few per batch.) It’s something Apple’s been calibrating that way since it moved to DCI-P3 cinematic color gamut a couple of years ago.

Combined with Apple’s system-level color management, it means the display won’t look oddly blue or green, and some iPhone X won’t look cooler or warmer than others. They won’t look washed out and dull like Pixel 2 XL or oversaturated like Samsung Galaxy S8. They’ll all, every single one of them, look exactly the way nature and Apple intended — like an iPhone.

Just as I would expect from Apple.

Nilay Patel for The Verge:

In my early tests, Face ID worked well indoors: sitting at my desk, standing in our video studio, and waiting in line to get coffee. You have to look at it head-on, though: if it’s sitting on your desk you have to pick up the phone and look at it, which is a little annoying if you’re used to just putting your finger on the Touch ID sensor to check a notification.

I took a walk outside our NYC office in bright sunlight, and Face ID definitely had issues recognizing my face consistently while I was moving until I went into shade or brought the phone much closer to my face than usual. I also went to the deli across the street, which has a wide variety of lights inside, including a bunch of overhead florescent strips, and Face ID also got significantly more inconsistent.

As I said earlier, Nilay has been the most vocal about his Face ID issues. I won’t discount his experience completely, because it seems warranted to a degree. However, he also does hold the phone at some odd angles, as seen in the video portion of his review. I doubt direct sunlight is the issue, as nobody else seemed to draw this conclusion. Neil Cybart from Above Avalon even made this video in light of Nilay’s claims:

To appreciate technology, you need to have an open mind. Nothing is perfect, but remaining optimistic is the key to not letting these things deter you. Nobody said living on the bleeding edge of tech doesn’t come without hiccups.

I can’t wait to get my iPhone X on Friday and look forward to publishing my own review after spending some quality time with it.

Updated on November 2 at 12:30pm with a slight correction regarding those who received iPhone X for more than 24 hours.

  1. See: iPhone 8. The amount of reviews was a little overwhelming. 
  2. Walt Mossberg is the third and final early-access reviewer for the original iPhone, but is now retired. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review Roundup: Google Pixel 2

Google’s second-generation Pixel impresses most reviewers, even if the screen quality is less than perfect. Here’s a couple reviews that caught my eye.

David Pierce for Wired on the camera:

I was in New Orleans for the weekend, and I took pictures of drunk people in bars, jazz bands, drunk people outdoors, and gators. All, of course, to put the Pixel 2 through its paces (which is why I will be expensing all my bar tabs, please and thank you). After about a week of using both models, the Pixel 2 and the larger Pixel 2 XL, but mostly the XL, I can safely say the Pixel 2 is the Android phone to buy. Not because it has any particular otherworldly feature: the camera is fantastic, though not a full class above the Samsung Note 8 or the iPhone 8 Plus. As with last year, the Pixel 2 is just the phone that gets the most things right. It has the best, smartest, most reliable software. It’s fast. It’s waterproof. It’s interestingly and attractively designed. OK, fine, it doesn’t have a headphone jack. That sucks. But the Pixel 2’s still the phone I recommend.

The impressive picture quality of the Pixel 2’s camera is a recurring theme amongst reviewers. Even though iPhone has typically been regarded as the industry benchmark, I gotta give it up for Google here for iterating so quickly on the Pixel’s original camera.

Dieter Bohn for The Verge on the screen:

The screen, especially on the 2 XL, has been polarizing. Google opted to tune the display to sRGB (the Galaxy S8, by comparison, offers four gamut options), so it looks a little more like the iPhone’s screen. But more than that, on the 2 XL the colors look muted in a way that many Android users I’ve shown it to found distasteful (even with the “vivid colors” setting turned on). I think many Android phones, especially from Samsung, are so vivid as to be phantasmagoric, so Google’s choice was to make this more “naturalistic.”

Part of the issue, Google says, is that Oreo is the first version of Android to have proper color space control. So until now, Android developers really didn’t have a way to control precisely how their colors would look on screens. The Pixel 2 is part of an effort to fix that, but even so, the more “naturalistic” color tuning on the Pixel 2 XL (and, to a lesser extent, the smaller Pixel 2) just looks a little off. The problem gets much worse when you look at the screen from angles, the color swings simply because that’s what pOLED does.

OLED itself isn’t perfect, but it’s damn nice, even if most people don’t like the pentile pixel arrangement typically found in these screens. iPhone X is confirmed to have such an arrangement, but Apple also said its the first OLED panel “worthy of iPhone”, so it will be interesting to see how it differs from Samsung’s normal offerings. pOLED, what LG makes and is in the Pixel 2, is even further behind and will require more iteration to catch up.

In my opinion, the screen is the most important part of a phone, especially in an age where the phone is essentially becoming the screen. For it to be anything less than stellar is unfortunate.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review Roundup: iPhones 8 and Apple TV 4K

Reviews for iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and Apple TV 4K are in (and largely positive). Here are a few that caught my eye.

iPhone 8 and 8 Plus

Just know that the iPhones 8 are fast as hell thanks to the A11 Bionic chip. Now, here are some other interesting points.

Nilay Patel for The Verge on the iPhone 8’s stagnant design:

[…] And that’s really the problem — while competitors like Samsung and LG have pushed phone hardware design far forward, the iPhone has basically stood still for four years. The iPhone 8 might be the most polished iteration of this basic design Apple’s ever made, but compared to the Galaxy S8 and other Android flagships like the LG V30, it’s just extremely dated. Apple’s true competitor to those devices is the iPhone X, but the company tells us that the 8 is also a flagship phone, and those huge bezels and surfboard dimensions just don’t cut it at the top end of the market anymore.

I somewhat agree with Nilay. There is nothing exciting about the design of iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. Sure, the glass back looks nice, but it’s practically the same overall design of the iPhone 6. That said, I think it’s out of necessity. Apple obviously wants all iPhones to look and function like the iPhone X one day, but the manufacturing scale just isn’t there yet. Until then, simply changing the design of the phone for design’s sake wouldn’t be productive.

John Gruber for Daring Fireball on the A11 Bionic chip’s name:

I asked Apple last week what exactly was “bionic” about the A11 chip system. The answer, translated from Apple marketing-speak to plain English, is that The Bionic Man and Woman were cool, and the A11 chip is very cool. I think they’ve started giving these chips names in addition to numbers (last year’s was the A10 Fusion) because the numbers alone belie the true nature of how significant the improvements in these chips are. Going from A10 to A11 is like going from 10 to 11 mathematically, which implies a 10 percent improvement. That’s not the case at all here — the A11 is way more than a 10 percent improvement over the A10. So they’ve given it a name like “Bionic” to emphasize just how powerful it is.

TL;DR: marketing. I get it. Still don’t agree with Bionic, though. By comparison, A10X Fusion is much better.

On Qi “wireless” charging:

I’m glad Apple decided to support the Qi (pronounced “chee”) standard, which several Android handsets already support. This is an area where Apple has been behind its competition. You know how like 10 years ago, hotels started buying bedside alarm clocks with built-in 30-pin iPod docks? And then they were rendered useless when the iPhone switched to Lightning? And how those Lightning docks are utterly useless to Android users? If they start switching to Qi charging pads, it’ll just work for everyone, and that’s a good thing.

This is a nice addition. I suspect Qi pervasiveness is going to skyrocket due to it simply being supported by iPhone.

Apple TV 4K

Nilay Patel for The Verge on Dolby Vision HDR and content deals:

Now, you do get a lot for that $179: the Apple TV is currently the only standalone box that supports the Dolby Vision HDR standard, which is a big deal. (The $69 Chromecast Ultra supports it, but it’s spotty and it lacks its own interface.) Apple’s worked deals with most major studios to price 4K HDR movies at a cheaper $19.99 instead of the usual $29.99 Vudu and Google Play charge, which is terrific. And every HD movie you’ve already bought on iTunes will be upgraded to 4K HDR for free as they get remastered. Several of my movies have already been upgraded, which is very nice, especially because Apple’s encoding is much better than other services. If you have a large existing iTunes library or you buy a lot of movies, you might come out way ahead by investing in an Apple TV 4K.

On its limitations:

But the new Apple TV doesn’t support Atmos. And it doesn’t support YouTube in 4K HDR. And it doesn’t have Disney or Marvel movies in 4K HDR. And it makes some 1080p content look less than great.

I’m going to explain why these limitations exist, but you’ll have to bear with me. […]

Nilay’s review is extremely detailed. If you’re a TV spec buff, you’ll want to read this one.

Devindra Hardawar for Engadget on video quality:

So how do the 4K films actually look? Simply put: stunning. Kong: Skull Island started playing within a second, and it was sharp from the get-go, with no need for buffering. It’s a film with plenty of explosions, gorgeous natural imagery and giant monsters, all of which made it the perfect 4K/Dolby Vision demo. When Kong stands in front of the bright tropical sun, I had to shield my eyes a bit — it was almost as if I was looking at actual daylight. And since there are plenty of dusk and night scenes, the film really shows off HDR’s ability to add more detail to darker scenes.

Marshall Honorof for Tom’s Guide on internet speed requirements:

You’ll need a pretty powerful Internet connection to stream 4K HDR content (you need at least 25 Mbps down, which is more than what we got on a standard home Wi-Fi network), but content loads quickly and smoothly. Streams usually took just a few seconds to buffer before reaching full 1080p HD, and perhaps an additional 5 seconds before 4K HDR kicked in. This will vary depending on the strength of your internet connection, but if you have the requisite speed, the Apple TV 4K will leverage it.

It sounds like the Apple TV 4K is great, but not without its share of caveats. For someone who doesn’t care enough about 4K yet, the Apple TV needed to get faster performance-wise. The 4th generation Apple TVs are nice, but can be sluggish at times when navigating the UI. I’ve only read anecdotally that the new Apple TV 4K is better in this regard due to the A10X Fusion chip, which makes sense in theory. Also, it’s about damn time this product has a Gigabit Ethernet jack.