by Lance Somoza

Reviews

My honest reviews of gadgets, apps, and more.


When Apple Watch was announced in 2014, many were complaining the company was late yet again to another emerging market. Fast-forward only three years and Apple Watch is purportedly the top-selling watch in the world by revenue (according to Apple). Yes, the top-selling watch, surpassing even Rolex. Just yesterday, Horace Dediu published fascinating analysis of Apple Watch sales which seems to corroborate Apple’s claim.

As you will glean from my review, Apple Watch Series 3 is the epitome of the original. It accomplishes everything the first one set out to do and takes it one step further with the addition of a cellular radio. Think of Series 3 as a high school graduate. It’s not truly independent from iPhone, but it has moved out of the house and is living above the iPhone’s garage. It still needs the iPhone for the foreseeable future, but just took its first big step towards being a grownup.

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Table of Contents

From Fashion to Fitness

One marketing change I noticed is Apple’s downplay of the Watch-as-high-fashion narrative introduced with the original model. Fitness and health gets more of the attention now in terms of features, marketing, and frankly importance. Of course the Apple Watch is still the best-looking smartwatch on the market, but it’s hard to continue hyping the same design for three years. Further proof of this is supported by the disappearance of the solid gold Edition models when Series 2 debuted last year.

That aside, the fitness capabilities of Series 3 are great, if largely the same as previous versions. It now has an altimeter for tracking elevation on its own (i.e. stairs climbed), and the Workout app is highly responsive thanks to the the new S3 System In a Package (SIP for short)

Design

My original Apple Watch was the 42mm Space Black Stainless Steel model. It cost a pretty penny, yes, but that was before I had a daughter. This time, I opted for the Apple Watch Series 3 (GPS+LTE) 42mm in Space Grey aluminum much to the happiness of my wallet, I’m sure.1 I’m happy to say the Space Grey model is really nice and I don’t miss the Space Black as much as I thought I would.

The design itself is identical to the original model that started shipping in 2015. That’s not to say it’s a bad design — I quite like it. However, Apple Watch needs to be a fashionable product, and I would have to think Series 4 will see design changes in some larger capacity (not just a new crown color).

The Red Dot Crown

Before I delve into its purpose, I’ll just say that I personally like the red dot crown. Red and grey are my favorite colors, so I have no objections. 2 I see why others may not like it, though. Red can be very polarizing. If the crown were any color besides red, black, white, or grey, I might take personal issue with it.

I said on Fatherboard Episode 003 that Apple differentiating a product by making an arbitrary design change didn’t sound like them. Cases in point: iPhone X has a different design because it follows function with its edge-to-edge screen and notched sensor housing. The same can be said for the the glass back (on iPhones 8 as well). This design change was facilitated by the new wireless charging function. Until now, there was little functional reason to change the design that originated with iPhone 6.

Then, I remembered Apple Watch is still technically a fashion product. Looking at it from this perspective, the addition of the red dot makes complete sense whether you like the color or not. Not that I’m a fashion expert, but three years seems like an awfully long time to use the same design for such a product. Apple needed to distinguish the cellular model from the bunch since there is no outward-facing function to influence the design (like the iPhone examples mentioned above). The crown was the simplest and most subtle place to put this mark, in my opinion. Any other place would have been too distracting.

As for future models, I can see the red dot crown situation going one of two ways. Apple may remove it completely when all models come with cellular or a new series has its own major design changes. Conversely, if this design is going to be around for a while longer, they may continue to use it to differentiate internal upgrades.

That’s quite a few words for a little red dot.

Finishes

Much to everyone’s surprise, and chagrin of my wife, there is no more aluminum rose gold finish (for either Apple Watch, iPhones 8 or iPhone X as a matter of fact). I was shocked, since I thought rose gold was more popular than plain gold just by observations in public. That said, the gold finish Apple is using now is more vibrant and less tacky-looking than the prior one. Perhaps Apple wanted to reduce the number of SKUs and the new gold seemed like a good middle ground.

The other new finish Series 3 comes in is the Ceramic Gray Edition model. If money were no object, I would opt for this model in a heartbeat. I’ve only seen pictures online, but it looks like a lighter, shiny version of the aluminum Space Gray.

I’m a little surprised Apple didn’t introduce any new casing materials this time around (tungsten or titanium, perhaps?).

Performance

Aside from the obvious addition of cellular, this is the most exciting part of the new Apple Watch, and I think Apple should be more vocal about it.

Compared to the Original Apple Watch

Compared to my original Watch, or ‘Series 0’ as it has been dubbed by the community, this thing is an absolute beast. It has an upgraded dual-core processor in its new S3 SIP which enables the Watch to fly. Everything is faster; launching apps, dictating, Siri, sending messages, navigating the UI, you name it. For a ‘Series 0’ Watch owner, this is the main thing I wanted in the Apple Watch. My ‘Series 0’ had become so slow, I had been using it less and less over the past year. I haven’t stopped using my Series 3 since I got it.

The Watch’s biggest goal is to accomplish iPhone tasks in less time and with more efficiency, while providing a compelling reason to do so. This Apple Watch nails all of this, largely thanks to this big jump in performance.

Compared to Series 1/Series 2

I have my wife’s Series 1 Watch to make this comparison, as Series 1 and 2 share the same S2 SIP with dual-core processor. My Watch is noticeably faster than hers, but I wouldn’t say it’s enough to justify the upgrade from Series 1/2 to Series 3 alone. If you’re on the fence about this decision, take everything else into account before performance.

Battery Life

Battery life has been both phenomenal and Apple Watch’s biggest opportunity for improvement at the same time. Series 3 receives a tiny bump in capacity from Series 2. This pales in comparison from the bump Series 2 received (+30% over ‘Series 0’), but that’s not a bad thing for now.

At the end of the day while mostly tethered to my phone, I’ve been averaging about 60% — 70% remaining battery life. That’s with medium usage, including a 30-minute drumming workout, various texts, driving directions, and notifications. This Watch could last me two days without a charge, which is similar to what I’ve heard about Series 2.

While making phone calls with only the Watch’s built-in cellular radio, battery does drain noticeably faster. Apple only promises one hour of talk time in this scenario, and that seems about right to me. Since our reliance on actual phone calls is on an ever-downward trend, this is probably not a big issue for most. However, with processing performance hitting acceptable levels, battery life now becomes Apple Watch’s largest opportunity for improvement. It’s an opportunity I’m honestly not sure how Apple will address. They have continued to refine chipsets and their software to become more power efficient, but there is a point where you just need more physical space for a battery. I don’t see the Apple Watch’s casing slimming down anytime soon for this reason. More on cellular performance below.

As the Watch is becoming more utilitarian, Apple could theoretically make a Watch band with batteries in it for those that really need the extra juice. It would be akin to a battery case for your iPhone. If you need to use it every day, you lose a little flexibility with your band selection, but I’m sure they would look fashionable in their own right.

Cellular

On to the tent-pole feature of Apple Watch Series 3. I have seen so many people online question why Apple would add a cellular radio to the Watch, but I always thought it was clear to see this was the next logical progression for this device.

Setup

During the pairing process, you will be asked if you want to add the device to your cellular plan. Simply tap “Set Up Cellular” and you will be redirected to complete enrollment via your carrier’s website. This was a breeze for me, though I hear some experienced issues, which would be typical for a new device on launch day. Once done, my Watch activated itself after about a minute.

You can use the Watch without cellular, of course. Simply tap “Skip This Step” instead.

Cellular setup page.
Cellular setup page.

Price

Most US carriers are charging a $10/month fee to use your Watch on your existing data plan. Verizon, my carrier, is offering the first three months for free so that’s cool. The price is pretty high for a device that will only use cellular as a last resort — not to mention if you have multiple Watches on the same account. I had predicted $5/month, but carriers are notoriously greedy so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

How it Works

Apple Watch’s data connection has always followed a priority that goes like this: iPhone (Bluetooth) > Known Wi-Fi Network.

Adding in the Watch’s own internal cellular radio complicates things a little bit. Here is the new priority: iPhone (Bluetooth) > Known Wi-Fi Network > Internal cellular radio.

In other words, Series 3 tries to utilize its new cellular radio as little as possible. As a matter of fact, it will only use it if your iPhone isn’t around and it can’t connect to a known Wi-Fi network. Once back in range of either of these options, it will switch back over, but not always as quickly as it should.

Checking Signal

iOS 11 ditches the dots for signal indication and watchOS inherits them (they fit in much better here). You can view your cellular signal strength one of two ways:

  1. Using the new ‘Explorer’ watch face.
  2. Swiping up from the watch face and looking in the top-left corner.

Note: signal dots will only appear if the radio is actively being used.

Left to right: Explorer watch face with signal indicator, cellular button and signal indicator, cellular toggle with details.
Left to right: Explorer watch face with signal dots, cellular button and signal dots, cellular toggle with details.

Phone Calls

I’ve made a few calls directly from my Watch’s cellular radio and they’ve been fantastic. I haven’t experienced any audio quality issues or dropped calls. This feels incredibly futuristic, especially when combined with AirPods. 3

Data

Using cellular data on the Watch is a little complicated.

For instance, some carriers prevent sending SMS texts from the Watch over cellular. It’s not exactly clear at this point whether this is a bug or policy. iMessage still works no matter what, so if most of the people you text have blue bubbles, you’re all set.

Also, not all third-party apps have been updated to take advantage of the new cellular radio. These are still dependent on the iPhone to function in some capacity. For instance, the TuneIn Radio app won’t stream content without being tethered to an iPhone.

Switching between Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and Cellular

Apple needs to work on this part, as evidenced by the captive portal hotspot issue caught by a few journalists last week. I haven’t experienced this issue myself, but I typically never use open Wi-Fi networks with captive portals.

That said, I did experience some delays when the Apple Watch was trying to switch between radios. Here’s a couple scenarios in which this happened.

Scenario One

My iPhone was in the bedroom and I was in the living room with my Watch (about 60 feet apart in a straight line). I tried to issue a command via Siri and it wasn’t responding. I got the dreaded “Hold on…” message from Siri. 4 In my opinion, the Watch should have switched directly to my home Wi-Fi network instead of hanging on to the iPhone via a low Bluetooth signal.

In fact, the Watch should always connect to known Wi-Fi networks even if your phone is around, but that may come at cost of battery life. I would love to see this happen eventually, as it would surely make for a more cosistent connection.

The truth is this isn’t new to Series 3, but something that has occurred since ‘Series 0’. It’s an underlying problem that’s tough to get right.

Scenario Two

I left my iPhone in the car while I ran into the drug store. The Watch took a couple minutes to activate its cellular radio, and when it did, I was unable to dictate an iMessage (no transcription appeared as I spoke). I had to use the Scribble feature to write my text, but it did send (odd).

Both of these scenarios left me shaking my head a little bit, as it’s something that should have been worked out in software. Apple has promised to fix the captive portal issue in a future update, but I they need to address radio switching as a whole to improve the experience. Also worth noting: as with all previous versions, you can’t toggle Wi-Fi on and off with Series 3.

Talking Siri

Siri now talks on Series 3 thanks to its upgraded processor. This is something I didn’t think I’d care for, but it has actually proven really nice to have voice feedback in most cases. A good example is when controlling your HomeKit devices. I can raise my wrist, tell Siri to unlock the door, and just drop my hand. A couple seconds later, I hear an audible “That’s done.” from thin air. It’s such a small thing, but it has a big impact. It makes the Watch feel more powerful and alive.

Siri is super fast now, too. I view it as the primary way to engage with the Watch, and Apple is increasingly positioning it at the forefront of their ecosystem. Siri is the voice of Apple devices, so to see how much better it works on the new Watch compared to the older models is highly encouraging. It’s almost as fast as yelling at Alexa on my Echo Dot to accomplish the same task. Because of these improvements, Alexa and I haven’t been on speaking terms much.

Apple Music Streaming

Coming this Fall, you will be able to stream Apple Music directly to your Watch over cellular. This effectively will make the Watch an always-connected iPod Nano. Just imagine going on a run with your Watch and AirPods while streaming any song on command. How amazing is that? Apple hasn’t given a hard date for this functionality, but I’m looking forward to testing it out once available.

What’s Next?

With Apple checking off the cellular box for Apple Watch, one wonders what upgrades a Series 4 (and beyond) model will see. Here’s a few things I can think of.

Battery Innovation

As I mentioned above, I think this is the Watch’s greatest opportunity for improvement. So many new features will be dependent on a better battery. Apple needs to push the envelope on battery technology like they have done with terraced cells in the MacBook. There could still be potential to make the battery bigger as miniaturization marches on, but that’s only part of the puzzle. Further optimization and new battery (or even charging) technology will drive major changes to the Apple Watch in the future.

Always-On Watch Face

I think this will happen in time, but is highly dependent on battery improvements. Raise-To-Wake works well, but there are times you can’t raise your wrist (e.g. when carrying something). Being able to glance the time simply by looking would be great. 5

New Finishes and Design Changes

Low-hanging fruit to spice up the product line is needed before the design starts to become stale.

Apple Watch as Keys

Tim Cook wants Apple Watch to replace our keys, but there hasn’t been much traction in this area. Sure, we can use it to unlock our Mac, but that’s within Apple’s own ecosystem.

I use it as such to unlock my smart deadbolt, but it would be even more amazing if it could also unlock my car. This is probably more on the software and automaker partnership side, but this would be a perfect use case for Apple Watch. I mean, who likes carrying keys?

Conclusion

There’s not much left to be said.

Series 3 proves the Watch is not a novelty, but a product coming into its own. I speculated it could be the ‘iPhone 4’ of its line, and I stand by those remarks after using it. One day, the Watch will move out of the iPhone’s garage and into its own apartment as it becomes more of a must-have device just like the iPod.


  1. Shh… little does it know iPhone X pre-orders are next. ↩︎

  2. Plus, you know, the obvious HAL9000 connotations and all that. ↩︎

  3. Dick Tracy, eat your heart out. ↩︎

  4. Side note: Apple really should remove this particular message. Siri telling me to hold on makes me feel like my time isn’t valuable. Her existing “One sec…” or “I’ll tap you when I’m ready.” messages seem more appropriate. ↩︎

  5. It is a watch, after all… ↩︎

Introduction

iOS 11 is out today, beginning at 10AM Pacific. I’ve been using it exclusively on my iPhone 7 Plus and iPad Pro 10.5-inch since the developer beta was released back in June. I have to say, this is probably the most jam-packed iOS release Apple has ever published. There are so many features, but I’m going to give you my thoughts on the ones I believe are most meaningful and important after using them day in and day out.

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Table of Contents

Shared Updates (iPhone & iPad)

To start us off, here’s a collection of updates shared between iPhone and iPad.

Control Center

This one is sure to be a big crowd pleaser, as we can finally customize Control Center.

On iPhone, Control Center now takes up the the entire screen upon engagement. On the iPad, it sits to the far-right of the new App Switcher (more on that later). 1

It may first seem a little jarring, given the different sizes of elements and methods to control them, but the new Control Center is leaps and bounds better than its previous implementations. All the basic controls are here in similar forms. Here’s a rundown:

  • 3D Touch is everywhere. Almost every single widget has additional options accessible by 3D Touch (or a long press on devices without 3D Touch).
  • Toggling Wi-Fi and Bluetooth doesn’t permanently turn these radios off. Instead, it disconnects from your current network or device and only turns the radios off temporarily. Quite a few people don’t like this, but I do. I realized most of the time I turn these off, I don’t want it to be permanent anyway. Apple clearly wants us to keep these radios on nigh-24/7 to allow for frictionless interaction within its ecosystem (e.g. AirPlay, AirDrop).
  • Music: I much prefer this layout, since I can pause/play music without swiping left or right first (old Control Center). There’s also a nice little shortcut to get to your audio outputs in the upper-right corner. This makes switching to AirPods or AirPlay a breeze.
  • Vertical Brightness/ Volume sliders. SO much better than the old horizontal sliders. They follow the exact same design as the Home app’s controls for dimmable lighting, so they should be instantly familiar to some.
  • There are a few new optional widgets you can add, all customizable from the Control Center > Customize menu in the Settings app. Here are my favorites:
    • Apple TV: Now you can control the Apple TVs on your network right from Control Center. It has all the same functions as the Siri remote, and will also prompt you to type something when you enter a text field on the Apple TV. You don’t even need to install Apple TV app proper. I use this little widget so much. It’s really fantastic.
    • Screen Recording: Quite a surprise from Apple. Pretty straightforward little widget that allows you to record your screen (3D Touch for microphone input option). A red status bar lets you know recording is in progress. Once done, the video is saved to your Camera Roll.
    • Notes: Now, you can create a new note with one tap inside of Control Center — even from the lock screen! This makes taking a note on-the-go really fast and simple no matter where you are currently at in the system.

I was hoping for the capability to quickly change Wi-Fi networks from Control Center, but sadly Apple has not deemed it worthy. Maybe iOS 12 will finally bring us this.

Files App

Before iOS 11, we had the iCloud Drive app. It was nice when you needed to get something in iCloud Drive, but that’s about it. In iOS 11, iCloud Drive has essentially morphed into the Files app.

I would describe Files as a barebones Finder. It doesn’t allow you access to system resources, of course, but it borrows a lot of the same functionality. Right from the app, you can browse all your files: local, iCloud Drive, and other cloud services like Box, Dropbox, etc. By default, most 3rd-party apps will appear in Files with the old document selector interface. Developers will need to update their apps to be fully compatible with the new Files API, which allows them to take full advantage of native navigation and all the other features.

You can tag files for easy grouping, as well as favorite them for quick access. It’s simple, but very welcome — especially when working between iPhone and iPad.

Notifications

This is the most disappointing part of iOS 11, in my opinion. Apple introduced so many nice tweaks in this release, but for some reason, they really struggle with notifications.

Swiping down from the status bar still reveals the ‘Notification Center’, but it now highly resembles your Lock screen (it shares its wallpaper and big, bold time). Initially confusing, Apple has made a few refinements which mostly leave us right where we left off with iOS 10. You can still swipe left to view actionable items on each notification or swipe right to open the corresponding app.

Throughout the betas of iOS 11, Apple played with Notification Center’s UX quite a bit. Initially, it was renamed ‘Cover Sheet’, but the final version of iOS 11 removes reference to this name entirely. Confusingly, I guess we’ll still continue to call it Notification Center.

One new change that has stuck is that older notifications are segregated by a swipe. To see notifications from earlier in the day (or previous days), you have to decidedly swipe up (versus simply scrolling a list). I fail to see how this is helpful since you’re still left with the same endless stream of notifications. Apple clearly has conflicting ideas of how this should be handled, but I hope they get it together for iOS 12. I keep wondering how Apple execs can live with notifications in this sad state of affairs.

App Store Redesign

The App Store has been updated with more of a focus on storytelling and discovery. The ‘Today’ view includes featured apps, along with developer interviews describing how the app was made, the story behind it, etc. This is really great, and it fosters a real sense of careful curation.

Another big change is in the form of separated tabs for Apps and Games. The thinking here is that all games are apps, but not all apps are games. I think this is a very logical change that will make it easier to filter through these categories separately.

One other thing I noticed is in relation to app updates. Apple no longer tells you how large the file size is for app updates, even though the max download size remains 100MB on cellular. With all the optimization Apple has done to help us use as little space as possible on our devices, this seems to be an area they want us to concern ourselves with less and less.

Siri

There are a few nice little additions to Siri, like word suggestions while you’re typing based off things you’ve recently looked at. There’s also voice translation built in, so you can ask her things like “How do you say ‘hello’ in Spanish?”.

The most obvious change is Siri’s voice. It sounds so much better and more lifelike. Apple has discussed the techniques behind this transformation in a recent entry in their Machine Learning Journal.

Siri can also work with more kinds of apps such as notes, to-do lists, and visual codes (think QR). I haven’t had a chance to test this out yet, but I’m looking forward to trying out Todoist, which has already been updated to take advantage of the new Siri integration.

Still glaringly noticeable is Siri’s inability to work with third-party music streaming apps like Spotify. This is a feature still reserved for Apple Music, and may possibly remain that way for the foreseeable future, as it is a nice selling point for the service. One of the big reasons I switched to Apple Music from Spotify was because of Siri (especially when engaged via the Watch).

Apple clearly has huge plans for Siri, as it is becoming increasingly pushed to the forefront of iOS. Coupled with their strong commitment to machine learning, I’m hoping Siri will run on-device in the near future instead of sending all requests to Apple’s servers for processing. You have to think that’s one of the main goals, as it would resolve the odd lag times that can be experienced during a Siri request.

Apple Music

Apple is making yet another attempt at social networking-esque features for their music service. 2 This time, it’s a little more simplistic. You can follow your friends on Apple Music and see their shared playlists, albums, stations, etc.

That said, the service is still behind Spotify in this area. For instance, there are still no collaborative playlists, whereby you and others can curate playlists together. There’s still no band equalizer, a feature I’ve ranted about before. Apple Music has come a long way since it’s debut, though. These missing features are low-hanging fruit, and I would think Apple will address some of them in iOS 12.

AirPlay 2

AirPlay, Apple’s proprietary audio syncing and playback protocol, advances to version two. The most notable new feature: simultaneous, multi-room playback across AirPlay 2 speakers on your network.

AirPlay 2 is clearly a necessity of Apple’s first connected speaker, HomePod, due out in December. With its sights clearly set on Sonos, I’m looking forward to seeing HomePod and AirPlay 2 in action.

Another feature of AirPlay 2 ties in to HomeKit. Now, you can add AirPlay 2-compatible speakers to your HomeKit environment. This will open the door to native automation involving audio. 3

Home App/HomeKit

As for the Home app itself, you can now set multi-location-based triggers for anyone in your Family Sharing account who has access to your home. This is huge, and will allow for much easier creation of these types of automations. Here’s a real-life example:

Turning on certain lights only when the first family member arrives home.

To achieve this currently, I’m using this setup: Life360 app on my phone and my wife’s, IFTTT, and the Lurton Caséta app. Life360 continuously tracks our location, IFTTT reads this location data and triggers a scene in the Lurton Caséta app to turn on certain lights only if one of us isn’t home already. Get it? This makes sure the lights don’t change if my wife is already home or vice versa. This is a fairly easy thing to setup, but knowing how to do it is the problem. It’s terribly complicated for the average person to figure out, so I’m really excited we’ll be able to do it natively in the Home app with iOS 11. You can also ensure automations only happen on specific dates and/or times, if you wish. There is one caveat, though: you need at least a 4th-generation Apple TV or iPad to act as a home hub.

In addition, Apple is making it easier for hardware manufacturers to make their products HomeKit-certified with software encryption. Up until iOS 11, manufacturers had to meet Apple’s stringent encryption standards by means of hardware. This is a large reason why the vast majority of smart home products don’t support HomeKit — it was an additional expense, additional engineering, all of the above. Now, manufacturers will be able to easier implement the same high-level of security demanded by Apple within software. We could even see software updates for existing devices that introduce HomeKit compatibility. I’m hopeful for a HomeKit boom in the coming year because of this.

ARKit and Core ML

Apple has included powerful augmented reality and machine learning APIs for developers to use in iOS 11.

Since Beta 1, developers have begun to build impressive apps with ARKit. Not to mention iPhone 8 and iPhone X will offer even more power in this arena, given their upgraded cameras are specifically tuned for AR in the factory.

Machine learning is less of a show-off, but expect developers to take advantage of both of these APIs with haste. AR and ML are huge focus areas for Apple. They are not just the next random trends in the industry, but technologies that will change the way we use computers of all shapes and sizes.

Small, but mighty features

Here’s a list of additional little features that kick ass.

New Screenshot workflow with Markup

After taking a screenshot, a small rendition of it appears in the bottom-left portion of your screen. From here, you can:

  • Tap it to enter into the Markup view, where you can quickly annotate and send it, with an option to save or delete the screenshot.
  • Swipe it away to save it to your camera roll. This happens automatically if you do nothing with it after about a minute.
  • Tap & hold it to bring up the share sheet.

This is really awesome and elegant. It also helps to de-clutter your Camera Roll, since you can easily delete one-off screenshots.

Wi-Fi Credential Sharing

When connecting a friend’s iPhone or iPad to your network, you can now wirelessly and securely send the password to their device with a press of a button (provided they are in your phone’s contacts). Simply be in range of their device with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi one. Once they select the password field for your network, you will be prompted to send it over to their device, and your friend is instantly joined to your network. So easy, fun, and more secure than typing/sharing your password.

Notes Improvements

You can now show ruled lines in Notes (via Settings > Notes). This is helpful on iPad if you use Apple Pencil or other stylus to take handwritten notes. Furthermore, writing with a stylus no longer requires a standalone image aside from your text. Simply write as you normally would on paper, and your markings appear amongst your text. There’s also a built-in document scanner (powered by ARKit) that works incredibly well. You can scan documents at odd angles and iOS captures them almost perfectly.

Space-Saving

Apple has introduced a few new methods to help us to save space on our devices. For example, we can offload apps from the Settings > General > iPhone Storage screen, review messages with large attachments, or auto delete old conversations. Offloading an app will delete the app’s system files, but keep its documents and data around, should you reinstall it in the future.

Photos Face Sync

Labeling people’s faces in the Photos app now syncs across your devices with iCloud (privately and securely, of course). This will make for a much better experience since you no longer have to set this up per device.

Password Autofill

This is so damn handy. If you use iCloud Keychain to store your passwords for websites, it can now automatically suggest stored credentials within apps. Imagine loading the Amazon app for the first time and the iOS keyboard recommending your Amazon credentials from iCloud Keychain. This makes signing in lightning fast. Some might say Apple is sherlocking 1Password, LastPass, and the like, but those services offer additional features if you’re into that kind of thing. For me, the iOS 11 implementation takes the cake because it’s built in and I don’t even have to do anything.

Apple Maps: Lane Guidance and One-Finger Zoom

YES. Lane guidance is the only reason I still have longed to use Google Maps, but not anymore. This is super helpful, especially when combined with CarPlay. One-finger zoom is also nice — just double-tap and drag up or down. Apple Maps sure has come a long way. I have used it as my sole maps app since the original Apple Watch launched.

Camera app: Native QR Code Scanning

About damn time. QR codes are great for non-sensitive information, and the Camera app can now detect codes containing website links, contacts, Wi-Fi network connection info, 4 and more.

Automatic Setup

When setting up a new device, you can automatically transfer your base settings from an existing device by bringing it within close proximity`. I tested this a couple times, and it’s fantastic. It greatly cuts down on the lengthy initial iOS setup process.

Features Coming Soon

Apple announced a couple features slated for iOS 11 that have since received delays, and are therefore ‘coming soon’ in a minor update. I’m looking forward to reviewing these once released.

Apple Pay Cash and Card

Person-to-person payments like Venmo or Square Cash. Payments are stored in your Wallet’s Apple Pay Card. From there, you can use the card like a debit card in stores or on websites that support Apple Pay. Alternatively, you can withdraw the amount to your banking account. Fees and miscellaneous details are yet to be determined.

iMessage in the Cloud

Instead of all your Apple devices independently downloading iMessages, your messages will be stored in the cloud by default (if you opt-in). Apple promises better notification syncing between devices because of this and less messages-out-of-order oddities.

iPad-Specific Updates

The iPad is on a huge upswing. For the first time in a long time, Apple reported sales are up (15% Year/Year) for Q3 2017, partially thanks to the new, cheaper ‘iPad’. Factoring in iOS 11 changes and two incredibly-powered iPads Pro, this has been a great year for the tablet leader.

The features iPad receives in iOS 11 is just short of what many would look for in a standalone iPad OS. I’ve been a huge proponent of the device since it was introduced and have purchased at least six different versions over the years. I can confidently say iOS 11 course-corrects from the iPad-as-gigantic-iPhone narrative. It doesn’t solve every problem, but it’s a big leap forward and reassures Apple has not forgotten about meaningful innovation for the device’s software.

Drag And Drop (All the things)

This is a big one. Drag and drop is built into iOS at its core. That is to say, you can drag and drop all the things. For instance: apps for split-view, URLs, blocks of text, images, handwritten notes, and more once developers update their apps to take advantage of the new API. Simply tap and hold (briefly), then drag and drop.

I’m selling it short. The truth is it’s amazing and incredibly well thought out. You can even start to drag something, switch apps by any means possible, then drop in an app of your choosing. More on this below.

Dock and App Switcher

The revamped Dock is a core feature of multitasking and productivity on iPad. Here’s a list of its new features and methods for interacting with the Dock.

  • Fits up to 15 apps, depending on your screen size (e.g. iPad Pro 10.5-inch holds 13 apps, iPad Pro 12.9-inch holds 15.)
  • Since you can create folders inside of it, you can have a ton of apps quickly at your disposal no matter where you are. Not new, but this is super helpful when it comes to multitasking. You’ll see why in the next section.
  • Recent apps. On the right side of the dock, iOS will dynamically show apps you haven’t manually put in your dock, but have recently used. This enables quick access and easy multitasking for these apps. Hand Off and Siri-recommended apps have also been relocated here to the far-right app slot. For instance, if you want to Hand Off a website in Safari from your iPhone to iPad, you’ll see the Safari icon here with an iPhone glyph indicating the Hand Off opportunity.
  • Pervasiveness. The dock can now be accessed throughout the system without returning to the Home screen. Simply perform a short flick up from the bottom edge to reveal the dock. From here, you can quickly switch apps or multitask with them. This really makes the dock highly versatile and more important than ever.

The App Switcher has also received a redesign. Here are the highlights:

  • Consists of the app carousel, Control Center, and the Dock.
  • App previews inside the carousel are now tiled instead of full screen, fitting six on screen at one time for quicker app switching. This is so much better than previously implementations.
  • Control Center is located to the far-right of the carousel.
  • Accessible from double-tapping the Home button or swiping half way up from the bottom edge (past the Dock).

I really love the new Dock and App Switcher. Combined, they make for a powerful new multitasking experience.

Multitasking

Apple has revamped multitasking on iPad. Split View is still around, where you can have two apps side by side and adjust them in 1/3, 1/2, or full screen increments. Popover is still here, too, where you can float an app above your current one and swipe it away to the right of the screen for quick access.

The new aspects of multitasking include greater flexibility in managing apps. For instance, gone is the endless vertical app carousel use to scroll through and find an app to use in Split View or Popover. Instead, you simply drag and drop a second app into place by its icon. Dragging it to the left or right edge of the screen mounts it in Split View. Dragging it anywhere else makes it a Popover. Other means of accomplishing this include:

  • From the Dock: swipe up to reveal the dock, tap & hold, drag an app icon, drop in your current app or switch to another one first in Split View or Popover.
  • From the Home screen: tap, hold, and drag an app icon, rinse and repeat.
    • You can even enter the App Switcher, hover on top of an open app, enter it, and drop inside.
  • From within apps: press CMD+Space on an hardware keyboard to enter Spotlight Search, search for an app, tap and hold, rinse and repeat. This is a really powerful one. I’m curious as to why Apple didn’t enable this same functionality when you use Spotlight Search from the Notification Center’s widgets search box. In other words, you can’t do this with the built-in iOS software keyboard.

It’s also worth specifically noting the leftmost app is no longer the “main app” when in Split View. That is to say, you can drag and drop over the left or right app to replace it with another. In addition, you can make the left or right app full screen by dragging the slider all the way to the edge.

iPads with 4GB of RAM or more can run two apps in Split View and a third app in Popover at the same time (in addition to an optional PIP video). To achieve this, simply hold, drag, and drop the third app’s icon over the vertical multitasking bar dividing your Split View apps. Note: iPads with less than 4GB of RAM won’t be able to take advantage of all these features. iMore has a good breakdown.

The new multitasking UX on iPad is a huge start on what we iPad proponents have been wanting from this powerhouse tablet. That said, there are a few other things Apple can do to move the needle on this feature in iOS 12, such as:

  • Multiple instances of one app. This would be helpful for certain apps, but I realize it’s mostly a fringe use case. One day, though.
  • Ability to save Split View pairings. For instance: being able to launch Notes and Safari in Split View from one tap of an app icon shortcut.
  • Better management of Popover apps. Popover apps remain persistent between app switches. For example: if you launch Safari in Popover, then go to another app and launch Safari from the dock, it will reappear in Popover mode within the app you switched to. There are some cases where you forget this and really mean to switch directly to Safari (full screen). It can be a little annoying to either mount Safari as a Split View app first, then drag the handle to make it full screen, or launch Safari from the Home screen. It’s not the end of the world, but I have to think there’s a better way to manage this.

Conclusion

iOS 11 has my full support. Apple really brought out the big guns this time — and this isn’t even everything. Like I said at the top, this review doesn’t touch on every feature, but hones in on the most meaningful ones after using iOS 11 for months.

Most people think of iOS as feature-complete, and it definitely is in certain aspects. The truth is, Apple is still finding ways to better the mobile experience. They have added so many great features across the board with iOS 11, it may even be a little overwhelming to remember everything you can do.

iPad was such a huge focus of this update, and I hope they iterate on its new features come iOS 12. It really is exciting to think about the opportunities. The new multitasking and dock experience puts us closer to a 1:1 parity with laptops than we’ve ever been. We’re definitely not all the way there yet, but iPad just took its first big step towards realizing Tim Cook’s vision. Putting my money where my mouth is (or hands are), everything I write for Gaddgict is from the Editorial app on my 10.5-inch iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard. Something about doing the same on a Mac feels less compelling than an iPad. I think we’re going to see more of this as iPad progresses. 5

If Apple keeps this up, iPad really might be the future of computing for most people.

Note: there are also special iOS 11 features for iPhone X, of which I’ll talk about when I’ve had it in my hands. 6


  1. I’ve always wondered why Apple didn’t make Control Center a full screen UI to begin with. It’s not like the 3/4 UI we had was helpful at all. So we could see 1/4 of our current screen behind the menu — big deal. ↩︎

  2. Remember Ping? ↩︎

  3. I’m looking forward to hearing Rush’s ‘Working Man’ when I arrive home from work, for instance. ↩︎

  4. This one is really cool. ↩︎

  5. I love my MacBook Pro and wouldn’t trade it for an iPad just yet. ↩︎

  6. Hopefully not too long after November 3rd. ↩︎

Two weeks ago, Amazon debuted Echo Show, the first smart speaker with a touchscreen. I’ve been using it since it launched, and I’m struggling to find its greater purpose beyond what the Echo and Echo Dot have already realized. Right now, it seems like it has a screen mostly just for the sake of having one, rather than solving a specific problem.

We’ve all survived using other Echo devices sans-screen, so I find myself wondering if it will eventually be compelling. As such, my review will touch on its design, interaction, and areas where I feel the screen adds value.

Expand Review

Table of Contents

Design

The Echo Show comes in two colors: black and white. Its design is striking, but not in a good way. Its blocky and sharp angles make it look out of place almost anywhere you put it. Frankly, it’s bulky and dull.

The top of the casing contains three buttons: microphone/camera toggle, volume up, and volume down. When the microphone/camera button is pressed, a red LED displays next to the camera to indicate the mic and camera are off.

Screen

The 7-inch touchscreen is the main feature. Upon detecting motion, it lights up from its dimmed state. When not in direct use, the home screen displays built-in wallpapers1, the time, tips, and news headlines. Thanks to a new feature, it can also display delivery status for your Amazon orders.

As an Input Method

The screen clearly takes a back seat when it comes to interacting with the Show. Voice is still the primary input, and you’ll find yourself using the touchscreen only if you’re within a few feet of the device already. It functions fine enough, with menus hidden via a downward edge swipe from the top.

Quality

The screen quality is passable, but it’s no comparison to say, an iPad. Viewing angles for video aren’t great past a couple feet to the left or right.

Washed out to hell.

Regardless, who would want to watch a movie on this thing anyway? You’d have to sit within 2-3 feet to even see what’s happening. This might be the case for an iPad mini and other tablets, but at least you can move those from place to place and hold them closer.

Speakers & Music

The speaker system in the Show is only better than the Echo or Echo Dot in terms of max volume. Sure, it goes to 11, but music sounds bad. Will it be fine for playing a song while cooking or doing chores? Yeah, but if you care how music sounds (and you should), the Echo Show is not going to impress with its shallow bass and tinny highs. This differs highly from the Echo line’s newly-announced competitor: Apple HomePod. Positioned as an audio-first device, HomePod is engineered to be impressive in this area. We’ll see when it drops in December.

In short, if you want great-sounding audio from your smart speaker, don’t get the Show (or any Echo for that matter). Get a Sonos or wait and see how HomePod sounds.

Camera & Drop In

The 5-megapixel camera is of decent quality, and effectively adds a pseudo-security camera to your house via Drop In. A polarizing feature, Drop In allows you and others to connect to your Echo from the Alexa app or another Echo and immediately hear (and in the Show’s case, see) what your Echo hears/sees. Essentially, it’s a video call without the need to accept/decline. This feature is opt-in, and you can restrict it to only those you specifically allow access.

Is it creepy? I don’t think so, but that’s up to you to determine. When someone drops in on you, the Echo plays an audible notice so you know it’s happening. In fact, the notice startled my wife as I was writing this review and testing something with Drop In.2 In the specific case of dropping in on someone’s Show, your view is blurred for about 10-15 seconds before you are able to see a clear picture. This leaves the person you’re calling with plenty of time to get out of frame if they’re cooking in the nude.

Side note: Drop In also functions as an in-house intercom for all your Echo devices and the Alexa app. It is pretty cool in this regard.

In the case of privacy, here’s how I see it. We’re steadily increasing the amount of cameras in our lives, so it all comes down to whether or not you trust the company you’re buying the camera from. As for me? I’d trust a camera more on a HomePod than an Echo (or Google Home, for that matter).

Use Case & Skills

The Echo Show can display answers visually, which is nice, but not always necessary. For instance, I don’t visually need to see how many cups are in liters, but it might be nice to glance at the whole box score to see how my Dodgers are doing. Let’s be honest though; this would only be beneficial if I’m within 15 feet or so of the Show with direct line-of-sight to the screen.

Simple on-screen conversion.

Simple on-screen conversion.

Box score display is nice.

Box score display. I do like this.

Lyrics

When playing Amazon Prime Music, lyrics are displayed in sync with the song. This is admittedly cool, but still not sure exactly how valuable this is on a day-to-day basis.

In the Kitchen

The best use case I can think of for the screen is an obvious one: recipes. The Allrecipes skill enables you to search for recipes, have Alexa read the ingredients, and even play a video of all the steps. For this reason, it’s clear to me the Echo Show adds most value when used in the kitchen, considering all the other standard features for which you can use an Echo in the kitchen.

Allrecipes skill.

Other Notes

You can still use the same Skills as you can on other Echo devices. Like the Allrecipes videos, some have been updated to make use of the screen. For instance, the Jeopardy game displays the questions along with Alexa reading them. Ring has introduced a skill to view some of the Ring Doorbell models and Floodlight Camera through the Show’s screen (no two-way talk, yet). This is definitely handy if your phone is out of reach and need to see who’s at the door.

Alexa can show you traffic conditions and directions on the Show’s screen, but it is very limited. There’s no way to push those directions to your phone, for instance.

As for controlling other Smart Home devices, a popular use case for Echo and Echo Dot, there’s really no additional value added here yet.

If you order stuff from Amazon on your Echo or Echo Dot, you’ll be happy to have a visual on the Echo Show. This makes the ordering experience a little less blind.

Final Thoughts

The Echo Show is a good device, but I wouldn’t recommend getting it versus the Echo or Echo Dot—at least not right now. The screen just doesn’t add significant enough value to warrant an increased price tag. If you want to visually see an answer to a question, picking up your phone or tablet is still the best way to do it.

It doesn’t delight the way other products may. Every time I pass it while walking, it compels me to think of a reason why I might need to use it, but not in ways I wouldn’t already use my Echo Dot for.

That said, a smart speaker with a screen was an inevitable next step for this market. The screen just feels like a placeholder waiting for a bigger purpose. We’ll have to wait and see if that purpose materializes, or if another company might be able to do something different.


  1. You can also set your own wallpaper via the Alexa app. ↩︎

  2. That may or may not have been intentional. ↩︎

When Steve Jobs introduced the original iPad, he positioned it in between an iPhone and MacBook (literally). He argued that a tablet device had to do some key things better than an iPhone and MacBook in order for it to exist. Those goals were arguably achieved, and now Tim Cook and Apple envision the iPad outright replacing traditional computing devices for the everyday user.

Hardware-wise, I’ve felt the iPad has been a powerhouse since the iPad Air days. I remember being blown away at how fast the Air was—how I could fly in and out of every app with agility. That said, the new hardware in the iPad Pro is just jaw-dropping. From the insane interface fluidity thanks to the ProMotion display, to the ludicrous speed of the A10X Fusion Chip, Apple is making it harder not to replace your traditional ‘computer’ with an iPad. The only thing missing? iOS 11.

Expand Review

Table of Contents

Design

The iPad design has remained largely unchanged since the iPad Air, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The form factor is tried-and-true, and unlikely to change until if and when Apple introduces edge-to-edge screens (rumored to be coming in the iPhone 8.)

Apple was able to reduce the side bezels of the 10.5-inch model to allow for a 20% bigger screen (compared to the old 9.7-inch iPad Pro). It’s a very nice change that doesn’t even take any adjustment to get used to. This also allows for a full size on-screen keyboard to be displayed when the iPad is in landscape orientation.

ProMotion Display

The display is centered around a core technology Apple is calling ‘ProMotion’. In essence, ProMotion is comprised of the features below.

120Hz Refresh Rate

This is a big one. The screen now refreshes itself twice as fast as any iPad before it. This equates to a fluidity unseen before in the iPad and mobile devices. Everything from scrolling to navigating between apps is just silky-smooth.

It’s a little hard to explain in words how much of a difference this makes to the iPad experience, but it elevates it to another level for everyone. Like all other reviews you’ve probably read, you just have to see it for yourself. In true Apple fashion, it will make every other display (including ones on Apple devices) feel instantly old.1

The display‘s refresh rate is actually adaptive. If there’s no motion on the screen, the display will reduce its refresh rate to reduce power consumption. Similarly, it will adjust to match frame rates of videos and games2 to make them look great as well.

Apple Pencil Precision

Due to the increased refresh rate of the screen, the Apple Pencil has seen a huge benefit. The Pencil has always been tracked at 240Hz, but until now, the display has been way behind at 60 frames per second (40 milliseconds of latency). In the new iPad Pro, the latency between the Pencil and display is practically unnoticeable (down to 20 milliseconds).

Apple used to tout this experience was the case before, but as a long-time handwritten notetaker with the old iPad Pro, writing on it wasn’t exactly like writing on paper. You could always feel the iPad was a tad behind the stroke of your Pencil. That is no longer the case. Writing on the new iPad Pro is like writing on paper. I cannot express how much of a difference the display’s refresh rate makes with the Pencil. And yes, this is with the exact same Pencil released in 2015. Artists and notetakers alike are going to love this.

I would be dumbfounded if this didn’t make it into the next iPhone models, as that is most likely the plan. If and when that does happen, it will be almost like the move from low-resolution screens to Retina.

True Tone

Not a new feature, but this is my first device with TruTone built in. I’m still getting used to it, but I’m liking it. Basically, it allows the iPad to adjust itself in order to make colors appear the same no matter on your lighting conditions. It’s easier to see in sunlight, as result, which is a huge plus.

Other Display Features

  • Wide color gamut.
  • Ultra low reflections.
  • 600 nits of brightness.
  • HDR video support.

A10X Fusion Chip

Apple’s latest chip is just ludicrous. The raw power built into these iPads rivals laptops (even the MacBook Pro). Featuring six CPU cores and twelve GPU cores, it’s 30% faster at processing data and system tasks, and 40% faster at processing graphics than its predecessor.

Bare Feats ran benchmarks on the new iPad Pros in comparison to the 2017 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the results were amazing. The iPad Pro is neck-and-neck with the MacBook Pro, and even pulls ahead in some cases (mostly on the graphics side.) Here’s a couple of the results produced by Bare Feats.

BareFeats.com benchmark.

Source: Bare Feats

BareFeats.com benchmark.

Source: Bare Feats

Storage & Memory

In terms of storage, the base models get a boost to 64GB, up from 32GB. This renders the base models more viable than before.

Both sizes also offer 4GB of RAM, allowing you to run three apps at a time on the screen once iOS 11 drops. Thanks to iOS’s finely-tuned memory management, the iPad Pro gets by with ease on 4GB of RAM.

iPad Pro running three apps on screen with iOS 11.

iPad Pro running three apps on screen with iOS 11 – Safari, Tweetbot, and Music (slideover mode).

Camera System

Both iPad Pros feature the same camera system as the iPhone 7 (12MP rear, 7MP front)—so you know it’s great. It features optical image stabilization and wider color capture.

Battery Life

You’ll find the same 10-hour battery life here. I don’t think Apple is in a rush to push the iPad’s battery too much further, since 10 hours works for most people just fine.

Comparison to 12.9-inch iPad Pro

I owned the previous generation 12.9-inch iPad Pro 3, and it was monstrous. It had an amazingly big screen, but it was monstrous nonetheless. The great thing is: no matter which you choose, you’ll end up with the same exact internal components.

There was a weird gap in the previous generation, where only the replaced iPad Pro 9.7-inch had second generation Touch ID 4 a better camera and True Tone display, whereas the 12.9-inch did not. Hopefully Apple keeps this parity moving forward, because it makes the choice for customers easy—just choose a screen size.

Get the 12.9-inch if…

  • You are an artist and anticipate using the Pencil a lot, simply because you’ll have a bigger canvas.
  • You use the iPad for graphic design, for similar reasons.
  • You want a very large screen for movies, games, or running multiple apps at a time in split view.
  • Care a little less about portability, even though it’s still very portable.

Get the 10.5-inch if…

  • You want to use the iPad for note-taking. This is the perfect size for that.
  • You want the same power in an extremely portable size.

I used the 12.9-inch for all the typical stuff, but using it for handwritten notes just felt a little too unwieldy. The new 10.5-inch size hits a great sweet spot in this regard. It’s got a perfect paper-notebook-sized screen.

Summary and iOS 11

After owning the original iPad, iPad 3, Air, Mini 2, and original iPad Pro 12.9-inch, I can safely say this is the best iPad Apple has ever made.

6/17/17 at 2pm Pacific

Did I mention it has the second generation Touch ID sensor, so it recognizes your fingerprint with lightning speed?

One thing that feels funny, though, is the lack of a static home button and 3D Touch. After having the iPhone 7 for a while, the iPad Pro’s home button feels kinda mushy. I imagine this may be due to the sensing layer required for the Apple Pencil. As a result, I don’t think we’ll see 3D Touch in the iPad for a while. For now, Apple is forced to replicate certain 3D Touch features on the iPad via long presses.5

The new iPad Pros are fantastic pieces of hardware, only longing for iOS 11. It’s curious to me that Apple didn’t wait until iOS 11 is released in the fall to also release these new models in tandem. Apple has been known to release things ‘when they’re ready’, but if you don’t want to run the Public Beta of iOS 11 coming later this month, your software experience is largely going to be the same.

iOS 11 is transformative for the iPad. Just go to the official iPad Pro page and see how many times they make mention of iOS 11’s features which are not yet available. I’m so thrilled Apple is taking their promise of replacing the traditional computer seriously. There will still be a ways to go in this regard, but with this new iPad Pro and iOS 11, more and more people will start to see the path.


  1. I’m looking at you, iPhone 7. ↩︎

  2. Some games may require an update to properly account for the ProMotion screen’s new refresh rate. ↩︎

  3. A.k.a. ‘Gargantua’. ↩︎

  4. iPad Pro 9.7” only had the original Touch ID sensor. Thanks to yegon on reddit for pointing this out! ↩︎

  5. ‘Certain’ meaning things like the Control Center submenus or accessories in the Home app. You still cannot 3D Touch app icons on the home screen for contextual functionality. I wonder if Apple will address this down the line or leave it as an iPhone-only feature (whether they want to or not). ↩︎

AirPods

The AirPods have been a sleeper hit for Apple, reminiscent of their magical and whimsical nature. They also have been out since December 2016, and are still largely in short supply. I’ve had them since day one, and everyone who sees me wearing them always asks me how I like them, so I figured a proper, in-depth review was in order. Read on if you want to know everything about the AirPods and how much I like them.