iPhone X followup

In the spirit of trying to make tech journalism better, I wanted to post a follow up to my initial review of the iPhone X.  I originally wrote this review on November 9th, so I’ve had a couple of months of extra usage, and it’s been about three months overall since the device was launched.

Pretty much everything I said in that review has held true.  It is a fantastic phone that is well worth the hefty price tag.  Almost all of the changes have proven to be good – from the aesthetic ones down to the gestures.   These come so naturally now, even the ones that are slightly harder to do, like pulling Control Center down from the top right.  It still needs to be changed, but I think about it a lot less.

One part of the review that held true in a rather unfortunate way, however, was this part:

The glass back on this phone, while being exponentially more fragile, is also far more grippy, so holding the phone is much easier.  If I do drop it…I’ve got AppleCare+, but of course, I’d rather not do that.

One of the only (potato quality) pictures I took before putting on the skin.

As you might’ve guessed, I broke the glass back of my iPhone X, but it was in the most confusing way.  Had I dropped it on cement, tile, or even wood flooring, I would not have been surprised at all.  Instead, it broke when I set it on the side of my desk, fell 3 feet, and landed onto carpet.  The back completely shattered.  That’s right, I did say that my phone broke by falling on carpet.  Granted, it was that commercial grade, low-pile carpet, but still…carpet.

I should mention that I wasn’t using a case, but still, I feel like it should’ve been able to withstand the fall.  I’ve dropped the iPhone 6 and 7 on that style of carpet more times than I can count, and nothing like that ever happened.  It’s really unfortunate that the iPhone X is even more fragile than I anticipated, but just in case you were trying to go caseless like I was, let this be a fair warning.  For reference, the last phone I broke was my HTC Dash in 2008.

iPhone X case, brand new. iPhone 7 case, patina after 1 year of use.

I do have a case now – the Apple leather saddle brown case, which is the same case I’ve had on my previous two iPhones.  I also put a dbrand skin on the back of the phone to cover the cracked glass, so I do take it out of the case sometimes and use it like that while I can.  Whenever I get around to having it fixed, it’s never coming out of the case again.

To fix the screen of an iPhone X, it costs $29 with AppleCare, and they replace the screen of your current phone.  For any other accident claim, it costs $99 and they just give you a new phone, so I’ll be shelling out $99 and swapping my whole phone out.  I haven’t done it yet because the phone works fine.  Really all I’ve lost is the aesthetic (which I’d be hiding under a case now anyway) and the waterproofing, but who cares about that considering I already have to swap the phone out at some point?

I also want to mention that wait times at my local Apple store are approaching doctor’s office wait times. An appointment for 2PM means you’ll be seen at 2:30PM, which is unfortunate, considering how excellent Apple used to be at keeping appointments.  I guess that’s the price of their massive success.  It’s still better than the alternative of not being able to go to a physical store for same-day service, which is the case for (almost?) every other phone.



Let’s try to fix tech journalism

One of the reasons I started writing my own tech analysis is because I think tech journalism has a few serious problems.  Reviews are rushed to the market because clicks matter, which means being first matters.  Don’t get me wrong, clicks matter to any site that is monetized (like this one), but there are some overarching issues I’ve noticed with tech journalism over the past few years – affecting everything from print to YouTube, and I’d like to talk about them.

If you haven’t heard of MKBHD (Marques Brownlee), he is a popular YouTuber that does tech reviews.  He has over 5 million subscribers, and he’s got some pretty serious influence in the tech review space.  He gets invites to all of the big events, receives pre-launch products, the whole bit.

At the end of every year, he posts a “Smartphone awards” video, which is basically the setup for this Tweet he posted late last week.

 

Last year, Razer released a phone (after purchasing NextBit) that had the first 120Hz LED display in a smartphone.  By MKBHD’s own review, there were a lot of great things about it, but he noted that the camera was a bit lacking, and it was a bit large.  Realistically, no regular person should buy this phone because it’s a premium-priced phone ($699) that’s lacking an essential premium feature (a great camera) to most of the market.  Granted, it’s a “phone for gamers,” so that’s not their target, but to someone like MKBHD, if that phone would’ve had an OLED display rather than a LED display, by his own admission in this tweet, he would’ve given them “all the awards,” which holds weight when you have over 5 million subscribers.

MKBHD regularly carries two to three phones because he’s constantly reviewing them, and the only phone he has long-time, real world experience with are the ones he likes the most, like the Pixel XL and Pixel 2 XL.  I don’t want to pick on just MKBHD, because most reviewers do this.  Leo Laporte at This Week in Tech does the same thing and constantly jokes about how many phones he buys and subsequently gives to one of his staffers/friends/family when the next one comes out that he needs to be familiar with.

The problem with this is that they never get to experience what it’s like using a phone like the Razer phone as your only phone for more than two weeks because they live in a bubble.  Who knows if that phone will ever receive Android updates?  Who knows what kind of support Razer has?  But to tech journalists, it was a great phone for the two weeks they used it.  And speaking as a person that bought a 2nd gen Moto X, which MKBHD recommended and was a great phone at first (except for the camera), the experience on that device quickly deteriorated after two months, and the camera proved too hard to live with over time.

Single specs do not deserve “all the awards.”  MKBHD gave the Razer phone an award only for best battery life of 2017, which is probably fair, but if he’d given it “all the awards” based solely on the screen technology, that would’ve been a disservice to people that rely on his advice.

Another thing that both MKBHD and Leo Laporte have both done was to state subjective opinions as objective fact.  Leo once said that Android was “objectively better than iOS,” which is undeniably false.  One of the biggest issues I have with Android is that the update system is spectacularly broken, the magnitude of which is nearly transparent to a person that is constantly getting new phones that have the latest updates on them.  They never have to deal with issues that arise over time and require OS-level patches to fix, only to see those patches delayed weeks and months by handset manufacturers and/or carriers.  To many people, Android is subjectively better than iOS for the things it does do right, but that’s as far as you can take that statement.

MKBHD said in his smartphone awards video that the Galaxy Note 8 “objectively has the best display in any smartphone,” which is patently false as well.  DisplayMate says the iPhone X has the best display they’ve ever tested, so who do you believe?  Well, Samsung is known for color saturation while Apple is known for reproducing the most natural colors possible.  So if you like saturation, then yes, the Galaxy Note 8 probably has the best screen, but that is clearly subjective.  If you want accurate colors, the iPhone X has the best screen, again, subjectively.  Stating opinion as fact is bad for your audience.

In the age where it’s “cool to hate Apple,” iMore is one of the only places to find Apple news that isn’t sensationalized for the point of getting clicks, but it’s interesting to see what happens when the tables are turned.

Take this article, published on iMore on February 3rd of 2017:  “Consumer Reports Fails to Earn MacBook Pro Credibility.”  At first glance, lots of Rene Ritchie’s articles come off as very “Apple apologist,” but even if you consider them to be that, they’re accurate, which is an important distinction.  This article is no exception, and it was nice to see facts cutting through the click bait.  Consumer Reports wanted to make headlines and they did it by publishing FUD without all of the facts.  They’d done it before, they’ll probably do it again, and Rene states his distaste for this.

However, a few months later, Rene was very quick to agree with Consumer Reports that the Microsoft Surface line of products was being “graded on curve,” citing that products that are “NOT APPLE!” get better reviews specifically because they’re, well, not Apple.  And that makes headlines.

It’s interesting to note Rene’s tone shift here.  He cites Paul Thurrott for credibility, (probably the biggest Microsoft apologist on the planet), and is very quick to condemn the Surface line as being not as good as the reviews may suggest.  Quite the opposite reaction from the previous article, where he gave Apple the benefit of the doubt.  Microsoft later responded to Consumer Reports, saying that their internal metrics do not match Consumer Reports’ findings at all.  But no matter who you believe, one company here got a pass from Rene and one didn’t, ironically “grading on a curve,” as Rene himself put it.

The crazy thing about all of this is that these are the people I choose to follow because they consistently put out the best news.  When you’re cranking out that much content, undoubtedly there will be mistakes, but it is best to admit them and follow up on them.  I feel like this is the issue in tech journalism, and the center of my argument.  From my own example, no one cared about the Moto X three months after it came out, so why would MKBHD ever make a video saying, “Hey guys, this phone might not be the greatest like I thought, so don’t buy it?”  Realistically, he flat-out couldn’t have, because he probably never used the phone again after he was done with his review, so he wouldn’t even know.  We need more reviews on proven usability, more reviews from people that don’t live in the bubble (or realize that they do and compensate for it as best they can).

And look, I try not to bring a lot of negativity into my articles, so I want to close this out by saying that I follow all of the people mentioned in this article (except for Paul Thurrott) on Twitter and subscribe to This Week in Tech, MacBreak Weekly, MKBHD, and read tons of posts on iMore (Rene’s work is some of my biggest inspiration for this site).  Generally, all of this content is very good and I’m grateful for these creators and all of the outstanding work they do.  The Internet makes it easy to hate on creators, and that is not the intention of this post.  I just want everyone to do better, so please hold me to this standard as well.



Ecobee 3 Lite review

Part of making my house smart besides IoT security cameras was choosing and installing a smart thermostat.  For me, that specifically meant two thermostats, as my two story house has a single unit with two zones.  There are many options in this space, the most well-known of which is probably the Nest thermostat, but Nest lacks Apple Homekit compatibility, and I require my IoT devices to be cross-platform unless there is one specific device that fills a niche so well that nothing else comes even close.  This is what led me to the Ecobee 3 Lite (that’s “eco,” like “eco-friendly,” not pronounced like “echo”).

Ecobee 3 Lite, all images courtesy of Amazon

The Ecobee 3 Lite is cross platform, and works with Apple HomeKit, Google Assistant (including Google Home), and Amazon Echo.  It is the younger sibling to the Ecobee 4, which is slightly newer and slightly different.

So, why did I choose the Ecobee 3 Lite over the Ecobee 4?  Well, as you can see if you checked the links above, the 4 is about $80 more expensive at the time of this writing, and the only real added benefit of the 4 is that it has Amazon Alexa built in.  That would actually be really cool, except Echo Dots are $50 by themselves, and I already have an Echo, two Echo Dots, and a Google Home Mini, so there just wasn’t any point, especially considering the price difference was really $160 more expensive since I needed two of them.  I should mention that it’s $169.99 for the Ecobee 3 Lite, and $249.99 for the Ecobee 4.

The reason you may want a smart thermostat varies, but for me, it was easy scheduling, voice/app control, and remote access.  Many modern home thermostats include scheduling, but the one that came in my house, for example, was so confusing that I just didn’t use it.  It was easier to turn the thermostat up and down manually every night and every morning.

The Ecobee makes scheduling relatively easy via their app or web admin page.  There is a slight learning curve, but it is night and day compared to old, dumb thermostats.  I’ve got schedules set up to automatically heat the whole house (for now, since it’s winter) in the morning so we wake up to a warm bedroom.  Then it automatically heats only the first floor for the rest of the day since the only room we regularly use upstairs is the bedroom.  At night, the whole house cools down since we have blankets and we’re asleep anyway.  During the summer, the thermostats let it get a little warm upstairs, but then cools it down by the time we normally are headed to bed.

Ecobee 4

Voice control is a bit less useful than for something like smart lightbulbs, but that’s only because scheduling is so easy and useful that I rarely need to manually change the temperature.  When the opportunity arises, I use it, and in those moments, I feel sorry for people that have to get up and manually change their thermostats like cavemen.  I use the app very infrequently, considering that between Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, there is just no need to go through the extra effort that opening an app requires, despite how little effort that actually is.

Remote access is really all about peace of mind.  I’ve had my AC sustain a refrigerant leak before while I was on vacation, and if I hadn’t had a roommate at the time, the compressor in my AC likely would’ve burned up, which is a very costly repair that would’ve come in addition to the coil that caused the leak and needed replacing anyway.  With the Ecobee, I can not only manually check in on the temperature of the house while away, but I can setup alerts to send notifications whenever the thermostats detect high/low temperature or humidity thresholds that I set.

Besides displaying your indoor temperature, the face of the Ecobee also displays the outside temperature, which is a little redundant for me, since I have that on my wrist at all times.  However, I think it is legitimately useful for most people, and I still like that it’s there.  Besides that, you can manually adjust the temperature, view your settings, and switch between home and away modes from the device.  The app actually mirrors the look and feel of the thermostat, which is a cool ease-of-use design in my opinion.

Speaking of the face of the unit, the Ecobee 3 Lite hardware is attractive and seems pretty solid (note that if you spring for the Ecobee 4, the hardware is slightly different, but overall looks very similar).  However, I did have some WiFi connectivity issues with the upstairs unit.  Ecobee support was entirely unhelpful (they told me that devices just disconnect from WiFi sometimes…okay, thanks, so why does it do that and then not reconnect?).  I legitimately don’t know the cause of that issue, but it went away, and was fixed at the time by “hard resetting,” aka, pulling the thermostat off the wall and putting it back, a solid 2 second process.  Since then, I’ve noticed that connectivity issues tend to solve themselves within a day, which is weird, but I guess it’s better than before.  Most important, those issues are rare, so it’s not a huge deal.

The screen is capacitive, and though it isn’t high DPI, that’s really not necessary for what it is.  It’s as good and as responsive as it needs to be, especially at its price point, and experiences tend to trump specs.  Like I mentioned, the thermostat pops off and back on easily if needed, and the initial install itself is pretty simple, though be careful and read all instructions.

My HVAC company had a nice big warranty sticker that said I voided my warranty by replacing my thermostats, but of course when I called them, it was only the warranty for the thermostats themselves.  I got this in writing from them, and good thing I did, but the techs aren’t aware of how that stuff works and I was given trouble on two separate occasions about having my own thermostats installed.  But hopefully you will have a more reasonable situation where that either doesn’t apply or isn’t necessary.  Just something to think about if you have a newer house with equipment that’s under warranty.

Ecobee room sensor

The only other thing that I feel like I need to mention about the Ecobee are the room sensors.  The Ecobee contains the functionality with the thermostats alone to – rather than run by a schedule – adjust your system based on whether or not it detects activity.  If it doesn’t detect activity for a while, then it’ll enter Away mode, automatically saving you money.  I personally prefer to use schedules, but that option does exist.

Normally thermostats are in high-traffic rooms, so they can tell somewhat reliably if you’re home.  Sometimes, though, they aren’t great at this and may make your system enter Away mode even when you’re home.  The room sensors exist for you to basically monitor activity in rooms that you frequently use but don’t have a thermostat in.  They can detect activity and adjust the system as necessary, which is the only reason you should consider buying them.  Ecobee advertises that if you have a room that’s too hot or too cold, room sensors are a great addition to your smart thermostat ecosystem, but that’s entirely unnecessary unless you have individually controlled vents in your house (unless you have a very fancy/expensive house relative to your area, you almost definitely don’t have that type of vent).

See, if a room is cold, all you need to do is adjust your thermostat manually, because that’s all the room sensors would do.  Without individual vent control, the entire zone has to turn on, so you might as well just keep the heat set a degree or two higher.

I have been very satisfied with my Ecobees, and in every way except for their support, the product has met or exceeded my expectations.  It feels so incredibly good to be able to save money on heating my house, but still wake up in the morning to a warm bedroom.  And it’s hard to put a price on peace of mind.



Arlo Pro wireless security camera system review

Arlo Pro cameras and base station, image courtesy of Amazon

When I first became a homeowner in 2010, the major reason I never put up security cameras around my house was that I just didn’t feel like running the wiring for a full-blown surveillance system.  It wasn’t the cost of the system itself or that I felt like I was impervious to needing security equipment, I seriously just didn’t feel like doing the wiring or paying someone else a lot of money to do it since that would at least double the cost.

Fast forward to early last year when we bought our most recent house.  I was again ready to spend the money on the cameras, and I was ready to see what my options were for wiring the house for it.  Much to my surprise, though, it turned out there were now completely viable surveillance systems that were completely wireless, namely, the Arlo Pro by Netgear.

As you might guess, the Arlo Pro system does cost more than most wired systems.  The 3-camera system with base station runs around $500 at the time of this writing.  I suspect that most people won’t want less than three cameras, but they are sold in multiple combinations with one to four cameras.

First, I should mention that this is a review specifically of the Arlo Pro system and does not take into account any similar products (please note that I will also touch on the recently released Arlo Pro 2 system toward the end of this review).  This is the only one I have experience with.  Now, on to the reason that you’re here.

The Arlo Pro system linked above contains three cameras, camera mounting points, a base station, and chargers.  This review will tackle each of these components, and then the app and how it works.

The mounting points are basically metal half-spheres that you can mount to a wall.  The back of the Arlo Pro cameras have a divot and an internal magnet that causes the camera to snap into place onto a mount, after which you can easily position the camera how you want it.  Not much else to say about that.

Image courtesy of Amazon

The cameras themselves have a very solid feel, and though they’re weatherproof, I would not put them in the sun.  First, the casing is plastic, so eventually the sun would make that pretty brittle.  Most importantly, though, is the rechargeable battery inside.  Quite frankly, I don’t trust batteries in heat, even if Lithium Ion packs are rated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.  I’m not sure what the manual has to say about placing them in direct sunlight, but you should follow the manual and your best judgement.

My cameras are in shaded areas, not particularly well-hidden, but shaded.  There are two schools of thought on camera placement – either in an obvious place to deter nefarious activity, or in a hidden place to catch the activity.  I choose the former, because quite frankly, you’d have to be a complete moron to rob a house with cameras rather than a neighbor that has none.  That’s speculation on my own part, of course, but I think they serve as a deterrent first and foremost.

The battery last about 2-3 months, but this duration depends entirely on camera placement.  The cameras aren’t constantly recording, because that wouldn’t be sustainable with a wireless system, so instead, they use motion detection and then record a snippet of what they see, the length of which is up to you.  The default is 10 seconds, but you can have it record for as long as it detects motions, up to 300 seconds.  So, that said, if you put an Arlo Pro camera in a high traffic area, the it will record more often, and the battery will die more quickly.  For example, I have to charge the Arlo on my back porch around twice as often as the one on the front porch because we rarely use the front door, whereas we take our two dogs out many times a day through the back.

The cameras can also be set to record when they detect sound, which may be useful for some.  I personally do not use this, because between neighbor dogs barking and our own dogs barking, the cameras would record a bit too much extraneous video.

The battery charges through a standard micro-USB cable.  I’d rather the newer USB-C standard, but more importantly, I’d rather if you could charge the batteries directly without an expensive add-on.  To charge an Arlo Pro camera battery, you have to take the camera down and plug it in.  If you have an extra battery, which I do, the only way to charge it is by putting it in a camera, so you can’t have multiple standby batteries fully charged and ready to replace your dead ones.  Well, that is, unless you buy the $60 Arlo charging station.

Finally, the only other point about the cameras that I haven’t mentioned is that they do have night vision to record in the dark (in black and white, of course), and they have tiny speakers on them, which allows you to talk (albeit awkwardly) with someone that’s near the cameras.   More on that later.

All in all, the battery charging issue aside, I’ve been pleased with the camera design.

The base station is the part of the system that goes inside and communicates with the cameras.  You hook it up to your router via an ethernet cable, and it takes care of sending data back and forth to the cameras.  It also has a siren, so if you arm your system and it detects motion, the siren will sound from the base station.  That said, that’s only a useful feature if your cameras are setup indoors.  You don’t want a siren going off just because the mailman is trying to drop of a package at your front door.  Or hey, maybe you do.

It also has a USB port on it for you to hookup a hard drive for storing local video footage.  The Arlo Pro system comes with free cloud storage for 7 days worth of video, which honestly is perfect and fair for most people.  There are paid upgrades for that, but you’re probably fine with the free offering.  If you need more storage, the local USB storage is exactly what the doctor ordered.  Well, unless you have a NAS, which the Arlo Pro system doesn’t support.  Sorry my fellow techies, USB only.

Arlo Android app, image courtesy of the Google Play Store

Now, all of these hardware components are fine and dandy, but management of this stuff would fall apart without a solid administrative experience.  Luckily, the Arlo app and website are pretty good.  I use the app almost exclusively, but the web admin panel does exist and offers the same/similar functionality.

How you receive alerts from the cameras are entirely up to you, but your options are via email, push notification, or no alert at all.  You can set the cameras on a schedule as well, so if you’re gone from 7AM until 6PM, the cameras can alert you only during that time, or all the time, or never.  Again, it’s up to you.  The same works with the siren, recording, and what the trigger should be (audio or motion) – it’s all pretty customizable.  You can set the sensitivity of the motion detection as well, which is important, because the cameras are sensitive enough to picking the shadow of a tree blowing in the wind at 100% sensitivity, which I’m guessing you probably don’t need a recording of or an alert from.

Within the app, you can select a camera and push a button to talk to someone that’s by that camera.  There’s a slight delay, so you probably shouldn’t use it extensively, but if there’s someone at the door and you need to tell them to hold on for a couple of minutes, it would suffice.

One of the great things about this system is that since the cameras are wireless, you can move them around as needed.  I have brought one inside before to keep an eye on my dogs while I was away for the day, and with the app, I could talk to them and watch their ears perk up as they searched for where my voice was coming from.

Arlo Pro 2, image courtesy of Amazon

Now, I have to tell you that the Arlo Pro is not the newest version of this camera.  Netgear recently released the Arlo Pro 2, but don’t worry, this review is very applicable to that system as well.  The Arlo Pro records in 720p, whereas the Arlo Pro 2 will record in 1080p.  The Arlo Pro 2’s cameras are also ever-so-slightly larger, I assume to accommodate for the additional processing power/battery that encoding and transferring 1080p video requires.  As far as I can tell, those are the only real notable differences, other than the price, which is $449 for the base station and two cameras – a slightly worse deal for the slightly better hardware.

I really like my Arlo Pro security camera system, but I will say that it isn’t for everyone.  You couldn’t realistically use this product to watch over a vacation house or something of the like, since the batteries need to be recharged every so often.  And speaking of charging the batteries, you’ll probably have to climb up and down a ladder to do that, which makes these not accessible for some.  And while you can change the recording settings to make video quality better at the cost of battery life (and vice versa), the 720p Arlo Pro might not be good enough for some, making the Arlo Pro 2 more attractive.  For those that need constant recordings, whether there is motion or not, clearly this system is not an option at all.  So while there are plenty of pros, there are cons to consider.  Personally, I think for most home owners, this is a slam dunk, but as far as reliability goes, there’s no substitute for good, old-fashioned wires.