One Week With the iPhone 6 Plus

Okay, I admit it. I was one of those people back in 2011 who thought the Samsung Galaxy Note was a joke. Who would ever want a phone with a 5.3 inch display? How dumb would you look holding it up to your face to make a phone call? I even quipped that Samsung would have to start selling a new line of clothing with larger pockets for Note users. (Foxtrot has since stolen my joke!)

That’s just WAY too big for a phone, isn’t it? Apparently it isn’t for many people as the Galaxy Note went on to be sell millions of units and the era of the “phablet” was upon us. The Note doesn’t sell in numbers like the iPhones or Galaxy S phones (which now sport a 5.1″ display) but it does well enough that the fourth iteration (cleverly named the Note 4) with a 5.7″ screen is to ship in October.

I don’t see too many Galaxy Notes in use, but I do see a lot of large screen Android phones like the Galaxy S5 and HTC One. Whenever I see a Galaxy Note in person at a store I often wonder if I was an Android user, would really want one of these? The large screen is beautiful and quite tempting but is it too big?

When Apple introduced the 2014 model iPhones earlier in September they, for the first time, gave users a choice of screen size. You can buy the iPhone 6 with a 4.7 inch screen or the iPhone 6 Plus with a 5.5 inch screen. As an iPhone user eligible for an upgrade, I now had to answer my hypothetical question earlier. My first thought was that I’d never want the Plus. It’s just too big. Then I started reading about it and the extra features it offers over its smaller sibling. After way too much thought on the matter, I pre-ordered an iPhone 6 Plus.

I’ve been living with the iPhone 6 Plus for about a week. Here are my experiences and opinions of the device.

Why the 6 Plus?

So why choose a 6 Plus over the 6? Other than the larger screen, the advantages of the 6 Plus are:

  • Higher resolution screen (more pixels per inch)
  • Longer battery life
  • Better camera
  • Enhanced applications in landscape mode

The longer battery life was the big reason for me to choose the 6 Plus. Battery life on my iPhone 5 with iOS 8 is noticeably worse than with iOS 7. It wouldn’t come close to making it through a day anymore. I see many people using iPhones in Mophie cases to extend the battery life. So, I figured instead of buying a battery case that will add cost and weight to the device anyway, I might as well just get the 6 Plus and have the benefits of the having a bigger screen too.

Besides, big is relative. The 6 Plus isn’t that big compared to older devices and some people even think the 4.7″ iPhone 6 is too big!

What I Like

After living with the phone for a week and putting it through its paces, here are the things I really like about the phone.

Better Battery

The big frame of the 6 Plus gives room for a bigger battery. It’s 2159 mAh for those of you who care about numbers. That’s over 50% more capacity than the iPhone 6 and 90% more than the iPhone 5s.

In practical terms, I’m getting all day use with plenty of room to spare. I use my phone a lot and mostly on cellular and I am seeing 25% left by 11:30pm. My iPhone 5 would need a recharge by midday. Not having to worry about the battery dying is really a delight.

Big Screen

The iPhone 6 Plus’s screen is really beautiful! Text and images look just great. There is more room to see web pages, emails, tweets, and anything else you’re looking at. Video is wonderful as it is a true HD display (although I do wish they added a second speaker for stereo).

After setting up the device and playing with it for about 30 minutes I grabbed my old iPhone 5 and was really taken aback by how small it felt. Tiny is probably a better word. It was one of those “how did I live with this for so long?” moments. (Here’s where the Android fans laugh hysterically).

iOS 8 provides an architecture allowing apps to support the different screen sizes. Apps that do not use this are automatically scaled up to fit the entire screen. It is sort of like running an iPhone app on an iPad but without the black bars. Many reviewers have complained that the scaled apps look fuzzy, but I’ve been quite impressed how good they look on the 6 Plus. There are apps I used that I didn’t even know were scaled until I opened the keyboard at which point it is obvious as the keys are noticeably larger. The text isn’t fuzzy like I feared it would be. That may be a function of the higher resolution display of the 6 Plus so scaled apps may look worse on the iPhone 6.

Applications are already being updated to take advantage of the display and are much better with more room. I can see much more on the display without it looking crowded or with tiny text. I expect other apps will be updated in the coming months. Many new apps that claim they “support iOS 8″ do not support the higher resolution displays so be aware. Some of the apps that do support the larger displays include Tweetbot (my favorite Twitter client), Evernote, Wunderlist, DayOne Journal, Twitter, Downcast, Week Cal, and Fantastical. Notably missing from this list is Facebook, Mailbox, and all of the Google apps.

I use my phone as a GPS for navigation in my car. The 5.5” screen is a huge upgrade in this regard. Most maps apps (including Google and Waze) display important information in small text making it very hard to read while driving, even when the phone is mounted on your windshield. Not a problem with the 6 Plus! I used Google maps this weekend and it was just great. Waze too. I was happy that my windshield mount was able to hold the big phone (although I did have to adjust it a bit). Neither Google Maps nor Waze support the larger displays but the scaled up versions work very well.

Many of Apple’s default apps display differently in landscape orientation on the 6 Plus which makes it more iPad-like. I really like what they did with Weather as I can see the whole day’s weather, the next 4 days, sunrise, sunset, chance of rain, and humidity all in one screen. Other apps use a split view such as Mail which shows a list of messages on the left and the selected message on the right. This makes the phone feel more like an iPad nano than a big iPhone.

VoLTE

Verizon smartphone users know that, due to Verizon’s cellular technology, you cannot get data over cellular while you are on a phone call. It can be very annoying if you need to look something up online for someone you are talking to on the phone. Voice over LTE (or VoLTE) uses the 4G LTE radio for both voice and data. Verizon just started supporting VoLTE on their network and the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus are compatible with it. VoLTE is not enabled by default on the iPhone. You have to change the value in Settings/Cellular/Enable LTE to “Voice and Data”. It seems to work just fine. I don’t notice any difference in voice quality or battery use. It will become a problem when I’m in an area without LTE coverage though. If that happens often enough I’ll just switch back.

What I Didn’t Like

Okay, so there’s lots to like here but a really big phone has its drawbacks. The 6 Plus has its share of those.

Bad for Pockets

It is just uncomfortable to carry around in a front pants pocket. The device fits just fine in my front pocket of a pair of slacks or jeans (it doesn’t stick out or anything like that), but you feel the phone with every step you take. Jeans are worse than slacks in this regard. You feel it while sitting especially while driving where you can’t do anything about it. I don’t think there is much to this whole “bendgate” controversy, but I could see if this thing were to bend it would be wearing jeans while driving. I’d strongly discourage keeping it in your back pocket if you want to keep the phone straight.

It is also difficult to pull it out of a pocket. The phone is longer so it takes longer to pull it out. This is noticeable and annoying. I’m waiting to hear about “iPhone elbow” afflicting people. Often you’re just trying to get something done (like answer a call or view a message) this just slows you from doing that.

I don’t know how anyone can carry this phone while exercising. Fitness tracking is supposed to be a key feature of iOS 8 and if you want to use it for that this probably isn’t the device for you.

Two Hands Required

Every review of this device that I have read has said that you need two hands to use it and, for the most part, that is true. Most operations really do require two hands because you just cannot reach the whole screen with your thumb on the hand holding the phone. I didn’t think that would be that big of a deal but it turned out to be as I started living with it. I couldn’t dial a phone number with one hand because I couldn’t reach all the numbers. I couldn’t turn on the flashlight while holding it in my right hand as the flashlight button is on the left of command center. The bottom line is that you will have to change your phone habits when using the 6 Plus. I don’t like the idea that I should have to conform to the device instead of the other way around.

I now realize why Android and Windows Phone devices have a fixed “back” button on the bottom of the screen. Most iOS apps have a back button in the upper left and having to reach up there is a stretch. The “reachability” feature is supposed to address this, but I have not found it very useful as it is often more awkward to double tap the home button than just reach. Actually, you can just swipe right from the left edge to do a “back” and that is what I found myself doing most of the time. This was added when the iPhone 5 was introduced for the same reason. Even this is a little more difficult on the 6 Plus as it is a far reach to the edge of the screen.

The 6 Plus has a special keyboard in landscape mode that adds extra keys on the left and right of the standard keyboard. Left and right arrow keys at last! But the phone is so wide that it is hard for me to reach the middle keys. I’d rather they had made the keys wider than added new ones. I rarely type in landscape so this isn’t that big of a deal for me but it could be to others who prefer landscape.

Holding the 6 Plus can be awkward for those of us who are not in the NBA. My four fingers do not wrap all the way around it as they do with earlier iPhones. My the index finger ends up supporting the back. I usually tuck the bottom corner of a phone into my palm, but that isn’t comfortable with this phone. It is hard to hold that way and it feels top heavy. This is part of the reason you cannot use it phone with one hand. You really need to hold it in the middle which requires using your other hand for tapping.

Big Screen Rotation

One feature of the 6 Plus is that the home screen (aka Springboard) rotates in landscape mode to have the dock on the right and the icons rearrange into a 6×4 grid. This is nice but if you hold the phone in portrait upside down (with the home button on top and earpiece on the bottom) the screen will flip. The iPad does this too. This seems like a nice idea but it turns out it something I actually never want. If I’m holding the phone on an angle (like when pulling out of my pocket) it can flip which is something I don’t want it to do. Then I have to play that game where you shake the phone to get it to go back to the way you want. I wish there was a setting to disable this.

Potential Speed Issues

Despite having more pixels to push around, I haven’t had any seen any slowness in scrolling or other screen animations. The processor on the 6 Plus is clocked a little faster than the 6 probably for this reason. But the 6 Plus does some weird things with its display that worry me that these kinds of performance problems can come with more sophisticated apps or future iOS releases.

The iPhone 6’s display is essentially the same as an iPhone 5/5s but with more pixels. The iPhone 6 Plus, due to its higher resolution, should be 2208×1242 instead of 1920×1080. That would make it easier for app developers to scale their apps. In fact, to the applications the screen does look like the 1242 resolution and iOS scales everything by a factor of 0.2 to fit in the 1080 screen. You don’t notice this because the pixel density is so high and the computer is fast enough to do the scaling in real time. Although the device has the computing horsepower for today’s apps, will that be true in a year? it two? The iPad 3 (the first iPad with a retina display) had a similar issue where the device became more sluggish with newer versions of iOS.

Power Button

The iPhone 6 Plus and the iPhone 6 have the power button on the right side instead of the top right as on every other iPhone. Just about every other large screen phone has the power button in the same place because it is a long reach up to the top right. I understand that, but it still bothers me because it is placed opposite of the volume buttons. When I grip the phone, pressing either power or volume up makes press the other button too which is something I never want to do.

Incompatibilities

It pains me to say it but it appears that fragmentation has come to iOS. (I’ll wait for the Android fans to finish laughing now.) Now there are four screen sizes to support (not including non-retina iPhones) and two processor families (32 and 64 bit). There are some apps that don’t seem to work on the 6 Plus that work fine on other models. Most notable is the Google app. It opens but if I try to open the Google Now cards the app becomes very sluggish and eventually just hangs. I had to turn off Google Now to use it for searches at all. This is very weird as I don’t have this problem with the iPhone 5 running iOS 8 so there is something about the device that is different. Google even released an update that was supposedly specifically for iPhone 6 Plus compatibility but it didn’t seem to help much. I’ve heard similar stories of apps the work on some iPhones but not others. Developers are going to have to test on all models to ensure compatibility.

Miscellaneous Observations

Case Required

I always keep my iPhones in a case. The main reason is so that when I put it face down on a table the glass isn’t resting on the surface. The iPhone 6 Plus’s wide girth and curvy aluminum body makes it difficult to grip and a case is needed just to prevent dropping it.

I chose the Apple leather case. It is very thin and adds little bulk to an already bulky device. The case also keeps the camera from sticking out. The volume and power buttons are a bit hard press but I expect the more I use it the leather will soften. The bottom of the phone is left uncovered exposing the speaker, microphone, headphone, and lighting ports.

There are more heavy duty cases to prevent damage when the phone is dropped (such as OtterBox cases) but be aware they will made an already large phone much bigger. It will be harder to hold and harder to pocket.

Camera

I was happy that Apple did not give in the fallacy that more megapixels are needed for a camera to be better. More megapixels means bigger image files. Larger pictures mean I can store fewer pictures. It also means that uploading them will take longer and use up more precious cellular data. For me, I think the value for the extra storage goes down after 8MP as I don’t print anything bigger than 5×7’s.

I haven’t had a lot of time to test out the new camera features like super slow motion and auto HDR but I’m looking forward to it. My phone is my primary camera because it is the one I always have with me. iPhone 6 camera is being called the gold standard so the need to carry a point and shoot is rapidly vanishing. The only thing missing is an optical zoom, but that is not possible on a device so thin.

The camera does protrude a bit from the back. This is a concession to the thinness of the device. It seems un-Apple like, but even Apple cannot defeat physics. You shouldn’t worry about the lens getting scratched as it covered in scratch resistant Sapphire glass. Putting the camera in a case should remedy the problem of it sticking out. Just don’t do what this guy did!

Honda Bluetooth Problems

With iOS 7.1.2 on my iPhone 5 I started having Bluetooth problems with my 2013 Honda CR-V. The Bluetooth connection would randomly drop and be reconnected a few seconds later. This would interrupt playing audio through the USB connection and GPS navigation. It turns out to be a known problem in the Honda community. The workaround is to turn off wifi, which is easy to do with command center but a pain to remember every time I get in my car. I was hoping iOS 8 would solve this problem but it did not. I was also hoping the iPhone 6 would solve this problem as the hardware is different but it did not. Maybe iOS 9?

Touch ID

Touch ID (the fingerprint scanner on the home button) is not new to the iPhone 6 family but this is the first iPhone I owned with it so it is new to me. Overall i find it works really well. I trained it to my two thumbs and two index fingers so I can open the phone with either hand. I am already annoyed when I have to type in my PIN. iOS 8 has opened up Touch ID to third party apps so I am looking forward to not having to type passwords as often.

One gripe is that if you enable Touch ID, you have to use it or enter the PIN every time you unlock your phone. If you disable Touch ID and just require a PIN you can set it so that it only asks for the PIN after a number of minutes since the last unlock.

Conclusion

The iPhone 6 Plus is a great phone but it is not for everyone. It’s probably not for most people. The phone’s size means that you have to do some things differently than you would with a smaller phone and for most people that just won’t be acceptable. I totally understand that and those people should choose an iPhone 6. I would suggest that anyone considering the 6 Plus to go try one out at a Apple store, carrier store, or other retailer. It is hard to understand how big it is until you hold one in your hand.

After the first couple of days I was sure I made a big mistake and was going to return it for an iPhone 6. Then I started warming up to it. I found that changing my habits to accommodate the larger device wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought. In the pre-smartphone days I charged my phone every few days. Charging once (or more times) per day was a concession I made to using a smartphone so why couldn’t I make others for a bigger smartphone if the overall experience was better?

The bottom line is I really like using this phone. For me, seeing more information on the big screen and having ample battery life outweigh the annoyances of a large device. Earlier this week I was sure I was going to return it, but now I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep it.

I was going to title this post “iPhone 6 Plus Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Phablet” but that would have given away the ending.

Advertisements
Posted in Opinion | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Thoughts on the New iPhones

This Friday, September 20, Apple will start selling the new iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s. Here are my thoughts on the 2013 iPhones.

iPhone 5s

The 5s is the ‘s’ version of last year’s iPhone 5. Is the 5s considered a “disappointment” like most ‘s’ models? After all, it’s the same as the iPhone 5. Except it has a much faster 64 bit CPU. And a much better camera system. And a motion processor. And a fingerprint scanner. But other than that it’s, you know, the same.

I think that the 5s is a misunderstood device by the media. Pundits don’t see the innovation of the 5s. Apple calls it “forward looking” meaning the iPhone 5s is about its potential, not the out of the box experience. Out of the box the 5s will run all older 32 bit iPhone software like any other iPhone. The excitement is in the new applications that it will be able to support that older models won’t.

The 64 bit A7 CPU allows for fast processing of large amounts of data. Think of manipulating photos and movies or advanced 3D games. The potential for specialized enterprise apps (such as medical imaging) is also impressive.

The M7 motion sensor chip when paired with iBeacon support in iOS 7 allows for a whole new way for your phone to interact in a retail environments (large stores, malls, etc.). People can use their phones to find out about sales or find the products they want. Also think about the use in museums, amusement parts, and the like where the 5s can be your guide.

The fingerprint scanner is interesting in that it will have people enabling security on their phones who never would have before. This might not prevent device theft, but it will help keep their data safe.

I’ve heard that yields on the fingerprint scanner have been quite poor which will make the 5s difficult to get for some time. WSJ is saying that supply will be “grotesquely low”. Apple has not been accepting pre-orders of the 5s so if you want one you’d better be quick on the website Friday night or wait out in front of your local store.

The new color (gold) adds another set of SKUs to manage and creates a similar problem inventory management issue that the 5c has. How many gold ones does Apple have to produce? How many will retailers need to stock?

iPhone 5c

Apple’s new mid-priced iPhone, the iPhone 5c, is an interesting device for several reasons. It is the first new iPhone Apple created that is not at the top of its line. The 5c is designed to be sold at the middle tier price; $99 with 2 year contract or $549 off contract. The internals are not new, but rather it has the same specs as last year’s iPhone 5. (Same screen, processor, camera, etc.) The 5c puts that technology in a new colorful plastic case that is a little larger and a little heavier than the iPhone 5.

The 5c also is the first time when a mid-tier model can cost as much as the upper-tier model. A 32GB 5c costs $199 (on contract) which is the same as a 16GB 5s. If a customer has $199 to spend, which model will they choose?

Pictures of the 5c had been leaked for months, so I think the industry had a pretty good idea of what it was going to look like. The biggest surprise about the 5c was the price. The 5c turned out not to be the “cheap” iPhone every pundit had predicted and Wall Street wanted. Its price point indicates that Apple’s strategy is to increase margins and profits, not global market share. Apple wants to position itself as a premium brand that is worth more. The question is at what point do developers prioritize Android over iOS?

We won’t know how much it costs Apple to build a 5c as opposed to a 5 or 5s until someone (like iFixit.com) tears one of these apart and analyzes the parts. I suspect it will be significantly less than an iPhone 5 costs to build but not enough to bring it down to the hoped for figure of $300.

The 5c was made available for pre-order on September 13 and as of the 17th has not sold out yet. This worries some analysts that the 5c will be a flop but I am not particularly surprised by this. People who pre-order iPhones are the hardcore phone lovers and they are not the target market for the 5c. Those people will want the bleeding edge device – the 5s. I believe that the 5c will sell very well in retail settings where people can see them and hold them.

To be honest, Nokia and Microsoft should really take the 5c as a big compliment. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The 5c with iOS 7 seem to take a lot from Nokia’s Lumia line of phones running Windows Phone. Nokia has been selling colorful plastic bodied phones for some time and iOS 7’s flat look borrows considerably from Windows Phone’s look.

The 5c presents an interesting inventory management problem. The 5c comes in five colors and that is a lot of SKUs for Apple to produce and for retailers to stock. It is hard to know which colors will be most popular until the market decides. This can be a nightmare for retailers who don’t want unpopular colors taking up shelf space or to turn away customers because they don’t have the model the customer wants. This is very similar to the problem with the first iMacs of the early 2000’s.

Should you upgrade?

If you have an iPhone 4s your contract is coming to an end and you can buy a new phone at the subsidized price. Either the 5c or 5s would be a worthy upgrade. The larger screen, better camera, and LTE support are all big improvements over the 4s. Personally I’d advise getting a 5s for the superior camera and processing power. If you’re signing up for another two years you should always get the best phone you can. An iPhone 5c may feel really old in two years.

If you have an iPhone 5 you have a harder decision as you will have to pay full price for the phone as you are likely only one year into a two year contract. The iPhone 5 has a pretty good resale value so you can sell it to offset the cost but that’s a lot of work and money out of pocket for the update. The 5c offers nothing over the 5 other than pretty colors and a larger, heavier body. The 5s does offer advantages but are they worth the money and hassle? The camera on the 5s is likely the most compelling consumer feature but the camera on the 5 isn’t at all bad. I’d advise waiting for next year’s iPhone 6. That’s what I’m going to do!

Conclusions

I think the new iPhones will do very well for Apple. The 5c will bring in people who want an iPhone but don’t want to spend top dollar. Yes, it’s last year’s technology but don’t underestimate the power of a colorful case to draw in customers. These are customers who don’t care about specs, want a phone that is fun, and like the Apple brand. They’re the kind of people who answer the question “What kind of iPhone did you get?” with “A blue one.”

The 5s will surely appeal to those who want the best Apple has to offer. The interesting thing will be if developers build applications that only the 5s can run because of the extra processing power or motion support. I’m looking forward to see in the coming months the types of applications that get released.

 

Posted in Opinion | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Browser Wars Ignite Again

Major news about core web browser technology is not very frequent so it was quite a surprise that there were two big stories this week on the topic. Both of which can have a serious effect on how we browse on mobile devices in the coming years.

Blink

Google announced on the Chromium blog that they moving to a new rendering engine called Blink. Blink is a fork of Webkit, the engine that powers Chrome and Safari today. Their reasoning is that the changes they need to make for Chrome are too difficult to roll back into Webkit and this is slowing down the pace of their development. At some point soon Chrome on desktop OSes, ChromeOS, and Android will be running on this new codebase.

This is an important development because Google has been a major contributor to the Webkit project and the loss of their efforts to the project will certainly hinder Webkit’s progress. This will likely have negative effects for other platforms using Webkit, most notably Safari on both iOS and OS X. Apple will likely need to increase staff dedicated to Webkit to keep Webkit modern. Apple tends to like to be in control of strategic pieces of functionality of its platforms so I find it unlikely they will move away from Webkit any time soon.

Servo

In other web engine news this week, Mozilla announced it is developing a new web browser engine called Servo. Servo’s design goals are to be secure and support the latest hardware (e.g. multicore processors).

To develop Servo, Mozilla is developing a new programming language called Rust. Rust is a C like language with an emphasis on security. I find it interesting that Mozilla decided it could not rely on any existing language and had to go to the bother to create something new. Rust should be available to developers by the end of 2013. No word on when Servo would be available but I would guess it wouldn’t be until late 2014 at the earliest.

Who would be a potential customer of Servo? Interestingly, Samsung. Samsung is working with Mozilla to get Servo working on Android on ARM processors. Samsung’s relationship with Google has been called into question as Samsung gains more power in the smartphone market. Having their own browser engine is another way Samsung can break its dependency on Google.

Servo is an important project for Mozilla as it tries to stay relevant as the market is increasing moving to mobile devices. Firefox Mobile has negligible market share and the future of Firefox OS is hardly certain. Servo could help keep Mozilla on the map.

Conclusion

I have heard many web developers openly wish that all browsers would standardize on Webkit so that it would be easier to write web pages that would work better across browsers. Even though supporting multiple browsers is a hard problem, I never supported that position. Having only one engine would be a bad thing for the evolution of the web. Having multiple competing products is what forces progress. Remember the IE6 days? Multiple browsers may make writing pages harder, but browser technology will likely move ahead at a faster pace which is a good thing for everyone.

Just as Webkit stole Mozilla’s and Microsoft’s thunder several years ago, Blink or Servo may take over as the dominant browser engine in the coming years. If nothing else, this will force the Webkit project to take a look at itself and do the hard work to keep up with the competition. It is good to see work going on to advance the state of the art in browser technology. With competition, everyone benefits.

Posted in Analysis | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Is the iPad mini Too Expensive?

After months of speculation Apple has finally unveiled a smaller iPad, the iPad mini. Like the iPhone 5’s release, there were few surprises about the hardware as most of it had been leaked well in advance. The only shock was the price. Starting at $329, the iPad mini is much more expensive than other similarly sized tablets which start at $199.

Why is it so much?

First of all, Apple cannot price match Amazon and Google at $199. The Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7 are sold at (or pretty close to) cost as each vendor intends to make money selling content and displaying ads. Apple makes its money on the hardware so they cannot sell at cost. You can argue which business model is better, but Apple’s model seems to have been working out pretty well so far.

Even if Apple has to charge more to make a profit, $329 seems like a lot more more and needs to justify it. I think the pricing comes down to who is Apple selling this product to. The iPad mini is marketed to people who want an iPad (note I said an iPad, not a tablet) but think the 9.7″ device is too big, or too expensive. If you wanted an iPad and size or price was your issue, then Apple now has a solution for you.

If you were looking for the least expensive tablet around, then Apple can’t help you and appears to be willing to lose you as a customer.

Hardware differences aside, the big difference between these tablets comes down to the ecosystem behind it. Apple, Amazon, and Google each have their own stores of apps, music, movies, TV shows, and books. Apple’s offering is unique in that it offers 275,000 apps which is way beyond Google’s or Amazon’s. I believe this is why they feel they can charge such a premium.

Is the price too close to the iPad 2?

Another issue brought up is that at $329 the mini is only $70 less than the 9.7″ iPad 2. If you’re spending over $300 anyway, why not just spend a little more and get the larger tablet?

John Gruber points out that it is interesting to compare the iPad mini to the iPod mini introduced eight years ago. The iPod mini was introduced a couple of years after the iPod but was smaller, had less storage capacity, and cost $50 less than the full sized iPod. Pundits complained the iPod mini was too expensive for what it offered and too close in price to the full iPod to be attractive. But customers loved it and it went on to be a big success. Form factor is an important selling factor. Also, $50 or so dollars can be reason enough to influence a purchasing decision.

Is the price of the iPad mini ever going to fall?

This report at Business Insider says that Apple is having a hard time getting the new 7.9 inch displays. Speculation is that the high price is a way to control demand until supply can catch up. So can we expect a less expensive mini in 2013? Possibly. Apple did famously drop the price of the original iPhone from $599 to $399 three months after its introduction (grrr…), so there is precedent for a price drop shortly after a product’s introduction.

Any price drop will have to do with product demand. If the mini is a huge hit and Apple can’t keep them on shelves, then why drop the price? If demand starts to fade then a drop down to $299 may be in the cards.

Conclusion

The iPad mini looks like a solid product but the $329 price may be a deal breaker for bargain shoppers. Apple is taking a gamble on pricing the mini so much higher than similar products. There is a saying that “customers don’t want tablets, they want iPads”. Apple is banking on that being true.

Posted in Analysis | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Is the iPhone Only For Old People?

I have always thought of Apple’s products as being cool. Because of this, in addition to being easy to use and great looking products, they’re also status symbols. This has been true for iPods, MacBooks, and iPhones. People didn’t want music players, they wanted iPods. People didn’t want phones, they wanted iPhones. Recently, I’ve been hearing things that indicate that this may no longer be the case. Three times within the last week or so I’ve come across references that young people do not want iPhones anymore. This is not because other phones are easier to use, more functional, less expensive, or look better but for a far more important reason. iPhones are the phones used by their parents.

The first I heard this was in episode 42 of Andy Ihnatko’s podcast, “The Ihnatko Almanac” (Listen here at about 32:00). Andy asked a teenager he knows who recently bought a smartphone why he didn’t buy an iPhone and was told “my Dad has an iPhone”. It’s not that his phone is better, just that it is different than his Dad’s. I thought it was funny, but didn’t think much about it until a few days later.

I next encountered the same theme while reading Brian S. Hall’s hysterical (and profane) piece recounting the horror of his son’s decision to buy an Android phone and not an iPhone. While they argue about which phone his son should purchase Brian says “But iPhone is better!” to which his son replies “I’m not getting the same phone my father has.” There it is again. Better has nothing to do with it.

Then I saw Samsung’s latest Galaxy S3 commercial and saw it happen again. As you may be aware Samsung likes making fun of the Apple faithful waiting in line for the latest iPhone and this commercial is another in that tradition. At one point in the middle of the ad, a young person in line reveals he is not actually waiting to buy the iPhone but is holding the spot in line for his parents. Again, the iPhone is for parents, not the cool kids.

All of this evidence got me wondering about some things.

First, did this just phenomenon occur naturally or was it the result of marketing? Samsung is pressing this in their commercial but is that just a reaction to something that is already happening or did they do something to help it? Natural or not, it certainly makes sense for them to take advantage of it.

Second, is this something Apple needs to be worried about? Apple’s stock is at an all time high and they sold 2 million iPhone 5’s the first 24 hours they were available so I wouldn’t worry too much about them right now, but could this be the kind of thing that can hurt them a few years down the road? Are Apple’s days of being cool over? When my kids reach their buying years will they consider Apple like I consider Buick – a nice product but for the previous generation?

Last, and most importantly, does this mean I’m old? Actually, don’t answer that. Just get those darned kids with their Android phones off my lawn!

Posted in Analysis | Tagged | 1 Comment

Thoughts on Amazon’s new Tablets

In early September Amazon hosted an event introduce its new line of Kindle devices. I won’t dive into all of the devices and features as you can see the specs on Amazon.com. I’ll discuss what I think is interesting and important about the products.

eInk eBooks Readers are Not Dead

Although the Kindle Fire devices took up the majority of Jeff Bezos’ time on stage, the presentation started off showing their new eInk based readers. Amazon has reduced their line to two models: the Kindle and the Kindle Paperwhite.

The Kindle is the same as the entry level Kindle of last year except its price is now $69 instead of $79. The barrier for eBooks continues to go down begging the question of when will the reader be free? Maybe next year they’ll throw one in with a Prime account?

The “Kindle Paperwhite” replaces the Kindle Touch and Kindle Keyboard. The Paperwhite is a touchscreen device with a sidelit screen for viewing in low lighting conditions. The lighting system is unique and quite sophisticated, again showing Amazon’s commitment to eInk readers by putting significant engineering resources behind them. In addition to the lighting, the screen itself is improved with faster refresh rates, more contrast, and more pixels for a better reading experience.

One thing that has not been carried over from older Kindles is an audio system. There is no speaker or headphone jack anymore. Amazon must have decided that so few people use this feature it is not worth the cost to include the hardware. It is a bit curious though as they later made a big deal about how audio and reading can sync on the Kindle Fire.

At $119 for the wifi version and $169 for the 3G version, the price of their top of the line eReader stays low enough to make it an impulse buy or an inexpensive gift.

Low Price Does Not Have to Mean Low Quality

Many considered the first Kindle Fire to be “good for the price” meaning it didn’t perform well but you didn’t expect much for only $200. With new Kindle Fire HD, Amazon has clearly given a good deal of thought to the hardware and want it to be “the best device at any price.” Both the 7″ and 8.9″ tablets have leading edge hardware technology including superior displays, better wifi performance, and high quality audio. LTE is also available as an option with the 8.9″ tablet. Considering that Bezos started by saying that people don’t care about gadgets, they want services, he spent a good deal of time talking about the advanced features of the hardware so it is clearly important to them that people know these are high quality tablets. They are clearly squarely competing with iPad.

With the 7″ Fire HD starting at $199 and 8.9″ model starting at $299, they are looking to undercut the competition (specifically Apple) on price.

Amazon Understands Its Customers

Amazon showed that they understand what its customers want.

Good product at a low price. It sounds like they are they aren’t cutting corners on hardware but they are selling at very low prices. What’s not to like?

Good content viewing experience. Amazon invested a lot in superior screen and audio capabilities for watching TV shows and movies. Fast wifi ensures smooth streaming.

Lots of content. Amazon’s content selection is their big advantage over Google and maybe even Apple. The weakest area is the their app selection.

Internet use. In addition to content consumption, the Fire HD can be used for other computing tasks. It features a rich email client (with Exchange support), a Facebook app, and a decent web browser. This should keep many people happy.

Family/Kid controls. The FreeTime feature to manage how children use the device is brilliant and will be a selling feature to families. iPad has no such feature.

Amazon Wants to Move Product

Amazon is offering the high quality hardware at bargain prices. Fire devices range in price from $169 to $499. At $169 they can undercut Google’s Nexus 7, and at $299 they undercut Apple’s iPad 2 by $100. On the high end, the $499 tablet with LTE undercuts the LTE iPad by $229.

With LTE devices, Amazon is offering a $50/year subscription which gives 250MB per month. For light wireless usage this undercuts everyone. Although, anyone who really wants to use wireless data will find the 250MB data cap woefully inadequate.

How can Amazon sell these products for these low prices?

1) Amazon is not looking to make money on the device. Jeff Bezos said this himself: “We don’t make money selling devices, we make money when people use our devices”. They are selling these at or below cost and looking to make it up on selling content. If they sell an Amazon prime account for $79 to each Fire user I’m sure they’d be back in the black.

2) Advertising. Something not mentioned at the event was that all Kindle devices will now show ads on the lock screen. That has to be offsetting some of Amazon’s costs but how will users react? Amazon has been offering their eInk Kindles with and without advertising for the last year. I would presume their data shows that people are choosing lower prices over an ad-free experience. I don’t doubt that but I can’t imagine Apple ever doing the same.

Amazon is in it to Win

It is clear Amazon has taken great care to create a good product at a good price. If they were able to take 22% of the US tablet market with the original Fire, they should take a much bigger chunk with the Fire HD line.

The presentation itself make it clear how seriously they are taking this space. They provided live demos (indicating the products were done and not still in development), prices, and availably. All things potential consumers need to know. In fact, some of the devices were available within a week while there was still buzz around the event. The whole presentation was carefully crafted with Jeff Bezos singlehandedly making the entire presentation. Steve Jobs would be proud.

Amazon’s Weaknesses

Amazon’s product line and strategy look great. What can go wrong?

Amazon has to deliver the goods (so to speak). The tablets sound terrific on a spec sheet, but how will they actually perform? Early reviews are not so great as there are reports of sluggish performance. That might not hurt them too much as people may have a “well it only costs $xxx” attitude but it certainly won’t help move product.

Amazon also has to be able to keep up with demand. The Fire HD line is rolling out in time for the holidays and if they sell out in October it will be a big problem. There will be big demand and they had better be ready for it. Managing the supply chain is one of Apple’s core strengths. We’ll see how well Amazon does in this regard this fall.

One of the Fire’s biggest weaknesses is in its app selection. Only certain Android apps run on a Fire so they do not have the full selection other Android devices do. They also do not have near the collection that iPad offers. This can keep the Fire from being used for all sorts of applications. Maybe if the Fire is successful it will lure developers to create the apps.

Winners and Losers

Clearly Amazon users are winners. If you’re invested in the Amazon ecosystem, you have some great choices for devices at great prices. Hell, even if you’re not an Amazon user, these are still a bargain.

Who are the losers? 

Samsung, Sony, Motorola, and anyone else selling an Android tablet. Selling Android tablets is already difficult and the Fire HD tablets with their low prices is going to make it harder for anyone trying to make a profit on selling a device. Amazon can sell the tablets at cost, the others cannot.

Google. Even though the Fires run Android, Google gets none of the benefit as all of the Google services are stripped away by Amazon. Even the default search engine is Bing! So Google picks up a lot of the development costs and gets none of the benefit.

Microsoft. With Amazon selling an 8.9″ tablet for $299, it is going to be hard to sell Windows RT tablets at $499 (which is what I am assuming they will cost). Microsoft desperately needs momentum at launch in late October and this certainly doesn’t help.

Apple. Apple’s strong app and iTunes ecosystem will continue to sell lots of iPads so don’t short Apple stock yet, but they may have a real competitor that can significantly undercut them on price. The keys for Apple are to make sure that iPad’s performance and experience remain superior. Apple should be looking to fill the gaps on features that that Amazon offers that iOS is lacking such as FreeTime. As a parent of kids who are addicted to our iPad I see that as a killer feature.

Conclusion

Amazon showed us that it is committed to building its own devices to support its business of selling content (books, music, movies, etc.). They have spent considerable dollars in engineering to build a family of devices from eReaders to full sized tablets. Their aggressive pricing depends on buyers using these tablets to purchase Amazon content, preferably Prime accounts. Customers who only use these tablets for web surfing and email reading do no good for Amazon.

As they go head to head with Apple, it will be interesting to see which business model comes out on top; Amazon’s (selling devices at cost to make money on content), or Apple’s (providing content to sell expensive devices). So far it has been working out pretty well for Apple, but Amazon has a compelling story now.

Posted in Analysis | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on the iPhone 5 and new iPods

Apple introduced the iPhone 5 and new iPods on September 12. I haven’t had a chance to play with them yet (they won’t be in stores until next week), but I have seen the introduction event and read reviews of the pundits who have had an opportunity to play with them. I’d like to share my thoughts about Apple’s next generation of iDevices.

iPhone 5

The iPhone 5 has an all new design from the iPhone 4S but it is an evolutionary design, not revolutionary. Everything is better (e.g. faster CPU, LTE, bigger screen, thinner, less weight) but nothing is radically different than earlier iPhones. And that’s fine. Current iPhone owners upgrading to iPhone 5 should feel at home. The layout of the phone is the same (except for the headphone port being on the bottom). iOS 6 doesn’t have a different look and feel from earlier versions. So, anyone familiar with using an iPhone can just pick up an iPhone 5 and use it. It should be a better experience as the phone is faster (2x processor speed), has LTE (for ridiculously fast wireless speeds), and a larger screen.

Many pundits have described the iPhone 5 as “boring” and “safe”. That may be true, but why is that bad? Millions of people are familiar with iPhone and are, more importantly, very happy with it. I’m sure Apple will sell a bazillion of them (give or take a jillion) and it will become the most successful smartphone since the iPhone 4S.

The Hardware

The new phone is thinner and lighter than previous models. From the specs it doesn’t sound like a big difference, but almost everyone who has handled one says it is noticeably thinner and lighter. A frequent comment is that it is almost too light as if feels like it is hollow. I’m sure it is something you get used to quickly.

I’m glad the new design does not have a glass back like the 4 and 4S. The glass looks nice but shatters easily if the phone is dropped. The 5 has an aluminum back. I’m curious to see how prone it is to denting and scratching though.

The Screen

The most noticeable new feature of the phone is its new screen. The iPhone 5 has a 4″ screen compared to the 3.5″ screen every previous model has had. The new screen is the same width as earlier ones but is longer giving it a 16:9 aspect ratio. Not only is this good for movies, which are 16:9 formatted, but apps should be able to display more information. Apps will need to be updated to take advantage of the space, so look for updates to come out soon as developers rush to change their code. Older apps will function as before but with black bars on the top and bottom.

The screen is not only larger but is one of the reasons the phone is so thin. There is a new process that bonds the touch sensor to the glass which reduces thickness. That’s great, but I’d like to know how durable it is. I’m sure we’ll see drop test videos as soon as the device is available. Previous iPhones did not survive these tests well. (See here.) I’m hoping iPhone 5 is more durable.

Battery

Another important issue is battery life. The iPhone 5 has a faster CPU, bigger screen, and LTE, all things that usually require more power yet Apple claims the 5 has slightly better battery life than the iPhone 4S. I think we’ll have to wait and see if that is actually true. As I recall, the iPhone 4S had battery life issues when it was introduced, and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear similar things with the 5.

Wireless Networking

Unlike the iPhone 4S, there are separate versions of the iPhone 5 for GSM (AT&T) and CDMA (Verizon & Sprint) networks. You will not be able to move a device between carriers like you could the 4S. Verizon and Sprint owners should know that even though the phone supports LTE, you cannot use voice and data at the same time meaning you cannot web surf while making a voice call. This not true of all LTE phones, but is a result of compromises made in the iPhone 5’s hardware design. (See here for a detailed explanation.) It is disappointing this wasn’t handled in the 5. Is it a deal breaker? Some pundits think this a big deal while others do not. Personally I don’t think so but it would be nice to be able to use the net while on the phone. In practice I very rarely had to do that.

Speaking of networks, travelers should know that the iPhone 5 uses a new type of SIM card called a nano-sim. The nano-sim is (as you probably guessed) smaller than the micro-sim in the iPhone 4 and 4S. This means you will not be able to easily find SIM cards for the iPhone 5 and you cannot swap cards with other phones. This may be an issue for travelers who rely on this to get connectivity in foreign countries. Nano-sim is a standard so it will eventually become less of a problem.

The iPhone 5 introduces a new smaller dock connector called “Lightning”. This port replaces the 30 pin port that has been used for about 10 years. The new port is much smaller and has the benefit of allowing the cable to be plugged in either way. The downside is that all of your old cables and accessories won’t work with the new devices. Apple will sell an adapter (for $29!!!) but it won’t work for all uses. Power and syncing will work, but audio may not. Be prepared to re-buy accessories. This new port will be on all new iOS devices going forward. (see below)

iOS 6

The iPhone 5 comes with iOS 6. The latest version of iOS will be available for older iPhones (and iPods and iPads) starting September 19. iOS 6 has many new features, but is not radically different from iOS 5. Two things people should know about iOS 6 are the new maps application and the loss of the YouTube app.

Maps. Apple’s relationship with Google has deteriorated since the release of Android, and Apple has been looking for ways to stop supporting Google services. Apple’s new maps application does not use Google maps but their own data. How good, bad, or otherwise is hard to tell right now. Matching Google Maps functionality is no small feat as mapping is one of Google’s strengths.

For the first time Apple’s map application will provide turn by turn navigation (sorry Garmin!) so iOS users will finally have a feature that Android users have had for years. Missing from Apple Maps is transit information (trains, buses, etc.). City dwellers will miss this feature. Apple Maps features an API so that third parties can provide this information with extensions to Apple Maps but it will be up to the individual to get these extensions. This may be an advantage at some point as Google is having a hard time securing this information in some markets as cities are refusing to provide it. If you cannot live without Google Maps, take heart as it is rumored that Google is preparing its own Google Maps iOS app so you will be able to choose which mapping solution works best for you.

YouTube. Apple has removed the YouTube app from iOS 6. The YouTube app has not changed much (or at all?) since the original iPhone in 2007. Again, Apple is trying to get away from Google services and  dropping this app is a natural result of that. YouTube addicts don’t have to worry though as Google has already released to the AppStore a new YouTube app which is much better than Apple’s in many ways. The UI is better and it plays videos the old app could not. The price for that is that you now have to view ads.

What was missing from the 5?

So now that we know what iPhone 5 is, what did it not have that I expected or hoped for? There were two things I was hoping for but didn’t really expect.

NFC support was the one I really wanted but it looks as if we’ll have to wait at least another year for that. NFC is usually associated with mobile wallets and mobile payments, and I can understand why Apple would want to stay away from that mess right now but NFC has lots of other uses too and Apple could have done some useful things with it. For example, the Samsung Galaxy S3 lets you trade contact information and pictures by bumping phones.

Wireless charging was the other feature I wanted. Although not crucial it is a neat feature more and more phones have (e.g. Galaxy S3 and Lumia 920). I would love to put my phone on a pad next to my bed as opposed to having to find a loose cable and plug it in.

No Surprises

To those of us who follow the tech industry, and especially mobile, the biggest surprise about the iPhone 5 was how accurate all of the leaks were. We’ve beens seeing pictures of the case, screen, motherboard for weeks now. It is too bad as it made the whole event a lot less interesting. Earlier this year Tim Cook said they were “doubling down” on security at Apple but that must be like how HP doubled down on webOS I guess. Pro Tip: whenever a CEO says they’re “doubling down” on something it means the opposite.

As for the software, iOS 6 was introduced publicly at Apple’s developer event, WWDC, in June. There wasn’t anything that was shown on September 12th that was not shown back in June so there were no surprises here either.

Price and Availability

Pre-orders for the iPhone 5 started on September 14. The device will be available at retail on September 21. Pricing for the iPhone 5 is the same as it was for the iPhone 4S (and 4, and 3GS, and 3G). The two year on-contract price is $199/$299/$399 for 16GB/32GB/64GB versions. The off-contract, full retail price is $649/$749/$849.

If you’re reading this and didn’t order one yet you missed your chance to get one delivered by September 21 as Apple, AT&T, and Verizon have already sold out of stock. Deliveries are now estimated at “two weeks”.

RIP iPhone 3GS

With the introduction of the iPhone 5, the previous models move down the line pushing the iPhone 3GS into history. The iPhone 4S with 16GB will be $99 with 2 year contract (which is a pretty good deal) and the iPhone 4 with 8GB is now free on contract. That the iPhone 4 is on the bottom is significant because, unlike the 3GS, the 4 is available with GSM and CDMA. This means Verizon and Sprint can offer the iPhone for free. Verizon said they are only selling LTE devices, so I wonder if they will offer the lower end iPhones at all?

I do want to take a moment to comment about the 3GS now that it is no longer being sold. The 3GS was first released in June 2009 and was a cutting edge device at the time. That phone was sold for four years and received four iOS upgrades. By today’s standards it is a very low end smartphone, but how many other phones have sold for more than one year? How many received more than one OS upgrade? It was a truly remarkable device.

Should I upgrade?

As always, the answer to that question has to do with where you are in your current contract. If you’re in the middle of a contract you will not be update at the $199/$299/$399 cost. AT&T and Verizon have early upgrade fees depending where you are in your contract but they are $200 more than the new contract fee making a new phone $399/$499/$599. That’s a lot to upgrade.

If you are eligible with your carrier for an upgrade I’d say go for it. The 5 is the best iPhone yet. If you’re in an area where you can get LTE service with your carrier then you really do want update. Web surfing, downloading apps or music will be noticeably faster. The speed of LTE is amazing.

iPods

The big surprise of event to me was to see how much attention Apple is still spending on iPods seeing how it is a shrinking business. Apple showed off an all new iPod Touch and an all new iPod Nano indicating they think it is still a significant business.

iPod Touch

The new iPod touch (the 5th generation) is essentially an iPhone 5 without the cellular radio in a different case. This is a welcome upgrade as there was no upgrade to the Touch last year when the iPhone 4S was introduced. The iPod Touch always seemed like the crippled sibling to the iPhone, and that’s still true, but with the 5th version the differences aren’t as severe. I expected it to have the same screen as the iPhone 5 (it does) and a better CPU (the dual core A5 is much better than the the single core A4 of the old Touch, but not as good as the A6 in the iPhone 5) but I was happy to see the camera get a significant upgrade. The cameras in the 4th gen iPod Touch are… well… just horrible. Just good enough to remember where you parked but not for taking real pictures. It sounds like the new Touch gets the same optics as the iPhone 4S in front of a 5MP sensor. That’s 3MP less than the iPhone 4S and 5, but 5MP is still decent for photos to print. The Touch now comes in colors which is much better than the chrome back of earlier models that were very prone to scratching. And, of course, the Touch uses the new Lightning port.

This is all great, but it comes at a cost. The new Touch starts at $299 for a 32GB version. Yow! That’s a lot of money for a device marketed primarily to kids as a game system. You can still buy the 16GB 4th generation at $199 but that is two year old technology.

The iPod Touch has the potential to be an important game machine. With the CPU upgrade and AirPlay capabilities, the Touch has necessary software and hardware to compete in this area.

iPod Nano

The iPod Nano got a complete makeover too. The square nano that people were wearing as watches is gone and replaced with what looks like a tiny iPhone. The $149 device sports a 2.5″ touch display. FM radio is included with the ability to skip back, which I always thought that would be a great idea. (I should have patented it!) The nano also has a pedometer built in which should make it a hit with joggers. The Nano uses the new Lightning port for charging and syncing.

Conclusions

The iPhone 5 is a worthy upgrade to the 4S. It is not a major change to the platform, but a solid incremental update improving the hardware and software. It also catches the iPhone up to the competition by adding features other phones already offer such features as LTE, larger screen, and turn-by-turn navigation. If you want one, you shouldn’t wait very long as they will be hard get for a while as demand will be very high.

The 5th generation iPod Touch appears to be solid device for those who want an iOS device but do not want a cellular contract, but the $299 price seems prohibitively high to me. It puts it out of impulse buy range, and seems like more than you would want to spend on a device your kid will lose or break. You could get a Kindle Fire HD or a Nexus 7 and still have $100 left over for that price.

The new iPod Nano appears to be a decent media player for those who aren’t interested in apps. The radio and pedometer features indicate that Apple sees a market in those who exercise and wants to provide a solution for it.

Posted in Analysis | Tagged , , | Leave a comment