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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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Six Colors: Reviews Archive



By Jason Snell

AirPods Review: Hearing is believing

AirPodsCase-PF-Open_AirPods-PF-Float_PR-PRINT

Wireless headphones aren’t new. Individual wireless earbuds aren’t even that new. But the profile, power, and prowess of Apple make the AirPods special. These are the wireless earbuds that people will notice and talk about—and probably buy in large numbers. The good news is, they’re worthy of the attention.

Time to go wireless

A cynic would say that Apple removed the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 as a way to push users toward wireless audio products like the AirPods. In fact, wireless headphones have been around quite some time. And they have distinct advantages.

A couple of years ago, tired of having my headphones yanked out of my ears by a stray kitchen knob while cooking, I bought a set of Jaybird Bluetooth earbuds and have been using them ever since, mostly for listening to podcasts while walking the dog, running, or working in the kitchen. Not having cords to flap around or get caught is definitely a freeing experience.

Yes, there are drawbacks—having to plug the headphones in every so often to recharge their battery is the biggest added annoyance—but in general the move to wireless was a good one. The only problem with those earbuds is that they’re not truly wireless, because the earbuds are still wired to one another. The wire can hang down in front like a necklace, or you can bind it up and wear it around the back of your head, but neither configuration is ideal.

Fundamentally, earbuds deserved to be treated as individual objects, not tethered together. That’s the premise of the AirPods as well as several other wireless earbuds of this type. Each earbud is its own separate entity, so you can stick one or both in your ears and truly say goodbye to dangling wires.

In form, the tips of the AirPods are quite similar to the EarPod design Apple’s been using for several years. (They appear to be a bit more tapered at the ear end.) While there are no attached cables, the stems of the earbuds extend further away from your ears, all the better to pack in an antenna, battery, and microphone. Since there are no ports in which to plug charging cables, each pair of AirPods comes with a small carrying case, roughly the size and shape of a packet of dental floss. The case has a Lightning port on the bottom, and it will charge the AirPods when you drop them in. (They drop in with a clear, pleasant magnetic click, and a small light indicates charging status.)

According to Apple, the AirPods will last about five hours on a charge, and 15 minutes in the case will recharge them enough for three more hours of playback. In my usage these seemed like reasonable estimates—it took a lot of effort to wear down my AirPods, and even a brief visit to the charging case would revive them. Apple says that all told, fully charged AirPods and a fully charged case will provide 24 hours of listening time.

Given the average length of my old public-transit commute, I wouldn’t have even needed to bring the case with me, but given the size of each AirPod earbud, the case is more than just a charging system. It’s also an important organizational tool—because if you leave these earbuds floating around, you will probably lose them. Keep the earbuds in the case when not in use and everyone’s happy. (And yeah, the case adds another item you need to carry around with you—but on the positive side, these headphones won’t ever get tangled cords.)

Smart wearables

The secret sauce—okay, magic—of the AirPods comes in the details that Apple has sweated in order to make the AirPods more than just a generic set of Bluetooth headphones. (Though they can be that if they must—I was able to pair them with an Android phone and they worked just fine.)

airpods-magic

Pairing them with my iPhone 7 couldn’t have been easier: When I flipped open the AirPods case while they were next to the phone, up slid a screen showing AirPods with a large button marked Connect. That was it. The information synced across iCloud to my other Apple devices; I could switch the AirPods to my iMac running macOS Sierra by or my iPad Pro by choosing “Jason’s AirPods” from the sound output selector.

When you put an earbud in one ear, you hear a pleasant chime to let you know that the earbuds are on and connected to a device. (If you switch devices, you’ll hear the chime again.) There’s a similar, sadder tone that plays when you’ve just about drained the batteries down.

Perhaps the best single feature of the AirPods is their infrared proximity sensors, which is how they know to chime when you’ve placed one in your ear. More importantly, this sensor forms the basis of a natural and useful interface gesture: removing one earbud. When you remove an earbud, which is generally the universal signal that you’re trying to hear something happening in the outside world, the AirPods will automatically pause your audio. When you pop that earbud back into your ear, playback resumes.

The first day I wore AirPods out in the world, I was walking my dog down a dog path when another dog and person came toward us from the other direction. I popped an earbud out, said hello, and when we moved past one another I popped the earbud back in—and my podcast resumed. (The AirPods only resume your audio playback in this specific context—when you take out one earbud and then replace it. If you pop both earbuds out, it assumes that a listening session has ended, and you’ll need to press play to get your audio started up when you return.)

airpods-settings
You can configure AirPods from the Bluetooth menu in Settings.

As clever and humane as that interface is, its flip side is the weakest feature of the AirPods: their reliance on Siri for just about everything else. You can summon Siri with two taps on either earbud, just as if you held down the Home button or said “Hey Siri” out loud. (If you want, you can deactivate this gesture entirely or have it merely represent a play/pause control.)

If Apple’s strength is integrating various technologies together, it’s also a weakness. In this case, a pretty terrific bit of hardware is let down by a software feature of only middling reliability. Too many of Siri’s commands still seem to direct responses to a screen, which makes it inappropriate for voice-only use.

But I’m not sure I’d blame this all on Siri. The fact is, the AirPods come with only two gestures—a double-tap and removing an earbud—when headphones with traditional clickers offer three buttons and an array of double- and triple-taps and press-and-hold gestures. Because the AirPods only have two available gestures, Apple has used Siri as a catch-all, figuring that you can adjust volume and skip tracks and do all of the other stuff you need to do from Siri, so it’ll be okay.

That’s a mistake, for a few reasons. First, Siri control is only functional when there’s an Internet connection. If you want to adjust the volume of your AirPods when you’re in an area with no service, you’ll need to pull out your phone or launch the Now Playing widget on your Apple Watch to do it. Why Apple doesn’t allow Siri to gracefully degrade to a few basic hardware-oriented commands when there’s no network connectivity is beyond me. The Internet doesn’t need to exist for me to tell my phone to skip to the next track—but that’s how Apple has apparently built this feature.

Then there’s the difference in convenience between a few clicks or taps and having to tap, say a phrase, and wait for it to be interpreted. There’s a lot of extra baggage there, which is great when you need a pocket supercomputer to interpret a complex phrase like “Play the playlist ‘Best of Alternative 2016’.” But it seems a little sillier to do all of that just to say “decrease volume.” (Also, if you’re on the subway, people will think you’re a weirdo. Or that you’re telling them to shut up.)

Apple has packed so much into the AirPods that it’s understandable that this first-generation product would have some limits. That said, even without adding buttons or touch surfaces, Apple might have been able to do more with this technology. Imagine the ability to customize double-taps per earbud, so that a double-tap on your left ear can perform a different task from the right. Add in support for a triple tap. Now you’ve got a wider palette of gestures to choose from. But, at least for now, this is what we’ve got.

In my use of the AirPods, I tried very hard not to use Siri when at all possible. My Apple Watch was a pretty good remote control, and I could always resort to the classic “squeeze the iPhone in my pocket” maneuver to adjust volume. This is the price of minimalism.

But how do they sound and fit?

Everybody’s ears are different, inside and out. A sound you find pleasing might be awful to someone else. And I’m sure AirPods won’t please audiophiles. But as someone who has been using good in-ear monitors with custom-molded silicone tips for years now—in other words, someone who at least has a passing familiarity with pretty good sound—I can tell you that, at least to my ears, AirPods sound just fine.

Shaking Head

I have spent very little time with Apple’s EarPods over the years. The fact is, the original iPod earbuds were so awful—they didn’t sound good and they didn’t fit my ears well—that I quickly switched to third-party headphones and never looked back. But the AirPods (and, yes, the EarPods) sound surprisingly good, for both music and podcasts. I was impressed with the depth of the bass and the clarity of the treble. As a skeptical listener, I came away believing that the sound of the AirPods was not a limiting factor. They sound good. I’m sure they will not sound good to some people, but the vast majority of people will find them pleasing.

Likewise, ear shape can be an issue. I know someone who tried the AirPods and said they kept falling out of their ears. My right ear started hurting after about half an hour of use, until I repositioned the stem of the earbud to point a bit more in toward my neck, at which point it was much more comfortable. Some people, just by the luck of the shape of their ears, will not be able to wear AirPods comfortably.

In many hours of use, an earbud fell out of my ears twice. In both cases, the fall was caused by brushing against the stems with another object, namely the sleeve or hood of my sweatshirt. Otherwise, they stayed in my ears despite several attempts to shake them out. I never felt this way with a pair of wired earbuds.

The big difference is probably the lack of wires coming out of the bottom of the stems. You may not notice the force that wires exert, constantly pulling against your ears and trying to coax those earbuds out of position, but compare the feeling of wearing EarPods to AirPods and you will realize that those wires really do have an impact. I never felt that EarPods were reliably seated in my ears, but AirPods stay in my ears even if I simulate enthusiastic headbanging or shake my head wildly from side to side.

Now hear this

AirPods feel like a classic Apple product. Its custom hardware and tweaked software interact to create a product that’s packed with high technology but never feels complicated or flaky. They are exactly what you’d imagine if I told you that Apple was making a set of completely wireless earbuds. You pop them in your ears and go—they really do just work.

They’re not a perfect product, for sure. If there’s any way for Apple to add more tap gestures via a software update, I hope the company will consider that. I’d like to see Siri to stop requiring an Internet connection to perform basic tasks. And if Apple can find a way to create next-generation AirPods with more tap gestures or on-device buttons or touch-sensitive gestural areas, they’ll be that much more effective.

But if you’re the user of any Apple device and you are in the market for a pair of headphones, the AirPods deserve serious consideration. Once you’ve cooked a meal or run a mile with no wires coming out of your ears, you will wonder how you ever lived without this product. And isn’t that the most Apple-like feeling of all?


By Jason Snell

MacBook Pro with Touch Bar review: Keyboard chameleon

The new MacBook Pro is a powerful computer in a relatively thin and light shell that brings an entirely new connection format to the Mac mainstream, but it won’t be remembered for any of that. The legacy of this laptop sits at the top of the keyboard, where a row of function keys have been replaced by a high-resolution multitouch 2170 × 60 OLED display with a fingerprint sensor next to it.

This isn’t the MacBook Pro, it’s the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and Touch ID. And it’s a major investment by Apple, featuring major additions to macOS and almost all of its included apps in order to support the Touch Bar and Touch ID.

Continue Reading "MacBook Pro with Touch Bar review: Keyboard chameleon"


By Jason Snell

Review: On the road with the 13-inch MacBook Pro

The 13-inch MacBook Pro (top) and a 12-inch MacBook on a table in Ireland.

When Apple provided me with a 13-inch MacBook Pro the day before I was set to spend 10 days traveling to Europe and back, I took it upon myself as a challenge to do one of the things that laptops are meant to do: provide computing power while you’re on the go. So I edited podcasts on planes, wrote articles in hotel rooms and airport departure lounges and even on trains zipping through the Irish countryside.

As a MacBook Air user, I’ve paid attention to Apple’s statements likening the low-end 13-inch model with physical function keys and two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports to the 13-inch MacBook Air. My preferred Air, the 11-inch model, is on the way out—and the regular MacBook is probably its best analog. (Could we get a second port on there?) But my wife’s a user of the 13-inch Air, and comparing this new MacBook Pro to her Air is illuminating.

This model is more compact than the Air, with smaller bezels around the display leading to a more compact shape. It’s thicker at the trackpad end than the MacBook Air’s wedge shape, and it weighs an ounce more, but most notably it just feels more dense (and more solid).

The big difference is the screen: It’s beautifully bright and with the Retina resolution you’d expect. Well, that and the price. The newer tech and that Retina screen make this MacBook Pro a 50 percent price premium over the Air, at $1499 (versus $999). The spread of Retina displays across most of the Mac product line is great, but it has come at a high price—literally.

My review model came in Space Gray, marking the first time I’ve regularly used a non-silver laptop since the days of the Black MacBook. I like the darker shade, but wish Apple would give buyers even more color choices—and not just gold and rose gold as on the MacBook, but brighter colors, too.

With this new MacBook Pro, Apple has gone all in on the USB-C connector. First debuting on the Mac with the MacBook in 2015, this model sports two USB-C connectors, but these are enhanced with Thunderbolt 3. This means that you can use adapters to connect them to older products that used either USB or Thunderbolt, and it simplifies the MacBook Pro by providing only a single connector type.

I’m all for Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C, especially for the ability for this laptop to drive an external 5K display. But there are a few issues. First is the change, as on the MacBook, to use USB-C for charging. MagSafe is gone, so if you trip on your charging cable with this new MacBook Pro you are less likely to be saved by a breakaway cable. And by plugging in the laptop on one of its two ports, you’ve eliminated that part for use in attaching peripherals.

You’ll need adapters, too. A friend brought me a USB stick last weekend and we chuckled for a moment when he realized he couldn’t plug it into this Mac. Fortunately, I had Apple’s USB-C to USB-A adapter, so I was able to copy off his files by attaching his drive to the end of a dangling dongle. To copy some of my system files onto this laptop, I used Apple’s blocky Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt adapter and placed my old laptop in Target Disk Mode, which worked well.

This MacBook Pro also doesn’t have an SD card reader, which will upset some photographers. My MacBook Air never offered a card reader, so I didn’t miss it. I’d wager that the reader was used by very few people, which is one reason Apple would’ve removed it, but if it was a convenience you relied on to rapidly offload an external device, it will be less convenient with this machine.

The MacBook Pro’s keyboard isn’t like the one on the MacBook Air, or the previous-model MacBook Pro, either. Instead, it’s an updated version of the keyboard introduced with the MacBook last year. Apple told me that the keys don’t travel any farther than on the MacBook, but that this second-generation keyboard offers more feedback and feels more responsive than the one on the MacBook. That may be true, but there’s no doubt that this keyboard is a progression of the MacBook keyboard, not a revision of the previous MacBook Pro keyboard or Apple’s external Magic Keyboard.

I have written on more than one occasion of my general dislike of the MacBook keyboard. The keyboard is an important tool in making my living, and while I can use just about any keyboard, I know what I like. And what I like is more travel than these keyboards offer. That said, I want to allay the fears of people who think these keyboards don’t do the job: They do. I find the lack of response in the keys unpleasant, but I can still type at full speed and accuracy when I use it. (I do keep hitting the wrong arrow keys, though. I’m still not a fan of the full-sized left and right arrow keys sharing space with half-height up and down arrows.)

In any event, if you like the MacBook keyboard, you’ll like this one even more. If you disliked the MacBook keyboard, you may find this one to be an improvement—but it’s a progression of that keyboard, not a replacement.

Being on the road, I haven’t been able to do methodical speed or battery tests, but I can say that the battery life on this laptop seems to be a lot more than on the MacBook Air. It also handled some more intense work—editing multi-track audio in Logic Pro and removing noise from audio with iZotope RX 5—with aplomb. Some of that may be the result of the faster SSD in this model, but some of it is at least the responsibility of the processor.

In the end, the low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro turned out to be a pretty fine traveling companion for the past ten days. As a loyal Air user, it’s been a delight to bring a Retina display with me and have the ability to pack a single brick (plus one cable) to charge my Mac, iPad, and iPhone. I’ve just had to remember to keep my adapters close by—it’s always smart to be prepared.

Would I choose this model over the new MacBook Pro models with the Touch Bar and Touch ID? If money was no object, probably not. But if you’re a MacBook Air user (or were considering buying a MacBook Air), money will probably be relevant. This model is a tweener, to be sure, but it’s got a lot more than the MacBook can provide without the higher price tag of the Touch Bar models. Surely there’s a sweet spot there.


By Jason Snell

Review: Kobo Aura One is a waterproof “hardcover” ebook reader

The Amazon Kindle Oasis (left) with the Kobo Aura One.

The ebook reader market is funny. After an initial flurry of excitement, we seem to have settled in on the idea that paper books and ebooks are going to coexist, and that some people who choose to read ebooks will just do so on their smartphones and tablets. But that still leaves a really interesting niche for people who do love reading on dedicated reading devices with screens that are more like a book’s pages than a computer’s backlit display.

For pure utility, the $120 Kindle Paperwhite is the ebook reader you should buy. But what’s more interesting are the developments at the high end of this category, where premium ebook readers have become a thing. First was the $290 Kindle Oasis, which is beautiful, small, and thin.

So when Kobo announced the $229 Kobo Aura One, I was intrigued. It’s a premium ebook reader like the Kindle Oasis, but Kobo has made a bunch of different choices about what that means and what features matter to ebook readers.

I bought a Kobo Aura One to try it out and have been using it for a couple of weeks, the first time I’ve used an ebook reader that wasn’t a Kindle. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a lot of the choices Kobo has made, and while I’m not sure it’s better than the Oasis, it’s most certainly different.

Let’s start with the size: The Aura One has a 7.8-inch diagonal screen with a screen resolution of 300 ppi. That’s the same resolution as all but the cheapest of Amazon’s Kindles, but it’s a much larger screen—the Kindle screens are all only 6 inches diagonal. The end result is that reading a book on an Aura One feels like reading a hardcover, while reading on a Kindle feels like reading a paperback. There’s more text on the screen and you need to turn the page much less frequently. The extra reading space isn’t necessary, per se, but it does feel luxurious.

kobo-screen
The tiled Kobo Aura One home screen.

Hardcover books can be heavy, though: the last hardcover novel I read before I bought my first kindle weighed 2.8 pounds! The Aura One isn’t like that—at 8.1 ounces, it’s about the same weight as the Kindle Paperwhite. The Oasis, on the other hand, weighs 4.6 ounces. I was comfortable holding the Aura One and reading for long stretches of time, but if you’re looking for the lightest ebook reader around, the Oasis is for you. The Oasis also offers hardware page-turn buttons; to turn pages on the Aura One, you’ve got to swipe or tap on the screen.

This is not to say that the Aura One doesn’t have its own advantages. It’s waterproof, for one, which no Kindle has ever been able to claim. If you’re someone who reads in a bathtub or hot tub, or otherwise walks the perilous path between reading and water, this is a huge feature in the Aura One’s favor.

Like the Kindle Voyage (but not, strangely, the Oasis), the Aura One has a light sensor that allows it to dynamically adjust its screen brightness based on your surroundings. (Like most Kindles, the Aura One is illuminated internally by a ring of lights.) Unlike the Kindle, the Aura One has a feature that’s akin to Apple’s Night Shift—it can skew its lighting into warmer tones in the evening. If you’re someone who wants to get blue light out of your eyes at night, that’s another point in the Aura One’s favor.

In the end, though, shopping for an ebook reader comes down to the ecosystem it’s connected to. Kobo readers are wired to buy books from the Kobo store; Amazon readers buy from Amazon. You can’t easily migrate your books from one store to another, so if you’ve invested in the Kindle ecosystem it would be hard to switch to the Aura One. That said, I used the open-source app Calibre to convert some of my Kindle books into DRM-free Epub files and then read them on the Kobo. So it’s not impossible to make the transition if you only occasionally want to dip into the archives.

Pocket on the Aura One.

Amazon still offers daily newspapers for the Kindle, which Kobo doesn’t, though both stores offer magazines. Kobo has a leg up on Amazon in a couple other areas: native support for Pocket and Overdrive.

Pocket is a read-it-later service that lets you save stuff on the Web to read at a later time. It’s a perfect fit for an ereader—I use Instapaper to send stories to my Kindle all the time. But on the Aura One, Pocket is integrated right into the device. Just log in with your Pocket account, and your articles will sync, ready to be read on the device. It couldn’t be easier.

Overdrive is a system (owned by the same company, Rakuten, that owns Kobo) that lets your local library offer ebooks for check-out to patrons. You can check out books from Overdrive and download them to your Kindle, but it’s a multi-step process that involves logging in to the Overdrive web site, picking a book, then linking over to Amazon. On the Aura One, all of that happens on the device, which is much more convenient.

Library check-outs are hidden in a sub-menu.

There’s just one problem: The Aura One doesn’t give you a way to search your local library’s collection of ebooks on the device. If you want to read a book, you can search for it in the Kobo store and then tap a More Options icon to see if it’s available on Overdrive. It reminded me of that Douglas Adams line about an item being put on public display “at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.” Once you find a book that’s offered by your library, it takes a couple of taps to check it out and read it—but Kobo is not making much of an effort to let you find library books or remind you that a particular book is available for free check-out. Two steps forward, one step back.

After years of using the Amazon Kindle interface, I was interested in Kobo’s very different approach. Instead of making a list of your documents the home screen, the Aura One features a set of tiles that highlight books and apps that you’ve used recently. I’m not sure if I prefer it to a no-frills list of what’s on the device, but I generally never needed to go to that list, since the books I was currently reading were always offered on tiles. I also found Kobo’s typography quite good, with several different font choices as well as the ability to turn off forced justification on books. My only complaint on this score is that book text seemed strangely framed on any book that wasn’t bought from the Kobo store or checked out via Overdrive, with almost no white space at the top of the screen and too much at the bottom.

(Update: Thanks to reader Eliot Lovell, I discovered this set of Calibre plugins that gets Epub files in a more Kobo-friendly format, and solves the rendering issues it seems to have with generic, unconverted Epubs.)

In the end, where does the Kobo Aura One rank? If you’re not deeply tied into the Amazon ecosystem and screen size or waterproofing mean more to you than weight, the Aura One’s a better choice than the Oasis—and it’s $60-$80 cheaper. (Unlike Amazon, Kobo doesn’t make you pay $20 to remove ads—and it does the right thing and shows the cover art of the book you’re currently reading when it’s turned off.)

If you want a no-frills ebook reader, I stand by my recommendation of the $120 Kindle Paperwhite. If you’re looking for something more, the $229 Kobo Aura One is an appealing option.

See more Kindle coverage.


By Jason Snell

iPhone 7 Review: Many additions and one subtraction

iPhone 7 Plus lineup

Apple’s iPhone development cycle has been a two-step for a while now: The company changes the outside design one year, and then keeps it steady the next year (while substantially updating the technology on the inside). But not this year. In 2016, Apple’s staying with the base design introduced two years ago with the iPhone 6 and upgraded last year with the iPhone 6S.

Perhaps Apple’s got something special and new in the offing for the iPhone’s tenth anniversary in 2017. As for today, the iPhone 7 is an upgrade that precisely follows the Apple playbook: A whole bunch of improvements that make the device better than last year’s model and dramatically better than the two- or three-year-old phones most users will be upgrading from.

Continue Reading "iPhone 7 Review: Many additions and one subtraction"


By Jason Snell

9.7-inch Logitech Create Keyboard for iPad Pro: An ideal typing companion

I don’t think anyone has figured out how make the perfect external keyboard case for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. Not Razer, not Logitech, and not really even Apple. The sheer surface area of that huge screen makes it a tough problem to solve, which is why I generally just travel with an Apple Magic Keyboard and a stand.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro, however, has a much smaller screen area, and so the results are much better. The Apple Smart Keyboard is quite good on the smaller iPad Pro. But I think I’ve found the ideal typing companion to the smaller iPad Pro: It’s Logitech’s $130 Create Keyboard for iPad Pro 9.7-inch.

I’ve spent the last few weeks testing out this new keyboard, and it impresses me in almost every dimension. It seems to have learned from the weaknesses of the 12.9-inch Create Keyboard, which transformed the larger iPad Pro into something like a MacBook Air. It was too big, too bulky, and too difficult to connect and disconnect from the iPad itself.

The 9.7-inch Create model is compact, and its keyboard layout can’t be quite full sized, but like the Apple Smart Keyboard, it’s close enough to the proper dimensions that I was able to type at almost full speed on it with only a little bit of effort. (For the record, I managed 110 words per minute, as measured by TapTyping.)

The (backlit!) keys make a pleasant noise and show a surprising amount of travel given that they’re on an ultra-compact iPad keyboard. And the non-alphanumeric keys are well placed, including inverted-t of arrow keys and a function row.

wide-keyboard

Most importantly, the Create provides a stable base so that you can write with the device in your lap. When closed, it looks like a thick iPad case, but when you open it and dock the iPad atop the keyboard’s Smart Connector dock—which supplies power to the keyboard—it becomes a mini laptop. It’s a huge improvement in the stability offered by something like the Smart Keyboard.

With this model, Logitech has also cleverly included a small fabric loop behind the Smart Connector dock that’s intended to hold an Apple Pencil. I use my Pencil so rarely that I usually don’t take it with me, but now when I’m carrying this iPad and case, the Apple Pencil can come along without getting in the way.

And yes, if you really do want to temporarily hide the keyboard, you can do that: Just lay the iPad down atop the keyboard instead of docking it, and you’ve got a (very thick) iPad without any visible keyboard. The fact is, keeping an iPad in a case like this means it’ll never feel thin and light—for that you’ll want to pop the iPad out of the case, which seems quite a bit easier than on the larger Create keyboard. (A little pressure on both sides of the plastic housing and out pops the iPad.)

My only complaint about the keyboard is a strange bit of behavior that I saw several times when I was using it: Every so often, the keyboard seem to temporarily lose contact with the iPad. This seemed to happen most often when the iPad was on my lap, which makes me wonder if it might be a case where the Smart Connector wasn’t quite keeping its connection. It’s also possible that there’s a bug in software that’s causing the keyboard to sporadically disconnect and then reconnect. It was a minor annoyance when it happened, and I also experienced long stretches where it went away entirely.

This past weekend I got a chance to see my friend and the co-host of the Upgrade podcast, Myke Hurley. He brought his 9.7-inch iPad Pro with a Create keyboard with him, and at one point he proclaimed that he thought the combination was perhaps his favorite computing device ever. I’m not quite sure I’d go that far—I greatly prefer the giant screen of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro—but if I were looking for a single compact device I could use to write anywhere and everywhere, I would give the Create Keyboard for iPad Pro 9.7-inch serious consideration. It’s that good.


By Six Colors Staff

Scrivener for iOS Review

A few years ago, Literature and Latte announced that it would be developing an iOS version of its popular and powerful writing app Scrivener, but the project kept getting delayed and derailed until L&L founder Keith Blount took the project on himself. Scrivener for iOS has now arrived in the App Store for $20. We’ve both been using the beta version of the app for a while now, and we’ve come away impressed.

Scrivener gives you access to detailed data via the Inspector (left), and provides a row of extra buttons above the keyboard.

Jason’s Take

I love Scrivener on the Mac. I’ve been using it for years, and have written the bulk of three novels and numerous extended-length product reviews using it. But the more I used my iPad and iPhone, the more I found myself wishing that I could view, edit, and even write my Scrivener projects on iOS devices—and that wasn’t really possible without some frustrating and limited workarounds.

scrivener-dropbox
Syncing happens via Dropbox, and is modal.

Scrivener is a tool built for writers working on large projects, and it shows. As on the Mac (and presumably on Windows—but I haven’t used that version), the iOS version is organized around the concept of projects, each containing a large number of items. For a novel project, that might be a manuscript folder full of chapters, a research folder full of notes and clippings, and even a folder full of characters.

Scrivener doubles as an organization tool, one of the things that drew me to the Mac version in the first place. I used a separate outliner and text editor to write the first half of my first novel; Scrivener allowed me to merge the two, so that the items of my outline contained the chapters they were describing.

Scrivener for iOS doesn’t have all the features of its Mac equivalent, which is perhaps unsurprising given that this is version 1.0 of the app. But I’m surprised at how much the iOS version does contain. Users of Scrivener will not be left feeling that they’re purchased a rudimentary shell with file-format compatibility with their desktop writing tool; this is absolutely Scrivener, with a whole lot of complexity hidden behind gestures and buttons.

scrivener-beta-iphone
Scrivener on an iPhone.

Recognizing that writing on a software keyboard isn’t an ideal situation, Scrivener for iOS offers a few sets of extra keys just above the standard keyboard, and you can swipe through different ones depending on your needs. There are tools for quote marks, arrow keys, and even a quick-selection tool. If you’re working on a hardware keyboard, Scrivener gets that stuff out of your way and gives you an array of keyboard shortcuts to get the job done.

My biggest complaint about Scrivener for iOS is probably that while its cloud-syncing system (which uses Dropbox) absolutely works, it seems to require some care. There’s no automatic syncing—you need to tap a sync button or, if you’re using a hardware keyboard, type command-shift-S—and while it’s syncing you can’t do anything but watch the progress bar slide on by.

Still, this is a banner day. I can write and edit my novels when I’m traveling with only my iPad, and even make notes or edit outlines while sitting in a waiting room. (Though I doubt you’d write the Great American Novel on your iPhone, Scrivener is a Universal app and works on the iPhone too, albeit in a simplified interface that’s a bit of a tight fit.)

Dan’s Take

Like Jason, I’m an avid Scrivener user. There are only a few apps I consider really critical to my work: I mean, end of the day, you can type in anything that has a text box.1 But when it comes to writing fiction, I swear by Scrivener.

Scrivener
The contents of a novel project.

The addition of Scrivener for iOS is huge for me, personally. As long as Apple has offered support for Bluetooth keyboards on the iPad, I’ve wanted to be able to go down to the local coffee shop, or even on a short trip, with nothing but my iPad. But one of the few things I found I couldn’t do was work on my fiction projects—not without some workaround that involved writing in another text editor on my iPad, saving that in Dropbox, and then copying and pasting it into my Scrivener project when I got back to my Mac. Hardly seamless.

scrivener-wordcount
Keep track of your writing targets.

I’ve been using Scrivener for iOS during its beta period over the last few months, and I’ve found it to be just as solid and capable as I’d hoped. There’s a split-screen Quick Reference capability, support for multitasking on the iPad, word counts and targets, labeling and statuses, and Scrivener’s iconic corkboard (which I love the idea of, but never seem to use effectively). Much as on the Mac version, Scrivener for iOS has a surfeit of features that I may or may not ever take full advantage of—but everybody’s process is different, and they’re there if you want them.

There are, of course, some places where the iOS version is not as full-featured as its desktop counterpart—if you’re looking to compile an ePub or Kindle book of your project, you’ll still need to turn back to the Mac—but it does a perfect job of exactly what I want: the ability to jump right into a project I’m currently working on, and then have that progress in sync when I go back to my Mac. (As Jason said, I wish the syncing was a little more seamless, but a Scrivener project is definitely more complex than a flat text file.) Everything else is, at least as far as my writing process goes, secondary.

My debut novel, which comes out next year, was also the first book I wrote entirely in Scrivener on my Mac—my most recent first draft, finished just last week, was in no small part written on my iPad. Who knows? Maybe in the not too distant future, I’ll write a book from start to finish entirely in Scrivener on my iPad. If nothing else, that’s definitely a possibility now.

Bottom Line

Scrivener users who have been aching for an iOS version will consider this $20 purchase well worth it. It was a long time getting to this point, but our patience has been rewarded.


  1. Though I’d suggest maybe not writing your next novel in the text field of Messages.  ↩


By Jason Snell

Control bandwidth-sucking apps with TripMode

One of my favorite Mac software discoveries in the last few years is TripMode, a $8 utility that I appreciate more every time I’m somewhere with a MacBook and no Wi-Fi, when I’m forced to tether to my iPhone in order to get on the Internet.

tripmode-review

iOS was built from the beginning as an operating system that was aware that it could be operating in one of two different networking environments: wi-fi or cellular. Wi-fi is usually fast and often unmetered; cellular data is comparatively slow and often strictly metered. As a result, iOS apps can behave differently based on what kind of network they’re connecting to, or offer users the option to avoid pricey data transfers when on cellular networks.

The Mac, on the other hand, has no such design. When your Mac is on the Internet, it will attempt to do everything it usually does, no matter if you’re on a super-fast home network, a slow hotel network, or tethered to your iPhone. I can’t tell you how many times I wondered why my hotel internet was impossibly slow, only to realize that my Mac was trying to run an online backup and sync thousands of Dropbox files over that same poky connection.

This is where TripMode comes in. TripMode lives in the menu bar and gives me incredible control over which apps have access to my network connection. When I’m traveling, I can turn off the spigot for apps that use too much data, and only prioritize the apps that I absolutely need.

The interface couldn’t be simpler. When you click on the TripMode menu bar item, you’re given a simple on/off slider. Turn it on, and the network filtering begins. All the apps that are currently using your network appear in a list, with a checkbox next to them. When you uncheck the box, that app loses its access to the Internet. To the right you can see how much data each app has used in the current session, this day, or this month—a useful tool in ferreting out the apps that are really hungry for bandwidth.

TripMode tries to make things easy, too—it recognizes when you connect to a network where it’s been activated in the past, and automatically activates itself. So if I flip open my MacBook when I’m in the car, my online backup is prevented from destroying my data cap even if I forget to manually engage TripMode.

I also use TripMode on the iMac I use every day in my office. I’m not hopping from network to network at home, but I have been known to occasionally record a podcast or two. My TripMode settings at home are designed to turn off network access for all non-essential apps when I’m recording a podcast, to maximize the network bandwidth available for my Skype audio.

If you find yourself constantly pausing or quitting bandwidth-hogging apps when you’re traveling, TripMode is well worth the $8. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.


By Jason Snell

2016 MacBook review: A laptop with a point of view

The MacBook isn’t just a laptop. It’s a statement.

It doesn’t happen with every Apple product, but every so often the company creates a product that comes with a point of view so strong, it’s like a statement of personal belief—if a technology product from a many-billion-dollar corporation could ever be that.

It’s impossible not to look at the MacBook and see its idiosyncrasies. Size and weight have been prioritized over everything else. It’s as narrow a laptop as can exist while still having a full-sized keyboard; it’s so thin that the key travel on the keyboard is minuscule. This is the laptop designed like an iPad, fanless and thin and with a single USB-C port.

Continue Reading "2016 MacBook review: A laptop with a point of view"


By Jason Snell

Review: Logitech Base

Logitech’s $100 Base is the first product to use the iPad Pro’s Smart Connector that isn’t an Apple Smart Keyboard or the Logitech Create keyboard. Compatible with both sizes of iPad Pro, it’s an aluminum stand with integrated charging via the Smart Connector.

I like the construction of the Base, which is solid aluminum that looks and feels like an Apple-caliber accessory. The iPad connects magnetically to the base, aligning automatically to the Smart Connector pins on the left side of the iPad’s case. The Base bends around to provide support for the iPad a bit higher up on the case. A Lightning connector on the back of the Base provides the power for charging.

When attached to the Base, the iPad is only slightly reclined. In my kitchen I’ve got a wooden iPad stand from Chef Sleeve that I use a lot; it’s got two angles, and I use both based on how far below my eyeline my iPad is sitting. The Base’s angle matches the taller of those two orientations, meaning that when I’m writing on the bar in my kitchen with the iPad in the Base, I can’t stand—I need to sit on a barstool in order to get a comfortable viewing angle. It’s also a bit too upright to do much typing on the software keyboard—this is an angle suited more for watching video than anything else.

The Base isn’t adjustable, so if the angle doesn’t work for you, you’re out of luck. It strikes me as being a better angle for video viewing than for using with a Bluetooth keyboard, but your mileage will vary.

I was impressed with how solid the iPad feels when it’s docked in the Base. There’s no wiggle or sense of instability. My biggest complaint about the usability of the device is actually related to its unique asset: You can’t attach the iPad to the stand without peeling off the iPad’s Smart Cover or Smart Keyboard, both of which also attach on the left side of the iPad.

The Logitech Base is solidly made and does what it says on the box. This is a product that’s been designed for someone who wants an attractive stand and doesn’t want to fuss with plugging and unplugging Lightning cables to charge their iPads, and is willing to pay for the privilege. On this, the Logitech Base delivers.

The question is really about its limited utility. For $99, you get a very nice aluminum iPad stand that charges via Lightning. You can probably get a simpler stand for a lot cheaper and just plug the same Lightning cable into your iPad rather than the back of the Base stand. For most people, that’s a better—and cheaper—option, unless you’re wowed by the novelty of charging via the Smart Connector.


By Jason Snell

MyScript Stylus: Handwriting on iPad, with a catch

GIF of MyScript Stylus

I’ve never liked writing things by hand. My handwriting has always been terrible,and the moment I could switch from writing to typing for school assignments, I did.

But if the joy of putting pen to paper never left you, and you dislike having to type all your thoughts on an iPad software keyboard, you might want to check out the free MyScript Stylus “keyboard” extension for iOS. It replaces the keyboard area with a blank writing area, ready to be used by your finger or a stylus or, better yet, an Apple Pencil.

When you pause in writing (most likely because you’ve reached the end of the line), Stylus slides your writing over to the left, allowing you to continue as if you were dropping down a line on a piece of paper. Eventually your digital ink is transformed into text, but it’s still editable—you can swipe backward with two fingers to see previous words you’ve written and edit or correct them with gestures.

Software keyboards are hardly a panacea. Some people use them effectively, others begrudgingly. It would seem that writing in longhand on an iPad would be a bad productivity move, but for some people it might actually be a more comfortable experience. And I really do believe that writing style can change dramatically when you take it slow.

With all that said, I don’t think I can recommend MyScript Stylus today. That’s mostly because some of its shortcut buttons—including the delete key—are located at the very bottom of the screen, and are too easily triggered by a stray touch of your palm when you’re writing. I started writing this article on my iPad Pro using an Apple Pencil—the things I do for you people!—and twice I lost whole paragraphs when the keyboard seemingly interpreted some stray touch of my hand as a signal to press the delete key hundreds of times. I watched as whole paragraphs, painstakingly handcrafted, vanished from view.

If MyScript can figure out a way to move that stuff out of the way, though, I think this keyboard extension will have some serious appeal for the Apple Pencil crowd.


By Jason Snell

Low-cost USB audio interfaces review

Many USB Interfaces

If you’re podcasting or recording voiceovers for video, you need a good microphone. Fortunately, there are good options to be found even if you’re on a tight budget. Unfortunately, there are so many options that it can be dizzying. I reviewed five low-cost USB audio interfaces in a search to find the best of the many options.

The USB/XLR choice

For most podcasters on a budget, the right microphone is almost certainly a USB microphone. They’re easy to use and convenient—just plug it in to your computer and start recording.

I’ve recommended the Blue Microphones Yeti for years after using one myself for several years, and it’s still a great balance of quality and price.

But as Marco Arment points out in his microphone mega-review, there are a lot of other good options. Right now the Audio-Technica ATR-2100-USB (sold in Europe as the Samson Q2U) seems to be the best buy; for a lot less money than the Yeti, you can get a USB microphone that doubles as an XLR microphone for more complex set-ups, with a built-in headphone jack. If you’re usually recording in an echoey room, this noise-killing dynamic microphone is a great choice.

However, there are reasons to choose XLR microphones over USB models. XLR microphones, differentiated by the large three-pinned XLR connector that’s been in use for ages and has plugged into many an analog sound board, come in many shapes and sizes, including some remarkably good-sounding microphones that are available for astonishingly low prices.

Unfortunately, XLR microphones won’t work with a computer or other audio recorder unless you can connect them to an interface that, in turn, connects to your computer via USB. If you’re planning on recording more than one microphone at a time, XLR interfaces are also handy, because you can connect many microphones to an interface box and then record it all on your computer.

They’re also flexible; I can connect my XLR microphones to anyone’s interface box or mixer, and on more than one occasion I’ve been a microphone short and been able to borrow one from a friend. I also own a Zoom H6 recorder that allows me to connect up to six microphones via XLR cables in a portable setting.

There are a lot of uses, but also a lot of parts—but if you take the XLR plunge, you’ll need not only the microphone, but the interface and (of course) XLR cables to connect them all.

Continue Reading "Low-cost USB audio interfaces review"


By Jason Snell

9.7-inch iPad Pro Review: Chocolate or vanilla?

Having a choice is fundamentally a good thing. Yes, give someone too many options and they may collapse under the strain of the Tyranny of Choice, but One Size never really did Fit All. Better to have a few options to choose from.

As a laptop user I’ve always found myself a bit outside the mainstream. I opted for the MacBook Air over the Retina MacBook Pro, and even within the Air line, I opted for the 11-inch model over the 13-inch. What I’m saying is, I appreciate that my choice isn’t just between chocolate and vanilla.

These past few years Apple has been diversifying its mobile product lines, expanding beyond a single, mainstream product to include variations that appeal to customers who want something a bit different. The iPhone 6 Plus gave people who wanted more battery and screen space the ability to get it; the iPhone 5S (and now the iPhone SE) serve people who want a smaller and cheaper model. The iPad mini was a nice shrunken-down variation on the classic iPad; the 12.9-inch iPad Pro offered a much larger, richer iPad experience.

Now here’s the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, but this isn’t Apple adding another device that’s nibbling at the edges. This is the flagship of the iPad line, undoubtedly the best-selling iPad model for the next year, full of impressive features (as well as a few curious omissions) and in a size that’s exactly what people expect from an iPad.

What’s in a name?

With the introduction of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, Apple takes a page from its approach to naming Macs by classifying the iPad product line based on features, with various sizes within each product line. To be an iPad Pro is to be a top-of-the-line iPad with the fastest processors and support for Apple Pencil and the Smart Connector. Just as you can choose between the MacBook and the MacBook Pro, and then within the MacBook Pro you can choose between a 13- and 15-inch model, you can choose between the 9.7- and 12.9-inch iPad Pro. (Presumably the slots currently filled by the iPad Air 2 and iPad mini will one day just be 9.7- and 7.9-inch iPads?)

Once you start thinking about it in the context of other products, the naming scheme makes more sense, but it’s still a bit odd, and the ungainly nature of the screen sizes doesn’t help matters. (This would be a lot easier if we could call these 10- and 13-inch iPads, but tech companies have learned the hard way that rounding up on your tech specs will get you in trouble. Perhaps one day the bezel around these devices will vanish and their screens will be big enough to call them something simpler.)

The staggered release of these first two iPad Pro models has also muddied the waters a bit, because each model has features that the other lacks. Consider the plight of Old Mister Moneybags, a top-hatted gentleman with an unlimited bank account and a desire for the finest iPad in all the land. He sends a member of his staff to the local Apple Store to purchase that device, but that staff member is going to leave Old Mister Moneybags disappointed.

The new 9.7-inch iPad Pro has the same processing power as the larger model, an upgraded camera, True Tone display, and can show a wider range of colors on its screen. But the 12.9-inch model has that bigger screen, twice the RAM as the 9.7-inch model, and support for fast charging and USB 3 transfer speeds that the smaller model doesn’t offer.

Perhaps in future years, these two iPad Pro models will be released simultaneously, and this sort of mishmash of features won’t happen. But for now, if Old Mister Moneybags’ staff member wants to keep their job, they’ll need to buy one of each and hope that the boss gives them a commendation for original thinking.

Pro features, more or less

The most notable new feature of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is the True Tone Display, which is not as much a feature of the display itself as the two four-channel light sensors near it that detect the color temperature of your surroundings and allow iOS to adjust the color temperature of the display accordingly. This is a subtle but pleasant effect, optionally warming the tone of your screen when you’re in a warmly lit room.

It’s a very Apple feature, integrating hardware and software to solve a problem nobody knew they had. But if you’ve ever turned on your iPad or iPhone at night in a room lit only by warm lights, you have probably been shocked by the blue-tinted whiteness of the screen. True Tone reduces or eliminates this effect, and I wish my 12.9-inch iPad Pro had it.

More broadly, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro cares about color, in that it can display a wider range of color than any previous iOS device. It’s basically using the same enhanced color space Apple added to the 2015 model retina iMacs, and if you work in video or photography you will find numerous colors that are more accurately rendered on this display than on any previous iPad.

And the 9.7-inch iPad Pro also cares about photography taken right on the device itself. With the previous generation of iPads, it seemed that Apple had finally embraced the idea that people take pictures with their iPads, and made the onboard cameras better. But they were still way behind the camera technology on the iPhone. That’s no longer true—the 9.7-inch iPad Pro has the same camera tech that you’ll find in the iPhone 6, right down to the slight bump on the back of the device. It’s a 12 megapixel camera with flash (for the first time on an iPad!) and support for 4K video. It’s a very good camera, just as it was on the iPhone 6S. And the front-facing camera is also 5 megapixels, as on the 6S, so the iPad selfie game has been seriously elevated.

But that’s not all! The 9.7-inch iPad Pro also offers a bunch of tech that debuted with the 12.9-inch iPad Pro: the top-of-the-line A9X processor with M9 motion coprocessor (it’s slightly less than twice as fast at single-threaded operations as the iPad Air 2), support for the Apple Pencil, and the new Smart Connector that enables the Smart Keyboard accessory. It’s also got four speakers, and while they don’t sound quite as good as the ones on the larger model, they’re much better than the ones on the iPad Air 2—most notably because you can now watch a movie with stereo sound coming out of both edges of the iPad, rather than just the side with the home button on it.

Size matters not…?

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a remarkable piece of hardware, with a huge display and PC-class specs. I love mine. But it’s also not a mainstream product. It’s for people who want more, who aren’t satisfied with what the regular iPad can give them. It truly fits the name iPad Pro.

The 9.7-inch iPad Pro, on the other hand… It’s got pro-level features, to be sure, but it’s also designed to appeal to people who already know what an iPad is, and are comfortable with that. It’s the same size as the original iPad (albeit a whole lot thinner and lighter!) and all the other “full-sized” models that have come after it. This is the sweet spot, the top of the bell curve, the iPad that will appeal to the most people.

It’s a size that has some big advantages. It’s much easier to carry, less bulky and heavy, than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. You can hold the 9.7-inch iPad Pro in one hand and sketch on it with an Apple Pencil held in the other one. Its Smart Keyboard is thinner and lighter than the larger model’s, too. The screen’s not huge, and if you’re using Split View while typing on the software keyboard you will feel cramped. I found myself missing the full-sized software keyboard on the 12.9-inch model, too.

But again, that’s why they make different flavors of ice cream. For some people, the 12.9-inch iPad’s strengths counteract its additional weight and bulkiness. But my gut feeling is that for most people, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro is plenty of device on its own. It’s a “regular iPad” that’s been substantially upgraded, not just in terms of processor speed, but with the addition of Pencil and Smart Keyboard support, not to mention the upgraded cameras and display.

For most people who love their iPads and want an upgrade, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro will be a great upgrade. If the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is mint chip, the 9.7-inch model is chocolate or vanilla. And who doesn’t like chocolate ice cream?


By Jason Snell

Review: Smart Keyboard for 9.7-inch iPad Pro

One of the banner features of the iPad Pro line is the Smart Connector, three metal dots that allow the two-way transfer of power and data between an iPad Pro and an accessory. So far, the first two Smart Connector products—Apple’s Smart Keyboard and the Logitech Create keyboard—have been the only Smart Connector products on the market. At last, there’s a third product for the connector—the $149 Apple Smart Keyboard for the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro. After all, what’s an iPad Pro if it doesn’t have its own keyboard cover?

Since the new-model Smart Keyboard must double as a cover for the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, it’s necessarily scaled down from its 12.9-inch equivalent. The larger Smart Keyboard is 12 inches wide, enough space for a full-sized set of keys. The new, smaller model is only 9.4 inches wide, and that 2.6 inches of lost space does take a toll.

Apple has done a lot to mitigate that reduction in size. In addition to losing the breathing room along the left and right edges that the larger keyboard offered, all the non-alphanumeric keys have been squashed to smaller widths. All of that work isn’t enough to prevent the entire keyboard layout from shrinking, however. Keys are reduced in size and offset by about 17.5mm, as opposed to 19mm on the 12.9-inch keyboard.

Whether this is a dealbreaker really depends on what kind of a typist you are. If you’re someone who hunts and pecks, you’re not going to care. If you’re someone who has mapped the location of every single key on a normal-sized keyboard onto your brain, you may struggle.

I’m a pretty tough critic when it comes to keyboards, and I actually found typing on the smaller Smart Keyboard to be surprisingly good. The fabric keys don’t require as much force to depress as mechanical keys. But more than that, I discovered that if I kept some of my fingers resting on the keyboard, so I could always remain oriented, I was able to touch type at a high rate of speed without ever looking at the keyboard itself. In fact, I’m typing this on the keyboard right now, at full speed.

While the reduced dimensions of the 9.7-inch iPad Pro add complications in some ways, they offer benefits in others. This new Smart Keyboard has to cover a screen that’s 60 percent of the surface area of the larger model, meaning that it’s much lighter and less bulky. On the 12.9-inch iPad Pro (which is already 9.8 ounces heavier), using the Smart Keyboard as a cover felt bulky and burdensome. The smaller Smart Keyboard, on the smaller iPad Pro, doesn’t feel that way at all.

So what can I say? I really like the new, smaller Smart Keyboard for the new, smaller iPad Pro. It’s surprisingly easy to type on, even for someone who usually freaks out when presented with a keyboard that’s not a standard size. And it’s light enough to be your iPad’s everyday screen cover when you’re out and about.

If you’re on a budget, there are better, cheaper options—as nice as the Smart Keyboard is, it’s no match for a more traditional keyboard. The $80 Logitech Easy-Switch is a good alternative for people who are used to using backlit MacBook Pro and Air keyboards. At $149 for the Smart Keyboard, you are paying for the convenience of always having a keyboard attached to your iPad as a cover. If it’s worth it to you, you won’t be disappointed.

A few other notes: I’m a little bit baffled about the lack of forward progress on the Smart Connector front. Between the introduction of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and the 9.7-inch model, not a single Smart Connector-based accessory was announced. My understanding is that some are in the works, and I’d imagine that vendors reluctant to build a product for the (presumably small) 12.9-inch iPad Pro market will be more inclined to invest in the Smart Connector now that there’s a 9.7-inch iPad Pro that will probably sell in much greater numbers.

I’ve noticed a similar lack of motion on the issue of international keyboard layouts. Back when the 12.9-inch iPad Pro was announced, Apple indicated that the U.S. layout of the Smart Keyboard would eventually be joined by other keyboard layouts for other countries. Thus far, none has appeared—and the 12.9-inch iPad Pro’s software keyboard is similarly limited to a U.S. layout. That’s not great for a product line whose identity is so strongly associated with its keyboards.


By Jason Snell

Grayout, the follow-up to Blackbar, arrives

I was a big fan of Blackbar, Neven Mrgan and James Moore’s text-based iOS game in which you fill in the redacted words in a story of a totalitarian society. As the story progresses, more key words are redacted, forcing you to use your knowledge of the situation to guess at what’s being communicated.

Blackbar has stuck with me like a great short story would, probably amplified by my participation in it as a player. And the same thing is likely to happen again with Grayout, the $3 sequel, which was just released in the App Store. I’ve been playing Grayout for the past week or so, and it’s excellent.

In Grayout, you’re playing a character named Alaine, who lives in the same problematic society as the one in Blackbar. Alaine has suffered a traumatic event, and has suffered from aphasia as a result. Aphasia, a disorder that makes it difficult to process language, leads to the mechanic of the game. Rather than filling in words, as in Blackbar, in Grayout you have to pick words from a list until you form the right phrase or sentence to move to the next screen.

Despite the changed mechanic, this is vintage Blackbar stuff. It’s entirely driven by text, and at turns blindingly obvious and infuriatingly difficult. More than once I have left the game, feeling there’s absolutely no solution, only to return 10 minutes later and solve the problem immediately. And the frustration you feel as a player sifting through possible word choices and sentence orders is tied in to Alaine’s frustration in being unable to communicate.

I love games like this. It’s not for everyone, but if you want a memorable text-based story/game experience thingy, you should check out Grayout.


By Jason Snell

iPad Pro Review: No Country for Old Macs

The iPad Pro is a peculiar product to review. Its size is its most notable feature, built around a 12.9-inch retina display. It’s the biggest iPad yet, but it’s still an iPad. When you judge it, you judge the history of iOS development, how Apple has kept its two major operating systems separate, and even the viability of the tablet market in general. The iPad Pro is a product you can buy in a store and use to get work done, watch movies, or even play games. But its meaning extends far beyond its own glass and aluminum shell.

Continue Reading "iPad Pro Review: No Country for Old Macs"


By Jason Snell

Revitalizing an old iPod with OWC’s iFlash adapter

ipod-upgrade

Our family minivan came with a USB connector in the glove compartment, and so for years I’ve kept a 60GB fifth-generation iPod Classic1 in there, loaded up with as much music as I could fit. But lately it’s been showing signs of age that made me fear for the life of its internal spinning hard drive, and I haven’t been able to load our entire music library onto it for years.

But recently I got a chance to try out Other World Computing’s $49 iFlash, an upgrade that replaces the iPod’s hard drive (5th and 6th generation models only) with an SD card reader (with inserted SD card—I used a 128GB SDXC card that cost about $70). Now my old iPod has doubled in capacity, enough to fit every song I own. It’s also no longer relying on a spinning platter as a storage mechanism, which should extend its life dramatically.

Cracking open an iPod and replacing its hard drive isn’t for the timid. If you’re not comfortable poking around in the guts of electronics, you might want to find a friend to perform the installation for you. I’ve never cracked open an iPod before, and I managed to do it just fine, though the install process was a little harrowing at a few points. (It would’ve been much easier had I watched OWC’s how-to installation video, which hadn’t yet been posted when I installed the product in my iPod. I did use iFixit’s guide, which was helpful… up to the point when I needed to install the iFlash.)

I don’t carry this particular iPod around anymore—like I said, it lives in the glove box—but every time I pick it up I’m also struck by how much lighter it is. It feels more like a movie prop than a real device, because that metal drive has been replaced by a very light card reader.

In any event, even with my troubles (I installed the product upside-down and so I had to disassemble and reassemble it), it took me less than a half hour from start to finish. It helped that I had some spudgers, but otherwise the installation didn’t require any tools that I didn’t have at hand.

Look, the iPod isn’t a cool product anymore. But if you’ve got an iPod Classic around—in your pocket or car or kid’s room—and want to keep it running (or return it to relevance), this is a relatively low cost way to do the job. Not everyone needs (or wants to pay for) streaming music—and now I’ve got 14,000 songs at my fingertips whenever I’m driving.


  1. In the interests of clarity, I consider all “classic iPods” to be iPod Classics. For more information, visit the Wikipedia page tellingly named iPod Classic. ↩


By Jason Snell

The new MacBook: A reviewer’s notebook

mbstarbucks

The new MacBook is here! I’ve been using the MacBook exclusively for most of the last week, and my massive full review of the MacBook is available now over at Macworld. (Seems like old times!)

After writing 3500 words about a laptop, you wouldn’t think there’d be much left on the cutting-room floor. Oh, but you’d be wrong! Here are a few brief hands-on notes about the MacBook that I’ve saved just for Six Colors readers…

iPad touches

The elevator pitch for the MacBook is probably, “It’s the laptop you’d expect the creators of the iPad to build.” From the shiny black Apple logo to the space gray and gold color options, this device is thoroughly embedded in Apple’s current design language. Making it smaller and lighter than any previous Apple laptop pushes it even closer to the iPad. And like the iPad, it’s got no fan and only a single port for access to peripherals or charging.

The iPad comparison even extends to the behavior of the device when it’s charging. If the charging adapter is already plugged into the wall, when you plug the other end of the USB-C cable into the MacBook you’ll hear a familiar chime—the same sound you hear when you plug in an iPad or iPhone. The USB-C plug itself is remarkably similar to the Lightning plug used on iOS devices, albeit slightly larger.

In fact, if the MacBook is turned off, when you plug in the charging cable, the screen will come on briefly and indicate how charged its battery currently is. That’s not behavior you’d expect—when a computer’s off, it’s off—but it’s something you’ll find in the MacBook.

What’s in the box is also very iPad like. There’s a power brick, a USB-C cable that can connect your MacBook to either the power brick or to other USB-C devices (should those exist), and that’s it.

That keyboard, though

I go into a lot more detail about this in the review, but in the end I’ve got to say that I’m not a fan of the new keyboard. Apple played the other enhancements that the keyboard offers, such as increased stability and wider keys, as attempts to offset some of the costs of the reduced key travel. That makes me hopeful that Apple sees this keyboard as what it is—a pretty serious compromise in order to get the computer thinner—rather than some breakthrough new keyboard that will be replicated on every other Apple keyboard in the next year or two.

If you don’t type a whole lot, or very fast, you may not care about the substantially reduced key travel. And you can get used to it. But it’s just a tiny step up from typing on flat touchscreen glass. I managed to score almost 120 words per minute on TypeRacer on the MacBook keyboard, but I didn’t enjoy it. If you’re someone who notices when a keyboard feels different or weird, you will notice this keyboard. If you’ve never really understood why people write about keyboards, you probably won’t care—but why are you even reading this section?

What do I use this adapter with?

macbook-back

In addition to the MacBook, Apple sent along the $19 Apple USB-C to USB-A adapter. It’s got a male USB-C plug on one end and a female USB-A (“standard USB”) plug on the other end. When I took the MacBook out of the box I wanted to migrate the contents of my MacBook Air to it, so I could have all my apps and stuff ready to use. I even booted the thing up with the T key held down, which put it in Target Disk Mode. A USB logo danced on the screen. I was ready to go.

Except. How do I connect it to anything? Even with the adapter, I’d need a USB-A-to-USB-A cable, which I have none of. (I’m not sure they exist—most USB cables are of the USB-A to USB-B variety, or are USB-A to Mini USB or Micro USB.) Regardless, I didn’t have one. So I decided to connect the MacBook to my Ethernet network, but then the realization dawned on me that my MacBook uses a Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet adapter. No Thunderbolt. No dice. I finally found, at the bottom of a bin of cables and adapters, my old Apple USB Ethernet Adapter, attached that to the USB-C adapter, and attached it to the MacBook. (Turns out Monoprice sells a cable that would’ve done the trick for $10.)

What I’m saying is, if you get a MacBook, be prepared for some adapter logistics and probably to buy some new cables. You’ll also need to keep a video adapter with you at all times if you ever attach to a projector or TV anywhere, because nobody’s going to have one that matches your computer for years.

After I double-adapted the MacBook onto my Ethernet network, I decided not to bother running Migration Assistant and just load things from the cloud as I needed them. That led to a whole lot of downloads, and entering serial numbers, and re-setting preferences, and two-factor authentication codes, and app-specific password generation pages. Ugh.

There’s got to be some middle ground. I don’t necessarily need to migrate everything on one computer to the next, but it would sure be nice if I could sync some small subset that would get me up and running more easily. I’d like to keep my app preferences and passwords and the like. If Apple could somehow solve this in a future version of OS X, that would be swell, because right now the two choices—migrate every damned thing and wait out a potentially long, slow migration, or don’t migrate anything and reassemble your digital life piecemeal—seem pretty extreme.

Retina display scaled by default

The MacBook’s retina display is physically 2304 by 1440 pixels. In standard “2x” retina mode, that means the 12-inch display should look like a non-Retina display at 1152 by 720 pixels. While that’s an option in the Display preference pane, by default the MacBook displays at a scaled resolution that’s the size of a 1280 by 800 pixel display, more or less the same amount of real estate as an 11-inch MacBook Air. That’s also the resolution that the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro displays at, but on that screen it’s the native 2x resolution—here, the MacBook is drawing a 2560 by 1600 pixel interface and then scaling it down to fit in 2304 by 1440 pixels.

It looks good, though I almost immediately flipped over into the More Space setting, which emulates a 1440 by 900 display—the equivalent of the 13-inch MacBook Air display. There’s more room to breathe, and text is still readable. And really, if your display is going to be a scaled resolution by default, why not eke out a little bit more room? The native 2x mode might be super crisp (though I couldn’t really tell the difference), but there’s very little space in that mode. I don’t recommend it—and neither does Apple!

family-resemblance
11-inch Air, MacBook, and 13-inch Air.

Little bits

I played music at max volume out of the MacBook, next to my 11-inch MacBook Air doing the same thing, and I can declare that the MacBook’s speakers are louder and sound better. There’s good stereo separation, even. The noise comes out of a grille right above the keyboard.

My MacBook came with OS X 10.10.2 (14c2513) preloaded on board, and supported all the fancy trackpad stuff you’d expect. But yesterday OS X 10.10.3 shipped. This was sort of unavoidable—they had to start producing MacBooks weeks, if not months, ago, and OS X 10.10.3 just went final. What it does mean is that for some indeterminate amount of time, buyers of new MacBooks will immediately be prompted to install a software update.

MacBook Benchmark test


Linked by Dan Moren

Alto’s Adventure is anything but a grind

I’m always on the lookout for good games, but on last week’s Clockwise, when Lex Friedman asked what two games would be our desert island picks, I realized that it’d been a while since I’d played anything new.

Alto's Adventure

It’s as if the folks at Snowman (who previously developed the slick reminder app Checkmark) heard my silent plea. The $2 Alto’s Adventure is probably best classified as an “endless runner”; I’d compare it most to Tiny Wings—and that’s high praise, since that title should rightfully be enshrined as one of the earliest classic iOS games.

In short, you’re a snowboarder who is attempting to capture your escaped llamas1 and, of course, do some sweet tricks along the way. Naturally you collect coins and other power-ups while you try not to wipe up out on errant rocks or fall into chasms.

Alto's Adventure

It doesn’t hurt that Alto’s Adventure is beautiful. The flat aesthetic reminds me a bit of Monument Valley, and I love the subtle 3D effects as you whiz past the procedurally-generated landscape of trees and villages, the dynamic weather conditions that shift from bright and sunny to dark and rainy—I even hit a thunderstorm at one point—and the fluid, beautiful animations. (Passing the occasional llama sledding down a hill hasn’t failed to get a laugh out of me yet.)

Most of all, though, Alto’s Adventure manages to capture that most elusive feeling in games—every time you wipe out, you feel like you can do better next time. I get the feeling I’ll be hitting the Try Again button for a while yet.


  1. Will somebody, though, please tell me why this person owns so many llamas? ↩


By Jason Snell

Meet Audio Hijack 3, my new favorite audio utility

hijack-wide

Rogue Amoeba has announced the release of Audio Hijack 3, the successor to the venerable Mac sound utility Audio Hijack Pro. This is a huge update—the first major one for Audio Hijack in ten years—and so comprehensive that this feels more like a successor to the old Audio Hijack rather than a continuation.

I’ve been using Audio Hijack 3 in beta for six months now, for uses personal and professional, and I couldn’t be more impressed. This is a beautifully designed product that combines a clever and intuitive user interface with awesome power and versatility. It will appeal to podcasters, audio pros, musicians, and just about anyone else who needs to push their Mac’s audio capabilities past the meager sound features offered by OS X itself.

Audio Hijack 3 costs $49 for new users, but owners of any past product with “Audio Hijack” on the label will be able to upgrade to Audio Hijack 3 for $25. And anyone who’s bought Audio Hijack since this blog post 11 months ago will get it for free.

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