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by adam mathes
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An Oasis In The Desert of Disappointment that is 2016

It doesn’t feel like 2016 is a year of great technological progress, at least in consumer technology products.

Phones

Apple’s iPhone 7 is the worst iPhone since the iPhone 6S, which is the worst iPhone since the 6. Apple hasn’t released a phone that felt like an improvement and that I liked since the 5S.

Google’s Pixel is probably the best Android device you can buy that isn’t a weird Chinese phone that is sending all your data to state sponsored surveillance networks and also doesn’t mysteriously blow up.

It’s still not good though, and it feels expensive for what it is.

There were a lot of other Android phones released not from Google or Samsung but nobody really cares because cellular phones have overshot consumer needs as of about 2012.

No incremental performance improvements matter to normal people, and no new capabilities are being made available via new devices.

I keep threatening to go back to my iPhone 5S (or get an iPhone SE) but the fact that my 7 is now so scratched up (screen, not back) may actually force me to yell at Apple and exchange/return it.

Mobile devices are ubiquitous and the market is saturated so everyone is desperately trying to find the next big thing (AI, bots, virtual reality, augmented reality, internet of things) but nobody is actually making good products that have meaning in those areas yet.

In a way it’s great that phones are boring now – we’ve hit the performance threshold needed, now all that’s left is distribution and the interesting/terrifying effects as the next billion users come online via these things.

Laptops

Back to the future past of actual computers doing the actual work needed to bring about this amazing future, the latest MacBook Pro – a computer theoretically for professionals based on its name – thinks that what professionals need is not a great keyboard, but slightly smaller devices, a keyboard with no travel, and a tiny touch-screen below the actual screen.

I reserved judgment on this but my initial view of this on fundamentals is exactly the same after a few weeks of use – the touch bar is an inhuman interface that does not solve actual problems or improve the experience. It’s a dud.

My entire life people have been decrying the quality and business strategy of Apple – and they have been right about 50% of the time (mostly when Jobs wasn’t there.) So maybe they’re right again. Maybe not. I don’t think Apple is going anywhere but if they keep putting out products like this they will lose the advantage they have with snobs and technical nerds like me.

Their success may or may not have peaked – but it feels like their current product lines have.

I’m typing this on a new MacBook Pro 15” – it may be the first time in 15 years of buying 15” Apple laptops that I’m not excited about it.

It’s not faster or more powerful in a meaningful way I mean, it may be on a technical/benchmark level, but I was fine on a 2012 tricked out first generation retina-display Macbook Pro.

It’s a little thinner and lighter but I don’t care at all about that – that hasn’t been an issue for me in 10 years.

The screen is better but you know why I still need a laptop? To run MacOS and use a god damned keyboard to compose text, software, and other creative endeavors. And instead of being a more focused instrument for that, it has unpredictable battery life and a weird collection of fake buttons without haptic feedback that doesn’t even work half the time.

I mean that literally – half the time it’s just a blank screen and I have to hit FN to swap it and force a redraw. It’s bonkers how finicky it is and also it cost like $2500.

Also, I spent $2500 on a computer and still need to keep PC running underneath my desk to run a real GPU so I can play with VR, which is just sad.

Anyway, what am I going to do, give up and run Linux on commodity hardware or something? Like an animal?

Increasingly I think maybe I should give in to that primal instinct at some point. We are all, in fact, animals, despite what our brains may trick us into thinking.

It just seems like it’s going to cause me even more problems. And while it may give me a smug sense of satisfaction, I doubt there will be other serious advantages, and the first time I realize nobody makes a screen even half as good as Apple’s that just works I’ll probably lose interest.

Once I get my 5K monitor delivered and properly hook that up to a mechanical keyboard maybe I’ll be less cranky about it.

In semi-laptop land, the 9.7” iPad Pro is amazing. I have been using an iPad every day since the first generation and I love them. (My usage pattern of putting my phone down when at home and using an iPad is partly why I despise the larger 67 form factor.)

Microsoft

The conventional wisdom is that Microsoft is executing well on its new strategy and making good stuff again.

I don’t understand the conventional wisdom and don’t understand their strategy, at least for consumers.

Microsoft’s main release of the year was coercing Windows 8 users to upgrade to Windows 10 – an operating system that as far as I can tell doesn’t help me run Steam any better, and that’s all I ever use it for, because Windows is still so bad it makes running Linux on a desktop or laptop seem like a reasonable idea every year. (It’s still not.)

Windows continues to be the turducken of operating systems (it’s a command line POSIX system inside of Win32 wrapped in Metro wrapped in some sort of NT kernel!) and I guess if having two sets of control panels with different interfaces and settings because you have bolted on a touch-screen interface but also kept a traditional WIMP interface sounds like fun, you might also want to buy one of those weird Windows phones and also probably you don’t exist outside the imagination of Redmond area management imaginations.

I think Microsoft’s actual strategy is to just be IBM and sell boring services to boring companies in a boring way that makes boring money from boring people that are risk averse. Which I guess is a good strategy if you love boredom and money! So that’s cool I guess.

I mean there’s also XBox but I’ve given up on consoles for PC gaming. If I’m going to have to put up with weird DRM shenanigans to play video games, at least let me pick my own hardware to do it on and use a fucking mouse for my FPS’s.

Virtual Reality

Both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift – the first “mainstream” VR came out, which, despite any amount of me being jaded is actually a huge deal and technical achievement.

VR is amazing and I love my Vive, but even I wouldn’t defend it as a good product. It’s basically an incomprehensible, expensive mess, and that’s before taking into account it’s dependent on Windows.

But it’s fun. (IE, it’s an early adopter product, so I’m all in.)

Google’s Daydream is on the right track but not actually performant enough nor convenient enough for the more mainstream users it’s trying to capture.

Things smear as you move your head. It doesn’t feel real yet. (Maybe two or three generations away? I don’t know.)

If you really care about VR right now, you care enough to live with the weirdness of the cutting edge hardware and expensive GPUs so you can transport yourself to the near future.

Wearables

I spent $1000 on a first generation Apple Watch.

Don’t do that, or on a subsequent one, unless you really really really like that design.

I still wear mine every day, but I’m a weirdo. It’s not a good product yet. Maybe if the screen was on all the time, and it like, worked as a watch and fashion object with a customizable screen it wouldn’t be quite so absurd. As it is it’s a $1000 bracelet 99% of the time.

Apple really needs to enable creators to make awesome always on displays on your wrist. That would actually open up creativity and turn it into a unique, wonderful fashion object.

I also spent over $300 on Pebble hardware, 23 of which won’t ever come out and has been refunded.

Don’t do that either.

I’m actually kind of sad Pebble failed and was bought at bargain basement pricing, I liked Pebble and their V1 is what got me wearing a smartwatch every day. I thought they had potential to provide the platform that brought traditional watches into the “smart” era. Unlike the Apple Watch, the Pebble devices are actually usable as watches since they’re on all the time. But they are too ugly for fashion conscious humans who buy watches to ever wear them.

And I’m nothing if not on the cutting edge of fashion.

Anyway it doesn’t matter now because they’ve been sold for scrap, sadly.

Amazon Kindle

The only tech product that I believe is truly outstanding this year is the Kindle Oasis.

The $300 Kindle? Really?

Yes, really.

The Oasis is a luxury device for book readers.

People think of the Kindle line as monolothic, but in my experience they’ve actually significantly experimented over the years and some models were outstanding, others were completely off the mark. It has felt like a random walk until now.

The original and Kindle (they had keyboards! and free cellular connectivity!) were imagined as complete standalone devices which was, charming in its own way. (Those tiny keyboards! Wow!)

It wasn’t until the Kindle 4 where they ditched the keyboard and settled on the form that most people think of as a Kindle now.

That one – with physical buttons – I believe wholeheartedly was an outstanding device. I still like it more than the Paperwhite and Voyage that I own, except that it has an outdated screen, which is kind of, well, a problem in an e-reader.

The advancements in form after that – touch screen, weird non-buttons on the Voyage – have been off. The screen resolution and backlighting really has been the significant upgrade.

The Oasis, however, is an actual re-imagining of the device and reading experience that is attuned to reading books on a small electronic device. The asymmetry in weight and affordance reflects the reality that the device is meant to rest comfortably in one hand. The placement of two physical buttons reflects the natural resting place of your thumb, and is an effortless way to effect the primary action (page turn.)

The included case is really just a giant battery that allows you to use the device for extended periods without charging it.

It is, in short, a well designed physical device that understands space, weight, human factors, and physicality in a world increasingly over-focused on ephemeral nonsensical touch and voice interfaces.

It is spectacular.

It is also somewhat embarrassing that as a technological culture the only way to get a modern ereader with decent design and physical buttons like this is to spend $300 on a device that locks you into the weird DRM world of Amazon where you contractually rent books instead of owning them.

I guess if paying a premium enables products that have “retro” features like real buttons that work I will find a way to live with it.

2016 trenchant.org product of the year, Amazon Kindle Oasis

(Probably because LG couldn’t ship me that 5K monitor in calendar year 2016.)

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