For the third day straight, reviews of one of the new products Apple announced last week are out, this time the Apple TV 4K. This is a far less significant launch than either the iPhone 8 or Apple Watch Series 3 given the relatively small numbers in which the box sells, but it’s still worth noting the tenor of the reviews. Once again I’m linking to Techmeme, which decided to lead with Nilay Patel’s Verge review, which based on my reading seems the most critical of the reviews out there. In general, all the reviewers seemed to like Apple’s familiar but somewhat revamped interface and the snappiness enabled by the new A10X chip (the same one which powers the iPad Pro). Where 4K HDR content was available, it was said to look fantastic, and the iTunes pricing for available 4K movies was also noted as a big plus. The biggest downside is predictable: the lack of content, something that also makes 4K TVs a marginal proposition today while the industry suffers from the same chicken/egg problem that plagued HD in its early years, but worse because of the lack of broadcast 4K content. Disney’s absence from iTunes 4K, the incompatibility between the Apple TV and YouTube’s 4K standards, and so on are the notable gaps. But Nilay Patel’s review is the only one I saw that grumbled in depth about other issues – perhaps because he’s a more discerning judge of these things as a high-end AV guy: he noted that the Apple TV doesn’t support Dolby’s Atmos sound configuration to go with the Dolby HDR picture support it does offer, and also pointed out that watching HDR content on the Apple TV 4K is a sub-par experience for now. Overall, it’s a decent set of reviews but for anyone who either doesn’t have a 4K TV or watch content sources with a lot of 4K content, it’s basically irrelevant for now.
On this topic, you might be interested in the piece I wrote for Techpinions subscribers earlier this week on the current market for smart TV boxes like the Apple TV 4K.
Following on the heels of yesterday’s iPhone 8 reviews, today the reviews for the Apple Watch Series 3 with LTE came out, and they were rather different in tone, in at least some cases. Whereas yesterday’s reviews were largely positive with some misgivings around the edges, today’s Watch reviews were bifurcated between those that were almost entirely positive and those that noted significant connectivity issues, notably those at the Wall Street Journal and The Verge (once again, I’m linking to the Techmeme roundup here). All seemed to agree that the faster processors and watchOS 4 combine for significantly better performance across multiple areas including fitness and heart rate tracking, app use, and music, but the differences occurred around LTE/WiFI connectivity.
It appears (there’s a good explainer here) that the Watch tends to try to hop onto so-called captive WiFi networks – those that allow devices to connect without a password but require going through an interstitial or popup before allowing internet access – but can’t progress beyond the interstitial, putting the Watch in an awkward in-between state where it’s connected to WiFi but can’t actually reach the internet. That, in turn, stops the Watch from trying to connect to LTE, which is what you really want it to do in that situation. That should be a relatively easy software fix for Apple, and it’s suggested that’s the case, but it’s baffling that this issue didn’t come up during all the testing that must have gone on over recent months, and as such is an embarrassing slip-up for Apple when the new connectivity options are the key selling point for this device.
It is notable that not all reviewers experienced the problem, which may be indicative of either their differing use during the review period or their differing earlier use, with some perhaps more prone to hop onto captive WiFi networks with their iPhones (and thereby inadvertently setting up their Watches for failure) than others. At any rate, many regular users likely won’t see those issues either, especially if using the Watch out in the wild rather than in busy urban areas, while those who do will hopefully see the problem fixed very quickly in a software update. Regardless, this clearly wasn’t what Apple was hoping for from these reviews, and it’s likely that the glitches will color perceptions of the Watch at least until Apple does issue a fix and that gets some decent coverage.
The embargo on iPhone 8 and 8 Plus reviews lifted this morning and in its wake came a flurry of reviews from many major tech publications. Rather than link to any one of them, I’m linking below to Techmeme’s roundup, which as usual will give you every possible angle you could want. As is often the case with smartphone reviews, many make the mistake of asking the question of whether it’s worth upgrading from the previous year’s model, which is something very few people ever do. The better question is whether these phones are good upgrades from the models people are still using from two or three years ago. For those upgrading from an iPhone 6 or 6s, the change will be significant: better screens, better audio, much faster chips, longer battery life and wireless charging, better camera performance, and on the Plus model dual cameras with Portrait Mode, Portrait Lighting, and 2x optical zoom, among other things.
The reviews do suggest that the improvements to the cameras are particularly noteworthy, and the TechCrunch review focuses on that aspect in depth, something I think more smartphone reviews should do. Otherwise, there are some complaints about a too-familiar hardware design (although there are all new materials and finishes this time around in contrast to the last two years), and there’s still some griping about the lack of a headphone jack and the “camera bump”. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the 8 Plus later this week and spending some time testing it myself, but my guess is the iPhone 8 line is a really solid upgrade for many people considering one this year and will be the devices many of this year’s upgraders will end up picking. However, as I said in yesterday’s item about preorders, there will be many waiting to take a closer look at the iPhone X, an approach certainly endorsed by at least some of the reviewers of the 8.
Android Police has a review of the Asus ZenFone AR, the second phone to carry Google’s Tango augmented reality technology. It sounds like it’s a big improvement over the clunky first phone from Lenovo, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it’ll be a big seller, while Tango itself doesn’t sound like it’s moved on much either. The review is worth noting because Google has been in AR for far longer than Apple, and yet Tango seems to have stalled at the experimental phase, with lots of effort from Google and yet very little to show for it. Two phones, neither of which will end up selling in large numbers, very few apps and essentially no meaningful position in AR just at a time when the space is about to take off thanks to Apple’s entry through ARKit in iOS. That’s something of an indictment of Google’s failure in this area, with its Daydream VR effort faring a little better but also not yet finding a sizable market niche to call its own. One other thing to note from the review here: it sounds like Tango absolutely hammers battery life on this device, and that’s something that will be well worth watching when ARKit-based apps launch on the iPhone in September. Pokemon Go has already taught us that apps featuring AR (and location-based elements) can be hard on batteries and still be popular, but it will detract from AR’s popularity on the iPhone if ARKit apps show a comparable tradeoff in battery life.
via Android Police
In the second somewhat controversial decision by Consumer Reports in the past year, it has withdrawn its recommendations from several of the Microsoft Surface hardware products for reasons of projected reliability. Though it rated those products highly in its reviews and recommended both a couple of Surface Laptop and a couple of Surface Book models, a recent survey among owners of older Surface products suggested a 25% hardware fault rate within two years of purchase and that’s what led to the yanked recommendations. Last year, Consumer Reports somewhat controversially failed to recommend Apple’s new MacBook Pros over battery life issues that turned out to be caused by somewhat unusual testing conditions combined with a rogue script, something that it eventually reversed itself on, but there’s little prospect of a similar reversal here.
Though Consumer Reports has long used reliability of past car models in projecting the same for newer models on the basis that they often share platforms and components, that approach feels flimsy when applied to consumer electronics, and especially different models from the same company, given the frequent changes in components. If past reliability took a hit from a single component and that component isn’t present in the new devices, it would be completely irrelevant, but the lack of transparency here from Consumer Reports makes it impossible to know what’s really going on. Given the small share of the total PC market Surface captures, I also wonder just how much data CR has and how representative it really is. Overall, this feels rather like Consumer Reports trying to get attention for itself much as it did with the MacBook Pro issue, where it failed to provide adequate insight into its testing process until pressed by Apple. It’s clearly bad news for Microsoft, whose Surface hardware has generally been very well reviewed in the last couple of years, though most corporate buyers won’t be checking Consumer Reports for reliability ratings and will instead go by their own experiences, which as far as I can tell have generally been fine. Consumers, on the other hand, might lean more heavily on these ratings.
Update: Also worth noting are the overall reliability numbers for PCs, which are available within CR’s laptop ratings section: there, Microsoft comes last of all, but only by one percentage point, while it says differences of five points or less are not meaningful, and that spread covers six PC vendors including market leaders HP, Lenovo, and Dell. So it’s not that Microsoft’s reliability is massively worse than other PCs, but that there’s now enough evidence (by CR’s reckoning) to indicate it isn’t as good as it appeared to be.
via USA Today
Motorola Z2 Force Reviews Highlight Tradeoffs (Aug 3, 2017)
Samsung Surface Competitor Gets Poor Reviews (May 26, 2017)
The review embargo on the Samsung Galaxy S8 lifted this morning and so a slew of reviews was published. The consensus appears to be that the hardware is beautiful and generally very good, while the software is mixed at best. Which is about the least surprising sentence anyone ever wrote about a Samsung phone, but is also bad news given the extent to which Samsung emphasized software this time around. On the hardware side, reviewers seem to love the screen, the dimensions of the display versus the overall footprint, and the feel in the hand. The one knock from a hardware perspective is the fingerprint sensor, which bafflingly is high up on the back and right next to the camera, where it’s both hard to reach and easy to miss and smudge the camera lens instead. From a software perspective, the main criticisms revolve around Bixby, which is missing its voice feature in the US and seems redundant and gimmicky, but the other criticism is around face unlock. As I said when it launched, face unlock is a sop to users who miss the fingerprint unlock on the front and want a simple way to get into their phone without typing in a passcode, but Samsung arguably hasn’t done enough to make clear that it’s a pretty insecure way to actually lock a phone. As such, it’s fine for grandma but not for the corporate IT department, and Samsung needs to make that clearer, especially given that iris scanning is also present as an option. This certainly won’t be exactly the debut Samsung wanted, but the positive reception to the hardware will do a lot for it. Also worth noting: Samsung provided a review unit to the Wall Street Journal but not the New York Times, whose reporter Brian Chen has been very critical of Samsung over its customer service among other things.
The Ars Technica view I’m linking to here is fairly negative on LG’s new flagship, while the Verge review also linked below is a little more positive. Both note that this is really the first widely available flagship phone to go down the “much smaller bezels” route, but while the Verge review focuses on that fact, the Ars review suggests that it will quickly be overshadowed by the Samsung Galaxy S8. The fact that this phone is launching to the public a week after the Samsung event certainly doesn’t help – almost anyone considering it has to at least be thinking about the S8 as an alternative – but until reviews are out, writing off the G6 so quickly feels premature. At least some early indications suggest that there may be one or two concerns with the S8, though I’ll withhold judgment until more thorough reviews are out. Both of these G6 reviews, though, highlight some flaws, notably some odd design choices in the hardware (poorly rounded display corners, tricky home button/sensor placement and size) and counter-productive software customizations on top of stock Android. This definitely looks like a better phone than last year’s G5, but I’m not convinced it’s going to help LG have a much better year this year than last as a result. One more thing worth noting – it seems LG has a version it’s selling in Korea with an integrated DAC which dramatically improves audio quality, but that won’t be available in the US, an odd decision.
Google has officially released its Android-apps-on-Chrome beta and it’s getting fairly terrible reviews. While Google is legendary for attaching the beta label to things that feel like they’ve long outgrown it (see especially Gmail), in this case the label actually feels premature, since the experience on these new Chromebooks sounds much more like an alpha than a beta. The software is very buggy, and the implementation of Android apps on ChromeOS is if anything even worse than it long has been on Android tablets. Getting Android apps onto a laptop sounds really compelling – all the apps you’re used to on your phone, now on your PC! – but the reality for now sounds extremely disappointing. It’s hard to avoid the sense that this is a misstep by Google, which promised these launches a few months back but clearly isn’t ready to deliver on them yet. In fact, these devices appear to suffer from some of the same lack of readiness as the recent Android Wear 2.0 release, although that was supposedly a finished product. This is uncharacteristic for Google, and it’s a worrying sign that things are being rushed out of the door to meet deadlines rather than because they’re ready.
Warm Takes on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 – Medium (Dec 27, 2016)
Part of the recent version of the Apple is Doomed narrative has Microsoft in the ascendant, ready to eat its lunch. As with the rest of the narrative, that’s overblown, and this piece does a nice job of highlighting the challenges for Microsoft in winning over Mac users. It’s also a good entry in another couple of narratives – Hardware is Hard, and Microsoft and Hardware, pouring some cold water on the plaudits for Microsoft’s recent hardware efforts.