Short blog posts, journal entries, and random thoughts. Topics include a mix of personal and the world at large. 

I'm not getting the iPhone 11

For the first time in three years, I am not getting the new iPhone on launch day.

It’s not that I don’t want to: i’m obviously a massive fan of photography, and the addition of a new ultra-wide lens to the iPhone 11 Pro is a super enticing factor. Coupled that with the always improving camera logic and lens systems, the iPhone X I currently hold in my hands is looking somewhat pedestrian in comparison. Apple even solved my biggest complaint about iPhone cameras: that lack of long exposure function for shots in low light: there’s now a ‘Night Mode’ on the new iPhone.

However, the march of progress can gets utterly stopped by money sensibilities. If only I was back in my 20’s, but making the same amount of money as I do now: there wouldn’t even be any contemplations; I’d preordered the phone already.

Indeed, I have to take into consideration the monetary outlay whenever I upgrade to the latest iPhone. The monthly payments may remain the same - phone for phone, the iPhone 11 prices have not increased - but it’s easy to forget the one-time costs: the ridiculous upgrade fee the carriers charge (damn you, Verizon), and the tax bill for the entire price of the phone. It amounts to a not insignificant $200 dollars or so, and as it stands right now, I rather not spend that money just for the privilege of having a nicer camera system. In a vacuum, the iPhone X is still very competitive and outputs fine pictures for my needs.

I must note the irony that this is coming from the same person who owns a 911 GT3 and pays the hefty sums to keep it running every month. Well, how you’d think I come to be able to afford a Porsche? It isn’t from wontonly spending every amount of available cash.

I think I am going to wait for the next design evolution to the iPhone before I upgrade. Back when this current design language came out with the iPhone X, it was an absolute jewel of a thing; it’s such a beauty to hold that I even elected to go without a case. As per usual, the iPhone exterior hasn’t changed much at all going on its third year, save for the rear camera module (the three lens array on the iPhone 11 Pro is rather ugly, I have to say.) I shall wait for the next big step-change to make the switch.

In the meantime, I’ll pocket that bit of cash for a rainy day.

No donuts; because the rocks will ruin the paint, obviously.

Initial iPhone XS Max impressions

I was surprised how easy the preordering process was this year. The Apple Store app opened up right at 12:01am Friday, and within minutes I was ready with a launch-day delivery unit. A stark contrast to the previous few years where the app was unresponsive for a quarter hour, and mere seconds delay in decision bumped me off of first day delivery (last year).

Either Apple’s supply chain have improved immensely, or they’ve got plenty of iPhone XS on hand for everyone. Probably the latter because the line frenzies we are used to seeing in previous iPhone launches were few and far in between. I can walk into an Apple Store right now and buy a unit in any of the three colors.

Of course I’d rather not leave the house if possible, so I optioned for home delivery. Trouble is I didn’t get home last Friday until way late into the night, though I figured the setup process wouldn’t be too much of a hassle: backup iPhone X into iTunes, plug the new phone in, and step 3 profit. The plan was going great until I turned on the new iPhone XS Max for the first time and it ceremoniously failed at the Verizon authentication process.

Turns out Apple screwed up royally with their batch of Verizon phones. Their authentication system still has my old and out-of-date PIN and not the current one from Verizon. I was adamant my info was correct, not knowing it wanted the old PIN. Verizon couldn’t do anything about it, and the Apple tech support I talk to did not yet know the extent of the situation. After two hours of futility, I finally remembered my old PIN and I was home free.

The screen is massive and glorious.

The iPhone XS Max is about the size of the old ‘Plus’ phones, but the display dominates the entire frame. At 6.5 inches, it is desperately close to mini tablet territory, and I simply love the amount of real-estate. After nearly a year of using iPhone X I’ve gotten used to its screen size, but mere minutes of using the XS Max, the previous generation phone already feels uncomfortably small and cramped. I’m very glad I chose to go with the larger model: more text, more information; watching Youtube videos in landscape is a pleasure.

Unfortunately not many apps have been updated to utilize the newfound space. Native Apple apps obviously look great and sharp, but other apps are merely zoomed to acquiesce the new size. Just as we had to wait for apps to update and take full advantage of the iPhone X screen, I fear we may need to do the same for the XS Max. Tick tock, app developers.

Other than the extra screen size, operationally the XS Max is nearly identical to the X. It’s probably speedier and smoother, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Even after a year in production, the X is not lacking in speed, especially after the update to iOS 12. The reason for upgrading to the XS Max was the bigger display, and the improved camera.

And what a sweet camera it is. I’ve only had a few days of shooting under my belt, but I can’t stop being impressed with the results. Smart HDR is simply magic, producing images in real-time that an equivalent DSLR camera would require multiple exposures and then combining them in software on a laptop. It’s awe-inspiring to see Apple continually attempt to overcome the limitations of sensor and lens physics with sheer computational might.

More to come on the iPhone XS Max as I get more familiar with its intricacies.

Straight off iPhone XS Max camera, unedited.

Straight off iPhone XS Max camera, unedited.

I'm getting the iPhone XS Max

So of course I am getting the new iPhone XS Max. Announced at the Apple event yesterday morning, the latest iPhone is an iterative improvement to the ground-breaking iPhone X: the screen got brighter and has more colors, the cameras got larger pixels and aperture, the glass and steel body is stronger, and the processor is incrementally faster. All is what’s expected from an “s” release, and as I’ve said previously, the iPhone X is still plenty competitive with the smartphones of 2018. Nobody has yet to even match its chipset speed.

Then why am I upgrading? First, because I can, and second, for the bigger screen. iPhone X have always felt a bit small after two years of using the ‘Plus’ versions of iPhone 6 and 7. The missing screen real estate isn’t too much of a bother because the edge-to-edge OLED panel is that good, but a size increase would make it perfect. As expected, Apple announced an iPhone XS model with a larger screen, though it’s not a ‘Plus’ anymore, it’s now a ‘Max’.

Anybody else think Apple have gone off the deep-end lately with their naming conventions (iPhone SE comes to mind)? The word ‘Plus’ is stamped in the consumer consciousness denoting the bigger iPhone model for years now, and Apple just tossed that brand value away in a flash. Curious, to say the least.

Alongside the new flagship, Apple also introduced the iPhone XR, the base model of the iPhone X(?) range if you will. It’s got the same computational innards as the XS, but it forsakes the intricate OLED panel for LCD, and the body is made of aluminium instead of stainless-steel. There’s only one camera module instead of two, though at least it’s the same wide lens as the XS. It comes in five vibrant colors, harkening back to the iPhone 5C, sparking the question why Apple didn’t call it the iPhone XC instead of XR.

Price at $750 to start, the cheapest new for 2018 iPhone is not exactly cheap at all. I’m old enough to remember flagship smartphones started in the $600 range; today that wouldn’t even get you the compromised version. It can’t be helped: suckers like me are gladly paying the $1K entry cost going on the second year like clockwork. Apple has zero incentive to change, especially with the U.S. government barring the the likes of Huawei from selling their lower cost flagship phones here.

Preorders for the iPhone XS starts at midnight Friday so let the annual ‘can you get your order in for launch day’ games begin. I’ll be there, man.

I reckon this is secured enough.

I reckon this is secured enough.

On 10 months with the iPhone X

Today is Apple’s annual new iPhone announcement event, and mere hours from me typing these words right now, I will find out how spectacular of a phone I shall be getting really soon. Before all that happiness however I’d like to talk about the iPhone X, a phone I’ve thoroughly enjoyed for almost a year.

It’s an interesting reflection of human nature that we’ve grown accustomed to iPhone X’s eye-watering price. Starting at a hair under a thousand dollars - which itself is shocking enough, I of course simply had to get the SKU with additional storage (Apple, as ever, was clever to provide the “base” model with only 64 gigabytes), so the final suggested purchase price of my 256GB unit is $1,149.

It’s been said that smartphones are essentially computers that fit in our pockets; well, now they cost the same as one too. The price shock quickly wore off, though: nowadays when I see smartphones costing in $700 dollars range, I think of them as inexpensive. Hashtag crazy rich Asians.

I have to say the iPhone X is absolutely worth its significant purchase price. It’s easily the most transformative iPhone since iPhone 4. A return to glass on the back, along with the stainless-steel band, makes iPhone X feel tremendous to the hand. It’s solid and exquisite to the touch, so much so that I decided from the outset to not put a case on it. 10 months later and aside from a few nicks on the band from the two times I dropped it on solid ground, my iPhone X have held up excellently.

Operationally, the iPhone X, to quote the late Steve Jobs, is a screamer. Everything is incredibly fast and fluid, and it makes using lesser phones and tablets (my Microsoft Surface Pro 4) a frustrating experience. Why can’t all touch devices be this responsive? Lag is nonexistent, and apps closes and switches with nary a hiccup; I don’t think I’ve ever had to perform a hard-reset. The fact that I can edit 42 megapixel photos from my Sony A7R2 camera right on my iPhone X and it’s all super smooth is a testament to Apple’s ingenuity with its A series silicon.

Suffice it to say the camera on the iPhone X is sublime. I’ve said it before: we are ever close to having photos from smartphones be indistinguishable from those out of traditional DSLRs.

What about the new features? The transition from nine years of having a home button to Face ID feels incredibly natural. It’s amazing what Apple has done with the feature in its first generation (Touch ID was a logistical mess when it first debuted): Face ID simply works, and its miss-rate is no worse than the fingerprint sensor of previous phones. As for the edge-to-edge OLED screen and the much maligned “notch”, let’s just say there is a reason all the other Android phone manufacturers are copying it, and not doing a very good job either. What’s the point of the notch if you’ve still got a chin bezel at the bottom?

While I am excited about the next iteration of iPhone, I’d be completely okay if I were to keep my iPhone X for another year (I won’t be, just saying). It’s still superbly quick and chews through everything I throw at it, and the camera module is still amongst the class leaders. Apple have engineered the iPhone X so magnificently that aside from the obvious screen size increase I’m honestly stumped as to how they will improve the other parts.

We shall see in a few hours.

That time when I was the only passenger on the train and it wasn’t late at night.

That time when I was the only passenger on the train and it wasn’t late at night.

Face ID: the verdict

Apple's Face ID on the iPhone X works just as well as Touch ID, and that is excellent indeed for a first generation technology. Having used the iPhone X for a month now, Face ID has integrated nicely to the workflow, and its infrequent hiccups are no more annoying than those of Touch ID. 

When it works, Face ID is imperceptibly fast; the mechanics of it disappears into the background. Looking at the phone as I swipe up from the bottom in one combo motion, and it unlocks like magic. The only time I even notice Face ID is at work is when it inevitably doesn't work: having the phone buzz at you and prompting a passcode entry is as baffling an experience as Touch ID rejecting my thumb because it's slightly damp.

Thankfully, those moments occurring are miniscule, and half the time it's my fault (if alive, Steve Jobs would say I'm using it wrong). To the surprise of nobody, Face ID doesn't work when my face is half covered by a pillow or wearing a face mask. Sometimes even too sudden of a change in hairstyle - if I were to flip my hair up from its usual down position - would trigger a recognition failure. I hope hats don't interfere, because I've yet to use Face ID while wearing one.

As I've said in my initial impressions, I think Face ID needs an additional biometric layer to complement the base systems: a retinal scanner can alleviate times when the face is covered with a mask, or I happen to be scratching my nose. Being able to still securely unlock the iPhone with an impeded face would be the ultimate. 

What Apple has engineered with Face ID is phenomenal: it's an exponentially better and more complete user experience right out the gate than Touch ID's initial debut. With further software development and deeper machine learning, I hope the technology gets better and migrates to other Apple products. It would be lovely on an iMac. 

The iPhone X camera is fantastic

During my Taipei trip, I had the opportunity to extensively use the iPhone X's camera, and the verdict is this: it's utterly fantastic. 

It's amazing what camera lens can do when it's paired with incredible computing power. Apple overcomes the physical limitations of the smartphone form-factor - sensor and lens can only be so big - by performing calculations and predictive algorithms that traditional camera makers like Canon or Nikon cannot. The iPhone may be outputting JPEGs, but those photos have got vastly more computing done to it than say a Canon 5D - and all the user do is press the shutter, adjusting nothing. 

I got astounding hit-rate with the iPhone X JPEGs on the trip: exposure and color temperature are almost always spot-on. 

Of course, Apple have upgraded the sensor technology as well, but I firmly believe it's the A series chip inside the modern iPhone that's the X factor in the tremendous photo capabilities. We're to the point where my non-photography inclined friends cannot discern the difference between - when viewed on mobile - the shots off of the iPhone X and A7R2. With the iOS 'portrait mode' in its second generation, the X can even do convincing bokeh shots. It's truly astounding. 

In the future I would have zero qualms about leaving the dedicated camera behind and simply use the iPhone X as the sole travel camera: it is that good. Once Apple figure out/allow proper long exposure shots, there will remain nothing an iPhone can't do that a proper camera can. Even dynamic range limitations are already solved by iPhone's brilliant auto-HDR function. 

From a photographic perspective, a hearty job well done on the iPhone X, Apple. 


Veterans Day weekend

The wonders of having a three day weekend (Veterans Day) is whatever I had planned to do, instead of having two days to execute, I get three. The leisure time afforded in between was quite welcomed and made this past weekend a refreshing one indeed.

On Friday while performing oil change on the car - $35 total for 5 quarts of synthetic and filter, the heavens decided to open up and it rained biblically for a good half hour. To avoid getting soaked the easy thing would be to stay under the car for the duration, but I believe too much in superstition to be beneath a vehicle supported by jack-stands for any longer than necessary.

At least the rain washed away the oil puddle that invariably forms due to the stream missing the catch-can. No matter how good I think I've positioned the reservoir, the first unleashing of oil from the engine pan will always find the ground. For sure it isn't the most environment friendly thing to do, but I'm not paying the $80 or so the dealership charges for a simple oil change - the Miata needs one every six months. 

On Saturday I went over to my sole house-owning friend's place. He's in the middle of having solar panels installed on his roof. The reality of having a climate-controlled house year-round is extremely nice indeed, and because the friend doesn't live in San Francisco - no fog, the place will get plenty of sun. To achieve the same level of pampering I'd have to live in my car. 

Sunday was the first opportunity to try out intensively the iPhone X's camera. Perhaps I'm spoiled by my Sony A7R2's 42 megapixel images, the X's camera isn't completely wowing me, save one feature: portrait mode. It's been one year since Apple introduced the feature, and it's gotten spectacularly good. The boundary between what's in focused and blurred is executed so well now that it's often difficult to tell the difference from a proper DSLR. Check out these flowers I took yesterday, unedited: