State of the Tech 2016

We're all cyborgs.

I've said this before and it's true. We have cyber-brains in our pockets and intelligent electronic sensors on our wrists. We have what is for all intents and purposes the ability to transmit our thoughts vast distances between each other more or less instantaneously. We're living in a cyberpunk world, albeit somewhat less dystopian and invasive than examples from popular fiction (though we have our moments). I'm not being hyperbolic, just relinquish the concept of the man-machine hybrid's implants and augmentations and instead think about the things you can achieve with just your smartphone and a 4G signal.

I kind of love this. Living in the future is pretty awesome.

But I think a reality of the future, and one we all either wrestle with or work on avoiding, is that our technology develops somewhat faster than our social coping mechanisms. We're all familiar with the concept of our lives developing to service our gadgets, our social media platforms, and the pressure to stay connected. It's a little too easy at the moment for our personal relationship with technology to develop dysfunction, to become a source of anxiety, a source of stress, or a constant source of distraction.

I tend to have a pretty good relationship with my gizmos (a couple of slightly neurotic tendencies aside) but I'm of the opinion that as computers become more context-focussed they should really be getting better at integrating themselves into life and working for us without getting in the way. I think to achieve this you have to put a little thought into how you set up your personal computing environment. Especially now that for many of us this means a handful of computers where a decade ago it was just one. I've run media servers, home servers, different router configurations, consoles, gaming PCs and who knows what else over the last few years to achieve some degree of optimised computing setup and thinking about this only highlights how quickly technology has been moving in recent years. For twenty-something years of my life computing and entertainment was a TV, a Walkman and a desktop PC. The last decade has been kinda crazy.

Some people like to eschew technology that they don't feel is immediately beneficial, opting for simpler (and less expensive) technological lives. I, however, love having technology to play with and can't embrace my fascination if I apply this kind of strict code of admittance. I do want my technology to work well with me and not add unnecessary friction. There are some unavoidable issues — things that the people making these gadgets haven't smoothed out yet, and some of my own making (or at least that I am allowing to happen). I'm trying to address these, from the trivial to the more complex. This post serves to both try and explain what I mean, and also to organise some of my thoughts.

My Tech

You know by now I'm an Apple guy, so this is going to be a list of Apple devices. You can of course achieve much of the same utility from alternatives. The numerous Android devices and manufacturers — including perhaps most significantly when considering media management, Amazon — while offering differing levels of integration also offer different degrees of third party support. I don't say this by way of disclaimer; if any of this sounds good to you and you're not an Apple guy/gal then you can totally go out and do it — maybe you already are.

I currently own, ignoring old games consoles, predictable items like the TV and other miscellany:

  • MacBook Pro (Retina, 15 inch, Early 2013)
  • iPad Air (Space Grey)
  • iPhone 6s Plus (Space Grey)
  • Apple Watch Sport (Space Grey)
  • Apple TV (4th Generation)
  • Sony PlayStation 4 (White)

Its like the complete set of Apple things, right, one of each? Aside from my choice to use Apple kit, nothing about them is unusual. While not everyone has a tablet computer and a smart watch they are certainly very prevalent in my peer group. My mother has a tablet and a smartphone now and this is simply because they are of more value to her than a PC ever was. What's important here (and what has been the source of lengthy debates with friends who don't get it) is that each thing has its context. That's the best way I can explain and not necessarily all that clear in meaning; but there is a physical context in which each of them is better than the others. That isn't the same as suggesting that each has a unique purpose, or that the same can't be achieved with one or more of the others. That is not the case. The odd one out is the Watch and we'll get to that.

My MacBook

Leading up to my purchase of the original retina MacBook I was almost certainly buying an iMac. I'd been mulling it over for ages and it was close to an Apple event, and likely hardware refresh, so I waited before pulling the trigger. I'd had a second generation MacBook Air for a while as a second machine but had decided that it was time to go all Mac and ditch Windows so I was looking for something with some power. The Retina MacBook was announced and I knew it was the machine I wanted.

I would have regretted buying that iMac.

I've come to appreciate the fact that my entire electronic life is, and with absolute ease, transportable. My MacBook serves as a primary writing machine; I absolutely could do all my writing on my iPad or even my iPhone but as a long-time sufferer of occasionally very painful tendinopathy the physical keyboard (often an Apple bluetooth keyboard) and large Retina display are far more practical for extended use for me. I do write on my iPad, usually in circumstances where my MacBook is unavailable or impractical (context, see?), but I will have a better time and enjoy it more if I can use the MacBook. Being able to take it with me when I visit family or friends means that this option is available to me more often than it would have been. I'm off to Scotland for Christmas this year (in a week, in fact!) and you can bet that my MacBook is coming too.

It's also my gaming machine. It's discrete graphics chip is a necessity for those games that I still play — as is a more feature rich control system than a multi-touch screen alone. I don't play a lot of games anymore but it's still an important hobby to me. Having a machine with the computing grunt to run the games I'm interested in is key; especially as I have discovered a virtually zero interest in iOS gaming. Friends are still amazed that I have no games on my iOS devices. Occasionally I flirt with one game or another for a few days but they never seem to stay around for long.

Part of my MacBook setup is a Thunderbolt Display. While the fifteen inch retina display is honestly amazing you just need more screen than that for comfortable, long-period, deep-dive, gaming. The larger apparent resolution is often a blessing for other media content; movies and TV shows that don't utilise the resolution of the Retina display do benefit from the additional size of the Thunderbolt display. It's also an expansion of the MacBook's own capabilities; adding additional USB and Thunderbolt ports, larger speakers, an external webcam, etc. etc. Plugging the MacBook in really imparts it with most of the benefits I would get from having a desktop machine over a laptop. It's actually the best of both worlds.

At one point I used my MacBook as my de-facto media library too, but iTunes Match and now iTunes Music have removed that need. All of my media is cloud based and streams directly to any device on demand. It's not yet perfect, but it is better than a local library for my day-to-day use for sure. I am one of those people who took up Apple Music after the free trial period; though I totally get why many people are going back to their previous streaming services. It was also my photo library, and iCloud Photos has taken over there too. I've actually waited to get on the cloud services bandwagon in both cases because available offerings haven't offered the ease of use and seamlessness I wanted. I'm very happy with where these stand at present.

My iPad

While I'm quite aware of the creative uses of the iPad it is definitely a consumption device for me. Its form factor is beneficial in a number of situations: it's small enough to fit in my bag and travel anywhere and it's more comfortable to use in any situation that doesn't require excessive typing or involve sitting upright at a desk for a significant time. It travels with me to work every day where I catch up on my RSS feeds while eating lunch. I wouldn't want to haul out my own MacBook and use it to read at my desk at the office when I can lean back on my chair and read as comfortably as if I were holding a book (it's actually much more comfortable than a book). It's much the same at home on the sofa. The experience for reading, watching video, browsing the internet and similar activities is just so much more pleasant with a hot drink and the iPad that even though it's probably the device with the least uniqueness to offer I would find it hard to give it up. I moved from full-size iPads to minis a couple of years ago but recently switched back to an iPad air as the iPhone 6s Plus is large enough to compete with the iPad mini and the Air is so much lighter than the iPad 3 I once gave up. I got a neat little messenger bag specifically with my iPad in mind, to make sure that I could take it pretty much anywhere with as little hassle as possible.

I know people who got iPads and after the initial excitement felt that they didn't really need to use them for anything; I find that I want to use it for as much as possible. If I can comfortably use my iPad instead of my phone or laptop I will.

My iPhone

Between starting to write this post and actually publishing it I upgraded from an iPhone 5s to an iPhone 6s Plus. When the iPhone 6 came out a little over a year ago I watched friends make their choices between the 6 and 6 Plus, and with a couple of exceptions they were all happy with whichever size they chose. I think this is because after a couple of days you simply adjust and become content, as opposed to there being a right option and a wrong option. Still it took me a year to decide to get the Plus - and in the end battery life and image stabilisation won me over. As it turns out I also love landscape mode in those apps that do a good job of supporting it.

The curved glass design of the 6 models is also my favourite since the iPhone 4, with the first iPhone coming in a close third. I'm currently wrestling with case use. I don't like to use a case, but I don't quite trust myself with a phone this big — yet.

This is my most used personal computer. It's on me all the time and I use it more or less constantly — especially when I'm idle. I'm generally talking to someone, most often via iMessage and in many ways it's my access to the space outside of the place I'm occupying whether that's at home or at work. Having real all day battery life has been great. I still have a charging cable at my desk at work, but now it's used occasionally instead of daily.

My iPhone is how I remember where I need to be, sometimes how I figure out how to get there too. It's my camera (and it's a really great one). It's the answers to innumerable questions and the resolution to many debates. The assertion that the iPhone changed the world sounds hyperbolic but it really isn't. So many mundane parts of life are different because of it — some subtly so, and some significantly.

This is the one piece of hardware I upgrade on a cycle. At the moment that's dictated by the carrier contract, but that could change in the next few years.

My Apple Watch

Of course I love it, too.

I expected that there would be some apps for the Watch that would kinda blow me away with their ingenuity and I'd wind up using it for things I hadn't considered when I bought it. That hasn't happened. In fact, almost all Apple Watch apps are garbage; truly disappointing.

Everyone makes the excuse that the API is limited or that the performance is too poor but these are excuses. The real reason is that most apps just have no place being there. They try and mimic phone apps without actually being more convenient or more useful and at the end of the day I don't actually want to interact with my Watch all that much. I want it to provide time and context sensitive information immediately and briefly.

The biggest thing that the Apple Watch has done for me is that it's changed the way that notifications work almost completely. This is an area that needs some improvement, and it needs to be more aware of other devices that serve notifications (MacBook, iPad), but it is so much better than the chorus of beeps and chimes that came before. I had to drastically reduce the number of apps that I allow to serve me push notifications, which was definitely a blessing in disguise. I don't miss any of the junk that I cut out. Those notifications I do get are now just silent taps. I can put my phone on the table in front of me at a meeting and it will remain silent and dark while I receive Twitter mentions and iMessages. I just get tapped. My phone can go into Do Not Disturb mode independently of my watch so if I'm up late I still get unobtrusively notified. I can always take my Watch off if I want them to stop.

The health features are pretty cool, and since getting the Watch I've shed some weight. I can see how much exercise I'm getting and I compete with myself a little. It's had a positive impact on my wellbeing, however superficial that might seem I've seen improvements to my everyday energy levels and my sleeping patterns.

It's also how I tend to check the weather, see when my next meeting is, and of course tell the time. It feeds me lots of little motes of information in more pleasant and less disruptive chunks.

I'm not sure when I'll be compelled to upgrade. And while it's absolutely unnecessary it's something I'd really miss having at this point.

Apple TV

I used to run a Mac mini as a Media machine attached to the TV. Even after buying my first Apple TV this persisted for a while. Now though, with iTunes Match (or more recently Apple Music) and other streaming services, Netflix subscriptions and the like, I haven't needed a dedicated media machine for quite a while. In the last few weeks the new 4th generation Apple TV plugged in to our Sony Bravia has:

  • Played native games,
  • Been a surrogate screen for iPad games,
  • Streamed video from iTunes, Netflix, and the BBC,
  • Streamed video from a PC in another room,
  • Streamed video from a Mac in another room,
  • Been the recipient of all manner of Air Play content,
  • Been an MP3 player.

If the TV is in use either the PS4 is seeing some action or the Apple TV is. The TV is really just a big screen for this little streaming-focused computer.

Having apps on the Apple TV is a game changer, and while I'm only using a handful right now that is quite likely to change in the near future as more options become available. Games in particular are an interesting addition and Alto's Adventure is gorgeous.

Software

I'm a bit of a minimalist when it comes to software. That is both that I like my software to be pretty focused and minimal in its design but also that I like to use a little of it as possible to be able to do the jobs I need to well. I also prefer my computing experience to be as consistent as possible across devices so I've got a distinct tendency towards apps with both OS X and iOS versions with solid syncing. Luckily this is a pretty prevalent philosophy these days in the Apple ecosystem.

I also try to avoid spreading my data around too much. I used to use iCloud and Dropbox to cover my cloud storage needs, then it was iCloud and a Transporter unit. Now I'm just using iCloud thanks to improvements made in iOS 9. iCloud wins simply because of its level of integration but you could likely achieve just about the same results with either Dropbox or Transporter (or any other comparable service, Google Drive, One Drive… there are plenty of them now).

Favourite Apps

My favourite apps are generally those that have iPhone, Mac and iPad versions with iCloud syncing. Apps like Byword, Stache, Day One and Tweetbot that offer the same quality of experience and consistency regardless of platform. I tend to use a lot of the built in Apple apps for this same reason. This eliminates a lot of workflow concerns, so long as I have one device available and have had an internet connection recently enough to be synched then I have access to whatever I'm working on, my notes, and suchlike.

1Password is another highly recommended favourite, and worth singling out as security should be a concern for everyone right now. 1Password is not reliant on a cloud service, and although there are cloud based methods for syncing you remain in control of your own encrypted password vault.

Apple Watch Apps

While quite a few of my apps have Apple Watch support I only actually have a couple enabled on the watch: Tweetbot, which enabled dictated tweets (and replies to DMs) and Parcel which lets me track my parcels with a glance.

Backup Strategy

I think it's increasingly important to cover not only password security (see 1Password above) but also data security. Have a backup strategy! Mine is simple: an Apple Time Capsule maintains hourly backups of my Mac on my local network and Backblaze keeps a synchronised remote backup of any files that have existed on my machine in the last thirty days. Much of my data is also cloud resident, but cloud storage should not be considered a backup (just a convenient recovery method when it's available).

My mobile devices backup remotely to iCloud and I semi-frequently manually initiate an encrypted iTunes backup which then gets backed up when my Mac is backed up.

That might seem a little complex but once set up all but the encrypted iOS backups happen automatically with no need for my input. Easier is better — especially when inconvenience could mean that you procrastinate and leave significant gaps in your coverage.

Charging

Charging is my one major bugbear right now when it comes to my gadgetry. My primary devices are all battery powered, and therefore in order to be of any real use need to be charged. With the recent addition of my Apple Watch there are now three devices on my nightstand, each with their own cable. It feels messy. I don't need this many screens at the side of my bed, or all this cable clutter in one place.

I haven't quite decided how to solve this yet. I'm probably moving all of my morning alarms to my Apple Watch (because it's a little bit adorable in Nightstand Mode — which is a very important consideration) though I think I'll want to keep my phone handy in case of an emergency. My iPad on the other hand — I think that needs a new home. I don't tend to use it much in bed for anything (I don't read or watch movies or suchlike after retiring) so it doesn't need to be there.

Upgrading

While I would, in theory, happily upgrade my iPhone every year (I don't), this isn't true of my other devices. I don't have any reason to upgrade either my MacBook or my iPad at present, though the iPad is slowly building up a list of features that I will eventually give in to. The Apple Watch is an unknown quantity — it hasn't yet had it's first upgrade cycle. I can't see the Apple Watch demanding such frequent upgrades as the iPhone though; it's usefulness is more limited and specific.

It will take a significant change in my needs to force me into a MacBook upgrade (or, more likely, the eventual decline of my existing hardware). I'm hoping to get another few years out of it at the very least.