I’m excited about technology again

For the first time in a long time (several years), I’m actually excited by the state of consumer technology. This includes both things that are currently available, as well as products that will (hopefully) come out in the near future. And what’s even better, there are actually a lot of such things I’m excited about.

First off: USB-C all the things. My phone is charged by USB-C, so are my headphones, and my tablet. The only holdovers are my Kindle Voyage, which needs to be charged very infrequently, and my laptop (which we will get to in a bit). Be aware though, not all USB-C cables are made the same. Beyond the obvious physical utility of just needing just one kind of connector, USB-C enables other little conveniences. Being able to carry around a single charger (or battery) that can charge all my devices, at high speed (due to high wattage), makes being on the go much more convenient. Furthermore, the Thunderbolt 3 data connection standard uses the same physical format as USB-C. That means it’s actually possible to plug a single cable into a laptop (or tablet) and have it charge and connect to peripherals like external monitors, speakers, input devices, external GPUs and storage at the same time, and at very high speeds (possibly with a Thunderbolt 3 dock in the middle).

Perhaps the only thing better than having one kind of connector, is having no connector at all. I’m not an audiophile, so most of the time I perfectly happy with Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones, especially on long flights (that I am doing more of these days). And while Bluetooth keyboards and mice have been around for a while, we now have decent, semi-portable mechanical Bluetooth keyboards. I’m looking forward to having both wireless data and power in the not-too-distant future, but till then, I can deal with plugging in my things overnight (or every couple nights for most of them) and being untethered the rest of the time.

On the subject of keyboards, I got into mechanical keyboards a few years. The mechanical keyboard market seems to have expanded greatly in the last few years, with innovation in switches, layouts, keycaps, programmability and design. I can’t justify owning more than two (one for work and work from home), but I’m happy to see that there’s something for everybody.

Next: monitors. A 4K resolution at 27″ is absolutely beautiful. I run mine with resolution scaling, which means that every “digital” pixel is mapped to 4 physical pixels on the screen. And that means that text is super crisp. As someone who mostly deals with text, and loves fonts and typography, the experience is wonderful. A lot of 4K monitors can also double up as USB-C hubs, which means one less adapter or connection to worry about.

My current phone is the Pixel 3a, which I think is the best product Google has made in long time. It’s relatively cheap (especially on Black Friday), has decent specs, a clean, straight-from-Google version of Android, and a great camera. The battery currently lasts almost two full days for my moderate usage, which is good for my peace of mind. I don’t super-like the plastic (I’m sorry, polycarbonate) body, but it’s just fine for the price. I’m hoping the multiple cameras from the Pixel 4 come to a future Pixel 4a. It not, I see myself being happy with the 3a for a long time.

Finally, computers, by which I mean both tablets and laptops. Let’s start with the iPad. I have the 11″ iPad Pro from last year. It’s the closest that Apple has come to realizing the device’s potential (though it’s not quite there yet). The stylus is magnetically attached to the side and is charged that way as well. The iPad is USB-C, not Lightning (thankfully),the bezels are slim and uniform, the screen is beautiful and the battery lasts for days. The ARM-based processor in it is very powerful, but since I mostly use it to read and mark up, it’s not something that makes a big difference for me. The software however, still leaves much to be desired. I would love to use it for programming, but I can’t stand the thought of doing that straitjacketed into siloed apps.

On the subject of things Apple is doing right, I hear the new 16″ MacBook Pro is very good. I’m rather proud to say that I’m still using a 13″ MacBook Pro from 2015 (with a battery replacement), but I’m hoping that the improvements of the 16″ are brought to a 13″ or 14″ model in the near future. USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, a top-of-the-line processor, lots of fast memory, an ample SSD, a big trackpad, and a not-terrible keyboard. I will be sad to give up Magsafe, but it’s a price worth paying.

All that being said, the computing devices I find the most exciting are actually Microsoft’s Surface line. The Surface laptops look great, especially in black. The Surface Pro might be the best “ultra-portable” machine on the market, especially for business users. And finally, the Surface Pro X with its ARM processor and LTE chip could be a very interesting device for developers and users alike, assuming Microsoft can provide the developer support it really needs. The only downside is that none of them support Thunderbolt 3 at the moment. Maybe next year?

Most of what I’ve talked about, is on the market right now. As for the future, I am looking forward to more interesting ARM-based devices, and the software support to make proper use of them. A Surface Pro X that can be used to both develop and run ARM applications, and supports Thunderbolt 3, would be an almost perfect portable device. More realistically, a 13″ MacBook Pro is likely in the next few months, which means I can finally upgrade in peace.

And on a final aesthetic note, matte black all the things, except for the MacBook (and no, Space Gray doesn’t cut it).

Sunday Selection 2017-06-25

Around the Web

The Largest Git Repo on the Planet

I’m always a fan of case studies describing real world software engineering, especially when it comes to deploying engineering tools, and contains charts and data. This article describes Microsoft’s efforts to deploy the Git version control system at a scale large enough to support all of Windows development.

Why our attention spans are shot

While it’s no secret that the rise of pocket-sized computers and ubiquitous Internet connections have precipitated a corresponding decrease in attention span, this is one of the most in-depth and researched articles I’ve seen on the issue. It references and summarizes a wide range of distraction-related issues and points to the relevant research if you’re interested in digging deeper.

Aside: Nautilus has been doing a great job publishing interesting, deeply researched, and well-written longform articles, and they’re currently having a summer sale. The prices are very reasonable, and a subscription would be a great way to support good fact-based journalism in the current era of fake news.

How Anker is beating Apple and Samsung at their own accessory game

I own a number of Anker devices — a battery pack, a multi-port USB charger, a smaller travel charger. The best thing I can say about them is that by and large, I don’t notice them. They’re clean, do their job and get out of my way, just as they should. It’s good to see more companies enter the realm of affordable, well-designed products.

From the Bookshelf

Man’s Search for Meaning

I read this book on a cross-country flight to California a couple months ago, at a time when I was busy, disorganized, stressed and feeling like I was barely holding on. This book is based on the author’s experience in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The book focuses on how the average person survives and reacts to life in the brutality and extreme cruelty of a concentration camp. The second part of the book introduces Frankl’s theories of meaning as expressed in his approach to psychology: logotherapy. In essence,┬áthe meaning of life is found in every moment of living, even in the midst of suffering and death.

Video

Black Panther Trailer

I’m a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run of Black Panther and really enjoyed the Black Panther’s brief appearance in Captain America: Civil War. This trailer makes me really excited to see the movie when it comes out, and hopeful that it will be done well. If you’re new to the world of Wakanda in which Black Panther will be set, Rolling Stone has a good primer.

Ubuntu should zig to Apple’s zag

It’s another October and that means it’s time for another Ubuntu release. Before I say anything, I want to make it clear that I have the utmost respect for Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical and the Ubuntu project in general. I think they’ve done wonderful things for the Linux ecosystem as a whole. However, today I’m siding with Eric Raymond: I have deep misgivings about the direction Ubuntu is going, especially in terms of user interface.

I’m not a UI or UX designer. I’m sure there are people at Canonical who have been studying these areas for longer than I have. But I am a daily Linux user. In fact I would say that I’m a power user. I’m no neckbeard, but I think that by now I have a fair grasp of the Unix philosophy and try to follow it (my love for Emacs notwithstanding). The longer I see Ubuntu’s development the more it seems that they are shunning the Unix philosophy in the name of “user friendliness” and “zero configuration”. And they’re doing it wrong. I think that’s absolutely the wrong way to go.

It seems that Canonical is trying very hard to be Apple while not being a total ripoff. Apple is certainly a worthy competitor (and a great source to copy from) but this is a game that Ubuntu is not going to win. The thing is, you can’t be Apple. That game has been played, that ship has sailed. Apple pretty much has the market cornered when it comes to nice shiny things that just work for most people irrespective of prior computer usage. Unless somehow Canonical sprouts an entire ecosystem of products overnight they are not going to wrest that territory from Apple.

That’s not to say that Canonical shouldn’t be innovating and building good-looking interfaces. But they should play to the strengths of both Linux the system and Linux the user community instead of fighting them. Linux users are power users. In fact I think Linux has a tendency to encourage average computer users to become power users once they spend some time with it. I would love to see Ubuntu start catering to power users instead of shooing them away.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Apple does not place its developers above its customers. That’s a fine decision for them to make. It’s their business and their products and they can do whatever they like. However as a programmer and hacker I am afraid. I’m scared that we’re getting to the point where I won’t be able to install software of my choosing without Apple standing in the way. I’m not talking about just stuff like games and expensive proprietary apps, but even basic programming tools and system utilities. That’s not something that I’m prepared to accept.

Given the growing lockdown of Apple’s systems, Canoncial should be pouring resources into making Ubuntu the best damn development environment on the planet. That means that all the basics work without me tinkering with drivers and configurations (something they’ve largely accomplished). It means that there’s a large pool of ready-to-install software (which also they have) and that it’s possible (and easy) to install esoteric third-party tools and libraries. Luckily the Unix heritage means that the system is designed to allow this. Instead of trying to sugar coat and “simplify” everything there should be carefully thought-out defaults that I can easily override and customize. Programmability and flexibility grounded in well-tuned defaults should be the Ubuntu signature.

It makes even more sense for Canonical to take this angle because Apple seems to be actively abandoning it. A generation of hackers may have started with BASIC on Apple IIs, but getting a C compiler on a modern Mac is a 4GB XCode download. Ubuntu can easily ship with a default arsenal of programming tools. Last I checked the default install already includes Python. Ubuntu can be the hands-down, no-questions-asked platform of choice for today’s pros and tomorrow’s curious novices. Instead of a candy-coated, opaquely-configured Unity, give me a sleek fully programmable interface. Give me a scripting language for the GUI with first-class hooks into the environment. Made it dead simple for people to script their experience. Encourage and give them a helping hand. Hell, gamify it if you can. Apple changed the world by showing a generation the value of good, clean design. Canonical can change the world by showing the value of flexibility, programmability and freedom.

Dear Canonical, I want you to succeed, I really do. I don’t want Apple to be the only competent player in town. But I need an environment that I can bend to my will instead of having everything hidden behind bling and “simplification”. I know that being a great programming environment is at the heart of Linux. I know that you have the people and the resources to advance the state of computing for all of us. So please zig to Apple’s zag.

PS. Perhaps Ubuntu can make a dent in the tablet and netbook market, if that’s their game. But the netbook market is already dying and let’s be honest, there’s an iPad market, not a tablet market. And even if that market does open up, Android has a head start and Amazon has far greater visibility. But Ubuntu has already gone where no Linux distro has gone before. For most people I know it’s the distribution they reflexively reach for. That developer-friendliness and trust is something they should be actively leveraging.

Sunday Selection 2011-03-26

Around the Internet

iPad 2 is not revolutionary, but it is great I’ve been lusting after an iPad for a while now and with this refresh I think I’m going to finally crack and get one. This review is worth a read if you’re considering getting one (or wondering what all the fuss is about). It explains why the iPad is likely to be the best tablet on the market for a while (even when all the others stop being vaporware).

How Kickstarter Became a Lab for Daring Prototypes and Ingenious Products I haven’t invested in any Kickstarter projects (starving college student + I’m on a minimalism kick) but I think it’s a great idea that is doing some measurable good in the world. And helping create some beautiful products in the process. Required reading for anyone starting a business or service organization.

The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More By Doing Less This is an older article to offset the other two. I’ve been thinking a lot about focus and concentration, both in terms of mentally energy and actual physical doing-stuff. There’s no big secret revealed here and we’ve probably heard the facts already. But every now and then we need to calm down, take a breath and be reminded to focus on what’s important.

From the bookshelf

Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience While digesting the wisdom of the Internet is definitely fun and worthwhile, sometimes you have to go back to basics. This book gets cited a lot in articles on productivity, focus and time management. It’s the distilled wisdom of one man’s journey to understand what makes life worth living from a spiritual and scientific viewpoint. If you’re only going to read one book on self-improvement or time management, this is it.

Software

Instapaper and Readability After my last tribute to the resurgence of web reading how could I not recommend these two wonderful pieces of software? Part web service, part mobile app, these two will definitely make reading on the Internet a much better experience.