I think I like Super Mario Run

Here’s my early review of Super Mario Run, less than a day after it was released.

I think I like it.

I have been waiting forever for Nintendo to finally accept the reality of modern mobile devices and make games for the iPhone. (No, Miitomo doesn’t count. And Pokémon Go doesn’t really, either, especially since Nintendo didn’t actually make it.)

There have been a ton of Mario-inspired platform games for iOS over the years, and while many have been of very high quality and creativity, none has stuck for me.

What makes the top-tier Nintendo franchises (and here I am thinking Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and maybe Pokémon) so great? These are the criteria:

  1. Engaging concept
  2. Attention to detail
  3. Playability
  4. Platform-optimized experience

Every would-be Mario surrogate on iOS has failed at least one of these criteria. And I expected that, if Nintendo ever did make an iOS game, especially a Mario game, when it finally did arrive it would be an unmistakably “Nintendo” experience because it would nail them all… and most likely differ from what I thought I wanted about the experience, because what I thought I wanted wouldn’t really work, and what I actually wanted was something I couldn’t quite imagine.

People have been saying it for years, but yes: this is how Nintendo and Apple are alike, and why I expected to be surprised, if not amazed, by what Nintendo came up with, even if it didn’t seem at first glance like it would be successful.

The biggest surprises for me about Super Mario Run when it was announced were a) how slow Mario seems to run, and b) that it’s essentially an endless runner with one control: tap-to-jump. It’s like the old joke before the iPhone came out that, if Apple ever released a phone, it would only have one button. Guess what: it did, and it changed everything.

Let’s explore the criteria, one by one:

Engaging concept. It’s classic Mario. The basic formula that has existed since Super Mario Bros. in 1985. More specifically, this game, visually and structurally, fits very much into the mold of the New Super Mario Bros. series that debuted about a decade ago on the Nintendo DS. Check.

Attention to detail. This feels like a Nintendo game, in all of ways, both good and bad. The good is where it counts — the actual game experience. The bad is the surrounding stuff, showing that Nintendo is still out-of-step in the online world. First, the bad: this game requires an always-on Internet connection, which seems a bit ludicrous. Apparently the primary reason is to prevent piracy, which I really don’t get. The only way to pirate iOS games is to jailbreak the device, and it seems like there would be easy enough ways for the game to detect that without an Internet connection.

Besides the Internet connection issue, there’s also the fact that the initial setup process requires selecting your country from a huge list (again, this is something the game should be able to detect automatically, especially since it has to be online to function) and a distracting Nintendo Account step. Then after a brief gameplay tutorial, you’re thrust into a black screen with a progress bar as the full game content is downloaded. I’m not sure if my experience was just due to peak interest at the launch, but it took forever to download… in fact, I tried over four sessions as I was out-and-about, jumping between LTE and WiFi in various locations, until I finally got the last 5% to download when I was at home several hours later.

So, that’s the bad, and it really kind of sucks. But the good is, once the game is actually loaded up on your device, it has all of the polish you expect in a top-tier Nintendo title. The design is flawless, the UI interactions are smooth as can be, and everything about it shows the same level of care that Nintendo puts into the best Mario games for their own systems. And because the iPhone screen resolution is so much better than on a DS/3DS, this looks much more like a Wii U game than a mobile game.

Playability. This is where I was really surprised. At first I was disappointed. Mario runs continuously, which makes sense for the one-hand — really, one-finger — control scheme, but he seems slow. This is not the “hold down the B button” running we’re used to in a Mario game. It’s about halfway between his usual walking and running speeds. But you quickly realize the speed was carefully calibrated for optimal playability. When you don’t have the ability to make Mario stop, you need just a fraction of a second longer to figure out how best to react to what’s going on in his environment. Before long you realize this speed feels perfect in conjunction with timing jumps, interacting with special blocks and avoiding enemies.

Speaking of enemies, when Mario is running and approaches an enemy, he automatically vaults over it. It’s a cute effect, but initially it made me wonder… is there any way to die in this game? Especially since it seems like even when Mario would die, such as falling down a hole, he instead goes into a bubble (as in New Super Mario Bros. U) and gradually floats backwards on the course? Well, yes. I didn’t immediately realize that you have to earn those bubbles, and they eventually run out. Plus, Mario only vaults over enemies if he’s running. If you’re mid-jump and he touches an enemy (other than landing square on its head), he dies just like in any other Mario game.

After a couple of easy screens, the complexity of the courses quickly catches up with you, and before you know it you feel like you’re just playing a regular Super Mario title, not a streamlined “endless runner” version.

Platform-optimized experience. Speaking of that streamlined “one-finger” control: one of the most irritating problems with any iOS game, aside from the difficulty of using a simulated, on-screen D-pad for movement, is the fact that your fingers obscure part of the screen. Nintendo, of course, solved this perfectly. When you’re navigating the game interface, the full screen is used as in any other game. But during a run, the bottom 1/4 or so of the screen has no action… only a generic background design matching the style of the current course. That way, you can keep your thumb poised at the bottom of the screen ready to tap (or tap-and-hold for a longer jump) without covering up any of the action.

I would never have expected a one-control, endless-runner style Mario game to work as a real Mario game, but it does, and is probably the only way to make this work on an iOS device. But Nintendo not only defied most fans’ logic with this control scheme, they perfectly tailored the elements of the game to work with it. They removed standard elements of Super Mario games (like Fire Flowers) that simply wouldn’t work with this control scheme, and they added things that — while they maybe would work with a traditional control scheme — are only logical with an endless runner, like special blocks that make you change direction when you jump on them, and others that pause the action to give you an extra moment to decide how to proceed.

A couple of other realities of mobile devices that Nintendo acknowledged with this game’s design are the brevity of play sessions and the interest in online competitive play. The levels here are shorter than typical Mario levels, although they don’t feel especially short, but they work well if you only have a minute or two to play. And the Toad Rally mode is a great way to do online competitive play. You’re not actually competing in real time, but the game makes it feel like you are, by matching you up with actual previous runs by other players.

There’s also a reward system for daily play, unlocking both useful features like additional playable characters as well as more frivolous prizes like decorations for your Mushroom Kingdom, similar to some of the features in Miitomo. And of course, you can tie in your Nintendo Account so your Mii shows up throughout the game. (I assume some of what you do here feeds back into the Miitomo experience as well, but to be honest I deleted Miitomo off my iPhone months ago.)

Overall… yes, I do think I like it. This is not the perfect classic Super Mario experience I always thought I wanted on my iPhone, but… let’s be honest. There are enough other, really well-done iOS platform games out there that I have tried for a day or two and then abandoned that I realize a perfect classic Super Mario experience is impossible on a touchscreen device with no physical controls. What Nintendo has delivered is a new kind of Super Mario experience that feels 100% “Mario” but actually works on an iPhone.

Now, what I really want them to do is an iOS Zelda game. There are Zelda DS games that rely almost entirely on the touchscreen and stylus for all movement and action. It seems like a no-brainer that this experience would translate well to a mobile phone. But then, what do I know?

Just remember… If you see a stylus, they blew it.

What’s in my bag?

Sounds like a dare to me. How can I resist?


First, the bag itself. I love Tom Bihn bags. In addition to this backpack and its clip-in accessory pouches, I own two messenger bags and an assortment of other pouches. They are super high-quality and supremely functional. As you’ll see when I show you how much stuff I can cram into this bag and still have plenty of room to spare!

Let’s look at the contents of the red pouch. That’s where I keep adapters and thumb drives.


Oh, and an iPod nano, for some reason.

I need napkins (and/or paper towels) a lot. I can’t stand having a runny nose, or spilling things. Whatever the reason, I carry a few around with me all the time. I know it’s probably not the best for the environment, but I do buy recycled as much as possible. Anyway, that’s what the black pouch is for. And the large black thing is a padded sleeve perfectly sized for the 11-inch MacBook Air.


Next up, another bag-within-a-bag. This is the one non-Tom Bihn case I use. It’s a Roocase for the iPad mini. The iPad mini actually just barely fits in it, which is fine. I take my iPad mini with me to meetings, especially first-time meetings with new clients, because it doesn’t create a wall like having a laptop on the desk does. I have also stopped carrying my laptop when I travel for pleasure, so the iPad in the Roocase is all I bring. In addition to protecting the iPad, the Roocase has a side pocket into which I manage to shove a Field Notes notebook, Space Pen, headphones and some business cards.


And finally… everything else. This is the entirety of what I had in my backpack when I came to work this morning, aside from some running clothes I had also shoved in but don’t really feel I need to show here.


Look at all that stuff! From top left to bottom right, we have:

  • Two copies of my latest CD
  • Victorinox Swiss Army Cybertool S, which is too big to actually carry in my pocket but an essential tool for tech geeks
  • Another Field Notes notebook
  • Sharpie, Field Notes pen, Space Pen
  • Compact travel power strip (highly recommended)
  • More business cards
  • 1/8″ to 1/4″ headphone adapter (not sure why that’s in there)
  • Novelty fan that plugs into iPhone Lightning port
  • Postage stamps
  • iPhone/iPad charger
  • MacBook Air charger
  • $3.01 in change
  • A bunch of Ricola cough drops (original flavor)
  • Spare keys on a special strap that Tom Bihn also makes
  • Anker portable phone charger, its charging cable, a USB-to-Lightning cable, and carrying pouch
  • Roocase with iPad mini and all of that crap inside it
  • 11-inch MacBook Air with padded sleeve
  • Accessory pouch with napkins
  • Accessory pouch with adapters, thumb drives and iPod nano

P.S. Sorry for the quality of the photos… I hastily snapped these on the studio conference table under harsh fluorescent lighting.

Who are the changes in Mac OS X El Capitan for? Not for me, apparently

Over at The Loop, Dave Mark commented on Apple’s list of enhancements in El Capitan.

It’s an impressive list. I guess. But it really brought something into sharp relief for me: I don’t use any of the new features in recent Mac OS X updates. I was really tired of Lucida Grande and I prefer flatter design, so the interface improvements in Yosemite and now El Capitan are worth the update alone, as far as I’m concerned.

But it’s kind of sad for me. I’ve realized that my passion for computers and technology has really moved past the “computers” part. I am still a loyal Mac user, and will continue to be for the following reasons:

1. I’m heavily invested in Apple’s “ecosystem” by this point, which is fine with me.

2. Windows sucks. As much as I think Microsoft is trying to improve, and as much as I appreciate Microsoft’s newfound scrappiness as the underdog, Windows still sucks. Especially the licensing process that assumes everyone is a criminal.

3. Linux on the desktop is still half baked, and if anything seems to be getting worse as it becomes clear that it’s never really going to catch on. (That said, I am as devoted to Linux on servers as I am to the Mac on the desktop. But it’s all command line for me.)

As iOS has taken over, I find my Mac is more and more relegated to its “truck” role for me. I still use my Mac almost every day, but only for two things:

1. Work.

2. Music production.

I never play games on my Mac. (Though that might change.) I no longer browse the web on my Mac, except at work. As much as I love the portability of my 11-inch MacBook Air, I might as well just have an iMac at my desk at work, for how often my MacBook Air is ever out of its bag at home.

I no longer even bring my Mac along when I travel for “emergencies”, because there are no work-related emergencies I can’t fix with my iPad, thanks to a trio of awesome apps from Panic. And using the iPad for work is just awkward enough to ensure that I only use it in emergencies, which improves my travel experience.

And at work, I’m set in my ways. I use the Adobe apps, because I have to. I use BBEdit and Transmit. I use Pages and Numbers for documents and spreadsheets, about once a week each. And I use web browsers, for testing my work. I don’t even listen to music on my computer anymore, because I have a Raspberry Pi at the studio running as a “jukebox”.

I hate almost every email interface. They’re so ugly and confusing and useless. I’ve actually taken to using the iPad interface for Gmail in a web browser to check my email, because it’s the least awful. (Want to do that too? Here’s the “secret” link.)

The only built-in features of Mac OS X that I actually use on a regular basis are Safari, Calendar, and Notes. Ah, my beloved Notes. More on that in a minute.

OK, so that brings me back to Apple’s big list of enhancements in El Capitan. Let’s take a look:

I like Automation in principle, and have used it once or twice, but honestly either I’m just clueless or too limited in my use of the computer, but I don’t really see anything I do on a regular basis that could be improved by Automation.

Yeah, I use this, but the new features they’re promoting are really not interesting to me. I guess I lead a boring life. The one thing I do want in Calendar is something they took away… an easy way to enter the time on a new event without having to use the mouse! [Update (10/2/2015): I’ve just discovered the final release version of Calendar does support entering the time when you’re typing the name of the event, the way earlier versions did. Strike this complaint from the record!]

Chinese Features
Japanese Features
Nope. I can respect why these are in the OS and I think they’re important, but they are not applicable to me.

I used the Mac Mail app for years, until it finally got too buggy for me to tolerate anymore a few versions back. Maybe it’s fixed now. I may never find out, because I’m satisfied enough that the iPad interface for Gmail I mentioned above is the least-sucky option available.

Seriously? I tell you what: try printing out a map this app generates. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

See what I mean? Seriously?

Hey, you didn’t actually do it, did you? OK, I’ll show you. If you’re looking at this (already sparsely marked) map on your screen and you hit Print, this PDF shows the absolute non-existent level of detail you get in the printed version. (I especially like the label at the top: “near United States”. Thanks.)

Maybe you’re saying, “That’s not the point… why would you even print maps anymore?” Well, by that reasoning, why would you even look at maps on your computer anymore? As it happens, I had a very specific reason for printing maps. I’m going on a road trip to Utah next week, and I learned the last time I was there that there are huge swaths of the state where you can’t get a data signal. And I didn’t have any printed maps.

This time I want to be prepared. So I was printing out several maps from Google Maps, but their text was small, and the thin gray lines they use for minor highways almost completely vanish when printed. So I thought I would at least try Apple’s Maps app instead. Not only are they inferior, the printed version you get is completely different from what you’re looking at on the screen, with the majority of the text labels entirely missing. What the hell, Apple?! How is this useful to anyone except a 4th grade geography student? (Come to think of it, I have a 4th grade geography student living in my house. Maybe she can fill it in for me.)

Mission Control
I haven’t even taken the time to figure out what this is. I’ll admit I’m still stuck in System 7 when it comes to my approach to window management, but I just can’t fathom why I would need this. It would just add confusion.

Now we’re talking. OK, Notes is one app I genuinely love from Apple. Don’t laugh. I tried Evernote. I tried it for nearly a year. I found it over-designed and slow compared to Notes. I just need a place where I can store whatever random pieces of information come along, and an easy way to search through them to find what I need. Notes does that perfectly. And what’s even better, it syncs flawlessly between my Mac, my iPhone and my iPad. Apple can do whatever other weird crap they want to Mac OS X, just please don’t take away Notes.

I use this to store my photos, by default. But I hate using the app. It seems to be designed for people who have taken less than 100 photos and never plan to take more. Same goes for iCloud Photo Library or whatever it’s called. I find both cumbersome and unusable given that I take probably a dozen photos a day. I just want a place off my iPhone where I can keep my photos, so I can clear room on it for more photos. Now I can’t seem to do that anymore. It sucks.

I realize I’m an edge case here. Any photo I take that I think is worth remembering, I post to Instagram. The rest, I don’t want to trash, but I will probably never look at again. So I don’t need a photo feed on my devices. That’s Instagram. Just take all of the rest away and store them in the vault, please. I have a feeling this is something where I should really seek out an alternative solution, but I haven’t found the time. Suggestions are welcome, but it has to be drop-dead simple or I won’t bother with it.

Ack. I wanted to like Reminders when it was first introduced, but I found it unreliable and more effort than just sending myself an email. I hate email too, but it’s a reliable catch-all place to dump any “action items” that are in front of me. Having to put those into Reminders is extra work, and if Reminders doesn’t reliably, you know, remind me, then what’s the point?

I like Safari. I go back and forth between using it and Chrome as my default browser. Presently I’m in a “Safari phase.” I suppose some of these new features are nice, but honestly it’s only the developer tools I really care about. Fortunately, those are pretty good and getting better.

Split View
This is a new feature that, in theory, I like. But I’m not yet convinced I’ll actually like the implementation, or ever really use it on a regular basis.

Ack. Again. Get this away from me. I never use it. The only times I even interact with it are by accident. I finally took the time to figure out how to disable the keyboard shortcut so I’d stop accidentally calling it up by pressing Command-Space when I’m typing too fast (like right now).

Worse, I have a Mac mini at the studio that is kind of the hub of our network. It’s a file server, VPN server, powers our projector for client meetings, and also runs Parallels Desktop for Windows testing. And it is slow. Really. Unbearably. Slow. I have tried several times to diagnose the problem, without success, until yesterday, I think. It seems the culprit was the system process that scans and indexes file contents for Spotlight. I’m not sure if it was the huge number of files, the handful of huge individual files (Parallels disk images), the server’s Time Machine backup drive, the slow processor, or some kind of genuine hardware defect at work, but so far the system seems much faster since I completely disabled Spotlight on it yesterday.

Which is not straightforward in any way.

OK, so now that I’ve largely crapped all over El Capitan’s marquee features, let’s see if there’s anything interesting left in the grab bag.

New system font: I do like the new system font, a lot.

Find your cursor: this is a great idea, but I find it’s a little inconsistent.

AirPlay video from QuickTime Player: not interested.

Peer-to-peer migration: meh.

Rename from context menu: great, a harder way to do something that’s been around for as long as I’ve used a Mac.

Auto-hide menu bar: do not want.

Copy file path in Finder: oh… hmmm… yeah, I suppose this will be helpful. If I can ever remember that it exists and how to do it. (Hold down Option after opening the context menu? How intuitive!)

Redesigned Disk Utility: sounds good. I’ll have to check it out. Which I will do the next time I am panicked about a hard drive dying and then I’ll hate it because I’m already frustrated about something and I’m not expecting something else new.

Color picker: I suppose.

Rotate annotations: ???

Find My Friends widget: I may use this, but I’m not sure why I’d need to have it on my computer vs. just taking out my phone. The same could be said of Messages, I suppose, but I can type way faster on a real keyboard, so it’s actually useful to get those on my Mac. What benefit does Find My Friends on a Mac offer over the iPhone version?

While we’re on this topic, I’m sure I was not alone when Find My Friends was introduced in saying, “What’s with the rich Corintian leather?” I mean, “When would I ever use this?” I think it’s really the name. Change it to “Find My Family” and suddenly it makes perfect sense. I don’t use it daily, but I do use it at least once or twice a week, and it has proven incredibly handy.

So that brings us to the end of the list, and of my rant. Maybe this has ended up being more of a psychological profile of me than a valuable assessment of the state of the Mac in 2015. OK, it’s definitely that. But I wonder how common I am as a long-time Mac user (bought my first Mac in 1994) who has mostly become disillusioned with the direction of Apple’s software.

Full disclosure: I own a small amount of Apple stock as part of a retirement account I can’t touch until I’m in my 60s. Clearly I am trying to drive up their stock price.

The Apple Watch review no one was waiting for

Now that I’ve ripped on Apple Music, let’s focus on another Apple product that I’ve recently begun interacting with. Yes, the Apple Watch.


That’s my orangutan arm, wearing my Apple Watch. It arrived last week. (The watch, that is. I’ve been stuck with the hairy arm all my life.) But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Well over a year ago, I joined much of the tech world in engaging in speculation over what we all were, at the time, calling the “iWatch”. (Yes, I correctly deduced that my conviction that Apple wasn’t working on a watch probably meant that they were.) And then, just 8 days shy of a year later, and half a year after Apple did announce their watch, I wrote up some thoughts on who I thought might be the target market for the ludicrously expensive Apple Watch Edition. Turns out I was wrong about where the Edition would be sold (it is, in fact, available at Apple Stores), but I still think I was pretty much on track with my theories about the Edition in general.

Of course, at that point I also mentioned that I wasn’t really in the market for the Apple Watch at all. Here’s what I said:

First off, I personally am not really in the market for an Apple Watch at all. I find it interesting, but a) I don’t really want to wear something on my wrist, and b) I’m not interested in this until the second or third iteration.

It’s true, I didn’t want to wear something on my wrist. I had worn a wristwatch on a daily basis for about 20 years, starting with a supremely geeky Casio calculator watch in the mid-1980s — which would seem to suggest I would be dying for an Apple Watch — but one day in the summer of 2002 I just decided, while heading to the beach on vacation, to take off my watch. I never put it back on.

I had grown accustomed to not wearing a watch, and I liked the feeling. Especially since I had already started carrying a cell phone around in my pocket everywhere I went, it seemed superfluous to strap something on my wrist just to tell the time.

As far as my second reason for not wanting an Apple Watch goes, I was convinced at the time that the first generation Apple Watch would be half-baked upon arrival. But as the reviews started coming in, I got the feeling that while I am sure it will get better over time, it’s actually pretty good already.

As the weeks went by post-release, the voice in the back of my mind started wearing me down, and eventually one day I just became convinced that I should go for it. (OK, honestly? It was a bit of an impulse purchase. Beer may have been involved.)

So it’s decided then… but which model to buy?

There was never any question for me that I would be getting the Apple Watch Sport. Aside from the fact that it is the least expensive model, and the only differences with the more expensive options are aesthetic, I actually like the brushed aluminum look best. As I said in my earlier post, I’m not into shiny metal. And I especially hate gold. (Honestly? I associate it with Donald Trump. In a bad way, if that needs to be said.) Not only that, but I actually like the look of the fluoroelastomer bands the best.

That left me with a couple of choices to consider: whether to buy the 38mm or 42mm size, and then which color band to get. I had the impression, not having worn one, that the larger size might be too big; after all, I don’t have exceptionally large arms or hands. But I checked Apple’s sizing guide and was quickly convinced that, yes, I did need the 42mm version, even though it’s $50 more.

OK. Simple. Color? Not so much. I didn’t really consider the pink or white bands, but the blue, green and black were all in the mix. I decided that I would probably want the black one, just because I don’t exactly want to scream to the world, LOOK AT THIS APPLE WATCH ON MY WRIST! And I felt like the blue or green one would do that.

Except… the model that ships with a black band has “space gray” anodized aluminum, and I just really didn’t like how it looked. My iPhone is “space gray” but I had seen the watches in the display case at an Apple Store, and the “space gray” on the watches is much darker. The one person I know who already owned an Apple Watch also confirmed that for me. I don’t like shiny, but I do like a brushed silver look, so I ended up going with the blue band, and then buying an extra black band. (Apple conveniently offers an option for a black band with the pin in silver instead of “space gray”, perfect for my watch.)

Tick tock, tick tock…

With my selection made and my order placed, it was time for the waiting game. The two items shipped separately, and the black band was actually in stock already, so it arrived almost two weeks before the watch itself. I took the band out of the box and held it up to my wrist, envisioning the watch that it would eventually be connected to.

Apple talks about how “soft” the fluoroelastomer is, and it’s true. I had encountered this kind of rubber before so I knew what to expect, but it really is nice. Considering that you’re paying almost 50 bucks for a couple of strips of rubber with a little bit of aluminum, it should be. And it is.

I checked Apple’s website several times a day for the next week or so, eagerly awaiting the progress of my order. And once it finally did ship, I switched over to the UPS website and watched its progress from Suzhou to Shanghai to Anchorage to Lexington and finally to Minneapolis. Yes! It’s coming!


I was on the phone with a client when the UPS delivery guy walked into the studio carrying a curiously shaped and startlingly heavy box. “You got an Apple Watch, huh?” he said. I suspect this was not the first one he had delivered, although I have yet to see anyone in person besides myself wearing one.

I don’t get into the whole “unboxing experience” the way some people do. The main thing for me is that it’s easy to open. Blister packs are the bane of my existence. Of course this is Apple so opening the Apple Watch box was an event. But it was easy and painless. No blister packs. I felt like the shiny white plastic case it came in was a bit unnecessary, but I can see why they did it. I wonder what the boxes for the stainless steel and Edition models are like. Maybe the box is gold too?

All right, already… do you love it?

You know… yeah, I do. The Apple Watch is a marvelous object. It’s meticulously crafted. It feels like something of quality. The user interface is extremely well designed, and it is serving my main objectives for owning it (which I will outline below) quite nicely. I am very happy to own it.

This device serves a much different purpose than Apple’s other products. It’s not intended to be the next in a line of high-tech toys that we stare at incessantly for hours. Try holding your wrist up and looking at it for more than a few moments and you’ll understand why Dick Tracy isn’t real.

The Apple Watch is… a watch. It’s the watch reimagined, extended. But it still, in spirit, is a watch.

I see the watch as serving three primary roles for me. First, the traditional role of a watch: telling the time, and the day/date while we’re at it, and, being the natural successor to the digital watches of my youth, also offering an alarm, a stopwatch, and a timer. It does all of these watch-like things stunningly well, with the kind of user interface that makes you cringe to think of strapping on a Casio and trying to make sense of those four side buttons. This is Apple doing what it does best: reimagining something we all use and making it better than anyone thought possible.

Second, and really this was the motivating factor for me to get the Apple Watch: fitness tracking. I’ve been running for four years now, and it’s become a big part of my life. I’ve gotten to the point where I generally prefer not to have music while I’m running — mostly because of the annoying tug of earbud cables. I also would really like to not have to carry my iPhone in my pocket, because its weight is another annoyance. (That said, I’ve been inclined to carry my phone with me whenever I run since one time last year — one of the few times I did not have my phone along — when I witnessed a biker crash on the trail in front of me, hard enough to be bloodied and knocked unconscious. Another passerby and I managed to flag down a car whose driver had a phone with him, and we got help for the biker, but if I’d had my phone along the ambulance could have arrived much sooner.)

The Apple Watch works great as a fitness tracker. Granted, I have not used a Fitbit or any other single-function fitness tracking device, but I hate single-function devices, so I love that this capability is built into such a multipurpose object as the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch automatically calibrates using the GPS in your iPhone, so you just need to run for at least 20 minutes with the iPhone initially to let it adjust to your running style. Yesterday I ran without my phone on a route I knew from past experience is exactly 5K (3.1 miles), and the Apple Watch was nearly perfect in measuring the distance.

In addition to workouts, the Apple Watch has configurable tracking that measures your daily activity by three factors: movement (calories burned), exercise (in minutes), and standing — making sure you stand up and move around for at least one minute every hour. It was this feature, and the impact it had on Apple blogger Jim Dalrymple, that really convinced me to check out the Apple Watch in the first place.

I’m already pretty fit from the running, but Activity is still a nice way to make sure I keep moving even on my “rest” days, and especially encouraging me to stand and move around more, because when I’m working I often fall into the habit of sitting at my desk for hours at a time without getting up. (I’ve switched to a standing desk, but I still have a stool that I often rely on when I’m feeling lazy.)

The third thing I was hoping to get from the Apple Watch, and it’s even something Apple promotes about it, is that I would spend less time with my face buried in my iPhone. How does the watch help with this? By providing quick, at-a-glance notifications. The kinds of things that, with a ding and a vibration, have over the past several years been my signal to pull my iPhone from my pocket to review an incoming email… and then check Twitter… and Instagram… and Facebook… and maybe — oh, hang on. My Apple Watch just tapped me on the wrist to remind me to stand up. Have I really been sitting here writing this for so long? BRB.

Ahh… feels good to stretch the legs. Now where was I?

Oh yeah… my iPhone, that constant digital companion, is probably my favorite thing I own, and it shows. Because I spend so much time looking at it. A week into owning my Apple Watch, although I haven’t quantified it, I’m pretty sure I take my iPhone out of my pocket a lot less often now. And I feel liberated from having to answer every incoming message the instant I see it.

So, five out of five stars, then?

I do think I love the Apple Watch. It has taken its place alongside the other Apple devices I use so often. And I pretty much own them all. Mac, iPhone, iPad, I even have an iPod nano that I still use from time to time. My iPhone is definitely my favorite. I’d put the Watch between the Mac and the iPad at this point.

IMG_5164That said, I don’t think it’s absolutely perfect I do wish there were a few more options for the watch face. I’ve tried several of them, and found, in most cases, that they don’t offer as many complications as I’d like, or that the complications are too limited in what they can display. I ended up settling on the “Modular” face, mostly because it is the one that offers the highest information density, and because YES I CAN READ AN ANALOG CLOCK FACE, THANK YOU (and I can still write in cursive too, if I have to) but at a quick glance I prefer a digital display of the time.

The options for complications are a little lacking. What is it with Apple and stocks, for example? iOS and now watchOS just can’t get enough of stocks. I actually am using the Stocks glance now though, since I recently started a Roth IRA. But so far it’s just been a depressing reminder that some money that I’m not going to be able to touch for 30 years is worth a little less now than it was last week. So, who really cares?

I’m also not an astronomer, so while I think the moon phase feature is mildly interesting, it’s not something I need to be able to see at a glance. I really wish you could have the option to make some of the type smaller, since the calendar complication can barely show three words in identifying your next upcoming event.

IMG_5154So my “Modular” face is loaded up with the day/date, weather (in the largest complication to show more info), the sunrise/sunset, activity status, and alarm. I really wish I could fit in one more complication, so I could see the battery level, but in practice that has ended up not being an issue for me at all. I think on my day of heaviest use, the watch still had 15% of its charge at bedtime, and most days it’s still over 30%.

I’m encouraged by the imminent release of watchOS 2.0, and the features it promises, most notably the ability for third-party apps to run directly on the watch. I’ve already decided I do not want to play games on it (I’ve tried a few), and I also am glad there’s no web browser (let’s hope it stays that way), but I do like the potential I see in some of the third-party apps like MLB At Bat, and I’d like to see what else they might be able to do once they’re not using the watch screen as essentially a “dumb terminal” getting data fed to it from the iPhone.

Is that all?

I’ve focused here on the things about the Apple Watch that matter to me. There are several things it can do that I haven’t used (World Clock) or can’t use, at least not yet (anything that involves Apple Watch-to-Apple Watch communication). I’ve sent text messages to my family using the watch, and I’m impressed. The dictation feature shows a marked improvement over the last time I tried to use Siri for that purpose with my iPhone. Even in a noisy environment it seems to work really well.

And I finally got to use Apple Pay with the watch, since my iPhone 5s doesn’t support it directly. I paid for some groceries at Cub Foods the other day, and it was flawless… just double-tapped the bottom button, held my watch up to the reader, and felt the “tap” on my wrist. Done! Well… not quite. Unfortunately, store policy, the cashier then asked to see my ID and credit card, which I had to dig out of my pocket. That pretty much defeats the purpose, but at least I know the technology works.

I also haven’t used any of the music-related functions on the watch. I don’t listen to music from my iPhone very often these days, so having the watch as a remote control for it is unnecessary, and I don’t own Bluetooth headphones, so I can’t test its onboard music player. I swear by my cheap earbuds, so I cringe at the thought of dropping $100 on a pair of Bluetooth earbuds that probably won’t stay in my ears anyway, or might get lost. Honestly, I do not understand why Apple doesn’t allow you to play music through the watch’s built-in speaker. From what I’ve heard so far, it doesn’t sound that much worse than the iPhone’s speaker, and it would be nice to have a little bit of music along with me when I run without needing headphones. (Actually… it just occurred to me that I could try that with my iPhone, but it’s too hard to hear in my shorts pocket while running outdoors. Plus I want to stop carrying my phone when I run anyway.)

So, I’m not using the Apple Watch for everything I could use it for. But for the things I am using it for: checking the time, weather, baseball scores, and shrinkage of my pathetic retirement account; along with tracking my running and other physical activity and just generally avoiding staring at my iPhone so damn much… it’s perfect. And I even like the color.

Why I’ve made the snap judgment that Apple Music is crap

First, let’s begin with several paragraphs of me explaining, in general, why I make snap judgments

As I’ve gotten older, my life seems to be more and more about resisting complexity. I want things to be simple. Part of that comes out of the aesthetics and principles of my job. The web has a tendency towards over-complication, and it’s my job to fight that.

Also, more generally, as you get older there are more and more decisions to be made in a day. Every hour, every minute, every second, you have to make a decision about something. It’s overwhelming and drains your soul. I have to prioritize the things that matter to me, and, more and more, cast the rest aside.

When something new comes along, I have to make a snap judgment. Not necessarily a permanent judgment. That would be foolish and self-defeating. But I do need to make that initial choice: whether or not to let this new thing occupy more of my time right now. Essentially, whether or not to give it a chance.

Sometimes I revisit things I never gave a chance the first time around. On rare occasions I discover that I missed out on something good, and I welcome it in. Most of the time, though, I just confirm that I was right to dismiss it in the first place.

Enter, Apple Music

This week’s biggest choice has been whether or not to embrace Apple Music. On the surface, it sounds like a no-brainer. Apple and Music are two of the biggest parts of my life. I have gulped down my glass of Apple Kool-Aid and asked for a refill, please and thank you. I was a music major in college. I make music, I listen to music. Over a span of 30+ years I have collected and pored over and obsessively thought about music.

Come to think of it, that’s probably the problem.

Apple Music seems like it’s for people who don’t already own a lot of music. I suppose all of the streaming music services are. After all, if you owned it, why would you stream it, other than convenience? But even then, you’d probably just stream it from your iTunes or Amazon library (both of which I have done, often).

From my perspective, owning a music library of over 23,000 songs (enough to play for 75 days, 9 hours and 39 minutes straight, 24 hours a day, without repeating a track), the subscription streaming services have never had much appeal, so I’ve never even tried Spotify, Rdio, etc. But, being an Apple fan, I somehow thought their service might be different. Might be for me. But I guess not.

What would a post like this be without a bullet list?

So what is it about Apple Music that has turned me off? It’s many things, actually:

  • The initial experience of picking, by tapping on hovering bubbles, your favorite genres (from a very narrow and mainstream set), and then favorite artists (from suggestions it pulled in from the selected genres), is basically the same as it was in the old Beats Music service, which I had also already tried and abandoned within 24 hours when it first appeared. This process did quickly home in on many artists that I like, but I reloaded at least a dozen times trying to get it to refine the selections further. Even then, the best it came up with were only what I’d really call “second-tier favorites.” (Also, the UX with the bubbles sucks and needs to be fixed.)
  • Once everything was set up, the “For You” screen did offer me a lot of music I like. But, guess what. Almost all of it was music I already own. And of the 2 or 3 selections it offered that I don’t already own, I was either mildly disinterested or they were musicians I actively loathe.
  • Beats 1. What the hell is this? I mean, OK. The chance that I would actually like what they play on a single, worldwide “radio” station that Jimmy Iovine has anything to do with was already less than zero. But I have actually given it a chance 3 or 4 times, and every time I turn it on, it’s the same “underground” alternative hip hop vibe. This is music I do not dislike. I mean, I wasn’t repulsed by it. It wasn’t Celine Dion or Kenny G. But it’s just not what I’m into, and maybe I just didn’t listen long enough but there was no variety in styles. (Granted, other than the one time I listened to it in the car, I haven’t bothered to leave it on for more than one song. But the first song that’s playing when I turn it on is always in this style.)
  • The return of DRM. I can’t say it any better than this, so I won’t even try.

All of that led me to one simple conclusion, and my snap judgment. I do not want to give Apple Music any more time or attention, at least right now. I just want the same convenient access to my own extensive music library that I’ve come to appreciate with iTunes Match. So I’ve turned off auto-renew on my Apple Music subscription. I’m going to make sure I don’t cancel iTunes Match. And, just to be safe, I’m going to re-download and back up my entire library from iTunes Match just in case… you know… someday.

I love Apple’s hardware and, usually, their OS software. But cripes, they just cannot get online services right, can they?

But see, here’s the thing. Remember how I said I sometimes revisit things I hadn’t given a chance the first time around? I feel like here I am revisiting something. I’ll admit I don’t have extremely vivid or extensive memories of it, since I had only initially looked at it so briefly, but to me Apple Music feels very, very much like Beats Music was. To the point where I find it hard to believe they spent much time at all changing anything about it other than simply fusing it into the iTunes ecosystem. Oh, and adding that pointless radio station.

I may still give it another try at some point before the free trial period ends. Maybe I’ll change my mind. But I doubt it.

Follow the money

One last thought, as I try to make sense of what this is really all about. Apple is a big company, and so are the record labels they had to negotiate with to get permission to offer all of this “content.” My very brief experience listening to music through Apple Music consisted mostly (and, rather strangely, if you think about it) of listening to music that I already had in my library. But because I was listening to these songs through an Apple Music subscription instead of playing them directly from my library, Apple was making micropayments to the record labels for the streams.

So, yes, indirectly, I was paying again for music I already purchased. Just a few fractions of a cent really, but still. That’s the business model here. Especially with the concern I mentioned above (this, if you weren’t paying attention) over Apple Music replacing iTunes Match’s “matched” files with DRM-restricted ones (only if you’ve canceled iTunes Match, apparently), I am left feeling pretty cynical over this whole enterprise, and disappointed that Apple would take things in this direction.

But, then again, they bought Beats, so I shouldn’t be too surprised.

Update: HEY, WAIT! Don’t go. This is important.

I’ve discovered a small change in the new version of iTunes for the Mac (version 12.2) that has a huge impact on all of this. This is the version that introduces Apple Music and changes the icon from red to white.

The ability to tell iTunes to download multiple songs at once is gone. It used to be, if you selected multiple songs in your library — like, all of them — and right-clicked (Ctrl-click), the contextual menu had a Download option, right at the top. Click that, and it starts downloading all of the selected songs.

Um, yeah. That’s gone.

The little icon of the cloud with an arrow is still there. You can click it. You can still download songs. ONE. AT. A. TIME. Good luck with that. So, here’s the important thing: If you haven’t upgraded to iTunes 12.2 yet, DON’T. At least, download all of your music first.

Lucky for me, I have access to multiple Macs, and one of them hadn’t been updated yet. Even as I type this I have my external hard drive hooked up to it, and I’ve begun the process of downloading all 23,000+ songs. Should only take a week or so. (Thanks, CenturyLink!)

In light of the above considerations about money and playing ball with the record labels, I can only interpret the removal of this feature in one way.

Update to the update (August 26, 2015)

Regarding my panic in the update above about the removal of the ability to download “make available offline” multiple tracks at once, I should note that in a subsequent update (not sure which; I’m currently running Apple restored this feature. You can now select multiple tracks, and “Make available offline” appears in the contextual menu. And it works.

I think little by little features are going to get rolled back in that those of us who don’t wholeheartedly embrace streaming services in general, and Apple Music in particular, are asking for. But whether or not those restored features will come with improvements to the interface (especially in the iOS Music app) remains to be seen.