Siri on the Original Apple Watch (Series 0)

A few days ago I wrote about how I was gradually growing less satisfied with the responsiveness of my Apple Watch with the added bloat of newer systems, especially to the Hey Siri command, which besides actually looking at the watch has been my most commonly used interaction with it. Today I stumbled upon a setting that made a huge difference in Siri responsiveness: For some reason I held my phone in my hand as I summoned Siri to trigger a timer for me, and I realized that the phone rather than the watch responded to the command. I had activated Hey Siri on the phone a while ago from curiosity and never turned it off.

This time I did turn off Hey Siri functionality on the phone, and sure enough, response time to the command on the watch dropped to become almost instantaneous. It still takes a while for the command uttered to be processed by the watch, but it now has restored my trust in it happening in most cases, which has returned my Apple Watch to its status of “significantly more useful than a regular watch”.

As to what caused the issue, my current hypothesis is that the faster CPU in the iPhone 6S realized “Hey Siri” had been said first, then the watch chimed in and tried to claim the action for what had been said since it was the active device at the time, and this whole negotiation process was what made Siri on the Watch unbearably slow to use.

Musings on the Apple Watch ’Series 0’ in 2018

I bought my Apple Watch pretty much exactly two years ago, after getting a good deal on someone’s returned Christmas gift; a Space Grey 42 mm Aluminum watch.

The ”killer feature” for me was the ability to see and even receive phone calls without having the phone directly on hand. The iPhone 5 I had at the time never supported more than 3G networks in Sweden, and 3G coverage is bad where I live. This means that I had a small number of spots with guaranteed coverage at home, but at the same time I was on call duty at work every few weeks. With the Apple Watch, I could leave my phone in a spot with known good reception, and walk around the house without fear of accidentally missing a call.

So how does it fare two years and three operating system updates later?
Functionally, I haven’t a lot to complain about. I think I’m noticing some degradation in battery life, but it’s not concrete enough for me to judge whether it’s an issue with the new OS or actual battery wear.
What has begun bothering me, though, is the noticeably lower responsiveness of the watch with the latest operating system. Asking Siri, the virtual assistant, something has become a frustrating exercise of attempting to wake her by voice, and then giving up and invoking the function using the side button, and then waiting forever for confirmation.

I’ve grown too fond of having this little computer on my wrist not to upgrade in the future, but given that watchOS seems to suffer from a very similar yearly increase in non-optional bloat as iOS, a new watch will likely not have a usable lifetime of more than 3-4 years, which is a shame, really. I’ve been lusting for a Space Black stainless steel Apple Watch, but realistically I won’t spend chronograph money on a disposable doohickey that will likely have lost a significant part of its usefulness in 36 months.

Apple AirPods first impressions

I’ve had the Apple AirPods for a few days now, and thought I’d record a few of my thoughts on them.

EDIT 2017-07-17: I’ve added an update to the end of this article.
EDIT 2017-07-20: A second update has been added after going through the rounds with Apple’s support.

First of all, the sound quality: Wow.

What I liked about the regular EarPods, was that they let other sounds through, making wearing them in populated areas non-suicidal in comparison to wearing in-ear headphones with a better seal: I regularly shake my head at pedestrians and cyclists wearing in-ears and obviously having great faith in surrounding traffic as they step right out into zebra-crossings or high-traffic streets. Unfortunately, in the case of the original wired EarPods, this added situational awareness came at the cost of radically reduced “oomph” in the music: Bass and dynamic range seemed to suffer in anything but rather quiet environments.

While the AirPods have a pretty much identical fit, letting similar amounts of ambient sounds through, the design team has managed to give them the additional range and power to sound pretty close to as well as I imagine such small drivers can sound in an open design. That said, some magic is very hard to pull off: You won’t be well-off using these without additional protection when mowing the lawn or angle-grinding metal bars.

Technically, I second what most other people seem to be saying about the combination of Bluetooth and the W1 proprietary chip: Switching to sound output via the AirPods once the initial pairing with a device has been made seems to work flawlessly, but both on my Mac and on my iPad, it took a few tries to see the AirPods in the first place. Under the hood, information about your pair of AirPods is shared across your Apple devices using iCloud, and obviously this information needs to be updated in some way. On the Mac, it seems like restarting the computer worked the trick. This is obviously an area where Apple has some work to do, to smooth out the experience in the future.

One thing to be observant on: Enabling the AirPods when playing with GarageBand, you get a warning about the ‘Pods introducing latency to your process. Sure enough: playing with the on-screen keyboard I probably got somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2 second of latency instead of the immediate response I’m used to from Apple music tools, so if music production is something you do on your Apple devices, make sure to keep a wired pair of headphones or in-ears around.

All in all: Are the AirPods worth their price? It depends. Can you spare a bunch of money for a smoother and nicer experience than what’s available via the cheapest available product that solves your problem? If you’re an Apple user, the answer to that question is probably yes. To me, after I got them, I don’t really think about the money I saved up to spend on them. For now I’m extremely happy with them.

UPDATE:
I’ve encountered two major annoyances in how the AirPods work with my Mac (a late 2013 15″ MacBook Pro):
Apparently when anything in MacOS uses the microphones in the AirPods, they switch to phone call mode, lowering sound quality and making all sounds slightly distorted and lo-fi. This can be temporarily mitigated by switching sound input for the system or for the specific application to another device, like the internal mike, but this of course isn’t a viable long-term solution.

The other problem on the Mac is recurring sound interruptions and glitches on music playback. Switching to the internal speakers or wired headphones, no such glitches can be heard, so it definitely has to do with the AirPods or their Bluetooth implementation.

Frankly I’m disappointed that the AirPods were released with such glitches not worked out; then again they did have trouble getting them to market in time in the first place. I will speak to Apple’s support to try to get some more information. It may be a problem with the Bluetooth protocol itself as implemented on the Mac or in macOS, and in that case there may not be a lot Apple can do.

In view of this, I have to change my recommendation:
At this point in time (mid-July 2017), do not purchase the AirPods expecting to use them for good-quality music playback and convenient voice calls in macOS. For use with iOS devices, however, they remain an excellent choice.

UPDATE 2:
Apple’s support gave me a technical explanation for the lo-fi sound quality when the microphone is used in macOS.

The facts

When only listening to the AirPods, Apple can send relatively high-quality AAC-encoded sound to them. When the microphones are used – that is when a return channel is active – the Bluetooth standard specifies a lower-quality protocol to be used, resulting in noticeably lower dynamic range and sound quality.

The problem exists on iOS devices too, but it’s simply less likely that one would be listening to music and simultaneously using the microphone in that system.

My speculations

It looks to me as though my iOS devices (9.7″ iPad Pro, and iPhone 6s) are capable of a newer version of the Bluetooth hands-free profile than does macOS on my 2013 15″ MacBook Pro, since call sound quality is radically better on the former than on the latter. This may be due to the Bluetooth chip used in my computer, or due to software limitations in the operating system. If the former – which I suspect – the issue won’t get fixed on my current computer. If the latter, a patch at a later date may be able to remediate but not solve the issue.

A problem with the age of the Bluetooth chip and its available codecs may also explain the stuttering in macOS.

Conclusion

As I wrote in Update 1 to this post, my recommendations are as follows:
Beware of purchasing a pair of AirPods if you intend on using them primarily with a Mac. They’re probably not worse than other Bluetooth headsets for this purpose, but rather the same problems exist with these as you’ll find with any other Bt headset. If music or voice call quality is an issue, a wired headset still is the way to go on the computer side of things.

For iOS devices and the Apple Watch, however, a pair of AirPods is probably one of the best upgrades to your experience you can get if you want to go wireless.

iOS 11 drops 32-bit app support – do we care?

In the upcoming months and until a short while after Apple’s inevitable autumn event where they’ll publicly release their new operating systems, computer magazines and news sites will try to create headlines about how Apple is killing off tens or hundreds of thousands of apps. What’s true and what’s not about this?

Well, yes: iOS 11 kills the support for 32-bit apps. Any such apps on your iPhone or iPad will stop working the day you upgrade to the upcoming operating system. I had a discussion with a friend the other day, regarding Apple’s decision to drop 32-bit OS and app support. He didn’t really like that decision, but I would like to put it in perspective with this beautiful table:

Year  |  2012   2013   2014  2015   2016   2017
------+------------------------------------------      
Model |    5.    5s.    6.    6s.     7.    7s/8.
------+------------------------------------------
      |    ^                                 ^
      |This is the                       This is the
      |last iPhone                       first iPhone
      |that requires                     that will be launched
      |a 32-bit OS                       without OS support
      |                                  for 32-bit apps

What I’m trying to indicate is that we have two conflicting ways of approaching the problem of legacy software:
One way would be to try to avoid rocking the boat, keeping backwards compatibility even at cost. The good thing about this is what we see in the Windows ecosystem: As long as the computer’s CPU is capable of running in emulation mode for the bitness required1, software just keeps on working. Particularly in business applications, not breaking backwards compatibility may be worth significant sums of money.
The bad thing is a lack of incentive on the part of software manufacturers to update their programs. A “Change is Bad” attitude easily develops when changes are few and far between: people don’t get enough practice in performing change in a safe way, and change management and reliability suffers as a result.

The other way to approach legacy software is to enforce changes for users who want to stay up-to-date. This is the approach Apple has chosen in many areas, for good and for bad. Since they control both their software and their hardware platforms, Apple are in a very good position to simply stop supporting old ways of doing things, and provided they wait a reasonable amount of time this shouldn’t cause a lot of problems. As evident of my table earlier in this post, the last iPhone unable to run a 64-bit environment will turn 5 this year. Considering the evolution of mobile hardware, I’d say anybody who still uses their iPhone 5 has gotten pretty decent mileage out of them – remember that every new software update up until this fall will have worked on that device.

But suppose you actually are heavily invested in some older app; how can you know whether it supports 64-bit iOS versions?
Look at the Version history field in the App Store. If an app was first published in January 2015 or later, or if it was last updated later than June 1 2015, it had to be able to run in a 64-bit environment.

There’s no stopping the wheels of time – iOS and Apple hardware will move on. I could recommend freezing a device, not upgrading it beyond a certain OS version. I won’t, because I consider that a terrible idea, at least for any device connected to the Internet, and for any device used for production work.

Luckily, we won’t see another bitness update in the foreseeable future. The two latest ones were exciting enough.


Footnotes

1 An x86 compatible CPU can by design not run 16-, 32-, and 64-bit code simultaneously, but can switch between 32/16 and 64/32 modes after a hard reset.