Cynical Boy: Thoughts on Marshall Crenshaw’s 1982 Self-Titled Album

Inspired by The Incomparable podcast’s series of “album draft” episodes, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to write about some of the albums that have been the most meaningful to me. So whether or not I decide to do several of these kinds of posts, here’s my first stab at it.

rs-135352-43d9626a23c1fa22111b40b8cfe7753ea4fd94a4I was very close to never having heard of Marshall Crenshaw. It just so happened that my dad had used a cassette copy of Crenshaw’s eponymous first album to mix down one of his own original songs (Billy Joel’s Nylon Curtain was on the other side, which I’ll probably get into in another post). One day while in my teens, I went searching through my dad’s tape collection to find his song, and gave it a listen. The tape kept playing after dad’s song, and suddenly this simple and engrossing little guitar riff grabbed my attention, and I was pretty much hooked from then on.

That riff was, of course, the opening notes of Crenshaw’s “There She Goes Again,” which remains one of my absolute favorite songs. It pretends to evince optimism and liberation in the face of separation and loss, but it’s all obviously a mask for the sickening weight of regret and the sting of rejection.

His album, Marshall Crenshaw (1982), largely remains in this vein, with nostalgically styled pop-rock tunes that sound like they could have been recorded in a basement, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s certainly polished, but it also has an immediacy and organic feeling, as though Crenshaw and his band are friends of yours who are working on their record right in front of you.

Once I discovered Crenshaw, I immediately related to him. He’s a smaller guy with glasses who likes hats, and he writes extraordinarily satisfying, hook-infused melodies and arrangements, almost all of which serve as wrappers for some sort of pain, self-doubt, or regret. This element is rarely overt, instead it comes out in comic self-deprecation, little jabs at his blunders, and a kind of hapless, “well what can you do?” persona. I really get that.

Anyway, the album. “Someday, Someway” is the album’s hit, which you’ll still hear once in a while on the radio or pop up in TV shows. It’s a very good song, but it’s not even one of the better ones on the record. Apart from the opening track, highlights include “Rockin’ Around in NYC,” which is both bouncy and tense at the same, in which he sings, “I get the feeling that it really was worth coming after we tasted disaster”; and “Mary Anne” with its gorgeous counterpoint backing vocals and its resignation to someone’s else’s despair.

“The Usual Thing” and “Cynical Girl” are rather different in tone, but both are defiant love songs that embrace uniqueness and alienation. On “The Usual Thing,” he worries that giving himself over to someone else will cause him to “lose his energy,” which sounds to me like the lamentation of an introvert. “But,” he tells her, “if I didn’t think you were a little bit out-there too, I just wouldn’t bother with you.”

And on “Cynical Girl,” he longs for a partner who, like him, has “got no use for the real world.” He sings, “I hate TV. There’s gotta be somebody other than me who’s ready to write it off immediately.” Damn right.

I really like a lot of Crenshaw’s other albums, most particularly #447 and Miracle of Science, but Marshall Crenshaw is something truly special, a rare distillation of the delights of classic pop-rock and the pain of being “a little bit out-there.”

On the iPad Pro and “Work Stuff”

In my review of the iPad Pro 10.5″, I didn’t mention much about the tablet’s utility as a productivity device other than how its Smart Keyboard is better than its predecessor’s. But in the tech press, the reviews have largely centered on a theme: can this iPad replace your laptop? Wait, it’s more like, ”Can this iPad finally replace your laptop?” I didn’t broach that subject at all.

Part of why I didn’t is because so much of what might make it a laptop replacement is still in the future, with many of the major software advancements of iOS 11 coming this fall. I already know how iOS 10 fares in terms of productivity, so there was no new territory there for me, again, beyond the improved typing experience.

But primarily I didn’t address this question because that’s not what I want to use an iPad for. Most of the reviews focus on how much “work stuff” can be done on the iPad Pro, and I don’t want work stuff anywhere near it.

As far as I’m concerned, there is a separation of church and state when it comes to these devices. My laptop is primarily for work stuff. My iPad is for not-work. Reading, drawing, games, writing (non-work writing!), and general screwing around. Yes, there’s overlap, because that’s just life. But the principle is sound.

Of course the functional capabilities of these respective devices create this dividing line, but more to the point, I personally need a psychological separation between these two areas of my life. At the end of the day, I look forward to picking up my iPad and doing whatever the hell it is I need to do with it, be it entirely passive or creative. What I am trying to avoid are the distractions, calls for attention, and mental and emotional associations of work. I want to leave that stuff, closed up in the laptop’s clamshell.

The iPad, however, needs to be a clean slate.

But if I don’t intend to use an iPad Pro for all of the things that make it “Pro,” why even own one, instead of a cheaper iPad-regular or other less expensive iPad or tablet? I mean, these things are NOT CHEAP.

It’s simple, really. I wanted the best stylus experience I could get for drawing, a large and beautiful screen, and enough power to make the whole experience as fluid and seamless as possible, for as long as possible.

Other reviews have either said or implied that if you’re going to shell out for the iPad Pro, you should be using it for your main computer. Nah, I like it too much for that.

iPad Pro 10.5″: Wonderfully Unnecessary

I had lost interest in tablets for a while. I hate owning redundant possessions, and as large-screen phones became my norm, owning a tablet as well felt decadent. No one needs a tablet.

Eventually I remembered that “need” isn’t the point. As I discussed in my iPad Air review many years ago, the tablet is the device you choose to use when you are no longer compelled by necessity to use a phone or a PC. It’s for the things you want to do as opposed to the things you have to do. Your phone and PC can do things you want as well, but the tablet would ideally be specifically suited to activities of non-compulsion. I’m talking about things like reading (books, articles, comics, etc.), browsing, watching videos, playing certain kinds of games, as well as, for many, drawing, designing, making music, and for me in particular, creative writing.

Not writing for work. I’ve become something of a stickler for intentionally separating my work machine from my leisure machine, even though I work from a home office using my own laptop. Most of the time, the laptop is for work-work, and the tablet is for the writing and creative work that I do by my own whim.

To sum up, here is my Theory of Devices:

  • Generally speaking, though with countless exceptions, phones and PCs (laptops or desktops) are “lean-in” devices of necessity. One squints and scrunched one’s attention (and fingers) on the small screen of the phone in order to accomplish the tasks demanded by the moment. One hunches over the keyboard and display of a laptop, studying the contents of the screen and dutifully typing away to, again, satisfy the demands of the moment. They require a kind of tunnel vision.
  • Tablets (and e-readers like Kindles) are “lean-back” devices of choice. Generally hand-held, but large enough to encourage the user to kick back and absorb content rather than actively scrutinize it. If one wishes to more deeply engage and create or “work,” that’s fine. There is a psychological separation between the work machines and the diversion machine.

This is why I sought a return to the tablet. I didn’t want to play at the office.

Late last year I got the iPad Pro 9.7”. It was more than I absolutely needed, as an iPad Air 2 would have more than sufficed for almost all my tablet needs, but I was too intrigued by the possibilities presented by the Apple Pencil to settle. Having used a couple of Galaxy Notes, I knew very well the vast difference between just using any old stylus on a touchscreen, and having a stylus specifically built for your particular machine, a machine with software and hardware tuned to interact with that stylus. (This is part of why a strongly considered a Surface Pro 4, but decided it was both too expensive and too close to being a work machine.) So iPad Pro it would have to be.

I loved it. I loved it more as the months went by. I kept finding myself impressed by its speed, fluidity, responsiveness, and the sheer loveliness of its display. I made lots of fun pictures with 53’s Paper app, and even made delightful musical arrangements with iOS GarageBand (which has become really quite an astounding application in recent years). I did a little writing on it as well, but not nearly as much as I’d like, partly I think because I failed to find a keyboard solution I was truly comfortable with. More on that later.

But I always wanted a slightly bigger screen than iPads offered. Having seen Surface Pros, the Pixel C, and the pre–2015 Samsung Tab S’s, I knew that a larger canvas would really open the device up for me. The 12.9” iPad Pro was always utterly intriguing, but I knew that it would be too unwieldy to be the lean-back device I needed it to be.

Then Apple announced the new 10.5” iPad Pro, and I was ready to pounce. Not because of any flaws in the 9.7” Pro, but because a slightly-larger super-iPad was What I’d Always Wanted. I would later describe it as the first-worldiest of purchases. But shit, life is short, and this is all I spend money on. And now a very nice Swappa user in New York City now has my 9.7” Pro, and I have his money. Or, I did. I gave that money to Apple. Again.

I’ve had the iPad Pro 10.5” for about a week. I haven’t pushed it to its limits (nor do I know how I would go about that), but I’ve used it for all of the things I would normally use a tablet for, and as you’ll see, I don’t need much else to go on.


So how is it?

It’s a really good iPad. You already know what an iPad is and does, so, yes, the 10.5” iPad Pro is the best at all those things, with a little bit more room on the screen on which to enjoy those things. It’s the same weight as iPads have been since the iPad Air in 2013, about a pound, and it’s super thin.

The expanded screen size is very nice, and there are times I pick the thing up and turn it on and I’m taken aback by that little increase in visual immersion. But in regular use, it’s not world-changing. It’s a little bit nicer, and it makes the software keyboard easier to use accurately.

If anything, it reminds me of the Google Pixel C, which was my “pro” tablet of choice before the iPad, but I gave up on after it suffered from technical failures (such as a screen that quickly went on the fritz) and abysmally poor customer support for said failures. But one of the great things about the Pixel C was its screen size at 10.2″, so having an iPad with about the same screen size is a way for me to get back some of what I really loved about Google’s tablet.

The iPad Pro, regardless of the change in screen real estate, has kept the same pixel density at 264 ppi. I’m frankly disappointed that Apple hasn’t bumped this up even a little bit since the introduction of the iPad 3 in 2012. I’ve been using quad-HD phones, and the Pixel C had a gorgeous 308 ppi display. Hell, even the iPad mini line has 326 ppi.

It really doesn’t matter, though. I almost never notice the lower pixel density of the iPad Pro, and Apple’s done so much to make this screen crisp and beautiful in so many other ways that no one else even attempts, let alone achieves. TrueTone, though unnecessary, is a nice adaptive-color technology that is better to have than not. The display itself is just about painted onto the glass, so there’s no sense of gawking at your content as though it’s beneath a window pane. I would certainly like the ppi to be higher, and I know I’d notice it and appreciate it, but I have no complaints about the iPad Pro’s display.

I can talk about performance, but honestly, the real test of that will come with iOS 11 this fall, when the operating system transforms from giant-phone-OS to something that genuinely seems ready to be used as a full-power computing device. Other than that, everything is as fast as you’d imagine it to be. But of course the same was true for the 9.7” Pro, so I doubt anyone would perceive any difference between the two.

The bigger change is this boost from a 60hz refresh rate to 120hz. This does indeed make scrolling and animations more fluid. At times it looks so good it’s otherworldly, but you also just get used to it and it’s no big deal. Again, better to have than not, for sure. Some are describing this change as almost akin to the difference between Retina and non-Retina, and I don’t agree…yet. I do really appreciate it, but I suspect that once again its utility will become more apparent with iOS 11.

The refresh rate boost is also supposed to improve the display’s interaction with the Apple Pencil, reducing latency to almost imperceptible levels. I can feel the difference in apps like Apple’s Notes and 53’s Paper, but not in other drawing apps. This might be because they haven’t taken advantage of the new hardware yet and likely will, but right now there’s no difference I can sense in many Pencil-related apps. This is another area where there were no problems with the performance on the 9.7” Pro, and the Pencil on the 10.5” does it a little better.


I’m trying to decide whether Apple’s own Smart Keyboard is good and useful enough to justify holding onto. I purchased it alongside the iPad, assuming it would be almost necessary to get the full “Pro” experience. But, like the iPad, it was not cheap.

It is much nicer to type on than its predecessor for the 9.7″ Pro, with keys more widely spaced, but also like 9.7’s it also makes for a clumsy iPad cover. It’s heavy for a cover, and its weight is (necessarily) uneven. While it’s wonderfully easy to take on and off, it’s too expensive to casually toss aside like you might do with a plain cover (which are also grossly overpriced). It is somewhat deceptive in that it doesn’t look like an expensive piece of electronics, but it is, and one does not want to have it snap in half because you didn’t know it was sticking out of the couch cushions before you sat or laying on the floor as you smash it with your feet.

As before, it pairs with the iPad immediately upon magnetic contact, so there’s no fiddling. One little annoyance I’ve discovered is that if before you attached the Smart Keyboard you had been using a third-party software keyboard, the Smart Keyboard gets a little confused. I like to use Gboard as my software keyboard, but if it’s the most recent one I’ve enabled when I attach the Smart Keyboard, at least one key (the apostrophe) doesn’t work. Maybe others fail too, but that’s the one I noticed. Cycling back to enabling the default keyboard solves the problem.

Oh, and once again, it doesn’t have a place to stow the Apple Pencil. Argle blargle.

For a couple of years now I’ve had the Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard, and it is very good for what it is, and tablets and phones alike sit nicely in it’s little device slot. I don’t think it’s quite as nice to type on as the Smart Keyboard, and, obviously, it doesn’t have the advantage of being physically attached to the iPad. You have to go get it to use it. The Apple Smart Keyboard is always there, either on the iPad itself or within arm’s reach.

I don’t really trust any of the other keyboard cases I’ve seen because in each of them the keys have at least the potential to rub up against, and thereby scratch, the screen. That’s not gonna fly. With the Smart Keyboard, the keys fold away and make no contact with the display, ever.

I believe I may be convincing myself to keep it. As much as I’d like to recoup that cash. I should experiment with the Microsoft keyboard again, just to be sure, so as I write this, I’m just not certain about the Smart Keyboard.

And quite frankly, I often prefer typing on the software keyboard. I wouldn’t even consider an external keyboard if the software keyboard didn’t take over so much of the screen. But I’m using it now to type this, and I suppose this is another benefit of the 10.5” screen: a more comfortable on-screen keyboard and more remaining space for the content.


Some smaller things worth noting:

  • I am overly sensitive to devices that get too warm. It was perhaps my greatest source of dissatisfaction about iPads 3 and 4, and was a rollercoaster struggle with the Nexus 6, among other devices. I have yet to feel this tablet get meaningfully warm. The 9.7” Pro never bothered me either, though I could notice changes in temperature. So far, I can only attribute any warmth to the 10.5” Pro to the heat from my own hands.
  • The speakers are excellent for a super-thin wafer of a computer. Better than any other device I’ve used that isn’t itself a dedicated speaker or sound system.
  • I used to much prefer using any tablet in portrait mode, seeing it as the “correct” orientation, particularly for lean-back uses, but something about the increase in screen size makes landscape nice for more passive use as well, in that you can easily split the screen between two apps and still feel like you’re looking at two iPad mini-size devices.
  • The camera is apparently amazing, but I’ve used it almost not at all. I have no idea if this will change, but I am definitely not one of those “omg never use a tablet to take pictures” people. Seriously, use whatever gadget you have the way you want to. Your tablet has a camera and a giant-ass viewfinder. Go ahead and take pictures. (Just don’t be obnoxious about blocking people’s view with it.) It’s supposed to be an iPhone 7-quality camera, which sounds great. Hard for me to see when I’d take advantage of this, but hey, it’s there.
  • There is a problem with Google Photos that hasn’t been addressed yet, where the application grinds to a halt when trying to edit any photo. This did not happen with the 9.7” Pro, and a couple folks online have had the same experience. I have no idea why this would be, but I hope a software update comes quickly.


Clearly, the 10.5” iPad Pro is a fantastic tablet. Almost certainly it’s the best tablet available, and by several orders of magnitude. It’s more tablet, and really, more computer, than almost any one in the market could possibly need. And that’s good, because if there’s one thing even Apple was surprised to learn, it’s that people buy iPads and they hold on to them and use them for many years. This iPad will fare very well over those year, I predict.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t need this at all. The 9.7” iPad Pro was far and away the best tablet in the world, and upon the release of the 10.5” it became an extremely close second. Almost negligibly close.

Having used the 10.5 for a few days, but before iOS 11’s arrival, I can confidently say that if you have a 9.7” Pro, you’re good right now. You’ll probably be good for a long time. If you’re in the market for a powerful and/or stylus-optimized tablet, but don’t want to spend $700, do go and find a 9.7” Pro. You’ll love it.

I loved it. And I also love this one. The 10.5” iPad Pro is everything I loved about the 9.7”, plus a little more. I’m really glad I got it, I’m enjoying the hell out of it, but I also know I could most certainly have gone without it.

Also, if you want a tablet for just the lean-back stuff, and you want it to last many years, ignore this whole review and get one of those new vanilla iPads for a little over $300. You’ll love it.

Don’t get a Pixel C, because Google’s support it the absolute worst. (Example: In order to help me with a problem with the hinge on my Pixel C’s external hardware keyboard, they insisted I reboot my tablet and put it in safe mode. For a hinge. On a physically separate object. Sorry, no.)


No one needs a tablet at all. I certainly don’t. But as a lover of technology, as a big consumer of news and writing, as an artist and musician, and indeed as an autistic introvert, there’s something wonderful about these things. I’m so fortunate to be able to scrape together the means to own an object that facilitates so many of the things that bring me joy and meaning in life, and is also comfortable and appealing, such that I am drawn to it and encouraged to play, explore, create, and find a little peace.

I don’t need this tablet. I’m damn glad that I have it anyway.

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Hey, if you like my work, maybe you’ll think about supporting it through Patreon. That’d be cool of you.

Let’s Pick a Decent Pair of Cheap Earbuds

The bargain I made with myself after my tortuous search for the perfect over-ear headphones, for the purposes of meditational escape and overall awesomeness, was that I could also have a pair of decent earbuds as long as they were cheap. (Such things do exist!) Sometimes the Sony MDR–7506s are too big to take somewhere, or it’s just too hot to put big electronic earmuffs on, and buds become necessary. I have before me three highly-regarded such buds in the sub-$35 price range, and I thought I’d give you my quick verdict on them.

They are the Logitech Ultimate Ears 500vm (which I will refer to as the “UEs”), which I discovered on my own, and the top two picks of The Wirecutter: the Brainwavz Deltas and the Panasonic RP-TCM125 Ergo Fits (which belong to my wife). I tested each pair listening to three specific songs, the acoustic version of Seal’s “Crazy,” The Weepies’ “Take it from Me,” to get a little outside of the acoustic sound but not too much, and deadmau5’s “The Veldt” for some straight-up electronic sounds.

The UEs first retailed at $80 but must not have sold well, and are now available for just over $30, while I got them for under $20 on sale. They are packaged and presented as a somewhat high-end product, complete with lots of padding in the packaging and a uselessly-small case that takes so much effort to cram the phones into, it’s not worth it. They have but one button for controlling play, pause, and advancing tracks, and, weirdly, a volume wheel, which I just keep at full, and never touch.

The UEs were by far the most balanced of the three. They didn’t sound flat or full by any means, maybe “neutral+” would be the way to put it. They kept everything on an even keel with just a touch of “umph” to add to the richness. Details come out pretty well overall, though in “The Veldt” I missed the emphasis on bass that the other two sets presented. The bass is by no means missing, but in most circumstances, the UEs put the bass where it belongs. And if you like a genre of music for its low end specifically, you might miss a little bit of that with these buds.

The Ergo Fits, the cheapest of the bunch at about $13, gave much more low end emphasis, though I could still enjoy some detail. They also struck me as the loudest of the bunch. In “Take it from Me” they felt like bass overkill, though they offered what I’d consider a viable alternative output f or “Crazy,” a little beefier than what you’d get from the UEs, but not in the way. The Ergos were probably the best of the three for “The Veldt” specifically, but only by a hair.

The Wirecutter currently considers the Brainwavz to be the best earbuds under $40 (costing about $23), which is why I bought them, and frankly I’m not sure why they won. They don’t so much emphasize the bass as simply allow the low end to push everything else out of the way. In “The Veldt” it was acceptable, as it didn’t overpower too badly, but in “Crazy” they definitely obscured the middle range. In “Take it from Me,” the other frequencies are so muffled by the low end that I was frustrated by what I knew I was missing, straining to hear “around” the bass.

The one thing I do like best about the Brainwavz is the in-line remote, which is actually designed to work with an Android device (very often headphones either have little functionality in their remote, or default to iPhone compatibility).

But as you can probably guess, the best of the three to my ears are the Logitech UEs. None of the buds on this list will blow your mind, but the UEs offered by far the best overall balance, and were head and shoulders above the other two in terms of listening for finer details and overall crispness, though the Ergo Fits had some of that. If the price range of $10–30 is more or less all the same to you, I’d go with the UEs. If $30 seems too much for your purposes, go with the Panasonics Ergo Fits. I’d like to return the Brainwavs, but I bought them with my wife’s Amazon account, and, you know, once bitten…

Now one more thing: What about Apple EarPods? I count myself among the proud and maligned few who actually think the EarPods are pretty good. The worst thing about them to my ears is the lack of a seal; they just sit there and bop around in your ear because they’re simply not fixed in place. I use EarPods all the time for phone calls and podcast chats (I don’t use the built in mic for podcasts, of course) because they give me decent sound and more awareness of what’s going on around me. That’s also why I use them for running, because anything that gives a seal in the ear canal also transmits every movement of the phone cord to my eardrum. For sit-down listening, when I’m not using my Sonys, I go with the UEs.

Oh! One more important note. I only bought the Brainwavz because my I thought I’d lost my Logitech UEs, when it turns out they only went through the wash in a pair of cargo shorts. And they went through the dryer. And you know what? You’d never know it. This review is based on my listening to them after the washer-dryer event, so that might tell you something.

HTC One M8: Fast to be Dropped, Slow to Respond


In the midst of my enthusiasm/disorder of gadgeteering on the cheap, I managed to have possession for a couple weeks of an HTC One M8, the phone that upon its release was more or less universally hailed for its build quality and performance.

Guess what. I didn’t really like it. And I really, really thought I would.

I assumed it’d be a good phone for me because of the rave reviews, of course, but also because it was the Android device that seemed to have been designed with the same degree of thought and care that Apple products are. The metal, the curves, the heft. It wasn’t a mimic of an iPhone, as it was clearly designed with different priorities in mind. iPhones get generally thinner and more svelte as they iterate, while the M8 looks more like it’s been designed to be felt, with noticeable weight, a striking metallic sheen, and a substantial footprint. It looks absolutely lovely.

But I liked almost nothing else about it.

I’ve passed the point where total one-handed use is a necessity. The industry is clearly moving away from it, and that being the case, it becomes more a matter of degrees and trade-offs. How much one-handed use are you willing to trade for the benefits of having a bigger screen or battery? That kind of thing.

But even with my change in perspective and expectations, the HTC One M8 fails in some basic areas of one-handed usability. Most notably, it’s just too damned slippery. Without using glass or plastic for the chassis, and with the metal polished to an extreme degree of smoothness, the phone is just far, far too easy to drop. Without immediately applying an unnaturally firm grip, the thing just slides right out of my hand.

Making this worse is how sensitive the volume rocker on the side is. The slightest tap against the rocker activates it, which always gets in the way of whatever it was you actually intended to do with the phone. And it’s all the easier to accidentally hit the volume rocker because, again, you need to grip the damn thing so firmly in order to not destroy it. It is a feedback loop of frustration.

I needed to put it into a case just to hold it. Not protect it, just hold it.

And then there was the software. Reviews and anecdotes reported the M8 to be incredibly fast and smooth in performance. This was not my experience. Now, as a gadgeteer-on-the-cheap, my phone was a refurbished unit, so I suppose it’s possible I had just gotten a lemon, but I found the phone to be incredibly laggy and jittery in almost everything, particularly in multitasking, camera, and photo gallery. I kept researching ways to mitigate the problem, thinking it must somehow be my own fault, but nothing helped, beyond the occasional cache-clearing. And that, only a touch.

The HTC skinning of Android, Sense, is not awful. On the whole it adds features and mostly stays out of the way of the “pure” Android experience, but what it does add is mostly pointless, and in the end adds up to needless additional complexity.

One night, desperate for a change, I considered attempting a rooting and flashing of stock Android, but at the last moment I chickened out, afraid to screw something up and brick the device.

Instead, I unloaded it.

I should say, though, that I did like the camera, when it worked. Most reviews are lukewarm on the camera for being gimmicky and insufficiently stuffed with megapixels, but I found that I was getting some lovely shots with it. (See below for a couple of examples.) The editing tools were mostly useful and interesting, and so I actually consider the phone’s camera a big plus for it. But, alas.

I might have had a bum unit, but even if I did, the M8 was a big disappointment. But there is a silver (but not a “Glacial Silver”) lining to this story, as I have settled on what now feels like the phone of my dreams, and it’s a kind of reunification story, and not a reunification with iPhone like you might expect. But that’s for another post.

This photo uses the M8's dual camera setup to alter the focus of a photo after the fact. IMAG0117_1-1

The One Unwelcome Intrusion on the Near-Perfect “Gravity”

Having just now seen Gravity with my wife this weekend, I have a feeling that I had more faith in the movie’s power than even the filmmakers did. 

I realize I’m a little late to the party, but allow me to first add to the chorus of saying that Gravity is an extraordinary film, unlike almost anything I’ve ever seen, a genuine triumph of the medium. It’s also one of those extremely rare films in which an IMAX 3D showing really does mean something to the complete work, in that it’s a gimmick, and it’s not about “tricking” you into thinking what you’re looking at is actually in three dimensions, but in that it skillfully and tastefully takes advantage of the illusion of depth and change of focus to give an almost overwhelming sense of the immensity of the setting, the sheer vastness of the stage on which the film is set.

I loved it, and that’s why I’d like to see one simple but major change that I suspect (but am not sure) might have done a world of good.

I’d love to see a verion of Gravity, in its full, IMAX 3D glory, without the music, without the underscore.

 (Hereafter be spoilers!)

One of Gravity’s great strengths is how “natural” it feels. Despite any fudging of physics the filmmakers may have perpetrated, the film is harrowing and tense before anything bad has even happened. We are engrossed and tense right along with Dr. Stone from the first moments. When danger strikes, the stakes are obvious, and terrifying all by themselves. Later, when there are triumphs, they feel collossal, all on their own — because of what is happening before our eyes and from the sounds of the events and the environment.

I felt that the music often intruded on this. There’s the vast empiness of space, the simultaneous claustrophobia and vertigo of the spacewalks, the chaos and terror of the debris invasions and impacts, the physical and psychological struggle to reach each new phase of the attempt to escape. None of it, not a whit of it, needed any help from the outside. And the underscoring came from the outside.

It felt unnecessary, for one thing. But it also felt condescending, like someone was standing at the front of the theater with signs and a bullhorn telling the audience how to feel. (“Okay, now you’re really scared! This thing that’s happening now is very bad!!!”)

So what if they had tried a version without the music? The music itself was fine, but it was in the way. I didn’t need it. Give it to us at the closing credits, fine, but not a note until then. Have a little more trust in the film you’ve already made, before adding on an artificial layer of emotional button-pushing. Believe me, it’s already a doozie.

A 5 for a 5: From iPhone 5 and AT&T to Nexus 5 and T-Mobile

I now have a Nexus 5 and have traded in my iPhone, and it’s not because I was desirous of a change from the Land of Apple (I’ve done that once already), but because it was my best option in taking advantage of a great money-saving opportunity by switching from AT&T’s onerous subjugation, to being a free-range T-Mobile customer. I could have gotten an iPhone or more fancy-pants Android device like an HTC One when I switched, but their cost would have negated the whole point of the switch. Luckily, Google has priced its own flagship phone so that it’s affordable without a contract. And so a couple of days ago, I came home with a Nexus 5.

There are two big changes, then, to document: the device/OS change and the mobile service change. One, obviously, is more interesting than the other. So let me get the carrier difference out of the way. I admit, I felt a bit of enthusiasm for joining T-Mobile’s “revolution” and getting my service from a company whose CEO is obviously a little nuts. I’m still happy to be free of AT&T and free of a contract, but it must be said that T-Mobile’s coverage in my area of Maine is acceptable, but a big step down. I get good-enough “4G” coverage in the main residential and commercial areas of my town, but in places a little on the outskirts, like my kids’ daycare, I get no data coverage at all (technically a “1G” connection, meaning calls can go through, but very little else). LTE is now a happy memory until I enter a larger metro area, or until T-Mobile expands.

It’ll do for now. And after my AT&T early termination fee is paid and I’ve been on T-Mobile for a fair-shake’s bit of time, I can always unlock the phone and switch to something else if I must. But I miss those LTE speeds. On the plus side, it’s unlimited data, like, for reals. Just on principle, I feel like I should suck down as much of it as possible.

Two embarrassing notes: It took over a full day to port my number to T-Mobile, which turned out to be my fault, as I had given the T-Mobile guys my AT&T pin to do the port, and wouldn’t you know it, I don’t have an AT&T pin, and that confused the system. When my number did move over, I got no data reception at all, which I assumed to be because T-Mobile’s coverage was worse than advertised. Turned out it was because I didn’t restart the phone when the port was complete, as I was instructed. So yes, it wasn’t working because I didn’t turn it off and turn it back on again. Yep.

Okay, let’s talk about this device.

The Nexus 5 is a very nice phone. Its screen is flat-out gorgeous, and beautifully high-resolution. I didn’t think I’d notice the difference between this display and the iPhone’s Retina, but I do. Pixels aren’t just hard to see on this screen, they’re, for me, impossible. I’ve been trying. The display is bright, colors pop, and it’s just a joy to look at. One could conceivably use this phone with its 5″ screen as a suitable Kindle alternative for long-form reading.

But it’s also bigger than the iPhone’s, which means my tiny thumbs can’t reach a good deal of the screen in one-handed use. And the more I struggle with this, the more I appreciate Apple’s decision to stick so stubbornly to the iPhone’s relatively small size. Given this, I almost think it would make more sense to just take it as given that these larger devices can’t be used with one hand, and just get a big-ass phablet type device. I mean, why not go all the way?

Structurally, the Nexus feels like a quality piece of plastic, but chitzy if you’re coming from the iPhone 5. It’s very thin, very light, and with a nice matte finish. For its price, I can’t complain. It doesn’t feel cheap, but nor is it premium.

The camera, though bursting with megapixels, is noticably slower than the iPhone’s in snapping photos (a big annoyance when you have adorable kids), and so far the indoor photos have been acceptable but not great. The iPhone 5’s camera was much better, but this one will do.

As for actually just using the Nexus as a smartphone, there’s very little not to like. The Android lag I have experienced with every single Android device I’ve ever used is not to be found here. In fact, the Nexus 5 feels weirdly smooth and fluid, but still very different from iOS. It’s difficult to put my finger on it (no pun intended), but I think the difference is that the Nexus 5/Android fluidity in scrolling and moving elements around is super-specific, where things go exactly where your finger puts them, in near-real time. It’s great. iOS feels more “liquid” or maybe bouncier, like the interface is ready to zip on ahead of you until you get there. Both are excellent, but feel quite different.

And there are two elements of Android that really set it apart. First is the fact that apps can share information with each other, and no apps are excluded from being able to partake in sharing menus and the like. Apple generally only allows interface with Facebook and Twitter throughout the OS.

But even better is swipe typing. I’m telling you, being able to just “draw” across the keyboard is about 1000 times more efficient for typing on a small screen than tap-tap-tapping. That in itself could almost cause one to switch by choice.

From the last time I owned an Android device (a first-generation Nexus 7 tablet), “Google Now” has come a long way, from being an experimental whiz-bang gimmicky thing to being the center of the OS’s artificial intelligence. It’s cool, no doubt, when looking for things of a more informational nature, and very responsive. But it’s crap so far when it comes to controlling your device. In that, Siri beats the pants off of Now. For example, several attempts to get the phone to play my Toad the Wet Sprocket songs by voice command failed until I just gave up. Siri would have no trouble with that kind of thing.

And Google Now has no sense of humor. It won’t tell you jokes, it won’t sing to you. I miss Siri. (Luckily she still lives in my iPad, so I see her from time to time, but it’s just not the same. And I think she’s mad at me.)

Overall, my feeling is that this will be just fine. As I keep saying, “It’ll do.” In many ways, the Nexus 5 is an excellent phone, besting the iPhone in some important ways. But iPhone, inside and out, still posesses a simplicity and a fit-and-finish that, taken as a whole, make for a superior overall experience. But this’ll be fine. It’ll do.

A lot of it, I know, is just unfamiliarity. I’ve been using an iPhone since its first generation, which I got in 2008. It’s what I know. Often, I find myself frustrated by “how much worse” something is on Android, only to realize it’s just different. Case in point: Unlocking the phone. I was under the impression that it was easier with iPhone, where I slide to unlock, and pop in my 4-digit pin, which opens the phone. Easy! Meanwhile, using a 4-digit pin with Android, it seemed like there was more business. But there’s not, there’s just no slide, but there is an “enter” key to hit after the pin.

In other words, it’s 5 steps each. iPhone is slide-tap-tap-tap-tap, and Android is tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. One is not easier than the other, they’re just different. But because it was new, I took the Android approach as unneccesarily more difficult.

But there’s also no doubt that Android is far more fiddly than iOS, and it’s already been a problem, as I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to keep Twitter notifications from making the phone vibrate. Layers and layers of settings menus revealed nothing to me, and Googling around showed me that I was not alone in this. This should not be this hard.

Most of it’s not hard, of course. I think I’ll enjoy the Nexus 5 a lot for the most part, but I definitely feel a twinge for the iPhone. One day I shall return. But in the meantime, I’m free of AT&T, and I saved my family a good deal of money. It’s worth it, and it’ll do.

Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad Air: Yep!

And the pendulum of gadget satisfaction has swung the other way. Previously, I dismissed the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air for its flimsiness in typing mode and its bizarre key-conflations. Still determined to find a suitable external keyboard for my beloved electro-slab, I decided to try out something familiar, Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Cover.

This, unlike the Folio, is not a “case” for your iPad, something that would cover it front and back, but more like a faceplate with keys, attached by magnetic hinges like the Apple Smart Cover. When in typing mode, the iPad docks into a magnetic groove, tilted at a slight angle, just above the keys. I owned the previous generation of this keyboard cover for my earlier iPad, and liked it quite a bit, even though it didn’t get all that much use. When I absolutely needed a physical keyboard for longform writing, it was just fine.

Utterly disappointed by the Folio for the iPad Air, I was a little reticent about the Cover. Surely there would be sacrifices that Logitech had to make in order to fit an iPad that is “full size,” but still significantly smaller than its predecessors. I feared it would be cramped, and perhaps flimsier or feel more, well, cheap. It’s clear that both the Folio and the Cover were made before the Air was even finalized, as the marketing materials for both products note them as being compatible with “iPad 5,” which of course is not what this iPad turned out to be named. (The packaging has the “iPad 5” language artfully labeled over with the correct iPad name.) So there was some trepidation.

I’m pleased to say that not only is the Ultrathin Keyboard Cover working out, but it’s been a delight to use.

First and foremost, it’s a very good keyboard generally, for a “case” or otherwise. I’m typing on it right now to write this review. While it’s certainly a bit more cramped than the official Apple keyboard, it’s not badly so, and the keys feel more solid and responsive than they did on Logitech’s Folio version. This is about what I remember from the previous generation Ultrathin Cover, though it may be a touch more compact. If so, I can’t really tell from memory. I wouldn’t use it for my MacBook’s external keyboard, of course, but it’s a perfectly acceptable keyboard overall.

One thing I particularly liked about the previous generation keyboard cover was that I could, somewhat precariously, use it on my lap. It wasn’t entirely stable that way, but if I stayed mostly still, I could do some prodictive typing from the couch. With this iteration being smaller and lighter to suit the Air, I presumed the experience here would be as good or perhaps a little worse.

Wrong. It’s better – far better. I’ve got the thing on my lap now. Okay, I’ve got it on my lap all the time. It’s perfect for couch use. It’s almost as stable and still as my MacBook Air on my lap, even though the iPad plus the keyboard cover together are lighter than an 11″ MacBook Air. The magnetic groove on this cover doesn’t hold the iPad Air quite as firmly as the previous generation held iPads 2, 3, and 4, but it’s still much better than the Folio’s crummy, non-grooved magnetic strip. Still, it means that the functional angles at which you can work are more limited. For example, the keyboard essentially needs to be flat or angled upward on your lap, as opposed to having the keys tilt at all toward you, or else the iPad could flop out of the groove. But this has yet to be an issue for me.

One notable drawback from the previous version: iPads 2 through 4 were actually fairly stable in the docking groove even in portrait mode, straight up and down. It didn’t “click” in, but it set deeply enough into the groove to be usable. This is not really the case with the iPad Air version. You can prop it up that way for casual viewing on a table, perhaps, but you likely won’t get much done that way, and certainly not on your lap, before it topples over. This is really a landscape-only situation.

Meanwhile, the magnets on the hinge in “cover mode” are incrediby strong – almost too strong, as I sometimes worry it pulls the iPad to it with too much force. So far, no problems, though. But ideally, I’d like to see a tiny bit less magnetic pull from the hinge in cover mode, and a bit more strength on the docking groove.

Speaking of “cover mode,” I have a small concern about using this as my primary cover for my iPad for travel. Normally my iPad lives in an STM Cape, which is mostly fabric and perfectly safe and protective. With the Logitech Cover, I perceive a little bit of give toward the middle of the cover, such that if you squeeze them together a bit, the keys looks like they could mash up against the iPad’s screen. The cover has little rubbery feet that lift any hard pieces away from the screen normally, but it looks like even a little bit of pressure might mean trouble for the screen. Obviously, I’m not willing to test this possibility on my device, so I suspect that for anything other than a quick jaunt to Starbucks, I’ll travel with my iPad in my Cape, and simply carry the keyboard cover as an extra accessory. It’s not exactly obtrusive.

One other nice thing about this being a cover versus a case, is that it wouldn’t be at all odd to separate the saucer section, as it were. You can dock the iPad into the cover, or prop the iPad up with another case or stand you prefer, and still use the Logitech keyboard to type. They don’t need to be physically attached to work together.

And another nice thing, which is thanks to Control Center in iOS 7. There’s now much less friction when switching between docked typing and handheld tablet use. With Control Center being accessible at any time, I can disable the keyboard and Bluetooth without going through the morass of menus from previous versions of iOS. Now I just undock, flick up control center, and turn off Bluetooth. Done.

To sum up, it’s really only as a long-term protective cover that I’m at all iffy on the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad Air. Around the house, it’s fine, but I wouldn’t put it in a tightly-packed carry-on for a flight. But as soon as I’m situated, I’d probably pop it right out, and dock my iPad into it forthwith.

This has turned out to be a great purchase, and I find myself docking my iPad into it regardless of whether I plan on doing any significant writing, for even if it’s just for tweeting, email, or browsing, this keyboard cover is a great overall augmentation to my favorite object.

See my original review of the iPad Air, and my follow-up

Logitech’s Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for iPad Air: Nope.

I ought to be typing this on a physical keyboard right now, but I’m not. I’m using my iPad’s software keyboard as usual.

It should have been a real keyboard because thanks to a generous Amazon credit from my parents for my recent birthday, I got me a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Folio for the iPad Air, and I was psyched about it. (See my iPad Air review here.) I had owned a Logitech keyboard cover for my previous iPad, and liked it quite a bit, and this time the folio version, a full case instead of just a cover, looked like a neat step up.

When it arrived today, I did an unboxing on Twitter because I’m weird, and I really like to admire good packaging in my electronics and doodads. And I have to say, Logitech did a nice job with this packaging. Pull a little red ribbon on the side of the box, and it lifts up the flap which is held closed magnetically. It’s a nice touch. And inside, the folio itself looked great. 

The material of the case is really sleek and svelte   without feeling slippery. The iPad clicked into the corners of the case very easily. And overall it looked really slick.

And then it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t going to work out.

While like the previous keyboard cover, the iPad is held up in portrait orientation by a magnet along the back of the keyboard, it isn’t grooved like the cover. It’s merely a strip of magnet that keeps the iPad in the right place, but not supported by anything physical. With the device held up only by the folio’s back, the iPad is wobbly in typing mode.

You've got to be kidding me. 
You’ve got to be kidding me. 

Well okay that’s not so bad, right? But then there’s the keyboard itself. The keys feel smaller even than the somewhat reduced size of the previous generation cover’s, and weirdest of all, keys that are normally entirely disparate are now consolidated. So you have the Q and “tab” as one key, and A and “caps lock” as another. The result is that everything feels wrong, as though the keyboard were entirely off center. I tried to compensate by nudging my typing to the left somewhat, but it was incredibly frustrating. I hit the S key almost every time I meant to hit A.

Finally, I realized upon closing and opening the case a few times that the sleep-wake feature is totally inconsistent. Roughly half the time the case would wake or sleep the iPad, and the other half not do anything. I’ve been a little frustrated that, for example, my STM Cape case has no magnets for this feature, but at least I know it’s not going to put the iPad to sleep when I close it. With the Logitech Keyboard Folio, it’d be a guess every time.

So, too many little things are not quite right with this otherwise slick looking keyboard case. Off it goes back to Amazon from whence it came. I may try the Air version of the Logitech Keyboard Cover next time, but now I’m even reconsidering whether it’s worth getting a separate keyboard at all.

After all, I just wrote this without one.