a simple equation

a simple equation

I'm Chris Lynch. I work on cool stuff like FlyPaper.io, SparkRadius, and CelebHookup. Over the years I've started up a few things (North by Nine and Thoughtful). Previously I was VP of Engineering for Daptiv with a stint at Microsoft as well. Hobbyist photographer, tech geek, music lover, consumer of all things media, triathlete and Ironman. I tend to spend most of my waking moments in coffee-shops out here in rainy Seattle.

iPhone 6 Plus: Too big or just right?

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I stood outside my house as the woman from UPS handed me my iPhone 6 Plus box. Every year there’s an “Apple Day” she tries to hit my house early to drop off my shiny new gadget. It’s like Christmas. I love it and affectionately call it “Apple Day”. I couldn’t wait to open it up and give it a shot. Of course, as life would have it, I had to head straight to a lunch meeting, so there wouldn’t be enough time to really get the phone set up. Damn.

Unlike previous years this was the first time I didn’t know what to buy for an iPhone. Upgrading from an iPhone 5s and without ever getting a chance to intimately spend time with the iPhone 6 or the iPhone 6 Plus beforehand, it was a painful decision when I pre-ordered at midnight on September 19th. The problem for me was simple: the 6 Plus is better than the baseline version: it supports optical image stabilization, a much larger battery, and a higher density retina screen. It isn’t simply bigger; it’s better… except for that really large screen.

First off… the 6 Plus is huge. Let me get that out of the way first. I’m 5’9 with average sized hands, and the thing is like holding a taco up to your face if you make a phone call. Remember how we all laughed at the Galaxy Note when people made calls? Yeah, well, those jokes are still valid.

My habits are fairly simple but I thought I’d call them out so you understand my primary use cases for the iPhone 5s: I don’t watch videos on the phone, I rarely play games on it, but I use iMessage, Paper (Facebook), Mail, Spotify (music), and Tweetbot (Twitter) a lot. I do basic browsing on my phone, and I take a lot of photos and videos. For most games, browsing, videos, Feedly (news) reading, and note taking, my go-to-device is the retina iPad mini.

I’m not going to lie… day one with the 6 Plus was not positive. The device is slick, large, and broke down years of iPhone usage habits all at one time. It wasn’t a “step up” but instead felt like it was the next floor. I suspect that many people will feel this way when coming from an iPhone 5/5s (or even worse a 4/4s). In fact, I would say I disliked the phone’s form factor.

The reason is probably pretty obvious: it’s big. It’s big enough that one handed usage will simply not be the primary mode for people with normal sized hands. Apple has done their best to think this through and has introduces an accessibility feature called “Reachability” that shifts the upper half of the screen down to make it available to a thumb in one handed operation. It works great and is very quick and fluid, but the second you tap on the screen, it shifts back up. Interfaces that have a lot of things at the top of the screen require a lot of double tapping the home button for Reachability, and that gets old.

But it’s not just things at the top of the screen that are hard to reach when using the phone with one hand. I’m right handed, so things on the left side of the screen are a stretch to hit with your thumb. Bottom left is really bad and bottom right is even awkward.

There’s a great chart from Scott Hurff on “How to design for thumbs in the Era of Huge Screens" that shows comfortable touch zones for one-handed operation on all the different iPhone sizes. It’s important for designers to be thinking about how this changes the way people will interact with their apps, and it’s safe to say that most apps were never designed with this size in mind right now.

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Created by Scott Hurff

The number one question I get right now from friends looking to place an order is “which iPhone to get?”

I’ve held off on answering the question until I had about a week with the phone, because I think first impressions are deceptive and judgement is rendered too quickly. The day after my enormous iPhone arrived I shifted my habits a bit. I got used to the fact that the lock button was no longer on top. I set up my phone a little bit more around the apps I use and where my thumb could easily reach. That’s right, I actually moved my home screen around based on my usage (6 Plus on left, 5s on right).

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The other thing that I did was get a case for the 6 Plus. It’s been a few years since I’ve had a case on my iPhone. I simply love the naked feeling of the device all by itself, but it’s very slick. I was 100% sure I would drop the phone in short order. If you do get a case, I would highly recommend avoiding hard surface cases. Instead, opt for something that is grippy and will help you keep this beast in your hands. I ended up choosing one of the Apple silicone cases out of convenience since they don’t have much selection right now. With the case on it, the 6 Plus became considerably more comfortable to use.

Two days in I started to get my groove with the new size. The battery life is sensational. I can’t speak to the battery life of the iPhone 6, but the iPhone 5s had terrible battery life for me, requiring my nightly charge up and then top offs during the day to keep it running until the night. The 6 Plus can go for the day without a recharge, so that’s a welcome benefit from the larger phone size.

A peculiar thing started to happen on day two and three: in the mornings, when I read Feedly, I started using the iPhone 6 Plus instead of the mini. It’s pretty easy to read text on the Plus, and it’s also easier to hold one handed for reading than the mini itself. Reading on the 6 Plus is pretty delightful and the screen is large and very, very detailed. I can’t see a single pixel on it.

If there’s one habit that seems to be developing, it’s that the retina iPad mini is now perhaps too small for how I use it when the larger 6 Plus is within reach. I’m already considering that my next iPad will go back to the full sized iPad Air because the benefits will be far more clear there.

And then there’s the “phone” itself (remember phone calls?). If you hold the phone up to your head, you look like an asshole with a taco in your hand. Thankfully, I do 90% of all my phone calls from the car over Bluetooth.

Speaking of cars, I’ve found Siri on the 4s and 5/5s to be terrible for car use. Many cars simply don’t work with it and shut off the microphone before you’ve even had a chance to speak. The 6 Plus works like a champ (I’m sure the iPhone 6 does as well), so something is new. I ran iOS8 in beta on my 5s and never saw this work right, and it appears to be something new on the 6/6+.

Functioning Bluetooth support for Siri is important to me because there’s a fantastic new feature that Apple pulled over from Android called ‘Hey Siri’ (Android calls it ‘OK Google’). When the iPhone is plugged in, you can activate Siri just by speaking, so you don’t need to fumble with the phone. For the 6 Plus, this is wonderful, because you can do most things completely from voice as long as you plug in your iPhone. Siri still doesn’t have an API (c’mon Apple), so you can only open Spotify from Siri, but making calls, having Siri read texts, or sending messages is all hands free now. In a car, that’s great.

There are other benefits to the 6 Plus: optical image stabilization (OIS), special 6 Plus landscape views, a special keyboard, etc. I haven’t noticed the OIS really, and I don’t do as much in landscape view so I can’t speak to those benefits just yet. I will say I installed SwiftKey, and while 3rd party keyboards in iOS8 are still very buggy, the large size of the 6 Plus is not as problematic with swipe typing. I’d encourage you to try it out on the 6 Plus (or any iPhone actually).

Finally, yes it fits in my pockets. I don’t wear really skinny jeans, but it feels just fine. I had convinced myself before it showed up that it would stick out of my pockets or it would be really uncomfortable. I’m happy to report that it’s not. For women, putting it into a purse would be even more ideal.

So is it too big? Do I regret it? The answer, nearly one week later is ‘no’.  The real test will be to see what I end up with next year, but for now I’m happy with my choice. I’m used to it, appreciate the larger screen, and have re-arranged some behaviors for the size of this thing. I’ve also resigned myself to the fact that it’s simply a two handed device that can be used for some things with just one hand. It’s not a one-handed device unless your hands are very large, and for me I’m willing to give it a year to see. If that’s not acceptable for you, don’t get the 6 Plus - you will regret it.

In some ways, the 6 Plus reminds me of when I got the very first iPhone. The phone I had before that was a Blackberry with a physical keyboard, and I made constant mistakes using the on screen touch keyboard instead of real keys. I remember thinking how much I disliked typing on the iPhone. I can remember a friend telling me that the iPhone would be perfect if they would “just make one with a real keyboard”. The 6 Plus feels like you’re learning something new again, and it’s a little uncomfortable at first. If you rush to judgement too quickly, I think you’ll convince yourself the iPhone 6 is the only option that makes sense. Give it a little time - go the Apple store a few times, try it out and see how you will use it. If you’re considering the 6 Plus, be ready to relearn how to use the phone in certain scenarios.

For me, I’m happy, enjoying the phone, and am looking forward to apps that really start to take advantage of that vibrant screen. The iPhone 6 Plus has a beautiful design, is a joy to hold in your hands, and is far more functional for a variety of uses cases than the diminutive iPhone 5s. It took a week to rebuild some habits for it, and I’m sure I’ll find other changes I do over time as well. All this being said, I really like the iPhone 6 Plus.

Touch ID on the iPhone 5s

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A few years ago I broke down and added a passcode to all my iOS devices. I have simply too many important connections that are accessed all too easily from my phone or iPad. Put in the wrong hands, it would be easy to wreak havoc on my life as well as a variety of customers and companies.

The change was frustrating because it’s not convenient. Instead of immediate access to my phone with a simple swipe to unlock, I had to peck in a four digit passcode to get into my phone. Over time that gave way to adding in a grace period for each unlock. Even with the extra minute that doesn’t require me to execute the rote activity of entering in the security code, I guess I punch in my passcode hundreds upon hundreds of times in a single day. Again, it’s not convenient, and while security experts would say it’s worth it, it doesn’t mean I like it.

Enter Touch ID. I’m no expert in biometric security, but I have used fingerprint scanners over the years and they have all sucked. They were slow or inaccurate, and seemed to miss the need to enhance convenience for the user.

Touch ID does not suck. It is not slow. It is not inaccurate. Touch ID is awesome. 

It’s hard to describe how such a seemingly little thing can make an improvement in something you do over and over. You simply tap the home button and leave your finger there. Less than a second later you’re in iOS assuming the scan was read correctly. It’s amazing how well it works. It’s easy to think it simply can’t be that accurate and simply must be error prone… but it’s not.

The whole setup process takes about a minute per finger and you can store up to 5 distinct fingerprints. I did two of the same finger on each hand and then did one of my wife’s thumb. Once it’s set up it’s all done and you’re ready to go. It’s pretty slick.

Even with Touch ID, I find myself struggling with overcoming nearly 6 years of habit to swipe to unlock my iPhone, and then an additional couple of years of wanting to tap in my passcode. It’s funny how these habits we build up are so hard to break, but this is one habit I’m going to enjoy tossing out the door.

It’s clear this is the “right way” for things to be done. I’m already excited at the possibility of Touch ID on my iPad, which is the other device I’m simply tired of entering in my passcode on. Going back to my old iPhone 5 now feels laborious in comparison to using Touch ID as a gateway to the iPhone 5s.

I’m impressed. Touch ID is the solution you didn’t know you needed until it was there. Those are the always the best.

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AT&T vs Verizon on the iPhone 5

I had a few questions after my last post on why I chose Verizon over AT&T for the iPhone 5. Rather than add a long winded explanation on that (already) long post, I thought I’d provide my analysis here for those who were considering a switch. There are plenty of comparison posts I’ve seen about this, but all of them tried to be a little too “even” about the options a consumer has.

I’ve been an iPhone customer since the launch in 2007 and have had every version released afterwards on AT&T. I’ve put up with quite a bit as an AT&T customer, and for a good part of the AT&T relationship, customers had no option but AT&T. That’s obviously different now, but I’ve had years of dealing with AT&T to get to this point.

First a few important things:

  • LTE is important to me, but AT&T has no LTE support in Seattle. Being in Seattle and buying an LTE phone, I want LTE now. This is a huge problem for AT&T.
  • AT&T has, every year, offered “loyalty” discounts to previous iPhone buyers to keep them on their network. It’s a sweet deal (and I’m sure it’s very costly for AT&T), but it’s kept me with them every single year. Essentially customers who bought every year on launch day would be able to upgrade with the next iPhone at new customer prices. For this discount, you optioned for another 2 year commitment with AT&T. Great deal, but not the case this year.
  • I bought an iPhone 4S, so this is important.

With AT&T not offering the same discount that they have in previous years, the economics of staying with AT&T really aren’t that sexy. I don’t know why AT&T did the pricing like they did. It essentially pushes customers to consider other carriers if they bought an iPhone 4S.

In that scenario, the price of an upgrade to a 32GB iPhone 5 was $549 (as opposed to $299 as in previous years). But the real kicker is that the early termination fee of my current AT&T contract is $215… so, if I switch to Verizon, pay $299 for a 32GB iPhone 5, and pay my ETF with AT&T, I actually come out ahead (by a small amount). With selling my old iPhone 4S it’s not such a bad deal. But it’s a good deal for iPhone users because…

The Verizon iPhone 5 is a true world phone. Unlike the AT&T iPhone, which is just GSM, the Verizon one does just about everything: (CDMA model A1429*: CDMA EV-DO Rev. A and Rev. B (800, 1900, 2100 MHz); UMTS/HSPA+/DC-HSDPA (850, 900, 1900, 2100 MHz); GSM/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz); LTE (Bands 1, 3, 5, 13, 25)). That’s the best of all worlds.

Verizon’s LTE network is also substantially faster than AT&T’s. I have a Verizon iPad 3, and it’s simply awesome, and is faster than my home network most of the time. I can’t wait to have this on my new iPhone 5.

But honestly, it’s more about how AT&T has been as a partner that makes me want to leave them. The relationship has never been good from day 1:

  • Early iPhone usage was dog slow, as AT&T’s network couldn’t deal with the traffic. It was horrible at times for anyone who was an early iPhone user. This was the case for years.
  • When Apple finally got MMS into the iPhone, AT&T users had to wait months until AT&T was able to upgrade their network to support it, despite other phones already having MMS.
  • When Apple provided tethering and hotspots in iOS, AT&T customers had to pay additional fees.
  • When Apple announced FaceTime in iOS6, AT&T required users to switch from previous plans they had in order to take advantage of the feature.
  • AT&T still doesn’t have an LTE network in many markets, and most importantly if you are in Seattle, you will not get LTE on AT&T right now. It’s coming in 2012, but it’s not here yet.
I’m not naive: I know Verizon is the underdog with the iPhone and is trying to be as tempting as they can for customers who may switch. I know that Verizon is also painful to deal with, but I’m ready for a switch: it’s cheaper for now, and provides me with other real benefits including a better world phone and faster network.

AT&T just hasn’t been a great partner: their LTE deployment is slow, and their network isn’t as fast as Verizon. Add in the past several years of the AT&T/iPhone relationship, the attempt to control new features from Apple, and I’m ready for something new.

UPDATE: Here’s a great breakdown of which iPhone 5 is best for travel by James Duncan Davidson.
UPDATE 2: AT&T has gone live with LTE in Seattle for the iPhone 5 launch. Good move, but doesn’t change the history of my relationship with AT&T and the iPhone.

My thoughts on buying the new iPhone 5 and leaving AT&T

I see the iPhone 4/4S design as timeless… it’s both classical and modern at the same time. The design is simple and iconic, and still a benchmark for other phone manufacturers. It’s honest, functional, and sexy all at the same time. I love to look at this phone as much now as I did the first day it showed up. Much like Porsche’s 911, good design is timeless and will always be beautiful.

The new iPhone 5 is evolutionary in all the right ways. It doesn’t stray too far from the tree. In the way the new Retina MacBook Pro is a slight evolution from the unibody MacBook Pro which was an evolution from the original MacBook Pro and the PowrBook before it, Apple does improve designs, but rarely throws them out completely for the sake of a new product. The original iPhone to the iPhone 3G/3GS is a rare exception (one that looked cheap), and in this case the new iPhone 5 fixes many of the design issues the current iPhone 4 body has (ditching the glass back is a welcome change). The improvements leave you with the impression that the product is clearly “new”, but obviously an iPhone.

In contrast, the new Nokia 920 reminds me of the iPod Touch with its colorful designs, but it doesn’t look like a premium product and many of the apps I use are just not there yet. The Samsung Galaxy SIII comes off cheap and plastic looking. The HTC One X is nice looking, but I wouldn’t say it’s an inspiring design. In almost all cases, the best apps are still on iOS, although you’re seeing great apps start to make their way to Android as well (Windows Phone is still very distant here).

On the feature side, the iPhone 5 gets a larger screen while still maintaing excellent one handed use. I find that the trend of a having “larger screens for the sake of a larger screen” very frustrating for real world use. The iPhone 5 is also 20% lighter than the iPhone 4S, which is even more amazing.

Add on LTE and it’s a no brainer if you’re a heavy data user. The speed difference between 3G/HSPDA and LTE is significant enough that I get faster data speeds on my new iPad on Verizon’s LTE network than I do with Comcast at my house sometimes. Pretty amazing.

I think Apple is sitting on the sidelines with NFC for good reason. NFC does very little for most consumers today that Bluetooth 4.0, Passbook, or Wifi cannot, because the reality of using your phone + NFC for payments is simply a mess. NFC is just not there yet, but Passbook is something that can work for everyone, immediately. Today I already use the Starbucks Mobile payments app to buy coffee every morning without the need to tap my phone against something to use NFC, and I suspect Apple is fine with this tradeoff until NFC is a little further along.

Either way, the iPhone has rarely led in specs across the board. There have always been competitors with faster processors, better cameras, more memory, wireless charging, NFC, or well… you get the point. The iPhone is better as a complete product and it always has been. Pinpointing one spec from another phone as a sign that the iPhone 5 is inferior is something the tech press and spec lovers like to do, but it’s rarely anything that the average buyer cares about. The iPhone is the phone that all phones aspire to be, no matter how good the specs are.

I was disappointed most by the rear camera improvements. It’s clear here that Nokia’s 920 has great enhancements in mobile photography with PureView and image stabilization. Granted, adding a sapphire lens with multiple elements into the iPhone 5 will increase the quality of the photos, but it’s such a small step that I find it disappointing. I’m guessing Apple decided to hold back enhancements for next year’s iPhone, or simply couldn’t make the technology work with the compactness and weight of the new iPhone 5. This is perhaps the only thing I was disappointed with.

For this iteration, my wife and I will be headed to Verizon with the new iPhone 5. Leaving AT&T behind feels like the right thing to do, albeit at a slightly greater expense. This year AT&T is not providing their normal iPhone full discount renewal pricing to everyone who ordered the 4S, and they don’t offer LTE yet in Seattle. It makes the choice rather easy after living with AT&T’s bad decisions regarding everything from the original iPhone MMS introduction to using FaceTime over cellular in iOS6. I’m looking forward to joining Verizon for this round.

Let’s face it, the iPhone 5 is simply gorgeous.