Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Are folding smartphones practical?

Posted in computers, ipad, mobile devices by commorancy on April 30, 2019

Today, let’s explore folding smartphones. Are they practical? Do they have a place in the market? Will they last? Are they innovative? Let’s explore.

Tablets vs. Folding Smartphone

Looking at the Huawei Mate X and the Samsung Galaxy Fold folding devices, two things become abundantly clear, First, they fold open into the form factor of a tablet. Second, they command a price that’s way, way higher than an actual tablet.

There are also additional problems with these phones. When the phone is folded open, you can’t hold it to your ear and use it as you would a phone. You must fold it closed to regain the phone form factor. Because the larger screen is the primary reason to buy this device, this makes the folding aspect of this device less about being a phone and more about being a tablet. Or, let me put that another way, it’s a gimmick. Why is it a gimmick? Because in addition to the tablet size, you also add creases and marks to the plastic surface each time you fold and unfold the phone. Ultimately, it becomes less about being a tablet and more about the novelty of the folding screen.

For a product that’s supposed to be a premium, top-tier device, I don’t know about you, but I want my surface to be (and remain) pristine. I don’t want to feel surface bumps or lines running down the center of the fold area. I certainly don’t want this stretching and bending plastic to get worse over time. Yet, that’s where these phones clash with…

Materials Science

In other words, this is where these phones meet reality (or physics). To fold any type of material, that material will become marred and marked by the folding action. As the folding continues, the problems will increase with the surface becoming more and more marred. It’s simply the nature of folding something. It’s a limitation of the way physical objects operate when folded. It’s nature.

When applied to a phone’s case design, you will continue to see see the fold area gain marks, bumps and imperfections due to the folding action. To me, this doesn’t say “premium”. It says “cheap”. Plastics see to that “cheapness”. After all, plastics are some of the cheapest materials around today… and plastics are the only substances capable of holding up to any level of folding with a minimum of problems. However, a minimum of problems doesn’t mean zero problems.

The only way this could change is if materials could be made out of a polymer that can heal itself under these folding stresses and stretch and relax appropriately during the fold. To date, no one has been able to produce such a material. This means that folding screen surfaces will inevitably become marked and marred with each fold and unfold action. Over time, it will eventually become a sheer mess of marks… which also assumes the folding action of the OLED screen itself will survive that many folds. Just consider how a paperback book’s spine looks after you’re done reading it. That same effect happens to plastic, even the most resilient of plastics.

OLED Screens and Electronics

I’m not a materials scientist. With that said, I’m also unaware of any specific clear plastic sheet materials that can survive being folded and unfolded many times. Silicone might work, but even then silicone might degrade or break over time. Considering how many times people might utilize a folding screen per day, it could be folded and unfolded perhaps hundreds of times in a single day. If you unfolded the screen just once per day, in 1 year you’d have unfolded the screen 365 times. If you multiply that times 100, that’s likely over 36,500 folds per year… probably more.

While notebook manufacturers have more or less worked out the folding problem with LCD screens (they use flexible ribbon cables), notebooks hinges and components do eventually wear out from regular opening and closing.

In a phone, the problem will be ten times greater. Not only will the phone wear out faster than a non-folding model, the phone will be worth far, far less at the end of your use. No one is going to want to buy a used folding phone that looks like a used paper back book.

Since the hinges on these devices have to be uniquely designed for a smaller phone form factor and to avoid getting in the way of the screen surface, these designs are likely ripe for defects… particularly the first generation phones. And all for what?

A Tablet?

The single unique benefit of the folding phone is to turn the screen into the size of a tablet. While single body phablets worked great when they arrived, this idea of making the screen even bigger in a phone doesn’t make much sense. Yes, it’s unique. Yes, it’s probably a way to make more sales. But, is it really a good idea? Not really.

Tablets already do what they need to do and they do it well. Arguably, the best tablet I’ve seen created by Samsung is the Galaxy Tab S. It had the perfect form factor for watching movies. It fit in the hand nicely. It had a perfect weight. It also had that amazing OLED screen. It had everything you could want in a tablet.

Now, with folding screens comes a whole new paradigm of software to drive the folding action. When unfolded, it’s basically a tablet. When folded, it becomes a phone form factor. To move between the small folded screen and the larger unfolded screen seamlessly between apps, app support must be built. This requires whole new set of OS libraries and software to support that action.

Unfortunately, neither Android nor IOS supports this folding screen usability. Instead, Samsung has cobbled together some early drivers and software for its Galaxy Fold. With the Huawei’s Mate X, it’s not even that far along. If you buy into one of these convertibles, you’re going to be sorely disappointed when moving between the small and large screens within the same app. Some apps might update properly, many more will not.

That doesn’t mean the OSes won’t catch up, but it will take some time. It also means growing pains until the OS technology catches up.

Phone and Tablet Together

Tablets and phones should be married. I’ve said that for quite some time. There’s no reason to carry around two devices when you can carry around one. However, it doesn’t need to fold. Carrying around a tablet as both a tablet and a phone is perfectly fine. Simply marry the innards of a phone into a Tablet and voila, a new device. I’d be perfectly fine carrying around a tablet the size of the iPad Mini as my primary phone. It’s small enough to be portable and large enough to do what I need to do on a tablet. There’s no need to fold it in half.

Gimmicks

Unfortunately, technology has moved away from producing useful new features and has moved firmly into adding gimmicks to sell new devices. From FaceID to the ever growing number of unnecessary cameras to now this folding action. For cameras, one camera is fine. Two borders on a gimmick. Adding three or more cameras is most definitely a gimmick to part you from your money. You don’t need multiple cameras on a phone. One is enough.

Folding is also a gimmick. The idea of folding isn’t new. We’ve had folding books, folding paper and folding binders… heck, there are even “folders” so named to hold paper in filing cabinets.

Folding a phone? Not necessary. Gimmick? Definitely. It’s particularly a gimmick because of the problem with materials science. If you know your phone is going to end up looking like trash at the end of one year’s use, then why bother? I know phones are designed to last one year before buying another, but that purchase cycle is insane. I’ve never fallen into that manufacturing and purchasing trap. I expect my phones to last at least 3 years, sometimes before even needing a battery change.

I’ve always held onto my phone for at least 1-2 new phone release cycles before buying a new one. Lately, it’s been 2-3 cycles because I’m currently invested in the Apple universe and I vehemently dislike the iPhone X’s design. I have an iPhone 7 Plus. I abhor the notched screen. I dislike that Apple invested in a costly OLED screen not only include that notch, but also reduce the color rendition to mimic an LCD screen. If you’re planning on degrading an OLED screen’s rendition, then use the cheaper LCD screen technology. An OLED screen offers a very intense saturated look. Some people don’t like it, but many do. The point to offering a screen capable of that level of color saturation is to make use of it, not hide it.

With the iPhone X, I dislike that there’s no TouchID button. I also dislike that the screen isn’t flush to the full edge of the case. There’s still a small black bezel around the entire screen except near that ugly, ugly notch. I also don’t like the introduction of the rounded display corners. It worked on the Mac back in the day, but not on a phone. Keep the corners firmly square.

Worse, at the time the iPhone X arrived, my iPhone 7 Plus’s screen was still larger than the iPhone X. It wasn’t until the iPhone X Max arrived that we got a comparable screen size to the 7 Plus. I digress.

Gimmicks are now firmly driving the phone industry rather than outstanding design and usability features. The last outstanding iPhone design that Apple produced was arguably the iPhone 7. It solved all of the glass design problems around the iPhone 4, the small screen of the iPhone 5 and the bendgate problems of the iPhone 6. It is arguably, indeed, the best phone Apple has yet designed. Then, they introduced the abomination known as the iPhone X.

At the same time as the iPhone X, Apple introduced the iPhone 8. The iPhone 8 seems much like an extension of the iPhone 7, but with wireless charging. Yes, wireless charging would have been great IF Apple hadn’t cancelled the AirPower charger base they had promised. Now that that product is non-existent, the point to wireless charging an iPhone has more or less evaporated. Sure, you can wireless charge an iPhone with a Qi charger, but at such a slow rate it’s not worth considering.

The AirPower’s whole reason to exist was to charged the phone (and other devices) supposedly faster than a Lightning cable. Perhaps Apple will finally release their fast charging specs to the industry so that Qi chargers can finally build in this faster charging feature and offer similar charging times as the aforementioned, but now defunct AirPower base. But, we know Apple, they’ve just shot themselves in the foot and they won’t do anything about it. Now that the AirPower is dead, so likely too is the hope of super fast wireless charging.

AirPods 2

This whole situation with the AirPower (and really this is more about Apple’s failure to deliver a workable product) is made far, far worse with the release of the the AirPods 2. It’s like Apple has some big sadistic streak towards its customers by cancelling a completely necessary product in one breath, then announce the AirPods 2 “with wireless charging case” in the next.

One of the primary reasons the AirPods 2 exist is for the wireless charging case. Unfortunately, even with Lightning, the charging speed of the AirPods is still incredibly slow. Considering how much slower Qi chargers operate, it will take infinitely more time to charge the case of the AirPods 2. You don’t want this if you’re trying to get out the door to your destination. This means that those who had banked on the wireless charging capability for purchase of the AirPods 2 with the wireless charging (a case that costs $80 separately or adds $40 to the price of standard AirPods) because of the AirPower’s faster performance has now been misled by Apple. Thus, this makes the primary selling point of the AirPods 2 now worthless.

If anything, the cancellation of the AirPower wireless charging pad clearly shows Apple’s failure as a company. Not only did the engineers fail to design and deliver a seemingly simplistic device, Apple as a company failed the consumer by not carrying through with their ecosystem continuity plans. Plans that, if they had come to fruition, could have seen to the existence of a much wider array of wireless devices aided by the AirPower.

The AirPods are pretty much a case of “you-can’t-have-one-without-the-other”. Failing the delivery of the AirPower means you’ve failed the delivery of the AirPods 2 by extension. It’s this double whammy failure that will hit Apple hard.

In fact, it’s even worse than a double-whammy for the future of Apple. It impacts future iPhone sales, future iPad sales, future Apple Watch sales and, in general, any other wireless charging device Apple might have had in its design queue. The failure to deliver the AirPower base is a major blow to Apple’s innovation and the Apple ecosystem as a whole.

Apple’s Apathy

The management team at Apple appears to be apathetic to this wider problem. I can hear them now, “Let’s just cancel AirPower”. Another person says, “But, it’s going to be needed for many future devices”. Another person says, “Don’t worry about that. Just cancel it.”

Apathy is the antithesis of Innovation. These two concepts have no symbiotic relationship. There was a time when Apple (or more specifically, Steve Jobs) would push his teams to deliver amazing designed products with features 5-10 years ahead of their time. Now Apple can’t even deliver a similar product that already exists in the marketplace by other manufacturers.

You can’t run a business on apathy. You can only run a business on doing. If Apple is smart, they’ll announce the cancellation of AirPower, but quickly announce an even better wireless charging alternative that’s even faster than the AirPower. Without a solid, reliable and performant wireless charging system, devices like the now-wireless charging AirPods 2 are left hanging. The Apple Watch is left hanging. And… Apple’s flagship product, the iPhone X is also being left hanging without a net.

Innovation and Gimmicks

While I know I got off on an Apple tangent, it was to prove a point. That point being that gimmicks like wireless charging cases, must have functional sister products to bring that product to life. Without such symbiotic sister products, a half-product is very much simply an on-paper gimmick to sell more product.

Clearly, Apple is now firmly in gimmick territory in its attempts to make money. So is Samsung, Huawei and even LG. It’s more about innovating and making truly new and exciting products we’ve never seen, than it is about adding more cameras, or bigger batteries or making it thinner or adding a pencil or even, yes, folding. These featires are the “accessories” that add value to an innovative product, but these are not primary driving factors.

If you want to wow the industry, you make a product no one has ever seen before. We’ve seen both the Huawei Mate X and the Galaxy Fold before, in tablets and in phones. Marrying the two together doesn’t make innovation, it makes iteration. There’s a substantial difference between iteration and innovation. Iteration is taking two existing concepts and marrying them together. Innovation is producing a product that has never before existed like that ever. Tablets already exist even if they don’t fold.

The iPad as Innovation

The iPad is a game changing, innovative device. The only even close product would have been in the early 90’s with Grid’s GRiDPad. The only similarity between the iPad and the GRiDPad is the fact that they were both tablets by function. Both have completely different philosophies on what a tablet is, how it works and how it looks. The GRiDPad failed because it didn’t know what to be at a time when it needed a clear reason to exist. This is particularly true when such a form factor had never before existed. People need to be able to wrap their head around why a tablet needs to exist. With Grid, they couldn’t.

The reason Apple’s iPad succeeded was not only because of the form factor, but because Apple also put an amazing amount of time and thought into how a tablet form factor works, feels in the hand and how the touch interface works. They gave people the understanding of how and why a tablet is useful… something Grid failed to do with the GRiDPad. It also didn’t hurt that Apple had a solid, robust operating system in MacOS X that they could tweak and use as a base to drive the user interface. Grid, on the other hand, didn’t. They didn’t build an ecosystem, they didn’t have an app store, they didn’t have a proper operating system, they didn’t really even have apps. There was the tablet, but on the other side of the equals sign there was nothing.

Apple’s design thought of nearly everything from top to bottom and from form to function to ecosystem. Apple offered the consumer the total package. Grid got the form down, but not the function. Apple nailed nearly everything about the iPad from the start.

In fact, Apple nailed so much about the iPad from the beginning, Apple has not actually been able to improve upon that design substantially. Everything that Apple has added to iOS has been created not to improve upon the touch UI, but to add missing features, like cut and paste and Siri. In fact, Siri is as equally important innovation to the iPad, but it’s not truly needed for the iPad. It’s much more important innovation for the iPhone, because of the hands free nature that a phone needs while driving. Siri is, in fact, the single most important achievement to create a safer driving experience… something you won’t be doing on an iPad, but you will be doing on an iPhone or Apple Watch.

Steve Jobs

The Apple achievements I mention wouldn’t have been possible without Steve Jobs. Steve was not only a truly masterful marketer, he was also a visionary. He may not have personally designed the product, but he knew exactly what he wanted in the device. He was definitely visionary when it came to simplicity of design, when combined with everyday life.

You definitely want simplicity. You want easy to access software systems. You want intuitive touch interfaces. You want to be able to get in and out of interfaces in one or two touches. You don’t want to dig ever deeper in menu after menu after menu simply to get to a single function. Steve Jobs very much endorsed Keep-It-Simple-Stupid (or the KISS) philosophy. For example, the creation of single button mice. The placing of a single button on the front of the iPad. These are all very much the KISS design philosophy. It’s what makes people’s lives easier rather than more complicated.

Unfortunately, after Steve Jobs’s death in 2011, that left a huge KISS gap at Apple, which as only widened since. Even iOS and MacOS X have succumbed to this change in design philosophy. Instead of adopting KISS, Apple has abandoned that design goal and, instead, replaced it with deeper and deeper menus, with more complicated UI interfaces, with less simplistic user experiences and with buggier releases. The bugs being simply an outcome of dropping the KISS design idea. More complicated software means more bugs. Less complicated software means less bugs.

Some might argue FaceID makes your life simpler. Yes, it might… when it works, at the added cost of privacy problems. Problems that were solved just as simply with TouchID, adding none of those nasty privacy issues.

Samsung and Apple

While Samsung played catch-up with Apple for quite a while, Samsung got ahead by buying into component manufacturing, including the manufacture of OLED screens. In fact, Samsung became one of the leaders in OLED screen fabrication. If there’s an OLED screen in a product, there’s a high likelihood it was made by Samsung.

This meant that most OLED Android smart phones contain a Samsung part even if the phone was designed and produce by LG or Huawei or Google. This component level aspect of Samsung’s technology strategy has helped Samsung produce some of the best looking and functioning Android smart phones. For this same reason and because of the Apple and Samsung rivalry, Apple shunned using OLED for far too long. Because of the ever continual Samsung vs. Apple argument, Apple refused to add OLED screens into their devices… thus stunting Apple’s ability to innovate in the iPhone space for many years.

The OLED screen also allowed Samsung to produce the first “phablet” (combination phone and tablet). Bigger than most smart phones, smaller than a tablet. It offered users a larger phone screen to better surf Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It was an iterative improvement to be sure, definitely not innovative in the truest sense. However, it definitely leapfrogged Samsung way ahead of Apple in screen quality and size. This is where Samsung leaped over Apple and made a serious niche for themselves… and it is also what propelled Android phones front and center. The “phablet” is what firmly propelled Samsung ahead of Apple and it is what has firmly kept them there.

In fact, Apple is now so far behind Samsung that it is now playing continual catch-up with it screen technologies, with wireless charging, with smart watches and with pretty much every other “innovation” Samsung has offered in since 2015.

One might argue that the AirPods were something new an innovative. Sure, but they were simply an iterative improvement over the EarPods (the wired version). The part of the AirPods that are, in fact, innovative is not the ear buds themselves, but the magnetic charging case. This case design is, in fact, the thing that sets these earbuds apart from every other set of wireless earbuds. This case, in fact, is one of the last few KISS design bastions I’ve seen come out of Apple. Unfortunately, as sleek as the case design is, the software behind it is equally as clumsy and not at all KISS in design.

The AirPods pair fast and easy using an instant recognizing system, but actually using the AirPods can be a chore. Sometimes the AirPods fail to connect at all. Sometimes one of them fails to connect. When a phone call comes in and you place an earbud in your ear, the phone still answers on the internal speaker even though the earbud is connected. When you try to move the audio to the earbud, the option is not even available. Sometimes you hear dropouts and stuttering while listening to music just inches away from the phone. Yes, the software is entirely clumsy. It’s so clumsy, in fact, it’s really something I would have expected to see from Android instead of iOS.

Commitment to Excellence

When Jobs was operating the innovation arm at Apple, the commitment to excellence was palpable. Since Jobs’s has left us, Apple’s commitment to excellence has entirely vanished. Not only are their products no longer being produced with the Jobs level of expected excellence, it’s not even up to a standard level of industry excellence. It’s now what one might expect to get from McDonald’s, not a three star Michelin rated restaurant. Apple, at one point, was effectively a three star Michelin-rated restaurant. Today, Apple is the Wendy’s of the computer world. Wendy’s is better than most and they make a good hamburger, but it is in no way gourmet. This is what Apple has become.

Samsung fares even worse. Samsung has never been known for its commitment to excellence. In fact, for a long time, I’ve been aware that Samsung’s products, while pretty and have great screens, are not at all built to last. They have small parts that wear out quickly and eventually break. Sometimes the units just outright fall apart. For the longest time I steered clear of Samsung products simply because their commitment to excellence was so far below Apple (even at where Apple is today), I simply couldn’t trust Samsung to produce a lasting product.

Recently, Samsung has mostly proven me wrong, at least for the Galaxy S5 and the Galaxy Tab S. This smart phone and tablet have held up amazingly well. The OLED screens still look tantalizingly sharp and crisp. The processors are still fast enough to handle most of what’s being pushed out today… which is still much better than the speed of an iPhone 4S or iPhone 5 released around the same time. Apple’s products simply don’t stand up to the test of time. However, Samsung’s older products have. That’s a testament to the improved build quality of Samsung devices.

However, commitment to excellence is not a commitment to innovation. The two, while related, are not the same. I’d really like to see Apple and Samsung both commit to excellence in innovation instead of creating devices based on gimmicks.

Full Circle

We’ve explored a lot of different aspects of technology within this article. Let’s bring it all home. The point is that innovation, true innovation, is what drives technology forward. Iterative innovation does not. It improves a device slightly, but it waters down the device in the process. You don’t want to water down devices, you want to build new, innovative devices that improve our lives, make our homes better, faster, safer, easier… and make access to information quicker and, overall, help improve our daily lives.

We don’t want to fight with devices to hear our voices over a fan. We don’t want to have to guess the phrase to use with Siri through iterative trial-and-error to make it give us specific information. We don’t want to have to flash the phone in front of our faces several times before FaceID recognizes us. We don’t want to dig through menu, after menu, after menu simply to enable or disable a function. That’s not easy access, that’s complication. Complications belong on smart watches, not on phones.

In short, we need to get back to the KISS design philosophy. We need to declutter, simplify, make devices less obtuse and more straightforward. Lose the menus and give us back quick access to device functions. We need to make buttons bigger, rather than smaller on touch screens. Teeny-tiny buttons have no place on a touch screen. We’ve gone backwards rather than forwards with touch interfaces on tablets and phones… yes, even on iOS devices.

Folding phones are not simple. In fact, they are the opposite of simple. Simple is making phone usability easier, not more tricky. Adding a folding screen adds more complication to the phone, not less. Lose the folding. We need to shorten, simplify and reduce. We need to make mobile devices, once again, Steve Jobs simple.

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Console Review: Nintendo Switch

Posted in nintendo, technologies, video gaming by commorancy on August 17, 2017

Back in April, I wrote an article entitled Why I’ve Not Yet Bought A Nintendo Switch. It’s now August and I’ve decided to take the plunge and buy a Switch based on a comment I heard about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I hadn’t yet played this game (in part because I was disappointed with the last Zelda installment). However, someone told me that it is effectively Skyrim. That comment piqued my interest. The Elder Scrolls series is one of my two most favorite video game series, the other being Fallout 4. I’ve always liked Zelda, but didn’t want to play it on the Wii U. So, I decided it was time to give the Switch a try (assuming I could find one in stock). After turning the unit on, it became quickly obvious just how limited this tablet really is. However, I am looking forward to playing the Skyrim port on a portable. Let’s explore.

Best Buy

As luck would have it, when I arrived at Best Buy to pick up my pre-ordered copy of Agents of Mayhem for the PS4 (haven’t started playing it yet for reasons that will become obvious), I asked a floor person if they had any Nintendo Switch consoles in stock. To my surprise, they did. I picked one up on the spot, and with it a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I also picked up a few Amiibo that I didn’t have and a Switch Pro Controller in hopes of avoiding the Joy-Con problem. I have heard the Joy-Cons can lose connectivity when operating wireless, dropping their connections mid-gaming. I had experienced this exact problem with the PS3 controller after its release and I definitely do not wish to revisit that problem on the Switch. Even the Best Buy floor representative confirmed the wireless disconnection problem with his own personal Switch.

Note, I also decided to picked up the Switch at this time because it’s still well before the holiday season when finding things in stock gets crazy impossible. I’m planning on playing Skyrim and wanted to have a Switch before Skyrim releases during the holidays (no release date as of this article). I would also like to see Bethesda port Fallout 4 over, but that’s probably a pipe dream. Let’s get right into the meat of this review.

Tablet Weight and Size

Starting with size, the one thing that I immediately noticed upon opening the box is how small this tablet actually is. My NVIDIA Shield, my iPad and my Galaxy Tab S are all actually much bigger than the Switch. Even the iPad mini is bigger than the Switch. Let’s just say that its much smaller than I had expected. In a portable, I guess that’s okay. Of course, after attaching the Joy-Cons, the tablet becomes much longer. As for setting it up, the tablet setup was easy and fast, unlike the Wii U which seemed overly complicated. The slowest part was setting up a Nintendo account (see below).

The weight of the tablet is average, not too light and not too heavy. After you attach the Joy-Cons, the weight becomes more substantial. I’ll probably leave the Joy-Cons attached most of the time because the Switch Pro Controller works spectacularly well even though it costs ~$70. Anyway, the screen is smaller than I expected, but it is still readable. However, the screen controls inside Breath of the Wild are far too small. In fact, this tabsole suffers from the same exact problem as did the PS Vita. The screen resolution is so high and the icons are drawn so small that it can be difficult to touch or read some of the text on the tablet screen. When played on a TV, this isn’t a problem. Though, the tablet screen is bigger than the PS Vita and the play area is quite nice, the tiny icon problem remains. Nintendo can fix this issue in later games, but for Breath of the Wild, it suffers a bit from the tiny icons when playing on the tablet screen.

Graphics and Game Performance

After playing Breath of the Wild for just 15 minutes, it is quite obvious. This tabsole is workhorse fully capable of producing solid frame rates on both the tablet display and through the dock on a large screen TV. In fact, the ability to switch back and forth between the tablet display and the TV display is so seamless, it just works without thought. Simply slide the tablet into the dock and it’s on the TV. Hooking the dock up to the TV was a cinch.

What accessories does the Switch support?

  • microSDXC and microSDHC cards
  • 32 GB built in tablet memory
  • card slot for games (they’re card based)
  • Amiibo support (both on the controller and on the tablet)

Interestingly, there are tablety features missing such as:

  • No cameras (rear or front)
  • No microphone
  • No stylus (interesting because the 3DS was all about the stylus)

However, the Joy-Cons have a unique slide attach system. This means that in the future such devices as microphones and cameras may become available as slide-on accessories. It is unknown if the slide-on accessories can be stacked. Hopefully, Nintendo did design the slide-on accessories to be stackable. Even if they aren’t stackable, you can still use the Joy-Cons wirelessly when other accessories are connected.

Joy-Cons

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss these controllers. These controllers (light gray – right, blue/red – top) slide onto the left and right side of the tablet (or the left and right side of the adapter). They’re nice enough and have a good joystick feel, but overall they’re only just okay. The buttons are too small for my liking. When you take the Joy-Cons off and attempt to use them separately or attached to the Joy-Con controller adapter (pictured right), they still don’t improve much. The real improvement is in using the Switch Pro Controller (pictured below). Interestingly, in addition to the Joy-Con adapter, there are two slide-ons included for each Joy-Con that attaches a wrist strap. I guess because of the Wii and people breaking things by throwing them at the TV, Nintendo has learned its lesson. Needless to say, these two wrist strap attachments do provide the Joy-Cons with a more polished, finished look and feel when attached. Interestingly, Nintendo did not include simple rounded end closures for the sides of the tablet itself to make the tablet also look finished when the Joy-Cons are detached. The unfinished tablet side ends just hang out to collect dust and dirt.

Switch as a Tablet

In this day and age with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy Tab and Apple’s ever larger and larger iPad versions, coupled with the iOS or Android, these modern tablets are both functional as productivity and browsing devices, but they can also be used for high intensity gaming… with controllers even. Clearly, only Apple tablets support iOS. However, many many tablets support Android. In fact, Android is likely to become the operating system of choice on tablets, far and above iOS or Windows in deployments. Why? Because it’s open source, it’s designed to work with tablets, it performs well and it’s well supported. It also means that there’s a crap ton of applications already available on this platform.

Unfortunately, here is where the Nintendo Switch completely falls down. Nintendo has opted to use its own proprietary operating system to drive the Switch. This has the obvious downside of not running any existing apps or games. This means that as a Switch owner, you are entirely at the mercy of Nintendo to provide every app you could ever want. And herein likes the biggest problem.

While the games run like a champ, the Switch cannot become a useful tablet itself because it does not benefit from inheriting existing games or apps from Android. This is entirely the problem with the Switch in a nutshell. When you power the Switch on, you’ll quickly notice that there are a very very limited number of games in the Nintendo eShop. In fact, there are so few, it’s probably not worth considering the Switch as anything other than a Nintendo gaming system.

Switch as a Game Console

Unlike the Wii U that offered a dual display (the Gamepad touch screen in addition to TV screen), the Switch can only display on the TV or the tablet one screen at a time. When docked, the tablet display is covered and disabled. With the Wii U, you could use the Gamepad screen for maps or inventory or other useful drag and drop features. With the Switch, that’s not possible. That Nintendo has dropped the two screen idea entirely is a bit unusual. I did like being able to perform certain gaming tasks (i.e., rearranging the inventory) on the second screen. Yes, it was of limited use, but having the second screen for certain gaming tasks made a lot of sense.

Nintendo never learns

By now, you would have thought that Nintendo would have learned its lesson from failure of the Wii U. Yet, here we are… back in the same boat as the Wii U. This means that, yes, it’s a tablet but, no, you cannot use it for anything other than gaming. Nintendo, if you’re planning to design a device like this, you also need to understand the bigger picture. This is a tablet. As a tablet, in addition to gaming, it should be able to run standard apps that are found on both Android and iOS. Unfortunately, there is nothing available (not yet anyway). In fact, the Switch is currently missing the most basic of apps such as Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, a web browser or any other social networking app. While the OS may support sharing some content to some of these services, that’s as far as it goes. You cannot use the tablet as a general purpose device. Such a shame as this means that you will have to carry the Switch around with another tablet or device.

In fact, as a Nintendo device, it doesn’t yet even support Miiverse, not that that’s a big loss. It also doesn’t currently support StreetPass (and may never). That’s a bit odd for a portable gaming device produced by Nintendo. You would think that Nintendo could at least support its own social platforms out of the gate.

Nintendo Login

The bizarre choice to require a Nintendo website ID instead of the Nintendo Network ID to log into the eShop is completely unexpected. Like the Nintendo 3DS, I fully expected to type in my NNID login and password and be on my way. Nope, I had to run over and create a brand new login ID through the web site, then link it to my NNID, then use that new login and password to have the Switch login. Bizarre. Nintendo seems to make these arbitrary and haphazard changes with each new console iteration. I’m not yet even sure what benefit jumping through this hoop actually provides. Though, once you log into the Nintendo Web portal, you can link in your Facebook and Twitter accounts. So, perhaps it’s a way to link your social networks? *shrug*

The one thing that irks me is that you must type in your Nintendo Login password each time you want to enter the Nintendo eShop. Why it can’t remember your password for even a few minutes is frustrating. Better, give me the option of saving my password on the console so I don’t have to type it each time. If you want to add a security feature against accidental purchases, require a separate four (4) digit pin code which must be typed before each purchase. Typing in four (4) numbers is far easier than typing in a long password string. Figure it out Nintendo.

Nintendo Online

With the introduction of the Switch, Nintendo has created (or will create) an online service. This service, I’m guessing, is to be similar to Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. I’m assuming it will offer multiplayer gaming and other perks, but we’ll have to wait and see what it intends to provide. It doesn’t officially launch until 2018 and will sport a $19.99 a year price tag (though you can pay monthly). Whether or not that’s the final price tag remains to be seen. Considering that both PSN and Xbox Live are well more costly than that, I’d fully expect Nintendo to raise the price of this online service in short order. After all, it’s not inexpensive to build and maintain services in AWS or Google Cloud or even in your own data center.

Overall

The Switch is definitely great at gaming. However, because Nintendo has chosen for the Switch not to be a general purpose tablet or run an operating system with a boatload of existing software (i.e., Android), it will only ever be a single purpose gaming tablet. Personally, I think that’s a huge mistake on Nintendo’s part. Nintendo is gambling an awful lot on this limited tablet design. I personally believe this gamble will not pay off for Nintendo and may leave the Switch as dead as the Wii U. Thanks for thinking ahead there Nintendo. For playing Nintendo game franchises (Mario, Zelda, Pikmin, Pokemon, Splatoon, Metroid and so on), the Switch will do fine. Barring the upcoming Bethesda port of Skyrim to the Switch, I can’t foresee much in the way of non-Nintendo franchises or other blockbusters being developed or ported. In fact, Nintendo probably paid Bethesda a boatload to get Skyrim ported. However, I wouldn’t expect third party ports to continue much into the future. Nintendo will, once again, be forced to give up on that idea of wooing AAA titles to the Switch … which will ultimately limit the platform to Nintendo properties (the entire reason the Wii U failed).

The Switch will become just like the Wii U, the third most popular game console. It will sell to those parents who trust the family friendly nature of Nintendo’s games. However, for adult gaming or using this tablet as a replacement for the iPad, nope. It has a nice enough hardware design, but it just has too many shortcomings to be the end-all of tablets. Because it does not support general purpose tablet use, a parent cannot justify it as an educational tool or even a browsing tool, unlike an iPad or Samsung tablet at around the same price point. Sure, it supports Nintendo’s game franchises, but is that enough? No.

Personally, the Switch is just a little too weighty (and way too lacking of general tablet features) to carry it around all of the time. Instead, I’ll use it at home like a console when docked or use it as a portable around the house when I do laundry and such. If it had Android, could access to the Google Play store, had access to an existing library of tablet games, supported a browser and included other general purpose computing features, I could much more easily justify carrying it with me all of the time. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen with this version of the Switch. Perhaps Nintendo can make this right with an OS update, but certain things cannot be solved in software (i.e., lack of a camera or microphone). The lack of a microphone will seriously hinder multiplayer usage.

The final takeaway is, don’t go buy a Switch expecting anything more from this tablet than playing Nintendo game franchises. For the price of the Switch as a tablet, it’s way under-designed.



Hardware Build
: 5 Stars
Hardware Features: 4 Stars (missing camera and microphone)
Software / OS: 1.5 Stars
Joy-Cons: 3 Stars
Pro Controller: 4 Stars
Overall: 3 Stars

Agree or disagree with this review? Please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts about the Nintendo Switch.

 

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Microsoft Surface: Why Windows is not ready for a tablet

Posted in botch, microsoft, redmond by commorancy on July 4, 2013

Microsoft SurfaceMicrosoft always tries to outdo Apple, but each time they try they end up with a half-baked device that barely resembles what Apple offers. Worse, the device barely even understands the purpose of why Apple created their product in the first place or even what space it fills in the market. But, leave it to Microsoft to try. Let’s begin.

Microsoft Surface

I’ve recently come into contact with a Microsoft Surface tablet. Let’s just dive right into the the heart of the problems with this platform. Windows and a touch surface are simply not compatible, yet. Why? We have to understand Window 8. For the release of Windows 8, Microsoft introduced Metro. This interface is a big tile based interface that is, more or less, touch friendly. It’s the interface that was adopted for use on both the Xbox 360 and Windows phones. The difference between Windows phone / Xbox 360 and Windows 8 is that you can’t get to the underlying Windows pieces on the Xbox 360 and Windows phone (and that’s actually a good thing). With Windows 8 on a tablet, unfortunately, you can. In fact, it forces you to at times. And, here’s exactly where the problems begin.

Windows 8 under the hood is basically Windows 7 slightly repackaged. What I mean is that Windows 8 is essentially Windows 7 when not using Metro. So, the window close button and resize button are the same size as Windows 7, the icons are the same size, the tiny little triangle next to a folder hierarchy is the same size. Easily clickable with a mouse. Now, imagine trying to activate one of those tiny little icons with a tree trunk. You simply can’t target these tiny little icons with your finger. It’s just not touch friendly. That’s exactly the experience you get when you’re using the Windows 8 desktop interface. When trying to press the close button on the Window, yet you might have to press on the screen two, three or four times just to hit the tiny little control just to make it activate. It’s an exercise in futility and frustration.

Metro and Windows

Metro is supposed to be the primary interface to drive Microsoft Surface. However, as soon as you press some of the tiles, it drops you right into standard Windows desktop with icons, start button and all. When you get dropped into this interface, this is exactly where the whole tablet’s usefulness breaks down. Just imagine trying to use a touch surface with Windows 7. No, it’s not pretty. That’s exactly what you’re doing when you’re at the Windows 8 desktop. It’s seriously frustrating, time consuming and you feel like a giant among Liliputians.

No, this interface is just not ready for a touch surface. At least, not without completely redesigning the interface from the ground up… which, in fact, is what I thought Metro would become. But no, many of the activities on the Metro screen take you out of Metro. This is the breakdown in usability. For a tablet OS, Metro should be it.  There should be no underlying Windows to drop down to. If you can’t do it Metro, it cannot be done!

A Tablet is not a home computer, Microsoft!

The offering up multiple interfaces to the operating system is the fundamental design difference between IOS and Windows 8. Microsoft would have been smarter to take Windows phone OS and place that operating system straight onto Windows Surface. At least that operating system was completely designed to work solely with touch screen using 100% Metro. That would have been at least more along the lines of what Surface should have been. Instead, Microsoft decides to take the entire Windows 8 operating system and place it onto the tablet, touch-unfriendly and all. Is anyone actually thinking in Redmond?

In addition, putting full versions of Word, Powerpoint and Excel on Windows Surface might seem like a selling point, but it isn’t. The point to the iPad is to provide you with small lightweight applications to supplement what you use on a full computer. Or, better, Cloud versions of the apps. I understand the thinking that having a full computer as a tablet might be a good idea, but it really isn’t. Tablets are way too under powered for that purpose. That’s why notebooks and desktops are still necessary. The size of the processors in flat tablet devices just aren’t powerful enough to be useful for full-sized apps.  That’s the reason why the iPad is the way that it is.  Apple understands that an A6 processor is not in any way close to a full quad core i7 processor. So, the iPad doesn’t pretend to be a full computer knowing that it can’t ever be that. Instead, it opts to provide smaller light weight apps that allow simple communication, entertainment and apps that an A6 is capable of handling within the constraints of the limited ram and storage. That’s why IOS works on the iPad and why Windows 8 doesn’t work on Microsoft Surface.

Herky Jerky Motion

One of the other problems I noticed is that when you’re dragging around Metro’s interface and transitioning between Windows 8 desktop apps and back into Metro, there is this annoying stuttering jerky motion the screen does.  It appears that this was an intentional design and not the graphics card going haywire. I’m not sure why this was let out of Redmond this way. Just from that problem alone, I first thought that Microsoft Surface tablet was having a problem. Then I realized that it wasn’t a tablet hardware problem. Indeed, that problem was inherent within Windows 8 and Metro.  If you’re planning to offer a dragging, fading, transitioning experience, make it smooth. That means, no jerky shaky transitions.  It makes the device seem under powered (it probably is). At the same time, it makes Windows look antiquated and unpolished (it definitely is).

Multiple Revisions

Microsoft always takes two or three product iterations before it settles into a reasonably solid, but second rate, product format. With the exception of the original Xbox, I don’t know of any single device that Microsoft has gotten right on the first try. It was inevitable that they would get the Microsoft Surface tablet wrong. If you’re looking to get into Windows 8, I’d suggest just going for a notebook outright. You’ll get more for your bang for the buck and you’ll have a much more usable Windows 8 experience.

I really wanted to like Windows Surface, but these fundamental problems with Windows prevent this tablet from being anything more than a clunky toy. The iPad actually has a use because the icons and screen elements are always big enough to tap no matter the size of the device. This is one of things that Apple fully understands about touch surfaces.  Although, Apple could do with some nuanced improvements to touch usability.  Unfortunately, when you get to the Windows 8 desktop interface, it’s a complete chore to control it via touch. I just can’t see buying a Windows Surface first version tablet. It tries to be too many things, but fails to be any of them.

Microsoft, figure it out!

What is it about tablets?

Posted in Apple, botch, business, california, computers, microsoft by commorancy on January 15, 2010

Ok, I’m stumped.  I’ve tried to understand this manufacturing trend, but I simply can’t.  We have to be heading towards the fourth or maybe fifth generation of tablet PCs, yet each time they bring tablets back to the the market, this technology fails miserably.  Perhaps it’s the timing, but I don’t think so.  I think the market has spoken time and time again.  So, what is it about this technology that make manufacturers try and try again to foist these lead balloons onto us about every 6 years?

Wayback machine

It was in the early 90’s that Grid Computers arguably released the first tablet (or at least, one of the very first tablets).  Granted, it used a monochrome plasma screen and I believe that it ran DOS and Windows 3.1 (that I recall), but these things flopped badly for many different reasons.  Ultimately, the market spoke and no one wanted them.  It’s no wonder why, too.  The lack of keyboard combined with the size and weight of the unit, the need for a pen and the lack of a truly viable input method doomed this device to the halls of flopdom.  Into obscurity this device went along with Grid Computers (the company).

In the early 2000s, Microsoft+Manufacturers tried again to resurrect this computer format with XP Tablet edition.  This time they tried making the devices more like notebooks where the screen could detach from a keyboard and become a tablet.  So, when it was attached, it looked and felt like a notebook.  When detached, it was a tablet.  Again, there was no viable input method without keyboard even though they were touch screen.  The handwriting recognition was poor at best and if it had voice input, it failed to work.   XP Tablet edition was not enough to make the tablet succeed.  Yet again, the tablet rolled into obscurity… mostly.  You can still buy tablets, but they aren’t that easy to find and few manufacturers make them.  They also ship with hefty price tags.

Origami

Then, later in the mid 2000’s came Microsoft with Origami.  At this time, Origami was supposed to be a compact OS, like Windows CE (although CE would have worked just fine for this, don’t know why Origami really came about).  A few tablets came out using Origami, but most computers that loaded this version of Windows used it in the microPC format.  Since the Origami version of Windows was a full version (unlike CE), it was a lot more powerful than computers of that size really needed and the price tag showed that.  Sony and a few other manufacturers made these microPCs, but they sold at expensive prices (like $1999 or more) for a computer the size of a PDA.  Again, no viable input method could suffice on the microPC tablets and so these died yet another death… although, the microPC hung around a bit longer than the tablet.  You might even still be able to buy one in 2010, if you look hard enough.

Netbook

Then came the Netbook.  The $199-299 priced scaled down notebook using the Atom processor.  This format took off dramatically and has been a resounding success.  The reason, price.  Who wouldn’t want a full fledged portable computer for $199-299?  You can barely buy an iPod or even a cell phone… let alone a desktop PC for that price.  The Netbook price point is the perfect price point for a low end notebook computer.  But, what does a Netbook have to do with a tablet?  It doesn’t, but it is here to illustrate why tablets will continue to fail.

Tablet resurrection

Once again, we are in the middle of yet another possible tablet resurrection attempt.  Rumor has it that Apple will release a tablet.  HP is now also pushing yet another tablet loaded with Windows.  Yet, from past failures, we already know this format is dead on arrival.  What can Apple possibly bring to the tablet format that Microsoft and PCs haven’t?  Nothing.  That’s the problem.  The only possible selling point for a tablet has to be in price alone.  Tablets have to get down to the $199-299 price tag to have any hope of gaining any popularity.  Yet, Apple is not known to make budget computers, so we know that that price point is out.  Assuming Apple does release a tablet, it will likely price it somewhere between $899 and $1599.  Likely, they will offer 3 different versions with the lowest version starting at $899.  Worse, at the lowest price point it will be hobbled lacking most bells and whistles.

Even if Apple loads up the tablet with all of the bells and whistles (i.e., Bluetooth, 3G, GSM, OLED Display, iTunes app capable, handwriting recognition, voice recognition, WiFi, wireless USB, a sleek case design, etc etc) the only thing those bells and whistles will do is raise the cost to produce the unit.  The basic problems with a tablet are portability (too big), lack of a viable input device, weight and fragility (not to mention, battery life).  Adding on a hefty price tag ensures that people won’t buy it.  Of course, the Apple fan boys will buy anything branded with a half bitten Apple logo.  But, for the general masses, no.  This device cannot hope to succeed on Apple fan boy income alone.

Compelling Reasons

Apple has to provide some kind of paradigm shifting technology that makes such a failure of a device like the tablet become successful (or whatever Apple cleverly names its tablet device).  If the tablet is over 7 inches in size, it will be too large to be portable.  Utilizing OLED technology ensures the cost is extremely high.  Putting a thin case on it like the MacBook Air ensures that it’s overly fragile.  We’ve  yet to find out the battery life expectancy.  So far, this is not yet a winning combination.

So, what kind of technology would make such a paradigm shift?  The only such technology I can think of would have to be a new input device technology.  A way to get commands into the notebook and a way to drive the interface easily.  Clearly, a multi-touch screen will help.  The iPod is good in that regard (except that you can’t use it with gloves).  But, if you want to write email, how do you do that on a tablet? Do you hand peck the letters on that silly on-screen thing that Apple calls a keyboard?  No.  That’s not enough.  Apple needs a fully phonetic speech input technology that’s 100% flawless without any training.  That means, you speak the email in and it converts it perfectly to text.  Also, you speak in any conversational command and the computer figures out what you mean flawlessly.  This is the only technology that makes any sense on a tablet.  Of course, it will need to support multiple languages (a tall order) and it needs to be flawless and perfect (an extremely tall order).  It will also need to work in a noisy room (not likely).

Can Apple make such a shift?  I don’t know.  The hardware technology is there to support such a system.  The issue, is the software ready?  Well, let’s hope Apple thinks so.  Otherwise, if Apple does release its rumored tablet without such a paradigm shift, it could be the worst stumble that Apple has made since the Lisa.

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