Like any other in-app purchase, customers can start an auto-renewing subscription within your app.
But they can’t end it. There’s no way for developers to offer an “Unsubscribe” button, and the actual App Store subscription management page is buried where few customers ever think to look.
Naturally, customers who can’t figure out how to unsubscribe don’t get angry at Apple — they blame the developers, writing angry 1-star reviews and nasty support emails because they think we’re trying to rip them off.
We can’t help them in response, because developers can’t even cancel their subscriptions — only the customers can. Developers can only apologize and refer them to this Apple support document.
When a new customer subscribes, the system in-app-purchase dialog pops up to confirm (…eventually — it’s so slow that it’s easy to assume it failed and tap again). Then a second box comes up with the dreaded “share your information with the publisher” dialog, which has its own problems.
The new-subscriber process is mediocre, but it’s much better than when an existing subscriber needs to sign in on another device.
By convention and policy, apps should display a “Restore Purchases” button. If a subscriber invokes it, their subscription is (…eventually) restored properly.
If they instead select “Subscribe” again, the subscribe flow works as usual, but ends early with a dialog telling the user that they’re already subscribed. Fatally, this is reported as a failure to the app, and there’s no way to distinguish between an “already subscribed” failure and any other subscription failure, such as a failed login or hitting Cancel.2
As you can imagine, this causes yet more support email and angry 1-star reviews. And when apps do it wrong — which happens frequently, especially since sandbox testing is difficult and Apple’s reviewers don’t test for this — it causes embarrassing bugs that prevent people from using the subscription they’re paying for.
There’s no way for developers to know for sure when an auto-renewing subscription will end. When a customer toggles “Renew automatically” to “Off”, that isn’t reflected in the API. The subscription continues through the current period, and there’s no way to tell when it will end until it actually ends.3 And, of course, we can’t end it manually.
Developers also have no way to extend a subscription. And nobody — developers or customers — can buy or redeem subscriptions as gifts.
This complicates support and marketing. Developers can’t, for instance, give free subscriptions to reviewers or extend a subscription to appease an angry customer.
These limitations can be avoided by having a separate website payment and subscription system. (Use Stripe.) Then you can give reviewers web subscriptions, enable gift purchases, extend subscriptions arbitrarily, cancel subscriptions yourself, and provide much more helpful sign-in feedback in the app, all while paying much lower commissions.
But in an iOS app, you must offer subscriptions via In-App Purchase. Web and in-app subscriptions can coexist without too much trouble, but it becomes problematic when an in-app subscriber wants to convert to a web subscription to get one of its benefits (redeeming a gift or extension, etc.). Since you can’t cancel an in-app subscription, detect when it will end, or even verify whether any given email address is a subscriber,4 it’s difficult to coordinate the switchover.
What are all of this complexity and all of these limitations supposed to buy?
In theory, it’s easier for customers since they don’t need to renew manually after each period. But it’s much harder to restore purchases and cancel subscriptions, so I’m not sure it’s a net win for them.
The real appeal is clearly lopsided to benefit the developers:
“Free” money from accidental renewals: There’s certainly some of this, but it’s ethically questionable. It also has potentially unforeseen costs: how will it affect your business if your customers resent you for taking money from them every period until they remember to go through the clumsy process of canceling?5 How much will it cost you in guilt, 1-star reviews, support emails, and lost loyalty when you try asking the audience to check out something new?
Reliable income: Again, there’s some of this, but it’s not as reliable as you might think. Like any other subscription, you’re going to lose some subscribers in every period, and you’re going to need to attract at least as many to make up for the loss.
Subscriber information for direct marketing or selling to third parties: If your business model depends on this, I can’t help you — we’re in two very different worlds. I’d really rather not get people’s names and home addresses — that’s a pretty big liability that I don’t want — and I only want emails so I can send password resets and maybe an occasional opt-in newsletter.
What I built for Instapaper instead was much simpler.
I used the old “non-renewable subscription” in-app purchase type, which is almost a misnomer — it’s simply buying access to something for a fixed duration. I also offered the same subscriptions on the website through PayPal with recurring billing. (That was a mistake. Never use PayPal for recurring subscriptions.6 Use Stripe.)
The non-renewable in-app purchase enables your subscription for an additional 3, 6, or 12 months.7 Two weeks before a subscription expires, the app shows one dialog informing the user of this and offering a renewal. Three days before, it shows one more. And after it expires, it shows one more. That’s it.
It had almost the same loss and renewal rate as the auto-renewing PayPal subscription, but with nearly zero support cost. It was great for the customers, Instapaper, and Apple.
Implementing non-renewing subscriptions is simple, too: every user has a subscription expiration timestamp. When a purchase comes in, validate it and simply extend the user’s expiration date into the future by that interval. It’s night and day compared to implementing and supporting Apple’s auto-renewing subscriptions.
Offering non-renewing options and a good auto-renewing system, like Stripe, is a nice balance. But if your choice is between non-renewing subscriptions or a bad auto-renewing system, such as PayPal’s or Apple’s, you’re better off not using auto-renewing subscriptions at all.
Building a non-Newsstand app with the expectation that you’ll be permitted to use auto-renewing subscriptions is still a big risk, though.
The most common case I see is developers who want to fund a web service with them. While Apple has permitted some services to bill with auto-renewing subscriptions, it hasn’t been consistent — I still hear from people who have been rejected for attempting it. Even if you get approved, anytime you’re on the edge of a policy like this, there’s a good chance you’ll be rejected or required to remove it in the future. ↩︎
In an early version of The Magazine, I tried evading the “already subscribed” problem by quietly invoking a restore-purchases before every subscribe attempt. It worked well in most conditions, but had a few awkward edge cases. Shortly after releasing it, Apple required that I remove it because it used In-App Purchase in a “non-standard” way. ↩︎
Well, you don’t know a subscription has ended until you poll Apple’s API for an update. Apple doesn’t support automatic notification to a callback on your servers, so you just need to poll them to revalidate every subscription on some interval, generally daily or weekly. ↩︎
The “share your information with the publisher” report includes names, emails, and addresses, but does not include transaction IDs. There’s no way to tell whether someone with a given email address is a current subscriber or when their subscription ends.
So if you have a website, you also need to build and support a method for people to claim and connect their in-app-purchase subscription to their website account. ↩︎
Apple does send an email to subscribers a few days before each renewal. You’d think this would alleviate the “you’re taking my money, I don’t understand what this is for, I demand you stop immediately” emails, but in practice, it doesn’t. Many people apparently either don’t receive them, don’t read them, don’t understand them, or simply don’t remember them. ↩︎
This could be its own entire post. The quick version: the website becomes unusably slow with lots of small transactions, issuing refunds is time-consuming and tedious, non-PayPal-account customers can’t cancel their own subscriptions, disputes are handled as if everything’s an eBay item you didn’t ship, the payment notifications to your servers are unreliable, and there’s no way to get a list of all current subscribers in the API or otherwise (really!), which makes it impossible to rectify inconsistencies caused by the unreliable notifications.
Trust me. Use Stripe. The loss of buyers without credit cards is completely worth the massive savings in support email and headaches. ↩︎
There were no savings for buying more time — it was simply $1 per month. I thought nobody would buy the biggest option (12 months). But interestingly, while almost nobody bought the middle option (6 months), the 3-month and 12-month options consistently grossed almost the same amount each day. ↩︎
Driving app downloads is getting more expensive every day. Advertising costs can easily exceed a customer’s lifetime value. How do you get more app installs without breaking the bank?
Fact: Only 6% of iOS users find apps through advertisements. (Forrester)
Fact: Outside of the App Store, the dominant sources of app downloads are social media, web browsing, and search. 20% of iOS users find apps through social channels alone. (Forrester)
If your app marketing doesn’t include these channels, you’re missing a huge potential source of new users. Tapstream lets you send visitors to your app from Twitter, Facebook, email, blog posts, comments, or anywhere else links can go. You’ll find out exactly how many people click on each link and how many of those install your app. Most importantly, you’ll see the engagement and revenue broken down by each channel. All for free!
When ElevationLab first started promoting the Elevation Dock 2, I thought the name seemed a bit misleading: as far as I could tell, it was just the original Elevation Dock bundled with the Lightning adapter and something called “NanoPad” to help it grip the desk a bit better, which I figured would work about as well as most non-skid rubber sheeting.
The original Elevation Dock’s major problem was its huge production delay, followed by Apple releasing the iPhone 5 with the brand new Lightning connector right as most Kickstarter backers were getting their docks. Rather than go through the lengthy and expensive process to build an officially licensed Lightning dock with a custom connector, ElevationLab rushed to release a quick fix: a little clamp that mounted Apple’s stock Lightning cable into the existing Elevation Dock.
It sucked, mostly because the cabled Lightning connector requires too much force to remove: enough effort to remove the phone would also lift the Dock right off the table, ironically giving it the same annoyance that ElevationLab made fun of in their original Kickstarter video. It was a beautifully manufactured, high-quality dock that didn’t work very well.
In the meantime, I switched to another Kickstarter heavy-dock project, the Dock+. It works decently, has a real low-friction Lightning connector, and charges iPads as well, but is sloppily made and a bit ugly.
Today, I got these in the mail from Casey Hopkins of ElevationLab, unprompted:
Naturally, I accepted the challenge.
I also took its description of having “thousands of microscopic suction cups” as a challenge for my macro lens:
To the naked eye, it just looks like a flat, black, shiny surface. The holes aren’t visible at all. “Microscopic” might be a bit of a stretch — my macro lens isn’t that good — but to give you an idea of the scale, it looks like the holes are roughly the size of the aluminum dents from bead-blasting, which are small enough that the surface looks and feels perfectly smooth in reality. (The very slightly misaligned pad on the metal base is my imprecise installation, not ElevationLab’s.)
Photography verified that the NanoPad is indeed cool. But most important is how it works.
And it works incredibly well.
Assuming the NanoPad was like typical non-skid material was a gross underestimation of its grip — it’s more like a strong adhesive, although it comes off cleanly and reattaches easily. It works exactly as promised, and ElevationLab is not exaggerating with any of its claims.
In fact, it’s so good that I might buy a few extras to adhere other objects to desks, tables, and counters.
None of this makes the Elevation Dock’s Lightning compatibility less of a hack. Now, it’s another hack on top of the previous hack, but this hack actually works. You still need to supply your own Apple Lightning-to-USB cable, and it’s still an inelegant, high-friction connection — the NanoPad just makes it a one-handed operation.
Despite the hackiness, that’s a substantial improvement. Before the NanoPad, the Elevation Dock worked so poorly with Lightning that I stopped using it entirely. Now, I’m back to it. For $7, I definitely suggest that Lightning-adapted Elevation Dock owners give the NanoPad retrofit a try.
For new buyers, it’s less persuasive: you’re still looking at spending at least $90 for the dock, plus losing an Apple Lightning cable and AC adapter to it (or buying extras from Apple for a total of at least $38). It’s a tough sell.
It’s a pile of hacks, but it works, and it looks much nicer and is better made than other docks I’ve seen and used.
This is good, but the biggest problem I always have with Siri is reliability, not quality of answers.
I’ve consistently been getting the “Sorry, I can’t take requests right now” failures on almost half of the requests I’ve made in the last year or so. It fails so often, and failures are handled so poorly, that my Siri usage has dropped from almost daily to once or twice a month. By this time next year, I bet I’ll suddenly realize I haven’t used Siri at all for months.
Are you still using pictures and videos to market your app? Are you not getting the downloads or exposure that your app deserves? Then it’s time to try a playable demo instead!
At App.io, we enable your native iOS app to be playable in any browser. No plugins or downloads, just click and play instantly. It’s super easy, embeddable anywhere, and takes less than 30 seconds to enable your app.
From December 12th through the 19th, Instapaper for iOS will be free to download as part of Apple’s App of The Week program. …
In addition to the App of the Week, we’re giving away a free 2-month Instapaper subscription to all new users through the end of the year. That means new users get instant access to subscriber-only features like search, third-party API integrations, and better “Send to Kindle” functionality.
Entire industries rely on trying to convince us that we need things that we really don’t, or that the things we have aren’t good enough and need to be upgraded.
The older I get and the more stuff I accumulate, the more I realize that most stuff, especially the crap on cool-stuff sites and gift guides, is wasted on me. (And probably you, too.) I simply don’t need it, and if I had it, there’s a good chance it would end up in the closet after a month.
Big cool-stuff sites need to make many posts per day to stay relevant and profitable, so they can’t be very discriminating or give long-term reviews based on actual experience — all they can say is that something looks cool, which usually results in a collection of expensive things that photograph well, not things you might actually buy and find useful.
Small sites can fall into a different unhelpfulness trap: it’s hard to provide meaningful comparisons if you’ve only had one or two of something. Saying that your camera is the best camera isn’t useful to me unless you’ve spent a meaningful amount of time using many similar cameras and can distinguish what makes different models suitable to different roles and priorities. (And full-time reviewers have a different problem: they usually don’t spend long periods with any products or report back after living with them for a while, since there’s little economic upside and they usually review too many products to make this practical.) So comparisons are hard.
The concept of a “best” product of any nontrivial complexity is a fallacy. Sites like The Wirecutter and The Sweethome get it right much of the time, but when faced with a complex category with multiple product subtypes and different customer needs, like humidifiers or headphones, they often make unfair comparisons or dismiss entire product classes prematurely. It’s not that they’re doing a bad job picking the “best” — it’s that many product categories are more complicated or diverse than simply having one “best”, or are so large that the “best” might be one of the hundreds of models that they didn’t even test.
All I can do is tell you what I’ve used, but in an effort to be most helpful, I’ve narrowed the scope further than most recommendation sites can: these are products that I personally bought or received as gifts at least a year ago, use regularly, and still enjoy and recommend.
I own almost every type of drip-coffee brewer. (I don’t know anything about espresso, except that most people are better off not trying to make it at home.)
Most brew methods aren’t worth the trouble, including the moka pot and the fancy Yama vacuum/siphon brewer. My favorites, in descending order:
AeroPress: The king of coffee-brewing methods. It produces what many agree is the best-tasting drip coffee, has the easiest cleanup I’ve ever seen, can be used almost anywhere, and costs less than $30. The only significant downside is that it only makes 1 cup at a time, or 2 if you push the limits. (Don’t let anyone tell you that the AeroPress makes espresso. It doesn’t. It makes very good drip coffee.)
Chemex with Glass Handle: The best pour-over brewer I’ve tried. I prefer the Chemex in every way to my Hario V60 (a close second) and Clever Coffee Dripper (which I think is immensely overrated). If you get a big one, it’s a great way for an otherwise all-AeroPress fan to serve many cups at once. Slight rule deviation: I have the 10-cup wood-collar version, but I’m recommending the glass-handled one because it’s much easier to pour from and clean.
Frieling French Press: Double-walled, stainless steel, and remarkably well-made. Compared to the common Bodum press you’ve probably used, the Frieling feels like a much higher-quality, heavier, more sturdy piece of equipment. Its filter is much finer and more rigid than the Bodum’s, so much less sediment escapes into the poured coffee and it’s easier to clean afterward. The insulated walls keeps the coffee hotter, and guests always compliment its design.
Measuring and grinding:
EatSmart Kitchen Scale: The best way to make consistently great coffee is to keep a consistent beans-to-water ratio, and the best way to do that is by weight. Forget scoops. Even if you don’t drink coffee, get this. You’ll be surprised how often a kitchen scale is useful.
Baratza Virtuoso Grinder: High-quality, solidly performing conical burr grinder. Rather than spend a lot on a fancy automatic coffee machine, you’ll get much better coffee with a good burr grinder and an inexpensive AeroPress, French press, or pour-over cone.
Honorable mention: Baratza Encore. It’s about half the price of the Virtuoso, and I use one often at my in-laws’ house. It produces a similar grind to the Virtuoso, but it’s louder, much slower, lacks the timer knob (that’s just an on/off switch on the side), and doesn’t have the nice heavy base to keep it in place when you’re using the pulse button. If you can’t spend the extra for the Virtuoso, the Encore is a great choice — much better than the handful of $60-ish burr grinders I’ve seen. But if you can get the Virtuoso, it’s worth the difference.
I’ve never found a hand-crank travel grinder that was worth its cranking effort. It takes a lot of cranking to make one cup’s worth of a fine AeroPress grind. I think I’m better off just packing some good teabags (which I’ll get to in a minute) next time I travel, rather than trying to bring a ridiculous hand-crank coffee setup.
Beyond the scale, grinder, and brewer, I don’t use a lot of extra equipment:
Aftermarket metal pour-over or AeroPress filters are harder to clean and I can’t detect a taste difference, so I never use mine.
My stove heats water in my generic, easy-to-clean glass kettle so quickly that I’ve never been tempted by electric kettles. And I’ve never found water-pouring techniques to noticeably affect the taste, so I don’t use fancy gooseneck kettles, either. (Plus, metal kettles easily get secretly dirty inside. At least I can see how dirty my glass one is, then put it in the dishwasher.)
Bean-storage options don’t make much of a difference in practice — if they’re airtight, they’re fine, and if they’re not, they’re bad. That’s basically it. The Airscape is fine (get the big one — it holds less than advertised), but I just keep mine in zip-top valve bags — they do just as good of a job, are easier to open and pour from, and take up less space in the cabinet. And your coffee beans probably already come in them. (Do not refrigerate or freeze coffee beans.)
You can use fancy Bodum glasses if you want, although I wouldn’t AeroPress into one — I mostly use mine for evening tea or serving coffee to guests. (For my coffee, I just use a Useless mug.) But guests love the Bodum glasses. They’re very thin and fragile, so I’ve just been careful with mine, and I’ve only lost two in almost eight years (both when guests tried to wash them).
And, of course, where you get the coffee beans matters quite a lot. I’d rather have great, freshly roasted beans from an automatic coffeemaker than old beans from an AeroPress. Coffee is best in the first week or so after roasting, so your best bet is either a mail-order roaster or, ideally, a local one.
I home-roast (another topic entirely), but before I did, I got great coffee from:
Tonx: Great, but a bit light sometimes. (Tonx has previously sponsored my site and podcast, although I chose to become their customer first.)
Square Mile: Great, but ships from the U.K., so it’s expensive for U.S. buyers.
Stumptown: Decent, but too light for me, and inconsistent. I’ve found the same to be true at their coffeeshops.
(Granted, I don’t use any of those regularly now, so they don’t quite belong on this list. I’ll just not make them bold, and hope you ignore the rule deviation.)
ThermoWorks RT600C Thermometer: Like the kitchen scale above, I use this far more often than I ever expected. Beyond just meat, you can even probe casseroles in the oven to see if they’re hot in the middle, or measure the water in your kettle so you don’t go past 180°F for green tea. I probe freezer burritos in the toaster oven to see if they’re still cold in the middle. You can even wave it around in the air to find cold spots in rooms or see how much your windows suck in the winter. I can’t recommend this highly enough — get a kitchen thermometer and scale, and you’ll be shocked how much you use them.
Microplane Zester/Grater: Simply awesome. It’s especially nice for grating garlic above a pan, which is much faster and easier than finely chopping it.
KitchenAid Flex Edge Mixer Blade: You know that KitchenAid mixer that everyone puts on their wedding registry? This makes it even better by significantly reducing (although not completely eliminating) the need to pause during mixing to scrape food off the walls of the bowl. (Mixer tip: make a spot on the counter for it to always be out, ready, and plugged in. You’ll use it far more than if you have to dig it out of a cabinet every time.)
Railroad Spike Bottle Opener: This thing is heavy and awesome. Its weight makes cap removal stupidly easy, it’s very satisfying to hold, and it looks cool. This also always gets comments from guests. If you like heavy, awesome things, get this.
If you like the old-train-rail aesthetic, you should also check out Railyard Studios. I was lucky enough to get a great deal on their Triangle Coffee Table and meet the artists a couple of years ago, and it’s truly fantastic as the focal point of my office, earning tons of compliments from visitors.
Penzeys Spices: It really does make a difference. Their website is comically bad, but they have a lot of retail stores. Visit one, smell everything, and you’ll become a convert. They also have some nice but expensive gift boxes.
Blaze Balsamic Fig Glaze: Trust me. Get a thin slice of a nice dry sausage or prosciutto. Put a little lump of goat cheese on top. Drizzle with this. You’re welcome. (It’s also fantastic on Brussels sprouts.) I use so much of this that I get the big ones.
The recent retail expansion of The Art Of Shaving stores has brought the idea of fancy shaving stuff much more mainstream, but I wasn’t impressed with their products when I tried them a few years ago. Geeks like me have been buying obscure double-edged (DE) safety razors, badger brushes, and thickly lathering creams and soaps for years from places like Classic Shaving that are almost all better than anything I’ve tried from The Art Of Shaving.
I have sensitive skin and shave in the shower, and this is what works best for me:
Proraso “green” shaving cream: Shockingly good shaving cream for sensitive skin, with a hint of cooling menthol. It foams up nicely without a bowl — I just put it on a wet brush and foam it up right on my face. (Don’t use it without a brush. Get a brush.)
Honorable mention: Taylor of Old Bond Street shaving cream. Before switching to Proraso in 2007, I greatly enjoyed Taylor’s lavender variety, and the sandalwood is also popular. It’s less dense and more airy than Proraso, and doesn’t condition my skin as well, but has fancier scents.
Vulfix #2235 Super Badger Brush: I had a lower-grade brush for years, then switched to this in 2010 and couldn’t be happier with it. It’s worth the extra $30 or so to get a really awesome brush. At the moment, this one’s out of stock at Classic Shaving, but Amazon has it for a bit more. There’s a slightly smaller #2234 model for a bit less.
Gillette Fusion ProGlide: I used a nice Merkur DE safety razor for years, but no matter which blades I used (I tried every brand widely recommended online) and how I varied my technique, I could never get as close of a shave with as little burn as what I get almost every time I use a Fusion ProGlide. And I’ve never cut myself with the Fusion. I want DE razors to be better for me, but they’re simply not. Fusions also have the advantage of being convenient and universally available, although the cartridges aren’t cheap.
I’ve tried a lot of aftershaves, but most of them have too-strong smells that stick around all day, and very few are better for me than applying nothing at all. The least-bad one I’ve tried is the Taylor of Old Bond Street balm in “Shaving Shop” scent, but most days, I don’t apply anything. The Proraso/Fusion ProGlide combo is so good that I rarely need aftershave.
This is a huge category, but few products stand the test of time even for one year. And I don’t want to tell you the same things that every other gadget site is telling you to buy. Yeah, the iPad is great, but you know that already.
Fenix LD10 LED AA flashlight: High-quality, small, ultra-bright LED flashlights are always great gifts for pretty much anyone and great to own yourself. There are a lot out there, but I’m a big fan of this one — so much that last year, I bought four as gifts. (The recipients love them, too.) People accustomed to flashlights before the white-LED age are shocked at how much light comes out of such a small, lightweight source. I haven’t tried the newer LD12, but reviews comparing it to the LD10 are mixed and inconclusive, so I’d stick with the LD10. (The AAA-battery-sized Fenix LD01 series is worth looking at, too. They’re not nearly as bright, but they’re even tinier and weigh almost nothing.)
If you get an LED flashlight, use Energizer lithium batteries with it. They last longer than alkalines and rechargeables under the heavy drain of flashlight use, and they weigh almost nothing.
Apollo TouchTec Leather Gloves: TouchTecs work perfectly with capacitive touch screens on modern smartphones and tablets. And unlike most “iPhone gloves” that just have a little triangle of touch-compatible fabric on the fingertips, these whole gloves work, just like your whole ungloved hands. They’re very nice, warm, soft-lined leather gloves in general, too — definitely the nicest pair I’ve ever had.
Big Jambox:My full review. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Despite new competitors coming out every few months, I still like the Big Jambox so much that I just bought another to replace a flaky AirPlay speaker. (Bluetooth isn’t perfect, but I’ve found it to be far more reliable than any AirPlay speaker.) It sounds great, looks good (I recommend white), and has extremely long battery life.
Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 “pancake” lens: We have a whole closet full of expensive Canon glass, but this is our most frequently used lens. It’s so small that it makes an SLR far more portable than with any other lens, it’s a useful general-purpose focal length (especially on full-frame), it’s optically excellent, it’s reasonably well-made (far nicer than the “thrifty fifty” f/1.8 and roughly equal to the build quality of the 50mm f/1.4), and its autofocus motor is decent. Most impressive of all, it’s only $150. This is the best value in Canon’s entire lens lineup by far, and it’s not even a low-end lens — I’d call it upper-midrange.
Update, 2014: There’s now a wider 24mm version for EF-S Canon SLRs (Rebel and 7D series) at the same price. I haven’t tried it, but I’d expect it to perform very similarly at a more useful zoom level for the EF-S cameras.
Sennheiser PX 200-II i portable headphones: I don’t like earbuds or canalphones and I walk a lot, so I’ve tried a lot of portable on-ear headphones. Most of them sound mediocre at best, are uncomfortable, don’t fold very small, have terrible iPhone-clicker buttons (if they have them at all), and die after a year or two. These Sennheisers are the best I can find: they sound mediocre, they die after a year or two, but they’re reasonably comfortable, they fold small (and well), and they have very good iPhone buttons. They’re incredibly practical, and for portable headphones, that’s more important than high-end sound quality or extreme longevity. Just plan to buy another pair in 18 months. (The PX 100-II i variant is good, too, but it’s open-backed and has less-comfortable earpads. I have and use both, depending on needs, but the 200 is the better pair overall.)
Beyerdynamic DT-880 Premium 250-ohm open headphones: If your situation permits open-backed headphones, these are incredible. Headphone geeks have loved the DT-880 for years for having incredibly good sound quality, and even those who don’t love their sound (the treble is a bit strong for some) agree that the comfort is simply legendary. After years of envying them, my wife recently stole mine and gave me the opportunity to upgrade, but I had a very hard time finding a pair worth upgrading to at any price — I almost just bought another pair of these. And my upgrade ended up being the Beyerdynamic T90, which is effectively the DT-880’s sequel and is very similarly built. (So far, the T90’s amazing, but I’ve only had mine for a few months. (Yes, I’ve tried the Sennheiser HD-650. For its price, it was disappointing in sound quality and especially build quality.))
The only caveat to the DT-880s is that they take a bit of extra power to drive, so you should use a headphone amp or receiver with them if you want high volumes. (This doesn’t apply to the T90 — it’s much more efficient and can get very loud even from an iPhone.) There’s a 32-ohm version of the DT-880 more suitable for amp-less use — most reviews say it sounds worse, but I haven’t tried it.
I’ve omitted any full-sized, closed headphones from the list this year. I’ve only worn them recently while recording podcasts — at most other times that I’m at my desk, I’m able to wear open headphones, so I use the much-better-sounding T90s. I’ve previously recommended the 280 Pro and 380 Pro (review), but I don’t use them anymore — I lost my 380s to a hard fall and I’ve since upgraded to The Wirecutter’s recommendation of the PSB M4U 1, which is significantly more comfortable than most closed headphones but not worth its cost. For general closed-headphone picks, most people (who don’t suggest the 280 Pro) recommend the MDR-7506 or ATH-M50, neither of which I’ve spent much time with.
Now that Settlers of Catan has spread to your non-geek friends and family members and given them a taste for board games that require actual thought, you can introduce them to better ones. We’ve been subjecting our friends and family to geeky board games for years, and these are the ones that they’ve liked best and actually asked to play, in roughly descending order:
Power Grid: I thought this would be a bit too nerdy and economics-focused for many people to care much about it, but it’s by far the family’s favorite game. And if you get bored of the board, it comes with two very different maps to play on and has more available as expansions.
Blokus: Compared to most, this has huge advantages: the rules take about 20 seconds to explain, there’s almost no setup, and games don’t last very long, so it’s easy to get into and people are often up for consecutive games. Even after we play longer games, we often finish the evening with a few rounds of Blokus.
Qwirkle: Imagine if Scrabble and Set got drunk together and produced offspring.
Agricola: Not as popular as Power Grid in my family, but everyone enjoyed the few games they’ve played so far. (I always push for more.)
Puerto Rico: Everyone liked it, but they never request to play it, unfortunately. It’s my favorite geeky board game, and it spent years at the top of the BoardGameGeek rankings, although it’s now surpassed by Agricola and a few others I have yet to try.
So there you have it. Coffee, kitchen, shaving, electronics, and board games. All you need.
When Matt Alexander (yes, that one) started Need last month, I looked at all of the cool stuff in Volume 1 and thought, “This would look so good on someone taller, thinner, and generally cooler than me.” So I talked myself out of buying the featured Filson jacket, even though I’d been considering buying something from Filson ever since Roderick On The Line 60.
But Matt sent me the jacket anyway. Apparently I did a minor favor for him forever ago, which I don’t even remember doing, and it certainly wasn’t worth a free high-end jacket. Then he tried to talk me out of at least linking to Need as a return favor, because he’s a classy guy.
And even though I’m not tall, thin, or cool, it looks fantastic. My wife even retracted her doubts after seeing it in person.
Matt can pick nice-looking clothes that even I can pull off. I’m impressed, and for the first time ever, I’ve subscribed to a fashion guide.
There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few days about those annoying “Rate This App” dialogs in far too many iOS apps today, initiated by John Gruber, summarized nicely by Chris Gonzales, and followed up with a nice discussion between Gruber and Daniel Jalkut in The Talk Show this week.
I’d go further than Gruber’s moderate stance on The Talk Show. I think even interrupting people once with these is too much. I’m strongly against them — to me, they’re spam, pure and simple. They’re as intrusive as a web popup ad, they betray a complete lack of respect for users, and they make their apps’ developers look greedy and desperate.
Passive links to review the app, such as a button in an about screen,1 are fine and can even be helpful to people who do want to review the app. But interrupting people with a modal dialog is over the line.
Unfortunately, short of removing app ratings entirely,2 Apple can’t do much to stop them, and they’ll continue to “work” on enough people for many developers to continue using them.
Apple’s not blind to the problem of “Rate This App” dialogs: in a WWDC 2011 session,3 the presenter even instructed developers not to use them, which was met with knowing laughter and applause from the audience. We were all already sick of them in 2011.
But Apple can’t ban these dialogs for the same reason that this official rule is never enforced:
5.6: Apps cannot use Push Notifications to send advertising, promotions, or direct marketing of any kind
This rule is violated so often, with no repercussions, that its presence in the Review Guidelines is a cruel joke to developers with good taste and respect for their customers.
But how would Apple enforce this? Putting a “report” button on every push notification in the UI would be ugly, crowded, and confusing, and would result in tons of false reports from accidental or misguided invocations. Without one, by what mechanism would Apple even know of a violation, unless the app spammed its reviewer with an inappropriate push notification during the 6 minutes that it’s being tested?
Individual written complaints? Who’s going to process them and decide whether they’re valid? Can Apple do anything useful with an email saying that “InstaMineGramCraft Guide Cheats Pro sent me a push-notification advertisement yesterday”? Can many people reasonably prove or verify such a claim? Does Apple even store or log APNs after they’re delivered? (I’m guessing not.)
What even qualifies as an “advertisement” or “promotion”? I’ve seen many clear violations, but many aren’t. Is it an advertisement if you send a push notification to people who haven’t launched your app in a while, encouraging them to launch the app and “check in”? What if you’re telling them that their virtual farm in your psychological scam game is withering and dying until they tap some buttons or buy something? What if a new type of cow is available for just 99 cents, on sale today only? What if you just added a new feature in an update and are telling users about it via push, since they probably use auto-updating and didn’t see the release notes? Is that an advertisement?
Apple doesn’t enforce rule 5.6 because they can’t.
A rule banning “Rate This App” dialogs would have the same problem: since the dialog is unlikely to appear during app review (and could be easily coded to guarantee that it wouldn’t), they’ll almost never reject anything for it. Once an app is in the wild, there’s no good way for Apple to be reliably notified of violations, and even if they added one, the line between permissible and prohibited would be vague and easy to skirt.
We could all rate these apps lower as a form of protest, but it’s unlikely to have a meaningful impact. The App Store is a big place.
We could vote with our feet and delete any app that interrupts us with these, but we won’t. Are you really going to delete Instagram and stop using it? Yeah, exactly.
We’re stuck with these annoying dialogs. All we can really do is avoid using them ourselves and stigmatize them as akin to spam, popup ads, and telemarketing4 — techniques only used by the greedy, desperate, shameless, and disrespectful.
This is what I’m doing for Overcast: a rating shortcut button in the Settings screen, adjacent to the contact-support button, possibly with a brief explanation that developers can’t respond to individual support issues in reviews. (I’m still on the fence about that last bit.) ↩︎
Will Hains’ proposed alternative, ranking apps by total usage time across all users, has its own set of problems. For instance, it penalizes apps that don’t need to be used very often by most of their customers, such as transit maps or bank apps, or apps that solve your problem as quickly as possible to minimize time spent in them, such as calculators and unit converters.
I also don’t think eliminating reviews would be a net positive. I often learn very useful information from reviews of apps I’m considering buying, especially when the apps aren’t very popular and there’s not much else to go on except three or four store reviews. The system could use a lot of improvement, but user reviews aren’t inherently bad. ↩︎
In response to my post, Chuq argues that Apple can ban them and deal with violation reports by building a reputation system behind the scenes with light human moderation.
Unfortunately, step 1 is effectively impossible:
Attach a “report this as inappropriate” button to the things you want to police.
This might work for push notifications, but as I wrote before, I don’t think it could be integrated into the notification UI without much bigger costs than it’s worth in visual design, space, and user confusion.
But for “Rate This App” dialogs, there’s no good way to get it to work. If Apple added it to every UIAlertView, it would be completely baffling in the vast majority of cases.
“An error occurred while uploading.” OK, Report As Inappropriate.
“Please enable Location Services to use this feature.” Settings, Cancel, Report As Inappropriate.
“Are you sure you want to permanently delete all documents? This cannot be undone.” Delete All Documents, Cancel, Report As Inappropriate.
And then everyone would just stop using UIAlertView. Many apps already implement their own alerts since UIAlertView offers so little customization — it’s not hard, and open-source implementations would quickly crop up. Apple can’t forcibly add a report button to every UIView.
Fortunately, Chris Sauve wrote Bigfoot, which does exactly what I want and does it better than I could have. It’s so good that I have zero desire to rewrite it myself, and that’s saying a lot.
I’m going to be tweaking its styles a bit and adding it sitewide soon. Until then, I’ve embedded it manually in this article for testing.
From an [accessibility] perspective, what the new Button Shapes do is restore a sense of explicitness to iOS 7′s interface. These types of visual cues are so important to many visually impaired users, myself included.
I’m glad Apple’s improving iOS 7’s visual usability by adding yet another toggle, but the need for Button Shapes, Bold Text, Increase Contrast, On/Off Labels, and Reduce Motion shows significant flaws in iOS 7’s design. (At least the ultra-thin fonts in beta 1 didn’t ship.)
It’s easy to design something attractive that’s not very usable, and it’s easy to design something usable that’s unattractive. The challenge is striking a balance, and iOS 7 made too many usability sacrifices to achieve attractiveness.1
Apple knows this, so it’ll be interesting to see how it’s revised next year. If iOS 8 can’t remove any of these options, it’s a design failure.
This isn’t just a Jony Ive problem: Apple has occasionally made poor usability choices to serve visual design for years, long before Ive was in charge. Even Steve Jobs made plenty of UI mistakes that shipped. Fortunately, most of Apple’s designs are good, but iOS 7 wasn’t the first Apple software release to include some bad UI decisions. ↩︎
Without a way to try an app before purchasing, getting rid of app reviews entirely doesn’t make any sense. The 1–5 star rating part of reviews though? Kill it and leave these options for reviews:
The ability to leave a written review with a title and subject.
The ability to mark other reviews useful or not.
Five-star ratings have been dysfunctional since long before the “Rate This App” annoyance plague (not just at Apple — Amazon’s and Netflix’s don’t work, either), and written comments are much more helpful when comparing or evaluating apps. It’s important that the reviews still be sorted first by descending app version, though, to prevent ancient reviews from effectively being pinned to the top forever (like we see in iTunes reviews for podcasts).
This wouldn’t kill “Rate This App” dialogs, though — they would just change to “Review This App”. But it would make it harder for fraudulent or solicited ratings to appear substantial or have a strong effect on sales.
Where do you go after you successfully take several apps from concept to market? What brings you thrills once you’ve seen your client rank #1 in the App Store, or have acquired thousands of users every minute? How do you stay sharp when you’ve already learned how to develop video apps and other new technologies? How should this story go on?
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I’ve seen a lot of people talking about their Mac Pro choices who seem to be underinformed on how these CPUs work. (Intel really isn’t helping.) Here’s what I wrote last month, explaining how Turbo Boost makes each CPU (except the 12-core) much more similar than you’d expect until you get into workloads that max out all CPU cores.
In short: despite their advertised clock-speed differences, single-threaded performance in practice is effectively identical between the 4-, 6-, and 8-core models. There’s no “penalty” for going from the “3.7 GHz” 4-core to the “3.5 GHz” 6-core, for instance.
Now that the pricing is confirmed, I think the best bang-for-the-buck option is the stock $3,999 configuration (6-core, 16 GB, D500) plus whatever amount of SSD storage you need. That said, I’m going 8-core and D700 on mine: D700 because it’s not that much more, relatively speaking, and can probably never be upgraded (at least for a reasonable price), and 8-core because I do a lot of parallel work but can’t afford the non-parallel penalties of the 12-core.
The new Mac Pro feels very expensive when configured with a few options, and it’s easy to feel that it’s much more expensive than previous Mac Pros.
And it is. But the big jump actually started with the 2009 model, when Intel started running out of ways to make the high-end Xeons better except by raising their core count, which drove the price up dramatically.
Here’s the actual history of Mac Pro prices from Everymac:
It’s hard to define “midrange” in some generations, so I made my best estimates. It’s also debatable whether the 2013 “high-end” should be the 8- or 12-core model since Turbo Boost makes it weird now, but I chose the 12-core to be more comparable with the previous generations. And this is based on CPU upgrades only, since it’s easiest to find data for those and they’re usually the most expensive upgrades in the lineup.
The trend is even more clear when graphed:
Mac Pro prices have always crept upward, but the biggest jumps aren’t recent.
It’s not even as much of a ripoff as you might assume. In the 2006 and 2008 generations, the range of performance within the lineup was smaller, especially between the midrange and high-end. Once Intel started ramping up core counts and Turbo Boost in the last few generations, the midrange was no longer 10–20% slower than the high-end — it became more like 50–75% slower at fully parallel tasks.
Scores for the 4- and 12-core 2013 models are estimated from the 6-core’s.
Prices have stayed mostly in proportion to parallel performance. The difference between the low and high end is much bigger than it used to be.
But don’t feel too bad about those high-end CPUs being so far out of reach. The core-count hikes that yielded such massive parallel improvements have come with stagnation or regression in single-threaded performance, which is still very important to many common tasks, so today’s highest-end options are either very similar to the lower-end choices or actually worse for many buyers. As their prices have crept upward, the high-end options have become more specialized at the expense of economy and some general-purpose performance.
And that’s now true of the entire Mac Pro line: it’s no longer the fastest Mac at single-threaded tasks (the highest-end iMac is), and the jobs that the Mac Pro does faster than other high-end Macs are becoming fewer and more specialized.
You can still find good value in the Mac Pro line (in the 2013 lineup, just like the “2012”, the 6-core is a great value), but it’s pushing further into specialty uses as the high-end iMac and 15” MacBook Pro options keep closing the gap for more people.
A Retina iMac, whenever that exists, might be the perfect computer for me. But we won’t see that until at least a late-2014 revision, and even that’s optimistic — I wouldn’t be surprised if Retina doesn’t come to the iMac until its 2015 generation.
At least until then, I’m still a Mac Pro customer — I just don’t need the highest-end configuration.
There’s still a Mac Pro for high-end “power users”: the base model upgraded to the 6-core CPU (+$500), 16 GB RAM (+$100), and the biggest SSD you can afford. With a 1 TB SSD, this comes to $4,399. The decked-out iMac that comes closest to this is $3,549 — it comes with a “free” monitor, but it also performs much worse on parallel CPU tasks.
A closer comparison would be the 4-core Mac Pro: with 16 GB and 1 TB SSD in both, the Mac Pro is $3,899 versus the iMac at $3,549. The monitor still makes the iMac a better value, but the gap is much smaller — and the Mac Pro can be upgraded to future (Retina?) monitors and will likely have better resale value.
(I recommend that if you’re going to get a Mac Pro at all, you might as well get at least the 6-core CPU. It’s a relatively small price difference for nearly 50% more parallel CPU performance and no single-threaded speed penalty.)
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I’m with Dr. Drang here. I’ve tried many of these apps and they just never stuck with the kind of writer I am: Drang’s “kind that constantly fiddles with the text”.
I am constantly referring to photographs, drawings, experimental test results, calculations, reports written by others, textbooks, journal articles, and so on. These are not distractions; they are essential to the writing process.
Replace that with other people’s blog posts, benchmarks, and Apple Store configurators, and that’s me.
I think this is also why I’ve always found writing on iOS painful and ultimately not worth doing for me.
Very good points, and the argument applies far beyond just TVs.
While I’ve followed this advice on a lot of “dumb” electronics so far, I don’t think I’d go quite as far as getting a “shitty” TV for one big reason: I hardly ever buy a new TV. In my entire life so far, including every TV my family owned during my childhood, I’ve only had five.
Our current main TV, a 42” 1080p Panasonic plasma, is nearly six years old and is perfectly fine — I don’t intend to replace it until it breaks. We bought a second TV for another room last year, and a pretty great one — a 37” Panasonic 1080p “LED” LCD1 — was only $600. I’ll probably keep it until it breaks, too, which will probably be at least five years away.
Their size makes replacing TVs cumbersome and wasteful, so I don’t want to do it very often, and I think this is a fairly common stance.2 Since good TVs aren’t that expensive and last a very long time by consumer-electronics standards, and replacing TVs is so cumbersome, I don’t think there’s much reason to get shitty ones.
The industry marketing these as “LED TVs” is such bullshit. It’s still an LCD TV. They didn’t call them CCFL TVs when those were the backlights. ↩︎
This is one reason why I don’t think it would be wise for Apple to enter the TV-set business. ↩︎
Software patents don’t protect innovation. They destroy it.
Big companies like Google and Apple have defensible reasons to accumulate lots of patents: they need them for defense. This is horrible, dysfunctional, and wasteful, but they at least are justified in arming themselves in the same game that the other big guys are playing: a large portfolio is likely to have something to throw back at any non-troll attackers (who actually produce anything) to help neutralize and settle large suits initiated against them.
But when a small company or independent developer files for a small number of patents, there’s no defensive value — they can only be used for offense.
I see no reason to support any small developers who file for patents.
Fuck iA and their products. I’m glad I never bought iA Writer or iA Writer Pro — now I never will.
Agreed. The rest of Gruber’s article is great, too, especially about the prevalent attitude in today’s tech journalism.
Mims’ article is an amalgamation of many disparate, unrelated complaints. Some of them are valid — NSA, Microsoft, startup culture — but most read like the unreasonable complaints of a tired, petulant writer expecting impossibly frequent miracles.
The words he chose — letdown, stagnate — say more about his state of mind than any particular products. This is all too common in the tech press as writers crash hard from the highs of the 2007–2011 mobile revolution, which has mostly reached a steady state of incremental progress. But as Gruber wrote, incremental progress is great over time.
Mims and most tech pundits seem to want revolutionary new hardware and device categories every year, but hardware has always been the least interesting side of computing. Hardware changes gradually and predictably, with relatively little variation between manufacturers because everyone’s working with the same parts and limitations. It’s a boring commodity. Software and services are much more interesting, have a greater effect on actual usage, and have far more potential for improvement and innovation.
The dearth of good Safari extensions compared to what Chrome has is a good example of Apple’s tendency to get something going, get kind of sidetracked and then not give it the attention it needs to succeed.
My main concern for Apple’s future is the growing list of such products, especially the increasing number of major Mac applications.
iWork for Mac is a worst-case example. Its series of substantial updates every 12–18 months completely stopped in 2009, and the 2013 rewrites don’t feel like nearly 4 years of work — they feel a lot more like a rushed 12-month effort in response to marketing threats against the iPad’s suitability for office “work”, prioritizing Apple’s marketing needs at significant expense to iWork customers’ needs.
The iLife apps feel abandoned, too: iPhoto, iMovie, and Garage Band haven’t seen meaningful Mac updates in 3 years. iLife effort has clearly shifted to their iOS versions instead, and while iMovie and Garage Band are impressive on iOS, iPhoto hardly seems worth the effort and the opportunity cost to its Mac version — and I bet iPhoto is the most used and most important iLife app by far.1
The pro apps are sputtering along — Final Cut Pro X was a disaster that’s slowly being resolved, Logic Pro X is OK (but still unreasonably buggy), and Aperture is continuing its tradition of always feeling abandoned (and slow, and buggy).
While most of the press demands new hardware categories, I’d be perfectly happy if Apple never made a TV or a watch or a unicorn, and instead devoted the next five years to polishing the software and services for their existing product lines.
Furthermore, most tasks served by the iLife and iWork apps really are better on Macs. Rather than show off the power of iOS devices, they often frustrate users by slamming hard into the limitations of iOS’ document-silo model, multitasking, and inter-app communication. ↩︎
The personal computer and the smartphone are amazing, and will almost certainly remain pillars of computing for the majority of our lifetimes. Beyond those two major portability and productivity classes, you hit diminishing returns.
Portability is critical to modern device usefulness, and there are only two classes that matter anymore: always with you, and not.1 Devices that are always with you must fit comfortably into pants pockets without looking stupid. If you’re exceeding the size of pockets or small handbags, you’ll need a bag of some sort, which means you can carry pretty much anything up to a full-featured modern laptop. (Ultralight laptops are extremely capable these days.)
Smartphones dominate always with you. There are situations where people won’t carry one — besides the obvious ones like sleeping and showering, the most common one I hear is jogging — but these are few and far between, and will shrink over time as smartphones get smaller, cheaper, and more durable.
Tablets sit in an awkward portability class: they aren’t that much more useful than smartphones, but aren’t much more portable than small laptops. I think they’re still (barely) justifiable as a mass-market category because they’re not much of a burden to make and support because they’re just smartphones with larger screens — they have roughly the same hardware, software, and applications, and are better than smartphones at tasks that benefit from more screen area.
But why do we need “smart” watches or face-mounted computers like Google Glass? They have radically different hardware and software needs than smartphones, yet they don’t offer much more utility. They’re also always with you, but not significantly more than smartphones. They come with major costs in fashion and creepiness. They’re yet more devices that need to be bought, learned, maintained, and charged every night. Most fatally, nearly everything they do that has mass appeal and real-world utility can be done by a smartphone well enough or better. And if we’ve learned anything in the consumer-tech business, it’s that “good enough” usually wins.
This is why I’m down on new-hardware-category fetishism and why I’d rather Apple notoverextend themselves further for a watch. We already have extremely powerful devices that we’re barely using the potential of — we don’t need to divide our attention and resources further to add new device categories to our lives that aren’t massively better in normal use than what we already have.
PCs made many other devices redundant or obsolete in the ’80s and ’90s, the web demolished many legacy businesses in the ’90s and ’00s, and smartphones have obliterated many more old products and businesses in the ’00s and ’10s.
The combination of a computer, internet connectivity, and a smartphone (and maybe a tablet) is awesome. It satisfies nearly every modern demand for personal computing hardware and still has massive untapped potential for software and services.
Maybe that’s all we really need for a while.
Cameras have a similar dynamic: smartphones became everyone’s always with you camera, SLRs and SLR-like models dominate the high end, and point-and-shoots are obsolete and redundant.
But cameras have it even harder: smartphones have compelling photo features that cameras will never get such as social apps, and the high end will likely shrink as many hobbyists and prosumers abandon their SLRs and go smartphone-only. ↩︎
CocoaConf is a technical conference for Apple developers, pure and simple. We bring together some of the best developers, authors, and trainers in the Apple development community, and we give them the freedom to share about the technologies they are most passionate about — all in an environment designed to maximize your learning experience. Capped attendance makes for an incredibly low attendee-to-speaker ratio, so it’s easy for you to connect both with speakers and with your fellow attendees. Whether you attend a multi-track CocoaConf event or a single-track CocoaConf Mini, you’ll come away enlightened, equipped and inspired to create amazing apps!
CocoaConf will be holding five events across the U.S. this spring: