Saturday, 7 May 2016

Best OSs and Devices of 2015

I have often found the lack of commitment from reviewers of devices and software frustrating. Sometimes you just want someone to say this is one is clearly the best of the pack. I understand why this doesn't happen. Real life is rarely that simple. Things shine in certain use cases while other things perform better in others.  I think there is another evil but necessary force at play. Reviewers don't want to alienate their readership. Brand loyalty in the tech space is an incredible thing to witness. Imagine a tech site - known for providing unbiased reviews - writes an article that unequivocally states that vanilla Android is superior to iOS. They'd probably lose a large percentage of their readership and end up being an Android fan site instead of something actually useful.

So I thought since I have relatively little to lose and because I have no reputation as a reviewer and I am the proud owner of Microsoft, Google and Apple stuff that I'd write a piece that dares to be clearly opinionated, that picks a side each time and tries to leave the words 'it depends' out of the equation and just gets on with stating the obvious.

Best Phone - iPhone 6s

2015 was the year of 3D touch. Apple launched 3D touch with the iPhone 6s and Apple nailed it. Yes, perhap it is gimmicky but I find it almost addictively fun. I feel like a little kid turning over rocks at the beach looking for things to excite me. 3D touch is a new way to interact with the square rectangle and I believe just for that the iPhone 6s deserves to be the best phone of 2015. I believe Apple does one more thing better than anyone else with their iPhone range. They make the device look good and they make the software look good and - this is the real crunch - they make the device and the software look good together. Android stands no chance. Google can't even get this right with their own Nexus range and Microsoft seems to be deliberately trying to make devices that look boring because they're not sure they want to be making phones at all.

Best Mobile OS - Android (but only of the unmutilated variety)

Google has been making a concerted effort to bring simplicity and uniformity to Android. The arrival of Material design and a reduction of obviously exposed features make Android and its ecosystem an absolute pleasure to use. This work has closed the gap from a usability and 'this is actually quite pretty' perspective. iOS used to lead here. What is left are two great OSs but Google shines in a couple of areas that give it the edge. 

Google Now really does surface useful things about your current world and context and you can access them one swipe to the left on the home screen. 

Google's voice recognition is in a different league to Siri. I'd say 'Ok google' almost understands me more frequently than my close friends. I haven't spent enough time with Cortana but it's not really a contender as it only works in like 2 countries in the whole wide world. 

And then there are widgets. Yes in the wrong hands widgets look really ugly on your home screen. But I'm going to make the assumption that for those folk they don't really mind anyway. For the rest of us, it is more than possible, thanks to material design to arrange your widgets so they look pretty. And yes widgets are an improvement over an icon. As an aside, Windows mobile does this in a pretty neat way by turning the icon into a widget and would probably be superior to Android if there were any actual Apps to use in the Windows mobile ecosystem. 

Android also allows apps to really run in the background which means your email, news feed, photos, cloud storage has already synced with your device when you open those apps. iOS says it does this but in 2016 some apps that really shouldn't still load stale content and then, like a naughty school kid, awkwardly get on with updating content.  For a long while the problem was that with great flexibility came great power... consumption. In 2015 Android launched Doze which provides a framework for managing power consumption of background services based on context. So now, when my phone isn't being used, background services can run less frequently. And it really works.

For power users Android still lets you get away with more than either iOS or Windows mobile. It's just that now if you're not a power user everything is as simple as iOS or Windows mobile.

A parting thought: As soon as you move away from a device running Vanilla Android (Nexus or.. um.. Nexus) iOS wins again. Consistency of experience is a big deal and almost every Android device manufacturer just doesn't get it.

Best Portable Computer - Surface Pro 4

Microsoft have pulled off some real magic with the Surface Pro 4. 

It runs a laptop grade Skylake i7-U CPU with 16GB of RAM and 1 terabyte of storage in a package that weighs 785g. The internals are not comparable to the iPad. They're not comparable to the Macbook air or Macbook (M processor). They're not even comparable to the Macbook Pro which runs an older generation of Intel's U class mobile processors. 

It has a touchscreen like an iPad and a detachable keyboard so you can use it like an iPad. Windows 10 has done a good enough job of making the touch experience usable for most touch use case scenarios (web browsing, reading, video watching, writing). Basically as soon as soon as you detach your keyboard you're in consumption mode (unless you're writing) and that's really all you use an iPad for anyway. App developers seem to have cottoned on to this and you'll find all the big name consumption services in the Windows app store (Kindle, Netflix, TED etc.). And of course there is Chrome for web browsing.

The Surface Pro 4 ships with the surface Pen which is surprisingly useful for... Well, drawing things. And not blocking my presence in a meeting with an upright laptop thing (because I'm drawing - doodles - and not typing). 

The Surface Pro 4 fixed the final flaw in Microsoft's transformer by designing a laptop grade keyboard and multi touch trackpad. The mind boggles why it took them this long, but it is done.

The surface dock provides a very slick transformation into a full desktop experience. One click of the surface dock connector and all my desktop size peripherals come to life and the Surface itself transforms appropriately.

Windows Hello is an understated feature that delights me every day. The Surface really knows who I am. As I sit down (even in the dark) it says Welcome Greg and logs me right in. Without me even having to touch it. It does this in a way that is apparently secure (some 3D modeling of my head and facial features) using multiple cameras and an IR blaster.

The Surface Pro 4 is also a precision crafted beautiful thing. Microsoft's design language flows very elegantly from the Surface through to the Windows 10 OS.

Does the Surface Pro 4 try to do too much and end up being shitty at a lot of things? The answer is honestly no. It's doing them all and it's doing them well.

The Surface Pro 4 is an iPad and it's a Macbook Pro in a device half the weight of a Macbook Air. It's honestly remarkable. Nothing comes close.

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