Sketch 3

While writing my previous post it struck me that life is too short and $80 is too little to get worked up about, so I bought Sketch 3. As usual, I broke out my texture map file from iDraw, exported as SVG, and tried it out. Importing was good but flawed in exactly the same way as with Sketch 2 (and Affinity Designer, of which the less said the better). Having bought the new version, Sketch 3 has significant workflow advantages over its predecessor that are easily worth the price of admission. The core functionality hasn’t been improved much, but it’s wrapped in a more efficient user interface.

No Application is (or should be) an Island

The above file was exported as SVG and imported into Sketch 3. Everything looks perfect except for the fonts (which are easily fixed). But a lot of the effects have been rendered using bitmaps.
The above file was exported as SVG and imported into Sketch 3. Everything looks perfect except for the fonts (which are easily fixed). But a lot of the effects have been rendered using bitmaps.
Using Sketch 3's new shared styles, the results were quickly recreated and even improved upon.
Using Sketch 3’s new shared styles, the results were quickly recreated and even improved upon.
The new file was then exported from Sketch 3 as SVG and imported into iDraw and back into Sketch 3. In both cases the results are not good.
The new file was then exported from Sketch 3 as SVG and imported into iDraw and back into Sketch 3. In both cases the results are not good.

One of Sketch 2’s worst problems was that while it was just great at importing SVGs, you couldn’t get anything out of it except bitmaps. Among other things, for the first time this lets me give iDraw’s SVG import a proper workout. The good news is that iDraw is just as good at importing SVGs from Sketch 3 as Sketch 3 is at importing its own SVGs. The bad news is that Sketch 3 isn’t nearly as good at exporting stuff not supported by SVG as SVG (iDraw does a pretty great job of rendering effects that can’t be represented as SVG styles using judiciously generated bitmaps and SVG shapes on the way out — Sketch 3 just throws up its hands.)

So, the good news is you can now get your vector geometry out of Sketch 3. The bad news is that it does not do a good job of rendering the styles in a portable manner.

Symbols

Symbols in action. Four instances of the same symbol. Symbols can be independently rotated, but not resized, and they cannot be nested.
Symbols in action. Four instances of the same symbol. Symbols can be independently rotated, but not resized, and they cannot be nested.

Symbols are my number one reason for buying Sketch 3. They promise to make Sketch 3 into the Houdini of UI design tools. (Arguably, Illustrator and Photoshop already do all this, but bear with me.) The basic idea is you make something into a symbol, and then when you duplicate it the duplicates are all references to the original. Changing one, changes all. Symbols for the most part work very well, but there are some caveats. First of all, Sketch 3 doesn’t fully support the idea of a “transform” which in practice means that you can rotate a symbol without rotating every other instance but you cannot resize a symbol without resizing every instance. Next, you cannot nest symbols.

The way styles are implemented in Sketch 3 is a welcome surprise.
The way styles are implemented in Sketch 3 is a welcome surprise.

What I wasn’t expecting was how cleverly text and object styles have been implemented in Sketch 3. In fact, these styles are probably more generally useful across the board than Symbols. Combined with Symbols, it makes the lack of nesting much less painful. In both Sketch 2 and 3 the panel above consists of a rounded rectangle and four circles with styling applied, the difference with Sketch 3 is that one style is reused for all four circles, and another is used for the panel. This file was created by painstakingly copying styles around and maintaining them when a change was needed — all of this is now trivial to automate in Sketch 3.

User Interface Refinements

Sketch 3's interface is generally very refined and nearly modeless (thanks to the popout floating thingies it uses everywhere). Note the in-context gradient editor, automatically detected colors, and just how much freaking functionality is jammed into how small a space.
Sketch 3’s interface is generally very refined and nearly modeless (thanks to the popout floating thingies it uses everywhere). Note the in-context gradient editor, automatically detected colors, and just how much freaking functionality is jammed into how small a space.

Before finally paying my $80, I looked online for a proper review of Sketch 3, and found someone whose main complaint about Sketch 3 was that its UI looked dated because — rolls drums — it wasn’t dark like Adobe CS and Apple “Pro” apps. This is doubly funny because Apple is making the “dark UI” a system level feature in Yosemite, but in any event: really?

My main complaint with Sketch 3 after nearly a day of use is the interface. Sure the interface elements have been given a slight overhaul but the overall look is more or less the same. At this point (and after using Fonts by Bohemian Coding), I expected a lot more. Sketch is supposed to be a modern interface designing app so why should it lag behind other apps when it comes to the overall look?

From Sketch 3 — A Few Thoughts

This is why some people make fun of Mac users.

Most of the reviews of Sketch 3 are (rightly) pretty much gushing with praise. (Although many of them could equally be applied to Sketch 2, at least later versions.)

In any event, Sketch 3 has made a number of welcome enhancements, not the least of which (as of 3.1) is to make the file format a true binary (vs. an OSX style “bundle”) which makes for easer version control and DropBox (et al) syncing. As someone who uses Sketch in concert with Unity this last is a welcome change (since Sketch and Unity would step on each other constantly — Unity is prone to mucking around inside Sketch files’ directory structures, convincing Sketch 2 that changes have been made which really haven’t).

Booleans have been improved (they now behave like their product rather than a weird hybrid of their constituent pieces and their product, depending on Satan’s whims)

An absolute winner in the new Sketch is streamlined exporting. If you have something selected when you click the Export button you have the option of exporting the selection — a neat feature which will work better when Sketch 3 does a better job of calculating the bounding rectangle of the object in question. This doesn’t matter so much though because you can export anything instantly by dragging it from the sidebar into Finder (or wherever). You get exactly what you expect (and the bounds are correctly evaluated, so the code is in there somewhere guys!).

Bezier Strokes: Not Quite There Yet

Vectorizing strokes has improved (the self-intersections are no longer hollow, at least) but still needs work.
Vectorizing strokes has improved (the self-intersections are no longer hollow, at least) but still needs work.
Sketch 2 suffered from refresh problems (the pointy corner in the top-middle of the shape is still showing after I changed the corner-mode to rounded).
Sketch 2 suffered from refresh problems (the pointy corner in the top-middle of the shape is still showing after I changed the corner-mode to rounded).
Sketch 3 still lacks the ability to determine how acute an angle to render when a bezier is in corner mode.
Sketch 3 still lacks the ability to determine how acute an angle to render (the “miter limit”) when a bezier is in corner mode.

One of the claimed improvements in Sketch 3 is vectorizing strokes. It just so happens I ran into this problem in Sketch 2 the other day, so this excited me. Alas, it’s improved but not fully fixed yet. Still going to need to fix inside corners by hand. Similarly, Sketch 2 had redraw problems (usually caused by incorrectly calculating bounding rectangles) and these remain in Sketch 3 (with the same workaround — scroll the affected region out of sight and back again). Similarly, Sketch doesn’t center on the selection (or the mouse position) when zooming in and out which is a little disconcerting. One or the other would be nice. Finally, Sketch still doesn’t give you control over the mitering of bezier corners, instead cutting off miters arbitrarily and miscalculating the bounds of stroked shapes with gay abandon. (This is hardly a show stopper, if you’re trying to create a precise pointy bezier object, just use stroke inside.)

More Useful Enhancements

Sketch 3 adds noise fills, offering four different noise algorithms (a custom, rather attractive, algorithm, white, black, and color noise) — this turns out to be particularly useful in combination with new blur modes — in addition to its incredibly useful blur tools (I just realized that Sketch 3 (and 2) support motion and zoom blur (as well as “background” blur which imitates the kind of thing Apple loves to do these days with layered translucent interfaces — great stuff, although where’s radial blur?).

I should mention that I’m disappointed that the pattern fill feature hasn’t be extended to support symbols as fill patterns.

Summing Up

Sketch 3’s headline new features: “shared styles”, symbols, and improved export are great and work as advertised. Its UI is even more polished and streamlined than before. On the negative side, Sketch continues to have some minor issues with the way it handles bezier curves and screen refreshes.

Is Sketch 3 worth $80? Absolutely! Is it worth $80 if you already have Sketch 2? If the new styles and symbols features sound compelling to you, if you want Sketch to play nice with version control or Unity, or if you desperately need to export some SVG geometry from Sketch 2, then yes. Finally, I haven’t played with another new headline feature: scripting. You know who you are if you need this, and chances are if you need it than Sketch 3 is totally going to be worth it. (And chances are you’re a pro and $80 is peanuts for a professional tool.) Otherwise, Sketch 3 doesn’t offer much bottom line functionality that isn’t already in Sketch 2. It’s a fantastic program, but the improvements (thus far) are mainly in terms of workflow and productivity features that won’t do much for casual users.

Postscript: Resizing and Moving

The problem with instances having to be the same size turns out to be indicative of a larger and pervasive problem with resizing objects in Sketch — something I hope gets addressed in a free update. When you resize objects text and fills don’t get scaled in sync. Similarly, styles involving gradients don’t scale the gradients. This hugely reduces the usefulness of styles and instances, and also makes resizing anything with text a major pain in the ass.

Sketch has two serious bugs when it comes to moving bunches of stuff around. Smart guides in Sketch 2.0 simple didn’t work for multiple selections. Now they work — badly. The snapping is simply inaccurate and worse, the objects drift out of relative position (I’m not sure but this may be caused by progressive snapping — e.g. to pixel boundaries — aggregating over time rather than being applied to the original offsets).

Mischief and the Yiynova Tablet

Paintover made with Mischief.
Paintover created using Mischief’s translucent window mode to create a rough outline (of a 3d model).

Update: Mischief has just been updated to version 1.0.6 and its price reduced by about 50% to $65. At this price it’s essentially a no-brainer for anyone who draws on their desktop computer with a tablet. Also, Helen Zhang has posted an in-depth review of Mischief (and she’s a much better draftsperson than I). Her set of gripes with the program is interesting too (and I agree with them and have some more I’d add were I to amend this review). Well worth reading.

Last weekend I came across a new desktop graphics program that — in essence — promises to be for desktop artists what Adobe’s more-or-less excellent Ideas app offers iOS users — a powerful, simple, GPU-accelerated, resolution-independent drawing program.

Mischief is a new app for Mac and Windows computers. It’s truly resolution independent, lean, responsive, and very easy to use. At $129 (note that I’m using a free trial) it would be a bargain if it delivers on its promise. My reaction to seeing the video demo was to (once again) muse about buying a Wacom Cintiq. Unfortunately, the only Cintiqs I’m really interested in cost north of $2000 (indeed, the 24″ Cintiq, which is especially drool-worthy, retails for $2600 and weighs 70lb (because it’s designed to cantilever off a desk and into the artist’s lap).

First, Get a Tablet

The Yiynova 19" Drawing Tablet
The Yiynova 19″ Drawing Tablet

It occurred to me that perhaps by now there might be a credible third-party alternative to the Cintiq, and I came across a blog review of the Yiynova 19″ Drawing Tablet, which is sold by Panda City Store by way of Amazon.com for around $600 (shipping is additional). Further research reinforced the very positive review: not perfect, but really quite good and insanely cheap compared to the Wacom option.

Now, you can buy a very good 27″ display at Costco for about $200 and the Yiynova’s display is 1440×900 pixels and not fabulous. Compared to the Cintiq’s I’ve used the distance between the tablet and the image is greater, meaning there’s more of a parallax issue when drawing, but this is pretty minor.

Clearly it’s the tablet component that’s the hard part of this product. In general, the tablet component of the Yiynova is very good (as good as a Wacom, I think) but the pen does not feel as good in my hand as any of the Wacom pens and is clearly made of cheaper plastic. The button, in particular, is poorly placed and easy to accidentally trigger. Worst of all, the pen requires an AAA battery — I’ve yet to use up the battery, and it would need to use up a whole lot of AAA batteries to bring the cost anywhere near a Cintiq, but it is annoying. Oh, and the storage socket for the pen (made of the same crappy plastic) connects to the back of the tablet on the right. No biggy, but it’s inconvenient and inobvious, moreso for a left-hander like myself.

Takeaway Points

  • Works well out of the box — but not in native-resolution.
  • 1440×900 resolution is both not very good and — as far as I can tell — requires non-free third-party software (I used switchResX — recommended on Apple’s support forums) to use with my Mac Pro. I haven’t tried this with my Macbook Pro, which I would assume would deal better with the resolution (isn’t the normal 15″ screen 1440×900? I have the optional higher-resolution pre-Retina display).
  • Stylus is has a cheap feel, button that’s too easy to press accidentally, and requires a AAA battery.
  • $600 vs. $1000 for the 12″ Cintiq and $2000 for the 22″ Cintiq.
  • Well-designed stand — angle adjustment between conventional monitor and “drawing table” is quick and easy.

Mischief in Action

Mischief supports a translucent window mode which is potentially useful for paint overs
Mischief supports a translucent window mode which is potentially useful for paint overs. Here you can see my latest space weasel design in Cheetah 3d behind a translucent Mischief window.

Overall, my impression of Mischief is that it’s a very nice tech demo, but it’s more than a few key features short of being really useful software. (It’s possible that some of these missing features appear if you register the product, but I think it’s unlikely.)

Mischief has a simple, clean user interface. Perhaps a bit too simple. You can only store six favorite colors for example, and they’re stored in the application not the document (Correction: they are stored in the document and, it appears, the last set of colors you used becomes the default, which makes perfect sense). It’s also missing some fairly key features such as a fill tool or a filled modes for its shape tools, meaning one frequently has to laboriously “color in” areas.

It’s very quick and responsive. I never had to wait for anything. I experienced no crashes. This is clearly a great platform for a product, but it needs a bunch of work.

There’s a translucent window mode which could be very useful for “painting over” photographs or 3d models, but there’s no way to “capture” the underlying image so that you can, for example, zoom in without losing the underlying image.

Mischief is resolution independent, but the brushstrokes aren't interesting
Mischief is resolution independent, but the brushstrokes aren’t interesting

Although everything is resolution-independent, the brushes aren’t interesting, so when you zoom in all you see is very boring splotches with perfectly sharp edges. There are “pencil” or “crayon” like brushes which simply seem to be fields of speckles, but nothing like watercolor or hairy brushes. The website raves about all the patents the developers have, but technically speaking there doesn’t seem to be any functionality here that Adobe Ideas doesn’t match.

Most of my biggest gripes could, I think, be easily addressed with a software update.

  • When I pick a brush the program should switch to “pencil” mode.
  • I need some ways of filling in large areas quickly, whether it’s a filled polygon tool or a freeform select doesn’t matter.
  • Masking tools would be great.
  • It’s very annoying not to be able to have brushes scale with zoom. Sometimes I want to zoom in for precision but keep the same brush size and I simply can’t.
  • I need to be able to store more than six favorite colors, and these colors should be saved with the document.
  • More and customizable keyboard shortcuts. Remember, this is a graphics program and the user won’t be typing, so leave the chording for obscure shortcuts — the way Photoshop does and (better yet) Studio/32 did.

Takeaway Points

  • Fast, responsive
  • Clean UI. Fix the obvious problems and it will be great.
  • Doesn’t remember that I’ve switched the UI to the left side. In general, UI is lacking in polish.
  • Most keyboard shortcuts require command-key. (Some don’t though, so why aren’t almost all shortcuts just a single key?)
  • If the window is too small to display the UI then the UI scrolls, but it does not support mousewheel scrolling.
  • Needs fill tool and filled shape tools
  • Selecting a brush doesn’t put you back in drawing mode, which is frequently annoying
  • No way to export vector artwork to another program such as Illustrator
  • Can only export bitmaps as JPEG (Clarification: a comment, presumably from a Mischief user or developer, corrects this comment saying you can export as layered PSDs, but I could not find any option to export anything other than a JPEG, so perhaps it’s a feature you get by registering.)
  • Can only import bitmaps
  • Cannot capture the background in translucent window mode
  • No way to scale brushes with zoom (so when zoomed way in you have a tiny brush)
  • No complex brushes (e.g. hairy or watercolor)
  • Poor system integration — e.g. no recent documents, command-W for translucent window mode violates UI conventions, no multiple document support (what is it with “real media” graphics programs and not supporting multiple documents?), no quicklook support (docs just look like featureless icons)
  • $129 is a bit much for a tech demo, but I’d gladly pay the price for a more polished program built on this technology.

Other Software

I haven’t bothered reinstalling my CS license so I can’t comment on compatibility with Photoshop et al — according to the review I read, it works but only if you have Wacom Software Drivers installed — which I do. (Aside: my CS5 license appears to have been disabled when I switched Mac Pros, and I haven’t bothered reinstalling.)

Sketchbook Express
Sketchbook — excellent for a free product, but it doesn’t make me happy any more.

Sketchbook Express is the freeware version of Autodesk’s Sketchbook for Mac OS X. (I’m something of a fan of Sketchbook on iOS; I’m less happy with the Android versions.) It’s responsive and — for a free product — very capable, but its brushes are almost as boring as Mischief’s and it’s not resolution-independent. Sketchbook Pro 6 is $60, but I’m kind of tired of the iOS version and not hugely impressed by Sketchbook Express, so I might wait for a new version.

Pixelmator
Pixelmator works just fine.

Pixelmator has perfectly decent pressure support and does a good job of smoothing freehand lines. It doesn’t do anything special, but it works just fine. If you want a functional, attractive, and competent bitmap editor, you really can’t go wrong with Pixelmator, tablet or no tablet.

Acorn
Acorn — note the jiggly lines.

Acorn is very proud of its brush designer, but there seems to be a bug in Acorn and while the brushes seem great in the brush designer, the smoothing algorithm appears to be broken when I draw in the document. I’ve reported the bug (it’s pretty clear that there is code in the program to interpolate tablet data correctly, it’s just not being used).

Photoline
Photoline (I’m still using version 15.5) is perfectly competent with tablet input.

Photoline, which I’ve mostly lost interest in, works perfectly well with the tablet.

Art Rage
Art Rage is the most convincing program I’ve tried with the tablet.
Art Rage
Art Rage does a great job of simulating real media, but it’s not resolution independent.

Art Rage was, as expected, excellent. So excellent that I finally bit the bullet and upgraded to Art Rage 4.0 (for the princely sum of $25) which is, also as expected, even better. Unlike Mischief, Art Rage is not resolution independent, and it sometimes “falls behind” your pen as you draw (but it does catch up). Like Painter before it (and Brushes on iOS), it allows you to record your strokes and then play them back at greater resolution — which is a form of resolution independence. Unfortunately, if you don’t think to record your session before you start then you are out of luck.

The GIMP
I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to get The GIMP to recognize my tablet’s pressure input (or figuring out if I could get it to smooth freehand drawing input properly).

I’ve been meaning to post a review of The GIMP, which is much improved from the past, no longer requires X11, and provides a generally decent user experience these days. In any event, The GIMP appears to support tablets but I couldn’t get it to respond to pressure input (I didn’t spend much time on it). It does a so-so job of smoothing freehand drawing input, so I don’t think I’d use it over Pixelmator, for example.

Cheetah 3d supports pressure input and does a good job at smoothing lines, but falls flat when transforming drawing input from the 3d viewport to the material (it works much better when editing materials directly in the UV Editor window).

Blender seems to work perfectly with a tablet, but I haven’t explored much yet. Sculpting is merely a matter of applying some subdivision to a mesh and switching to sculpting mode. I plan to take it for a spin with some texture painting but I need to look up some tutorials. (Of course!)

Artboard does a good job of smoothing input, but doesn’t do anything with pressure data.

iDraw has some pretty nice pens for use with its freehand drawing tools (of which it has two) but it doesn’t seem to make any use of pressure data.

Aperture provides excellent tablet support, and I imagine iPhoto does too (but I don’t use iPhoto at the moment).

Sketch (the indie UI drawing program) somewhat ironically has no freehand drawing tool.

Conclusions

I haven’t reached any final conclusions. As I said above, Art Rage is terrific, and I think the single most impressive program I’ve tried with the tablet (although it can lag behind my pen and it sometimes produces a — shudder — progress dialog; I should note that I’m using a 2012 Mac Pro with 32GB of RAM). I’m disappointed by Sketchbook Express, and it doesn’t inspire me to pony up $60 to try the Pro version.

The Yiynova tablet is a mixed bag. The built-in display is merely OK (and getting it to display the correct resolution was slightly annoying) and the pen needs a redesign. That said, it works as advertised and it’s — say — 40% the price of an equivalent Cintiq, if such a thing existed (let’s guesstimate that a 19″ Cintiq would cost $1500). I’ve only ever played with a Cintiq for a few minutes at a time in a store or (originally) at Siggraph — it seemed pretty much perfect at the time, but perhaps it has shortcomings I don’t know about. I’ve always had good experiences with Wacom’s tablets though (I have a Bamboo sitting on my desk — its pen doesn’t feel great, but it’s still nicer than the Yiynova’s).

Finally there’s Mischief. Mischief is very promising — it’s more responsive than any of the other programs I tried, and it’s certainly capable of producing good results in the right hands (not mine!), but it’s missing a lot of functionality and system integration. That said, a lot of graphics programs sport actively horrible user interfaces whereas Mischief is merely lacking a few refinements. The question is, do I spend $129 on it or wait and see?

iOS6

This is what iOS Maps selects as my destination when I search for USPTO
This is what iOS Maps selects as my destination when I search for USPTO

I neither lined up for nor pre-ordered an iPhone 5 (lining up for the iPhone 4 on launch day persuaded me that there is no gadget I want that badly), and just placed my order (estimated delivery 3-4 weeks) after debating whether I really want a phone at all for several weeks. It follows that my impressions of iOS6 are based on using it on my iPhone 4.

Flirting with Android

In case you’re wondering: yes, I did consider switching to Android. Indeed, I have bought two tablets — one a Nexus 7, and one a Kindle Fire, since I last bought an iOS device (that would be my iPad first generation 64GB, which I still use daily). The Nexus 7 has done a good deal to persuade me that Android is still essentially an exercise in frustration. E.g. I tried to order my iPhone 5 on my Nexus 7, but its various quirks combined to prevent me from completing the transaction. These quirks are:

  • The keyboard can (and frequently does) become so unresponsive that it loses tap events altogether.
  • Sometimes I simply can’t tap on targets in the browser (Chrome is my favorite browser)
  • I’ve progressed from “quite liking” the user interface to loathing it with a deep and abiding passion

It’s a shame. There’s a lot to like about Android, especially as a developer. Being able to build an Android game directly from Unity without launching Eclipse is wonderful, and I was able to port Manta to Android and post a (somewhat wonky) version in the Google Play store in a couple of lunch breaks. The iOS development experience is certainly a lot less unpleasant today than it was in 2008, but Android is completely frictionless. Of course the net result is that there’s a lot of half-assed crap, like my quick and dirty Manta port, in Google Play.

iOS6 First Impressions

Probably the first thing I noticed with iOS6 is that my iPhone seemed to run a little faster (and it was just fine before), and battery life seems slightly better (maybe 30-50% battery for a day of typical use for me). Not bad for a two-and-a-half-year-old phone. It reminds me of Mac OS X upgrades up until Tiger.

iOS6 Maps App
Directions are much more readable in the new Maps app, and you can flick from stage to stage easily, and get back to your current stage by tapping the arrow button.

The Maps app has gotten the most attention. On my iPhone there’s no 3d flyover frippery, and as far as I can tell there’s no turn-by-turn directions. But the way the Maps app works is insanely better than the old map application (although goodness knows it could easily be further improved):

  • The big green directions are much easier to read at a distance, e.g. wedged on my dashboard
  • You can flick back-and-forth through a series of directions easily (and get back to your current leg with a tap of the “center on me” button)
  • If you tap the “center on me” (or “arrow”) button when using directions, turning it subtly purple, it keeps you centered and automatically steps from instruction to instruction. This is a killer feature and makes the device, in my opinion, superior to a dedicated GPS navigator (or my wife…)
  • You can also pop back to an overview of your route without interrupting anything.

As for the things that could be improved:

  • I assume turn-by-turn navigation will automatically recalculate routes, but I’d like a shortcut for recalculating routes in the direction mode.  Right now, just as in the old Maps app, you need to tap your destination (again), and search for directions (again), and then click the Route button (again) and start navigation (again). Ick.
  • I think that the “purple triangle” mode (follow me and update current stage automatically) should be the default, and not require an extra tap to activate.
  • The way Waze lets you add small detours (e.g. for gas) to a route would, if Waze weren’t a bit of a usability-free-zone, be genius. Steal the idea and do it properly.

I haven’t found the actual directions to be bad (I live and work inside the DC “beltway” so your mileage may vary), or even discernibly different, from the old app’s (or Waze’s). The big difference (and this also applies to Waze to a slightly lesser extent) is that the new app simply sucks at searching for destinations by anything other than exact address. It doesn’t alway fail — e.g. it can find “Smithsonian National Zoo” without a problem — but it fails more often than not. It seems to me that a quick fix would be to pick some search service and attempt to resolve a search that isn’t producing satisfactory results. Even Duckduckgo, which I believe assiduously avoids basing its searches on any information it may have about the user gets a good result searching for the USPTO’s street address. So, it seems to me that Apple could easily fix this problem without going cap-in-hand to Google.

Do Not Disturb is wonderful, but falls in the category of “stuff I was amazed wasn’t implemented in version 1.0”. It lets you tell your phone not to ring or make noises between certain times (and can be toggled manually, e.g. during a meeting). As far as I can tell it doesn’t automatically figure out you’re in a meeting if there’s a meeting scheduled in your calendar. iOS11 perhaps. But, unlike the VIP feature in Mail, it allows you to automatically allow favorite contacts to penetrate the Cone of Silence.

Speaking of General Settings, Personal Hotspot is back at the “root level” of settings — where it belongs — having disappeared into the hierarchy at some point.

Facebook integration is interesting. You can install Facebook from the settings panel. So you can integrate to Facebook without having the app installed, but you can also install the app from the settings panel. Neat. And yes, Twitter integration works the same way and intrinsically supports multiple accounts.

Passbook. I can only parrot the comments others have made suggesting that Apple might have kicked this sucker off a bit more effectively. How about a bunch of discount coupons and some gift certificates ($10 off any iPhone 5 case at your friendly local Apple Store). As it is, I have no clue what this is for right now.

A number of other apps, notably the Phone app, have had significant cosmetic changes for no readily apparent reason. And there’s a few new apps — iTunes U, Find Friends (potentially useful, but I haven’t set it up), and Podcasts — that at least have the virtue of not being folders in disguise (so you can tuck them into folders to hide them if you want).

There’s a new VIP feature in Mail, but I’d rather see support for Gmail’s Priority Inbox (or automagic functionality rivalling it) which seems to work almost flawlessly and required no setup on my part. I thought it might automatically include everyone on my favorites list in contacts, but that might involve not dividing communication into silos (snarl).

Overall, Maps is great but needs work (it seems fine once you give it a street address), everything else is fine, and it seems to run leaner and meaner than iOS5. What’s not to like?

Ustö is quite hard to find using Google Maps
Ironically. Ustö is quite hard to find using Google Maps. I had to specify “Ustö, Sweden” to get any result, and this looks wrong to me.

Nexus 7

Nexus 7, iPhone 4, and Kindle Fire
Nexus 7, iPhone 4, and Kindle Fire

My Nexus 7 (16GB) showed up yesterday — two business days after I ordered it. Shortly after activation I received my $25 of Google Play credit which kind of nullified the non-free shipping (insofar as $25 Google Play credit can be considered to be worth $25).

Cutting to the chase: I like it. Overall, I like it better than the (nearly one year old) Kindle Fire. (I like the Kindle Fire a lot more now than when I got it because of significant improvements to the OS, including password protection for purchases.)

My wife and I recently changed jobs, as a result of which we both had to give up employer-provided iPad 2s, and we’re now using our old iPads when the girls let us. So the contrast in performance between the iPads and the newer Android (ish) devices couldn’t be made more stark, and by-and-large it’s not terribly stark. In flat out performance (e.g. loading complex web pages) the newer devices are noticeably faster, but in general use the iPads are more fluid and pleasant, which seems to indicate to me that there are fundamental architectural issues in Android which are never going to be fully addressed (much as Flash sucked in ways Adobe simply couldn’t fix).

Seven Inches

I find both the Kindle Fire and the Nexus 7 to be totally usable for reading, web surfing, and watching video. If anything, I would suggest they are — overall — slightly superior devices to the iPad for those purposes for the simple reason that smaller size, lower weight, and better performance trump display size.

As soon as it comes to use as a computer substitute, the iPad simply wins. I have bought Sketchbook for all three devices (I have the cheaper phone-centric version on the Kindle Fire). I am a huge sketchbook pro user and I find the 7″ version to be frustrating at best (at least the Kindle OS has been improved such that it’s not horribly jerky any more).

Android v. iOS

As alluded to before, based on the jerkiness of Android 4.1.1 (insert dessert name) on the Nexus 7, Android’s UI/graphics subsystem is significantly behind iOS and it’s not going to catch up. But aside from the niceties of UX animation, I’m not sure that matters. If UX mattered that much, Microsoft wouldn’t have been worth more in 1999 — in inflation-adjusted terms — than Apple is today. Yes, these are different times, but give most people a 30% discount and make their UX clunkier and less tasteful and they’ll say “why yes, I will buy a new PC”. (As Don Norman mentions in the Design of Everyday Things, even his family is not immune — opting for price or features over aesthetics and usability when purchasing things like stovetops.)

Icons: one area where the Nexus 7 is seriously (but trivially) handicapped is aesthetics. While the system as a whole looks quite nice, there are some truly horrible icons. For example, the “Applications” icon — a white circle with six small white squares in it — which manages to be unintuitive, ugly, impossible to remove or replace (as far as I can tell — I’m sure it can be replaced) and locked to the center of the “dock”. There are plenty of butt-ugly icons — the music app is a pair of orange headphones that look like an escapee from Program Manager circa 1994, and the book reader is a blue book cracked open to face away from the user.

System: I find the basic Android “launchpad”, at least for the Nexus 7, to be pretty confusing. The Kindle Fire was pretty bad, but I’ve gotten used to it, and find it quite pleasant now. That said, once I figured my way around there are some ways in which the Nexus 7’s UI is markedly superior to both iOS and (as I understand it not having used it for more than a few seconds) Windows Phone 7. In essence, “widgets” (which are provided by apps) allows you to allocate a subgrid of icons in the launcher screens to be a small panel owned by an app. E.g. a mail widget might display a small inbox.

If there were one feature of the Nexus 7 / Android which I would like to see Apple copy into iOS it would be widgets. On the screen of my Nexus 7 in the photo you can make out the Gmail widget, an analog clock widget (sigh), a calendar widget, and a Flipboard widget.

Applications: iOS is ahead but the gap is definitely closing. Angry Birds — yes. Sketchbook Pro — yes. Tiny Wings — no. Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars — no. And, notably, when you try to search for games like Infinity Blade the name autocompletes (it’s a common search) but you get nothing but crapware. Perhaps more importantly, Pages — no. iMovie — no. Apple itself makes nicer software than Google and this has follow-on effects on the ecology that don’t change (just look at how Microsoft’s poor and inconsistent application design degrades the entire Windows ecosystem, or how Apple’s worst missteps — metal! — have been imitated slavishly).

One area where Android excels compared to iOS is its openness. I’ve got Firefox and could easily install one of a number of programming environments that don’t have any of Apple’s restrictions (e.g. Codea on the iPad won’t let you share your code with anyone else, short of email and copy-and-paste). The fact that there are no compelling development tools on Android (that I can see) is pretty telling.

Installing Apps: when I first tried to install an app I got mysterious errors which turned out to be quite common (the solution was to turn Gmail syncing off and on). Once I got it working I found installing new apps markedly quicker and more painless than achieving the same thing in iOS (and I appreciate having automatic update as an option, although I’d prefer it to be on a per-app basis). (Also — hint to Apple — I’d like to be able to delete an app instead of update it.)

Silos: why is there a Message app and a Talk app? Why is there a Gmail app and an Email app? And why a navigation app and a Maps app? If Apple’s insistence on dividing communication into silos based on the medium is annoying, Google’s rises to mystifying. At least on my iPhone I can see email from Gmail, Exchange, and vanilla POP and IMAP in one place.

3D Game Performance: I know that the Nexus 7 should be running rings around the iPad (and iPhone 4) but from my brief experiments with 3d games (I tried Pocket Legends and Space Legends, both from the same vendor, which may be telling) I found games to run more choppily on the Nexus 7. In any event the difference wasn’t marked, so I call it a wash.

Notifications: Android fans make a lot hay over the superiority of Android notifications. Thus far, I’d call it a wash (perhaps Android’s the weird little icons in the sometimes-visible “menubar” will prove to be helpful).

Content Offerings: Google’s Play store is ubiquitous but a tad confusing. On the one hand they offer you the option to get everything from magazines to apps to movies in one place, on the other hand there are a ton of different storefronts that are all slightly different. One thing I found pretty annoying is that it’s not made clear whether the “price” of a movie is purchase or rent (or what resolution is being sold to you). And, in the end, it just seems to be the same stuff sliced up differently (insert joke about Taco Bell’s menu options). In the end, Kindle, Netflix, and Hulu+ all run dandy on the Nexus 7 (I noticed Super 8 was available via Netflix streaming and watched it last night).

Conclusions

None really. I like the Nexus 7, and I think it’s a worthy competitor to the iPad in a Windows vs. Mac kind of way (i.e. it’s not as good, but has some nice things I wish the iPad had, and the price is right). Unlike the Windows vs. Mac comparison, the ecosystem is squarely on Apple’s side (for the time being, at least) — the iPad has a significantly better game selection. Notably, in key areas Android still hasn’t caught up with the original iPad. My Kindle Fire languished largely unused for about six months (I’ve been using it quite a bit since having to return my iPad 2) — I might have more definite conclusions after the rumored iPad mini ships or doesn’t ship.

Surface Notes

I tried to watch the entire introduction, but it was just so boring. The audience seemed pretty bored too.

I like the keyboard cover, but you can get something similar for the iPad if you want (and I suspect the iPad will be cheaper with it added on). I love the fact that, in theory, you could run Windows apps on the Intel version so that, in effect, you’d have a PC and a tablet at the same time. Also, the way the pen is implemented (with proximity causing multitouch to be disabled automatically) seems like a great feature.

We don’t have any hardware we can let you touch, but check out this ray traced logo

There was a 30s animation of some crap morphing into the word “Surface”. It looked like it was made of metal. It was like a 1980s ray tracing demo. When was the last time Apple showed a spinning logo animation at a product launch? Hmm. Never.

But right now what we have is vaporware.

None of the presenters looked comfortable holding or using the device, and the fact that there were no demo units with keyboards available for anyone, no release date, and no pricing information suggest to me that Microsoft rushed the announcement. All this emphasis on hardware seemed hopeless (and boring). I find the Jonathan Ive bits at Apple product launches tedious, and this was far, far worse. Frankly, insofar as I care I’d rather wait for iFixit or Anandtech to tell me the straight dope.

Bigger than any other non-phone platform

Several aspects of the launch seemed almost pathetic.

Trying to claim Microsoft was and always has been a hardware company (and the war with East Asia is going great, thanks) he cited the mouse (which apparently was necessary to ensure Windows “one oh” was a success. Um, Windows 1.0 was a success?), keyboards, xbox, surface (the big one), webcams, and kinect. (What, no “zune”? And as I understand it, the mice, keyboards, and webcams are simply third party products with Microsoft packaging.) Frankly, I think it would have been better to say, “we used to be a software company, we’ve dabbled with hardware, but now we’re serious.”

Indeed, even the way Ballmer talked about software seemed pathetic. Windows is a hugely important and successful product, you don’t need to fudge any figures — but he cited the huge market for entertainment on Windows by including embedded systems like ATMs in his figures. He claimed Windows is the most versatile software ever, but this is really just a branding exercise.

If Surface is able to attract serious third party support then it could definitely be a contender. But that’s a big “if” — to do so it needs to (a) ship, (b) be priced reasonably, (c) be as good as promised (actually we don’t even have many promises, so perhaps I should say “be as good as we imagine or assume”), and (d) actually sell in significant numbers.