Whenever I happen to stick on the radio or browse the top charts on Apple Music, I’m often disappointed by the waves of new music that I encounter. A lot of it continues to be disposable and entirely forgettable, failing to push music into really new and interesting directions.
For some reason, the nation of Iceland appears to be immune to this musical mediocrity, with bands and artists like Björk, Sigur Rós, Of a Minor Reflection and Of Monsters and Men continuing to release truly impressive albums that defy your expectations.
Neo-classical composer Ólafur Arnalds is no exception to this Icelandic trend. With his latest album, re:member, he has created something both beautiful and technologically innovative. The album was created with his new musical system, called Stratus. The system includes two self-playing pianos,which are triggered by a central piano that is played by Arnalds. The custom-built piano software is the result of two years of research and work by audio developer and composer Halldor Eldjarn. As Arnalds plays a note on the piano, two different notes are generated subsequently by the Stratus system, which creates unpredictable harmonies and melodies to form songs.
What is striking about this album is its subtlety and its feeling of optimism and hopefulness. Quite often, such piano music would probably be described by many as aimless, however, Arnalds is a master of holding listeners’ attention, guiding them through an often mysterious, other-worldly soundscape.
For me, this album definitely passes what I call the ‘HomePod test’. In my experience at home, Apple’s HomePod offers absolutely superb audio separation and deep bass without distortion or excessive vibration. Arnalds’s re:member sounds like it was made almost with the HomePod in mind, including shimmering, high piano notes contrasting with deep, drawn-out bass throughout many of the tracks. Each and every part of any given song shines and is clearly discernible.
Two particular stand-outs on the album (besides the opening title track) are partial and ekki hugsa, which demonstrate this HomePod-readiness. I’m typically the kind of person who detests the use of anything other than title case in my music library (harking back to my old manual iTunes file-tagging days), however, Arnalds has convinced me otherwise here. The use of lower-case letters on each track title seems fun and alternative, giving even more of a positive and informal feel to a neo-classical album.
For such a tiny nation, Iceland certainly has its act together and keeps producing impressive material. I wish that musicians in other countries would sort theirs out.
You can stream the album re:member here on Apple Music.
A short time ago, Apple released a new product; no, it isn’t a computer, in fact, it isn’t electronic at all. It’s a book, and a beautiful book at that. Titled Designed by Apple in California, the book chronicles the last 20 years of Apple product design, with a suave introduction by none other than Chief Design Officer Jony Ive. The photos were taken by Andrew Zuckerman.
Upon hearing of the book, I knew that I had to have it. I already possess Iconic: A Photographic Tribute to Apple Innovation, by Jonathan Zufi, and that does a fantastic job of tracing Apple’s entire product history. A book by Apple, however, is unique and intriguing. It is both a product in its own right and an ingenious marketing tool.
Apple’s own effort, eight years in the making, is somewhat different from Iconic in the sense that it only focuses on the last 20 years. Apple doesn’t often look back, as many analysts have noted. In this case, however, it has looked back to the point of Apple’s metaphorical ‘rebirth’, with the return of co-founder Steve Jobs. The book is even dedicated to him.
Before even opening the packaging, it’s a product to behold. The outer packaging is in fact a part of the overall book product, acting as a protective cover and with an elegant Apple product decoration on the inside.
The design of this book is very impressive, as it uses ‘specially milled German paper with gilded matte silver edges’. These page edges beautifully mimic the aluminium sheen of Macs’ unibody enclosures.
Even the ink on the inside has been considered, as certain product images act differently under direct light. Take, for example, the first product that is featured: the iMac from 1998. The computer’s translucent plastic body remains matte on the page, whilst holes in the body and chrome finishes reflect light as the page is turned. This is an outstanding effect, and one can’t help but think of the more skeuomorphic design that was used in earlier versions of OS X and iOS. These printed images behave like the real-world products that they represent, just as digital buttons, icons and finishes once represented the real. This style was eventually replaced with the more minimalistic, flat design that we know today, but it makes complete sense now in a book that attempts to showcase design, without the actual products in front of the reader.
If you’re curious to have a closer look at this hardcover book, you’ll have to visit one of only a selection of Apple stores. I visited the Sydney store on George Street, where both the large and small versions were displayed on custom book stands close the Apple Watch tables.
The small version, which I purchased, cost AU$289. Whilst quite expensive, the price is ultimately reflected in the quality of the product. Check out the book online here.
Some analysts and fans are concerned about the amount of retrospection that Apple has been doing of late (e.g. the recent MacBook Pro reveal video). I’m not concerned, in fact, I’m excited. Apple’s strength has always been in communicating its brand and product stories, and this is another way of doing precisely that. The company is recalling its past and understanding where its successes (and failures) lie.
Looking back at this company’s past makes me even more excited about its future.
I’ve downloaded many, many apps since my first iPhone in 2008. At my most extreme, I had 245 apps installed and neatly organised in folders, fully alphabetised and categorised. In more recent times, I decided that things had become ridiculous; I had to let go of some apps to restore some sanity to my home screen. Nowadays, I have only around 75 apps on my iPhone, and I’m much more critical of every free and priced app download. For an app to make its way onto my home screen, it had better be good.
Well, an app came along that is most definitely worth it.
Hyper by Antihero, Inc. is a fantastic, new app, which I can only describe as the perfect synthesis of on-demand web video and curated, almost broadcast-style content. Every day, the app team trawls the Web, searching for what it believes are the ten best videos of the day. Once selected, they land on Hyper’s menu, each with a beautiful, bold title, the duration and easy sharing options linked to the share-sheets available in iOS.
The app made its first appearance on the new Apple TV, with an easy-to-use, swipeable interface that is optimised for the new Siri Remote.
The iPad version followed soon afterwards, with the iPhone left until last. This is rather interesting, as the iPhone is often first on developers’ minds for apps, whether they are games, utilities or steaming libraries. The iPhone is where the cash is. In this case, it’s obvious that the team had nailed the interface for TV first, and decided to take the time to translate the experience in a considerate way for smaller displays.
Not only do they curate content for each day, they also group the best of the week into an easy weekend recap, so that you can catch up on what you might have missed.
It’s the synthesis, however, that makes this app so much fun to use. You choose the content that you want to watch (curated according to your interests upon first use), without having to search for it yourself. Yes, it’s a first-world problem, but who has the time to subscribe to 500 YouTube channels and check push notifications all day?
While I often start each morning scrolling through the feed in my Apple News app, I end each day with a visit to Hyper. Furthermore, if you’re the type to watch videos on your commute each morning, the videos actually download automatically over Wi-Fi early in the day, so you can watch it on-the-go without worrying about nasty data charges.
I could go on about this app all day; I’ve learnt and laughed a lot using it. There have been awesome videos from social organisations, YouTubers and various other documentary, sport and comedy sites. The folk at Hyper have great taste.
Do yourself a favour and try the app. It’s well worth your time, and if anything, will bring a bit of focus to your digital life.
Well, I spent about seven months waiting for the Apple Watch, along with many others around the world, and it’s finally here. This waiting period saw Apple further refine the device’s battery power, readying the retail try-on experience, online pre-order process and of course, allowing time for developers’ app submissions, which now number at least 3500. It’s impressive that a first-generation product has such a great app marketplace already.
Over time, having read many blogs and watched many videos (Apple and third-party) about the product, I was optimistic about the Apple Watch. Sure, I expected there to be a few first-generation glitches and shortcomings, but I was generally optimistic. Now that the device has been released, the general reaction to the watch has been positive, and Apple is thought to have sold at least two million of them as initial pre-orders.
Many consumers, it still seems, are sceptical of the device:
“It’s just another screen in my life.”;
“It’s too expensive.”;
“The battery life will not last long enough.”; and
“It will make everyone anti-social.”
Most of all, there is the question as to what on Earth the watch actually for… what is its purpose? Well, I hope to explain its purpose to you after a week’s worth of experience with the device.
First of all, I’d like to talk about the hardware and industrial design of the Apple Watch. I purchased a 42mm Apple Watch Sport in the space-grey aluminium finish with black fluoroelastomer sport band. This model retails in Australia for $579. The watch is impressively light, and sits comfortably on my wrist, despite the concerns of many that the 42mm version of any of the watches would be too big and thick… and believe me, my wrists are aren’t that big. The Apple Watch (stainless steel) and Edition (18-karat gold) models are of exactly the same dimensions, but weigh a bit more respectively (not so much so that they are uncomfortable… I have tested the stainless steel model with Milanese Loop).
The anodised aluminium case is smooth and consistent in its finish. The band is soft and supple, without feeling flimsy. The Retina display is also beautiful, presenting great picture quality, typography, brightness and colour.
On the right-hand side of the case (assuming you’ve configured the watch for use on your left wrist), you can find the digital crown and side-button. The digital crown is great to use, acting as the watch’s input mechanism for zooming and scrolling, making up for its smaller display than iPhones and iPad. You can scroll through lists using the touch-screen and you can zoom into photos by double-tapping, but using the crown is much nicer. The screen remains unobstructed and the motion is smooth and almost oily-feeling. The side-button is devoted to your favourite watch friends and the Digital Touch function, which I discuss more later in this article.
The back of the watch also boasts a beautiful, circular engraving of text, denoting the model and serial number, wrapping around the four light sensors that monitor health during everyday activity and specified workout sessions.
With regard to the hardware, my first week with Apple Watch has been brilliant. Even as one of the cheaper Sport models, the watch is fashionable, comfortable and exceptionally well-made. Apple has put a lot of consideration into making something that anyone can be proud to wear, even as fashion items for women. What other wearable tech product can do that?
Moving onto Apple’s watchOS, while reminiscent of its bigger brothers OS X (desktop) and iOS (mobile), is quite a different beast. Yes, it uses a minimalist design language, but rather than employing bright, white app backgrounds, the watch uses black backgrounds for high-contrast with white text. The heavy use of black is also an effective method of conserving battery power. The watch uses Apple’s custom font San Francisco rather than traditionally-used fonts like Helvetica Neue, Lucida Grande and Myriad Pro. This choice was to make it easier to read on a smaller display, and it works. Furthermore, with accessibility settings, the boldness and size can be adjusted along with colour to fit more or make the text easier to read if you have poor vision.
Upon turning on the watch for the first time, I was instructed to set it up by connecting to my iPhone via Bluetooth and configuring it with the Apple Watch app. This was an absolute breeze to set up, requiring Bluetooth and the camera to scan the display. The Apple Watch app for iPhone is really easy to use, as it mirrors the layout and functionality of the Settings app on iPhone, albeit with toggles for the watch, including app installation, app layout, connectivity and so on. Many of these things are configurable on the watch too, but can be done more easily on the iPhone all at once if you’re already using.
watchOS, as I stated earlier, is reminiscent of iOS, but works differently. Yes, there is an app home screen, but the basis of the watch is the watch face, which lives in the centre of the displayed app universe. Native apps live on the Apple Watch, and for the moment third-party apps are extensions of those already residing on the iPhone. Third-party apps will behave more like native ones later this year, according to Apple, but for the moment this is of no concern. Contrary to some reports of constant slowness in loading, my experience has been great. I’ve only had two apps that froze or slowed down upon startup, and I am sure that future updates will resolve this.
The watch faces, as the centre of the device’s app universe, are fantastic. I spent a number of days trying to conclude which one I liked best. I jumped from the “extra-large” face that only shows the time in large type, to the simple face with adjustable complications, then finally the modular interface. This is all really a matter of taste. Apple has included 10 faces, most of which can be extensively customised in aesthetic and function. The modular face was my personal choice as it is bold, simple and yet still shows rich information in such a small space, each of which can be tapped, taking you directly to the app. Rich information on the screen enables you to keep fewer tools in your Glances section, which is a swipe up from the bottom of the screen. I have found the app glances for TripView, Shazam, Twitter and the Music app particularly useful, as I have instant access on my wrist to train times, my iPhone’s music library, trending topics and the ability to identify unknown music instantly.
I could spend a long time talking about all of the apps on this device, but by far the best experiences I’ve had so far have been with Messages, Mail, Phone, Activity and Workout apps, as well as Digital Touch… all of the default stuff! What Apple has achieved here is a super-convenient shrinking of useful iPhone apps to provide über-convenience for the wrist, but with a focus on what is essential to enable smooth, ‘glance-able’ experiences. I’ve loved being able to answer phone calls on my wrist at home, use Siri to dictate messages (text and audio form), read entire e-mails and track my activity throughout the day.
I was initially a little bit worried that the Apple Watch’s notifications would be obtrusive, distracting me more than my iPhone ever has. This has not been the case. The Apple Watch is an amazing filter, gently tapping me on the wrist with its taptic engine whenever I receive a notification, giving me the power decide what to act on and when. It may sound strange, but it has saved me time. I no longer check my phone for the sake of it, or get lost in apps, distracted from the initial reason that I picked up my iPhone. The watch keeps me informed in a subtle way that no one else can hear or feel, and most importantly, it makes me use my iPhone less. Apple CEO Tim Cook and designer / Head of Human Interface Jony Ive weren’t kidding when they said that Apple Watch is the most personal device they’ve ever made and that it helps you to live a better day. Consistent reminders to stand, calorie-tracking and more keep me aware of my movement, and subsequently have made me feel better. The ability to send cute little sketches makes you feel way more connected to this thing than you do with a phone. Digital Touch, whilst viewed as a gimmick by some, is truly great. It just feels different, the same way that emoji in messages is so much more fun these days than the early days of e-mail and SMS.
All of thee amazing functions are delivered in something that truly does last all day. Sure, the battery doesn’t last for months or years like traditional, mechanical watches, but look at the extensive use cases and apps available for this device at this price. I have not run out of battery on any day so far, even with consistent scrolling, exercise and notification checking, and have ended each day with no less than 25 per cent charge left. I find that to be exceedingly impressive.
So, coming back to the whole idea of this post, what is the Apple watch actually for? Where does it fit in the world of computers? Desktops and laptops are the hub, or basis, of our computing experiences, largely for storage and heavy content creation. iPhones, built on the enormous success of the iPod, are our mobile computers, giving us instant informational access around the world, and even tools for productivity and creativity. The iPad, while still questioned, sits between the iPhone and desktop, providing simple yet powerful computing to novices and pros alike. Sometimes you just need that bit of extra space over an iPhone, or want to sit on the lounge with it like a magazine. Hell, you may even want to create an album with it. The watch, for many people, is not as clear in its purpose, even with a long marketing campaign across numerous media by Apple. After a week with the device, I feel that I can explain it. Much like the rest of Apple’s products, which as Steve Jobs said, stand at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, the watch stands at the intersection of technology and fashion. The Watch is powerful, informational, quick and simple, helping you to monitor your health, stay connected with people and even filter the noise that bombards you during the day. Most importantly, however, it is personal. The focus on fashion gives you choice to have a different band, a different case material, a different watch face. Apple has long been criticised for its supposedly inferior level of customisation on iPhones when contrasted to Google’s Android OS. Well here, Apple has beaten all other wearable products. This product is personal and helpful, and you feel proud to wear it. Other wearables have felt downright geeky, except for perhaps the Moto 360. As time goes on, and more software features, health sensors and designs are added, the wearable space will only improve.
So, if you want something cool and personal to wear on your wrist, that will make you focus on improving your health and cutting down on the time you spend rudely staring at your phone in the company of others, buy an Apple Watch.
For screenshots and a more visual impression of what the watch can actually do, please check out the gallery below. Also, click here to see some cool films by Apple showing off further software features and the craftsmanship involved in the watch’s manufacture.
The watch face at the centre of the app universe…
One of the many cool watch faces, ‘Astronomy’ enables you to zoom backwards and forwards through time using the digital crown, seeing all of the planets of the Solar System in their actual positions.
The heart-rate monitor in the Glances section is pretty quick to read your heartbeat.
Ahhh, TripView Glance… how useful you are!
Quick toggles for settings as a Glance
Shazam displays an album cover following the successful identification of a song.
Shazam can also display lyrics in time with the music as it plays.
Digital Touch is just super-simple and fun, but only works between Apple Watches.
Trending topics on Digg, a news aggregating app
Yelp results are clean and easy to read and also include helpful reviews like in iOS.
Maps is super-slick and pretty quick too.
Main menu in the Apple Watch app for iOS
The Weather app is really handy, with full time break-downs.
The Workout app is a pleasure to use and is really motivating.