Review: Adobe’s Ink and Slide Are Great Hardware Which Need Great Apps

The software for these high-end iPad art tools feels like rough drafts

Adobe Ink and Slide

People who are serious about software should make their own hardware.

When that famous declaration by Alan Kay gets quoted, it’s usually in reference to ambitious computing devices such as Apple’s iPhone or Microsoft’s Surface. But after more than three decades in the graphics software business, Adobe is finally taking Kay’s advice–and the hardware that it’s built is a pressure-sensitive pen and a unique digital ruler, both for use with new Adobe apps for the iPad.

When the company first showed off prototypes of its pen and ruler more than a year ago, it gave them the code names Project Mighty and Napoleon, respectively. Today, the final versions go on sale as Adobe Ink and Slide. They work with two new Adobe drawing apps for the iPad, Line and Sketch–both of which are free and can be used with or without the new hardware. (Adobe provided me with pre-release versions of the hardware and software, and loaned me an iPad to use with them.)

Adobe is selling Ink and Slide as a set, at an intimidating price: $200. You don’t need to spend anything like that to get a solid iPad stylus. (One of my favorites goes for $35.) But Adobe isn’t being completely irrational: Other pressure-sensitive styli sell for up to $120 on their own, no equivalent to Slide included. Still, it’s a lot of money–and I think that more than a few folks will be disappointed that the company isn’t offering Ink in stand-alone form at a lower price.

The good news is that both gadgets feel like the high-end iPad accoutrements they are. Adobe may be new to hardware, but it’s crafted Ink and Slide out of aluminum and sweated the details.

Adobe SketchAt first blush, Ink’s striking looks–its barrel is a twisted triangle–seem like they might favor form over function. Actually, the pen fits beautifully in the hand. Many iPad styli are too stubby or too thick; this one is just right, and it’s perfectly balanced.

What matters even more than the shape of an iPad stylus’s barrel is the shape of its tip. The iPad was designed to work with fingertips, not pen points; as a result, most styli have large, mushy tips, leaving using them feeling a bit like drawing with a tiny water balloon. You can learn to do it, but it’s not fun.

Adobe, however, gave Ink a tip which uses Pixelpoint, a technology created by a startup called Adonit, which also uses it in some of its own styli. Thanks to Pixelpoint, Ink’s point is truly pointy. It’s also pressure sensitive, letting you draw with pencil and pen tools in Line and Sketch which lay down thicker, darker lines if you press harder. Drawing with it feels more like using a real pencil, pen, or brush than with any other iPad stylus I’ve tried.

Adobe InkRather than taking a AAA battery like some pressure-sensitive iPad styli, Ink comes with a charging tube which doubles as a carrying case. Stick Ink in the tube, pop on the lid and connect a USB cable, and you can charge it up for up to eight hours of continuous drawing.

Ink is an ambitious new product in an existing category. Slide, by contrast, is something altogether new. Used with Ink and the Line or Sketch app, it lets you lay down lines and shapes with precision, letting you mix purely freehand art with elements you positioned and rendered with the help of Slide.

The gizmo is a little aluminum-topped bar, around 4 inches long, on two dinky legs. Even though it doesn’t require a battery, the iPad notices when you’ve plopped it down on the screen. In both Line and Sketch, you can move Slide around to arrange an on-screen line, circle, square or triangle–you cycle between multiple choices by pushing a button on the device–and then size it to your liking and trace it with the stylus to get a shape which simultaneously looks perfect and if it were drawn by hand.

Adobe LineThe Line app provides a bevy of additional shapes which you can position with Slide, such as french curves, trees, various people and animals, and even Herman Miller furniture. It also has a simple 3D-assist mode which helps you with perspective as you lay down lines in a drawing.

Slide is ingenious all by itself, but Adobe did another ingenious thing: It built a virtual version of the hardware into the Line and Sketch apps. Rather than sliding Slide around on your tablet’s display, you can drag around a couple of on-screen circles to position lines and shapes, then trace them with the Ink stylus. It’s a very satisfactory substitute for the Slide device, which makes it all the more of a shame that there’s no way to buy Ink by itself.

Adobe Line

Adobe Line

The virtual Slide is only one of plenty of creative features in the Line app (which emphasizes precision) and Sketch app (which skews more towards freehand drawing). They have features such as integration with Adobe’s Behance, a social network for artists who like to show off their work; and Kuler, a way to share color palettes.

But for all the ways in which Line and Sketch are nice, they feel unfinished. They’re also needlessly inconsistent with each other. And though these apps are free–and Adobe says that it intends to release updates with improvements based on feedback from users–they’re the key to unlocking the potential of the $200 Ink and Slide hardware. So their limitations are a problem.

A few examples:

  • Even though Line and Sketch have very similar toolboxes which let you choose an art utensil and a color, Line places its version at the bottom of the screen, and Sketch puts it at the top.
  • Line lets you customize the size and opacity of its drawing tools; Sketch does not, which limits the variety of effects you can get out of it.
  • Both apps are designed to work with an iPad held in landscape orientation; their interfaces don’t rotate into portrait mode, and the lines I drew in portrait orientation looked like they emerged from a spot off to the left of the pen tip.
  • Neither app offers the ability to create drawings with multiple layers, as you can in such graphics packages as Photoshop. You can import an image from the iPad’s Camera Roll and trace over it, but the two apps handle this task with different interfaces.
  • Both feature palm rejection, a technology designed to let you touch your palm to the tablet’s screen as you draw without unwittingly creating a line, triggering an action or otherwise interfering with your drawing. But like all forms of iPad palm rejection I’ve tried, Adobe’s version isn’t very dependable. And southpaws beware: In Line, there’s a little on-screen button which temporarily disables palm rejection so you can perform gestures such as pinch-to-zoom. It sits on the left side of the screen–where I kept accidentally brushing it with my palm and messing up my work.
Cat Drawing

Adobe Line

After using both Line and Sketch extensively, I found I liked Line better for the sort of precision drawing it’s designed for and for freehand sketching. Which brings up a question: Why does Sketch exist at all? Adobe says that it created two separate apps to avoid feature bloat; it’s a noble-sounding goal, but most of the few unique features which Sketch has could be folded into Line without overloading it.

Ultimately, of course, what you really want is for Ink and Slide to work in any iPad app which might benefit from them–including excellent non-Adobe offerings such as Paper, Procreate, and Sketchbook Pro. Adobe says it’s planning to open up Ink and Slide so that other companies which develop graphics software can enable the hardware in their apps. Whether they will choose to do so remains to be seen–especially since Adobe’s Ink competes with multiple other high-end styli which require their own special software support, such as Pogo Connect, FiftyThree’s Pencil, and Adonit’s Jot Touch.

The bottom line on Ink and Slide: They’re impressive, polished pieces of hardware already, but they’ll be far more compelling if Adobe beefs up Ink and Slide and third-party app developers support the devices. Spending $200 on them right now is a major investment in a vision in progress. But it’s an awfully exciting vision–and if it comes to pass, it’s going to be a boon for iPad art and the people who create it.


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Join Me for Amazon’s Smartphone Event

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, not introducing a phone in 2011

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, not introducing a phone in 2011

If Jeff Bezos doesn’t unveil a smartphone with a 3D display this morning at Amazon’s press event in Seattle this morning, a lot of folks will be very surprised–including me.

Assuming that the phone is real and about to arrive, it will make Amazon into a full-service gadget company for the first time. (It already offers multiple tablets, a TV box which streams video and plays games, and, of course, the latest variants of the Kindle e-reader which got it into the hardware business back in 2007.)

I’ll be in the audience at the event and will be covering it live over on Twitter starting at 10:30am PT. Then I’ll follow up back here on Technologizer with further thoughts once all the details are known. See you there, or here, or both, I hope.


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Parallels Access 2.0 Lets You Use Mac or Windows Apps From Any iOS or Android Device

Photoshop CC for OS X running on an iPad via Parallels Access 2.0

Photoshop CC for OS X running on an iPad via Parallels Access 2.0

Last year, Parallels–the company behind the best-selling virtualization software for OS X–introduced a service called Parallels Access.

It let you use an iPad to remote-control your Windows PC or Mac across the Internet, allowing you to run PC apps from your tablet. Other companies had done that before, but Parallels didn’t just cram your PC’s screen onto the iPad: It created an environment which made using Windows or Mac apps as much like using iPad apps as possible, with features such as iOS-style cut-and-paste and a touch-friendly app launcher which looked like the iPad’s own home screen.

When I reviewed the first version of Access, I had some quibbles but was still dazzled by the whole concept, which was bursting with cleverness and technical derring-do.

Parallels Access running on a Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Parallels Access running on a Samsung Galaxy Note 3

Now Parallels is releasing Parallels Access 2.0. There’s quite a bit that’s new–including the fact that it now works on iPhones and Android devices as well as iPads.

The iOS and Android variants of Parallels Access are similar, but not identical. For one thing, they both do a good job of hewing to the interface style of the mobile operating system they’re running on: Cut and paste, for instance, look like they should in both cases.

Both versions also have a new feature or two not seen in the other one. The iOS app lets you use the mobile device’s microphone with apps running on the remote computer, and includes a new file manager which looks like iOS while providing access to files on the distant computer. The Android app, meanwhile, lets you plunk shortcuts to specific PC apps on the Android home screen, a feat which isn’t technically possible in iOS.

Parallels Access for iOS's new file manager

Parallels Access for iOS’s new file manager

Oh yeah, there’s the pricetag. When Parallels originally released Access, it charged $80 to control one computer for one year. It quickly lowered that price. And now it’s slashed it again: For $20 a year or $35 for two years (or $30 for two years for a limited time), you can control up to five computers from as many iOS and/or Android devices as you want. There’s also a new business plan for companies which want to roll out Access to multiple staffers at once.

As before, Parallels Access is amazing: I can’t imagine anyone coming up with a better way to put OS X and Windows apps onto a mobile device which can’t run them natively. But there are some technical limitations which are beyond Parallels’ control. The OS X apps I used on my iPad didn’t have a Retina-like crispness–text was a tad fuzzy even though you can now choose between three different screen resolutions. Not surprisingly, the experience feels most like the apps are right on your mobile device if you’ve got a fast Internet connection. And for all that Access does to make desktop apps more touch-friendly, there are still tasks which are tough to perform with your fingertip, such as selecting part of an image in Photoshop.

For all these reasons, Access doesn’t reduce the need for powerful native apps for iOS and Android–and there are more of those today than there were last year when the first version of Access shipped, including Microsoft’s very credible version of Office for the iPad. But when you want to get your hands on an app or file which isn’t available on your mobile device, Parallels Access could be a lifesaver–and at $20 a year, it’s a reasonable deal even if you don’t use it all that often.


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This Post Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity, While Simultaneously Destroying Your Faith in Me

Mousetrap

I have a problem.

Everyone knows that the only way for online journalism to succeed today is if it “goes viral,” causing people on “social networks” to “click” like crazy. And everyone knows that doesn’t have much to do with the content in question. It’s all about the headline–which, to insure maximum clickiness, needs to make absurd claims, tug at the heartstrings, and/or conceal the upshot of the article so that people don’t feel like they’ve learned anything until they’ve clicked.

Unfortunately for me, none of this comes easily. I grew up in a long-ago era when headlines were supposed to be clear and accurate. We were taught to err on the side of underpromising. I developed all of these now-obsolete habits which I’m having a hard time shaking.

But I think I’ve come up with a solution. If you like Technologizer the way it is, continue to visit Technologizer.com and follow me on Twitter at @harrymccracken and/or @technologizer. Nothing will change.

But I’m launching a new brand, Upfeedy. Mostly it consists of a Twitter feed in which I’ll promote the same old Technologizer stories, only with the most clickbaity headlines I can muster.

Herewith, a few samples:

To recap:

  • Technologizer: not clicky.
  • Upfeedy: the exact same thing, only incredibly clicky.

Thank you for your attention.


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Nest’s Nest Protect Smoke Detector is Back on Sale–Without Its Nest Wave Feature

Nest Protect

Nest Labs–now a part of Google–is a two-product company. One of the products is the Nest thermostat. The other, the Nest Protect smoke and carbon monoxide detector, has been on a hiatus of sorts: In April, Nest pulled it off the market after discovering that Nest Wave, the feature which let you wave your hand to turn it off in case of a false alarm, might cause it to stay silent when there was smoke which indicated an emergency. (Last month, the Consumer Product Safety Commission formally issued a recall for existing Nest Protect units–although all that meant was that owners were advised to allow their detectors to download and install an update which disabled the Wave feature.)

Now Nest Protect is going back on sale–first at Nest’s web site, and soon at retailers. But the new units won’t have the Wave feature: Nest, which said when it first disclosed the problem that it might take at least two or three months to address, still doesn’t have a fix. A company representative told me that the company is working on it, and didn’t provide an updated estimate of when it might be ready.

Nest is also knocking down the price of Nest Protect from $129 to $99–a meaningful drop, especially given that most homeowners who like the idea of Nest Protect will want to buy several and install them wherever they’ve currently got a smoke detector.

In other Nest Protect news, Nest is announcing a white paper based on data about carbon monoxide collected from Nest Protect units in the field, which use their built-in Wi-Fi connections to send back anonymous information to the company.

The actual information in the report isn’t all that fascinating: For instance, .15 percent of homes with Nest Protect reported a carbon-monoxide incident during the test period, and the company estimates that a million households in the U.S., Canada and U.K. are exposed to high amounts of carbon monoxide each year. But it’s a reminder of one of the virtues of smart household devices: The big data they collect can help us humans be smarter about important matters such as household safety. That’s sure not true of the garden-variety smoke/CEO detectors in my home.


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The Future of Product Reviews Looks a Lot Like the Golden Age of Product Reviews

The Wirecutter and This is My Next go back to the basics
From 2004, a PC World review of laptops crammed onto two magazine pages

From 2004, a PC World review of laptops crammed onto two magazine pages

It’s been a long time since my responsibilities as a tech journalist involved telling shoppers everything they needed to know about a specific product category. But during the thirteen-and-a-half years I worked at PC World magazine, giving that sort of advice was what kept us in business. So even today, I’m fascinated by the challenge it presents.

In recent years, the archetypal online review of a technology product–as seen at sites such as Engadget, The Verge, and Cnet–has been long, crammed with images and specs, and well worth diving into if you have a consuming interest in the subject at hand. But back in 2011, my friend Brian Lam, the former editor of Gizmodo, launched a site called The Wirecutter with a fundamentally contrarian approach: It aimed to help busy people save time by zeroing in on the best products in major categories.

What The Wirecutter leaves out–endless detail, especially on products which aren’t the best in their category–is as important as what it gives you. And it’s been a big hit, proving that not everyone wants to set aside the better part of an afternoon to research a product purchase.

This is My NextNow Brian’s site has competition from This is My Next, a new feature at The Verge named after the prototype site which predated The Verge itself.

Like The Wirecutter, This is My Next picks a product category and cuts to the chase. The first installment, which tackles smartphones, declares that the iPhone 5s is today’s best smartphone and HTC’s One M8 is the runner up. It provides brief reviews of them and even briefer capsules on ten other phones you might be considering, such as the iPhone 5c and Samsung’s Galaxy S5. It’s all on one easily-digestible page.

Over at TechCrunch, Matthew Panzarino has a good story on This is My Next and The Wirecutter; among other things, it includes a classy acknowledgement by The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky and David Pierce that The Wirecutter provided them with inspiration for their new feature.

As seen in both This is My Next and The Wirecutter, this less-is-more approach is a refreshing and inventive way to do product reviews. But it’s also a back-to-basics move. More than other online tech reviews, what these evaluations remind me of are the ones we used to do at PC World years ago–back when we were putting them on dead trees, and competed with other magazines doing much the same thing.

For years, the mainstays of PC World‘s approach to reviews were Top 10 and Top 5 roundups. We generally crammed them onto a page or two–in a magazine, editorial space is a precious commodity, and we had less and less of it as time went on. We’d name a Best Buy or two in each category, so people who wanted a single recommendation could skip the rest of the roundup. And we wrote for people who wanted to buy useful products to get stuff done, not obsessive gearheads.

In time, of course, PC World stopped being a magazine that had a website, and became a website that had a magazine. As we retooled our approach to reviews for the online-first era, we gave readers more and more and more. Reviews got longer, and we provided them for every product we tested, not just the best five or ten in a category. We provided more photography and user reviews and raw data based on the benchmarking we did in our Test Center, and let you sort reviews by various criteria.

It was great for folks who wanted to exhaustively research the field before making a purchase–or who just liked to read reviews of new products, whether or not they were in the market for anything. But we got so giddy over the web’s limitless space and infinite flexibility that we didn’t try to replicate the service we had offered in the print-centric era, when we let readers get in, get a bottom-line buying recommendation, and then get out.

These new reviews’ brevity reminds me of magazine stories, but they aren’t identical in approach to the ones we used to do at PC World. For one thing, we were maniacal about lab testing. We wanted to grind the subjectivity out of reviews in favor of repeatable objectivity, so that two laptops were subjected to the same consistent methodology even if different people tested them six months apart. And in retrospect, we had formidable resources to throw at our roundups–in 2003, we had around twenty people dedicated entirely to reviews and testing, not counting copy editors, designers, freelancers, and various high muckety-mucks involved in the process. We even wrote our own PC benchmark, WorldBench, because we didn’t want to be dependent on anybody else’s.

We were insufficiently grateful for what we had: The staff had once been even biggest, and even at its most enormous, it was smaller than PC Magazine‘s crew. But nobody, including today’s PCWorld.com, does all the things we did back then.

Compared to the old PC World, both The Wirecutter and This is My Next are more comfortable trusting the instincts and opinions of human beings who really know the product categories they cover. (We sometimes had to reconcile weird scenarios in which the opinions of the editors–the ones they would share with friends who asked for buying advice–were at odds with what our lab testing told us.) The Wirecutter also takes into account the advice of writers for other sites–it interviewed Macworld’s Dan Frakes for a review of iPad keyboards–and published reviews at other sites. It’s as if the PC World reviews of a decade or two ago had been based in part on what PC Magazine had to say…a concept which would have short-circuited my brain at the time, but sounds downright sensible now.

I’d never maintain that the technology journalism we did back in the day was anywhere near ideal; in so many respects, the web is a far better medium for learning about tech products than any magazine could ever be. But when the print era went away, we lost something–the sort of to-the-point something which is back in The Wirecutter and This is My Next, and at least as appealing as it ever was.

 


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With the Galaxy Tab S, Samsung Does Everything in Its Power to Build a Great Android Tablet

...but only Google can fix its weakest point.
Samsung's Ryan Bidan presides over the Galaxy Tab S launch event at Madison Square Garden in New York City on June 12, 2014

Samsung’s Ryan Bidan presides over the Galaxy Tab S launch event at Madison Square Garden in New York City on June 12, 2014

There are several different ways that a hardware maker can try to build a tablet that’s better than the model which defined the category and continues to lead it, Apple’s iPad. It can make one which is a lot cheaper, or a lot different. Or can build something that’s conceptually similar to the iPad, but attempt to make it better.

Samsung being Samsung, it’s tried all of these approaches with its Android tablets. And the Galaxy Tab S, which it announced at an event I attended at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, is that last sort of tablet: one which attempts to beat the iPad at its own game.

Starting in July, it’ll be available in two screen sizes, 10.5″ and 8.4″, which will start at the same prices as the 9.7″ iPad Air and 7.9″ iPad Mini With Retina Display–$499 and $399, respectively. That’s with Wi-Fi; versions which also pack LTE wireless broadband will arrive at a later date.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S

The 10.5″ Samsung Galaxy Tab S

From an industrial-design standpoint, both Galaxy Tab S models have the same bedimpled plastic back as the the Galaxy S5 phone, in two color choices: white or bronze. By almost anybody’s standards, that isn’t as classy as the iPad’s aluminum chassis. But these new Samsungs are pleasing tablets to hold and use: They weigh about the same as their iPad equivalents even though they have bigger screens, which makes them among the lightest tablets on the market. And at about .29″ thick, they’re even thinner than iPads.

The Galaxy Tab S’s most notable feature–and its most striking selling point compared to the iPad–is its display. Instead of an LCD, both versions of the tablet sport Super AMOLED screens, a familiar technology on phones such as the Galaxy S5 but a rarity on tablets. The resolution is 2560-by-1600 at an aspect ratio of 16:9; these are the highest-resolution, largest-screen AMOLED tablets to date.

Samsung spent much of its presentation going over the virtues of Super AMOLED as the company has implemented it: vivid colors; a broader color gamut than LCD, resulting in greater color accuracy; better legibility in sunlight; and adaptive technology which dynamically tweaks the image for the lighting environment and for text, still images, photos, and other content types, even if more than one of them is on screen at a time.

I got to spend some up-close time with Galaxy Tab S units after the presentation, and the screen did look awfully good; as usual with Super AMOLED, the colors were so rich that if anything, I worried about the possibility of them being unrealistically intense. But it’s not tough at all to imagine someone comparing the Galaxy Tab S screens to those on the current iPads and preferring Samsung.

Both Galaxy Tab S models have one other significant hardware feature not available in any current iPad: a home button which doubles as a fingerprint scanner. Among other things, they use it to unlock privacy and multiuser modes which Samsung has added to Android’s stock functionality. I hope it works better than the scanner on the Galaxy S5, which is nowhere near as elegant as the iPhone 5s’s TouchID.

Neither Galaxy Tab S is an iPad-slaughtering Great Leap Forward, but they’re both really nice pieces of hardware. Which brings up the aspect of these tablets which Samsung has the least control over: software and services.

As usual, the company hasn’t been shy about reworking aspects of Android and slathering on its own features. The Tab S models can display two apps on screen at once. Scratching the same general itch as the Continuity features which Apple announced last week at WWDC, they have SideSync 3.0, which lets you use Wi-Fi to project a Galaxy S5′s screen onto the tablet’s display, make and receive calls, and transfer files back and forth; and a similar feature for tablet-PC integration called Remote PC.

Samsung also isn’t satisfied to offer Google’s content stores on its tablets and leave it at that. It has its own music service, Milk, which is powered by Slacker. And it’s introducing Pagegarden, a magazine store which offers interactive titles from publishers such as Conde Nast and National Geographic, customized for the Galaxy Tab S display.

Modifications and additions such as these are dangerous; even if they’re useful, as some of Samsung’s tweaks appear to be, they introduce the risk of bloat and inconsistency. But the thing is, no matter how capably Samsung customizes Android, it can’t do anything about the most glaring weak spot of any competent Android tablet: the paucity of third-party apps designed to work well on a tablet.

I happen to think that iOS has won the mobile app wars, but the selection of apps for Android smartphones, even if it’s in second place, is more than good enough. That’s not true for tablets: More than three years after Google first got serious about tablets with Android 3.0 Honeycomb, it’s not even in the league next door to the league inhabited by the iPad, which now has more than a half-million apps designed especially for it.

Samsung, of course, would never concede that. Still, I got the sense that the company understands it’s an issue. Its presentation on Thursday night emphasized that web browsing has long been the most popular tablet application, but that video has surged into a virtual tie for first place. For browsing the web and watching videos, both Galaxy Tab S models do look like they’d be outstanding.

But because of its massive third-party app advantage, the iPad retains a formidable advantage as an overall experience, over the Galaxy Tab S and every other Android model.

There’s never been any evidence that Google sees this situation as a crisis which demands an ambitious, ongoing response on its part. Too bad for Samsung; too bad for Android fans; too bad for the general state of tablet competition.


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My First Six Questions About Amazon’s New Prime Music Service

Amazon Prime Music

After months of rumors, Amazon has rolled out its Prime Music service. As expected, it bundles music with the company’s Amazon Prime service, which now costs $99 a year for new members. And as expected, there are some gotchas.

Prime Music is launching with over a million songs; Spotify, by contrast, has over 20 million, and even that has selection has its holes. Prime doesn’t include current hits. It also doesn’t have anything from Universal Music Group, which owns more music than anyone else.

I’ve been fiddling around with the new service this morning, and it hasn’t gone that well: On my iPad, the new version of Amazon’s music app for iOS is unusably slow and keeps crashing. (The web version of the service works fine.) But that isn’t stopping me from asking questions about it:

1. Is a million songs a lot, or hardly any? Amazon’s own Prime Video and Netflix show us that a movie service can be a keeper even if there are far more things that it doesn’t have than ones which it does. But there does need to be a critical mass of stuff worth caring about.

For me, the lack of current hits is a non-issue: Most of the music I listen to is forty, fifty, or sixty years old. So I wondered whether the service might seem complete to me, or at least substantial.

During my early rummaging around in the Prime collection, however, the pickings still come off as slim. The results for Bob Dylan look great, but much of the time, when I searched for an artist or group I got one or two major albums and a bunch of chaff such as “tributes” and karaoke versions.

I got excited about the 32 albums which came up for “Frank Sinatra” until I saw they included one real Sinatra album (In the Wee Small Hours), three sketchy-looking compilations of his early work as a band singer, and 29 things along the lines of this:

Prime Music Sinatra

Besides albums, Prime Music offers hundreds of playlists, which seem to benefit from less restrictive licensing. For example, there are no Monkees albums, but a playlist called “The Monkees’ Top Songs” does indeed have 19 of the ones you’re most likely to look for.

2. Is there a place for Amazon Prime given the profusion of free music which is already available? Amazon Prime Video and Netflix make sense in part because they’re offering content which is generally unavailable for free elsewhere (at least legally). But both Spotify and Rdio now offer free versions with way more than a million tracks. They’ve got their own catches: Spotify only lets you listen to music on mobile devices in shuffle mode, and Rdio isn’t free on mobile devices at all. But I still suspect I’d be inclined to go to a service with a far higher chance of having the music I want than Prime Music currently does.

3. Does not having anything from Universal Music Group destroy the service, or merely cripple it? Strangely enough, most of us don’t pay close attention to which enormous corporation controls the work of our favorite performers. So it’s tough to say how much the absence of all this music will hobble Prime for any particular listener. Wikipedia has a helpful list of Universal’s artists, from A (ABBA) to Z (Zucchero).

4. Would anyone cancel a paid account to Spotify or Rdio because this exists? Seems highly unlikely to me.

5. Is it reasonable to say it’s FREE? Amazon is billing Prime Music as being “FREE with Amazon Prime.” I’m not sure how something that involves a $99 yearly fee qualifies as being free. Especially since Amazon recently raised the price of Prime membership, which presumably makes it easier for the company to add inducements such as, um, free music.

6. Will Prime Music get great? Right now, I can’t imagine that anyone will regard this music service as anything other than a pleasant bonus for Prime subscribers, in a category already crowded with excellent options. But Prime Video started out with only a smattering of content, and has grown into an attractive Netflix alternative. Given time, Prime Music might blossom–especially if Amazon and Universal hammer out a deal, and especially if the service expands to include at least some semi-current hits.

Those are all the questions I have right now. If you have opinions on them–or on Prime Music in general–I’d love to hear them.


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Honeywell’s New Lyric Smart Thermostat Aims to Beat Nest at Its Own Game

Honeywell Lyric thermostatWhen Nest, a startup co-founded by former iPod honcho Tony Fadell, announced its classy, web-enabled, touch-screen thermostat back in the fall of 2011, you just knew that Honeywell–long the biggest name in thermostats–would have to respond.

It did. First, it sued Nest, saying that the company’s design violated Honeywell patents. And then it came out with some models which felt like they split the difference between what Nest was doing and earlier Honeywell high-tech efforts–in one case offering voice control as a differentiating factor.

Now Honeywell is back with the Lyric, a $279 thermostat which is available now through professional installers and will arrive at Lowes stores in August. (Nest, which is now part of Google, sells its thermostat for $249.)

Like the Nest–and unlike Honeywell’s previous web-savvy thermostats, which were rectangular and utilitarian–the Lyric is round and stylish, with a circular LCD display in its center. The look isn’t identical to the Nest, but it’s very, very similar; perhaps to refute any impressions that it’s shamelessly ripping off its rival, Honeywell points out on the Lyric’s packaging that it’s been manufacturing an iconic round thermostat since the 1950s.

The Nest thermostat

The Nest thermostat

It’s not just the shape of the Lyric which is Nest-esque. Judging from a demo Honeywell recently gave me, the new model has more of the polished, consumer-electronics feel which made the Nest so strikingly different from Honeywell’s past efforts. Even more than the Nest, it looks like a snow-white iPod reborn as a piece of tastefully minimalist household instrumentation. (LEDs give it a colored “halo” of light with an informational purpose: orange means it’s heating, blue means it’s cooling, and green means it’s conserving energy.)

Functionality-wise, the Lyric aims to distinguish itself from the Nest without resorting to gimmicks such as voice commands. One of the key differences is how the thermostat keeps tabs on your family’s whereabouts, so it can set the temperature to your liking when you’re at home, and focus on energy savings when you’re not. The Nest does that using a motion sensor which detects when people are in the vicinity, learning about your schedule over time.

Honeywell Lyric app

The Lyric app

The Lyric has a motion sensor, too–one which it uses to put itself into an interactive mode when it notices you’ve approached. But for monitoring whether you’re at home at all, Honeywell’s thermostat leverages its iOS and Android apps. Your phone tracks your location via GPS and reports it back to the thermostat, so the Lyric knows if you’re around the house or at a distant location. And if it notices that you’re headed home, it can begin to adjust itself so that the temperature is ideal by the time you arrive.

Honeywell says that this approach is superior to Nest’s learning-through-motion-detection technique because it doesn’t involve guesswork: The Lyric knows where you are even if you aren’t following your normal routine. It sounds logical, as long as everyone in the family has an iPhone or Android handset. (Alternatively, you can, of course, simply use the Lyric like a conventional thermostat, adjusting it yourself once you get home or on a schedule.)

The Lyric has some other advantages over the Nest, according to Honeywell. For instance, it uses an algorithm to fine-tune the temperature based on multiple factors, such as the humidity inside and outside the house, which Honeywell says results in a 72° that really feels like 72°. It also uses its apps to alert you to matters such as the need to change an air filter.

And in a move which strikes me as particularly clever, it ditches a traditional installation manual in favor of stepping you through its do-it-yourself setup process using your smartphone–even using the phone’s camera to let you snap a picture of the wiring for later reference.

Honeywell Round

Honeywell’s original, iconic round thermostat

If there’s an alternate universe out there where Nest was never founded, it seems unlikely that Honeywell would have invented anything which much resembled the Lyric. Tony Fadell and his team redefined a sleepy category, and the Lyric responds to the Nest both by being similar and attempting to outdo it.

But even if the Lyric is reactionary rather than revolutionary, it seems to be a credible product. Honeywell says that it’s the first in a new generation of smart-home devices which the company will deliver, all of which will be controllable by one unified app. That’s a far more inspiring way to respond to the challenge presented by Nest than by engaging in interminable patent warfare.


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Our Impression of How Apple is Doing is a Lagging Indicator of How Apple is Doing

Apple software honcho Craig Federighi cheerfully waves to the WWDC audience as he takes the stage in San Francisco on June 2, 2014

Apple software honcho Craig Federighi jauntily waves to the WWDC audience as he takes the stage in San Francisco on June 2, 2014

Lots of people–journalists, bloggers, analysts, random bystanders–love to to make grand pronouncements on where Apple is going. Very few are good at it. And part of the problem is that it isn’t even all that easy to understand the state of Apple right this very minute.

I’ve been thinking about that as I ‘ve read coverage of the news which the company has made over the last couple of weeks–which has included its acquisition of Beats and a WWDC keynote which, while devoid of new hardware, was bursting at the seams with wildly ambitious plans for software and services. Apple as of mid-June of 2014 is interesting in ways which I don’t think anyone was predicting even in late April, before the Beats scuttlebutt emerged and it became clear that WWDC wasn’t going to involve major hardware announcements.

Which means that even the best commentary on recent Apple developments–such as Joshua Topolsky’s “Meet the New Apple“–is playing catch-up with developments which Apple has been secretly working on for months or, in some cases, years. (The new Swift programming language began as a personal project in 2010.)

Topolsky’s piece is full of words which very few observers would have applied to Apple even the week before WWDC: fun confidence, buoyant, giddy and even open. If it’s reasonable to apply them to the company now–and I believe that it is–it’s not because  a switch flipped at the WDDC keynote. It’s because Apple was already changing in ways we didn’t yet understand.

Of course, the same basic dynamic is an issue with nearly all analysis of almost every company: When Google holds its IO conference later this month, it’s entirely possible that it will reveal something which will render some of our current impressions of the company obsolete.

But perception lagging reality is a bigger factor with Apple than with most companies, for several reasons:

  • Apple really is going through a big, unpredictable shift, not just because Tim Cook isn’t Steve Jobs but because he has a new team. (As Ben Thompson of Stratechery points out, nearly 60 percent of the company’s current top managers weren’t in their jobs in 2010.)
  • Apple spends less time talking about its future–even in broad strokes–than most companies, which sometimes leaves those of us on the outside blissfully ignorant of where it’s headed until it’s well on its way to getting there.
  • People tend to have deeply-held attitudes toward Apple–be they positive or negative–which they have trouble putting aside even when the facts suggest such attitudes may need reassessing.

I don’t mean any of this as a knock on Apple commentators. (At least the smartest ones, a group which certainly includes Topolsky and Thompson.) There’s no shame in only being able to articulate things about a company once the evidence is in.

Actually, that’s a far better way to shed light on Apple than the blustery predictions which so often pass for analysis–and which, to the extent they’re taken seriously, mostly serve to damage the world’s understanding of Apple rather than increase it.


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