A Year of Apple Watch

Last January, I bought an Apple Watch series 3. A week later, I bought a second watch.

In between, I’d learned a lesson about trying to buy used goods on Kijiji. I learned from Apple staff that the first one was stolen from an Apple Store… and Apple decides to put the watches that failed waterproofing tests in the store. I wore the watch for a swim within a few hours of buying it… and poof, it was gone.

But I’m quite pleased with the watch. I got it for three reasons: to track/improve my exercise, to reliably receive phone/text notifications, and to keep up with current technology / user interface trends. All of these have proven useful.

Let me talk about the last two first: I appreciate that the watch is less addictive than a phone, and helps you reduce phone use. I’ll go a step further: the watch’s best feature is that the screen is too small. It’s so small that I don’t want to use it for an extended period of time… so I don’t. No facebook, no twitter, no instagram, no addictions. I will happily pay extra to have a device that I don’t want to use much… which I guess is “win-win” for Apple, isn’t it?

I appreciate that it’s better adapted to human social interactions: you can turn your phone ringer off and just rely on vibrations, you can keep your phone in a bag and still get all notifications, and it’s much easier to quickly glance at a text during a meeting without looking like a jerk.

On exercise: I’m primarily a commuter cyclist and swimmer, and to a lesser extent a bit of an omnivore. Tracking all of the types of sports I do was very appealing. I was also attracted by a company that uses the addictive “gamification” approach that usually keeps us glued to our smartphones for good – to actually keep me healthier and happier.

And it’s worked: my calorie goal has risen from 400 active calories per day to 650 over the course of the year, despite a change in work situation removing my reliable cycle commute. The data’s also fascinating; while what’s captured by “Workouts” is only part of my total exercise, it’s neat to see:

Random trivia in these charts:

  • My worst month (March 2017) was the one where I spent two weeks on an urban Mexico vacation. With high heat, no bike, and two kids to manage, I got very, very little exercise. This is one reason why I like camping vacations!
  • The “seasonal” category is mostly skating and cross-country skiing, plus a little snowboarding and canoeing. Now that I live in Ottawa, I even skate to work regularly. I’m a little annoyed that Apple doesn’t track distance or provide maps for skating and skiing, though. And the icon for “skating” is a skateboard, so I’ve started classifying it as “hockey”.
  • In October, a new WatchOS version started autodetecting “walking” workouts for me.
  • The comparison of February 2018 (Toronto) and 2019 (Ottawa) is pretty striking. Winter cycling just wasn’t feasible. (And yes, I did cycle 155km in February in Toronto.) Even walking quickly enough to be classified as “exercise” was tricky on the icy sidewalks.

Switched to Mac

I’ve just bought a Mac Mini and retired my five-year-old desktop PC, an Athlon XP based system running the Ubuntu Linux distribution. With steady upgrades (especially a 2GB RAM boost), it was still quite usable, but the CPU was showing its age and the graphics were miserable. I’d tried fitting a new AGP card in, but the system rebooted randomly and I’m just not patient enough to suss out the source of the difficulty any more.

Most of my computer science friends made the leap to Mac four or five years ago, while I stuck it out with Linux for quite some time.

I ultimately made the jump for three main reasons:

  • Unix without the hassle of Linux. The terminal and macports/fink give me the full power of the Unix command line and most of the Linux toolset–but I get a polished GUI on top. To be fair, Ubuntu Linux had a pretty clean, simple GUI on top… but I really got sick of things breaking from release to release, and spending hours trying to figure out what was wrong. (Examples: PulseAudio in the 8.1/9.0 releases, Amarok2 in the 9.0 release, nVidia drivers in 8.1, etc., etc.) To be fair, Mac has its share of problems too–it looks like a lot of software has broken with the Snow Leopard release, especially in the macports/fink world. But the basics will almost always work, I think.
  • Low power consumption and quiet. I’m really impressed by Apple’s commitment here: 15W / 30W power consumption on the Mac Mini (idle / active), versus 64W / 100W for a typical minitower PC. I did a bit of research on this, and PCs have certainly improved over the last 5 years—the new Energy Star-rated “80 plus” power supplies are certainly decent. But the killer these days appears to be graphics: a dedicated PCI graphics card really sucks juice, while the Mac Mini uses a graphics chip optimized for notebook systems. The Mac Mini’s chip isn’t the hottest on the market, but is still capable of playing many current graphics-hungry games like Quake 4. And because the chip is designed for notebooks, it’s very power efficient.
  • Futureproof…? I’d like to be able to continue using this system for at least five years. This is always a challenging game to play—parts come and go, new operating system versions come out, new media are invented. That said, USB and Firewire allow a lot of the customization to happen outside the box now, and the main things that are inflexible are processor, RAM, graphics and software. I’m most concerned about the software—I wouldn’t be surprised if Apple orphans the Mac Mini down the road, given the hands-off treatment of the first Mac Mini model. That said, as long as I can load Linux on it once Apple drops support, it’ll continue to be useable. We’ll see what happens.

At first blush, it looked like the Mac Mini was within $100-$200 in price of a comparable spec PC. I spent a while trying to ensure that I was making an objective decision without being seduced by Apple’s slick, glossy emotional appeal. In the end, the PC makers dropped prices dramatically for the back-to-school season, and there was no price contest; I paid a full $250 more for the Mac Mini with slightly poorer specs. I’ve justified this to myself on the basis of wanting a truly good operating system, and getting a truly energy-efficient computer.

Software 2005

On my old website, I used to keep a list of my favourite software. It was a bit silly and pointless, and I’m sure no one ever read it. But I think the idea’s still useful; everyone runs into some neat new software every so often, and it’s nice to share that knowledge around a bit. So here’s a list of my favourite software and websites of 2005. Please post suggestions, comments and questions!

  • google maps (web). I can’t emphasize how beautiful and elegant this website is. I classify it as “software” because it’s also a platform – you can make websites and tools using Google Maps, like the Vancouver Transit map I made last year. I’m looking forward to their upcoming transit map service, which has already come out in beta for Portland, OR.
  • openoffice 2.0 (windows, mac, linux). The latest version is a big improvement on the sluggish 1.0. I haven’t had a chance to play with all of the features yet, but it feels nicer to me already. It’s serious competition for Microsoft Office now, and I’m sure that’s why Microsoft has embarked on an ambitious overhaul of Office’s usability for its next release.
  • flickr (web). This seems like a simple and old idea, but it’s been done so well that I have to recommend it. It’s just a photo management system, but it allows the one feature I couldn’t find when I first moved my photos online four years ago: the ability to arrange multiple paths through the photo collection. You can put each photo in multiple ordered “sets” and allow browsing through the sets. So, an arty 1999 picture in Switzerland can be in both my “Switzerland” photo set, in my “arty pictures” set, and in my “1999” set. Better yet, you can add searchable tags to your photos, and you can have an RSS stream of photos, allowing friends to be notified whenever you post a new photograph.
  • Really Simple Syndication (web). I finally made the move to the RSS bandwagon this year. It’s a good way to read websites, I must say. I find it especially useful for things that are scattered around the web, like comics or blogs: I have a homebase for receiving them, and can keep track of new posts that I might not otherwise notice. I’ve been using bloglines so far, but I think I’ll move to reading RSS on Thunderbird or Google Personalized Home soon instead. For those curious to give it a try, check out this introduction.
  • wordpress (web). I moved my website from handcrafted HTML to a blog this year, and it’s been a pleasant experience. WordPress is a beautiful free blogging package, with a good set of plugins and themes to manage my website. I really like their category system (not unlike Flickr’s tags) for organizing the posts, and the Flickr plugin I’ve set up is quite attractive. You can find plenty of site hosting companies that will give you a similar WordPress package, if you’re interested.
  • amarok (linux). Sure, it looks like it’s just another MP3 player, with a database backend. But it’s a good implementation of that simple idea, with good automatic organization of the tricky Various Artists category, album covers from your library (or even from Amazon), and a sidebar showing you “related songs” in your library. I’ve been waiting for this for a while. It’s another excellent addition to the KDE project.
  • kcachegrind (linux). Profiling programs to find the slow and fast parts has long been a painful process. I spent half a workterm on this once, and it required a lot of digging through the output of text-based software. Now, with kcachegrind I can get a graphical representation of where time is spent in the software, then zoom in on one function and see where its time is spent. The interface is complicated, but still surprisingly manageable. This is one of the true gems in the KDE suite.
  • xine (linux). I was a long-time mplayer user for video playback, but I made the switch to xine this year. It has equally good codecs, but it can do DVD menus and it seems to play nicer with the colour keying on my laptop’s video card. The user interface is still awful, though. I’d like to see a KDE frontend with the xine backend some day.