Many recent phone launch presentations have been all about the camera. Most of the rest spend more time talking about their phone cameras than anything else. I can’t think of a single phone presentation I’ve seen in the last three years where the camera was relegated to a footnote.

Apple, Samsung and Huawei all want you to know their phone cameras are better than before. It is always true.

They’d also like you to think their cameras are better than their rivals. That’s a losing game. They are all excellent. But each excels in different ways.

You wouldn’t be disappointed with the camera in any premium phone. You might find one phone misses a camera feature you’d like, or is a touch weaker in some department. You might find one suits your style, works the same way you do or has a user interface that’s easier to understand. Either way, they are all good.

Apple iPhone XS camera

Phone cameras good, getting better

Indeed, phone cameras are now exceptionally good. So good that the stand alone camera market looks doomed for everyone except professionals and serious amateurs willing to part with lots of money.

Forget whinging about a NZ$2800 phone, the starting price for a full frame mirrorless camera from Sony, Nikon or Canon is about twice that. And then you buy extra lenses.

The low-end camera market is already dead. The mid-range is struggling. There is almost no casual stand-alone camera market these days.

It’s still worth buying a standalone camera if you want consistent great pictures

There are good reasons to buy a high-quality standalone camera if you want to take great pictures.

The physics of camera optics means that, in general, you get better images with a bigger and better lens along with a big sensor array. You also need some distance between the lens and the focal plane where light hits photosensors.

None of this is possible in a phone which is often less than 10mm thick. Phone cameras have small lenses. There is almost no distance between the lens and the sensor array. Sensor arrays are also small, usually smaller than a fingernail while a more traditional digital camera might have an array the size of a matchbox.

Phones have plastic lenses, which, on the whole, are not as good as the glass lenses in cameras. Plastic can distort images. Phone makers spend millions developing better materials and techniques to reduce this, but glass still beats plastic.

Phone cameras get around physical shortcoming with heavy duty computer processing. Upmarket phones have two or even three lenses. They combine their images to create better pictures. Most of the time this gets around the distortion.

Software does the heavy lifting

They do a hell of a lot of this in software. Which brings up an interesting philosophical point: Are they capturing reality or are they making it up?

You may wonder why phone makers keep putting faster and faster processors in their phones. After all, none of the last three or four generations of flagship phones have been slouches when it comes to handling most computing tasks.

The main reason for the extra grunt is to handle image processing. It’s a data-intensive task and phones have to do it in microseconds.

Phone makers love to tell you their models use artificial intelligence. Most of the time phones use the results of earlier AI work to inform their brute-force image processing. They don’t do on-the-fly artificial intelligence to process your pictures.

The results are impressive. When Apple gave me a demonstration of the iPhone XS Max, I was struck by how much like a digital SLR the results can be, in the right hands.

As much as I try, my iPhone or Huawei shots are never as good. I still get far better results from my ageing but trusty digital SLR. The pictures are often good enough to use in print.

Mirrorless

If I was to buy a new camera, I’d go for a modern mirrorless design. Until recently this would have meant a Sony Alpha, but Nikon and Canon now have tempting alternatives. I can’t put my finger on it, but to my eyes Canon images look better, so the Canon EOS R would be my probable choice.

Mirrorless means the camera doesn’t have a traditional optical viewfinder like an SLR or digital SLR. Instead you see the same image that the sensors see. This makes the cameras simpler, smaller and lighter.

For consumers stand alone cameras are on a path to becoming a retro-tech thing like vinyl records or analogue music synthesisers. Professionals will go on using standalone cameras. But the market is slowing.

I still take a camera along when I travel overseas or cover a conference as a journalist. The more traditional controls easier to use, even if I spend most of the time on automatic setttings. When I need to fiddle, it’s easy to tweak dials and press buttons than hunt for controls on a phone screen.

Having said that, often I find myself on a reporting job where the only camera to hand is my phone. If I take a little time, I can get good pictures with that too. I’ve already noticed I’m less likely to pack the standalone camera when heading out to cover a story. I no longer keep it handy, charged and ready to go. That’s not the case with my phone.

D-Link’s NZ$600 Covr attempts to help home users fill Wi-Fi blackspots. I say attempts because the results are hit and miss. Most of the time it misses.

The kit first arrived at Castle Bennett in May. I tried and failed to make it work at the time. This week I tried it again and got it to work. Yet, as we shall see, it disappointed.

In the last few days I’ve been busy revisiting and retesting all the routers and related kit that I have to hand.

Chorus installed my fibre this week. I’ve a gigabit line. So for the first time Wi-Fi is my speed bottle neck. There’s a slew of products which, on paper, promise Wi-Fi speeds greater than 1 Gbps. None of them come close.

More about that in another post. Let’s get back to Covr.

During testing it worked as expected for a fleeting moment. The system was unable to create a stable network for more than 20 minutes at a time. When it did manage to work, the performance was erratic and poor.

Covr is an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days of home networking.

If you were there you’ll know what I mean. In those days a new piece of software could make a network grind to a halt. At times it felt like a sneeze could put a home network out of action for hours.

D-Link Cover home wireless mesh network nodes

Mesh network

D-Link’s Covr is an example of something known as a mesh network. This is a way of spreading Wi-Fi signals over a larger area than a single wireless router might cover. In effect you have three connected wireless routers, but to the user they look and act like a single router.

Mesh networks are common in offices, campuses and large buildings.

You might want a mesh network if you have a large home or the house is laid out in a way that means the Wi-Fi isn’t strong enough in places where you want it. Say you’ve had fibre installed next to your TV at one end of the house and a kid’s bedroom at the other end gets a poor Wi-Fi signal.

There are other consumer mesh network products on the market. Most seem to suffer from similar flaws. This suggests to me this is because the technology isn’t quite ready for everyday users.

If Apple hadn’t lost interest in home networking, mesh technology would be ripe for that company’s attention. Apple has a knack for packaging unpolished technologies in a consumer friendly ready-to-use format.

Not so simple

In the Covr box are three wireless access points. One is the main unit. D-link calls them nodes.

Each node has a power supply. And that means it needs a power socket. The power cables are about a metre long, so you’re restricted to putting nodes near power outlets. There is a rival home network technology that uses power outlets. You might want to consider that instead of Covr.

The box also holds a single Ethernet cable and, for the aesthetically minded, alternative colour fascia plates for the access points. Presumably this is to make sure your nodes don’t clash with the curtains. I find this silly because even if you change the cover the nodes still stand out.

There’s also a sheet of paper optimistically labelled Simple Setup Guide. You can work through this, or you can download an iOS or Android app that walks you through the process.

As we shall see, the app didn’t work for me. Which meant I had to return to the paper instructions.

Covr app

The app tells you to connect the main node to a power supply and to turn off your modem. You then connect the access point to the modem with the Ethernet cable and switch everything on. Once everything is running, you are then asked to log into the Covr wireless router from your phone.

In my case this simply did not happen. The iPhone could find the router, but it couldn’t log on. Nor could my small iPad Pro or my other iPad Pro. I then tried to do this all over again with an Android phone. Once more, there was nothing. Four attempts with four devices didn’t work. Not a sausage.

When I first tried Covr I gave up in frustration at this point. This time around I attempted to manually log-in to the router from a desktop Mac. It worked. I managed to get into the web-based control panel.

Part of the panel shows a map of the network. If one of the connections, and this includes the connection from the main node to the internet, is broken it shows up in red. At this point things appeared to be running fine. The next task is to configure the secondary nodes.

Secondary nodes

In some ways configuring secondary nodes is clever. As already mentioned, you have to find an extra power socket to do this. Given the master node needs to connect to a modem which needs to connect to the fibre ONT and all three need a power supply, you need four power points to configure Covr. I had to use a distribution board. There are other cables here, so it is a rats’ nest.

Once you have power, you then connect the secondary node to the main one using the Ethernet cable. After a few minutes the light changes colour. When it turns white, you’re configured.

At this point you can unplug, move the secondary node to a Wi-Fi blackspot and connect it by wireless back to the mothership. The light flashes orange then glows white when you can connect. You may need to move it about for a while until it turns white. Let’s hope all your Wi-Fi blackspots are in easy reach of a power socket.

A working wireless mesh?

At this point I had a working wireless mesh. Well almost. None of the mobile devices would connect. But I did have strong signals around the house and all the PCs in the house were able to connect.

After about 20 minutes of a working mesh network, the main Covr node lost its internet connection. I should point out that nothing had moved, there were no external events, no visible triggers.

Next the secondary nodes dropped off the mesh network. I spent an hour troubleshooting, but nothing I did changed things.

Eventually I decided to reboot everything and start once more from scratch. It took about an hour to get back to the same point with a working mesh. About an hour later it all fell apart again.

This was the pattern all day. Actually I’m not sure about that. I gave up the third time the network collapse. Life is too short. In the end I packed the Covr bits and pieces back in the box. It’s not for me.

Performance issues

During the brief interludes while things were humming, I tested the internet connection speed from the iMac. It was getting around 150 mbps up and down. This is less than half the usual connection speed through the main UFB modem and wireless router. Typically the iMac ‘sees’ 350 to 420 mbps. So the price of filling in Wi-Fi blackspot is a much slower connection.

It turns out poor performance is by design. Mesh networks in offices and factories have a separate channel to manage traffic between nodes. Covr uses the same Wi-Fi bandwidth that connects devices to the access points. In other words it shares the connection with your devices. This explains why we only saw half the usual connection speed.

I can’t recommend D-link’s Covr. It seems half-finished. There was a firmware update that I installed before testing, so the software is up-to-date.

Of course, you might have a different experience. The fact that none of the devices, other than the computer, would connect is a deal-breaker. For me the slow network speed is also a problem. I’d prefer to spend the NZ$600 asking price on a better quality wireless router and learn to live with any Wi-Fi black spots.

PC shipments perked up in the second quarter of the year. While this is the first increase in six years, no-one is talking about a revival yet. It could be what people in the finance industry call a dead cat bounce.

Both Gartner and IDC published sales estimates showing a small increase in sales. Gartner put the increase at 1.4 percent. IDC has a more bullish 2.7 percent increase.

It’s worth noting here the two market research companies are not measuring quite the same thing.

Also, a shipment is not a sale. It is a computer that has moved from a factory to a retailer’s warehouse. But PC supply chains are tightly managed so, in general, shipments closely mirror actual sales.

PC Shipments joy not evenly spread

IDC’s more bullish estimate includes sales of PC-like devices such as Chromebooks, but doesn’t not include Windows tablets such as Microsoft’s Surface Go. Gartner counts a Windows tablet with an attached keyboard as a PC. Its number does not include other tablets nor does it include Chromebooks.

Both IDC and Gartner say that at least some of the increase is down to business computers running Windows 10.

Mikako Kitagawa, a principal analyst at Gartner says: “PC shipment growth in the second quarter of 2018 was driven by demand in the business market, which was offset by declining shipments in the consumer segment.

“In the consumer space, the fundamental market structure, due to changes on PC user behaviour, still remains, and continues to impact market growth. Consumers are using their smartphones for even more daily tasks, such as checking social media, calendaring, banking and shopping, which is reducing the need for a consumer PC.”

All of which has been true since 2012.

Recovery or dead cat bounce

Kitagawa expects business sales to weaken again when the Windows 10 replacement cycle ends.

IDC says the top five PC makers all saw sales growth and collectively they now account for a larger share of the market. This year they make up 78 percent of all sales.

Gartner and IDC can’t decide whether the top PC company is Lenovo or HP. Gartner has Lenovo a nose ahead shipping 12,000 more units than HP. IDC has HP in front by around a million machines. Remember the two companies are measuring different things.

Both put Dell, Apple and Acer in that order behind the leaders. IDC and Gartner also agree that Apple experienced the least growth during the quarter. New MacBook Pro models this week could change that.

Neither of the market research companies is prepared to say if the PC shipments uptick is the start of something new, a one-off before the slide resumes or an indication that shipments have bottomed out. The only certainty is that these top five PC brands are likely to strengthen their hands against the rest of the market. PC manufacturing is a game when volume matters.

Apple 2018 iPadApple’s sixth generation 2018 iPad is a bargain. In New Zealand it costs NZ$540. For many people it is all the computer they will ever need.

Sure, there will be people who consider it dull next to the swept-up iPad Pro. It doesn’t have as many features. Yet it does one important thing that, until now, only the Pro model iPad could handle. The 2018 iPad works with Apple Pencil.

That’s great if you want to use an iPad to create art or jot quick notes without adding a keyboard or dealing with the device’s glass keyboard. This, coupled with the price should open up the iPad to new audience.

It’s a solid, reliable alternative to buying a low-cost computer. Some geeks will hate me writing that.

Half the price of an iPad Pro

While the 2018 iPad doesn’t have all the features you’d find in an iPad Pro, it’s close to half the price of the cheapest Pro. The basic model $540 2018 iPad Pro comes with 32GB of storage. In contrast, the cheapest iPad Pro model costs NZ$1100 and has 64GB of storage.

There’s a NZ$700 version of the 2018 iPad with 128GB. If you can find the extra $160 it’s worth it. If you have a large library of music, videos or photographs you’ll soon bump up against the limits of 32GB. With a 128GB you won’t need to continually swap out files to a back-up device or the cloud.

What you get with both models is the classic 9.7-inch iPad Retina display. There are not as many pixels as you’ll find on the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, but the resolution is much the same. It has 2048 by 1536 pixels compared with the Pro’s 2224 by 1668. The 2018 iPad weighs exactly the same amount as the 10.5-inch iPad Pro; around 480 grams.

At 7.5mm, the 2018 iPad is a sliver thicker than the Pro which is just 6.1mm. That’s enough to notice, but not much of a compromise. It’s about 10mm shorter and 5mm less wide. This means you can’t swap covers or keyboards between the two devices. Not that many people will be doing that.

Adding a keyboard

And anyway, the 2018 iPad doesn’t have the Smart Connectors found on iPad Pro models. These make it easier to use a keyboard without resorting to Bluetooth. If you want to run a keyboard with the 2018 iPad there are dozens of options, many are excellent.

The speakers are not as loud or as clear as you’ll find on an iPad Pro.

Another difference between the Pro and the 2018 iPad is that you only get a first generation Touch ID button. It’s a little slower than the newer version and more prone to stumble when you use a fingerprint to sign-in. This is noticeable in practice if you’re stepping down from a newer iPad Pro or have an iPhone 7 or 8.

There’s a software difference too. The 2018 iPad only allows two apps to appear on screen at any time. While the Pro models allow three, this is something I never use on my tablet. I doubt many others will miss it.

The 2018 iPad uses Apple’s A10 Fusion chip, it’s similar, but not as powerful as the A10x Fusion chip in the Pro model. In theory it doesn’t run as fast, you could probably prove this by running benchmarks. In practice, you won’t notice. I didn’t find any lag on the 2018 model, it doesn’t feel slower. In fact, when it comes to speed, it feels almost exactly the same as my first generation 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Where the 2018 iPad fits

Apple launched the 2018 iPad with an emphasis on education. It’s a great choice for students. Apple critics will tell you the iOS operating system is a walled garden and restrictive. Although there is some truth in this, in practice iOS is as open to the rest of the computing world as all the alternatives. Chromebook, Android and Windows are all as flawed in their own ways – possibly more flawed given their business models.

I’ve spent much of the last year using a 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my main mobile computer. It doesn’t do everything I need, but for most purposes it is more than enough computer. It has travelled overseas and out-of-town with me several times. For the most part the limitations of the 2018 iPad would be the same. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t need a lot of fancy features it could be all the computer you need. It’s a great device for creativity, just don’t expect to edit movies on it’s 9.7-inch screen.

The key to the 2018 iPad is that you get a lot of computer for not much money. You can buy cheaper Chromebooks, Android tablets and, at a pinch, Windows PCs. Unless you’re looking for an app that doesn’t appear in Apple’s store, this beats all those devices for most people who have light computing needs.

macbook pro keyboard

Marco Arment has a number of suggestions for Apple in Fixing the MacBook Pro. Arment’s post runs down a list of the things that are wrong with the 2016 MacBook Pros and offers suggestions for putting them right. It covers four areas, but the main one and the problem that bothers me personally is the new MacBook Pro keyboard.

Arment writes:

Butterfly key switches are a design failure that should be abandoned. They’ve been controversial, fatally unreliable, and expensive to repair since their introduction on the first 12” MacBook in early 2015. Their flaws were evident immediately, yet Apple brought them to the entire MacBook Pro lineup in late 2016.

The decision to use the butterfly key switch keyboard looked odd at the time. One reason people thought earlier MacBook Pro models were among the best-ever laptops was the solid keyboards. They were great. Dropping the earlier design looked and felt like a mistake at the time. Yet, as Arment points out, things only got worse when it emerged they were unreliable and required an expensive, fix.

He says:

After three significant revisions, Apple’s butterfly key switches remain as controversial and unreliable as ever. At best, they’re a compromise acceptable only on the ultra-thin 12” MacBook, and only if nothing else fits. They have no place in Apple’s mainstream or pro computers.

Maybe not. But here’s the strangest thing. I have a 12.9 inch iPad Pro with the Apple Smart Keyboard. It is great to type on. Yet it uses the same basic butterfly key switch.

I’m a touch typist and hammer keyboards because I learnt to type on manual typewriters. The Smart Keyboard may not be perfect, no portable keyboard is, but it is a far better experience than typing on a new MacBook or MacBook Pro.

When I wrote about the MacBook Pro keyboard before, I found it acceptable, but clearly preferred the keyboard on the Air.

Few options beyond MacBook Pro

My ageing MacBook Air is coming up for replacement. After looking at the MacBook and MacBook Pro keyboards and deciding they are not for me, I’m thinking about the options for my next portable computer. At this stage the shortlist is go with the iPad Pro and get a desktop iMac for home, buy a new MacBook Air or wait until there’s a refurbished older Retina MacBook Pro in the local Apple Store.

While buying a refurbished machine is good for the planet, it doesn’t seem right. A new MacBook Air would be a productive choice. Yet I prefer Retina displays. The MacBook Air specification is old-fashioned by late 2017 standards.

Which means the most likely choice will be the iPad Pro and iMac. That’s remarkable as it means for the first time in years there isn’t a MacBook model that meets my needs. All because Apple doesn’t offer one with a decent keyboard.

Back to Arment:

The MacBook Pro must return to scissor key switches. If Apple only changes one thing about the next MacBook Pro, it should be this.

It needs to do this soon to get my business. I’m probably not alone. And yet it’s unlikely Apple will move because it seems the new MacBook Pros have been selling better than expected. If the market has spoken, whatever it said was not: “fix the MacBook Pro keyboard”.