Apple is working with publishers to add a new and fast-loading news app to iOS.
The app, called Apple News, will show up on iPhone and iPad home pages when iOS 9 arrives later this year.
Apple News pulls in news feeds from different publishers. It displays them in a magazine-style format like Flipboard. Readers will be able to filter their feeds so they can get the subjects they care about most.
The idea is that you’ll be able to quickly read the material you consider important from a variety of sources without jumping from one app or website to another.
In some respects it’ll replace RSS readers. They never recovered from the death of Google Reader.
Because it comes from Apple there’s an emphasis on how things look. Apple News is prettier than Google Reader replacements like Feedly. Although they set a low bar to beat.
The app will format material for iOS devices and will adjust for screen size. Most likely there will be something for Apple Watch owners too.
Apple has signed up publishers — including my technology news site. I’m curious to see how the model might work for publishers and writers.
We need fresh ideas. Few existing online publishing models work except for publishers with material worth putting behind a paywall.
Apple News will include advertising. At the same time the iOS 9 Safari browser will include optional ad blocking.
You could see this as Apple making life hard for publishers operating out the in the wild while offering something cosy inside the walled garden.
There’s another way of looking at this: Online advertising is a mess. Few publishers make more than a pittance from running banner ads, Google ads or indeed any kind of advertising. Ad sales stopped on this site because the revenue didn’t cover administering ad sales let alone other costs.
Things are extra hard for publishers when it comes to earning money from mobile readers. That’s where the audience is, but mobile ads earn a fraction of the money earned by PC browser ads. A small percentage of bugger all is not worth the effort.
It’s unlikely Apple News will do much for income, but it’s a publishing channel and business model worth exploring.
Can Apple will make it pay? That’s not a given. Remember the old iOS newsstand wasn’t a rip-roaring success. Remember how excited news publishers like Rupert Murdoch were about the iPad’s potential to save their broken business models?
Tempting new phones arrive every month. Phone makers upgrade their main models once a year. You could almost set your watch by Apple’s annual iPhone launch event. Samsung and other popular brands run to a similar schedule.
Phone makers expect you to hang on to a device for two years even if they refresh their model lines every year.
Carriers agree. Their phone plans are usually two-year contracts. Remember carriers make money when you to buy new phones and roll over two-year contracts.
New Zealand’s Inland Revenue Department depreciates phones at 67 percent a year. That implies a life expectancy of under two years.
No-one forces us to operate on a fixed timetable.
Hardware lives for years
Phone hardware can last for ten years or more. There are no moving parts to seize up.
If you don’t drop your phone too often and it doesn’t pick up too much moisture, the battery is the first part to wear out. Constant use and charging cycles mean they degrade over time. After about three to four years use they’ve had it.
You can replace most phone batteries, even those in sealed phones. The difference there is more work or the cost of paying someone to do the job.
Screens tend to die somewhere between three to ten years depending. Often it’s the backlighting that goes first.
There are other examples of when the move from one year’s model to the next brings a must-have feature. Even so, you should expect to get at least two years from a device. They should last for three or more.
There are times when even the lightest, slimmest laptop is more than you want to carry. And times when there’s not enough room to use a MacBook Air.
Earlier this month I tried to work with my 13-inch MacBook Air while flying in economy class. Although the tray-table had room for the computer, there wasn’t enough space to type.
Break out the iPhone 6 Plus
I’ve been using the iPhone 6 Plus for six months now. It’s a good size for two thumb typing. The text shows large enough to check your work, although that depends on the writing app you use at the time. Best of all, the screen shows enough words for you to understand the context of what you are writing.
The iPhone 6 Plus is the best writing tool that fits in a pocket. I’ve used it to edit, update or finish off news stories while traveling on Auckland buses and ferries or sitting in cafes. This was the first time, other than artificial review-style tests, when I needed to write long-form journalism on the phone.
Normally I find the iPhone 6 Plus is fine for emails, admin and short bursts of text, but prefer something with a physical keyboard for longer writing jobs.
There were deadlines to worry about so I decided to push the technology beyond my comfort zone. I wrote a lengthy feature, two news stories and two detailed article outlines during the flight.
Plenty of good iOS writing apps
There’s no shortage of iOS writing tools to choose from. I had five loaded on the phone. So I took the opportunity to try them all.
All my iOS writing apps have clean user interfaces and all work with OS X as well. That last point is important.
Byword is the cleanest, perhaps that’s why it is my favourite. I find the simplicity is well suited to iPhone two thumb typing. It uses Markdown to embed codes like bold or headline levels in what is otherwise plain text. Best of all Byword documents are easy to read while you are editing.
Google Docs didn’t do as well. It’s clean and straightforward, but I couldn’t discover how to restrict the page width on the phone, so found myself continually scrolling right to left and back again.
Maybe that’s avoidable. Sitting on a plane isn’t the best place to learn how to use unfamiliar software.
iA Writer is an old favourite that didn’t fare well as expected in my enforced iPhone writing test. Although the software works fine, I found the typewriter-like font it uses is difficult to read on the small screen.
Thumbs up to iPhone 6 Plus writing in an emergency
To my surprise I managed to write more than 1500 words with my thumbs during the journey. There was barely any physical discomfort, despite writing in such cramped conditions.
The onscreen keyboard wasn’t a problem. In practice I found using the keyboard in the portrait position, that’s holding the phone upright, worked far better. When you tip the iPhone 6 Plus on its side there’s a bigger onscreen keyboard with more keys, It was harder to use and took up too much of the display to be practical.
The biggest annoyance was constantly switching between the working document and reference notes.
When I got to my hotel thanks to the magic of Bluetooth, Continuity, WiFi and iCloud my iPhone output was available on my MacBook almost immediately. Microsoft’s OneDrive was the laggard at synching. It took minutes while iCloud and Google Docs took seconds.
Error prone after MacBook Air
Some of the work looked just fine. However, I noticed a couple of plane-written documents were riddled with typos and other errors. This has always been my experience with iPhones, they cope well with simple writing, but the small screen makes them imperfect tools for proofreading. I make a lot more errors than when I type on my MacBook Air keyboard.
The Google Docs document was in worst shape. I put that down to the horizontal scrolling problem. That made checking my work on the go next to impossible.
Lesson: iPhone writing works, not ideal
Overall I was happy with the experience. Battery life wasn’t an issue, there were no ergonomic headaches, the device worked well in the circumstances. About an hour into the experiment I wondered if an external Bluetooth keyboard would help my productivity. An hour later I was convinced that wouldn’t solve anything and would undermine the usefulness of a writing device that fits in a pocket.
I didn’t get as much done as I might have done with the MacBook Air. But I got far more done that if I read a magazine or watched in-flight movies.
Better still, I managed to hit the deadlines. That wouldn’t have been possible without the iPhone 6 Plus. I estimate I worked at about three-quarters my normal speed, allow a bit more for the extra corrections needed and that’s still a productive flight.
To me the iPhone 6 Plus feels just a tad too big for everyday comfort even if it is still a beautiful device.
While I’ve seen no sign of the phone bending, it doesn’t fit comfortable in my jeans pocket. That’s doubly so when driving and it’s near impossible to get the phone out in a hurry if someone calls — even if I’ve parked the car.
I need not have worried.
Not only have I adapted to the larger size, I did it without noticing. The iPhone 6 Plus no longer feels uncomfortable in my pocket. I didn’t realise this changed until thinking about the matter to write this post.
In that sense the iPhone 6 Plus now feels like just another iPhone.
It can still be tricky to get the phone out of my pocket in a hurry when sitting in the car, but I’ve learnt to cope. Once again, it’s not something I notice any more.
On the other hand, it’s comfortable in my suit jacket pocket. And the bigger screen is better when I’m driving to an unknown address and need to read a map.
The iPhone 6 Plus is still comfortable in my suit pocket or any jacket. It doesn’t weigh too much nor does it make the jacket hang weirdly.
Reading the map
Map-reading is a practical example of how a bigger iPhone makes a difference in everyday life.
BlackBerry’s keyboard means it does some things well.
When it comes to maps, the smaller display is troublesome. You just don’t get enough pixels to read place names. There’s not enough scope to zoom in and out.
This is less of a problem when on foot, but in a car the larger display on the iPhone 6 Plus makes navigating a breeze.
Writing on iPhone 6, 6 Plus
Mention of the BlackBerry keyboard brings up another point. Some people find BlackBerry’s physical keyboard better than a touch-screen keyboard. When I tested this I didn’t find myself typing faster than on a screen.
In fact, I find I can touch type fast enough on the iPhone 6. The 6 Plus is better again thanks to the larger screen. It is so good that I’m planning to leave the laptop behind next time I travel to an overseas media event and file copy from the phone. I’ll report back on how that works out.
When typing more than a tweet or quick email reply I turn the phone to the landscape position. That way I can get to read an entire line of text on a document.
I’ve used Byword, Apple Pages 5 and Microsoft Word. All seem to do a great job on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Better still is when I use Pages 5 and the Apple Continuity feature which makes moving between an iPad, iPhone and Mac a cinch.
iPhone 6, 6 Plus made for reading
It’s not just the larger screen sizes on the new iPhones, there are more pixels too. This makes it easier to read text.
Poorly designed PDFs are still a pain. If the text is too small and the lines too long you need to scroll left and right even in landscape. Otherwise almost every web page or document is easier to read on the iPhone 6 models than on any other phone.
A lot of reviewers complain about the new iPhones being too large for one-handed use. I don’t have big hands, but I haven’t found this as much of a problem as I feared.
The bad news is the Reachability feature that allows you to pull down the screen to reach the top buttons doesn’t always work. I find a quick reboot fixes this.
One-handed operation is important if you’re sitting on a crowded bus or holding something in your other hand. but there have been few occasions where I’ve not been able to do whatever I set out to do.
Bigger screens, more pixels mean more demands on batteries, but the extra size also leaves space for greater power capacity.
This is where the two iPhone models differ the most.
Both iPhone 6 models use the new A8 processor chip. It is more powerful than the A7 found in last year’s iPhone 5S, you may or may not notice a difference. I can’t say that I do.
What is noticeable is that the A8 processor does a better job of handling power.
Apple claims the iPhone 6 gives 14 hours of talk time and 10 hours of the internet when on a 3G network. The claim for the iPhone 6 Plus is 24 and 12 hours.
In practice this means I can get a full working day from a full charge on the iPhone 6. A long day extending from breakfast meetings to an early evening function is a stretch, but do-able so long as I don’t push the phone hard.
The iPhone 6 Plus manages a full day and then some. When I’m at home I can get through two or more days without needing a top-up charge. Ironically this means I’m less vigilant about recharging. When I started using the iPhone 6 Plus I would often forget to charge the phone on the second day.
iOS 8, software
Having a bigger screen means the iPhone 6 Plus sometimes looks like an iPad. On the home screen you get icons and a dock across the bottom just like any other iPhone. Turn the phone to landscape mode and the dock stays in place.
Other apps take advantage of the bigger screen when in landscape mode. The Mail app uses a two column layout, so does the calendar.
This adds up to something more tablet-like than phone-like. Some iPhone 6 Plus users have ditched iPads, moving from three devices to two. That doesn’t appeal to me, a ten-inch iPad is still better for reading magazines and PDFs than a tiny screen on a phone.
iPhone 6 hardware
One thing that struck me again and again while using the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus is the build quality is excellent. There’s a robustness and an attention to detail that you don’t find on all phones — the only ones as good are Microsoft-Nokia’s high-end phones.
You wouldn’t want to sit too often on an iPhone 6, but it’s strong. I’ve dropped both models a couple of times on hard floors and there is nothing to report.
You’ll get the most productivity and enjoyment out of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus if you use other Apple hardware. Data moves between either phone and my iPad or Mac without a hitch.
It can be strange when everything starts making a noise at the same time to tell me there’s an incoming phone call. Overall the Continuity and Handoff features are a great step forward.
Would I recommend either iPhone 6 model? Yes, they remain the best smartphones on the market today. They’re not cheap, but you get a lot of value for the asking price which starts at NZ$1000 for an iPhone 6. Only a die-hard Android owner would argue that point.
It measures 50 by 190 by 150 mm and about 360g. That makes it small enough to sit on a bookshelf, kitchen bench or a window sill.
You might consider using the OnBeat Micro on a bedside cabinet. It will charge your phone overnight and you can route the phone’s alarm function through the speaker.
Wake the dead
Take care with this. The OnBeat Micro may look small, but when it comes to sound it packs a real punch. Forget to crank down the volume before setting the alarm and the entire neighbourhood will be familiar with your choice of alarm tone.
The first time I tried the device I set my phone volume to the halfway point. It more than filled the room with music. I had to move fast to lower the volume. There’s more than enough grunt to keep a small party going although not enough to fill a big room or to cut through a dozen simultaneous conversations.
You wouldn’t expect hefty bass sounds at this price. And anyway there isn’t room to shove a powerful woofer under the main speakers. Even so, the overall sound is clear enough.
At most volumes rock or classical music will play fine without hitting serious distortion. Things can get a little shaky when operating at full blast, but few people will be listing for nuanced sounds when that’s happening.
While you don’t get the feeling this is a feeble speaker, you might want to spend a little more and move upmarket if you’re looking for more of a hi-fi experience. This is strictly for fun, not for serious music listening.
I’ve seen speakers in this price range bounce across a surface as the good vibrations get things moving. The OnBeat Micro has a rubber cushion on its base to damp things down, it doesn’t move even at full blast with heavy staccato sounds.
The base opens to show space for four AAA batteries. This would allow you to use the speaker dock as a portable music player. I didn’t test this feature, but would prefer to see a built-in rechargeable battery and not buy disposable batteries for the job.
JBL’s Lightning connector works fine with any iPhone 5 or 6. The Outsize 6Plus doesn’t present a problem and doesn’t look silly. Its extra weight doesn’t appear a problem despite the Lightning connector getting to take all the strain. It also works with newer iPods.
There’s not enough room to get iPads to connect. I also found at least one iPhone 6 Plus external case got in the way and I had to remove it before I could dock the phone.
There’s a USB connector on the back of the speaker dock which can charge other devices. The downside of this is that you can’t play music through the speakers when something is plugged in.
Given the NZ$120 asking price, the JBL OnBeat Micro is a good value docking speaker. It punches out more volume than you might expect and you’ll get a reasonable audio experience.