The iPad is an ergonomic disaster for traditional computing work, and needs full pointer support right now

From day one, the iPad to me never felt like a device purely for consumption. As half the tech industry fell over itself to claim you could ‘never do real work on an iPad’, I saw everyone from artists to technicians doing real work on an iPad. What people really meant was that the iPad didn’t have a full version of Microsoft Word, because that is the only ‘real work’ in the whole world. Or something.

That said, I’ve always wanted to do more work on an iPad than I actually do. The big blocker for me has always been interaction. Simply put, the iPad is an ergonomic disaster for long-term ‘traditional’ work.

By this, I’m talking about the aforementioned ‘real work’ – the sort of thing most people do on a PC, which mostly involves staring at a screen, typing, and interacting with text-based screen content. Ergonomically, the best set-up for this is a display where your eyeline meets roughly its top third. You should be sitting straight in a chair, arms naturally bent and lightly resting on a flat surface, keyboard directly in front of you.

Laptops heavily compromise this set-up. If the keyboard is in the right place, you end up looking down towards the display, thereby placing unnecessary strain on your neck. That’s fine for occasional use, but isn’t good in the long term. This is easy to fix, though: at your permanent workspace, connect your laptop to an external display, keyboard, and pointing device.

Apple seems reluctant to take that final step with iPad. At best, you can bung the thing in a case, whereupon it becomes a sort-of laptop. In fact, it ends up with the interaction model Apple ridicules whenever it releases a new MacBook Pro and pushes back on demands for a touchscreen version. Check recent Apple keynotes, and you’ll see various Apple executives saying it’s not a good thing when you constantly have to lift your arm to prod a screen. And they’re right – yet this is exactly the interaction model Apple forces you into on iPad.

With iPadOS 13, there is the first step towards a solution: in Settings > Accessibility > Touch, you can turn on AssistiveTouch. Connect a mouse, and your iPad finally has pointer support, only it doesn’t really because the cursor isn’t a cursor – it’s a virtual finger. Use Apple’s Magic Mouse and none of the gestural stuff works. To scroll something, you have to drag the content, which soon gets tiring and tiresome on lengthy documents. (Ironically, if you’ve a mouse with a scroll wheel, that does work. The net result here is I’ve an ancient USB Labtec mouse that cost about ten quid that’s works better with the iPad than Apple’s expensive slippy white puck.)

Yet even if this feature was perfect, it still wouldn’t be enough. We need to be at the point where the iPad can mirror the laptop set-up I mentioned earlier. In the hand, it needs to be a full touchscreen device, as it is today. When docked in a keyboard case, it needs to ramp up pointer support, so you don’t have to touch the display nearly as often. But also iPad needs a mode where you can connect it up to a bunch of other kit and never interact with the screen at all.

I love the iPad. The 11in iPad Pro is the best Apple kit I have ever owned. But it does feel like Apple’s unnecessarily digging its heels in when it comes to user interaction, stopping iPad from making that final step towards being the computer for the rest of us.

October 14, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Google Play Pass and Apple Arcade are not the same thing

Earlier this year, Apple announced Apple Arcade – and it turns out the service is really good. Naturally, Google felt the need to offer its own take on Apple Arcade, which has become Google Play Pass.

The thing is, as much as the press wants to drum up these services as direct competition, I don’t see them as existing in the same space. Although there’s more than a whiff of me-too about Google Play Pass, it reminds me more of something similar I once tried on Amazon – bundling a bunch of existing apps under an all-you-can-eat subscription.

A load of games you’ve probably already played is a far cry from 71 shiny new exclusives. Also, as much as developers are concerned about viability in an Apple Arcade world, they might pause on looking at Google Play Pass, which for two bucks a month directly competes with apps that exist elsewhere on Google Play.

Say what you will about Apple Arcade regarding its impact on iOS game sales, but at least it’s not pitching full-priced premium title Monument Valley 2 against a subscription service that costs half the price – and also includes Monument Valley 2.

October 3, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Opinions, Technology

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Apple Arcade: learning to love mobile gaming all over again

I’ve been keeping a close eye on responses to Apple Arcade. Beyond a hardcore that wouldn’t cross the road to pee on an iPhone if it was on fire, and those that don’t believe anything can be ‘proper gaming’ unless it’s an ultra–4K sequel to an almost identical grey/brown game, it seems to have gone down very well.

What surprises me most, though, is the amount of grading on a curve. Having so far played at least some of 68 of the 71 games on Apple Arcade (It’s a living! Sort of.), my personal take is they split right down the middle in terms of what’s good and what’s merely mediocre or outright crap. That in itself is not a bad hit rate, note, but I’m often seeing people championing the entire package – and even games that are objectively a bit shit.

It increasingly feels like people didn’t fall out of love with mobile gaming – they fell out of love with user-hostile freemium mechanics of the like Nintendo welded to Super Mario Tour. In fact, it’s interesting to contrast Nintendo’s mobile efforts (from a company that usually prides itself on top-tier fun-first gaming experiences) and Apple’s (the company that everyone argued needed to get Nintendo on board to get gaming right).

Now the cruft has gone, people are enjoying fleeting but beautiful creations (Assemble with Care), painstakingly crafted slices of artistry (Mutazione), bite-sized puzzlers (Grindstone), and slices of rampant absurdity (Sneaky Sasquatch), many of which would struggle to exist anywhere else – and certainly not with this kind of premium user experience.

October 2, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Opinions, Technology

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Two weeks with Apple Arcade

I’ve long been an advocate of mobile gaming. Although initially dismissing the iPhone’s potential in this area, I was drawn in when I actually owned one. Amazing multitouch experiences like Eliss opened my eyes to new ways of interacting with games, and felt like a logical next step from the Nintendo DS. Subsequent titles like Device 6 on iPad were a joyful fusion of touchscreen handheld technology and modern gaming – something that simply wouldn’t work on another system.

At its best, the App Store became a bastion of creativity – a place that echoed the 1980s games I grew up with, in developers not having to be fearful of being creative. You could create something bonkers and different, and yet have a shot at success. But around five years ago, the wheels started to fall off. The race to the bottom was cemented in, with users expecting dirt-cheap titles that would be updated and added to forever. Then the expectation was that everything should be free.

Part of the blame lies with Apple, but it’s also an indication of modern society. When content becomes ephemeral rather than something you can hold, people have been trained to assume they should not have to pay for it. So we now exist in a world where a developer can create a mobile title, and get a review slamming them for including ads and not enough levels, by someone who otherwise claimed they loved the game – and yet played with Airplane Mode on to disable ads, thereby robbing the developer of any income.

Hence: Apple Arcade. Apple’s surprise announcement this summer claimed we would see a return to rosier times for gaming on mobile, free from the cruft that infects modern releases. Games on Apple Arcade can mostly be played offline. Those that require an internet connection do so due to online multiplayer rather than Nintendo’s penchant for always-online for no good reason. Beyond that, there are no ads and no IAPs. Bliss. Possibly.

Even with these features, I initially tempered optimism with a healthy dollop of scepticism. Remember, this was Apple. This was the company that got good in games by mistake – and despite itself. This was the company that repeatedly bafflingly rejected perfectly good games from the App Store, often for oddball puritanical reasons. It was the company that messed up games controllers to a degree that possibly warrants some kind of trophy. It was the company that despite raking in millions from games, still gave you the impression no-one senior at the company gave the slightest crap about them.

Then Apple Arcade dropped during the iOS 13 beta, letting me check out what was on offer. Immediately, the selection of games was overwhelming. When iOS 13 proper landed, it was the kind of launch line-up other systems would kill for. There were 71 titles in all, from tiny indie delicacies that would find it hard to survive as standalone titles, through to new releases from giants like Capcom. Since that first moment, I’ve been working my way through every game, to play every one at least a little, and therefore get an idea as to who Apple Arcade is aimed at, and whether it’s worth subscribing to.

In the US and UK, Apple Arcade costs a fiver a month, although you get 30 days for free. That second bit to my mind suggests that if you have any interest in gaming, and own an Apple device, you’d be nuts to not at least try it out. I still see a lot of ‘proper’ gamers getting all pissy about Apple Arcade, and that stance baffles me. Are people really so entrenched in their tribes they don’t want – for no outlay – to at least try a new service with dozens of interesting titles? Is the fact these games can be played on a phone, and don’t include any AAA franchises really that much of a barrier? Again, to me Apple Arcade seems a no-brainer.

Beyond that basic recommendation, you’d probably like to know whether the games are objectively good. Personally, I’d say it splits slightly better than 50:50 in terms of great-to-good and OK-to-poor (with OK being a larger group than the few games that are garbage). Some of the titles reek of freemium with freemium bits removed at the last moment, and that’s a pity. But there are deeply premium efforts made with love. Some – like Assemble with Care – may only last an hour, but that hour will be memorable; others – like Super Impossible Road, Card of Darkness, Grindstone, PaintyMob, and Sasquatch – feel like games I’ll still be picking up for the odd go in a year’s time, even if Apple Arcade’s drowning in other new titles by then. And with iCloud save states, this is a service you could feasibly dip in and out of, perhaps subscribing for a while every now and again, if you don’t fancy dropping a fiver every single month.

It’s also worth noting the nature of Apple Arcade’s exclusivity. The games are exclusive only to mobile and subscription services. So they won’t rock up on Android, or a service somewhat competing with Apple’s own. But some already exist elsewhere, or are slated to. What’s interesting is many of these games have price-tags that cost several multiples of the Apple Arcade subscription cost. Sayonara Wild Hearts on Switch, for example, sets you back almost three times the monthly cost of Apple Arcade. What The Golf when it lands on the Epic Games store will cost £15.99. This in itself showcases the value at the heart of Apple’s subscription service.

I’d like to think developers are doing well from Apple Arcade. Of course, everyone remains tight-lipped about the terms, but we’ve heard Apple pumped millions to get the games made in the first place, and we know rights are retained by the studios. I’ve no idea if that’s the model going forwards, but I hope creators feel it works out for them, even if this is another lottery of sorts (in terms of getting the invite). For people who like games, though, this is less a game of chance than a rare fairground stall where you’re basically a winner just by turning up.

September 30, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Opinions, Technology

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Apple’s abysmal Mail toolbar design in iOS 13

A major differentiator since Apple’s earliest days has been interface design. Apple has long prided itself not only on creating more beautiful interfaces, but also much more usable ones. The aim has always been to make things more obvious, and also more efficient. So what happened in Mail for iOS 13?

The previous grab shows Mail in iOS 12 (left) and iOS 13 (right). On the left, you have immediate access to options that let you flag, file, archive/delete, reply, and start a new message. It’s not overly complicated, and it looks fine. Also: all these actions are fundamental to rapidly dealing with email. Now, you only get archive/delete and reply. Also, because someone in Apple’s design team – and also whoever signed this off – are apparently sociopaths,  these buttons are offset. Good luck reaching them comfortably with your thumb!

It’s not like things were perfect before. Previously, reply actually gave you options to reply, forward and – bafflingly – print. Now? Basically everything’s shoved under a reply button with an icon design stretched to breaking point. Really, it should be an ‘actions’ button; although if Apple has any sense, its next action will instead consign this disaster of an interface to history, and Mail will be made more readily usable once again.

September 27, 2019. Read more in: Opinions, Technology

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