My favorite travel gadget isn’t my camera or noise-canceling headphones or even my iPhone. It’s a SIM card from Google.
I’m talking, of course, about Project Fi, Google’s wireless service that provides cheap voice and data plans to Nexus and Pixel owners. It’s also the perfect way to get data abroad without breaking the bank.
That’s because the service offers flat-rate data no matter how many countries you travel to (Fi currently has service in 135 countries), and makes it super simple to pause your service when you get home so you only ever have to pay when you need it.
A basic Project Fi plan starts at $20 a month for unlimited texting and local calling. Data is a flat rate of $10/GB and non-local calls are $.20 a minute. You can decide upfront how much data you want to be automatically included in your plan, but you only ever have to pay for what you use — Fi will credit back anything you don’t use.
It does require a bit of an upfront investment, since Google limits Project Fi to its Nexus and Pixel phones. And, yes, that means you’ll need to use Android (though there are workarounds for making Project Fi work with iPhones, assuming you have an unlocked phone and can get access to a Nexus or Pixel to activate the SIM).
But you don’t need the latest Pixel 2, which starts at $649, to get the most from Project Fi. I’ve used the service with the Nexus 6 and Nexus 5x — both of which can be found online for well under $300.
And if you don’t like the idea of spending a couple hundred bucks on an older phone, there’s the newly launched $399 Motorola X4, which is the first non-Nexus or Pixel-branded handset to be Fi compatible.
That may still sound like a pricey upfront investment, but it could be well worth it even if you only take a couple trips a year. Seriously. Between time spent and cost, the savings quickly add up.
In the last two years, I’ve used Project Fi on trips to more than half a dozen countries, including Germany, Greece, Ukraine, and Israel. I’ve loaned it to family members for their own trips abroad and each time I’ve been impressed with the quality of the coverage and service. Fi did fail me once — in Aruba — though I suspect this was due to an issue with whichever local telecoms they partner with, not Fi itself.
That trip aside though, Fi has enabled me to effortlessly keep up my Snapchat and Instagram habits without having to constantly search for Wi-Fi or worry about racking up a huge bill.
Sure, $10/Gb might be more expensive than what you can find from some local carriers on the ground, but who wants to waste precious vacation time shopping for a data plan that may or may not end up saving you any money.
And that’s really the point — Fi makes it so you never have to worry about your data plan ever again.
I never thought that it would happen. And then it did.
On a recent two-week vacation to Japan (my first time, and, yes, it was amazing if you must know), I finally ditched my “real” camera, a Sony A6300 interchangeable lens camera I bought about two years ago, a replaced it with the iPhone 8 Plus.
And my trip was infinitely better because I left the Sony in my suitcase.
Since the launch of the iPhone, smartphones have slowly murdered cameras. The point-and-shoot has all but died at the hands of the glass slabs we now hold so near and dear.
Mirrorless cameras and professional DSLRs have survived only because they still provide features that phones don’t, but their days are extremely numbered for non-professional use.
Smartphone cameras are just so excellent now and some of the accessories, like Moment’s screw-on lenses are so versatile, that they’re actually better shooting gear than dedicated cameras in many ways.
It seemed like a no-brainer to bring my Sony camera and extra-wide angle lens. I wanted high-resolution pictures to remember my travels. Of course, I’d take it with me. So into my suitcase the Sony went along with three spare batteries.
And that’s where it stayed for just about the entire trip. I took it out exactly once in Kyoto and regretted it after a full day.
The iPhone 8 Plus is now my favorite camera to shoot with.
Don’t get me wrong. My Sony camera is like my baby. I love it to death. It takes incredible photos and shoots excellent 4K videos. I use it for both work and personal shooting and nothing beats a robust interchangeable lens camera. I’m a camera nerd now and forever. (Fun fact: I started at Mashable reviewing cameras just because I wanted to test the latest ones.)
But it turns out the iPhone — more specifically, the iPhone 8 Plus — is more than just a “good enough” camera.
Apple’s team of a 1,000+ working on the iPhone’s cameras have finally made a photo and video powerhouse that convinced me to leave my real camera and its superior image quality in my luggage.
By the end of the trip, I had taken about 700 distinct photos and videos with my iPhone 8 Plus over 11 days compared to the 30-or-so I did with my Sony. One thing became very clear as I soaked in Japan: The iPhone 8 Plus is now my favorite camera to shoot with.
It’s so much smaller and lighter. When you’re walking 10+ miles a day like I did because you want to see as much as you can, the last thing you want is extra weight in your backpack. The iPhone 8 Plus weighs 5.22 ounces and the Sony A6300’s body without a lens is 18.3 ounces. Needless to say, the 8 Plus was just easier to carry around. My back thanks me every day for not killing it.
Image quality finally looks great in nearly all conditions. The iPhone 8 Plus comes with a 12-megapixel sensor (the same as on the iPhone 7), but don’t be fooled. Image quality is tops. By default, the camera now shoots in HDR (High Dynamic Range) when it detects certain scenes need it (like backlit shots) and I was continuously impressed by what I ended up with.
It also really helps that the 8 Plus’ A11 Bionic chip is so fast that it can process HDR photos instantly, shoot hundreds of photos in burst mode, and reduce image noise thanks to some intelligent AI.
However, it’s the camera’s low-light capabilities that really sealed the deal. I’ve been able to make do with previous iPhone cameras just fine, but low-light photography has always left something to be desired.
Bustling wards like Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Shibuya or Osaka’s Denden Town are alive in the day as they are at night and it was important that for me to experience and capture both. On so many occasions, the iPhone 8 Plus simply took such great night shots that I couldn’t believe they were shot with a phone.
It’s so much better for shooting video. Lately,I’ve been a little obsessed with shooting video. In addition to 30 frames per second, iPhone 8 Plus can capture tack-sharp 4K resolution video at 24 and 60 fps, which puts it on par with my Sony.
But more important to me was shooting slow-motion and timelapses, and doing so quickly before the moment was gone.
It’s a simple swipe to change modes on the iPhone and a complete mess of convoluted settings and on real cameras. On one particular bridge with a view of the Tokyo Skytree, I watched as several tourists fumbled around with their tripods and waited to shoot a timelapse. With the iPhone 8 Plus, I shot several timelapses and shared them to Instagram before they were even close to finishing.
Attachable lenses take your photos and videos to the next level. The 8 Plus’s second 2x telephoto lens is great and I loved toying around with Portrait mode (Portrait lighting is still in beta and the results were pretty rough so I didn’t use it very often), but I loved the ease of clipping on lenses to get even wider angles.
I brought Moment’s Battery Photo Case and a wide-angle (18mm) and fisheye (170-degree) with me and they proved to be so useful for pulling into frame Japan’s beautiful neon signage and the throngs of people the flood the streets. These tiny lenses aren’t the cheapest ones you can buy, but damn it if the image quality isn’t the best for the iPhone (Moment also makes them for Google’s Pixels).
Wide-angle and fisheye lenses for my Sony would’ve killed my back and taken forever to swap on. But that’s not the case with the iPhone 8 Plus. I frequently clipped on the fisheye as needed and my photos and videos are better because I did.
Google Photos makes backups stupid easy. It’s easy to shoot a ridiculous amount of photos and videos, but backing them up and sorting through them all is a pain in the ass.
Thanks to the magic of Google Photos, this once-annoying task happened in the background. As soon as I got back to my Airbnb at the of the day, I’d connect to Wi-Fi and then let Google Photos back everything up overnight. It was all so effortless and the very thought of going back to downloading photos from an SD card to a computer and then uploading them into the cloud seemed downright stupid.
Google Photos also made sharing all my footage with friends and family easier at the end of trip. All I had to do was select the pics and videos and then toss them into an album and invite them to access the high-res files.
And a bunch of other reasons. I could go on and on in detail about all the small ways the iPhone 8 Plus is a more convenient camera — like how it fits in places regular cameras can’t, or how much better battery life is, or how great it is to be able to edit photos on the go — but I’ll spare you. I think you get the point.
Being the camera nerd that I am, I always thought that my trusty camera would be by my side wherever I traveled. I convinced myself that I could get the best photos shooting with my Sony.
But after two weeks of shooting exclusively on an iPhone 8 Plus (anyone who followed my Instagram Stories will know I was literally sharing non-stop all day long), I can tell you it’s such an incredible camera… if you know how to make it work for you.
Not only did is it more convenient because it’s connected to the internet, but its size and limitations also pushed me to think outside the box more than ever before. I spared no expense to get the shot.
I found better angles. I didn’t just lazily shoot from the waist up. I literally got a deer’s face at Nara Park and the result were photos and videos that are more raw and genuinely memorable to look at now that the vacation’s over.
But maybe you’re not convinced. Perhaps, these photos and videos (all unedited) I shot might change your mind. And it gives me an excuse to post photos from my Japan trip. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
If you think smartphones are boring right now, you haven’t been paying attention.
Four or five years ago, you would have been dead on. At the time, smartphone design had basically settled on gray slabs of plastic, aluminum, and glass. Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10 were still in the mix with Android and iPhone, but even though there was more variety in platforms there wasn’t in experience. Feature differences mostly amounted to who had the best camera or whether or not you liked Swype.
Fast-forward to today: Right now we’re experiencing an inflection point both in smartphone design and their supporting ecosystems, and it means what you get by choosing one phone over another diverges considerably. From home buttons to biometrics to camera tech to AI, there’s more separating today’s smartphones than there has been in a long time.
That’s why I find it perplexing that anyone would argue, in 2017, that all phones are the same. Sure, at first glance, the iPhone X and the Google Pixel 2 might both look like they’re offering up the same small screen to put in your pocket, but that just shows you’re not looking closely enough. A Tesla and a Toyota look basically the same, too.
But even if we restrict ourselves to just phone design, the case for boredom doesn’t hold water. There’s a movement right now to push phones toward “edge to edge” displays, with screens that (nearly) encompass the entire front of the device. Implementing such a design introduces a host of issues, which manufacturers deal with in different ways.
Which solution works best? Here’s the thing: We don’t know.
The home button goes away, for starters. On the Android side this isn’t such a big deal since physical buttons have been optional for a long time, but Samsung is still doing innovative things with its “virtual” home button, which makes part of the screen more pressure sensitive. And with the iPhone the issue is cranked to 11. Killing the home button means the iPhone X unlocks and operates fundamentally differently than all iPhones before it. It also means completely rethought biometrics.
Then there’s the notch. Pushing the screen to the edges means little to no room for front-facing sensors and the selfie camera, and phones are dealing with the issue in different ways. Some, like the Pixel and LG G6, are content to simply shrink the “chin” and “forehead” of the phone as much as possible. Others, the iPhone X and Essential Phone included, opt for an unusually shaped screen to accommodate the front sensors.
As phone screens are enlarging, their aspect ratios are in a state of upheaval. Samsung’s new phones have an 18.5:9 ratio. The Essential phone 19:10. The iPhone X is 19.5:9. The LG G6 is 18:9. Most existing phones are 16:9 or something pretty close.
So for each change, which solution works best? And which one will win out and eventually become standard? Here’s the thing: We don’t know — and that’s a big part of why this is such an exciting time for smartphones.
Evolution of the smartphone
The other part is the software, or more accurately, the underlying ecosystems. The argument that it’s still just an Android/iOS debate, and that — once you get past the hardware — the smartphone is just a window to apps and services that are the same on any phone, just isn’t true anymore. And that’s because of AI.
The smartphone is rapidly transforming from a portable computer to an all-purpose gatekeeper to unlocking the true potential of all our technology. Its connections to your car, your house — your everything — are becoming just as important as which apps you use, and a phone’s digital assistant is starting to actually matter. Google, Apple, and even Samsung all have compelling visions here. Who’s going to win? Again, we don’t know, but which phone you buy matters a lot here.
I could go on. Dual-camera systems between phones are substantively different, with some using the second lens for 3D effects, others for telephoto ability, and more to simply improve picture quality. Curved corners vs. right angles. Always-on OLED screens vs. LCDs. Headphone jacks vs. well, no headphone jacks.
All this variety has a consequence, though: Buying a new phone can be a fairly risky endeavor right now. Lots of mobile technologies and design trends are essentially at a “1.0” stage, and some are bound to fall flat in the long term
But there’s no question smartphones are more interesting now than they’ve been in years. That tiny screen in your pocket is changing, and for once we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.
October 7, 2017 / Comments Off on Smartphones are more interesting now than they’ve been in years
What can you say in 280 characters that you couldn’t in 140?
The world’s going to have to figure that out now that Twitter has signaled it will expand its infamous limit to just how many letters, numbers, spaces, punctuation, and emoji you’re allowed to fit into a tweet. Technically, the change is just a test at this point, seeded to a few (lucky?) users, but such a fundamental change to the service was big news, and any backtracking at this point would not be a good look for Twitter. So it seems likely that, going forward, 280 is the new 140.
The inevitable jokes and rage ensued, and have mostly continued in the first 24 hours since the announcement. There’s even a secret, though straightforward way, to get on the 280 train early, if you wish. But as the initial reaction dies down, and the new supersize tweets take hold, what does the picture of Twitter look like, and how attractive will it be to its users, both new and existing?
That’s surely the question Twitter is deeply considering as it moves forward with this change. And it answers the question of why the company’s doing it better than the pragmatic reasoning the company outlined in a blog post.
The company line on the change is that, since languages like Japanese, Korean, and Chinese tend to need fewer characters to express the same thought than you’d need in English or other Roman alphabet-based languages, there isn’t really an even playing field on expression in the Twitterverse. But, on paper, the same goal would be served either by doubling the limit for Roman languages or halving it for certain Asian ones.
Certainly, Twitter wanted to avoid any accusations it was taking anything away from users in particular regions, though the thought exercise emphasizes just how arbitrary its character limits are. If we can tweet with 280 characters, why not 500? Or 1,000? Why have limits at all?
It’s hard to understate what a crossroads this is for Twitter, since monkeying with its character limit changes the nature of the service. Short news updates, bursts of wit and insight, the perfect emoji response — that’s what Twitter’s known for. Pushing the character count to 280 won’t negate those things, of course, but it pushes them out of the way to make room for some new things.
DROWN in my FILTH you wretches 🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮🚮
What Twitter is surely hoping for is that those new things may also bring new users. The 140-character limit always cultivated a certain type of person: Not just someone comfortable with broadcasting their thoughts, but also someone who understands that brevity was hard. It’s why media Twitter became one of the service’s most active user bases; using Twitter effectively requires writing skill, and who better to meet that challenge than a group that writes for a living?
Just how less punchy, crisp, and clever will a 280-character Twitterverse be?
It’s common knowledge, though, that Twitter has gone as far as it can with the chattering classes, and Wall Street has been very, very disappointed with user growth barely increasing since it went public nearly four years ago. In fact, those veteran users add a layer of intimidation to potential new users who may not be as great at compressing their thoughts.
Will those people be lured by the promise of more space? Who knows, but Twitter has tried pretty much everything else (except the ability to edit tweets) to boost user growth — why not this?
The dilemma Twitter is facing, though, isn’t just the age-old new users vs. power users question. It’s about the soul of Twitter itself: Just how less punchy, crisp, and clever will a 280-character Twitterverse be? Will the increase in engagement from reading longer tweets have an associated reduction in some other factor (immediacy, utility, or even simple fun) that will make the service less essential to users in general? And, most important, will that trade-off be worth it?
Those are the questions we won’t know the answers to until the 280 world has been with us for a while, but they’re the key to why Twitter is redefining itself in the first place: to be the most relevant to the most people.
Except with this change, it could lose sight of itself in the process. Regardless of where you come out on the character count, you have to admire the gamble.
September 27, 2017 / Comments Off on Why Twitter expanded to 280 characters
People often ask me what my favorite gadget is, or if there’s one piece of technology I can’t live without. They’re usually taken aback by my simple response: my Kindle Paperwhite, a device that reliably performs one task really well and one that I’ve treasured since receiving it as a gift in 2013.
It might be a surprising answer from someone who makes a living chasing iPhone rumors and reviewing fitness trackers everyday, but it’s true. Amazon’s e-reader is, to me, the perfect confluence of technological savvy and no-frills, barebones utility.
My Kindle helps me focus on just one task: reading books. It’s one of the few single-purpose devices left in this world, and I’ve come to appreciate its narrow focus. While thousands of other do-it-all gadgets seem to have abandoned all pretense of simplicity, the Amazon Kindle remains devoted to a basic purpose — it lets me read books regularly and holds a charge for weeks.
I used to be a staunch defender of reading physical books, refusing to cede any ground to the ruthless Amazon machine that wrecked the publishing industry over the last two decades. But then I moved to Germany, and had little to do in my free time except read — the only problem was there weren’t any easy ways to access physical copies of English language books.
Amazon’s done right by me in its insistence to keep the Kindle simple.
I turned to my new Kindle and saw the light — literally, because of the very nice Paperwhite display. I read a book a week, sometimes two, borrowing from a public library’s online network halfway across the world. I devoured classics, old favorites I saw through a new lens, the entire ASong of Ice and Fire saga, and countless other novels.
I carried my Kindle everywhere, making it the first gadget that I couldn’t imagine being without — even above my cell phone. I read at night, on poorly lit trains, cars, and plane cabins, and on my favorite days, outside in the park. There were no limits.
That feeling still hasn’t left me, even though I moved back to the US years ago. The same streamlined functionality keeps me coming back to the Kindle.
When I tap the screen, I can expect to have one unbroken experience, which is all too rare in today’s increasingly fragmented media landscape filled with text, photos, audio, and videos galore, all jockeying for your attention across devices.
I’ve seen gadgets stray too far from their original purpose before. Apple had a great thing going with the original iPod, for example, but kept adding bells and whistles that muddled the user experience with feature bloat. By the time the bulk of the product line finally bit the dust earlier this summer, the real question was exactly why the last version left standing, the iPod Touch, is still around at all, since there’s no clear use for it other than as a watered-down iPhone.
Amazon, by comparison, has done right by me in its effort to keep the Kindle simple. The company did introduce its line of Fire tablets under the Kindle umbrella back in 2011 — but by 2014 it dropped the moniker to separate the two very different products. That means that the bloat that killed the iPod is unlikely to seep into the e-readers, since Amazon’s cheap tablets are on a different cycle.
Since the separation of the Fire tablet line, the Kindle has been the rare tech device that hasn’t added new features as it has evolved. It has merely refined and worked to perfect its single purpose. That allows the Kindle to be a gadget whose battery life can be estimated in weeks and months instead of hours on its spec sheet, with enough memory for mini-libraries full of text.
My favorite books will not be disrupted by the notifications that have flooded my phone, music players, and now even my freakin’ TV, allowing me to finally immerse myself fully in narratives that take me far away from my own reality. That’s something I feel the need to do more and more these days, and I’m thankful that I have my Kindle to escape.
August 16, 2017 / Comments Off on How I learned to love the simplicity of the Amazon Kindle