All posts in “Tech Column”

Why the Palm phone might be the perfect tech product for 2018

Phones are bad for us. But don’t worry — phones are here to save us. From phones.

That appears to be the message behind the new Palm phone, a tiny smartphone that functions as a kind of smartphone lite, intended as a companion to your main phone, which, if we’re being real, isn’t a phone anymore and hasn’t been for a while. It’s a portable device that sucks you into its world like nothing that came before, not even TV. Turns out Newt Gingrich was right about smartphones — we really need a new word for them.

The idea of buddy for your phone that’s also a phone sounds ridiculous at first, but it actually becomes more credible the more you think about it. Because chances are you’re thinking something else every time you unlock your phone when you didn’t mean to, every time you catch yourself “zombie scrolling” in an app, every time a bubble pops down from the top of your screen that you didn’t need or want: “I’ve gotta stop this.”

The thing is, we can’t. Quitting networks and devices like they’re cigarettes is definitely a hot trending topic these days, but the ever-growing active-user numbers in company earnings reports tells a different story: Tech, we just can’t quit you. Unlike cigarettes, there are clear advantages to what tech offers, and we’d rather not throw out the access and abilities it grants along with the digital bathwater.

Enter the Palm. Yes, it’s a phone. Yes, it’s a smartphone. But it’s also a throwback: It has a tiny 3.3-inch screen and dialed-back specs specifically to make it less compelling as an immersive experience. It has a good camera and can run apps, sure, but you won’t want to on something so small and relatively slow. So get on with your life, human!

That's one tiny smartphone.

That’s one tiny smartphone.

Image: Palm

Contrast that with the Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL, the other big phones of the moment. The screens are big, making videos and games really pop. They’re fast, which means content loads lightning-quick and games have virtually no lag. And they’re super smart, which theoretically frees up more of your time… to most likely be spent in other apps on the phone.

Mat Honan’s review of the Pixel phones, while not great on information, is a virtuoso rant on what smartphones have done to our attention spans and psychology. It touches on something I’ve written about before: that these tiny devices are superb windows into our digital lives, but what’s on the other side of that window is often unhealthy, and we’re just starting to come to grips with what it means to have so much negative content put literally right in front of our faces.

At least there’s a consensus on the antidote: keep more of our time rooted in the real world instead of the digital one. Many advocate turning our backs on social networks and digital services, or at the very least deleting their mobile apps. The major platforms now provide tools to measure just how much time you spend in various apps and devices, which seems to be Big Tech’s equivalent of “first admit you have a problem.” Some people have even resorted to carrying around feature phones (AKA “dumbphones”), so there’s simply no chance of getting sucked into their devices.

'Digital Wellbeing,' seen here on the Google Pixel 3 XL, lets you track how much your phone is sucking you in.

‘Digital Wellbeing,’ seen here on the Google Pixel 3 XL, lets you track how much your phone is sucking you in.

Image: Lili Sams/Mashable

But, again, if we’re being real, none of this seems all that promising. Quitting services or even apps is clearly too extreme a solution for most, since there haven’t been the significant drop-offs in active users or engagement that you’d expect from a massive exodus. Measuring your own behavior is a fine first step, but without actionable directives it remains just that. And carrying a feature phone these days is sort of like taking a horse-and-buggy ride — it’s a fun thing to try out, but sooner or later you’ve got to get back on the road.

Which leads us back to the Palm phone. It’s not the first phone to try to suss out a happy medium between being hyper-connected and disconnected, but it may be the most promising. It’s not cutting you off from your digital self so much as it’s making it less alluring: apps run smaller and slower, it’s designed so notifications are easily muted, and it even lacks volume buttons. Using it isn’t seamless, but that’s the point.

The best feature of the Palm, though, might be turning the act of leaving the house with your phone into a decision. Do you need your main phone, with its huge screen and serious power, or would you rather take its mini-me, something that keeps you connected but doesn’t tempt you with digital delights. Just forcing you to think about it feels like progress.

Can tech save us from tech? I think it can. Because quitting anything cold turkey almost never works. Because I don’t see how you can look at how 2018 compares to 1918 and not think technology, for all its flaws, is a net benefit to society. And because smartphones — or whatever you want to call these little computers we carry around with us — isn’t something most of us can just divorce from. Ironically, being open to multiple partners might be the best way to save that relationship.

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How to functionally abandon email

Let’s face it: Email is a drag. 

Whatever shine unsolicited links and messages once had back in the early days of the internet is long gone. Today, the contents of your inbox are likely closely aligned with that of your cellphone’s voicemail — unwanted and unchecked. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s within your power to functionally give up email. It is surprisingly easy, and feels so, so good.  

First off, let’s all agree that writing and replying to emails is a pain. Even the companies that provide the service know it’s unbearably tedious. Google has tried to make things less burdensome on the senders’ end with Gmail’s Smart Reply and Smart Compose features, and on the receivers’ end with Nudges, but those are just annoying Band-Aids on the festering wound of obligation.  

No new feature can solve the underlying problem of email itself, which is that it exists as a giant to-do list created by other people that’s forever hanging over your head. Some might try to combat this by reaching so-called inbox zero, but that’s just playing your digital taskmasters’ game. 

It is not your obligation or responsibility to make yourself available in the manner that best suits others. 

Don’t do it. 

If you follow a few basic guidelines, mostly opting out is easy. 

You may not have the option of ditching email in your professional life (bummer), but your personal life is hopefully all yours. So let’s focus on that. 

Your first step should be acknowledging the few places where, unfortunately, you need to keep email. Think about when you purchase plane tickets or need to reset an online account’s password. Email here is key. 

But don’t let the fact that you every now and then need to have an email address get you down. 

Remember, you don’t need to open your email except in the few specific situations where you want to — say, for example, when you’re checking into that flight to Hawaii. 

But what about all the other reasons to use email, like paying bills? Unless you’re somehow paying bills directly via email, you don’t really need an email account. Cell phone bills can be paid automatically, and your power and water bills are likely due on the same day each month. Set a calendar reminder on your phone and pay them online like you would anyway. 

Simple. 

That brings us to the slightly stickier issue of other people. There are two approaches here: The auto reply or the email signature. If you just want to wash your hands of the entire thing, consider setting up an auto response that goes something like this: “This email address is no longer in use. Please get in touch by other means. If the matter is urgent, text or call me.”

This accomplishes several things at once. First, it lets the person who emailed you know that you will not see their message. Second, it pushes the person to other channels of communication that are not email. Do you frequently text, exchange phone calls, or Signal with the person? Well then, they can just hit you up that way. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it acts as a de facto filter. If the sender has no other way of getting hold of you other than email — they don’t know your cell number, Twitter handle, mailing address, landline, whatever — then maybe they’re not that close to you in the first place. And hell, if it’s really important, they’ll figure it out. 

However, if you can’t fathom walking away from your inbox altogether, you can still reduce its power over you by checking it less frequently. Like, a lot less. Try once a week (at most). This is where the email signature comes in. 

Create an email signature that lets the recipient of your response (because you should never be initiating email chains) know the account is checked super infrequently, and that if the matter is urgent they should text or call you. Again, do not put your phone number in the email signature. If they don’t have your phone number? Well, whatever. There’s a little thing called the White Pages. 

It is not your obligation or responsibility to make yourself available in the manner that best suits others. If people need to contact you, they will — email or no. 

From phones, to Facebook, to Twitter DMs, to Slack, we are already overloaded with communication channels. Cutting one loose won’t break your life. In fact, it might just significantly improve it. 

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Apple missed another chance to make the MacBook Pro great again

Apple finally updated its MacBook Pros after over a year (a lifetime in the computer world) without changes.

But as attractive as some of the new features are — faster processors, more RAM and storage configurations, and, err, a quieter keyboard — none of them really leap off Apple’s website and make me want to yell, “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!

This isn’t a full review of the new MacBook Pros — I haven’t seen or used them in person and we’ll have one soon enough — but my honest opinion on what Apple’s announced. See, although I review consumer tech for a living, I’m still a consumer and vote with my own money.

My own personal laptop is a maxed-out 2013 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. It was one of the last of this particular model to come with a full suite of ports (full-sized USB, SD card, MagSafe, etc.) before Apple redesigned its notebook lineup in 2016, dropping all ports in favor of USB-C.

The fully loaded laptop, which I bought with a sizable discount from B&H, has served me well over the years. But, five years on, it’s on its last legs. 

Some of the keys on the keyboard are cracked after suffering who knows how many thousands of words on Mashable. The Intel processor and integrated graphics are too slow for crunching 4K-resolution videos and chokes hard for streaming 4K videos on YouTube. The MiniDisplay Ports constantly can’t maintain a stable connection to the two old Apple Cinema Displays I have (the displays work fine with a Windows 10 laptop). And the Retina display’s anti-reflective coating has started to wear off, but I’ve been too lazy to bring it to Apple for what could be a free repair.

In short: I need a new laptop, and although I like what the updated MacBook Pros offer, I don’t love them. For my specific case, the 15-inch MacBook Pro is off the table; it’s simply too large for my needs.

But let’s go down the list of reasons why I’m not pulling out credit card without hesitation.

1. It’s really expensive

RIP your wallet.

RIP your wallet.

Image: giphy

The updated 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with Intel 8th-generation Core i5 or i7 chips, a maximum configuration of up to 16GB of RAM, and up to 2TB of SSD storage.

These are much-needed and respectable spec bumps, but holy moly, is it pricey. The base configuration with an Intel Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of SSD costs $1,800. Tick off the checkboxes for all the highest configurations and it balloons up to an I’m-gonna-cry $3,700.

Now, I’m aware MacBook Pros have always commanded a premium, especially with the upgraded configurations. But like damn, even the entry-level model is too much. I’ve got other ridiculously priced things (like New York City rent) to pay, man.

Apple’s site shows the 13-inch MacBook Pro still starts at $1,300 for the non-Touch Bar model, but that’s for the old model with slower processor. The new $1,800 model isn’t replacing the 2017 models at all. 

Which brings me to my next point…

2. You’re stuck with the Touch Bar

Practical!

Image: giphy

If you want to blame the $1,800 price on anything, blame it it on the Touch Bar because the updated 13-inch MacBook Pro doesn’t come in a version with the regular function row.

Nearly two years since its debut, I can now confidently say the Touch Bar is not very good. Not only does it take extra taps to change settings like the volume and brightness, but few developers have really programmed anything extraordinary for it. 

Heck, Apple didn’t even show off any new uses for it at WWDC this year. And if Apple can’t come up with new compelling uses for the Touch Bar, then nobody will.

Fact is, the Touch Bar is an overpriced extra that nobody really needs, and few people are willing to pay more for. Apple not selling a version of its new MacBook Pros with regular function rows has me worried that model is on its way out for good.

I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to save a few hundred bucks (maybe put it towards Final Cut Pro X or something) for a non-Touch Bar model. 

3. The keyboard’s still worrisome

Based on all the reports from reporters who got hands-on time with the new MacBook Pros, it appears Apple hasn’t redesigned the controversial flat keyboards so that they don’t break from specks of dust.

Apple’s stance is the keyboard problems only affect a small number of devices, but I’m doubtful of the claims. Mashable Tech Editor Pete Pachal has been using a 15-inch MacBook Pro loaner for just a few weeks and he’s already experienced an unresponsive key.

The third-gen “butterfly-switch” keyboard isn’t devoid of improvements. The keys are supposed to feel different — more like the keys on pre-2016 MacBook Pro redesign. But I’ll believe it when I get to try the new keyboard myself. 

The keyboard’s also quieter, but is that really a change many people were asking for? While I personally appreciate a quieter keyboard (yes, I hear my colleagues pounding extra hard on their MBPs), I think I’m in the minority.

Most people just want a reliable keyboard with more travel. I’m concerned we’ll have to wait until at least the next update or refresh to get both.

4. Still missing an SD card slot

Apple still hates the the SD card.

Apple still hates the the SD card.

Image: OBY SESSIONS/MACFORMAT MAGAZINE/GETTY IMAGES

It’s 2018 and dongle hell is very much still a thing. I could complain about it and how USB-C hasn’t become the catch-all port we were promised years ago, but I’d sound like a broken record.

I’ll concede full-sized USB ports aren’t coming back. Neither is HDMI or Mini DisplayPort or MagSafe.

But why, oh why, couldn’t Apple add the SD card slot back? If the MacBook Pros are indeed machines for pros – people who need to do “real” heavy-duty work, then the port needs to return.

I’m all for shooting with my iPhone in most situations. But there are still many times where I need my mirrorless or DSLR. As working professional who shoots both photos and videos, the port is essential. It’s comical the unloved MacBook Air is the only laptop Apple now sells with an SD card slot.

Handful of other concerns

Next time, maybe.

Next time, maybe.

Image: lili sams/mashable

These are my biggest concerns for the new 13-inch MacBook Pro. However, I have a few others. 

True Tone, which changes the color temperature of the display, is now built into the new laptops. It’s a nice feature on iPhones, but I’m not sure if it’s a must-have on a laptop. I’d much rather have a display that covers more of Adobe’s color space, like the Razer Blade 15.

The 13-inch is only configurable with up to 16GB of RAM. There’s no 32GB of RAM option, which exclusive to the 15-inch MacBook Pro. It’s understandable adding a 32GB of RAM option for the 13-incher would have meant including a larger battery like on the 15-inch, but it still would have been nice to have the choice. Why not let consumers decide if they’re willing to deal with an extra pound or less of weight in exchange for more memory? Other computer makers do.

Touch ID also feels like it’s gonna be outdated quickly with Face ID just waiting to make the leap to the Mac. After bringing Touch ID to the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, logic suggests Face ID will probably make land on the laptops in the future, too. Having used Windows Hello on Windows 10 laptops, I can confidently say signing in with your face is a convenience worth paying for.

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable. As my computer turns five, I’m exactly the target buyer who’s looking for a new machine. If I, a power user, feels like Apple could have went just a little further to make the MacBook Pro better, then I can’t even imagine what someone who’s not as demanding is thinking right now. 

They have to be seriously considering a rock-solid alternative like the Huawei MateBook X Pro. Because I know I am. 

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The problem with human moderators

If Big Tech in 2018 already has a theme, it’s that social networks are passive platforms no longer. Since the new year, both Facebook and YouTube have stepped up with new guidelines and processes to manage — and in some cases police — content on their networks.

All of this started well before the new year, of course. Twitter has been following through on a lengthy project to both clarify its content policies and take a more active role in saying who and what is allowed on its platform, most recently with its so-called “Nazi purge.” The current trend arguably started with Reddit, when then-CEO Ellen Pao pushed for tighter control of harassment and revenge porn on the site.

This digital reckoning now feels inevitable, but it was hastened by events over the last year. Anger at the big networks reached a crescendo last year after Facebook — the most influential of the bunch — was widely criticized for hosting fake news and politically charged ads with virtually no oversight. But while the old system of letting algorithms sort things out was clearly flawed, the networks’ re-assertion of the role of gatekeepers is worrisome, too.

In the case of YouTube, the changes, announced yesterday, mostly involve demonetizing (that is, removing the ads from) videos from creators under a certain view time or subscriber threshold, which sounds fine. However, what the relatively clinical blog post doesn’t discuss is the new way YouTube will deal with big partner accounts: Human moderators will review their content — all of it — turning off monetization on any specific video they may find objectionable.

Coming in the wake of Logan Paul’s infamous visit to Japan’s suicide forest and his subsequent, numerous apologies, it seems clear this introduction of human moderators is intended to head off incidents exactly like that. Presumably, if this system had been in place then, the moderator would have raised a hand and said, “Uh, guys…?”

Let’s be clear about what we’re talking about here: Demonetizing isn’t the same thing as deleting. This isn’t censorship per se, though it is sending a message to creators about what content is acceptable and what isn’t. The thinking is that, over time, YouTube creators will post less of the demonetized stuff and more videos that “contribute positively to the community,” in the words of YouTube’s Neal Mohan and Robert Kyncl.

It is sending a message to creators about what content is acceptable and what isn’t.

Isn’t that a good thing? Maybe, but if it were as simple as enforcing YouTube’s community guidelines, a bot could do it, and we already know that doesn’t work. With humans involved, it raises a different set of questions: Who are these humans? What qualifications or biases do they have? And what exactly raises a red flag in their minds?

The answer to that last question will likely vary depending on the answers to the first two. It doesn’t help that most terms of service and community guidelines are purposely vague to give moderators wiggle room. In the case of Twitter, which used to have an unofficial label as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” the policies have even been contradictory, and the network itself has sometimes appeared unsure why certain tweets are flagged, accounts suspended, or verification stripped.

This isn’t a case for zero censorship. There are things virtually everyone would agree shouldn’t be on a network as popular and public-facing as Facebook or YouTube. Neo-Nazis spouting hateful ideology, graphic depictions of violence, direct threats — they all need to go.

But audiences have been clamoring for more content policing beyond just the most extreme. And by and large, the networks have acquiesced to the demand, staffing up to review more content by hand since algorithms can only do so much. But the companies are only as good as the humans they hire, and the job of content moderator is largely a thankless one — the daily slog of viewing vast amounts of objectionable content has a psychological toll attached.

The companies are only as good as the humans they hire.

Historically, the big tech companies haven’t been good at human intervention. In 2016, human moderators at Facebook were accused of purging conservative news from its trending topics section. It also removed a historic photo from the Vietnam war that same year, justified its decision, then reversed it. Twitter’s CEO has basically admitted its enforcement policies have been a mess. Even Google, generally thought to be the most algorithmically driven of the bunch isn’t immune from human failings: Back in 2012, it tried to challenge Facebook’s social media dominance with Google+, its own social network, and deliberately put companies’ Google+ pages higher than their Facebook pages in search results.

Put simply: We shouldn’t trust Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube, or any other private tech company to create a system that consistently punishes bad actors based on a common standard. Humans are driven by biases. Systems can help correct for those biases, but we can’t judge without knowing what those systems are. And if they don’t work as intended, that could leave us with a worse problem than when we started: turning each network into its own massive filter bubble, where anything deemed offensive is purged.

Every platform is now a content cop on the beat. Maybe they always were, but when you make loud public statements that you’re going to start more actively policing content, it means more calls to the police. That’s going to inevitably mean more users getting kicked out of these networks, some as big as Logan Paul.

On the surface, that may feel OK. YouTube can afford to lose a few big personalities, and maybe it should. The more difficult question is what do such actions say about the network? When users are punished for offensive content, what do those users’ sympathizers and supporters think — those who might not agree with inconsistent applications of poorly worded policies? How do they start to think of YouTube (and Twitter, Facebook, etc.)? How do they express their uneasiness, and where do they start spending their time?

I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I do know simple math: The more things you push out of a bubble, the smaller it’ll get. And you might not like what forms alongside it.

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Whatever you do, don’t watch ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ in 3D

“Let the past die. Kill it!”

Kylo Ren’s calm, yet threatening monologue from Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi (this isn’t a spoiler — it’s in the trailer) couldn’t be more apt for the 3D version of the movie. It sucks. It’s the worst way to watch Rian Johnson’s flick.

3D movies — as a format in movie theaters — need to die. Movie studios should kill them. But they won’t unless we, moviegoers, grab Ren’s tri-bladed lightsaber and stab this technology in the heart and twist it until 3D’s lifeless body falls off the catwalk and into the abyss.

A colleague invited me as their plus-one to an early screening of The Last Jedi hours before it premiered in U.S. theaters and I was beyond pumped until we made our way into the ridiculously fancy iPic Theater — the place had reclining seats, complimentary popcorn, and on-demand food services at the press of a single button — at Fulton Market in New York City.

Mouth agape at the VIP theater experience, my heart sank as I looked down on the table between our private seats and saw the worst thing to ever go hand-in-hand with movies: 3D glasses.

Oh, God!

In all the excitement of getting to watch The Last Jedi early, I didn’t even realize we’d be watching the 3D version.

I felt a rush of déjà vu. It was at that moment that I knew I was going to be disappointed. Not because the movie wouldn’t live up to all the hype, but because the visual experience was compromised.

You see, I had been in this very same situation before. Two years ago, I had nonchalantly walked into a 3D showing of The Force Awakens on opening weekend thinking how awesome it was to not have to sit in a theater packed with hollering fanboys only to leave unimpressed by the movie.

It wasn’t until I had rewatched The Force Awakens in 2D a few days later that I realized why it was such a letdown on the first viewing. It wasn’t because the movie was mostly a remake of A New Hope but with new characters. It was because I had seen it in 3D.

3D turned a fun and entertaining movie into a sack of garbage. It robbed The Force Awakens of its vibrant visual essence.

What I saw through my 3D glasses wasn’t J.J. Abrams’ grand vision, but a dim and muddied up version with gimmicky 3D effects that didn’t impress at all.

And that movie dread reappeared as I slipped on my 3D glasses and The Last Jedi’s opening crawl appeared on screen.

The Last Jedi looked nothing like what I was seeing through the 3D glasses.

I tried to give the 3D version the benefit of the doubt — maybe the technology had gotten better in two years? — but that optimistic view didn’t last very long. About 30 minutes of unimpressive 3D effects, I flipped the shades up to see what I was missing, and, oh, what a difference I saw.

The Last Jedi looked nothing like what I was seeing through the 3D glasses. Instead of blacks and grays, the planet Ahch-To was bright, rich and very green. Rose Tico (played by Kelly Marie Tran) wore a jump suit that wasn’t colored dark poop brown, but was actually a yellow-greenish tan. Same goes for Porgs.

And OMG, I could see more distinct outlines and details between the First Order’s starships and the blackness of space. 

The difference was just so drastic that I would have taken my 3D glasses off and watched the whole movie and all of its greater dynamic range if not for the whole double-vision image on the screen.

So much of our experiences are impacted by color. It influences how we think and how we feel. It sets the mood for everything. In 3D, color takes a backseat to silly depth effects, and that’s a real shame because all of the beauty of the cinematography and production design is stripped of the fundamental characteristics that connect you to it.

The Last Jedi is shot beautifully. Johnson and his crew went all-in on the visuals, creating set and character designs that beg for your full attention. Watching it in 3D is a disservice to all the work that went into sweating the cinematic details. You might as well be watching the 2D version with sunglasses on (you’d save yourself the extra cost for 3D, too).

Image: Corbis via Getty Images

There was a brief period where 3D was The Chosen One. It was supposed to bring balance to the movie industry. It was supposed to be the next big thing for moviegoers, and really up the video ante.

But it wasn’t. It’s trash. And the worst thing is that the overpriced money-grab continues to exist. Some people blame Asia, where 3D movie revenue from ticket sales is growing. But that growth is artificial. In Asia, 3D movies are often the only viewing option, so it’s not like anyone gets much of a choice.

In the U.S., 3D is on the decline, but it’s far from dead. So long as people keep paying to see blockbuster movies in 3D, Hollywood’s gonna keep dishing them out, even when it knows the format is inferior to the plain 2D version.

Thanks to 3D, I now have to watch The Last Jedi again in 2D to take it in properly, just like I did with The Force Awakens. I just know it’ll be less disappointing when I can actually see what’s really happening. 

Don’t be like me. Do the right thing and stop supporting this crap. TV makers have all but abandoned 3D as a selling point for their flat screens. Even Nintendo, the company that once pushed 3D games on its 3DS has essentially given up on the eye-popping format with 2DS XL.

3D is on life support and it wants its plug pulled. Let’s do the humane thing and disconnect it.

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