Twitter moves at the speed of human consciousness. With our attention span more and more resembling that of a gnat, that’s pretty quick. That’s partially the reason that the social network is finding it difficult for new users grasp. Breaking news on the service has a life cycle of about an hour or two before the collective moves on to another topic. Meanwhile Facebook will keep a topic in a person’s newsfeed for days with its algorithm. While Twitter’s not going to start controlling your feed (at least not yet) what it has done is add Moments, a new feature that makes keeping up with the trending topics and news items easier.
“We started by saying, ‘what would it take for folks who want Twitter to work for them to see great content immediately with no work?'” said Madhu Muthukumar, Twitter product manager. The internal answer ended up being Moments (a venture formerly known as Project Lightning), a feature that curates the day’s trending topics and news items into slideshows of image and video tweets with the occasional text posting. “It’s a way to explore content on the platform and not feel like you have to commit to following these people,” said Muthukumar.
Beginning today a new tab with a lightning bolt will start rolling out to the latest iOS, Android clients and on Twitter.com in the United States. Tapping that bolt will drop you into today’s biggest news or topic. The lead topic is usually highlighted with a video or animated GIF. Taping on it drops you into a timeline of multimedia and text tweets about the topic from trusted sources. Swipe left to see additional posts with a while line at the bottom that can scrub back and forth within an story. When you’re down you can share the Moment, close it, or select another story.
Like Vine, you can double tap on a tweet within a moment to fav it. Or you can single tap to bring up the retweet and fav options. In addition to sharing individual posts, an entire Moment can be shared and embedded.
Users can also tap a follow button in a tweet based on a news event that drops relevant tweets from accounts you may or may not follow into their timeline. It’s like you’ve followed a curated list for a limited time. When the event ends, the accounts are unfollowed. It’s a good way to keep track of the information coming out of a sporting event or news item without delving into hashtags that can be hijacked or having to follow accounts that are only useful to you for a limited time.
At launch the feature is curated by a small team at Twitter and select partners including MLB, Buzzfeed, Getty Images and NASA. But, the company also plans on giving everyone the ability to build Moments. They can be shared on your feed or on your site or Facebook page. It’ll be Twitter’s version of tiny blog posts with users curating their own feeds with politics, cute animals and news. Mostly, it’ll be cute animals. But curating and sharing is easier than writing and that could appeal to folks that just want to show the a bunch of cool stuff with very little effort.
New Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made a point during a recent quarterly earnings call to talk about how confusing the service could be for new users. This included talk of questioning the reverse chronological order of stream. Moments doesn’t upend how Twitter works, but it does offer an alternative way to interact with service. A way that doesn’t intimidate new folks and gives long-time users the option to step back from the noise and see what’s happening in the world.
Twitter hasn’t created a less-than-stellar algorithm the way Facebook did. Instead its trying to create a Flipboard-like experience in its official apps. Moments is a set of training wheels that keeps new accounts from bailing once they realize that Twitter is the Tour de France of information. It’ll be up to those new folks if they want to graduate to the real race or if they’ll stick with leisurely pace of curated posts. Either way, if they stay, Twitter wins.
Your Fire TV (or Fire TV Stick) just became much more useful as a cord-cutting device… at least, if you watch a lot of CBS shows. The TV network has launched an Amazon-native app for its All Access service, giving your Fire TV the same mix of live and on-demand viewing that CBS is offering on rival set-top boxes. You’re still paying $6 per month and don’t get any hardware-specific features, but look at it this way: you’ll definitely be ready when the new Star Trek series begins streaming in a couple of years.
Here’s the thing about Amazon: We can’t figure the company out half the time. Few things embody that quite as well as the Fire TV. The company is adamant that the set-top box is not a gaming console, but it’s invested heavily in original game development for it and even produced a shockingly good gamepad accessory. Still, video games are just a “bonus.” One of the pillars of the streaming-media box is supposed to be openness, but there’s no denying that other services like Netflix are treated like second-class citizens here. They’re invited to the party; they just better not outshine the host.
The Fire TV may be the next step for Amazon as it tries to build its own ecosystem, but it’s also yet another entry in the crowded streaming-media market. And the big question is: Do we need another? We’ve got TV set-tops for cable, satellite and fiber (at one time joined by a disc player for movies and maybe a game system or two). The next-gen game consoles do double duty as entertainment hubs, and there’s no shortage of cheap boxes designed specifically to stream Netflix, HBO Go and Pandora. Add in smart TVs and the rise of pint-sized dongles, and the question of what to watch becomes how to watch. The Fire TV is trying to muscle out competitors with its $99 price and a strong focus on performance, search and openness. Now that we’ve spent a few days living with one, we can judge whether it’s just another option among many, or truly a standout that finally fixes problems the others have so far ignored.
Carousel UI doesn’t work as well on Fire TV as it does on tablets
Many apps and games are buggy ports from other platforms
The Fire TV should be impressive — it’s faster and better equipped than most of the other media streamers out there, and does it all at a decent price. Right now though, features like gaming, voice search and ASAP are barely helping it keep pace with the competition. Maybe with a few more apps (HBO Go, Vudu), some great games and an extra layer of polish it could push ahead.
The Fire TV is the very definition of understated design. It’s a simple matte black box with a small Amazon logo etched in the top and single white LED on the front to tell you when it’s powered on. There are no purple cloth tags (like on the Roku) and the company didn’t bother with embellishments like rounded corners. Even around back, there’s a minimal selection of ports; just HDMI, Ethernet and optical audio jacks, plus a currently useless USB socket. The result is perhaps the most attractive and unobtrusive streaming set-top box we’ve seen yet. While its overall footprint is larger than the Apple TV’s, it’s still only 0.7 inches tall, which means it’s nearly invisible from 10 feet away. Besides, the remote uses Bluetooth instead of IR, so you can hide it anywhere you want.
Not that you’re going to be picking it up terribly often, but Amazon’s box is actually quite heavy — a dense block made from plastic, aluminum and silicon. Most of the internal space is taken up by a giant heatsink, an essential concession given the rather high-powered internals. The 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor, along with the Adreno 320 GPU, is far more powerful than anything found in other streaming devices and it shows. Searches and even browsing the UI are noticeably faster on the Fire TV than on a Roku or Apple TV. And we haven’t even mentioned what it’s capable of on the gaming front, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Amazon also more or less nailed the remote’s design. It’s just the right size with a shallow, but comfortable groove for your finger underside. The buttons have little travel, but do produce a satisfying click when pressed. The remote does still bear the marks of Fire TV’s Android roots. Below the thin ring that serves as a directional pad are six buttons aligned in rows of three — the top row features your old-school Android back, home and menu keys. There are two minor, but irksome, issues here. For one, the menu key is largely useless except from within certain apps (more on that later) and it would feel more natural if the media controls were directly below the directional pad and select button. This not only led to occasionally hitting the menu button when I was looking for fast-forward, but it also sends a subtle message to the user about the priority of the controls. If Amazon was indeed building a media-first device, then the media controls should have taken precedence — and thus had better placement — on the remote.
The most important key on the remote, though, is the search button. Amazon wants this to be the primary way you interact with the UI and indeed, the voice search here is both easy to use and insanely fast. Simply press and hold the microphone key, which is separated from the rest of the buttons, and speak into the mic built into the Bluetooth controller. More often than not within a second or two you’ve got your results, and there’s no need to breakout a special remote app on your phone.
The Fire TV is, as you’d expect, running a heavily tweaked version of Fire OS, which is itself a heavily tweaked version of Android. It’s not surprising then that there are some seams showing around the edges of this young platform. Still, Amazon does deserve credit for stitching together a UI that’s smooth, polished and (mostly) intuitive. The layout should be immediately familiar to anyone who has used a Kindle Fire before — the home screen is populated with movies, TV shows and apps arranged in the form of large, easy-to-read icons and there’s a heavy dose of side-scrolling carousels. On the left are the various top-level distinctions (games, search, movies, et cetera), while the right is reserved for various sublists, such as “recently used” and “featured.” It’s not the cleanest or simplest design we’ve ever seen, (Apple or Roku definitely hold that title), but even your Luddite parents should be able to find their way around.
Once it’s plugged in and connected, the Fire TV presents a short (and apparently unskippable) demo video to make sure you’re familiar with its features. A number of other help videos are also located under the settings menus, and if there’s still a problem, requesting a support phone call from an Amazon rep is just a button press away. It’s not quite as easy as the Kindle Fire HDX’s Mayday button, but it should mean you could gift one of these to a relative without worrying if they’d actually be able to use it. The focus here is on making sure anyone can get it running, and if they get addicted to Amazon’s growing suite of services, then all the better.
The problems start, though, once you start to dig a little deeper into the interface. Fire TV sticks with the carousel layout found on Amazon’s tablets. That’s fine for perusing short lists, like the top 10 movies on Prime, but when you’re looking at broader categories it can become quite cumbersome. Scrolling through the entire list of available action movies on Amazon can take a couple of minutes, even if you’re just holding down the right button and not bothering to read. To make matters worse, there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the order of these lists. And when you reach the end, it doesn’t automatically cycle back to the beginning.
The best way to track down the content you want is search. First the good: Amazon has created a voice search that’s both fast and accurate. Now for the bad: You can’t use your voice to search other content sources besides Amazon. It does offer “quick” links to videos on Hulu, but by default, it tries to push you to purchase or rent titles through Instant Video. To find out if you can watch it for free through your Hulu Plus subscription, you’ll have to click through the “more ways to watch” option. If you try to press the voice search button from within the Netflix app, you’re kicked back out to the home screen, where can only search through Amazon’s library.
Things get even worse if you decide not to use voice search. For instance, if you navigate to the search tab on the left, you’ll still have to click up to access text search since it defaults to voice. And, while Amazon was quick to mock others for their archaic text-entry methods, the Fire TV’s keyboard is even more offensive. You’re offered a string of letters from A to Z in that all-too-familiar carousel view, which you’ll have to scroll through and punch letters in one at a time. And, again, you can’t scroll past the end to return to “A.” That means when searching for something like La Dolce Vita or La Jetée, you have to scroll from the first letter of the alphabet to the last option on the keyboard, which is a space. And you’ll have to do that since voice search has a tendency to trip over foreign language titles, and especially the word “la.”
The killer feature, though, is supposed to be ASAP, short for Advanced Stream And Prediction. The idea is that it’s designed to predict what you’re going to watch and start preloading it in the background (so long as the source is Amazon itself). If you hover over a title while browsing for a period of time or click through to the information page for a movie, ASAP is supposed to start downloading the content in the background. In demos, that meant when you pressed play, your video started playing instantly — no buffering or loading screen. It’s even supposed to preload the next episode of TV shows you’re working through. In real use, however, the feature never quite lived up to its promise. It should get better with time, but we still saw loading screens more often than not. And the wait was noticeably longer over WiFi than it was using a wired Ethernet connection.
Apps and content
Right out of the gate, Amazon is offering support for most of the major video streaming services. We’re talking Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube, Showtime Anytime, Watch ESPN and Crackle — all the biggies are there. And when it comes to music, you’ve got access to Pandora and iHeartRadio. Of course, while Fire TV is technically an open platform, Amazon really wants you to use its library. And, so long as you’re comfortable paying Amazon’s prices, that’s not a big deal. There are countless movies and TV shows available through Instant Videos. Stumping Amazon isn’t impossible, but it’s definitely tougher than finding holes in the Netflix, Hulu or Google Play collections. Of course, not all of the movies and TV shows on Amazon are available for free through a Prime subscription. In fact, the vast majority aren’t, and there’s no way to filter out the things you need to pay for. While Amazon is preloading the Fire TV with content you’ve purchased and photos you’ve uploaded to Cloud Drive, there is one glaring omission — there’s currently no support for music or Cloud Player.
It’s definitely a good thing for Amazon and its customers that players like Hulu and Netflix are on board, but there are certainly some issues on the app front. For one, most of the offerings are badly done ports of Google TV apps. They’re not well-maintained and still retain elements of their respective UIs that were designed for devices with keyboards. YouTube in particular still displays prompts for keyboard shortcuts on the screen. Pandora has a nice feature in that it pops up notifications, but it has a strange tendency to start playing even after being stopped. For instance, after listening to a Black Sabbath station during a session of the game Sev Zero, we decided to back out and watch an episode of Invader Zim. When the show was over, we spent a few minutes poking around the menus and then walked away. The Fire TV eventually went to sleep. But when we woke it up the next morning, it instantly picked back up in the middle of “The Wind Cries Mary.” This weird behavior extends beyond the questionably built apps. More than once, the Fire TV froze up, displaying a blank screen before eventually crashing and kicking us back out to the home screen after backing out of a movie.
Fire TV’s major one-up over the competition isn’t power, voice search or the platform’s openness: It’s games. Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast don’t offer much in the way of gaming functionality. Meanwhile, the Fire TV even has its own (separately sold, $40) gamepad. No, this isn’t an Amazon game console, but it’s damn close.
Before addressing Fire TV’s limitations when it comes to gaming — of which there are many — allow us to be up-front here: It’s a net positive that Amazon’s jumping into gaming. Not only is the company’s latest major hardware launch capable of playing games, but also Amazon’s got its own game-development department. Hell, Amazon even outright bought the studio that made the new Killer Instinct game. The first game from Amazon Game Studios, Sev Zero, was available at Fire TV’s launch last week. It’s fun, pretty and embodies “leading by example.” Sev Zero is a medium-sized game that’s enjoyed as both a casual dalliance and a serious affair. It’s the kind of title that Fire TV’s game store should be filled with. What we’ve found thus far is something else entirely.
That Fire TV runs a fork of Android is most apparent while browsing the selection of games currently available. Regardless of Amazon’s categorical breakdown, the selection is easily described as, “an abridged version of Android gaming’s greatest hits.” A smattering of Sonic the Hedgehog titles, Minecraft: Pocket Edition and — of course — Canabalt are all there, as well as newer hits like Dead Trigger 2 and Asphalt 8: Airborne. Of course, it’s not just the selection that reeks of Android.
The other unifying theme is, ironically, inconsistency. Some games look great and fit on TV without a hitch, while others cut off some UI elements (and, ultimately, pieces of the game being played). It’s clear that many titles are rushed conversions from other platforms, something that’s evident whether it’s the gamepad not doing anything beyond standing in for a touchscreen or the game not displaying correctly.
There are only so many games to choose from at launch, but Amazon Game Studios lead Mike Frazzini told us that “thousands” are expected by next month. With just 8GB of storage, though, don’t expect to amass a huge library of digital games on Fire TV. With a handful of streaming apps installed (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.), we hit a limit of eight to 15 of Amazon’s smallest and simplest games at any one time on our box. Stuff like Asphalt 8 and Dead Trigger 2 come with prettier graphics, but they also come with hefty storage requirements (over 1GB for the former). Installing Deus Ex: The Fall, Sev Zero and The Cave was easily enough to eat up the available 5.5GB for apps and games.
Smaller, fixable issues are also in ready supply. Browsing for games to buy is a mess (and only stands to get messier as the library grows); it’s easy to accidentally quit out of a game with voice search; and there’s no way to leave a game running should you take a break and watch a few episodes of Inside Amy Schumer.
Structure and ecosystem aside, the good news is that playing games on Fire TV can be pretty fantastic. Not every game has a demo, but many are free (at least for a limited trial). And, of course, there’s always the standard paid option. If you’re looking for exclusives, there’s only one so far (Sev Zero), but many more are slated to arrive in the coming months.
So, which games should you buy? We suggest the following, and in this order:
Sev Zero: Part third-person shooter, part tower-defense game (yes, seriously), Sev Zero is a terrible sell on paper. Give this one a chance: It’s a great demonstration of Amazon Game Studios’ talent and is a refreshing, Iron Brigade-esque hybrid of two totally different genres. And hey, it’s really fun! You can switch between tower defense and third-person mode on the fly, which makes Sev Zero a delightful balancing act as the difficulty ramps up.
Asphalt 8: Airborne: This is the closest you’ll get to Ridge Racer/Need for Speed on Fire TV, and it comes shockingly close. Asphalt 8‘s first few levels cost nothing, and we doubt you’ll blink an eye when asked to pay $1 for more races. It’s not our favorite way of buying a game, but Asphalt 8 is too good to skip just on principle.
Outland: There’s no reason not to at least try Outland, as it’s another one that starts free and asks for money only when you’ve already been hooked. This is one of the many one-button games, and it’s a gorgeously drawn version of the ubiquitous mobile genre that is endless runners. It controls beautifully, which is important because Outland requires reactionary puzzle solving (often under strict time constraints). This one is perfect for both casual and hardcore alike, as well as everyone in between.
Rayman Fiesta Run: If you’ve never encountered Ubisoft’s surreal platforming standard before, Rayman Fiesta Run is an endless-runner take on Rayman‘s long-running formula. This game is another no-brainer, as it’s quirky, smart, hilarious and a joy to play. The level art is consistently beautiful, and the music is always a pleasure.
Minecraft: Pocket Edition: What can we say about Minecraft that hasn’t already been said? There’s nothing quite like it (at least on Fire TV, outside of maybe Terraria). The only real downside is its price (just under $10), but we’ll forgive that — just for being an excellent game.
There are lots of other great games available on Fire TV, but we’ve only played so many thus far. Beware: There are also tons of not-so-great games available. Should you be unsure, we’d suggest sites like Pocket Gamer and Touch Arcade, as many of Fire TV’s titles were previously mobile games.
Have you used an Xbox 360 gamepad? Good news: Fire TV’s gamepad is very, very similar. With the exception of a trio of Android-specific controls and media-playback buttons (as well as a GameCircle button), its composition is identical: offset analog sticks, two triggers, two shoulder pads, a d-pad and four face buttons. The fit and feel aren’t quite as nice as Microsoft’s forebear; Fire TV’s gamepad feels like a good third-party Xbox 360 controller, in so many words.
The battery life, courtesy of two AAs, has so far been good. After several days of regular use, our first controller is still running its first pair of batteries. At $40, though… maybe you have a spare Bluetooth gamepad sitting around? We’re told that “most” work, and you could always plug in a wired Xbox 360 gamepad if you’re sitting nearby.
Curiously, though it’s one of the Fire TV’s most direct competitors, Google TV is missing from Amazon’s official comparison list (scroll a little past the halfway mark). While there are some good reasons for that (there’s no single product line or spec, and the Google TV branding has been mostly abolished), Fire TV’s Android underpinnings are nonetheless quite obvious. One of the easiest comparisons is to the Hisense Pulse/Pulse Pro family of devices. The Pulse Pro unveiled at CES has similar, if slightly lesser specs than Fire TV, with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of ROM storage tied to a dual-core CPU. Like other Android-based TV products we’ve seen, it also has voice search and a number of the same apps. The existing Google TV environment has tried to toss in so many options and integration with live TV that it’s more complicated than the Fire TV, and so far, it doesn’t have a similar focus on performance. According to rumors, though, Google TV’s next iteration could feature similarly streamlined menus and a focus on gaming — plus a box from big G itself, so watch out.
The Apple TV also costs $99, but comes tied to an entirely different ecosystem. Infuriatingly, too, it doesn’t come with an HDMI cable in the box. The difference here mostly depends on which platform you prefer. Recent software updates have made frustrations like setting up a WiFi connection as simple as touching an iPhone or iPad to the box — no cheesy onscreen menus needed. You can also stream over AirPlay, but you’ll of course need an iDevice to make that happen. Amazon’s set-top box also lets users “fling” content from a phone or tablet to the TV, but right now, its ambitions go a bit further. As with Google, rumor has it that Apple will focus more on gaming with its next hardware or software update, so for now, the choice between these boxes is more a decision between iTunes and Amazon Prime than anything else.
Meanwhile, one of our favorite media streamers, the $99 Roku 3, is facing a heartier challenge than ever thanks to the Fire TV. In its favor, the Roku is still dead-simple to use, and offers a content selection that its rivals can’t match. Even so, being caught on the outside without its own content store and mobile hardware ecosystem for support, it loses some of the media-sync features that Amazon, Google and Apple can provide. It also doesn’t have a gaming experience to match the Fire TV, although how much that means depends on your personal taste. Today, the improved performance of its latest generation and generous suite of available services mean it’s still generally the best option, but there are caveats, and with another six to 12 months on shelves, it will be interesting to see if the competition catches up. Plus, if you don’t want to spend $99, then the cheaper Roku options provide an experience comparable to the others listed here and let you leave a few Jacksons in your pocket.
Finally, Google’s wonderful $35 Chromecast dongle is by far the most accessible of the bunch. It’s cheap, and the list of media services it ties into — Netflix, YouTube, Pandora and Plex — is growing longer by the day. Aside from that, an often overlooked, feature is the Chromecast’s inclusion of HDMI-CEC, which means it can change the TV to its own input as soon as it’s activated, something Apple, Roku and Amazon don’t do. Of course, being cheap does have its downsides: there’s no remote control, which could be a dealbreaker for people who aren’t already used to navigating their media on a phone or tablet. It also doesn’t have as many services available right away, and the only gaming experiences we’ve seen so far have been quite casual indeed. For $35, it does a ton, and doesn’t need your cable provider’s permission to stream HBO Go. And for some people, that will be more than enough.
The Fire TV is a compelling proposition, so long as you’re already locked into the Amazon ecosystem. It’s fast, powerful and priced in line with its higher-end competition. The addition of a single game controller for $40 gives access to gaming that doesn’t take the place of a console, but suits the need of generation raised on tablets and smartphones. The relatively high controller price (compared to the box itself) makes multiplayer a bit dodgy, so if you’re looking for couch co-op, that’s something to think about. The preferential inclusion of Amazon services is a bit of a hurdle too, but if you already have a Kindle Fire and Prime subscription, it makes more sense.
As a general-purpose photo, video and music streamer, though, even features like ASAP and its high-powered processor aren’t quite enough to separate Fire TV from the pack. It’s a worthy option, but far from the best, and we’ll need some time to see how well it’s supported by games, apps and services to see if Amazon can become a serious hardware player in the living room. Version 2.0 will probably be where all our questions are answered.
Ben Gilbert and Richard Lawler contributed to this review; Edgar Alvarez and Daniel Orren produced the video review.
Earlier this year, Amazon entered the crowded field of streaming set-top boxes. But while the Fire TV sounded like a real winner on paper, in practice it was more of a mixed bag. For round two, the internet retail giant scaled back its ambitions and the price. The Fire TV Stick is a streaming dongle similar to the Chromecast or Roku Streaming Stick that’s focused mainly on serving up video and less on gaming. Plus, the $39 price tag dramatically lowers the bar for entry. But, even at less than half the price, the Fire TV Stick would be a hard pill to swallow if Amazon didn’t iron out some of the kinks from its first-generation device. So has a few more months of polish addressed our concerns about Fire OS on the big screen? Without giving too much away, the answer is mostly yes.
Still some rough edges and inconsistencies in Fire OS
The Fire TV Stick addresses a number of issues we had with the Fire TV and comes with a much smaller price tag. It’s not dramatically better than its competitors, but it’s certainly not any worse. For $39, it’s a perfectly viable streaming-media option, and the best one if you’ve already bought into Amazon’s ecosystem.
What is there to say about the hardware on the Fire TV Stick? It’s a tiny, matte black device, barely larger than a thumb drive. It’s unassuming to an extreme. It lacks the distinctive bulb shape of the Chromecast or the garish purple paint job of the Roku Streaming Stick. Really, it’s what’s under the hood that matters. Amazon managed to cram a dual-core CPU and VideoCore4 GPU inside this little dongle, not to mention 8GB of storage and a host of wireless radios. This isn’t the same beastly hardware found inside the full-sized Fire TV, but it’s definitely a step up from devices like the Roku Streaming Stick or the Chromecast. It’s capable of not just pumping out HD video, but also powering some basic games… with an emphasis on “basic.” That means marathon sessions of Sev Zero at 60 frames per second are a no-go, but Badlands shouldn’t be an issue.
The Fire TV Stick is unassuming to an extreme.
The Fire TV Stick also borrows the rather minimal remote design from its big brother. It also is mostly matte black, with a directional ring, three “Android” buttons and three keys for media control. Though it skews toward the smaller side, and loses some nice features in the process. The one easily forgivable, though unfortunate, trade-off is the loss of the groove on the underside. On the full-size Fire TV remote, there’s a depression where you finger naturally rests, which makes for some lovely ergonomics. The version included here has a uniform, trapezoidal silhouette with rounded edges that still feels nice in the hand; just not quite as nice as its big brother.
More importantly, though, the Fire TV Stick’s remote lacks the built-in microphone for voice search. That means if you want to enjoy the fruits of Amazon’s powerful search tool, you’ll have to install the Fire TV Remote app, which is currently available on Android only. (On the bright side, it should be coming soon to iOS.) Your other option is to buy the separate Voice Remote for an additional $30. Still, at that point you might as well just buy the original Fire TV, which comes packaged with it.
My one complaint is the placement of the micro-USB power port. Rather than being on the end, like it is on the Fire TV Stick’s competitors, it’s on the side. This means you might have to rearrange the HDMI cables on your TV if you’ve got a few things plugged in. Hardly a dealbreaker, but it did mean retraining myself to remember that my Xbox is now HDMI 4 instead of 1.
Ultimately, the undoing of the Fire TV was its rather unpolished software experience. The carousel UI that worked so well on tablets didn’t translate so nicely to the television. Plus, there were some truly questionable design decisions, like the A-Z, carousel-style onscreen keyboard. Things have gotten a bit better since April. There are still some kinks to be worked out, for sure, but what barely felt beta-quality just a few months ago now seems like a reasonably polished platform.
You might think that a new onscreen keyboard would be a minor tweak, but here it’s a huge deal
For one, the carousel keyboard has been banished. You might think that a new onscreen keyboard would be a minor tweak, but here it’s a huge deal, especially since Amazon has shifted away somewhat from voice search. The previous onscreen keyboard made non-voice searches so painful that we simply couldn’t recommend it to anyone with a speech impediment or heavy accent. It’s still not perfect — in some areas the keyboard has a QWERTY layout; in some places it’s ABC — but it’s definitely light-years better than what shipped with the Fire TV.
There’s also finally a section that lets you browse only the videos available for free through Amazon Prime. Previously, movies and TV shows that required you to pay for them were mixed in with the ones available as part of your Prime subscription and there was no way to quickly identify which was which, without clicking through to the media’s main page. Thankfully, this glaring oversight has been fixed and the Prime Video section gives you quick access to all the media that your Prime subscription pays for — if you have a Prime subscription, that is. (And honestly, if you don’t, why do you even want a Fire TV Stick?)
There’s finally a section that lets you browse only the videos available for free through Prime.
Most of the other software tweaks are under the hood. ASAP, the name of Amazon’s intelligent pre-caching tech, is still hit and miss. Occasionally movies and TV shows start immediately, without even a hint of a loading screen. But more often than not, you’ll still be greeted with a brief buffering page. Still, the UI seems smoother than it was a few months ago and apps crash much less often. Even so, it’s still not quite as responsive as the Roku Streaming Stick (which is no speed demon to be clear). I largely chalk that up to the more complex software running on it. Amazon’s forked version of Android is likely more resource-intensive than the stripped-down, Linux-based software running on the Roku.
Visually, Fire OS on the TV still looks like Fire OS on the TV. There are rows of rectangular icons on the right and categories stacked vertically on the left. It’s clean, if not always efficient, and more often than not, intuitive enough for even your great-grandmother to navigate (we know you got grandma on the Roku bandwagon years ago). It still gives priority to content hosted on Amazon, which is to be expected. Searching for content pulls it up first from Amazon’s repository, even if you have to pay for it. While select additional options, such as Hulu Plus, are buried in the “More Ways to Watch” menu.
Most importantly for the platform, though, is that Amazon’s put a serious dent in its app and content gap. Plenty of games have been added to its lineup and new streaming music and video services are joining the Fire TV party all the time, like PBS. The one glaring omission remains HBO Go, which is supposedly coming next year, though no specific time frame has been given.
One of the many things that the Fire TV Stick does not lack is competitors. The two most obvious are the Roku Streaming Stick and the Chromecast. If your primary concern is having the most sources of content at your disposal, then Roku is the clear winner. It’s the only one of the three with access to both Google Play’s library of video and Amazon’s. And that’s in addition to other major players, like Hulu, Netflix, Watch ESPN, HBO Go and Spotify, plus the countless independent niche channels like horror film-specific Screambox or the aptly named Kung-Fu Theater. The only serious mark against it is price, which, at $50, is notably more expensive than either the Chromecast or Fire TV Stick.
Google’s offering is certainly the simplest of the three. And, whether that’s a benefit or a hindrance depends on your perspective. There’s no remote and no menu to navigate. Instead, you have to send content directly from your phone to your TV. The other devices support this to varying degrees, but it’s the heart and soul of the Chromecast. This feature isn’t limited to your Netflix or Hulu app, however. It also supports simple games, even multiplayer ones, like Wheel of Fortune and Big Web Quiz. Also, you can mirror the screen on your Android phone or tablet, or even a tab from the Chrome browser. Plus, at $35, it’s the cheapest of the bunch.
With the Fire TV Stick, Amazon seems to have a winner on its hands. It does everything you expect a media streamer to do with little fuss and a reasonable price tag. Whereas the Fire TV toyed a little too much with the idea of being a game console and demanded top dollar, its little sibling focuses solely on delivering content. If you’re already invested in the Amazon ecosystem, there’s no reason not to give the Fire TV Stick serious consideration when shopping for a media streamer. It’s got you covered when it comes to most of your major video services and it’s still capable of some casual gaming. You can even connect a Bluetooth gamepad if you want to get a little more serious.
With the Fire TV Stick, Amazon seems to have a winner on its hands.
That being said, it’s not the clear king of the hill. For $10 more, you can get the Roku with its seemingly bottomless pit of content, or you can save $5 and get the Chromecast, which can turn your TV into a giant external monitor for your phone. The price difference among these competitors, however, is not really enough to sway me one way or the other. It’s mostly about whether you’ve bought into an ecosystem already. If you’re married to iTunes, then clearly the Apple TV is for you. If you’ve built up a library on Google Play, then pick the Chromecast. If you’ve already got a home filled with Fire tablets, then obviously the Fire TV Stick is the route to go. And if you prefer to remain as agnostic as possible, then buy a Roku.
CBS All Access streaming service is now available for Roku for $5.99 a month. Roku owners can download the app via the Roku Channel Store and sign up here. In addition to streaming new shows like NCIS, The Big Bang Theory and The Good Wife, the service has an extensive back catalog of classic CBS shows like Star Trek, Cheers, Jag and Engadget favorite, Touched by an Angel. Live streaming of CBS affiliates is available in 14 markets including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia with more on the way. If you’re not in one of those metropolitan areas, you’ll get access to new episodes the day after broadcast. That’s a bummer, but CBS says subscribers will have access to additional content during the Grammys, Country Music Awards and Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. All Access is already available for iOS and Android. But, with today’s Roku news, you won’t have to MacGyver a casting solution to watch MacGyver on your HDTV.
CBS has announced that it’s going to make a brand new Star Trek TV series that’ll begin airing in January 2017. The corporation has shoved a big pile of money in the face of Star Trek and Into Darkness co-writer Alex Kurtzman to be in charge of this new series. If you’re eagerly soldering your TV’s remote to make sure it can never be switched away from your local CBS affiliate, we’d suggest holding off for just a second. That’s because only the first episode or two will air on broadcast TV, with the rest of the series becoming an exclusive for CBS’ homegrown online subscription service, All Access.
It’s not the first time that Star Trek has arrived on our screens with a non-traditional airing model, either. After all, Star Trek: The Next Generation bypassed a US network and, instead, was sold into first-run syndication. As for the plot of the show, there’s nothing for us to go on apart from the generic blurb in the CBS press release:
“The brand-new “Star Trek” will introduce new characters seeking imaginative new worlds and new civilizations, while exploring the dramatic contemporary themes that have been a signature of the franchise since its inception in 1966.”
Although we’re not sure how relevant a new Star Trek will be if it holds onto those same themes that it’s been playing with since the mid ’60s. After all, when the show first launched, America had deep political tension with Russia, there was an undercurrent of racial tension on the streets and there were questions about how the US would fare in space. Actually, reading that back, never mind.
The Apple Pencil is aimed at professional artists who want to use the iPad Pro as a fancy creation tablet, but Simon Gladman has other uses in mind for the stylus. He made three Swift apps that use the Apple Pencil in new ways: as a synthesizer powered by AudioKit, in an image-editing program and as part of an electronic scale. PencilSynth uses the Apple Pencil’s position on the iPad Pro to control the sound emitted, changing pitch and frequency as the Pencil travels at different angles across the screen. PencilController offers three image-filtering modes (hue/saturation, brightness/contrast and gamma/exposure), each controlled by holding one finger on the appropriate mode key and moving the Apple Pencil around a pivot point on the screen. PencilScale is the most “experimental” of Gladman’s projects, using the Apple Pencil as a stand for a series of weights sitting directly on top of a scale app. Gladman calls PencilScale “sensitive, but not terribly accurate.”
“The Apple Pencil opens up a world of new interaction design paradigms (despite what Jony Ive may tell us!),” Gladman writes on his blog. “PencilSynth and my Pencil-based image processing app are, I think, demonstrations that the Pencil is an excellent input device for controlling continuous values across multiple dimensions.”
Apple’s big iPad Pro came with a big surprise — an optional stylus. It’s easy to dismiss the accessory — named Apple Pencil — as a reaction to Microsoft’s Surface and Samsung’s Galaxy Note series. Whatever the motive, though, the Pencil pushes the iPad and iOS in a new direction, away from regular consumers and toward Apple’s bread and butter: designers and creatives. We spoke with over a dozen professional artists, illustrators and designers to gauge the reaction to the accessory. Many use styli in their everyday workflows through options including dedicated Wacom graphic tablets, all-in-one solutions like the Surface series or capacitive options like FiftyThree’s Pencil for iPad — and they’ve got a lot to say about Apple’s entry into the market.
The general sentiment? “It looks great, but…”
How will it fit into my workflow?
“I’ve tried [Wacom’s capacitive] Bamboo stylus on my iPad and it was rubbish. This looks much better,” says an illustrator working at architecture studio Foster + Partners, who asked not to be named due to the firm’s work on Apple’s new headquarters. “I can’t see using it for sketching, though, because it’s missing the software. The iPad versions of Adobe’s Creative Suite aren’t as good. … I’d rather buy the [Wacom] Cintiq, and have full Photoshop with a sensitive pad.”
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard many times over in the wake of Apple’s announcement. “It doesn’t look to have many practical applications in terms of a professional design tool as it’s not possible to use full Creative Suite and other industry-standard applications on a tablet device,” says Mike Messina, senior UX/UI designer at [Engadget’s parent company] AOL. Messina uses a Wacom professional tablet and stylus for his work in combination with Adobe apps like Illustrator and Photoshop. “I don’t think [the Pencil] compares to traditional [graphics] tablets and is more of an expensive toy — albeit a nice one.”
Although Apple’s dedicated developer community will undoubtedly create great apps that support the Pencil, the chances of these apps being useful for more than the average consumer are low. Many creative industries are entrenched in Adobe software, while other studios, such as Disney, have their own tools like Meander, the program that was used for the Oscar-winning short Paperman. Adobe’s apps for iOS are useful for certain tasks, and they will sync through Creative Cloud to the regular desktop apps, making the iPad Pro a potentially useful companion device.
“Where I could see a big advantage is in this replacing my sketchbook,” explains artist/illustrator Dennis de Groot. “I like to go around the city and have a coffee while sketching out new ideas. The hassle with that is that I’m always carrying a variety of pens, pencils, rulers, a sketchbook, a lightpad, etc. If it’s as accurate as said, this could potentially replace that whole bag of tools for me.”
What about the Surface?
There’s a problem with a near-$1,000 companion device, though, and it’s called the Surface. Microsoft’s tablet series has access to full desktop apps, meaning designers can pick up exactly where they left off on the go, in the apps they’re already familiar with. Adobe is also making moves toward improving touch support in key apps like Photoshop for Windows, which should improve the experience significantly for those using tablets and convertibles with full apps.
“I’ve always been very fond of the Wacom Cintiq,” explains de Groot, “What obviously sets Apple apart there is that the iPad Pro is a fully functioning device, so it’ll be relatively easy to pack it up and take it anywhere along with the Pencil. On that same note, I’m not sure how it will compare to, for example, a Surface. Personally I find Apple’s displays more comfortable to navigate, as they “feel” as if they have more precision, but I do think this is a matter of personal preference. In that sense I think they’re kind of catching up with the other options on the market.”
That said, Microsoft actually moved away from Wacom digitizers with the Surface Pro 3. The digitizer was the thing that made the original Surface Pro and Pro 2 so good for drawing, and with that gone, the stylus had to be active, introducing significant lag. I’ve spoken with a number of designers who tried the Pro 3, but quickly decided to stick with earlier versions for that reason. The decision was obviously well-thought-through by Microsoft: Lose a minority of creatives, and produce a thinner and cheaper tablet for everyone. Whether Microsoft will opt for a more sensitive digitizer in future Surfaces remains to be seen, but if it doesn’t, moving away from the design community would represent a potential “in” for Apple. Unfortunately, the Pencil is also an active stylus, meaning there’s going to be some lag. Apple claims this is down to a bare minimum, of course.
Is it quick enough to replace traditional drawing tools?
“I’ll definitely try it, then compare it to the Surface Pro. It’ll come down to how it draws and whether or not it incorporates into my workflow or not,” says animator Jed Diffenderfer, who’s worked on projects like Wreck-It Ralph for Disney. “Many stylus devices seem OK ‘to a point,’ but fall short after the prosumer drop off. We don’t draw that tight or clean in [story]boarding, but we can get going fast, and most [styli] still don’t keep up with how fast I could draw on paper with traditional tools.”
Ryan McManus, design director at New York design agency Hard Candy Shell, has a similar view. “I’ve tried a few styli over the years, including a Wacom Bamboo pad for my Mac and stylus for my iPad. I bought both mostly for sketching out ideas, but the issue was they were never as fast or as readily available as a pen and paper.”
“The main problem I have with styli is a combination of latency and inaccuracy within the compatible applications,” De Groot adds. “The reason a device like [the Wacom Cintiq] works for me is because I’m able to use it in the same applications I do the majority of my work in, and it’s as accurate as I’d work in them with any other tablet. As an illustrator, I look for tools that could possibly replace a pencil and paper, which of course is a tough challenge, so latency of any kind really defeats the purpose of using a stylus in my line of work.”
It really depends, then. It’s virtually impossible for an active stylus to be as quick as a digitizer-based system, and even that’s not fast enough for some creatives. It could be “quick enough” for many, though, and the Pencil also makes the claim of accuracy down to the individual pixel. “I have seen amazing design work done with a stylus and screen, mostly in the automotive realm,” explains McManus. If the Pencil proves a more accurate tool, even with lag, it could gain traction in fields that require technical drawing. That doesn’t describe McManus, though, who says, “It’s just really not that useful in my current workflow. I like pens, besides.”
How will the additional features work?
Those unconvinced by top-of-the-range graphics tablets are unlikely to be won over by the Apple Pencil’s response time, but there are some additional benefits here. Rather than simply offering palm rejection, the iPad Pro can detect both finger and Pencil input at the same time. That opens up some interesting possibilities. Diffenderfer says this tool could be “awesome,” if used in the right way. Being able to rotate a virtual workspace rather than the tablet itself with the flick of a finger could seriously speed up an illustrator’s workflow. “It can get pretty annoying constantly rotating a Cintiq. I miss doing this with story pads.”
McManus notes its potential use for 3D work. “I could see manipulating an object in 3D space while carving with the stylus could be novel for modelmakers/3D artists.” That adds problems of own, though. “If you’re doing that, who’s holding your iPad for you? … Using two hands means you’re relying on either friction or balance to keep the iPad in place.”
So again, the usefulness of these additions is going to come down to software. The same is true with its tilt feature, which lets you change the type of stroke you’re making by tilting the Pencil. For the record, tilt is used to great effect in FiftyThree’s identically named Pencil stylus. (“[They] must be pissed,” notes McManus.) FiftyThree’s implementation works perfectly in its Paper app, but Apple’s Pencil is supposed to be app-agnostic, and the tilt functionality will need to be implemented well throughout all the apps that support it.
I’ll probably try it anyway
There are big questions looming over Apple’s little Pencil, then. The answer to the lag issue will arrive as soon as the iPad Pro launches this November, but the more important worries, most notably application support and value, will take time. If iOS is going to be a tenable singular device for professional creatives, Adobe has to get on board. It has a huge part to play, as it has almost the entire industry at its whim. It can do something about this though. With the increased power of the iPad Pro, there’s the potential for a full-featured, touch-enabled Photoshop and other Creative Suite apps to be ported over to iOS. Even if that’s impossible, it’s already laying the groundwork to stream Creative Suite apps to browsers. Why not use this in iOS as well? And if full, desktop-class apps are on iOS, then the value proposition changes entirely.
Despite the unknowns, the majority of creatives we spoke to really wanted to try the Pencil. Many use a Mac rather than a PC for their daily work, and words like “trust” and “quality” were common while describing Apple products. Only a couple say they’re definitely going to buy them, but the company has the benefit of the doubt among the community, and people seem excited to give the Pencil a shot.
Here we are. Apple, the same company that once swore off styluses, and dismissed hybrid PCs as experiments gone wrong, is now selling a laptop/tablet mashup of its own. One that accepts pen input, at that. The new 12.9-inch iPad Pro went on sale last week, and though it is, in a sense, just an oversized iPad, it’s also the closest thing we’ve seen yet to a hybrid device from Apple. With the screen real estate of a laptop, and the speed of a laptop, and various keyboard accessories allowing you to type on it like a laptop, the Pro seems like it might indeed be able to replace your notebook. In fact, Tim Cook himself has suggested as much in interviews. But with a starting price of $799, it isn’t for everybody. And even then, it won’t replace your laptop so much as complement it.
Expensive, especially with the accessories sold separately
Still heavy compared to other tablets
No mouse support; none of the keyboards have touchpads
Screen angle isn’t adjustable on any of the keyboards
iOS 9 doesn’t multitask as well as desktop operating systems
Nowhere to store the Pencil
The iPad Pro isn’t for everyone: It performs well, but iOS 9 isn’t as adept at multitasking as a laptop operating system, and the lack of any mouse input can get tiresome. That said, its fast performance and smooth pen input could be useful for creative pros who need a way to stay productive while on the go. The Pro won’t replace your computer, but for a certain kind of user, it could be a handy supplement.
Thin and light
Water- and spill-resistant
Uncomfortable to type on
No shortcut keys
As on other iPad Pro keyboards, the screen isn’t adjustable and there’s no touchpad
Apple’s iPad Pro keyboard is thin, light and water-resistant, and doesn’t need to be charged. It’s also uncomfortable to type on and is missing some amenities you’ll find on competing keyboards, like backlighting and settings shortcut keys. It will suffice in a pinch but for the money, you can do better.
Create iPad Pro Keyboard Case
So far, the most comfortable iPad Pro keyboard
Useful shortcut keys
Less expensive than Apple’s own keyboard
Difficult to put on and take off
As on other iPad Pro keyboards, the screen isn’t adjustable and there’s no touchpad
The Create is the first third-party keyboard for the iPad Pro. Though it suffers from some of the same drawbacks as Apple’s offering, it’s still the clear winner, with handy shortcut keys, backlighting and a more comfortable typing experience. If you’re looking to buy an iPad Pro keyboard, this is the one you want.
It’s a big iPad. There you have it, folks, that’s my review. Dana out!
I kid, of course, but I also don’t know where else to begin. Because the Apple Pencil and any keyboard you choose to use will be sold separately, all you’ll find inside the box will be a Lightning cable, a power brick and this oversized tablet. The build quality and design are the same as any other recent iPad, with a unibody aluminum enclosure available in the usual colors: Silver, Gold and Space Gray. Assuming you were holding the device in landscape mode, you’ll find the headphone jack and power button on the left, the volume rocker and LTE SIM slot (if there is one) on the top. So far, so familiar.
It’s on the bottom that things start to get interesting. There you’ll find Apple’s three-pronged Smart Connector, which you’ll use to connect the iPad to whatever keyboard you end up choosing. (Apple has licensed the design to third-party accessory makers, starting with Logitech.) Unlike some other 2-in-1s I’ve seen, the connector here is virtually flush with the tablet’s edge, so it’s unlikely to snag on anything else you have in your bag. It makes a satisfying click when you drop it into your keyboard and because the magnetic connection is so strong, you won’t have to work hard to line up the male and female connectors. The connection is so strong, in fact, that the iPad Pro passes the requisite (and ridiculous) “dangle the tablet by its keyboard cover and see if it falls” test. In case you were wondering.
Finishing up our tour, the tablet has a Touch ID fingerprint reader on the lower bezel — the same sensor used on last year’s iPad Air 2 and the new mini 4. That’s a blessing, because without it, having to enter a PIN every time the screen timed out would be a real pain. In addition, there are two cameras: a basic 1.2-megapixel shooter on the front for video chatting, and an 8-megapixel one on the back. That rear camera is equipped with some decent specs, including an f/2.4 lens and the ability to shoot both 1080p and slow-motion video (the latter at up to 120 frames per second). Though I doubt anyone wants to be that guy using a nearly 13-inch tablet to take photos at a football game, I’m willing to believe that the mobile professionals Apple is targeting — real estate agents, medical types — might get some use out of the built-in shooter here. In a way, though, that’s moot: I don’t think Apple could have gotten away with selling a $799 tablet that had no cameras.
To get the most out of the iPad Pro, you’ll want to also pick up the Apple Pencil, an optional keyboard or maybe both. Still, you might sometimes want to use the iPad Pro as, you know, just a very big tablet, and in those situations, the device is at once surprisingly light and yet heavier than you’re used to. At 1.57 pounds (1.59 on the LTE model), it’s on par with Microsoft’s 13.5-inch Surface Book in tablet-only mode, though to be fair, the Surface manages to stuff inside a heavier-duty notebook-grade processor. Either way, I think we can agree that a pound and a half is pretty darn light for a 13-inch tablet. That said, 1.5 pounds is just heavy enough that I wouldn’t want to hold the Pro aloft for long, even if it’s 6.9mm-thick (0.27-inch) casing otherwise makes it easy to handle. Fortunately, I mostly kept my test unit either docked in a keyboard or resting on my legs — no arm strength necessary.
Display and sound
In addition to being the biggest tablet iPad to date, the Pro also has the distinction of having the second-sharpest screen of any computer Apple has ever made. The 12.9-inch, 2,732 x 2,048 screen has 5.6 million pixels, which translates to a pixel density of 264 ppi. The only Apple product with a sharper screen is the 5K iMac. Speaking of the iMac, Apple borrowed the same Oxide TFT (thin-film transistor) technology it introduced on its flagship all-in-one last year, which keeps the brightness even throughout the panel. In addition, a variable refresh rate means the iPad Pro knows when the content on your screen is static, allowing it to cut refreshes in half and therefore conserve battery life.
Well, that all sounds fancy, doesn’t it? Yeah, it’s pretty nice. I confess, my eyes aren’t discerning enough to notice a significant improvement in quality over the iPad Air 2, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Apple has already shown, across all of its devices, that it knows how to produce a top-notch display.
What I can say is that I’ve come to appreciate the extra screen real estate. It comes in handy for everything from email to Twitter to web surfing to watching videos. Even in Slack — something you don’t think of as a creative app, per se — I appreciated not having to scroll as much through messages. And because the screen is about as wide as two Air 2s, you can run two apps side by side in Split View mode and still have plenty of room for each. As it is, my daily driver is a 13-inch laptop, but after spending a few days with the iPad Pro, I feel that much more reluctant to work on a 9.7-inch screen. The thing is, I’m not sure that extra screen real estate is worth $799 to me, at least for the basics, especially if a smaller device would be easier to carry around.
If the screen quality feels like a subtle upgrade, the audio represents a noticeable improvement over previous iPads. Examine the Pro closely and you’ll see four speaker grilles on the device — one at each corner. Indeed, this is the first time Apple has included this many speakers on one of its tablets. According to the company, the speaker housings have been CNC-machined directly into the enclosure, with 61 percent more chamber space compared to previous iPads. The end result, Apple says, is a wider frequency and up to three times more output than Apple’s other tablets. Lastly, the speakers recognize when you’re holding the tablet in portrait or landscape, and will adjust the soundscape accordingly. Also, because each speaker grille is near a corner, you’re unlikely to obscure them with your fingers.
After reading that spec sheet, then, I knew to expect some robust sound. And yet, when I first booted up the Pro, I was taken aback by how loud the audio was. It’s fairly boomy too. In fact, all four speakers produce bass notes, though depending on how you’re holding it, only the two at the top will play mids and highs. All told, I enjoyed listening to music on it more than I have other tablets, or even some laptops. Too bad Spotify won’t work on the iPad Pro, and that you have to pay for Apple Music — I would have streamed much more music otherwise.
As I began working on this review, I was using Apple’s own Smart Keyboard to put my thoughts on paper (so to speak). I was struggling without a trackpad, making a lot of typos and struggling to find room for my hands on the packed keyboard deck. Boy, was I grouchy.
The iPad Pro keyboard has so far succeeded in putting me in a bad mood while I write this review (on the iPad).
Fortunately, after a day of use, I started to get the hang of it. It’s not a replacement for a proper laptop keyboard, or even the best keyboard you can get for the iPad Pro, but it’s at least not as bad as I initially concluded. Before I get ahead of myself, though, let me clarify how Apple’s keyboard is, and isn’t, like other tablet docks we’ve seen. At first glance, it looks like the Surface’s keyboard: a thin (4mm-thick) cover that attaches to the bottom of the tablet via a magnetic connection. Unlike the Surface, though, it’s covered in an unbroken sheet of water- and stain-resistant laser-cut fabric. There are no holes in it, not even where the buttons are. Instead, the fabric wraps around each keycap so that it’s acting not just as a covering, but it’s actually part of the key mechanism itself.
It’s actually quite different from, say, the new MacBook’s keyboard, except that the stainless steel key domes happen to be the same. Lastly, aside from being spill-resistant, the benefit to this design is that it’s designed to be durable: Apple put a conductive material under the fabric that’s meant to be folded thousands of times over.
It’s an ingenious idea in theory, but in practice, it doesn’t make for a great typing experience. For starters, Apple’s Smart Keyboard only allows you to place the tablet in one position, meaning you can’t adjust the angle of the screen. Additionally, though the buttons’ short travel makes them relatively quiet, there’s a tradeoff: The keys don’t bounce back the way you’d expect. The result is that sometimes when you think you’re striking a button, your key press doesn’t actually register. In particular, I often had to hit the spacebar twice, after seeing I had strung two words together when they were supposed to be separate.
What’s more, since iOS doesn’t support mouse input, neither Apple’s keyboard nor any of the other available options has a touchpad. Now it’s true, iOS wasn’t designed to be used with a pointer and indeed, I don’t think I’d enjoy dragging a cursor across the screen to click on homescreen shortcuts when I can just use my finger. But for apps like Pages, which I used to draft this review, I would have loved a trackpad for highlighting text; it would have been more precise than using my finger, and more efficient than using the arrow keys. As Apple tells it, the shortcuts bar at the bottom of the screen in iOS 9 will help save people time, but in my experience, it wasn’t a substitute for a touchpad.
On the plus side, though I still make typos, I’ve started to build up a rhythm so that I can type faster with not quite as many mistakes. And though I wish I had a choice of different screen angles, the Smart Keyboard is at least comfortable to balance in my lap; the underside of the cover feels soft against my bare legs, and the case is sturdy enough that the setup isn’t too top-heavy.
All told, it seems that Apple’s priority was to create a keyboard case that was thin and easy to set up — no Bluetooth pairing required. That’s important, to be sure, but perhaps next time the company will make strides in the actual typing experience. And I believe it will. It took Microsoft several tries to build a Surface keyboard that could replace a notebook’s; perhaps in a few years Apple will have accomplished the same.
Logitech Create keyboard
Ah, this is better. The Logitech Create ($150) is the first third-party keyboard for the iPad Pro, and while it suffers from some of the same faults as Apple’s keyboard — no trackpad, a non-adjustable screen — it’s far and away more comfortable to type on. The buttons are as cushy and springy as what you’d find on a proper notebook, with a sturdy underlying panel and backlighting, to boot. There was no learning curve here: As soon as I snapped the iPad into the hard case, I was immediately able to begin typing at a fast clip, with few typos. What’s more, the keyboard rests comfortably in the lap, and feels even more stable than Apple’s version.
Just as important, the Create has a Function row up top with buttons for all the most important controls — brightness, volume, play/pause, rewind, fast forward, keyboard backlighting and screen lock. There’s also a hotkey that takes you back to the homescreen without you having to press the physical home button. It partially makes up for the lack of a mouse — not totally, anyway, but somewhat.
If I have one complaint, it’s that Logitech’s plastic keyboard (available in several colors) is bulkier than Apple’s, and that propping up the tablet requires you to snap the iPad into a hard case, which I still haven’t gotten the hang of. Oh, and removing the tablet from the case isn’t much easier.
Aside from its size, what makes the iPad Pro distinctive is its optional pen — excuse me, Pencil. While many people won’t need this $99 accessory, it’s worth it for someone in a creative field, or even folks who still prefer hand-written note-taking. Like many tablet pens, including the one that comes with the Surface Pro and Surface Book, the Apple Pencil is pressure-sensitive, which is to say, the markings will look different depending on how hard you bear down. Apple also included sensors that allow the Pencil to detect when you’re tilting it. This enables the user to tilt the implement on its side and shade as you would with a real pencil.
Suffice to say, it works very well. The implement itself has a nice weight and thickness that makes it feel analogous to a real pencil. And, as trite as this sounds, it really does do a good job of mimicking the feel of pen to paper. The screen has just enough friction that it feels like you’re drawing on something resembling paper, as opposed to a slippery piece of glass. At the same time, though I throw around words like “friction,” that doesn’t mean there’s any latency — far from it. Ink appears on the page as you pull the pencil across, and the feedback is not just instant, but precise: I can’t remember ever attempting to make a marking and coming up empty.
As you can imagine, I spent a lot of time dicking around in drawing apps like Adobe Photoshop Sketch, Canva, Autodesk Sketchbook and Zen Brush 2, but art therapy isn’t the only thing the Apple Pencil is good for. The Pencil also works well in various note-taking programs, including Evernote, Paper and Apple’s newly redesigned Notes app. Microsoft also updated its iPad Office suite with Pencil support, while Apple’s native Mail app lets you use the pencil to mark up attachments.
Sorry my iPad Pro review is late, I’m drawing pictures of birds in all the sketching apps.
Apple says the Pencil will last 12 hours on a charge. In the event it dies on you, you can flip off the Pencil’s cap to reveal a male Lightning port, which you then plug into your tablet. If you can spare just 15 seconds, you’ll get another 30 minutes of use, though you’ll need about two hours to reach a full 12-hour charge. Just keep in mind that while the pencil is easy to charge, it’s also easy to lose; you can’t store it anywhere on the tablet, as you can with Microsoft’s Surface Pen. Ditto for the cap: It fell off once in my testing and I’ve since been vigilant about making sure I reattach it firmly after charging.
Performance and software
iPad Air 2
iPad mini 4
3DMark IS Unlimited
GFXBench 3.0 Manhattan Off/onscreen (fps)
SunSpider 1.0 (ms)
Google Octane 2.0
Mozilla Kraken (ms)
Apple JetStream 1.1
SunSpider and Kraken: Lower scores are better.
The iPad Pro is fast. Whether it’s as fast as a laptop is a question I probably won’t settle with this review but either way: It’s fast. In particular, Apple claims the Pro offers nearly double (1.8x) the performance of the iPad Air 2 and twice the graphics performance. As Apple’s third-generation 64-bit processor, the Pro’s A9X chip brings a new memory architecture boasting increased read/write speeds. It also makes use of the same Metal graphics framework that already powers the iPhone and the latest version of OS X. Lastly, like the A9 chip inside the new iPhones, the A9X makes use of the M9 coprocessor, which continuously pulls in data from various sensors including the accelerometer, gyroscope and compass. This is important because the M9 does this more efficiently than the main chip would, according to Apple, which has implications for battery savings.
With all that technical context out of the way, I generally enjoyed snappy performance in both basic and heavier-duty apps. I downloaded AutoCAD 360 — a program I don’t actually know how to use — mostly so that I could spin models around with my finger and quickly zoom in and out. I eventually grew bored of trying to make the system stutter. Games also ran smoothly, not that they were prone to stuttering on the Air 2 either. All this graphics power is borne out as well in synthetic tests, with significant gains in 3DMark and GFXBench. (You’ll see similar leaps in web benchmarks too.)
In basic use, it was mostly smooth sailing. Apps loaded quickly and the system was also quick to respond when I either double-pressed the home button to switch apps or used iOS 9’s “Slide Over” feature to swipe in from the right side of the screen to peek into another program without leaving the one I was in. There were, however, a couple small exceptions. There was a point during my testing where I was writing this review in Pages and flipping back to Twitter in Slide Over and Google Drive in a separate window. Every time I returned to Pages, I noticed some tiling on the screen before my words appeared. There was another time too when I tried to open Pages and it crashed. Come to think of it, all of my issues have been related to Pages, so maybe the app simply needs a stability update. Also, for what it’s worth, my colleague Chris Velazco is also testing the iPad Pro and hasn’t encountered a single hiccup or crash after a week of use.
Other than that, the iPad Pro did a good job keeping up with my workflow, which includes Gmail, Chrome, Slack, Twitter, Facebook, Mint, OneDrive and the New York Times crossword in the evening. And let me tell you something: I actually see more performance hiccups on Apple’s new iMac, which comes standard with a Core i5 processor and piddly 5,400RPM hard drive. I routinely wait for apps to load, I wait to regain control of the desktop after startup, and I wait even when I want to switch from tab or window to another. The iPad Pro’s OS and lack of mouse support might make it an impractical choice as a laptop replacement, but speed was one problem I didn’t have.
That said, though the iPad Pro is fast, and really shines with certain intensive apps, the tablet will only ever feel as fast as its operating system and indeed, iOS 9 is no match for OS X or Windows 10 when it comes to multitasking. To be fair, iOS has come a long way. Starting with the release of iOS 9 on the iPad Air 2, users could run two apps side by side, as well as view video as a picture-in-picture. There’s also a “Slide Over” gesture that allows you to quickly peek at another app without leaving the one you’re in. Once you get the hang of it, it’s more efficient than double-pressing the home button to cycle through open apps. Finally, there’s a handy back button inside apps that returns you to whatever app you were using last. All of these things are welcome improvements, but after a week of use, I still found myself missing some certain things about OS X and Windows 10, including pinned browser tabs and the ability to dock programs at the bottom of the desktop.
Apple iPad Pro
iPad mini 4
iPad Air 2
Microsoft Surface 3
Dell XPS 13 (2015)
Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro
Surface Pro 4
Apple rates the iPad Pro’s 38.5Wh battery for up to 10 hours of use (make that nine if you’re on LTE). As with other Apple products, that turned out to be a conservative estimate: The Pro actually lasted through 10 hours and 47 minutes of video playback in our tests, with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 50 percent. And mind you, that was with auto-brightness off, which I’d normally keep on to help conserve battery life. With that setting enabled, I’m sure you could eke out even more runtime.
As for connectivity, the cellular-enabled model supports 20 LTE bands, with promised speeds of up to 150 Mbps. The 802.11ac WiFi radio, meanwhile, is rated for theoretical download rates of up to 866 Mbps. It’s a useful stat, but one I ultimately decided not to test: With support for all the major US carriers, plus many more around the world, your mileage is almost certainly going to vary.
The iPad Pro starts at $799 with WiFi only. For the money, you get more storage in the base-level model than you would on a regular iPad: 32 gigs instead of 16. From there, Apple sells a 128GB version for $949 as well as a souped-up model that for $1,079 offers both 128GB and an LTE radio.
That’s not counting all the accessories. Apple’s own Smart Keyboard costs $169, while the Apple Pencil sells for $99. Additionally, the company sells a keyboard-less Smart Cover for $59, as well as a $79 silicone case that covers the tablet’s back side only (it’s the same design as the silicone case for the new iPad mini 4). As for LTE, though the iPad Pro supports AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile out of the box using a so-called Apple SIM, Verizon customers will need to instead opt for a VZW SIM when configuring the device online.
All of this means that the iPad Pro could cost as much as $1,347 with the Pencil and first-party keyboard, and that’s not counting the $99 AppleCare+ plan that extends the warranty and phone-support period to two years. For the money, you could get a nice laptop.
Since Apple seems to be suggesting the iPad can replace a laptop, it’s tempting to call the company’s bluff and compare the product to traditional notebooks. I don’t think that’s a smart use of our time, though. Because despite what Apple claims, the iPad Pro does not have good enough input options to replace a laptop, and its operating system isn’t as adept at multitasking as OS X or Windows 10. Besides, I suspect that anyone who’s considering the iPad Pro wants a tablet first anyway — preferably one that can be used with a pressure-sensitive pen.
That leaves us not with clamshell notebooks, but laptop/tablet hybrids, including the one that defines the category: the Surface Pro 4. Microsoft’s tablet starts at a higher price of $899, but that includes 128GB of storage and a pressure-sensitive pen, which basically cancels out the price differential with the iPad Pro. Because Microsoft has been at this for several years now, its keyboard is more comfortable than Apple’s, and it’s cheaper too, at $130 (though by now Microsoft should really be building it into the base price). At its most tricked-out, the SP4 comes with a Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, so I’m not concerned about its ability to compete with the iPad Pro on performance. And because it runs full Windows, I don’t worry about the selection of professional apps either. I can’t promise, though, that they’ll all be as finger- and pen-friendly as software designed for the iPad. Battery life is shorter too: We got a little over seven hours of video playback, compared to nearly 11 on the iPad Pro.
Then there’s the endless stream of Surface knockoffs, including the HP Spectre X2 ($800 with the keyboard), the Dell XPS 12 ($999, keyboard included) and the Lenovo Miix 700 ($699, not shipping yet). In short, you have plenty of options.
The iPad Pro is not for someone like me. As a professional writer and editor, I found it frustrating to replace my trusty laptop with a cramped tablet keyboard (and no mouse!). Though iOS is better at multitasking than it used to be, I still missed desktop features like pinned tabs and a taskbar. And in my capacity as a couch potato, I’m not sure the extra screen real estate makes a big enough difference with basic apps that I could justify that $799 starting price.
But that just means the iPad Pro isn’t for me. Though it might not have the mass appeal of an iPhone or smaller iPad, I do believe there are people who will find use for this. Specifically, professionals and in particular, those who might otherwise have some difficulty getting work done when they’re on the go and away from their primary computers. I’m thinking medical professionals, designers, engineers — jobs where having a precise writing implement matters more than having a comfortable keyboard, or even a trackpad. And, of course, there will be some early adopters — the sort of people who read Engadget — who simply want a big, powerful iPad, and are willing to pay a premium for it. For those people, the iPad Pro won’t replace a laptop, but it comes closer than you might expect.
Last year, Apple introduced Swift, its very own programming language, which was focused on making it easier to build apps. Now, in a bid to make it more palatable to developers, Apple is making another big move: It’s making Swift open source. That’ll give developers full access to all of Swift’s inner workings, and it might even tempt over people who were worried about adopting a proprietary Apple language. “We think Swift is the next big programming language, the one that we’ll all be doing application and system programming on for 20 years to come,” Apple’s SVP of software engineering, Craig Federighi, said during WWDC today. “We think Swift should be everywhere and used by everyone.” The language is also getting some upgrades this year with Swift 2, which includes support for new optimization technology, protocol extensions and much shorter compile times.