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Another Samsung phone: hardware, software, and gimmicks

I like Dan Seifert’s tagline for the S9 from his Verge review: “The Galaxy S9 is all of the good and all of the bad we’ve come to expect from Samsung”. That pretty much sums up my impressions; the phone fulfills my expectations from 5+ years of working at Samsung Research: good hardware, bad software, and still more gimmicks.

Hardware: starting with the Galaxy S6 Samsung really started nailing it with their industrial design, and they’ve stayed on top of their game since. Well, mostly. It still drives me nuts that they don’t symmetrically align the ports along the centerline of the edges. I don’t care if it makes the engineering easier; it just looks weird. And I’m super glad that Samsung didn’t go with a notch. I hate the notch. I’d much rather have the slim bezels of the S8 and S9 than the bloody notch. I don’t care if you get used to it; it’s still godawfully ugly.

Software: what a shock, Bixby is still a train wreck, and version 2.0 is still a work in progress. Version 1 was a serious blunder. Rather than spend the time to get it right, Samsung incurred serious engineering debt trying to rush it to market. And then, surprise, it turned out awful, and due to accrued debt had to be essentially trashed and rebuilt. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that it was largely based on a mistaken premise, that the way to build a voice assistant was to try to provide full equivalency with touch interaction. I can’t believe Google hired Injong Rhee after Samsung fired him for that debacle. On the bright side, he’s joining the Cloud organization, and they’ll hopefully keep him away from anything UX.

Gimmicks: from what I’ve seen, Samsung decides on features for new products based on what executives like in 2 minute demos. There’s no deeper discussion of pros and cons or considerations of what the experience might be like over a longer period of time. As a result, things that are neat and demo well go in, while more thoughtful ideas that take a little more explanation go nowhere. And thus you get a parade of gimmicks: neat for a quick demo, but generally useless in day-to-day life.

Designers, engineers, and edge cases

Over the last 6 or so years I’ve worked closely with designers on a variety of projects. A pattern that I’ve seen across designers and projects is that designers tend to think about the ideal case: how will it look if the images are all the same size and shape, if there are enough data items that the layout is perfectly symmetrical, if the machine learning (or other probabilistic approach) works exactly as desired. And I understand that approach: when you’re proposing a design, you want to show how good it could be.

But across those same projects I’ve noticed that I tend to think more about the edge cases: where will the design break down? What happens if you have thumbnails with different aspect ratios? What happens you only have enough data items to partially fill a column? What does the design look and feel when the probabilistic algorithm screws up, and how do user notice and recover?

I suspect that some of the difference in approaches is based on experience: I know a system won’t always meet the ideal, so I know you need to account for how it behaves in those other situations. But I suspect it’s also a matter of training (and possibly temperament). Writing software forces you to spend a lot of time thinking about edge cases: if you need to describe how a system works, you need to cover as many possible situations as possible. Design proposals for a system, by contrast, tend to focus on pitching that ideal case. And when you’re trying to pitch the best case, having to also lay out the edge cases really rains on your parade.

And there is often value in emphasizing the best case(s). Because developers have to think through the edge cases, they often attach more importance to them then they might otherwise merit. In code, edge cases often get equal weighting with the best case(s), but in the real world they may only occur in a small percentage of usage. The challenge, then, is to make sure to consider edge cases in the design, but to assign them importance based on their likelihood of occurrence. Of course, estimating that occurrence is often a challenge…

Testing the Pixel 2 XL camera

I used our trip to Santa Cruz as a test of the Pixel 2 XL camera. On previous vacations I’ve relied on my iPhone 7 Plus, since it yielded better photos than my Note 5. This time, though, I only brought the Pixel with me. Since I’d been to Santa Cruz before and will visit again, I figured it was a nice soft trial. Overall the camera performed really well: fast, responsive, and high-quality images. I think the low-light photos turned out a bit better than I’d typically get from my iPhone, but I also found myself missing the optical 2X zoom from the 2nd iPhone camera a few times as well. Bottom line: I’d be willing to rely on the Pixel camera on a “real” vacation, confident that I’d be able to take photos just as good as those I’d get on my iPhone.

Long weekend in Santa Cruz

Despite living in the Bay Area, we’ve only ever done short trips to Santa Cruz (typically to the Board Walk). So for President’s Day weekend we decided to take a long weekend in Santa Cruz to finally have time to explore the area a little further.

The first day we walked around downtown for a bit, exploring some of the shops and restaurants. Bookshop Santa Cruz was fun to poke around, but then bookstores always are. The Patagonia outlet was sadly packed; they were having.a sale, so it was so packed that it was impossible to actually look around. The Verve Coffee Roasters location on Pacific was a nice, light space, but it wasn’t really designed to actually sit down and enjoy your coffee (but then, there were enough people ordering that the space was clearly designed with throughput in mind.

We also walked along W Cliff Drive, which offered great views of the Santa Cruz Wharf and the Boardwalk. You could also watch surfers (both beginners and those with more experience) catch waves (or wait to catch waves, which actually seemed to occupy most of their time). We followed the drive out to the lighthouse on the point (the lighthouse actually contains the Santa Cruz surfing museum, but we didn’t bother to check it out).

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The next day we hiked through Wilder Ranch State Park along the ocean. The day was gorgeous, with bright blue skies and lots of sun. The wind along the ocean was fierce, though; I had to keep a hand on my hat constantly to keep it from blowing away. But the views more than made it for the wind (and its chill). After our hike we also explored the original ranch site a bit.

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After Wilder Ranch, we grabbed a quick bite to eat and then headed to Natural Bridges State Beach. Sadly the monarch butterflies were already gone (which was doubtlessly better for then; I shudder to think how they would have fared with the wind), but we got a great view of the remaining bridge (at some point they should probably rename it to Natural Bridge State Park). And the wind driving the waves caused some great impacts against the rocks with some truly impressive spray (I actually got my boots a bit wet when I misjudged the size of an incoming wave).

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Overall the weekend was fun, but I’m glad we didn’t plan on spending more time there; a long weekend was about right. Santa Cruz really isn’t that big; I hadn’t realized that it’s less than half the size of Sunnyvale (roughly 65,000 people vs. 150,000). Of course, living in the Bay Area we get a bit blasé about being near the ocean. There were other folks staying in our hotel that were clearly thrilled about being near the beach (they were also clearly from much colder climates). So if you need more time near the ocean, Santa Cruz is a good place to hang out.

Teotihuacan exhibit at the de Young

I found out almost by accident the de Young museum in San Francisco was having an exhibit on Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city that was the 6th largest in the world during its time (roughly the first half of the first millennium). Kate and I managed to catch it on its closing weekend, and I enjoyed learning a bit about the city, its time, and its culture.

While overall the exhibit was quite good, the one thing I wish they’d covered more of was the layout and structure of the city itself. They had drone footage video (naturally) and an overhead map, but I would have loved to have seen some architectural dioramas of the city as a whole as well as of the individual pyramids and important neighborhoods just to get more of a sense of the structure of life in the city. But since the exhibit was at an art museum, I guess it’s not too surprising that the exhibit focused on the city’s art instead of its architecture.

Moving from the Note 5 to the Pixel 2 XL

Pixel 2 XLI typically replace my phones every two years; in that time the technology generally advances enough that a new phone offers a noticeably improved experience. Plus after two years a phone’s battery tends to hold its charge for a noticeably shorter time, so a new device also avoids the need to charge as often.

I held off replacing my Note 5 this fall because I was considering moving from Samsung to Google, and if I did I thought I might switch to a Pixel device (since I would likely be working on Android, and Pixel devices are the only way to use the latest and greatest Android version).

I did indeed move to Google in November, joining the Android UX team. But I held off getting a new device, largely because I wasn’t sure whether to get the Pixel 2 XL or the Pixel 2. The choice would normally be a no-brainer; I like bigger phones. But the LG display in the Pixel 2 XL has gotten a lot of bad press, while the Samsung display in the Pixel 2 has gotten praise (Samsung does make great displays).

Last week I finally went ahead and bought a Pixel 2 XL. I’ve been using it for about a week now. I also switched carriers for the device, from AT&T to Project Fi. That choice was driven by two factors:

  1. AT&T’s coverage the Googleplex sucks; my Note 5 battery was draining extra fast because it was straining to contact AT&T’s cell towers.
  2. International data rates that are (in most countries) the same as domestic rates.

It was also a nice bonus that I could use my Google Voice number for the phone directly.

Here are my observations about the switch so far, in no particular order:

  • The Pixel 2 XL display does indeed exhibit a blue tint at a much smaller angle than Samsung (and Apple) devices I’ve used. It was really noticeable for the first day of use, and then I totally stopped noticing it, due in large part to the fact that I generally look at my phone directly while using it. So yeah, the display should be better. But it’s really been a non-factor in daily use.
  • Battery life has been amazing. Even with Location kept enabled (ti’s using the first thing I disable on a Samsung device to preserve power), I’m generally only using 20% of battery a day. Now those are days where (a) I’ve got WiFi available most of the day, (b) I don’t use the device a ton, and (c) I turn the phone off from roughly 10 PM to 6 AM. But still, that’s way better than I ever got with my Note 5. I think the improved battery life is a combination of a new battery, Project Fi (shifting radio use more to WiFi than cell), and improved software (both Android O and Google vs. Samsung). It’s also a factor that I haven’t set up a smartwatch with the phone yet (I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to just use my Gear S3 with it or try out an Android Wear device), so the phone isn’t using the Bluetooth radio much.
  • Unsurprisingly, Android seems snappier. TouchWiz (now the Samsung Experience, I suppose) has gotten better, but it’s still got room for improvement.
  • The one thing I miss from Samsung’s phones is Samsung Pay. Android Pay is fine for NFC payments, but Samsung devices offer MST (Magnetic Secure Transmission) so that you can use Samsung Pay with swipe credit card terminals. I won’t be able to use the Pixel for payments in as many cases as I could my Note 5.
  • Project Fi offers much better account handling and tools than AT&T. Shocking, I know.

I haven’t used the camera much since I haven’t gone anywhere particularly interesting since switching, but I’m looking forward to trying it out.

Role swapping in political parties

One of the things I remember most about AP History (oh so many years ago) is how the political parties sometimes totally switch places. During the Civil War, Republicans were anti-slavery and Democrats were pro-slavery (yes, simplifying). During the civil rights era, Democrats were pro-equal rights while Republicans were pro-segregation. During the Civil War, Republicans were for a strong federal government, while the Democrats were all about states rights. During the civil rights era, Democrats were for a strong federal government, while the Republicans were all about states rights.

I always thought switching roles like that seemed a little strange; how could a party be for one thing at one moment, but then somehow be against it the next? After all, while I was growing up, the parties seemed pretty set in their roles. Republicans were:

  • For free trade and international commerce.
  • Strongly anti-Russia.
  • Strongly pro-law enforcement.
  • All about family values and “moral’ behavior.
  • Fiscally conservative.

And yet in just a couple of years, the Republicans have completely reversed themselves. Now they’re:

  • Protectionist and America-first.
  • Pro-Russia.
  • Anti-law enforcement (since when is the FBI a tool of liberals?).
  • Tolerant of divorce, infidelity, and other “immoral” behavior.
  • Free-spending.

I wonder what people who were part of the Republican Party when they held that first set of values feel about the party now, and whether the shift will be long-lasting. If so, it’ll be very interesting to see if the Democrats now shift to again diametrically oppose the Republican values. With their recent anti-Russia and pro-law enforcement positions, they’re certainly being pushed that way. Or will we see the creation a new 3rd party that grows to supplant the Republican Party? It’s happened in the past; it’d be interesting to see it happen first-hand.