Vlogging Virginia with an iPhone XS Max

It’s a rare thing to have your movie screened and to be able to host a Q&A about it at an Alamo Drafthouse, so I decided to use my iPhone XS Max to try to capture my recent experience in Virginia. I wanted to see how the new smartphone held up to as a vlogging camera, especially without any of the other accoutrements I’d typically need to shoot something like this (e.g. external recorder, gimbal, etc.).

In making this, I developed a much greater appreciation of what it takes to shoot a good vlog (iJustine makes it look totally effortless). In particular, I don’t think I shoot enough b-roll to transition from location to location. I also just generally didn’t have enough coverage — I tried to make this as a one-man band, but there are definitely a few moments that could’ve benefited from alternate angles. Overall, I optimized for enjoying the evening rather than shooting as much as possible, and unfortunately I think that definitely shows in the final product.

That said, how did the iPhone XS Max fare? Not too bad. I think when you have a decent amount of light (e.g. outdoor), it’s a fantastic vlogging camera. The image is solid and it gives you decent normalized stereo audio. But in low light conditions and in most indoor situations, the phone’s camera jacks up the ISO and provides some pretty aggressive noise reduction. There’s lots of detail loss and the colors and skin tones don’t look great (See: how this camera is really different than the old one). Without a camera app that gives you manual control of the settings, it can even be difficult to use with a decent light — just compare the first and last shot of the above video.

For this specific situation, the XS Max worked out great. I could travel light and shoot quickly. But if I wanted something more professional looking and sounding, I’d definitely go with something with a larger sensor like an Sony RX100, Sony A6000-series, or a Fuji X-T-series, coupled with an external recorder. It makes a difference, particularly if you’re viewing the video on anything bigger than a mobile device.


Apple announces new iPhones

This week, Apple announced the iPhones XR, XS, and XS Max.

The names of these devices are widely regarded as terrible. I think they were conceived and executed by Heath Ledger’s version of The Joker. How does Apple, the most valuable tech company in the world by market cap, expect to brand its flagship phone with two letters, the first of which is pronounced as a Roman numeral, and the second of which is pronounced as an actual letter? What are the rules anymore??

(That said I will say that the benefit of branding one device as the “XS Max” does distinguish it from being a “Plus” in previous years, where larger devices actually got better/more features. The new XS and XS Max only differ in screen size and nothing else).

As for the devices themselves, I’m really not sure if I’m going to upgrade from my iPhone 8 Plus. The screen looks great and the features are fine. But I’m still not sure if I want to make the transition to Face ID with all those new gestures — I still like to swipe up to get Control Center from the bottom of the screen, thank you very much — and the price of the new XS Max (the device I’d likely want to get) is punishing, starting at $1100 and going all the way to $1450.

At that cost, I now have to choose between getting one of the most advanced APS-C stills/video cameras ever made, or buying an iPhone that’ll probably make me want to upgrade again a year from now. It makes it a much more tricky decision.

Here are some interesting takes on this week’s announcement:

Vimeo pivots towards being a tech company

Sara Fischer, writing for Axios:

Vimeo, the 14-year-old video service that started as a platform for indie filmmakers, is changing its business to focus on selling software tools to its community of millions of social creators, instead of being a video viewing destination, its CEO said in an interview with Axios.

The pivot allows Vimeo to go after a less competitive social “SaaS” (software as a service) market that focuses on stock images and video, as opposed to the saturated video viewing market, which is dominated by massive tech companies investing billions in original content to win eyeballs.

I think this is a great business move that makes a lot of sense for Vimeo. That said, it does make me sad that YouTube no longer has even a single plausible competitor that’s investing in high-quality video. Competition generally makes all platforms better, and the Vimeo viewing experience is still a great one.

A brief review of Apple Airpods

I’ve been using Apple Airpods for the past week or so and I really enjoy them. I primarily got them so I could listen to podcasts while falling asleep without disturbing those around me. It can be difficult to do this with corded headphones, but the Airpods fit that extremely specific need very well.

Beyond that, here are a few pros and cons for the product.

Pros

  • The way they connect with iOS devices (using Apple’s proprietary W1 chip) is incredibly smooth. My bluetooth devices probably have about a 70-80% success rate when it comes to connecting seamlessly. Airpods have closer to a 90-95% success rate in this regard. To quote Steve Jobs, “it just works.”
  • Every component of Airpods feels like it was designed to delight you. The way the bluetooth connection just happens. The fun menus and their animations. The fact that you can program the Airpods to respond to touch commands, not to mention the fact that by default, they pause your music when you remove one of them from your ear. I’m a big fan of the whole product experience.
  • The case looks like a container of dental floss but inside it hides a battery that can charge the Airpods for up to 24 hours. The case can also give the Airpods 3 hours of battery life with only 15 minutes of charging. This effectively means that, even though the Airpods themselves only have 4-5 hours of battery life, I’ve never found the battery life to be a problem.
  • Apparently, the Airpods are extremely durable. In this absolutely insane video, the folks at EverythingApplePro put the Airpods through an increasingly outlandish series of punishing tests. The Airpods came out the other side working fine. Very impressive.
  • The sound is pretty good — better than Apple’s default earpods. However, there is no noise mitigation of outside sounds, so Airpods aren’t great to use in a vehicle or in transit.

Cons

  • At $160, they are very expensive for headphones that are only slightly above-average in terms of sound quality. You aren’t paying that price for the audio — you’re paying it for the convenience (side note: the ship time for these things is still several weeks. Crazy that you still can’t go into an Apple store and buy them easily).
  • Maybe one day these things will become fashionable, but for now, I do not find them stylish. I find them to be anti-style. I can’t help but feeling like I look like a doofus when I’m wearing them. I’m fortunate to work at a company where people don’t really care what you look like, but I still feel self-conscious every time I put them in.
  • I’ve never had an Airpod fall out of my ears, but they do have a very specific shape and if your ear isn’t suited to it then you are pretty much SOL. I have found that the Airpods get loose with even mild jostling, such as if I’m going on a jog or even just briskly walking across the street. Losing one of these in public would be a nightmare, so I find that I’m very nervous when I use them outdoors. Indoor usage is probably safest.

Overall, Airpods feel like the full realization of Apple’s utopian wireless future. I just wish Apple would license out their W1 tech so that all types of headphones and devices could enjoy this level of connectivity.

Why I’m getting an iPhone 8 Plus and not an iPhone X

I’m typically a fan of buying the newest/latest/best, so I was psyched to see Apple’s presentation of its newest suite of smartphones this past week. Going in, there was much chatter about an “iPhone X” that would feature a larger screen than the iPhone 7, but in a smaller body than the iPhone 7 Plus.

As usual, Apple delivered in a big way when it came to sparking online conversation about its products. But for the first time in awhile, I struggled with the decision on whether to go in for its top-of-the-line phone (you can read feature comparisons here and here, and a neat MKBHD video here). After a lot of deliberation, I’ve decided to go with the iPhone 8 Plus. Here are some reasons why.

Most of the specs for the two phones are the same

The processors. The rear-facing camera. The wireless charging. They’re all identical in both phones. For me, the primary differences are the front-facing camera (which supports Face  ID and animoji in the iPhone X), the iPhone X’s OLED screen, and the fact that the iPhone X screen is taller by a few pixels. Additionally, I believe the iPhone X’s secondary telephoto lens has a slightly better aperture than that of the iPhone 8 Plus. If these sound like compelling upgrades to you, then the iPhone X is definitely the phone for you. But for me, they weren’t enough to justify the additional $200+ on the price tag.

On that note…

Think of the compromises

The iPhone X completely re-imagines the paradigm of how users interact with their smartphones. Face ID replaces Touch ID as how people unlock their phones. There is no more home button — instead, everything is driven by new gestures.

I have no doubt that Face ID will one day be the new standard by which all forms of biometric authentication are measured. I also think that one day it’s likely we will look at phones like the iPhone 8 and wonder how we ever dealt with a barbaric, massive bezel “chin” like that, whose only purpose was to house a home button in the center. But for now, those features feel purposeful and useful to me.

Due to screen size, one-handed operation would be too challenging with the iPhone X for me. The iPhone X requires you to swipe down from the top right for control center. Right now, I can unlock my iPhone before I even look at it, and/or swipe up from the bottom to quickly get to control center. These are actions I perform dozens of times a day without thinking about them, and I simply won’t be able to do those things with the iPhone X.

The iPhone 8 Plus still has better battery life

It’s supposed to last slightly longer than the iPhone X at a couple of primary tasks. Since battery life is one of the most important features for me in a smartphone, this almost swung the decision single-handedly.

The Notch

Maybe one day “The Notch” will be like vertical video — something we used to hate but is no so ubiquitous that most people don’t give a crap anywhere. For now though, it looks pretty terrible.

How SoundCloud lost its way

Dani Deahl and Casey Newton, writing for The Verge:

SoundCloud experimented with a variety of business models, including content-related ads and charging the creators for premium accounts that host more audio. But much of the audio uploaded to its servers contained derivative copyrighted material: DJ sets, mashups, and unofficial remixes using songs the SoundCloud artists didn’t have rights to. As those tracks racked up millions of views, record labels pressured the company to crack down. While the company worked to develop its paid platform, the service began to fray around the edges. SoundCloud’s increasingly confusing system of paid tiers caused contention for creators and their teams: unwarranted song takedowns ruined PR for new releases, labels pulled music off SoundCloud against artists’ will, and those who had helped make SoundCloud a force from the beginning now found it had simply stopped paying attention to their needs.

What’s happening to SoundCloud is sad. What was once a great platform for discovery and creativity is a confusing mess to use and is in danger of shutting down. For my part, I am freaked and will be attempting to move my SoundCloud podcasts off the platform as soon as possible.

Canon announces C200 cinema camera

Yesterday, the press embargo lifted on Canon’s newest addition to its cinema camera line, the C200. Here are the tech specs:

  • Internal 4K recording with Cinema RAW Light and MP4 format
  • Continuous 120fps (maximum) High Frame Rate with no cropping at Full HD
  • Up to 15-stops dynamic range (Cinema RAW Light)
  • Super 35mm CMOS Sensor
  • Dual Pixel CMOS AF Technology
  • Dual DIGIC DV 6 Processors
  • 4K DCI and UHD, 1920 x 1080
  • 59.94p, 50p, 29.97p, 25p, 24p, 23.98p
  • Canon RAW Light, MP4, MP4 Proxy
  • Integrated EVF, 2 x XLR Audio Inputs
  • Rotating 4″ LCD Monitor, Camera Grip
  • 1 x CFast Card, 2 x SD Card Slots
  • 1 x SDI Output, 1 x Ethernet Connector

Here’s a pretty good summary by Pro AV of the key features:

My opinion: This is a weird set of features for a camera that cost $7500.

The default recording mode in HD provides only 35Mbps of quality, which is pretty much the same as the C100 Mark I (yes, Mark I) from five years ago. I’m sure the image will look great, but that data rate is painful in this day and age.

But the camera comes with RAW Light, which is great, and comes with dramatically higher data rates and file sizes (bafflingly, the much more expensive C300 Mark II does not currently support RAW Light). RAW Light records at 12bit 4K DCI at 30p and 10bit 4K DCI at 60p. There’s also talk of support for the XF-AVC codec in 2018, so that’s a huge positive.

That being said, I think it’s also Canon’s first camera for under $8000 that allows for high frame rate capture (up to 120p) in full HD, something that competitors such as Panasonic and Sony have already featured for years.

There are also a bunch of other cool things, like the fact that it supports 2 SD Cards AND a CFast card, as well as a better top-handle system than the C100 Mark II.

There’s a lot that’s appealing about the camera. There’s also a few head-scratching decisions. I wish it cost about $1000-2000 less than it does. In other words: It’s a Canon camera.

For more reading, I’d  recommend Erik Naso’s commentary on the C200.

Facebook organic reach continues to plunge

Facebook has publicly stated that organic reach on its pages for businesses and publications will decline as time goes on. For many large publishers, organic reach has been approaching 1% for a long time (that is, the number of people who see a post from a Facebook page on their personal News Feed is 1% of the people who Like that page).

Now comes a new report from Kurt Gessler at the Chicago Tribune that illustrates just how far organic reach has dropped:

Starting in January of this year, we at the Chicago Tribune started to anecdotally see a fairly significant change in our post reach.

We weren’t seeing a huge difference in post consumption or daily average reach, but we were just seeing more misses than hits. At the Tribune, we have a fairly stable and predictable audience. We had around a half million fans at the end of March and have seen slow but steady growth in the last year. Most Facebook posts fell into the 25,000 to 50,000 reach range — with a few big successes and few spectacular failures each day, usually based on the quality of the content or the quality and creativity of the share.

But starting earlier this year, we started to see far more misses. And not reaches in the low 20,000’s but 4,000 reach or 6,000 reach. Digital Editor Randi Shaffer was one of the first to notice […]

In December of 2016, we had only 8 posts with 10,000 reach or less. In January of 2017, that had grown to 80. In February, 159. And in March, a ridiculous 242 posts were seen by fewer than 10,000 people. And while late 2016 saw record lows in that lowest quartile, that 242 is far above any prior month in our dataset. And we were seeing a steady decrease in that 25,001 to 50,000 quartile. That had gone from 248 in January 2016 to 141 in March 2017.

What did this mean? In baseball terms, we were hitting far fewer doubles and we were striking out 1 every 3 times at the plate. Four months earlier, we struck out 1 of every 90 at-bats.

Gessler speculates on reasons for this change, the most plausible of which is Facebook’s algorithm. Usage of Facebook’s app as a whole could be declining, but it seems unlikely based on mobile usage statistics.

Either way, it’s a difficult time to rely on Facebook if you’re a publisher. According to a recent report from The Verge, Facebook’s Instant Articles experiment seems to not be panning out as they’d hoped, from a subscription/revenue perspective.

Media has always been a side interest for Facebook, and not essential to its core function. But I hope for the sake of a well-informed citizenry that they continue tweaking their algorithms to surface content, including news, that is relevant, interesting, and true for all users.

See also: Why Facebook’s tips for spotting fake news don’t really work very well.