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My personal technological year in review

My personal technological year in review
By Harry McCracken • Issue #10 • View online

If you’d like to make the case that 2018 was a decent year for the technology industry at large, go for it. I’d love to hear your rationale.
But no matter how embarrassing/offensive/generally dire the year was for certain major companies, my own year in tech—the one involving the products and services I use—was … not bad!
Here, for the record, is a recap.
I narrowed my use of Facebook, though not exactly on purpose. I have never found my personal Facebook feed to be depressing or a cesspool; in fact, it’s been rather pleasant. But in 2018, as Facebook dug its way out of the Cambridge Analytica mess, it introduced new technical limitations which broke the Twitter-Facebook integration I’d long used to push my tweets into my Facebook feed. That greatly diminished the quantity of stuff I published to Facebook—including all the self-promotional posts about pieces I’ve written—which reduced the number of comments I got and generally made the service less of a time sink.
More and more, I’ve found that the two things I most enjoy doing on Facebook are (A) sharing some of the vintage photos of my relatives I’ve been scanning, which people seem to enjoy; and (B) participating in groups about old cartoons, comics, and various other forms of cultural ephemera. It’s fun. And it doesn’t involve giving Facebook data that allows it to compile an intrusively personal profile of my activities and obsessions.
If you were my friend on Facebook, you’d see a lot of really old photographs of my relatives
If you were my friend on Facebook, you’d see a lot of really old photographs of my relatives
I cut the cable-TV cord. After a decade of watching my Comcast bill creep inexorably upward even as I tended to watch less TV, I ditched the TV part of my service last summer. I used part of the money I saved to pay Comcast for a faster tier of broadband, and another chunk to subscribe to YouTube TV—and I’m still saving something like $65 a month. YouTube TV’s leaner lineup of channels is a better fit for my watching habits than Comcast’s endless smorgasbord of shows I don’t actually care to watch. And you know what? If I lose interest in YouTube TV, I can switch my allegiance to DirecTV Now, SlingTV, Hulu, or PS Vue without ever leaving the couch.
I became an ex-TiVo user. In 2001, when DVRs were still a novelty, I bought a ReplayTV on impulse, and loved it. A few years later, when that company ran into trouble, I grudgingly migrated to a TiVo. And there I stayed until my Roamio model began acting up last year. After spending a fair amount of time and money trying to fix it, I gave up and now do my recording via YouTube TV (and, for a smattering of over-air shows, a Tablo, although I could live without it). For the first time in almost two decades, my primary interface to TV isn’t a box with a hard disk connected directly to my TV, which–given the tendency of my TiVos to eventually croak–is a relief. YouTube TV’s DVR deletes programs after nine months and carries other limitations, but I don’t regret the tradeoffs so far.
I stopped hardwiring my consumer impulse to Amazon. No, I’m not boycotting Amazon or even canceling my Prime account. But I have concluded that reflexively one-clicking on its site doesn’t ensure the best selection, prices, or service. For one thing, Amazon’s record at getting me my orders on time has lately become so tenuous that I think of its stated delivery timetables as lofty aspirations, not promises.
So I’ve been shopping around more—and it’s felt good. (Tip: B&H is a pretty great place to buy electronics of all sorts.) Henceforth, when I give my business to Amazon it’ll be because it earned it, not through sloth. Although come to to think of it, I’ve recently been buying some of my lunches at San Francisco’s two new Amazon Go stores—try the chicken banh mi if you get a chance.
I ditched my wallet. For most of my adult life, I toted a brick-like wallet that would have terrified George Costanza and occasionally inspired mockery from dear friends. A few months ago, I stuck it in my sock drawer and replaced it with a Speck wallet case for my iPhone X. Speck advertises the case as having enough space for three cards, but I’ve managed to squeeze in four: an ATM card, my driver’s license, my subway pass, and the card I use to get into the WeWork space where I spend my workdays. I also usually have a folded-up dry-cleaning slip in there and—stuck between the phone and the case—three $20 bills for use in case of emergency. That—and Apple Pay—is all I need most days; it just feels good not futzing with anything else. When I do need another card, such as the one for my storage space on the other side of the country, I remember to grab it.
I held onto last year’s smartphone. In 2008, I bought an iPhone 3G to replace the Windows Mobile phone I used at the time. I’ve purchased a new iPhone every year since—and sometimes an Android phone as well. In 2018, however, I decided that the iPhone X I bought in 2017 still had another year in it. I don’t claim to be Mr. Average Consumer; as someone who writes about technology, I’ve looked at splurging on an annual basis as a business expense of sorts. But maybe my reaction to 2018’s iPhones—nice, but not a must-upgrade—wasn’t all that different from the hive mind of a lot of other Apple customers. Lusting after a new phone on an every-other-year basis does not seem like a hardship.
(Did I mention that I did toy with buying a Google Pixel 3 in 2018–and didn’t in part because there didn’t seem to be any good cases with card slots on the back available for it?)
I splurged on a new iPad Pro. Despite my sticking with last year’s iPhone, Apple made a tidy profit from me in 2018: On iPad Pro launch day in November, I bought the highest-end 12.9” model with LTE, 1TB of storage, and the new Keyboard Folio and Pencil. (Why a budget-busting terabyte of space? Mostly because I have a vast repository of old cartoons, comic books, and other media in digital form, and love for them to be right there on my iPad along with everything from my own writings to my aforementioned family photos. Apple’s ancient “What’s on Your PowerBook?” ad campaign still speaks to me.)
Various iPads have been my primary computing devices for most of this decade, so I’ve long known that I’m one of those lucky people who’s more productive on an iPad than on a garden-variety computer, not less so. And I’ve never been more productive on an iPad than I am on this one, with its svelter form factor, snappier performance, and much, much nicer version of the Apple Pencil.
Three notes, though:
  • Apple is exchanging the iPad Pro I bought on launch day—it developed a patch of dead pixels, a flaw detectable only with dark screen elements such as black backgrounds. Whether this is a fluke that could have happened with any earlier iPad I’ve owned, I’m not sure.
  • I was dispirited to discover that Apple’s new Keyboard Folio—now even more expensive than its predecessor at $200–still showed severe signs of wear within weeks of me taking it out of the box. The A, S, E, and L characters have vanished before my eyes, and the fabric-like surface of other keys is rubbing away. In the past few days, I’ve also found that I’ve had to re-seat the tablet in the case from time to time to get some keys to register. Maybe these defects would take longer to crop up if I used my iPad a few hours a week rather than eight hours a day—but if I wasn’t serious about typing on an iPad, I wouldn’t have paid $200 for this contraption in the first place. (Other than the pitiful build quality, I’m delighted with it.)
Where’s the A and S go?
Where’s the A and S go?
  • Even though I don’t feel particularly hamstrung by iOS, I agree with everyone else who says that the new iPad Pros beg for a new version of the operating system designed to make the iPad hardware shine. There’s so much the company could do to make this platform even better.
One last thing I did in 2018: I started this newsletter. It’s been a joy to have it in my life, and I hope it’s brightened up your inbox.
I aim to push newsletters out at a faster clip in 2019 than I did in 2018–which shouldn’t be hard!—and to experiment with the format as I do. Thank you for your support, and feel free to drop me a line at
More stuff by me
The 60 dumbest moments in tech 2018
IBM’s quantum computer is now a quantum computing system
Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer on five years of AI research
An exclusive look inside Google’s in-house incubator Area 120
These ambitious headphones are Dolby’s first consumer product ever
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Harry McCracken

A roundup of technology-related stuff I'm writing, reading, and remembering.

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