Why critical reviews matter

I’m grateful to John Gruber, a great tech writer and proprietor of the popular blog DaringFireball, for linking here the other day and sending lots of traffic to my post criticizing him. I’m also super grateful to the Quick Cache plug-in for WordPress which helped my blog handle all the added traffic without being, as they say, “Fireballed” (I wanted to make a donation to the developer, but couldn’t find the correct link on his current home page, sadly).

The added traffic brought a lot of new commenters, as well, which, as anyone with a blog can tell you, is sort of a mixed blessing. The reason you want comments is to get new perspectives and new information into the mix of whatever you’ve just written about. Blogs with really great commenters, like Fred Wilson’s AVC, create a whole new community that adds even more value. But comments can also bring trolls and idiots and worse.

After reading through the dozens of comments from Daring Fireball readers on my retina Mac post, I guess I can see why Gruber doesn’t allow comments on his own blog. Bada-bing! Just kidding…sort of.

Some I let go. The most egregious I simply didn’t approve. I won’t go through all the stupidity, expletives or b.s. but there was one point worth addressing. More than one commenter questioned why I was even writing a post about someone else’s review. This was typical:

Your article completely went overboard and misses on a major point. Gruber’s MBP Retina review is no different than you would be giving glowing review to the latest version of Android OS or Windows even when most of the third party apps haven’t up updated their software yet. The Retina is pretty much closely tied to Apple OSes. So yeah, it’s the developers’ responsibility to upgrade their software to Retina.

Setting aside the fact that I frequently write here about the various Macs, iPads and other Apple gear we own, there’s the underlying notion that it’s fine to leave out critical parts of a review for some reason or other, or no reason at all (it’s not Apple’s fault? Who cares whose fault it is).

But out in the real world, where I’m looking for which laptop to buy next, which phone will best meet my needs or how to avoid an overpriced, underperforming dud gadget, I want reviewers to be more critical, more discerning and more helpful.

And that need is visible in some of the other comments and later links back to my piece. People who bought the rMBP were surprised to discover an important current failing which very few reviewers felt worthy of mentioning: if you use non-Apple software, the text could look really bad, horrible even and super-distracting.

Here’s one of the comments I saw linking back, for example:

None of the pieces of Software I use day-in-day-out stand any chance of being updated to “retina” display quality anytime soon – so my Retina Experience was terrible – and led me to procrastinate more in Safari, just ’cause it looked “pretty” unlike the utterly ugly pixely-garbage look of Final draft and MS Word. This isn’t Apple’s fault – it’s the app makers taking too long to catch up. And yes, it’s like PPC to Intel where Office took forever – but Rosetta made the transition bearable at worst – the pixely-grossness of the Retina screen in Word/etc… is like using a blown up iPhone app on the iPad 24/7. No one wants to spend $2200 to do that. So my Retina MacBook Pro went back to Apple.

“fyrefly,” Aug. 22, 2012

Personally, I was intrigued by the retina screen after reading so many glowing reviews and then I was surprised and disappointed when I saw it later at the Apple Store. Too many reviews missed the boat. It’s not yet time to make the retina switch if you are one of the millions of people who rely on non-Apple software. That’s not saying anything mean about Apple or blaming Apple or making some sort of massive attack against the whole laptop now and forever. It’s just telling a lot of potential buyers about a critical shortcoming.

The one mainstream review of the retina MacBook Pro I saw that actually got under the hood and highlighted several key problems was over at Anadtech, perhaps not coincidentally a site with no allegiance to any particular company or operating system or niche in Gadget World. Here’s the page describing the text display problems in various programs. No axe to grind, no blinders, no conflicts of interest. The funny thing is that it’s still a very favorable review overall. And I would have had no problem with Gruber’s review  exactly as is if he had just added a few sentences of warning. Not too much to ask, I’d say.

John Gruber spills 2000 words on the importance of pixels and typography and the awesomeness of the new MacBook Pro with Retina display without ever mentioning that most apps look like ass and relegating to a footnote that the fifteen inch laptop size is a jack of all trades master of none that fits few people’s needs

(Update: On September 19, a couple of months after the retina MacBook Pro came out, Microsoft updated its Office apps for the higher-resolution display. And then in December, Adobe finally updated Photoshop. Most other Adobe apps remained non-retina ready.)

Along with all the usual crop of rave reviews from Apple publications of Apple’s latest flagship notebook, the 15″ MacBook Pro with Retina display, John Gruber’s is probably the most disappointing. The Daring Fireball author offers lofty praise for the new notebook and its dazzling screen:

Like no Apple device since the original 2007 iPhone, the new Retina 15-inch MacBook Pro feels like a device from the near future, something slightly beyond the ken of today’s cutting edge.

But the main thing is the display. That display. This display. Oh my.
Daring Fireball, Monday 13 August 2012

Funny thing about fonts and that gee-whiz display, though, funny thing Gruber forgot to mention. And Macworld forgot to mention in its even longer review. And a lot of other people forgot to mention. If you sling your words in almost any non-Apple program, the fonts look like ass. Total ass. Total, unmitigated ass¹.

Although Gruber says you wouldn’t be able to appreciate Retina crispness on an older display², I snuck this screen shot off a Retina MacBook Pro today which was running OS X “Mountain Lion” with all the latest upgraded apps. Click on the picture below to see a much larger version of the image.
Good and bad font display on retina macbook pro

The program in the upper left corner is Microsoft Word. Look at the jaggies in that 12 point type. Ugly. Now look over to the top right. That’s Apple’s own Pages program with the same words in the same font also at 12 points. Yummy. Likewise, in mid-screen is Apple’s TextEdit program. Smooth as a baby’s bottom. And in the lower foreground, Adobe’s Dreamweaver with text that looks like, well, like ass as Gruber might say.

But, hey, the guy at the Apple store tells me everything will look a lot better as soon as other software makers update their apps to take advantage of the Retina display.

How long will that take for Adobe, which showed a pre-release version of Photoshop at Apple’s Retina display press conference? No one knows. It’s helpfully “in the future,” says Photoshop kingpin John Nack. What about other text-heavy Adobe apps like Dreamweaver? No clue. Or what about Microsoft, not exactly known for ever bringing its popular Office apps like Word and Excel up to the latest and greatest OS X features? Absolutely no idea but sounds pretty far off. So we’re talking about the most popular programs that professional Mac users use every day. Seems worth mentioning in a review, no?

So, okay, the MacBook Pro with Retina display — It’s a not-ready-for-primetime-player of a Mac, a rare misstep in Apple’s lengthy track record of getting things right.

But the lack of Retina-ready apps isn’t the only problem and probably not even the most serious one. There’s also the question of who exactly needs this 15″ portable powerhouse that’s a lot bigger and heavier than a Macbook Air but lighter than a breadbox. Even Gruber seems a bit confused on this score, although he relegates his doubts to a footnote:

When I’m at my desk I want a big standalone display; when I’m away from the desk I want the smallest, lightest MacBook possible. The 15-inch retina MacBook Pro doesn’t fit this model. It’s way heavier and clumsier than the Air when used as a portable (especially on airplanes, a frequent mobile use case for me), and it would be criminal to put this machine on my desk only to hook it up to a fat-pixeled non-retina Cinema Display.

As I wrote about recently in my “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” post, Apple’s current line up is annoyingly out of step with customer needs right now. The Retina display is ahead of its time and comes only on a tweener notebook size and weight that’s falling out of favor faster than Gotye’s last music video. But more desirable MacBook Airs don’t have a Retina display and the desktop line doesn’t even have the latest Intel processors, flash hard drives standard or even USB 3.0 yet, not to mention the lack of Retina-ready external displays. What’s a poor Mac lover to do? Hurry up and wait, I’d recommend.

UPDATE: Thanks to John for linking back here just now. He asks: “I’m not sure what Pressman’s argument is, though. It’s no different than any previous transition — PowerPC to Intel, classic Mac OS to Mac OS X, etc. Apple ships first; developers like Microsoft and Adobe catch up later.”

Easy answer: I’m not seeking “complaining” but reviews of the Retina MacBook Pro ought to clearly let people know that a lot of apps not only don’t get Retina-quality text but actually look worse than they do on older, non-Retina displays. I’m not blaming Apple or anyone, really. It’s just a highly relevent fact to a potential buyer.

Having read a bunch of early reviews, similar to John’s, I went into the Apple store in June thinking I might actually buy one soon. But I was shocked at how poorly some of the apps displayed text. So the apps aren’t ready yet, hence the bottom line: hurry up and wait.


¹There is this vague bit but it doesn’t make clear that non-Apple apps are screwed and implies it’s only a problem on web sites: “Retina text looks better on the MacBook Pro than on the iPhone or iPad, even when you move in pretty close to the screen — and non-retina text and graphics (on the web, or UI elements in not-optimized-for-retina-yet apps) look far worse on the MacBook Pro than they do on the iPad or iPhone”

²There’s at least one other minor, if glaring, error in the piece. Gruber says the new Retina Macbook Pro is “noticeably and appreciably thinner and lighter than any previous MacBook Pro.” But at 4.46 according to Apple’s specs, it weighs exactly nine-tenths of one percent less than the 4.5 pound 13″ MacBook Pro (like the one I’m typing on right now), which doesn’t count as either noticeably or appreciably lighter in my book.

Cool and useful Android apps that aren’t on the iPhone

I’ve only been an Android phone convert for a few days, but I’m coming to appreciate the Google portable OS more and more on my new Nexus S. The notification system, the widgets and the far greater opportunity for customization are all welcome changes from my iPhone. Integration with Google Voice and my Google contacts is awesome, as expected. Freedom from AT&T’s overpriced and unreliable mobile network is a bonus.

It’s not all better. One of the biggest negatives I expected from leaving the comfy iPhone ecosystem was the loss of favorite apps including Instapaper, Evernote, Angry Birds, Kindle and so on. I quickly discovered that many, but not all, of my favorites had Android equivalents. Some, like Angry Birds and Evernote, are direct from the original developers. Others, like Goodreads and Instapaper, are native clients written by outsiders.

But I wasn’t expecting to find many Android-only apps of merit. John Gruber has blogged and tweeted extensively about his failure to discover for worthy Android-only apps excluding those made by Google.

I’m happy to report that I’ve done a bit better (and p.s. the Google apps are awesome!). Here is a first round of Android-only apps I’ve already come to use frequently. Please don’t get too excited about the why’s and wherefore’s, as this is simply a listing exercise.

1. Verizon FiOS apps, including visual home voicemail and on-demand mobile video. A game-changer for we the FiOS minions. Perhaps coming to Apple when the Verizon iPhone hits?

2. Podcast catcher Listen. I may be an iPhone idiot but it seems like I can’t easily download new podcasts I subscribe to through iTunes directly to my phone (Update: there is a 3rd-party iOS app called Podcaster). With Listen, I can subscribe to any podcast and get all the new episodes while on the go.

3. PinBoard. I’ve replaced Yahoo’s on-again/off-again bookmarking site with the Gruber-endorsed site Pinboard. There’s a great app for Android called PinDroid but I couldn’t find one for the iPhone.

4. Amazon’s MP3 store. Here’s one you are guaranteed never to see in the iTunes app store. Buy cheap MP3s on your Android phone with no fuss and no muss.

5. Baseball Prospectus. Not sure why my favorite Sabermetrically-inclined baseball site has an Android app and not one for iPhones, but there it is. Read all the articles, listen to podcasts, etc.

6. Silent VIP. This is a cool and crazily useful little app that does one thing well. Set your phone to silent mode but still have it ring when a particular caller (or set of callers) is on the line.

What’s still missing? I’d love a native Android app for my preferred photosharing site, Zenfolio. It’s just okay in the browser and the phone’s native gallery app only seems to connect with PicassaWeb. And where is LinkedIn (UPDATE: Coming soon, it seems)? As many have previously complained, there’s no easy way to take a screenshot, for some odd reason (the two apps in the market require a rooted phone!).

And my most annoying switch was caused by the lack of an Android version of Acrylic Software’s Wallet program. I had to move all my passwords over to 1Password for its multi-platform goodness and a simple export/import didn’t work. And, of course, I’ve lost the ability to buy an app once and use it across all our phones, tablets and iPods.