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Is Pogue a Fanboy?

Every now and then, someone online calls me an “Apple fanboy.” The implication is that, in my New York Times column, I give Apple a free ride, that I applaud Apple’s every move with enthusiasm.

Now, I’m a technology critic. And credibility is all a critic really has. My job and reputation are far more important to me than — well, whatever it is that the fanboy-callers think I get out of praising Apple. So I’ll admit that the criticism bothers me, and I’d like to respond.

First of all, I do generally like Apple’s products — not because it comes from Apple, but because Apple’s products often exhibit an enormous attention to elegance, simplicity, and beauty.

There are also music critics who generally admire Sondheim, and book reviewers who generally like Updike. Does that make them fanboys? Or what about how Consumer Reports names Toyota and Honda the top car brands, year in and year out? Is Consumer Reports therefore a Toyota “fanboy”? Or is it possible that those cars really *are* better?

This does not mean, however, that I have a pro-Apple “bias,” or that I give Apple a free ride. Because Apple had one good idea doesn’t mean the next one will be good. So if you believe that I find no fault with Apple products, then you haven’t been reading closely enough.

Here are a few recent examples from my Apple reviews:

  • Apple Maps: "The Brooklyn Bridge has melted into the river, the road to the Hoover Dam plunges straight down into a canyon, and Auckland’s main train station is in the middle of the sea. In short, Maps is an appalling first release. It may be the most embarrassing, least usable piece of software Apple has ever unleashed."
  • iPhone 5: Apple is replacing that inch-wide connector with a new, far smaller one it’s calling Lightning. Think of all those existing charging cables, docks, chargers, car adapters, hotel-room alarm clocks, speakers, accessories—hundreds of millions of gadgets that will no longer fit the iPhone.

    Apple will sell two adapters: a simple plug adapter for $30, or one with a six-inch cable for $40, to accommodate accessories with shapes that can’t handle the plug adapter.

    That’s way, way too expensive! These adapters should not be a profit center for Apple; they should be a gesture of kindness to those of us who’ve bought accessories based on the old connector.

  • MobileMe: "The e-mail features of MobileMe just don't work. The online Mail program at Me.com shows up empty; mail you try to send from your e-mail program never goes out; and messages sent to you get bounced. Maybe it wasn't such a hot idea for Apple to launch four enormously complex initiatives — the iPhone 3G, the App Store, the iPhone 2.0 software update and MobileMe — all on the same day."
  • iPad 3: Really, the new iPad should have been called the iPad 2S… It doesn't introduce anything that we haven't seen before, either in the iPhone or in rival tablets. There's no Steve Jobs "one more thing" moment here; Apple just took its white-hot iPad and added the latest screen, battery and cellular technologies.

…There's another price you'll pay for all this [Retina screen] clarity, too: in storage. Tests performed by Macworld.com revealed that the graphics in Retina-ready apps consume two to three times as much of the iPad's nonexpandable storage than pre-Retina apps. To update their apps for the new display, software companies must redo their graphics at much higher resolution, which means much larger files.
Worse, each app is usually written in single, universal version for all iPad models. So those apps will eat up the same extra space, pointlessly, on older iPads, too.

… Weirdly, speech-to-text is the only piece of Siri that the new iPad inherits from the iPhone 4S. That the full Siri isn't available smacks more of a marketing department holdback than technical limitations.

  • OS X Mountain Lion: Apple claims "over 200 new features." But some of them are tiny tweaks (Safari checks for software updates every day! Ooh!) or techie-only treats ("Xsan, the high-performance cluster file system"). Fifteen are improvements for Chinese customers, which is great for Apple's world-domination plans but irrelevant to  non-Chinese speakers.

… [Dictation uses] exactly the same recognition technology as the iPhone's. So it requires no voice training and no special microphone, but it requires an Internet connection. And the accuracy is not exactly what you see in the Martin Scorsese Apple commercials for Siri.

…Apple has tried to refine last year's baffling AutoSave feature. It has restored the "Save As" and "Revert to Save" functions; alas, the result is almost more confusing than before.

Keep in mind, too, that Mountain Lion is available exclusively as a download. This time, Apple isn't even selling the software on a USB stick as a fallback. That's a big "tough rocks" to people who don't have high-speed Internet.

  • MacBook Air: For example, ultrabooks [running Windows] come in larger screen sizes [than the Air], like 14 inches (Hewlett-Packard) and 15 (Samsung). You can buy an ultrabook with a non-glossy screen -- the colors aren't as vibrant, but you don't get annoying reflections, either. Most ultrabooks have with dedicated keys that Apple leaves out, like Home, End, Page Up and Page Down. Finally, most ultrabooks cost less than an Air, which is $1,300 for the 13-inch model.
  • iPhone 4S: Siri draws a blank if you say things like, "How many AT&T minutes do I have left this month?" or "How do you get  ketchup stains out?" And it's surprising that she doesn't interact with more of the built-in apps. It would be great if you could open an app by voice ("Open Angry Birds") instead of hunting through 11 screens, or turn on Airplane Mode by voice, or display a certain set of photos.

… Every now and then the 4S's camera app gets stuck on its startup screen. And while the battery still gets you through one full day, standby time is much shorter than before (200 hours versus 300).

  • Mac OS X Lion: The Lion upgrade is classic Apple: innovative to some, gimmicky to others, big leaps forward, a few stumbles back.

A lot of the promise is Apple's wishful thinking. Features like full-screen mode, Auto-Save and rotate/zoom gestures generally work only in Apple programs; other companies' apps, like Word and Photoshop, have to be upgraded to incorporate these new features.

[Apple removed] Rosetta, a software kit that allowed ancient programs to run on the Intel chips that Apple started using in 2006. A few programs won't run without it, including, alarmingly, Quicken. Apart from switching to a different finance program, like the lame Quicken Essentials or the lesser-known iBank, no solution is in sight.

Note, too, that there are a few bugs on this newborn cub. I encountered intermittent glitches with the Resume feature, MobileMe syncing alerts, missing menu bars, various Mail features, and, on one very special day, dog-slow program opening.

  • Final Cut X: Switching to the new Final Cut from the old one is like coming home from college to discover that your parents remodeled your bedroom. Longtime Final Cut jockeys, in particular, may grind their teeth for a few days -- and not just because they have to pay $300 for the "upgrade," same as newcomers.

Even on medium-powered Macs, scrolling and dragging operations can get laggy. I also ran into a bunch of typical first-release bugs. Don't entrust your next Cannes entry to this program.

…The biggest disappointment is that Final Cut X can't open old Final Cut projects. They're now orphaned, stuck forever in the old program. Apple says the architecture of the new program is too different from the old one.

Of course, that's the way Apple rolls. Here's one more Apple-imposed migration to a new, very different platform.

  • iPad 2: Now, the coming months will bring a snowstorm of tablets that compete with the iPad. And they'll offer some juicy features that the iPad still lacks. On an Android tablet, you can speak to enter text directly into any box that accepts typing. You also get an outstanding turn-by-turn navigation app -- and GPS maps are a different experience on a 10-inch screen. It's like being guided to your destination by an Imax movie.

Furthermore, new Android tablets will be able to play Flash videos and animations on the Web, something that both Apple and Adobe (maker of Flash) assure us will never come to the iPad (or iPhone). Flash on a tablet or phone can be balky and battery-hungry, but it's often better than nothing. Thousands of news and entertainment Web sites still rely on Flash, and the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch simply can't display them.

  • Verizon iPhone: Making an iPhone that works on a C.D.M.A. network entailed four adjustments, some of which you won't like.

First, Apple moved the volume and Ringer Off switches a fraction of an inch to accommodate the C.D.M.A. antenna inside. It's not a big deal, but those buttons no longer fit AT&T iPhone cases.

A second C.D.M.A. difference: when you exchange long text messages with non-Verizon phones, they get split up into 160-character chunks.

Third: you can't talk on a C.D.M.A. phone while you're online. That is, if you're on a call, you can't simultaneously check a Web site or send e-mail over the cellular network-- and, annoyingly, the Personal Hotspot feature cuts off.

For business travelers, the fourth C.D.M.A. difference is the most disappointing: not many other countries use C.D.M.A. The Verizon iPhone works in 40 countries, including Mexico, Canada and China; AT&T phones, on the other hand, work in 220 countries. (In both cases, you pay through the nose to use them overseas.)

  • iPad: The bottom line: You can get a laptop for much less money -- with a full keyboard, DVD drive, USB jacks, camera-card slot, camera, the works. Besides: If you've already got a laptop and a smartphone, who's going to carry around a third machine?

There's an e-book reader app, but the selection is puny (60,000 titles for now). You can't read well in direct sunlight. At 1.5 pounds, the iPad gets heavy in your hand after awhile (the Kindle is 10 ounces). And you can't read books from the Apple bookstore on any other machine -- not even a Mac or iPhone.

When the iPad is upright, typing on the on-screen keyboard is a horrible experience; when the iPad is turned 90 degrees, the keyboard is just barely usable.
The iPad can't play Flash video. Thousands of Web sites show up with empty white squares on the iPad -- places where videos or animations are supposed to play.

There's no multitasking, either. It's one app at a time, just like on the iPhone. Plus no GPS, no USB jacks -- and no camera. Bye-bye, Skype video chats. You knowApple is just leaving stuff out for next year's model.

  • Apple TV: You have to finish watching within 24 hours of starting. You have to start within 30 days. Not all movies are available, and once they've appeared in the catalog, they may disappear again for six to nine months during the "HBO window," as the industry calls it.

All of this makes you wonder if anyone involved with Apple TV has children. Would it really dent the studios' bottom line if they gave you two days to watch a movie?

Apple advertises that its movies are available the same day they come out on DVD. But beware: Apple is talking about buying movies, not renting them on Apple TV. You won't find "Iron Man 2," "Karate Kid," "Zombieland" or "Prince of Persia" for rent on Apple TV, though they're out on DVD.

  • New iPods: "CUPERTINO, Calif.--At a special press event today, Steven P. Jobs, Apple's chief executive, unveiled a new lineup of iPod models, just in time for the holiday season. The diminutive iPod Shuffle still has no screen and is still made of brushed aluminum, but it now has _____ and comes in _____ colors. Apple tinkered with the proportions of the iPod Nano, too, adding _____ and redesigning the _____.”

Yes, the ritual of Apple's annual September new-iPods announcement is so well entrenched at this point that you can practically reuse the same news item every year.

…Bizarrely, the earbuds supplied with all of this year's iPods no longer have playback controls on the cord. That's O.K. on the Shuffle, which has physical buttons for Pause and Next Song. But on the new Nano and Touch, you can't pause or change songs without stopping your run, looking down, waking the screen and tapping buttons on the glass (or yanking out the earbuds). Bad Apple!

  • iPhone 4: The iPhone is no longer the undisputed king of app phones. In particular, the technically inclined may find greater flexibility and choice among its Android rivals, like the HTC Incredible and Evo. They're they're loaded with droolworthy features like turn-by-turn GPS instructions, speech recognition that saves you typing, removable batteries and a choice of cell networks.

…This feature, called FaceTime, is pure Apple. However, you can enjoy this classic "show Grandma the baby" fantasy only if you and Grandma both have iPhone 4's, and only when you're both in strong Wi-Fi hot spots.

…Furthermore, for $5, you can install iMovie for iPhone. Frankly, the whole concept sounds a little ridiculous; video editing on a phone? You might as well introduce Microsoft Excel for Hearing Aids.

  • Mac OS X Snow Leopard: I experienced frustrating glitches in various programs, including Microsoft Word, Flip4Mac, Photoshop CS3, CyberDuck, and TextExpander, an abbreviation-expander.
  • iMovie ’08: "iMovie '08 is an utter bafflement. What the [bleep] was Apple thinking?"

    "It’s incapable of the more sophisticated editing that the old iMovie made so enjoyable. It gets a D for audio editing. You can't add chapter markers. Bookmarks are gone. "Themes" are gone. You can no longer export only part of a movie. All visual effects are gone--even basic options like slow motion, reverse motion, fast motion, and black-and-white. And you can't have more than one project open at a time."

    "I've used the real iMovie to edit my Times videos for three years now. But the new version is totally unusable for that purpose."
  • iPod Touch: "The Apple scalpel may have slipped when it excised the volume buttons, which could be considered important controls on a music player. The earbuds have no iPhone-like clicker that pauses or switches songs, either. So the only way to pause, change songs or adjust the volume is to take the iPod out of your pocket and use two hands to summon the onscreen controls. In that regard, music playback is, oddly enough, the iPod Touch’s least successful feature."

  • iPod Nano 2007: "The headphone jack is on the bottom, so the Nano doesn’t sit level when you prop it up on a treadmill. And while the Nano’s face comes in five brushed-metal colors (is there an echo in here?), its back is now the same mirror-finish chrome as the larger iPods—a fingerprint magnet."

  • iPhone: "The iPhone is revolutionary; it’s flawed. It’s substance; it’s style. It does things no phone has ever done before; it lacks features found even on the most basic phones."

    "Making a call can take as many as six steps: wake the phone, unlock its buttons, summon the Home screen, open the Phone program, view the Recent Calls or speed-dial list, and select a name. Call quality is only average. There’s no memory-card slot, no chat program, no voice dialing. The browser can’t handle Java or Flash. You can’t capture video. And you can’t send picture messages (called MMS) to other cellphones."

    "Apple says that the battery starts to lose capacity after 300 or 400 charges. Eventually, you’ll have to send the phone to Apple for battery replacement, much as you do now with an iPod, for a fee. Then there’s the small matter of typing. Tapping the skinny little virtual keys on the screen is frustrating, especially at first."

  • iPod Photo: “Why can’t you download your pictures onto this thing straight from a digital camera? Why do you have to use iTunes, a music program, to manage the photo loading? And, inevitably: Why can’t it play video? After all, for the same $500, you can buy a Windows Mobile Portable Media Center that plays not only music and photos, but videos too.”

  • Original iPod: “As sometimes happens in products built at the altar of coolness, function occasionally suffers. For example, there is no belt clip, which could be an issue for joggers whose sweat pants lack pockets. And unfortunately, fingerprints and streaks dull its shine faster than you can say, ‘Honey, where do we keep the Windex?’”
  • Mac OS X Panther: “Now the big one: Apple wants $130 for Panther. That’s a fine how-de-do for everyone who dutifully paid $130 last year for version 10.2 and $130 a year before that for version 10.1. Microsoft, at least, has the decency to wait a few years between upgrades.”

  • iPod Nano: “If your computer has only a regular U.S.B. 1.1 connector (and this includes Macs that are only two years old), you could practically sing your songs in the time it takes to transfer them to the Nano.”

  • Apple TV: “It has an Internet connection and a hard drive; why can’t it record TV shows like a TiVo? Furthermore, it’s a little weird that menus and photos appear in spectacular high-definition, but not TV shows and movies. All iTunes videos are in standard definition, and don’t look so hot on an HDTV.”

  • iTunes Music Store: “It’s annoying that no search by artist name produces more than 100 results; if you want that 101st Carly Simon song, you have to search for it by name.”

  • iTunes 4.9: “Ever since Steven P. Jobs returned to Apple Computer in 1997 after a 12-year absence, his company has thrived by executing the same essential formula over and over: Find an exciting new technology whose complexity and cost keep it out of the average person’s life. Streamline it, mainstream it, strip away the geeky options. Take the credit.”

  • Mac OS X Tiger: “The second most heavily hyped Tiger feature is called Dashboard. But Dashboard isn’t a Tiger exclusive; the shareware program Konfabulator, available for Windows and older Mac OS versions, does pretty much the same thing.”

  • iPod Nano: “The Mini held much more music; four gigabytes of storage instead of two. The Nano’s battery doesn’t last as long, either: 14 hours instead of the Mini’s 18, and rival flash players’ batteries run much longer still. And the Nano can’t connect to your Mac or PC with a FireWire cable, as all previous iPods could.”

  • iPhoto: “iPhoto 5 can accommodate about 20,000 photos per library before it starts bogging down; for the true digicam fanatic, that’s about one afternoon’s shooting at Disney World. Picasa [for Windows] handily juggles 250,000 photos without breaking a sweat.”

  • iPod Nano: “It can’t connect to a TV for showing off to the masses, as the big iPods can. None of the current iPod microphones, remote controls or digital camera photo-transfer adapters work on the Nano, which lacks the necessary jacks.”

  • AirPort Express: “First, you can only send the music to one set of speakers at a time. Second, the connection between the AirPort Express and the stereo is not wireless. You have to supply your own cable to connect them. Finally, if you’re downstairs with the stereo, you can’t pause playback when the phone rings, see the name of the current song, or skip a truly awful song, without having to run upstairs to the computer... You could buy each of the Express’s features for less money.”

  • iPod Mini: “If you want to buy pop music legally online [for this player], you must use Apple’s iTunes Music Store; iPods can’t play songs bought from other online music stores... Rival players hold more music than the Mini (about 250 songs more). Each contains a five-gigabyte hard drive instead of a four-gigabyte one. And each rival either costs less or offers more features.”

  • Mac OS X Tiger: “Messages alert you — a little annoyingly, actually —every time you download a file that could theoretically contain a virus.”

  • iPod Photo: “On Windows, synching is measured in minutes, not seconds. For best results, keep a stack of Popular Photography magazines next to your iPod cradle.”

  • Flat iMac: “Even the top-of-the-line model comes with only 256 megabytes of memory. Programs like Apple’s creative suite (iMovie, iPhoto, iTunes, GarageBand and so on, all included) and Adobe Photoshop can run in 256 megs, but only barely; programs like Microsoft’s new Virtual PC 7, which lets most Windows programs run on the Mac, don’t open at all.”

  • Flat-panel iMac: “Apple may have gone too far with some of its sacrifices on the altar of beauty. The power button would have been more convenient on the front, or on the iMac’s clear-and-white keyboard. The base is unsettlingly massive and white, like a guy in shorts with his foot in a cast.”

Finally, one more point. Apple is not the only company with a strong Attention to Detail Department, and I’m not shy about singling out similar companies. Yet you know what’s weird? Nobody has ever called me a TiVo fanboy, Sonos fanboy, BlackBerry fanboy, or Google fanboy.

And it goes without saying that the Apple bashers don’t notice when I praise Microsoft for doing elegant work, as I did when Windows Vista came out.

To me, all of this is evidence that to some people, the word “Apple” is a sensitive trigger word. It triggers a reaction so severe, it causes people to skip over entire paragraphs in order to draw the conclusion that I give Apple only rave reviews.

I doubt very much, therefore, that anything I’ve said here will change these readers’ minds. But at least I’ve offered a few concrete examples of the way I attempt balance in my Apple reviews (and all reviews).

I’ve been writing my Times column since 2000, and I’m still always trying to improve. Therefore, I’d welcome your reactions to this document — or anything else I’ve written!

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