Big Sur and big screens

I’ve also been living with Big Sur on my primary Mac for several weeks and that experience has been a little less delightful, and in some ways more of an adjustment than the smaller phone.

Just to get this out of the way: Bugs aside, overall I actually really like the look, and while I have some minor quibbles I expect that most of those will get tweaked over time, just as iOS did post-iOS 7. But…

The slippery notifications have serious usability problems that I really hope will get rethought sooner rather than later. The toolbars have completely broken my muscle memory, especially for Mail. As someone who often uses search in Mail sometimes dozens of times a day, the narrower available space causing the search field to be hidden/collapsed except when the window is much wider than I would normally keep it is irritating. The centred text in narrow dialog boxes is terrible.

I get why you might want that orientation as the default for an unoptimized Catalyst app, but it should not be the system default. I’d be satisfied if it’s possible to override that behaviour so that developers who care can adjust accordingly - some (many) won’t but that’s nothing new, Mac users are no stranger to apps with varying degrees of Mac-ness - but I hope the default appearance changes.

All of this together has given me the feeling that the OS - and the layout of many apps in particular - is increasingly designed for smaller screens, as in smaller than the iMac. I don’t blame Catalyst for this, as this is not actually new to Big Sur nor even particularly surprising - for a long time the vast majority of Macs sold have been laptops, and it makes sense for layouts to be most optimized for those screen sizes.

But more of my apps feel just a little out of place on my 27” screen now, and that there are some missed opportunities to take advantage of that space even if only the dialogs have changed in a particular app. One of the great things about the Mac is the ability - laptop or desktop - to connect screens of any size. Maybe there is usage data beyond the dominance of portables to support that direction, and I know designing layouts flexible enough to take good advantage of a wide range of screen sizes can be challenging. Whatever the reasons, I hope that a little more attention is paid to actually using all this screen real estate other than to just give elements on screen a little more breathing room and more generous spacing. After all, it would also benefit any larger iPadOS devices (or better external display support) in the future, should they ever materialize.

Or maybe it’s just me, and I just need to suck it up and get used to it*.

*except for those dialog boxes - I don’t think I’ll ever really get used to them.

Two delightful weeks

After two weeks of use, the iPhone 12 mini is, as I had hoped, delightful.

The size is perfect in the hand, and feels wonderful. It won’t quite unseat my iPhone 5 as my favorite - though that is partly out of sentiment - but it’s very, very close. While I’m tempted by the idea of a MagSafe case, it feels a shame to cover it any more than absolutely necessary, so for now I’m using an inexpensive super-thin case. I may, for the first time in a long time, end up using it caseless.

Typing is even better than I had expected - given my less-than-petite fingers I had been trying to make a point of getting used to swiping on the keyboard in anticipation of the smaller screen, and it turns out that one-handed swiping is amazing on the mini, far better than on my iPhone X (the occasional and often hilarious error aside). The keyboard is just enough smaller that my thumb can comfortably reach everything without stretching or adjusting my grip. It actually feels slightly awkward typing on my X now.

The cameras are, as expected, a significant improvement over the X (missing telephoto camera aside). The low light performance is leaps and bounds better (even without night mode) and the ultrawide - in addition to opening up some great creative opportunites for landscapes and interior shots - is particularly nice for video.

Night mode is more hit or miss than I would have expected. As often as not I prefer the shots taken without it so far, but it has also caught a couple of shots that would have been a dark, blurry, grainy mess otherwise so it’s great to have, and on all of the cameras no less.

Although the ProRAW coverage does make me wish I had it as an option, for myself and the photography I do I’m glad that I didn’t let it push me into getting one of the larger phones. Hopefully it will make it down to the mini size by my next upgrade, and in the meantime I can still get great photos using the non-Pro RAW and and apps like Halide (Do read Understanding ProRAW - on top of being a great dive into ProRAW and how Halide handles it, there’s a great overview of digital photography and RAW files in general).

I also found Nick Heer’s A Brief Look at ProRAW illuminating, since it has examples that corresponded to many pictures I’ve taken - or tried to - in the past. Austin Mann’s overview does highlight one pain point - the improvements for the occasional astrophotography I might try will be sorely missed.

While testing I’ve also been reminded of one of the great advantages of my mirrorless camera: although it is far bulkier than the mini, it has the virtue of every control and setting being accessible with whatever gloves I happen to be wearing while walking on a frosty morning.

5G is a mixed bag - tests at home indoors gave me speeds significantly higher than LTE, but not as fast as WiFi. A quick test outside at a local mall was significantly slower than LTE, but that’s not entirely surprising: LTE speeds locally usually range from very good to excellent. 5G is great for future proofing, especially when we can actually go places and travel again, but for now I’ve left it turned completely off.

It is definitely not the best choice for everyone…

But I love mine.

Finding Delight

My black iPhone 5 has always been my favorite iPhone as a physical object: I love how it looks, and the size and weight are pretty much perfect as far as I’m concerned… for a phone. As a portable computing device to get work done on, the typing experience and small screen left a lot to be desired. I still love it regardless, six years after it retired from daily use. Slow as it is by today’s standards, even using it for development is delightful.

In the weeks since the event, I’ve been struggling to decide which phone to replace my aging iPhone X with - the mini, which is the roughly 5-sized and 5-shaped all-screen phone I’ve been hoping for? The Pro Max, which gets me plenty of real estate for getting work done and the best possible cameras?

The logical choice of course would be to get the 6.1” 12 Pro (in graphite, because for some reason I love the look of it in person far more than I thought I would) which would seem to strike a balance on physical size and camera features. But it would be a not entirely satisfying compromise, and the reachability of the screen is just enough worse than the X to make one-handed use awkward.

The practical choice would probably be the Pro Max - more screen area for work, top notch cameras, and the awkward size isn’t a problem because I’m not going anywhere for the foreseable future anyway.

And I did have some concerns about the mini beyond missing out on camera features:

  • Is taking the screen layout of the X/Xs/11 Pro and shrinking it down to fit going to be a problem for my not-as-young-as-they used-to-be eyes?
  • How is the typing experience?

I was still undecided after having had a chance to hold* all three sizes, though it did alleviate my concerns about the mini.

✻ Sort of. I went to the local Best Buy to avoid going to a mall and the phones were strapped down tight enough to hardly move, apparently to avoid people trying to cut the security cables. Perhaps if the staff were more attentive, or the mobile department were not right next to the entrance, they could have a more customer-friendly experience.

Oddly enough, it was all the excitement about the M1-based Macs that gave me clarity: I was having a hard time because unlike every other time, what I wanted and was excited about was neither the most practical option nor the top of the line model.

So I’m going with my emotional choice and getting an iPhone 12 mini. It is not the most sensible choice. I will find the size awkward when the time comes to log in to a server and make some urgently needed change. There will be times where I regret not having the 2x lens, or Night Mode portraits.

But this time around I’m trading some practicality for that little bit of delight that will happen every time I pick it up, turn it over in my hand, or slip it into my pocket. I feel like I deserve that right now.

It’s worth noting that the decision was made easier by having a decent camera I can make a point of having with me when I expect a longer lens might be useful.

I do have to wait for that delight - since I’m doing it as a carrier upgrade this time and they’re backordered, it’s not 100% clear when exactly it will show up.