Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October 17th, 2017

Key Press Latency of Popular Keyboards

Dan Luu tested a bunch of popular keyboard models and recorded their latency. Something that might surprise you: Apple’s Magic Keyboard, when connected over USB, had the fastest response time — albeit imperceptibly so in actual usage.

That goes to show that Apple can build great keyboards. They have, repeatedly. Apple’s trackpads are also widely considered to be the best in the industry. These products are fantastic from a technical perspective, an ergonomics perspective, and a longevity perspective. Their mice haven’t been praised to nearly the same extent, but I still think the Magic Mouse — at least — is a great product.

The latest batch of keyboards and the software that interprets input devices should be considered an anomalies, but they are worrying ones.

Google’s Pixel Buds

Earlier this month, Google announced their wireless headphones. They’re $159, they look kinda cheap, they have a wire connecting them — so, wireless might be a little generous — and Google hasn’t announced when they’re actually being released. But the Pixel Buds have a really cool feature that blows me away. Valentina Palladino, Ars Technica:

But the most intriguing feature of the Pixel Buds is the integrated Google Translate feature. Demoed on stage at Google’s event today, this feature lets two Pixel Bud wearers chat in their native languages by translating conversations in real time. In the demo, a native English speaker and a native Swedish speaker had a conversation with each other, both using their native languages. Google Translate translated the languages for each user. There was barely any lag time in between the speaker saying a phrase and the Buds’ hearing those words and translating them into the appropriate language.

Watch Google’s demo of this feature and tell me that it doesn’t look like the future. It’s limited — both parties must be using Pixel Buds and, according to Nilay Patel, this feature only works when paired to the Google Pixel smartphone, so the likelihood that you’ll meet someone by chance who can use this feature is pretty remote — but even so, it’s impressive if this works as well in the real world as it does in Google’s demo.

Update: The Google Translate app seems to work even better than the Pixel Buds, and doesn’t require both parties to have a Pixel-specific hardware combination.

Dust and Tedium

Casey Johnston, the Outline:

I was in the Grand Central Station Apple Store for a third time in a year, watching a progress bar slowly creep across my computer’s black screen as my Genius multi-tasked helping another customer with her iPad. My computer was getting its third diagnostic test in 45 minutes. The problem was not that its logic board was failing, that its battery was dying, or that its camera didn’t respond. There were no mysteriously faulty innerworkings. It was the spacebar. It was broken. And not even physically broken — it still moved and acted normally. But every time I pressed it once, it spaced twice.

“Maybe it’s a piece of dust,” the Genius had offered. The previous times I’d been to the Apple Store for the same computer with the same problem — a misbehaving keyboard — Geniuses had said to me these exact same nonchalant words, and I had been stunned into silence, the first time because it seemed so improbable to blame such a core problem on such a small thing, and the second time because I couldn’t believe the first time I was hearing this line that it was not a fluke. But this time, the third time, I was ready. “Hold on,” I said. “If a single piece of dust lays the whole computer out, don’t you think that’s kind of a problem?”

Johnston’s keyboard isn’t an outlier: various people and organizations she spoke with have indicated that dust under the keys — in particular, under the spacebar — is a common affliction of the latest generation of Apple laptop keyboards. Apple provides instructions on how to remove dust, but they are ridiculous: you must hold your laptop in one hand at a recommended 75° angle and spray the keyboard with compressed air while rotating your computer in midair.

I do not baby my electronics, but I want them to last. These instructions seem like a fantastic way to shatter the display or destroy the case.

Stephen Hackett kept running into this problem, too, with his months-old MacBook Pro, and he followed Apple’s steps to clean it:

After a couple days of light usage, the problem got worse.

The bottom lip of the key began to flip up a little bit as the key tried sprinting back up after being depressed. Light was leaking around it, and eventually this happened:

[…]

One of the tiny arms that the key cap clips onto is broken. My nearly $2,000 laptop that I bought less than a year ago is now missing a key, as I shared with our Connected audience this weekend.

This is, frankly, inexcusable. I was already hesitating on upgrading from my five-year-old MacBook Air because this generation of MacBook Pros still seems like a work-in-progress; now, I will absolutely be waiting another generation to see if this problem gets fixed.

By the way, I know there will be some people suggesting that plenty of generations of Apple products have had their teething issues. I don’t deny that; the MacBook Pro was recalled for graphics issues, the first-generation iPod Nano scratched like crazy and the battery could overheat, and the unibody plastic MacBook’s bottom case peeled off.

But input devices should always — and I mean always — work, in hardware and in software. If a speck of dust affects the functionality of the most-used key because of an attribute inherent to the design of the keyboard, that’s a poor choice of keyboard design, especially for a portable computer.

On a related note, too, there’s an existing bug in recent versions of MacOS where key and cursor inputs are sometimes delayed. I notice the keyboard bug especially frequently in Messages when I haven’t switched to it for a while, and I experience delayed trackpad input often in Safari and in Photos. But it seems to persist throughout the system, and it is infuriating. I’m glad that apps on my Mac crash less frequently but I would genuinely rather have Safari crash on me as much as it used to than I would like to keep seeing problems with input mechanisms. I can choose a different web browser; I can’t choose a different way for MacOS to process my keystrokes.

Problems like these should not escape Cupertino.

Sketchy Mattress Review Websites

David Zax, in a must-read article for Fast Company, describes the litigation initiated by Casper against several mattress review websites:

On April 29, 2016, Casper filed lawsuits against the owners of Mattress Nerd, Sleep Sherpa, and Sleepopolis (that is, Derek), alleging false advertising and deceptive practices.

Mattress Nerd and Sleep Sherpa quickly settled their cases, and suddenly their negative Casper reviews disappeared from their sites, in what many onlookers speculated was a condition of the settlements. But by the end of 2016, when I started closely studying the lawsuits, Derek’s Casper review remained, defiantly, up on Sleepopolis. He was soldiering on in his legal battle with the mattress giant. People who knew him called Derek a fighter; one of his nicknames was “Halestorm.”

Casper had another way of referring to him. Derek was “part of a surreptitious economy of affiliate scam operators who have become the online versions of the same commission-hungry mattress salesmen that online mattress shoppers have sought to avoid,” Casper’s lawsuit alleged. The company complained that Derek was not forthright enough about his affiliate relationships, noting his disclosures were buried in a remote corner of his site. This did violate recently issued FTC guidelines, and Derek updated his site to comply.

This is a deeply disturbing piece. Derek Hales, the founder of Sleepopolis, was doing some shady things that seemed to be driven by the value of affiliate links more than his honest opinion of the mattresses. But Casper’s practices are even more suspect, beginning with this correspondence between CEO Phillip Krim and Jack Mitcham of Mattress Nerd:

In January 2015, Krim wrote Mitcham that while he supported objective reviews, “it pains us to see you (or anyone) recommend a competitor over us.”

Krim went on: “As you know, we are much bigger than our newly formed competitors. I am confident we can offer you a much bigger commercial relationship because of that. How would you ideally want to structure the affiliate relationship? And also, what can we do to help to grow your business?”

[…]

Krim then upped his offer, promising to boost Mitcham’s payouts from $50 to $60 per sale, and offering his readers a $40 coupon. “I think that will move sales a little more in your direction,” replied Mitcham on March 25, 2015. In the months that followed, Mattress Nerd would become one of Casper’s leading reviews site partners. (The emails surfaced due to another mattress lawsuit, GhostBed v. Krim; if similar correspondence exists with Derek Hales, it has not become public.)

It certainly sounds like Krim was, behind the scenes, financially incentivizing reviewers to push the Casper mattress. You’ll want to read Zax’s full article for the kicker to the Sleepopolis saga. It’s atrocious.

Update: I’ve been racking my brain all day trying to think about what the end of Zax’s story reminds me of:

“Hello!” ran the text beside the headshot. “My name is Dan Scalco and I’d like to personally welcome you to the brand new version of Sleepopolis. Here’s what’s up… On July 25th, 2017 our company acquired Sleepopolis.com …. Derek Hales and Samantha Hales are no longer associated with Sleepopolis.”

An italicized note added:

“In July 2017, a subsidiary of JAKK Media LLC acquired Sleepopolis.com. Casper provided financial support to allow JAKK Media to acquire Sleepopolis.”

David Carr, writing in the New York Times in 2014:

Last week, I read an interesting article about how smart hardware can allow users to browse anonymously and thus foil snooping from governments. I found it on what looked like a nifty new technology site called SugarString.

Oddly enough, while the article mentioned the need for privacy for folks like Chinese dissidents, it didn’t address the fact that Americans might want the same kind of protection.

There’s a reason for that, although not a very savory one. At the bottom of the piece, there was a graphic saying “Presented by Verizon” followed by some teeny type that said “This article was written by an author contracted by Verizon.”

SugarString writers were apparently prohibited from writing stories about net neutrality or the NSA’s spying activity — remember, this was in 2014, when both of those topics were especially concerning. So if you were going to SugarString for your tech news, you were highly misinformed. Likewise, if you were to visit Sleepopolis — owned by Casper — do you think you’d be getting a fair review of mattress buying options?

The reason I’ve been puzzled all day about this is because I’m nearly certain that there was a similar marketing-spun publication that was created by — I think — a mining or oil and gas company. I don’t think I’m making this up or misremembering it, so if you have any idea what I might be thinking about, let me know.