Tag Archives: apple

A Month with the apple watch

I’m one of those terrible people who opt for Mac instead of Windows, iPhone instead of Android. I have an excuse—I’ve been using Apple devices since the Mac Plus, back in the 1980s—and I’ll argue the advantages, but I know the costs too. As much as Apple devices tend to be reliable and enjoyable to use, they’re not cheap. So if I’m going to add to my collection, I don’t do it without a lot of thought.

I’ve been eyeing the Apple Watch for years now. Partly because I like having new shiny technology to play with, and partly because of my mini-ecosystem of Apple devices that it can interact with. However, the earlier versions suffered the limitations of new technology in such a small form factor, and I had cheaper options available to me. It was only with the release of the Apple Watch Series 4 a while ago that I decided the time had come. I broke open my piggy bank and availed myself of some new wrist decoration.

My resulting purchase is the 44mm Apple Watch Series 4 with a Space Grey Aluminium Case and a black Sports Loop wristband. The Series 4 represents a step up in screen quality and device speed over previous iterations, but the basic functions are essentially the same: it’s a combination of fitness tracker, mobile phone adjunct, and, well, watch.

All of these things my previous smartwatch, the late, lamented Pebble Time, also did to some degree, and its colour e-ink screen provided allowed around five days of battery life, at the cost of much slower responsiveness. However, Fitbit’s buyout of Pebble has finally led to support being cut off. Given that the Pebble Time no longer works with my favoured fitness app, Runkeeper, moving to the new platform was an idea whose time had come.

Initial impressions of the Apple Watch were as favourable as they usually are for Apple Products. Out of the box, it paired with my phone and set about downloading watch apps to match those on my phone. The build quality is good too—a month in, and there are no signs of any scratches or damage, which is something that the plastic-bodied Pebble couldn’t boast for as long. Battery life testing revealed that it wouldn’t match the Pebble, but I get two days out of it without struggling, which feels pretty solid.

As for what it’s like in use, the responsiveness that Apple’s custom silicon provides means that simply raising your wrist (it asks during the setup procedure which hand you wear your watch on) brings it to life. Tapping the screen will do the same, and both of these actions will also wake Siri (of which more later). You can pick and choose among a wide range of watch faces, most of which are customisable in terms of look and utility. I opted for the Infographic watch face, which makes a scattering of commonly used apps and functions available through on-face “complications.”

Fitness Tracking

Fitness tracking has become a major feature of the Apple Watch because that’s what people wanted. Not only does it use Apple’s three-ring system to track calories burned, exercise duration, and hourly activity, but it also regularly reminds you to keep up a constant level of activity. I can see how these reminders (which can be turned off through the companion watch app) might become annoying, but as someone who has a tendency towards laziness, especially in the winter months, it’s a useful goad to avoid couch potato status.

Whereas the Pebble Time offered only a step tracker, the Apple Watch adds GPS and heart rate tracking. (There’s even an ECG function, though that hasn’t been enabled in the software yet and may not be outside the U.S.) Both GPS and heart rate tracking work well and consistently, and the battery life is good enough to use it as a sleep tracker one day out of two. One minor issue is that the glass back of the watch irritates the skin on my wrist a little—so it’s best not too wear it too tight or too consistently.

The Apple Watch also integrates well with whatever fitness apps you might be using. Not only can I activate Runkeeper within the watch, but it will also pay attention to what you’re doing at any given moment and ask you if you want to track your activity if you’ve been walking or running for ten minutes or more. As a GPS tracker, it’s great, but in Ireland the LTE version isn’t available yet, as no mobile providers support them. Which brings us to the next subject—the watch’s relationship with your phone.

Phone Companion

One of the reasons that I got the Pebble, and later the Pebble Time, in the first place was to reduce my habit of spending time looking at my phone and its notifications. That effort was … questionably successful, because while you could read the notifications on your wrist, you couldn’t respond to them. The Apple Watch actually allows that, within limits.

One of the big surprises with the Apple Watch for me is how well Siri works.  Simply raise your wrist and talk and it’ll respond. This makes simple actions like setting a timer or a reminder much quicker. You can even use Siri to dictate responses to messages, which again works much better than I expected. Certainly more quickly than the other Watch-specific option of drawing each letter out on the screen. The Apple Watch does provide canned responses to messages too, which are even quicker, if more limited (and easy to accidentally send).

The Apple Watch does a fine job of having some basic phone functions handed off to it. It’s not going to cure your Twitter addiction—thankfully for both you and its battery life, Twitter doesn’t work at all with the watch, beyond delivering notifications. However, if you’re looking for a way to reduce the number of times you take your phone from your pocket or bag, this could help a lot.

The Computer on Your Wrist

As for its most basic function, the Apple Watch is a fine watch. It’s not much to ask, and the WatchOS doesn’t get in the way of that simplest of jobs. In fact, WatchOS is largely solid across the board, with some odd quirks that are the result of the device’s history. The field of icons that used to be how the Apple Watch’s apps were navigated is still there, just a press of the Digital Crown away, and it’s still hard to find the app that you’re looking for in the field.

For the most part though, WatchOS does a good job of easing you into using the Apple Watch, teaching you the basics of the interface in your first few minutes of use, then leaving you to play, as is standard with Apple devices. It’s not the free-standing computer on your wrist that you might want it to be, at least not in the LTE-lacking version, but it’s as close as you can get right now, and if you can forget that your phone is somewhere nearby, there’s little difference. I’ve even indulged in a few Dick Tracy moments of phone calls made through the Apple Watch, though the otherwise solid built-in speakers struggle to overcome traffic and crowd noise. My main regret is that my much-loved AirPods suffered a washing machine-related incident from which they’ve never recovered, as they seem very much designed to work with the Apple Watch.

In short and in summary, if you’ve just skipped to the end to find out, I’m pretty happy with my Apple Watch. It wasn’t cheap, but that’s why I have a piggy bank in the first place—and it’s a lot cheaper than replacing any of my existing Apple devices. A month in and I’m comfortable with having it on my wrist, with the fabric Sport Loop keeping it sat snugly there. I haven’t even played with many of the apps and functions yet, and every few days I find another advantage or two to it. Thus far I’ve had few regrets buying Apple products, and while the Apple Watch might seem like it might be the most frivolous of those purchases yet, it sees as much use in everyday life as any of them.

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The Upgrade Urge—Apple’s October Event

I’m really not in a position to be buying new technology now.* I’m in the middle of a job hunt and I ought to be saving every penny while the employment market remains a fickle, teasing wretch. Why, then, did Apple run an event yesterday designed to remind me that my existing array of gadgetry is but a dusty heap of aluminium and silicon, no more than one careless step from the technological grave?

Yes, all of Apple’s announcement events are supposed to do this. But this one was personal. They specifically announced updates to (almost) every Apple product that I own, and if I find out that Tim Cook did this just to annoy me, I’m going to be … well, I’m going to be impressed. Impressed, but also annoyed.

I wish I was exaggerating. My mostly superannuated selection of Apple technology consists of my elderly Mac Mini, my much-used MacBook Air, and my relatively youthful iPad Pro (which, with accompanying Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard case, has taken on many laptop-style duties over the past year). Everything mentioned in the last sentence saw an update at Apple’s October 30th event, and none of those updates were small ones.

Mac Mini

The oldest of my Macs is my Mac Mini, which has been sitting beside my TV since 2010. It’s done solid service over the years, and I’ve kept it youthful by feeding it as much RAM as it will take and performing some mild surgery to replace its hard drive guts with a solid-state alternative. Yet it’s been slow and clunky for some time now, its major services taken over by an Apple TV (along with my iPhone, the one Apple item I use so much that I often forget it exists), with only the lack of a viable upgrade from Apple keeping me from considering a replacement.

Well, yesterday Apple answered the prayers of us Mac Mini devotees and delivered unto us a new machine, sleek in its smallness, patterned in gunmetal grey, and pulsing with barely contained potency. In other words, it’s been so long since the Mac Mini had an upgrade that Apple was able to claim that the new one is five times faster than its predecessor. Which was a good bit faster than my much older version, so this one would blow the doors clean off if I were to opt for it.

Which I won’t. Not yet anyway. Not because I don’t want to—it’s a desirable little chunk of metal and silicon—nor because I can’t afford to—I can, I just know I shouldn’t—but because, as mentioned above, most of its main duties have now been shifted onto the much more suitable (and cheaper) shoulders of the Apple TV. While not a perfect machine in and of itself, the Apple TV is designed to work through a television and does so nicely. To the point where I’ve ditched cable TV in favour of broadband services. In the meantime, my Mac Mini remains as it is, quietly acting as a media server. It’s happy, I’m happy, and one day we shall part, but that is not this day.

I’m sure the new Mac Mini will sell well anyhow. Just not to me right now.

MacBook Air

My MacBook Air is a little younger than my Mac Mini, being of 2012 vintage. For all that, it’s still running well and speedily, courtesy of having an SSD from the start. I don’t ask too much of it these days, as the battery has long since left behind the days of offering multiple hours’ service, but when I just need to type something, it’s the go-to machine. It’s also survived an unfortunate encounter with a glass of breakfast orange juice, courtesy of a replacement keyboard and some repair guides from iFixit.com—living to suffer another day.

The MacBook Air has seen more regular updates than the Mac Mini, but in comparison to the Retina screen-enabled rest of the Mac laptop lineup, it’s been something of a red-headed stepchild for a while. Minor processor tweaks have bumped up its speed, but the budget Mac laptop was looking a little dated and cheap before yesterday. Now, though, it has been given the Retina screen users have been crying out for, as well as substantial processor and graphics speed bumps and the new butterfly keyboard that Apple is much enamoured of (though its users are more ambivalent). Available in multiple colour options and with a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, the MacBook Air finally feels like a modern laptop again.

Not that I’ll be upgrading though. For a start, all the upgrades have seen its price jump to €1,379 for the base model. Less than the ultralight MacBook or the MacBook Pro but no small beans. The price may well come down in time, but for the moment it’s not really a budget option. Second, my iPad Pro has usurped most of my MacBook Air’s functions in daily life. And that’s what I’ll get to below.

iPad Pro

Having saved up my pennies, I splashed out on an iPad Pro just over a year ago. This was very deliberately meant to be a laptop replacement—I added a Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil to the purchase, and I made sure the device itself had plenty of storage onboard. In the year since, I’ve been more than happy with it. It’s light enough to tote anywhere, powerful enough to handle anything I care to throw at it, has a good enough battery to last for days at a time, and is a serviceable enough typing machine for me to write a NaNoWriMo novel on it last year. All in all, I like it a lot.

This love wasn’t ended by Apple’s announcement of a new iPad Pro yesterday, but maybe it was dented a bit. The new machine is both an upgrade and a refinement: faster and better looking, with the physical Home/Touch ID button removed in favour of a Face ID camera system. The gadget ecosystem has been upgraded too, with a new Smart Keyboard case that provides a better typing experience and better protection and a new Apple Pencil that locks magnetically to the iPad for safekeeping and charging. As is not unusual for an Apple upgrade, everything just feels a little better, a little fresher.

And I won’t be buying one. Of course I won’t—my iPad Pro is only a year old. I’m not crazy! Much though I may envy the improved gubbins that my newly aged device will never provide me with, it does everything I need to it to with aplomb, and nothing other than an excess of cash and a sudden break with reality could persuade me to spend that much on such (ultimately) minor improvements.

Technological envy is a real thing, but patience works as an antidote. The tech you’ve got will serve you well, and the longer you wait, the better the reward when you finally do decide to splash out. Whether it’s for one, six, or eight years, the upgrade urge can be resisted, no matter how well Apple targets its events at you.


*This hasn’t stopped me. I broke open my piggy bank** to add an Apple Watch to my Apple menagerie just three days ago. A review will be forthcoming once I’ve been using it for a while.

**Actually a real thing, but also actually a cow bank. It was a present from a friend. Don’t judge me.

You Are The Product

(With invisible close buttons.)
Our grim, multicolour, flashing future.

One of the quieter announcements that Apple made during its WorldWide Developers Conference recently was that its forthcoming MacOS and iOS updates will give developers the ability to create “Content Blockers” for its mobile and desktop Safari browsers. While the exact content blocked is up to the developer (you could block the Daily Mail if you want—and you really should), no one is under any illusions as to the target of this feature: ads.

Ad blockers already exist as extensions to most existing browsers, but the majority of users probably don’t avail of them, especially in the mobile sphere. Apple’s decision to push this feature and the reaction to its quiet announcement says a lot about the current state of the mobile web and the dominant role that ads have come to play in it.

Faster computers, mobile phones and broadband have contributed to a smoother experience online, but this has helped to hide the fact that the vast majority of what we download is ads and spyware. Blocking out most of that would massively speed up browsing and have the simultaneous benefit of cutting down on the amount of activity tracked online.

As pleasant an outcome as this sounds though, there’s a downside: online advertising pays the bills for many of the sites we enjoy, some of them from smaller content providers. Killing off that revenue stream would likely kill off a lot of the richness and the niche content that the web provides. It’s not like the people running these sites are preying on you through the ads either—they’re often stuck in a system that they don’t like, making do as well as they can.

The power blocs behind online advertising inform the nature of the system and the conflict that Apple is wading into. Facebook and Google ensure that web users have access to a wealth of content for free by harvesting their data and selling it, funnelling a portion of the proceeds back to the content creators in order to keep the whole thing going. This is the system that’s driven the growth of the web to date, but it’s far from perfect, and web site bloat is just one of the symptoms.

Whatever your thoughts on Apple—you won’t look at the comments on any Apple article on a non-Apple site for long before you find mentions of ‘iSheep’ or ‘Apple fanboys’—the fact is that Apple’s profit model is completely different from that of the web titans. Apple’s iAds platform is distinctly small scale, and its money comes from the sale of hardware instead. Providing an improved user experience is vital to enhancing the sale of that hardware, and enabling the creation of content blockers achieves that.

Safari is a minority browser on desktop machines, but it’s a major player on the mobile web, and iOS users are a lucrative market. So while this initiative isn’t going to bring down the current financial underpinnings of the mobile web, it’s a definite shot across Google’s bows. (Less so Facebook, which has a closed ecosystem of its own that it can profit from.) For users, it raises the question: are we happy to receive things for free, with the understanding that we’re being sold in return, or are we going to accept that we should pay for the things we value?

There’s an interesting parallel to be seen in the U.K., where the Tory government is once again taking the knives to the public broadcaster, the BBC. U.K. TV viewers have long been accustomed to paying a TV licence, and in return they’ve gained a globally renowned service that entertains, educates, and informs. Of course, a publicly funded broadcaster has a head start over its private sector rivals, and in the view of the Tories, that’s unfair competition. Speaking as someone who was raised on a diet of BBC television, I’d call the licence fee a small price to pay, but the future that the private sector envisions could look a lot like YouTube: ostensibly free to use but scattered with pop-up ads and laden with user tracking.

When we’re offered something free, it’s convenient to overlook the fine print. We’re okay with being the product as long as it’s not thrown back in our face. It would be nice to think that users’ desire for speed and convenience would eventually find a balance with providers’ need for compensation. But while Apple’s intervention might be to our benefit, Apple doesn’t fund web content, only content provided through its own app store ecosystem. So if its ad blocking does gain traction, either we’re going to have to learn to pay for our content or some of those content providers are going to go under.

Watching the Apple Watch

Go on, admit it. You want to at least play with them for a while.
All these can be yours, for a (to be determined) price.

I’ve been an Apple user long enough that the company’s regular keynote events are a recognisable form of entertainment. Unusually, I didn’t watch this week’s well-publicised event until the day after it happened. (Possibly a good thing given the problems that the live streaming coverage faced.) By that time I’d already read enough of the media reaction to know exactly what I’d be seeing. Spoilers aren’t really the point with an event like this.

The first part of the event, to be fair, had already been well spoiled by leaks. Enough prototype parts and schematics had trickled out from Apple’s supply chain that only a few details remained to be filled in about the new iPhones. The 6 and 6 Plus looked much as expected and neatly relegated last year’s 5s and 5c to the minor places in Apple’s product lineup. A one-year-old free (on contract) iPhone is a better trick than a two-year-old free offering, but the 6 and 6 Plus are now the stars. The former seems the better bet, though the 6 Plus has its own appeal if you can handle its unwieldy dimensions—in its case, battery life and an improved screen are bigger draws than the optical image stabilisation of its slightly protruding camera.

Next up after the phones was something only hinted at in pre-show leaks: Apple Pay. A solution to the hassle of everyday credit card payments, it positions Apple well in the race to made commercial life more convenient. It’s the biggest leveraging to date of Apple’s credit-card enabled iTunes customers, bringing together a lot of pieces (iBeacon, Passbook) that Apple has been putting into place for some time now. However, given that it’s only usable with NFC-enabled devices (both the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, as well as this article’s titular device) and is only to be deployed in the U.S. for the moment, its reach will initially be limited. Over the long term though, it could well be the most important announcement of the entire show.

Last up was the fabled “One More Thing,” returning to a very warm welcome from the crowd. This was, of course, the Apple Watch, likewise rumoured in the media but barely even glimpsed in advance of the show itself. It seems that Apple’s secrecy can still hold when they really need it to.

A handful of smartwatches have already hit the market. I owned one briefly, in the form of the Pebble, but most of them are now running Google’s Android in one form or another, and yet more are on the way. If the Apple Watch is going to be a success, Apple’s going to have to repeat a trick it’s already pulled with the iPod, iPhone and iPad: to enter an existing but nascent market and turn it upside down. So has it done so?

Well no, not yet, if only for the reason that the Apple Watch won’t be released until early next year and many important facts about it remain uncertain, but at least one watch industry watcher has been impressed by the unveiling, not just its implications for the smartwatch industry but for watches in general.

Whereas its competitors seem to have focused primarily on providing an adjunct to their Android phones, Apple is coming from the other direction. The Apple Watch is tethered to the iPhone (or possibly the iPad too?) true, but it’s as much a fashion accessory as it is a computing accessory. The fact that Apple paid attention to what people might actually want to put on their wrist can be seen in the simplest fact about the Apple Watch: it comes in two sizes, small and large. Just like non-smart watches do.

Physically, it’s arguably more attractive than any of the other smartwatches already out there. More importantly to potential buyers, it’s massively customisable, more so than any other Apple product before it. Between size, colour and strap type, as long as you fancy having an Apple Watch on your wrist, you’ll be able to make it look exactly the way you want it to. Moreover, Apple has gone to great lengths to design its straps so that you can fit and adjust them yourself, rather than heading to a jeweller to have it done for you, as is the case with several of the Android smartwatches.

As for the software, it certainly looks the part, with Apple once again tailoring an operating system to suit the device. The Apple Watch has a touch screen, but given that any touching finger would obscure a significant portion of the screen, it also has a “digital crown,” refashioning the traditional watch crown into a multifunction control wheel with an integrated home button. Another button devoted to bringing up a “favourite contacts” screen is a reminder that the Apple Watch, above all else, is meant to leverage the power of its linked iOS device, faster and with greater ease than ever, and preferably without needing to take it out of your pocket or bag.

As for whether I plan to get one or not, that depends. Depends on the battery life of the final device and the price of the various options. Depends on whether or not the eventual software manages to live up to the promises of the keynote speech. For, whatever else it may be good at, Apple is very good at selling its devices as objects of desire. I’ll be looking out for reasons not to break open the piggy bank come early 2015. It’s up to Apple to match its own hype.

Until then, I have iOS 8 (coming next week) and OS X Yosemite (coming a little later) to refresh my own devices, making them seem like new again. There’s a new U2 album as well, offered as an awkward freebie at the end of the keynote, but that can’t really compete as an attraction. After all, what we get for free, we never really appreciate as we should.

Changing the World in 3/4 Decades

D&D games on the Mac? Yeah, I remember that.
Kicking it old-style…

Last week was a week of anniversaries. World-changing anniversaries, in fact, though I’m going have to make an argument for at least one of them.

The anniversary that got the most press inches was the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the Apple Macintosh in 1984. The launch is best known for that Ridley Scott advertisement invoking Orwell’s Big Brother, but recently a video came to light revealing a launch event in front of the Boston Computer society.

It’s a fascinating watch, mostly for the fact that it contains so much of the future. The Mac is front and centre, and it’s amazing just how much of what we take for granted in our computers today appeared right at the start of the Mac age. It’s not just the MacOS that still bears the ancestral marks of its progenitor. Every modern desktop/laptop OS can trace its ancestry back to 1984. Amazingly, it’s a trick Apple has pulled off more than once: its iOS is similarly the root from which the modern smartphone/tablet ecosystem arose.

It’s also instructive to watch Steve Jobs at work, long before his keynote speeches grabbed attention around the world. The delivery isn’t as smooth as it later became, but so much of those keynotes is already in place: the idea of the intersection of art and technology, the attention-grabbing video segments, the on-stage demonstrations to wow the audience. Jobs would soon be ousted from Apple, only to return and lead it to world leadership years later, and his keynotes would be much more controlled, so getting to see him do a question-and-answer with the original Mac team is a rare treat.

The other anniversary is for an event ten years earlier and one less easy to nail down. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons also changed the world, albeit in a less direct way than the Mac. It birthed, of course, the roleplaying game (RPG), a combination of board game and improvisational storytelling. RPGs have never been a big industry, but their influence has spread far and wide.

D&D drove an interest in fantasy, and followup RPGs drove interest in science fiction and horror, even as they followed trends in wider culture: Star Wars, Anne Rice, Ghostbusters, etc. RPG players got involved in the growing computer games industry and the entertainment industry, leading to a lot of what is now mainstream. Game of Thrones’ George RR Martin? A roleplayer. Joss Whedon? Roleplayer.

The Mac is still going strong, despite some dodgy moments along the way. D&D has lost its leading position everywhere except cultural memory, but the hobby it kicked off has endured and spread like a weed, its roots and tendrils going everywhere. The Mac changed how we interact with the world. D&D created a new spawning ground for content, and an avenue for storytelling and offbeat genres that wasn’t there before. Happy birthday to them both.

Don’t Be Evil?

Adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nottsexminer/7181655884/
My Photo-fu ain’t getting any prettier. (Adapted from http://www.flickr.com/photos/nottsexminer/7181655884/)

It’s one of the best—and best known—corporate mottos of the technology age. Google’s three-word mantra positioned it as something different from the corporate behemoths it disrupted as a scrappy startup. It was also an implicit promise, that as a company it was on the side of the customers it served.

Except, that was years ago, and Google is now one of the biggest of those corporate behemoths. Many of its products may still be loved (just witness the Android/iOS flamewars) but the company itself? The reaction to its recent acquisition of Nest shows that beyond a sense of confusion as to what Google was paying all that much money for, Google itself just isn’t trusted all that much.

Nest is an odd little company in and of itself: founded by Tony Fadell, one of the creators of Apple’s iPod, it looks to bring the same design ethos to neglected home products and add some Internet-era connectivity and device awareness. Nest are one of the leading lights of the “Internet of Things”, so it’s not a surprise that Google has swooped in, but the reaction from technology pundits has been broadly negative.

Why? Well, we tend not to trust those with too great a power over us, and Google’s huge collection of information and ability to leverage it gives it immense power. Nest’s connected devices suggest a desire to extend its awareness of our activities even further into our homes and our every waking moment.

Paranoia? Maybe, but in this case they are watching us. Wasn’t Nest doing the same thing already? It was, but there’s a difference between communicating with devices that form part of our lives, and having those devices communicating with a vast database that already contains details on our lives.

A company like Nest, as with Apple, makes its money by selling products to consumers. A company like Google makes its money by selling advertising and licensing software, both to other companies. As long as there’s a viable alternative, it’s vital for Google to retain the goodwill of consumers, but the fact that their money comes from elsewhere means that they’re always going to be a servant of two masters, and the temptation is to rely on PR to deal with consumer attitudes.

This is not to say that Google, much less the people who work for it, is evil, but the company relegated its famous motto to the backburner a while ago. The pressures of capitalism, as practiced in the modern world, don’t leave much room for moral scruples. The law and how to follow or sidestep it is the main limiting factor on the goal of maximising profits.

The fact is, the Nest acquisition is a good deal, expensive though it may be for Google. Nest gets funding and the chance to supercharge its entry into homes around the world. Google gets not only the hardware design expertise of Fadell and his team of ex-Apple employees (something it badly needs) but also that extra angle of attack for visualising our lives in data.

As for whether Google can regain its standing in the eyes of consumers, the question is does it want to? It’s become one of the world’s largest corporations and it’s hugely profitable. There’s an inevitable sense of sadness at the loss of innocence from those idealistic startup days, but maybe that’s always the price to be paid for success.

Tiny Death Star

20131118-150036.jpg
It’s a hard life as building manager of the Death Star…

Nimblebit, iOS, Free

It’s a mark of how watered-down Star Wars has become that Tiny Death Star even exists. The villains of the original trilogy, a bunch of faceless, menacing, planet-destroying quasi-fascists are here rendered down into cutesy 8-bit form, as you’re asked to fund the construction of the planet-destroying battle station by turning it into a residential/commercial emporium.

Yeah, someone didn’t put a lot of thought into that. Best to just roll with it.

Tiny Death Star is, of course, a reskin and slight reworking of Nimblebit’s hugely popular Tiny Tower, taking the basic mechanics of building a tower block and filling it with inhabitants and things for them to buy and tweaking it for a kiddiefied version of the Star Wars universe. As such, anyone who’s played Tiny Tower will find themselves right at home. However, they may also find themselves uncomfortably constrained.

The big draw of Tiny Death Star is the Star Wars ambience, and the game sprinkles it around liberally, with famous figures from the movies roaming the levels of your growing battle station, sometimes incongruously so. Fittingly, the soundtrack also consists of musak versions of famous Star Wars themes, though these soon enough grate through repetition alone.

Tiny Tower’s gameplay has also been tweaked in several ways. In addition to the standard residential and commercial floors, you can also build Imperial levels, which allow you to complete missions (about which more later). Since these levels don’t make you money though, this slows down the process of building new levels, which was already slow in the original game.

Of the game’s two currencies, then—credits and bux—the former, used to build and stock new floors, comes more slowly than before. Not half so slowly as bux though, which are used to buy elevator upgrades and hurry various other aspects of the game. As purchases of bux are the main form of in-app purchases the game offers, it’s understandable that Nimblebit have chosen to strangle in-game opportunities to earn them, but in doing so they’ve also strangled the sense of progress for players who don’t want to spend extra coin.

Providing at least a modicum of variety to gameplay that strays close at times to Ian Bogost’s Cow Clicker (click on things to earn more things, then click on them to earn yet more things) are the missions, provided by Darth Vader and the Emperor. Both provide credits as rewards, but although the Emperor’s missions are designed to guide your construction efforts, the rewards are meagre. Vader’s missions are slightly more rewarding, but I ran into one that required me to build a specific level (the game chooses which levels in a specific category are built at random), stalling any progress in that direction.

In the end, this is a Star Wars game, offered for free. If that appeals to you, go for it. But be aware that unless you’re willing to pay up, it’s going to present you with a choice between a long, hard slog and an escape route from this doomed battle station.