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Daniel’s Favourite Things of 2015

2015 was a great year. For tech, for MobileSyrup, and for me. I can’t say that it all went well, because, as life goes, it didn’t. But here are a few of my favourite things from the past twelve months, give or take a few.

Growth, and Growing Pains

This was a particularly fractious year for independent tech journalism. As Buzzfeed, Fusion, Business Insider, Vox and Vice sucked up millions of dollars from established media giants like Disney, Comcast, Axel Springer and others, the cracks began to show in our perfect world of blogging.

People demanded more from us: better content, with beautifully-produced video and in-depth, informative narration; weekly podcasts, both bite-sized and Tarantino-epic; and a particular keen Canadian focus, one that they can’t get anywhere else.

To bring you these things, we expanded our team. We added the excellent Igor Bonifacic, who came from the world of traditional news reporting, approaching every tech story with boundless curiosity. He’s also a pretty great writer.

We added Patrick O’Rourke, previously of Canada.com and The Financial Post, who comes with years of tech reporting experience and gadget reviewing chops. After only four months, he has reviewed almost a dozen products, including the new Apple TV and Pebble Time Round, in the thorough and conversational ways people look for on MobileSyrup.

We also began an ongoing collaboration with Matthew Moniz, a talented up-and-coming YouTube videographer, who has contributed so much to our video presence. With his help, we reached over two million people on YouTube this year, with well-produced videos on some of our favourite products, including the Samsung Galaxy S6, iPhone 6s, Nexus 6P and iPad Pro.

Throughout, we’ve been trying to figure out the best way to mix our unique Canadian content with great reviews, gratifying features and new formats, like the popular (but on-hiatus) ‘Tête-à-tête’ series. Personally, I’ve found podcasting to be incredibly rewarding, but haven’t been successful in setting a regular schedule, nor a regular panel of guests.

While Douglas and I are committed to bringing SyrupCast into 2016 with renewed fervour, the reality is that he spends his days running the best startup portal on the internet, BetaKit, and I oversee things here at MobileSyrup. So SyrupCast has taken a backseat until we cumulatively figure out what to do with it.

In the meantime, I’ve really enjoyed the four or so episodes of The Review, a one-man ramble podcast about technology and the way they change our lives. I think audio has the potential to really connect with people in ways neither video nor text can, and no one is doing anything like The Review, as far as I can tell. I will continue experimenting with the format in 2016, and intend to break it out into its own feed, so people can look for it independently of SyrupCast.

On a personal level, I spent a lot of this year planning a wedding that, in September, went off beautifully. Many of the friends I’ve made in this community were in attendance, and as trite as it may sound, it was one of the best days of my life. My wife has been a constant source of support as I’ve worked with my team to build MobileSyrup into a publishing powerhouse, and, if you’re in a similarly busy job, I highly recommend taking time every day to give thanks to those who stand by you.

And now, this…

iPhone 6s

Best smartphone: iPhone 6s Plus

No device has changed my life in as profound a way as the iPhone 6s Plus. Since picking it up on September 25th, the smartphone has reinforced my belief that, as uncomfortably prolific as Apple’s product lineup has become, the iPhone will continue to be at its centre for years to come.

Many people have accused me over the past year of being biased towards Apple, of being an iPhone fanboy, with unwavering loyalty towards the Cupertino-based company. I’ve mostly kept quiet about this, because, well, these are angry people on the internet and there’s no winning that argument.

But I will say this: the iPhone is my favourite smartphone in a sea of great smartphones because it does most of the things I need a communications device to do better than any Android, BlackBerry or Windows Phone can. There are substantive reasons for this, but there is also a gut feeling associated with how I live my life, and the iPhone 6s Plus satisfies all of those requirements.

Let’s start with one of the most obvious: support. I buy my phones outright to avoid having to alter my plan, and Apple is one of the only companies that allows you to walk into a retail store with a complaint and walk out with a repaired or refurbished phone. AppleCare+, despite its high price, is an insurance policy I’m happy to pay, for the peace of mind of knowing that this extremely object I have beside me almost every moment of every day will not merely pack up and disappear should I drop it (again) on the corner of a metal lawn chair.

Second, it just works. Despite the increasing complexity of iOS as an operating system, Apple has managed better than Google and Microsoft to maintain the innately-understandable elements of what could be an immensely frustrating experience. By necessity, I rely on my smartphone to manage my work and personal life, and I’ve yet to find a device better at accomplishing that task than the iPhone 6s Plus.

Why the 6s Plus over the smaller 6s? Over the past year or so, after switching between the iPhone 6 and larger Android devices, I always missed the one hand-friendly nature of smaller devices. I even wrote a paean to the diminutive Sony Xperia Z3 Compact, for which I still have a fondness. But the one-stop-shop nature of the phablet won me over sometime after the release of the 6s Plus, which has none of the performance pitfalls of its predecessor. The A9 chip never tires, nor does the phone’s battery, which lasts without fail from bed rise to bedtime, which is exactly as long as I need.

There are other considerations, too: iOS 9 improved many elements that left me wanting in previous versions, including the inferior way Apple approached notifications compared to Android; and I found myself relying on features like 3D Touch, Wi-Fi Calling, VoLTE and, to a lesser extent, 4K video, that debuted on the newest version.

And while Android devices caught up to the iPhone’s excellent camera in many respects this year, the 6s Plus takes consistently great photos in almost any situation, with a bevy of third-party apps that fulfil the promises of a robust and powerful camera API, an area where Android is still weak. And I adore Live Photos: gimmicky as they are, the results make me giddy whenever I use it.

I’m certainly not positing that the iPhone is perfect, or that Apple didn’t have a messy year filled with what can only be described as half-baked products (see: Apple TV, Apple Pay in Canada), but the iPhone 6s Plus was my favourite product of 2015.

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Best Android smartphone: Nexus 6P

The best Android product of the year was the Huawei-built Nexus 6P. As far as smartphones go, it’s well-designed and solidly-built, and, most importantly, it is the best Android phone ever made.

Three things converged like a perfect storm to ensure the Nexus 6P’s ascendence to greatness: Huawei’s hardware chops improved tremendously over the past two years; Android cameras became good enough to compete with the iPhone’s; and Google released a mature, stable operating system in Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

And despite the weak Canadian dollar, the Nexus 6P, at $699 CAD, is still considerably cheaper to purchase outright than the majority of high-end Android devices.

There are a lot of things that make the Nexus 6P great, but like the iPhone what I enjoy most about it is that is just works. Battery life is outstanding, as is the camera, and it offers great performance across the board.

A few things Android still does better, in no particular order: notifications; app updates and refunds (but definitely not apps themselves); memory management.

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Pleasantest surprise of the year: Samsung Galaxy S6 edge+

Terrible name, but I really like this phone. It came out around the time my love of big phones blossomed, and I have no problem saying it is the most attractive device released this year.

Samsung has wrestled with the problem of form over function in 2015. While it dabbled with metal back in 2014, with the Galaxy Alpha, that release foreshadowed an investment in design that was supposed to pay dividends with the release of the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, two devices that have aged very well since their release in March.

But they didn’t sell any better than the Galaxy S5 before it, which sold fewer units than the Galaxy S4, exposing Samsung’s tentative seat at the throne of the Android market. With companies like Xiaomi, ZTE, Oppo, Huawei and others nipping at its heels, Samsung dug in and produced flagship handsets only it, with its vertically-integrated arrangement of subsidiaries, can produce.

The larger S6 edge retained the arresting visuals of the original while overcoming its two major faults: battery performance, and (though this is reportedly coming to the regular S6 edge with Android 6.0) granular manual camera controls, both of which are important.

But more subjectively, it was just a pleasure to use, and the larger screen made watching YouTube videos and NBA highlight reels all the more enjoyable.

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Coffee: Pilot Coffee Roasters

I drink coffee. I drink bad coffee (sorry, Ian) and decent coffee, but I mainly drink great coffee, at home, with the attention such beans deserve.

This year, I discovered that some of those superlative beans are roasted here in Toronto, by Pilot Coffee Roasters, a growing outfit that has won a number of awards for their single-origin and blends.

I can’t explain exactly what separates Pilot and its ilk (Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, Transcend come to mind) from the whole beans you buy at Starbucks, but I think it’s akin to buying natural peanut butter over the processed alternative. There are no harsh flavours or burned aftertaste, and a complete lack of excess; a cup of any Pilot bean, be it from Kenya or Colombia, is clean, light and perfect.

I generally brew my coffee in a Chemex after grinding it in a Baratza Virtuoso grinder, but I also love Espro’s incredible double-filtered press. Either way, if the beans are from Pilot, the coffee will come out great.

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Coffee: Zojirushi Stainless Steel Travel Mug, 16-Ounce

I discovered the very best coffee thermos on the planet this year, and I couldn’t be happier. A recommendation from The Verge’s Dan Seifert, who learned about it through the incredible Wirecutter website, Zojirushi’s travel mug keeps liquids hot — like blazing, burned-tongue hot — for around eight to 10 hours, but I’ve sampled leftover coffee a full 24 hours later (don’t judge, it was delicious) and it was still warm enough to enjoy.

Not only does Zojirushi make great products, but the $45 Stainless Steel Travel Mug is easy to clean, and has smartly-designed mouthpiece that prevents spilling. Moreover, its lid lock ensures that I can throw a full container in my bag along with my electronics and not worry that it is going to spring open and ruin my stuff.

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Music: Grimes – Art Angels

Albums often linger like an aftertaste, but over time they lose their potency. Grimes’ Art Angels has only solidified in my mind as the best album of the year. Danceable, intelligent, and devastating, Grimes give no fucks about the type of music people want her to make, and her listeners benefit immensely from that freedom.

Songs like ‘California’ and single of the year ‘Flesh Without Blood’ are just two of what amounts to a near-perfect 49 minutes of smart dance pop.

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Music: Jamie xx – In Colour

I can’t say anything better about this album than Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson: “It’s the album as raucous party where the thrill of the moment never quite obliterates the wistful sadness that comes from knowing it will all end too soon.”

There was more than a few times I began the album immediately after finishing it, if only to avoid the persistent threat of melancholy that comes from being overwhelmed at another person’s talent. Jamie xx is a treasure.

sonos play5

Music: Sonos Play:5

The new Play:5 is Sonos’s best product to date, and quite possibly my most gratifying music purchase of the year. Paired with a Spotify account (or, before this month, an Rdio account), the connected speaker brings high-quality sound to any part of my home (it travels, depending on what’s happening, and will continue to do so until I buy another one to pair it to), with both smartphone and tactile controls.

The Play:5 has enough bass to fill a small room, and looks good enough to either blend in or stand out, depending on its surroundings. But what Sonos has figured out is that it takes more than creating a connected speaker to appeal to music buffs; it is the platform, robust and comprehensive, that separates it from its competitors.

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Photography: Sony DSC-RX100 M4

I’m no photographer, but I sure do love taking photos. After spending some time with the RX100 M2 last year, I figured it was time to upgrade my shooting gear, and though the RX100 M4 was some $400 more than its predecessor, its combination of tack-sharp optics, improved 1″ sensor and 4K video capabilities was too much to pass up for a job that requires me to take a ton of both.

While the lack of a microphone port is still annoying, everything else here, from autofocus speed to video stabilization, is top-notch. Sony makes great sensors and even better cameras, and I am still dumbfounded by some of the photos I can take with this thing.

Hope you had a safe and happy New Year, and I look forward to sharing more of my favourite things with you throughout 2016.

Peace.

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