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Jordan Merrick

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Goodbye, Mac

Permalink - Posted on 2017-09-19 14:23

Goodbye, Mac

Today sees the release of iOS 11, so it seems fitting that it's also my last day as a Mac owner. My Late 2012 13" Retina MacBook Pro has been erased and boxed up, ready to ship to Apple for recycling. I'll even get about $450 from the Apple Renew program, money which won't go towards a replacement.

The iPad has been my personal computer for a couple years now. During the early days, I would occasionally need to use my Mac to do things that I couldn't do (or hadn't yet figured out how to do) with iOS alone. But as iOS and its ecosystem of apps further improved and became more powerful, that need diminished. Once I upgraded to an iPad Pro, became an expert with apps like Workflow, and set up an iPad approach to blogging and web development using Coda and Working Copy, the writing was on the wall.

While using the iOS 11 public beta, I realized that I hadn't used my Mac in months. It spent its summer under a pile of papers in a desk drawer. I tried to think of reasons to keep it, but nothing compelling came to mind. In fact, the only task I can't use my iPad for is to update my Logitech Harmony remote control. However, I still have a gaming PC and can just use that instead.

A part of me has known this for a while, but I kept the Mac around as a security blanket in much the same way that some people keep old cables for devices they no longer own, just on the off chance that they might somehow be useful again. I'm not ruling out the possibility of owning another Mac in the future, but unless Apple ceases development of the iPad and iOS, I can't see myself switching back.


Workflow Directory Is Now on GitHub

Permalink - Posted on 2017-09-10 20:59

In December 2016, I announced that I'd no longer be updating Workflow Directory. The Workflow team had made some great improvements to the gallery, the biggest of which was user submissions. At the time, it didn't make sense to continue working on the site when the built-in feature was so much better.

Fast forward to March 2017 and the news broke that Apple had acquired Workflow. While the app continues to be updated, the gallery is not accepting user submissions. Since then, I had often wondered if it'd make sense to reopen Workflow Directory.

So I've decided to do just that, but in the process I've made a fundamental change. After testing the waters last week with a similar endeavor, Workflow Directory into a GitHub repository. Existing workflows have been migrated (with the exception of a few that are non-functional) and I've added a few new ones too. Each workflow has an accompanying README containing a description.

If you're unfamiliar with Git, don't fret. Browsing the repository and downloading workflows is essentially the same experience as before, you're just doing it through GitHub's web interface. There's even a new Submit to Workflow Directory workflow if you want to create a submission1.

For those of you that do know Git, you can clone or fork the repository (I recommend the awesome Working Copy for iOS) and you're more than welcome to submit pull requests for submissions (in fact, I'd prefer it!)

Moving to GitHub provides some much needed flexibility. Unlike the previous website, the repository hosts actual workflow files. Should Workflow ever lose the ability to share workflows using workflow.is links, the repository isn't affected (unlike the old website). It also means that I can have others help out with submission reviews. The drawback of the migration is that the existing RSS feeds for Workflow Directory are no longer available, though you can follow the repository so you're notified of new updates. The Twitter account will still be active and posting updates though.

Check out the GitHub repository and I look forward to receiving your submissions!

  1. The submission workflow files an issue within the repository that will be actioned when the next batch of updates are made.


GitHub Repository of My Workflows

Permalink - Posted on 2017-09-05 22:57

Workflows can be shared either by creating a workflow.is link or exported as a .wflow file using "Share as File". Using the latter option, I've set up a GitHub repository of workflows that I've created. I'll be regularly adding to the repository so it's a handy way to always have a copy of the workflows I create.

You can quickly clone the repository using an app like Working Copy (one of my favorite iOS apps). You don't need to be familiar with Git to do this or even have a GitHub account.

Alternatively, you can simply download a ZIP archive of all the workflows. I'd recommend cloning the repository as you can easily keep it updated whenever I add new workflows.


Device-Framed Screenshots in Workflow Redux

Permalink - Posted on 2017-09-02 19:01

It's been almost two years since I made a workflow to create device-framed screenshots. Since then, Workflow added an Overlay Image action that allows users to place one image on top of another, making the need to slice up device images redundant. I figured that those wanting to create device-framed screenshots would eventually use this as a replacement for my workflow.

Nonetheless, the original workflow proved to be quite popular and I still get asked about it from time to time. Just last week, I helped someone on Twitter who was having trouble using the old workflow. I've now created a replacement action extension workflow that uses Overlay Image to generate device-framed screenshots for iPhone, iPad, iPhone SE, and Apple Watch.

Device-framed screenshot for Apple Watch

Unlike the old one, this workflow doesn't need you to download image assets manually. The workflow operates as an action extension for images, but if you run it from within Workflow it will automatically download the image assets and save them to iCloud Drive for you.

Run the workflow from within the app to install the device images it needs

The workflow also automatically detects orientation and provides either portrait or landscape device-framed screenshots (excluding Apple Watch).

Device-framed screenshot for iPad

To correctly place the screenshot within the device, the following measurements were taken for each device image1:

  • Height and width of the screen area
  • X and Y distance of the top-left corner of the screen area from the edge of the image (where the image is to be positioned)

When the workflow is run and a device chosen, Workflow resizes the screenshot to the dimensions of the screen area. It then overlays it onto the device image at the appropriate coordinates so as to completely cover the screen area.

This workflow becomes especially useful when coupled with the new screenshot process in iOS 11. Instead of just saving a screenshot to the Camera Roll, iOS now provides an option for annotating and sharing a screenshot before deciding whether to save it. This means you can create a screenshot, annotate it (if needed), then share it and use the workflow to create a device image—all as part of one process. You can then discard the original screenshot without needing to save it.

Annotating screenshots in iOS 11

For use on the web, I highly recommend using my Optimize Image workflow to reduce the file size of the resulting PNG image. You can add a Run Workflow action at the very end of this workflow to pass the image directly into Optimize Image workflow, providing a single process for generating and optimizing device-framed screenshots.

Run workflow

This workflow only includes one color of device (Space Gray), so consider it a starting point for further customization. You can easily add more devices or colors by customizing the workflow and using the same process for all other devices.

  1. I used the Crop tool in Pixelmator to get these dimensions. I'm almost certain there's a better way of doing this, but it worked fine for what I needed.


Reverse Image Search With TinEye and Workflow

Permalink - Posted on 2017-08-30 01:20

Social media is a wretched hive of misinformation at times and it happens because we take a lot of what we see at face value. This is exploited by those who would make false or greatly exaggerated claims, such as people who want to be internet famous or who are trying to push their political or prejudiced opinions onto others. A popular tactic for this is to make an unsubstantiated claim (or lie) and find an existing photo somewhere online (e.g., Getty Images) that fits their false narrative.

TinEye is a reverse image search engine and a superb resource for separating fact from fiction. You provide it with an image (either upload one or via URL) and TinEye can find web pages that also use it, even if it has been modified. For iOS users, I've created two workflows that makes it easy to search for an image using TinEye. Both workflows require the use of a Dropbox account.

TinEye Photo is an action extension that accepts an image and temporarily stores it in your Dropbox folder. A public URL for the image is created and used as a TinEye search. Once you've seen the results, the workflow deletes the file from Dropbox.

The second workflow is TinEye URL, an action extension that accepts URLs. It gets the content of the URL, finds all images over 300px wide, and presents them all in a list for selection. The rest of the workflow is then the same as TinEye Photo.


Managing App Store Subscriptions

Permalink - Posted on 2017-08-17 22:50

Many apps and services offer subscription plans as a way to pay for additional features (e.g., syncing), access to a service (e.g., Netflix), or to simply provide recurring support to the developer. As it's a popular payment option, it's a good idea to regularly check what active subscriptions you have on your account, canceling any you no longer need.

  1. Open Settings
  2. Tap iTunes & App Store > Apple ID
  3. Tap View Apple ID
  4. After your iOS device brings up your account settings, tap Subscriptions

Subscriptions are broken down into "Active" and an "Expired sections. Select an active subscription and tap Cancel Subscription to cancel it. This prevents the subscription from auto-renewing, but you can still use the current subscription until the end of the billing period.

Certain apps and services offer more than one subscription plan, or a discounted annual subscription that is cheaper than paying either weekly or monthly. You can change your subscription type at any time, taking effect from the next billing period. You can also reactivate an expired subscription by selecting it and choosing the plan to subscribe to.


Managing Touch ID Fingerprints

Permalink - Posted on 2017-08-15 00:55

You can enroll up to five different fingerprints to use with TouchID. By default, iOS labels each one sequentially (e.g., Finger 1, Finger 2). Instead, you can set a custom name to better identify which finger each fingerprint corresponds to.

  • Open Settings
  • Tap Touch ID & Passcode
  • Tap a fingerprint to rename it

Rename Touch ID fingerprints

If you've added more than one fingerprint and don't know which fingers they correspond to, touch the Home button while in the Touch ID settings. The corresponding fingerprint will be highlighted for you to identify.

Identify Touch ID fingerprints

Touch ID fingerprints are not limited to your own. If you're using a shared device (e.g., family iPad) or perhaps want your spouse to have access to your device in case of emergency, you can add—and then label—other people's fingerprints.


iOS 11 Smart Punctuation

Permalink - Posted on 2017-07-05 00:14

iOS 11 includes Smart Punctuation, a feature that substitutes some forms of punctuation with those that are more typographically suitable (e.g., "straight" quotes with “smart” quotes). While this smart replacement is suited for writing, it can get in the way if you're a developer.

I recently installed the public beta of iOS 11 on my iPad Pro1 and hadn't realized that Smart Punctuation was not only present, it appears to be enabled by default. I was working on a remote server with Coda and couldn't figure out why some of the commands I was entering into Terminal weren't working. These were commands I'd used many times before, so it wasn't until I looked closely at my input that I realized the quotes and hypens I typed were not what I had expected.

Smart Punctuation can, thankfully, be disabled in Settings > General > Keyboards. I'd like to use it but with the amount of work I do on my iPad that requires using punctuation like straight quotes, I simply cannot if it's an all-or-nothing approach. I hope that there's some way for app developers to prevent smart punctuation from occurring, especially in apps like Coda or Working Copy, so that it can still be useful without the potential to cause problems. The most common bugs are always typos, and I doubt I'm the only person who is tripped up by Smart Punctuation.

  1. I told myself I wouldn't install the beta on my iPad Pro. I caved.


iOS 11 Multitasking Without Using the Dock

Permalink - Posted on 2017-06-29 02:10

A common complaint about multitasking in iOS 11 is that apps seemingly must reside in the Dock for them to be available for Slide Over or Split View. Here's Apple's description of multitasking on their iOS 11 preview page:

iOS 11 makes it easier and more intuitive than ever to multitask. You can open a second app right from the Dock, and both apps remain active in Slide Over as well as Split View. You can drag the second app in Slide Over to the left. And you can get back to your favorite App Spaces in the redesigned App Switcher.

As some iOS 11 users have pointed out, one alternative to this is to invoke Spotlight to search for apps, though this requires the use of an external keyboard to show Spotlight while an app is still active. Another option is to create a folder of apps and place it in the Dock, though this still means you're still limited to a selection of apps you can multitask from.

There is another way of multitasking apps that doesn't require using the Dock at all, allowing you to one-handedly drag any app from your Home screen and place them in Slide Over or Split View. You can even use this process to replace any app in a pairing.

  1. Press the Home button to go back to the Home screen
  2. Tap-and-hold an app until you can drag it around
  3. Either:
    • Tap to select another app and launch it from the Home screen
    • Invoke the App Switcher (either by swiping up from the bottom of the screen or double-pressing the Home button)
  4. You can then drop the app in Slide Over or Split View, or replace either app in the pairing

It does feel clumsy at first and there's probably more Apple can do to improve this. But after using this technique many times already, it's become second nature and I can accomplish this all one-handed. I don't tend to use the app pairings that Apple is seemingly trying to push as a feature of iOS 11, instead just selecting apps and multitasking whenever necessary.

I've only been aware of these methods since using Beta 2 so cannot confirm whether it existed in the first beta or is a recent addition. Whether these are worthwhile solutions to app multitasking or just the first step in an ongoing improvement remains to be seen. But if this is how multitasking is going to work in the first public release of iOS 11, I'm fine with it for now.

Update: As reddit user dunnouniquename suggests, you can also drag an app from the Home screen with one hand then using another finger to open another app. This launches the app while you're still dragging the other one. I've updated the post and video to reflect both methods.


The Need for iOS Recovery

Permalink - Posted on 2017-06-21 00:40

The Mac has long had the ability to restore macOS without the need for separate install media, a feature known as macOS Recovery:

macOS Recovery is part of the built-in recovery system of your Mac. You can start up from macOS Recovery and use its utilities to recover from certain software issues or take other actions on your Mac.

macOS Recovery makes it easy to reinstall macOS if there's been a major software issue. If the Mac's hard drive has been wiped or the Recovery system isn't working, it can even connect to the internet and download the necessary macOS installer:

Newer Mac computers and some older Mac computers automatically try to start up from macOS Recovery over the Internet when unable to start up from the built-in recovery system. When that happens, you see a spinning globe instead of an Apple logo during startup. To manually start up from macOS Recovery over the Internet, hold down Option-Command-R or Shift-Option-Command-R at startup.

iOS devices, unfortunately, don't have such a feature. If iOS needs to be reinstalled (a somewhat rare occurrence), the device must be connected to a Mac or PC and restored using iTunes. I had to do this just a few months ago as my iPad Pro became sluggish and unresponsive. After trying to restart it, the Apple logo appeared but it would never get any further. The only option I had was to put the iPad into recovery mode, dust off my Mac, and restore it using iTunes.

Requiring a Mac or PC to restore an iPad, a device that even Apple touts as a replacement for a traditional computer, makes it extremely difficult to complete the transition to a post-PC era. Ultimately, iOS (and by extension, the iPad) is still treated as an accessory.

Apple could break the shackles of iTunes for restoring iOS by either:

  • Implementing some form of iOS Recovery, similar to macOS Recovery
  • Using APFS Snapshots

With iOS Recovery, the device could either have a recovery volume containing the installer for iOS (space permitting) or be able to connect to the internet and download the necessary files, even if iOS isn't working—just like macOS Recovery.

Apple's new file system, APFS, is used on all iOS devices running iOS 10.3 and above. A notable feature of APFS is Snapshots, a read-only version of the file system taken at a point in time that can be reverted to. There isn't much documented about this feature but, in theory, iOS could take regular snapshots or even just one after a successful boot. If there's a problem (e.g., failed iOS update), iOS could simply restore to that point. It's not as robust as an iOS Recovery solution as it likely requires the file system to be intact.

In either case, there are possibilities of implementing some form of recovery process that doesn't require iTunes. After all, this is a process that hasn't changed since the launch of the original iPhone over ten years ago, so it's long overdue for a change.