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MacStories

Apple news, app reviews, and stories by Federico Viticci and friends.

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Official Twitter Client for the Mac Abandoned

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-17 19:04

In the time honored tradition of releasing bad news at the close of business on a Friday, Twitter announced via its Twitter Support account that it was removing its Mac client from the the Mac App Store and discontinuing support for the app:

Twitter gained a native Mac client when it acquired Tweetie for Mac from Loren Brichter in 2010, but the company’s support for the app over the years has been half-hearted at best. As John Gruber explained on Daring Fireball:

Twitter dumped Tweetie’s codebase years ago, of course, and their Mac app has been garbage ever since they did. It’s all fine, really, so long as they continue to allow third-party clients like Tweetbot and Twitterrific to exist. But this “Mac users should just use the website” attitude is exactly what I was talking about here as an existential threat to the future of the Mac.

Twitter’s move is not surprising given the history of the app. Most Mac users I know moved on to third-party clients years ago. However, Gruber’s broader point is an important one. There has been an increasing trend away from native Mac apps and towards web apps and cross-platform apps based on technologies like Electron. Many of these non-native solutions are resource hogs, and even the best often fail to take advantage of OS-level features, which makes them feel out of place among native apps. Perhaps the rumored Project Marzipan is designed to reinvigorate Mac development, although it’s hard to see that working if companies like Twitter simply don’t care to provide the best experience on macOS.


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New iOS Apps Must Be Built with iOS 11 SDK and Support iPhone X Display Starting in April

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-15 22:23

Juli Clover, writing for MacRumors:

Apple today sent out a notice to developers letting them know that starting in April of 2018, all new apps submitted to the App Store must be built using the iOS 11 SDK, which is included in Xcode 9 or later.

Furthermore, Apple says that all new apps designed for the iPhone, including universal apps, must support the iPhone X's Super Retina display.

"Must be built", unfortunately, doesn't mean apps have to support new features like drag and drop. Speaking of which, I don't think supporting the native resolution of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a requirement yet, and the device launched in November 2015.

→ Source: macrumors.com


Apple Music’s Archaic Album Categorization

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-15 21:58

Benjamin Mayo sums up one of the most annoying features of Apple Music: the way the service thinks everything is an "album", making it extremely inconvenient to find what you're looking for.

These artefacts of compact discs show up again when looking at an artist page. What a human would think of as an artist’s albums, and what Apple Music lists, are completely different. EPs, singles, specials, deluxe, originals are all shoehorned under one name ‘Albums’. There is no way to filter these out. This really makes finding what you want hard. When you know what you want to find, all this backwardly organised catalogue gets in your way.

There has to be a better method than packaging everything up with the same ‘album’ label. This is not a hard problem, I thought to myself. In fact, it’s already been solved … by Spotify. As you have probably noticed by now, I have included a graphical illustration of Apple Music’s biggest flaw alongside this article. If you can’t see it, your browser isn’t wide enough. If you are reading outside of a browser, like RSS, this probably won’t show up for you either. Use a browser. I encountered this exact scenario in my first day of using the service. I did not fabricate it.

Don't miss the effective visualization of this problem on his post.

I like Apple Music, but this has been a problem since the service launched almost three years ago, and it's time for a fix.

Here's what makes this even more annoying: Beats Music – the very service Apple Music is largely based onvisualized albums, compilations, and different editions in separate tabs/views. Two of the worst Apple Music features (album categorization and the separation of playlists made by you vs. those made by others) had already been fixed by Beats Music, but Apple went for an inferior design that is still with us today.

→ Source: benjaminmayo.co.uk


Shazam Updated with Synchronized Lyrics and a New Design

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-15 21:16

When Apple acquired Shazam, people wondered what would become of the popular song identification and music discovery app. It’s not unusual for an app acquired by a big company to be pulled from the App Store or for development to slow substantially. Questions were also raised about whether Shazam would continue to support Apple’s music streaming rival, Spotify.

As it turns out, Shazam has continued to be updated and support Spotify since Apple’s acquisition. In fact, there have been at least four updates to Shazam since the acquisition including one today that adds synchronized lyrics and a design refresh of the app’s results screen.

The new UI looks great. The results screen is dominated by a background image of the artist. In the foreground is a big play button, the name of the song the app recognized, and the name of the artist. If you tap on the artwork, you get an image of the artist and album in some cases, plus more details on the artist, album, song, and release date.

Along the top of the results screen is a menu you access by swiping horizontally that includes lyrics, videos, additional songs by the artist, and related artists. If you swipe over to the lyrics screen while a song is playing, they are displayed in perfect synchronization with the song that’s playing, which is perfect for impromptu karaoke moments. Adding songs to Apple Music and Spotify playlists has been streamlined too – it now takes one less tap to add a song to a playlist.

One thing to keep in mind though, is that if you’re using the iOS 11.3 beta, playback is broken throughout the app. Tapping on any play button freezes the entire UI and requires you to force quit the app. Playback works as expected if you’re not on the beta, however.

Shazam is available on the App Store.


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‘sodes Embodies Beauty and Minimalism in a Podcast Player

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-15 18:22

Jared Sinclair launched a new iPhone app today, 'sodes. Short for 'episodes,' the app offers a simple, no-frills podcast listening experience.

Unsurprisingly considering Sinclair's previous work, 'sodes is a beautiful app. Perhaps my favorite designed area is the Now Playing view; after I first tried it, going back to another app's Now Playing screen was painful. The app especially shines on the iPhone X's full-width display. As was highlighted in Federico and John's discussion on AppStories last year, an indie app's little human touches can elicit such delight – and 'sodes is a great example of that.

'sodes was designed to be nearly feature-absent (at least to the user's eye), so you won't find things like chapter support, Smart Speed, playlists, or any such extras. You can adjust the duration of skips forward and back, there are multiple color themes, and playback speed can be set anywhere from 0.5x to 2x – but that's about it. Mainly, the app gives you podcasts in a clean, minimal, delightful wrapper. If that's enough for you, you might just love it.

'sodes is available on the App Store.

→ Source: itunes.apple.com


Connected, Episode 180: Our True Tiny Head Form

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-14 22:43, modified at 22:45

We have HomePod opinions, dreams about WWDC and an amazing new t-shirt.

On this week's episode of Connected, we talk about our HomePod impressions and Apple's plans for iOS and macOS this year. You can listen here.

As a side note, we've launched a new t-shirt design for Connected. You can find the t-shirt (in three colors) on Cotton Bureau.

I think this artwork (by the talented Chris Rowland) is amazing, and I'd love to see many of these t-shirts at WWDC later this year. You can get yours here.

→ Source: relay.fm


HomePod Leaving Residue on Some Wooden Furniture

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-14 18:32, modified at 20:51

John Voorhees' HomePod ring; the device now sits on a coaster.

John Voorhees' HomePod ring; the device now sits on a coaster.

Nearly a week after its launch, HomePod owners are discovering that in some cases, the device leaves a white ring in its place when stored on wood furniture. John Chase of The Wirecutter reports:

An unhappy discovery after we placed a HomePod on an oiled butcher-block countertop and later on a wooden side table was that it left a defined white ring in the surface. Other reviewers and owners (such as Pocket-lint, and folks on Twitter) have reported the same issue, which an Apple representative has confirmed. Apple says “the marks can improve over several days after the speaker is removed from the wood surface,” and if they don’t fade on their own, you can basically just go refinish the furniture—the exact advice Apple gave in an email to Wirecutter was to “try cleaning the surface with the manufacturer’s suggested oiling method.”...In other testing, we have seen no visible damage when using it on glass, granite countertop, nice MDF, polyurethane-sealed wood, and cheap IKEA bookcases.

Among the MacStories team, Federico and John have both encountered this issue, while I have not. Serenity Caldwell of iMore explains the inconsistency:

Not all whole-wood table finishes are alike: Certain wood oil treatments include drying agents that have organic compounds present in them — compounds that could potentially interact with the silicone in Apple's base.

It appears that for those who will face this problem, it doesn't take more than a couple days for the white ring to become at least faintly visible. If you're not seeing anything after several days of HomePod use, it's likely that your furniture will be fine, but if you're concerned, using a coaster seems like the best low-budget fix at this point.

Update: Also per Serenity Caldwell, Apple has now put together an official support document, dubbed "Cleaning and taking care of HomePod." It provides official details regarding HomePod and wooden surfaces:

It is not unusual for any speaker with a vibration-dampening silicone base to leave mild marks when placed on some wooden surfaces. The marks can be caused by oils diffusing between the silicone base and the table surface, and will often go away after several days when the speaker is removed from the wooden surface. If not, wiping the surface gently with a soft damp or dry cloth may remove the marks. If marks persist, clean the surface with the furniture manufacturer's recommended cleaning process. If you’re concerned about this, we recommend placing your HomePod on a different surface.

The new document also addresses the matter of cleaning HomePod – only with a dry cloth, or, if necessary, a slightly damp one – and informs users to keep HomePod away from liquids and heat sources.

→ Source: thewirecutter.com


FileBrowser for Business Gains New FTP Options, Native iXpand Drive Integration in Files App

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-14 17:44, modified at 17:46

I first covered FileBrowser in an iPad Diaries column from January about finding a replacement for Transmit on iOS. As I noted in the story, FileBrowser didn't have the prettiest interface (to be fair, I still have to find a file manager that looks as nice as Transmit), but it offered superior integration with iOS 11 features such as drag and drop and Files.

I wrote:

What FileBrowser gets right is support for iOS 11's drag and drop and Files app. With drag and drop, you can import items into FileBrowser (and thus upload them to any configured location) as well as export files from a server you're browsing in FileBrowser. The app supports multi-item drag and drop so you can pick up multiple files in a single drag session and drop them into another iPad app, and it correctly implements lazy delivery (asynchronous transfers) for large files. For instance, I was able to drag a .aif song (30 MB) and a .zip archive (160 MB) from FileBrowser and drop them into Gladys and, while it took a few seconds (particularly for the 160 MB file), it worked just fine; as the file was being copied after I let go of it, I could continue using Gladys as normal.

Something else I should have noted: the FileBrowser team is extremely receptive to criticism and new ideas. Over the past few weeks, I've been testing an updated version of FileBrowser (in the Business flavor) that addresses several limitations I covered last month.

FileBrowser's updated action menu.

FileBrowser's updated action menu.

First and foremost, the action menu for selected items has received a fresh coat of paint that looks more in line with modern iOS design. If you're connected to an FTP server, the File Properties section of this list now lets you change file permissions, which wasn't possible before. In addition, if you tap 'Create a File Link', then 'Copy Relative URL', you'll get the relative path for a file on your server that you can easily combine with a TextExpander snippet or workflow to obtain a publicly shareable link for a selected file. I still prefer Transmit's ability to set a root URL beforehand, but this new option makes it easier to generate links with FileBrowser.

The most important changes in this update, however, revolve around FileBrowser's integration with the Files app for iOS 11. While you still need to authenticate with external servers from the main FileBrowser app before viewing those folders in Files, it is now possible to create new folders and delete items in network-mounted FileBrowser locations in Files.

I tested this functionality by creating a folder in my FTP server accessed from FileBrowser and viewed in Apple's Files app; it worked as advertised. I later changed permissions for the folder in the FileBrowser app, and deleted a handful of documents from the file provider. I still think FileBrowser's Files extension should be able to authenticate with external servers without requiring users to launch the app first, but the team is moving in the right direction with these additional Files features.

My favorite improvement in FileBrowser for Business, though, is the fact that you can plug a SanDisk iXpand USB drive into an iOS device and browse its contents from Files without opening the FileBrowser app first. In the old version of the app, access to the Lightning-enabled USB drive could only be granted by the FileBrowser app; now, even if FileBrowser has been manually force quit, you can plug an iXpand drive into your iOS device, navigate to FileBrowser's location, and browse the contents of the drive directly from a dedicated iXpand folder.

I can now back up my article drafts to a Lightning-powered USB drive using the Files app.

I can now back up my article drafts to a Lightning-powered USB drive using the Files app.

I tested FileBrowser's improved iXpand Drive integration with different types of documents, which I both dragged out of the Files location and dropped in it from other iPad apps. Despite some occasional error messages, file transfers always completed successfully and I was able to back up images, PDF documents, and more onto the drive only by inserting it into my iPad's Lightning port and opening FileBrowser's extension in Files.

This integration solidifies the idea that I'd love to have native external storage access in a future version of Apple's Files app, either thanks to new ports on the iPad Pro, or with new Lightning adapters made by Apple. The ability to connect to any drive and treat it just like another location in Files wouldn't bring any complexity that hasn't already been solved by Files' location-based approach to dealing with multiple sources of documents.

Until Apple extends Files to go beyond iCloud Drive and apps, FileBrowser remains the best option if you're looking for a file manager that supports a variety of external connections and also integrates deeply with iOS 11. The latest version of FileBrowser for Business is available on the App Store; you can read my previous coverage of FileBrowser here.


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OmniOutliner 3 for iOS Review

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-14 17:01, modified on 2018-02-15 14:43

I think in outlines. When I was in law school, that’s how I was taught to break down legal issues and structure the enormous amount of information I needed to know to pass exams. Outlines became second nature – something I still use today to organize research, write longer articles, and organize projects.

I wish I had OmniOutliner when I was in law school. Those outlines grew as the semester wore on, adding complexity that made them harder to edit. Although the word processor I used could handle outlining, it wasn’t optimized for huge outlines the way OmniOutliner is.

Today, my outlining needs are much simpler. I’m not creating 100-page outlines. If an outline is more than a few pages long, it’s only because it’s full of detailed notes. More often than not, all I need is a quick indented list, with simple formatting, and the ability to reorder sections easily.

Perhaps the greatest strength of OmniOutliner 3 for iOS is that it can handle both scenarios. That’s because OmniOutliner 3 isn’t one app, it’s two: OmniOutliner Essentials and OmniOutliner Pro. Essentials includes all the tools you need for basic outlining, and Pro adds extensive customization options, section navigation, automation, and other features.

Outline Creation and Editing

OmniOutliner 3 Essentials

OmniOutliner 3 Essentials

When I’m outlining, the last thing I want to do is fight the tool I’m using. I want to get the ideas out of my head quickly and get them organized with as little friction as possible. Omni understands this and makes creating an outline dead simple, especially with a keyboard connected to an iPad.

To start, just type. Each time you hit return, a new row is created. To indent a row, tap the tab key on your keyboard or the one on the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. Outdenting works using Shift+Tab or another onscreen button. Best of all, to indent a row, it doesn’t matter if your cursor is at the beginning of a line, the middle, or the end (please take note Google Docs).

Showing and hiding outline notes with the Add Note button (left) and the six options available by long pressing the Add Row button (right).

Showing and hiding outline notes with the Add Note button (left) and the six options available by long pressing the Add Row button (right).

Adding new rows can also be accomplished by tapping the plus button in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen to add rows above, below, indented, or outdented from the one that is currently selected. Next to the plus button is a button for adding notes to a section of your outline that doubles as a show/hide button for your notes when it’s long pressed.

Collapsing sections of an outline can be accomplished with the arrow keys on a keyboard or the disclosure triangles next to any line that has multiple sub-levels. There are also keyboard shortcuts for expanding or collapsing all sections of an outline at once.

Filtering displays just those rows that match your query.

Filtering displays just those rows that match your query.

Filtering is accessible from OmniOutliner’s toolbar or the Command+F keyboard shortcut. Unlike text editors that take you to the spot in a document where your search query occurs, OmniOutliner hides rows that don’t match your filter. It’s a fantastic way to view different sections of an outline simultaneously while editing.

As you can probably tell, Omni has put a real emphasis on keyboard shortcuts, which emphasizes that OmniOutliner is first and foremost an iPad app. There are around 90 keyboard shortcuts to accomplish nearly every task imaginable in the app from editing to navigation. Of course, there are also onscreen controls as well as contextual menus that appear when you select elements of an outline. That provides users with a lot of options to choose whatever works best depending on context and their preferences. However, it can also be a little intimidating at first, and discovering what works best for you takes a little patience and experimentation.

OmniOutliner has more keyboard shortcuts than on any other iOS app I’ve used.

OmniOutliner has more keyboard shortcuts than on any other iOS app I’ve used.

Styling

OmniOutliner Essentials includes a subset of the document and section-level styling found in the Pro version, which I cover below. Although modest in scope compared to the Pro version, I suspect there are more than enough formatting options in Essentials to cover the needs of most users.

OmniOutliner’s Themes

OmniOutliner’s Themes

The style inspector is accessible from the ‘i’ button in the top right-hand corner of the screen. At the document level Essentials includes controls for zooming in and out of your outline, which scales all of the text up or down at once. You can also toggle checkboxes on or off if you’d like to turn an outline into a checklist.

OmniOutliner's Dark Standard theme.

OmniOutliner's Dark Standard theme.

Essentials has 11 built-in themes, including three dark ones that also switch the app’s UI to a dark mode when applied. It’s easy to switch back and forth to try different themes, but I ran into a bug in the beta that displayed an alert that said ‘Recovery is disabled’ every time I switched themes on my iPad. The alert was easily dismissed by tapping cancel and didn’t seem to affect my outline in any way.

Individual rows can be styled with bold, italics, or underlined text. You can also pick from 6 heading styles and 3 text highlighting styles on a per-row basis.

Multi-Row Actions and Drag and Drop

Multi-row selection.

Multi-row selection.

OmniOutliner includes a multi-row selection mode that is toggled with a button on the right-hand side of the top toolbar. Selecting multiple items lets you style them all at once using the style inspector. You can also cut, copy, delete, group, and move multiple selections. Cut, copy, and delete do as you’d expect. Group takes each of the selected rows and moves them under a new blank row in your outline. The move command asks you to select the spot where you want to move the rows with the option of placing them above, below, or inside the row you pick.

OmniOutliner also support’s iOS 11’s drag and drop feature. You can drag and drop individual rows of an outline to reorder them or several rows. You can also drag and drop text between Essentials and other apps on an iPad or into other outlines. Pro adds the ability to drag and drop images and files into an outline.

OmniOutliner supports drag and drop.

OmniOutliner supports drag and drop.

Drag and drop works well in OmniOutliner overall. The only place I had an issue was sometimes it’s hard to drop a row at the end of an outline at the same level of indentation as the last row. When I tried, the row often ended up near the top of the outline instead.

OmniOutliner Pro-only Features

In addition to the features mentioned above, the Pro version offers several others that are unique to it.

Like OmniFocus and OmniGraffle, OmniOutliner now supports Omni Automation, Omni’s JavaScript-based scripting tool that works on iOS and macOS. OmniOutliner Pro includes a console for testing and running scripts as well as extensive documentation covering the dozens of classes available for scripting.

Omni Automation includes full API documentation.

Omni Automation includes full API documentation.

Navigation of long outlines is easier in Pro by virtue of a Section List that can be displayed on the left-hand side of the screen. You can pick one or more of the sections from the panel whether or not they are contiguous, and only those sections will be displayed in the main view in what Omni refers to as ‘focus mode.’ A status bar at the top of your outline serves as a reminder that only a portion of your outline is visible, which is nice because you can hide the Section List while focused on a subset of the sections of your outline. Tapping on the status notification gives you the option to exit focus mode.

The same left-hand panel also houses saved filters in OmniOutliner Pro. Filters are saved on a per-outline basis, which makes them useful for frequently run searches on a big outline, but it’s not a tool that can be used to find information in multiple outlines simultaneously.

OmniOutliner’s Section List and Saved Filter pane.

OmniOutliner’s Section List and Saved Filter pane.

Pro greatly expands styling choices too. You can add different lettering and numbering schemes to the levels of an outline, change the justification of each paragraph, pick from many different fonts, change the background color of an outline, and even create your own saved styles from combinations of the different formatting.

On a document level, there are more options too. Pro adds more themes, columns that make outlines feel more like spreadsheets,1 and the ability to tweak global formatting like the background color. Encryption can be added, and even the type of file can be adjusted so OmniOutliner works better with certain cloud services.

Document Management

OmniOutliner 3 uses a new file format. Older outlines can be converted to the new format, which has been in use on the Mac version of the app since OmniOutliner 5. The new file format works with both versions of the app, although in Essentials, Pro files are read-only unless you make a copy that strips out any Pro version features and formatting. There are no restrictions on using Essentials outlines in the Pro version.

Omni has its own sync service called OmniPresence that can sync outlines between iOS devices and the Mac. In my tests and based on my experience with other Omni apps, OmniPresence is fast and reliable. It does, however, complicate file navigation.

You can find your outlines in one of three places. ‘On My iPad/iPhone’ is local storage. Any outlines stored here won’t be available on other devices.

If you have an OmniPresence account, you can also save your outlines on the Omni Sync Server. Omni’s sync solution is not a file provider however, so documents stored on the Omni Sync Server cannot be accessed from Apple’s Files app.

To save to iCloud Drive or other locations that may be installed on your iOS device, you need to tap ‘Open…’ and navigate to where you want to store your outline. It’s an added layer of complexity that I’d rather not deal with but is probably necessary as long as Omni continues to offer its own sync option.

I ran into one bug moving outlines between iOS devices that I wasn’t able to reproduce consistently. After moving a file to iCloud Drive, I got an alert that told me it couldn’t be opened on another device because I didn’t have permission. The alert suggested that I choose File -> Get Info in Finder as though I was on a Mac.

OmniOutliner 3 on the iPhone

OmniOutliner includes all the same features on the iPhone but requires a popup menu for certain tools that don't fit in the toolbar.

OmniOutliner includes all the same features on the iPhone but requires a popup menu for certain tools that don't fit in the toolbar.

OmniOutliner started as an iPad-only app. In 2015, Omni made the app Universal, adding the iPhone version to the mix. The iPhone app includes all of the features as its iPad counterpart. If you need to work on an outline on an iPhone, OmniOutliner gets the job done, but it benefits greatly from the additional real estate of an iPad and the shortcuts that are available to keyboard users.

I ran into more bugs on the iPhone than I did on the iPad mostly revolving around the state of the UI after toggling filtering on and off. None of the bugs caused damage to my outlines and they were very hard to reproduce across different outlines, so your experience may differ. The bugs are worth mentioning though because if you run into them too, I was able to return the UI to the state I expected simply by closing and reopening the outline I was editing.


OmniOutliner is something more than just an outlining app. Calling it that is a little like calling a word processor a text editor. The difference lies in the extensive formatting and styling features that OmniOutliner offers. The Pro version is closer to a full-fledged word processor like Microsoft Word than it is to a text editor like Byword. That’s not an inherently good or bad thing, but it’s worth keeping in mind before you try OmniOutliner and instructive in deciding which version might fit your needs best.

I primarily use outlines as scratchpads. They’re a place to get ideas down and organized as I plan a project. I don’t often refer back to my outlines, and even when I do, I don’t mind if the outline is simple, unadorned text.

As a result, OmniOutliner Pro is not for me. Back when I was in school studying and revising outlines endlessly, I expect I would have chosen OmniOutliner Pro instead, but different jobs require different tools.

Today, I prefer Essentials. Even though it too has formatting and styling options that I rarely use, Essentials has all the outline creation and editing tools I need to effortlessly create an outline and move things around with little friction. The formatting options can be hidden away, which makes it the version I would recommend to anyone who’s primarily interested in using an outlining app to brainstorm and organize their thoughts.

For longer outlines where Pro’s section navigation panel would be handy or if you need to create polished outlines to share with others, Pro is a better option. It’s also the way to go if you know JavaScript and want to automate the outlining process.

Best of all though, you don’t need to choose either version in advance. You can download the 14-day free trial and switch between the two versions of OmniOutliner from the settings screen at will to decide for yourself which fits your needs best.

OmniOutliner is available on the App Store as a free download. After the 14-day free trial expires, Essentials is $9.99, and Pro is $39.99. Existing users of each version can get the same version for 50% off.


  1. In fact, Pro can export outlines to Excel. ↩︎

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New Apps for 2018

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-14 15:45, modified at 16:20

You can download my wallpaper here.

The new year is always an opportunity for me to take some time off work and better understand how I use technology and, more importantly, what I want from the devices I write about. Historically, that meant I would take a short break over the holidays and come back to MacStories with a handful of recommendations for new apps I wanted to test throughout the year, from text editors to finance management utilities and health apps.

This time, the break lasted a little longer. Last year was a particularly stressful one for me, and I felt that I needed to take at least a couple of weeks off all my work projects to clear my mind and make a plan for the year ahead. That turned out to be a fantastic idea: not only was I able to finally relax (to the point where I was craving the website and feeling the urge to write again) – the extended break also allowed me to identify areas of my life that I wanted to act upon immediately and improve in 2018.

This is why, when Myke Hurley asked me on Analog(ue) which big project I was working on for the new year, my first answer was "myself". My plan for 2018 is to take better care of myself – from multiple perspectives – so I can avoid the stress of 2017, feel more inspired, write more, and, ultimately, be happier. I don't have a single big "work project" for 2018; my goal is to improve every aspect of my daily routine, in big and small ways, so everything I do can subsequently grow as well. Essentially, I need to fix the foundation before I can build on top of it again.

In addition to new habits (which I detailed in last month's issue of the MacStories Monthly Log for Club members; you should subscribe if you haven't yet), this effort involves new apps I'm using to help me along the way. I decided to wait a full month after I came back to work because I wanted to see which ones would actually stick around; what you'll find below is a collection of apps I'm now using on my iPhone and iPad on a daily basis.

While this type of story isn't new to longtime MacStories readers, I feel like the 2018 version is more personal and pragmatic. These aren't advanced automation apps or utilities I'm just experimenting with for the mere sake of geekery; from mental health to time tracking, each of these apps is having a tangible, positive impact on my life that I'd like to highlight.

Headspace

As I wrote in last month's Club MacStories Monthly Log, I didn't believe in guided meditation until I completed the free trial of Headspace. After 10 free sessions, I signed up for an annual subscription at the beginning of January, and I'm now trying to meditate every day, aiming for at least 5 completed sessions every week.

It's tricky to broadly recommend meditation as a lifestyle technique: maybe it works well for you; maybe you feel like it adds nothing of value to your life. Personally, I'm finding the time I set aside for myself extremely useful and precious. After completing a Headspace session, I'm more relaxed and, thanks to the breathing exercises, in a better position to "scan" and feel my body – something that I always wanted to understand but consistently failed at. Headspace puts me in a good mood and it's become something I miss when I don't do it.

The Headspace app itself is colorful and neatly organized in sections that contain thematic packs and collections aimed at helping you in different aspects of your life. Headspace can even write its Mindful Minutes data to HealthKit, which is a nice plus.

I'm still a Headspace novice, but I'm already seeing the benefits of unwinding for a few minutes every day to approach the problems of everyday life with a calmer, more optimistic viewpoint. Even though I sometimes skip a day because life gets in the way, I'm committed to Headspace for the year.

Workouts++

That was intense.

That was intense.

John reviewed David Smith's alternative workout app for iPhone and Apple Watch in late 2016. I recently started using Workouts++ in lieu of Apple's default Workout app as part of a new daily exercise regime I began last month. Mens sana in corpore sano, as the Romans used to say; in addition to a calm and healthy mind, I need to get in better shape.

Right now, I'm doing a 30-minute indoor cycling workout and 150 sit-ups every day. My goal is to increase these numbers to 45 minutes and 300 sit-ups by the end of April; long-term, I want to build muscle, add new workout types, and lose 22 pounds by the end of 2018.

The Apple Watch is playing an essential role in this with the help of Workouts++, Overcast, and a Polar H10 external heart rate sensor that directly integrates with the Watch. Thanks to Overcast, I can listen to my favorite podcasts over my AirPods as I'm working out and a) save time with Smart Speed and b) control my queue with the Overcast Watch app.1 When I'm on the bike, I dip in and out of Overcast (mostly for skip controls) and always go back to Workouts++, which reports time elapsed and real-time heart rate data (polled nearly every second) thanks to the Polar H10 chest strap.

What I love about Smith's app is the bold design (which works well at a glance) and its deep personalization options. I've created a Workouts++ view on the Watch that shows me exactly what I need, so I can keep an eye on the workout's duration and precise heart rate measurements to stay in the fat-burning zone and slow down when I'm pushing too hard. I was familiar with Workouts++ before, but it's only now that I'm taking regular exercise seriously that I can fully appreciate Smith's vision for a free, highly customizable alternative to Apple's Workout app.

I also want to call out one of my favorite details of the app: to quickly end a workout, you can rotate the Digital Crown and spin it for a few seconds. I find this to be a faster and more intuitive method than swipes and taps on the screen.

Streaks

This is where all my new habits come together in one unified dashboard. Like Workouts++, I've known about Streaks for a long time, but never fully committed to it for keeping myself accountable. After sketching out a "personal improvement plan" over the holidays, I created a handful of realistic daily goals intermixed with other habits I want to develop every day, and added them all as tasks in Streaks. Now, Streaks is on my Home screen and it's one of the four apps that still have badges enabled (the other three are Messages, WhatsApp, and Things).

I prefer Streaks over other habit trackers for a few reasons. First and foremost, the app integrates natively with HealthKit so it can see whether I've actually worked out or meditated during the day. It's almost as if I can't lie about it: as soon as a workout is logged in HealthKit, Streaks automatically marks the habit as complete; if it's still grayed out, it means I need to do better.

In addition, Streaks lets me set up habits that need to be "filled up" during the week without being daily, such as meditating five times a week. There's a great selection of custom colors and icons to better visualize different goals, and you can even complete tasks from the Apple Watch or via Siri. Lastly, there's a general overview page that displays your overall progress since you started using Streaks, which is an equally amazing and terrifying way to understand whether you're following through on your plans or not. So far, I'm doing pretty good.

Streaks motivates me to do better every day, but it also keeps me honest without being annoying. A traditional task manager would turn overdue tasks red and make me feel bad about those unchecked items sitting in my inbox; Streaks puts an "x" on the calendar for days when a habit was not completed, but otherwise it simply moves on and encourages you to try again tomorrow. There's a warm sense of satisfaction at the end of the day when all the circles in Streaks have been filled, and I'm happy I started using this app to keep track of my journey towards a healthier, more positive lifestyle.

1 Second Everyday

I miss eating this every week.

I miss eating this every week.

I've always been intrigued by those timelapse-like videos that, through small snippets of footage recorded every day, show you what the past year has been like. I wanted to do something similar for 2018. While my initial idea was to share a photo every day (something that my friend Stephen has done multiple times), I realized that it was going to be too much work, so I settled on something more low-friction and private with 1 Second Everyday.

As the name suggests, this app makes it easy to record a one-second snippet of video every day. At the end of the year, multiple snippets are stitched together in a single video that you can save or share with other people. If one second is too limiting, you can increase the duration to 1.5 seconds. You can also use videos contained in Live Photos for the selected day if you forget to record a video, or import a video from the library and cut it to only include a small clip in 1SE.

There are two things I like about this app. First, it nudges me to record a video every day with a gentle reminder; 1SE is one of the few apps on my iPhone that still has banner notifications enabled. Furthermore, the app uses a grid view that acts as a glanceable dashboard of video previews but also as a calendar that lets me tap on a specific day to add a video to it. I sometimes struggle to record a video every day (which is why I'm thankful for the Live Photos integration), but I'm getting more disciplined at using this app, and I'm excited to see the final product in 10 months.

Homecam

I'm in the process of adding more (cheap) HomeKit cameras in our apartment thanks to Homebridge running on a Raspberry Pi, and this app does something extremely simple, yet essential for this kind of setup.

Homecam displays a live grid of all the HomeKit-enabled cameras in your house. That's it. Instead of having to look for cameras in specific rooms or at the bottom of the main accessories list in Apple's Home app, you can launch HomeCam and see them all at once. Then, you can tap on a camera to watch live footage in full-screen, and optionally add a camera to the Today widget as well. Soon, you'll also be able to control accessories in the room where the camera is located.

Homecam's widget is particularly impressive as it can also display live footage from each camera without having to load the main app – and it works both over WiFi and with remote access on cellular connections. I can't recommend Homecam enough if you own multiple HomeKit cameras and have been looking for a quick way to switch between them.

Airtable

The games I'm currently playing, as tracked in Airtable.

The games I'm currently playing, as tracked in Airtable.

This app isn't new to MacStories: I covered Airtable in a similar roundup at the beginning of 2016. I ultimately didn't stick to Airtable because I didn't have a strong incentive to track items in it; this time, I have a few important reasons to keep using Airtable throughout the year.

Airtable is a mix of a spreadsheet and relational database that combines the benefits of organizing records in rows and columns with the flexibility of a database that contains rich fields for each record. It's difficult to explain Airtable: it's one of those unique products that eludes traditional categorization but that makes perfect sense once you use it for a few minutes. On the surface, Airtable looks like a spreadsheet; as you tap on an item, you realize that you can add metadata, links to other records on other tables, formulas, and much more.

I've decided to use Airtable again to keep track of movies I want to watch and videogames I've played or plan on playing. Ryan and I are also sharing an Airtable "base" to track the workflows I create for Club MacStories, which I then extract via Workflow (through the Airtable API) to create an index for Club members (look for news on this front very soon).

One of my favorite aspects of Airtable is the ability to save custom views based on filters: in my Games base, for instance, I have separate views for Now Playing and Upcoming games that are managed by filters that look for special toggles in each record.

I wish the Airtable iOS apps were as powerful as the desktop web app, but I can live with them as long as Workflow allows me to automate other features with an API.

iCab

Airtable's Gallery view, loaded with iCab.

Airtable's Gallery view, loaded with iCab.

Speaking of desktop web apps: I rediscovered the power of iCab at the beginning of the year when I realized that Safari couldn't reliably open the Airtable website in desktop mode. iCab isn't new to MacStories either – I covered the app numerous times in the past. It's only now, however, that I find myself regularly opening iCab instead of waiting until I'm at my MacBook to work with a website that doesn't play well with Safari on iOS.

iCab is an app with a lot of preferences, which, unfortunately, are confusingly organized in multiple sub-sections and nested screens. The app can be daunting to configure and too deep to customize for most people. It pays off if you put in the time to learn its labyrinth of settings though. One of the advanced options that I'm using all the time now is the ability to set custom user agents on a per-domain basis, with support for wildcards in the URL.

To overcome the Airtable issues mentioned above, I created a rule that exposes Safari for Mac as the browser's user agent, which lets iCab trick the Airtable website into thinking I'm browsing from a Mac. This way, I can access advanced functionalities of my bases that aren't available in the iOS app, such as the Gallery and Kanban views.

There's a lot to love in iCab – if you know where to find it. Unlike Safari, the app offers a proper file downloader that does everything I'd like Apple to do: you can queue multiple downloads, preview them when they're done, send them to other apps, and even browse them in iCab's Files extension.

iCab's excellent built-in downloader.

iCab's excellent built-in downloader.

The app's toolbar is entirely customizable and, again unlike Safari, the iPhone version shows you tabs below the address bar instead of forcing you to open a separate carousel view to see your currently open tabs. I would like to see developer Alexander Clauss make iCab more approachable by reorganizing its settings and getting rid of some legacy features, but I also know that part of iCab's appeal is that it offers a little bit of everything for everyone. I'm not sure how much that can be simplified without compromising the app's value.

Timelogger

Annoyed by the lack of a solid Toggl client for the iPhone and iPad, earlier this year I decided to take a handful of time tracking apps for a spin and see if the App Store suggested anything better that also matched my requirements. My ideal time tracker has to offer iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch apps, an interactive widget, cloud sync, the ability to organize timers in tasks and groups with different colors, and in-depth reports generated natively on iOS. After a few days of unsuccessful tests that almost convinced me I would always have to use a web app and my API workflows, I stumbled upon Timelogger. After a couple of weeks of tracking, I realized the app was working so well for me, Timelogger replaced Tweetbot in my iPhone's dock.

Developed by Filipe Martins, Timelogger is, effectively, what I would create if I had the ability to build my own time tracking app for iOS. The main view is a list of timers, each with its own Play button to pause it or resume it. Timers can be assigned to groups, which are color-coded, but each timer can also have its own unique color. Underneath each timer, you can see for how long it's been running in the current session, as well as the total amount of time you've logged in it for the day. This structure is exceptional because it helps me visually group timers together by color, as well as immediately see whether I've spent too much time on Twitter. At the bottom of the screen, there's a bar that gives you a total of the time you've tracked today.

Then there's the Global Stats page, which is where Timelogger beats anything else I've tried on iOS. Here, you can view a pie chart that visualizes how you allocated your time for the selected time period and a vertical bar chart for the current week. If you, like me, have a lot of timers, it's best if you view stats by group to make the charts more readable and useful. Scroll underneath the charts, and you'll find more handy statistics for the most and least tracked groups and days. If you need to export your stats and share them with someone else, you can hit the Share icon in the bottom left corner to generate a PDF report.

Viewing stats for individual tasks is also possible.

Viewing stats for individual tasks is also possible.

Timelogger works better than Toggl for me because it's a native app that lets me easily keep track of my time and check in on total tracked time without having to build a custom workflow. The app also comes with a widget to start timers and pause active ones, plus an Apple Watch app to quickly start timers from your wrist.

There are aspects of Timelogger that I'd like to see improved: the app syncs your data with iCloud, but only once a timer is complete, so you can't start a timer on the iPhone and later pause it on the iPad. Furthermore, there's no Mac app (which could be a problem for some) and you can't set custom date ranges in the Global Stats page.

Thanks to Timelogger, I'm tracking my time more consistently and I'm able to effect changes on my habits as hard stats about my time are always at my disposal. I used and loved Toggl for a year, but Timelogger is a better iOS experience, which is what I need at this point in my life.

HomeDash

As those who follow me on Twitter have probably noticed, I've been on a HomeKit binge lately, adding new devices and automations to our house with a mix of official HomeKit hardware and custom accessories hooked up to Homebridge.2 I wanted to do this in preparation for the HomePod, which we're going to use as a complete replacement for the Echo and Alexa, but also because my increased usage of Siri (both on the Watch and iPad) lends itself well to HomeKit commands.

Besides scarce international availability of compelling products (the HomeKit situation in Italy is quite sad, which is also why I'm making my own HomeKit accessories with Homebridge), I would argue that HomeKit is plagued by the confusing design of the Home app on iOS. I like the idea of the Home app as a centralized place for all kinds of accessories and scenes; however, its lack of personalization and bland design make it hard to understand the differences between accessories, conditions, and scenes. Specific settings or device characteristics require too many taps to be viewed as they are buried beneath 3D Touch or long presses; bafflingly, some HomeKit features are exposed in the API available to third-party apps, but can't be used in Apple's Home app itself.

I discovered HomeDash when I shared its time-limited sale on @MacStoriesDeals a couple of weeks ago. HomeDash isn't perfect, but it's very close to my vision of what Apple's next Home app should be.

In HomeDash, you set up multiple dashboards, each containing a grid of controls. By default, there's a dashboard for each room of the house, but you can create new ones from scratch too. You can navigate dashboards by swiping on a bar at the bottom of the screen. Each dashboard can include controls for accessories from any room of the house, which makes it possible to create "master control" dashboards for every accessory or scene as well. This alone is, in my opinion, a superior logical organization than Apple's Home app: by default, everything is divided in rooms; if you want to, you make your own dashboard (or even multiple ones) and you're not limited to a single Favorites screen.

It gets better though. Controls in HomeDash are represented as large, colorful, interactive widgets that use colors, buttons, and sliders contextually for different types of accessories. Unlike Home, which represents everything as a square button that requires a long press for additional controls, HomeDash features power buttons to trigger on/off states, light dimmers that are actual sliders, multi-size grids for color pickers, and swipeable lists of information for sensors or scenes.

This looks like the home of the future.

This looks like the home of the future.

You have complete freedom over the arrangement of widgets in a dashboard: when in Edit mode, you can pick one up with drag and drop and move it elsewhere – you'll even feel a subtle haptic tap when crossing over another widget. Some widgets have multiple size options available that display varying amounts of information. Like Apple's Home app, you can choose from a selection of default background photos for each dashboard, or add your own.

HomeDash is more intuitive than Apple's Home when creating new widgets, too. The Add Widget screen has colorful buttons for different categories and actions, which makes it easy to find what you're looking for and understand what it does. Similarly, when editing an existing widget, there's a screen that lets you modify the control so it affects the entire home, zones, rooms, groups, accessories, or individual services – a cascading structure that makes sense at a glance.

There's a lot more that HomeDash can do, even though I've been primarily using it for quick access to specific actions and accessories via multiple dashboards. In the Control tab, you can browse rooms and view all active service types in your home. Every section or device has a unique icon; HomeDash sports fantastic attention to these details, which, in practice, help visual parsing and are just pretty to look at. You can also view and manage HomeKit scenes in a dedicated tab, selecting different sets of favorite scenes for the app's widget or Apple Watch version.

My only criticism of HomeDash is that it doesn't offer a sync option between the iPhone and iPad, forcing you to recreate all widgets from scratch and rearrange them manually on multiple devices. However, even with this limitation, HomeDash remains my favorite recent App Store discovery.

HomeDash makes Apple's Home app look clunky, boring, and uninspired. I hope Apple takes a look at HomeDash to see what a powerful, user-friendly HomeKit management app is like.

2018

When I published collections of apps similar to this one in the past, I had the tendency of including apps that I had been playing with over the holidays, and which seemed interesting for a short period of time. I feel different about my picks this time. They're deliberate. Besides the fact that it's taken me longer to evaluate and test them, I'm highly motivated to make 2018 all about improving my lifestyle, happiness, and quality of my work. I'm more confident in the apps I mentioned in this story because many of them are helping me make important changes to my life on a daily basis.

Time and software updates will be the ultimate tests for any longterm app pick. It'll also be interesting to see what impact iOS 12 and new iOS devices will have on my app preferences and usage. As always, we'll know which apps stick around and which ones will be left behind in 10 months.


  1. I had some issues with the Watch app before, but they have been fixed in the latest version. ↩︎
  2. I plan to write about my setup in detail soon. ↩︎

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CARROT Weather 4.5 Brings Achievements, Alternate Icons, and More

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-14 14:12

The latest update to CARROT Weather, a MacStories favorite among iOS weather apps, brings a variety of improvements big and small, with the most noteworthy designed to add extra fun to the app: achievements and alternate icons.

Achievements are an attempt to gamify your weather app experience. While with most apps that sentence would sound ridiculous, achievements fit well with the personality and character of CARROT Weather. Currently there are 32 achievements you can unlock, many of which have to do with weather events you experience, while some involve travel and other activities. All available achievements can be viewed from CARROT's dropdown menu.

Alternate icons, like achievements, aren't a necessary addition to a weather app, but they do add joy to the user experience. Developer Brian Mueller has put together a diverse, high-quality set of icons to choose from, ensuring you can make CARROT fit in well with your existing Home screen layout vibes.

Other changes worth noting in version 4.5 are that the Secret Locations feature has been removed from its previous home in the search box, instead getting its own dedicated place in the dropdown menu. This move is accompanied by a revamp of the map view for carrying out assigned missions. Also, the app's main search box has had its autocomplete upgraded to work much faster and comprehensively, and you can reorder saved locations easily using drag and drop.

Today's update isn't a major one, but it does make a great weather app even better. Features like custom icons and achievements help boost CARROT Weather's already extensive amount of character, endearing the app to users in a way few apps can. If you haven't tried the app yet, I highly recommend it.

CARROT Weather is available on the App Store.


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The Sweet Setup Launches ‘All the Things’ Video Course

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-13 14:20

Today The Sweet Setup launched 'All the Things', a video course primarily aimed at explaining how to get the most out of Things, the popular task manager for Mac and iOS.

Like they did for their Ulysses screencasts last year, the folks at The Sweet Setup have produced a series of videos covering Things with walkthroughs of its basic features, project organization, as well as more advanced options such as iPad drag & drop and workflows. The videos included in the $29 'All the Things' Basic package are:

  • Walkthrough of Things on the Mac, iPad, and iPhone
  • Anatomy of a Task
  • All the ways to Capture
  • Anatomy of a Project
  • Anatomy of an Area
  • Cloud Sync & Backup
  • iPad drag & drop
  • AppleScripts & Workflows

In addition to the screencasts, the Basic package includes setup interviews with Things users who rely on the app to get work done. I was honored when Shawn asked me to participate in the course, and it was fun to answer his questions about my decision to switch to Things and how I use the app. You can find my interview here.

I'm a fan of The Sweet Setup's screencast courses. I like Shawn's style of demonstrating features and how they work in practice, and I think the Basic video package is a great deal at $29 if you're looking for a way to get started with Things and learn how other people use it.

There's more, though. In the Pro version of the 'All the Things' package, available at $39 for a limited time, you'll also get access to Shawn's productivity training videos that contain general tips that work for any task manager. So whether you use Todoist or OmniFocus or something else, videos such as 'How to Schedule Your Day' and 'Weekly Planning & Reviewing' will likely give you something you can apply to your own workflow. And if you just want these videos without the Things screencasts, that's also an option at $35.

I watched nearly every video of the 'All the Things' Pro bundle over the past week, and – I don't say this because I was interviewed for this series – I think $39 for the discounted Pro package is great value whether you want to learn Things or optimize the way you work. You can find all the details about 'All the Things' and purchase the course here.


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AppStories, Episode 42 – RSS Services and Apps

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-13 13:42, modified on 2018-02-15 23:30

The RSS sync service and reader app landscape makes it difficult to find the perfect combination of features for the way you read the news. On this week's episode of AppStories, we sift through the many options and highlight what we look for in modern iOS and Mac RSS clients.

Sponsored by:

  • GoodNotes: Stunning digital ink.
  • Outcast: Download and play podcasts without your iPhone.

→ Source: appstories.net


Fiery Feeds 2 Review

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-12 21:56, modified at 22:01

Fiery Feeds, an RSS client developed by Lukas Burgstaller, has long been among the top choices of iOS power users given its integration with multiple RSS services and ability to create custom actions for sharing articles with other apps. In the aftermath of Google Reader's demise, Fiery Feeds found its niche as a client that supported a variety of modern RSS services and that also catered to users who had been looking for an alternative to Mr. Reader – which pioneered the idea of a highly customizable and extensible RSS app for iOS long before iOS 9 and the iPad Pro.

With Fiery Feeds 2, released on the App Store today, Burgstaller has largely focused on two fronts: modernizing every aspect of the app, and adopting a subscription-based business model that clearly separates features available for free from those exclusively available to paying customers. In the process, Fiery Feeds has grown into a cleaner, more elegant client that looks nicer on iOS 11 and the iPhone X; at the same time, Burgstaller has been able to extend Fiery Feeds' appeal with a powerful premium-only feature dubbed Smart Views.

The result, while not perfect or as deeply integrated with iOS 11 as lire, is among the best options for RSS clients on the platform.

From a visual perspective, Fiery Feeds 2 has been refreshed in every area while remaining consistent with the old version. The app now uses bars floating at the bottom of the screen to navigate sections in the sidebar, change sorting or mark everything as read in the article list, and perform common actions in the main article view. The frosty, translucent look of these bars works well with any theme.1

Fiery Feeds 2 running on a 12.9" iPad Pro with the White theme and San Francisco font.

Fiery Feeds 2 running on a 12.9" iPad Pro with the White theme and San Francisco font.

I also appreciate the ability to relocate the action bar to the sides or the bottom of the screen when reading an article.

Changing the position of the action bar (Navy theme and Maven Pro font).

Changing the position of the action bar (Navy theme and Maven Pro font).

By default, the action bar for an individual story now opens the system share sheet, but you can still make your own custom URL or email template actions if you're a premium subscriber. While I initially assumed that using the Workflow or Bear extensions from the share sheet would be enough for my automation and research needs, I'm now considering a few Things-specific actions for the app's upcoming version 3.4.

In another nice touch, interactions with Fiery Feeds' new floating bars are accompanied by various flavors of haptic feedback on modern iPhones. Manually refreshing the article list by pulling from the top plays a quick succession of taps, too. Associating different kinds of haptic cues with multiple interactions throughout the app adds context and liveliness to the interface; I'd like to see more developers pay attention to the Taptic Engine like Burgstaller did in Fiery Feeds 2.

Fiery Feeds' refreshed design isn't a drastic departure from the original app: you're not going to find lire's iOS 11 aesthetic in this update, which may be a turn-off for those who'd like their RSS client to look like a pro version of Apple News. Despite the addition of a variable-width sidebar on iPad, a general cleanup of legacy UI elements, and the ability to switch between a wider array of themes, Fiery Feeds 2 builds upon the design of the first version without reinventing it. Personally, I think Fiery Feeds' look is alright; I'm just happy to see an option to change the app's icon (Flame Inverted is my top pick; this is another premium feature).2

The marquee addition in Fiery Feeds 2, and the reason why you should consider the app if you're an RSS power user, is a feature called Smart Views. No matter which RSS service you configure in the settings, Fiery Feeds 2 can automatically generate special folders that collect popular links, articles from websites that do not publish often, and high-frequency feeds. The processing for these folders is done entirely on-device, allowing any compatible RSS service to gain functionalities it doesn't normally offer thanks to Fiery Feeds.

The Hot Links smart view is, I believe, the most important new feature in Fiery Feeds 2. Directly inspired by Shaun Inman's discontinued, self-hosted Fever RSS web app, the Hot Links view finds links that your subscriptions are linking to and ranks them by popularity with the "hottest" ones displayed at the top. Think of it as Nuzzel, but for RSS feeds. The interesting article that everyone is linking to on any given day will become a Hot Link in Fiery Feeds 2, whose engine scans your subscriptions and detects links mentioned by more than one source.

Browsing Hot Links in Fiery Feeds 2.

Browsing Hot Links in Fiery Feeds 2.

By design, links are listed as plain URLs, with a numeric badge that indicates how many articles have referenced the link. You can tap the badge to expand the item and see all the articles that linked it. You can both open the source link directly, or read each related story instead. When you're done, you can mark all articles grouped in the Hot Links view as read and move on.

The Hot Links smart view is a fantastic addition to Fiery Feeds for a few reasons. If you subscribe to a lot of feeds (as I do), it's a great way to see what everyone is writing about at a glance. In today's Hot Links in my Fiery Feeds, for instance, Mark Gurman's report on iOS 12 is among the hottest links listed at the top. The Hot Links smart view is also great for those days when you don't have time to keep up with hundreds of RSS items and just want to see what you've missed. This is the same use case as Nuzzel, which (as Fever first showed years ago) can work exceptionally well for RSS subscriptions too. Inoreader, my RSS service of choice, doesn't natively provide a popular links functionality; with Fiery Feeds 2, I can easily see what's popular in my RSS feeds without having to sift through hundreds of posts.

The two other smart views in Fiery Feeds 2, High and Low Frequency feeds, enable you to manage high-volume websites and see articles from blogs that don't publish a dozen entries every day, respectively. I'm a fan of the Low Frequency view, which reminds of me Slow Feeds and NewsBlur's Infrequent Site Stories feature. Like other smart views, Fiery Feeds' Low Frequency folder is generated locally on-device and it does an excellent job at surfacing articles from websites that would easily get lost in the noise of hundreds of subscriptions.

High Frequency stories in Fiery Feeds 2.

High Frequency stories in Fiery Feeds 2.

Fortunately, you can tweak the algorithm that detects High and Low Frequency feeds by long-pressing the settings icon to open Expert Settings – an amazing screen that collects every configurable option in Fiery Feeds 2. Most users will never have to deal with these preferences, but I love the fact that I can tweak specific behaviors of the app whenever I feel like it.

The combination of Hot Links and Low Frequency feeds turns Fiery Feeds 2 into a service-agnostic RSS dashboard that allows me to see what's popular, save articles I care about, and mark everything else as read. While these ideas have been tried before, to my knowledge they've never been offered as a complete package in a single client that still lets you connect to the RSS service you prefer. Burgstaller deserves credit for tastefully remixing ideas others envisioned before into a cohesive offering that's perfectly suited to iOS. Smart Views is the feature that sets Fiery Feeds apart from other RSS apps.

There are lots of other enhancements in Fiery Feeds 2, and I want to highlight some of them. On iPad, Fiery Feeds 2 supports drag and drop to save articles into other apps. While the app doesn't come with a dedicated drop bar like lire, its Expert Settings allow you to configure which data types are advertised in a drag session. You can combine an article's link and title in a single item, enable sharing the HTML contents of a story, and even choose to include a preview image in the drag item or not.

It's fun to play around with Fiery Feeds and Gladys to see how advanced options affect articles shared via drag and drop. I would have liked to see a 'Only URLs' setting to just share an article's link when dragging it elsewhere, though.

Another premium feature is the ability to load the full text view of a truncated feed, optionally caching its text contents for offline reading. Unfortunately, Fiery Feeds doesn't come with the fine-grained preferences of lire to control which websites should always be loaded in full text mode, and which ones should be cached. The app can only remember the last viewed state for each site and automatically load that view for subsequent stories, but I prefer the way this has been implemented in lire.

Furthermore, in my tests, the full text parser in lire performed better than Fiery Feeds, which often resulted in empty article views after tapping the 'Text' tab. And speaking of settings: in spite of its penchant for user customization, Fiery Feeds still doesn't sync its preferences with iCloud across devices, which forces you to set up the app from scratch on every device. With an iPhone and multiple iPads, this gets annoying quickly.

Finally, I should mention two new features that make managing articles more convenient than in other apps. On iPhone, Fiery Feeds now supports 3D Touch, letting you peek and pop stories from the article list and swipe the peek preview upwards to reveal contextual actions. These include Quick Share, which can be configured in settings to send an article to any service, app, or custom URL scheme you want.

That's not the only way to access the Quick Share, however: from the main article list, swipe on a story, then long-tap the share icon to directly trigger the Quick Share or, even better, long-swipe to the left until you feel a second tap and let go to instantly invoke your Quick Share shortcut. In my several weeks of testing Fiery Feeds 2, this was another smaller detail that considerably helped managing hundreds of unread stories on a daily basis.


As we discussed on AppStories this week, there's never been a better time to pick an RSS client for iOS. Whether you use Feedly or services with more complex filtering features such as NewsBlur or Inoreader, the iOS ecosystem currently offers a variety of solid options to read and manage your subscriptions on the iPhone and iPad. Today, I'd say that Fiery Feeds 2, lire, Newsify, and Unread are the top four RSS clients currently available on iOS.

Compared to other apps, Fiery Feeds 2 falls short in key areas of the RSS experience such as full-text search (which both lire and Newsify offer), advanced drag and drop (lire is the absolute winner here), and sync for preferences between multiple devices. In my tests, Fiery Feeds' full-text parser often failed to properly load stories, and I encountered the occasional glitch with animations or UI elements that forced me to quit and relaunch the app.

However, Fiery Feeds 2 expands upon the original in significant ways, with Smart Views being one of the best new ideas I've tried on iOS in a while. If you're an RSS power user, the Hot Links and Low Frequency views provide the best of both worlds: a handy glance at what's trending, and a summary of stories you don't want to miss. If you're an iOS power user, on the other hand, Fiery Feeds 2 keeps all the best traits from the first version (custom URL scheme actions, iPad keyboard shortcuts, Quick Share) and adds a full-blown hidden preferences menu, iPad drag and drop, and more themes.

Over the past month of testing Fiery Feeds 2, Smart Views have proven essential to how I like to read and comb through the news; the mix of visual updates and custom URL actions makes Fiery Feeds a more pleasant reading experience that nicely integrates with other apps and workflows on my devices.

There are aspects of the app I'd like developer Lukas Burgstaller to improve, but, overall, Fiery Feeds is the RSS reader I'm putting on my Home screen today. Ultimately, the features it gets right are more important and beneficial than its few shortcomings.

Fiery Feeds 2 is available for free on the App Store. The app offers a 1-week free trial. An annual subscription normally costs $9.99/year, but it's available at $4.99/year for a limited time.


  1. There is now a larger theme directory and you can also upload your own theme from iCloud Drive. ↩︎
  2. My favorite small touch of the app: preview thumbnails in the article list support parallax when you scroll. Try this on iPad and look at the images when you're scrolling – it's a subtle, yet beautiful effect. ↩︎

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A Promising Work in Progress: Initial Thoughts on HomePod

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-12 18:38, modified at 22:01

At the start, you should know two things about me: HomePod is the first smart speaker I've ever owned, and I'm all-in on the Apple ecosystem.

These facts make me the HomePod's perfect customer, and they will surely color my comments. I'm guessing if I had more experience with other smart speakers, or I didn't own nearly every modern Apple product, my thoughts on HomePod would be different. That said, here are my early impressions.

Out of the box, my first thought was that HomePod is the perfect size – not in any way close to being too big, but also not abnormally small. It's deceptively heavy though. For now I have both white and space grey models, and they each look truly fantastic – simple, modern, unassuming, and attractive. And I know it's silly, but that power cord is nice.

Setup of HomePod is a triumph. Apple's new product setup flow for devices like iPhone used to be long and cumbersome, and that's started to change of late. HomePod nails it from the start. Hold your iOS device next to the HomePod, tap through a few simple setup screens, and you're done. The best part comes near the end, when Siri on the HomePod instructs you by voice in perfect sync with the instructions being displayed on your device. I could trust a HomePod to any tech-illiterate iPhone owner I know and feel confident they'd have no problems with setup. No, it isn't AirPods level one-tap simple, but it's about as good as I could imagine.

The main purpose of HomePod is playing music, and it does that very well. It's probably not fair to write a HomePod thought piece with only a single paragraph covering its music capabilities, but there are plenty of people better qualified than me to review HomePod's sound quality – I'm impressed though. Bass is powerful for such a small speaker, and I especially love being able to hear each distinct instrument in a song well. On Saturday my wife and I just sat together a little while doing nothing but enjoying music – we never do that. It wasn't just background noise; the music was our main focus. If you want to know how HomePod sounds, the answer is that it sounds great.

Other writers seem to universally agree that HomePod's design, setup, and sound quality are all stellar. There's not much more worth saying on those matters, so I want to focus in these first thoughts on Siri, third-party apps, and some miscellaneous items.

Siri

Where Siri on HomePod is an unequivocal success is in hearing its trigger phrase. The HomePod's array of microphones does an excellent job of picking up "Hey Siri" from any reasonable distance at normal speaking volume. I can speak fairly softly in everyday chatter, so when I heard HomePod reviewers say that using your normal speaking voice worked fine, I read that with an asterisk, wondering if it would apply to me. Well, it does – I don't have to remember I'm speaking to a device, I simply have to speak.

Apple has designed HomePod to detect user commands no matter how much blaring music's being pumped out of it. Some of the most delightful HomePod moments I've had were when the volume was turned way up on a song or podcast, and I casually, without raising my voice at all, gave a command that Siri heard perfectly. Siri's success in these times isn't the exception, it's the rule.

After playing with HomePod much of the day Friday, by Saturday morning my brain had already re-wired to expect that speaking at normal levels, even while the HomePod was blasting music, was perfectly fine. And this didn't just apply to HomePod – Saturday I was giving HomePod commands in the midst of playing music around 60% volume, and I began having a conversation with my wife who was one room over. Funnily enough, I started that conversation speaking at a normal volume level, expecting my wife would be able to hear me. Of course, she couldn't. Siri has humans beat in that department.

Hearing your request is one thing, but answering it properly is another. In that area, Siri performs about the same as it does everywhere else. No, it can't do everything that it does on other platforms, but for the things it can do, it does them well the vast majority of the time – there are certainly hiccups though. For example, on Friday I was listening to music, then asked HomePod to play the Accidental Tech Podcast. It responded, "Okay, Accidental Tech Podcast coming up." It heard me well, understood exactly what I wanted, and responded in kind. Except, my music kept playing afterward. I asked Siri again, using the same phrasing, and it gave a similar response then started the podcast. On the plus side, HomePod knew exactly where I'd paused the show when listening on my iPhone an hour beforehand.

Siri's foibles in most areas – save third-party apps, which I'll get to – have been rare for me, though they certainly still happen occasionally. For the most part, the things it can do, it does well.

One way Siri has performed consistently is in its quick responses to queries. "Hey Siri" followed immediately by a request, with no pause in-between, gets results fast. This makes using Siri for audio playback more convenient than I expected it to be. Saying "Hey Siri skip this," or "Hey Siri turn it up," or "Hey Siri I like this" gets such a quick response; unlike Siri on the Apple Watch, where you often face a brief, but noticeable wait before Siri takes action, on HomePod that wait feels non-existent. Certainly a wait does exist, but it's so short that I've never wondered if Siri heard me or not.

Speaking of audio controls, I've been pleasantly surprised by the experience of controlling volume by voice. I never got used to having Siri control volume on my AirPods because it felt too cumbersome – double-tap, wait, make the request, wait more; Apple Watch is a much better volume remote. On my first day with HomePod, I found myself wanting to adjust volume from my iPhone or Watch – which can be done, but I didn't know that at first. Since I didn't know, I gave Siri a legitimate shot, and after learning the "system," I quickly got hooked on this method of input. Key details about that system:

  • Siri can set volume to any specific percentage between 0 and 100. Say "Set volume to 100%" and you'll get a warning about how loud that is before being asked for confirmation.1
  • Saying "Turn it up (or down)" will adjust the volume either direction by 10%.
  • Saying "Turn it way up (or down)" adjusts volume by 20%.
  • You can also ask Siri what the volume's set to.
  • If you use the controls on top of the HomePod, a single tap adjusts the volume by 5%.

The only improvement I'd like to this setup is that it'd be great to be able to specify a certain percentage to increase or decrease volume by. Right now, if you ask Siri to "Increase the volume by 40%," it will go up, but only by the default 10%. Regardless of what percentage you ask Siri to adjust things, it will move 10% only. This isn't a huge problem, but it is an inconsistency.

One Siri drawback called out by many reviews is that the assistant can't set multiple timers on HomePod. I hope we'll see an update before the year's out to fix that, because the other potential substitutes aren't great. Reminders are probably the best alternative, since they can be named, and once they pop up, you can mark them complete and they disappear. Reminders still aren't ideal though because HomePod won't notify you about a due reminder, only your other devices will. Alarms can also be named, and you can set as many of them as you'd like, but like on the iPhone, every alarm you create gets saved permanently – in this case, saved HomePod alarms can be accessed in the Home app. Also, good luck finding out how much longer until an alarm is scheduled to go off. If it's the first time you've used a certain named alarm, this isn't a problem – simple ask, "What time is my laundry alarm set for?" But after using the term "Laundry alarm" more than once, every time you query its remaining time, Siri will ask which of your many laundry alarms you're asking about.

Finally, one question I had about HomePod initially is how it would know when to respond to "Hey Siri" itself rather than letting one of my other devices respond. The answer is that, for the most part, HomePod is the Siri alpha of the pack – almost all the time, HomePod is the device that actively listens to my requests. I've run into a few occasions where my iPhone, iPad, or Apple Watch did instead, but those were surprises, and according to Apple's documentation, it was probably after I used Raise to Wake on a separate device.

The HomePod's biggest Siri problem right now is easily its limited number of domains. The good news is, Apple is almost certainly hard at work to fix that. Since HomePod's unveiling last year, Apple Notes support was added to the originally announced domains, and I suspect we'll see calendar support and more later this year.

Once Siri on HomePod gains more of the capabilities of iOS Siri, thereby reducing the current fragmentation issue, it should easily offer the best Siri experience to date. Right now it does in some ways, but the domain limitations hurt.

Third-Party Apps

The first batch of HomePod reviews contained little to no information about how well the device handles third-party SiriKit requests. Last October, Apple announced that SiriKit would be supported on HomePod in three initial domains: Messaging, Lists, and Notes.

Along with that announcement came the news of how SiriKit support would work. Similar to how apps on the Apple Watch initially ran, apps for HomePod would be dependent on a paired iPhone in order to work at all. Apple shared:

Siri recognizes SiriKit requests made on HomePod and sends those requests to the user’s iOS device for processing.

On the Apple Watch, this kind of iPhone-dependent system made for frustratingly slow Watch apps. One major difference between HomePod and the first Apple Watch though is that the smart speaker relays SiriKit requests over Wi-Fi, while the Watch was dependent on Bluetooth. In practice, this makes a huge difference.

Over the last few days, I've used HomePod to add to-dos to my preferred task manager, Things, as well as OmniFocus, and I've added grocery items to AnyList and created new notes in Evernote. Those functions all worked well, and worked fast.2 I couldn't tell a difference in response time between Siri handling a SiriKit request and a native request like playing a song; if you were worried about an Apple Watch-like experience with SiriKit, those fears can be put to rest.

Unfortunately, that's about the only good news I have to share regarding SiriKit. Besides the fact that it's extremely limited to this point, with an embarrassingly small amount of third-party support compared to major competitors, there are a few other issues I've run into.

First, several apps in supported SiriKit domains that work with Siri on iPhone haven't worked in my testing of HomePod. Airmail uses SiriKit's messaging domain for sending emails with the digital assistant, but no matter what syntax I used, HomePod wouldn't let me send a message using the app. Several times it would say something like, "Mail hasn't set that up yet," while other times it would apologize for being unable to handle email requests. The former response makes it sound like perhaps Airmail needs to be updated to work on HomePod, while the latter demonstrates a hyper-sensitivity to requests that sound similar to things HomePod can't do, like send email using Apple's Mail app. Another failed test involved TwIM, the Twitter direct messaging app, which Siri provided several different failed responses to. I also couldn't get Siri to recognize Todoist's name in my queries, despite using approved alternate pronunciations.

Another problem I encountered is what appears to be an iOS bug. Whenever my SiriKit requests did not need any sort of additional authentication, they worked fine, but when HomePod would prompt me to authenticate on my iPhone before proceeding, Face ID would do its thing, then I'd be met with a blank Siri screen and nothing would happen. Related to this, if an app hadn't previously had Siri approved to access its data, I'd run into the same issue, which was circumvented by first doing a Siri request on my iPhone, then granting Siri access, which would enable Siri on the HomePod to proceed with future requests. I'm running the iOS 11.3 beta on my iPhone X, so it's entirely possible these issues are beta-related, and won't be a problem for anyone running iOS 11.2.5, but on my devices the blank Siri screen keeps appearing.

Finally, one nitpick I have with SiriKit's current implementation is that it's tied to what HomePod calls Personal Requests. Along with first-party Personal Requests regarding Messages, Reminders, and more, SiriKit requests can only be performed when the paired iOS device is on the same Wi-Fi network as HomePod – and you can only enable Personal Requests from an iPhone. I currently have two HomePods in the house, and my plan was to tie one of them to my iPhone, and the other to my iPad. This way, even when I'm away from home with my iPhone, my wife could still add grocery items to AnyList on the HomePod nearest the kitchen because my iPad would be at home. But Personal Requests can't be tied to an iPad, only an iPhone.

SiriKit on HomePod was already at a disadvantage compared to Amazon Echo and Google Home because of the huge disparity of supported domains. Out of the gate, that sadly isn't the only issue – bugs aside, apps that support SiriKit on iPhone may still need updates before supporting SiriKit on HomePod, and depending on how confusing an app's name is (Todoist), or how similar that name is to non-supported first-party domains (Airmail), you may have a really hard time getting HomePod to accurately interpret your SiriKit request.

Miscellany

Apple TV. I know HomePod isn't technically built as a TV speaker, but since it's now the best speaker I own, and all my TV watching happens through an Apple TV, I wanted to see how well the two devices would work together. The result: passably.

It's possible AirPlay 2 will improve the Apple TV's connection to HomePod when it launches later this year, but for now, AirPlay 1 isn't a bad option. It can be set up easily enough by holding the Siri Remote's Play/Pause button on the Home screen, or by swiping down from the top of the remote while watching a video to select the HomePod as your speaker.

Once HomePod is tied to the Apple TV, it will stay connected up until HomePod is asked to stream another audio source. This means you can ask common questions of HomePod regarding the weather, a movie you're watching, or other queries without breaking the AirPlay stream; but if you ask HomePod to play music or a podcast, then the next time you turn on the Apple TV you'll need to reconnect it.

Up Next on iPhone. While Siri works great for all things music-related, I also enjoy having the ability to use my iPhone to see what song is playing or manage playback. Thanks to the new audio playback controls introduced in iOS 11.2.5, this is easy to do. Switching audio sources, either from Control Center or the Music app, allows you detailed control of playback and a glance at what's currently playing on each device. If you're in Music, you and any family members granted Home access can even view and rearrange the Up Next queue.


The HomePod isn't yet what it will become.

Apple has a history of releasing 1.0 products that are limited in severe ways, but that also do a few foundational things impressively well. HomePod continues that tradition.

It could be argued that, since competitors like Amazon's Alexa are already so dominant, Apple needed to come out of the gate with a stronger 1.0. As it stands today, HomePod is certainly not a mass-market device like the Echo or Google Home. It needs improved SiriKit support, most notably for audio domains so that Spotify users can give it a serious look. It also needs more first-party Siri domains in order to provide a consistent Siri experience across Apple devices.

Despite what it's lacking, though, HomePod does a few things very right. In my mind it's clearly the best looking smart speaker on the market, the setup process is ridiculously easy, and yes, as a music player it sounds incredible. The hardware that supports Siri is also great, with HomePod's microphone array providing near-perfect detection of "Hey Siri," even when the music's turned up.

It's not a product for everyone yet, but I think it can get there over time. A few software updates, and HomePod could potentially have much wider appeal. For now though, despite its current limitations, the HomePod still provides an impressive, quality experience for Apple users like me. If you're happy with Apple Music, and you're already invested deeply in Apple hardware, HomePod offers a lot to enjoy.


  1. I wish this prompt only happened once, but unfortunately it repeats itself. If I only listened to music, I likely wouldn't use max volume much; when listening to a podcast, however, turning the volume up happens more often because it means I can move around the house freely while still listening to a show. ↩︎
  2. I have heard of other people having issues with these things that worked fine for me, however. ↩︎

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Outcast: Download and Play Podcasts without Your iPhone [Sponsor]

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-12 16:12

Outcast is a brand-new Watch app that lets you download and enjoy podcasts directly on your Apple Watch. This app handles it all. Everything from finding podcasts, downloading them, and listening is managed entirely on your Apple Watch eliminating the need to bring along your iPhone.

There are three ways to get podcast episodes into Outcast. You can search for shows on the Watch using its dictation or ‘Scribble’ handwriting feature. Alternatively, you can browse shows by category. Whether you enjoy comedy, politics, technology, or another topic, Outcast makes it easy to find the very best podcasts available. Finally, you can also use the export as OPML feature of many popular iPhone podcast players to copy a list of your favorite shows into Outcast.

Once you’ve picked an episode, tap the download button and enjoy. Outcast supports downloads over WiFi and cellular networks and includes a full set of playback controls including play/pause and skip ahead and back. You can even adjust playback speed by force-touching the playback screen.

Bringing all that functionality to the Watch’s tiny interface posed a substantial design challenge. As the creator of the Apple Design Award-winning habits app, Streaks, Outcast’s developer, Crunchy Bagel, was up to the challenge. The result is a beautiful, easy-to-use Watch app that’s the best way yet to enjoy podcasts on your Apple Watch without bringing along your iPhone.

For a limited time, Outcast is just $0.99. That price is going to go up, so take advantage of this deal now by going to the App Store to download Outcast now.

Our thanks to Outcast for sponsoring MacStories this week.


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An In-Depth, Technical Analysis of the HomePod Concludes It’s a Bona Fide Audiophile Speaker

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-12 15:42

Given Apple’s emphasis on the audio quality of the HomePod, the lack of technical reviews from audiophile publications at launch struck me as odd. That’s why I was intrigued when I saw this tweet last night from Phil Schiller, Apple’s Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing:

The review, by Reddit user WinterCharm in the audiophile subreddit, is an in-depth, technical analysis of the HomePod that includes a side-by-side comparison with a pair of KEF X300A high-end bookshelf speakers that sell for $1000 at retail. There’s a lot here that is beyond my limited understanding of audio equipment and testing, but the conclusion of WinterCharm’s hours of analysis is crystal clear:

I am speechless. The HomePod actually sounds better than the KEF X300A. If you’re new to the Audiophile world, KEF is a very well respected and much loved speaker company. I actually deleted my very first measurements and re-checked everything because they were so good, I thought I’d made an error. Apple has managed to extract peak performance from a pint sized speaker, a feat that deserves a standing ovation. The HomePod is 100% an Audiophile grade Speaker.

Judging from the comments to the post, WinterCharm isn’t the only audiophile excited about the HomePod and eager to try two as a stereo pair when that feature is released in a future software update.

→ Source: reddit.com


Loup Ventures’ HomePod Siri Tests

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-12 14:04

Loup Ventures, a US-based venture capital firm, ran a series of Siri tests on the HomePod to evaluate the assistant's capabilities on Apple's new speaker. After 782 queries, Siri understood 99% of questions but only answered 52% of them correctly – meaning, Siri on the HomePod failed to answer one out of two questions. I'd love to see a full data set of the questions asked by Loup Ventures, but, overall, it doesn't surprise me that the Google Assistant running on the Google Home speaker was the most accurate in every category.

While Apple has clearly a lot of work ahead for Siri on the HomePod (this was the consensus of all the reviews, too), it also appears that Siri simply performs worse than other assistants because it doesn't support certain domains. Here's Gene Munster (whom you may remember for his Apple TV set predictions), writing on the Loup Ventures blog:

Adding domains will quickly improve Siri’s score. Some domains like navigation, calendar, email, and calling are simply not supported. These questions were met with, “I can’t ___ on HomePod.” Also, in any case that iPhone-based Siri would bring up Google search results, HomePod would reply, “I can’t get the answer to that on HomePod,” which forces you to use your phone or give up on the question altogether. Removing navigation, calling, email, and calendar-related queries from our question set yields a 67% correct response, a jump from overall of 52.3% correct. This means added support for these domains would bring HomePod performance above that of Alexa (64%) and Cortana (57%), though still shy of Google Home (81%). We know Siri has the ability to correctly answer a whole range of queries that HomePod cannot, evidenced by our note here. Apple’s limiting of HomePod’s domains should change over time, at which point we expect the speaker to be vastly more useful and integrated with your other Apple devices.

Adding new supported domains would make Siri's intelligence comparable to Alexa (at least according to these tests), but Apple shouldn't strive for a honorable second place. Siri should be just as intelligent (if not more) than the Google Assistant on every platform. I wonder, though, if this can be achieved in the short term given Siri's fragmentation problems and limited third-party integrations.

→ Source: loupventures.com


Major VLC Update Released with Support for 4K, 8K, HDR, 360 Video, Google Chromecast, and More

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-09 18:42

Today, VideoLAN, the non-profit organization behind VLC, released version 3.0 of its media player app across several platforms, including macOS and iOS. The update, known as Vetinari, supports a long list of modern video, audio, and streaming technologies such as:

  • hardware decoding by default to allow for 4K and 8K video playback on supported hardware
  • HDR
  • 360 Video and 3D audio
  • HDMI passthrough for HD audio codecs
  • Streaming to Google Chromecast devices
  • Blu-Ray Java menus
  • Local network browsing of drives and NAS
  • Improved subtitle rendering

There are many other additions and refinements to VLC 3.0, which you can read about on VideoLAN’s website. The iOS update to VLC should be available later today as a free download on the App Store. The Mac version is already available on VideoLAN’s website.


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Apple Adds Direct Access to News Sources to its TV App

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-09 17:59

Apple has added a dedicated News section to its TV app on the Apple TV and iOS devices. The feature, which was announced at the company’s September 2017 event at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, allows users to jump straight into several different news programs.

In the US, the choices include CBS News, CNN, Fox News, Cheddar, CNBC, and Bloomberg, some of which require paid subscriptions. When you select a news source, your Apple TV or iOS device will prompt you to install its app if it isn’t already on your device. On iOS, and at least with CNN on the Apple TV, the app is installed without a trip to the App Store, after which you are taken directly to the app to begin watching the news. The new feature also works with Siri using commands like ‘Watch CNBC.’

If you tap on a news source for which you don't have the app, you are prompted to install it without having to go to the App Store.

If you tap on a news source for which you don't have the app, you are prompted to install it without having to go to the App Store.

News joins the TV app’s dedicated Sports section, which was announced at the same time as News but was introduced last December. Unlike Sports, which occupies a dedicated tab in the TV app’s interface, News is limited to a single row of icons that appears beneath Up Next, What to Watch, Sports, and a row of featured content.


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YouTube’s Apple TV App Scores a Redesign

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-08 19:16

YouTube has released a major update to its Apple TV app, bringing the first major redesign since the app launched in late 2015.

While the previous YouTube app retained some UI elements common to tvOS, the new version makes no attempts to feel native to the Apple TV, instead adopting an interface that's consistent with its presence on other platforms, such as Android TV. Where the old app housed its navigation menu at the top of the screen, the new version moves it to the left side.

Also, similar to the recent Amazon Prime Video app, navigating through YouTube won't make the familiar tvOS sound like most other apps do. When you're used to getting consistent audio feedback with every swipe on the Siri Remote, it's a bit jarring to hear nothing. And finally, in the area of being a poor OS citizen, YouTube still just displays a static image when sitting on your Top Shelf.

Fortunately, it's not all bad news though. The new look comes with a couple new features. Most significant, you can now link YouTube on the Apple TV to YouTube for iOS, as seen below.

Linking apps allows you to send videos playing on your iPhone to the big screen with a single tap, Chromecast-style. It also enables managing your queue of upcoming videos from your phone. Adding something to the queue from your phone will display a message on the Apple TV reflecting that change.

Another, more minor change to the app is that now when you have a video highlighted, a short clip will auto-play in a loop. And once a full video is actually playing, you can swipe up to browse through videos in your current queue, or see a wide assortment of other suggested videos.


Overall, this YouTube update is a mixed bag. The new features are nice, but would it have been too much trouble to enable those features while still retaining some familiarity with tvOS?


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The Problem of Many Siris

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-08 17:27

Bryan Irace writes about one of the biggest challenges Apple faces with Siri:

It’s no easy task for a voice assistant to win over new users in 2018, despite having improved quite a great deal in recent years. These assistants can be delightful and freeing when they work well, but when they don’t, they have a tendency to make users feel embarrassed and frustrated in a way that GUI software rarely does. If one of your first voice experiences doesn’t go the way you expected it to – especially in front of other people – who could blame you for reverting back to more comfortable methods of interaction? Already facing this fundamental challenge, Apple is not doing themselves any favors by layering on the additional cognitive overhead of a heavily fragmented Siri experience.

I think Irace is right on in this observation – Siri's fragmentation is a real problem.

On the more optimistic side, it could be taken as good news that the fix appears fairly obvious: create a single Siri that's consistent across all platforms. This seems like it would be a clear net positive, even though such a change could reduce Siri's accuracy in some cases; for example, I'm guessing Siri on the Apple TV is currently tuned to expect TV and movie queries more than anything else, so it can more effectively produce the right kind of results – tweak that tuning, and Apple will have to work even harder at helping Siri understand context.

One thing that's concerning about the apparent simplicity of this fix is that Apple hasn't made it yet, meaning, perhaps, that the company thinks there's nothing wrong with Siri's current fragmentation. This conversation would be different entirely if Apple had begun showing an increased effort to unify Siri across its platforms, but recently, the opposite has been true instead. The latest major Apple product, HomePod, includes a stripped-down Siri that can't even handle calendar requests. And SiriKit, which launched less than two years ago, was designed in a way that fundamentally increases fragmentation. Irace remarks:

If the Lyft app is installed on your iPhone, you can ask Phone Siri to order you a car. But you can’t ask Mac Siri to do the same, because she doesn’t know what Lyft is. Compare and contrast this with the SDKs for Alexa and the Google Assistant – they each run third-party software server-side, such that installing the Lyft Alexa “skill” once gives Alexa the ability to summon a ride regardless of if you’re talking to her on an Echo in your bedroom, a different Echo in your living room, or via the Alexa app on your phone.

The only recent occasion that comes to mind when Siri has moved in the right direction – gaining knowledge on one platform that previously existed only on another – was when iOS 10.2 brought the full wealth of Apple TV Siri's movie and TV expertise to iOS. This only happened, though, because iOS 10.2 introduced the TV app.

Until Siri can answer the same requests regardless of what platform you're on, most people simply won't learn to trust it. Users shouldn't have to remember which device's Siri can answer which questions – all they should have to remember is those two key words: "Hey Siri."

→ Source: irace.me


Media Outlets Use ARKit to Bring the News into Your Living Room

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-08 01:03

Last week, The New York Times announced that it had added an augmented reality feature to its iOS app. The first article with embedded AR content was a preview of the feature published last week that explained to readers how it worked. At the bottom of the article was a newspaper box that could be dropped into your surroundings. I showed it off to some friends over the weekend, and everyone was impressed by how realistic it looked as they walked around the box in a neighbor’s kitchen.

The New York Times debuted its new ARKit features with a newspaper box demo.

The New York Times debuted its new ARKit features with a newspaper box demo.

This week, the Times rolled the feature out as part of its Winter Olympics coverage. In Four of the World’s Best Olympians, as You’ve Never Seen Them Before, the publication spotlights figure skater Nathan Chen, speed skater J.R. Celski, hockey player Alex Rigsby, and snowboarder Anna Gasser. The results are impressive. I placed each athlete in my living room, then walked around them. From each angle, snippets of text about what I was seeing were overlaid on the image providing additional details and context. The app also makes use of haptic feedback on the iPhone to alert users to new information as they examine a scene.

The feature currently works only on compatible iOS devices running iOS 11, though an Android version is in the works. A rough approximation of the AR experience is available on the web too, though I found that the scrolling stuttered too much, making it hard to navigate the article. Although the first implementations of ARKit in the Times’ iOS app feel more like proofs of concept than journalism, it’s an interesting start that has the potential to offer a new perspective on events.

Unsurprisingly, a big component of the Times’ interest in AR is also advertising. According to a story in Ad Week:

[Graham] Roberts[, the Times’ head of immersive platform storytelling,] is excited about the advertising possibilities of AR. “You can see what the car is like in your driveway. You can see what the coffee machine is like on your counter before you bought it. Walk around it,” he said. “But I think the foundation there is the fact that it can come within the article experience. So it’s frictionless, really effectual and it gives you a thing that you can do that was not possible before. And I think that that will put the New York Times in a really unique position for advertising.”

The Rosetta Stone, the Berlin Wall, and the Falcon Heavy rocket with scale information in Quartz.

The Rosetta Stone, the Berlin Wall, and the Falcon Heavy rocket with scale information in Quartz.

The New York Times isn’t alone. In fact, Quartz added ARKit to its iOS app back in September 2017 as soon as iOS 11 became available. Among the objects available for viewing in Quartz’s app are SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, the Rosetta Stone, and the Berlin Wall. Each item can be resized and rotated with your fingers on the screen of an iOS device, something The New York Times’ app cannot do. Quartz also provides scale information so you can get a sense of how big each object is.

It will be interesting to see to what degree AR takes off with news outlets. It can’t be cheap to produce AR experiences – the Times’ Winter Olympics piece lists 17 people who were involved in its production in one capacity or other. Still, AR has the potential to bring a new perspective on the news that wasn’t possible before and offer new ways for advertisers to reach consumers. For now, however, ARKit features are primarily a novelty that will draw attention to stories but need to be integrated into publications’ reporting better before they are likely to become commonplace.


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Connected , Episode 179: The Tiny Head Pandemic

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-07 22:23

The boys are joined by Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge to talk about a rash of App Store rejections regarding the use of emoji. After that, discussion turns to HomePod reviews and the possibilities of watchOS 5.

Another fun episode of Connected this week, with a great discussion about a recent emoji controversy with the Master of emoji himself, Jeremy Burge. You can listen here.

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→ Source: relay.fm


New Emoji Announced for 2018

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-07 19:41

Today the latest batch of emoji approved for addition to the Unicode standard was announced. Jeremy Burge at Emojipedia has the scoop:

The emoji list for 2018 has been published which adds 157 new emojis to the standard. This brings the total number of approved emojis to 2,823.

The latest emoji set includes (finally!) a redhead option, along with a superhero and super villain, kangaroo, llama, bagel, cupcake, and much more.

Emojipedia has created a video featuring designs of the newly approved emoji in a style resembling Apple's emoji set. While we won't get a glimpse at Apple's own designs until later in the year, the video does a great job providing a preview of what we can expect.

In recent years it has become tradition for Apple to add the newest emoji to a point release of iOS, so if that pattern holds, we'll get our hands on these newest emoji options with iOS 12.1 or 12.2 before the end of the year.

→ Source: blog.emojipedia.org


What Is Apple’s Video Strategy?

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-07 17:36

Pavan Rajam shares a broad look at Apple's video-related efforts, evaluating the company's current position and its potential for greater impact in the fast-shifting market.

Today, there is no meaningful exclusive video content on Apple platforms. Apple, thus far, has relied on its design and engineering prowess to differentiate its video offerings.

It’s clear this strategy isn’t working.

The iTunes Store is arguably the best transactional video storefront, but that alone is not enough to stop consumers from adopting subscription services. The TV app has a great UI and cross app integration, but that does not justify the $150 price to get it on your TV. Apple TV is the best designed, most capable streaming video box on the market, but that isn’t enough to justify its premium pricing when the same streaming services are available on every other platform with a significantly lower cost of entry.

Rajam's overview makes clear the significant challenges Apple faces in this market. Though the company is making heavy investment in developing original content, it's unknown what the plan for distributing that content will be: will it be widely available across all platforms, or exclusive to Apple hardware? Both approaches have clear benefits and drawbacks, so the question goes back to what the bigger goal is.

Apple ultimately has to decide what is more important: Apple TV as a premium hardware product line or a streaming video service that runs across all of its platforms.

I expect that by the end of this year, whether Apple's video content is released by then or not, we will at least have the answer to that question.

Currently, a big reason video services like Netflix thrive is that they're available to a huge number of customers – regardless of what TV, phone, or computer you own, you can get Netflix. It would be against industry practice for Apple to create a video streaming service that's exclusive to its hardware. Hollywood likely wouldn't appreciate that either, as creators want their work shared as widely as possible. For those reasons, I have a hard time seeing Apple launch a service that isn't, at the very least, available to users on some other platforms.

If Apple did make its service available on select other platforms, such as Android and the web, it could still position Apple TV as the only way to watch its shows on the big screen. Non-Apple users would still have access to the service, but if Apple does its job and creates truly compelling new shows that people love, many of those users may then be willing to splurge for a premium set-top box. Asking anyone to pay $150 for access to a streaming service is a hard sell, but if you can first hook people on shows they love, they'll eventually want to watch those shows in a way that's most comfortable: on their TV.

→ Source: rajamreport.com


AppStories, Episode 41 – iOS 11’s Effect on Our iOS Habits

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-06 20:54

On this week's episode of AppStories, we take a look at how iOS 11 has changed not only the way we work, but also how it has impacted our use of lifestyle, health and fitness, media consumption, and other types of apps.

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→ Source: appstories.net


Slack Overhauls Emoji Support Across Platforms

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-06 19:18

In other emoji-related news, Slack today announced that they're going to support new emojis (including those from Emoji 5.0 released in 2017) across multiple platforms. If you use Slack on a regular basis, you know that the company has been notoriously slow over the past couple of years in adopting the latest emojis despite having launched features based entirely on them.

As noted by Jeremy Burge at Emojipedia, however, better emojis on Slack have brought a deeper change for Slack users on non-Apple platforms:

Users of iOS or macOS will see the least change to design in this release, as Slack previously defaulted to using Apple designs on all platforms.

Apple's emoji designs remain the set displayed when accessing Slack on any Apple platform.

Those using on Windows, Android, or any non-Apple platform will see a consistent set between: but it's not what you might expect. Google's emoji designs are being used for all non-Apple platforms now as shown by this alert:

And:

While Apple's emoji font is entirely owned and copyrighted by Apple, Google's emoji font (named Noto Color Emoji) is provided with an open source license which allows other projects to use this within the terms set out in the SIL Open Font License. Given this, it's possible that Slack believes it is on firmer ground to be using Noto Color Emoji rather than embedding Apple emoji images on competing platforms.

Jason Snell argues that this move will lead to a different emoji experience for Slack users who access the service from non-Apple platforms:

The result is emoji fragmentation, where different users of Slack will see different versions of the same general concept. Also, users like my friend Erika might prefer one set of emoji designs to another, but they no longer have a choice in the matter.

That’s the bad news. The good news, at least, is that Slack is rolling out support for new emojis, including gender splits and skin tones, that it previously didn’t.

I wonder if Apple's apparent push toward locking their emoji designs to the iOS ecosystem may have played a role in Slack's decision to implement an open-source emoji set instead (see also: WhatsApp). Still, I'm happy that I can share all modern emojis on Slack; I'll have to rethink some of my typical emoji reactions now.

→ Source: blog.emojipedia.org


Emoji Use in Apps Leading to App Store Rejections

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-06 19:10

Over the last several weeks, a few different emoji-related App Review stories have been shared by developers on Twitter. Though it's common practice to use emoji throughout an app's interface, Apple has begun rejecting some apps for just this reason.

Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge researched the issue and summarized what seems to be a shift in Apple's handling of emoji use. In a piece titled "Apple's Emoji Crackdown" he walks through his current understanding of what's permissible regarding emoji use, and what isn't – though with the caveat that none of this has been officially addressed by Apple yet. He concludes:

It would be a shame to see emojis banished from all apps due to potentially over-zealous app reviewers.

Using an emoji as a core part of an app's UI, or in-game character seems to be a fairly clear overstepping of the mark, and now that Apple has begun enforcing this, I don't expect that side of things to change.

It's understandable there is much confusion about this right now, especially as the Apple Color Emoji font until now has been treated by many as a font like any other. If...thought about as "a set of images created and owned by Apple", the terms for what seems reasonable do shift.

Despite the lack of word from Apple on an official policy change, the signs don't look good. Apple owns the rights to its emoji designs, and there is currently no way for developers to license those designs, so we may begin seeing a lot less emoji use in apps soon.

→ Source: blog.emojipedia.org


HomePod Review Roundup

Permalink - Posted on 2018-02-06 17:03

Initial orders of Apple’s new HomePod smart speaker will arrive on doorsteps and in Apple stores beginning Friday in the US, UK, and Australia. Today, reviews were published by several media outlets that have had about a week to test the HomePod. Apple also invited several journalists for a tour of its audio labs in Cupertino with Phil Schiller, hardware VP Kate Bergeron, and senior director of audio design and engineering Gary Greaves.

The consensus of the first wave of reviews is that the HomePod sounds fantastic. Apple has brought its engineering expertise and computing power to bear in a way that reviewers say produces remarkable sound for the HomePod’s size and price.

However, Siri’s limitations and the lack of support for third-party music streaming services also mean that the HomePod’s voice assistant features lag behind those of the Amazon Echo and Google Home. As a result, the HomePod’s appeal will likely be limited to people who already subscribe to Apple Music, use iOS devices, and care about high-quality audio.

Matthew Panzarino of TechCrunch:

Apple’s HomePod is easily the best sounding mainstream smart speaker ever. It’s got better separation and bass response than anything else in its size and boasts a nuance and subtlety of sound that pays off the 7 years Apple has been working on it.

As a smart speaker, it offers best-in-class voice recognition, vastly outstripping the ability of other smart speakers to hear you trying to trigger a command at a distance or while music is playing, but its overall flexibility is limited by the limited command sets that the Siri protocol offers.

Buy a HomePod if you already have Apple Music or you want to have it and you’re in the market for a single incredibly over-designed and radically impressive speaker that will give you really great sound with basically no tuning, fussing, measuring or tweaking.

Nilay Patel sums up what that means for everyone else:

The Apple engineers I talked to were very proud of how the HomePod sounds, and for good reason: Apple’s audio engineering team did something really clever and new with the HomePod, and it really works. I’m not sure there’s anything out there that sounds better for the price, or even several times the price.

Unfortunately, Apple’s audio engineering team wasn’t in charge of just putting out a speaker. It was in charge of the audio components of a smart speaker, one that simply isn’t as smart as its competitors.

That’s really the crux of it: the HomePod sounds incredible, but not so world-bendingly amazing that you should switch away from Spotify, or accept Siri’s frustrating limitations as compared to Alexa.

The HomePod received universal praise for its sound quality, especially in small and medium-sized rooms:

According to The Verge’s review:

All of this means the HomePod sounds noticeably richer and fuller than almost every other speaker we’ve tested. You get a surprisingly impressive amount of bass out of it, but you can still hear all of the details in the midrange and the bass never overwhelms the music. And it’s immediately, obviously noticeable…

Panzarino says the HomePod begins to lose some of its sonic advantages in large rooms:

In an apartment, the HomePod could not be louder and more room filling. But at home, in a 20×30 great room with carpet on the floor, I did find myself wishing for it to be louder. This should be solved once Apple ships FullRoom — its support for two HomePods to be used in tandem but not in stereo. That’s coming soon, followed at a later date by the “multi room” function which lets a bunch of HomePods synchronize to play the same audio everywhere. But for now, small to medium sized rooms are fine, big rooms you may find the HomePod a smidge under powered.

The HomePod’s acoustics are the result of years of research. The journalists who toured Apple’s audio labs came away impressed.

Panzarino:

Apple says that its largest test chamber is one of the biggest in the US, on a pad, suspended from the outside world with nothing to pollute its tests of audio purity. Beyond testing for the acoustic qualities of the speaker, these chambers allowed Apple to burrow down to account for and mitigate the issues that typically arise from having a high excursion subwoofer in such a small cabinet. Going even further, there are smaller chambers that allow them to isolate the hum from electronic components (there is a computer on board after all) and make attempts to insulate and control that noise so it doesn’t show up in the final output.

Jim Dalrymple quotes Apple senior director of audio design and engineering Gary Greaves who explains that:

“We think we’ve built up the biggest acoustics and audio team on the planet,” said Gary Geaves, Apple’s Senior Director, Audio Design and Engineering. “We’ve drawn on many of the elite audio brands and universities to build a team that’s fantastic. The reason we wanted to build that team was certainly for HomePod, but to also to double-down on audio across all of Apple’s products.”

and

“We went out to hundreds of employees rooms and took thousands of measurements in each room,” Geaves. “That allowed us to characterize each of those acoustic spaces and come up with an average for all of those rooms in terms of reverberation.”

What frustrated most reviewers, however, are the limitations on Siri and lack of integrations with third-party services.

Brian Chen of The New York Times:

But Siri on HomePod is embarrassingly inadequate, even though that is the primary way you interact with it. Siri is sorely lacking in capabilities compared with Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Siri doesn’t even work as well on HomePod as it does on the iPhone.

TechCrunch:

While you can send texts and take notes and set reminders and make phone calls, that’s about all of the extracurriculars and they’re all focused on single-user experiences. If you’re logged in to your iCloud account, all of the messages and calls are yours and come from you. That’s great if you’re a single dude living alone, but it completely falls apart in a family environment. Apple allows you to toggle these options off as the iCloud account owner and I recommend you do before it all ends in tears. Unless you live alone in which case Mazel, it sounds peaceful.

The HomePod’s Siri integration can also control HomeKit-enabled devices, though it’s worth noting that its capabilities in this area are more limited than an iOS device as noted by Rene Ritchie:

Because HomePod can't authenticate your identity the way iPhone or iPad can, it can't be used to unlock secure HomeKit accessories, like locks and garage doors, the way iPhone or iPad can. In that way, HomePod is like Apple TV — it can lock doors, either via direct command or scene or automation, but it can't unlock them again.

There are also a number of videos available on YouTube and elsewhere that put the HomePod through its paces. Here are some of our favorites:

The initial reviews of the HomePod aren’t surprising based on what we’ve learned over the past several months and already knew about Siri. It’s curious though that none of the reviews demonstrate third-party Siri integrations. The HomePod’s Siri domains are limited, but it should be able to do things like create tasks in third-party task managers. I guess that’s one surprise we can look forward to on Friday.


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