Archive: Technology

The new Macbook Pro’s limited reach

Two of the Macbook Pro’s most hyped improvements – the Touch Bar and more compact profile – have little benefit to many professionals. I’m worried Apple is increasingly hawking consumer level tech that’s missing the high end market.

At least half of the developers and designers I know work primarily with a Macbook Pro hooked to an external display and paired with an external keyboard and mouse. Ergonomics improve with both displays at similar height and distance. It’s more efficient to scan and drag content given the screens’ proximity. And by driving the setup through a laptop, you still get the flexibility of a portable device for meetings or work on the go.

Therein lies the rub with the Macbook Pro’s Touch Bar. With the aforementioned setup, the Macbook’s distance makes the Bar out of reach and hard to see. Ironically, a setup for serious work nullifies the Bar’s purported productivity benefits. And based on Apple’s pricing segmentation, we’re paying a premium for it as well.

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Overcast and Pocket Casts: two great podcast apps

The more I listen to podcasts, the more I find a good podcast app enhances my listening experience. I can save time by eliminating silences during playback. Fast search and discovery tools help me find more to listen to. And a reliable sync system smoothes transitions between clients. I like to experiment; I’ve dabbled in almost every major podcast app on the App Store. As of today, I’d recommend two: Overcast and Pocket Casts. Both have standout feature sets and are well maintained by their developers.

The right choice depends on your podcast listening habits. If you listen on platforms other than iOS (desktop, the web, Android), go with Pocket Casts. Likewise, if you have a more advanced listening workflow filled with custom playlists, filters, and subscriptions, Pocket Casts’ user interface is exceptional. In all other circumstances, stick with Overcast.

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Essential tech podcasts

During runs and lighter coding sessions, I love listening to podcasts. Deep, geeky chats on tech, film and gaming are fun and instructive. The best podcasts are addictive; with memorable hosts and segments, it’s like checking in with old friends. Yet as my days get busier, I’ve had to pare down to just a few strong choices.

Balance separates great from merely good podcasts. They cover a diverse set of opinions, either from a revolving set of guests or hosts from different backgrounds. Yet it can’t be too diverse or the chemistry breaks down.

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Why I left Apple Music

Once Apple Music’s free trial ended, I deleted all my files and resubscribed to Spotify Premium. The turnaround was surprising; this is Apple we’re talking about here. From Macs, to an iPhone, an iPad, and an Apple TV, I’m a convert. But after several weeks of heavy Apple Music usage, I was done with the service.

I’m not alone on this turnaround. Though 11 million subscribers (in a free trial period) is a decent start, I’ve seen many across, tech and design migrate elsewhere. There’s several reasons why:

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Essential iPhone apps for 2014

My home screen as of December 2014.

My iPhone app usage aligns with the 80-20 rule. Most apps I try are completely disposable; within a few days I delete them or relegate them to a folder off the home screen, for use only on rare occasions. Yet I use a handful of apps every day. They stand the test of time for months, if not years, of usage. As we wrap up 2014, I wanted to highlight my “must-haves”. Many are well known within tech circles, but there’s a few lesser known apps that are also worth your time.

News and Social media

Alien Blue. My Reddit usage pales in comparison to other social media and news sources. I never comment, happy to scan a handful of design and gaming subreddits for links and general information. Thankfully, Alien Blue handles the browsing component well. It deserves special praise for its handling of image galleries and videos, both of which pop up frequently on Reddit threads.

News Funnel. Another plug for my self-built news site that lists top stories from Designer News and Hacker News. It sizes down effectively for the iPhone (and other mobile devices) so I can scan both sites easily.

Nuzzel. The app aggregates and lists the most linked to articles in your Twitter feed, ordered by popularity. There’s no faster way to see what’s trending among my Twitter friends. And via the “news from friends of friends” option, I usually discover some tech, film or gaming related articles I would have otherwise missed. I’ve tried many tools that build content off of my Twitter feed; none of have stuck the way Nuzzel has.

NYT Now. I was I was skeptical of the streamlined, simplified interface of NYT Now when it debuted earlier this year. Yet after a week of usage it secured a permanent slot on my phone’s home screen. At its core, NYT Now lists the full NYT app’s top stories, but adds larger imagery and helpful bullet point summaries for articles I don’t have time to read. It’s that smart use of bullet points that make all the difference on the go.

Reeder. I like having full control over my news aggregation, so for me there’s no substitute for RSS in the form of a Feedbin account. On the go, Reeder is my Feedbin reader of choice. There are other quality apps with Feedbin integration, but I find Reeder syncs faster than the competition. Also, the screen density of list items – dense but not too dense – matches my workflow. It’s about speed and sharing to other services like Pocket and Twitter, not lingering to read full stories.

Tweetbot. I check up on Twitter frequently, which makes a strong Twitter client essential. And while there’s been strong improvements on the official Twitter app lately, it still can’t match the speed and customization Tweetbot offers. Its timeline sync between devices is an especially nice touch.

Productivity

Hours. I like to keep track of how much I’m working on both my day job and side tasks. I first tried popular web based time tracking software like Harvest and Toggl. But both felt optimized around more complex, team based workflows, when I prefer a simpler system. Enter Hours. The app centers on an intuitive interface for me to start, stop, and switch timers easily. It could use a Dropbox or iCloud based backup, not to mention a more customizable export system. But those are small quibbles on an otherwise strong 1.0 product.

Mailbox. I generally shy away from email apps that try to add their own productivity features on top of my inbox. But Mailbox adds its extras elegantly; with swipe gestures to archive or delete messages, I’m able to move through my inbox much faster than previous mail clients (there’s no coincidence Apple added similar swipe functionality to Mail with iOS8.) Overall, Mailbox adds just enough functionality to add value, but not too much to distract from my inbox content.

Pocket. My one stop source for catching up on content I’ve saved elsewhere on the web and aforementioned news apps like Tweetbot and Reeder. Parsing has gotten better over the years and the clean, stripped down reader view is easier on the eyes than many original web sources.

Wunderlist. I dig Omnifocus as a task manager for complex work tasks, but it’s overkill for simple to-do lists I write for chores, tasks at home, and other miscellaneous work. I’ve previously bounced around and tried Clear and Todoist, but both ultimately lacked staying power. Clear has a cool minimalist interface driven by gestures, but it was too simplistic for my needs and I’d run into occasional iCloud sync delays between devices. Todoist provides a lot more power, but the additional filters and searches overlapped too much with Omnifocus. Wunderlist finds a middle ground between Clear and Todoist; its sync is rock solid and the shared lists are useful and easy to set up with family members.

Miscellany

Next. Like with aforementioned time tracking, my budgeting needs are simple, centered on daily spending for expenses like restaurants, drinks, apps, and electronics. Because I’m entering in new entries manually each day, a smart entry UI is critical, and Next nails this perfectly. I tap a large category button, enter the amount and I’m done.

Overcast. For years I used Instacast to listen to podcasts. But eventually the complexity of extra features I never used (e.g. sleep timers, individual podcast settings), combined with several periods of slow syncing let me to try other clients. Marco Arment’s new Overcast matches my podcast flow perfectly; its interface is stripped down and straightforward, syncing is extremely reliable, and I use both of the exclusive “smart speed” and “voice boost” features heavily. There’s also a few small design touches I appreciate, like the audio equalizer animation during playback and the use of Concourse for typography.

Rise. I first scoffed at the idea of a dedicated alarm clock given the utility of Apple’s Clock app. But Rise is beautiful and has custom alarms that can progressively rise in volume, which I find is a more relaxing, peaceful way to be woken up. Most importantly, its gesture interface makes setup very easy, an important consideration given how often I change my wakeup time slightly from day to day.

RunKeeper. I run several times a week, and while I like select features on Strava and other fitness apps, I’ve always come back to RunKeeper for GPS-based run logging. The app has a straightforward interface that’s easy to both interact with and read as you run. I also appreciate the high degree of customization for automated voice notifications on your distance, time and speed.

Weather Line. I feel like I’ve tried at least twenty weather apps over the years, but since I started using Weather Line a year ago, I’ve been hooked. Like a few other weather apps, it has Dark Sky integration, which I find essential (so much so I own the original Dark Sky app for extra detail during rainy weather.) But Weather Line has a unique line graph interface that’s easily scannable to see how the rest of the day or week will pan out. I haven’t found another app that’s quite as intuitive, especially for a quick glance.

My custom Yosemite icons

New icons
New app icons for iTerm, Mailbox, nvAlt, Spotify, Sublime Text, and Tweetbot.

Yosemite’s most striking change to Mac OS X are its visuals, a nod to bring the OS more in line with iOS. That’s distilled in its new set of default system app icons. As John Siracusa writes in his Yosemite review:

Apple is trying to discipline the world of OS X icons. While one icon shape has been deemed insufficient, Apple believes three shapes should just about do it: circle, rectangle, and tilted rectangle…Visual simplification is the order of the day, and details that don’t read well at small icon sizes have been excised.

Unfortunately several apps I use heavily haven’t updated their icon and clash with Yosemite’s new look. In a sea of flat minimalism, bold colors, and thinner typography, a few icons that don’t follow trends can really stand out. So I hunted on Dribbble to find suitable replacements. Below I’ve provided a few direct links if you’re interested in grabbing them for yourself.

Old icons
The default app icons.

If you haven’t replaced an app icon yet, it’s an easy process in Yosemite:

  • Right/command click on the app in Finder. Select “Get Info”. A dialog box will open.
  • In another Finder window, find the new replacement .icns file for the app. Click on the icns file and drag it over to the existing app Get Info dialog box. Release the file on top of the existing app icon at the very top of the dialog box.

In terms of my replacements:

  • iTerm isn’t far off the mark but I wanted a more minimal, flatter look that better paired with Apple’s Terminal icon. Jason Long’s take is a better match.

  • Mailbox overall looks great, but the “in construction” thin lines (albeit with good purpose to signify beta status) all over the Mailbox icon were distracting. Chris Jennings made a very clean replacement that goes well with Mailbox’s minimalist aesthetic.

  • nvALT has a clever icon with a small stack of sheets alongside a rocket ship taking off. But it’s busy in the context of Yosemite. So I went ahead and created my own amateur work in Sketch combined with Icon Slate for output. Download it here.

  • Spotify’s default icon already works with color and a circular shape. Yet I wanted something with a more subtle gradient, punchier color and more clearly defined edge to the icon. Sebastian de With’s Muir set was my first choice, but after using it for a few days the white coloring for the icon’s sonic waves felt off from Spotify’s black aesthetic. So I switched to Jean-François Goncalves’s work. It’s very similar, but with black instead of white accents.

  • The great Iconfactory put together Sublime Text’s “big button” style original icon, yet it never resonated with me; it was just a bit too “cute” for my tastes. I’ve used other replacements while on Mac OS 10.9, but for Yosemite I’ve settled on a simple tilted rectangle icon from Rafael Conde. I love the subtle cross hatching on the icon’s background.

  • Tapbots have always had a playful and original bent to their wonderful Tweetbot app; that gives some creative license away from Yosemite’s usual icon layout. But Ilja Miskov put together an option that plays better; it mirrors Tweetbot’s simpler iOS icon cropped to circular form for Yosemite.

Using feed readers effectively

The now shuttered Google Reader and many alternative feed readers (e.g. Feedly, Digg Reader, Feedbin) still have a lot of fans in the tech community: they make web browsing more efficient by aggregating content from a bunch of web sites under a single interface. But many argue feed readers are dated, that Twitter and other social media forms have “killed” the need for a dedicated feed reader.

I disagree. While the tech isn’t for everyone, I think much of the dismissiveness comes from those that setup a feed reader poorly. They add a bunch of high traffic, big name sites (e.g. The New York Times, The Verge, The Awl), get overwhelmed and quit in frustration.

Some can handle, even prefer this very high velocity setup, but I think it’s rare. There’s a better way to set up your feed reader. Start small, start wide, move through articles rapidly, and have an effective way to save the articles that are of interest.

Start small

When you set up a feed reader for the first time, keep the velocity – the rate of which new articles get aggregated to your reader – low. I like to start with a “10 by 10” rule: pick up to ten feeds that each post no more than ten times a day. Remember this is only a starting point; as you get use to your feed reader of choice you can always increase the velocity later.

Start wide

One of the strengths of a feed reader is its ability to pull content from sites you don’t pass through during your daily web browsing. To put it another way, effective feed readers widen the net. Keep that in mind when you’re picking your first set of feeds. A good rule I like to use is actively include content that’s different than what you normally are exposed to in your day job. Alternatively, focus on sources that give a unique spin on content you normally read elsewhere. For example, if you like politics, instead of adding feeds from big sites like Politico and Wonkette, subscribe to individual columnists you enjoy from smaller markets.

Move through articles rapidly

You can move slowly through articles one at a time in a feed reader, but I think this can be a flawed approach for several reasons. First, remember many sites truncate their feed content, which prevents a full article display within the reader. Second, feed readers are rarely optimized for reading; you often get a big list of unread items taking up significant screen real estate. Also, the article itself is cramped and there’s often a bunch of feed reader UI on screen that distracts from the content. Third, a slow approach means there’s a much better chance you’ll leave your feed reader with a lot of items unread.

I’d recommend configuring your feed reader into a “summary only” view where the focus is on scanning headlines, not full articles. Move quickly, and if any article sparks your interest, open it up in a new background tab or otherwise save for reading later (keyboard shortcuts can come in handy here.)

Have an effective way to save for later

After you process unread items in your feed reader, you’ll want a way to go back and read the titles that caught your attention. Generally there’s three ways to do this: flag the article with the feed reader’s built-in system (e.g. stars, flags, highlights, etc.), keep the article open in an external tab or save it in a dedicated “read it later” service like Pocket. I highly recommend relying on the latter two options only: new external tabs for quick items you’ll read immediately and a dedicated “read it later” service for everything else.

Overall, don’t shy away from feed readers due to their “power user” reputation. By following a few simple rules, almost anyone can benefit from adding a feed reader to their workflow.

Why is Apple dragging its feet on paid upgrades?

Developers have clamored for a paid upgrade system since the App Store’s inception, but I’m worried Apple won’t offer this feature anytime soon. I’m far from alone – Instapaper developer Marco Arment also predicted Apple’s non-action on his latest podcast. Yet Marco and many others don’t think this is a problem, that the current à la carte system is “the future” of software publishing. They’re completely wrong.

Apple drags its feet on paid upgrades because Apple wants simplicity for their customers. A choice between a full product and paid upgrade muddles this philosophy. For now, all users get all app upgrades automatically. If you introduce optional, paid upgrades, certain updates only apply to select customers. This adds complexity for consumers and developers having to juggle and maintain multiple app versions on the store.

In addition, the lack of paid upgrades keep app purchase prices lower. This is simple economics: on the App Store, developers have to force a repurchase between major versions in the form of a new app. App prices will be driven lower to offset the much larger sticker shock between versions and to account for boosts in upgrade revenue (100% of the product cost instead of some smaller fraction.)

I don’t think this is a good economic model, especially for more expensive, professional level software, such as Omnifocus and Photoshop. But remember, Apple is not, at its core, a software company; they make money from selling iPhone and iPads. The cheaper the software, the greater the incentive we have to keep on buying Apple’s hardware.

Also it’s professionals and power users – both niche Apple consumers – that demand paid upgrades, not the core audience. Given how rarely Apple updates its pro products (e.g. Mac Pros, Aperture, Final Cut) in the last few years, we’re in for a serious wait before Apple takes any action here.

Marco defended Apple’s inaction on this week’s Build and Analyze podcast; I disagree with him. A lack of paid upgrades causes two main problems:

The absence of an incremental purchase kills a huge source of revenue for developers and publishers. Without both new software and upgrade streams, many publishers, from high end publishers like Adobe to independent studios like Delicious Monster and Panic have a hard time staying afloat. In economic terms, a lack of price discrimination between more receptive, existing customers and newcomers is a major problem.

Customers get angry and frustrated when they can’t upgrade. Naturally for apps under a few dollars, this issue doesn’t apply, given the small investment. Yet if you’re considering $40, $80, or hundreds more for a purchase, an upgrade by way of repurchasing the software is costly. It’s especially aggravating if the next big upgrade is launched soon after you buy the old version. This keeps potential buyers on the sidelines between major releases, exactly the time when many developers need revenue to keep going.

Apple needs a change in course here. A lack of paid upgrades is killing both developer revenue and consumer interest in a lot of great apps. It’s also watering down app quality, especially in the iPhone and iPad markets where there’s no App Store alternative.

The new wave of hyperfocused apps: Drafts, Dark Sky, Take Five

In the iOS and Mac app stores, newcomer generalist apps are dead. Long live the new wave of hyperfocused apps.

This point was inevitable given both stores have reached a saturation point. There are so many calendars, text editors, todo lists, weather forecasts and photo editors – to name just a few categories – that it’s increasingly rare for any newcomer to stand out. Several success stories emerge early (e.g. Omnifocus and Todo for todo lists, Camera+ in the photo department) receive positive coverage, gain a user base and iterate. Meanwhile most competitors flounder and struggle.

Yet developers are opting out of this Darwinian cycle by going very deep, singular and focused with their app functionality. I wouldn’t use the term “minimal” because some are loaded with options and customization for power users. “Hyperfocused” fits better as each app’s direction is simple and straightforward. Where a generalist app might have ten features, a hyperfocused app has one, but executes that one feature with depth, polish, and well thought out design.

Not every app of this style can be a winner – their very focus makes them divisive – but a few have clicked well with my workflow: Drafts and Dark Sky for iOS and Take Five for the Mac.

Drafts

Unlike other more generalist text editors that expect a setup process for new documents, Drafts presents you with a blank document and keyboard on every launch. There’s no required taps for a new document location or file type; open the app and you’re ready to type with little lag. Drafts at its core feels like the default Notes app with a serious speed and UI upgrade and that alone should appeal to many.

But speed is only a fraction of Drafts full functionality. A tap of an icon below the document reveals a full action list. You can copy to the clipboard, email, send to a Dropbox folder, tweet the content and send the text to other iOS apps. I use it almost every day for ideas capture, drafting Tweets, sending interesting links to Dropbox and writing extended emails.

Dark Sky

For weather I’ve had the My-Cast app on my home screen for over a year. Its got plenty of information and accurate, but generally a bit sluggish and the visuals need serious work. Also before heading outside I have to tap through several screens just to determine if there’s rain in the immediate future.

Enter Dark Sky, an app that’s singular purpose is to tell you if it’s going to rain in the next hour. After starting the app you get a graph and text description that measures the severity and chance of rain. The app excels in its detail – the graph can convey at a glance when an incoming storm will peak or when short gaps in the rain will emerge. Text descriptions are highly descriptive (e.g. “light rain for 14 min”). If you want something more visual, a great looking radar is a tap away. The whole package is fast, accurate and reliable. It’s found a nice home on my second iPhone screen.

Take Five

I’m a heavy iTunes and Spotify user on my Mac, yet the UI of each app is cumbersome and bulky. The row based, options everywhere design works well for heavy lifting but 95% of the time I just want to know the details on what’s currently playing.

To address this UI bloat, several iTunes and Spotify mini player apps have popped up. I tried both Simplify and Bowtie, two popular options. Yet while both did the job, I wasn’t crazy about their memory footprint and occasionally rough visuals.

That led me to Take Five, an option by Iconfactory, the design shop responsible for Twitterrific, xScope, and Flare. It’s a now playing visualizer pared down to the essentials: album art, song, album, and artist. Yet in targeting such a simple feature set, IconFactory delivers a really well thought out experience. Its got best in class visuals with a cool blue and black color palette. Keyboard support extends to a show/hide hotkey for the music app you’re using, be it iTunes, Spotify, Rdio, or five other players. You can turn on a Growl-like auto notification that pops up the mini player briefly when the track changes (with Spotify’s often shoddy Growl integration this is an especially useful feature.) Take Five’s main ‘hook’ is in its pause functionality; with a keyboard shortcut or icon click you can pause your music and have it auto fade in after a set period (hence ‘Take Five’). It’s a cool perk for quick breaks.

Pocket: The best “save for later” app today?

“Save for later” apps – apps like Instapaper that capture and cleanly format text articles for later consumption – are essential to my workflow. I rely on them to read long form content for my job, for blog posts and just for fun almost every night. But last week there was a serious shakeup: Popular app Read It Later reinvented itself as Pocket. It aims to be a save later service for not just text articles but almost anything online, from videos to photos and mp3 clips. That’s ambitious, something I had to investigate further.

Thirty articles and a few days later with the app I’m hooked. Overall Pocket is an awesome app, albeit with a few rough patches. It’s a tool I’d recommend to almost anyone, especially to iOS newbies given its straightforward setup process. There are several things that Pocket does especially well:

A consistent experience across multiple platforms. A lot of other media apps provide a smart UI on both the iPhone and iPad. Yet it’s rare to see an app ecosystem work so consistently on the iPhone, iPad and the desktop. With Pocket there’s a uniform, drop down based navigation on each device that’s easy to use. Its grid based, Flipboard-esque layout works especially well on the iPad or web while remaining fully usable on the iPhone.

Visual design. Many apps dedicated to browsing or media discovery have a color scheme and layout that is heavy on contrast or overly skeuomorphic. It makes a strong first impression but can get a bit boring or distracting when you’re trying to browse through or read individual articles. Pocket avoids these problems by leveraging a light palette with subtle contrast and few gradients to maximize readability. This minimalist design looks borderline “non-native” to the iOS platform, but I think for Pocket it’s a smart move. The look feels fresh and distinctive, much in the same way the Twitter client Tweetbot distinguished itself visually with a chrome, metal and gradient heavy design.

App integration. This is where a lot of competition falls short; you can have an awesome reading experience, but that becomes meaningless if you can’t move articles in and out of your save for later app easily. That’s not a problem with Pocket. It uses the same API as Read it Later which has been around for years and consequently there’s huge app support.

Video integration. I’m a big film nerd, so naturally I capture a lot of clips, video essays and trailers. Pocket has native support for Youtube and Vimeo, which gives each saved video article a proper headline and thumbnail. With two taps I’m watching a video full screen on my device. Instapaper, Readability and other choices either can’t play video at all or add a lot of cruft around the video itself.

The setup process. Pocket goes out its way to make capturing content as easy as possible. On iOS devices it identifies other apps that are Pocket compatible and provides custom setup instructions for each. To add a web bookmarklet, an essential capture tool, its step by step tutorial is best in class.

Nevertheless Pocket isn’t perfect. The app’s filter for switching between text articles, images and videos is occasionally inaccurate; usually the articles view accidentally pulls in a few videos or vice versa. Also Pocket’s web site needs a bit for work on typography; its body text color is too light and it doesn’t offer the same font choices available on its iOS app. Finally while the default sans serif and serif options look nice, text customization (i.e. font choice, line height, margin size) lags behind what Instapaper provides.

So is Pocket better than Instapaper? Yes and no. If you trend toward content that’s graphic heavy, video based, or anything that strays from pure text, Pocket should be your first choice. For die hard readers of news articles, blog posts and other text-heavy content, stick with Instapaper.

I plan on using both: Instapaper for reading, Pocket for videos and everything else. I’ll detail in a future post exactly how I integrate both apps into my daily workflow.