Every time I go to Mint.com on my iPad, there’s a banner at the top of the screen. Taunting me.
Yes, I do have the Mint app installed on my device. No, I don’t want to use it.
The Mint app only has a fraction of the features available on Mint.com. It’s really disappointing. For the most part, I like Mint as a service, but it’s a rare occasion that I open their app.
But I’m not here to talk about Mint specifically. What I do want to talk about is something broader. I want to talk about what makes something a “mobile” app.
Six or seven years ago, Mint would’ve been a great app. These were the days that mobile apps were considered to be almost a satellite experience. A limited, on-the-go sort of experience. All the big features were on your computer, where you did real work, and the mobile app just had a few small, key functions that you might want to do from your phone. Doing real work on a smartphone was for addicts and Crackberries. No normal person would want or need to do work from their phone, right?
No one thinks this way anymore.
In fact, the paradigm has completely reversed. Instagram is a prime example: Instagram is an app first, and a website second. “Second” might actually be too generous a word. For years, Instagram didn’t even have a web view. Now they do, but it’s only that: a view. You can’t post to Instagram from a desktop computer, you have to use their app. Mobile is king.
In just a few short years, the focus has completely shifted. Twitter just killed their Mac app. 93% of Facebook’s daily active users are on mobile. And I’m willing to bet that the numbers for 18-35 year olds are even higher. Mobile isn’t going anywhere. Get used to it.
The Phillips Hue lights are a very polished piece of gadgetry. They work reliably, are easy to configure, and fun to use. They don’t come cheap, but if you want a rock-solid product, you can’t go wrong here.
Awhile back, I was sitting at my desk in my room, thinking about how cool it would be if I could turn my lamp on and off by talking to it. So I decided I was going to get a smart outlet that would connect to Apple HomeKit. Long story short, this escalated until I finally decided I would buy a set of Hue light bulbs to replace all the light bulbs in my room.
These instructions were printed clearly on the inside of the box, and they couldn’t have been easier:
Install all the lightbulbs, turn them all on, plug the Bridge into your router, and download the app.
I walked through the app setup process, which involved downloading a software update for the Bridge, and then I was all set.
The dimmer switch was even easier to set up. I simply stuck the little plate to my wall with the included stickers. No screws, no mess, no fuss. Even better, the dimmer comes out (it attaches magnetically) and acts as a wireless remote.
Software Setup: Hue App
In the Hue app, I have all four bulbs grouped together as one room, which I tied to the dimmer switch. Then I created a “scene” called “Ceiling on,” which I mapped to the “On” button on the switch. So when I press the on button, only my ceiling lights turn on. But when I press the off button, all my lights turn off, including the lamp. No more forgetting to turn that thing off!
Software Setup: Apple Home App
In Apple’s Home app, I also have all four bulbs assigned to the same room. I’ve got three of them grouped together as my “Lights,” and the other one by itself as my “Desk Lamp.” Nice and simple.
Software Setup: Siri
I can control the lights using Siri by simply saying, “Hey Siri, turn my Desk Lamp on.” But the Home app goes even deeper than that with its “scenes” feature. A “scene” is a group of settings for any number of HomeKit devices, which can be configured all at once with a single tap, or by using Siri. So I can say “Hey Siri, goodnight” and all my lights go off.
My personal favorite turns my lamp on to 5% brightness and is called “You up.” So if I need a nightlight, I simply say, “Hey Siri, you up?” Straight magic.
Not too much to complain about here, except for a minor signal strength issue. We have two routers in my house, and I originally plugged the Hue Bridge into the one in my basement. In hindsight, this was silly, since that’s the router that barely reaches my room. The Hue Bridge had similar performance issues: it worked most of the time, but occasionally a bulb wouldn’t respond. Moving the Bridge to the other router in the garage — the one that does reach my room — seems to have solved this problem.
I’m extremely happy with my Hue lights. They work well, were easy to set up, and are very customizable. My eye for expansion is now turned to my garage. For my dad’s birthday, we’re going to get him a few more bulbs and a Hue motion sensor, so that the lights in the garage turn on automatically when you walk in. Heck yeah!
 Whoops. Never leave a nerd alone scheming about gadgets. Last summer I went on a 20 minute walk without my headphones to distract me, and by the time I got home I had convinced myself I needed to buy an iPad Pro.
 Except for my nightstand lamp, which I don’t want or need to be automatic.
Do you have 1) a great idea for an app and 2) minimal coding experience?
Step 1 — Google Broadly
Start by Googling a basic description of what you’re trying to do, something like “how to use a scrolling picker in Swift.” Chances are, you’ll find a rather simple solution — and by simple I mean that it will have only a few steps. However, those steps will likely use terminology you’ve never even heard before, things like “view controller” and “app delegate.” For an experienced coder, these are simple steps. For you, not so much (and that’s OK!). Which brings us to Step 2…
Step 2 — Google Specifically
Dive deeper into what you’re trying to learn by Googling any terms you don’t understand. Turns out you place UI elements inside a view controller, but what the heck are constraints? Google that too! This takes time and effort to effectively learn and piece together information. But it does work, and it does pay off in the end.
Except when you can’t find what you’re looking for. Which brings us to step 3…
Step 3 — Ask!
Stack Overflow is a wonderful resource to find other people who’ve had the same problem as you and who have already found a solution. I used to be hesitant to post my own questions to Stack Overflow. To be perfectly honest, I was too lazy and too impatient, thinking an answer would take days.
If you think so too, you’re completely wrong. The few times I’ve posted to Stack Overflow, I’ve gotten an educated response within an hour. It’s an amazing community.
Now, make sure you do your homework. First, be sure the question hasn’t been asked before on Stack Overflow. If something similar has been asked, make sure you cite that question in your post, and explain what makes your situation different. Second, be specific. Include large blocks of your own code. This is the only way anyone will be able to understand what you’re trying to accomplish and, more importantly, what you’re doing wrong.
I recently published my first app. Before starting the project, I had some basic experience with coding, minimal experience with iOS programming, and lots of experience with Google. But enough about me, this is about you! With a little determination and a lot of patience, it is possible to Google your way through almost any programming problem. Happy hacking!
I’ve always thought the Pebble looked interesting. A kickstarter sensation in 2012, the original Pebble was the first smartwatch to really catch on. It strikes a great balance between a fully featured smartwatch (like the Apple Watch) and a more basic activity tracker (like a Fitbit). It does notifications and fitness, but also has some basic apps. The E ink display can be on all the time and still allow the battery to last for days. All of this has earned the Pebble a loyal following. Unfortunately, that following is coming to an end. Fitbit has purchased Pebble, and has decided to end the product line. Fitbit had committed to supporting the Pebble through the end of the year, but after that there’s no promises. Fitbit offers its own smartwatch (The Fitbit Blaze), and apparently they weren’t too keen on Pebble’s competition. All of this led to a surprise for me last week.
My girlfriend’s dad had a Pebble. After the company was bought, he switched to the Fitbit Blaze. Fortunately, I’m a good boyfriend, and he was kind enough to give his Pebble to me! So as of last week, I am now the owner of a Pebble Time Steel! I really like it. Like I said, it can’t do everything the Apple Watch can, but it doesn’t need to. I’ve had a week to play around with it, and I’ve found my three favorite use cases.
The Pebble’s main purpose is to display notifications on your wrist, and it does a great job with this. If I get a text, reminder alert, or GroupMe, I can read the notification right on my wrist, which is seriously useful. The Pebble app lets me customize which notifications come to my watch (read: not Facebook, Twitter, or the like). There is a way to respond to text messages directly from the watch, using either your voice or a selection of pre-written replies. However, since other apps can’t send iMessages on iOS, this can only be done through a third-party service that accesses your phone account and sends SMS messages for you. I’m still not sure how comfortable I am with this, so I haven’t set it up yet.
The Pebble also acts as a great activity and sleep tracker. Step counting is especially useful since the watchface I’m using shows my progress directly on the main screen (it’s the green circle in the above photo). More useful than that, however, is the sleep tracking. If you’re not using a smart alarm (an alarm that tracks your sleep cycles and wakes you up when you’re in a period of light sleep), you’re really missing out. There are some great apps that do this using your phone, but the Pebble is so much more convenient because it’s automatic.
By far the most fun I’ve had with the Pebble is attempting to recreate a voice assistant of some kind. All I really wanted to do was dictate reminders, which the Pebble is supposed to be able to do, but it never works for me. I was Googling around for another solution, and I found an amazing app for Pebble called “This Then That.” This app is not officially made by If This Then That, but it does allow the voice engine of the Pebble to connect to IFTTT. This opens up a huge world of possibilities. I’ve currently got two voice triggers set up. Starting a command with the words “Make a note…” sends all subsequent text to my Day One journal. I can also set a reminder by saying “Remind me…” Unfortunately, IFTTT can’t set iCloud reminders directly (without leaving the IFTTT app running), but I’ve rigged it up so that it sends me a text message, which contains a link to the Workflow app, which then sets a reminder. So all I have to do is hit that link next time I pull out my phone. It’s kind of ridiculous, but it does the job, and it’s super convenient.
So those are my thoughts on the Pebble. I wasn’t always a fan of smartwatches, but now I’m sold. A smartwatch can’t (and shouldn’t) do everything a smartphone can, but there are some things that really are easier on your wrist. I love the Pebble. Thanks again to my girlfriend’s dad! ••
Update 3.7.17: Yesterday I enabled the text replies feature and it’s incredibly convenient. Being able to shoot off a pre-written quick reply in just a few seconds, without pulling out my phone, is awesome. Dictating a message is less convenient, especially because the Pebble dictation engine can be finicky. Still, all things considered, it’s a great feature!
(Sorry I haven’t posted in a few weeks, everyone. School’s been super busy. I’m gonna try to get back into writing now 😊 I’ve got something exciting planned for next week 😏)
Waze is an interesting take on GPS navigation. Rather than just using GPS to get to places you’re unfamiliar with, Waze invites you to use your GPS everywhere you go. You see, Waze’s goal is to save you every possible minute while you’re driving – to work, to school, or wherever you’re going. So instead of taking you along the most direct route, Waze takes you on what it hopes is the fastest route – even if that means going through neighborhoods, on and off the interstate, whatever.
Waze achieves this the way I assume most GPS apps get their traffic data – through thousands and thousands of uses, or “Wazers,” with their phones in their cars. As you driving using Waze, you’re also reporting back just how fast that route really was, which influences whether Waze sends the next driver along that route too, or if they get a different path. However, Waze goes a step further on data collection. Wazers can report all kinds of hazards along the road, from construction, to stopped vehicles, and even police and red light cameras. I don’t like that Waze encourages people to use their phones to report things while driving (there is a hands-free voice mode), but I will (guiltily) admit that it’s nice to have this sort of info.
This brings me to the question: Do I use Waze everywhere I go, like it’s intended? No, I don’t. I tried. When I first downloaded the app, I did. But it got pretty old. When I drive to school, I basically have two, maybe three different routes I can take. And they’re all within five minutes of each other. So generally, Waze doesn’t really save me much time, and often it takes me on the same path I would’ve taken anyway. Even if I do take a different path, once I’ve made the first turn or two I know which way I’m going. And those voice prompts get really annoying.
I’ve gotten to the point where I only use Waze when I’m not sure which route would be fastest. Right now, that includes:
When I leave school at a different time than normal, and I don’t know what the traffic is like.
During the heat of traffic, when all routes could be equally bad.
Driving to my new church, where I’m still getting the hang of the traffic on the different routes.
So that’s how I use Waze. Have you tried the app? If so, how do you use it? I’m interested in hearing how other people use this app, so let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter 😊
What I really want is for Waze to just send me a notification before I leave, telling me which route (“I-75” or “Highway 41”) is fastest, and then I wouldn’t even have to use the app at all. Oh well. ••
Just a short little post here to detail my latest project: a name generator for Gary Larson’s “The Far Side” comic strip. My brother and I love the names Gary Larson uses throughout his iconic comic strip, so we build a name generator. It includes every name from every Far Side book we have, and we’re working on adding what we’re missing.
This project is posted on a new page I’ve just added to the blog: Other Projects. This will be the place for the name generator as well as anything else interesting I do on the internet in the future. Enjoy! ••
The other day I was on campus and I needed to do some homework for an online class. I don’t bring my laptop to school, just my iPad, but I wanted to use a bigger screen for this assignment. So I went to the library. The campus library has plenty of iMacs (not that I hate Windows computers, but I prefer the Mac), so I sat down and got to work.
I logged into D2L, the university’s online class portal, and checked out the work I needed to do. Then I started doing my research, logging into my iCloud account to make a note of a few websites I wanted to save. That’s when I realized: I have very, very, little important data that’s stored exclusively on my computer. Almost everything is in one of several various cloud services. From iCloud to Dropbox, almost everything I do comes off of the internet.
This has a lot of convenience attached to it. It means that if I don’t have my computer, all I have to do is sit down in front of any computer, type in a couple of passwords, and I’ve got all my stuff and I’m all ready to work. It also means that if I ever lose or break my phone, I can just sign in to everything and all my stuff is right there again. Heck, signing in with my Apple ID alone will give me 75% of my information in one fell swoop.
For lost devices, this will work for pretty much everything. For using a campus computer, however, it only works for things I can do in a browser. I can access my email in Safari, but I can’t use the Mail app. I can add links to pocket, but not, as I realized when trying to save those articles, my Safari Reading List. This is because using the Reading List requires me to sign into iCloud for all of OS X, not just on iCloud.com. Again, that’s great for a replaced device, but I’m not going to connect a public library computer to my iCloud account.
So there are drawbacks, but in general these days, I can sit down at any computer and start working as if it was my own, just by typing in a few passwords. Honestly, the biggest inconvenience is that I have to actually type in those passwords instead of the computer remembering them for me. But the fact that all my data is available to me everywhere, on every device, even if that device isn’t mine, is really, really cool. I remember listening to a podcast several years ago where someone said that technology is going to a place where all data is stored in the cloud, and each device, instead of storing data, just acts as a “window” into that data. It would no longer matter what device the data was stored on; instead you could just picked whichever window best suited your fancy. I think it’s safe to say that day has arrived. And I’m sure excited for it. ••
So for Christmas I got my brother a Steam Controller. Of course, that also means I got a Steam Controller for Christmas. Sort of. Anyway, we’ve both been really enjoying it, and it’s definitely far and away the best controller I’ve ever used. That being said, I want to talk about why it’s so good.
First let’s talk about the controller itself. The controller has a big Steam logo button in the center to bring up the Steam overlay, which is especially nice in Big Picture Mode (Big Picture is the view designed for TVs – everything is laid out so that you can navigate without a mouse. The Steam Controller really is made for use in Big Picture.) There are two more buttons in the middle as well as a standard A/B/X/Y. Then there are the triggers. There are two main triggers, and they’re beautiful. They’re incredibly smooth and responsive, and also two-step. There are two bumpers above the triggers (also standard) and then two “grips,” which you press with the three fingers you’ve got curled around the controller. It’s different but actually quite nice. The differences get bigger from there. The Steam Controller only has one stick, instead of a conventional two. Those two circular areas are touchpads. Simply put, these are fantastic. Even before you plug the controller into your computer, they’re almost awe-inspiring. Moving your finger across the pads activates haptic feedback. It feels like the pad is a moving trackball, and it sort of “clicks” as it rolls. Flick your finger across it quickly, and it has inertial and keeps giving you feedback as the “ball” keeps spinning and then slows to a stop. It’s pretty cool, and it only gets better in-game. One of the things I hate most about playing a first person shooter with a controller is how the camera works. You have to push the stick to move the camera, and then pull the stick back to stop moving it. Compare this to a mouse, where you just push the mouse where you want to look and then just stop. Stop moving the mouse and the camera stops moving. It’s more intuitive really. The touchpads recreate this experience beautifully. Moving your character with the stick and moving the camera with the touchpad is a great experience. And that’s not even the coolest part about camera control. The Steam Controller also has a gyroscope, which means you can also aim simply by pointing the controller. This sounds confusing, but trust me, it becomes natural quickly. You use the touchpad to look around and the gyro to fine tune your aim. Still not sold? You can set it so the gyroscope is only activated when you’ve got your finger on the right pad (or the left pad, or the trigger, you decide), so you’ve can only activate the gyro when you’re all zoomed in and ready to snipe someone.
Talking about customization brings me to the software for the Steam Controller. Steam wanted to make sure that you could use this controller for any game, which means the configuration is stunning. Many games have controller support built in, meaning you can assign buttons to in-game actions, like “Attack” or “Jump.” If your game doesn’t have support, you can emulate any button on the keyboard, mouse, or controller, like “Left Mouse” or “Space.” Or you can configure a combination of controller and keyboard commands, to make sure you cover everything. It takes a little bit of effort to set up, but then it’s amazing. If you don’t feel like configuring it all yourself, you can browse configs that other Steam users have uploaded, and then customize from there. It’s pretty awesome. In addition to being able to customize each button, the triggers, touchpads, stick, and gyro are all unbelievably customizable. Things like sensitivity and haptic feedback can be adjusted, and that’s only the beginning. You can set the stick to automatically hold down the sprint button when you press it all the way forward. Or you can set the touchpad to act as a stick when you’re in the game, but as a mouse when you press the other touchpad, for navigating menus. You can set the trigger to activate walking (as opposed to running) when you pull it down halfway and crouching when you pull it all the way. The possibilities are endless.
So long story short, the Steam Controller is an incredible piece of hardware, and the software behind it is just as good. The good folks at Steam have clearly put an astonishing amount of thought into everything about this controller, from the hardware to the software, and it shows. I’m thoroughly impressed, and I would recommend this controller to anyone. ••