My Tech Changes in 2015

If I’m being honest, 2015 was a really good year.  Graduating high school is always a plus, and I’m loving college.  2015 was also a good year in the technology department for me.  Looking back, there’s been a lot of changes to the devices and apps that I use on a daily basis.  Here are the biggest three.

First up, I finally got an iPhone!  I’ve had an iPod Touch since 7th grade, but I didn’t get an iPhone until just last January.  My iPhone is the device I use most often, for the most things, and it’s absolutely an integral part of my life (maybe a little too integral, if I’m still being honest).  It’s so nice to not have to carry around two devices anymore (a dumb phone and an iPod), and obviously it’s also nice to have a data plan.  Getting an iPhone was definitely the biggest tech event of the year for me, and I’m still loving it.

Next up was photos.  iCloud Photo Library launched way back in October 2014, but, to me at least, it wasn’t useful until Photos for Mac happened last April.  iCloud Photo Library is really great; it’s so nice to just have the Photos app sync on all my devices, instead of having a Photos app full of photos from that device and another app full of Dropbox photos.  Not only that, but Photos for Mac has great support for facial detection, geotagging, and smart albums, so all in all it’s just a great way to organize all my photos.  Thanks to Apple upping their iCloud pricing tiers, I’m still only paying 99¢/month, and I now get 50 gb.  Totally worth it.

Finally, Apple Music launched last June!  I discovered Spotify in December 2014, and I used it religiously for the first half of 2015.  However, when Apple Music came out, I just had to try it.  After the three month free trial, my family decided to keep paying for it.  We ended up on Apple Music mostly because the family plan is actually usable (unlike Spotify’s), but in generally I’m happy with Apple Music.  Since honesty is, apparently, a theme in this post, Apple Music still has a long way to go to be as good as Spotify.  Frankly, Apple Music is still pretty buggy.  However, there are things about Apple Music that are better than Spotify will ever be, like built in Siri support.  Being able to use Siri to control music in the car is definitely my favorite feature of Apple Music.  And as far as the bugs go, I have confidence that Apple will continue to fix those too.  I’ll be patient.

So that’s my 2015 technology year in review.  As I said, it’s been a good year.  What’s your year been like?  Get any cool new gadgets?  Find that perfect cloud service that you’d always hoped existed?  Let me know what kinds of tech you love in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter @NickFoster56.  Thanks for reading, and Merry Christmas!  ••

Photos Saga Part 2: Photos for Mac

In my post last week, I talked about how I moved all my photos over from Dropbox to iCloud Photo Library.  What got me started on that topic, however, was the new Photos for Mac app.  As I said last week, Photos for Mac had been announced at WWDC last summer, but didn’t actually come out until just a few weeks ago.  After talking about iCloud Photo Library last week, I’m finally ready to talk about Photos for Mac.  There are some problems with the app, which will hopefully be fixed in future updates (is is, after all, version 1.0).  On the whole, though, it works really well, and I’m excited about it.

Open up Photos for Mac and the first tab you see at the top is the Photos tab.  If you’ve used photos on an iOS 7 device, this view will look very familiar.  All photos are shown, in reverse chronological order, divided into “moments” just like on iOS.  Also like iOS (that phrase is the key to this post), this is meant to be the main screen in photos, and it basically does what it promises.  No complaints here.

I’m going to skip next to the third tab at the top, Albums.  Albums is a much more complicated view, but I like the way it works.  At the top of the screen are several auto-generated albums.  This includes “All Photos” (similar to moments but not divided up by time), as well as “Panoramas,” “Videos,” “Slow-mo,” and so on.  This is a nice way to group photos of a particular kind.  Beneath these are the user-created albums.  These include regular albums and smart albums.  Regular albums are just what you’d expect, a collection of photos that you’ve put together.  These albums sync to all your devices over iCloud.  Smart albums automatically include all photos that fit a set of criteria, say, “Date is 4/29/15” and “Camera Model is iPhone 5s.”  Smart albums are great for organizing lots of photos; for example, I have a screenshots album that includes all files with “.png” in the name.  What’s frustrating, though, is that smart albums don’t sync over iCloud, so you can’t view them on iOS.  (Oddly enough, you actually can see them in a browser on iCloud.com.  What the heck?)

Another section of the Albums screen is Faces.  This allows you to tag the faces in your pictures, Facebook style.  To start, click on one of the detected faces at the bottom, and then type in a name.  Photos then shows you a group of pictures and asks you to confirm which ones are of the same person.  As you go, Photos also automatically adds faces that it’s (apparently) more sure about.  This is a cool way to organize photos, but, like smart albums, you won’t be able to view them on your iOS devices.  Another organization feature that has issues is geotagging.  Photos for Mac will let you see photo geotags, but you can’t add them manually.  This seems ridiculous, why should I have to use another app to do that?  The other thing that’s annoying is there’s no master photo map to see geotags; the only way (that I know of) to see a map is to go a photo’s moment and click the location there.  This then pulls up a map of the location.  You can zoom out in moments to see “collections” or “years” and then view a map of that group (which is much larger), but this still seems odd.  I feel like there should be a “Map” option from the albums screen.

Now I can finally get to the second tab at the top of Photos: Sharing.  iCloud Photo Sharing has been around for a few years now, and from what I can tell, it hasn’t been updated in a few either.  iCloud Photo Sharing has obviously been designed for a pre-iCloud Photo Library world.  Here’s how it works: when you share photos, they begin uploading into a shared album.  They stay there forever, and they don’t count against your iCloud storage.  Basically, they operate entirely separately from your iCloud Photo Library!  This really needs to be updated.  After going on that backpacking trip a few weeks ago, I wanted to share some photos.  However, even though they had already uploaded to my iCloud Photo Library, I had to wait for them to reupload to iCloud Photo Sharing!  This is ridiculous.  If I want to share files that are already in Dropbox, the process of creating a link is instantaneous.  Apple really needs to work on reconciling iCloud Photo Library and Photo Sharing to work better together.

The final tab of Photos for Mac is Projects, which allows you to create and order prints, photo books, cards, and other items, Shutterfly-style.  This is a neat feature, but I don’t see myself using it much.

The last thing I want to talk about is Windows support.  There is no Photos app for Windows, so you can only see your photos in a native app on iOS and OS X.  You can, however, view your photos in a browser on Windows by going to iCloud.com.  This works well enough, but it’s a little slow.  Also, you can’t view shared albums on Windows at all.  This is odd; it seems like allowing iCloud Photo Sharing on Windows would actually drive customers to the Mac.

I think that about wraps it up.  Photos for Mac is miles ahead of what I had before, and so far I’m super happy with it.  I hope that Apple will continue to improve both the app and iCloud Photo Library as time goes on.  Apple seems to be serious about wanting to be the home for your photos, and if they keep it up, I think they just might succeed.  ••

Photos Saga Part 1: iCloud Photo Library

The wait is over – Photos for Mac is here!  Ever since I found out at WWDC last summer that there would be a new Photos app for the Mac, I couldn’t wait for it.  I don’t have iPhoto, and I was trying (and failing) to find a reason to pay $15 for it (I didn’t get it free with my Mac because I bought the Mac used), so the idea of a free app got me excited.  I was also excited about the fact that Apple was going to pre-install it on every Mac with the OS X Yosemite update.  This put Photos for the Mac on a level plane with Photos for iOS, which made so much sense.  Unfortunately, we learned at WWDC that Photos for Mac wasn’t going to come until “early 2015.”  So basically, I’ve been waiting almost a year for this.

Photos for Mac is actually just a part of a bunch of new features centered around photos from Apple this past year.  It started with iCloud Photo Library, which launched in beta last fall with iOS 8.  I tried iCloud Photo Library briefly at the time, but it was a little buggy (it was a beta, after all), and it seemed kind of useless without a Mac app.  So I decided to wait, keeping my photos in Dropbox for the time being (see my posts on Carousel and Dropbox vs. Microsoft OneDrive).  Carousel is pretty good, but I hated having discrepancies between my main Carousel photo library and the photo library in the Photos app on iOS.  What I really wanted was photo cloud storage that tied into an official Apple Photos app, both on the Mac and iOS.

So when Photos launched earlier this month and iCloud Photo Library came out of beta, I was super excited.  I immediately got ready to move my photos to iCloud.  I have just under 8gb of space in Dropbox that I’ve earned over time.  I was using about 5.5gb for about 15 months’ worth of photos (I don’t keep the videos in Dropbox – since they’re all 1080p there just isn’t room, and I care more about the photos anyway).  In iCloud, you start with 5gb of storage, but I was already using about 2gb for device backups.  Fortunately, you can upgrade to 20gb of iCloud space for only $0.99/month.  The larger iCloud storage plans are priced way higher than Dropbox, but I really like this super-entry level tier.  It should give me plenty of space for a few years to come.

Having upgraded my plan, I went ahead and imported all my photos into the Photos app on the Mac.  As I said, I’d been curating my photos library in Dropbox, making sure everything was there, and not worrying as much about the photos stored locally on my iOS devices.  So basically, what I wanted to do was just import my single Camera Uploads folder in the Photos app.  To avoid duplicates, I first deleted all the photos off of my iPhone and iPad.  Then I copied my Camera Uploads folder (leaving the original intact for safekeeping) and imported it into the Photos app on my Mac.  I had just under 3000 photos in Dropbox, so it took a few minutes, but pretty soon everything had imported and I was ready to go.  Success!

After that, I had to let the photos upload to iCloud.  I left my computer on when I went to church that night (it was a Wednesday), and by the time I got home it was finished, so it took around 2-6 hours.  This brings me to an interesting point about iCloud storage.  On each device that’s signed into your iCloud Photo Library, you have two options.  One is “Download originals to this device,” the other is “Optimize device storage.”  The first option does exactly what it says: it keeps all photos, in full resolution, stored locally in that device’s memory.  The other option is more interesting.  It leaves most of the photos in the cloud, only downloading the recent ones and the ones you look at often.  When you’re scrolling through your library, you won’t notice anything unusual.  However, when you tap on a photo, you’ll see a blurry, low-res shot for a few seconds while the full-resolution one downloads.  This doesn’t take long, and it’s actually pretty seamless.

The point of this is to allow you to keep lots of photos in iCloud, while not eating up your device’s storage.  I really like this feature.  I have my Mac set to download originals (for safekeeping), but I just let my iOS devices pull their photos from the cloud.  So far, it’s been working really well.  There’s just one other implication that comes from this: iCloud Photo Library is all-or-nothing.  You can’t have some photos in your library that are synced to the cloud and some that aren’t; you either use iCloud Photo Library (and pay for however much space you need) or you don’t use it.

I’m going to stop here for this week, since this is already much longer than most of my (already long) posts.  I realize that I haven’t actually talked about the app itself yet, and I apologize, but I felt that this post was necessary first.  The Photos app really is meant to be used with iCloud Photo Library, and I thought that it was interesting enough to merit a whole post.  I’ll be back next week with Part 2 of this post, and I’ll have details on how the Mac app actually works.  Yes, next week should be an app review (though I guess Photos for Mac is technically an app), but I’ll push this month’s (mobile) app review out until the next week.  Stay tuned!  ••