A Week with Continuity

One of the biggest new sets of features unveiled by Apple last fall was called Continuity.  This set of features focused on making iOS devices and the Mac work better together.  In turn, the biggest part of Continuity was Handoff.  Handoff is a way to streamline workflows involving multiple devices.  Suppose you’re sitting in front of your Mac reading a web site, and you have to get up and do something.  It’d be nice if you could continue reading the website on your iPhone, but it’s such a pain to try to find that exact page again.  With Handoff, you can just swipe up on a little icon on your iPhone’s lock screen, and the webpage is automatically there.  This trick, which works over Bluetooth, also applies to many other apps, including Mail, Maps, and even third-party apps that have implemented the feature.  It sounds really useful, but until last week, I hadn’t really ever used it.

Oh sure, I tested it out when the feature first launched, but that was about it.  The biggest reason was probably that I was afraid leaving Bluetooth on (something  don’t usually do) would drain my battery.  Also, the feature was a tad buggy when it first came out.  However, I decided that it was only fair to test Handoff the way it was meant to be used, always on, in day-to-day life.  So last week, I flipped on all my Bluetooth switches and… didn’t do anything special.  I just used my devices like I normally did, waiting to see if use cases would pop up. Going into this experiment, I expected one of two things to happen.

The Good One
I was hoping to discover that Handoff was wildly useful.  That all of a sudden, my workflows would get easier and my switches between devices would be less painful.  I was hoping that I could actually switch devices more, since moving to the iPad would now be easier than just dealing with the tiny iPhone screen.  This was my best case scenario.

The Bad One
At worst, I thought maybe Handoff wouldn’t be useful at all.  Part of the reason I never turned it on before was because I couldn’t think of that many times when I’d use it.  I mean sure, I could think of a few, but would that justify the feature?  More importantly, would my battery life suffer from leaving my Bluetooth on?  This was actually what I was most afraid of: that my battery would drain and I wouldn’t even use the feature anyway.  This was my worst case scenario.

So what happened?  Actually… not much.  This surprised me.  One the one hand, I didn’t use the feature a whole lot.  On the other hand, my battery didn’t seem to drain any faster either (maybe a little bit, but not much at all).  I was expecting a more decisive conclusion, but I just didn’t get one.

So since I’m unsure whether it fits into my workflow, let’s ignore the fact that I didn’t use the feature much and just look at the feature itself.  When Handoff works, it’s downright magical.  Just this morning, I was working on my Mac when I needed to call a number in an email message.  I pulled up the email on my Mac, and a few taps later it was right there on my iPhone where I could tap the number to call it.  It worked really well.  On the other hand, there are times when Handoff is disappointing.  I was texting someone on my iPhone, and I wanted to send them a screenshot I had just taken on my iPad.  After a while, this screenshot would have synced over iCloud Photo Library, but that process isn’t instantaneous.  I opened up my iPad and was pleased to see the Messages app appear in the Handoff corner.  Yes!  I swiped up, but then was disappointed to see that, while it had taken me to the correct person in messages, it hadn’t transferred the text that I had already typed out on my iPhone.  Less than magical.

Honestly, then, I’m still on the fence as to whether I’m going to leave this feature on.  It’s really cool when it works, and maybe over time my workflow will adjust to implement this more often.  For the time being though, it’s sort of underwhelming.  On the other hand though, there aren’t really any downsides to leaving it on, so I guess I might as well.  I’m curious as to where this feature will go in the future.  Hopefully, both Apple and third-party developers will continue to implement and improve this feature in more apps.  Until then, however, I’m still a little unsure.  ••

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I Can’t Live Without Widgets

Hands-down my favorite iOS 8 feature is Notification Center widgets.  Android has had widgets on the home screen for a long time.  Before iOS 8, I had thought about widgets on the iPhone, but they hadn’t really made sense to me.  I didn’t like the idea of putting a widget on the home screen, it seemed to mess up the simplicity of just having apps there.  However, as soon as I saw widgets in the Today View of Notification Center, it made perfect sense.  In iOS 7, the today view was cool; it provided a good way to see information on weather, calendars, and reminders.  It made sense to split that off from the rest of Notification Center, but it never quite felt like it was enough information to fully justify a separate screen.  Now that we have third party widgets, the separate makes complete sense.  I love widgets and use them all the time.  So, without further ado, here are the widgets I have active in my Notification Center right now.


Reminders
The very first widget is reminders.  I, quite literally, plan my life around my iPhone’s reminders, and I wouldn’t accomplish anything without them.  I really don’t like how iOS 8 doesn’t show all your reminders in Notification Center (it limits them to four or five), but I still love being able to see (and check off) reminders from the lock screen.

myHomework
This is an app that I just started using this semester, and it works really well.  It’s a good way to keep track of assignments, quizzes, and questions I have for professors.  Yes, I could just use the Reminders app for this, but myHomework allows a little more granular control that’s designed specifically for homework assignments.  Best of all, it shows me everything I have due today right there in Notification Center.

Calendar
Simple and straightforward, the stock Calendar app in iOS does everything I need it to.  I don’t have the Today Summary activated in Notification Center, because it only shows your first event (not very helpful).

Yahoo Weather
I also don’t like the weather report in the Today Summary.  It’s too concise and doesn’t give much information.  The Yahoo Weather widget gives the current temperature, as well as today and tomorrow’s highs and lows.  I only wish they would remove the nice little picture and halve the widget’s size to save space.

WordPress
Another simple one, the WordPress widget shows how many hits and visitors I’ve gotten on this site each day.  The only problem is that after a few days, it doesn’t seem to refresh correctly, getting stuck on a certain number of hits.

Writing Aid
I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but the Writing Aid widget shows a new word and definition each day.  Nice for (telling myself that I’m) learning new vocabulary words.

Bible
The YouVersion Bible app is pretty much the gold standard; you can get almost any translation of the Bible absolutely free.  The Today View widget conveniently shows you the app’s verse of the day.  There are two buttons to launch the app: one goes to the verse of the day and the other to wherever you were last reading.

Evernote
I recently switched all my memos over to Evernote, and the widget is a really nice part of the Evernote app.  It has buttons to create a new text note and a new note from the camera, as well as a few other things.  It also shows your three most recently viewed notes (and not, importantly, your most recently edited notes).

Clips
Clips is a great clipboard management app.  Put something on your iOS clipboard, and you can swipe into Notification Center to add it to your list of clips.  Add multiple items, then just tap one again to put in back on the iOS clipboard, or paste it anywhere using the Clips keyboard (another great iOS 8 feature).

PCalc
Another must have, PCalc allows you to make quick calculations from right within Notification Center.  There’s even copy and paste buttons so it fits into your existing workflow.  You might think that it’s just as easy to launch the stock calculator app via control center, but you would be wrong.  PCalc quickly becomes an essential part of your device.

Tomorrow Summary
I mentioned that I don’t like the Today Summary, but the Tomorrow Summary is definitely helpful.  It’s pretty straightforward, it just tells you how many events you have for the next day, as well as telling you what time your alarm is set for.  I just wish it would also include the number of reminders scheduled for the next day.

I’ve arranged my widgets in a very specific order.  First are the apps that I look at constantly: Reminders and myHomework.  Next are the apps that I look at several times throughout the day: Calendar, Yahoo Weather, and WordPress.  After that come the apps that I look at once a day: Writing Aid and Bible.  The last group contains utility apps, the ones that offer functions (read: buttons) instead of just information: Evernote, Clips, and PCalc.  The groups I use most often are the first and last.  Why don’t I just put the utility widgets second?  I like being able to swipe rapidly to the top or bottom to get to what I need.  It feels to me like this is actually faster swiping to the top, then down just a bit.  These widgets make my day easier and allow me to get things done faster.  Have I missed anything?  Let me know your essential widgets in the comments or on Twitter @NickFoster56.  ••

First Thoughts on iOS 8

A few months ago, when iOS 8 was first announced at WWDC, I wrote about a couple iOS 8 features that I was really excited about.  iOS 8 finally came out last Wednesday, and so far I’m pretty impressed.  iOS 8 certainly isn’t anywhere near as ground-breaking as iOS 7 was, and it does have its share of new bugs.  Still, I think iOS 8 is really cool.  Now that it’s officially released, I thought I’d write about how those features I wanted actually work in practice.

1.  Actionable Notifications
In iOS 7, if you got a banner notification at the top of the screen, you could tap it to see the text message, email, or whatever it was.  However, that would switch you into the messages app, and after you replied you would have to switch back to whatever app you were using before you got the text.  With iOS 8, you can swipe down on a notification to get actions for it.  This means a reply screen for a text message, and “Mark as Read” and “Trash” buttons for emails.  This is really useful, and I’m looking forward to seeing what third-party developers will do with this new feature.


2.  Hands-Free Siri
This feature works more or less exactly as promised, though you’ll have to first enable it in Settings -> General -> Siri.  When your iOS device is plugged in, you can say “Hey Siri” to activate it.  You can then tell Siri to play music, text someone, or set a reminder.  There was also a little extra thought put into this feature that makes it really useful.  Normally, when you tell Siri to set a reminder, it says “Here’s your reminder” out loud but doesn’t actually say the text of the reminder out loud.  This was fine before, because you had to be holding your device to use Siri in the first place.  When using hands-free Siri, however, Siri will read the text of the reminder out loud to you.  This little bit of extra thought puts Siri’s new usefulness over the top.

3.  Continuity
The main part of continuity I want to talk about here is a new feature called Handoff.  With Handoff, all your devices are aware of what you’re doing nearby on your other devices.  If you’re looking at a website, typing an email, or looking up directions, Handoff broadcasts your activity to your other devices via Bluetooth.  If you, say, start writing an email on your iPhone, then realize you’d rather use the keyboard on your Mac, you simply walk over to your Mac, click the Mail Handoff icon on the dock, and your draft is magically transferred.  Handoff won’t work on the Mac until OS X Yosemite is released next month, but for now I tested it between my two iOS 8 devices.  I started an email on my iPod, then picked up my iPad, and a mail icon appeared both on the lock screen and in the multitasking menu.  Swiping up on the lock screen icon or tapping the page in the multitasking menu brought the draft up on the iPad.  Pretty neat!


The final feature I mentioned last summer was the possibility that the iPad could run two apps at the same time, side by side.  This was never announced by Apple as a feature, but someone digging through the iOS 8 beta found the code required to do it.  There’s been no mention of this feature in iOS 8 so far, but it’s possible that Apple will release an iOS 8.1 later on, maybe after the new iPad models come out next month.  If this becomes a feature, the iPad’s usefulness, especially as a productivity tool, will go through the roof, and I know there are many people who will be very, very happy about that.  ••

Special Edition: Follow Up for the Apple Event

Today at 10am Pacific time (1pm Eastern), Apple had its September Event.  I watched the two-hour event live (after the stream quit glitching).  We saw a lot of cool stuff, most of which did line up with my predictions.  Here’s the full rundown on what actually happened.

iPhone
We did see new iPhones at this event.  I was correct that there was a 4.7″ iPhone 6, as well as a 5.5″ iPhone 6 Plus.  There was not, however, a 4″ model, which surprised me.  Apple will continue to sell the 4″ iPhone 5s and 5c as the $99 and Free models (with a 2-year contract), respectively.  I was also correct that there was not an iPhone 6c.  The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus will be available for pre-order September 12, and for purchase September 19th.

iOS 8
iOS 8 was officially launched at the event, and will be available September 17th.

iPad
I was correct that there were no new iPad models at this event.

Mac
There were no new Mac models or software launched at this event.

Apple Watch
Apple announced a new smart watch at this event, the Apple Watch.  There are three models: the Apple Watch, the Apple Watch Sport (a more durable model), and the Apple Watch Edition (an 18-karat gold model).  Each will come in large and small sizes.  The watch will link to your iPhone, showing your emails, messages, maps, music, as well as fitness data (a major focus of the Apple watch).  There is a completely new user interface, centering around a dial on the side of the watch, called the “crown.”  It reminds me of the old iPod click wheel.  The Apple Watch requires an iPhone 5, 5c, 5s, 6, or 6 Plus in order to be used.  The Apple Watch will be released in early 2015, and will start at $349.

Apple TV
As I guessed, there was nothing about the Apple TV at this event.

Beats
There was no big announcement concerning Beats, though they did pretend to buy Beats headphones in their demo of Apple Pay.

iPod
There were no new iPod models at the event.  I think the iPod’s days are seriously numbered.

The Death of 16gb
I didn’t quite get my wish, but I think I’ll get it next year.  The iPhone 6 comes in a $199 16gb model, but the $299 model is 64gb, and there’s an all-new 128gb model for $399 (add another $100 for the iPhone 6 Plus).  My guess is that next year there will be no 16gb model.

Apple Pay
This is going to be really cool.  You know those credit card scanners that you just wave your card in front of?  Now you can do that with your iPhone 6, 6 Plus, or Apple Watch (through near-field communication, or NFC).  Security was a big deal here, and Apple really went the extra mile (or several) to make sure nothing bad can happen.  All the credit card data is stored in the same secure enclave of your iPhone as your Touch ID fingerprint data is.  That brings us to Touch ID, which will be the way you access Apple Pay.  Finally, third-party apps (such as Target) can integrate with Apple Pay, allowing you to use that information instead of typing in credit card and billing info for each individual app.

U2
Apple closed the event by talking about their love for music, throwing in a plug for the iTunes Festival happening right now in London.  They then brought the band U2 on stage, who performed their new single live.  Apple CEO Tim Cook then had some playful negotiating with the band, eventually “deciding” to give the band’s new album for free to all 500 million iTunes members.

So, needless to say, Apple has been very busy during the last few months.  I’m really excited to see all these new devices in action, and I’m even more excited to get my hands on iOS 8.  You can be sure I’ll have a post detailing that when it releases, and I might also do some posts detailing other products individually.  If you’re interested, you can watch the whole event on Apple’s website.  Be sure to share this post with the buttons below so all your friends know that you’re up to date on the latest tech!

Predictions for Apple’s September 9th Event

I’m guessing you’ve heard by now, but Apple is having a huge event this Tuesday.  It is widely believed that Apple will release the iPhone 6, but what else does Apple have up its proverbial sleeve?  Here are my predictions.  Be sure to check back here Tuesday for a special follow-up post detailing what I did and didn’t get correct, as well as any other surprises I might have missed.

iPhone
It’s expected that the iPhone 6 will be announced at this event (though it probably won’t actually become available for purchase for another 7-10 days).  But perhaps a better term to use here would be iPhone 6es.  It is widely rumored that we will be seeing multiple, different-sized models of Apple’s popular smartphone.  The most recent models (5, 5c, and 5s) have all have a screen measuring 4″ diagonally.  I expect a 4″ iPhone 6, in addition to a 4.7″ model.  The other number floating around the internet is 5.5″, which does sounds awfully big.  I’m not sure how this one is going to play out, buy my guess is that the 5.5″ model is going to happen.  As for the “-c” product line, I don’t think we’re ever going to see that again.  My prediction is that Apple will simply continue to sell the iPhone 5s as a cheaper option.

iOS 8
After seeing it announced last June at WWDC, I definitely think iOS 8 is going to launch at this event.  Like the iPhone, it probably won’t go live until a week or so later, but I’m pretty sure we’ll get an official date Tuesday.

iPad
If Apple’s behavior last year is any indication, I don’t think we’ll see any new iPads at this event.  Assuming that they’re sticking to a pattern here, there will be another event in October, at which we will see new iPads.

Mac
Like the iPad, I don’t think we’re going to see any new Mac software or hardware at this event.  Most likely, we will see the release of OS X Yosemite, as well as some slightly improved Mac hardware, at another event later this fall.

iWatch/iBand
This one is tricky.  It’s been rumored for quite some time now that Apple will be entering the wearables market.  What’s unclear is whether the device will be a Pebble-style smartwatch, or a Fitbit-style activity tracker (or, most likely, some of both).  Given Apple’s new Health app that will be pre-installed in iOS 8, it’s not a crazy thought to think that this device could have a large health focus.  What’s odd is that we have seen zero hardware leaks for this device.  None.  This is really, really unusual – especially compared to the wealth of iPhone 6 hardware leaks.  Either Apple has seriously cracked down on secrecy or… the iWatch may be coming later, or not at all.  Even still, I’m going to say yes to this one.  I think the iWatch is finally going to be announced, though it’s possible it won’t ship for another couple months.

Apple TV
I’ve talked before about how awesome the Apple TV could be (thought it’s still pretty great as it is), but I don’t think we’re going to see anything about it at this event.  I’m hoping that there will be a major Apple TV update at an October Apple event, but I think doing something drastic now could steal the iWatch’s thunder.

Beats
After Apple’s purchase of Beats by Dr. Dre, everyone is expecting Apple to do something big with Beats (or something at all, really), potentially in the streaming music market.  That being said, I don’t think we’re going to see anything significant about Beats at this event, or even this year.  I do hope Apple makes a new bid into the streaming music business, but I think it’s going to take them a while to work that out fully.

iPod
Sadly, I think the iPod’s days are over.  Based on Apple’s current time frame, we ought to be due for new models this year (we got them in 2012 and 2010), but I don’t think it’s going to happen.  Granted, I think Apple is going to continue selling the iPod, but I think we have seen the last of new iPod models.  If, however, I am wrong, and we do see new models, I really, really, doubt we’ll see them again in another two years.

The Death of 16gb
This is really just a vain fancy of mine, but I hope the iPhone 6 doesn’t come in 16gb models.  16gb is feeling increasingly small, and I think it’s time for the $200 iPhone to come with 32gb of space.  Let it go, Apple.

The Great Unknown
The best part about this event is that, even though I’m pretty confident about much of what’s written above, there could be something entirely new and amazing that I have no idea about.  It’s all up in the air right now.  Be sure to come back here Tuesday for my follow up post to hear exactly what happened.  Better yet, why not subscribe so the post comes directly to your inbox?  That way, you can be the cool person around the water cooler (or on Facebook, there’s plenty of share buttons below) – the one who already knows all about that mythical iPhone 6 that everyone’s been talking about.  ••

My Wishlist for the Apple TV

My family owns two Apple TVs.  The Apple TV is a $99 set top streaming box that connects to your TV.  It can display content from iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and so forth.  There’s also a great feature called AirPlay, which allows you to stream from your iPhone, iPad, or Mac directly to the TV (this is basically the only feature my family uses).  All things considered, it’s a great piece of hardware.  But it could be so much more.  Steve Jobs once famously said that the Apple TV was just a hobby for Apple (since the market wasn’t quite ready for it).  Times have changed, however, and Tim Cook has said that the Apple TV isn’t just a hobby anymore.  There are lots of people hoping for big improvements to the Apple TV this fall, so here’s my list of features I’m hoping for.

1.  Third-Party Channels
Right now the Apple TV has different “channels,” which are very similar to apps.  For example, there’s a Music channel, a Movies channel, a Netflix channel, and the list goes on.  However, the only way for a company (such as Netflix) to get an channel is to work directly with Apple.  There is no SDK (software development kit) for developers to make channels on their own, and no store to download channels from.  In order for the Apple TV to really hit it big, this SDK and store need to happen.  For example, there is no Amazon Prime Instant Video channel on the Apple TV.  Therefore, we have to AirPlay from the Instant Video iPad app in order to use the service.  This works well enough, but it’s hardly ideal.  Opening up an SDK would also open up a whole new world of innovation.  Allowing developers to think outside the set top box could result in some really cool things, such as Apple TV games that use your iPhone as the controller (to be fair, some iPhone apps can already do this, but I’m sure it would work better if the Apple TV was more heavily involved).  Unfortunately, I don’t think this feature is going to happen this year.  If Apple intended to release an Apple TV SDK, they would almost certainly have to do so before the hardware was launched, so that there would be good channels available on the store the day it hit the market.  The perfect time to do this would have been at WWDC.  Since we didn’t see an SDK at WWDC, I don’t think we will actually see third-party channels this fall.

2.  A Real Cable Deal
My family has Dish Network.  Generally speaking, we’re happy with it, but there are a ton of channels we never watch.  As the Macworld Podcast’s Chris Breen noted, it would be awesome if Apple could partner with, say, Comcast, and have an Apple TV exclusive cable package.  This package would be relatively small, having only the most popular 30 or 40 channels (Discovery, History, AMC, etc.), but it would also be relatively inexpensive.  The key feature that really sets this apart from Netflix, however, is that it would also include locals channels – which of course includes local sports.  Live sports are arguably the biggest thing holding many people back from ditching cable entirely in lieu of Netflix.  I think my family would seriously consider switching to this Apple TV package.

3.  Supersized Today View
In iOS 7, there’s this really cool feature of notification center called the Today View.  Basically, it shows you your calendar, reminders, stocks, and the weather.  Even better, in iOS 8, third-party app developers will be able to create Today View widgets, to give you even more info (like sports scores).  Since the Apple TV is connected to a large screen, I think it has huge potential for this kind of glanceable information.  What I’m thinking of is a huge dashboard that you can look at first thing in the morning.  Instead of waking up and having to check four different apps to see how your day is going to pan out, you could just see one big screen on your Apple TV.  This would be similar to what morning shows do on The Weather Channel.  They have their main show playing in the majority of the screen, but there’s other stuff on there as well.  At the bottom is a news ticker; on the sidebar, a brief weather summary and flight delay information.  I would love to wake up and turn on the TV to see this dashboard.  I want a breaking news ticker on the bottom, and weather and traffic on the sides.  In the middle could be lots of boxes scrolling my texts, emails, Twitter feed, and so on.

And finally, I hope as much of this as possible will happen through software updates, and not hardware updates.  As cool as these features would be, I find it hard to believe my family would spend $200 to replace the two Apple TVs we already have.  Especially when most of us would probably benefit from watching less TV in the first place.  ••

How Family Sharing Will Ease Your iOS Lifestyle

Everyone in my family owns at least one iOS device (most own two).  In order to keep us from having to buy the same apps and songs multiple times, we all share an Apple ID (the account used to purchase things from the iTunes and App Stores).  This has its benefits.  For example, if someone in my family recommends an app to me, I go and look it up on the app store.  The app shows up as “already purchased” in our account (because it is, just not by me), and this makes it easier to find, since I know someone else has downloaded it.  However, there can also be downsides to sharing an account.  I’m the only one in my family that uses iCloud to sync my calendar and reminders.  This is fortunate, since anyone else who wanted their reminders to sync would have theirs dumped in with mine (a less than ideal situation).  Fortunately, iOS 8 may offer a solution.

iOS 8 will include a new feature called “Family Sharing.”  This isn’t a way to separate one Apple ID into multiple users, rather it’s a way to link multiple Apple IDs into one group.  Basically, the idea is that each person has their own Apple ID.  This is used both for purchasing and for other things such as iCloud.  However, when multiple Apple IDs are in a Family Sharing group, anyone can download anything purchased by any other person in the group, without paying for it again (as long as you’re using the same credit card across accounts).  I’m not sure my family will actually use this feature, since as I’ve said, I’m the only one who uses iCloud, so as it is, we don’t have much of a problem.  However, I know people who do have separate Apple IDs, and they have to pay for apps more than once if more than one person wants to use them.

Unfortunately, Family Sharing does not actually allow you to have multiple users on one iOS device.  As TechHive.com put it (in this article), “Apple still seems content with assuming that ‘multiple users’ means ‘one iOS device per person.’”  Like a lot of much-clamored-for iOS features, I don’t think multiple users makes sense at all on the iPhone.  However, this would be a great feature for iPads.  It’s sort of a shame Apple isn’t adding this.

On the whole, however, I think family sharing is a great idea.  As Apple themselves put it (as the iOS 7.1 tagline), “The most advanced mobile OS keeps advancing.”  I for one am very excited for iOS 8, and I’m happy that Apple continues to understand (most) of the wants and needs of their customers.  ••