iOS 9 is Here!

Last Wednesday was the official release of iOS 9.  After updating a day late, I’m really liking the new version.  There’s lots to talk about, but I’m going to highlight my two favorite features: the improved Spotlight search and iPad Multitasking.

Spotlight
Spotlight has been moved to a new-old home, to the left of the first home screen.  This is where it was before iOS 7 (interestingly enough, however, you can still access Spotlight by pulling down from any home screen, but you won’t get as many suggestions).  Right at the top of the new Spotlight are “Siri Suggestions” – contacts and apps that iOS thinks you may want to use right now.  So far, they just seem to be recents, but Apple has said that these will slowly tailor based on your usage.  Check Twitter and Facebook every morning?  Those apps will show up at that time.  Under that is “Nearby” – a group of buttons for finding restaurants, gas stations, and the like.  These too will change based on whether it’s breakfast or dinner time.  Finally, underneath that are a few top stories from the News app, which makes its iOS 9 debut.  What’s cool is that you get all this information by just swiping into the Spotlight screen.  If you actually start to search, you’ll see similar results to what you’d have seen in previous versions of iOS.  Except for one major thing: you can now search the content in third-party apps right from Spotlight.  Dropbox, among others, has already added support for this feature, and I think it’s going to be super useful.

iPad Multitasking
Unfortunately, iPad multitasking is a little fragmented.  Let me break it down.  The iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 4, and the iPad Pro (so the newest model of each size), can truly run two apps at the same time.  This can be done either with both apps taking up half the screen or with more of a 3/4 split.  So that’s great, but I have an iPad Mini 2.  Well the iPad Mini 2, 3, and 4; the iPad Air 1 and 2; and the iPad Pro can also do what’s called “slide over.”  This is where one app keeps running in the background, and an iPhone-width app slides over it on the right hand side, taking up about 1/4 of the screen.  Like this:


This is useful, but so far not many apps have been updated for it (disappointingly, not even all of Apple’s apps support it.  Why doesn’t Music?).  Hopefully this will get better though.  The final feature of multitasking, which comes to the same models that get slide over, is picture in picture.  This is available both for video apps like Netflix and things like FaceTime, so that’s really cool.

The last thing I want to talk about is performance and battery.  I mentioned in my WWDC post that iOS 9 is available for all phones that got iOS 8.  I was hoping that this, coupled with the fact that Apple trumpeted iOS 9 as improving performance, would mean that iOS 9 wouldn’t slow my phone down.  So far, my phone has been about the same (hooray!), but my iPad is definitely slower (this makes no sense, they’re the same model year).  Still, this is better than the usual performance hit we’ve gotten used it.  So far, battery doesn’t seem to have taken a hit either.  I’ve yet to try out the new Low Power Mode, but I think that’s a good idea too.  All in all, I like iOS 9, and I hope developers continue to add support for all the cool new features.  ••

The Back to School Dilemma

This past week was my first week of real college.  I dual enrolled last year, meaning I had a few college classes and a few high school classes, but this year I’m an honest-to-goodness full-time freshman.  I’m excited.  Having dual enrolled, I already know what to expect, where everything is on campus, and all that stuff that makes freshmen nervous.  This semester’s going great so far.

Last spring, I wrote several different pieces on using my iPad instead of my laptop at school.  Last fall semester, we did lots of in-class writing in English, so I always brought my laptop.  But spring semester wasn’t like that, and so I opted for an iPad and a bluetooth keyboard instead of my heavier, less convenient laptop.  I really liked this setup last year; it worked well for me.  This semester is different, however, and I’m faced with a bit of a dilemma: do I bring my laptop every day, or my iPad?

I had originally planned for sure to bring the iPad.  I don’t have an English class at all this semester, so the only writing I’d be doing is this blog, which I did on the iPad no problem before.  However, the first day of class made it apparent there’d have to be exceptions to this rule.  My communications class tests will take place online, but will be proctored in person.  This means I have to bring my computer and take the test on it in class.  The teacher said you could bring a computer or a tablet, but I’m definitely opting for the computer.  Using the web on a tablet is great, but sometimes it gets a little wonky, and that’s not what I want during a test.

So no big deal, just bring the laptop on the days that I have communications tests.  It seemed like the rest of the semester I could just use the iPad.  Then I got to my Intro to Electrical Engineering class.  This class was going to have pop quizzes.  I don’t know whether they’ll be online, but if they are, I’ll have to bring the laptop to that class for sure.  Also, looking at the syllabus, it looks like we’ll be doing quite a bit of computer aided design and other stuff like that, so I’ll have to have the laptop there too.  (At first I was worried that whatever software we need wouldn’t work on my Mac.  Fortunately, it turns out that the professor used to work at Apple and is an even bigger Machead than I am, so I’m sure we can work something out.)

So it looks like I’ll have to bring my laptop on Mondays and Wednesdays, if only for the EE class and the occasional communications test.  Tuesdays and Thursdays I only have history class, and Friday I only have calculus class, so I can definitely get away with the iPad those days.  In fact, I may not need to bring anything at all.  I probably will, though, just in case.  I’d hate to be stuck at school and need to do something that really needs a computer, but all I have is my iPhone.  I’ve had to do that before; it’s not a pretty sight.  ••

A Brief History of iMessage

Six months ago I didn’t have iMessage.  Sure, I had it on my iPod Touch, but I only ever used it a couple times to send photos.  Most of the time, I was using regular SMS texting on my old phone.  But then that changed when I got an iPhone last January.  Suddenly, I was exposed to the world of iMessage.  What is iMessage?  Basically, it’s Apple’s replacement for SMS.  It only works from one Apple device to another, but when it does work, it’s dramatically better.  Even more genius, Apple has managed to make sure that just about every iPhone owner uses iMessage.  So how did iMessage evolve in just four short years?  Let’s look at its history.

2011, iOS 5
iMessage was first announced at WWDC 2011, and right from the start it contained all the core features it needed to be a success.  The most important part of iMessage, in my opinion, is the way it handles picture messages.  SMS takes forever to send a picture, and then it’s a scaled down version.  iMessage sends pictures way faster, and at full resolution.  It even includes all the original metadata (date, location, etc.).  This is great.  Even regular texts send faster over iMessage.  It’s able to do this because it works over the internet (WiFi and 4G) instead of on regular phone service.  Because of this, it just works better than SMS.  Even at this early stage, iMessage also included the ability to send locations and contacts, as well as read receipts (the option to tell someone that you’ve seen their message).  So from the start, Apple created iMessage to be good.  But then they went in for the kill.  Using iMessage would be completely automatic and take place in the same app as SMS.  This meant that users would have to do essentially nothing to start using this service.  After that, their iPhone would automatically determine whether or not the recipient of a text had iMessage.  If they did, it would send an iMessage (colored blue).  If not, it would send a regular SMS (colored green).  There was nothing the user had to do.  This was genius.  Any other messaging app would have to force people to download it, then remember which app to use for each person they text.  But Apple got around that.

2012, iOS 6
The most important iMessage feature to come to iOS 6 focused on the iPad.  From the start, your iPhone could send iMessages from either your phone number or the email address for your Apple ID.  However, your iPad could only use the email address (“because it’s not a phone,” was the original argument I guess).  However, that all changed with iOS 6.  Now, you could receive iMessages sent to your phone number on any device.  This, like the bundling of iMessage into the existing Text app, reduced the friction and effort required of users to almost zero.  Good move, Apple.

2013, iOS 7
iOS 7 didn’t bring many feature updates to iMessage, it mostly focused on the look at feel of the Messages app.  There were, however, a few new features to make it easier to view sent images or the contact information of the person you’re talking to.  However, like much of iOS 7, the Messages app mostly just got a visual facelift.

2014, iOS 8
iOS 8, on the other hand, added lots of new features to iMessage.  Most of them focused on group messaging.  iMessage has always supported group messaging, but it hadn’t gotten much special attention until now.  iOS 8 allows you to rename, mute, or leave group messages, to make sure you don’t get stuck receiving dozens of notifications from a group you don’t care about.  This is really helpful.  As someone who spends a lot of time in group messages, these improvement are all more than welcome.  iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite also gave the Messages app new abilities regarding, ironically, SMS text messages.  With these updates, you can now send SMS messages from your iPad and Mac, as long as your iPhone is on.  This can be a little buggy, but it is nice whenever I have to text a green bubble friend from my computer.

2015, iOS 9
According to Apple’s iOS 9 Preview page, there aren’t any earth shattering new features coming to iMessage this fall.  However, there could be plenty that we don’t know about yet.  Perhaps the coolest thing we know about as of now involves improvements to Siri.  In iOS 9, if you’re looking at an email, webpage, or iMessage, you can say, “Hey Siri, remind me about this when I get home.”  Siri will then create a reminder for what you’re seeing on screen.  The entire reminder is essentially a link; clicking on it takes you back to what you were looking at before.  Definitely useful!

So as you can see, iMessage is actually pretty complicated (especially for something that’s so simple to use).  The smartest thing Apple did with iMessage, though, isn’t in the list above.  Apple made iMessage exclusionary.  Now that I’m used to iMessage, regular SMS feels archaic and obnoxious.  I have no idea if my Android friends got my messages, I can’t send them photos easily, and you can just forget about sending videos.  I’ve heard more than one person I know say that they don’t want to switch to Android because they’ll miss out on iMessage.  That’s the kind of feature that Apple does best: one that’s so good that you’d never leave their ecosystem because of it.  ••

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.  ••

WWDC 2015 Recap

In case you missed it, last week was Apple’s annual World Wide Developers Conference.  The highlight of the week was the main keynote, which took place Monday morning.  Unfortunately, I had to work during the keynote, but I watched most of it later in the week.  There were four main topics in the keynote: OS X, iOS, watchOS, and Apple Music.

OS X
First up was the latest version of the Mac operating system.  Named El Capitan (for a landmark in Yosemite national park), Apple said that this update would focus on “Experience” and “Performance.”  Basically, what this means is that it’s a relatively minor update, one that will focus more on bug fixes and small features than large ones.  I think this is good; it’s a welcome rest from the breakneck update pace we’ve seen – and suffered from – over the past few years.

iOS
Next up (as to be expected) was iOS 9 – to be available this fall.  There’s a couple key parts to this update.  First are some features focusing on “intelligence.”  These includes improvements to Siri, but also a brand new Spotlight search function.  This replaces the current search in iOS, but also tries to proactively serve you apps and information it thinks you might need right then: everything from the apps you use each morning to news stories relevant to your location.  The next huge feature focuses on the iPad.  The iPad is finally getting a split screen view – the ability to run two apps at once.  This is huge, but unfortunately it’s not available on all iPad models.  iPads from the previous two years can run one app full screen and have another app at iPhone width “slide over” from the side.  The iPad Air 2 can also run two apps simultaneously that each take up half the screen.  Hopefully this will greatly improve productivity on the iPad.  There were two more quick things that are important.  First, iOS 9 will only take 1.3gb to download, instead of last year’s ridiculous 4.6gb.  The final thing wasn’t even mentioned in the keynote, but I think it’s super important: iOS 9 will be available to all devices that have iOS 8.  Normally, Apple drops one old model each year; I’m hoping this change means that iOS 9 won’t slow down older devices as much.

watchOS
Apple also unveiled the latest version of the Apple Watch software: watchOS 2.  This version will allow developers to create native apps that run on the Watch.  Previously, developers could only create apps that technically “ran” on the iPhone and projected their interfaces to the Watch.  This was a cumbersome, temporary arrangement, one which meant that all third-party apps were pretty slow.  Apple is finally giving developers what they were promised last year.

Apple Music
The last part of the keynote was dedicated to Apple’s new music streaming service: Apple Music.  This service will replace both iTunes Radio and Beats Music.  For $9.99/month, you get unlimited streaming of everything Apple Music has, including many playlists handmade by music experts, not algorithms.  This was one of Beats Music’s key selling points, and Apple is making sure that it doesn’t go away.  The second part of Apple Music is an enormous, worldwide radio station called Beats 1.  This is set up like a traditional radio station, with DJs and interviews as well as music.  It will be broadcast from three studios worldwide (in LA, New York, and London).  I’m actually kind of excited to try Beats 1; it sounds intriguing.  The final part of Apple Music is called Connect.  This is almost like a social network for music artists.  Connect allows artists to post photos, videos, lyrics, and even demos directly to Apple Music.  Fans can follow artists to get access to this bonus content.  Apple seems convinced that this is the next big way for people to follow their favorite artists, but I’m not sure that people will adopt it in place of Twitter, Instagram, and the like.

So as you can see, Apple had a lot to talk about last week.  They released updates to their big three operating systems, and also unveiled their new attempt in the music streaming industry.  Unfortunately, there were no updates to the Apple TV, but I’d still say we still got plenty of cool new stuff.  I guess we’ll just have to hope again for a new Apple TV next year.  ••

June App Review: WordPress

App: WordPress
Developer: Automattic
Price: Free
Platforms: iOS, Android

Awhile back I wrote about how I used the WordPress app on my iPad to write posts at SPSU.  However, the WordPress app is useful for other things too.  Because of this, I decided to go ahead and give it a full write up.  I’m going to focus on the iPad here (because it’s better both for writing and reading), although just about everything I’ll mention also applies to the iPhone.


I’m going to split this review into three sections – one for each of the main things I do with the WordPress app.  The first is writing posts.  I haven’t been using this much lately, as I’m currently on summer break, but I intend to go back to writing posts on my iPad at school when the fall semester starts.  Writing in the WordPress app is pretty simple, as it should be.  The main writing screen (see image 1) is mostly dedicated to just that: writing.  There’s a few rich-text options at the bottom, nothing too fancy but nevertheless a solid set of tools.  I was most impressed that the WordPress app also had plenty of support for adding extra metadata to posts (see image 2).  Categories, tags, an even a featured image can easily be added.  The WordPress app also has good support for unpublished drafts.  This is imperative for me since I write posts in advance and then spend a few days editing them.  The app’s writer doesn’t have every feature WordPress.com has – for example, I can add images to a post, but not an image gallery – but it has enough that I can write the majority of a post on the iPad and then tidy it up the next day when I get on the computer.

The second part of the WordPress app that I use is the reader.  This (obviously) allows me to follow other people’s blogs.  Of course I can follow other WordPress blogs, but the WordPress app is also an RSS reader, so I can add pretty much any other blog I want.  I was using IFTTT to send my RSS subscriptions to Pocket (see this recipe), but recently I’ve been exploring WordPress more and I liked the convenience of following blogs with one click.  We’ll see what I end up using in the long term.

The last part of the app I want to talk about is notifications.  I get push notifications every time someone follows this blog, comments on a post, replies to a comment I posted somewhere else, and so on.  This is nice because it makes it easy to stay up to date about what’s happening here.  WordPress notifications work well, and they’ve also done an excellent job managing notifications across multiple devices.  With many apps I can only look at notifications on my iPhone because otherwise I’ll get tons of duplicates.  I’m actually less concerned about multiple devices ringing at once; the big problem is that after I’ve dealt with a notification on one device it’s still there on another.  However, WordPress avoids this problem.  If you get a push notification on one device, but then look at it on another, the first device’s push notification automatically clears.  This retroactive notification clearing is something every app should have.  The only other apps I know of that do this are iOS Mail, iMessage, and Twitter.  These are all super-high level apps (two of them preloaded, system apps), and it’s impressive that WordPress is in the same plane in this regard.

So as you can see, the WordPress app is a pretty good jack of all trades.  It’s not perfect, but right now it’s doing a great job of helping me keep up with this site and the greater WordPress community.  The WordPress app is definitely one of my iPad’s indispensable apps, and I hope WordPress continues improving it in the future.  ••

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!  ••