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.  ••

Why the iPod Touch Continues to Make Apple Money

♦ This post is one of the Best of 2015 ♦


Ah, the iPod Touch.  I remember how badly I wanted one in middle school, and how excited I was when I got one in 7th grade.  Back in those days, the iPod Touch was about the coolest gadget a kid could have.  Nowadays, though, it seems like every kid over 10 has an iPhone.  However, the iPod Touch continues to pay off in spades for Apple.  Why?  Indoctrination.

What does indoctrination have to do with the iPod Touch?  Easy.  Apple marketed the iPod Touch as something for kids, and parents bought it (literally).  Honestly, it was a good device for kids: it allowed them to do most things that an iPhone could do for around $200 flat.  Not super cheap up front, but there were no expensive monthly bills to deal with.  Kid friendly?  You bet.

After that, however, is when things got interesting: all those kids grew up.  They grew up and, like their parents, wanted smartphones.  And what kind of smartphones do you think these kids wanted?  iPhones of course!  Having already been indoctrinated into Apple’s ecosystem – the apps, iMessage, Game Center, and so on – they didn’t want to leave.  Apple continues to see these benefits to this day.  Most of my friends in high school and college used to have iPod Touches, but now they have iPhones.  The iPhone is well established as the gold standard; almost everyone agrees it’s simply the best you can get.  Sure, Android still has a substantial presence, but the iPhone remains in the lead.

What allowed Apple to completely take over this market?  I think it’s in part because of Apple’s previous dominance with the iPod in general.  And with the iTunes Store.  They had already set themselves up as the go-to for media players; it was only a natural jump to a touch screen.  More than anything though, Apple won this market because they tried.  It’s not like Android couldn’t have done anything about it.  Android phone manufacturers simply didn’t see the value in creating touch screen media players.  They did exist; I remember reading about a couple of them.  However, they never got off the ground the way the iPod Touch did, mostly because they were never pushed very hard.

Maybe Android didn’t see the long-term value in the market.  Actually, I don’t know for sure if Apple did either; maybe to them it was just a good product in the short-term.  But whatever the reason, Apple invested a lot into the iPod touch from around 2007-2012.  However, that has begun to change.

As I’ve said, I see fewer and fewer iPod Touches these days.  More and more I just see iPhones, being held in increasingly smaller hands.  And since we didn’t see an iPod revision last fall (which would have been on par with the previous two-year update cycle), it would seem that the iPod Touch has just about breathed its last.  But it had a good run.  In fact, it had a great run; one that put the next member of the relay team – the iPhone – a few extra strides further ahead of the competition.  ••

The S-Cycle for Software

Have Apple software updates seemed a bit… rushed lately?  With both iOS and Mac OS X on yearly release cycles, we seem to be getting more quirks and bugs than I’d like.  When this topic is brought up, the solution always seems to be to just do big software releases every two years, or do small pieces throughout the year, instead of having a monolithic update every 12 months.  However, I suggest that Apple’s software team do what their hardware team does: use the s-cycle.

What is the s-cycle?  The s-cycle is the way Apple releases their iPhones.  For example, the iPhone 4 (2010), then the iPhone 4s (2011), then the iPhone 5 (2012), then the iPhone 5s (2013), and so on.  People say, “Well the software team needs to get it together, because the hardware team releases a new iPhone every year with no problems.”  But they really don’t.  They really only release a totally new iPhone every two years, and then release a small update the years in between.  This is the s-cycle.

And it seems to work great.  People still get excited about the -s models, and it’s less demanding on the hardware team, which allows them to make something truly great every two years.  I think that this is what Apple should do with iOS and OS X.

Let’s focus on iOS here.  Suppose that only every other version of iOS had big changes.  The other years would just include some minor updates, and maybe one new headline feature.  But instead of making the -s year the same for the iPhone and iOS (because those years would be a little boring), maybe they could alternate.  That would mean that this fall, we’d get the iPhone 6s (a minor update), and iOS 9 (a big update).  Then next year, we’d get the iPhone 7 (a big update) and iOS 9s (a minor update).  iOS 9s could just include the new features required by the new iPhone hardware, things like Touch ID and Apple Pay, but not much else.  This would allow the software team to slow down a bit, pay more attention to quality control, and make the features they do add really count.

The main problem I see with this alternation is that it’d be sort of confusing.  Because of this, maybe it’s better to just keep calling it iOS 9, 10, 11, etc., but then apply the principle of the s-cycle.  (Another thing: say “iOS 9s” out loud.  Exactly.)  The last thing you want to do to your customers is confuse them – confusion kills excitement.

And that excitement is why Apple should continue to do something every year, instead of every two years.  Why?  Simple psychology.  When something happens every year, people remember it.  Around September, people know that there will be a new iPhone and a new iOS update.  Releasing iOS every two years makes things more complicated.  Come September, people will have to try to remember whether there was an update last year, and whether they should be excited for an update this year.  This sounds trivial, I know, but you want people to be excited about your brand, not hesitantly excited.  You also don’t want to let down the people who thought this was an update year but it wasn’t.  This same psychology also applies to, oh I don’t know, say, weekly blogs and the like.

As you can see, adding an s-cycle to Apple’s software production could slow down the sometimes-breakneck train we call iOS.  Don’t get me wrong, I love new features as much as the next guy, but the last two iOS updates in particular (7 and 8) have been enormous.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dialing back iOS updates just a little bit, especially if they can do it in such a way that still appears to be a yearly update.  Hey, it’s worked for the iPhone.  ••

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!  ••

iPhoneography is a Real Thing

Last weekend I went on a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail down here in Georgia.  The weather was perfect, and there wasn’t a lot of fog, so the views were stunning.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my iPhone.  Instead, I had my brother’s old Kodak point and shoot from circa 2008.  It’s a good camera, but for some reason it wasn’t giving me the shots I was looking for on this trip.  It was really disappointing.  I did get some pretty good shots, but the lighting was less than great on some of them.  This got me thinking about the iPhone as a camera – not as a cell phone camera that you use to take awful pictures when you don’t have a good camera, but as a real camera.

Apple claims that people take more pictures every day with the iPhone than they do with any other camera.  They say this is because it “makes it so incredibly easy.”  I couldn’t agree more.  I’m not a photography expert, and I don’t know how to use any advanced photography features, but simple things like photo brightness are so unbelievably straight forward on the iPhone.  To adjust the lighting in a picture, just tap the spot you’d like auto brightness to adjust to.  Still not happy?  Slide your finger up or down a bit to make finer adjustments.  This simplicity is what makes the iPhone such a great camera for normal people like me.  There’s nothing to it – you just tap on what’s important and the phone does the rest.

But what about more professional photographers?  There will always be a place for dedicated cameras, but iOS 8 gave the pros more features as well.  Apple now allows manual control of camera features such as shutter speed and white balance.  These advanced features can’t be used in the stock camera app, but third-party apps like VSCOcam can take full advantage of these manual adjustments.  Again, this doesn’t make the iPhone a professional grade camera, but it does open up a whole new world to amateurs looking to dive a little deeper.

“Now wait a minute,” you might be saying, “doesn’t that Kodak camera also has adjustments like that?”  I’m sure it does.  However, when I’m taking pictures, I’m often looking to get a quick shot and then move on.  I tried mashing a few buttons on the Kodak to bring up some sort of controls, but I got nothing.  This is my point about the iPhone, it’s just so easy.  Now truly anyone can take, if not a fantastic photo, a perfectly good photo, and they can do it with ease. This is not a fact to be taken lightly.

There’s one more thing that’s great about the iPhone’s camera, and that’s the ability to share.  The internet is a fantastic place to share photos, and the easiest way to do this is through our phones (since many photos are already stored on there anyway).  In order to share my backpacking photos, however, I first had to go home and plug the SD card into my laptop.  Then I had to import them and let them sync to iCloud Photo Library (more on that in a future post).  If I had taken these pictures on my iPhone, they would have begun uploading the moment I got back on WiFi.  Sure, they still would have taken a while to load into cloud storage, but at least I could have sent a few pictures to people over iMessage while I was waiting to share the entire album.

These are some of the many reasons why the iPhone is a great camera.  But there’s one more big one: we always have our phones with us.  I am a person who believes that more photos is a good thing.  Sure, sometimes the good photos get buried in all the junk, but I know that I have often gotten great memories from a shot I took on a whim.  Plus, it’s quicker to pull a phone out of a pocket than to retrieve a point and shoot from a backpack.  This means that I can get shots that I otherwise would have missed completely.  The iPhone is definitely a revolutionary camera.  I for one hope it continues to be.  ••

Ok, so I got some good photos on this trip

OK, so I got some good photos on this trip

March App Review: Writing Aid

App: Writing Aid
Developer: Benjamin Mayo
Price: $0.99
Platforms: iOS

I’ve mentioned Writing Aid before, both offhandedly and while discussing my favorite Notification Center widgets.  Since I’ve talked about it so much, it seemed fitting to go ahead and do an official review.  Writing Aid starts as a very simple dictionary app that’s been stripped of a lot of unimportant features to make finding definitions as simple as possible.  Then, however, Writing Aid adds a few unique features that really make it shine.


But let’s start with the dictionary.  It’s pretty straightforward, and I love how opening the app puts your cursor right in the search box.  Searching for a word is easy and quick, and the definitions are good.  For many words, there’s a bar along the top that continually scrolls similar words, like a thesaurus (see image 3).  This is really useful.  My only (very minor) complaint is that it doesn’t work offline, but that’s not that big of a deal.

The first unique feature is what I’m going to call meaning search.  This is basically a dictionary search in reverse: when you know the meaning but can’t quite think of the word.  In the screenshot above (image 4), I searched “blue green” and got words such as “teal” and “aqua.”  Searching “person in charge” gives “head,” “guard,” and “caretaker.”  Pretty neat.

The second cool feature is the one I talked about last week, the Notification Center widget.  Every day, the widget shows you a new word and its definition.  The widget is useful, simple, and concise (read: excellent).  This is actually the reason I bought the app; I only later realized what a good dictionary it was.

In conclusion, Writing Aid is a simple app that, right off the bat, does what it promises.  After delving a little deeper, we can see that there are also some more complicated features that work great as well.  My only complaint would be that there’s no iPad version, but in reality I wouldn’t use it very much at all.  I don’t usually have my iPad with me when I’m writing, whereas I always have my iPhone.  I guess the app is fine the way it is.  ••

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.  ••

Always Connected: Part 2

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how we live in a world where all our devices are connected to the internet 24/7.  At the time, my devices were not connected 24/7, since I didn’t have an iPhone.  But, as I wrote last week, I have an iPhone now (and I decided to stop turning the WiFi off constantly on my iPad) so my tech habits have changed quite a bit now that I’m always connected.  Here are my thoughts.

First off, for those of you holding your breath from two weeks ago, the Writing Aid widget does work correctly now.  It’s really nice that (for the most part) I no longer have to worry about widgets not updating as they should.  Some widgets still seem to get a little bit outdated, but at least now I know that it’s the widget’s fault instead of a connectivity issue.

Syncing is also working better, but still not quite perfectly.  I had hoped that my iCloud reminders would just sync correctly now, but it still doesn’t seem to refresh often enough.  Lots of times I check off several reminders on my iPad, only to check my iPhone a few hours later and see that they’re still there.  Checking one off on the iPhone seems to trigger a sync, and then the rest of them update, but still, that’s really clunky.  One of the things I’ve always hated about iCloud is it never tells you when it’s done syncing, and there’s no way to manually trigger a sync.  I guess this adds to the whole idea of “it just works” and “I don’t have to do anything,” but it leads to problems like this.  In contrast, Dropbox and Evernote both have nice status bars telling you exactly what has and hasn’t uploaded yet.  I wish iCloud had that.

It’s really nice to be able to send SMS messages from my iPad using Continuity.  I don’t see myself making many calls from my iPad, but I guess it could be useful.  Speaking of messages, I’ve been impressed at how well those sync over iCloud.  I leave my iPad on Do Not Disturb (only when locked) so it doesn’t ring constantly throughout the day.  I was afraid that I would get a text on both my iPhone and iPad, answer it on the iPhone, and then an hour later open up my iPad and see the notification.  I knew that if the iPad was offline, it would never get the notification in the first place, but I didn’t know that the notifications were smart enough to dismiss themselves if I read the message on another device (it does makes sense that Apple thought of this; it’d be a nightmare otherwise).  This seems to work for email and Twitter as well, so that’s great.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that I’m no longer flipping the WiFi on and off on my iPad, which in hindsight was really annoying.  It doesn’t even seem to use that much extra battery when I leave the WiFi on anyway.  Go figure.

In conclusion, I’m really enjoying my new always connected lifestyle.  It’s crazy that we live in a world where we can access almost anything, almost anytime, with almost no effort.  Now if my reception wasn’t so spotty in big buildings on campus, I’d really be happy.  ••

My First iPhone

I’ve owned an iPod Touch for a long time.  I still remember when I got my first one, a 2nd generation, in 7th grade.  Little did I know that I got a raw deal because the iPod Touch 4th generation would be out in two months, but hey, it was still pretty awesome.  I had that iPod for about two years, then I got the 5th generation iPod Touch when it first came out.  I also had that iPod for two years, and I loved it dearly. But it’s probably not a surprise to you that I would rather have an iPhone than an iPod Touch.

Also not a surprise is the fact that iPhones are really, really expensive.  Sure, you can get one for $199, but that’s subsidized with a two year contract.  What this means is that the full cost of the iPhone is $649, but your carrier fronts Apple the $449 and then charges you more for your contract.  T-Mobile (the carrier I have) works differently.  They charge you less for your data plan to begin with, but you have to pay the full cost of the phone.  You can do this up front or in installments over two years, and at the end of that two year period you’ve paid about the same.  However, I didn’t want a hefty bill for the next two years, so I wanted to pay the full cost of the phone up front, and then have a nice, low, T-Mobile bill.  But even though the data is cheap, $649 is still a lot of money.

So what do you think I did?  I went on eBay of course!  Turns out there are dozens of used iPhones available on eBay, for around 2/3 of the cost.  But they’re used, you say, and you have a good point.  Buying a used iPhone is pretty risky.  Even if it’s in perfect condition cosmetically, the battery has been used and probably won’t last as long.  Fortunately, I lucked out.  I found a phone that, according to the seller, had been replaced at the Apple store just one week before.  This meant that both the phone and the battery were in good condition.  It was an iPhone 5s, 32gb, silver, clean ESN (meaning there’s no pending contract on the device), and unlocked for any GSM carrier (read: T-Mobile and AT&T).  I asked the guy about a hundred questions covering every tiny detail of the device, and according to the seller, it was in flawless shape.  He gave me definitive enough answers that I felt like I would have a case with eBay buyer protected if he ripped me off, so I bought the phone for $415. That’s still a whole lot of money, but if I had bought this model from Apple new, it would have been $600.  That’s savings of almost $200.  I rolled the dice, and so far, it seems to have paid off big.  I’ve had the phone for over a week now, and it works perfectly.  It’s in like-new cosmetic condition and so far even the battery has been performing well.  After getting the phone, however, there was still one more hurdle: the data plan.

According to T-Mobile’s website, we could get three lines with unlimited talk and text, plus 1gb of data each for $90 (plus taxes and fees).  1gb isn’t much, but it’s something, and the price is pretty good.  However, I had one more ace up my sleeve.  We’ve been T-Mobile customers for over 10 years, and I had a hunch that they would give us a deal if we called them up and asked.  Turns out, I was right.  For the rest of this year, we get 3gb of data per line, plus unlimited talk and text, for only $85, which is basically what we were already paying!  Without this deal, 3gb each would be $120!  At the end of the year, we’ll have to either pay the extra $35 or drop down to 1gb each and pay another $5.  That’s not a terrible price, but I’m hoping that next year we can call again and get another deal.  Hey, it’s worth a shot, right?

So long story short, I actually had a good experience buying an iPhone on eBay (gasp!).  I’m not saying it’s for everyone, but if you do your homework, it can pay off big time.  ••