Airmail: Stop Fighting Email

In addition to Notability and 2Do, another app that really changed the way I work last year is Airmail.  Just like iOS Reminders, I had used iOS Mail for years and years, and never had much of a problem with it.  However, as time went on, my use of email outgrew the app.  As I started getting more mail, I began using the “Unread” inbox filter to keep track of emails that required action.  However, I had to make sure I didn’t accidentally mark one of those emails as read, because then it would get lost in the shuffle of all my other mail.  Basically, I realized I needed to move to an inbox zero-based approach, moving all mail I was done with out of my inbox, leaving only the important stuff.  I wanted a more powerful email app to do this, so I turned to Airmail.  Shoutout to my girlfriend’s dad for this recommendation!


The bottom line is that Airmail allows me to be faster and more organized with my email.  The goal is to get everything that isn’t important right now out of my inbox, so I can focus on what is important.  After reading an email, if I don’t have to take any action on it, I archive it right away.  If it’s something I need to deal with later that day, like when I get home, I usually just leave it in the inbox.  If I’m going to deal with it another day, I snooze it.  Snoozing is one of the most powerful features of Airmail.  Snooze a message, and Airmail moves it to a special folder.  Then, at the snooze time, I get a fresh push notification and the message reappears in my inbox.  This has totally streamlined the way I work with email.  No more fiddling around with read/unread to make sure I can see the important stuff.  The important stuff is all that’s there.

Archiving and snoozing messages is super quick and easy thanks to Airmail’s customizable swipe actions.  I have right swipe set to Archive and left swipe set to Snooze and Trash – you can select up to four actions for each direction!  Need even more?  A full list can be pulled up for an individual message (see image 3).  There’s even more actions available, but I’ve set the app to only show the ones I use.

Customization is a big theme throughout Airmail.  The main menu in the left pane of the app is fully customizable on both iOS and Mac, and there’s tons of options.  Airmail also has support for smart folders (created via searches, just like 2Do).  I haven’t set any up yet, but I’m going to soon, to organize emails that I refer to often.  All this customization is what makes Airmail a great app: it can be as powerful as you need it to be.  There are still a few bugs and things that need to be worked out (threads on the Mac are kinda wonky), but it’s a relatively new app, and I’m sure these things will be fixed in time.  If you’re tired of fighting your email and want to work with it instead, you should definitely give Airmail a try.  ••

Playing Around with the WordPress Mac App

So a week or two ago, WordPress, where this site is hosted, threw a major bone to us Apple users, a Mac app!  This means that I can read the blogs I follow, as well as write new posts, from a dedicated program on my computer, instead of in a browser.

So what’s so special about this app?  Well, honestly, not much.  It’s basically just WordPress.com in a special, separate window.  Opening the app brings WordPress users to a familiar reader screen, with blog posts front and center.  At the top are the two bars to switch between the reader and “My Sites,” a place to manage your blogs.  Both of these screen have pretty much identical interfaces to WordPress.com in a browser, and the app won’t work at all without an internet connection.  So if the app is basically just a web browser, what makes it useful?

Well, it’s going to be nice to separate my writing from any other tabs I have open.  I often have multiple other tabs going when I’m writing a post (double checking information, getting app store links for reviews), and it’s a pain to switch back and forth between them.  When there’s only two, it’s not a big deal, but four or five becomes a pain.  Having a WordPress app means that I can have one window for my writing and another for research, and that’ll be nice.

As an aside, I’ve experienced a similar sensation using Google Docs lately.  I do most of my writing for school in Microsoft Word, but I’ve been in a couple group projects lately, and Google Docs is hands down the best way to collaborate.  Honestly I’ve really liked Doc’s web interface (it starts faster than Word) and the fact that all my documents are permanently and only stored in the cloud.  However, as nice as browser word processing can be, it’s a total pain when you’re trying to switch between tabs.

Ooh, just hit a major snag while writing this post.  I wanted to go back to My Sites to look at another post.  Normally, when I want to do this, I just Command-click My Sites in the upper left, and it opens in a new tab.  Uh-oh, no tabs here (funny how I just praised that so loudly).  That’s going to be an issue for me, as I often look back at previous posts while writing new ones.  I’m not saying WordPress should add tabs to their app (then, honestly, it really is just a browser), but maybe there could be a way to “minimize” drafts that I’m currently working on and look at other stuff.  This is a good opportunity for WordPress to really make the app something special, and give it features that aren’t available in the web interface.  Obviously, WordPress doesn’t want to exclude web users, but this would be a feature that fixes a problem web users don’t actually have (since they have tabs).  Just a thought WordPress!

So anyway, I’m excited about this new app.  I’m not sure whether I’ll use it long-term, but I’m definitely going to give it a shot for now.  And even if I don’t like it, I’ll keep checking back.  One good thing I will say about WordPress: they do an excellent job of continually improving their products.  ••

OS X El Capitan Review

The new version of Mac OS X is here!  It’s not a major upgrade; Apple said that they’ve got a big focus on performance this year, just like in iOS 9.  However, there are some new features that are definitely welcome.  Interestingly enough, several of them are features that started on iOS.  I think that says a whole lot about the world we live in now: mobile is becoming more important that desktop.

There’s several apps that I use a lot that have gotten new features, but I want to start with an OS-wide feature: split view.  This is actually similar to the new iPad split view features on iOS.  You can now run two apps next to each other in full screen.  Simply click and hold on the green full screen button on the first app, then drag it to one side.  You’re then presented with thumbnails of your other apps to fill the other side of the screen.  Once you’ve got these two apps open, you can leave them at half and half, or you can drag to give one of them more room.  This is definitely a useful feature (one that I’ve missed since coming to the Mac – Windows added this feature in 2009).


Next up is the mail app.  This one’s short and sweet: you can now swipe left and right on messages to mark them as unread or delete them – just like in iOS.  I use this feature all the time on my iPhone, and I’ve definitely wished I had it on the Mac.  Now I do!

After that comes the app I used more than any other: Safari.  Safari has added a feature called pinned sites.  This allows you to leave certain tabs open in the background, permanently, without them taking up lots of space in your tab bar.  It’s great for sites you use all the time.  I haven’t decided which (if any) sites I’m going to put there, but it’s definitely a cool feature.  Also, Safari has added a way to see which tabs are playing sound and mute them, also helpful!


The last thing I want to talk about it the photos app.  It finally allows you to geotag photos!  Both Photos for Mac and iOS already supported viewing geotags, and the iOS Camera app could geotag its photos, but neither one allowed you to edit or add geotags.  I had an app for this both on the Mac and iOS, but it was a pain.  Now, you can finally do this directly from Photos for Mac.

Even though there aren’t any crazy new features in OS X El Capitan, it’s still a solid update.  I mentioned performance at the beginning but I didn’t really talk about it yet: this update hasn’t made my computer feel any faster or slower (although that SSD I put in last spring helps).  Same as iOS 9, I’d say no change is a good thing (last year’s update definitely made it slower).  So all in all, I’m a happy customer, and I’m feeling good about how long my Mac will last.  That’s definitely a feeling Apple should want to cultivate in their customers.  ••

Mac Apps vs. Web Interfaces

It’s weird to think how, these days, mobile is the first platform many people think about.  Instagram was an app first, and a website second.  Even now, Instagram.com is just a place to view your timeline, you can’t even post photos.  There used to be things that I could only do on my computer, not my phone; now it’s often the other way around!  So with all these apps, it can be nice to be able to access their data while using a computer.  This is normally where a company makes a web interface.  These allow people to use the service from any computer, which is great.  But there are certain downsides to web interfaces.  This is where Mac users have another option: Mac apps.  Sure, developers can make apps for Windows as well (and with Windows 8 and the Windows Store, they’re starting to), but for some reason, the Mac seems to get a little more attention here.  Well, I say it gets attention, but that’s not entirely true.  It sometimes seems like developers make a point to make a Mac app, but then sort of let it be.  Mac apps often feel a little out of date and neglected, compared to the shiny new iPhone apps and web interfaces.  So that leaves an interesting question.  Which is better – Mac apps or web interfaces?  I’m going to look at three examples.

Evernote
The Evernote web interface was recently redesigned.  It looks really nice, nicer than the Mac app.  That being said, though, the Mac app is more useful.  It has more buttons everywhere, so it’s faster to use.  This is the downside of having a clean interface on the web – clean means less buttons.  Also, the Evernote web interface can be a little slow.  The app fixes that problem nicely.


myHomework
I wrote about myHomework last month, but I didn’t really touch on the Mac app too much.  The app and web interface are almost identical here, but myHomework shows the single greatest advantage that Mac apps have over web interfaces: they launch faster.  One click on my dock, and I’ve got the app right there.  In contrast, for the web, I have to open Safari, type in the URL, and then sign in.  Not too big of a deal, but the app is certainly a lot easier.


Twitter
Twitter is an interesting one here.  I actually like Twitter’s web interface best.  It’s the most fully functional and it works well.  The only think I don’t like about Twitter.com, or any of its official apps, is that they doesn’t support timeline sync.  Timeline sync, available on pretty much every other Twitter app, means that your reading position in your tweets timeline syncs across devices – no more scrolling to find where you left off on your phone.  This is great, and it means that, for just reading Twitter, I use Twitterrific.  Twitterrific for Mac isn’t all that pretty, and honestly, for anything other than reading, it doesn’t work that well.  This means that when I just want to scroll through my tweets, I use Twitterrific.  If I want to post anything, search for someone, or any number of other things, I go with the web interface.  This means that I don’t really use the official Twitter for Mac app at all, although I do have it installed for some reason.


So as you can see, Mac apps offer some distinct advantages that usually make them worth using.  However, I also sometimes head over to the web interface, for various reasons.  I like having both options at my fingertips, so I can use whichever is best for different tasks (that’s a first world problem right there, isn’t it?).  ••

Apple’s September 2015 Event

I know the title says “September Event,” but this might have been Apple’s only event this fall.  That’s what sources were telling us leading up to last Wednesday, and it seems like they were right.  This event was jam packed, and did cover pretty much every Apple product.  So what all happened?  Let’s dive in:

Apple Watch
First comes the Apple Watch.  No Watch 2.0 here (it was, after all, just released in March), but there were a few new color combinations.  The Sport model now comes in yellow gold and rose gold aluminum.  In addition, there’s a whole slew of new bands, both colors and styles.  Finally, they briefly mentioned watchOS 2, but they didn’t give much of a demo.  To be fair, they had already demoed it at WWDC, but in the past Apple’s always given a refresher demo right before the release in the fall. For the people who had seen WWDC, it was a little repetitive, but it was probably still worth doing.  However, Apple had so much to talk about at this event that I guess they just didn’t have time.

iPad
Enough of the boring new-colors announcements.  Apple has released an enormous new iPad Pro.  It has a 12.9″ diagonal screen (compared to the iPad’s 9.7″ and the iPad Mini’s 7.9″) that looks like it’s going to be stunning.  It can run two apps at the same time, side by side (the same feature we saw demoed for the iPad Air 2 at WWDC).  For those in the business world, there’s a keyboard case; for those in the creative world, there’s a stylus, dubbed the Apple Pencil.  This new iPad won’t come cheap, however.  It starts at $799, plus $99 for the Pencil and $169 for the keyboard.  Other than the new iPad Pro, Apple also released a new iPad Mini (the 4th generation), with specs on par with last year’s iPad Air 2.  This was the first year we didn’t see a new regular sized iPad.

Apple TV
This was huge.  People have been waiting for this for years.  To drop the most important part on you in one sentence: The new Apple TV runs apps.  There’s an app store, which will include everything from entertainment channels to games.  Games can be played on Apple’s new remote.  It has motion sensors like a Wii Remote, a few buttons, and a small touch surface.  But most importantly, it also has a microphone.  That’s right, the new Apple TV has Siri.  You can use Siri to search for TV shows and movies from iTunes, Netflix, hulu, HBO, and Showtime all at the same time.  Pretty cool.  You can also ask Siri to show you the whether or sports scores in the middle of your show.  The thing that stuck out to me most, however, was that you can ask Siri, “What did she say?”, and it will skip back 15 seconds in your show and turn the captions on for just that 15 seconds.  Someone should’ve thought of that years ago.

iPhone
Yes, of course you’ve been waiting for it, there are new iPhone available.  There’s the iPhone 6s and the 6s Plus, in the same two sizes as last year.  They’re also available in a new color, rose gold.  This is an S model year, so there aren’t that many big improvements.  The biggest one is called 3D Touch.  As far as I can tell, it’s the same as Force Touch on the Apple Watch (in fact, Federighi accidentally called it that once on stage and had to correct himself).  This means that the iPhone’s screen now registers how hard you’re pressing on the screen.  This allows you to do cool things like preview links sent in a text message.  Press hard on the link, and it pops up in a little window.  Press even harder, and it pops to full screen.  Pretty neat.  The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus also have improved cameras, as usual.  They now shoot 4K video, which is cool, until you realize that Apple is still selling the 16gb model of the iPhone.  Let it go, Apple.

iOS
At the end of the iPhone demo, iOS got a short spot.  All it really had was a demo of 3D Touch; like watchOS, they just didn’t have time to redo the WWDC demo.  We did get a release date, however: Wednesday, September 16.

Oddly enough, the Mac didn’t seem to get any time at the event.  It’s not a surprise that there’s no new Mac hardware; we did just get that new Macbook back in March.  But I would’ve thought that they’d at least give 10 minutes to show off OS X El Capitan, and then announce a release date.  That would seem to totally wrap up the product line in a single fall event.  Apple’s website now says that El Capitan will be available on September 30, but I don’t think that was even said on stage (maybe I just missed it?).  Of course, it’s not like this event was lacking in news just because they didn’t talk about the Mac.  ••

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.  ••