My first Apple Watch accessory

May 23rd, 2015

watchstand-600

The standard Apple charger clips into this Spigen charging stand. Works nicely for me.

Wrist recursion

May 11th, 2015

My new watch can be used as the viewfinder for my iPhone camera. So, of course, the first thing it wanted to do was take a selfie.

IMG_1981

There’s a slight delay in the image, and in the shutter release, which means that the shot the camera actually took was after my finger had moved off the screen, but the image on the watch, from a second before, still shows it in place. If you click to see the full-size image, you can see a few levels of recursion (which says something about the resolution of this 1.5″ display!).

Titanium nostalgia

May 4th, 2015

Just over 14 years ago, in one of my first blog posts on Status-Q, I referred to the amazing fact that Apple, with the impending launch of OS X, was about to become, overnight, the largest vendor of Unix operating systems.

Unix was, up to that point, beloved of those of us working in universities and other scientific institutions, but was notoriously unfriendly to anyone not familiar with its highly-abbreviated command language. It sold in small quantities on expensive workstations, and the idea that the creator of the cuddly Macintosh was about to start deploying it on ordinary desktops seemed astonishing. In a little over a decade it would have evolved to be not only at the core of their mobile phones, but even on their watches!

Today, I fired up the Titanium Powerbook G4, the machine I was just starting to use at about that time.

For nostalgia reasons, I was revisiting the classic Mac OS, but back then I had been playing with the developer preview of OS X for a while, and when it was officially released I switched to the Mac and never looked back. I didn’t realise that I had made quite such a transition at the time, but a few months later I wrote:

At CNET there’s a comparison of Windows 2000 vs Mac OS X which comes out in favour of OS X. I’m a bit dubious about the higher OS X score for hardware compatibility, but it’s pleasing none the less. I currently use 3 machines on a regular basis. One runs Win2K, one runs Linux, and one runs Mac OS X. They all have their pros and cons, but if I could keep just one, I think it would be the Mac. I find myself pining for it when I’m using the others and, for all its current limitations, the reverse is seldom true.

P.S. I noticed a couple of other things from those early posts. The first is that they are both called ‘[untitled]’, because the convention of putting a title on blog posts hadn’t been established back then. The second is that neither of the URLs I linked to still work now. Never assume the web is going to be a long-term reference archive unless you control the site yourself!

How to turn Apple Photos into a more powerful editor

April 25th, 2015

Apple recently released OS X Yosemite 10.10.3, which includes their Photos app – the replacement for iPhoto.

This is unlikely ever to become my normal photo-management and editing tool, but it does have some nice features, and it has more editing controls than you might at first realise:

Also available on Vimeo.

The watchword

April 11th, 2015

Like many other people, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Apple Watch. It hasn’t really arrived yet, you understand, but you can at least now see it, play with it, and plonk down large amounts of money for it, in anticipation of delivery in a month or two’s time. I spent quite a lot of time experimenting with it at the Apple store yesterday.

I must admit to being something of a watch techno-enthusiast. Back in about 1976, my brother and I were the first kids in my school to have a digital watch, and they, too, were made by a computer company, Commodore.

commodore_cbm_time

The company went on to create computers like the Commodore PET and the 64, but, unlike Apple, it made a watch before it did computers. Still, amusingly, it probably looked more like an Apple watch than any timepiece I’ve owned since, because the display used too much power to keep it constantly illuminated; the LEDs only lit up when you pressed the button. I still remember the excitement of staying awake outrageously beyond my bedtime, just so I could see the display change from 23:59 to 0:00. We bought our first digital watches on a discount offer. I think they were £13 each.

Roll forward about a third of a century, and I was an early backer of the Pebble project on Kickstarter.

wpid-Photo-17-Apr-2013-0745.jpg

I’ve worn it every day since it arrived, and I even created my own watchface for it. It’s been fun, but it’s taken the developers a couple of years to get to the point where notifications are reasonably reliable and the API is easy to use. Many people who bought Pebbles sold them soon afterwards on eBay.

However, the team deserve a lot of credit, I think, for kickstarting (somewhat literally) the whole smartwatch revolution: few people thought watches were really in demand any more until they proved, rather dramatically, to the contrary, by being the biggest Kickstarter project ever. The upcoming Pebble Time looks nice, too, and it’s worth pointing out that you’ll be able to buy it for about the same price as some of the standard straps for the Apple watches. I think it could be a good option if you want to explore this whole smartwatch thing, especially if you don’t own a recent iPhone (on which the Apple Watch depends).

The Pebble, despite its quirks, has taught me some interesting things.

One is that the wrist is a very convenient place for a user interface. Avoiding the need to take my phone out of my pocket is a great benefit; I can dismiss incoming calls in a couple of seconds, for example, if they occur in the middle of a meeting – much less disruptive. About a year ago, I did it without thinking in the middle of giving a talk, and almost got a round of applause from the audience!

Another is that I use my Pebble many times a day, but very few of those are actually about telling the time. Watches were important for that purpose in the past, when you had to keep checking them to know whether you were getting close to your next appointment. But I’ve long since relied on my devices to notify me in advance of any upcoming events, and I spend much of my time sitting in front of a screen with a clock in the top right corner, or driving a car with a clock on the dashboard. Actually looking at a watch to discover the time is probably something I do about once every other day. So, yes, I’m about to buy my most expensive timepiece ever, when I’ve discovered that I don’t really need a watch for telling the time any more.

Actually, to my surprise, my number one use of the Pebble has been to stop and start audio. I’ve described in a previous post how I listen to large numbers of audiobooks and podcasts, and I seldom do this through headphones. Being able to pause a book from the other side of the kitchen just before I start the noisy coffee grinder is exceedingly handy. Being able to do so with a couple of button presses when I’m out walking the dog in mid-winter and wearing gloves is even more so. While driving, I’ll often stop and start music this way, because reaching my wrist is more convenient than reaching the controls on my dashboard, and so on. This bit of my Pebble’s operation has always been very reliable, perhaps because it’s operating simply as if it were the pause button on a traditional Bluetooth headset. As with every device, in my experience, it’s when you start doing complex Bluetooth LE stuff dependent on background apps that reliability becomes an issue.

Now, I don’t expect audio control to be quite so easy with the Apple Watch, since there is no single, eyes-free sequence of physical button presses that will do it. Using the screen won’t be so easy with gloves on, either. On the other hand, you can just lift up your watch and say ‘Hey, Siri – pause!’ But the key point is not that audio control is the reason to buy a smart watch – it’s that you won’t know what you’ll use it for until you get one. I know now that having controls and a screen on my wrist is a valuable thing, and that’s why I’m buying an Apple Watch, and would do so even if it didn’t offer telling the time as one of its functions!

So, yesterday morning, as soon as the pre-ordering opened, I went online and started planning my order. Delivery times were still quoted as the end of April. Then I paused, cancelled it, went upstairs to get my debit card, came back down and started again, by which time the first batch were sold out and delivery had slipped to May. Sigh. Ah, well, my birthday is in May. I ordered two different watches, actually, on the basis that, once I’d actually seen them in the store, I’d cancel the one I didn’t want. A couple of hours later, almost every model was listed as shipping in June, so I’ll still have some early-adopter street cred. (A friend suggested recently that ‘early adopter’ was something of a perjorative term now, and I should call myself a ‘trailblazer’ instead.)

I quickly jumped over to my local Apple Store’s site and booked a try-on appointment, then headed into town. There was actually much less chaos in the store then I’d expected, perhaps because it was a Friday morning and most of the honest hard-working people of Cambridge had real jobs to go to. So I got to spend nearly an hour trying on different straps and watches, and playing with the software.

q_apple_watch

If you want general details, there are more reviews online than you could possibly read, but here are some of my early impressions:

  • First, the watch is beautifully made. This is no surprise from Apple, and you’d expect it for the price, but I was still struck by it. It feels slimmer on the wrist than the somewhat bulky impression given by the photos. The display is amazing – clear, high-contrast, easily readable: it makes the Pebble look very limited in that respect, though I haven’t tried it in bright sunlight. Reading even a normal text message on the old Pebble is a bit trying, but scrolling through longish emails on the Apple was just fine. And I’m now at the stage where I normally need to put on reading glasses for things at that kind of distance, so the fact I found it worked well without them even when displaying things like maps is a real testament to its clarity. And hey, displaying maps on your watch, with a little dot showing where you are! How James Bond is that?

  • The ‘digital crown’ works surprisingly well for scrolling. I was skeptical after seeing the videos, but it is very nice, at least for right-handers.

  • It really is difficult to decide which watch and strap combination you want simply by looking at pictures on line. Apple describe this as ‘our most personal device ever’, and that was reflected in the different selections being made by the cheery group of other enthusiasts who were gathered, like me, around the table. I was surprised to discover, for example, how much I liked the brown leather loop, which went well with my skin colour. (It was also interesting to see the majority of those other trailblazers, like me, removing a Pebble from their wrist before trying on the Apple.)

linkstrap

  • The straps are also works of art. Or, at least, works of exceedingly good design combined with excellent manufacture. Some of the prices are outrageous, though: take a look at the link bracelet above, for example. It looks a lot like the straps I’ve had on a couple of previous watches, and it costs £379. Yes, you read that correctly, and no, that doesn’t include the watch. I thought it was a typo when I first saw it on the Apple site. Only when you try it on, do you realise why that price is not quite as outrageous as it first appears. It’s unbelievably slim – much thinner than the photos suggest. The machining is superb. Each link in the bracelet has a clever little catch so you can remove or add them without the need for tools. And the clasp mechanism works beautifully. It apparently takes nine weeks to make. It’s still outrageous, though. I didn’t get one of those.

  • If I were starting now, I think I would buy the black aluminium ‘Sport’ one – it looks better than the silver equivalent, but only if you wear it with a black strap. This limits the options, but combining it with a black leather loop strap would be a fine combination. I didn’t go for that, in the end, because it wasn’t one of my early orders and if I switched I would have to wait another month, but for geeky guys who are less impatient than me, it might be a good choice. The silver aluminium, I thought, looked best with the blue leather loop. A third-party site, mixyourwatch.com, will let you explore the combinations to your heart’s content, and the Click project on Kickstarter should let you use more affordable, non-Apple straps.

aple-watch-home

  • The icons on the home screen are a bit tricky to hit unless you have more delicate fingers than mine. Not as bad as I was expecting, but I still don’t think it would work very well while I was cycling. You can zoom in using the crown, but I imagine most common apps will be accessed more through swipe-upward gestures than though this screen.

  • The user interface is not really intuitive, I found. But that’s not too surprising, because we’ve no experience of a device with so much functionality in such a small space and with so few physical controls. It’s hard to know where intuition would actually come from. The temptation is to think of it like an iPhone with a home button or a browser with a back button, and it’s not quite either of these. I think it needed a new model of interaction, though, and it will be easy to learn once you’ve played with it for a while.

  • A pleasant surprise, for me, was just how well Siri worked, using the watch as a microphone. This was in a busy and noisy Apple store, yet it was almost flawless. (Note, too, that I didn’t get the opportunity to pair the watch with my phone: the watch has wifi, and Siri is one of the features that works even without the phone being present.) I’m particularly keen on this because I’ve often wanted to use Siri while driving, yet it’s almost impossible through my car’s bluetooth kit. I’m hoping the watch will be a much better way to do this.

All in all, I came away very impressed, and pleased at having got my order in early. The price will be a real issue for many people, and even for enthusiasts like me who might be willing to spend more on a watch that will last for some time – my old Citizen served me very nicely for 13 years before I got the Pebble – this one comes with a big question mark over it: how long will it be before I want to upgrade it?

In the end, though, I paid the money, because I think this will probably last me longer than a phone, should have a good resale value if I want to sell it, and I’m hoping at least that things like straps will be interchangeable with future versions. (If comparing it with the cost of a phone, of course, you need to work out the true cost of the phone once all the months of contract are included, which typically adds a few hundred quid to the label price – there’s no such subsidy for a watch. And your phone doesn’t measure your heartbeat!) But mostly, I bought it because I’ve discovered how much I value having a user interface to my technology on my wrist, and this is, without a doubt, the best available.

If, however, you just want to tell the time, then I recommend Citizen…

Update: John Naughton pointed me at this splendid Alex cartoon.

One for each hand?

February 6th, 2015

About two years ago, I pointed out that iPhones were being born faster than people.

Updated stats from the latest episode of MacBreak Weekly: new iPhones are now being sold at more than twice the global human birth rate.

They can’t keep this up indefinitely!

Keep your Mac disks running smoothly

January 19th, 2015

Hard disks, and the filing systems that run on them, occasionally get confused. This can happen for all sorts of reasons: bugs, power cuts, software crashes, hardware glitches, to name a few. The advent of journalled filesystems make these hiccups much less of a problem than they used to be, but they still occur.

As with checking your car tyres, it’s a very good idea to be proactive about checking and fixing any small issues. Often your computer will continue to run just fine, so you won’t know there’s anything amiss, and, indeed, they may never cause a problem, but it’s much better to fix them before they do… otherwise that one broken link might just cause you to lose something important in the future.

That’s why I have an entry in my to-do system for each Mac that we have in the house, reminding me to run a check-and-repair on its main hard disk. These entries reappear automatically 6 months after I check them off. (If your to-do system can’t do that, you might want to think about getting Omnifocus.)

Anyway, on the Mac, you don’t need any special software to keep things ticking over nicely: you can use the standard Disk Utility program to run these checks, which lives in the Utilities folder within Applications. It’ve very easy: just fire it up, and on the left you’ll see your disks, and the partitions on each disk. Select one, and you can check (verify) or repair the disk layout itself, and the permissions of key files within the partition.

Screen Shot 2015-01-19 at 09.24.15

I never actually bother with the ‘Verify’ buttons: I just hit ‘Repair’, since that will also do a check, and it won’t change anything if the disk or partition doesn’t need repairing. I start with Repair Disk, and then follow it with Repair Disk Permissions.

However, there’s a trick to this…

The system normally can’t do much in the way of repairs on the filesystem from which you’re actually running. So you’ll probably find that the ‘Repair Disk’ button is greyed out, as in the image above, and you’ll need to boot your Mac from another disk or partition in order to run them. Ah.

Fortunately, however, on recent versions of Mac OS X, this is trivial to do, because you also have a hidden ‘Recovery Partition’ on the disk, from which you can boot in order to recover from serious problems, reinstall the operating system, restore from backups, etc. And Disk Utility is available there. What’s more, it’s a good idea to run it from the Recovery Partition anyway, because you’ll have nothing running in the background and trying to do backups, sync with Dropbox, or whatever, while you’re doing the check.

So, reboot your Mac. Normally, if you hold down the Option/Alt key while it starts up, you’ll see a list of places from which you can boot. On Yosemite, however, this probably won’t show you the Recovery Partition, so you need to know a new keystroke: Cmd-R. Hold that while booting, and you’ll get a menu from which you can run Disk Utility. Run your checks, which normally only take a few minutes, then quit the utility and the parent menu, and you can reboot back into your normal, happy, healthy world.

One last wrinkle. If you use FileVault to encrypt your disk, which I’d recommend at least on a laptop, then you’ll need to give your FileVault password before Disk Utility can open the partition and run any checks on it. Just select the partition and click the Unlock button in the toolbar, type in your password and you’ll be ready to go.

Regular, scheduled, proactive checks will help keep your Mac happy and healthy!

To Siri, with love

October 26th, 2014

Judith Newman’s delightful article in the NYT describes how Apple’s speech-recognition software is helping her autistic son to communicate.

The march of progress

October 17th, 2014

progress

One of the things that has always been a challenge for developers is the ‘progress bar’. It can be very difficult to predict in advance just how long something is going to take: you work it out for, say, a typical operating system update on the typical machine and then you find that some users have 100,000 things in their Trash, or are in the midst of a backup to a slow external drive, or whatever…

Installing Mac OS X Yosemite this morning, the progress bar sat at ‘About one minute remaining’ for well over half an hour, so I went and did some Googling and found that I was not alone – many people waited much longer than that, but it always completed in the end. Of course, like a watched pot, it will never get there if you’re sitting waiting for it, so you have to go and do something else. Usually, it is just a mild annoyance for impatient enthusiasts like me, but occasionally it can be a more serious problem if you’re told something will take 30 mins, for example, and you therefore assume you can do it before your appointment in an hour’s time.

Anyway, watching the slowly-progressing pixels gave me an idea…

There are tens of millions of people who will be going through this process over the next few months: surely you could improve the accuracy of their progress bars by uploading the timing information at the end of each installation, along with basic information about the system and then using that to give more accurate estimates to those with similar machines, similar disk usage, etc?

MailMate

August 27th, 2014

For the last few months I’ve switched over to using MailMate as my main email app on the Mac. Alternative mail programs are not very numerous, partly because, overall, Apple’s default one does a remarkably good job. I’ve always rather liked it.

MailMate has a few quirks, and is still in development. (Hint: Turn on ‘Experimental features’, and under Software Update hold down Alt while pressing the ‘Check Now’ to get the very latest version. This sounds dodgy, but I’ve had no reliability problems.)

Overall, I love it. Here are some of my favourite features:

  • I like the ‘correspondence mode’ – when you’re looking a message, this extra window shows you all your correspondence with that person.

correspondence

  • I like being able to write my emails in Markdown.

  • It copes well with my 11GB of mail.

  • There are helpful prompts which warn you if you might intend to do something slightly different. For example, you’ve used words that suggest you’re attaching something, but don’t actually have any attachments. Or if you’ve hit reply on a message that originally had multiple recipients: it lists the other people and asks if you really wanted ‘Reply All’?

  • The search facilities are awesome. If you need to find the messages that you sent to Fred, or that he sent to you, before the start of the year, that don’t contain the word ‘invoice’, it’s easy to do.

  • You can save these complex queries as Smart Mailboxes. In fact, every list of messages you see is basically a database query, and you can treat them as pretty much alike.

  • You can rearrange the order of the mailboxes in the list on the left. So if your smart mailboxes are more important than your folder layout on the server, you can put them at the top.

These last two have combined to make the single best feature for me. In the past, I used to mark as ‘unread’ any messages which still needed my attention. The problem was that it was too easy, when skimming through messages on one of my devices, unwittingly to mark things as ‘read’ and never get around to acting on them when I got back home. And shuffling things into different folders was too much hassle while walking the dog; I just wanted a single inbox and a way of noting what was important.

MailMate’s smart mailbox came to the rescue. I now flag messages that need further action, instead of leaving them as unread. My number one mailbox collects the unread and flagged messages from all my inboxes into one place, and doesn’t show anything else.

unread-and-flagged

This is brilliant, because I know that anything I flag, from any program on any device, will appear there, along with any messages I haven’t yet seen. In other words, these are the only things that require my attention. It’s usually a nice short list, and it’s where I spend almost all my time.

MailMate costs $50, which is a hard sell when the Mac comes with a very good email program, and there are free alternatives like Thunderbird. There are a couple of minor features that I miss from Apple Mail, like its handling of images. And it took me a couple of weeks to feel really at home with MailMate.

But there’s a 30-day free trial, and I paid for it long before my time was up. Recommended.

Visualising your Paperless Workflow

July 12th, 2014

On episode 191 of Mac Power Users, I described how I found it useful to be able to visualise the various steps of my automated ‘paperless workflow’. (Something I also wrote about here on Status-Q last year.)

A few people asked for more details, so here’s a 9-minute screencast going into some of the details.

Also available on Vimeo for the media cognoscenti!

The race is to the Swift?

June 7th, 2014

swiftI love my Mac and iOS devices, but writing native apps for them has always been made somewhat less pleasurable by the programming languages available. Objective-C (which is behind the typical app on your iPhone or Mac) has its merits, or at least, had its merits when it was designed 30 years ago, but things have moved on quite a lot since then. And don’t get me started on the abomination that is AppleScript…

That’s why, amongst the panoply of geeky goodies that Apple announced at its developer conference this week, the thing that interested me most is their new programming language, Swift, which looks rather lovely. (You can find excellent introductory talks about it here.) It’s early days yet, but may be good enough that, henceforward, people will flock to Apple’s development environment because of, rather than despite, the language.

It’s not clear whether Swift will be available anywhere other than on Apple platforms, and there may be a certain degree of deliberate lock-in here. But that’s better than the old situation where Objective-C was available elsewhere, but nobody really cared.

All of which may help to explain why the book The Swift Programming Language had been downloaded by more than a third of a million people within the first 24 hours of anyone knowing the language even existed.