The Robservatory

Robservations on everything…

 

iOS

What to do if Spotlight in iOS11 seems out of focus

I’ve updated three devices to iOS11, and on my iPad mini and iPhone, Spotlight was behaving very strangely. How strangely? While trying to launch the sports score reporting app theScore, Spotlight apparently thought PCalc was the best match:

(And no, the 9:41am time indicator was not planned!)

If I finished typing out the entire name, then Spotlight would match…but that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

To make things more confusing, this was happening with only some searches—others worked just fine. My iPad, on the other hand, had a fully functional Spotlight; all searches worked as expected. At first I thought Spotlight was somehow broken on the two devices, but a quick trip into Settings > Siri & Search revealed the problem…

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Configurator covers (some of) iTunes’ lost app features

On the same day that Apple announced the new iPhones and such, they also released iTunes 12.7, which has a number of minor changes, and one very major change (here’s a nice summary). The major change is the removal of pretty much anything related to iOS apps: You can’t sync apps, you can’t browse the store, and you can’t reorder your iOS device’s app icons.

As someone who is Mac-bound for the majority of the day, this is a horrible change, and I absolutely hate it. Apple does provide one workaround, the ability to manually sync data from your computer to your iOS device. But this method isn’t really user friendly, and offers almost nothing in the way of actual app management. Further, it doesn’t let you rearrange your apps, which is one of the most awful tedious tasks one can undertake on an iOS device.

Enter Apple Configurator 2, a free Mac app that Apple says “makes it easy to deploy iPad, iphone, iPod touch, and Apple TV devices in your school or business.” But here’s a secret—shhhhhh!—you don’t have to be a school or business to use Configurator, nor do you have to use it for multiple devices—it works just fine for a single user with a single iOS device. And as an added bonus, it does some things that iTunes 12.6 and earlier never did.

In summary form, using Configurator, I can…

  • Easily view (customizable) device info for multiple devices at once.
  • See a summary screen for any given device, containing lots of useful tidbits about the device.
  • Rearrange icons on any device’s screens.
  • Change the wallpaper on any device.
  • View info on all installed apps, and sort by name or seller or genre, etc.
  • Update installed apps.
  • Install apps from either purchase history or from a folder on my Mac.
  • Install configuration and provisioning profiles (for beta software, etc.).
  • Install documents and assign them to applications.
  • Create backups (open or encrypted) and restore them.
  • A whole bunch more…

The one thing it can’t do—and for which there’s still no alternative I’m aware of—is browse and purchase apps from the iOS App Store. For that, you’ll still need to use your iOS device…or a virtual machine running iTunes 12.6. (Configurator requires a physical connection via USB cable; it won’t work over WiFi. Configurator also grabs any connected devices it sees, so don’t launch it while iTunes is syncing other iOS content, for instance.)

Keep reading for a slightly deeper look at a few of Configurator’s features…

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On the removal of iOS apps from iTunes: I hate it

The recently-released iTunes 12.7 removes access to the iOS app store, as well as management of iOS apps. This is bad on any number of fronts; here are just a few things that bother me about it…

  • Migrating installed apps to a new device will now require you download all of them from the iOS device itself. This will be slow, and if you have capped internet, eat into your bandwidth. In my case, my iPhone holds 248 apps. So I’ll have the joy of waiting for 248 apps to download over the internet? And, heaven forbid, if I have issues as I did with my iPhone 6, I’ll get to do that over and over and over…
  • You can’t organize your apps in iTunes any more, only on your iOS device. If you have a lot of apps, this is perhaps the most painful task to do on an iPhone—dragging icon by icon, across screen after screen. Ugh. iTunes offersoffered a much better method…

    But no longer, because Apple knows better, right?

  • Developers, I think, will hate this change. Why? Because not only can users not browse apps in iTunes, they can’t purchase apps on a Mac or a PC at all! I spend all day at my desk, on my Mac. When I read about an interesting iOS app, I can see its web page, and then jump right into iTunes and buy it. But as Kirk McElhearn notes, this is no longer possible (temporary issue, maybe?). As a developer, losing access to anyone browsing from a non-iOS device would be deeply troubling.

But the above issues are only part of the reason why the removal of iOS apps from iTunes bothers me. An equally concerting issue is this: Browsing and buying apps on an iPhone is an absolutely horrid experience.

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My thoughts on the new Apple Watch, Apple TV, and iPhones…

In their September 2017 keynote, Apple launched the Apple Watch Series 3, the Apple TV 4K HDR, and three new iPhones—the 8 and the 8 Plus, and the X.

Here are my quick thoughts on each, and my buying plans…

Apple Watch Series 3

This is a nice evolution of the watch. The LTE doesn’t really interest me, as I’m sure it’ll require another $5 or $10 a month to my wireless carrier, and I almost always want my phone with me. (If I swam regularly, I might feel differently about that.) The much-faster CPU would be a nice upgrade over my original-generation watch, but the Series 3 is nearly a full millimeter thicker than the original…and honestly, I think the first version was already borderline too thick.

Will I buy? At this time, the outlook is doubtful; my watch is working fine, and a faster CPU isn’t worth the added thickness and $359 of my money.

Apple TV 4K HDR

Support for 4K is welcome, and long overdue. I’m not so sure about HDR; sometimes I find HDR images tend to look artificial, and I don’t know if I’d find the same issue in moving images. A real added bonus was Apple’s decision to provide the 4K version of movies you’ve purchased for free—this from a company that charged us to upgrade the quality of our music files a few years back.

I wish Apple wasn’t so damn set on streaming everything, though—I would much prefer to store movies directly on the device, to make it more portable and not subject to the vagaries of wifi, device positioning, and network load. Those times are gone, though, so now the only choice is whether or not to spend $20 more for the 64GB version.

Will I buy? Yes, and I’ll spend the extra $20 for the extra 32GB. I’ve been moving an Xbox One back and forth from the game TV to our 4K TV to watch 4K content, so this will be a simpler solution.

iPhone 8 and 8 Plus and iPhone X

Let me get this out of the way: I do not like the iPhone X. Well, that’s not true. I think almost all of it is absolutely stunning, and I really want one. Unfortunately, that’s “almost all,” and there are two things that aren’t perfect that will keep me from buying this phone…

The Notch. I absolutely, positively hate the cutout at the top of the phone for the sensors. In case you (somehow) missed it, this is the notch…

I would have much preferred if Apple just blacked out that entire region, giving up that marginally-usable pixel space for a cleaner appearance. I understand that videos can play cropped, so as to not be “notched,” but it’s the presence of the notch in other normal views that really gets to me. It’s everywhere.

Many people won’t notice, or won’t care about the notch. I wish I could be one of those people, but I can’t. During the keynote, all I could focus on whenever the phone appeared was the stupid notch. It simply grabs my eye, and I cannot unsee it when it’s there. (Maybe a future software update will stop drawing the desktop up there, which would make it look much nicer to my eye.)

Face ID. Apple has told us facial recognition is more secure, and I have no reason to doubt them. They also told us it’s fast, and it seemed to be in the demo. But secure and fast can’t override the absolute convenience of Touch ID. I can use Touch ID as I remove my phone from my pocket (press plus press-click), and it’s ready to go as soon as it’s out of my pocket. I don’t have to look at my phone unless I want to; if I have to look at my phone every time I want to unlock it, that’s going to get annoying. Very quickly.

Apple Pay is even worse. Today’s system is as near-magic as any tech I’ve ever used: Hold the phone near the register, rest finger on the home button, and you’re done. With Face ID, it appears (based on the demo in the keynote), I’ll have to both double-tap the side button and look at the phone to use Apple Pay. Ugh.

There are also some security considerations with Face ID, as pointed out by Ian Schray. The police cannot compel you to put your finger on your phone without a warrant…but can they compel you to simply look at your phone?

Other than these two no-go items, I really like everything else about the iPhone X. It’s only marginally larger (.20 inches taller, .15 inches wider) than an iPhone 7, yet has a screen that’s 30% larger and has more pixels than the gigantic Plus model phones. It also has the double cameras, which I would love to have on my next phone.

While you may not consider the notch and Face ID as deal breakers, they really are for me. I’ll go look at one in person, of course, but I simply cannot unsee the notch, and I hate the idea of having to look at my phone to unlock it, and taking more steps (and time) for Apple Pay.

So that leaves me with the 8/8 Plus versus my current 7. I think the new CPU, faster Apple-developed GPU, better cameras and sensors, 240fps slow-mo 1080p video, wireless charging, and the glass design make the iPhone 8 a compelling upgrade. As noted, I’d love to have the dual cameras to work with, but I think the Plus-size phone is just too big for daily use, so I think that’s out of the question. (I will visit the Apple Store again to see the 7 Plus before I decide for sure.)

Will I buy? As of now, yes, I plan on buying an iPhone 8, and hoping that…somehow…Touch ID survives for a long time to come, lest that iPhone 8 be my last new iPhone.

Apple giveth, and Apple taketh ($50) away

The new iPhones—both the 8/8 Plus and X—now come with either 64GB or 256GB of storage space. On the low end, the move from 32GB to 64GB is long overdue, and makes a ton of sense. Most iPhone users I know who have 32GB phones are always bumping up against the storage limits, so thank you Apple.

However, on the other end, the move from 128GB to 256GB is harder to understand, especially in a phone. 256GB is a lot of apps and videos and music and photos. I’ve yet to meet someone who said “I wish my iPhone had more than 128GB of RAM.” My personal phone is a 128GB model, and even after a year, I’ve yet to come close to filling it up—it’s at roughly 90GB today. But I’ve always got over 64GB of stuff on it, so the small phone isn’t an option.

The bad news is that the now-192GB step up (vs 96GB before) from the small to large capacity means you’ll be paying $150 for the upgrade, instead of the old $100 charge. I understand Apple has higher costs for this, and on a cost per gigabyte basis, the new upgrade is much cheaper than the old ($0.78/GB vs $1.04/GB). But I dislike paying an extra $50 for space I’ll more than likely never use, so this strikes me as nothing more than a move by Apple to drive up their average selling price.

What’s the answer? I really would have liked to see Apple keep the 128GB option; it’s the perfect size for many iPhone customers…and the cynic in me says that’s why they killed it, so they can drive all those consumers to spend an additional $150 on their next phones.

Install a cloud driver server of your very own

For many years, Peter and I have managed our shared Many Tricks files via Dropbox. To support Dropbox, we purchased an upgraded plan for $99 a year, which came with 1TB of space. We then used the same login to share the Dropbox folder. We didn’t need anywhere near 1TB (we have about 4GB of shared files), but felt it was right to support Dropbox.

While this worked well, and we had no issue paying for it, we had a few concerns—about space, third-party involvement, and something possibly unique to my usage scenario. You can read the details in the remainder of this post, but to make a long story short, I went looking for a replacement. And I found one in Nextcloud. Nextcloud has a commercial product, but it’s open source, so you can also install it on your own server, and via many hosting companies that have it preinstalled.

I was able to install it easily with our hosting provider; I had the basic install up and running in under 30 minutes. There are also native clients for Mac, as well as Windows, iOS, and Android. The Finder view with the Mac ap installed (it’s an official Finder extension) is very similar to Dropbox or OneDrive or any other cloud client with a Mac app:

For us, Nextcloud has every feature we need for sharing our Many Tricks’ files; read on for more detail on why we moved, install and admin, the Mac client, and some closing comments.

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A modest proposal to improve the iOS Settings app

One of the things about the iPhone I don’t like is that Apple requires (recommends?1)Many apps now have settings within the app, which I love, so this “separate settings” thing doesn’t seem to be a hard requirement. that apps keep their preferences (settings) in the Settings app.

While I understand the theory (don’t clutter the app with prefs, all prefs in one spot), the reality is that this structure quickly turns the Settings screen into an endlessly scrolling nightmare. I hate opening the Settings screen, knowing how much flicking it’ll take—simulation visible at right—to get to the app whose settings I want to modify.

With some apps having some of their prefs within the app, and some of their prefs on the Settings screen, I find I often have to look in both places to see if the pref I want is available.

What I’d love to see is Apple recommend (require?) that apps do not use the Settings screen, and instead keep their prefs within the app. After all, if you’re using app XYZ and you want to change something about its settings, the most logical place to look would be within the app itself. This would greatly clean up the Settings screen, too, restricting it to just Apple’s stock apps and system-wide settings.

But barring that change, I’d like to see a more-usable Settings screen. How can it be more usable? By splitting the apps into alpha buckets, so I could tap into a letter/number, and then see only those apps on the list. Something like this very-rough mockup…

A horizontal flick on the alpha row scrolls through the letters (and numbers), then vertical flicks scroll within the chosen letter. This index would appear with the first entry in the third-party apps section, then stick to the top as the user scrolled down.

I’m sure there are better ways to do this, but something needs to be done, especially as device storage sizes increase.

iOS App: Pool Break pool simulator

I recently got back into playing pool, joining a local 8-ball and 9-ball league. It’s been many (many) years since I played pool, and I can’t really put a table in our home (unless I want to take over the living room or the master bedroom, probably a no go on either one). So I went looking for an iOS pool simulation that would help me visualize angles and cue ball spin (English).

I tried quite a few, and in the end, found Pool Break to be the best for my needs. Here’s a very brief snippet of the gameplay…

You can turn the guidelines off; I use them to help understand the cue ball’s movements after contact. Pool Break supports 8-ball, 9-ball, straight pool, snooker, and a couple things I’ve never heard of (Carrom and Crokinole). You can play against the computer, or against others on the Internet. The physics appear to be very good, plus you can change some of the friction values if you wish.

I’ve only been playing against the computer opponents; if you choose their highest skill level, you probably won’t win, even with the aim lines on—they make some absurd shots! The only mode that’s lacking is a straight practice mode where I could position the balls as I like to try various shots. But that’s a minor nit; Pool Break is a very nice pool simulation…whether it will help my real-world ability to see various angles or not, only time will tell!

iOS App: Jollyturns tracks your day on the mountain

I spent yesterday at Mt. Bachelor, enjoying a bunch of fresh snow and surprisingly light crowds. To track my tracks, I’ve been using an app called Jollyturns Ski & Snowboarding. The app is free and includes one ski area; you can buy five more for $3.99, or $9.99 gets you “every ski area in the world.”

For each area, you can see a summary page with current conditions and info on lifts, runs, and restaurants, as well as a zoomable scan of the official trail map. (For Mt. Bachelor, that means four maps, as they have quite a bit of terrain.)

You can drill down into run type to find a specific run; it’ll be highlighted on the map. (Though if your area has more than one map, you may need to switch views to see the run on the proper map.) Click on a lift name, and it will be similarly highlighted on the map. Ditto for restaurants.

Jollyturns can also find and map your friends on the mountain, assuming they’re using the app, of course. I haven’t yet tested this social aspect of the app.

The one thing Jollyturns doesn’t do is track your runs on a map—there’s no way to see exactly what you skied in a given day. This is no longer true as of the latest update—you can view your tracks on Google Earth on the iPhone, or export as KML (or a couple of other options). As an example, here’s a map from my February trip to Mt. Bachelor, as seen in Google Earth on the iPhone:

Beyond the map, you can also see how much you skied (vertical feet), how far you skied (miles), and your peak speed. I’d love it if it would map my day (I assume there are other apps that do this, but I haven’t gone looking…recommendations?), but what it does do, it does well.

Jollyturns also includes an Apple Watch app—it provides a quick view of your vertical feet, distance, and peak speed. I much prefer a glance at my watch versus digging out the iPhone from multiple layers of clothing.

The one caveat I will add is that running Jollyturns can suck your battery down, as it’s updating location info via GPS, and doing so quite often. Yesterday, after 4.5 hours of continuous skiing, my phone was down to about 25% battery. So if you want to make sure you get all-day phone battery life while skiing, Jollyturns is probably not the app for you.

See the actual strength of the iPhone’s cellular connection

This is a very old tip, but I’d never seen it before, so I figure it might be new to some others, too. My home has a relatively weak cell signal, varying between one and three dots on the iPhone’s display. But sometimes, even when I have three dots, the quality of my calls seems spotty.

While looking for some tool to try to analyze the cell signal’s actual strength in my home, I stumbled on this useful tip at Lifehacker: It’s possible to make your phone display its actual signal strength in decibel-milliwatts, or dBm. Here’s my phone, showing the stock display on the left, and the dBm value on the right:

And this explains a lot: While two dots of five seems like a decent connection, the actual value of -116dBm is bad. (Signal strength goes from a best of 0 to a worst of -140 or so.) How bad? According to this site, it’s an unusable signal. So, yea, don’t try to call my cell phone when I’m at home!

If you’d like to set your phone to display the actual signal strength (you can tap the indicator to flip between values and dots), read the above-linked article (or any of the thousands of other sites that have the same tip), or just read the rest of this post, where I’ve recreated the simple steps.

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