Category Archives: Tech

Apple Watch: The Musical

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This is excellent.

End of an Era: RIP Macworld Magazine

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Time is a funny thing.  It marches on, making us older and making many things we once enjoyed obsolete.

I laugh (sometimes to myself, unless it’s Fox News and then out loud) at people who design their evenings around the television news hours.  I haven’t watched traditional television news in a decade or so, and I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone under sixty reading a newspaper anywhere other than the restroom.  I didn’t mourn the obsolescence of television news or traditional newspapers- I was happy to have the internet to access information that interested me.  Faster, and on my schedule.

I didn’t even mourn the obsolescence of traditional records, even though I write songs for them and occasionally receive royalty checks.  The greedy, inept record label cartel led me to embrace the new era of Apple, Amazon and direct distribution, even if it costs me money (though I really don’t think it does).

But even though I no longer subscribe to any magazines, the death of two of them has led me to stop for a moment and reminisce over days gone by.

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The first was when Stereo Review became whatever it became, on the way to whatever it is now, if anything.  Stereo Review, back in the Julian Hirsch era, was a wonderful, wonderful thing.  Back in the day, I would go to bed early on the day my copy arrived, so I could relish the stories, reviews and analysis.

The second was today, when I read that the print edition of Macworld is ceasing publication.  I subscribed to Macworld for a long time, but I confess to being part of the problem, as I have not subscribed to the print edition in several years.  Nevertheless, I remember learning about some of the coolest devices I ever experienced in the pages of that now shuttered publication.  This copy has a permanent place on my bedside table.

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Sure, Macworld will continue online in a vastly reduced form.  And thankfully, Jason Snell managed to save Clockwise, one of my very favorite podcasts (Jason, if you need some non-paid help in keeping that wonderful podcast going, let me know.  I’m in.).  But knowing that Macworld, in its traditional, obsolete-or-not, hard copy form will soon cease to exist makes me sad.

Maybe it was inevitable, but it’s still sad.

New iCloud Pricing Is Out: Is It Worth It?

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So Apple announced its new iCloud pricing today, in advance of the forthcoming iCloud Drive.  It costs more than its two main competitors, Dropbox (get some free storage by signing up via that link) and Google Drive.

iCloud_Pricing

1TB of iCloud storage is $20 per month ($240 a year).  That’s cheaper than it was, but significantly more than Dropbox ($10 per month or only $100 for a year) and Google Drive ($10 per month or $120 per year).  I have a 1TB plan from both Google Drive and Dropbox currently.  Would I dump one in favor of a pricier iCloud plan?

Maybe.  It depends, but only on one thing.  The forthcoming new Apple Photos app.

Space is space, and no one should pay double or more for space at one trusted brand over another trusted brand (I love the cloud, but only at names I know and trust: names like Amazon, Apple, Box, Dropbox and Google).

But space to use along with a powerful app that solves a terrible problem?  You bet.  I’d happily switch to iCloud if the Photos app would:

1. Look and work elegantly, like most Apple apps (excluding iTunes, which is a bloated wreck).

2. Easily assimilate and combine my current iPhoto libraries, of which I have three because they do not sync between computers.

3. Thereafter automatically upload, sync and manage my photos from whatever Apple device they originate on.

Photo management is a mess currently.  I love much about iPhoto, but the process of keeping your photos together in one place and managed logically is somewhere between burdensome and impossible.

If Apple can do that and combine it with some storage, I would gladly pay more for iCloud space.

If not, I’ll pass.

Impressions on the iPhone 6 and the Apple Watch

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As anyone who hasn’t been unconscious all day knows, Apple introduced both its next-generation iPhones as well as its long-awaited Apple Watch today.  There are detailed summaries and hands-on reviews all over the internet, so I will dispense with the summary and descriptions and simply give you my initial thoughts.

First, let me add my voice to the chorus of howls whining about the utter failure that was Apple’s live stream of today’s keynote.  Despite trying over and over, I was unable to obtain anything resembling a reliable, uninterrupted stream via my Apple TV.  Eventually, I was able to obtain an intermittent stream via my iPhone, but even this smaller stream was interrupted incessantly by oddly-intermingled earlier recorded clips of people milling around before the event started, and an unbelievably annoying translator (Japanese or Chinese, I believe) talking over the speaker.  No attempt at live streaming would be greatly preferable to the disaster that was served on us today.

Having dispensed with my mini-rant, let’s get down to the details of today’s announcements.  Which were pretty awesome.

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So about this iPhone 6.  Yes, I want one.  There are enough improvements, from a bigger screen, to a faster chip, to a better camera, to faster WiFi, to an ambitious payment system, and beyond to make me more than willing to pre-order my iPhone 6 this Friday, for a September 19 delivery.  I’m very interested in the motion-tracking and fitness features, and wonder if this will be the end of my beloved Fitbit.  I suspect it will come down to reliability and the device’s ability to track treadmill miles with a reasonable accuracy.  Whether it’s recommended or not, lots of people (including me) occasionally hold on to treadmills when they walk or run, and I always question whether a device (be it a new iPhone or an Apple Watch) will accurately log treadmill miles.  Fitbit does a reasonable job of this.  I also wonder how the iPhone fitness apps will work if you don’t have an Apple Watch (more on this below).

The only material issue surrounding my new iPhone 6 is whether I will get a slightly larger iPhone 6 or a significantly larger iPhone 6 Plus.  Initially, I felt reasonably certain I would choose the larger device, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if carrying around a larger device all the time would be cumbersome.  Granted, using it while stationary would be wonderful, but the idea of logging 60 or 70 miles a week on roads and treadmills with a big, honking iPhone 6 Plus in my pocket worries me.

One thing I’m certain of.  The fact that the Apple Watch requires an iPhone for effective use is the biggest thing the smaller iPhone 6 has going for it.  I question the effectiveness of having a smallish, elegant device on your arm if you are required to lug around a large, 6 ounce iPhone Plus in your pocket (if it will even fit).  It’s a true conundrum.  Sitting at my desk or on the couch- iPhone 6 Plus for sure.  Traveling, running or walking- smaller may be better.  Not to mention that I am very attached to my iPad Air, and typically have it close by when at home.

The bottom line: I was leaning towards the larger model, but now it’s a toss up.

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So, what about the Apple Watch?

I haven’t worn a watch in many, many years, and absent Apple’s involvement, I have absolutely no desire to wear one.  In fact, I hate the idea of a watch.  Prior to today’s keynote, I, like many others, expected Apple’s “wearable” device to be much more Fitbit-like, and much less watch-like.  I was wrong.  The Apple Watch is very much a watch, albeit one with lots of features.

I like the idea of being able to “glance” at information, quickly and easily.  If it works, I like the fitness aspects.  I guess it would be cool to be able to communicate with my family and friends via sketches and dictated messages.  Having said that, I don’t text much now, and I don’t see the Apple Watch turning me into a power-texter.  I wasn’t into Dick Tracy as a kid, and I just don’t know that I want his watch now.

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Of course, I wasn’t sure I wanted an iPhone, until I had one.  Or a Sonos.  Or all sorts of other things you have to experience to fully appreciate.  And there’s no denying that the interface looks beautiful, intuitive and powerful.  At the end of the day, my dislike of watches will have to battle my love of Apple for the future of my currently bare arm.

I will say that, while the Apple Watch screams cool, I don’t see anything about it that will make it a mandatory purchase for all iPhone users.  Additionally, the requirement to associate an iPhone with the device limits its ability to penetrate the Android and other wearable markets.  I’m sure Google and Samsung breathed audible sighs of relief at this.

I think the biggest leap forward we learned about today will end up being Apple Pay.

If it is adopted on a universal or close to universal basis, Apple Pay will be life- and commerce- changing.  Clearly, someone needs to step up to the plate and address the endless security problems inherent in current credit card standards and technology.  Apple changed the music business, and there is little reason to doubt it can do the same with the credit card business.  While I am not much of a Passbook user currently, I am excited about the potential for my iPhone to replace both my membership cards (as few as they may be; I am profoundly unaffiliated) as well as my credit cards.

We can debate the details, but clearly today was another big day for Apple, and for current and future Apple users.

Sonos: For Those Who Want (Their Audio System) to Rock

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I’ve been reading and hearing about Sonos for a long time.  For much of this time, I have resisted taking the plunge, because I thought I could manage and listen to my music via my Mac, and because Sonos equipment is expensive.  But the more I heard and read, the more my excuses and counter-arguments starting to sound like the stubborn rationalizations of Mac-resistant Windows users.  But as we know, when it comes to good tech, resistance is futile.  So the idea of a Sonos system found a place in my contemplation, and began to slowly grow.

The death of an inexpensive Woot-purchased soundbar I have been using had me thinking about a more robust replacement, and when Sonos announced this week that a separate wireless network (via a wired connection to your router) is no longer required (it is never a good idea to have two competing wireless networks in one location), I took the plunge.  I bought a Sonos Playbar  and two Sonos Play:1’s from Amazon.  After 30 minutes with the Play:1, I knew I was onto something good, and purchased a Play:5 to serve as my primary audio system.

Yes, Sonos equipment is expensive.  No argument in the world is going to make it sound like a bargain.  When you consider how robust and elegant the hardware and associated software is, and when you realize that going all-in on Sonos equipment renders you free of some legacy audio equipment (receivers, amplifiers, CD players, speaker wire, MP3 players, etc.),  the price seems a little less insane.  A little.

So here’s a summary of my Sonos experience so far.

First, the hardware is powerful, well-built and beautiful.   Very Apple-like.  Setup is easy (basically, you turn on your first device, open the Sonos app on your iOS device, connect it to your existing wireless network, and follow the instructions).  Adding additional devices is even easier.  You can listen to devices individually in full-stereo pairs or in large groups (e.g., whole house), and you can easily manage devices throughout your house.  You can play what you want, when and where you want.

And if you want, there are devices that will integrate your existing audio system into your Sonos setup (though I have not tried them).

While I am still in the infancy of my Sonos experience, the sound quality is very impressive.  Wirecutter, maybe the most reliable online source for gadget testing and reviews, chose Sonos as the best whole-home audio system:

Sonos is flexible, easy to use, integrates into your current system and works with a huge array of services and content providers. It has been around since 2004, and that time has let the company build up its product to be better than anyone else’s. It also sounds fantastic.

Eventually, I intend to have a system of paired devices for a full-stereo set up.  However, listening to a single Play:5 (as I am doing now for most of my music) sounds excellent.  In fact, the single Play:1 I’m using in my downtown office sounds great.

Second, the associated software is intuitive and robust.  Initially, I managed all of my Sonos activity via the Sonos app on my iPhone.

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Eventually, I downloaded the Sonos controller for my Mac (there’s a Windows version too), and found it to be another great way to manage my Sonos system when sitting at my desk.

There are tons of integrated music choices.  I immediately added Spotify (my primary music source; that link is to my curated Rancho Radio, try it), Amazon Cloud Player, Google Play Music and Pandora.  There are numerous other choices as well.  An added bonus is the integration of a virtually infinite number of terrestrial and online radio stations.  I quickly added NPR, WNCW and, amazingly, WCRE, the local radio station in the small town where I grew up.

One of the questions I had when considering Sonos was the ability to have and manage systems at different locations.  Happily, Sonos permits this, and switching between setups at various locations happens automatically, based on your location.  I have a system at home, I will sometimes take my Play:5 to and from the farm, and, at least temporarily, I’m using a Play:1 in my downtown office.  It’s pretty awesome.

One of the unexpected benefits of my Sonos experience is that I find myself listening to music a lot more than I did previously.  Before, I had to stop what I was doing on my Mac or iOS device, open the Spotify app, charge, find and connect to a speaker (if listening via my iPhone)  and start listening to music that would play in lieu of the audio component of whatever else I was doing on my computer or iPhone.  Since I’ve begun using Sonos, I often have music playing wherever I am, with only the volume to change depending on where I am and what I’m doing.

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No review would be complete without a wish list of additional features, but I had to dig pretty deep to come up with one for Sonos.  I wish the Play:5 (which has a line input) would accept Bluetooth connections.  It would be awesome if you could access and play your music from more places in the cloud (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.).  And I wish your Sonos playlists would sync across locations (e.g., I wish a Sonos playlist I create at home on my home system would be available via the Sonos app on my iPhone at the office or farm, at least for non-local music).  There may be a way to do this, but I haven’t figured it out yet.

While Sonos has dispensed with a wired-connection requirement for most setups, you still have to attach a Sonos device (a player or an available Sonos bridge) directly to your router to set up surround sound for your television via the Playbar and a Sonos subwoofer and/or Play:1’s.  I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to do this, but it would be nice to have the choice to do so completely wirelessly.  Finally, it would be nice to have better integration with some of the music services.  For example, I would love to have the option to automatically share the songs I play to Facebook, much like I can with the native Spotify app.  You can share what you’re playing to Twitter or Facebook, but the share is not embedded, like it is when you share to Facebook via the Spotify app.

If that’s the best I can come up with for wish list, you can tell that the Sonos system and apps are mature and well-designed.  It’s early, but so far I am a very happy customer, and one that will have to constantly resist the desire to buy additional Sonos equipment to add to my setup.

Or not.  Like I said, resistance is futile.

The Only Backup Plan That’ll Walk the Line

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Katie Floyd, co-host of one of my two favorite podcasts (Mac Power Users; my other favorite being Mac Geek Gab), has a very well-written and informative post on creating a backup strategy for your computer.  I agree with most of Katie’s plan, but like a lot of things I think backup strategies can be over-thought and overdone.  Like much of life, the secret to a good backup plan is making it easy enough to do regularly, and powerful enough to give you the results you need.

Before I describe the backup strategy I have settled on (after trying many, many others), let me add my voice to the chorus of those who believe that virtually any backup plan is better than the most common plan: none at all.  As you will see in a moment, I don’t think you need to backup every single piece of data on your computer.  But I do think that most people have some precious things on their computers (photographs, family videos, etc.),  as well as work product that would not be fun to re-create.  Backing up data is a lot like wearing a seat belt.  You don’t need it, until you do.  And if you haven’t used it by the time you need to, it’s too late.

There are two parts to my backup strategy.  First, figuring out what really needs to be backed up, and what doesn’t.  For example, I don’t think you need to backup your entire operating system.  In the event of a total computer failure, you can take the opportunity to do a clean install of the current version of your operating system, which will give you a cleaner, leaner and likely faster computer at the end of the restoration process.  Additionally, I don’t think you need to backup every single application.  On Macs, almost all applications can easily be re-downloaded from the App Store.  Those that were purchased directly from the vendor can almost always be obtained from the vendor’s website.  The exception would be those few applications you rely on that have been deprecated or are no longer available.  I keep installation files for those in a special “legacy applications” folder, which is backed up (more on that below).  It is important, of course, to keep your serial numbers and associated documentation with respect to legacy and directly purchased apps.  That information can be kept in a local file or in the cloud.  I keep this information in a Google spreadsheet.

What does need to be backed up are the files use with your operating system and in your various applications.  This includes your photographs, your videos, your music files (I long ago moved mine to Google Music, where they reside in the cloud and are accessible to me from almost anywhere; I do, however, backup the local copies of my mp3s), and all of your various word processing, spreadsheet, and other similar files.  The secret to making this approach work is both simple and important- you must establish and strictly maintain a folder system on your computer, so you will know which folders contain the files you need to backup.  Choose whatever works best for you.  My folder structure consist of five parent folders (documents, pictures, videos, music, and data files) with assorted sub-folders located thereunder.

Once I know what I need to back up and where it is located, we move to step two of my backup strategy: how and where to back it up.  I do this in two ways (complying with Katie’s redundancy rule).  One, via my Mac’s built-in Time Machine application, backing up to an Apple Time Capsule (in the interest of accuracy, this process does backup my entire computer, including the operating system, however in the event of a loss I would only restore the hard drive in its entirety via Time Machine if my second backup process (see below) failed).  This process is extremely easy to set up, and will work on any local or network attached storage-  it is not limited to Time Machines.  In addition to providing required redundancy, this approach allows me to open the Time Machine application on my Mac and find and restore individual files and documents that may have been inadvertently deleted.  In other words, I don’t have to restore the entire computer to recover data and documents.  I can go into the Time Machine application and grab the ones I want.

My second backup process consists of backing up the specific folders identified above to Amazon’s Glacier service (which is incredibly inexpensive) via the application Arq.  Stated simply, the folders described above are automatically backed up, every hour, to Amazon via Arq.  I backup to Glacier, but Arq supports numerous cloud locations.

Arq is a wonderful application, and does all of its work in the background.  An added benefit of this approach is that I can, if needed, access and restore files located on one of my Macs from another Mac, using the Arq application.  One caveat: one of the reasons Glacier is so cheap is because it is not designed for frequent storage and retrieval of files.  When you need access to a file, it can take several hours for Amazon to make it available.  This is both intentional (because Glacier is designed for backup) and a small annoyance to withstand, given how inexpensive Glacier is.

As an aside, I also currently backup my iPhoto file to Glacier in this matter.  It appears (and I deeply hope) that Apple is about to make this process unnecessary, by storing all photos in iCloud via the upcoming iOS 8 and the forthcoming Photos app.

So, let’s recap.  You need to back up some things, but maybe not everything.  There are many ways to do it, and the key is to pick a process that is both simple, redundant and reliable.  Unchecked, however, the process of backing up data can take a burdensome life of its own, which often results in people performing irregular backups or abandoning the process altogether.  Approached correctly, a backup process can be virtually invisible to you on a day by day basis, while acting as a digital seatbelt to protect important documents and data in the event of a digital accident.

Do it.  Now.  Here’s some music to enjoy while you do.

 

The Calendar Conundrum

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I’m a devoted Mac user, with interconnected (via Google Drive and Back to My Mac), backed up (via Time Capsule and via Arq backing up to Amazon Glacier), and secured (via multiple, redundant means) iMacs at home and on the farm.  These beautiful, powerful devices communicate and interact beautifully with my Macbook Air, iPad Air and iPhone.  It all works beautifully, and elegantly, except for one little problem.

I have a job.  Where I am forced to use a locked-down Windows computer.  A committed Apple-loving geek being forced to work on a walled-off Windows machine all day is a recipe for disconnected frustration.

lockeddownThere are shortcuts, hacks and workarounds for most of my workflow.  I use Google Drive, IFTTT and Hazel to move documents around, and to keep them in their desired locations.  After years of managing a single contacts list via Google Contacts, Google’s insistence on jamming my contacts into Google+ and Hangouts and my desire to have a small, manageable personal contacts list led me to separate work and personal contacts, with my work contacts located inside the Outlook prison on my work computer and my (very limited) list of personal contacts residing in iCloud, and my various Apple devices.  I used to think having two separate contacts lists would be burdensome, but the increasing integration between Apple contacts and various apps-and my desire to avoid inadvertently sending personal content to work contacts- made me a believer in separate contacts lists.  In other words, my inability to sync my Outlook contacts with my iCloud contacts (and thereby my various Apple devices) led me to embrace a better, separate solution.

As an aside, I think work contacts are going the way of newspapers and record labels.  I almost never resort to my work contacts list.  Rather I search my emails (instantly via X1) to find the email address or telephone number I need.  If that fails, I Google it.

I have always had separate work and personal email addresses and accounts, which has been and will always be preferable.  Again, my inability to access my Outlook email via iCloud or my Mac has never been a problem.  After all, both sets of email and both contacts lists are easily accessible via an iOS device, even if not be via a Mac.

Such is not the case for my calendar.  Unlike email and contacts, I very much desire a single, unified calendar.  Also unlike email and contacts, accessing multiple calendars via an iOS device alone is not a happy solution for me.  For years, I kept my calendar on Google, and pushed (not synced) my Outlook calendar entries (consisting mostly of accepted meeting invites) from Outlook to my Google calendar via the recently deprecated Google Calendar Sync.   Sadly, this no longer works and there is no acceptable substitute.

Which leaves me with the Hobson’s choice of having two separate calendars or having to manually enter every single Outlook calendar item in Cloud or the calendar application on my Apple device.  The latter is simply unworkable, given the large number of calendar entries I have.  The former is extremely unsatisfactory.  There is just no answer for a Mac-loving geek forced to work on a locked-down Windows computer.

Until I find a better solution, I am currently using a less than ideal workaround, via which I repurposed two of my old iPads as dedicated calendar devices, each hung on the wall in each of my offices, and each displaying my combined calendars, via Fantastical.  Because Fantastical can display multiple calendars, at least I have a unified calendar to look at, without having to pull out my iOS device each time.  This is horrible solution, but it’s the one I have.

I wish there was a better way to solve my calendar conundrum, but for the time being this is the best I have come up with.

What I really wish is that Macs had infiltrated corporate America long ago, so that I could use a Mac at work.  This is probably never going to happen- and will certainly not happen in my lifetime- so the best I can do is keep looking for some hacked up workaround that will allow me to live semi-efficiently within the frustrating digital walls I cannot climb.

I welcome any other ideas.