This week's sponsor

Focus

The Best Pomodoro App for iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac


iOS 12: The MacStories Review

After years of unabated visual and functional changes, iOS 12 is Apple's opportunity to regroup and reassess the foundation before the next big step – with one notable exception.

We left last year's iOS 11 update with a palpable tension between two platforms.

On one hand, following a year of minor changes to the iPad and a hardware refresh that came in later than some expected, Apple once again devoted plenty of attention to reimagining the tablet's role in the world of modern computing. iPad updates in iOS 11, despite having their fair share of critics, largely did not disappoint. On the other hand, the iPhone – by and large still Apple's crown jewel – had to play second fiddle to a platform that was more in need of a strong, coherent message. And so despite blessing the iPhone with the same features of its larger multitouch cousin (at least most of them), Apple seemed content ceding the smartphone's spotlight to the iPad. There was a healthy array of new functionalities for both, but iOS 11's "Monumental leap for iPad" tagline pretty much told the whole story.

iOS 12, available today for the same range of devices that supported iOS 11, feels like a reaction to changes that have occurred around Apple and consumer technology over the past year.

While iOS 11 may go down in Apple software history as the touchstone of the iPad's maturity, it will also be remembered as one of the company's most taxing releases for its users. You don't have to look far into the iOS 11 cycle for headlines lamenting its poor stability on older hardware, plethora of design inconsistencies (which were noted time and time again), and general sense of sluggishness – issues that may have contributed to a slower adoption rate than 2016's iOS 10.

There were debacles in Apple's PR and marketing approach as well: performance problems with battery and power management were handled poorly during a key time of the year, culminating with a year-long discounted battery replacement program and a somewhat rushed battery-related addition to iOS' Settings. Then, of course, there was the much derided iPhone X ad clearly showing one of the many reported iOS bugs on TV, which had to be fixed with an updated commercial before the actual software was fixed. No matter how you slice it, it's been a rough few months for Apple in the realm of public perception of its software.

At the same time, toward the beginning of 2018, technology observers witnessed the rise of Time Well Spent – an organization and, perhaps more broadly, a public movement demanding that tech companies prioritize enabling healthier relationships with mobile devices. The principles underlying Time Well Spent, from battling smartphone addiction and notification overload to including superior parental controls in mobile OSes, may have originated as a natural consequence of breakneck technological progress; as some argue, they may also be a byproduct of global socioeconomic and political events. Time Well Spent's ideas found fertile soil in Silicon Valley: earlier this year, Facebook made key changes to its news feed to improve how users spend time on the social network; Apple made a rare commitment to better parental features in a future version of iOS; Google went all out and turned digital well-being into a suite of system features for Android.

It's important to understand the context in which iOS 12 is launching today, for events of the past year may have directly shaped Apple's vision for this update.

With iOS 12, Apple wants to rectify iOS' performance woes, proving to their customers that iOS updates should never induce digital regret. Perhaps more notably though, iOS 12 doesn't have a single consumer feature that encapsulates this release – like Messages might have been for iOS 10 or the iPad for iOS 11. Instead, iOS 12 is a constellation of enhancements revolving around the overarching theme of time. Apple in 2018 needs more time for whatever the next big step of iOS may be; they want iOS users to understand how much time they're spending on their devices; and they want to help users spend less time managing certain system features. Also, funnily enough, saving time is at the core (and in the very name) of iOS 12's most exciting new feature: Shortcuts.

iOS 12 isn't Apple's Snow Leopard release: its system changes and updated apps wouldn't justify a "No New Features" slide. However, for the first time in years, it feels as if the company is happy to let its foot off the gas a little and listen to users more.

Will the plan work?

Read more



    HomeCam 1.5 Adds Shortcuts to View Live HomeKit Camera Feeds in Siri, Search, and the Shortcuts App

    I previously covered HomeCam, a HomeKit utility by indie developer Aaron Pearce, as a superior way to watch live video streams from multiple HomeKit cameras. In addition to a clean design and straightforward approach (your cameras are displayed in a grid), what set HomeCam apart was the ability to view information from other HomeKit accessories located in the same room of a camera and control nearby lights without leaving the camera UI. Compared to Apple's approach to opening cameras in the clunky Home app, HomeCam is a nimble, must-have utility for anyone who owns multiple HomeKit cameras and wants to tune into their video feeds quickly. With the release of iOS 12, HomeCam is gaining one of the most impressive and useful implementations of Siri shortcuts I've seen on the platform yet.

    Read more


    Austin Mann’s Review of the iPhone XS Cameras

    In addition to the early slate of iPhone reviews from the press, it's become tradition in recent years for each iPhone to be graded as a camera by professional photographer Austin Mann. I especially enjoyed Mann's review this year of the iPhone XS camera system. He writes:

    Most of the time my expectations for camera upgrades on “S” years aren’t so high, but after shooting with the iPhone XS for a week, I can confidently say it’s a huge camera upgrade. There’s a lot of little improvements, but Smart HDR definitely takes the cake. This is a feature and technology that improves virtually everything you capture with your iPhone camera. I think you’ll be really thrilled when you experience the results yourself.

    As I shared in last week's issue of MacStories Weekly for Club MacStories, the iPhone XS and XR announcements caught me by surprise in that I expected there to be more change in the devices compared to last year's iPhone X. I've ordered a XS Max, but the primary reason for my upgrade was the additional screen real estate compared to my X; bigger display aside, September's keynote didn't provide much of a compelling reason for me to purchase a new phone this year. However, Mann's review and that of John Gruber have helped provide much-needed additional detail on the camera upgrades in the XS, which sound impressively significant.

    One of the standout lines in Mann's review for me comes near the beginning, where he says, "iPhone XS captures what your eyes see." It's hard to find higher praise than that.

    Permalink

    The iPhone 4S

    We are used to a fall release schedule when it comes to iPhones, but that hasn't always been the case. The first four iPhones came out in the summer, usually after being announced at WWDC.

    2011's iPhone 4S changed that for good, and in some ways that phone draws parallels to the new iPhone XS. Both are the second generation of a radical new design, and both boast improved cameras, networking, and battery life. That's not to mention how Siri is at the heart of the iOS version they both ship with.

    Read more


    Daily Dictionary: A New Word of the Day App

    Today developer and writer Benjamin Mayo launched his latest iPhone app on the App Store: Daily Dictionary. From the app's website:

    One word every day. Words that you have known but long forgotten. And some that are entirely new.

    Daily Dictionary is written by real people, not machines. No technical jargon or esoteric science terms. Just words you can use to improve your writing and expand your speaking vocabulary.

    Get a word of the day with a push notification, lock screen widget, or ask Siri using iOS 12 Siri Shortcuts.

    I've been testing Daily Dictionary over the last month, and it's a beautiful app with a design language that feels like a preview in some ways of where Apple could take iOS in the future. There's lots of big text, buttons that are easy to press, and gestural navigation of the app which works great one-handed. These things are all perfect fits for increasingly larger iPhones.

    Regarding the app's functionality, all it really does is provide a different interesting word each day, including pronunciation, definition, example sentence, and list of synonyms. But it does offer that word through a variety of means, which I appreciate: Siri shortcuts, notifications, or the app's widget can all feed you each day's word.

    In many ways Daily Dictionary reminds me of ‘sodes, the podcast client by Jared Sinclair that I wrote about earlier this year. It's light on features compared to competing apps, but its interface is a delight to use. And sometimes, a simple app that puts a smile on your face is all you need.

    Daily Dictionary is available on the App Store.



    The iPhone XS’ Camera and Neural Engine

    Apple describes the XS as sporting “dual 12MP wide-angle and telephoto cameras”. This will be obvious to most of you, but in case it’s not, they’re not just dual rear-facing lenses, they’re dual rear-facing cameras. The wide-angle and telephoto lenses each have their own sensors. As a user you don’t have to know this, and should never notice it. The iPhone XS telephoto camera is the same as in the iPhone X — same lens, same sensor.

    But the iPhone XS wide-angle camera has a new lens, which I believe to be superior to last year’s, and an amazing new sensor which is remarkably better than last year’s. And last year’s was very good.

    Anytime an iPhone review gets too technical about camera details and photography lexicon, I tend to gloss over it and move on. I'm not a camera expert and I usually don't care about the nitty-gritty. But John Gruber's analysis of the iPhone XS' camera stack, A12 SoC, and seemingly unadvertised improved sensor is one of the most interesting camera-focused iPhone reviews I've read in years. I don't want to spoil it – move past the photos at the beginning and keep reading.

    Permalink

    Google Maps Adds CarPlay Support

    I just got home from a trip to my local drugstore using Google Maps’ new CarPlay integration. Once I had a destination selected and was on my way, the experience was fine, as long as I didn’t stray from the path. Overall though, from my very preliminary, single test drive, I wasn’t left wanting to switch away from Apple Maps.

    Read more


    LookUp 5 Teaches Siri the Word of the Day and More via Shortcuts

    We all know that it's important to regularly learn new things, but often the busyness of life crowds out that learning and we settle into routines that make learning unnecessary. Fortunately, one of the things made possible by iOS 12 and the new Shortcuts app is that you can create your own custom "routines" of sorts with the help of Siri, and integrate daily learning into those routines.

    In that vein, the excellent dictionary app LookUp was updated this week to version 5, which takes advantage of Siri shortcuts in iOS 12 to offer access to the word of the day via Siri. The update also brings a new Collections feature, additional shortcut options, and more.

    Read more


    watchOS 5: The MacStories Review

    watchOS had a bumpy first few years. Some poor decisions and perhaps a premature initial launch forced significant design changes to be in order right away. It wasn't until last year's watchOS 4 release that it finally felt like the waters had calmed. Apple seemed to have solidified the brunt of its focus around fitness and audio, while also debuting a healthy backdrop of first-party apps, new watch faces, and machine learning features. The Siri watch face was the big addition for both of those last two categories, and while its initial introduction was underwhelming, the ideas behind it were intriguing. The redesigned Workout and Music apps along with background audio during workouts were excellent additions to the Apple Watch's core foundation. All things considered, Apple pushed a great update last year, and it only got better as the year progressed.

    While it didn't ship in time for watchOS 4's launch in September, streaming from Apple Music was released late the next month in watchOS 4.1. The ability to stream music in the background during workouts freed runners and other athletes from being tied to their phones while they exercised. Paired with the redesigned Workout app – which put live statistics front and center while keeping Now Playing and workout controls just a swipe away – watchOS 4 established a truly better fitness experience for Apple's smartwatch.

    The audio story that Apple told last year felt much less complete. Despite receiving a significant amount of attention in Apple's marketing efforts, the Apple Watch's music improvements seemed almost strictly geared toward workouts. Background audio was limited to workout apps and withheld from the platform as a whole, the first-party Now Playing screen continued to monopolize possession of volume controls, and the Music app only gave manual access to preselected songs instead of the full music library on your iPhone1. Audio on the Apple Watch had received some strong improvements, but the scope of those positive consequences felt unnecessarily limited.

    Thankfully, Apple seems to agree. This year's watchOS 5 update, released today for all Apple Watches Series 1 and later, fills in the gaps of the watchOS audio feature set. Third-party audio apps can now run in the background, and full audio controls including volume adjustment via the Digital Crown have been made available to them. watchOS 5 also introduces the first-party Podcasts app, which supports automatic syncing of new episodes that you're subscribed to and streaming of any show in the iTunes podcast directory.

    Beyond audio, watchOS 5 also builds on the solid fitness foundation with activity competitions, expanded Workout types, automatic workout detection, and advanced running statistics. Siri has continued to receive attention as well, introducing third-party integrations to the Siri watch face and a raise-to-speak feature which truncates the inveterate "Hey Siri" prefix for the first time on any platform. A new Walkie-Talkie app marks the first return to novelty Apple Watch communication methods since Digital Touch, but this time I think Apple might have tapped into a legitimate, albeit niche use case. Top things off with improved notifications, the introduction of web content, and NFC-powered student ID cards and we have a substantial watchOS update on our hands.

    Read more


    1. This last decision always felt senselessly arbitrary, and indeed Apple finally reversed it in watchOS 4.3 last March↩︎