Ryan Christoffel

219 posts on MacStories since November 2016

Ryan is a regular contributor to MacStories. He most commonly works and plays on his iPad Pro and bears no regrets about moving on from the Mac. He and his wife live in Texas, where he works for his church.

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Focos: Powerful Depth Image Controls in a Fun Package

The iPhone's camera has long been one of its most important features. Every year when new models are introduced, it's a sure bet that camera improvements are part of the package. Last year that remained true, but it also proved an even more special year for the iPhone's camera setup. The introduction of dual rear-facing cameras with Portrait mode was something different – pictures no longer just looked a little better than on older iPhone models, they looked almost professional-quality.

This year, whether you picked up a new iPhone or not, Portrait mode is a better feature than before. Part of this is due to software improvements in iOS 11, but another key benefit is that third-party developers now have access to the depth information in Portrait photos. For the first time, Portrait images taken with the iPhone can be edited and enhanced in unique ways, and Focos is a new app that takes full advantage of that opportunity.

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Can Clips Be a Modern Day Photo Booth?

Karan Varindani considers the potential of Apple's Clips to be a spiritual successor to Photo Booth:

With the iPad 2, back in early 2011, Apple brought Photo Booth to the iPad. I distinctly remember thinking that this was a no-brainer at the time. Growing up in Ghana, there weren’t that many Macs in my high school, but everybody that had one used Photo Booth. It was very regular to walk into the sixth form (senior year) common room and see groups of friends, myself included, behind a MacBook playing with the filters. Talking to several of my American friends, it sounds like it was the same deal here. I always thought that it was only a matter of time before Apple brought Photo Booth to the iPhone, but six years later it still just ships with Macs and iPads (and I don’t think that it’s been updated in that time).

Playing with the Selfie Scenes in Clips last week, I had the same feeling that I did playing with Photo Booth on my Mac many years ago. It was a little surreal, as someone with incredible front-camera shyness, to find myself having so much fun with it. The whole experience had me thinking: In a few years, once the Face ID technology has spread to the rest of the iOS line (and maybe even the Mac), could Clips be the successor to Photo Booth? Between Selfie Scenes, stickers, Live Titles, and fast sharing to social media, it seems the perfect fit.

I think the best modern equivalent of that Photo Booth social experience is Snapchat's lenses, which I've observed can consistently deliver laughter and interest among a group of friends or family members. While Clips' Selfie Scenes offer a similarly neat technical effect, if Apple is serious about being successful with the app, a couple big changes need to take place: the square orientation limit has to go, and Clips needs better hooks into apps like Instagram and Snapchat than the share sheet provides.

Photo Booth's prime was a very different era than where we are today, and without the aid of a true social network it will be hard for Apple to replicate its success. So far, Animoji seem much closer to meeting that goal than Clips.

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Playground AR: A Physics Sandbox for Freeform Play

One of childhood's simple joys for many of us was getting our creative juices flowing by playing with building blocks. It's one of those tactile, imaginative outlets that adulthood features far less of. Blocks also brought the added benefit of getting to destroy the work you'd built – a task similarly delightful to the actual building.

Recently my wife and I were babysitting twin 1-year-old boys, owners of a big bucket full of colorful, cardboard bricks. All throughout the night I enjoyed building small towers with the bricks, and the boys would have a blast knocking those towers down. Even when they were on the other side of the room distracted by something else, if they saw me stack three or more bricks together, they'd quickly come running to play demolition crew.

Playground AR is a new app from developer Marc Sureda that uses ARKit to bring the joys of childhood play to all ages – and with no mess to clean up either. The app provides a variety of toys that let you both build and destroy, with a physics system backing it all up to make the experience a delight.

There are three main modes in Playground AR: one is for placing objects in your playground, another lets you better survey and capture photos of what you've built, and the last is for picking up and moving existing objects. Objects you can place of course include blocks of varying shapes and sizes, but there are also lots of other fun, interesting toys to experiment with – trucks, helicopters, dice, spinning widgets, and more.

The physics engine is what makes Playground truly shine. Stacking blocks too high, for example, will cause your creation to topple over if the stack isn't well-balanced. Dominos can be strung together in an elaborate setup then knocked down by a rolling ball. Magnetized blocks will stick together even if gravity or another object forces them to fall. Balloons can be attached to objects, and depending on an object's weight and the number of balloons, the object will eventually be sent flying into the stratosphere. But I would be remiss if I didn't mention my favorite physics demonstration: placing bombs and TNT containers in your playground to blow everything up. It's brilliant.

If you want to spend some time goofing around in an AR sandbox, building and destroying in all kinds of creative ways, you can pickup Playground AR on the App Store for $1.99.



iPhone X App Roundup: The Innovative, Beautiful, and Practical

The iPhone X's display poses a challenge to app developers. Similar to when the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus debuted, there's a different screen size to work with here, which requires app layout adjustments. But more than simply the new size, the iPhone X brings two extra complications: the notch and an extra tall orientation. In order to best optimize for Apple's current flagship phone, developers need to carefully consider these two factors – failure to do so can result in a particularly unsightly notch, or a UI that's difficult to navigate one-handed.

We're only a week out from the iPhone X's debut, so what we see from X-ready apps today will likely evolve over time as developers are able to live with the device longer. But despite it being early days still, there are several apps that stand out among the best the App Store has to offer for iPhone X.

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iPhone Reborn: Initial Thoughts on the iPhone X

This is not just another iPhone.

Spend enough time with an iPhone X, and every prior iPhone will feel surprisingly foreign. The radically new display and Face ID are not mere features of this new device – they are foundational pieces of a new iPhone experience that, once lived with, you'll never want to go back from.

While Federico is hard at work on his full review of the iPhone X, I wanted to share my early impressions of the device after a few days of use.

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Amazon Adopts ARKit in iOS Shopping App for Select Products

In an update released for its iOS shopping app, Amazon has introduced a new way of viewing items from the online retailer: AR View. Built on Apple's ARKit technology in iOS 11, AR View provides shoppers with a better understanding of how products will look when placed inside their homes.

AR View is accessed inside the Amazon app by tapping the camera button, then selecting AR View from the assortment of camera options. You'll then get to browse through a limited selection of product categories, such as Living Room, Kitchen, and Electronics; there's also a Top Picks section. Unlike the similar AR experience from IKEA Place, only one product can be previewed in Amazon's AR View at a time. After placing a product in AR, you can move its position or rotate it, and pressing the button with three dots will take you to the full product page for initiating a purchase.

Amazon claims that thousands of items are available in AR View, but currently only a fraction of that estimate appears for me inside the app; we should except the number of AR-compatible items to grow over the coming holiday shopping season. It also wouldn't be surprising to see AR View roll out to other parts of the app in the future, such that if you're viewing the product page for an Amazon Echo, for example, there will be a button that allows you to instantly view the item in AR.

Today's version of AR View is a first step toward enhancing the Amazon shopping experience with AR. There's plenty more work to be done, but it's exciting to see a glimpse into how transformative AR can potentially be for online shopping.


watchOS 4.1 Introduces Apple Music Streaming and New Radio App

Today Apple released the latest software for Apple Watch: watchOS 4.1. This update includes the previously announced Apple Music streaming, including over cellular, plus the introduction of a brand new Radio app.

In past versions of watchOS, independent music playback was limited to the small assortment of songs and playlists that could be stored locally on Watch hardware. Due to how slow music syncing was, I always considered it too much of a hassle to keep my favorite music accessible on the Watch. Today's update lifts those prior restrictions, though, in a big way. Now Watch owners who are also Apple Music subscribers can stream music, not just from their own library, but also from the service's full catalog of over 40 million songs. This works over cellular on the latest Series 3 models, but it also can be done over Wi-Fi with non-cellular models. Even if you don't plan to stream music sans-iPhone, watchOS 4.1 still includes the added benefit of restoring access to your full iCloud Music Library on Series 3 models: past versions of watchOS allowed this, but watchOS 4 limited your selection to synced music only.

Independent music streaming from the Apple Watch is made even better by the addition of a new built-in watchOS app: Radio. The Radio app enables streaming content from Beats 1 or select other radio stations, such as ESPN, NPR, and genre-based stations. While I would have been more excited by a Podcasts app, it's great to see more of Apple Music's features make their way to the Watch.

For owners of the Series 3 Watch with cellular, there's one last notable update: a new toggle in Control Center for activating and deactivating Wi-Fi on the Watch. So if your Watch gets stuck on a slow or unreliable Wi-Fi connection, you can easily disconnect and fall back to LTE.


For most users watchOS 4.1 is a fairly minor update with little to get excited about – but for those sporting a Series 3 Watch with cellular, it's simply transformative. Paired with AirPods, the Apple Watch can now serve as a powerful and worthy successor to the iPod line. There's something downright liberating about going iPhone-free while staying connected and available, and bringing 40 million songs along with you.