Ryan Christoffel

259 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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What HomePod Should Become: A Hub for All Apple-Centric Needs

Today the HomePod is all about music, but it could be so much more.

From its debut last June at WWDC to launch day this February, HomePod's primary purpose has been clear: it's an Apple Music accessory. Music has been the sole focus of Apple's marketing, including the recent Spike Jonze short film – yet it's an angle many have trouble accepting.

In a pre-Amazon Echo world, HomePod being a great Apple Music speaker would have been enough. But in 2018 we expect more from smart speakers, and we expect more from Apple.

HomePod succeeds as a music speaker, but it's not the device we expected – at least not yet. Due to its arrival date more than three years after the birth of Alexa, we expected a smarter, more capable product. We expected the kind of product the HomePod should be: a smart speaker that's heavy on the smarts. Apple nailed certain aspects with its 1.0: the design, sound quality, and setup are all excellent. But that's not enough.

HomePod isn't a bad product today, but it could become a great one.


By becoming a true hub for all our Apple-centric needs.

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New Google Maps APIs Empowering Game Developers to Create Premium AR Experiences

Andrew Webster, writing for The Verge:

There’s been a wave of location-based mobile games announced recently, based on everything from The Walking Dead to Jurassic World. It turns out these games have more in common than just timing: they’re all powered by Google Maps. Today Google is announcing that it’s opening up its ubiquitous mapping platform to allow game developers to more easily create real-world games. The next Pokémon Go might finally be on the way.

Gaining access to a real-time mapping source like Google Maps is huge for developers, but the additional tools that go along with Google's newly announced game platform take that a step further. Google is also launching a Unity SDK to tie into its mapping data, and enabling gameplay experiences to be built around specific locations or location types.

Developers can do things like choose particular kinds of buildings or locations — say, all stores or restaurants — and transform each one. A fantasy realm could turn all hotels into restorative inns, for instance, or anything else.

This sounds like it could be a huge boon to the mobile game market, particularly when combined with tools like Apple's ARKit. Yes, it means we'll probably get tired of all the games trying to replicate Pokémon GO's success, but these new developer tools will also likely enable some truly immersive, exciting gaming experiences.

Google created a video that shows off just a glimpse of what's possible with its new Maps APIs.


Philips Hue Outdoor Lights Arrive This Summer

Philips has announced the launch of a major expansion in Hue lighting products into the great outdoors. Just in time for the season of neighborhood BBQs, the assortment of outdoor Hue products includes standard lighting units for mounting on your home's exterior, along with a couple products uniquely suited for occupying the grounds surrounding your house.

The new Lily product is a spotlight for highlighting different areas of your landscaping; it will be available in a 3-pack for $279. The Calla bollard is ideal for placement along a pathway, or at central gathering places in your yard; it will retail for $129. Both of these products feature the full range of color options available with many other Hue lights, while the wall-mounted lights will be limited to a white range and start at $49.

Hue's outdoor products will work similarly to its existing lineup of indoor lights, with the Hue bridge acting as a hub for them all, and full HomeKit support. They are scheduled to release in the U.S. and Europe in July.

Philips has established a strong reputation for its Hue products as the go-to smart lighting option, and for those invested in that ecosystem already, it's great to see new and diverse products continue to be made available.

Textor: The iOS Equivalent of TextEdit, Integrated with Files

Over the weekend, developer Louis D'hauwe released a new plain text editor to the iOS App Store. Textor is about as simple an app as you could get: while it does offer support for modern iOS technologies, like Split View on iPad, and modern iOS screen dimensions, like the iPhone X and iPad Pro sizes, it doesn't offer any kind of innovative features to pull you in. In fact, it doesn't really contain much in the way of features at all.

D'hauwe created Textor as a result of exploring what new iOS tools he would need before making the iPad his primary computer. His recently launched terminal app, OpenTerm, birthed from the same roots.

Textor is unique in how utterly stripped down it is, and it's that simplicity that makes it so appealing. Launch the app – which is free and open-source – and you'll see iOS 11's new Files document browser. This enables opening existing plain text files stored in any app that serves as an iOS file provider. You can open directly from iCloud Drive, Dropbox, Google Drive, Working Copy, and more. You can also create a new document in any of these places by hitting the + button in the top-right corner.

Outside of the Files document browser, the only interface is found in the editor itself: a plain canvas with a purple blinking cursor. It's just you and the text.

Textor's lack of noteworthy features makes it a fitting TextEdit-equivalent for iOS. It also makes it unlikely to be the best text editor for you, unless your needs are extremely minimal.

Despite its bare-bones nature, I was excited to hear about Textor's launch because it happens to fit exactly the tiny niche I was looking for. My everyday writing is done in Ulysses, an app I absolutely love. But when it comes to editing other people's work, Ulysses isn't a great solution because its custom formatting engine doesn't play nice with existing Markdown drafts.

Every week as part of preparing the latest Club MacStories newsletter, I edit about ten different Markdown files stored in a GitHub repo and accessed through Working Copy. I've tried several quality apps for this job, including iA Writer, 1Writer, and Textastic – all can open files directly from Working Copy, but a variety of issues big and small make none of them the ideal solution. Textor does exactly what I need: opens documents via Files, allows me to edit them free from cumbersome frills, then saves them in place when I'm done editing.

There are a couple changes that would make Textor a better tool for me: auto-saving drafts so I don't have to hit the app's 'Done' button to save changes, and support for Markdown styling so I get a preview of what my document will look like when published. Those features aren't necessities though, and I don't expect to see Textor add them. Everyone will have their own list of two or three features they'd like, but Textor doesn't need to be feature-complete. The app exists to offer a no-nonsense writing experience with Files support, and it succeeds at exactly that.

Textor is available as a free download on the App Store.

Apple Acquires Texture, a Digital Magazine Subscription Service

Today Apple announced the completion of its latest acquisition: Texture, a digital magazine subscription service.

Texture brings over 200 of the world’s best magazines to life, providing an easy way for users to read high-quality stories and entire issues of their favorite titles. With Texture, users enjoy the magazines they know and love, while discovering new content that fits their passions and interests.

Texture's iOS app was previously featured by the App Store editorial team as one of the best apps of 2016. Currently, you can still sign up for the service's $9.99/month subscription. There's no word in Apple's press release regarding whether Texture's existing app will shut down or continue running as-is.

Texture's Netflix-style model of subscription service feels like a perfect fit for future integration in Apple News. Individual subscriptions to publications like The Washington Post are currently available inside News, but this acquisition creates the potential for an official Apple service, similar to Apple Music, that bundles together the various magazine articles included in Texture. With Texture's existing catalog as a starting base, Apple could also be in the market for additional acquisition targets that would serve to beef up a future News-related service before its launch. Texture could just be the beginning.

Dropbox Announces Forthcoming Integration with Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides

Today on its blog, Dropbox announced an exciting piece of news: the company will soon add integrations between its service and Google's G Suite. The most prominent of those new ties involves Google Docs:

Dropbox users will be able to create, open, edit, save, and share Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides directly from Dropbox. And when you’re working in Dropbox, you’ll be able to save Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides to your Dropbox account.

Considering how much effort Dropbox has poured into building its own Google Docs competitor in Dropbox Paper, it's surprising to see the company embrace the competition wholeheartedly with a full-fledged integration like this. It's certainly good news for Dropbox users though, as Google Docs has long been the gold standard of web-based, collaborative document services.

Today's announcement post is unfortunately short on details of exactly when this integration will launch (besides saying "later this year"), or what it will look like. It's unknown, for instance, if the change will primarily impact Dropbox on the web, or if Dropbox's mobile app will be also optimized to do things like preview Google files and open them in their appropriate iOS apps for editing; one would hope mobile will reap the benefits too. The solid implementation of Dropbox's existing support for Microsoft Office gives hope that the service will play just as nicely with Google when the time comes.

One related piece of news from the post is that Dropbox is also building native integrations for Gmail and Hangouts Chat, so you'll be able to select files from your Dropbox account while using those services, plus a couple other small things.

Dropbox is pushing forward as a platform-agnostic, service-agnostic file hub for your working life. Whether the strategy will lead to long-term health for the company remains to be seen, but for me personally, it's one of the points keeping me from giving Dropbox up and going all-in on Apple's iCloud.


Twitter Launches Bookmarks Feature in New Share Menu

Twitter had previously shared that it was working on a new feature, Bookmarks, which would let users privately save tweets for later. Today the company announced that Bookmarks have officially launched and are beginning to roll out to all users across iOS, Android, and Twitter's mobile site.

As part of this launch, the Direct Message button previously available on every tweet is being replaced by a new Share button – hit Share, and you'll see the following three options:

  • Send via Direct Message
  • Add Tweet to Bookmarks
  • Share Tweet via...

The latter option will load the system share sheet on iOS.

Tweets added to your Bookmarks are available only for your private viewing, and they can be found by opening the app's sidebar and hitting the Bookmarks menu option. You can see the whole process of how Bookmarks work in the tweet below.

Everyone will have their own purposes for using Bookmarks, but for my own use, I'm considering saving links shared on Twitter for reading later. Normally I do this by saving to Safari Reading List, but Bookmarks may be a simpler alternative. Also, anytime I come across a tweet I want to share with my wife at the end of the day, Bookmarks should be a perfect fit for that.


Anchor 3.0 Exhibits a New Level of Maturity for the Podcasting Service

Anchor today launched a major new version of its iPhone app, alongside a new web experience for creators. Anchor 3.0 is a ground-up redesign that takes lessons learned in past versions and applies them for the purpose of making podcasting as effortless and accessible as possible.

My prior experience with Anchor has been limited, but every time I've given it a try, I came away impressed. The latest update to Anchor isn't so much about flashy new features, but more about demonstrating a new level of maturity: the interface is now cleaner and easier to navigate, the task of recording and publishing podcasts has never been simpler, and there are new built-in tools available to creators to help make recordings professional-grade.

In preparing this story, I wanted to approach the app as a new user might, documenting the experience of getting set up and creating a new show. Anchor has always done fairly well at being user-friendly, but I think that's more true now than ever before.

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A Year-Long Experiment Comparing the Best Map Navigation Services

We all have our own anecdotal reasons for thinking a certain map navigation service is best, but few of us are willing to perform a committed experiment that gathers enough data to prove our beliefs. Artur Grabowski, however, did just that.

In an experiment that began early last year and led to recording 120 different driving trips, Grabowski compared the big three mapping services: Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze. Though more complex studies could certainly be done, Grabowski kept things simple by focusing on answering only three questions:

  1. Which navigation app estimates the shortest travel time?
  2. How does each app over/underestimate travel times?
  3. Which navigation app actually gets you to your destination most quickly?

His results found that Waze estimated the shortest travel times, but that actually wasn't a good thing, because the service also had the least accurate estimates. Apple Maps estimated the longest times, but that resulted in it being more accurate than its competitors. Google Maps, meanwhile, most often produced the fastest actual travel times, with Apple Maps and Waze placing second and third, respectively.

Grabowski's tests are accompanied by the asterisk that his routes were all taken in the San Francisco Bay Area, where Apple Maps is likely at its strongest. Even so, the data he compiled over the year is fascinating to analyze, and shows just how competitive these services are with each other in the areas that matter most.