Ryan Christoffel

283 posts on MacStories since November 2016

Ryan is an editor and regular contributor for 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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Spotify Announces Improvements to Mobile App for Both Free and Paid Tiers

Today Spotify held an event in New York City where it announced several changes to its mobile app that impact users of both free and paid tiers of the service. Jordan Crook reports for TechCrunch:

Spotify’s...free tier has always limited users to shuffle. With the new version, users can listen on-demand to whatever song they want, as many times as they want, as long as those songs appear on one of the 15 personalized discovery playlists like Daily Mix, Discover Weekly, Release Radar or Today’s Top Hits.

Considering the breadth of Spotify's discovery playlists, the ability to choose songs from those playlists on-demand is a significant change. Crook also mentions how machine learning is being used not just to impact the quality of those discovery playlists, but also, now, to help users make better playlists themselves. This new feature, called "assisted playlisting," aids in playlist creation by recommending songs below the search field that are similar to the songs you searched for.

Another noteworthy change is that Spotify introduced a new "data saver" mode for its app that reportedly cuts data use by up to 75% when streaming music. This feature is available to all users, but it's particularly beneficial to free tier users who don't have the option of downloading songs for offline playback.

Each of these updates are currently being rolled out to all users of the Spotify app; it's unclear if an App Store update will be necessary, or if the changes will all be server-side.

Unlike Apple Music, which only exists as a paid service, Spotify has the challenge of balancing the features of its paid and free tiers in a way that satisfies free users, while simultaneously encouraging them to upgrade. Today's improvements seem to do a great job of that by leveraging one of Spotify's strengths over Apple Music – machine learning-powered personalized playlists. The deeper invested you are in teaching the service your likes and dislikes, the more likely you are to eventually become a paid Spotify user rather than jumping ship to Apple Music.

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Dropbox iOS App Receives Drag and Drop Support, Fullscreen iPad Navigation

The latest version of Dropbox for iOS includes some nice improvements, the most noteworthy of which is drag and drop support.

Now if you need to add files to your Dropbox from another app, you can just pick them up and drop them right into the Dropbox app in exactly the folder you want. Equally exciting to me personally is that you can also use drag and drop for file management inside the app – just tap and hold on a file or folder and it will lift from its place, letting you drag it around and move it to other locations inside the app. I've always felt Dropbox's method of moving files required too many taps, so drag and drop is a perfect solution for that. Also, I'm happy to report that file moving via drag and drop works on both iPad and iPhone.

Drag and drop capabilities have technically been available already for Dropbox users via managing your documents in Apple's Files app, but if you need or simply prefer to use Dropbox's own app, these are great features to have.

Another change in today's update is that on the iPad, you can now close the file previewing pane to get a fullscreen browsing experience with your files – just hit the X in the upper left portion of the preview pane to get fullscreen navigation. I find that this feature is especially helpful when you're using the grid view for files, but it could also be of benefit in list view if you have a lot of long file names that will no longer be truncated.

The app's release notes also state that there is improved previewing and new text editing abilities for more than 120 file extensions, but the specifics of those extensions are unknown. I was hoping one of them would be Markdown (.md) files, but unfortunately those still can't be edited in-app.

Despite the fact that Dropbox users can now do most document management inside the Files app, Dropbox continues to improve its app and make it a solid option for those who prefer not to use Files.


Burst: A Reddit Client to Pop Your Filter Bubble

Burst is a new Reddit client for iPhone with a unique goal: bursting the filter bubbles we can all find ourselves in.

Recent political events around the globe highlight how harmful it can be to society when people are only exposed to news from one perspective. The same piece of news can be spun into two polar opposite stories by differing political parties, leading each opposing side to remain, at best, misunderstood, and at worst, demonized. To lesser degrees these divisions extend to other areas of life too, such as technology debates between iOS and Android users, or even, to get a little more relevant to our audience, iPad and Mac users. In all these cases, Burst makes it easier to see the thoughts of people outside your normal online circles in an effort to broaden the array of perspectives you're exposed to.

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Microsoft Office and the Files App Finally Play Nice Together

Today Microsoft updated its Office suite for iOS, with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint all reaching version 2.12. Office updates rarely receive detailed release notes, and today was no exception, but user Teddy Svoronos discovered that the updates brought 'Open In' capabilities to the share sheet, which previously only enabled making a copy of an Office document. The 'Copy to' option has now been removed, replaced by the more convenient 'Open in.'

After seeing Teddy's tweet, I did a little playing around in the Files app and discovered that, while Excel and PowerPoint documents accessed in Files will load Quick Look previews and require tapping 'Open in' from the share sheet, the experience is even better with .docx files. Those Word-associated documents open directly in the Word app with just a single tap from the Files interface – no need to open the share sheet first.

It's possible this disparity in behaviors between file types only exists because I view Word documents far more regularly than Excel or PowerPoint files. Perhaps heavy Excel or PowerPoint users will see a different behavior because the Files app has enough data to know which app you want to open certain file types in. It's also possible, though, that the behavior I've seen is true for everyone, and Microsoft simply made a somewhat perplexing design decision.

In any case though, whether a Files document opens in its correct app with a single tap, or you use the share sheet and 'Open in' first, this is still a huge improvement for Office users. Previously any documents stored in Files would need to be accessed by going to either Word, Excel, or PowerPoint, tapping the 'More' button in the 'Open' menu, then locating the file from there. Now, iOS users can go straight to the Files app, locate the appropriate document, and open it directly with only a tap or two.

Update: One of the developers working on Office has confirmed my suspicions: the reason Word files open for me with a single tap while Excel and PowerPoint files do not is that I haven't opened those files enough for iOS to know that I would prefer to bypass the share sheet.

In theory, a system where iOS knows what you want every time could be great, but in reality, I sure would like having the option to set default apps per document type.


The Mac Pro Is Coming in 2019, Shaped by Apple’s New Pro Workflow Team

In a follow up of sorts to last year's Mac roundtable, Matthew Panazarino of TechCrunch was invited back to Apple HQ for an update on the long-awaited Mac Pro, which Apple shared will not launch until 2019:

“We want to be transparent and communicate openly with our pro community so we want them to know that the Mac Pro is a 2019 product. It’s not something for this year.”

Other than the 2019 date, the lone detail about the new Mac Pro was confirmation that it will be a modular system. Though what exactly that means, we still don't know.

The other main interesting note from Panzarino's report is that Apple has assembled a new internal Pro Workflow Team (not to be confused with the iOS app Workflow) which aims to guide and improve Apple's pro-targeted products. The team is under the oversight of John Ternus, Apple's VP of Hardware Engineering, and a great deal of its focus is learning the workflows of real pro users so it can optimize its hardware and software to make those workflows better. Panzarino writes:

To do that, Ternus says, they want their architects sitting with real customers to understand their actual flow and to see what they’re doing in real time. The challenge with that, unfortunately, is that though customers are typically very responsive when Apple comes calling, it’s not always easy to get what they want because they may be using proprietary content. John Powell, for instance, is a long-time logic user and he’s doing the new Star Wars Han Solo standalone flick. As you can imagine, taking those unreleased and highly secret compositions to Apple to play with them on their machines can be a sticking point.

So Apple decided to go a step further and just begin hiring these creatives directly into Apple. Some of them on a contract basis but many full time as well. These are award-winning artists and technicians that are brought in to shoot real projects (I saw a bunch of them walking by in Apple park toting kit for an outdoor shoot on premises while walking). They then put the hardware and software through their paces and point out sticking points that could cause frustration and friction among pro users.

This work has started in the specific areas of visual effects, video editing, 3D animation, and music production, and Apple plans to expand it out from there.

The efforts of the Pro Workflow Team serve to benefit all of Apple's pro-related hardware and software, and even popular third-party software as well. It's one way Apple is showing its commitment to serving professional users.

In the last year, Apple's output for pro users seems to have made a complete turnaround. Back then we were wondering if the company had become content focusing on the average consumer and letting pros leave for other platforms. That's certainly not the story anymore. With the iMac Pro, continued updates to Apple's pro software, and now the forthcoming Mac Pro and the ongoing investment of the Pro Workflow Team, Apple is positioning itself again as a company committed to serving the pro market.

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The Shrinking App Store

Sarah Perez, reporting for TechCrunch:

The App Store shrank for the first time in 2017, according to a new report from Appfigures. The report found the App Store lost 5 percent of its total apps over the course of the year, dropping from 2.2 million published iOS apps in the beginning of the year to 2.1 million by year-end.
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Appfigures speculated the changes had to do with a combination of factors, including stricter enforcement of Apple’s review guidelines, along with a technical change requiring app developers to update their apps to the 64-bit architecture.

With the previously announced App Store cleanup and iOS 11's 32-bit purge, it's no surprise at all that the App Store shrank during the year. To the average user though, a store with 2.1 million apps is no different than one with 2.2 million. Plus, in theory the apps that remain are of a higher overall quality than what was removed, so this should turn out to be a net gain for users.

Another way users benefit: the App Store's search engine has long had a reputation for being ineffective, so a smaller App Store should mean it's easier to find what you're looking for.

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Scanbot 7 Adds Customizable Filters, Document Merging, Improved Search, and New Themes

Scanbot 7 was released today, the latest update to the popular document scanning app for iOS. This is the first major version bump for Scanbot since Apple introduced its own scanning feature into the built-in Notes app, making it especially of interest. Every time Apple introduces a free app or feature that competes with existing third-party options, the impetus falls on those developers to prove their app's continued value. Scanbot already offered a variety of features that Notes' scanning doesn't, but it adds to those in today's update with a handful of thoughtful enhancements that make a great app even better.

In Scanbot 7, each of the app's five color filters for scans can be tweaked to your exact preferences. There are sliders included to make three types of adjustments for each filter. On most filters, those options are Brightness, Color, and Contrast, and with the Gray filter they're Brighter, Darker, and Color. Not every scan is the same; a good scan depends on the type of document being captured and your lighting conditions, so it's great having more control over filters to make every scan look as good as possible.

A second new feature is the ability to merge multiple existing scans into a single PDF. This is done by hitting the checkmark in the top-right corner when browsing previous scans, then selecting multiple scans and hitting Merge. You'll then be able to rearrange the page order of the soon-to-be-merged documents, and choose whether to replace the original documents altogether, or keep them intact post-merge. This kind of task can be accomplished in other apps, such as PDF Expert, but it's nice to bring it in-app, especially in situations when you need to consolidate scans to send to someone else.

Search has been upgraded in Scanbot 7, with auto-complete suggestions that appear even before you've typed a single character. These make Scanbot's search screen one of the best I've used in any app. Also added in today's update are five new theme options, my favorite of which is High Contrast: it uses true black and white to provide beautiful contrast in the interface, especially on the iPhone X's OLED display.

If you're in the market for a scanning solution, and want more power and customizability that Apple Notes provides, Scanbot 7 makes the app a better option than ever. All its power features are easy to use, and the app is full of thoughtful design touches that make for a delightful experience.

Scanbot 7 is available on the App Store.


Apple to Offer Customers Greater Access to Their Personal Data Online

Mark Gurman and Stephanie Bodoni report for Bloomberg on an upcoming change that will make it easier for some users to access the personal data Apple stores on them:

The iPhone maker said it will update its web page for managing Apple IDs in coming months to let users download a copy of all their data stored with the company. The site will also let customers correct personal information, temporarily deactivate their account, and completely delete it. The new privacy controls are designed to comply with the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which kicks in May 25, the Cupertino, California-based company said.
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Apple’s new web-based privacy options will be released for users in Europe in early May, while the features will come to other countries later.

The report also notes that you could previously receive copies of your data, delete your account, and more by contacting Apple directly. So these options will not be entirely new, they'll just be available on the web for the first time.

It's unclear which countries outside Europe will receive these features. Hopefully in light of the recent Facebook data debacle, Apple will find it important to make these options available to all its users, regardless of where those users reside.

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