Ryan Christoffel

684 posts on MacStories since November 2016

Ryan is an editor for MacStories and co-hosts the Adapt podcast on Relay FM. 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 New York City.

|

THIS WEEK'S SPONSOR:

Kolide

Nail Third-Party Audits and Compliance Goals with Endpoint Security for Your Entire Fleet


Note Linking in Bear Expands to Include Section Linking

Creating a note link (left) and section link (right).

Creating a note link (left) and section link (right).

One of my favorite features in Bear has always been the ability to link to different notes inside one another. Putting the name of a note inside double brackets, like [[Club 5th Anniversary]], is a clever way to connect and quickly access related notes. I wish every note-taking app offered a similar feature.

The great thing about creating a note link is that you don’t need to remember the titles of the notes you want to link to. Just type the two opening brackets, then a couple characters that are part of a note’s title, and Bear presents a dynamic autocomplete list of suggested notes that best match what you’ve typed. While using a connected hardware keyboard, you can cycle through the suggestions using just the arrow keys and hit Return to select the right one – Bear will then create the link for you by inserting the note’s full title into double brackets. Once a link’s been created, you can tap or click it to quickly open that other note.

Bear has made note linking even better in its latest update, though, by expanding it to enable linking to specific sections of another note, which works by tying into the note’s headers. Every header can now be linked to individually, opening a variety of new possibilities – creating a table of contents is the most obvious option, but there’s so much more that can be done with direct section links.

This expanded functionality for links is worth mentioning because of the valuable utility it provides, but also because of how well it’s been implemented. Building on the existing system of typing two opening brackets then part of a note’s title, all you have to do to link a note section is then type a single forward slash / after you have an autocomplete suggestion highlighted – that note’s headers will all display so you can select the right one from there. If you’re using a hardware keyboard especially, the whole process is so fast and simple. It feels especially nice on iPad, where apps often drop the ball with keyboard support when navigating popup menus. In Bear everything just works the way you’d expect. Thanks to strong keyboard support and an intuitive UI for note and heading suggestions, creating links takes just a couple seconds.


External Keyboards, iPadOS 14, and Obscuring Tab Bars

iPadOS 14 apps use sidebars, but only in certain size classes, so tab bars still get hidden behind the keyboard row.

iPadOS 14 apps use sidebars, but only in certain size classes, so tab bars still get hidden behind the keyboard row.

I love using the iPad as my primary computer, but a long-standing frustration I’ve had involves the keyboard row that lines the bottom of the screen when an external keyboard is attached. I like the row itself, as it usually offers valuable utility such as in Apple Notes, where a text formatting menu is available in the keyboard row. The problem is that iPadOS doesn’t adapt apps’ UI to account for the keyboard row, rather it simply hides the bottom portion of an app – which in many cases means hiding the app’s tab bar or other important controls.

This is mainly an issue when using Split View or Slide Over, not full-screen apps. But most of my iPad use does involve Split View and Slide Over, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to manually hide the keyboard row so I could access an app’s tab bar. This is a regular occurrence when writing articles, for example, as I’ll keep Ulysses and Photos in Split View, and the keyboard row that appears when working in Ulysses obscures Photos’ tab bar so I can’t switch tabs in Photos without manually hiding the keyboard row. The row also hides the share icon when viewing a photo, which is what I press many times when writing an article so I can run shortcuts via the share sheet. So as a workaround I have to manually hide the row, a short-lived fix because it then reappears after typing a single keystroke in Ulysses.

In iPadOS 14, Apple is halfway solving this problem. Because apps are being encouraged to switch from a tab bar-based design to one that involves a sidebar, there are fewer occasions when tab bars will be visible. In the iPadOS 14 beta, if I have Ulysses and Photos in a 50/50 Split View, there’s no longer a tab bar for the keyboard row to obscure, because Photos uses a sidebar instead where I can easily navigate to the view I need.

Unfortunately, this is only a partial solution because iPadOS 14 apps still revert to using a tab bar in a compact size class (i.e. when they’re an iPhone-like size). So all Slide Over apps retain tab bars for navigation as before, meaning those important tabs will be hidden any time you’re also working in an app that uses text and thus presents a keyboard row. The same is true for Split View when an app is the smaller app in your multitasking setup. If the app you’re writing in is the larger app in your Split View, the smaller app will have its tab bar obscured by a keyboard row. This is especially problematic for writers, who live in a text editor all day, but it also applies to anyone working in a note-taking app, messaging app, or anything else involving text. iPadOS 14 improves things via sidebars in certain situations, but in many multitasking contexts the years-old problem remains.

But there’s a happy ending of sorts, at least for me. My inspiration for writing about this issue was the discovery of a feature in Ulysses that fixes the problem for me. The app’s View Options inside its Settings panel contains a toggle that has been there for quite a while, I simply never thought to activate it: Hide Shortcut Bar. What this does is perpetually hide the keyboard row whenever a hardware keyboard is attached to your iPad. No keyboard row means no hiding tab bars in other apps while I write.

Ulysses does place some important shortcuts in the keyboard row, but most if not all of them can be triggered via keyboard shortcuts instead, making the keyboard row unnecessary (for my uses at least).

After making this discovery, I dug around in a few other apps’ settings to see how common this feature is. iA Writer offers it, as does Drafts, and possibly many other apps I haven’t tried. It seems more common in text editors than note-taking apps. It’s a shame that the whole keyboard row needs to be hidden just to account for an iPadOS design flaw, but I’m thankful that third-party developers have stepped in to address the issue themselves.

Ulysses is the app I multitask in most frequently, so the ability to keep its keyboard row hidden forever has truly made my day. I tried explaining to my wife why I got so happy all of a sudden, and she didn’t really get it. I don’t blame her.


Apple Releases iOS 13.7, Bringing COVID-19 Exposure Notifications Express to the Public

For the first time that I can ever recall, Apple is releasing a point update to iOS just a week after the update’s first beta debuted. iOS 13.7 is rolling out now to iPhone users, bringing the COVID-19 Exposure Notifications system to users without the need to download a separate third-party app. This version of the system is being dubbed Exposure Notifications Express. Per an Apple-Google quote provided to The Verge:

As the next step in our work with public health authorities on Exposure Notifications, we are making it easier and faster for them to use the Exposure Notifications System without the need for them to build and maintain an app. Exposure Notifications Express provides another option for public health authorities to supplement their existing contact tracing operations with technology without compromising on the project’s core tenets of user privacy and security.

After installing the update, from Settings ⇾ Exposure Notifications users can either opt-in to the new system, which was developed in a partnership between Apple and Google, or sign up to be notified when the system becomes available in their region. Currently, even though a separate app download isn’t necessary anymore, Apple is still only activating its system in areas where public health authorities are explicitly on board and have the processes in place to utilize data gathered from iPhones and Android devices for the sake of contact tracing. This means availability still doesn’t extend to all iPhone users, but it will hopefully expand quicker than when a separate app download was required. In the US, Exposure Notifications Express will launch in Maryland, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington D.C. with more states expected to be supported throughout the remainder of the year.


Sleep Tracking in watchOS 7 and iOS 14: Elevated by a User Experience-Driven Design

Sleep tracking has always seemed like a natural addition to the Apple Watch, and for years all signs have indicated Apple had it in its plans. In 2017 the company acquired Beddit, which specialized in sleep-tracking hardware and software. Perhaps one motivation for that move was the fact that paid sleep-tracking apps regularly occupied the App Store’s top charts. Apple has also progressively exhibited strong interest in areas of health, making sleep a no-brainer. So the technology for sleep tracking had been acquired, customer demand was clearly there, and it fit within the broader health ambitions of the company.

Yet until this year, Apple’s sleep-related software enhancements have been limited to…improved alarm options on iPhone. This fall that’s changing, as watchOS 7 and iOS 14 will together introduce a true sleep tracking system.

I’ve been using the new sleep-related features of Apple’s forthcoming OS versions for two full months now, and in true Apple fashion, they’re in some ways more comprehensive and elegant than third-party solutions, and in other ways they’re underpowered compared to what third parties provide, ensuring that they won’t be the best fit for all users, but their simplicity will make them a solid solution for most people.

Read more


Apple Releases iOS 13.7 Developer Beta with COVID-19 Exposure Notifications, No Third-Party App Required

Today Apple released a beta version of what must surely be the final major point update to iOS 13, version 13.7, which includes one big feature: support for built-in COVID-19 exposure notifications without the need to first download a separate app.

When Apple initially committed to build an exposure notification system alongside Google, it explained that while its system would be dependent on apps from public health authorities at first, at a later date the company would have the feature built-in to iOS with no need for an additional app download. Beta users will still need to explicitly opt-in to the system if they wish to use it, however; simply downloading iOS 13.7 will not enable COVID-19 exposure notifications. You can opt-in from Settings ⇾ Exposure Notifications.

Ever since Apple released the first phase of its exposure notification work as part of iOS 13.5 in May, adoption of the technology by authorized apps has been relatively limited. In the US, for example, it was just earlier this month that the very first state launched an app with support for Apple’s system. Now, for beta users at least, exposure notifications are no longer entirely dependent on the work of third parties – though that statement may deserve an asterisk.

Apple explained back in May how COVID-19 exposure notifications will now work:

After the operating system update is installed and the user has opted in, the system will send out and listen for the Bluetooth beacons as in the first phase, but without requiring an app to be installed. If a match is detected the user will be notified, and if the user has not already downloaded an official public health authority app they will be prompted to download an official app and advised on next steps. Only public health authorities will have access to this technology and their apps must meet specific criteria around privacy, security, and data control.

If at some point a user is positively diagnosed with COVID-19, he or she can work with the health authority to report that diagnosis within the app, and with their consent their beacons will then added to the positive diagnosis list. User identity will not be shared with other users, Apple and Google as part of this process.

This documentation makes it sound like downloading a separate app might be necessary after an exposure has been detected, but it’s unclear. It’s possible that the entire process can work without an app, but that Apple will, where available, promote and integrate with apps from authorized health authorities as well. It’s also unclear if the feature will be restricted to certain geographic domains or if it will be available to all users. 13.7’s beta release notes state rather vaguely that “System availability depends on support from your local public health authority.”

Requiring a separate app download, and even before that requiring health authorities to first develop their own apps, always seemed like too great of hurdles to allow mass adoption of Apple and Google’s system. Here’s hoping today’s release is the start of changing that.


GoodNotes Launches iCloud Document Collaboration

One of the tech trends I expect has been accelerated by the current state of the world is a demand for collaboration features in software. On Apple’s platforms the company offers its native iCloud collaboration features that apps can adopt, and which are also available in first-party apps like Notes, Reminders, and the iWork suite. While iCloud doesn’t provide the kind of instant, real-time collaboration found with a service like Google Docs, the undisputed king of this domain, it’s nonetheless a solid option that provides valuable utility in apps that support it.

The latest app to add iCloud collaboration is GoodNotes, which in today’s version 5.5 enables you to share documents with other GoodNotes users so you can work together in the same document at once. The way this works is simple: from your documents library, tapping a document’s title will open a context menu where Collaborate is a new option; or, while working in a document, tapping the share icon will also reveal the Collaborate option. Like other apps supporting iCloud collaboration, the feature works by generating a link which grants collaborators access to the shared files, provided they have the source app installed. In this case, anyone who has the link can access the file. Once a document has been shared, it will be badged with a special icon in your library, and all shared documents are additionally housed in a new Shared tab in GoodNotes’ navigation bar.

Collaboration means that multiple people work in a document at once making their own annotations and changes, though there will regularly be a delay of 15-30 seconds before changes appear for all users. As such, GoodNotes’ collaboration doesn’t serve as a replacement for more real-time solutions such as collaborative whiteboard apps, but rather it’s better suited for situations where changes are made over an extended period of time. For example, sharing meeting notes before or after a meeting takes place to get feedback from your team, or letting multiple people annotate a draft-in-progress. As an app, GoodNotes offers tools for a range of use cases in areas of business, education, or personal uses, so there will likely be lots of scenarios where the new collaboration option is valuable despite lacking real-time updates. When there is an update to a shared document, you’ll be notified via a blue badge accompanying the document in your library, which can also inform you of which page in the document received changes.

John and I used different colors to indicate who made which annotations.

John and I used different colors to indicate who made which annotations.

Besides the slow sync time, another key limitation I discovered in my testing is that GoodNotes doesn’t offer a way to identify who made which annotations in a document. Unlike an app like Apple Notes, where you can choose to highlight the text written by each collaborator, there’s no such equivalent feature built-in here. What this means is that if you want to know who is responsible for certain notes or changes, you’ll need to coordinate with collaborators ahead of time and ask them to use specific colors so you know who is who, or else everyone will need to find a different identifying method such as initialing every annotation. Hopefully this drawback will be resolved in a future update. Finally, it’s also worth noting that collaboration features currently don’t work for managed Apple IDs, such as those commonly employed in schools.

Collaboration is such an important feature in 2020, and Apple’s current APIs for iCloud collaboration have been adopted by so few apps, that it’s always nice to see a new one add it. The limitations aren’t great, but my hope is that today’s release should be considered more a 1.0 of collaboration rather than the final version. If GoodNotes’ team (or Apple, via API improvements) can cut down on the lag between changes syncing among collaborators, and can offer a native way to know who made which changes, collaboration could become a key differentiator for the app. Even without those potential enhancements though, in 2020 the addition of collaboration is a valuable asset for any app, and GoodNotes is no exception.


Apple and Privacy in 2020: Wide-Reaching Updates with Minimal User Intrusion

Privacy has increasingly become a competitive advantage for Apple. The bulk of the company’s revenue comes from hardware sales, in stark contrast to competitors like Google who depend heavily on ad revenue and thus benefit tremendously from collecting user data. Apple calls privacy one of its core values, and the structure of its business makes it easier to hold true to that value. But that doesn’t mean its privacy work is easy or without cost – behind the huge number of privacy enhancements this year was surely significant effort and resources that could have been diverted elsewhere. The company’s privacy discourse isn’t empty marketing speak; it’s product-shaping. Not only that, but thanks to Apple’s enormous influence in tech, it can be industry-shaping too, forcing companies that otherwise may not prioritize user privacy to do business differently.

This year in its WWDC keynote, Apple dedicated an entire section of the presentation to privacy, detailing its latest efforts within the framework of what it calls its four privacy pillars:

  • On-device processing
  • Data minimization
  • Security protections
  • Transparency and control

Evidence of each of these pillars can be seen throughout much of what Apple announced during the rest of the keynote. On-device processing, for example, powers the new Translate app in iOS 14, HomeKit Secure Video’s face recognition feature, and more. New security protections have been implemented to warn you if a Keychain password’s been compromised, and to enable Sign In with Apple for existing in-app accounts, both of which make your accounts more secure. But the majority of this year’s most prominent privacy updates fell under the remaining two core pillars: data minimization and transparency and control.

Here are the privacy-focused changes you’ll see this fall across iOS and iPadOS 14 and macOS Big Sur.

Read more


Apple Rebrands Beats 1 as Apple Music 1, Launches New Global Radio Stations with Fresh Hosts and Shows

Today Apple announced an expansion and rebranding for Apple Music’s radio efforts. The flagship worldwide radio station Beats 1 is being renamed Apple Music 1 while retaining the same content as before.

Joining Apple Music 1 in Apple’s lineup of global radio stations will be two new stations: Apple Music Hits and Apple Music Country. The former is dedicated to well-known and well-loved songs from the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s, while the latter highlights modern and classic country music.

Like Apple Music 1’s roster of hosts and presenters, which includes Zane Lowe, Ebro Darden, and Brooke Reese, Apple’s two new stations will have daily on-air hosts as well. For Apple Music Hits this includes Jayde Donovan, Estelle, Lowkey, and more; Apple Music Country will be hosted by Kelleigh Bannen, Ty Bentli, and Bree, among others.

One of the unique strengths of Apple Music 1, besides its strong team of hosts, is the periodic shows by artists such as Billie Eilish, Elton John, and Frank Ocean. Apple has assembled just as impressive an assortment of shows for its new stations. Per Apple’s press release, Apple Music Hits will feature exclusive shows from “Backstreet Boys, Ciara, Mark Hoppus, Huey Lewis, Alanis Morissette, Snoop Dogg, Meghan Trainor, Shania Twain, and more.” For Apple Music Country the list of shows is even longer, featuring:

Jimmie Allen, Kelsea Ballerini, Dierks Bentley, BRELAND, Luke Bryan, Luke Combs, Morgan Evans, Florida Georgia Line, Pat Green, Willie Jones, Chrissy Metz, Midland, Rissi Palmer, The Shires, Carrie Underwood, and Morgan Wallen, alongside exclusive shows from legendary producers and songwriters like Dave Cobb, Jesse Frasure, and Luke Laird, and journalist Hunter Kelly.

Apple Music hasn’t changed its radio product much over the years, so today’s announcements represent a significant move for the company. While I still wish the Music app provided better tools for informing me when a new radio show I may be interested in is coming up, such as push notifications as a show’s starting, perhaps today’s moves are just the beginning. Now that the content side of radio has been enhanced, perhaps this fall’s updated Music app will offer improvements to the software side of the radio experience.


Apple TV Channels Bundle Now Available Featuring CBS All Access and SHOWTIME

Apple today announced the first bundle offer that’s ever been available for channels in the company’s TV app. It comes with a unique twist in that the offer is only available for customers who already subscribe to Apple TV+, whether through a paid subscription or as part of their free year of service for purchasing a new Apple product. Apple TV+ subscribers can now subscribe to a bundle of CBS All Access and SHOWTIME for just $9.99 per month following a 7-day free trial. When subscribed to separately, these two channels together would cost $20.98 per month, making this a substantial offer.

Apple’s press release highlights some of the features that make channel subscriptions appealing:

By subscribing through Apple TV channels, customers can watch content from all three services online and offline, ad-free and on demand, only on the Apple TV app. Through Family Sharing, up to six family members can share the subscriptions to Apple TV+, CBS All Access, and SHOWTIME using just their personal Apple ID and password.

As someone who has used Apple’s TV app heavily for years, I’ve written before about how much value I find in the channels experience, and how disappointed I am that Apple hasn’t been able to strike more deals for additional channels partners. When Apple TV channels first launched in early 2019, HBO was the most prestigious channel available, but when that service transitioned to become HBO Max, there was no longer a channel option available for Apple users. New streaming services like Disney+ and Peacock haven’t been made available as channels either. So Apple has built a solid TV experience for the streaming age, but it’s not available for the services people care about most. I’m not particularly hopeful that today’s bundle news will change that at all, but it’s good to at least see a little life from the company’s channels initiative.