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The MacBook Air: A Decade’s Worth of Legacy

Today, all of our notebooks are thin and light. We've traded our optical drives in for a series of dongles and our spinning hard drives for fast, silent SSDs.

It wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, notebooks had optical drives and a full array of ports, complemented by features like removable batteries.

A decade ago, we entered the current era of notebook design when Steve Jobs pulled the future out of an envelope.

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Apple and the Alexa Ecosystem

I recently read two interesting takes on the ever-growing Alexa ecosystem as it relates to Apple that made me think about the future of Siri and HomeKit. Here's M.G. Siegler on Amazon's plan to put Alexa everywhere:

The Echo Dot was the number one selling device across all of Amazon during the holiday shopping season. (The Fire TV stick with the Alexa-enabled remote was the second-most popular product.) Again, no absolute sales numbers beyond “tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices” — more than we usually get, by the way — but no matter: tens of millions is impressive enough.

I’ve been thinking about this recently not just in the context of putting Echoes in hotels, but also relative to Apple. As we’re all well aware, Apple had to delay their foray into the space, the HomePod, into 2018. But not only did they miss the all-important holiday shopping season, I’m increasingly thinking that they may have missed the boat.

Believe me, I know how dangerous this line of thinking is with regard to Apple. Apple is almost never the first-mover in a market. Instead, they prefer to sit back and let markets mature enough to then swoop in with their effort, which more often than not is the best effort (this is both subjective in terms of my own taste, and often objective in terms of sales). But again, I increasingly don’t believe that this will be the case with their smart speaker.

Amazon has entered the speaker and home automation market with Alexa-enabled devices in two ways: first with their own Echo products, then with a growing roster of third-party manufacturers that are baking Alexa into their devices and almost treating Amazon's assistant as a "standard" feature like WiFi or Bluetooth. There's a fascinating parallel between Amazon Web Services – a suite of components embedded in the majority of modern websites and web apps – and Alexa Voice Service – a suite of voice APIs now embedded in hundreds of automation devices, general-purpose accessories and appliances, and web services.

Here's Ben Bajarin on what Alexa's presence at CES tells us about the ecosystem surrounding Apple:

While many Apple defenders want to dismiss the momentum we are observing with the Amazon ecosystem on display here at CES, while Amazon is similarly not present just like Apple, I believe it is a mistake to do so.

It is easy to say that because Apple was never present at CES that the show didn’t mean something to them or their ecosystem. It is easy, and correct to say that CES was not, or never was, a measure of the health of Apple’s products. It is, however, incorrect and dangerous to miss that CES had been, for some time, a barometer for the health of Apple’s ecosystem.

As I mentioned, our ability to measure any platforms ecosystem from what we observe at CES, is the main reason so many are paying attention to what is happening with Amazon’s Alexa platform. Google Assistant is certainly more present than it was last year, however, when you look at how third parties are talking about-and marketing-their support of these assistants they are putting significantly more effort into talking about Alexa than Google Assistant. Which is a telling signal. Again, to reiterate this point, third parties used to market, and spend energy talking about their integration with iOS or support of iPhone/iPad with the same rigor they are now talking about Amazon’s Alexa. This can not be ignored.

You could argue that most Apple-compatible gadgets and accessories announced at CES used to appear in tech blogs only to be forgotten a few months later because they were fads, vaporware, or ultimately not essential to the growth of the iOS ecosystem, and that the same will happen with Alexa-enabled devices we've seen this year. The difference, I think, is that this new generation of home automation products is an ecosystem in itself with higher value than, say, the iPad keyboards or stylii we used to see at CES. Alexa hasn't "won", but it has momentum among third-party companies making products that are or will soon be in our homes, sharing the same space of our TVs, routers, consoles, and mobile devices.

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Our Favorite Gear and Accessories of 2017

For each of us, iOS devices or Macs dominate our day-to-day computing, but they don’t tell the full story. Whether it’s a battery pack to keep a device charged, the latest game console for kicking back and relaxing, or a comfortable chair for sitting at a desk while writing, we use a wide variety of other products for work and play. So, with 2017 coming to a close, we compiled a list of our favorite gear and accessories that we used this past year.

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My Must-Have Mac Apps, 2017 Edition

It’s been quite a year. At the start, I was still commuting to Chicago every day to work in a law office full of Windows PCs. Now I work from my home studio surrounded by Apple hardware, moving back and forth from a late-2016 MacBook Pro to iOS devices as I write and talk about apps each day.

When I was commuting, iOS played a central role. I was on the move and used my iPhone and iPad to write for MacStories when I wasn’t practicing law. Now, I have a dedicated workspace where I connect my MacBook Pro to a 4K 27” display and a fast, wired Internet connection.

During 2017, the work I do changed too. Not only did I leave my law job, but in addition to writing at MacStories, Federico and I launched AppStories, and I began selling sponsorships for the site and podcast.

With no commute, a dedicated workspace, and massive change in the work I do each day, how I get work done has changed significantly too. I continue to work on macOS and iOS, but the Mac now plays a bigger role in my workday than ever before. I haven’t abandoned iOS for work, but now, I work on iOS because I want to, not because I need to.

Just over two months into working from home, I’ve begun to reevaluate how I use the Mac. I expect to continue evolving how I work on macOS throughout 2018 as I feel my way around the best ways to be productive. Still, a couple of overarching themes can be seen in my picks below that I expect will continue to guide me in 2018.

First, I primarily use my Mac for work. If I watch a video, read a book or article, or play a game, it’s more likely to happen on iOS, which I expect to continue. The primary exception to that rule is listening to music, which I often do as I work. Second, I don’t like to be limited to macOS. As much as I work on my Mac, I value the option to do things like pick up my iPad to read email messages or grab my iPhone while I’m away from home to make a quick edit to something I’m writing.

With that context, below are 40 Mac apps and a few web services that I used this year and consider my must-have apps, divided into seven categories:

  • Writing
  • Reading and Research
  • Images and Video
  • Podcast Recording and Production
  • Utilities
  • Communications
  • Task Management and Planning

I’ve also included a few awards at the end of the story that highlight some of my favorites among the exceptional group of apps I use every day on my Mac, including an App of the Year.

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My Must-Have iOS Apps, 2017 Edition

With the transition to iPad Pro as my primary computer fully achieved in 2016 and not surprising anymore, in 2017 I turned my attention to three other key areas of my life: working with the MacStories team, managing my time, and finding my favorite apps among many competing alternatives.

For the first time in several years, I didn't publish a story documenting my journey towards the iPad and iOS in 2017. In many ways, that's a closed chapter of my career: the iPad Pro has convinced millions of people that it can be a suitable replacement for or addition to a Mac; with iOS 11 and its productivity features, Apple only cemented that belief. While part of me misses arguing in favor of the iPad against widespread skepticism, I felt it was time to move on from explaining the "why" of the iPad to helping others get the most out of the device. For this reason, I spent the better part of 2017 covering iOS 11 (first with my wish list, then with an in-depth review), discussing the details of iPad productivity, and creating advanced workflows for Club MacStories.

As much as I like to write in isolation, MacStories is also a team that requires a direction and a business that begets further responsibilities. Learning how to balance the multifaceted nature of my job with my hobbies and personal life (which got busier thanks to two puppies we adopted in April) has been an interesting challenge this year, and one that taught me a lot about allocating my time and attention, as well as the kind of writer I am and aspire to be.

There has been a recurring theme that has characterized my relationship with iOS in 2017: I've made a conscious effort to try as many new apps and services as possible, ensuring I would have a basic knowledge of all the available options on the market for different categories.

As I was settling on a routine and set of apps that worked well for me, I realized that I didn't want to lose the spark of excitement I used to feel when trying new apps in previous years. My job is predicated upon writing about software and having a sense of where our industry is going; while finding something that works and using it for years is great, I don't want to become the kind of tech writer who's stuck in his ways and doesn't consider the possibility that better software might exist and is worth writing about. Even though my experiments didn't always lead to switching to a different app, they made me appreciate the state of the iOS ecosystem and helped me understand my app preferences in 2017.

Thus, I'm going back to basics for my annual roundup this year. In the collection below, you'll find the 75 apps I consider my must-haves – no web services, just apps for iPhone and iPad. Apps are organized by category and, whenever possible, include links to past coverage on MacStories.

As in previous years, you'll find a series of personal awards at the end of the story. These include my App of the Year and Runners-Up; this year, I also picked winners for Feature, Redesign, Update, and Debut of the Year.

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    iPhone X: A New Frontier

    For a radically redesigned iPhone launching on the tenth anniversary of the first model, it seems reasonable to lead a review of the device with a retrospective on the original iPhone and how, over the course of a decade, its vision matured into the iPhone X. But today, I want to begin with the iPhone 4.

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      The Original Apple TV: Ushering in a New Era of Entertainment

      Today's Apple TV is its own full-fledged platform. While it is more expensive and less popular than other some other media streamers, the Apple TV has come into its own. The current device can stream 4K HDR content, play games and even be used as a calculator.

      The original Apple TV didn't enjoy such a wide feature set, and it wasn't treated as a full-blown product by the company, which repeatedly talked about it as a "hobby."

      To understand that attitude, I think it's important to go back to when Steve Jobs first previewed the device in September 2006.

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      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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      Going Out on Top: The iPod mini

      Very often in life, we see things like products, athletic careers and even relationships end way later than they should. When this happens, sometimes the end goes unnoticed and with little fanfare.

      Occasionally, things end on a high note, like when an athlete announces their retirement after winning a championship or a band calls it quits after a massive album and tour.

      In the world of Apple products, the iPod mini is an example of the latter. It's perhaps the best example of Apple killing one of its darlings.

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