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apple

Dark mode: better on the iPhone than the Mac?

In the most recent release of iOS, Apple added dark mode, and I’m a fan. At nighttime, dark backgrounds seem less glaring; they’re also less likely to disturb my partner sleeping beside me on the bed.

But I’ve actually taken to “running dark” all the time—day and night—on my iPhone. I spend most of my time indoors, where dark mode is perfectly legible and less distracting than its older, brighter cousin.

I’m not quite as enamored with dark themes on the desktop, though. I think it’s the overlapping windows that give me trouble. In dark mode, I can’t tell apps apart at a glance; they seem less differentiated.

Why is this? For one thing, it’s difficult to paint a shadow (like the one macOS uses to mark the active window) on a background that’s already dark. It doesn’t help that I spend most of my workday in Microsoft Office. Those apps support dark mode, but when it’s turned on, the interfaces are near-identical, dropping their distinctive “light mode” colors for a uniform gray.

Dark mode works on iOS because you don’t really need to tell apps apart by their interface appearance. On the iPhone, you only have one thing open at a time; you’re probably not going to forget what app you’re currently using. Even in the app switcher, the system helpfully pins each app’s icon to its thumbnail, so there’s no mistaking one for another. ◾

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tech

Will cutting the “Ribbon” finally fix Office for Mac?

Yesterday, at its annual conference for IT pros, Microsoft revealed a new version of Outlook for Mac. The Verge published a glimpse of the app’s revamped interface, and it looks promising—simultaneously cleaner and more useful.

We’ll see more of that refined UI tomorrow. Meanwhile, let’s examine why Microsoft might be eager to dump an interface element that has dominated its software design for over a decade.


Ribbons on the Mac

I’ve generally been a fan of Microsoft’s “Ribbon” UI, which premiered in Office 2007 for Windows. It exposed features previously buried in submenus, and it simplified the productivity suite’s legendarily complex toolbars:

The Ribbon UI was successful enough that it eventually migrated to Office for Mac. Unfortunately (and ironically), on OS X, the Ribbon created the same problem it was designed to solve: interface cruft.

More specifically, the Ribbon conflicts with a permanent fixture of macOS: the menu bar. Every Office for Mac app has two similar yet contradictory menus—the operating system’s persistent menu and Office’s Ribbon. Making matters worse, some of the heading titles in these two menus are identical, while the options within those sections are not. This unfortunate mess leaves the user with no idea where to find a given feature—the Ribbon? The menu bar? Both? Neither?

Let’s visualize this problem. In each screenshot below, I’ve highlighted the duplicative menu items. First, PowerPoint for Mac, which boasts two redundant headers:

‘View’ and ‘Slide Show’ appear in both the Ribbon and the macOS menu bar.

Next, Excel, which has three:

Word:

OneNote:

Finally, there’s good (?) old Outlook:

For each menu pair, the submenus are not one-for-one identical. They have different items, different orders, and vastly different interfaces. And there’s no obvious explanation for why only some menu titles pull double duty. Why are there two “Insert” menus but only one “Format” menu?

In addition to confusing the user, these duplicative menus cramp the interface, consuming an unnecessary amount of vertical space.


A new hope?

So… does the new Outlook, with its “Ribbonless” interface, fix these problems?

Image courtesy of The Verge.

Honestly, I’m not sure it’s the perfect solution. This interface still spends a lot of vertical pixels.

On the other hand, because I’m so excited to see the redundant menus vanquished, I’m willing to give Microsoft the benefit of the doubt. I can’t wait to try the new app.

So… what about the other Office apps? Microsoft tells the Verge that “there are no plans to announce updates to the ribbon elsewhere on Office for Mac” (emphasis mine). That’s an interesting way to phrase this statement. Microsoft isn’t denying that possibility of the feature being in their pipeline; they just claim that they haven’t planned its reveal. Tricksy.

My guess: if the new Outlook app is well-received, we’ll eventually see the Ribbon (and its redundant menus) removed from Office for Mac, for good. ■

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apple

Caught between computers



Caught between computersIn terms of computing platforms, I‘ve been set adrift.

On the one hand, I don’t really want to return to Windows. Don’t get me wrong; unlike many Apple converts, I like Microsoft’s OS, and I frequently miss features and workflows from that platform.

But I left Windows for a reason; my favorite apps—OmniFocus, Procreate, Drafts—are exclusive to Apple’s platforms. There are no real equivalents on Windows, and I’m tired of “making do” with half-baked imitations.

On the other hand, it’s not a great time to have shifted to macOS. Yes, it’s true that Apple has suddenly remembered to make new hardware (see the new Air and Mini or the promised Mac Pro). But the software platform has stagnated, the App Store is eerily quiet, and Mac unit sales have declined in eight of the last twelve quarters, year-over-year. Settling in “Mac land” now feels like buying beachfront real estate in an era of rising sea levels—OK for now, but unsustainable in the long-term.

So what about iOS? Might I make “landfall” there? The short answer is, “Not yet.” Yes, the new iPad Pros are amazing kit, and the software has slowly matured. But too many of my workflows depend on a ‘real’ web browser (e.g. administering SharePoint) or ‘real’ Outlook (building pixel-perfect email templates).

Besides, even if I didn’t work in the enterprise, iOS would be a frustrating place to settle. I want legit external screen support, more robust keyboard shortcuts, and easier font installation. Hopefully, these power user features are on their way. But until they arrive, I can’t make permanent camp on iPad Island. ■

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apple

Is it too late to switch to the Mac?

After a quarter-century using Windows, I’m finally getting a Macintosh.

Wait, does “Mac” even stand for “Macintosh” anymore? Or is “Mac” more like “KFC”—an abbreviation that eventually supplanted the original name? You’ll have to forgive my ignorance; my last Apple computer was the venerable Apple IIGS of the late 80s and early 90s. Since my early teen-aged years, I’ve computed exclusively on Windows PCs—everything from beige, bargain-bin boxes to high-end portable workstations. I’ve never owned a Mac.

Oh, over the years, I’ve occasionally lusted after the Mac’s build quality, thriving indie software community, and visually consistent interface. And yes, as an iPhone owner, I’ve often wished for a computer that played nicer with my smartphone. But despite the Mac’s attractiveness, switching always seemed financially or professionally impractical.

As my career has shifted into more creative fields, however, the Mac has become a more reasonable option. Among machines geared for creative power users, Macs still cost more—but not dramatically more, relative to comparable PCs. My new 15″ MacBook Pro should arrive within the next week or two.


In some ways, it’s an odd time to shift platforms. I’m swimming against the current; bloggers, podcasters, and creative professionals have grown increasingly frustrated with Apple’s stewardship of the Mac. Some have openly speculated whether the Mac will eventually be deprecated in favor of an iOS-flavored replacement.

So, before making the leap, I considered the risks in terms of both software and hardware:

Switching to Mac software: am I moving to a ghost town?

Depending on who you ask, the Mac ecosystem has either reached maturity—or it’s gone completely stagnant. Whatever your perspective, it’s hard to deny that Apple invests more engineering resources in iOS than macOS these days. Yes, the Mac still gets new OS features (e.g. Mojave’s welcome Dark Mode), but these updates are relatively minor compared to those introduced for Apple’s flagship product, the iPhone.

Third-party software development on the Mac has slowed, too. The Mac App Store may not be a ghost town, per se, but it’s not exactly a bustling metropolis, either.

As a new switcher, the Mac’s decline as a developer platform bums me out. But it’s not all bad news. Most big software houses (including Adobe and Microsoft itself) support Mac and Windows with equal gusto. And the Mac remains a better platform than Windows for indie-developed productivity apps and creative utilities. UIKit’s upcoming release on the Mac (slated for 2019) will likely widen this gap, as devs port over projects that were previously iOS-only.

One particular indie app is almost enough, all by itself, to make me switch to Mac. I’m talking about Omnifocus, the to-do tracker that maps most neatly onto the Getting Things Done productivity method. The app really is that critical to my workflow these days. I’m pumped that I’ll soon be able to use it without hacks or workarounds.

Switching to Mac hardware: did I miss the “golden era”?

The Mac’s software ecosystem may be languishing, but it’s Mac hardware that has Apple bloggers most alarmed. Longtime developers are openly criticizing Apple’s irregular Mac releases. Last year, lamenting the state of the Mac Pro, Sebastiaan de With wrote,

[Apple] let the Mac languish, with a lack of updates to the hardware making it increasingly difficult to use the Mac for demanding work. …. And year after year, without any word from Apple, the professional desktop Macs got older without updates. Four years passed. Four years. An eternity and a half in computers. Creatives started to leave. Most of my friends that are in 3D, film and other creative industries have switched to PCs. And more continue to leave.

The Mac laptops haven’t escaped criticism, either. Power users frequently deride the current Macbook Pros for their shallow, unreliable keyboards and irregular update cadence.

I share their worries. I’ve only typed on the new “butterfly ”keyboard style once or twice (in Apple retail stores), but I’m not a fan of its “clicky” (rather than “clacky”) feel. Plus, I find the Touch Bar (Apple’s little-loved touchscreen function row) distracting and somewhat pointless. Finally, I resent the fact that my “new” machine will have year-old internals. But I don’t have much of a choice—I need a machine now, not “whenever Apple gets around to refreshing its laptop lineup.”

Conclusion

Despite all the concerns and caveats, I’m excited. My very first computing experiences as a kid happened on Apple-designed machines. Adopting the Mac now, thirty-odd years later, feels like coming home.

I’m just hoping the house doesn’t come down around me. ■

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technology Uncategorized

App review times

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technology Uncategorized

How often should you upgrade your gadgets?

Michael Rockwell outlines his “Hardware Acquisition Strategy:”

What I’ve come up with, though — being the systematic guy that I am — is a hardware acquisition plan. It should easily take me through the next four years and as long as something doesn’t drastically change, I’ll likely be able to repeat the cycle to maintain a steady stream of new hardware for even longer.

The acquisition strategy spans across four years and allows for regular upgrades of my most important gadgets.

A few years back, my wife and I adopted a budgeting method that encouraged us to think more intentionally about long-term expenses. Rather than scrape together last-minute cash—or worse, take on credit card debt—we plan ahead. First, we estimate the total cost of any sizeable future purchase. Next, we pinpoint the date we’d like to pull the trigger. Finally, we start saving—splitting the cost across the number of months remaining until the buy date.

For example, we’re hoping to buy new iPhones next September. Assuming we pay full retail, that’ll cost us about $1500—$650 for each phone, plus taxes and new accessories. As of October 2015, we’ve already squirreled away $620; that leaves $880 to go. Divide that cost by the eleven budget months left till the iPhone 7 release date, and we’re left with our monthly savings target: $80 per month. If all goes well, we’ll have the cash ready to burn for the purchase come September. No credit card debt, no monthly installment contract.

Michael’s thinking even further ahead. He breaks down his purchase plan as follows:

  • Year 1: New iPhone and Apple Watch
  • Year 2: Mac Repair or Upgrade
  • Year 3: New iPhone and Apple Watch
  • Year 4: New iPad

That’s a reasonable timeline. Smartphone batteries start crapping out after two years or so, so a biennial iPhone upgrade cadence makes sense. The Watch would probably suffer the same fate, given its daily charge / discharge cycle. As for the Mac, Michael might be able to eke out a fifth year, but RAM and storage ceilings could make that extra wait unpleasant.

My only real question centers around the iPad. Given that product’s continuing sales decline, I worry about long-term support from both developers and Apple. The upcoming release of the iPad Pro may help, but will that high-end SKU appeal to enough users to actually grow the market? By the time Michael upgrades his iPad in 2018–19, will it still make sense to own a super-sized iPhone, a Mac, and a tablet? I’m not sure.

Fortunately, he’s not committed to spending that money on the iPad. If Apple’s tablet line has petered out three years from now, Michael could always reallocate that cash for something else. Better to anticipate the potential purchase, then beg off, than to scramble last-minute to find the money.


All that said, here’s my “hardware upgrade cycle”:

  • Every year (?): new iPhone. Next year, we’ll escape from beneath our last two-year contract just before the iPhone 7’s likely release date. I’ve been crunching the numbers (you should see my spreadsheets!), and you pay a surprisingly small penalty for upgrading every year, versus upgrading every two. The key here? Year-old iPhones typically sell for around $400 on eBay, whereas two-year-old models fetch as little as $150. That steep depreciation makes a yearly upgrade more viable.
  • Every four years: new PC or Mac. This category remains theoretical for me. As long as my employer provides a laptop, I can’t justify buying another, separate machine for home use. Yes, I’d prefer to firewall my work computing from my personal computing. For now, though, I’ve resigned myself to a single device, dedicated to work most of the time, but available for personal use otherwise.
  • Every two years: new iPad. I haven’t given up on the iPad yet. Recently, I’ve enjoyed writing blog posts (including this one) on Apple’s tablet, using a Bluetooth keyboard. Apps like Byword provide a distraction-free, minimalist writing environment. Plus, the iPad’s svelte form factor puts my monolithic Dell workstation to shame. Still, I can’t justify a yearly upgrade for a glorified typewriter. In fact, I couldn’t have upgraded this year, anyways; Apple didn’t refresh the iPad Air 2.[1]

  1. I could consider upgrading to the iPad Pro. But I’d rather wait and see whether that device’s new features—stylus support and its nifty keyboard case—filter down to the (more portable) iPad Air next year.  ↩