March 27, 2015 6:12 AM PT
On Thursday Betaworks released Instapaper 6.2, an update to the venerable iOS app that adds a bunch of intriguing new features.
I’ve been a fan of Instapaper since the early days—I first heard of it when I read Ben Boychuk’s review in Macworld in 2008, long before I had ever heard of Marco Arment. These days I mostly use the service to send digests of stories to my Kindle, though if I’m stuck somewhere with just my iPhone or iPad, I will also read stories directly on those devices.
The new version adds support for Tweet Shots, that growing trend in which people quote an article they like by attaching an image containing some of the article’s text to a tweet1. Instapaper does an excellent job with this, reformatting the text you selected so that it fits in most Twitter image previews. Other apps such as OneShot do this too, but it’s a perfect fit with Instapaper’s role as a tool for reading interesting things.
To use the feature, you just select some text in Instapaper, tap the Share icon, and then tap Tweet Shot. The standard iOS tweet sheet appears, and you can add a text comment if you like, and then post it along with a link to the actual article and the image containing the highlighted text.
Also new to Instapaper is a feature I’ve dreamed about for some time, since Apple added the ability for regular apps to receive invisible push notifications with requests to update content. Now when you add an item to Instapaper, the Instapaper web service will try to connect to your iOS devices and tell them to download that article. (The company says this feature is pretty reliable on Wi-Fi, less so on cellular.) The benefit is that when you open Instapaper, there’s no waiting for stories to download—they’ve already downloaded in the background. If you’ve opened Instapaper after you’ve gotten on the train and there’s no longer any cellular service, or after you’ve taken your iPad out of the house when there’s no wi-fi around, you’ve felt the pain of not having Instapaper update itself automatically in the background. Now it can, and that’s good. (Instapaper competitor Pocket added this feature quite a while ago.)
Other new features in Instapaper 6.2 include a speed-reading feature that shows you one word at a time in rapid-fire fashion. Some people swear by this approach to reading, though it’s never fit with how I read. And I only realized today that as of Instapaper 6.1, released late last year, Instapaper picked up Handoff support—so if you’ve got Instapaper open on your iOS device when you bring a story to your computer, you can click on the Safari icon in the Dock and pick up reading right where you left off.
Instapaper is a free app with an optional $3/month or $30/year premium plan, which adds support for full-text search, unlimited highlights and speed-reading articles, third-party app support, and the Send to Kindle feature.
I know a lot of people dislike this trend, because it goes against Twitter’s 140-character limit. I agree that people using images to write longer tweets is not a great trend, but for quoting an article that you’re linking to in the tweet? I’m okay with it. ↩
March 26, 2015 9:54 AM PT
Your move, Apple. http://t.co/r74JCvBw77— Fraser Speirs (@fraserspeirs) March 26, 2015
Apple tried to get ahead of the curve when it announced its new cloud storage tiers at last year’s WWDC, and while the new plans took effect last fall, they’ve already been outpaced. Here we are just six months later, and Amazon’s upping the game by offering unlimited photo storage for the same amount that Apple offers 25GB of iCloud storage space: $12 a year. And $60 a year for unlimited storage, period. All of this before iCloud Photo Library even officially gets off the ground.
Now, cloud storage is one of what the MBAs would call one of Amazon’s “core competencies.” Its S3 service is widely considered among the most solid and scalable content-hosting platforms around. So it’s not shocking that Amazon feels like it’s strong enough in this area that it can offer unlimited storage. But more importantly, what Amazon has realized is that the key factor, when it comes to photos, is peace of mind. Ensuring that for a dollar a month is a steal.
I’ve long advocated that Apple ought to exempt backups of iOS devices from its storage limits, because nobody should ever feel like they can’t afford (financially or space-wise) to back up their devices. Photo storage is perhaps even more crucial—of all the things that we store digitally, they’re the ones we have the most sentimental attachment to, and they’re irreplaceable.1
Traditionally, Apple’s been slow to change its cloud storage limits with the times; I don’t know if the company feels like it can afford to offer unlimited photo storage—whether for free or for a price that’s competitive with what Amazon’s offering. It certainly doesn’t need to: for one thing, Apple still has the advantage of offering a built-in, seamless photo solution2; most people probably aren’t going to take the time to download and set up a third-party app and service, even from as big a name as Amazon.3
But offering an unlimited photo storage option would engender a heck of a lot of goodwill. And, frankly, ensuring not just convenient access to all your photos but also that you don’t have to worry about which memories you can afford to back up is a message that befits the company that’s not only the world’s largest and most profitable, but also continually insists it puts its customers first.
It’s weird, because I don’t think video holds the same appeal. Yes, there are some that might be held at the same level—your wedding, your kid’s first steps, etc.—but I think that the major factor is that we don’t watch old videos nearly as much as we look at our old photos. ↩
Or, at least, that’s its goal. It remains to be seen if iCloud Photo Library will deliver on that. ↩
Unless there is a major failure when iCloud Photo Library launches, à la iOS 6’s Maps, which sent people in droves to Google Maps. ↩
March 26, 2015 9:15 AM PT
As a tech writer, I do a lot of image markup, especially involving screenshots. In general, Flying Meat’s Acorn is my image editor of choice, but I also really like Aged & Distilled’s Napkin, for its particular focus on common markup options, like callouts, shapes, and arrows.1 The company just released a big version 1.5 update to the app, which is available for $40 from the Mac App Store.
Funny story: Last week, I wanted to find a way to highlight a portion of the image I used in my story about Wi-Fi troubleshooting, so I fired up Napkin. Unfortunately, what I wanted to do—make a rectangular outline around part of an image—proved to not be possible, as the shape tool only let you create objects that were filled. The very next day, and without any mention of this shortcoming to anybody, I got my hands on a preview version of Napkin 1.5, which adds that exact feature. Either a true instance of serendipity, or the Aged & Distilled folks are keeping their eye on me. Spoooooooky.
There are a lot of other improvements in Napkin 1.5, including blurring and pixelation—a must for posting screenshots, which all too often unavoidably include personal information—third-party sharing support, cropping, and more. Let’s face it: my screenshot markup needs aren’t diminishing anytime soon, and Napkin’s updates mean that it’s a lot more likely to be the first choice in my arsenal.
In the interest of full disclosure, Aged & Distilled’s two principals, Guy English and Chris Parrish, are both friends. I spoke all four years of the Çingleton conference that Guy helped run, he and I do a regular podcast on The Incomparable, and he’s guested on my other shows. ↩
March 25, 2015 6:00 AM PT
Today Flexibits is releasing Fantastical 2, a $50 Yosemite-only calendar app that’s a huge upgrade from the first version of Fantastical. I’ve been using it as my main calendar app for the last couple of months, and I’ve been impressed. (The app is on an introductory sale in the Mac App Store for $40 for launch day.)
The original Fantastical has lived in my Mac’s menu bar since it first arrived on the scene. Its claim to fame was its ability to accept natural-language input for events, but it was also a well designed drop-down calendar that let me consult my schedule for the next day or two with a quick keystroke. It replaced the venerable MenuCalendarClock in my menu bar. And yes, I’ve absolutely gotten used to pressing a keyboard shortcut and typing out a quick phrase like “briefing call 1pm tomorrow” and knowing that Fantastical will drop an event on my calendar in the right place.
As you might expect from the price, Fantastical 2’s sights are set a bit higher. While you can set the app to behave just as the original version did—as a drop-down adjunct to another, larger calendar app—this app is designed to replace your other Calendar apps, the same role Fantastical serves in its excellent iPhone and iPad versions.
In addition to the classic drop-down calendar, which is still there, Fantastical 2 has a full calendar window, providing the features you’d expect plus a few you might not, such as configurable calendar sets that you can toggle between with a keystroke. (Or, cleverly, the app can toggle them based on your location, so certain calendars appear only when you’re in certain places.) Flexibits also wrote their own CalDAV engine, separate from Apple’s calendar services, so that it can stand on its own. There’s also a Today widget so you can view Fantastical information in Notification Center, and support for Action and Share Extensions.
When I asked Michael Simmons of Flexibits what the motivation was to take Fantastical from a calendar adjunct to a replacement, he said that the original goal of Fantastical in 2011 was “to fix iCal” by providing quick access and natural-language input. (Apple later added text input in an update to Calendar, but Apple’s approach has never measured up to Fantastical’s—even now, if I type “phone call tomorrow at 8 for 2 hours” into Calendar, it will try to make a one-hour-long event.)
Fantastical 2’s goal, Simmons says, “is to fix Fantastical itself. I love using the menu bar, but a lot of times I found myself going into Calendar to do things I just couldn’t do in Fantastical. I’d want to use the week view, the year view, get a bigger view, or maybe I just wanted to focus.” The result is a full app that definitely brings to mind the iOS version of Fantastical and is, to my eye, a more attractive design than the one offered by Calendar.
Fantastical 2 also adds Japanese support—and keep in mind, adding language support to Fantastical doesn’t just mean localizing the text in the app. Because it uses natural-language input, Fantastical has to learn how people describe calendar events in their native languages. Simmons said that some of the groundwork Flexibits has laid with the Mac version will probably show up in the iOS versions of Fantastical sometime later this year, too. An update is coming sooner to add Handoff support to those apps, which Fantastical 2 already supports.
Talking to Simmons, it’s clear that Flexibits doesn’t think the launch of Fantastical 2 as the end of a project, but as the beginning. “We have so much planned,” he said. There’s a lot more Fantastical development yet to come. In the meantime, Fantastical 2 has replaced Calendar on my Mac.
March 24, 2015 8:26 AM PT
We had a great time last night at our Upgrade podcast meetup. A large group (someone claimed 65?!) showed up and hung around. People kept bringing us drinks. We were there for five and a half hours. It still wasn’t enough time to properly talk to everyone. Our voices are raw. It was fantastic.
Thank you, London podcast fans!
March 23, 2015 3:22 AM PT
Fast Company keeps spooling out excerpts from “Becoming Steve Jobs,” the book (out tomorrow) by technology reporter Brent Schlender and Fast Company’s Rick Tetzeli that’s being touted as the less disappointing alternative to Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs.”1
The latest excerpt to catch my eye is about Neil Young:
I knew that Steve enjoyed listening to records on vinyl from time to time, so I agreed to call him to see if he’d like to get the LPs2. Steve answered the phone on the second ring, and I explained what I was calling about. We had talked about Neil’s criticisms a year or so before, and I thought this might soften his grudge.
Fat chance. “F— Neil Young,” he snapped, “and f— his records. You keep them.” End of conversation.
This anecdote made me laugh, because I was at the D: Dive Into Media conference in 2012 when Young bemoaned the state of compressed music and told his version of this same story.
“I was talking to Steve about it,” Young said. “We were working on it.”
That Young interview is also amusing because it really seems to be the genesis of the Pono Player, Young’s weird lossless music player project. As I wrote in 2012:
Young doesn’t have a company to plug or a solution to the problem. In fact, he turned to the largely well-heeled audience at the conference as said he needed “a rich guy, someone out there” to lead the charge for better music quality. But he did say he had been talking to one particular rich guy: Steve Jobs.
I don’t know anything about how Pono was founded, but was that rich guy in the audience that day?
In any event, I’m with Steve Jobs on this one. Most people can’t tell the difference between audio compressed using today’s high-bit-rate encoding methods, especially considering where people listen to music and the equipment they use. I’m skeptical that high-resolution lossless audio files like those used by Pono can really be differentiated from lower-resolution lossless files, and even high-bit-rate lossy files.
I’m open to the idea that trained listeners in controlled environments with the very best audio equipment may be able to tell the difference… but at that point we’re talking about the most esoteric use case possible.
As for Young’s claims that compression takes away 95 percent of music’s “nutritional value” and that, somehow, you can just feel the difference between vinyl and an MP3, well, it all strikes me as pseudo-scientific hogwash.
March 20, 2015 5:04 PM PT
Back when I worked in an office with a team of people, and it was the Friday afternoon before I was about to vanish from the office for a while, I’d send out an email titled “Where’s Jason?” with all my travel details. Well, I don’t work in an office anymore, but I do need to let the readers of this site know what’s going on.
Next week I’ll be in England and Scotland. On Monday (March 23) at 6 p.m. you can find me and my Upgrade podcast co-host Myke Hurley hanging out at the Big Chill House in Kings Cross. It’s an informal meet-up, so if you’re in central London and want to stop by and say hello—or is it hullo?—please do. You can tell me you read Six Colours and I’ll try not to stare at that extra “u” you slipped in there.
I’ll probably be kicking around Glasgow, Scotland on Thursday night, March 26. Look to Twitter to see if my whereabouts might involve getting a pint somewhere. (It almost certainly will.) I’ll also probably be hanging out somewhere in Dublin, Ireland on Saturday night, March 28.
The following week I’ll be in Killarney, Ireland for the Úll conference. Last year’s Úll was an amazing experience and I’m looking forward to this year’s event. My ancestry is almost entirely1 English, Scottish, and Irish—these are my people. There’s black tea and dark beer and really, what could be better?
This is my first major trip since I started Six Colors. Posting may be light, but I’ve asked Dan Moren to keep an eye on things and I’m expecting to write as I travel. With any luck, site readers won’t notice much difference, other than items being posted much earlier than normal.
Except, of course, for my direct male ancestor, Gose Heinrich Schnell, who emigrated to America from Darmstadt, Germany around 1735. ↩
March 20, 2015 10:31 AM PT
Let’s try an easy one this week. Ever tried to find an obscure feature in iOS’s Settings app? Sure, you might be able to reason it out, but sometimes it’s just annoying as heck to have to scroll and tap your way through a lengthy list of items just to find the one thing you’re looking for. (I’m looking at you, Notifications section.1)
Especially because OS X has already shown us an easy and elegant way to handle this. Launch System Preferences on your Mac, and you’ll see a search box at the top. Type any term into that box and not only will you get suggestions for the feature you might be looking for, but you’ll also see a little spotlight shining down on the related preference panes. As you continue to refine your search, the spotlight isolates the pane in question, and selecting that term and hitting return takes you right to it.
So why not offer the same feature in iOS’s Settings app? Let us pull a search field down from the top of the screen—just as we might in Mail or Notes—and enter a term, then provide some shortcuts that take us directly to the right section. Likewise, letting users search for a specific pane in Spotlight would help—another feature that exists in OS X.
For those of us who frequently delve into Settings, this may not be a huge issue, but it could be a real boon to those who don’t like even opening the Settings app without someone to guide them. iOS is generally easier and more friendly than OS X, but this is one place where it definitely seems to lag behind
Admittedly, tweaking Notifications for an app got a lot easier in iOS 8 with the “unified” Settings screen. Now you can browse the alphabetical list of apps at the top level of Settings and then access Notifications through that. But the Usage section that tracks how much space apps are taking up could still use a similar improvement. ↩
March 19, 2015 1:54 PM PT
Yesterday on 9to5mac, Benjamin Mayo reported that “unscrupulous website adverts” were redirecting users to the App Store from Safari on iOS. Posted along with the story were videos of multiple sites, including this one, redirecting the author to the App Store.
Mayo blames the issue on unscrupulous ad networks (while bizarrely absolving the websites in question of blame—trust me, publishers are responsible for the company they keep), but it’s unclear why he and other people are seeing this behavior.
If Mayo is seeing this behavior on Six Colors, though, we have to assume that something else is at work, such as:
- Exploitation of a bug in Safari that puts the browser in a particular state even after it’s left a page contaminated with that code
- Interception and rewriting of page code by a carrier, ISP, or even a compromised wireless router
It seems to me like perhaps Mayo should do a little more investigating on his story.
March 19, 2015 11:02 AM PT
Pursuant to my earlier Wi-Fi troubleshooting post, Michael Birenbach suggested via Twitter using OS X’s built-in Wireless Diagnostics to find the best (i.e. most interference free) channel to use for your Wi-Fi network.1
The following instructions are for Yosemite, but the principles should be the same for most recent versions of OS X:
- Hold down the Option key on your keyboard.
- Click on the Wi-Fi menu in your menu bar.
- Choose “Open Wireless Diagnostics…”
- Click Continue.
- Enter your admin username and password.
- From the Window menu, choose Scan.
This will open up a window with a detailed amount of information about all the Wi-Fi networks in your vicinity, along with suggestions for the best 2.4GHz and 5GHz channels. Channel selection tends to be more of an issue with 2.4GHz networks, which have far fewer channels than 5GHz, and many of which overlap in terms of which parts of the wireless spectrum they actually use.
Changing your Wi-Fi channel varies depending on routers, but it’s generally pretty straightforward; you may need to consult your documentation. There’s plenty else to be gleaned from Wireless Diagnostics2, but much of it veers toward the technical side.