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Our go-to photo apps, a budget-friendly tech favorite, iOS 17.2 excitement, and macOS Sonoma’s standout feature.
Cars, Watch interactions and name changes for the ages.
By Jason Snell
December 6, 2023 9:00 AM PT
A question from reader Jack B. has led me on a journey of reflection about the result of Apple iterating on macOS for a couple of decades. “I’m hoping for a new MacBook Pro for the holidays,” he wrote. “Do you have any good pieces on Six Colors highlighting the best apps/utilities?”
The short answer is that we don’t, though we have written stories about our favorite apps of the year for most of the last decade. But I thought Jack’s suggestion was interesting, so I opened a file and started writing down my notes about what utilities I simply must install when I start using a new, default Mac.
The thing is, my personal list has been built up over time. It’s a bricolage of utilities that I’ve integrated over the years in order to offset some of the deficiencies of macOS. Sure, we all have specialized tools that we use to do our jobs, and I could list those somewhere, but what Jack was asking was far more general: What are good apps and utilities to augment macOS?
This is when I realized that, over the two decades I’ve been using what was once Mac OS X, Apple has filled in so many of the limitations of macOS that there’s precious little that I would consider a must-have utility today. The early days of OS X were rough. It was a new operating system with a lot of gaps in functionality, and third-party apps rushed in to fill the cracks. But over time, Apple did what it does—adding feature updates here and there that won’t satisfy every need of the power user but will satisfy everyone else.
I got the religion about launcher utilities when my old boss Rick LePage recommended LaunchBar to me (a couple of decades ago!). I was able to turbocharge the speed at which I controlled my Mac by using my fast typing skills, coupled with an intelligent launcher utility. Quicksilver was a similar popular utility back then, and then Alfred came along, and recently Raycast joined the party.
But all the while, since its introduction in 2005, Spotlight has kept getting better, faster, and more versatile. Can it do everything I use LaunchBar to do? Well, no, but it can come pretty close. So close, in fact, that I would hesitate to recommend any of these launcher utilities to someone starting out from scratch. Spotlight’s pretty great. It may be all you need. Start with that, and then, if you want to up your productivity game, bring on LaunchBar, Alfred, or Raycast.
Similarly, while I’m backing up my data eight ways to Sunday, the first step in backing up your Mac is plugging in a big enough hard drive and configuring Time Machine. It’s a great place to start. Yes, you probably want to do an offline backup because if your backup drive is located in the same place as your computer, they can both be destroyed in a fire, flood, or other natural disaster. So your next step might be something like Backblaze. And yes, you might want to go further and use a cloning utility like Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper. But Time Machine is, once again, a good start.
I’ve used Dropbox for years and paid for it for most of those years. There are still some Dropbox features that I use that iCloud hasn’t replicated, but that number has shrunk quite a lot in the last few years. iCloud has improved in reliability and added features like shared folders, which means it has more than enough features for most people who are living entirely in Apple’s ecosystem.
My first three installations on a new Mac are usually LaunchBar, Dropbox, and 1Password. But even when it comes to password management, Apple has built up functionality that’s so strong that it’s hard for me to recommend something else. Sure, if you’re sharing passwords with people on other platforms or if you yourself use other platforms, you’ll need more than what Apple offers. But if you’re just trying to generate and store strong passwords, one-time codes, or passkeys, Apple has you covered.
The more I think of it, the more I realize that Apple has identified the most common holes in macOS functionality and has systematically eliminated those holes for the broadest section of its Mac customers. Tools that once filled gaps are now just nice-to-have upgrades from the base Apple functionality.
The biggest gap I can think of that still exists is clipboard history. Many apps can act as clipboard managers—I’ve been using the one in LaunchBar for years, and Pastebot is a popular favorite—and once you use a clipboard manager, it’s hard to go back to Apple’s concept, unchanged in nearly 40 years, that there’s a single clipboard and once you copy something new, the old clipboard is gone forever. I now reflexively copy multiple items in one app and then paste those items into a different app rather than doing the old back-and-forth. I rely on the clipboard history to dig out an item from half an hour ago without having to look it up again.
Not to give Apple new ideas about how to make more utilities sort of obsolete, but imagine if macOS and iOS gave you the ability to access your clipboard history, synced across devices! Wow, that would be amazing—and given how locked down iOS is, it’s a feature that only Apple can provide.
Another area of interest is file management and automation. I recently wrote about how Folder Actions is somehow still a thing in macOS. Think about offering users the ability to select a folder in Finder or Files and build actions that would occur when those folders changed. Folder Actions enabled some of that, and utilities like Hazel have taken it to the extreme. Sure, power users can run wild with features like this, but I think regular users might appreciate being able to say, “When a file in this folder is older than 60 days, file it away somewhere else,” or “Delete all the disk image files in my downloads folder older than 60 days.” There’s something there.
I’m hesitant to suggest that Apple invest even more time in macOS window management given the existence of Spaces and Stage Manager, but Apple hasn’t upgraded the ability of users to move and resize windows within a space. Microsoft has invested a lot in this over on Windows, and there are several popular Mac windowing utilities such as Moom out there. It might be worth it for Apple to make it easier for users to quickly tile windows in order to tidy up their screens.
This is why I struggle with Jack’s question. For basic use, macOS is pretty solid and comes with a bunch of useful apps right out of the box, too. Sure, there are lots of great nerdy utilities you can use to spiff things up—I love SwiftBar, for example. And I still need a load of stuff specifically to do my job, like BBEdit and Logic Pro and Audio Hijack, and the list goes on.
But the truth is, unless you’re a longtime Mac user who has integrated your personal collection of utilities into the way you use your Mac, you might not need all that much. So that’s my advice for people getting new Macs who don’t carry that legacy with them: Start with what’s there and then explore when you find where the built-in tools can’t meet your needs.
Except a clipboard manager. You should totally use one of those. It’ll change your life.
By Jason Snell for Macworld
I always knew that the Apple community had a bunch of different subcultures, but I was taken aback when Apple announced that it would add a new feature to iOS, and a bunch of people got angry about it. Why in the world would you argue against Apple adding a new feature that will make the iPhone user experience appreciably better for many users?
The new feature is RCS, which will dramatically improve the quality of text communication between people who use iPhones and people who use Android phones. (And yes, the timing of Apple’s announcement makes it clear to me that this is very much designed to take some of the political heat off of Apple in the European Union.)
I’ve always assumed that the Apple community would agree that Apple’s products should be great. We use these products, for work and home and life in general. We love it when they’re good and hate it when they’re bad.
Few would deny that trying to send texts or photos in Messages to Android users has been pretty awful for a very long time. Why wouldn’t you want that to get better?
Myke returns to the show to discuss chip packaging (in the U.S.A.) and the potential of AI models to make using a computer easier. Then, by request, we spend some time talking about how we got into this business.
By John Moltz
December 1, 2023 2:00 PM PT
Three situations that money seemingly has failed to fix: the Apple Card, Elon Musk and Apple’s modem project.
They say that breaking up is hard to do, but when you’ve lost $3 billion because of the relationship, you tend to be motivated to find a way to make it happen, even if it means dividing up your streaming service plans.
According to The Wall Street Journal, it’s splitsville for the richest company in the world and the company that looks out for the richest people in the world.
The tech giant recently sent a proposal to Goldman to exit from the contract in the next roughly 12-to-15 months, according to people briefed on the matter.
Apple is currently shopping for new partners for the Apple Card—American Express and Synchrony Financial are said to be two potential companies—but when Goldman Sachs has been so vocal about what a bad deal it was for them, one wonders who’d be lining up for some of that.…
This is a post limited to Six Colors members.
December 1, 2023 9:00 AM PT
My thanks to Kolide for sponsoring Six Colors this week.
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The holiday season is peak streaming season, too! We discuss the seasonal opportunities for streamers, plus: your letters. [Downstream+ subscribers also get: Amazon’s Black Friday NFL experiment, YouTube & Sunday Ticket, and the coming sports/RSN implosion.]
By Dan Moren
November 30, 2023 12:41 PM PT
It wouldn’t be Apple software update season without a bizarre fixation on an otherwise innocuous feature. Yes, everybody’s up in arms about NameDrop, because if there’s one thing you never want to share with anyone, it’s your contact details. Especially to people who you want to…uh…contact you.
But allow me to peel back the curtain and reveal the real truth of the matter: this is all a smokescreen. A cleverly planted story intended to distract attention from the real Apple features that you need to be worried about. The ones that you don’t even know exist, because if you did, you’d never pick up a technological gadget ever again.
Say Cheese: Buried deep within the Health app, amongst all the stats for blood oxygen and heart rate, you might be mistaken for overlooking a little entry for a peculiar figure: Cheese Intake. That’s right, Apple is tracking just how much cheese you eat.…
This is a post limited to Six Colors members.
By Dan Moren for Macworld
Upon seeing this week’s announcement from Apple promoting the top titles of the year from Apple Books, along with a new Year in Review feature, I had likely the same thought as many: “Apple still cares about selling ebooks?”
To be fair, you can’t blame the company for being gun shy. Ten years ago, Apple found itself in the crosshairs of a Department of Justice investigation over price-fixing ebooks, and the fallout of that case not only impacted Apple’s existing foray into ebooks, but also likely cooled any fervor it had for competing in the market in the future.
Unfortunately, that case also ended up only solidifying the dominance of the market’s biggest player, Amazon. So, a decade on, could Apple still mount an effective challenge to that behemoth? Maybe. But not only would the will have to be present, but the company would have to take some pretty bold steps.
By Jason Snell
November 29, 2023 4:38 PM PT
Castro has been a popular iOS podcast app for many years, but right now things look grim.
The cloud database that backs the service is broken and needs to be replaced. As a result, the app has broken. (You can’t even export subscriptions out of it, because even that function apparently relies on the cloud database.) “The team is in the progress of setting up a database replacement, which might take some time. We aim to have this completed ASAP,” said an Xtweet from @CastroPodcasts.
What’s worse, according to former Castro team member Mohit Mamoria, “Castro is being shut down over the next two months.”
Castro owner Tiny and the Castro team aren’t addressing Mamoria’s comments or responding to my emails. When I asked around, a couple of knowledgeable people told me that they’d heard Castro had been put on life support a few months ago and was unlikely to get any technical attention going forward. I can’t independently verify those secondhand comments, but they don’t contradict Mamoria’s statement. Podnews on Wednesday provided a bagful of evidence pointing to Castro’s imminent demise. (Update: Castro owner Tiny says they’re trying to find a new home for the app.)
The truth is, between Apple’s solid upgrades to the Podcast app and the rise of Spotify as a podcast-playing competitor, the squeeze has really been put on most podcast apps. Original Castro developers Supertop sold the app in 2018. Pocket Casts got acquired in 2018 and again in 2021. Stitcher shut down entirely.
It’s not that users don’t want better podcast apps. Clearly, the users of Castro and Pocket Casts and Overcast get features out of those apps that the two big apps just can’t match. But it can take a lot to drive users out of the arms of a default and into a quest to replace that default. The default app doesn’t have to be best in class—it just has to be good enough.
There’s power in being one of the incumbents, too. If you’re a Spotify customer, you don’t even need to change apps. If you’re in Apple’s ecosystem, using Podcasts adds integration with HomePods and Apple TV that other apps just can’t match.
I’m still an Overcast user, and it would take a lot for Apple’s Podcasts app to get me back. But I once had a list of must-have podcast app features that Apple failed to support that was as long as my arm; these days, I can probably count it on my fingers, and I might not need the second hand.
Which is to say, if Castro really is not long for this world, I fully expect that most of its users won’t go to Overcast or Pocket Casts, but will retreat to Apple or Spotify, companies that are unlikely to fail them, even if the cost is a little less customization or functionality. And a little more of the unique, open podcast ecosystem will be lost forever.
Our book-reading habits, what we do with our health data, how tech helps us around the house, and old software that we still have a crush on.