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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

HomePod 14.7 improves timer control, but doesn’t go nearly far enough

Amongst Apple’s latest spate of updates today is HomePod 14.7, which brings as its biggest feature the ability to view and control timers set on the HomePod from the Home app. Which all HomePod owners can probably agree merits a big “finally“.

Now, when you tap and hold on your HomePod to bring up the media controls, and then scroll up, past all the alarms you’ve ever set, you can find a list of your current timers—including their names, if they have one—as well as current time remaining, plus the ability to pause, resume, or cancel. You can also create new timers via the Home app.

HomePod room
Why aren’t currently running timers in all this empty space?

This is all, frankly, great. It’s been one of my most wished-for features.

Unfortunately, it’s both too late and much too little.

For one thing, why are the timers forced to be buried all the way below the alarms? I use timers way more than I use alarms; I should at least be able to rearrange them to put alarms closer to the top.

And for that matter, why are the timers not surfaced anywhere else in the UI? I have a HomePod in my kitchen, but if I go to the Kitchen room in the Home app when my timer is running, why does seeing the current time remaining require tapping and holding on the HomePod, and then scrolling down? Apple’s done better about picking out relevant details, like information from sensors, and presenting them at the top of the interface. Timers should be there too.

HomePod Music

While we’re on the subject, how come my different HomePods still aren’t aware of timers set on other HomePods? If I ask my office HomePod about a timer I set in the kitchen, it sure would be handy for it to tell me that I’ve got two minutes left for my tea to steep, instead of the very unhelpful “there are no timers set.” I’d like to see any current running timers on my iPhone lock screen and my Apple Watch too, to be honest. It’s a far cry from a unified home system.

Perhaps most annoyingly, when a timer is going off it no longer appears in the Home app interface, meaning that to stop a timer, you still have to shout at Siri, even if you’re halfway across the house. This is just a bizarre choice.

In short, months after Apple discontinued the HomePod and focused its sights on the HomePod mini, the company still doesn’t seem to have a clear vision for how exactly consumers use smart home tech. It continues to view the HomePods primarily as places where people play music, as evidenced by opening the HomePod in the Home app: 97 percent of the interface is music, with “Alarms” juuuust peeking out at the bottom so you know that there’s other stuff you can do.

Rumors of a homeOS appearing at WWDC were dashed, but here’s hoping that amongst Apple’s fall announcements is a revitalized and, well, better home system. Glad as I am that HomePod 14.7 improves timers, it just puts in stark relief how frustrating Apple’s home strategy—or, more accurately, lack thereof—is.

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]


By Dan Moren for Macworld

3 features that could transform tomorrow’s Apple devices

To paraphrase the immortal words of Smash Mouth, the tech starts coming and it don’t stop coming. Every year seems to bring a new set of Apple devices, replete with a host of features, some of which seemed practically impossible previously. But such is the way of progress! It marches ever forward.

The difficulty, as always, is in figuring out exactly which technological advances will find their way into future products. More often than not, these novel approaches are expensive or impractical, especially if you’re shoving them into something as small as a smartphone or a watch.

But sometimes you can trace the trajectory of these developments to see just how they might end up in an Apple device—and perhaps even get an idea of when.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


By Dan Moren

In praise of the Siri Suggestions widget

Siri Suggestions widget on iPhone
Those apps? They’re a widget! 🤯

Siri gets a lot of flack from Apple device users—and it’s often well deserved. The voice assistant’s performance is generally spotty, sometimes downright recalcitrant, and—in my house anyway—tends to evoke frustrated yelling.

But Apple has long been using Siri as the catchall for its various artificial intelligence and machine learning ventures, and much as it may surprise you to hear me say it: some of them are actually pretty great.

For the last year, I’ve been relying on one specific use of these machine learning technologies: the Siri Suggestions widget on iOS and iPadOS.

Widgets were, of course, a big hit when iOS 14 was released last year, allowing users to customize their home screens with not just app icons but data pulled from their favorite apps.

But the Siri Suggestions widget has proved to be a valuable, if overlooked, addition as well.

Many people have probably used Siri Suggestions without even realizing it: if you’ve noticed the apps and actions that appear when you swipe down to bring up Spotlight on your iPhone or iPad, that’s Siri Suggestions.…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.


By Dan Moren

Apple Podcasts reliability problem is turning into an image problem

Podcasting has been an important part of my life for more than a decade now; these days, I make roughly half my income from the various shows that I host and produce. That’s why it’s so frustrating when Apple, the de facto leader in podcast discovery, seems to have screwed up what was once its biggest asset in favor of trying to capitalize on a new feature.

Back in April of this year, Apple announced plans to roll out Podcast Subscriptions, which would allow creators to monetize their podcasts with subscriptions that can be purchased directly in the Apple Podcasts app. The company’s Podcasts app is one of the biggest podcast clients in the industry, thanks to Apple’s longstanding position as the most prominent directory of shows and the fact that the app is preinstalled on every iOS device.

Unfortunately, when Apple started rolling out the podcast subscription feature, it came with a (presumably unintended) side effect: new podcast episodes sometimes don’t show up. Back in May, Jason speculated about some of the possible causes, the most likely culprit being Apple changing how it handles podcasts behind the scenes.

But more than two months later, this problem persists. Just this week, I’ve received multiple emails, direct messages, and Twitter replies mentioning that the latest episodes of several of my shows simply aren’t showing up in the Apple Podcasts app. Sometimes it seems to vary by platform or region. Other shows that I’ve put out in the same time period show up as normal. It’s maddeningly inconsistent. And I’m certainly not alone in this, either; when I asked in a Slack community of podcasters if there was anything to do about this other than throw up my hands in frustration, several other hosts could offer nothing but sympathies.

But all of this points to a very serious root issue: a loss of reliability.

A Complicated Profession
My Star Wars podcast, A Complicated Profession, shown in Apple Podcasts (left) and on The Incomparable website (right). The July 12 episode finally appeared on July 16.

The previous incarnation of Apple’s podcasting management tools wasn’t particularly amazing, and at times the system worked in ways that felt capricious and arbitrary.1 But those frustrations have largely hit creators, while the service has generally remained reliable for end users. And given that it’s always been a free service, most creators shrugged and took a “you get what you pay for” mentality.

But the problems with reliability cropped up right around the time that Apple also decided that there was money to be made on podcasts. And much as this might benefit creators, Apple also gets to take its usual 30 percent cut. Awkward.

Clockwise
Apple Podcasts (left) and the Relay FM website (right). The July 14 episode has not yet appeared in the former.

The bottom line is that it’s a shame that Apple’s addition of a monetization feature has ended up damaging its reputation amongst podcast creators. Consumers, at least, can turn to a different podcast app like Overcast, Castro, or Pocket Casts, all of which seem to have no problem displaying the latest episodes of shows. But some won’t even know that’s an option and, as a result, shows may lose out on listeners and, in some cases, revenue.

As I said above, I do make money from podcasting—just not via Apple’s subscriptions. And it’s started to feel uncomfortably like Apple doesn’t care about podcast creators livelihoods’ unless it’s also getting a cut.

Unfortunately, the options for creators are limited since pulling up stakes on Apple Podcasts—still the place most people find podcasts—is a non-starter. But with competitors like Spotify and Amazon pushing into the market, this doesn’t help Apple’s reputation any. It’s probably not the tipping point that will drive people to abandon Apple’s podcast platform, but it’s another drop in the bucket.

Perhaps, looking back over nearly two decades of Apple stewardship in podcasting, I was naive in thinking that the company’s aims in supporting the free distribution of podcasts were at all altruistic. Maybe they started that way, but at some point, Apple decided it could make podcasting another revenue generator to add into its growing Services portfolio.

I’d like to be proved wrong about this, but I haven’t seen any direct acknowledgment from Apple about this issue over the last two months, much less any indication of what went wrong and how it plans to fix it. And even if Apple does deal with these particular examples2, it doesn’t give me confidence that I won’t run into the problem in the future with these or other shows—or that other creators wouldn’t encounter it as well. That lack of reliability is hardly a recipe for success or trust.


  1. I once couldn’t get a show’s artwork changed for months on end because of a minor formatting/hosting problem. 
  2. The latest episode of A Complicated Profession finally appeared between the writing of this post and its publication. 

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. His latest novel, The Aleph Extraction, is out now and available in fine book stores everywhere, so be sure to pick up a copy.]


July 16, 2021

We’re back from vacation and in need of network administration.

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The input devices we use, how much of our work happens in the cloud, form vs. function in our tech purchases, and the details that Apple sweats (and the ones it doesn’t).


Apple releases MagSafe Battery Pack

MagSafe Battery Pack

Apple’s continuing to build out its MagSafe accessory market by releasing a $99 battery pack that uses the company’s magnetic charging feature. Just slap it on the back of your iPhone 12/12 mini/12 Pro/12 Pro Max and it’ll automatically charge it to the tune of 5W (basically the equivalent of the standard iPhone USB-A charger). The battery pack’s power level is shown in the iOS battery widget.

How do you charge the Battery Pack? Unsurprisingly, it’s got a Lightning port on it, so you just charge it a Lightning-to-USB cable connected to a USB adapter to charge at 15W, or up to 20W with a USB-C adapter. And, very handy, you can charge both devices by attaching the Lightning cable to either the phone or the battery pack. That way, you can still connect your phone to another device like a Mac or a CarPlay unit and charge the battery pack.

The battery pack is compatible with cases that support MagSafe, like Apple’s own, but the company says that if you use a wallet case, remove your credit cards before attaching the battery pack.

The good news is that, theoretically, any future iPhone that supports MagSafe will work with the battery pack, which is a leg up on battery cases, which you generally have to change whenever the form factor of the phone changes. The downside is, if you’re looking to pick one up, you’d better like white—it’s the only color it’s available in.

—Linked by Dan Moren

The retro design of Loki’s technology

I’ve been watching and enjoying Loki, but one of the most fun parts of the show is the design and aesthetic of the Time Variance Authority offices. It’s just dripping with a ’60s feel, with retro technology that feels like it is (appropriately) from an entirely separate timeline.

The Verge has an interview with production designer Kasra Farahani, in which they delve into this specific aspect, and it’s definitely worth a read.

According to the series’ style guide, the all-powerful TVA has been able to pick and choose different technologies from different timelines as they please. “The conceit behind the technology at the TVA as we imagined it was that… digital technology never existed, and that analog technology just continued to get more and more sophisticated,” he says.

It’s relatively light on spoilers, but if you’d rather wait until the end of the show to read, well, good news: the series wraps up tomorrow.

—Linked by Dan Moren

Consumer Reports is collecting internet bills

Like many of you, I generally feel that I pay a lot for internet access and it’s not as good as I’d like. But it’s tricky sometimes to draw data from that feeling. Which is why Consumer Reports and The Verge have teamed up to collect actual numbers about internet prices and performance—and they’d like your help.

Head over to the Consumer Reports site; they’ll run a quick speed test to see what your performance is actually like, and then ask for a copy of your internet bill. (Which, of course, they will handle carefully and delete after pulling the relevant information.)

Many geographic regions have monopolies or little competition when it comes to internet access, and over the last year of working/living/school from home, it’s become increasingly apparent that broadband infrastructure is not only lagging behind, but is also unevenly distributed. If you’ve ever felt burned by the limited internet options available to you, then this might be one way to help at least provide hard data supporting that.

—Linked by Dan Moren

by Jason Snell

Windows 3.1 on an iPad

After a few tips from Harry McCracken on Twitter, retro tech genius Benj Edwards has created detailed instructions on how to run Windows 3.1 on the iPad:

Thanks to a MS-DOS emulator called iDOS 2 on the App Store, you can install Microsoft Windows 3.1 on your iPad—then play classic Windows games or simply shock your friends. Here’s how to set it up.

This is sick and wrong and also brilliant. (And if you’re missing the TRS-80, well, Harry figured that one out too.)

—Linked by Jason Snell

For the first time Jason is (mostly) off this week! After discussing who’s winning the streaming wars, Myke challenges John Siracusa to describe his ideal Mac, asks Merlin Mann to share what he’s excited about, and answers a #myketalk from Jay Miller. But don’t worry, lasers return later on.


The FBI’s smartphone trap ran on ‘ArcaneOS’

Ars Technica’s Ron Amadeo has more details on the fake phones the FBI seeded amongst criminals:

Two different interfaces would launch depending on what PIN you typed in on the lock screen. PIN one would show a bunch of popular but non-functional apps, like Tinder, Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, and Candy Crush. Presumably, this was meant to fool any third parties checking out your phone.

A second PIN would enter what was supposed to be the secure section of the phone, showing three apps: a clock, calculator, and the settings. From here, the “calculator” app actually opened a login screen to Anom, which targets were told was a secure, encrypted way to chat. This was basically the smartphone equivalent of a fake book triggering a bookshelf to slide over, revealing a secret passage. It’s so secret, it has to be secure!

I love this story so much. It kind of reminds me of the “secret” games and programs you could install on your graphing calculators back in the day.

—Linked by Dan Moren

By Jason Snell

Feedback: iPad Mail should provide single-tap paste

FB9299101

Recent Similar Reports: None

Resolution: Open

Please provide a descriptive title for your feedback: Mail toolbar should provide single-tap icon for clipboard paste.

Please describe the issue and what steps we can take to reproduce it:

Icon

Mail offers buttons to add photos, take a photo, adjust fonts, scan a document, insert a file, or use Markup — but if you want to paste text from the clipboard you have to find it under a submenu that’s shared with undo/redo.

This makes no sense. If there’s room for esoteric items like “use the camera to scan documents,” why is there no room for pasting text? It’s a task that should not require two taps.

Related: Hiding paste and cut under an undo/redo submenu makes no sense. They are not related at all. I’d recommend hiding as little as possible under submenus, but if you must, please group like items together.

(Note: You may argue that this is easily solved by invoking the three-figure gesture to paste text. If unknowable gestures are good interface design, I recommend removing all icons and toolbars from iOS and replacing them with an entirely gestural interface. [I do not actually recommend this.] But if you think toolbars are a good idea, because it’s nice to have functions available with a single tap, why hide pasting text in a junk drawer designed for undo and redo?)


by Jason Snell

Broadband in the Boonies 2021

Longtime MacUser and Macworld contributor Chris Breen works at Apple these days, and so he can’t write about tech anymore. Mostly. But for years, first at Macworld and now on his own blog, he has been detailing the horror of trying to get fast Internet in the remote Bay Area location where he lives.

Things are getting worse, not better:

AT&T wants out of the DSL business. So. Badly. DSL is slow (though AT&T could make it faster), it’s outdated, and it’s creaky and requires routine servicing. You can see why the company wants to move its customers to fiber. That desire, however, doesn’t extend to actually providing fiber to the rural hayseeds.

And they’re doing it by revoking third-party access to their DSL circuits, forcing those customers into the AT&T family because they rarely have any other option, and then charging outrageous prices for lousy speeds.

A whole lot of people in the U.S. are not able to get good Internet connections. They remain invisible to most, because those of us who write about this stuff are rarely the ones affected. I always appreciate hearing from Chris, and while I hope he gets fast Internet someday, his posts are a good reminder that not everyone has gigabit fiber at the ready.

—Linked by Jason Snell

July 9, 2021

We’re both sitting on a beach drinking a cold beverage this week. (But not the same beach.)

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Pokémon Go, our biggest tech gear ROI, the tech we take on vacation, and whether we’d rather have a time machine or a transporter.


By Stephen Hackett

The life cycle of Apple Watch backups

Apple Watch

I recently had to go back to my Series 5 Apple Watch after my Series 6 met an untimely end when I slid down a waterfall at a state park on family vacation. I was fine, but my watch’s glass face met an underwater rock, and uhhh… it did not survive.

When I got home, I grabbed my Series 5 off the shelf, knowing I didn’t have time to deal with having my Series 6 repaired and didn’t want to be without an Apple Watch, as I’ve recently begun using the watch in a major way after we spent some time apart.

Getting my old Series 5 back up and running was a real journey.

First, I had to unpair the shattered Series 6 from my iPhone. While its display was a loss, my watch was still functional enough for this process to take place. Unpairing is an important step when changing Apple Watches, as that is when a backup is made of the device.…

This is a post limited to Six Colors members.


by Jason Snell

A future for extending Apple Mail?

David Sparks finds a glimmer of hope for the future of Apple Mail in Apple’s new MailKit plug-in interface for the Mac:

There is already a rich ecosystem of Apple Mail plugins, but I’ve become increasingly leery about using and recommending them during recent years. My concern was that Apple could, at any point, pull the plug on Apple Mail plugins.

A few years ago, I talked to an Apple engineer at WWDC who explained that mail plugins, historically at least, represented a security vulnerability, and Apple is very much interested in removing any security holes. The good news is that the announcement of MailKit means Apple is not pulling the plug on plugins but instead found a safe way for them to continue while keeping the platform secure.

Sometimes it’s the little things. I desperately want Apple to do more with Mail, but adding a modern plug-in interface (that, dare I say it, might one day even show up on iOS?) gives me some hope that if Apple isn’t interested in extending Mail, maybe plug-in developers can do the job in a way that’s secure, stable, and built for the future.

—Linked by Jason Snell

By Jason Snell

You’re not backing up enough

I know you’ve heard it a million times before, so many times that you skim past it when you read it. And you’ll probably do it again this time, but I’ve got to try. I’m looking out for your best interests here.

However much you’re backing up your Mac, you’re probably not backing it up enough.

Last week my friend Antony lost nearly a week of productivity to a dead drive in his iMac. Fortunately, he was able to recover every one of his files thanks to various backup strategies.

Similar to my Drobo crash of early 2020, Antony’s use of Time Machine and Backblaze allowed him to get up and running with a minimum of pain. It’s an important point that doesn’t get enough attention: you aren’t backing up enough.

Time Machine comes on every Mac, and all it needs is a big disk to back up to. (It says automatic backups are off because I’m using TimeMachineEditor to schedule them.)

Start with Time Machine. Apple builds it into every Mac, and thanks to the arrival of APFS and changes in macOS Big Sur, it’s a lot less painful to use than it used to be. Buy a drive that’s bigger than your Mac’s hard drive and attach it to your Mac regularly. If you use a desktop, you can get a big SSD and tape it to the back of your display, where you’ll never have to look at it. If you use a laptop, either you’ll need to get into the habit of plugging a backup drive in, attach the backup drive to another Mac on your network, or tape the backup drive to the back of your laptop. Hopefully not the last one. Since my Mac mini server is on my network at all times, my iMac and my wife’s MacBook Air both back up over the network to the Mac mini server via Time Machine.

Time Machine backups are great for retrieving a file you didn’t mean to delete or reverting an unfortunate app update you immediately regretted approving. They’re great for wiping a computer and starting fresh or for restoring a dead computer. The problem is that Time Machine backups are located in your house, which means that if something bad happens to not just your Mac but your whole house, you’re out of luck. Also, depending on how big your backup drive is, your ability to retrieve older files may fade away quickly as Time Machine frees up space for new backups.

Backblaze is backing up my entire server (8TB!) to the cloud.

The solution to all this is to pay for an online backup service. After years of using CrashPlan, I switched to Backblaze a couple of years ago, and it’s gone well. For the most part, Backblaze backs up my data silently, and I never notice it. But when my drive died last year, I was able to download individual files from the backup immediately and have them ship me a USB hard drive of my enormous data set so that I could restore it. If my local backup wasn’t available—for example, in the case of a natural disaster—all my data would still have been safe in Backblaze.

Consider, too, that you might have a bunch of cloud storage space that you’re not using. I store almost all of my current working files in Dropbox, where they’re backed up and versioned. This means that if I save a file and then my computer explodes a minute later, it’s all safe in the cloud. Cloud storage is a nice refuge.

ARQ Backup uses extra cloud space and also manages periodic local backups of all my server files.

But if you’re like me, you may also have an enormous amount of cloud storage space that you’re not using. I had a bunch of Dropbox space and even more OneDrive space because I pay for Office 365. So I bought a copy of ARQ Backup and used it to back up my most important files to my cloud storage space that I’m already paying for and not using. I’m also using ARQ to back up my RAID to two large hard drives when I connect them to the server, which I do every week or two.

Carbon Copy Cloner backs up regularly to an external drive on the back of my iMac.

Finally, I keep a drive plugged into my iMac and my Mac mini server that makes a daily duplicate of the entire drive. Because you can never have enough backups—especially ones you can boot from on a different Mac in a pinch. For this task, you can take your pick of two wonderful apps: Shirt Pocket Software’s SuperDuper and Bombich Software’s Carbon Copy Cloner. My server backs up its small internal SSD to a small SSD connected via USB every day using SuperDuper. My iMac backs up to a larger SSD tucked into its VESA mount every day using Carbon Copy Cloner.

Extreme? Yes. But even when I was backing up using Time Machine and Backblaze alone, I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t be sure that all my files would be available in case of an emergency. You probably don’t need to use all of these techniques—but however many methods you’re using today, I urge you to consider layering in an additional one! You might never need it—but it only takes one bad day to wipe out years of work.



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