dotunderscore by Brian Hough

2015’s most useful gizmos and gadgets

Like most people in our modern day society, I don’t go through a single day without in some way using a gizmo or gadget. There are hundreds of little tools that we all use day in, day out to make life a little more enjoyable, maybe a little more tolerable, and even just a little more convenient. As is the custom this time of the year, I figured it may be useful to someone out there to put together this little list of my most used and abused of these tools, just in time for the new year.

Late 2014 was really when I got hooked on podcasts, but for me, 2015 was the year of the podcast. From’s excellent catalogue of podcasts (Connected and Upgrade being my two favorites), to Alex Albrecht and Allison Haslip’s laugh out loud worthy Half Hour Happy Hour, there was no shortage of amazing content. And they were all made better by my first pick, Marco Arment’s extraordinary podcast application for iOS, Overcast (free). Overcast makes it dead simple to find, add, sort, and listen to the content I want to hear. And when I want to save some time, Overcast’s built in Smart Speed functionality removes dead air without making anything sound funky or unnatural. According to Overcast, Smart Speed has saved me 30 hours, simply by removing dead air, which is just insane.

While going through my seemingly never ending cue of podcasts waiting to be listened to, I’ll often brew myself a cup of coffee to wind down after a day at work. I’m a huge coffee fanatic, but I’m a New Englander, so I only ever really drink iced coffee; substantially harder to get on demand at home than the traditional hot stuff. In the old days, I used to simply pour the hot coffee over ice to cool it (like some kind of animal), but I grew to despise how watered down my coffee would become. My Zoku Iced Coffee Maker ($30) solved this. It does one job, and it does it shockingly well - pour fresh brewed, steaming hot coffee into it, wait just a couple of minutes, and boom, you’ve got instant iced coffee. After you’ve enjoyed your coffee, give it a quick wash and put the cup back into the freezer to get it nice and cool for your nice cup. Really, really recommend it for fellow iced coffee addicts.

One my goals for last year that I was (mostly) successful in following through with was my daily outdoor activity. I tried to get at least a 45 minute walk in multiple times a week, and my RHA MA450i ($50) in-ear headphones really helped get me motivated. I love going on quiet walks around the neighborhood, but I think I would love them less without some good music to go along with it. Now, I’m no audiophile (in fact, I have pretty significant hearing loss), so take this recommendation with a grain or two of salt. But I’ve found these headphones to have absolutely excellent sound quality, a great built-in microphone for phone calls, and perfect build quality. In fact, I’ve actually owned these headphones since early 2014 and have used them almost daily, though you’d never know it. They’ve also got a great fabric cable that really does reduce tangling, and they’re an absolute steal at $50 - I paid nearly $100 for them way back when.

Perhaps the most useful addition to my life this year is the most expensive item on this list, but also one that’s infinitely simple and yet remarkably complex; the Apple Watch Sport Edition ($349/$399) has become the first thing I look at in the morning, and the last thing I set to charge at night, every single day. While smart watches are yet to really break through “useful” territory and into the “necessary,” I can honestly say that wearing an Apple Watch has made me more in the moment in my daily life, significantly changing my habits. I look at my phone far less, it’s encouraged me to be far more active (filling in those three activity rings really do become addicting), and it’s just insanely fun to use. Apple Maps on the Watch makes getting and following walking and driving directions almost fun (which is a weird sentence to write), controlling Overcast and Music playing on my phone from my Watch is convenient, and the built in Remote app has even replaced my Apple TV’s remote control. I’ve also become somewhat of a collector of Apple Watch bands - over the holiday season, I mixed and matched red and green sport bands to make it a little more festive. The Watch isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination; third party applications are incredibly slow to launch and the apps aren’t nearly as useful as their iOS equivalents. But the Apple Watch has made a watch wearer out of me; something I never thought possible.

Can a tablet computer really replace my aging MacBook Pro?

The keyboard I type on, in just a couple of short months, will turn five. By extension, this entire computer - a 15-inch Early 2011 MacBook Pro - will be five as well. In some ways, its held up remarkably well; its Core i7 processor still feels relatively speedy, a far cry from my old MacBook Pro’s Core Duo felt at this point in its life cycle. Everything still feels speedy enough when using it for basic tasks, perhaps no surprise given all the upgrades I’ve thrown at this thing over the years; 16GB of RAM, a lightning fast Crucial SSD.

It’s also kind of remarkable at how poorly my MacBook Pro has aged. It’s got an absolutely puny 1440x900 display, laughably bad compared to the displays on the Retina displays on modern Apple products, with substandard color production, absolutely no breathing room to do “real” work, and a crippling lack of clarity in text. With no support for Handoff, AirDrop, and no USB 3.0 ports, there’s a bunch of productivity functionality missing that I utilize daily on my work Mac Pro.

I regularly use Windows for gaming, and modern games laugh at my MacBook’s puny AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics card. And the final nail in the coffin, Apple has chose (planned obsolescence, I tell you!) not to provide valid Windows 10 drivers for my MacBook Pro, requiring me to put together a hacked solution that, I’m sure, will eventually fail.

Long story short, five years is a long time in the world of technology, and while my MacBook Pro has held on relatively well, it’s time to move on.

Once I reached that conclusion, a second, bigger question began to emerge. It may be time to move on, but in what direction? These days, every manufacturer is trying to hawk one of a thousand different concepts of what computers should look like in world of “post-PC devices”.” This desire to figure out what’s next seems largely to be a result of the reality of floundering PC sales, with only Apple’s line of Mac notebooks seemingly able to break the trend.

A general consensus seems to have been met on touch-based computing, and of course numerous devices that I’m considering are touch-first devices, meant to be used with a finger first, and a keyboard second. Of course, there’s the iPad – specifically the iPad Pro, Apple’s newest addition to the iPad lineup seemingly meant to compete head to head with the Surface Pro 4 from Microsoft, an interesting device that I have also been considering. Failing all of that, of course, is my old standby – yet another MacBook Pro.

The iPad Pro is an interesting device. I’ve seen startlingly different arguments from both sides of the aisle. Some have accused Apple of flat out copying the Microsoft Surface, albeit poorly – ironically limiting a device intended for a professional audience with a mobile operating system incapable of running them by design. Others herald the iPad Pro as some sort of savior for the iPad lineup – a powerful device that the iPad lineup so desperately needed, hardware that iOS 9 truly deserves.

Realistically, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle – a worthwhile and capable PC replacement for a certain segment of the population, and an all too hindered device for another portion of the user base. This is a question that every user will need to carefully consider for him or herself before making an important purchasing decision.

Are you a gamer, with a big Steam library of games? The iPad Pro is certainly out. Do you spend hours in and hours out living in Adobe’s ecosystem of Creative Cloud applications? Stay far away from the iPad Pro; Adobe has yet to take any sort of stab at developing a truly professional application for iOS; all Creative Cloud apps available for the platform are shy imitations of their desktop counterparts.

Do you spend most of your time mocking up or designing with a Waccom tablet? The iPad Pro is perfect for you – many consider the Apple Pencil to be the best stylus available for any computing platform today, bar none. Are you a subscriber of Apple’s variety of services – Apple Music, iCloud Drive, Apple Photos? They all work best on iOS on the iPad Pro. Do you need the ultimate in portability – portability above all else – the iPad Pro is your device.

While I’m incredibly interested in seeing how an iPad Pro would fit into my workflow, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m also incredibly hesitant to dedicating $1000 to that cause. As mentioned earlier, a not insignificant part of my laptop usage is spent in Windows, trying to play games. If I were to go the iPad Pro route, I would be giving this up entirely, relegating all of my PC gaming to my desktop computer. While this isn’t necessarily out of the question – I would be saving considerable money by going the iPad Pro route, after all – I don’t like the idea of hiding out in my room like a hermit just so I can play a couple of rounds of Battlefield. I also do happen to spend a considerable amount of time in Adobe Creative Cloud, specifically Photoshop CC. It’s a shame to ding the iPad Pro for what effectively amounts to laziness on the side of Adobe – it would certainly be possible to develop a more feature complete version of Photoshop for the iPad Pro, after all, it is a serious consideration that I find it difficult to overcome.

On the other hand, nearly all of those considerations wouldn’t really be an issue If I were to go with the Surface Pro 4, Microsoft’s latest generation tablet/notebook hybrid. Running a full version of Windows 10 Professional and featuring some of the most high end specs available for notebook computers today, the Surface Pro 4 would certainly be able to play some games (albeit on very low quality), and I’d be able to run all of the Adobe Creative Cloud applications until my heart’s content.

But when I stop to think some more, I’ve also come to the conclusion that I really don’t think that the Surface Pro is the device for me, either. For one thing, I’ve heard absolute horror stories about Windows 10 on high DPI devices, with most non-Modern Windows programs failing to scale to the Surface Pro 4’s display properly. The Surface Pro 4’s keyboard add-on is also no real replacement for a real notebook keyboard, feeling considerable worse than the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard to my fingers. And since I would be “upgrading” to a full desktop OS, specs suddenly begin to matter a whole lot more than they would on iOS – and frankly, I would need to spend an outrageous amount of money for what essentially amounts to a souped up tablet to spec out a Surface Pro 4 to make an upgrade properly worth it. An argument could certainly be made for the new Surface Book, though I’ve heard that the first generation device is far too buggy to be considered as one’s daily driver, so that’s out off the bat.

After thinking it through more clearly – putting some time between the initial hype of release day and my bank account – it has become clear that there are too many lingering questions that need answering before I can say that the iPad Pro is, with any certainly, the computer for me. Likewise, the Surface Pro 4 would get too expensive with too many little compromises to make it a really worthwhile buy, though it truly does seem slightly closer to being a true notebook replacement than the iPad Pro in its current incarnation.

As tough as it is to say, and as much as it apparently flies in the face of the direction the industry is heading, I truly believe that my immediate future lies in a non-touch device for yet another go around – my old standby, the MacBook Pro. Come on Apple, just release that next-generation lineup so I can give you my money.

Lamenting the state of Apple's productivity apps

This bit by Dan Moren, for Macworld, got me thinking:

I think those apps are still needed, though. Not least of which because I don’t really see myself forking over $10 every month for an Office 365 subscription. For all of their shortcomings, I like Apple’s productivity apps, not only because they’re well designed, but because though they may not have every bell-and-whistle, they still let me get work done, whether it be writing, giving presentations, or tracking my finances.

And the nice thing is that it’s perfectly possible to get by these days without Microsoft Office. Just as the PC market has been shrinking, Microsoft’s stranglehold over the productivity space has been dwindling. Yes, Word/Excel/PowerPoint are still business’s lingua franca, but it’s not like it was twenty years ago. Some of that is other apps’ ability to read and export to those formats, but a big part has been played by the Internet, too. These days, it’s just as easy—and sometimes easier—to send a Google Doc link, a PDF, or even just paste plaintext into an email than it is to send a Word doc.

When I purchased the original MacBook Pro in 2006, I made sure I purchased the latest version of Apple’s iWork productivity suite along with it. As a student, it was important that I had access to reliable and easy to use applications to help me get that procrastinated essay out on the page. At the time, I felt that iWork had it all: the perfect mix of price, feature set, reliability, and interoperability with Microsoft Office users.

Here I am nearly a decade later, and if I had to make that decision today I know I wouldn’t buy iWork. While I find Microsoft’s latest Office offerings to be bloated and unreliable on Mac, I can’t say with a straight face that iWork is the overall better choice.

Apple is shown next to no interest in offering worthwhile updates to any of their productivity apps, and what’s worse is that the current version of iWork isn’t just bad, it’s arguably worse than the version I purchased back in 2006. Apple rewrote the entire iWork for Mac suite in 2013 so as to make it play better with iWork for iOS, which has never been very good.

So Mac users have a choice. Use the neglected and largely forgotten about iWork suite, or pay an arm and a leg for Microsoft Office 365, which does receive updates and is incredibly powerful.

Of course, there’s always also Google Docs, which works just as well on the Mac as it does on any other platform. It’s got a limited feature set compared to the other two choices - you can’t install fonts, for example - but it can open and export Microsoft Office versions fine, supports best in class collaborative editing, offers 30 GB of free cloud storage, and is totally free of charge.

But then again, you have to deal with Google sharing ownership with you of anything you save in Google Drive. So long story short, there’s no good option anymore.

And man, I really wish Apple would care enough to give us just one good option.

(Update 10/7/15, Microsoft has just issued out a fix which supposedly fixes the issues El Capitan users were having with Office 2016. Given the severity of the issue and Microsoft’s swiftness in fixing it, I have removed that part of my original post.)

Bloomberg: Amazon to stop selling Apple TV and Google Chromecast

Spencer Soper, for Bloomberg: Inc. will stop selling media-streaming devices from Google Inc. and Apple Inc. that aren’t easily compatible with its video service, the latest example of the company using its clout to promote products that fit with its own retailing strategy.

The Seattle-based Web retailer sent an e-mail to its marketplace sellers that it will stop selling the Apple TV and Google’s Chromecast since those devices don’t “interact well” with Prime Video. No new listings for the products will be allowed and posting of existing inventory will be removed Oct. 29, Amazon said. Prime Video doesn’t run easily on its rival’s hardware.

What makes this so disappointing isn’t just that Amazon is using their power as a market leader to stop a sizable amount of people from purchasing competitors’ products, it’s that internal politics are clearly getting in the way of a quality user experience.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been burned by the lack of Prime Video support on my Apple TV. Prime Video has a fairly sizable library of new television shows (it’s the only place I could find to legally stream early episodes of Season 2 of Extant), and Amazon Prime is an excellent value once you factor in Amazon’s included Cloud Storage and free, 2-day shipping.

Yet as great of a deal as it is, I can’t take advantage of a huge amount of what I pay for because either Apple, Amazon, or both (and, by the looks of it, Google) refuse to play nice. And as a consumer, what can I do? I can use crummy workarounds - like AirPlay, which has been only getting worse and worse over time; I can buy Amazon’s Fire TV, which isn’t a very consumer friendly option. Or I could find alternate, less than entirely legal sources.

Let me just say, despite Amazon’s best efforts here, I did not buy a Fire TV.

Thoughts on iOS 9 Content Blockers

When I shared my iOS 9 Notes & Impressions earlier this summer, I barely touched on the platform’s built in support for a new type of extension called “Content Blockers.” That now appears to have been an oversight on my part. Since iOS 9 launched yesterday, Content Blockers have created a firestorm unlike anything I’ve seen in quite some time.

Reactions have been, in hindsight, understandably split. Depending on who you ask, Content Blockers are either the biggest improvement to Mobile Safari since its inception, or a harmful feature implemented by a vindictive Apple, bent on hurting both Google and the established publishing industry in a vein attempt to redirect quality content away from the open web and towards the new Apple News application.

But what are Content Blockers? To get a full understanding of how these new apps work, one needs to understand that the “open” web is spying on you. Perhaps you’ve spent half an hour browsing the web for new shoes, only to find advertisements for footwear following you all around the internet for a week. These aren’t just obnoxious advertisements, they are also bombarding your devices with scripts designed to track exactly what you watch, read, share, and purchase on the web.

There’s no escape: these scripts are bundled with advertising space sold and served by the biggest ad provider on the web, Google. If you click a link and find the page littered with advertisements, there’s a good chance that those advertisements come from Google. There’s an even better chance that those advertisements there are gathering information on your browsing habits to help someone determine how to better inundate you with more, and more effective, adverts.

Not only is this incredibly creepy and a borderline invasion of your privacy, it’s also damaging in a few other ways. Privacy concerns aside, these adverts do hell to your device’s battery. I’m sure every iPhone owner on the planet would like to eek even an hour’s worth of battery out of their phone. What if I told you that, if all of these scripts and ads were to suddenly disappear, Safari would use much less power, and your iPhone’s battery would last significantly longer?

The good news is, that’s exactly what a Content Blocker on iOS 9 is designed to accomplish: a good one will filter the internet of advertisements and sites’ abilities to track your browsing habits, giving you the benefit of a faster, safer, and more secure experience on a device that lasts longer. Content Blockers work on both Mobile Safari (most iPhone users’ browser of choice) as well as any application that supports Safari View Controller, a growing list that already includes one of the largest Twitter clients in use, Twitterrific.

So what’s the issue? Well, if you don’t see a downside, you might not be a publisher. There’s a reason that so many websites rely on advertising, and why so much of that advertising pushes these sorts of tracking technology - your browsing habits are valuable. So valuable, in fact, that modern day mega publishing corporations such as Buzzfeed and Vox rely heavily on these advertisements: they make bank off you. I’m sure most of these big publishing guys are like the rest of us – their hearts don’t beat a flutter when they see a full screen advertisement obstructing content, but they realize that it’s a “necessary” evil and someone’s primary source of income. It enables publishers to deliver quality content to readers that are ravenous for hot takes, personality quizzes, and gossip for the low, low price of zero dollars.

The issue at hand is evident. If all iOS users upgrade to iOS 9 and download a Content Blocker, all of those hundreds of thousands of people will suddenly become of next to no value to advertisers, which will in turn stop generating revenue and then profits for publishers, which could put all your favorite authors at Buzzfeed or wherever else quickly out of a job. This will be especially hurtful for the little guys who don’t have big corporate backers acting as a safety net: the folks at quality niche sites like Six Colors or MacStories.

Apple isn’t being forthcoming as to why they implemented Content Blockers on iOS after nine very successful years without them, and I don’t expect them to ever be. Perhaps that reason is as innocent as wanting to offer a better user experience for Mobile Safari users. Perhaps it’s to push publishers towards Apple News, where adverts are provided by Apple and unblockable. It hardly matters. No matter how you feel about them, Content Blockers are here, and they’re almost certainly staying. From this point forward, more and more people will begin blocking significant portions of the web, and advertisers and publishers will begin to feel the squeeze.

There are a couple of ways this could shake out. The most likely outcome, I think, will be that very little changes. Truthfully, Content Blockers are nothing new – they have existed on desktop platforms, such as Windows, Linux, and the Mac, for years. Given Android’s open nature, I’m sure it’s had the equivalent of Content Blockers since the early days of Android on the HTC G1.

iOS has been the exception to the rule until now, and publishers have survived just fine. Content Blockers have always been, and will very likely always be, a niche product for a few tech savvy folks who know they can shape their web browsing experience to their personal preference while also having enough wherewithal to know how to go out and do it. I believe this is exactly what will happen on iOS 9. It’s not like an Apple sanctioned Content Blocker exists or comes installed on iOS 9 from the get go, nor can I imagine they’ll be pushed by the App Store team all that much: they will exist for the select few who know they want them, and they will be ignored by the majority of users.

But if they were to take off, and if suddenly everyone and their grandfather begins deploying Content Blockers, it’s all too clear what could and maybe should happen: publishers profits will begin to fall. Just as in nature when an environment changes, the strong will adapt and the weak will die. Some will argue that this will be the end of free, high quality content, and maybe they’re right.

But then again, if you have to trade your privacy, your device’s battery life, and a good user experience to access that content, is it really free?