web analytics

Bill Bennett

Menu

Tag: Apple

Apple is one world’s largest companies. It got there by giving people the technology they want. Products include the Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and AirPods.

Touch Voicemail iPhone app makes smartphones smarter

Modern cellphones are smart, but that’s not what it feels like when it comes to voicemail. Until now the only way to get at missed incoming messages is to call your phone network’s voicemail service, wade through clumsy prompts and listen to messages one-by-one.

Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees all say they have visual voicemail apps on the way which will change that. Meanwhile Hamilton-based Bridge Point already has an iPhone Touch Voicemail app in Apple’s iTunes app store.

Bridge Point director Ben Wilson says the app allows users to manage voicemail without calling their mobile carrier.

Touch Voicemail has a clean iOS7 — soon iOS8 — user interface. It looks almost as if it is part of the iPhone’s operating system and works as if it were. So, you can swipe items to delete them just as in the iOS Mail app.

The app shows a visual list of callers. You can listen to the messages in the order you want. That’s great for voicemail triage: skipping past unimportant or non-critical messages to the essential ones.

Once you open a message, you’ll see the caller’s photo if that’s stored on your phone. You’ll also see a playback button so you can listen to the message they left. There’s also a return call button. A third button allows you to send an SMS message to the caller.

Touch Voicemail intercepts missed calls and send them to its own server. From there Bridge Point sends the message to your phone as data, either through the mobile data network or by wi-fi if that’s available.

While the basic Touch Voicemail app is free, there’s also a NZ$25 a year Pro version. The extra money allows you to store more voicemail messages and to create different greetings for different circumstances.

You will use minutes from your mobile account to transfer calls to the server. That might not work if you have a prepay account. If you’re not connected to wi-fi, you’ll need to pay for the downloaded data. This isn’t expensive and you’ll save on the cost of calling conventional voice mail.

Apple Watch: All fun and games until someone loses an eye

Seen from afar Apple Watch looks better than any other attempt at creating a smart watch. It has a sharp design and a solid feature set.

If I wanted a smart watch this would be it.

But I don’t want a smart watch. At least not at the moment. That could change when I get to test the Apple Watch. I’m nothing but open-minded.

If anything my earlier, admittedly short, time with the Samsung Galaxy Gear convinced me a smart watch won’t make me any more productive. Nor will it make me smarter, faster-moving or happier.

On the other hand — perhaps I should say on the other wrist — a smart watch would suck up time and money that could be put to better use elsewhere.

That’s not so say an Apple Watch won’t help you. I’m a special case because I have an eye condition called macular degeneration. It’s treatable, but there are times when I have difficulty reading normal size text. Glasses don’t help. It’s easy to whack the size up on a computer or tablet. I can even magnify text to useful sizes on a smartphone. But not on a wrist-size screen.

Incidentally, my eye condition is one reason I’m excited about the newer, large screen iPhone 6.

I’ve always been supportive of assistive technology but until now any interest has been academic.

The first crop of smart watches isn’t helpful to people with poor sight. Apple’s taptic engine has the potential to change that. It could be particularly useful for blind people once developers get working on new ways to exploit the technology.

So, I’ll set the alarm on buying an Apple Watch until I see what the world’s smartest app programmers come up with. For now, I’ll keep my Swatch.

Byword: Mac writing tool that let’s you focus on words

Byword on Mac, iPad, iPhone

Byword is the ideal Mac writing tool if you just want to focus on words. There are versions for OS X (US$12.99 in the Mac app store) and iOS (US$4.99 in the iTunes app store). This review looks at the Mac version.

The key to Byword and the reason it is ideal for focusing on words is that it is not a word processor: it’s a text editor.

Word processor mission creep

That’s important because while word processors are useful, they have moved beyond their original intention. Most do jobs other than writing. As a result word processor developers threw the writing baby out with the bath water.

Apple’s Pages word processor is good at document layout. Microsoft Word does mail merge and tracks changes.

Most word processors do countless things that go beyond writing. This means the apps are complex and bloated. Let’s face it, with all that other stuff going on, it’s easy to be distracted.

How text editors differ from word processors

Text editors do little more than manage strings of letters, numbers and other characters. In general they are not concerned with fonts, layouts, creating tables and so on. Being pretty doesn’t come into it. They usually create plain text (.txt) files — although that’s not the whole story.

It’s true, text editors also do many things that go beyond writing. You can write programming code in a text editor. In fact, that’s what many of them are used for. I wrote my first HTML pages using a text editor. Even now I tinker with HTML, PHP and CSS using TextWrangler. That text editor is optimised for code. Unlike Byword it’s not great for writing.

A text editor’s power comes from its relative simplicity. A word processor’s power comes from its relative complexity.

Good text editors, like Byword, do one thing, manipulate text, but they do it well and stay out of your face.

Typewriter-like, in a good way

Byword is the nearest thing to using a manual typewriter that I’ve found to date. That’s not a new thought. iA Writer and my iPad are like a typewriter.

The typewriter comparison is important. Typewriters made for productive writing because of their simplicity. They didn’t offer scope for unproductive fannying about.

Of course typewriters couldn’t store documents. Editing was a pain, usually involving a red pen and white-out. And you needed to buy paper and ink. Even so-called portable typewriters were anything but portable by today’s standards.

Byword shares much with iA Writer. Both are text editors optimised for writers not coders. They both work with Markdown.

You can sync documents across your Mac, iPhone and iPad using iCloud with both apps. Both can produce plain text documents readable on any device. And both can save text documents in popular formats like .docx.

Minimalist

Although Byword and iA Writer look different, they share a minimalist user interface that means nothing gets between you and your words. There are zero distractions.

However, much as I love iA Writer, it takes minimalism a step too far. Nothing illustrates this better than its inflexibility about the font it uses. You can’t change the iA Writer font, nor can you change the font size.

This is deliberate, in the name of simplicity and minimalism, admirable goals. And yet, the font is ugly and that is a subtle form of distraction.

You may be OK with that. What I briefly couldn’t live with is the inability to change the font size. Earlier this year I had an eye condition that affected my ability to read text on a screen. The work around was to zoom the document and crank up the font size — things I couldn’t do with iA Writer. This is why I spent four months back in the word processor world with Pages and Word.

Readability

Byword allows font and font size changes in a non-distracting way. There’s a minimal preferences panel. You can choose whether the display shows white text on a black background or black on white. Better still Byword also allows a choice of wide, medium and narrow text columns.

Byword preferences
Byword preferences

These are wise options and in my view, essential for productivity. Most of the time black on white text works best, but there are times and lighting conditions where the reverse is better. You might be working at night — possibly on a flight or train — where a bright white screen disturbs others.

Changing the font means you can pick something you’re comfortable with. I use Apple’s Myriad Pro font at a 17pt size — it’s perfect for my needs. I find it easy to read and non distracting.

A trick I learnt years ago is to proofread my writing using a different font and size to the one I used to write the document. Try it yourself, you’ll notice you’ll spot errors you didn’t see first time around. That’s all to do with the way you read on-screen text.

Never mind the quality, feel the width

Being able to change the column width is great for a similar reason. There’s a good reason old school printed newspapers and magazines used narrow text columns, the way eyes track across the page means people comprehend better when the width is less than 72 characters wide.

Wide column widths are harder to track and that means it’s harder to proofread your copy. Set Byword to the narrow measure, which given your font choices could mean the columns are about 60 characters wide. That’s ideal.

Byword’s preferences are only about what you see on the editing screen. They are not about what the reader will see. The font, width, colour information is not stored in a text document. Once set they are universal for everything you write.

iA Writer has a focus mode where everything but the three lines you are working on fades into the background. It’s a great feature when you need to concentrate on tricky passages. Byword takes this feature a step further with a line focus and a paragraph focus. Both do exactly what the name suggests.

Where Markdown sings

Another thing wrong with traditional word processors is that they still revolve around printed documents even though most writing is now purely digital. Byword is digital though and through.

It uses Markdown, which is an easy way of embedding simple formatting in a document. A single # character at the start of a line makes it a header, that’s H1 in HTML. Two #s marks a line as H2 and so on. A single * before and after a word indicates italics. Two stars mean bold text.

These days most of my writing is published online first. I spend more time in WordPress than anything else. Because WordPress also uses Markdown, it is easy to move between Byword and WordPress. This also works for Blogger, Tumblr and Evernote among others.

Writing blog posts with Word, Pages or any other word processor means ten minutes clearing up before hitting the publish button.

Byword Markdown preview
Byword Markdown preview

Byword handles Markdown beautifully on-screen and that brings a surprise benefit I wasn’t expecting. With iA Writer long stories are hard to navigate. When writing you often need to scroll up and down to cross reference and check others parts of the story. Because iA writer is wide and the text all looks much the same, it’s hard to quickly hunt down sections. Those heads, bolds and italics, along with the narrow column width and ragged right justification take a lot of the hard work out of navigation.

If that’s not enough, there’s a preview option. The upshot is what you see on the preview screen is close to what you’ll see on your blog post.

Blog integration

While you can cut and paste text from Byword into WordPress or another blog, there’s a more direct channel. A US$5 premium version of Byword allows you to post stories directly from the text editor without opening your blogging software’s back end.

If you’re cautious you can save the post as a draft. The premium add-on allows you to add categories and tags.

Using Byword

This post is the first long story I’ve written using Byword. I also tested it with some shorter posts and stories. It’s clearly a productive writing tool, I can see it becoming my main workhorse.

Byword manages to deliver a writing tool that’s made for writers. In practice it feels like it combines the best things that you’ll find in a word processor with the minimalism of a text editor. Much as I love iA Writer, it sometimes feels a little too much like working in a foreign territory, I don’t get that with Byword.

Apple Pages 5 word processor tested

Anyone who buys a new Mac gets a free copy of Apple Pages 5 word processor. 

That’s great, but is Pages 5 good enough for professional writer? Will we still need to fork out for Microsoft Office as well?

The simple answers is: Pages 5 is good enough for me, but it may not be right for everyone. 

From Pages ’09 to 5

Many long-term Pages users were not impressed when Apple updated the word processor from Pages ’09 to Pages 5 in late 2013.

People who invested time and effort learning, mastering and tweaking systems around the earlier version of the software suddenly found their scripts and workarounds no longer functioned. And they found key features were suddenly missing in action.

I’m not one of those people.

After a brief trial of Pages ‘09, mainly for review purposes, I went back to using iA Writer for short, snappy writing and Microsoft Word for jobs where either clients or convenience demanded it.

Pages 5: The name says it all

Pages ’09 just wasn’t designed for writers like me.

The name is a giveaway. Although Apple sold the software as a word processor, Pages is also a page design tool. In fact, I’d say Pages is mainly a page design tool.

Pages makes sense if you want an alternative to Adobe InDesign for people who need to make words and pictures look good on a page, but don’t need professional level tools.

Not that Pages can’t deliver professional-looking designs, but that’s not my focus here.

What about words?

I’m a journalist. I write words for a living. Most of the time someone else gets to make them look pretty on a page. I’m only concerned about getting the words down as efficiently as possible.

Here I plan to discuss how well Pages 5 works as a tool for professional writers. I specifically ask if it does the job better than Microsoft Word:2011 and more basic tools like iA Writer.

For writers of my generation — I started when magazine printers still used hot metal presses — the typewriter will always be the gold standard. I’ve used word processors for 30 years. In all that time, I’ve always sought to recreate the typewriter’s simplicity. I want electronic writing tools that just stay out-of-the-way.

That’s not how software developers see word processing. They bulk up their products with features designed to appeal to, mainly, the most lucrative users in big companies.

No doubt the word processors that make it through the processor are what people want. After all Word continues to sell. Lawyers love it. PR companies and organisations that want documents written and rewritten again and again love it. You can import graphics, write mathematical equations, do mail merges and lots of other stuff journalists and writers simply don’t need.

Keeping software out of the writer’s way

None of that interests me. Nor do I care about fonts and styles. Well, not when writing. I tend to use a single font for an entire document. Heads and cross heads are in bold. Italics or bold emphasis words.

But that’s it.

And it explains why I prefer iA Writer to Word.

IA Writer is essentially a text editor. It is difficult to use Word the same way.

However, over the years I’ve learnt to use Word in the most minimalist way possible.

Pages 5 in the background

So how does Pages 5 fare from this point of view? Can I ignore the fancy layout features, all the extra stuff that gets others excited but gets between me and the words I’m paid to write?

The simple answer is that Pages 5 can do this. In fact it does this well.

When Apple remade Pages, it left much of the page design code in the application, but it also stripped back the interface. It’s now easier to ignore all the non-writer features and work on the words.

For the last week, ten days now, I’ve set aside iA Writer and Word to write using nothing but Pages 5. It’s good. I might just stick with it for the long-term.

My minimalist Pages 5

There’s an art to using Pages 5 in my minimalist Ernest Hemingway armed-just-with-a-typewriter style of working.

When I start Pages I open a blank template — I use a custom template more about that later. I set the display to full screen, turn off all notifications on my MacBook Air so I’m not distracted.

The next thing I do is hit command-option-i to hide the inspector which sits on the right side of the screen. If I need it later, the same command will bring it back.

I also hide the tool bar. Then I crank up the zoom to full-page width.

Ideal writing set-up

All this may sound fussy and petty. Perhaps it is. But it is my ideal writing set-up.

Apart from the right-hand scroll bar which, magically, only fades into sight when needed and a tiny lozenge at the bottom of the screen showing the number of words in my document, there is nothing but my writing. Once again I’ve recreated the simplicity and effectiveness of the typewriter.

My custom template isn’t fancy. I’ve just set body text style to Helvetica Regular 11pt and remove the headers and footers. Sometimes I add space between paragraphs to make long documents easier to navigate and edit.

It would be better if Pages 5 could take me directly to this set up. That is adjust the screen to my taste and auto-load the custom template. I’m told by people in the Pages support forum that you can program some, sadly not all, of this in advance.

It would also be nice if I could make my custom template the default. As it is, I have to scroll down a long list of templates I will never use to find my own. Perhaps there’s a way to tidy this up. I haven’t found it yet.

Maybe I’ll get to those tweaks one day. Or maybe I won’t.

Mise en place

While setting up can be laborious if I need to get writing in a hurry, there’s an element of mise en place about the set-up process which helps me prepare my head for the writing job ahead.

In practice, I get a clean writing space. The text is just the right size for my eyes, it is clear and crisply displayed with a margin of about 30 mm of white space on either side.

Every few hundred words a line appears across the display to show where the text moves from one A4 page to the next.

Anachronistic

For me, this is a ridiculous anachronism. I haven’t printed my writing for anything other than proofing purposes for at least a decade. Still, it does make it easier to navigate long documents.

On the MacBook Air, my Pages set-up is ultra-minimal. There’s almost no distraction. Any spelling errors or dubious words are instantly visible thanks to red underlining.

All-in-all it’s the most productive and trouble-free writing tool I have at my disposal. It beats iA Writer at the moment because that otherwise excellent app doesn’t allow me to fiddle with the font size — something I had to do when I had serious eye trouble.

iCloud

Apple built Pages 5 to work with iCloud.

If you hit the Command-S to save, that’s the default option. From the save dialogue you can choose to store documents on your Mac’s drive. The standard OS X Finder appears and you can navigate to wherever you like.

For my work I store my Pages 5 documents in iCloud, which means I can get at them immediately from my iPad or iPhone.

iCloud can be a huge productivity boost. Last week I managed to add some quotes to a part-written feature while I was out in town. The iPhone isn’t an ideal writing tool, but at a pinch it gets the job done.

I was nervous about doing this because the earlier versions of Pages had less than perfect compatibility across OS X and iOS, that appears to be fixed. If there are still incompatibilities, I have yet to see them.

Earlier this year I wrote a major newspaper feature in Pages 5 and sent the file to an editor . The file format mystified the editor. When the annoyed call came asking me for a readable version, I was about to board a flight. It took a few seconds to grab the iCloud document, covert it to Microsoft Word and flick it back to the news desk. I’ve sent 30-odd features written with Pages 5 but saved in Word format to various editors, no-one had said anything about incompatibilities.

Apple Pages 5 for the writing professional

Given that Pages 5 is free to many users and only US$20 if you need to buy a copy, it has to the best value Mac word processor around.

Apple Pages 5 won’t suit every writing professional. It’s not helpful for jobs where the client wants you to use change tracking. That’s such a horrible and unproductive way of working that I try to avoid those jobs anyway. I still have a Word license if I need to do that kind of work.

If you’re committed to Microsoft Office or work with others who are, you may not want to switch.

On the other hand, after ten days of using nothing else, I’ve found Pages 5 is at least as a productive as any alternative.

 

MacBook Air – the first year

Apple Macbook AirLast June I switched from a Windows 8 desktop, without a touch screen, to an Apple MacBook Air.

Four reasons prompted the move:

  • For the first time in ages I needed portability and my older Windows laptop was too long in the tooth.
  • After looking at and test-driving UltraBooks I saw Apple’s 2013 MacBook Air cost the same as a comparable Windows 8 PC. In the event I picked up a 13-inch Apple MacBook Air with a 256 GB solid state drive for NZ$1700.
  • I’d been using an Apple iPad for a year and an iPhone for a few months. It was clear Apple’s technology stack suits the way I work.
  • The MacBook Air’s thin, light design was important but more than anything I couldn’t go past its claimed 12-hour battery life

How did it work out?

Portability

Although I didn’t work away from home as often as expected, when I did, the MacBook Air’s thin, light design  was everything I hoped for. It did service at four or five away from home conferences and many client offices around Auckland. I also used it on planes and in cafes.

Because I’m a journalist, I need a decent keyboard and a good, readable screen. Windows UltraBooks offer  similar hardware, to date no-one has improved on the six-year-old MacBook Air format.

MacBook Air all-day battery

Battery life isn’t what it was. A year ago I could work more than ten hours on a single charge. Today there’s still enough juice to last a whole day away from home. I get about eight hours out of the MacBook Air now.

I rarely feel the need to pack a power supply when I’m working in someone’s office which means I can slip the computer into a neat leather case.

In part the shorter time is because battery life declines over time. However, I’ve changed the settings and now crank up the screen brightness which drains power faster. I also tend to leave Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on even when I’m not using them.

Even  so, I’d say Apple delivered on its battery life promise.

Keyboard, screen

I worried about ergonomic problems when I moved from a Windows desktop with full keyboard to the MacBook Air. There were none. Even when I ran into serious eye problems earlier this year, the MacBook and its ability to zoom was just fine.

Some complain the MacBook Air doesn’t have the high-resolution Retina display found on the iPad Air or the MacBook Pro. Presumably a big increase in pixels would push the battery harder — I prefer to stick with the existing display.

One other point, the MacBook Air’s 3:4 format screen is better for writing than the thinner postbox-shaped displays found elsewhere.

OS X, applications

Moving from Windows to OS X didn’t present any serious problems. A year on I still have to look up how to do obscure, rarely performed tasks on the Macintosh operating system. But I didn’t experience any hiccups. OS X is stable, I can go a long time between reboots and I’m not always sure they are necessary anyway.

Microsoft makes it easy to switch from Windows to OS X. My Office 365 subscription means I have to put up with out-of-date Office apps.

When I wrote Two months with the MacBook Air I said:

The 2011 Mac version of Microsoft Office is a disappointment after the 2013 Windows version. I find myself using it less and less preferring other tools. Unless Microsoft fixes this, I won’t renew my Office 365 subscription when it lapses early next year.

That didn’t happen because my Office 365 licence is shared with the other computers at home and my iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone. Damn it, Office 365 is too good a deal. And anyway Microsoft says a refresh is due soon. Maybe. In the meantime, I’ve been using Apple’s iWorks software.

What happened since buying the MacBook Air?

Microsoft’s first generation Surface devices were on sale when I bought my MacBook Air. I passed over these because the original RT Surface was underpowered and the first generation Surface Pro was both a touch underpowered and overpriced.

Although Chromebooks are not ideal tools for journalists and professional writers, their throwaway price and ridiculously low management overheads make them worth thinking about. OK. I’ve stopped thinking about them. The keyboards, screens and writing software are not up to the job. Let’s move on.

To me the Surface sits somewhere between the MacBook Air and the iPad. It’s a tablet, but the letter box-shaped Window means it’s not so comfortable switching between portrait and landscape modes. It’s a tablet, but I bet few Surface owners choose not to buy the optional keyboard.

Microsoft Surface

In practice Surface feels more like a touch screen laptop. I’ve nothing against touch screens. They have their place, but when you bang out words for a living, you don’t want to move your fingers too often from the keyboard to the screen. When I spent time with a Surface I ended up with horrible wrist pains from that action.

Despite all that, second generation Surface devices — and more recently the Surface Pro 3 — are fine alternatives to the MacBook Air. Surface would be my second choice behind a new MacBook Air.

Three things give the MacBook Air an edge:

  • A better, squarer display is important for writing. I need to see more lines of text and not a greater width of text. Incidentally, it’s harder to proofread across a wide measure. And the 13-inch screen makes for better writing productivity.
  • Microsoft’s newer Type Cover 2 keyboards are better than most tablet add-ons, but they are not as good for my kind of bashing out words typing style as the MacBook’s keyboard. Also, having the keyboard as an add-on means there’s something that conceivably could get left behind. I can’t risk that.
  • Microsoft’s Surface makes the MacBook Air look inexpensive. A 2014 MacBook Air with 13-inch screen and 256GB storage costs NZ$1650. A Surface Pro 3 with the same storage and a typewriter style keyboard is 25 percent more expensive at NZ$2077.

One year on

So far I’ve not mentioned what is perhaps the most important aspect of owning any work computer: productivity.

Life with the MacBook Air is more straightforward than my time with Windows. I doubt I’ve spent more than an hour or two doing anything resembling maintenance since I got the computer. In contrast I spent a couple of hours last week fixing a minor problem on my daughter’s Windows laptop.

The hours I’ve regained are more than worth the price of the computer.

At the same time, OS X does better at getting out-of-the-way than Windows. There’s a better focus on the user interface and that leads to greater productivity. On the flip side, there’s less flexibility, but that’s not what I look for in a work tool.

After one year I’m still convinced I made the right decision with the MacBook Air. I’d certainly buy another, perhaps after the next refresh or the one after that.