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Bill Bennett

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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.

Working with iPhone 6 Plus

iPhone 6 Plus ipad
iPhone 6 Plus iPad

Apple’s demonstrator laid an iPhone 6 and an iPhone 6 Plus side-by-side on the coffee table. He asked; “which do you prefer?” My instinctive first answer was to pick the smaller iPhone 6.

Yet once the hands-on testing got underway I found myself returning repeatedly to the iPhone 6 Plus.

You can read in-depth reviews of both phones elsewhere, here I explore the largest iPhone as a work tool for a journalist on the move. No prizes for guessing it’s all about the screen size.

We still measure screen sizes in inches. Apple’s iPhone 5S had a four-inch screen, the iPhone 6 is 4.7 inches while the 6 Plus measures 5.5 inches.

The iPhone 6 screen is 18mm larger than an iPhone 5S screen across the diagonal. This may not sound much, but it means close to 40 percent more viewable area. Apple boosted the pixels from 1,136×640 on the 5S to 1,334×750 on the iPhone 6. The iPhone 6 Plus has almost 90 percent more viewable area than the iPhone 5S and 1920×1080 pixels. That’s roughly two million pixels compared with one million on the iPhone 6.

You’ll notice the difference immediately when looking at pictures or videos. The iPhone 6 has the same pixel density as the iPhone 5S, the iPhone 6 Plus cranks things up a notch to 400 pixels per inch. It doesn’t matter how close you hold the phone to your eye, you won’t see individual pixels.

You can view a few more words on a single iPhone 6 screen when compared to an iPhone 5S. Or you can pump up the text size and squint less. The extra screen real estate on the iPhone 6 Plus makes it feel like a small iPad.

What this means in practice is that I do more on the iPhone 6 Plus than I did on the 5S. Previously I would skim emails when on the move, dealing only with urgent stuff. Generally, I’d park long or complicated emails to read later. Now I can read them in full.

Well-designed responsive websites worked fine on the iPhone 5S. Many did not. A few still display poorly on the 6 Plus, but in general there’s less need to send pages to Pocket to read on a bigger screen at home.

PDFs were a real pain on the 5S, they can still be awkward on the iPhone 6 Plus. For some reason almost everyone standardises on an A4 PDF page, this made sense in the paper era but is impractical on a phone. Either way, while there was little chance of reading most PDFs on older phones, it’s possible to read some and skim others on the iPhone 6 Plus.

A larger screen means a bigger onscreen keyboard. This makes it easier to reply to messages. Typing is still difficult when compared to a laptop with a keyboard or even a 10-inch tablet, but it is easier than on a small screen phone.

I still leave long replies for when I can get to a keyboard, but again, I can now deal with most messages while I’m on the move.

What about writing a story? After all, I’m a journalist, that’s what I spend most of my time doing.

Pages word processor on iPhone 6 Plus

Apple’s Pages works surprisingly well on the iPhone 6 Plus. When caught between appointments I drafted part of a feature I was writing on the phone while in a café. It’s not something I’d want to do everyday, but if I was at a news event, it would be good enough for a quick report back to base.

If anything WordPress’s iPhone app is even better than Pages. I wrote some of this on the iPhone 6 Plus using the keyboard. Likewise Byword seems wonderful on the iPhone 6 Plus. I pl, n to give these writing tools and others a more comprehensive test later. For now let’s just say I can do a lot more writing on this phone than on any earlier ones.

WordPress iOS app on the iPhone 6
WordPress iOS app on the iPhone 6

One thing I’d love to see is a live-blogging tool designed to make use of the bigger phone. If you know of one please get in touch. I still struggle to proofread on a phone, although the bigger screen means fewer errors than before.

Writing is only part of the modern journalist’s work. These days we’re expected to take pictures and even shoot video. The iPhone 6 Plus does both these better than any other phone.

If I’m honest, I’m not the world’s best photographer. I find getting good shots, particularly from a phone camera, is hit and miss. My usual trick is to take plenty and hope there are hits among the misses. The iPhone 6 Plus takes a lot of the misses out of the hit and miss equation. That’s in part because it has great built-in anti-shake and image stabilisation. The second of these is important when it comes to getting decent shots in low-light conditions — for my work that’s most of the time.

When the new iPhones first went on sale in the US there were complaints app developers hadn’t tweaked their designs to take advantage of the extra pixels. For a while some apps showed stretched layouts which meant text and images could show less sharp. There are still a few where that happens, but many had updated by the time the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus made it to New Zealand.

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.

Big iPhone 6 good for business users

Not everyone loves having a large phone in their pocket. One of the beauties of older iPhones is most people can use them one-handed. On the other hand, there are plenty of compensations from moving to a 4.7-inch or 5.5-inch screen with the iPhone 6 models. They should make business users more productive:

  • Big screens are easier to read in a hurry. This is important when you’re on the move. You’ll be able to find the address of your next appointment faster with an iPhone 6
  • This applies double when driving and using digital Maps to navigate.
  • Some websites use responsive design and adapt well to tiny displays. Many do not. Business-oriented sites are often the worst offenders. Big screens make browsing easier.
  • A bigger screen usually means you can get more information in a single glance without the need to stop doing something else to scroll or swipe.
  • Apple has redesigned message and email apps to make better use of the visual real estate. You’ll be able to move around incoming material faster and quickly find the important messages among the social chatter.
  • Sending and replying to email or messages is easier on a bigger phone with a bigger keyboard.

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.