AirPods after two months

[TL;DR: AirPods have flaws, and I don’t recommend them for everyone. But while the drawbacks are immediately noticeable—including meh sound quality—some of the best things are features you appreciate more over extended use, especially if you use AirPods with multiple Apple devices. (Also, these are my personal views, not those of my employer, etc.)]

I’m frequently asked what I think of Apple’s AirPods. It feels like every time I wear them in public, someone asks how I like them—leading me to try to explain my conflicted thoughts in depth to someone who undoubtedly expected (and likely would have preferred) a simple “They’re great” or “They suck.” Similarly, whenever I mention them on Twitter, a bunch of people ask for my impressions, and it’s tough to tell the whole story in 140 characters.

I received my set back on December 20, so I’ve been using them just over two months. I almost returned them after a week because I was disappointed in the sound quality, but I decided to keep them, and I’m glad I did: Two months in, I’m using them more than when I got them. While I have some serious criticisms of the AirPods (as you’ll see below, and as I’ve mentioned on Twitter), and they’re not as good in some areas as I expected, they’re a lot better in other areas, and the latter are things that I’ve come to appreciate a lot more over extended use—and, I hope, point to improvements we’ll see in other Bluetooth headphones in the future.

Thanks to some free time on vacation last week, here are my main impressions, from bad to great.

The bad

Sound quality: While audio quality isn’t identical to that of Apple’s wired EarPods, it’s much more similar than different. This means that AirPods sound decent for traditional earbuds, but not great—and not nearly as good as what you’d get with a good set of in-ear buds (and probably even great cheap in-ear buds). Bass is an especially noticeable weakness—even if you don’t like the accentuated bass you get with a Beats headphone, AirPods lack a good, accurate low end.

No track or volume controls: There’s no way to skip tracks or adjust volume on the AirPods themselves. (Sorry, Siri doesn’t count—I’m not talking to myself whenever I want to skip tracks or tweak the volume level.) The most you get is the option to configure a double-tap on either earpiece as Play/Pause—a setting that disables Siri activation on the AirPods. (I do use Siri via the AirPods to initiate phone calls and ask questions, so I don’t enable this setting.) When listening to your tablet or computer, this isn’t as big of a deal, since those controls are within easy reach. But if your iPhone is stowed away while listening on the go, you must pull it out for these actions. The best current solution, if you have an Apple Watch, is to keep the Now Playing widget in your watch’s dock for quick access. I’m hoping a software update will at least let you tap the AirPods for track control.

The debatable

Battery life: I’ve seen complaints that the “five-hour battery life” is too short, but in my experience—I frequently have my AirPods in my ears much of the day, because they’re great for phone calls—I have yet to run out of battery. The main reason is that real-world use encourages you to charge them without thinking about it: As with any tiny piece of electronics, I worry about losing my AirPods, so I tend to put them in their case whenever I plan to have them out for a while (say, during lunch), and that case automatically charges the AirPods. (It provides 24 hours of total use time, with fifteen minutes in the case giving you several hours of listening time.) Unless you actually need your headphones in your ears constantly for a full eight-hour work day, you’ll likely end up charging them multiple times per day in the course of normal use.

Comfort: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how comfortable and secure the AirPods are (for me, of course). I don’t have much of a problem with the fit of the wired EarPods, and the AirPods have essentially the same fit in the ear, but several people I know who never found EarPods to be comfortable are happy with the fit of the AirPods. My theory is that the lack of a dangling cable eliminates the biggest reason earbuds fall out—the cord pulling down on them—and puts less pressure on each ear. This design also means that there’s no annoying connecting cord rubbing against your neck, like you have with most Bluetooth earbuds. That said, as with any product where fit matters, your mileage may vary, and you should see if you can try a set before buying.

No noise isolation: This is a mixed bag for me. I like wearing AirPods when I need to hear what’s going on around me. 1 But the lack of any noise isolation means I simply can’t use them in noisy environments, so I have to carry a different set of headphones for travel.

Price: Great Bluetooth earbuds tend to cost $100 to $150 these days, so $160 isn’t outrageous…except that AirPods don’t sound like great Bluetooth earbuds. On the other hand, AirPods do some things (see below) better than even the best Bluetooth earbuds. Let’s put it this way: If sound quality is important to you, you’ll probably want to wait until better-sounding headphones get Apple’s W1 wireless chip and the user-experience benefits that come with it. (I ordered the Beats X to see—hoping against hope?—if it has significantly better sound.)

The good

Range: I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by how far I can wander from my source device and still get a solid signal. I’ve used otherwise good Bluetooth headphones that would occasionally cut out if my body got in between the headphones and my phone. The AirPods almost never cut out, even with a wall (or two) in between. Put simply, AirPods have the best reliable Bluetooth range of any Bluetooth headphone I’ve tried—and I’ve tried many. (I did have one issue where, after a firmware update, my AirPods were unusable for phone calls. I ended up unpairing them and then pairing them again, and the problem disappeared.)

Headset use: AirPods are much better than I expected for phone calls, video conferencing, dictation, and other situations in which I need a microphone—they’re my new Bluetooth headset of choice. In part this is because the weight and fit make them comfortable enough to use for hours at a time, but it’s also because my voice sounds great to people I’m talking to. They tell me I sound at least as good as, and often better than, with the expensive, dedicated Bluetooth headset I’ve been using for the past year or so.

Auto on/off/pause/resume/etc.: Put your AirPods in your ears, and they automatically wake and connect to the last-used device. Pull an AirPod out of your ear and your media playback pauses; put it back in and playback resumes. Pull both EarPods out, and they go to sleep, with your source device switching audio back to its own speakers. Put one in an ear, and your phone knows you have a headset for calls. This all works seamlessly, and it’s great. I have a couple other Bluetooth headphones that have a “Take them off and playback pauses; put them on and playback resumes” feature, but it’s glitchy, and sometimes playback resumes on the wrong device or from the wrong source. 2

Software integration It’s a simple thing, but I love that I can easily see the battery level of both the AirPods themselves and their charging case right on my device screen.

The great

Pairing: I’m sure you’ve read about this in many other places, but it bears repeating: There’s no other Bluetooth device that’s easier to pair. You just open the charging case’s lid next to your iPhone, and a pairing dialog appears on your phone’s screen. Tap Connect, and you’re done. But in addition to being paired with your phone, the AirPods are automatically paired with every other iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, and Apple Watch 3 (but, alas, not Apple TV) associated with your iCloud account. There’s nothing else like this in Bluetooth audio, and it’s related closely to the next point…

Multi-device use: This is one area where I think a lot of “general tech” reviewers have missed a major advantage of AirPods, both because they have to write their reviews without extended use and because they don’t use the AirPods with multiple devices. No other Bluetooth-audio device I’ve used is better at pairing with, and switching between, multiple audio sources.

A big reason this matters is that Apple customers tend to own multiple devices—some combination of iPhone, iPad, iMac, Mac laptop, Apple Watch, and iPod touch—and in my experience, many of them actively consume media on more than one of those devices. For years, one of the biggest headphone complaints among Apple customers (heck, among consumers in general) has been how terrible BT headphones are at letting you use them with more than one source. Even when a particular headphone lets you pair with two or three sources, it’s not obvious how to switch the active connection from one source to the other. And even if you do that successfully, sometimes you’ll get interrupted when listening to a secondary device if audio starts playing on the primary device. My “solution” has been to [hangs privileged head in shame] use a separate set of headphones for each device.

AirPods are a massive improvement in this area. As I mentioned above, your AirPods are automatically paired with every Apple device associated with your iCloud account. By default, AirPods connect to the most-recently used source that’s available, but you can easily switch to a different device. The most seamless transition is between iPhone and Apple Watch: The connection automatically switches to whichever is playing audio. To use your AirPods with your iPad or other iOS device, you just choose them as the audio output in Control Center; on a Mac, you click the systemwide audio menu and choose AirPods as the output device—though I prefer this nifty third-party Mac app that lets you switch your AirPods to your Mac with a click or a keyboard shortcut. (If you have non-Apple devices, sorry, it’s not as seamless. But I wouldn’t recommend AirPods to someone who doesn’t have Apple devices.) And I don’t think I’ve ever had, for example, my phone’s audio interrupt me when I’m watching a video on my iPad—something that happens all the time with my other multi-device Bluetooth headphones.

As someone who uses an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac daily to listen to audio, I can’t say enough about how great this feature is. It’s enough of a convenience that I end up using AirPods more than any other single headphone, despite my complaints about sound quality and noise isolation.

  1. I always use Bluetooth headphones at the gym and when doing other exercise, because the lack of a cable means there’s nothing to get snagged on equipment. I also use open headphones in these situations, because I need to be able to hear what’s going on around me.
  2. With one full-size-headphone model, If I’m watching TiVo on my iPad and I adjust the position of the headphones on my head, TiVo pauses; when the headphones are back in place, the Music app starts playing.
  3. Running iOS 10.2, macOS Sierra, or watchOS 3 or later, respectively.

How to make a bootable macOS Sierra (nee, OS X 10.12) installer drive

[3/7/2017 update: Just a reminder that Apple has released a good number of major updates to macOS 10.12 Sierra since its initial release. Unfortunately, if you created an installer drive with an older version of the Sierra installer, you can’t easily update the installer drive so that it installs the latest version of Sierra. If you want to create a bootable drive that installs the latest version of 10.12 directly, you’ll need to a download the latest version of the Sierra installer from the Mac App Store, and then repeat the procedure below using that newer installer app.]

I’ve long recommended creating a bootable installer drive—on an external hard drive, thumb drive, or USB stick—for the version of OS X you’re running on your Mac.1 It’s great for installing the OS on multiple Macs, because you don’t have to download the ~5GB installer onto each computer, and it serves as a handy emergency disk if your Mac is experiencing problems. 2 Here’s this year’s version, for macOS Sierra (formerly known as OS X 10.12), of my annual how-to guide.

How do I get the Sierra installer?

Developers can get the current release version of Sierra through the developer download site (scroll down to “Release Software”). Non-developers can get it via the Mac App store.

What you need

To create a bootable Sierra installer drive, you just need the aforementioned Sierra installer and a Mac-formatted drive (a hard drive, solid-state drive [SSD], thumb drive, or USB stick) that’s big enough to hold the installer and all its data—an 8GB thumb drive is perfect. Your OS X user account must also have administrator privileges.

Your drive must be formatted as a Mac OS Extended (Journaled) volume with a GUID Partition Table. Macworld has a nice tutorial that explains how to properly format the drive.

Important: When you download the Sierra installer from the Mac App Store, it will be saved to your main Applications folder (/Applications); it must be in that location for the procedure below to work. However, if you run the installer—say, to install Sierra—from that location, the installer will delete itself after installation finishes. So if you plan to run the installer before making your bootable installer drive, first make a copy of the Installer in another folder or on another drive; before creating the bootable installer, move the installer back to the Applications folder. (If you’ve read this paragraph too late, and the installer has already deleted itself after an installation, you just need to re-download Sierra from the Mac App Store—via the Purchases tab—before you can make your bootable installer drive.)

The easiest way is createinstallmedia

Starting with Mavericks, hidden inside the OS X installer is a Unix program called createinstallmedia, provided by Apple specifically for creating a bootable installer drive. Using it requires the use of Terminal, but it works well, it’s official, and the procedure is easy enough: If you can copy and paste, you can do it.3

The only real drawback to createinstallmedia is that it doesn’t work under OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard—it requires OS X 10.7 Lion or later. But I suspect that the vast (vast) majority of people installing macOS 10.12 Sierra will have access to a Mac running 10.7 or later.

Using createinstallmedia in Terminal.

Using createinstallmedia in Terminal.

The steps

  1. Connect to your Mac a properly formatted 8GB (or larger) drive, and rename the drive Untitled. (The Terminal command I provide here assumes that the drive is named Untitled.) Also, make sure that the Sierra installer (or at least a copy of it), called Install macOS, is in its default location in your main Applications folder (/Applications).
  2. Select the text of the Terminal command below, and copy it:
    • sudo /Applications/Install\ macOS\ --volume /Volumes/Untitled --applicationpath /Applications/Install\ macOS\ --nointeraction
  3. Launch Terminal (in /Applications/Utilities).
  4. Warning: This step will erase the destination drive or partition, so make sure that it doesn’t contain any valuable data. Paste the copied command into Terminal, making sure that no double dashes (--) were replaced by em dashes (—); press Return.
  5. Type your admin-level account password when prompted, and then press Return.

The Terminal window displays createinstallmedia’s progress as a textual representation of a progress bar: Erasing Disk: 0%… 10 percent…20 percent… and so on. You also see a list of the program’s tasks as they occur: Copying installer files to disk… Copy complete. Making disk bootable… Copying boot files… Copy complete. On a recent Mac with a fast destination drive, the procedure shouldn’t take longer than 5 minutes, though it can take as long as 20 or 30 minutes on an older Mac or with a very slow drive. The process is finished once you see Copy Complete. Done., as shown in the screenshot above. If you like, you can then rename the drive (in the Finder) from its default name of Install macOS Sierra Developer Beta or Install macOS Sierra Public Beta.

Booting from the installer drive

You can boot any Sierra-compatible Mac from your new installer drive. First, connect the drive to your Mac. Then, if your Mac is already booted into OS X, choose the install drive in the Startup Disk pane of System Preferences and restart; or, if your Mac is currently shut down, hold down the Option key at startup and choose the install drive when OS X’s Startup Manager appears.

Once booted from your installer drive, you can perform any of the tasks available from the OS X installer’s special recovery and restore features. In fact, you’ll see the same OS X Utilities screen you get when you boot into OS X Recovery—but unlike with recovery mode, your bootable installer includes the entire installer.

Comments or questions? @danfrakes on Twitter or email me at siteemail at this domain.

  1. When I was at Macworld, my most popular article each year was my annual bootable-installer tutorial. Each still remains at or near the top of Google results for “bootable installer,” including the one I did for OS X 10.11 El Capitan last year.
  2. I think it’s a better emergency disk than OS X Recovery, because a bootable installer drive includes the full OS X installer, whereas OS X Recovery requires you to download ~5GB of installer data if you ever need to reinstall the OS. (And don’t forget that not all Macs have OS X Recovery.)
  3. In some of my older Macworld articles on creating a bootable installer drive, I provided three or four different ways to perform the procedure, partly because some procedures didn’t work on some versions of OS X, and partly to allow Terminal-averse people to use graphical-interface apps. But the Terminal method will work for the vast majority of people these days, and while Terminal’s textual interface can be intimidating, in this particular case there are actually fewer opportunities to make an error.

How to duplicate an OS X user account

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about OS X user accounts. The first time was likely a 2002 Macworld article (no longer available online) explaining how to move your user folder to a different drive; more recently, I did a tutorial on changing your short username. I was also one of the people behind the ChangeShortName utility. But until recently, one thing I’d never tried to do, let alone written about, was duplicate an existing user account. It’s just not that common of a task.

You know where this is going.

For years, our kids have shared a single account (“Kids Account”) on the family Mac. That account had parental controls enabled, and it was configured for really young kids who did little beyond using a few apps aimed at preschoolers and kinders.

This setup worked pretty well until the past year or so. Now that the kids are getting older (both are in elementary school), each wants to use apps with her own settings. They both also use the same online-homework system, so sharing an account means lots of logging in and out of accounts in Safari. And, of course, each wants a different desktop picture, a different account name and photo, and so on.

Given all this, I decided that it was time for each child to have her own account. But I didn’t want to manually create two new accounts, as the current kid account was already set up mostly the way we wanted it for each kid: with the right parental controls, with the desired apps in the Dock, with the necessary Safari bookmarks and keychain-saved passwords, and so on. No, what I wanted to do was duplicate the existing kid account.1 And just to be safe, I wanted to duplicate it twice, creating a copy for each kid while letting me save the original account until I could be sure everything was working properly.

Time Machine (or clone backup) to the rescue

Unfortunately, OS X doesn’t provide a simple way to duplicate an existing user account. I’ve come across complicated procedures requiring shell commands in Terminal and/or serious account-administration tools, but most people would take one look at these procedures and decide that, well, creating new accounts and reconfiguring them doesn’t look so bad after all.

However, it turns out there’s a much easier way, if you think creatively. It just requires an up-to-date Time Machine backup (or clone backup) of your Mac.

Migration Assistant prompts you to give the "new" account a unique name.

Migration Assistant prompts you to give the “new” account a unique name.

Here’s the procedure:

  1. Quit all your open apps, saving any unsaved documents. (If you don’t do this now, you’ll be forced to do it later.)
  2. Force Time Machine to do a backup so that your backup is up to date. You can do this by clicking the Time Machine menu in the menu bar—it looks like a clock with a circular arrow around it—and choosing Back Up Now. (If you don’t see the Time Machine menu, open the Time Machine pane of System Preferences and enable the Show Time Machine In Menu Bar option.) If you’re using a clone backup tool such as SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner, update your clone-backup drive so that it reflects the current state of your Mac’s drive.
  3. Open the Migration Assistant utility, located in /Applications/Utilities.
  4. Click Continue, and enter the username and password of an administrator account. Your Mac will restart into the Migration Assistant interface.
  5. When Migration Assistant appears, choose From A Mac, Time Machine Backup, Or Startup Disk, and then click Continue.
  6. On the resulting Transfer Information To This Mac screen, select your Time Machine backup drive (or clone-backup drive), and then click Continue.
  7. For a clone-backup drive, proceed to Step 8. For a Time Machine drive, you’ll see a list of eligible backups. Choose the correct one, and then click Continue. (Unless you’re using the Time Machine drive for multiple Macs, you should see only one choice here.)
  8. On the Select The Information To Transfer screen, unselect everything except the account you want to duplicate. In my case, this was Kids Account. (You’ll see a message next to the account stating, “This user needs attention before Migrating.” The message is there because the account has the same name as an existing account—you’ll fix that in a moment.) Click Continue.
  9. You then see a dialog box informing you that the account you’ve chosen already exists, and giving you a couple options for resolving the issue. Choose Keep Both User Accounts, and then give the new, duplicate account a full name and an account name that differ from the originals. Click Continue.
  10. If FileVault is enabled on your Mac, you’ll be prompted to authorize the account migration. You’ll then be asked if you want the new account to be able to unlock FileVault. If FileVault isn’t enabled on your Mac, you won’t see these screens.
  11. You then see the Transferring Your Information screen as Migration Assistant imports the chosen account as a new account.
  12. Once you see the Migration Complete screen, click Quit, and you’ll be taken to the standard login screen. The new account is available for use.

If, like me, you want to create two new accounts based on the original account, you’ll want to repeat the process.

I did this twice, so my Mac now has two new kid accounts, along with the original (which, again, I plan to keep around only until I’m confident that everything is working as expected with the new accounts). Both of the new kid accounts work exactly like the original, except that each kid can customize to her heart’s content without upsetting her sibling. And it’s now easier for each to do her homework.

Of course, I did have to do a wee bit of cleanup. For example, I needed to go into the Passwords pane of Safari preferences in each account and delete the other child’s homework-website passwords. I also decided to set each kid up with a separate iCloud account, so each now has her own calendar and FaceTime address. I disabled iCloud email, though—we still use Tocomail for the kids, as it has better tools for parental monitoring and address whitelisting, as well as a simpler, child-friendly interface.

  1. You can actually copy Parental Controls settings from one account and apply them to another, but that doesn’t help with app settings, system settings, or anything else beyond what’s managed using Parental Controls.

Requiem for a keyboard

For almost six years now, my favorite Mac keyboard—the one I’ve chosen to use when I’m not required to type on something else for a review or the like—has been Logitech’s long-discontinued diNovo Keyboard Mac Edition1. (That’s a link to my 2009 Macworld review.)

If you don’t remember the diNovo, that’s not surprising. Plenty of keyboard geeks have never even tried it, because it looks like many other low-profile keyboards and doesn’t use big, clacky keys. That’s a shame, because the diNovo Mac Edition is the best Mac keyboard ever made.

(I know, I know. Mechanical-keyboard aficionados, you can wipe the spit-take off your desks now. If you’re a fan of Cherry keyswitches and other mechanical-keyboard fare, you think I’m crazy. That’s okay. Because while you’ve been unnecessarily bulking up your finger muscles, and annoying everyone within earshot with clicks and clacks, I’ve been using the Best Keyboard Ever.)

The diNovo Keyboard Mac Edition

The diNovo Keyboard Mac Edition

You can read my original review, but here are the—ahem—key reasons why this keyboard is so great:

  • It has truly fantastic keys. No, they aren’t Apple Extended Keyboard great—they’re a different kind of great. As I wrote back in 2009, “The diNovo uses Logitech’s PerfectStroke keys, which have a unique mechanism that’s somewhere between the dome-style keys traditionally found on desktop keyboards and the scissor-style keys used by most laptops. The result is low-profile keys that are a bit thicker than laptop keys but require less travel (the distance you have to push a key for it to be recognized) than desktop keys. The keys are among the best I’ve used on any keyboard, providing a near-perfect combination of initial resistance, key travel, and tactile response, with slightly concave tops adding a good tactile feel.”
  • It offers the complete array of keys, including a standard numeric keypad; a separate, inverted-T pod of arrow keys; and the standard group of Home/End/Page Up/Page Down/Delete/Fn keys. And everything is in the right place. I’m not a fan of the recent trend toward compact keyboards that lack numeric keypads, and I absolutely despise keyboards that change the locations of standard keys. Keyboard vendors: Give your prototypes to a few touch-typists; if they complain, rethink your design.2 It’s that simple.
  • It includes 19 F-keys, instead of the usual 12 or 15, and most of those keys are customizable using Logitech’s software3. The keys come pre-programmed to perform standard Mac F-key functions, but I’ve remapped most of them to special functions, app launches, and key combinations.4 (Surprisingly, whenever I have to use a different keyboard, this is the thing I miss the most. I haven’t found another keyboard with as many F-keys that can be as easily programmed, even if I use the excellent Keyboard Maestro.)
  • It has a near-flat profile, which is ergonomically much better for your hands and wrists than thicker keyboards that rise in the back.5
  • A minor touch that I’ve really grown to appreciate over the years is that the bottom row (the modifier keys and space bar) uses keys that are slightly thicker (taller) than others. A touch-typist presses these keys with the thumbs or (in the case of Control) the pinkies, using motions that are more awkward than typing on other keys. The raised design of these keys on the diNovo means they’re easier to press, reducing strain on the thumbs and pinkies, especially when pressing keyboard shortcuts. It’s a subtle design detail that really enhances the experience of using the keyboard.

In other words, while a few keyboards may have slightly better keys (especially if you’re a fan of mechanical keyswitches), the diNovo Mac Edition has an overall combination of great keys, very good ergonomics, and programmability that I’ve yet to see matched.

My only real beef is that the F-keys, along with the Escape and Eject keys, are mashed together in a single, uninterrupted row that itself sits flush with the number row. Most touch-typists I know prefer the traditional layout, which splits the F-keys into groups of four, and separates that F-key row from the main keyboard area, making it easy to find and press any of those keys by touch. To be fair, without the diNovo’s approach, I probably wouldn’t get the extra F-keys, F13 through F196.

Goodbye old friend(s)

I bring my love for the diNovo Mac up because mine apparently died last week. The Logitech software sees it, as it still shows up in Logitech Control Center, but keypresses are no longer recognized (or maybe it’s that they’re no longer being transmitted—the effect is the same).

I’ve been here before, actually. When Logitech discontinued the diNovo a few years back, I bought several extras—I had four in all. Each of them met a similar fate: After about two years of heavy use, it just stopped working. I’d put the dead one back in its box, pull out a new one, and pick up where I’d left off.

My stack of (dead) diNovo keyboards

My stack of (dead) diNovo keyboards

“But wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “If you had four, and each lasts for two years, you should have one left—you should be good for two more years!”

Oh, if only. Last week’s keyboard death was immediately followed by another unexpected tragedy—this one much worse.

I pulled out the last of my diNovo keyboards, feeling pretty good about myself for having the foresight to buy so many extra. I unsealed the box, which had never even been opened. I pulled out the little battery tabs that keep the factory-installed batteries from draining while the product is in storage. I connected the RF dongle. I slid the keyboard’s power switch to On…and nothing happened. The keyboard’s power LED didn’t light up, the Logitech software didn’t see the keyboard, and keypresses weren’t recognized.

Thinking that perhaps the preinstalled batteries were dead—it’s been three or four years since I bought the fourth (and last) diNovo—I flipped the keyboard over and opened the battery compartment. That’s when I discovered, to my horror, the problem: The batteries had leaked. Worse, the leak had destroyed the keyboard itself, as no amount of cleaning and tweaking could revive it. (Related: I was up far too late that night trying to revive a dead keyboard.)

It’s a sad, sad week in my office.

I admit that it may seem silly to get bent out of shape over a broken keyboard, but consider: I spend 8 to 12 hours a day standing at my computer using the keyboard. Few things in my work environment affect my comfort and efficiency more. A fantastic keyboard with comfortable keys, good ergonomics, and lots of useful shortcuts dramatically improves my computing experience. (This is why I’m such a fanatic about—and advocate for—great keyboards, whether for the Mac or for iOS.)

So I’m actually quite sad today. An era of my computing life—the one where, every single day, I actively appreciated how great my keyboard was—has apparently come to an end7.

Of course, there are other good Mac keyboards out there, including a couple very good ones from Logitech: the excellent Bluetooth Easy-Switch Keyboard K811 (which my Wirecutter colleagues also like) and the very good Wireless Solar Keyboard K750 for Mac. But their keys aren’t as good as those on the diNovo Mac, neither has as many F-keys, and the F-keys each does have aren’t easily programmable. I’ll likely end up using the K750 going forward, because I need a numeric keypad, but I’ll miss the diNovo Mac every day.

By the way, if you have a Logitech diNovo Mac Edition sitting around that’s in good, working condition, let me know. I’m in the market.

  1. Not to be confused with the also-good-but-not-as-good diNovo Edge Mac Edition.
  2. People buying third-party keyboards are either replacing a broken stock keyboard or looking for something better. In either case, your offerings need to be at least just as good as what they’ve been using: A keyboard is used so much, and people are so familiar with their current keyboard, that they’ll immediately notice ways in which a new one is inferior. Unless you’re aiming for the “Oh, that works, and it’s cheap” people, make the effort to create a keyboard people will love, not one they’ll just put up with.
  3. I’ve heard a good number of complaints over the years about Logitech Control Center, but I’ve apparently been very lucky, as it’s always worked great for me.
  4. From my review: “With Logitech’s software installed, these keys (from left to right) adjust brightness down and up; invoke Expose; activate Dashboard; control media playback (back, play/pause, forward); mute/unmute volume; adjust volume down and up; activate Cover Flow; activate Quick Look; invoke Spaces; and open iTunes, Mail, Safari, and Calculator. As with Apple’s keyboards, you can choose whether or not these actions require the use of the fn key, which is located just to the right of the delete key….Each can be configured as a keystroke, a modifier key, any of the special functions listed above, or one of a number of other options: opening a program, document, folder, or URL; taking a screenshot; switching applications; or zooming the screen. If you’d like keys to do different things in different programs, you can set up program-specific settings.”
  5. Don’t get me started about those flip-out kickstands that raise the back edge of the keyboard so that it’s higher than the front. Unless you have a very specific setup where your wrists are below the front edge of the keyboard and your forearms are angling up—so the angled keyboard keeps your wrist and arm aligned—using those kickstands is a terrible thing to do.
  6. Some people have also complained that the diNovo uses an RF dongle instead of Bluetooth, but as I’ve written many times over the years, I think that’s mostly a marketing-induced complaint—these days, RF seems inferior. In my experience, as long as you have a spare USB port, RF is great for a desktop keyboard. The range and reliability are as good as (and sometimes better than) with Bluetooth, and RF keyboards never experience the “Bluetooth pause” where you have to wait for the device to reconnect when it’s been sleeping.
  7. It’s disappointing how few good aftermarket Mac keyboards are out there these days. There are a decent number of expensive mechanical models available, but for those of us partial to “normal” keyboards, the options are limited. Part of the decline in the third-party Mac-keyboard market is surely that Apple’s keyboards are now good enough for many people (and much better than the mushy-keyed monsters from the 90s and 2000s). Also, a huge proportion of people have laptops and don’t use standalone keyboards. Still, there were a few years in the late 2000s when Mac users were spoiled by a plethora of options for great, full-size, low-profile keyboards.

A favorite iOS tip: @@ email shortcuts

As I mentioned last week, I email myself frequently with URLs of articles I want to read on a different device; links to products I want to research later; and general “notes to self” where the email message acts as a handy reminder in my Inbox. Similarly, there are a couple people—my wife, for one—whom I email frequently.

Given how many times I send email to these addresses, it’s a bit of a pain to manually type them over and over and over. An alternative is to enter a nickname in a person’s record in the Contacts app; you can then use that nickname as a quick shortcut when addressing email messages. For example, if my friend’s name is Jake, I can enter JJ as his nickname in Contacts, and then just type JJ in iOS (or OS X) Mail to send a message to him. However, if the person has multiple email addresses, I must still manually choose, from a list, which address to send to. Similarly, if any other contacts have the nickname text anywhere in his or her contact record (say, JJ’s Roof and Fence Repair), those people will also appear in the list.

The text-shortcuts screen in Settings

The text-shortcuts screen in Settings

The solution I’ve chosen is to use iOS’s keyboard-shortcuts feature (located in Settings -> General -> Keyboards -> Shortcuts) to create unique shortcuts for my favorite contacts. (There are already a bunch of shortcuts in there; you may discover some that are quite useful.) If you tap the plus-sign (+) button, you can configure a new custom shortcut that, when typed, inserts the text you specify.1 You just need to make sure that your new shortcuts are unique, so iOS doesn’t get confused trying to figure out which text to insert.

The trick, for this particular use case, is to create shortcuts that are both unique and easy to type when addressing an email message. And this is where my favorite part of this tip comes in. The @ character is common to all email addresses, and when addressing an email message in iOS Mail, the @ key is on the main keyboard—you don’t need to switch to the number/symbol keyboard to access it. At the same time, no email address contains multiple @ characters, and none of my contacts have a name or other info containing multiple @ characters. So I’ve created shortcuts that are essentially sequences of the @ character: I’m @@, my wife’s personal address (the one I send to most frequently) is @@@, and another frequent contact is @@@@.

Creating a new text shortcut in iOS

Creating a new text shortcut in iOS

Now, whenever I need to send myself an email message, I just tap @@; to send my wife an email, I tap @@@.

Even better, assuming you’re using the same iCloud account on your iOS devices and your Mac, these shortcuts sync across devices. (In OS X, they’re found in System Preferences -> Keyboard -> Text.) Granted, the shortcuts aren’t quite as necessary in OS X, but I still find them to be really useful.

  1. I could use TextExpander Touch to configure snippets for my most-frequent recipients, but given how kludgy iOS 8 is when it comes to switching to and from third-party keyboards, I end up using TextExpander mainly when I need to paste longer snippets or when I’m typing text with a bunch of snippets.

Mail To Self: An iOS 8 share-sheet extension that lets you do just that

A couple months back, I tweeted that the iOS 8 share-sheet extension I really wanted was one that would let me send myself an email—in other words, to share the current thing via email, but to have the resulting email message pre-addressed to me.

I need to do this a good number of times each day. Sometimes it’s because I see an article while using my iPhone that I want to read on my Mac (and I plan on reading it sometime that day, so I don’t want to send it to Instapaper, where I might forget about it until a weekend reading session). Or maybe I come across a product online that I might buy, but I want to do more research on my iMac’s bigger screen. Or I see something work-related that I need to follow up on, so I send myself an email as a reminder.

(Once upon a time, I achieved my goal by enabling iOS Mail’s option to automatically BCC myself on outgoing messages. I’d tap the Mail button in any app’s share sheet, but instead of adding an email address, I’d just tap Send—since I was BCC’d, the email would just go to me. A big drawback to that approach was that I’d also get copies of every “real” message I sent to other people. But the bigger issue was that I use iCloud for my personal email, and Apple’s email servers started blocking messages without a recipient in the To field, so I wouldn’t get my “notes to self.”)

Just tap this button to quickly share the content with yourself.

Just tap this button to quickly share the content with yourself.

Via My Apple Menu (a great RSS feed for finding interesting Apple- and tech-related articles, by the way), I came across Mail To Self, an iOS 8 share-sheet extension that does pretty much what I had asked for.

To configure Mail To Self, you just install the Mail To Self app—all third-party iOS extensions are provided by an app, even if that means the app doesn’t ostensibly do anything but act as a delivery mechanism for the extension—and enter your email address when prompted. A few seconds later, you receive an email with a verification code; provide that code to the app to verify your address. (This initial process is there to prevent you from spamming someone else using the extension.) Then go into any iOS share sheet and enable the extension.

Editing the share sheet

Editing the share sheet

(If you’ve never customized a share sheet before, you tap the Share button in an app—Safari is a convenient one—and swipe the bottom row of the share sheet to the left. The last icon is More; tap it to see a list of available share-sheet actions. You can enable and disable actions, and you can drag them up or down to change the order in which they appear in the share sheet. In iOS 8.1.1, your settings here actually stick!)

Now, whenever you tap a Share button, one of the options will be Mail To Self. Tap it, and the content is automatically emailed to the address you provided.

…except that Mail To Self isn’t always an option. This may be a quirk with iOS 8’s share sheets, which are still quite buggy, but I’ve found that Mail To Self doesn’t show up as an option in some apps or contexts. For example, it doesn’t appear as an option in the Photos share sheet. I also don’t like that the extension sends your messages through its own mail server, instead of just using Mail on your device. (Maybe this is a limitation of extensions—I don’t know.)

Update: One of the developers of Mail To Self told me that they’re working on supporting the Photos app in the next release. He also explained that Mail To Self uses a third-party mail server because it’s the only way for the extension to work with a single tap. In order to use the built-in Mail app to send, Mail To Self would need to present you with a pre-addressed email message, and you’d then need to tap Send manually. (This is how some other apps, such as Reeder, work when sending email to yourself.) Thanks to Nav Pawera for getting in touch.

Still, I’m liking the fact that instead of having to tap Mail in a share sheet, manually address a new message, and then send, I can (usually) just open the share sheet and tap Mail To Self.

[Updated 12/5/2014, 2:45pm PT]

Gear I Love: Vector Cup Holder

[I spent last week on vacation, so — like any respectable gear geek — I took the opportunity to try some new gear. I plan to write about a few of those items over the next few weeks.]

Anthro’s sturdy cup holder. Mine is black.

Anthro’s sturdy cup holder. Mine is black.

[You can buy the Vector Cup Holder on Amazon to support this site. Thanks!]

When I’m working (or playing) at my computer, some kind of beverage is always within reach. Unfortunately, electronics don’t like liquids — I’ve got the [water/juice/soda]-damaged gadgets to prove it. So for years I’ve had Anthro’s $30 c-clamp Cup Holder on each of my office’s two desks, to (a) keep my cups and mugs safely away from the gear on my work surfaces; and (b) reduce the chances that I’ll accidentally tip one of those containers over. The sturdy, metal accessories are heavy and bulky, but they don’t budge, and they accommodate even moderately wide coffee cups.

My years of satisfaction with these Anthro cup holders are why I was excited to discover, last year, a Kickstarter project for a portable cup holder designed to provide similar benefits. I immediately pledged $30 to get one of the first 200 units.

The design of the Cup Holder is simple but clever. Made of aluminum, it weighs only 3.3 ounces (96 grams); when collapsed for travel, it’s flat and less than half an inch thick. Pull the round cup ring away from the body of the Cup Holder and rotate it 90 degrees, and you have a holder that’s almost 3.5 inches deep and fits cups up to 3.4 inches in diameter. Squeeze the spring-loaded arm to open the clamp, and it fits tables up to 1.5 inches thick. The strong spring and rubber strips along the clamp arms give the Cup Holder a firm grip.

The Cup Holder, folded for travel

The Cup Holder, folded for travel

My Vector Cup Holders 1arrived earlier this year, and I’ve been using them around the house — on my office desks and on the communal desk in the family room — for several months; I’ve also used one on the occasional trip to the coffee shop. In those environments, the Cup Holders worked well. They gave me more room on whatever desk or table I happened to be using, they kept my drink safely away from my laptop or keyboard, and, as promised, they helped prevent me from accidentally knocking my drink over.

But last week, flying to and from Hawaii with the kids, was the first chance I had to try the Cup Holders in the environment for which I originally purchased them: in the economy section of a commercial airliner.

The Cup Holder in use on a flight

The Cup Holder in use on a flight

On the downside, I was disappointed to discover that on our two United Airlines flights, the space between adjacent tray tables wasn’t wide enough to accommodate a Cup Holder. This meant that if the person next to me was also using his/her tray table, I couldn’t place my drink to the side of the table; I had to attach the Cup Holder to the front edge. In a cramped coach seat, this wasn’t ideal, but it worked for me, a pretty skinny guy, and it wasn’t a problem at all for my young kids.

And that’s where the upside of the Cup Holders was obvious: While I appreciated a Cup Holder for my own drink, the Cup Holders were fantastic for traveling with kids. They fit airline drink cups perfectly, and cans of juice just fine — it was the first family trip we’ve taken where we (the parents) didn’t have to worry about the kids knocking over their drinks or ours. Even the flight attendants were impressed, as each and every one asked us where we got the Cup Holders.2

The rubber bumper that never wants to stick

The rubber bumper that never wants to stick

I do have a couple minor complaints about the Cup Holders themselves. For one, the edges are a bit sharper than I expected. You won’t cut yourself on them, but they’re not smooth, and they can scratch your other gear if you’re not careful. Another is that the rubber grip strip along the inside of the clamp has a tendency to partially come loose. When the Cup Holder is clamped onto a table, the strip is clamped in place, too, so it doesn’t affect the use of the Cup Holder, but it still takes away from the otherwise solid feel of the product.

At $50 each, the Cup Holder isn’t cheap, but after traveling with a couple, I’d buy one at full price, especially if I were flying more than a couple times each year — and especially if I were regularly flying with children. If you’ll end up using it at home, too, it’s even easier to justify.

(If you’ve found anything similar for less money, let me know on Twitter.)

  1. Yes, plural. For some reason, I received two Cup Holders. I contacted the company about returning the extra one, but I never received a reply. I’m assuming that arranging a return was more trouble than it was worth for VectorWerks.
  2. VectorWerks should provide little cards with the company’s information, like Bose has been doing for years with its noise-canceling headphones.


If you’re wondering why it’s been quiet around here (and on Twitter) over the past few days, here’s why:


The family and I took advantage of the last week before I start my new job to enjoy a much-deserved vacation. We’re headed home, sadly – seriously, the kids are really sad – but I’m also looking forward to the new gig. An eventful week!

My new day job

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll soon be starting a new gig as Gear & Apple Editor at The Wirecutter. It’s a fantastic publication with great people, and I’m looking forward to joining the team.

The Wirecutter logo

Why am I so excited?

Over the past couple years, The Wirecutter has become one of my favorite review pubs. Unlike most tech sites, which review products individually, leaving you with the often difficult task of comparing a slew of reviews to figure out which product to buy, Wirecutter publishes a single comprehensive review and comes right out and tells you, “This is the [product type] you should get.” (The site also usually offers a couple alternatives for people with different needs or budgets.)

It sounds like an obvious idea — determining what to buy is the reason people read a review, after all — and yet until The Wirecutter debuted, few publications were doing reviews this way. A few sites would give you, say, a chart of TV reviews, but you had to figure out, on your own, which of 17 similarly rated televisions was actually the best. And given that each review was likely written by a different person at a different time, there was no guarantee that one product was even roughly equivalent to another with the same rating.

It’s a testament to the usefulness of Wirecutter’s approach that so many sites are now trying to emulate it.

But Wirecutter reviews are more than just “review a bunch of stuff at once.” A Wirecutter review can take literally months to put together. The staff starts by researching the category to find the top products: the ones liked by professional reviewers, the ones rated highly by consumers on Amazon and other retail sites, and the ones that (because of their brand or market position) people want to know about.

Then Wirecutter finds a reviewer with specific and extensive experience covering that product category. (For example, Wirecutter’s iPhone-case writer, Nick Guy, was previously the accessories editor at iLounge and has reviewed hundreds and hundreds of cases.) After that, the reviewer and editors devise a thorough testing protocol, to be published in the review so readers know exactly how the products were evaluated. Only then does the reviewer get down to the work of actually reviewing products, and he or she gets to take as long as they need to do the job well.

The result of all this work is a comprehensive and transparent review that readers can feel confident in relying on when making purchasing decisions. Even better, Wirecutter regularly updates published reviews with information about new products and, if warranted, updated recommendations based on follow-up testing.

As someone who’s been reviewing products professionally for well over a decade, I can tell you that this is what many good reviewers wish they could do, but can’t because of their company’s publishing model, editorial philosophy, or resource limitations.

I’ve been impressed enough by Wirecutter’s reviews—and those of its sibling site, The Sweethome, which focuses on home wares—that I’ve made a good number of my own purchases based largely on Wirecutter recommendations.1

Granted, not everyone will agree with every review, but my experience using Wirecutter and Sweethome is that when you buy something the sites recommend, even if it may not be the absolute best product for every person, it’s surely one of the best (and likely the best for many people). In other words, unless you’re that obsessive geek who must have the beyond-dispute-no-one-disagrees-best product, you’re unlikely to regret the purchase. (I’m someone who borders on that level of obsessive geekiness, so the fact that I haven’t regretted a Wirecutter- or Sweethome-influenced buying decision says a lot.)

That’s what I’ve loved about Wirecutter over the past couple years, and that’s why I’m super excited to be a part of it.

Don’t worry: I’ll still be blogging here. Most of my work at The Wirecutter will focus on managing and editing reviews, along with writing some reviews and other Wirecutter-type coverage. So I should be able to continue to provide commentary and how-to articles (and likely even one-off personal reviews), as long as they don’t overlap with my Wirecutter work.

  1. Yes, even people like me, who review and evaluate products for a living, use Wirecutter. Because sometimes we’ve done enough reviewing for the week, and we don’t feel like spending another 20 hours figuring out which blender to buy.