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.

Vacation

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

IMG_1129.JPG

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.

> Why I bought the iPhone 6 Plus (and why I’m glad I did)

Back in September, before I had this site up and running, my former Macworld colleague (and current friend) Jason Snell published my treatise about
why I bought the iPhone 6 Plus.

I was going to publish a follow-up piece on my impressions after a month or so using the new phone (and, in truth, I still might), but Dan Frommer’s article on Quartz pretty much sums up my feelings:

I wouldn’t recommend the iPhone 6 Plus for everyone—try it out first—but I’ve come to love it…if you are interested in having a pocket-sized computer with you at all times—at the expense of some portability—give it a shot.

My favorite iOS 8 features, big and small

Yes, I know that Yosemite is the newer OS, but I feel like I’m just hitting my stride with iOS 8. After a month or so with Apple’s latest mobile OS, I’ve made it past proficiency and I’m embracing the little things—and I’m figuring out which of the hyped features I’m actually using day to day.

Here are some of my favorite iOS 8 features, in no particular order, with an emphasis on things that haven’t been exhaustively covered elsewhere.1 I hope you discover something new and useful.

[Updated 11/4/2014, 9:45a PT, to add a tip about .zip files in Mail. Updated 11/6/2014, 7:40p PT, to add a step to the screen-brightness tip confirming that Zoom Region is set to Full Screen Zoom.]

Mail: Minimize messages, per-thread notifications, and more

There are still many features I’d like to see added to Mail, but with each new version of iOS, Mail takes baby steps toward being the email app I’d love to have.

Minimizing emails in Mail

You can “minimize” multiple in-progress messages in Mail.

Minimize in-progress email How many times have you been composing an email message on your iPhone or iPad and wished you could browse another message for some info? It happens to me all the time. There’s now a way to do so: Just swipe the in-progress message’s title bar down to the bottom of the screen, and there it stays until you tap it again. While the message is minimized, you can browse messages, mailboxes, and accounts; and you can compose new messages and replies—you can even minimize multiple messages and get back to each later. (When multiple messages are minimized, tapping the bottom of the screen lets you choose which minimized message to edit, as shown in the image here.)

Notifications for Mail threads One of my favorite Mail features introduced in iOS 6 was the VIP view: Any Inbox messages from people you designate as VIPs are shown here, and you can set up a special notification sound for new VIP messages. (Trivia: On my iPhone, that sound has long been the Macintosh II startup chime.)

In iOS 8, you can now designate specific email threads as “very important”: When viewing any message in the thread, tap the flag button at the bottom of the screen, then tap Notify Me, and then Notify Me again. Messages in that thread will display a small alarm-bell icon, and whenever a new reply to that thread arrives, you get a notification. (Trivia: My thread-notification sound is the startup chime for the Macintosh LC.) Tap the flag button again and tap Stop Notifying to turn off notifications for the thread.

Automatic zip-archive expansion For years, receiving a message with a zip-archive attachment meant waiting until you could get back to your “real” computer to expand the archive and view its contents. iOS Mail didn’t know what to do with .zip files, and iOS had no native app for handling them. (You could install a third-party app for dealing with .zip files, and use the Open With feature to send an archive to it, but few people did.)

Under iOS 8, if you tap on a zip-archive attachment in Mail, you can preview the archive’s contents, just as if the message had separate attachments. You can swipe left or right to browse the files, and you can share any individual file using the standard iOS share sheet. (Thanks to my former Macworld colleague Serenity Caldwell for catching this one.)

More swipe actions When viewing a mailbox’s message list, you can now perform many more actions on a message without having to view it first. Swipe a message preview to the right, and you get the option to mark the message as read/unread. Swipe slightly to the left, and you get buttons to trash the message, flag/unflag it, or More; tapping More displays a list of additional options, including Reply/Reply All, Forward, Flag/Unflag, Mark as Read/Unread, Move to Junk, Move Message, and Notify Me (for enabling the aforementioned per-thread notifications). One complaint I have here is that if you swipe too far to the left, you immediately delete the message—I do this accidentally All. The. Time. (I’ve never been so happy to have the shake-to-undo feature.) In Settings > Mail > Swipe Options, you can choose which swipe direction provides which options.

Easy contact adding I haven’t used this feature much, but the few times I have, it’s been a real convenience: If you receive an email message from someone who’s not in your contacts, and the message has a signature containing the sender’s contact information, Mail will display a small banner at the top of the message with that info; tap Add To Contacts to create a new contact record that includes all the information.

Today & Thread Notifications views Last year, I wrote about iOS 7 Mail’s new special views, and iOS 8 gets a couple more of these views. Tap Edit on Mail’s main Mailboxes screen, and you can enable Today and Thread Notifications views. Today displays all messages in your Inbox received today, while Thread Notifications lists all email threads for which you’ve enabled notifications. I’ve been using the Today view much more than I expected.

Siri: Live dictation, Song ID, Hey Siri

Siri has received a few nice upgrades in iOS 8—the kinds of things that will make Siri even more appealing to those of us who already use it, and might bring more people on board the Siri bandwagon.

Live dictation Perhaps my favorite new Siri trick is live dictation. Siri used to work by listening to you talk, then sending a recording of your dictation to the cloud, then (a few seconds later) returning results. Under iOS 8, Siri shows you its interpretation of your speech on the fly—there’s just an ever-so-short delay for each word.

Not only does this improvement make Siri faster and more responsive, but it means you see immediately if Siri has made a mistake in transcription. Instead of speaking a long text message, for example, and waiting to see if the results are what you intended, you see, as you’re talking, if the message is correct.

Song ID I’m a fan of SoundHound, which uses the iPhone’s microphone to listen to whatever song is playing on the radio, on a friend’s speakers, or during a TV show and then—usually—identifies it. (Yes, I still listen to the radio sometimes.) Under iOS 7, I used SoundHound often enough that I had a SoundHound button on my Launch Center Pro home screen, with SoundHound configured to automatically listen on launch.

Siri song recognition.

Siri can name that tune.

Under iOS 8, I can instead activate Siri and say “What song is playing?” Assuming Siri is working at that particular moment2, a few seconds later my iPhone displays information about the track (along with, of course, a button to buy the track on the iTunes Store). I haven’t used SoundHound in weeks.

My only complaint here is that—as with All Things Siri—there are times when talking to my phone isn’t socially appropriate. I’m still pining for a text-interface option for Siri.

Hey Siri Finally, a feature I didn’t think I’d use much, but I’ve come to like, is the new “Hey Siri” option. Hidden inside Settings > General > Siri, enabling this option lets you activate Siri by saying—wait for it—”Hey Siri” instead of holding down the Home button. The catch is that this works only when the device is connected to a power source (i.e., charging). I initially assumed that this restriction would reduce the usefulness of Hey Siri, but then I realized that the place I’m most likely to use Hey Siri is also the one place my phone is always charging during use: in the car.

OS X <--> iOS AirDrop

If you’re running OS X 10.10 Yosemite on your Macs, you can (finally) use AirDrop, Apple’s super-easy file-transfer feature, between Macs and iOS devices. (It used to be iOS-to-iOS and Mac-to-Mac, but not across platforms.)

When writing about iOS, I’m constantly taking screenshots on my iPhones and iPads, and I need to get those images to my Mac for production. After testing Dropbox, Photo Stream, innumerable specialty photo apps, and more under iOS 7 and earlier, I had settled on simply emailing screenshots to myself. It worked, but it was a pain. With iOS 8, I just tap the Share button in Photos, wait a couple seconds for my Mac to appear in the AirDrop area, and tap the Mac’s icon.

What’s especially nice about this feature is that if your iOS device and your Mac are configured with the same iCloud account, you don’t even need to approve the transfer on your Mac—the files are automatically transferred and saved in your Downloads folder. I suspect this is only a minor improvement for many people, but for me, it’s huge. As I mentioned on Twitter, “universal” AirDrop alone is a compelling argument for upgrading to Yosemite. This is the AirDrop I’ve been waiting for.

Phone/Mac SMS relay, Instant Hotspot, phone handoffs

iOS 8 debuted over a month ago, but two of its best features weren’t available until the release of the iOS 8.1 update. When used with a Mac running Yosemite, your 8.1-running iPhone essentially adds cellular capabilities—specifically, SMS and MMS messages, and cellular Internet—to your Mac. (These features could fall under the “covered everywhere” category, but they’re so much better than I expected them to be that I had to include them here.)

SMS-forwarding setup

Setting up SMS forwarding requires a code provided by the target device.

SMS relay On the SMS front, if you go to Settings > Messages > Text Message Forwarding, you can enable message forwarding for any or all of your Yosemite Macs (as well as for other iOS devices). Once you do—you’re required to enter a code on your phone; that code is provided by the device to which you’re forwarding—any SMS or MMS messages you’d normally receive on your phone will be relayed to Messages on your Mac (or iPad), and you can send SMS and MMS messages from your Mac (or iPad), as well.

Yes, this means that we’re finally getting closer to the promise of “all my messages on all my devices” that Apple teased back in mid-2011 when iMessage was announced.

Instant Hotspot When Yosemite was previewed earlier this year at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, the iOS 8/Yosemite Instant Hotspot feature didn’t exactly excite me. But in retrospect, that was likely because I’d never had a cellular plan that let me use my phone’s cellular-data connection with my other devices. When I upgraded to the iPhone 6 Plus last month, I finally switched from the legacy “unlimited” data plan for iPhone to one of AT&T’s current Mobile Share plans.

Now that I can do hotspots, I can take advantage of Instant Hotspot, and it’s pretty fantastic. I had to initially set up the hotspot the old fashioned way: Turning on the hotspot in Settings > Personal Hotspot; configuring a password; and then connecting my MacBook Air to the phone’s ad-hoc Wi-Fi network. But after this initial setup, using Instant Hotspot is dead simple: My iPhone-provided network always appears in my MacBook Air’s Wi-Fi menu; when I choose it, my laptop essentially tells the phone, “Hey, I need Internet access!” The phone automatically enables its hotspot, the laptop automatically connects to it, and I’m online. I don’t even need to take my phone out of my pocket or bag. This sort of integration is why people buy Apple. (One minor complaint: I wish I could give the hotspot a custom name—the hotspot feature uses the phone’s name, and I always name my iOS devices with an email address.

Instant Hotspot menu

With Instant Hotspot, your iPhone appears in your Wi-Fi menu, at the ready. (Yes, Linksys2014 is my phone’s hotspot name.)

Phone “handoffs” The other iPhone-Mac feature I’m really liking is phone handoffs. The best way to explain this feature is with an example: The other day, I was doing some work on my MacBook Air in the kitchen when my wife called. My iPhone was in my office at the other end of the house, but a phone-call notification appeared on my MacBook’s screen; I clicked Accept, and I took the call on my laptop, which acted as a speakerphone.

Similarly, I can initiate calls on my Mac by clicking a phone number in Contacts, or even on a webpage. My phone—wherever it is—does the heavy lifting, and I never have to leave my computer. As long as my Mac and iPhone are on the same network and configured with the same iCloud account, phone handoffs just work. (Unlike Instant Hotspots and SMS relay, phone handoffs require only iOS 8 and Yosemite.)

Requirements Here’s a quick summary of the hardware and communication requirements for these features:

  • AirDrop, Instant Hotspot, and app Handoff require Bluetooth LE; Instant Hotspot requires iOS 8.1.
  • SMS relay requires that your phone and other devices be on the same local network; it also requires iOS 8.1.
  • Phone handoff to/from other devices requires that both devices be on the same local network.

Settings: Battery usage, notification disabling, visual options

iOS updates always include some neat little changes to settings and options, and iOS 8’s Settings app is no exception.

Per-app battery usage Perhaps my favorite new feature in Settings is a way to see which apps are sucking up your battery’s juice. Go to Settings > General > Usage > Battery Usage, and after a short wait, you see a screen listing recently used apps (with “recent” being your choice of the past 24 hours or the past seven days) along with the percentage of battery usage taken up by each, sorted by that usage.

Battery usage list

You can see which apps are using the most juice.

Note that just because an app appears high on this list doesn’t mean it’s a degenerate battery hog. In most cases, it’s simply that you’ve been using the app frequently. For example, I use Reeder and Tweetbot a lot, so they appear at the top for me. Where you’d want to be concerned is if an app appears here that you don’t use frequently.

Also, keep in mind that these percentages refer to each app’s proportion of your actual battery use, not of your battery’s maximum charge. In other words, in the screenshot here, Reeder is responsible for 19 percent of all my battery use over the past seven days. It does not mean that Reeder has used 19 percent of a fully charged battery.

Easier notification disabling I’ve long complained about iOS’s notification settings. Earlier this year, I described one of the small but regularly annoying issues:

Turning off all notifications for a particular app requires multiple taps to deactivate banners/alerts, turn off app badges, deactivate sounds, and remove from Notification Center and the lock screen. A single option to deactivate all notifications for an app would be much appreciated.

In iOS 8, we finally (yes, I think this one actually deserves a “finally”) have a way to quickly disable notifications for an app. Just go to Settings > Notifications> [App Name] and disable Allow Notifications, and all of that app’s notification options will be turned off. Hallelujah.

Accessibility visual options.

You can increase legibility, and decrease transparency, using Accessibility options.

More visual-accessibility options that help everyone In Settings > General > Accessibility, there are now more options for tweaking iOS’s appearance. Ostensibly for those with vision issues, many of these settings can also improve the experience for those with good vision. The new Increase Contrast screen offers three options: Reduce Transparency makes many translucent elements—such as Notification Center and Control Center—much less so, making them easier to use (if, to some people, less attractive). Darken Colors helps to increase overall contrast. And Reduce White Point essentially dims the screen a bit—this one is useful if you find your device’s lowest brightness level to still be too bright at night or in dark environments. (Another one that’s interesting, and that could come in handy in particular situations is Grayscale, which, as you’d expect, converts the screen’s color gamut to grayscale.)

Even dimmer screen dimming This one, also hidden in the Accessibility settings, seems minor, but I love it. I regularly read on my iOS devices at night before going to sleep. If I’m doing that reading in bed, the lights are out (because my better half is trying to sleep), so I turn the screen brightness all the way down. But iOS’s dimmest screen-brightness level has never been dim enough—it’s still uncomfortably bright when there’s no ambient light. (Some reading-focused apps have nice night-reading modes, but not all.)

My solution has long been to go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut and select Invert Colors. Whenever I was in a dark environment, I would triple-press the Home button to invert the device’s screen colors so that white backgrounds are black, and black text is white. The result isn’t ideal—especially if there’s anything but text on the screen—but it works.

Zoom Low Light setting

This hidden feature lets you dim the screen more than usual.

Under iOS 8.1, you can use this same triple-press shortcut to quickly change the brightness of the screen. Even better, you can reduce brightness much more than with the standard brightness-level slider (the one accessed via Control Center and the Settings app). Here’s how:

  1. Go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Zoom.
  2. Enable Zoom.
  3. Tap the screen three times with three fingers. This brings up a zoom-options popover.
  4. Tap Choose Filter, and then tap Low Light. The screen will dim considerably.
  5. Tap outside the popover to dismiss it.
  6. Make sure Zoom Region, a bit lower on that screen, is set to Full Screen Zoom. (It was for me, but some readers report that it wasn’t for them.)
  7. Disable Zoom to restore the screen to its normal brightness.
  8. Go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut and choose Zoom.

Now, whenever you triple-press the Home button, you’ll toggle this “extra dimming” mode on or off. (If you selected multiple Accessibility Shortcut options, you’ll instead see a popover listing those options; tap one to toggle it.) Note that the brightness level of your “extra dimmed” screen is relative to your screen’s current brightness setting, which means that if you want it really dim, you should use Control Center to reduce brightness to the lowest level, and then triple-press the Home button. The result is a screen that’s much dimmer than you’ve probably seen before, and thus much better for use in the dark.

(Interestingly, this dimmed mode really is a screen filter, rather than a further dimming of the screen. You can see this if you rotate your device 90 degrees—as the screen switches orientations, the filter rotates more slowly than the rest of the screen, revealing the screen’s actual brightness level for a fraction of a second.)

(Thanks to Cult of Mac for figuring out the triple-tap trick.)

The Home and Lock screens: Tweaks for geeks

The Home and Lock screens may not seem much different than they were under iOS 7, but even they’ve received some useful tweaks in iOS 8. And don’t forget Notification Center and Control Center.

Accurate Control Center brightness previews Whenever Control Center is visible, the rest of the screen is dimmed to give Control Center focus. This makes a lot of sense, but under iOS 7, the behavior made it difficult to choose the correct brightness level: Because the “real” screen, behind Control Center, was dimmed, you’d end up opening Control Center, adjusting brightness, closing Control Center to see the result…and repeating until you got the brightness level you wanted.

Better Control Center brightness previews

Better Control Center brightness previews

One of my favorite minor details of iOS 8 is that whenever you touch the brightness slider in Control Center, the “real” screen behind it is temporarily restored to normal brightness, so you see an accurate preview while you’re adjusting the level.

Keyboard input ignored when accessing Control Center Another little Control Center touch—no pun intended—I like is that if you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access Control Center while an onscreen keyboard is visible, any keyboard input is ignored. In iOS 7, I’d frequently “type” characters while trying to show Control Center; this happens far less frequently now.

Landscape-orientation folders If you’ve got an iPhone 6 Plus, you’ve likely noticed that some apps give you an iPad-like layout—a sidebar of some sort on the left, with content on the right—in landscape orientation. In most apps, I find this new layout to be largely useless, as the aspect ratio of the 6 Plus’s screen means you don’t get much height when in landscape orientation—it’s usually more useful to just use the full width of the screen for content.

But a landscape-orientation feature I do like on the Plus is that, in addition to the Home screen rotating, as it does on the iPad, you get a view of folders that’s currently available only on the 6 Plus. Specifically, when a folder has more than nine items in it, you can see multiple “screens” within that folder simultaneously.

iPhone 6 Plus landscape folders

Landscape mode on the iPhone 6 Plus gives you a new view of folders.

On the other hand, this feature reminds me of one of my least favorite landscape-orientation-Home-screen behaviors: When you rotate your iPad or iPhone 6 Plus into landscape orientation, the Home screen rotates, but every icon moves. And because iOS-device screens are rectangular, every icon except for a few in the top row changes its relative position, as well. For example, in portrait orientation on my 6 Plus, the music icon is the first icon in the third row; in landscape, it’s the third icon on the second row. I’ve disliked this behavior since the original iPad. (Interestingly, on the 6 Plus—but not on any iPad—the dock always stays along the short edge of the screen, with each icon in the same relative location.)

Medical ID For years, I’ve created a custom lock screen, complete with emergency-contact info, for each of my iOS devices. I’ve included phone numbers, email addresses, my blood type, and medication allergies, along with a note offering a reward for returning the phone.

In iOS 8, if you open the Health app and tap the Medical ID button at the bottom of the screen, you can create an official “Medical ID” screen with important info: name, date of birth, allergies, medications, blood type, organ-donor status, height, weight, multiple emergency contacts, and medical notes. (I use this last field to include a “Reward if returned” note that includes my email address.) Once created, this screen is accessible from the lock screen, so someone who finds your phone or—worst-case scenario—you can quickly see all this info, whether it’s to return your device to you or to provide emergency care.

(FYI, I still create a custom lock screen, but now it includes a note that reads, “Swipe right & tap Emergency > Medical ID for reward/contact info.” I’m assuming that, until this feature has been around for a while, most people who find my phone aren’t going to realize that the Medical ID screen even exists.)

Notifications reply

You can reply directly to some notifications.

Interactive notifications In iOS 7 and prior, whenever you received a notification, you’d have to open the source app—unlocking your device first, if necessary—to act. I love the fact that in iOS 8, I can reply to many message-based notifications (Mail, Messages, Tweetbot, and more) right from the notification itself. Just swipe to the left and tap Reply, and you can immediately type a message. This even works on the lock screen, though for some apps, you’ll still need to unlock your phone to type the reply.

Speaking of notifications, I also like that you can remove individual notifications by left-swiping, leaving other notifications from the same app in place. And you can delete email messages, or mark them as read, right from Notification Center. (You can even process Notification banners as they appear. For example, pull down on the bottom of a Mail banner, and you get options to Mark As Read or Trash.) On the other hand, you still can’t easily clear out Notification Center completely. You must remove one app’s notifications, then another’s, and so on, tapping a tiny X button, then a tiny Clear button for each.

Safari: Force desktop view, new tab view, and more

Safari hasn’t gotten a massive overhaul in iOS 8, but it’s gained a few neat features.

Show desktop version of site One of my biggest frustrations with mobile browsers is that many websites insist on serving phones (and sometimes tablets) oversimplified mobile versions of webpages. This is especially frustrating when the mobile sites are missing features or options available on the desktop versions.

In iOS 8 Safari, when you get stuck with the mobile version of a website, tap the URL field and then swipe down on the webpage, and a couple new hidden options are revealed: Add To Favorites and Request Desktop Site. Tap the latter to reload the desktop version of the current page. (Unfortunately, these options sit on a translucent background that makes them nearly invisible on some sites.)

Request desktop site

You can request the desktop version of mobile websites.

New tab view on iPad If you tap the little tab-view button in iPad Safari’s toolbar (it looks like two squares stacked on top of each other), you get a nice overview of all open webpages, with pages from the same website stacked together, Tap any page to view it. I find this new view to be much more usable than the one in iOS 7—enough so that I’ve disable the tab bar to gain some additional vertical space for webpage content.

Per-site searching Go to Settings > Safari > Quick Website Search and enable Quick Website Search, and you can add quick-search shortcuts for most sites by simply visiting the site once. For example, after browsing Amazon.com, you’ll notice that the Quick Website Search list now includes amazon.com as a Website Shortcut. Going forward, you can search Amazon by simply typing amazon [search term] in Safari’s URL/search bar.

Per-tab Private Browsing This is a simple, but welcome, change: You can now enable Private Browsing for a particular tab, leaving all other tabs “public.” (Under iOS 7, Private Browsing was an all-or-nothing feature: Enabling it closed all tabs and started you with a blank, private slate.)

Scan your card for online purchases iCloud Keychain makes it easy to quickly enter previously used credit cards when making online purchases, but what if you’re using a new card for the first time? In iOS 8 Safari, when you tap in a credit-card-number field, you see a new Scan Credit Card option. Tap it, and you can then use your iOS device’s camera to “scan” your credit card’s number. It can even scan the card’s expiration date. (This scanning feature is also available when adding credit cards to Apple Pay.)

Messages: Soundbites, per-conversation Do Not Disturb

Unlike on OS X, Messages on iOS has always been pretty reliable for me. But it’s also had far fewer features. In iOS 8, Apple has brought iOS messages a bit closer to the desktop version.

Soundbites If you’ve followed Apple’s iOS and Yosemite PR at all, you’ve likely seen the company’s demonstrations of Soundbites, a new Messages feature that lets you quickly send an audio message to someone—and lets the recipient listen to that message even more easily. When viewing a conversation screen, just tap and hold the little recording icon, and then talk. When you’re done, slide your finger to the up-arrow button and release, and the message is sent. The recipient can listen to the message by simply raising their iPhone to their ear; they can even reply the same way. Soundbites works really well, and while I often text because I don’t want to talk, sometimes quickly speaking a message is a whole lot more convenient than tapping it out.

Messages do not disturb

You can mute individual conversations in Messages.

Conversation options My favorite new Messages feature is the capability to set Do Not Disturb mode for individual conversations (message threads): Just tap the Details button within a conversation, and then enable Do Not Disturb. It really comes in handy when I need to leave notifications enabled, but a particular texting session between family members or friends gets out of hand. (On that same screen are a few other useful new options: One lets you leave a group conversation entirely—think of it as a passive-aggressive way to say, “Folks, it’s been fun, but you’re driving me nuts.” Another lets you quickly send your current location to other people in the conversation, and a third lets you rename group conversations for easier future reference.)

Camera & Photos: Manual exposure, 60 fps, Camera Roll

Each year, the biggest camera improvements usually come in the form of hardware upgrades on the latest iPhone and iPad models. But the Camera and Photos apps usually get a few tweaks, as well.

Manual exposure in Camera

The Camera app now lets you manually set the exposure level.

Manual exposure control When taking a photo with an iPhone or iPad, you can tap anywhere on the screen to force the camera to focus on that point. But under iOS 8, the resulting focus-indicator square sports a brightness icon—drag it up or down to manually adjust the shot’s exposure level. You even see a live preview of how adjusting the level will affect the resulting image.

60 fps iOS 7 introduced the capability—as long as you had an iPhone 5s—to record video at 120 frames per second (fps). The main reason to do so is that you can later slow down parts of that video to 30fps and get great slow-motion video. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus up that capture rate to a whopping 240 fps, making slo-mo videos even better. The downside to taking slo-mo video is that, because it’s capturing four to eight times as many frames per second, it eats up a lot more of your phone’s precious flash storage.

What many people don’t realize is that if you go to Settings > Photos & Camera, and scroll down near the bottom of that screen, you can enable Record Video At 60 FPS to record standard video (in other words, using the Camera app’s Video mode, rather than Slo-Mo mode) at 60fps. You can’t use these clips with iOS’s slow-motion feature, but you get standard videos that have twice the frame rate as normal, but require half to a quarter of the storage space of slo-mo videos.

Welcome back, Camera Roll A minor, but welcome, improvement in iOS 8.1 is the return of iOS 7’s Camera Roll, replacing the (apparently unpopular) Recently Added album of 8.0 through 8.0.2.

Find My iPhone: Send Last Location

I’ve long been a fan of Apple’s Find My iPhone service, which lets you find a lost—or stolen—iOS device. But if your device’s battery dies before you can locate it—or before you even realize it’s gone—you’re out of luck. Under iOS 8, go to Settings > iCloud > Find My iPhone (or iPad or iPod touch), and enable Send Last Location. Now, whenever your device’s battery gets “critically low,” the device will—assuming it has an Internet connection—automatically send its location to the Find My iPhone servers. When that battery dies, you’ll no longer be able to track the device location in real time, but you’ll at least know its last location.

Peer-to-Peer AirPlay

One of the best reasons to get an Apple TV is AirPlay, which (among other things) lets you easily mirror your iOS device’s screen on a TV or video projector. But before iOS 8, your Apple TV and iOS device needed to be on the same local network to make an AirPlay connection. This made it difficult to, for example, use an Apple TV and AirPlay in a hotel room or at a conference. And if the Wi-Fi network is crowded, AirPlay mirroring’s performance can suffer.

With iOS 8 (and Apple TV software 7.0 or later), your devices no longer need to be on the same network—or on any network at all. Each simply needs to have Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled. Assuming they do, your Apple TV should show up in your iOS device’s list of AirPlay destinations (in Control Center). When you choose it, the Apple TV will automatically set up an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network, and your iOS device will join that network, allowing you to use AirPlay directly. In addition to being easy to set up, peer-to-peer AirPlay will often provide better performance, because no other devices will be sharing the network.

The big “but” here is that this new feature works only on the third-generation Apple TV.

Easy video screen capture

Taking a screenshot of your iOS device’s screen is simple: Just press the Home and Sleep/Wake buttons simultaneously. But if, like me, you need to capture video of your iOS device’s screen, the procedure is a bit more involved. Under iOS 7 and earlier, it required you to install a third-party app, such as Reflector, on your Mac, and then mirror your iPhone or iPad screen to your Mac using AirPlay.

With iOS 8 and Yosemite, it gets a little easier:

  1. Connect your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch to your Mac using Apple’s standard Lighting-to-USB cable.
  2. Launch QuickTime Player on the Mac.
  3. In QuickTime Player, choose New > New Movie Recording (not New Screen Recording).
  4. In the resulting movie-recording window, click the tiny downward-pointing arrow next to the red record button.
  5. Choose your iOS device under Camera.
  6. Open that menu again to choose your audio source. (To record your iOS device’s audio, choose it; to record a voiceover, choose your Mac’s microphone.)
  7. Choose High or Maximum recording quality.
  8. Click the red record button to begin recording; click the button again to end recording.

The result is a QuickTime movie of whatever you did on your iOS device’s screen. A nice touch is that QuickTime Player automatically tweaks the status bar in your recording to show a full battery and a solid Wi-Fi signal, to remove your cellular carrier’s logo, and more.

Maps: 3D Flyover Tours

3D Maps Flyover

You can tour some cities without leaving your couch.

Want to take a tour of London, or Paris, or San Francisco? Launch the Maps app and search for the city; at the top of the screen, you’ll see the text “3D Flyover Tour of City.” Tap Start, and you’ll see an impressive flyover tour, with prominent landmarks labeled as you “fly over” them.

Alas, the list of cities for which Apple offers these tours is currently short, but for those cities, it’s a fun diversion.

Third-party apps: Auto-fill passwords

I’m a huge fan of 1Password for iOS for storing and retrieving my myriad logins and passwords, but Apple’s iCloud Keychain has been dutifully, automatically saving my online passwords, as well. In fact, under iOS 7 I ended up using iCloud Keychain more than I expected, because it worked directly in Safari, while 1Password required me to perform a few extra steps to retrieve website passwords.

Thanks to iOS 8’s extensions feature, 1Password can finally work directly in my browser, so I’m using it constantly. But iOS 8 also brings another advantage to iCloud Keychain: It can now work within apps. If I download an iOS app that’s associated with a website where I already have an account, the developer of that app can enable iCloud Keychain support, so I can quickly log in to the app using my website credentials. +1 for convenience.


  1. I’m not covering app Handoff, third-party keyboards, app extensions, and third-party TouchID. Those are great features that I use many times each day, but they’ve been covered to death.
  2. In truth, Siri is impressively reliable here in the SF Bay Area. But I still have painful memories from Siri’s first year or so.

The iPhone 6 Plus “case” I’m currently using

(Or: A review of BodyGuardz’s UltraTough Clear Skins for iPhone 6 Plus.)

In the month since I got my iPhone 6 Plus, a good number of people have asked what case I’ve got on my phone. I was initially using the Griffin Technology Reveal—it was one of the first cases I received, and it’s pretty nice. It’s not too bulky; its rubbery frame offers some shock protection and extends far enough past the screen to protect it when you set the phone face-down; and it covers the back of the phone with clear, rigid plastic. As good-protection cases go, it doesn’t add much bulk, and while the phone is noticeably heavier with the Reveal on, it’s not excessively so.

However…I’d rather not use a case. After regularly having one on my iPhones over the years, I decided to go “naked” about halfway through my time with the iPhone 5s. I was never a huge fan of the harsh edges on the 5s, but I liked how much thinner and lighter the phone felt without a case.

This is even more true with the 6 Plus: Its thin profile and rounded edges almost beg you to use it bare. It’s the first iPhone since the original that I’ve felt guilty encasing.

But I still wanted something to keep the iPhone 6 Plus’s all-metal exterior from scratching, and if it added a bit of grip, even better—the 6 and 6 Plus are quite slippery.

BodyGuardz UltraTough Clear Skins for iPhone 6

I’ve had great experiences with BodyGuardz’s protective skins, using them on various laptops, iPads, and iPods. So I ordered the “back-only” version of the company’s UltraTough Clear Skins for the iPhone 6. 1 I’ve been using it for a week, and I’m really liking it.

Like other BodyGuardz skins, this one is made of “the same material used to shield the front of vehicles from rock chips,” says the company. It protects against scratches—though, obviously, not shock and dents—and gives the surface of the phone a bit of tackiness, while adding minimal bulk. It’s also relatively inexpensive, at just $17.

This is a wet-apply skin, which means that instead of using traditional adhesive, like a big sticker, you wet your fingers and the skin with the included solution, and then position the skin on your phone. The downside to wet-apply skins is that the solution can be a bit messy; sometimes you need to hold edges or corners in place for a few minutes while the skin sets; and it takes about a day for the skin to dry completely. The upside is that wet-apply skins are easier to move during the application process: You just pull the skin up, rewet it if necessary, and reposition it. You then squeeze out any large bubbles; tiny bubbles generally go away after a few days.

I applied the skin at around 8pm one evening, and by the next morning, it was essentially dry, or at least dry enough to use normally. Besides scratch protection, the BodyGuardz skin adds a nice bit of grip to the phone—it’s already saved me from a couple accidental drops.

Corner of the UltraTough Clear Skins for iPhone 6

The corner coverage of the UltraTough Clear Skins for iPhone 6

The skin has two drawbacks. The first, which is admittedly minor, is that it changes the phone’s surface appearance from matte to glossy, and the glossy surface shows fingerprints. The second—which is true of all products like this—is that the rounded edges of the iPhone 6 models make it difficult for skins to completely cover either device’s corners. The BodyGuardz skin wraps up the edges of the phone, and then thin tabs wrap around the corners. Provided you hold these little tabs down long enough during application for them to set, they seem to stay in place well during everyday use—mine haven’t come loose yet—but they leave thin sections of each corner unprotected against scratches, and I wonder how well these thin tabs will hold up over time. (If they ever do come loose, at least BodyGuardz offers inexpensive replacement skins—$4.95 for the iPhone 6 Plus version.)

In other words, the BodyGuardz skin is a compromise: You protect most of the phone’s metal surfaces from scratches, and get a better grip, while adding virtually no bulk. But you give up complete surface protection, as well as any impact protection. That may not be the right compromise for you, but it was for me—I’m happy overall.

(If I have any longer-term issues with the BodyGuardz skin, I’ll update this article.)


  1. Why did I get the back-only version, instead of the full-coverage one, which also includes a screen protector? I’ve tried dozens of screen protectors over the years, and while some are pretty good, I’ve yet to find a single one that offers a combination of clear view, touchscreen responsiveness, and oleophobic finish comparable to the iPhone’s own screen. Worse, few protectors are as hard as that screen, so you end up with distracting scratches in the protector, most of which wouldn’t have been scratches on the phone’s glass. In other words, the experience is worse enough that I’ve resigned myself to risking screen blemishes.

The original iPad mini should be dead (but it isn’t)

Allen Pike, talking last week about Apple keeping the original iPad mini around for another year:

Apple still sells the [2012] original iPad mini…If they follow their usual pattern of leaving the iPad line as-is until next fall, the iPad 2’s internals will live on for 4.5 years.

I’ve been thinking about this move over the past few days, and like Allen, I’m not a fan. Sure, it sounds great for Apple to have a $249 iPad in a market with budget tablets from Amazon, Google, and the like. But as much as I loved the original iPad mini two years ago, it’s filled with early-2011 technology and an Apple A5 chip—the same three-generations-ago processor used in the iPhone 4S.

The 2014 iPad line in "iPad technology years"

The 2014 iPad line in “iPad technology years.” (The iPad mini 3 has Touch ID, but it’s otherwise the same as the 2013 iPad mini.)

From a consumer standpoint, this means that if you buy a $249 iPad mini today and expect to get the “full” iPad experience, you’ll likely be disappointed. Sure, the original iPad mini will run iOS 8, but performance is noticeably inferior to that of more-recent devices—in fact, a good number of demanding games and apps simply won’t run on it. The camera performance isn’t as good as that of 2010’s iPhone 4. And, of course, the original mini doesn’t have the Retina display that’s come to define Apple’s recent iOS devices. In short, as good as it was when it debuted, the original iPad offers an inferior iPad experience today—and that experience will likely be even worse under the next version of iOS, as if past patterns hold, iOS 9 will be more demanding of our devices than iOS 8.

For developers, Apple keeping the original iPad mini in the lineup means that apps have to either continue to support the A5, or require a bunch of disclaimers and caveats in their App Store descriptions (that many users will never read). In a perfect world, developers would be able to drop support for the original mini by requiring a particular version of iOS—say, iOS 8 or next year’s iOS 9. But with the 2012 iPad mini being a “current” product, Allen points out that developers probably won’t be able to use this approach until iOS 10 in 2017.

Given that the iPad mini 2, the 2013 model with a Retina display and upgraded hardware across the board, is just $50 more ($299), keeping the original iPad mini feels like a checkbox approach to product lines (“We sell a $249 tablet!”), and Apple hasn’t been a checkbox-marking company since the days of the Performa.1 (The closest thing was the iPod line, but while it hit a nice range of price points, each model was distinct and compelling in its own way.)

You could argue that the budget tablets from Apple’s competitors aren’t best-in-class products, either, but that’s not a compelling argument to me—I don’t think Apple wants to get into the “It’s not nearly as good, but it’s cheap” business.2 Apple has long been about providing a premium experience, even if that means charging a premium price, going relatively cheap only if the experience is still great (see: Mac mini). In fact, that’s the stock comment Apple’s execs give when asked about the lack of a particular Apple product at a lower price point. Which is why I’m puzzled by this move.

I’ve got a bunch of related thoughts about Apple continuing to support older devices with newer versions of iOS, but I’ll save those for another article…


  1. Speaking of Performas: As I tweeted last week, Apple now sells 22 different iPad models. When you include color options, you get 56 models—and that doesn’t account for different SKUs for different cellular carriers.
  2. Sure, Apple has been keeping two-year-old iPhone models (or at least models with two-year-old internals—the iPhone 5c this year) in each year’s product lineup, but (a) this year’s “old, free” iPhone is still using an A6 processor; and (b) I would argue that the mobile-phone market, with its subsidized prices and lower performance expectations, is very different from the tablet and computer markets.
Link

Ole Begemann reviews the Backblaze cloud-backup service:

Backblaze is the second online backup service (after CrashPlan) I have tried for a significant amount of time. Now that I have been using Backblaze for the past nine months, I believe I can make a fair evaluation of the service.

This isn’t your usual casual review. Ole covers all of Backblaze’s flaws, from the client software to issues with external drives to metadata loss to limitations when moving and restoring files. In the end, despite these problems, he’s sticking with Backblaze “for its unobtrusiveness and convenience,” but he continues to look for the perfect online backup.

(I currently use Backblaze for online backups, but for me, it’s my Worst Case Scenario solution. For “normal” backups, I use Time Machine along with nightly and weekly clone backups, rotating the weekly clone offsite.)

Link

Milen Dzhumerov on the problems with Apple’s Mac App Store:

The MAS is the best place to get your software, it comes bundled with your OS, it’s very convenient, but when all the issues compound, developers will vote with their feet and continue the slow exodus.

I don’t completely agree with everything here, but it’s a nice summary of the complaints developers have with the Mac App Store—complaints that are causing some respected developers to abandon the store.