Category Archives: iOS

Why I bought an iPhone 8 Plus after using the iPhone X for 5 months

Over at Wirecutter, we think the iPhone X is the phone of the future. Between facial identification for authentication, fewer physical buttons, and a gesture-heavy interface, the X represents where flagship smartphones are heading.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the iPhone X is the best phone for everyone right now. In fact, it’s not even the best one for me. After five months of long-term testing an iPhone X, it was recently time to return my review unit, so I had to buy a new phone for myself. (I had handed my previous personal iPhone down to a family member.) After weeks of indecision, I bought an iPhone 8 Plus instead of an iPhone X.

You’ve likely read at least a handful of “iPhone X vs. 8” articles by now, and maybe dozens of iPhone X reviews. So rather than give you a rundown of the spec-sheet differences between the two models, I’m going to focus on the differences I actually noticed in the course of using both models extensively—the iPhone X for five months, and the 8 Plus for a couple months before that and for a few weeks since.

(Disclaimer: I’m a Plus-size phone enthusiast. Before the 8 Plus and X debuted, I used the 6 Plus, 6s Plus, and 7 Plus for a year each. So the comments below are based on comparisons of the X against the iPhone 8 Plus. If I had to choose between the standard 8 and the X, I’m pretty sure I’d take the X.)

Things that are real advantages for the iPhone X

It’s only fair to point out the areas where the iPhone X is a clear winner.

  • App switching: It may sound crazy, but for me, this—not the screen, or Face ID, or the Animoji/Portrait Mode selfie camera—is the very best thing about the X compared to other iPhones. I switch apps many, many (many) times each day, and the “swipe across the bottom of the screen” gesture is so much simpler, easier, and faster than app switching on other iPhones that I almost bought the X just to get this gesture. There’s nothing hardware-dependent about it, so Apple could add it to the 8 Plus and every other iPhone with a software update…but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Swipe up for Home: Though not quite as addictive as the app-switching gesture, I also love being able to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get to the Home screen. My finger is usually already on the screen when I want to go Home, so this gesture is enough of an added convenience—and less of an awkward reach than the Home button—that I really miss it on the 8 Plus.

  • Physical size: I don’t know a single person, no matter how much they love their Plus-size phone, who says, “I love carrying this huge thing around; it feels so great in my hand.” The people who love the 6/6s/7/8 Plus love it in spite of its physical size—in other words, for the larger screen and battery that its physical size enables. The iPhone X, on the other hand, does feel great in the hand. (It feels pretty much like the iPhone 6/6s/7/8, because it’s essentially the same size as those models, just a little bit longer.)

  • Edge to edge screen: I love Touch ID (more on that below), but there’s no denying that an edge-to-edge screen is great. Whether or not you mind the notch, the iPhone X’s screen looks fantastic and maximizes the potential screen area. Once you’ve used the X, the traditional iPhone design, with the Home-button “chin” on the bottom and “forehead” at the top, looks a little clunky.

  • Face ID notifications peek: I’m a little disappointed in Face ID (see below), but one area where I absolutely love it is for lock-screen notifications. On most iPhones with notifications enabled on the lock screen, you see the entirety of each notification. On the X, the content of each notification is hidden until Face ID authenticates you, at which point all notifications expand to show you their contents. It strikes the perfect balance between convenience and security—and it doesn’t hurt that it feels a little like magic.

  • Tap screen to wake: To wake the screen on other iPhone models, you must either press the Home button or lift the phone. On the iPhone X, you can wake the screen by just tapping it at any time—for example, when the phone is sitting on your desk. It seems like a little thing, but, as with app switching, I miss this feature dozens of times per day now that I’m using an 8 Plus again.

Things about the X that impressed me less than they were supposed to

A few of the X’s signature features ended up being less compelling for me than expected. These aren’t bad, by any means, but they aren’t better enough than what you get with the 8 Plus to have made me buy the X.

  • Face ID: Face ID is pretty impressive in real-world use: It’s fast, it works most of the time, and as I noted above, it feels a bit like magic. It’s especially great in situations where Touch ID can be problematic, such as when your fingers are wet.

    That said, unless my fingers are wet, Touch ID almost always works on the first try; Face ID fails often enough, even after months of “training,” that when using the iPhone X, I often wished it had Touch ID. A 5% or 3% failure rate doesn’t seem like much, but it’s noticeably worse than essentially 0% or 1% over scores of unlocks every day.

    Beyond that, there are more times in my daily life when Touch ID is better than Face ID than vice versa. For example, if I need to access my phone when it’s lying flat on my desk or the kitchen counter, or use it while it’s in a mount in my car (when I’m parked, natch), Face ID requires me to contort my body to get my face directly in front of the screen; with Touch ID, I just place my thumb or finger on the Home button, regardless of the relative position of the phone. And while Touch ID doesn’t work well with wet fingers, if there’s moisture on the screen itself, or if I’m wearing certain sunglasses, or if I’ve got something partially blocking my face, Face ID usually fails.

    And in those situations where both Touch ID and Face ID work perfectly, Touch ID is noticeably faster.

    Of course, Face ID is probably going to be on every iPhone going forward, so I’ll eventually have to embrace it. And I’m assuming that Face ID will gets better over time, much as Touch ID did with every new iPhone and iOS release. But right now, I prefer Touch ID.

  • The screen: Apple raves about the iPhone X’s OLED screen almost as much as Face ID, and it is indeed a Very Good Screen. It’s bright, with great contrast and blacks, and as I mentioned above, the edge-to-edge design is fantastic. But as with all OLED screens right now, the color shift when you look at the X’s screen from an angle is easily noticeable, and to reduce energy use and burn-in risk, it seems to dim more quickly than the screen on other iPhones (though I haven’t done any controlled tests to confirm this). I’m sure in a couple years we’ll wonder how we ever survived using these primitive LED screens, but right now, I don’t feel like I’m missing out by going back to the 8 Plus.

  • Zoom lens optical image stabilization (OIS): I thought I’d really notice the improvements in photo and video quality from having OIS on the iPhone X’s telephoto lens compared to the non-OIS telephoto lens on the iPhone 8 Plus. But while I’m sure a few of the photos and videos I’ve taken over the past five months have been better because of it, I really haven’t missed this feature—or even noticed the lack of it—since switching back to the 8 Plus.

  • Selfie portrait mode and Animoji: These features are both nifty, but after the first few weeks of trying them out and showing them to other people, I’ve rarely used either.

Things that are a wash

When you upgrade from a several-years-old phone to the latest model, the differences in performance and overall experience are immediately noticeable. Not so much when comparing these two.

  • Performance: The X and 8 Plus use the same processors and almost the same cameras (the X’s zoom lens is an ƒ/2.4 with optical image stabilization, while the 8 Plus’s is an ƒ/2,8 without optical image stabilization). In day-to-day use, the two phones are effectively identical in performance.

  • The overall experience: These are both latest-and-greatest models running the same software, and the differences in everyday use are much smaller than the differences between an iPhone and a flagship smartphone from another company. They’re both iPhones, they both feel like iPhones, and you get used to the UI differences pretty quickly. If one had never existed, the world—tech pundits aside—would be fine.

Things I like better about the 8 Plus (i.e., Why I bought it)

Now we get to the good stuff—the reasons that convinced me to buy the 8 Plus instead of the X this year.

  • Screen size: Apple’s iPhone-comparison page makes a big (literally—look at that font size!) deal about the iPhone X’s 5.8-inch screen compared to 5.5 for the 8 Plus and 4.7 for the iPhone 8. But here’s the thing: In real-world use, the 8 Plus often has noticeably more usable screen area than the X.

    For example, because the 8 Plus’s screen is wider, it has a better aspect ratio for viewing photos and videos—they’re larger than on the X in both portrait and landscape orientation (landscape shown here):

    A video on the iPhone 8 Plus (top) and X (bottom).

    A video on the iPhone 8 Plus (top) and X (bottom). Photo: Dan Frakes

    You can zoom in on the X to get a slightly wider image, but then you end up seeing less of the image than on the 8 Plus:

    The same video, but zoomed in on the X.

    The same video, but zoomed in on the X. Photo: Dan Frakes

    This ends up being true for most landscape-orientation games, too: Few are designed to be better with a shorter, wider screen, so most look better on the 8 Plus.

    I also prefer the 8 Plus for reading. While the 8 Plus and X show about the same amount of text, I find that the 8 Plus’s aspect ratio makes it easier to read: In portrait orientation, the 8 Plus is wider enough that it feels easier to read, especially if I increase text size; in landscape orientation (which I admittedly don’t use much when reading), the X feels more cramped top to bottom.

    The iPhone 8 (left), X (middle), and 8 Plus (right) showing the same NYT page.

    The iPhone 8 (left), X (middle), and 8 Plus (right) showing the same NYT page. Photo: Dan Frakes

    But where I notice the aspect-ratio difference the most is with the onscreen portrait-orientation keyboard. On the X, it’s the same size as on the iPhone 8; on the 8 Plus, it’s larger enough that I can type much faster and with fewer errors:

    The portrait-orientation keyboard on the iPhone X (left) and 8 Plus (right). Google keyboard shown.

    The portrait-orientation keyboard on the iPhone X (left) and 8 Plus (right). Google keyboard shown. Photo: Dan Frakes

    (If rumors are to be believed, Apple will wipe away the 8 Plus’s screen advantages this fall with an “iPhone X Plus,” so if you find the above reasons compelling, I recommend waiting to buy a new phone. I didn’t have that luxury ;-) )

  • Touch ID: As I mentioned above when talking about Face ID, Touch ID is faster, more reliable, and less inconvenient in general for me. One example I didn’t mention up there: Apple Pay and App Store purchases. I find it much easier to authenticate using Touch ID than to have to press the side button twice (without accidentally pressing the volume buttons—see below) and look directly at the screen for Face ID.

  • Battery life: The iPhone X has pretty good battery life, but as with other Plus-size iPhones, the 8 Plus’s battery life really stands out. Despite Apple’s claims that the two phones have similar use times, I’ve found that over the course of a normal day, the X needs a charge earlier than the 8 Plus.

  • Control Center: As I noted above, I love the X’s swipe-up gesture to go to the Home screen. Unfortunately, by stealing this gesture from Control Center, Apple had to find a different way to invoke Control Center on the X. And the result, swiping down from the top-right edge of the screen, stinks. I have pretty big hands—I can touch the upper-left corner of the 8 Plus’s screen when holding it in my right hand—but accessing Control Center is one of my least favorite things about the iPhone’s X’s interface. It’s actually worse for a righty than reaching the opposite top corner, because when reaching for the opposite corner, you have to tilt the phone’s body toward your thumb, so you get a better grip on the phone. Accessing Control Center with one hand (if you can even do it) is an awkward gesture for a righty that always makes me feel like I’m going to drop the phone.

    I don’t expect Control Center to move back to the bottom of the screen, given the new Home gesture, but considering that the point of Control Center is convenient access to frequently used things, there has to be a better solution for Home-button-free iPhones.

  • The screenshot shortcut: I’ve never liked Apple’s decision to move the Sleep/Wake button from the top edge of the phone to the side. It’s too easy to accidentally press one of the volume buttons when trying to sleep the phone, or (the worst) to put the phone to sleep when you’re trying to use the Volume Up button to take a photo or start recording video. But without a Home button on the X, Apple had to come up with a new shortcut for taking screenshots (Sleep/Wake + Volume Up), and it makes the current location of the Sleep/Wake button even worse. I don’t think I’ve ever accidentally taken a screenshot on the 8 Plus. I did that on the X multiple times each week.

  • Look at it.

    Just look at it.

    The iPhone 8 Plus in (PRODUCT)RED  Photo: Dan Frakes

    The iPhone 8 Plus in (PRODUCT)RED. Photo: Dan Frakes

    (The red looks so good, and the decision between the X and 8 Plus was so close, that had Apple released a red iPhone X instead of a red 8 Plus, this article might have been titled “Why I bought an iPhone X even though I like using the 8 Plus a little better,” with just a picture of the phone and no text.)

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.

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]

> 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, you’ll notice that the Quick Website Search list now includes 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.