Siri Shortcuts

I’ve been using the public betas of iOS 12 since July and right off something I noticed about the suggested Shortcuts were that the specificity made them mostly useless. Why would I want to resend a message to my sister which I sent 30 minutes ago? No thanks. No, I’ve already viewed that website, I don’t need it suggested again for a voice controlled command. Another pitfall is the repeated suggestion that I can call my brother or another recently called contact. I can already do that with Siri simply by saying “Hey Siri, call my brother.” Why would I bother creating a Shortcut? During the beta period I failed to find a single suggested Shortcut that would be useful. They were all duplicates of something Siri already handles or they were far too specific to a previously done action to be useful. But I had hope that with the release of the updated Shortcut app and new apps designed to take advantage of the new system we would get some useful voice commands.

We’re only a couple days in so it’s too hard to say. There’s a lot of excitement in the Apple nerd community but I will say that I think this is going to take some time. Of the apps currently offering recordable Shortcuts, my favorite is Carrot Weather which offers several very easy to set-up voice commands. This Shortcut makes sense to me as it allows me to get my weather via voice. I can listen and be done. What makes less sense to me are the recorded shortcuts for apps that I’m likely to be interacting with on-screen. Two examples are Drafts and Things which also offer Shortcuts.

Mixing up the inputs: Visual and Audio
What we have with Shortcuts in iOS 12 is a merging of visual and audio computing. We’ve had a taste of the audio for the past few years with Siri. This is Apple’s attempt to mix it up a bit and it will be interesting to see how it pans out. Frankly, in these early days I find it a bit confusing as do my devices.

When I’m at a screen, usually the iPad, sometimes the iPhone, I will use the occasional Shortcut created by the Shortcut app. For example I’ve got one that I’ve used consistently to convert pdfs into jpgs with cropping and resizing as steps. Very handy for turning pdf flyers into jpgs for posting to client websites. I’ve also got Shortcuts for opening or creating file archives which can be handy and nice to be able to do this without third party apps. Various shortcuts for blogging such as one which takes the url and rich text from web pages and copies the combination for pasting into Drafts or iA Writer.

Another, this one used from iPhone, is a mileage calculator that I use to append text to a plain text file stored in iCloud. I get gas then run shortcut which appends the date, gallons, miles and mpg to the text file. Just a tad easier than tapping the text into Notes which is what I used to do.

Speaking of Notes, I’m surprised and disappointed that Apple has done nothing to connect Notes and Shortcuts. If they expect third party developers to take advantage of Shortcuts they should do the same. As of this moment the only Shortcut step for Notes is to create a new note. Why not let me do more? I don’t use the Bear notes app but those that do have access to at least six built in Shortcut functions. I’d love to be able to use a Shortcut to append to a note, for example,the above mentioned gas and mileage log. I’d rather keep it in Notes.

Another log that I keep is for heating and cooling my sister’s vacation cabin. We share a utility line so in the hot and cold months I keep track of the heating and cooling so that I can better estimate our shared utility bill. I’ve set-up a Shortcut that lets me simply say “AC Log On” or “AC Log Off” whenever I’ve turned her A/C on or off. At the end of the month I have a much better idea of how much her bill is. That will also come in handy during the winter when I run her heater. This also goes to a text file when it could be stored in Notes. This difference between this and the mileage log is this is one I trigger just using my voice. I wanted something super convenient because I do this action often and it is indeed very easy to do! I can use this via iPhone, iPad or HomePod. I should also be able to activate via the AppleWatch but currently get an error.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be exploring Shortcuts a bit more. Will they live up to the hopes and dreams of the Apple Nerdery? Will they prove useful for average users? Also, how do they fit into personal and work life? I’m looking forward to finding out.

September 19, 2018

Spent the day, the whole day, at least 8 hours, trying to learn more about how to save time with iOS Shortcuts. Not sure I’ll ever come close to getting this 8 hours back. As with all time saving automations, learning takes time.

Shortcuts User Guide

At the moment I’ve just about finished up a post about Shortcuts. Nothing too extensive, just a few thoughts about using it. I’ll be giving Apple’s Shortcuts User Guide a thorough read-through soon.

Shortcuts in iOS 12 let you get things done with your apps, with just a tap or by asking Siri. In addition to running shortcuts available on your iOS device, you can use the Shortcuts app to create custom shortcuts, simplifying everyday tasks by combining steps across multiple apps.

First year with an Apple Watch: A few hits, a few misses

First, a bit of context. When I purchased the Series 3 last year I was already in pretty good health. I was averaging about 9,500 steps for the year based on the Pacer app on my phone. My weight was about 176 which has been my usual for most past 15 years and about right given my height of 5’10". Dropping to 168 might be ideal, I just haven’t pushed for that. I started tracking steps and diet in 2014 because I had a few life changes at the time that led to dietary changes that led to a gain of about 22lbs over just a few months. I got that under control, lost 15lbs and then eventually lost the remaining 7. As of March 2017 I’ve hovered at my historical normal of 176.

Also, at the time I purchased the Apple Watch I had not been a regular watch wearer. Not for many years. My primary reasons for purchasing were Siri/Homekit, health tracking and for using with AirPods. In this latter intent, using for playback with AirPods it’s been perfect. It’s super nice to be able to playback music from the watch itself or control playback that I might be streaming from my iPhone. And now it’s not even just playback on the AirPods that can be controlled but also streaming from the iPhone to the HomePod. Siri has been excellent on the watch too. I expect all of this will be even better with the upcoming watchOS update.

My main gripe has been activity tracking. Overall it seems to track well. But it’s not without some problems. I’m 49 years old and have had a bad knee since I was a teen. It was better for a while then not so much. I’m not someone who can cycle or run. But I can walk and if I’m really careful I can handle a gentle jog. But my ideal is a vigorous walk. Within the first week with the AppleWatch I learned that I was walking to slow. Not surprising to me as my walking was more for enjoyment than working out. Yes, I considered it exercise and a part of being healthy but I didn’t consider it a workout. And the AppleWatch confirmed that. My green rings didn’t move much when I went out for my 2 daily walks which usually consisted of 2 miles each. During the first week with the watch I would look at the end of the day with 4 miles walked and I might have 10 minutes on the green ring. The red rings were closing based on the initial default of 420. So, I picked up my walking pace. I went from a casual dog walk to a brisk walk and without much trouble could close the green ring with just one 2 mile walk. Then I’d take it easier with my second walk.

At also learned that I could get a more accurate account by using the Outdoor Walk workout if I was cutting grass or walking the dogs because often in that case my arm was not moving back and forth as it normally would during a walk. But over the past few months I’ve been taking note of a few things that bug me.

In April, for the 2nd time in my life, I came down with the flu. My 7 month streak came to an abrupt end and my rings went unclosed for 2 weeks. I later learned that it’s possible to do the “Other” workout and close the rings. Would be nice if Apple enabled some sort of option for sick days. Along those same lines, for those of us that don’t have access to home exercise equipment or a gym, days of bad weather can be a problem. Again, I know now that I can use the “Other” workout on those days but I only learned about that workaround by accident. Maybe Apple does document it more obviously and I missed it? But maybe just a better way to handle sick and bad weather days and the occasional rest day?

Another problem I have is that nearly a year in to closing my rings every day (except for the sick days) and I’m now noticing that even a brisk walk 2 mile walk often does not close my green ring. I guess my cardiovascular system is healthier (obviously a good thing) and so I need to go faster to get my heart rate to the point at which the green ring will close. But as I said, with my knee I’m not able to run and I have to be very careful even with a gentle jog. I’d guess this sort of thing might be an issue for quite a few people with knee or other joint problems. It would be helpful if Apple could allow for a manual setting of some sort. If my brisk walk is now only getting my heart to 110bpm then I should be able to set 110 as the point at which my watch counts green ring minutes. I don’t want to risk damage to my knee so that I can close my green ring.

One last observation. Sometimes the watch just seems a bit crazy. I’ve had days where I’ve gotten 10 minutes of green ring credit for no reason at all. Today while walking I ended the workout half way through the walk. I just wanted to compare the green ring accounting during workout and out of workout. For the walk back I just tapped every so often to calculate the heart rate. When walking at a brisk pace that would normally have me in the 110 to 120bpm range I got 63. I tapped again and 63. Again and 63. Finally it jumped up to 123 which is what I expected. Once it jumped up to 200 which was obviously wrong. In short, sometimes it seems wildly inaccurate.

Overall I consider the watch a good addition to tracking fitness but looking around online it seems many other folks have similar issues. Apple offers a an excellent overview of how the rings work but it seems many people are still confused. Clarification on closing rings and perhaps options for manual settings would be helpful far many.

Affinity Publisher Beta!

Publisher-BetaThe talented folks over at Serif released the Affinity Publisher beta today! They’ve been teasing it for a year or more so there are a lot of very excited design nerds today and I’m one of them. The current release is for Mac and Window but they’ve already begun work on an iPad version!

I currently use Pages on iPad for most of my layout work. If someone specifies InDesign then I’ll use that on the Mac. I’ve already installed Publisher and have a test file going. Currently it’s unable to open or export InDesign files but that may be coming in the future.

There will come a time when I stop offering InDesign files as an option. I’m not sure when that will be but the sooner the better. As much as I like using Pages I expect I’ll enjoy Publisher on the iPad even more and will likely shift much of my layout work over to it when available.

 

Donating time to the Ozark Regional Library

We have an excellent rural library system but like many public services in rural areas funding is always hard to come by these days. A year ago I started volunteering shelving books and doing a bit of tech support for a few patrons that occasionally showed up when I was there. After a few months when shelving help was less needed I began helping out with graphic design and then a few months back when a new website design was needed I offered that as well. I thought I’d share a few of those projects here.

A few notes. As usual, all work was done using the iPad. For the design documents Affinity Photo or Affinity Designer was used. For the website, Textastic for coding.

Library-web

Regarding the new website, as is almost always the case I started with one of my templates based on the Skeleton framework. I forget now the CMS that was used on their original site but the page code was a nightmare to look at. Each page was 3 to 4 mb due to scripts and graphics. It was not a responsive design. Not surprisingly the pages took forever to load which is made worse by slow internet speeds in this rural area. The new site loads nearly instantly even on slower connections. Pages are more like 500kb. Web fonts are probably the main bottleneck now.

Flyers are typically printed at 8.5 x 11, occasionally larger and also posted on social media. Here are a few recent designs.

First up is the most recent advertising an upcoming presentation about growing up in Okinawa. I really enjoyed making this one.

Growing up in Okinawa

The reason for the next is pretty obvious! As is usually the case, I really enjoyed this one too.

FallSale

This was a quick job! A more simple design largely due to time constraints.

Yoga

I had a lot of fun making these little sushi characters.

Sushi.jpg

 

Apple’s Stock Apps

Something I’ve seen come up a bit on the internets is the suggestion that Apple’s stock apps are usually enough for most people and I have to say that I agree. My tendency over the past year is to refrain from purchase of apps that duplicate a built in Apple app. And in the same line of thought, in terms I’ve already purchased that duplicate stock app function, I’m finding I use them less.
The basis of my thinking here is financial and also just simplicity. I don’t want to buy every new app that comes along nor do I want to spend the time trying every app or cluttering up my iPad with them. I’ll explore a few examples.

A few days ago a poster over at the fantastic newish Mac Power Users forum started this thread about Yoink. My reply:

I’ve tried Yoink as well as Gladys and Copied and others. As is often the case what I’m finding in actual use is that Apple’s native apps are likely the best option for me. I can drag and drop into Files app for storing temporary images or other documents or, just as easily for text, images, pdfs, I can drag into and out of Notes. And of course both of those apps have action extensions. They both sync up very quickly to iCloud should I need to hop to another device.

And that pretty much covers that particular example. Yes, at first these shelf apps are a neat idea. But in my usage they very nearly copy Apple’s Notes app and the Files app. As a result, I just don’t find that I use any of them. It’s easier to just use Notes or Files.

Another example is email. I’ve tried Airmail and Spark both of which are great email clients. But I always come back to Apple Mail and the other two sit unused. Apple Mail isn’t perfect but it’s pretty great and it works very well for me in how I use and process email.

Podcast apps are another area where I’ve found Apple’s stock app is all I need. I’ve tried several others but generally find them duplicates that don’t offer enough in additional features to bother with. This is in part because Apple’s app has the added benefit that it syncs with all devices from HomePod to AppleTV and all the others, remembers playback position on any of those devices, and is fully integrated with Siri. Third party apps can’t do all this.

When it comes to web browsing I use Safari for everything. It’s a great browser and again, all my data is synced between devices. I only ever use iCab for a few odd needs here and there. I have zero interest in trying another browser.

For most of my pdf viewing I now use the Files app or the built in preview within apps. I still have PDF Expert and occasionally use it for more advanced editing of pdfs but the Files app is great for viewing and basic markup.

And while they’re not quite “stock apps” the iWorks apps are my go-to. For word processing, spreadsheets and presentations I always choose Pages, Numbers or Keynote. I have the Microsoft and Google apps but almost never use them and only do so when I must. I’ve been using the iWork apps since they were first made available and I really love them.

Exceptions to this trend would include the Calendar app which I rarely use. Mostly I use Fantastical or TimePage for viewing. I use Siri or data detectors for creating new events. For those that may not know, a data detector is what underlines a date or time in a Message or email. Tap and you get a suggestion to create a new event.

I still use a dedicated RSS reader, specifically Reeder though I’m using Apple News more and more. I doubt it will replace Reeder anytime soon because I like to be able to group feeds into folders which Apple News does not yet do. Also, with Reeder I can share an article which sends out a standard url whereas sharing from Apple News sends an Apple News link which does not work for non-Apple users.

When it comes to books I’ve used Kindle a bit more than iBooks but going forward I’ll prioritize Apple Books. I like the app better so, assuming a book is available from Apple at the same price as Amazon I’ll purchase from Apple first.

I’ve never been one to spend lots of time on the App Store. Perhaps my app minimalism reflects my real-world life in that I tend not to keep a lot of stuff around. Why clutter up my environment if what I have works for me?

 

Interview on the iPad Pro Podcast

Hey, neat! It was a lot of fun talking with Tim of the iPad Pros Podcast about using the iPad as a primary computer. We covered lots of the workflow details for using an iPad for layout and graphic design as well as web design and website management. If you enjoy nerding out about iPads and iOS give it a listen!

 

Affinity Designer on the iPad!

We’ve known for awhile that Affinity was bringing it’s fantastic vector app Designer to the iPad. It began on the Mac 4+ years ago and I’ve enjoyed using it along with Affinity Photo (also on the Mac) but since moving to the iPad I’ve wished for it on the iPad.

In June of 2017 Affinity released Affinity Photo for iPad which has proven an amazing app and not surprisingly has garnered great reviews and an Apple Design Award. Having Photo on the iPad was actually better for me than Designer would have been because as a web designer I’m often in need of an app that allows me to work with images as a part of a graphic design followed by outputting a web-optimized image. But of course once I had a taste of Affinity Photo for iPad I was eager to get Designer as well.

An interesting thing though, about both of these apps, is that they reach pretty deeply into the abilities of the other. Which is to say Photo has amazing vector tools and Designer has excellent raster tools. Also, as on the Mac, I can create a new file in Photo and then open it in Designer or the other way around. So, say I start a project in Photo and then decide I need add some text on a path. It’s no problem to open the file in Designer and add my text on a path. I can finish there or send the file right back over to Photo. It’s a great workflow and easy with iPad drag and drop. That said, if you want to make adjustments to a photo you want to do it in Photo. And if you want to do a primarily vector project you’re better off doing in Designer. But you’ve got the freedom to jump back and forth if the app you’re working in falls short.

I’ve made great use of Affinity Photo over the past year designing everything from event posters to anniversary invitations to promotional real estate postcards to web graphics. It’s a powerful tool. Now with Designer on my iPad I’ll be able to cover the tasks that were missing. For example, the above mentioned text on a path. I don’t need that often but when I do I can now do it on the iPad rather than sending a file to my Mac.

Another fantastic feature of Designer that’s missing in Photo that I’d like to mention is vector brushes using the pencil tool or vector brush tool. A very handy way to quickly draw lines and non-standard shapes with a wide variety of brushes, solid strokes or dashed strokes.

Hero--overhead--1200px

While I was downloading the new app from Affinity I received an email from them letting me know it was available. The first thing I did upon successful download was start-up a new document. Just for fun and using the graphic in their email as my inspiration I spent the next couple hours playing. At some point during this time I hit upon something I needed help with so hopped over to the Affinity website and checked out some of their video tutorials. I think I was looking for the different touch-based gestures which are, thankfully, covered very well in one of the tutorials. Then I got back to the exploration and pulled over a few files from Affinity Photo and opened them up. Then a few Designer files from my Mac. I spent the rest of the day giving it a run through and what fun! I don’t currently have a client project that calls for it but I’ll be playing with it as time permits. What I can say thus far is that it is almost completely on par with the desktop version of Designer.

Taking advantage of the touch interface is something every iPad app creator should have as a priority. This may be less important with text apps but with a graphics app such as Designer it’s important. Not surprisingly using Apple’s Pencil with Designer is a fantastic experience. Using the above mentioned vector tools with pressure sensitivity via the Pencil is very useful. I’m super happy with the number of touch gestures that have been implemented. 2 finger tap to undo, 3 finger tap to redo, 2 finger and hold while dragging an object to duplicate, dragging up or down on Stroke Studio icon to change the width of stroke or on the Navigator Studio icon to change the zoom are just a few of the many. Gesture support in Designer is comprehensive and very well thought out.

So, what’s lacking? It can’t be all good can it? The only miss that I’ve discovered thus far is an easy way to discover keyboard shortcuts. It has them, but it does not have the usual informational overlay display brought up by holding the command key. This has become common and I’m used to it working with most apps and it’s very handy. With Designer (and Photo) you have to jump out of your document and go to the app help and search for it. I’ve also noticed a few moments when attempting to move around a document or moving objects, where things get a bit jumpy. That said, for the most part, things are very smooth, very fast. The experience is just as good as what I have on my Mac. Well, no, actually, it’s better because it’s on the iPad and I prefer the iPad!

As with Photo, Designer is exactly the kind of app that works fantastically with a touch screen and with the Pencil. Such a treat to work directly on the screen with this kind of app. These are exactly the kind of apps the iPad needs to be taken more seriously as a computer for getting real work done. Whether related to the release of Designer or not, the day after its release Adobe announced that it would be releasing a full version of Photoshop for iPad at some point in the next year or so. And at some point in the future Illustrator. Personally, I’m all in on Affinity and have no interest in Adobe’s subscription model. Affinity has a great user base that is growing well and I’m really happy to see that. Competition in the iOS ecosystem is great and having such a solid non-Adobe option from a smaller company offering a range of excellent cross-platform products is wonderful for users.