Monthly Archives: April 2019

A few thoughts on Apple News and RSS apps

I’ve been using RSS apps since the early(ish) days of it’s existence. I think it was 2002 or 2003 that it became a habit for me. I’ve had at least one RSS app on my Mac and then iPad ever since. For years that app was NetNewsWire. I’d occasionally try others but that was the gold standard. As I recall there was a time when it became a bit stagnate and then was sold. During that time other apps popped up, namely Reeder which became my RSS app of choice. Then along came the iPad and a flurry of RSS apps along with it. I tried several but when Reeder became available for iPad I settled on that. For many Reeder took the place of NetNewsWire as the new standard.

Reeder 4 on the iPad. There’s a lot of wasted space there.

What’s the point of RSS? Well, it makes subscribing and skimming a large number of publications easy. Scrolling through headlines with article summaries becomes very easy. Rather than load an entire site I can refresh 30 or 40 and then skim through them all at once. I can do this by topic area or with all of them mixed up. In my case I’ve got groups (folders) by categories such as news, Apple, tech, environment, etc. On slower internet in rural areas it’s a fantastic help.

This is the Apple News page in all it’s glory. Nice images, headlines and pleasant to browse

A couple years ago Apple released their iPad and iPhone take on a news reader called Apple News. They’d dabbled for many years with RSS built into Safari and even the mail app at one point had RSS built in. But with Apple News they built a dedicated app they really worked pretty well. While RSS and Reeder remained my primary tool I found myself gradually using Apple’s app more and more. I really enjoyed the design of the app which presented the news as a full page of news thumbnails each with an image (usually) and the headline broken up into sections and source publications that I could follow or unfollow with the ability to like or dislike stories as well as save them for future reading. Apple throws in sections and stories from other sources to provide variety and the reader has the option to dislike stories or block sources as needed. In theory this is training which is supposed to improve what Apple provides.

That’s a lot of wasted space for what is, essentially, an ad for Apple’s News+ service. I can’t hide it.

What I find most enjoyable with Apple News is the full screen layout of stories, the mix of stories and the reading experience of a story. But there’s a downside (there’s always a downside) and it is three things.

  1. Ads
  2. Apple+ is Apple’s new News and magazine service and the stories are mixed into my feed. Sometimes a new magazine will take up nearly half a page. If I were a subscriber I’d be okay with that but I’m not and I have no option to turn it off.
  3. When sharing Apple News articles the link is a proprietary Apple News format. Fine for sharing to Apple users but I often share to a Slack group that has several folks who don’t use Apple. I’ve got a fix in the form of a Shortcut that converts but I should not have had to do that.
  4. The training is not all that great. I often see stories I do not want to see and it seems no amount of training with dislikes helps. Even worse, when I block a source it often persists for a day or two rather than disappearing immediately. No, no, no, I don’t want to see stories about the British royal family, not interested in sports either!
  5. Last, some stories in Apple News have ads and some stories, if viewed on a web site would have comments I’m interested in seeing. So, while the reading experience is often great, it can also be a bit cluttered and often requires that I load the story in Safari.

But all in RSS land is not perfect. Reeder, was recently updated to support the new iPads and added a few new features. Nothing game changing but still a solid app. Funny though, I had switched to another RSS app, Newsify, which had added support for the new iPads and have come to like it’s interface as much as Reeder’s. It’s not perfect but it works. I spent the past couple days bouncing back and forth between them and found that each had features that I wished the other had. Neither felt complete.

Newsify is properly using the space of my iPad to display a variety of articles with images

After some experimentation I’ve found a solution that, I think, brings the best of all three. My main annoyance with Reeder was its huge waste of space when browsing stories. It only takes advantage of a small column on the left for browsing through articles. The primary part of the app is empty. After months with Apple News this was bothering me immediately. In the time I’d been using Newsify I came to enjoy the fact that while the number of articles displayed was about the same they stretched across the screen and more information was provided about each. Still not as nice as Apple News but at least the screen was being used! But there’s a fix that I discovered yesterday while poking around settings in Newsify: It can be displayed using “Newspaper View”. Perfect. Now I had something that looked nearly identical to Apple News!

Apple News on the left, Newsify on the right. To my eyes both are very pleasing to browse.

So, now I’ve got the article browsing I want without Apple’s ads and no Apple News+ articles I can’t read. What about the reading experience? Close. Unfortunately you’ll note that in Newsify this article does not display the full text but has a “more…” link to click through.

Viewing an article. Almost there but Newsify does not display the full article. Notice the “more…” link

Of course that takes me to the full page on the website which is chock-full of ads. But Newsify has a setting which will load the page in the built in Safari View and switch it over to “Reader mode” which is, of course, the perfect uncluttered display comparable to Apple News. I just tap the article title and I’m ready to read in a few seconds. Side benefit, if it’s an article I want to view comments for I can turn off the Reader mode and they’re already to go.

Apple News on the left, Newsify on the right in “Reader mode”. Perfect.

Newsify does have a premium subscription which includes a full text display for these kinds of articles but either way I have to tap just once to get a result with is nearly identical.

So, with Newsify and a few tweaks to a few settings I’m getting as close to an ideal (for me) RSS reading experience on the iPad.

Appreciating the Mac

It’s been on my mind to get my MacMini which was running Sierra backed up to a bootable SSD so that I could finally update to Mojave. I’m running an older version of InDesign and didn’t want to take the chance of screwing it up. Previous attempts using SuperDuper had produced back-ups that would not boot. Not due to any problem with SuperDuper but a hardware incompatibility in the chipset of my back-up drive. I found an external Samsung SSD which would reportedly boot and after backing up found that yes, it does indeed serve well as a bootable drive. So, with back-up made I made the jump to Mojave.

I don’t recall now what the changes were from Sierra to High Sierra but the jump from Sierra to Mojave has been nice. Nothing too crazy but nice enhancements and, as a bonus, my older version InDesign still works. I really don’t use the Mac for much more than iTunes, general file serving and the occasional InDesign project but having spent more than the usual amount of time with it the past few days I still really appreciate it this OS. If it were not for iOS I’d still happily use my Mac everyday.

Optimizing rural internet: Using a Mac’s Internet Sharing with satellite and cellular for a more unified experience

Like most rural residents I don’t have many internet choices but I’m lucky to have more than just satellite. I’m also in an area covered by various 4G/LTE options. I’ve just made a change to how I’ve got things set-up and I think it might be useful to others in similar situations.

Okay, first, here are my sources of internet:
1. Hughes Net, 10GB plan with 50GB from 2am-8am
2. Sprint LTE on iPhone, unlimited with 50GB of tethering
3. Sprint LTE on iPad, unlimited with 10GB of tethering

Generally, due to device synching, iCloud back-ups, background processes, my 10GB of Hughes Net is gone within just 3 to 4 days. Their 4th and 5th gen plans basically run at about 20 to 30mb download which isn’t bad but there’s always a bit of latency so it rarely seems fast in day-to-day use. Best use is app updates/file downloads. But streaming Apple Music is usually decent. Streaming movies is hit or miss even with plenty of available data. One the allotment is gone then they say they throttle you down to 2-3mbit and that seems about right. I can still sometimes stream music okay and even sometimes video but with degradation of quality and buffering. In short, it works but it’s never great.

Day to day, I have a Mac Mini, 2 HomePods, AppleTV, various HomeKit devices. Everything accesses the internet through an AirPort Extreme via the Satellite modem. The HomeKit devices work very well regardless of my data status. Apple TV works great with my local iTunes library. And as stated above, streaming is dodgy but often sorta works. In this set-up my iPhone and iPad are off on their own and very fast with the Sprint LTE. No latency and 15-20mbit make for a very nice experience. But, because they are on their own connections, AirPlay to the AppleTV has limitations such as no great audio pumped to the HomePods while watching anything via AirPlay. Also, if I’m streaming music or a podcast via device I can’t send its audio to HomePods. Sometimes I can start it on the LTE device then switch it to the wireless network and it will play fine to HomePods. Eventually the audio might start to cut-out though. Depends on which way the wind is blowing and if I’ve said the magic words correctly.

So, for $130/month I’ve got two services that mostly sorta work but sort of in their own separate silo based on the different source.

Yesterday a friend mentioned that his parents had dropped satellite and switched to an unlimited hot-spot device with Sprint and that it was working pretty well. My Hughes Net commitment is up at the end of this month so I could switch. Currently they no longer appear to offer the unlimited standalone hotspot but they do offer a 100GB plan for the same as what I pay Hughes Net so that got me thinking about a switch. But they have a 10 device limit (with my HomeKit devices I have more than this) on the hotspot so that got me thinking about how well it work if at all via a share through an AirPort, Express or Extreme. After a bit of reading and experimenting this is what I’ve come up with and I’m pretty excited.

  1. I may not need the standalone hotspot device at all.
  2. I’ve rearranged my network such that the Mac is now sharing internet from wireless to Ethernet which goes to the AirPort Extreme which then shares via it’s own network.
  3. In day to day stuff I can just let the Mac access the wireless Hughes Net modem and this shares out the slower but relatively stable connection. The Mac will always connect to this network by default if no other is available.
  4. If I want to stream NetFlix or Apple Music, or anything else that requires the reliable higher speed I simply switch the Mac over to the iPhone’s hotspot with just a couple clicks in the menu bar. With no extra work it is now sharing LTE over the AirPort network and I can connect to that network with my iPad or stream video as desired from any app installed on the AppleTV or from iPad to AppleTV or whatever. It’s seamless and allows for using the HomePods for audio when watching video. When I leave on errands with the phone the Mac automatically defaults to Hughes Net so HomeKit stuff still works while I’m gone and I can access devices as needed while away.

To summarize, with this new arrangement with the Mac as the internet sharing hub, I feel as though I have the best of both worlds and a more unified internet experience. I’ll finally start using and enjoying the 50GB of Sprint LTE tethering on the phone which I was not using before. (Sidenote: I’d tried tethering the AppleTV to the iPhone for Netflix and Prime Video but the downside was that I could not stream audio to HomePods as they were on the other network and also tethering meant manually logging in to the iPhone hotspot each time which was a pain in the rear and often failed at least once).

Improved Blog Posting from the Notes App with Shortcuts

This past October I posted about blogging from the Notes app
In that example I was just sending my post straight to the WordPress Share Sheet which works fine too.

I generally use iA Writer for blogging but it’s also nice to be able to post from Notes. That said, I’d also like to have a copy of all my posts as text files. Enter Shortcuts! I’ve made a shortcut that will post to WordPress but also makes a text file that I can save into the appropriate blog folder in my iA Writer documents.

With the shortcut I’ve also added a step for making rich text from markdown which allows for me to write in markdown.

Only four steps!

Trip Cost Estimate Shortcut

I don’t travel much but I’d recently pondered the idea of a road trip and wondered about the cost. In just a minute or two with the help of Apple Maps I had it figured out. But it occurred to me that this would be the perfect use case for a Shortcut so I put this together:
Trip Cost Estimate

It asks for you to choose from your Contacts for an address or to enter an address manually. Then it will ask for your car’s estimated MGP then the cost of gas per gallon. Siri will then read you the results and offer you the option to share the text with a link to the map in Apple Maps which can be shared to Apple Notes or any other text app with a Share Sheet extension.

Hey Siri on new AirPods is Fantastic

I’m just going to say up front that I am a big fan Hey Siri generally, but it’s especially nice when accessed via AirPods and HomePods too. The first version of AirPods were excellent and I ordered them the minute they were available, aesthetics be damned. People joked about how they looked but I wore them out in my small rural town without hesitation because these little white buds were the future (and honestly, I just don’t care much about what people think of me). I wore them on errands, walks, all the time. The one thing I hoped for with the next version was Hey Siri and we got it.

It’s been a week and I just want to praise these great little things that are now even better. I mean, you know, before I had to lift my finger up and double tap. I almost sprained my finger every time! Wink. But really, as easy as that was, I have to say that this IS an improvement. Just as with the HomePod, speaking out Hey Siri and getting a nearly instant response is pretty fantastic and less error prone. In fact, while I’d occasionally have misses with my double taps (worse in winter with hoods and hats in the way), the new AirPods have picked up every single request.

A bonus is that Siri on my iPad, my main device, is now useful again. Before the HomePod always picked up “Hey Siri” which was fine for most things. And while activating the Siri button on the 2018 iPad Pro isn’t difficult I found that I used Siri less without the Home Button activation. Yet another bonus, with the AirPods connected to my iPad I can use Hey Siri even while enjoying music on the HomePods or watching a movie with loud audio through the HomePods. The mics on the AirPods are excellent and audio just above a whisper will do the trick. And in the hierarchy of Hey Siri devices they seem to rule above the HomePod which is what I want when I’m actively using them.

Two+ years in with AirPods, a year with HomePod, and Hey Siri still seems like science fiction to me. I use it constantly and still crack a smile half of the time. I’m used to it but still surprised, comfortable but still delighted. We’re not yet at Star Trek Enterprise voice interactions but I’ll happily use what we have.

My favorite daily interactions with AirPods and HomePods are the usual things I suspect most people use (assuming they’re in the habit of using it at all):

• Controlling home kit devices. This is an all the time thing for lights, plugs, checking the temp in or outside.
• Adding reminders, especially shopping list items. But I do all reminders with Siri.
• Adding calendar events. I can’t think of the last time I’ve done this with a keyboard.
• Sending texts while walking.
• Initiating knowledge/image/web searches.
• Searching my own photos.
• Getting the weather forecast.
• Controlling playback of music and podcasts.
• Maps/Local business calls/open/hours info.

Probably the only remaining roadblock is my own mind. For certain tasks I find that I still tend to work visually, for example, choosing music. I’m just not great at remembering albums names though requesting a couple of frequent playlists and artists is something I do. Also, I’d like to get better at composing vocally. I’ve been using a screen and keyboard so long that dictating anything beyond a sentence or two really requires a different kind of process though it’s fun to try. But for the list of quick short tasks above, is a real pleasure to use.