WWDC: Apple delivers the goods

In a recent column for Macworld, I opined that the time was nearly perfect for Apple to make some bold announcements at the opening keynote of this year’s WWDC. Guess what? Apple delivered. In spades.

Mac Pro

For years, I’ve been waiting to see what Apple was going to do with the Mac Pro. It’s still hard to believe that the current Mac Pro doesn’t have support for Thunderbolt or USB 3. It’s been that long since Apple gave it a major upgrade.

Would Apple abandon the Pro (as I speculated back in 2009)? Or reinvent it? It turns out, Apple sort of did both. The new Mac Pro is so radically different from the old behemoth that it really belongs in a separate category. Apple did kill the old Mac Pro and it replaced the computer with something entirely different — something so different in design that it easily qualifies as the most revolutionary new product since the iPhone. As Phil Schiller put it succinctly at the keynote today: “Can’t innovate any more, my ass.”

The new Mac Pro isn’t shipping yet. So we’ll have to wait awhile for any hands-on analysis. My only personal look today was to gawk at the ones on display in several glass cylinders outside the keynote hall.

Here’s what I can say for sure: Answering the prayers of all those who hoped that Apple would downsize the Pro from its current huge, heat-emitting, energy-sucking size — the new Pro is about one-eighth the size of the old model. The only potential downside here is that there is no longer any internal expansion. All additions must be external, including an optical disc drive. On the other hand, the new Mac supports a faster Thunderbolt 2 connection, which can drive up to three 4K displays. Hmmm…is a 4K Cinema Display coming later this year?

In every other way, the new Pro seems like very much…a pro machine. Specs indicate that it is at least twice as fast as existing Pro models in almost every measure. This device is already on my wish list for the fall.

Bottom line: Wow! Wow!!

iOS 7

In the Macworld column I cited above, I suggested several key things that Apple should do, almost needed to do, to improve iOS. A bit to my surprise, I was very much on target. Apple delivered on almost every one of these features in iOS 7. Not satisfied with that accomplishment, Apple added more than a few additional features I did not anticipate.

Will there be widgets? Almost. The new Control Center comes close. Just swipe up from the bottom and it appears. You can access Airplane mode, Bluetooth and more. There appears to be no room for third-party additions to Control Center. And no sign of calculator-type widget apps. But I’ll give Apple a pass on that for now.

Expanded multitasking? Yes! Every app can now multitask, with intelligent updating of content based on how you use the app. You now swipe through apps in a way that shows each app’s current screen — providing a far superior multitasking feel than the current bar that appears at the bottom of iOS 6. The only thing missing is the ability to have two or more apps share the screen. I guess we’ll have to wait for iOS 8 for that.

Expanded options for the Lock screen? Yes! Yes! You will be able to access Notifications and Control Center without having to unlock your iPhone or iPad.

There is so much more. Personal highlights for me were automatic categorizing in Photos, the inclusion of AirDrop (to improve sharing among Macs and iOS devices), and the brand new iTunes Radio music streaming service.

Finally, there is the complete redesign of the interface, as had been promised. Skeuomorphism is gone, leaving the OS with a much cleaner, more consistent look across apps. Changes such as the elimination of button borders, in favor of colored text to indicate what is clickable, give the OS a more open feel. Even the small touches, like wallpaper images that show a parallax tilt when you tilt the iOS device, were delightful to see.

There are a few things I would have liked that did not appear. I would have preferred to see improvements to the virtual keyboard and text editing. I would have liked a greater revamping of Game Center (including the ability to talk to other players) and numerous changes to Documents in the Cloud. Still, Apple acquitted itself nicely with what it did deliver.

I’m sure there will be a few more surprises when Apple releases updates to the iPhone and iPad this fall. But I can already say that iOS 7 lives up to Apple’s assertion that it is the most dramatically redesigned iOS since the iPhone was first released.

Bottom line: With iOS 7, Apple has begun a reinvention of iOS. Kudos.

OS X

The new version of OS X will be called Mavericks. Cat names are now part of history.

In my prior Macworld column, I pondered whether Apple might continue its iOS-ification trend, pushing changes to an extreme that few would welcome. Happily, Apple did not.

For starters, the Finder not only remains a key component of OS X Mavericks, it is significantly enhanced. [And by the way, Launchpad was not even mentioned at the keynote.] I am particularly looking forward to the Finder’s new tags feature. As a way to organize and quickly find files, tags may finally get me to use All My Files and to drift away from organizing files into folders.

Perhaps my favorite new Mavericks feature is Maps, an export of the iOS app to the Mac. What makes it especially great is that Maps syncs across platforms. Among other things, this means that, if you create a route on your Mac, the route will transfer to Maps on your iPhone. No need to do the same thing twice.

Another really big deal in Mavericks is full support of multiple displays. Finally! Most notably, when you go into full screen mode on one display, your other display(s) remain unchanged. This may be the tipping point that finally gets me to use full screen apps.

iCloud Keychain promises to provide the sort of support for remembering passwords and credit card numbers that has been thus far only possible with third-party apps. Of course, it will sync across all your devices, Macs and iOS.

Once again, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are major redesigns of Safari and Calendar, as well as iBooks for the Mac.

Bottom line: Apple managed to thread the needle. It made significant improvements to the OS, ones that stand on their own (such as Finder tags) and ones that allow it to work better with iOS devices (such as Maps). It seems to have struck a near perfect balance, not tilting too far in either directions. Once again, kudos.

My only big disappointment today is that none of these products will be available until the fall. Mark your calendars now. I am confident they will be worth the wait.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Technology | Comments Off

Textilus: The iPad’s best word processor

Textilus is by far the best word-processing app you can get for your iPad. Period. Bar none. You can just about skip all the rest. It’s the only app I even consider using if I expect to write an article with my iPad instead of my Mac.

About a year ago, I wrote an article titled “Top Apps for Word Processing on the iPad.” I didn’t mention Textilus in that review because the app had not yet been released. I made up for that omission by devoting an entire column to the app (under its original name, RichText Edit) a month or so later.

And here I am writing about Textilus again. Why? Because the developers of the app have been hard at work adding new features over these past months. As a result, today’s version is better than the version I covered last year. Not just a little bit better. A lot better. And it was already very good. The app now includes every improvement and addition I had been hoping to see!

If you’re not yet familiar with this superb text processing app, take a look at the top five reasons I’ve made Textilus my default choice. You’ll see why I believe Textilus stands alone among iOS text processors.

RTF editing

Let’s start with the biggest benefit Textilus brings to the table: Textilus can both view and edit .rtf (rich text format) documents. I know of no other iOS app that can do this!

The .rtf format is the default used by Apple’s TextEdit on the Mac. It’s also one of the most common generic text formats, available via Microsoft Word as well as numerous other programs. Unless you require elaborate page layouts, .rtf should be more than sufficient to meet your needs. As most of my writing is for the web, which requires very little prior formatting, TextEdit and .rtf have become my default word processing app and format.

Unfortunately, Apple does not make a TextEdit equivalent for the iPad. This means there is no Apple-provided way to create a document in TextEdit on your Mac and transfer it to your iPad to continue editing. In fact, the only way you can do this at all (Apple-provided or not) is with Textilus. With this iPad app, you can create a new .rtf document and work with it much the way you would with TextEdit on a Mac. And, whether you start with Textilus or TextEdit, you can easily switch back and forth, editing the same document across platforms. Which segues nicely to the next benefit of Textilus…

Full Dropbox support

To share an .rtf document between TextEdit on a Mac and Textilus on your iPad, you can’t use iCloud. While TextEdit can save documents to iCloud, no iOS app (not even Textilus) can access that iCloud location. Don’t despair! There is a solution: use Dropbox instead.

When it comes to working with Dropbox, Textilus is outstanding. Textilus is not only able to open .rtf documents stored in Dropbox, it can directly sync such documents. This means, for example, if you save a TextEdit document to your Dropbox folder on your Mac, you’ll be able to open it directly from Textilus on your iPad. There’s no need to pay a visit to the iOS Dropbox app and use the Open In command to transfer the document.

Further, any editing changes you make to a Dropbox-stored document in Textilus are automatically saved and synced to the Dropbox copy. This means when you return to your Mac and open the document in TextEdit, you’ll see all the editing changes you made while using Textilus.

While some other iPad text apps offer similar levels of Dropbox support, few (if any) do so with the flexibility and reliability of Textilus.

Embedded links

The hits keep on coming! One of the more frequent things I do when working with .rtf documents is embed a weblink (URL) behind some text. This produces the familiar blue text that, when you click/tap it, takes you to a web browser and opens the hidden URL.

When Textilus was first released, despite having overall .rtf support, it did not include this important feature. Many online tools, such as the WordPress software I use for this blog, accept embedded links if you paste rtf text. That’s exactly what I do in my typical workflow for writing an article. That’s why this was a particularly glaring omission for me.

Happily, this is one of the many issues that the developers have addressed over the past year. With the latest Textilus version, you can now embed links. To do so, you simply select the desired text, access the Insert menu (infinity icon) in the virtual keyboard’s toolbar and select “Web Link.” Once again, I believe Textilus is the the only iPad app that offers the ability to do this.

Select the Web Link item to embed a URL.

Sharing options

There may be times when you want to convert a Textilus document to a format other than .rtf. Textilus excels here as well. You can export documents as .txt, .pdf or .html files. The current version of the app includes support for Markdown, with the option to convert Markdown syntax to .html prior to exporting.

I’ve already noted Textilus’ ability to sync with Dropbox. The app alternatively syncs with iCloud. Additionally, you can export a document directly to Evernote, Scrivener or as an email attachment.

Expanded keyboard options

As I’ve written elsewhere, Apple’s default iOS keyboard could benefit from several improvements. But you don’t have to wait for Apple. With its customized keyboard, Textilus already includes several of my suggestions.

The app’s keyboard includes a toolbar row that features four arrow keys and a “magic cursor” tool. With the arrow keys, you can reposition the text cursor more easily than with iOS’s loupe tool. For even greater control, the magic cursor acts like a joystick, allowing total freedom to quickly move the cursor to any point in your document!

Additional toolbar options include font style selection, paragraph justification, highlighting, page breaks, spell checking and a wide assortment of symbols and punctuation. There’s a menu for making quick text selections, such as a line, a sentence, or a paragraph. There’s even a Forward Delete button.

Beyond the toolbar, Textilus offers options such as Show Statistics (for word counts) and Find & Replace. There’s also an option to take a document “snapshot,” which functions as a back-up that you can revert to if something irrecoverable goes wrong with your current editing.

I don’t know of any other app that comes close to matching the range and usefulness of this collection of features.

Bottom line

Textilus improves so rapidly that I have trouble keeping pace. In the initial draft of this review, I commented that a major limitation of Textilus, compared to apps such as Pages or QuickOffice, was an inability to add external graphics. Cancel that. The just-released latest version adds .rtfd format support with the option to paste in graphics, either from an included sketch pad or from your Photos library. [Tip: To add a graphic that is not a photo, you can take a screenshot of the graphic.]

The app is not a substitute for a true page-layout program. In particular, inserted graphics can only be inline. And it doesn’t do columns. But it otherwise is capable of just about anything you might want to do.

If I had to search for something to complain about, it would be that Textilus’ interface is sometimes more confusing than helpful. For example, I still have trouble with the nuances of its Dropbox support, especially with Local (offline) vs. Remote syncing and its attempts at Document Conflict resolution. But that’s really about it.

As I said at the outset: if Textilus can handle your word processing demands (and it probably can), it’s the best word processor you can get for your iPad. And you can’t beat the price. The standard version if free; the premium upgrade is only $4.99. So what are you waiting for?

Posted in iOS, iPad, Mac, Technology | 15 Comments

Can you name the actor?

Can you name a still-active actor who, for openers, has starred in over 3o movies, including numerous hugely successful blockbusters?

Much more impressive, at least 10 of his movies have earned a score of 80% or higher on the Tomatometer — indicating overwhelming critical approval. These are almost all great movies. Several other of his movies barely missed the cut, getting scores in the 70-79% range.

In addition, he’s been nominated three times for acting Academy Awards.

There may well be more than one actor who meets or exceeds these criteria. But there aren’t many. This actor is a member of an elite group. And yet, surprisingly, he doesn’t get nearly the respect or credit I believe he deserves.

Who is he? [Answer is below]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tom Cruise.

Especially in light of some of the criticism Cruise has received for his latest movie, Oblivion, I thought it was worth drawing attention to his impressive list of prior accomplishments.

In case you’re wondering, here are his ten movies that got the highest Tomatometer ratings:

Risky Business 98%

Mission Imp. Ghost Protocol 93%

The Color of Money 92%

Minority Report 92%

Born on the Fourth of July 90%

Rain Man 88%

Collateral 86%

Jerry Maguire 85%

Tropic Thunder 83%

A Few Good Men 81%

Personally, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, and Rain Man are among my all-time favorite movies.

And let’s not forget:

Top Gun

The Firm

Interview with the Vampire

Mission Impossible

Eyes Wide Shut

The Last Samurai

War of the Worlds

Update: Wow! I had completely forgotten I had written about Tom in a prior column back in 2006. I promise this will be the last time. :)

Posted in Entertainment, Movies | 3 Comments

Stupid by design

We have an outdoor light fixture, mounted above our garage door. It’s both light and motion sensitive. This means that the light turns on, at a dim level, each day around dusk. If it detects any motion nearby, it bumps up to a brighter illumination. Around dawn, the light goes off again. This are exactly the features we wanted — and the light has functioned well for more than seven years.

I say all this at the outset because, despite where this article is about to go, I don’t want to create the impression that the light fixture is a piece of junk overall.

The problem I had with the light is one that it shares with a disturbingly large number of other objects and devices: There is an aspect of design that is so mind-numbingly stupid, you have to wonder if anyone at the companies that makes the devices ever actually test them out.

In the case of the light fixture, here’s what happened:

A few months ago, one of the fixture’s two bulbs died. I got out my stepladder, climbed up to reach the light and attempted to remove the dead bulb. As it turned out, there was a metal ring that surrounded the front of the bulb casing, holding a glass cover in place. I needed to remove the ring in order to access the bulb.

This would have been quite simple to do, except for one thing. The ring was held in place by a small screw. As later became apparent, the screw is completely unnecessary. Even without the screw, the friction and threading forces holding the ring to the casing are sufficient so that the ring would never unintentionally move or fall off. At best, the screw serves as a final trivial layer of protection. However, with the screw in place, it was impossible to remove the ring. The screw had to be removed.

Making matters worse (much worse!), the screw itself was extremely small — so small that none of the screwdrivers in my toolbox had a small enough blade to fit. I had to locate the drivers I use for eyeglass repairs and computer equipment to find one that was potentially small enough.

Still, the trouble was not over. In what I can only assume was the work of a sadistic designer, the screw was recessed inside a hole, a hole barely larger than the screw itself. This meant that most of my super-small screwdrivers were still not small enough to insert in the hole and reach the screw head.

After a period of trial-and-error, I finally found one driver that seemed ideal. It fit in the hole, inserted into the screw head and was capable of turning the screw. Except it didn’t.

What was the problem now? After years of being outside and exposed to the elements, the screw had corroded. This might have been avoided if the manufacturer had used stainless steel screws, but they didn’t. No matter how hard I tried, the screw would not budge. I was in danger of stripping the screw if I kept trying.

I got out my trusty WD-40. To no avail. I went to our local hardware store and asked for advice. They recommended a rust-penetrating spray that was supposedly much better than WD-40 for this problem. Again, to no avail. The light fixture remained impenetrable, silently taunting me.

I was literally “screwed.” I have another phrase I use to describe this situation: “stymied at step one.” Whether I’m trying to assemble a piece of furniture, configure some new electronic device or (in this case) do some minor maintenance, I get out the instructions and the very first step appears impossible to do. Infuriating.

I finally gave up on the light fixture and called for reinforcements — a “handyman” that I periodically recruit for jobs that seem beyond my pay grade. Much to my surprise, he was ultimately just as stymied as I was. After about 30 minutes of trying and failing to remove the screw, he told me it would be cheaper and faster to buy a new light fixture and have him install it — rather than pay him to continue to try to extract the immovable screw. As a bonus, with the new fixture, I would have all new components, making it less likely that other repairs would be needed anytime soon.

Although I felt like I was admitting defeat, bested by an inanimate object a few millimeters in size, I agreed.

I was able to buy what appeared to be a slightly newer version of the exact same fixture I had purchased years ago. It did have one significant difference: the infamous screw was now noticeably larger and was no longer recessed in a hole. Its head sat above the ring’s surface. As you might guess, this made it much much easier to access and remove the screw. Although I could have left it in place, I was taking no more chances. I removed the screw and tossed it. It would never be able to stymy any future maintenance.

Several weeks have now gone by. The new fixture is working well and the ring remains in place.

As I reflect on this (and similar other) incidents, the same question keeps recurring: How could the company that made the object have made such a stupid design decision? If I were examining a test version of the fixture, I would have immediately spotted the difficulty with accessing the screw. And I don’t design light fixtures for a living. Did anyone at the company bother to check how hard it would be to remove the screw? Did they even care?

Cynics may claim that the design is a deliberate strategy, with a goal (successful in my case) of getting the owner to buy a new fixture rather than replace the bulb. I’m skeptical of this. If that were true, they would not have redesigned the fixture in the newer model. Rather, it seems more a case of negligence and ineptitude. Rather than take the time to worry about these matters, it’s easier and probably cheaper for them to make stupid decisions and solve any problems after-the-fact, if at all.

Screwed at any size

As it turns out, problems with screws and bolts and such can occur no matter what their size. At the other end of the size spectrum, consider the recently discovered problem with new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Scheduled to open this Labor Day, after more than 10 years of construction, Caltrans acknowledged last week that “one-third of the threaded steel rods used to bolt down two massive steel boxes below the new bridge deck” had snapped when tightened.

That would be bad enough. What makes matters much worse is a “design” issue: “The failed rods, which are up to 17 feet long, can’t be replaced easily as there is no longer room to put in new ones because the bridge’s roadbed has already been installed. Engineers will have to fashion a fix.” More precisely, the access opening to the bolts is about five feet in diameter, but the bolts themselves are wider than that. Oops.

Stupid by (web) design

These sort of problems are by no means restricted to hardware. If you use a computer, you likely confront such issues on a regular basis. Hardly a day goes by that I do not curse out some website. In one case, I was promised a price reduction if I redeemed a code. Unfortunately, I reached the point where the site asked for my credit card information and instructed me to click Purchase Now — without any opportunity to enter any sort of code. If I clicked the button, I feared I would be charged the full price.

As it turns out, the redemption box does appear, but only after you click the purchase button. I had to call the company to find this out (as I was unwilling to click to purchase before I knew I would get the discount). Again, I have to wonder, did anyone at the company walk through this purchase procedure before the site went live? Did it not occur to anyone that this sequence might cause a purchaser to hesitate and ultimately not buy their product? I guess not. It’s just another example of “stupid by design.” One too many.

Posted in General, Technology | 3 Comments