My Home Screen: iOS 9 Edition

While I'm usually featuring someone else's home screen, with the release of iOS 9 and a few other developments, I thought I'd share my own home screen today. So, here goes.

My home screen is always in motion. For example, the Notes app is currently in my dock because I'm still testing it as a potential full-time notes solution. Camera is likewise in the dock because the 3D touch buttons on the Photos application icon make keeping the app on my home screen suddenly relevant again. Audible is another example. I don't usually keep it on the home screen but I've been listening to James Corey's Expanse Series so I want quick access.

Drafts is still a thing for me. Even with iOS 9, I like the ability to start dictating text with one press. I also admire the way Drafts keeps evolving to take advantage of new iOS features. It's now 3D touch-friendly.

Unread is under new management but still manages to hold onto the whimsey that makes it my RSS tool of choice.

About two months ago, I got tired of looking at Tweetbot on the iPad and switched over to the native Twitter app. About the time I started figuring out the official app, Tweetbot released its new version with much better iPad support and I went back without thinking twice.

1Password is another application that I like to keep on my home screen. I've got so much data in there and want easy access. Secure notes are a great feature in 1Password if you want to keep something important behind a separate security wall.

I haven't decided if the App Store deserves to be on home screen but with all the post-iOS 9 app updates, it's going to stay there for at least the next month.

The strangest development is that my home screen is now my only screen. Katie Floyd made the suggestion in a recent episode of Mac Power Users. She split all her additional apps into just 4 folders. I tried it and was skeptical at first but I think I'm sold. The folders are Productivity, Reference, Utility, and Fun, I've put the most frequently used apps in each category in that first page and I can now get to my favorite apps without swiping away from the home screen.

My wallpaper is another thing constantly in motion. The current one is a picture of a gray brick wall that I like (for now).

If I were in charge at Apple, I'd continue to give iOS more power-user features. I understand how they want to keep things simple but as iOS evolves, the operating system needs more power tools. 3D Touch is a great start. It's easy to use and easily ignorable. More of that please.

Fantastical for iOS 2.5

This week the other penny dropped for Fantastical. On the heals of their Mac update comes Fantastical for iOS 2.5. There's a long list of updates and new features including things like 3D Touch on the new iPhones and multitasking. 

For me, the big story here is the Apple Watch app. It's always looked better than the native Calendar app but also been hampered by the fact it's not a native application. It is now. The native app is much faster, now includes a Fantastical complication, and retains that clean Fantastical design. I've switched all my calendar complications over to the new Fantastical.

Apple Maps in 2015

Poor Apple Maps. It has been the whipping boy of the Internet for several years. Here is my favorite shot at Apple Maps from last season’s Silicon Valley.

For the first year after Apple Maps released, I kept Google maps on my home screen. However, after that Apple Maps improved enough to work for me. Moreover, the killer feature with Apple Maps is the Siri integration. I can be driving down the road, press the button for Siri and say “get directions home” or “get directions to Hippieland Granola Factory” and Siri does the rest of the work for me. It looks it up, opens the location in Apple Maps, and then initiates directions. This has saved my bacon plenty.

I still think this is a function of where you live. With me being in California, I suspect the Apple Maps problems got fixed a lot sooner than it would for someone who lives somewhere more remote. Nevertheless, if you gave up hope in Apple Maps, you should go look at it again. How-to Geek just did a comparison of the two services and found Apple and Google maps were a lot closer than they expected.

Sponsor: Automatic

This week I'm pleased to welcome back Automatic to MacSparky. Automatic is a device  that plugs into your car's OBD-II port. (Just about every car made since 1996 has one.) The Automatic then has access to your vehicle's data and connects via BlueTooth to your iPhone.

In a lot of ways, the Automatic makes your dumb car a smart car. Last week I spent several days driving around for the day job and needed to keep track of my mileage. That is no problem with the Automatic. It knows where I start and where I finish and gives me extremely accurate data on my iPhone and on their website. 

There is a lot more you can do with the Automatic including:

  • Get extremely accurate data about fuel efficiency, trip distance, gas used, and other performance metrics.
  • Get notifications when your car's fuel level is getting low.
  • Get explanations of any alarms or other events your car reports. No longer do you need to visit a mechanic when you get a cryptic light on your dashboard.
  • Detect when the vehicle has been in a significant accident and call you, your loved ones, and emergency support.
  • Get driving feedback when you are accelerating too fast, braking too hard, and otherwise doing silly things behind the wheel.

Automatic truly lets you geek out your ride. I purchased Automatic not only for my own car, but my wife and daughter's cars as well so if they are in an accident, I know about it immediately.

There is no subscription fee. Once you buy your Automatic, you're good to go. Moreover, they are giving 20% off to MacSparky readers. Use this link and the usual price of $100 drops to $80. I use my Automatic every time I step in my car. I bet you would too.

Self Driving Cars

Matt Honan, who's at Buzzfeed these days, got to go for a ride in a Google car.

A future without human drivers is a long, long way off. But we’ll get there. No matter what you think. No matter what you hope. No matter how you feel about it. Because the efficient, unemotional, necessary logic of cars that operate without human error and instability is unquestionable.

Matt further explains how the Google cars, now with a combined 3 million driving miles under their belts, are sharing the same brain and, in essence, learn from each other's mistakes. While that sounds creepy, I am all for self-driving cars. In the past week alone, I've seen a driver do her makeup on the freeway and another driver shaving while blowing through an intersection. Setting aside the legions of bad drivers, wouldn't it be nice if you could spend your commute time getting some work done or (even better) taking a nap? Once all this sorts out, sign me up.

(Thanks Daring Fireball for pointing me at the linked article.)

Home Screens: Brian Sutich

Brian Sutich (Twitter) is a huge Apple guy who writes over at and Brian’s a man of many hats as a dad, musician, and audio engineer. So Brian, show us your home screen.

My homescreen is a little crazy, but it has a method to its madness. I try to put my most used apps where I can reach them, and I use Spotlight search so much, that it almost doesn’t matter where the icons are at this point.

What are some of your favorite apps?

I’ve installed 1Password on every device I own, and that coupled with TextExpander are auto-installs I couldn’t live without because of how much time they save me.

Speaking of time-savers, Slack came out of nowhere and now I’m subscribed to multiple channels. I enjoy it a heck of a lot more than email, and I’ve met some great folks through using it. 

I left Spotify this year for Apple Music, and I haven’t had any of the problems yet (fingers crossed) that people have complained about. I love Apple Music because of their catalog, Beats 1, and the curation. I have big hopes for the app as it gets updated. 

For photography I use a combination of Obscura to take photos, and Pixelmator to edit them. Those apps are so powerful at this point, that they truly feel desktop-class. 

For journaling and trying to figure life out, I’m using Day One. I love the design on both iOS and OS X. I try to journal as much as possible and I’ve found it has had a huge positive impact on my life. 

I’m also using Paprika for collecting recipes I’m looking to try and cook. I haven’t burned anything yet!

Which app is your guilty pleasure?

It has to be a tie between Tweetbot and Overcast. I check Twitter more than I’d like to admit and Tweetbot has been my favorite client on iOS and OS X. I’m subscribed to tons of podcasts in Overcast (so I can listen to alllll the great shows), and some months I listen to more podcasts than I do music. I can’t wait for the update to Overcast, but I also have my eye on what’ll happen with the new version of Castro.

What app makes you most productive?

For getting stuff done, it’s a combination of FantasticalTodoist and Due. Each app gives me something different for long term, medium, and short term tasks I have to get done. 

On the writing side, I’d say it’s a combination of EditorialBlink, and Clips. All great apps that help me put together an article right on my iPhone.

Finally, Nike +Pedometer ++ and Get Moving have all helped me in my quest to get in shape. I just finished my first 10K this month! 

What app do you know you’re underutilizing?

Definitely Pythonista. I know it’s a powerhouse, and I’m trying to learn the language a bit every day. Slowly but surely I’m using it more and more. I need to read more Dr. Drang!

How many times a day do you use your iPhone/iPad?

Quite a bit. I love my 128 GB iPhone, and I guess you could call me an app hoarder. At the time of this post, my installed app count was nearing 700 apps. I’m always looking to try something new to see what sticks.

What Today View widgets are you using and why?

I’m using a bunch. Some of my favorites are Launcher, which I use to launch directions to home, Shazam a song, open Apple Music and more. I also use Carrot Weather, which has a detailed and good looking forecast. I use Clips and Drafts to manipulate text. I use Shipments to track anything headed to my house, and I use Today Steps to see my step count info.

What is your favorite feature of the iPhone/iPad?

My favorite feature is that it truly has become a mini computer that allows me to do just about anything. While the iPhone and iPad haven’t replaced my Mac yet, they’re not far off from being able to handle anything you throw at them.

What’s your wallpaper and why?

It’s an amazing Empire Strikes Back movie poster zoomed in. It combines both my love of Star Wars and the color orange. (Two gold stars to Brian! -David)

Anything else you’d like to share?

Apple devices have literally changed my life. It’s so great we can share what makes us productive and happy. Thanks so much for having me, it’s an honor!

Thanks Brian!

Carrot: Weather with Attitude

Growing up in southern California, I never thought much about weather. It's always kind of nice and occasionally too hot but never too humid. But these days things are getting weird here and it has stopped raining. Not only do I care more about weather these days, I am carrying this underlying animosity towards it. 

With this in mind, I've found my perfect weather app, CARROT weather (iOS App Store) (Mac App Store). Carrot has timely and accurate weather data. It has more data than I certainly can use including things like humidity, pressure, dew point, and other things I don't particularly care about (or even understand). It also has solid weather predictions including temperature, how cloudy it will be, and wind speeds. If you pay an extra $1.99, it will predict and tell you when it's going to rain. (Snort.)

Best of all though is that the app has a sense of humor. It's kind of malicious but since that matches my own attitudes toward weather, it's perfect. When you open it up, it's voice will say something snarky about the current weather.


There is a lot more whimsy throughout Carrot weather. For instance, there is a circle, dubbed the "ocular sensor", that serves no purpose. If you tap it, the application takes offense for you poking it in the eye and then says something appropriately rude to you.

The app also has weather for your current location or any other place you ask it to track weather. Some of the locations are pretty exotic, like Mount Doom and the Skywalker moisture farm. 

There are notifications, a today view widget, and all the other bells and whistles you'd expect. They have an app for iOS and also the Mac. While all this attitude is not necessary, I smile at least once a day when checking weather and in the middle of the California drought, that's pretty special.

A Few Notes about OS X El Capitan

It’s update day! Hooray! My usual sickness for installing beta operating systems long before any sane person would carried over to this year’s OS X update, 10.11 El Capitan. After several months, here is my collected list of notes, tips, and observations:

  • The new San Francisco font = win. I suspect this will be the Mac’s system font for a long time into the future.

  • Find friends in the today view sidebar is great. While working at my Mac I can get location data for my wife and kids immediately. I use it way more now that it is on my Mac than when this was an iOS-only thing.

  • Split view on the Mac is a great idea but the implementation feels wonky. Setting it up requires some precise clicking and dragging on the green minimize button. Swapping windows is harder than it should be. I like the idea but am not sold.

  • OS X Dictation got a performance bump. It is more accurate than the Yosemite version but also still makes some dumb mistakes and not as good as Dragon Dictate. (I’ll be writing more on that soon.)

  • That problem where some random-yet-unknown Safari tab is playing music is now solved. Safari puts a small speaker icon in the tab and never again will you be required to quit Safari because you can’t figure out which tab is playing the whack-a-mole song.

  • Swiping email to delete, trash, or archive is nice. It is not as useful as it is on iOS since we have keyboards on Macs but is a nice alternative. The only curious part is that aren’t as many swipe options on the Mac as there are on iOS, where you can also flag and move messages. It’s just weird that they didn’t didn’t include the same options.

  • Speaking of mail, data detectors are way better now. Apple Mail even gives you a little bar across the top of any message that includes usable data.

  • I’m going to write more about Notes but if you’ve been waiting, now is the time to push the button on updating your Notes database to the new Notes. Go ahead. Kick the tires.

  • Some of my nerd-friends aren’t impressed with the way Safari pins tabs. I like it. There are a few key sites that I like quick access to and pinning them does the job nicely.

  • Spotlight is getting Siri-like, by letting you type in natural language queries. (No Siri-type voice recognition this year.) Like all natural language interfaces, it works so long as you use the expected syntax. I like that the operating system is going this direction but consider it more a first step than anything else. Also, you can now move the Spotlight window.

  • There is system preference (in the General settings) to hide the menu bar. It may make sense if you’ve got a small screen. I tried it for a few days and it made me nuts. Apparently I still use the menu bar lots.

  • Metal means better graphics performance. While that is great for gamers, it also helps speed up slower Macs. Win-win. 

  • Two factor authentication is now part of the operating system. That’s a good thing.

  • Disk Utility got a new user interface. I never saw that coming.

  • One of my big complaints about Photos was the lack of third party extensions. That’s fixed now. Expect several Mac apps to get friendly with Photos now.

To learn more about El Capitan, we did an entire show on it with this week on the Mac Power Users.

Billings Pro 2 for iOS

Marketcircle has updated Billings Pro for iOS (Website) (App Store). The new version adds iPad multitasking. When I saw the screenshot, I was immediately taken with the update. This is exactly the kind of implementation I was hoping for with iPad multitasking. Adding billing entries while working in a browser or calendar makes so much sense to me. We are on the verge of significantly improved iPad productivity. I can feel it in my bones.

5 Quick Tips to Make Sure Your Presentation Doesn’t Suck

I recently was asked to give a presentation on how to make a presentation. I tried to keep it simple and came down to these five points:

1. Never Turn Your Back to the Audience

It can be scary standing up in front of a group of people. Turning your back gives you a way to hide and read your slides instead of engaging. That’s really bad. Audiences hate it and you’re better than that. No matter how tempting, when you first stand up in front of a room full of people, don’t turn around.

2. Use Fewer Words

It is easy to just transcribe your anticipated speech onto your slides. That doesn’t help you out. It just tells the audience that you don’t really care and they can ignore you. Don’t do that. You are a unique and special snowflake. Make the presentation support you, not the opposite. Also, if you’re going to use bullets, animate them so they just reveal one point at a time. That way people aren't reading ahead when you’re speaking.

3. Turn Down the Sexy

 Fancy animations and transitions can serve a purpose if used sparingly. If used often, they just become distracting noise.

4. Use Visuals

Humans are visual creatures and learn a great deal from what they see. A good presentation can pour understanding into the brains of your audience. Use images and visuals to enhance your words. Pooping a bunch of words on your slides while you are still speaking makes it impossible for the audience to both read the slide words and listen to your words simultaneously. Visuals, on the other hand, reinforce your words and can make all of the difference.

5. Tell a Story

The best presentations and speeches tell a story. They relate to the audience and bring your point (whatever it may be) into a context that the audience can share with you. When planning an important presentation think about that in advance. Plan the high points and low points to create a yarn that will pull your audience right along with you. At the end, they will love you for it.

Want to learn more? I know of a pretty good book.

Bartender 2

There once was a dark time for all Mac users where the menubar threatened to take over our computers. The march of applications with handy menubar icons seemed unstoppable while at the same time Apple started making laptop screens smaller and smaller. I remember having menubar icons that disappeared under application menus never to be heard from again.

Then came Bartender. Bartender seemed to bend the laws of physics, letting you move and adjust your menubar icons. Just hold down the Command key and start re-organizing your menubar to your preference. This even works on those sacrosanct Apple menubar icons like Airport and Battery Life. 

Moreover, Bartender gives you the ability to add a second list of less important icons that you can access with a single mouse click. It’s like putting menubar icons in a drawer that you can open at any time. Bartender even has a preference that allows you to elevate certain menubar icons out of its drawer and into the primary menubar whenever they are active.

I don’t know a single nerd that does not love Bartender. It gives you the freedom to add menubar icons to your Mac with reckless abandon while at the same time keeping your menubar clear and clean.

Today sees the release of Bartender 2. Like its predecessor, Bartender 2 adds a secondary menubar to your Mac where you can pile on the menu bar icons to be shown or hidden upon your request. I’ve been running the new version on my El Capitan test machine for a few weeks and it has some really nice improvements over the prior version:

Keyboard Navigation

You can now navigate your menubar via keyboard navigation. Bartender 2 lets you set a custom keyboard shortcut (I use Control-Option-Command-B) that opens up the Bartender menubar and highlights an icon. You can then use the arrow keys to navigate around the menubar icons both in the Bartender menubar and the primary menubar above. Once you find the one you want, hit the return key and you’re in business. This takes a lot longer to describe than to actually perform. If you like to keep your fingers on the keyboard, being able to get into the menubar with the keyboard combination is worth the price of admission alone.


If your fixation with menubar icons is truly unhealthy, you may have so many that it is difficult to find the one you are looking for. Sadly, that’s been me. Bartender 2 fixes this problem by letting you search your menubar icons. To do so, start typing your search phrase when you’re in the Bartender menubar and the application does the rest for you.

New Paint and New Engine

With the imminent release of El Capitan, Bartender 2 also got many improvements to match the user interface direction that started with Yosemite and a lot of work went under the hood to add these new features while still working within Apple’s System Integrity Protection in El Capitan.

If you have ever faced any friction with managing your menubar icons, Bartender is the solution you’re looking for. With my 12 inch MacBook, I simply could not live without it. Bartender 2 is a paid upgrade. If you bought the original version, the upgrade is $7.50. If you’re buying a new, it is $15. You can learn more at the developer’s website.

24 Hours with the iPhone 6s Plus

I have now been officially using my new iPhone for 24 hours. I spent a lot of time peeking, poking and otherwise kicking the tires. Here are some initial thoughts:

6s vs. 6s Plus

There was much gnashing of teeth last year over whether to get the big one or the small one. I too was flummoxed. Never have I had so much trouble deciding between two products. Initially I bought the big one and then I traded it in for the little one. When the iBooks Store began supporting my iBooks Author books on the phone, I bought a used 6 Plus so I could test and make sure the books looked okay on it. I had intended to sell the used phone back but in the meantime my wife fell in love with my iPhone 6 and I found myself with little choice but to keep the 6 Plus. So last year I ended up spending eight months with the small phone and four months with the big phone. After all that time, I realize that there really isn’t that much difference. With the bigger phone, it’s a little more difficult to carry in your pocket and with the little phone you get slightly less battery life and the text is smaller. This time I didn’t sweat it. I just ordered the big one.

Buying Options

The new variable in the mix this year is exactly how you buy the new phone. Carriers are no longer interested in contracts and there are several options for purchase from a variety of sources. I’ve been happy with my service from AT&T throughout my iPhone ownership but at the same time I’m not all that eager to get in long-term relationships with them. So I decided to buy it from Apple. In that case I had two options: either buy it outright or buy it on on the Apple upgrade plan. Since the upgrade plan price was the same (I was going to add AppleCare plus regardless) I ended up on the Apple upgrade plan. This gives me the option to upgrade it next year if I want, although I probably won’t. (In my family I hand down the phone every year to one of my daughters.) So I bought a space gray 6s Plus with 128 GB. The storage size may raise some eyebrows but I put a lot of media, photos, and video on my phone and (in my mind at least) it’s cheaper to pay an extra hundred dollars to avoid screwing with storage allocation for the next year.

3D Touch

I’ve heard from several sources that Apple spent years perfecting this feature before adding it to the phone. That shows. It was remarkable to me how quickly peeking and poking became second nature. Using 3D Touch in mail seemed like a gimmick until I tried it. Now it is a “thing” for me. If I see a mail in my inbox and I’m not sure what it is, I peek at it. An interesting feature is the ability to apply the swipe gestures while peeking at an email. It depends on your settings but for me swiping to the left deletes the email and swiping to the right allows me to move it to a different mailbox.

3D touching app icons to get immediate access to specific features and makes performing common tasks in your favorite apps easier than ever. It’s the most significant addition to spring board since the arrival of folders. I’ve now put my camera back on my home screen because it’s so easy to hard press on it and then select whether I’m shooting a movie, selfie, or traditional photo. It’s definitely faster than opening the app and swiping around to the appropriate camera.

One more example of 3D touch that still make me giggle like a school-boy is on the iPhone keyboard. If you press it hard and start moving your finger around, it moves the cursor as if you are on a trackpad. Press just a little bit harder and begin selecting text. Do this once and you will never be able to go back to the old way of selecting text. (It’s going to kill me that I don’t have this on my iPad.)

Live Photos

Live photos are strange feature. I’ve taken a bunch of live photos at this point and while they are fun, I wonder if they are a novelty. I do, however, like the idea of looking back at some of these pictures in a few years to catch just a few seconds of my daughters being silly while I took their picture and wish I had something like this of them when they were younger. An interesting notes is that you can send live photos to other iPhones (I tested it with my daughters 5s) and they display with a long tap.

The implementation is a little spotty. When viewing a live photo with a hard press, the screen goes blurry and then start showing the video. The delay and blur feel pretty odd. Likewise, the quality of the images in the video are not particularly good. I found it hard to keep things in focus even while resting the phone on a stable surface while taking the live photo.

My wife, who is not a nerd, loves live photos and has been using it nonstop since she got her phone. I think it is her big thing with the new phone. That makes me wonder that maybe I’m reading this wrong and non-nerds will really embrace live photos. If they do, I hope they are doing so on something bigger than the 16 GB entry-level iPhones.

Touch ID

I’m more impressed than I expected to be with the new Touch ID speed. It is so fast that I barely see the lock screen. When I wanted to test a live photo as my lock screen wallpaper, I couldn’t get to the lock screen because Touch ID was unlocking the phone so quickly. Instead I had to use the sleep-wake button on the side.

The New Camera

Every year the iPhone camera gets iteratively better. With the big move from 8 to 12 megapixels this year, I feel a lot more comfortable taking wide shots with the knowledge that I can zoom in on them later without losing too much image integrity. The camera quality of the iPhone 6 was pretty good to begin with. Taking pictures outdoors with good light, I couldn’t see much difference between the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6s. In low light however, the difference was noticeable. While the iPhone still is not going to replace your SLR or mirrorless camera, as a carry around camera, it’s pretty amazing. The below gallery shows some images I took last night at Disneyland with the new camera and some comparison shots with the iPhone 6 Plus camera. All images are not edited.

Comparison of the new front facing "selfie" camera isn't fair. The new camera is far superior with the 5 megapixel sensor. The screen-as-flash feature really works and doesn't make you look blown  out.

I did some tests for the amount of time it takes to take a photograph. I saw no noticeable difference between the 6 and 6s. However, the 3D Touch interface does let me get to the appropriate camera much faster than the old iPhone did.


Between the RAM (iPhone now has 2 gigabytes of RAM) and the A9 processor upgrades, the iPhone 6s is a screamer. I’ve only began to scratch the surface on this but I can already see that jumping through multiple tabs in Safari, downloading and updating a large OmniFocus database, and making alterations to photos are all noticeably snappier on the new phone. 

The most interesting story about the performance improvements for me is not what I can do today but what will happen tomorrow. With mobile devices approaching “desktop class” processing speeds, how much more awesome can app developers make the mobile devices. The powerful apps demonstrated by Adobe and Microsoft at the Apple event are just the tip of the iceberg. I expect in a couple years we are going to have a lot more “power” mobile apps available to us. 

There still are a lot of questions about how developers can create that market in the current “race to the bottom” pricing wars but there is no question the hardware and evolving touch interface can support a more advanced class of software. I can’t wait to see how this turns out.


One of my daughters is currently rocking her iPhone 5S and doing just fine with it. Nevertheless, every year the iPhone evolves and gets a little better. This year’s iteration feels like it has evolved a bit more than iPhones in the past. If your current iPhone does not support 3D Touch, you’re missing out. That doesn’t mean you have to upgrade though. Using a three-year-old iPhone is perfectly adequate and fully supported by the current iOS 9 software. All that said, with their own upgrade plan, Apple has made it easier than ever to get into the new iPhone and I expect a lot of people will be doing just that.

Home Screen: Jazz Pianist Bob Karty

This week’s home screen features geek and jazz pianist Bob Karty (Website). I’ve been corresponding with Bob via email for some time. For years, Bob has been a sideman, playing with some of the best jazz acts in the San Francisco Bay area. Bob is now running this Kickstarter project to fund his own album and I thought it would be a great opportunity to look at Bob’s favorite music apps. So Bob, let’s see it.

I’m a professional jazz pianist and a music teacher, and I use my iPad a lot every day.

I use play-along tracks both for my own practicing and with my students. The tracks are in my iTunes library, which is stored on a Synology DS212j network drive. I play the tracks via Synology’s DS File app on my iPad, and the audio streams to a Marantz AV7005 pre-pro with built-in Air Play. It’s wonderful to have instant access to not only the play-alongs but my entire music library.

For casual listening, I use Synology’s DS Audio app.

If a play-along track is at a tempo that’s too fast for a student, or if they’re playing a song for which there’s no commercially-available play-along, I use an app called iReal Pro. iReal Pro consists of chord charts and a MIDI playback engine which reads the charts and plays them back using drums, bass, and piano or guitar sounds. You can instantly change a song’s key and tempo. The playback engine includes a mixer, so pianists turn off the piano track and practice along with bass and drums.

Most of the bands I work with have their own printed music charts of original songs. But if someone sits in and wants to sing a jazz standard I don’t know, the charts in iReal Pro come in handy.

In teaching Afro-Cuban/salsa/Latin jazz piano, I have students play along with rhythm accompaniment from an app called Salsa Rhythm. Originally designed for dancers, it’s very useful for musicians too. Pianists need to learn how to fit into the complex grooves in a very specific way, and this app is a great aid to that process.

Another app I use frequently is the Yamaha Metronome. There are many metronome apps, but this is my favorite - simple, straightforward, and accurate. You’d think a metronome would be accurate by definition, but I found one that wasn’t true, despite claims by the developer that it was “the most accurate” in the app store.

For students of music theory, I often recommend the Interval Ear Trainer module in an app called Tenuto. Tenuto contains drills and exercises for learning theory, while its companion app, Theory Lessons, covers the lessons. The Ear Trainer plays a musical interval, and you tap on the screen to identify it. It’s customizable to adapt to different skill levels, and students have a lot of fun with it.

A couple of brief mentions of clever and useful apps for audio engineers: Speaker Angle helps you set the toe-in angle of your monitor speakers, which helps improve the sound. Stereo Mic Tools uses the iPhone or iPad’s camera to help you position microphones in stereo recording configurations, which require precision positioning in order to capture the sound accurately.

Fantastical 2.1

I spent most of today with my head down on a calendar intensive project. That gave me a good opportunity to kick the tires on the newest version of Fantastical for Mac. Version 2.1 released yesterday and it’s the biggest update since they launched version 2. The new version supports OS X El Capitan, which will be landing on your Mac later this month. So far, my personal favorite new feature is the ability to cut, copy, and paste events and reminders. Quite often I have need to duplicate an event and being able to copy and paste an event with my keyboard is golden.

Navigation is also easier. You can scroll to a specific day or week using the trackpad and you can expand the scope in week and day view by pinching on the trackpad. Related, arrow keys can also now navigate the day, week, and month views.

There is a whole bunch more and you can read the release notes here. If you haven’t played much with Fantastical, I recommend watching my screencasts on the app. You’ll see why I use every day.

Microsoft Office for $150

Yesterday Microsoft announced that you can now purchase a license for Microsoft Office for Mac outright $150. There is no mystery to the fact that Microsoft prefers its customers move to the monthly plan rather than outright purchase. In that sense, this $150 version feels like a begrudging sale more than something that they actually want you to buy.

With the new $150 version you can only install the application on one Mac and it does not include access to the iOS versions. Purchasing Microsoft Office for Mac on a monthly basis is going to require an investment between $7 and $10 a month (depending on which version you buy). The gating issue is whether or not you have two macs or you want to use Microsoft office on your iPad. If the answer to either of those two questions is yes, you're going to need to purchase the subscription plan.

Somewhat related, Katie Floyd and I spent an hour and a half talking about the relative merits of competing word processors just this last weekend on Mac Power Users.

Saying “No” to the Master

Over the years I’ve got very adept at using the trackpad. The clincher for me was when Apple started introducing multitouch gestures. Whether I’m at my MacBook or iMac, as I go through the day I do flicks, swipes, and other gestures that make my computer dance for me. Once I mastered the built-in multitouch features, I downloaded Better Touch Tool and took the trackpad interface even further. At this point I’ve mastered the trackpad and using it feels a little bit more like playing the piano than a computer interface.

Nevertheless, I’m always interested in how things are going on the other side. Recently, I heard Myke Hurley talking about his brand-new Logitech MX Master mouse (Logitech) (Amazon). Myke loves it. With this mouse, Logitech has combined a weighty, ergonomic mouse with multiple buttons and inputs. Myke, for example, was able to drastically reduce the amount of time it takes him to edit a podcast using the programmable features of the MX Master.

This got me interested so I picked one up at the local Best Buy, keeping mindful of their two-week return policy. Myke was right. This is a remarkable mouse. It’s been years since I used a mouse and the ergonomics of the MX Master are better than any mouse I ever recall using. (They are definitely better than the Apple Magic mouse.) Likewise, just about every surface on this mouse has something you can press to make stuff happen on your Mac. In addition to the two buttons, there is a rolling wheel that can be switched between a ratcheting click or a flywheel inspired free roll. There’s also a separate scroller under your thumb and several additional buttons. The Logitech software loaded on my El Capitan Mac without breaking anything and the mouse performed without flaw for two weeks. I was able to program in many of the functions I pull off now with my trackpad using mouse buttons. The only real criticism I have is that it uses a USB dongle instead of natively pairing with the Mac through Bluetooth.

Nevertheless, I took it back. The problem was that I never truly warmed up to the mouse. If I had used it another month or two, the button layout probably would’ve become second nature just as the trackpad has for me. However, in my case, I’ve moved on. I am able to make a trackpad do a lot for me and it doesn’t move around the table, bumping into my glass of water or papers on my desk. Because I have my trackpad set up to click on tap (yes, I am one of those people), it requires virtually no force to click on my trackpad. Indeed as I go throughout the day, if one finger starts feeling a little stiff, I use a different finger for taps. While I was able to replicate many of the gestures I do with a trackpad on this super mouse, I was not able to replicate them all. Better Touch Tool gives you a seemingly infinite number of potential inputs on the trackpad. For instance, one of mine is to rest my third, fourth, and fifth fingers on the trackpad and tap with my index finger. Complex gesture like this simply are not possible with a mouse.

Finally, the biggest advantage of a mouse over a trackpad, more precise movement, didn’t really pay off for me. The mouse may have been slightly faster for some tasks, but I didn’t feel it or appreciate it enough to want to trade in my trackpad for mouse.

Now I know that some anarchists like to use both the trackpad and the mouse at the same time. If I were to go that route, I would just use an existing Magic mouse from a drawer rather than spend $100 on the souped up MX Master.

In summary, if you are mouse person, I’m not sure you could do any better than the MX Master. If you’re a trackpad person, you’re probably fine sticking to your guns.