Home Screens: John Siracusa

This week’s home screen post features John Siracusa. (Podcast)(Website)(Twitter) John, who writes those amazing OS X reviews for Ars Technica, famously stuck with his flip phone until a few months ago when he got a shiny new iPhone 6. (John is also our workflow guest on the Mac Power Users episode dropping this weekend.) So John, show us your home screen.

Q: What are some of your favorite apps?

The apps I use most are my favorites: Twitterrific, Overcast, and Instapaper. Those three cover most of my iPhone usage. I listen to podcasts while commuting (using my car’s Bluetooth iPhone integration). I read Twitter when I have a spare moment. While reading Twitter, I file interesting links away in Instapaper and read them when I have a longer stretch of free time.

Q: Which app is your guilty pleasure?

I feel the most guilty when I’m sinking time into Desert Golfing. It’s just one hole after another, with very little reward for making progress. It’s the aloof cat of iOS gaming.

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

Maybe ten times per day on weekdays, more on weekends.

Q: What Today View widgets are you using and why?

I never look at the Today View. I’m not sure why, but it’s never found a place in my iPhone or iPad usage.

Q: If you were in charge at Apple, what would you add or change?

I’d get serious about network services, applying all the same philosophies Apple already applies to its other products. Apple should own and control the primary technologies that make its network services possible. Look at how much Google and Amazon have invested in creating their own server-side infrastructure over the years: MapReduceBigTableSpannerS3EC2DynamoDB, and so much more, and that’s even before considering the (more secretive) data center management and server hardware. Apple is behind here, and it shows in the performance and reliability of its network services—and in Apple’s ability to create new network services.

What’s your wallpaper and why?

My wallpaper is black because I don’t want anything to distract from the app icons. (I also have the parallax animation disabled for the same reason.)

Anything else you’d like to share?

I’m not happy with my home screen as shown in this screenshot. The iPhone 6’s larger screen has made the icons at the top a lot harder to reach, and this has forced me to reevaluate the layout I’ve had since the 5th generation iPod touch was released in 2012. Also, I’d really like it if Instagram would change its icon to fit in better with the others on my home screen. 

Thanks John.

The Cantina Band and John Williams

So this week a person that lives in my home wrote an extensive blog post about the history of the Star Wars Cantina Band and included a link to John Williams' jazz album. That wouldn't be shocking except for the fact the post was not written by me. Imagine my surprise reading about these things from my wife. I must be doing something right.


When Marco Arment first released the Overcast podcast client, I bought it based on my experience with Marco's prior project, Instapaper. I like how Marco sweats the small stuff and I wanted to see what he'd do with a podcast client. However, I was not as immediately taken with Overcast as was most of the rest of the Internet. Also, at the time I was giving Apple's own Podcasts app a serious attempt. While the Podcasts app isn't going to knock your socks off, it does have Siri integration. I can be driving down the street and push the button for Siri and say, "Play Podcast Mac Power Users" and the app opens, and the correct podcast fires up. At the time I viewed that as the killer feature to let me listen to multiple podcasts while driving down the road. Also, Overcast didn't support the iPad or the Mac and I listen to podcasts on those devices as well.

After using the Podcast app for a month, I found that I'd only used the Siri integration a few times. Normally when I drive, I'm only good for listening to one podcast anyway. Also, in that interim period I discovered Overcast's ability to play podcasts on my Mac via the browser and the app also got iPad support. 

All of this brought me back into Overcast and now I've been using a few months as my full time podcast player. I don't see myself leaving Overcast anytime soon. One of Overcast's banner features, Smart Speed, removes gaps and performs other tricks on an audio file so it plays faster without making the it sound too artificial or the hosts sound like they've been sucking helium. I'm finding myself using Smart Speed increasingly and now I'm not sure I'd want to do without it. Moreover, the user interface is just better than the other podcatchers I've used. The buttons are big enough to easily tap but not ugly or intrusive. I like the Orange color. The way it displays a live waveform is functional and kind of fun.  In hindsight, most of the geeks figured it out before I did but I got there eventually and Overcast is now staying on my home screen.

Elegant Discipline & Rainstorms

I've made mention on the Mac Power Users that I have an on-again off-again relationship with a personal journal. I explained that I write it only for myself and really have no intention of ever sharing it with anyone. That comment resulted in several emails to me asking why on earth I'd spend my time writing things that nobody else will read.

In the future I will answer such email with a link to this post from Ernie Svenson

"There is an elegant discipline involved in capturing your daily perspectives on life.

When you write your thoughts every day you’ll begin to see new things."


curbi iOS Parental Controls [Sponsor]

This week, I’m pleased to welcome a new sponsor, curbi. Letting our kids enjoy the good parts of the Internet while protecting them from the nefarious parts isn’t easy. Not only can kids get into trouble over your local WiFi network, they can also get into trouble through a cellular connection or at a friend’s house. curbi solves this problem, giving you amazing parental controls for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. You can easily block specific types of content or add a specific site list. curbi tracks (and can block) websites through Safari or any other iOS app that has a web browser. 

curbi also lets you set boundaries. For example, you could block social networks from 3pm to 6pm and the entire Internet from 9pm to 8am. For just $6.99 a month, you can protect all of your children’s iOS devices everywhere. The Internet can be a scary place and curbi is the only service I’ve ever seen that can protect your kids, no matter where they are. Learn more here.


Home Screens: J. Walter Hawkes

One of the best parts about running MacSparky.com is its eclectic group of listeners. I recently heard from J. Walter Hawkes, a professional musician (Website)(Blog)(Twitter). Walter is a composer. He does lots of children's television, like Blue's Clues, Wonder Pets, Third and Bird, and he is the current music director for Peg + Cat on PBS. To this day, I still catch myself singing some of the Blues Clues songs. (Team Steve!) Walter also plays a mad trombone solo. Don't believe me? Listen to him back up Norah Jones on Sinkin Soon. Enough gushing. Walter, show us your home screen.

What are some of favorite apps?  

iPhone: Getting around NYC can be...interesting.  I like KickMap (for quick looks at the map and train line status) and HopStop (transit directions) to help me get around the city.   I have a love/hate relationship with OmniFocus.  I love how the app has helped me keep my act together.  I hate being told what to do.  

Which app is your guilty pleasure?  

I have a few: Firstly, Instagram and Facebook for purely voyeuristic reasons.   When I want something mindless when I'm on the subway, I play 8bit Ninja....SpellTower if I only have one hand. Though it's not an app... Hue Lights.   I have a few Hue bulbs in my studio.  They're kinda new... so I'm still experimenting with apps.  Now I'm using the official Hue app and OnSwitch.  I'm not so sure about the apps, but I love the lights!

What is the app you are still missing?  

At the moment, I'm satisfied on my iOS devices... we'll see how long that lasts.  I'm waiting for those killer HomeKit and Health apps. (Me too. -D)

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

All the time.  Too much, probably.  I  use my iPad very heavily at work and play, too.

What is your favorite feature of the iPhone/iPad?  

I have a new iPad Air that has TouchID.  That's a real winner for me.  I'm tempted to upgrade my iPhone 5 just for it... that's crazy talk though!  

If you were in charge at Apple, what would you add or change? 

iTunes.  Oy.

What's your wallpaper and why?  

I have a random space shot I just picked off the internets.  I was embarrassed that I still had the stock wallpaper on my phone.  Ha! 

Anything else you'd like to share?  

I use my iPad a LOT. On the iPad, when dealing with musical scores or reading instrumental parts for the cartoons, I use FourScore. I use the bluetooth pedals for turning pages when I have a trombone or a ukulele in my hands. I use Noteability for scribbling notes on pdf scripts in meetings. I use GoodReader for my pdfs, which I have a LOT of.  I dabble in electronics and I keep data sheets and schematics... I've digitized most my old computer programming paperbacks going back to 1992 or so... I'll be totally freakin' SET when I get that great idea for an application using VRML!  (Check, please!)

Thanks Walter.

The Present and Hypothetical Future Siri

This week, John Gruber wrote a post about how Siri is becoming more useful to him. I think John’s right, Siri is a lot better. Although I am definitely looking at this from the vantage point of a Siri fanboy. I liked it from the beginning. I dictate often and like to think I’m pretty good at it. I’m actually dictating these words right now in Drafts on my iPhone. I’ve watched Siri grow up to a certain extent. Those people who gave up on it at the beginning are missing out. You should understand that like some other Apple terms (iCloud, for instance), Siri has several components.

Siri Dictation

This is the easiest bit. You speak and Siri returns your words as text. With iOS 8, Siri dictation got the ability to return your words as (or very shortly after) you say them. This was the single biggest improvement to Siri yet. With pre-iOS 8 Siri, you’d dictate your words and, only after you finished, would the recording grind through Apple’s servers and return words, at least theoretically. Sometimes it would just blink and silently mock you. Even if you have no interest in asking Siri how to bury a dead body, tapping the little microphone button and speaking to your iOS device (or Mac) to make words appear can be liberating. I recommend trying it for three days. It’s a game changer.

Siri the Intelligent Assistant

Then there is the entirely separate Siri that you ask to do something, like set a timer. This version of Siri has two jobs: 1) figure out what you just said, and; 2) figure out what you want it to do. Even if Siri gets all the words right in step 1, it still has a new and unique opportunity to fail in step 2. I think Siri has improved at phase 2 as much as it has improved at phase 1. I also think this improvement could only have come from Apple shipping Siri and letting millions of people bang up against it. While Siri is hardly perfect, it is damn useful.

Siri on the Mac

Apple has put dictation on the Mac with recent version of the Mac OS. It is, in some ways superior than Siri dictation in iOS, in that it no longer requires an Internet connection, assuming you enable enhanced dictation. However, Apple has yet to bring the Intelligent Assistant to the Mac. Dan Moren thinks they should and I agree. As someone who spends a lot of time behind a Mac, I’d love to be able to ask about the weather, set a timer, or do a simple web search with my voice. As Home Kit gets legs, it’d push more than few of my buttons to also be able to turn down the lights are start a playlist with my voice. I particularly agree with Dan’s desire for hypothetical Mac Siri to let users set the custom trigger phrase. Using “Hey Siri” leads to way too many hijinks as it is. If instead I could set my own unique phrase, I could make it something less likely to go off unexpectedly. For those of us that give our Macs names, it would also let us have a little fun. “Good Day Thelonious, What’s the weather going to be tomorrow?”

Dream Mac

I realize that every middle-aged nerd on the Internet has already linked this concept Mac from Curved/labs but, honestly, how could I resist?


Omni Productivity Apps Going Universal on iOS

Ken Case, on behalf of the Omni Group announced that they are going to be making all of their productivity applications, OmniGraffle, OmniOutliner, and OmniPlan to the iPhone this quarter. This will be a universal build so you don't have to buy it again if you've already purchased the iPad version. Omni even has a plan to take care of users that have already bought both versions of OmniFocus for the iPad and iPhone. It seems more clear than ever that the app business model of charging separately for iPad and iPhone applications is going the way of the Dodo.

I can't wait to see how these apps look on the new iPhones. These are the kinds of apps I was most interested in seeing on the iPhone when Apple announced the larger iPhone 6 plus. I use OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle so often that this move will make the plus size iPhone a lot more appealing to me with the next upgrade. 


Apple Home Kit

The Verge did a nice post-CES write up on the state of Home Kit. In principle, it sounds pretty appealing to me as an Apple device user. It also sounds like it isn't completely ready yet either. I've been a little surprised at how slow Home Kit has been to roll out. It was announced at WWDC  and you still can't buy Home Kit enabled devices. I suspect this has to do with dialing in the API's and making deals with the hardware manufacturers. As soon as Apple announced Home Kit, I stopped buying third party automation devices. I'd like to see how this plays out before investing any more. 

In some ways, the home automation racket feels a lot to me like early computers where there was no clear winner and it seemed like everyone wanted to get into the game. Right now, I don't think anyone has an idea where this is all heading.

My guess is that ultimately Home Kit devices will include a slight premium but will be much easier to use from an iOS device than their competitors. You'll even be able to use Siri to control your devices. (However, according to the Verge, to use Siri from offsite, you'll also need an AppleTV.) My inner twelve-year-old would love talking to my Apple Watch at the Airport and turning off lights at my home.


PDFpen Version 7 and Videos

Today Smile released version 7 of PDFpen for the Mac. I've been using the beta and particularly like some of the new features:

Signatures Tool

You can now add a signature field and then later sign a document using your track pad.

OCR Layer Support

I've always known of the mythical OCR layer in PDF files. Now PDFpen can display it. With PDFpenPro, you can even proofread and make changes to the underlying text layer. Boom.

Context Sensitive Editing Tools

Select some text, right click, apply.

Retaining Object Properties

I like my circles orange and my boxes red. Now PDFpen remembers that.

Export to Excel, PowerPoint, PDF/A

PDFpenPro added the ability to export to Excel, PowerPoint, and PDF/A. This is in addition to the export to Word feature that already exists.

I liked the beta so much that I agreed to make some videos for Smile that you can find right here. Below is my "What's New" video.

Flic for Camera Roll Sorting

I've never been happy with the built-in camera roll sorting tools. When I take photos with my phone I usually squeeze off three or four of any shot in hopes that I'll get that one where nobody has their eyes closed or the baby is particularly cute or whatever. The trouble is that sorting through those images in the Photos app is difficult. The thumbnail images are too small and it is difficult figuring out ones to keep. This has resulted, more than once, in my deleting the wrong image. This past weekend I decided I'd deleted the wrong picture for the last time and I went looking in the App Store and discovered Flic.

Flick displays the images from your camera roll one at a time. You flick the keepers to the right and the trash to the left. The images are about 3/4 their full size but if you tap them, they blow up even bigger. Using this app, I was able to make quick work of the images in my camera roll over the past month. The app also keeps a running tab of how much space you are recovering with your deletions. Now that I have an easy way to sort camera roll photos, I expect I'll be taking even more pictures on my iPhone.