All posts by Kevin Breit

Storage – Simple is Good

Over the past few years I’ve heard a lot of good about Synology. As a networking geek, being attracted to something like a Sinology makes some sense. What has held me back from these devices is one simple fact – I don’t use that much storage. The large majority of the space I use is for photos and music at 104GB and 30GB respectively. All this is stored either locally on my Mac or an external hard drive connected over USB. iTunes Match allows me to reduce the 30GB significantly if I want and the external hard drive is only 15% used. I repeat I don’t need much storage space.

My wife is similar. She keeps everything on her computer. 250GB or so of space later and she has all her photos, music, and documents. Between the both of us we use less than 500GB.

As an exercise, I was curious whether it made sense to purchase a Synology NAS for us to store our data compared to various methods of DAS. I was able to find some USB 3.0 external hard drives providing 4TB for about $130. One per person makes it $260 for plenty of storage each.

Choosing a Synology isn’t as easy. While I love the idea of a rack mountable NAS, I decided a regular form factor is better and more flexible for the future. A 1-bay NAS doesn’t make much sense and a 2-bay NAS is only slightly better. 4-bay seemed like a sweet spot so the DS414 or DS414j looks to be a good option. The DS414j is decently less expensive, but lacks hot swapping so I opted for the DS414. This is $470 right off the bat.

2TB hard drives feel a bit small today for something which is supposed to store a ton of data. 3 or 4TB drives seem to be a better happy medium between price and size today. I priced 4x 4TB drives for $656 or 4x 3TB drives for $458.

Considering price alone, $260 v. $1,000+ should be a pretty simple answer. Both options provide the same amount of storage. Price isn’t the only consideration though.

Versatility. Each brings their own benefits. A USB drive can go wherever you go. After that, I consider NAS to be more versatile. It can serve data over multiple protocols and be accessed by many computers simultaneously.

Simplicity and Ease of Use. This one goes to the USB drive. Plug it in and go. NAS requires configuration on both the server and client.

Performance. This one is probably tough since I haven’t done much testing of USB 3.0 However, some reports online show USB 2.0 is faster than Gigabit Ethernet, leave alone 802.11n which maxes out at about 150Mbps in many situations. USB 3.0 is going to make this one a much easier question as I’m sure USB 3.0 is faster than Gigabit Ethernet or even 802.11ac under either wave 1 or wave 2.

Backup. This is one where NAS wins. Amazon Glacier allows for archival storage for $0.01 per GB per month. 8TB of data would be $40/month. Backblaze is unlimited data for $5 per month but they also require the drive to be accessed once every 3 weeks or the data is deleted.

Reliability. NAS will probably win this one as well. A USB drive is a single point of failure and not an overly reliable one at that. The NAS would probably be running RAID. The only way the NAS would be less reliable is if the server itself dies and then it’s actually worse.

I love the idea of a new toy. What geek doesn’t? But when I weigh these options, the USB drive’s price and simplicity give it a hard to beat combination. The biggest push towards a NAS would be if we had kids who needed to store data. Then 4 USB drives becomes $480 and it’s a much easier sell. I’ll continue to weigh whether I should get a NAS but the initial numbers make it hard to justify.

Favorite Household Items

Here are a list of items I use around the house. They are not totally computer related and are in no particular order.

Miele Delphi Vacuum

I have a thing for vacuuming. No, I don’t really enjoy it. But of all the chores of the house I think it’s my favorite. Vacumming isn’t very hard and it gives immediate results. Contrast this with scrubbing the floor, which is equally important, but much more work.

When I decided to replace my $60 cordless vacuum with a new one, I wanted a good one. After reading reviews, I settled on the Miele Delphi. It’s $500 so not cheap. But it’s a nice vacuum that I expect to last years. First, it’s mostly made of metal so it feels well c

My house is Pergo flooring through a little bit over half with a few rooms and a hall with carpeting. Most any vacuum should be able to handle hardwood flooring (or faux-hardwood) and the test of the vacuum for me is on the carpet. Unfortunately, the carpet is stained anyways so it’s not working miracles. However, it does a good job of picking up off the carpet so I can’t complain. It also comes with three attachments besides the power brush so I can get edges and drapes.

My favorite parts about the vacuum though? Weight and noise. It’s light enough I can pick it up and easily carry it up and down the stairs. The worst part about using it on stairs is the awkwardness of holding a vacucum. And it’s quiet. Not whisper quiet of course, but it’s quiet enough I can listen to music with headphones without blasting it. If I turn the power down a little, people can talk in the room without me having to feel like too much of a jerk for vacuuming when people are talking.

Is $500 for a vacuum worth it? It all depends. If you have only hardwood flooring and don’t vacuum much, then maybe not. But if you have some carpet, pets, need to get under furniture, and want something that will last, this is a vacuum worth considering.

Merkel Razor

Gillette generally owns the market for men’s razors. I received my first Mach 3 from Gillette when I turned 13. Great marketing – I used it for the next 15 years. A friend of mine moved to the Merkel razors and said they were a better shave. The up front cost is a bit more than the disposable type, but it’s much less expensive over the years. The shave, for me at least, is closer and it has almost no pull. Disposable razors had a lot of pull and it only got worse as the blade dulled. Almost no pull with the double sided razors.

Of all the purchases on the list, this is the one I wouldn’t give up. Name something else on here and I’d give it up but I won’t ever go back to a disposable razor. The one downside is you can’t get them through security so don’t try to bring them on a carry on. I keep a Gillette razor around for that situation but it doesn’t see light except for an overnight flight.

Breville Smart Oven

I took this recommendation straight from The Sweet Home and Cook’s Illustrated. Both rated the Breville Smart Oven the best toaster. It’s $250. That’s a lot for a toaster oven.

First, this toaster oven is huge. When we opened the oven we had a moment of “…where do we put this?”. Once we got it setup it fit fine. Because it’s huge, it’s able to hold a lot. I managed to warm up a cheap pizza from the grocery store in it. Given the choice, I’ll use the toaster to warm something instead of getting the entire oven warm.

Overall, I do like the toaster oven. Its controls are all digital which means I can easily repeat how dark something is done. In other words, the on switch isn’t the same as the darkness. However, because it’s digital, there are only so many preset levels. You can override it and control exactly how long the heater is on.

Speaking of heater, that’s one of the cool things (ha!) about this toaster oven. The heating elements are variable which means instead of turning on and off, they will change temperatures to keep the temperature even. Whether this makes any difference is beyond me, but it does seem to do a pretty decent job of even cooking.

I’ve toasted many bagels in this and it does a nice job. I cooked a cheap pizza on it and it seemed to cook a bit too fast on the edges and not fast enough in the center. It does have a convection option so I would need to play with it a bit more to understand why it wasn’t cooking as even as I’d like.

The Sweet Home review is more thorough than I care to offer, so read theirs and make a decision. If you use a toaster oven a lot, it’s a worthwhile investment. If you don’t, it’s probably a harder justification to spend $250 on a toaster oven.

KitchenAid Artisan Mixer

It’s metal. It’s red. It’s the KitchenAid Artisan Stand Mixer. The iconic kitchen appliance resides on my counter partially for function but partially for form. Really, it’s a beautiful appliance as appliances go. It comes with multiple attachments for different functions. Mine powers through dough and anything I’ve thrown at it so far. We have pasta attachments for making home made pasta of various kinds.

There should be more to say about the stand mixer. There isn’t. If you bake or need to mix things, this is the one to get. I wouldn’t think twice.

Food Processor

Food processors are something people often consider to chop up food and mix it together. However, a food processor can chop onions and make that whole process of prepping a lot easier. No, I haven’t used it for that yet. But I will, I promise.

Regardless, this is a nice food processor with good power, a nice secure lid, and the typical attachments. It’s not cheap, but it’s not expensive at $179. Again, that’s a decent amount of money for a food processor but I expect this to last a long time as well. I could have purchased a $50 plastic one, but those would burn out in significantly less time and have less power. There are no concerns this would power through dough or almost whatever I throw at it.

Cast Iron Skillet

A cast iron skillet is simple. They’re heavy, they’re black, and they are made to last if you take care of them. I have a simple Lodge brand cast iron skillet which is my frying pan of choice for almost anything which can be cooked on cast iron, especially meats.

Cast iron takes a bit different method of cleaning than stainless steel but it will last a lifetime if you take good care of it. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make mine look as smooth and pristine as some people can. It’s okay. I love my cast iron skillet anyways. And for $25 it’s not expensive either. I’d recommend to anyone who cooks a bit to go out and purchase one – just make sure you understand how to clean it.

Ice Cube Tray

Another mention of The Sweet Home comes up. I found out about this tray on a review. Never did I think I’d really care about ice cubes. That is until we got a new freezer and didn’t have room for the ice cube tray. I dropped $10 on this tray because it promised to not spill under most conditions. Sure as heck fire, it doesn’t spill as long as you keep it under 45 degrees.

The cubes are oval at the bottom so simply pressing on the right side should cause the cube to flip out easily. Much easier than having to use your nails to pull out ice cubes.

WeatherTech Floor Mats

I live in the Chicago suburbs. We have winter. We have rain. Normal carpet floor mats take a beating and eventually wear down. It was a fact of life until a co-worker told me he loves his WeatherTech floor mats. These became my birthday gift and I immediately loved them. If you get the high end ones, they’re made to fit your car so it’s not generic. If your car has a bump near the seat for a heating duct, the floor mat should be ordered to have a bump to accompany it. Water doesn’t absorb into the surface because it’s plastic instead of carpet. This is good and bad. It’s good because you can hose the floor mats out very easily to keep them clean. It’s bad because snow tends to puddle up on the mat. This is a little frustrating, but it’s inevitable. A night is typica

Spills are something people talk about. I haven’t dealt with a spill quite yet but I could imagine spilling a liquid on these would be amazing since it’s easy to clean up and shouldn’t get all over your car.

Wedding Hints

Weddings are huge. And as someone who is at the tail end of planning one, I wanted to give some hints for those just setting out on the adventure.

Elope – Everyone will tell you to elope and not do a wedding. If you two are willing to consider eloping then at least consider it. Weddings are stressful, complex, and expensive. They strain relationships and create and immense amount of stress. I’m not saying eloping is for everyone. But if you two are open to the idea, give it a good thought.

Coordination – There is a lot involved with weddings. There are the things you can think of such as invitations and flowers. But there’s a lot of small details you don’t consider until you’re well into it. Unless the bride is planning the entire wedding, you will need to coordinate your documents. It doesn’t matter what tool you use as long as you a central repository. We had separate invite lists with varying data and formatting. Uniformity would have eased some steps.
* Google Drive – Shared documents are important and Google Drive’s ability to do spreadsheets is going to prove useful for invitation lists and budgets.
* Slack – I don’t use Slack but people seem to like it for group collaboration.
* Dropbox – Shared files on Dropbox are fine too.

DIY – Lots of people are crafty and enjoy making things of their wedding. If you have the skills and desire, do it. But like any home improvement project, it takes longer than you think, is often more expensive, and requires three trips to Home Depot. Think carefully whether you should be doing something or just paying to have it done. Time and energy are limited and paying for something can make life easier.

Money – No matter how expensive you think something is, round it up to the nearest hundred. If it’s higher than $x600 (ex. $1700) then round it to the nearest thousand. You’ll be thankful when something is “only” $300. Lots of websites have budgeting templates which can give you an idea on costs. Do this activity early and be thorough. Think about stamps, inner envelopes, outer envelopes, liners, printing, tax, delivery fees, and whatever else you can think of.

Who Is The Wedding For – Early in the process talk to with your significant other who the wedding is for. Many think it’s in honor of you two, but is it actually for you two? I’m of the opinion the wedding is 75% for the bride, 20% for the families, and 5% for the groom. Other people may say it’s mostly for the families while others say it’s only for the bride and groom. You could probably find some who think it’s for the bridal party. Not that any of it is wrong, but this exercise will reveal outside influences and let you ask the question whether that influence is acceptable. Perhaps even ask your families if you want their input.

Create A Timeline – There is no shortage of opinions on when events around the wedding should happen. Do you send the invitations out 2 months before or a month and a half before? What about 2 and a half months? Develop a timeline, perhaps using a Gantt chart with milestones to help keep everything on track. Dates move and that’s okay but knowing how it impacts the rest of the timeline in a visual manner is important. You two may work different and prefer other methods.

Demand Good Customer Service – You’ll be paying handsomely for your wedding. In Chicago, the average price for a wedding photographer must be at least $1500. You’re spending good money on their services and if you’re not getting good customer service during the planning, be sure to raise complaints. They may not be able to help you and it may be too late, but don’t people walk all over you.

Have Fun and Stay Positive – If there’s one thing I did poorly during the entire process (and believe me, there were many) it was not enjoying it and letting the complexity and drama turn me negative. Negativity will affect everyone – most importantly you. You two will fight. You two will experience a lot of stress. But take a deep breath and try to enjoy the experience as much as you can. Remind yourself why you’re going through it. You two love each other and are excited about spending the rest of your life together. It’s so easy to forget this point when fighting about invitation liners.

Carefully Consider Invite Lists – I can almost guarantee you will upset people with the invite list. Be careful who you exclude with friends, family, and co-workers. I made some decisions on the invite list which I regret. Invite who you want but be comfortable with hurting those who you will hurt. If hurting them isn’t acceptable, find a way to invite them.

Beware of The Knot and Pinterest – I never really went on either site but my fiance did. Both provide amazing amounts of suggestions. Don’t let yourself drown or get carried away by the torrent of options.

iOS 9 Wishlist

Custom Map Directions

iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite allows sending directions from a computer to a phone. Relatively obvious feature and it works as advertised. Adding the capability to do custom maps on the computer and having the custom map on the phone would be very appealing.

More Keyboard Shortcuts

Apple increased the number of shortcuts available with iOS but they’re still falling short of where it needs to be. Applications are probably going to be adding support for keyboard shortcuts in the near future. Apple needs to step up their game even more though.

Better Animations

A lot of people love the current animations but they wear on me. They feel slow and unnecessary. I disabled them and have been glad they’re gone but do miss having the defaults setup.

Better Siri Integration

iOS 7 “improved” Siri. Supposedly the voice got better although I’m not sure it’s better. That’s another section. I’m looking for integration. Control the Podcasts app with Siri. Allow third-party applications to tie into Siri. That is the killer feature of Siri for people who drive (aka. screw the city folk). Unfortunately, iOS didn’t improve this at all.

Better Siri Voice

iOS 8 does improve the voice experience, namely making things seem faster. However, pronounciation still is a bit broke.

Crowd Sourced Maps

Waze did a great job with crowd sourcing events on the road such as construction, speed traps, and objects on the road. They took it a step further and allowed collaborative map modifications. Apple’s accuracy problems would disappear in a matter of months if they allowed collaborative map editing. Crowd-sourced events would be nice too. Apple isn’t a social company and this will never happen.

Less U-Turns in Apple Maps

Apple Maps loves u-turns. Stop that. They can update this prior to iOS 9. Just fix this.

Multi-User Support

Not interesting for the phone but could be great for an iPad. Apple’s iPad nomenclature points to an iPad Pro. Multi-user on an iPad could be exciting for families who don’t need a full laptop anymore.

More Intuitive Burst Mode

Using burst mode for photos on iPhone 5s is easy but choosing the desired photo and deleting the others is confusing. I have only used burst mode a couple times but I still fumble around every time.

Unlimited Photo Stream Use

Everpix went out of business. Modify Photo Stream to support all my photos and videos for life. Yes there are scale issues but it would make people’s family photos reliably available even with new devices. Apple could advertise this feature and I expect it to resonate with a lot of people, even if they don’t know it. Oh, and don’t compress the photos.

Better Appearance

I know a lot of people who think iOS 7 and 8 look great. I’m not one of them. I have almost no ideas on how to improve it, but just improve it. Just because Johnny Ive knows how to make great hardware doesn’t mean he has a clue about software. I said this a while and feel like I have been proved right. While I’ve grown used to the new look I am generally happier on iOS 6.

Context Sensitive “Grammar”

Full context sensitive auto-correction is hard and processor intensive. Instead, why not just use context sensitive punctuation. If I open a sentence with “Can” a double tap of the space bar should render a ? instead of a ..

More Informative Lock Screen…On Calls

I don’t want my lock screen constantly showing statuses I don’t care about. However, it’s not uncommon I need to access the phone controls while it’s locked and I’m using the phone. Mute, “press 1 to join the conference”, and similar functions all require access to the basic phone controls. iOS 8 would do me a favor if it gave me basic controls without having to unlock the phone.

Conference Call Recognition

Good has a feature where if you dial into a bridge meeting, it will offer up conference codes which could be bridge number based on the meeting invite. iOS doesn’t natively have it. This feature would confuse non-business users but is great for business people. Options suck, but maybe make it a default off option and let the people who want it, enable it.

Music Smart Playlist Controls

I’m a pretty heavy user of smart playlists in iTunes. One of my favorites is called “Forgotten Favorites” where it lists all 5 star songs which haven’t been played in 2 weeks, which are under 15 plays. I cannot edit this playlist and it doesn’t seem to update until I plug it into iTunes – something I try to avoid. I wish it kept a full, real database and updated all the information in playlists live. Editing the smart playlists and having full control would be useful too as I can’t really divorce myself from syncing until then.

Better Horizontal Music View

Simply put, the landscape view for Music is awful. It shows all the albums, which is visually interesting, but a terrible interface. What if, heaven forbid, I wanted to find an artist instead of an album. I don’t always know what the albums are called so alphabetical order isn’t useful. An adapted portrait view would work much better.

Improve Code

Many of the technical and involved Apple user base are concerned about the state of Apple’s software. iOS 8.0.1 was one such example. AirDrop doesn’t always work for me. iTunes Match doesn’t work with my iOS device how I expect it to (whether this is a code quality issue, I don’t know). Make Messages work reliably. Every. Single. Time. While this is the last item on the list, it’s hardly the least important. In fact, I would give up every other feature request on this list to see a significant software quality improvement. iOS 6 felt rock solid. Return to that if not improve upon it.

Apple’s Yosemite Font Change

Last week Apple released Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite. While there’s plenty of iOS integration work, the most immediately obvious change is the appearance. New theme, new transparency, and new font. Yes, the font changed which typically isn’t a huge source of contention. This time around, the font isn’t quite as readable on non-Retina displays but looks great on Retina. My MacBook Pro is a late-2011 model so it doesn’t have Retina. Yes, it’s slightly fuzzier and less readable than fonts on Mavericks.

Some people on the Internet have been speculating this is Apple planning for the future when Retina is on all devices. They talk about how Apple is happy to design for the future like when they removed floppy drives, optical drives, iOS 7 thin fonts and lines, etc. Apple does tend to be ambitious when it comes to obsoleting hardware for the sake of functionality. In this instance though, I disagree.

In this case, I think they were trying to go for a fresh look which is closer to iOS. It has nothing to do with preparing for the future. They changed a font – they didn’t change the hardware or the icons. A simple preference could change it back so the concept of “designing for the future” seems off to me. Also, very few Apple computers on the market are Retina compatible. MacBook Pros and iMac are it. Apple’s flagship computer, the Mac Pro, won’t easily do Retina since Apple doesn’t have a Retina external monitor. The very popular MacBook Air doesn’t support Retina either. What percentage of Apple devices sold last year are Retina compatible? 40%? That’s a low number considering the adoption rate of Retina is going to be slow since it requires a costly hardware upgrade. I estimate it will be another 5 years until Retina is on a strong majority of Apple computers in use.

Helvetica’s use on the non-Retina display isn’t so bad for me. But I disagree with the idea they’re designing for the future. I think they’re designing for aesthetics with little care to older devices. If this were a major change to the OS, I would agree. It isn’t. It’s a font choice.

iPhone 6 Impressions

When I use the phrase impressions, I don’t mean hands on impressions. No, that would be the right thing to do. My impression is gleaned from watching the keynote video and reading a few blogs.

I’ll admit, I’m the weird person in the market who doesn’t want a bigger phone. My first iPhone was the 4S and I replaced it two years later with a 5s. While the internals (processor, camera, Touch ID) of the 5s are fantastic, I prefer the 4S form factor. My hands aren’t blessed by size and I am one who loves one handed phone use. The 3.5″ screen size was fantastic for me because I was able to reach all four corners of the phone without stretching. The taller 5s screen causes me to stretch slightly more but I’ve dealt with it. A 4.7″ screen will be too large for me to reach the corners. Perhaps I can change my grip to reach the far corners, but I am skeptical I’ll be able to achieve four corner one-handed touch-handedness (yes, I made a new word I think). In a year from now, I’ll certainly be getting the 4.7″ as I don’t want the ridiculous 5.5″ in my pocket. Yes, there is a one-handed mode. It’s not a replacement for constant one-handed usage.

Regarding the form factor, I’m quite pleased by the design. The rounded edges are nice and the RF bumpers are pleasing to my eye. There’s one thing I must bring up about the design: the camera lens protrudes. Most people, myself included, use a case so this is probably a moot point for many. But I’ve scoffed at the camera bump Android phones often have and I can’t help but do the same with the iPhone 6. Apple does it more subtly as it’s simply the lens with a ring around it but it’s still not smooth to where it will lay flat against a hard table without a case.

These changes to the phone are almost enough to make me move to something else. But I’d be moving to phones with the same problems. Plus, I generally avoid Google services and the Windows app market leaves a lot to be desired. I’ll continue to be an iOS user for the foreseeable future.

Enough negativity. What did I like about the iPhone announcement? Apple Pay. Replacing our physical credit cards is going to take years. My wallet won’t be thinner anytime soon. But the easy, fast, and supposedly secure payment system looks great. I was most interested in the OpenTable phone payment integration at a table. Allow me to ask other people to pay their portion of the bill and I’ll be ecstatic.

The camera seems quite improved in subtle ways. It won’t beat many Android phones on the megapixel specs but that’s a moot point anyways. Internals have improved too. 802.11ac will be nice as many companies are rolling it out. The additional storage space is very nice too. However, I’m frustrated they retained the 16GB model and didn’t move that to 32GB. If I had to guess, they stuck with 1GB of RAM too. It’s time for a 2GB upgrade.

iPhone 6 looks nice and will sell millions on opening weekend. I’m looking forward to trying one. Unfortunately, I feel it is a step-back, for me, in multiple ways which kept me from feeling the Reality Distortion Field during the keynote.

Corporate Applications vs. Browser Rapid Release Cycles

I write this post not as a web developer but instead as a user of corporate applications. The latest and greatest web applications are important and I fully encourage their adoption. Rapid browser releases have accelerated the use of these and for that I am grateful. It does have the side effect of causing heart ache with users of systems which cannot be upgraded as frequently (read: most of them).

The days of “Best viewed in Netscape” are still in my memory but probably not in the memory of young developers, maybe even in their mid-20s. Depending on your browser of choice, a web page may or may not work. Perhaps it would mostly work. Or if you were lucky, it would work perfectly in both IE and Netscape. Web development has improved and for most functions all web browsers will work. Thank you to all responsible parties for the evolution. Unfortunately, I have concerns around web applications which cannot be upgraded as frequently as many web applications can. Corporate web applications.

Yes. Corporate web applications mostly suck. But for millions of people in the world, they're a fact of life. In a day, I may run product configurations in one web application, submit PTO in another, and submit documents for review in a third. These may be bad examples since the latter two very much seem to require IE. But lets say they didn't. Lets also say I had to configure corporate infrastructure components. The examples given are just two random ones, but both are configured largely through a web interface. Both are potentially mission critical to your company and are treated with care. Changes are completed during specific “change windows” or risk reprimand. Mission critical infrastructure components are deliberately not bleeding edge as that lends to a stable environment. Whatever browser support a vendor releases a version with is what may be in place for years.

This mentality flies in the face of the rapid development world of the web. New feature? Push. Tweak to CSS? Push. Okay, maybe not as aggressive as I imply but it sure moves faster than corporate applications and infrastructure which are upgraded every two years. The result is a server or appliance running code which is a year old supporting, say, Firefox 21 and 22 and Internet Explorer 9, 10, and 11. Firefox releases a new major version approximately every six weeks. IE is slower but is releasing browsers at a more rapid pace than before. As I write this, Firefox 28 is running on my computer.

I've focused on just one or two applications. But what if you run an ERP system which is compatible with IE 8? A database administration front end compatible with IE 9 or 10. Appliance front ends compatible with Firefox 21 and 22. Firefox and Chrome auto-update (can be disabled) but then you're left with security vulnerabilities. A rat's nest of browser dependencies quickly appears and the user is stuck navigating it.

Admittedly, most applications do work with future versions. Moving to Firefox 28 when something is compatible with 27 typically doesn't break it. But I have certainly seen compatibility problems with a gap of more than a handful of versions. But a corporation requiring a stable environment cannot be upgrading code every time a new browser is released every three or six weeks. Furthermore, vendors aren't releasing updates when browsers are updated so there is nothing to even upgrade to.

Browser compatibility due to rapid release cycles is hardly the largest problem web developers and corporate IT has to deal with. However, it is a challenge of some size and one which is exacerbated by multiple browsers with frequent releases. I don't really have a solution but I think the answer lies in the middle. On one hand, a release every six weeks feels a bit much to me and generally unnecessary (my opinion). On the other hand, corporate IT is often overly stagnant and rigid (example: resistance to BYOD). Finally, the vendors would need an upgradable front-end patch method which upgrades only the web code and leaves the middle and back end application layers alone.

Web development and compatibility has improved greatly over the past decade. I fear the possibility of icons on corporate applications saying “Best viewed in Firefox 28, 29, and 30 and IE 10”.

Todo List Review

Remember the Milk has been my todo list service for 7 or 8 years. It defined what a todo list application needed to be with the minimum features being:

  • Check and uncheck tasks
  • Tags
  • Recurrence
  • Smart searches are very preferred
  • Quick entry
  • Priority

RTM does all these. That’s not to say each of these features are the optimum for my use but my workflow has developed around these features. A few features I would like:

  • Location based reminders (more on reminder accuracy in another post)
  • Task dependency
  • x-callback-url support

The former should be relatively self-explanatory. A reminder when I have an item due which is specific to a location. The latter is a little more nuanced. Maybe I created a task called “Paint bathroom” but I need paint and other typical supplies. I could create a task which says “Buy paint and paint supplies” which is a dependency for the paint bathroom task. The secondary task only shows up when the primary task is completed. Even better, a task which has multiple parent tasks it depends on.

Anyways, Remember the Milk has been a very trusty friend. It reminds me to clean the house, pay bills, do tasks at work, and even call people on their birthday or other significant anniversaries (positive or otherwise). According to RTM, I have completed 4,019 tasks which averages to a little more than 500 a year or 10 a week. RTM does a fantastic job of keeping me organized but it’s getting a little long in the tooth. Here are the new features added in 2013:

  • Stripe support for Pro Accounts
  • Redesigned app for Android
  • Blackberry 10 support
  • Integration with Evernote reminders
  • Note linking with Evernote

Not a bad year but nothing which interests me. Other applications are coming out or improving. Because of this, I’m suffering from a bit of “Grass is greener” syndrome. Time to evaluate some options.

Wunderlist

Wunderlist is a popular application and placed 2nd with Lifehacker’s 2012 “Five Best To-Do List Managers” article only surpassed by the now purchased by Yahoo, Astrid.

The web interface is relatively attractive. While everything is going to the “flat” look, Wunderlist continues to have wood grain backgrounds. Take that Jony Ive.

Second impression is the lack of quick task entry. “Take pill repeating every night at 9:30” is what I entered and that was the task. None of it was parsed for context. Looks like I’ve been spoiled by Fantastical.

However, Wunderlist has a lot of nice features associated with an individual task. Due dates and reminders are distinct values. The former seems to be when it is active while the latter is when you should be nagged. Subtasks are also supported, although not in the format I envisioned. Subtasks are less of a dependency and more of a way to categorize “projects”. I created a “Take pill” task with a sub task of “Brush teeth”. When I click “Take pill” it completes both the parent and subtask. Not how I would like to see it executed, but would come in handy plenty of times. Notes and file attachments are supported. File attachments aren’t a huge requirement but notes are important to me. Often I’ll have a “Schedule plumber” type task with the plumber’s phone number as the note.

The recurrence feature is there but not overly powerful. I don’t always need the “Repeat every x” pattern. Instead, I prefer to use “Repeat every other Monday” (aka. 14 days) or “Repeat first and third Friday of the month”. Periodically I’ll need to do a recurring task regardless if the task has been completed. To me, the term “repeat” means to create the task x days after completion date.

Wunderlist’s iPhone interface closely matches the web interface with navigation modified for touch interfaces. Web uses a three pane view: List View, Tasks, Task Details. On the web all three can be available at once. iPhone allows swipe gestures between the three panes. Familiarity with one interface will migrate to the other interface.

Smart lists also seem absent. While I don’t often use smart lists for tasks which couldn’t be done with built-in lists, I like the optional flexibility. Tags and location based notifications don’t make an appearance with Wunderlist, at least as far as I can tell.

Wunderlist comes with some good features but falls short everywhere else. It’s a todo list application I’ll keep an eye on but don’t expect it to take the place of RTM anytime soon.

Pros:
* Visually crisp interface
* Free for many features
* Subtasks, notes, and attachments
* Separate values for due dates and reminders
* Seems nice for group tasks. Note, I didn’t test this feature. $50/yr.

Cons:
* Input methods lack natural language processing
* Rigid recurrence rules
* Apparently lacks location based notification
* No tags

Todoist

Todoist’s web site seemed pretty creative until I saw the Any.do front page. Which came first? It doesn’t matter.

I heard about Todoist a few weeks ago when they redesigned their application and fee structure. Their web interface is quite clean and many of my requirements are supported. While Wunderlist uses wood grain backgrounds, Todoist subscribes to the “flat” look. All sans-serif fonts with stark colors if not shades of grey. A bit dull in my book, but it’s what the kids are doing nowadays.

Like any of the applications evaluated, there are keyboard shortcuts. ‘a’ or ‘A’ should add tasks but doesn’t seem to be working for me under Firefox. No big deal. ‘q’ brings up a “quick entry” dialog which allows for easy navigation using the keyboard. Labels can be assigned which is something I need and use every time I create a task in RTM.

While we’re talking about shortcuts, there don’t seem to be any keyboard shortcuts for mouselessly (I created this word) manipulating my task list.

Todoist uses gamification to assist in accomplishing tasks. Creating and completing tasks gives points which correlate to ranks. I’m currently a “Beginner” with 1408 points. I use Todoist only for a few tasks so it’s not hard to climb the rank ladder apparently. Overdue tasks hurt your s core. I hit “Intermediate” at 2500 points. Here we come!

Recurrence is good but not great. My reminder for taking out recycling and garbage should happen every Monday. “every Monday” isn’t syntax Todoist understands. Instead, I had to use “every 7 days starting Monday” to accomplish the same task. Less intuitive. Damn you Fantastical for your superior natural language input.

Todoist’s iPhone app is pretty good. Similar to Wunderlist, the UI matches the web site. A handy feature is the ability to do drag and drop date assignments. Say I have a task for “Clean living room” due on Wednesday. Perhaps I’m out of town on Wednesday but want to do it Tuesday so I arrive to a cleaner house. A simple drag and drop to Tuesday changes the due date. Quite slick. I’m skeptical how this feature works with recurrence though.

Filters is their version of a smart list but only available in Todoist Premium.

Todoist Premium is available for $29 a year and provides:

  • Ability to use all clients
  • Reminders
  • Notes and files attachments
  • Improved labeling
  • Custom filters
  • Unlimited and automatic sync
  • Automatic backup
  • Task search
  • iCal integration

I haven’t purchased Premium so I can’t test all the functions but it does offer quite a bit for the money.

Todoist also has native clients. Really, they’re front-ends for the web interface but support quick entry from any application with a simple keyboard shortcut. Certainly a nice to have.

Todoist seems to be my main competitor to RTM. The interface feels a bit sparse at times but no big deal there. The power seems to be there. Oddly enough, my biggest concern with Todoist is longevity. RTM has been around for a very long time and despite some stagnation, doesn’t appear to be going anywhere (knock on wood). Todoist stands a little bit above many todo applications on features; I just become concerned it will be purchased by Google (a company I’m moving away from where possible).

Pros:
* Filters (aka. smart lists)
* Decent recurrence language

Cons:
* Impossible for me to use all my features in the free version. $30/yr for the full, which I would have no problem paying
* Input methods lack natural language processing
* Only decent recurrence rules
* Lacks location based notification

Remember the Milk

For my purposes, this is the one to beat. I’ve been using RTM since 2007 or 2008 and it has served me very well. RTM is one of those tools which isn’t all that complex at first but can be manipulated to be very powerful. Check out the Tips & Tricks Tuesdays on the blog for an idea of what people use RTM for.

RTM offers tags, lists, location settings, task sharing (which I don’t use), time estimates, and smart lists. It also has text input which isn’t quite natural language input, it does allow for fast input. For example Develop voice SOW tomorrow !2 #work #sow =30m will create a new task with a due date of tomorrow, added to my work list, with the tag of SOW, medium priority, and an estimated 30 minutes assigned.

Keyboard shortcuts are widely available if that’s your fancy too. Sometimes the web browsers are a little quirky but it works well enough I try to avoid the mouse when navigating the web interface.

RTM is $25 a year for their pro account. Pro enables beta features and unlimited syncing for mobile applications. Without pro enabled, only one sync is allowed per day.

Pros:
* The todo service I developed my workflow around, so it does much of what I need.
* Probably not a target for a Google buy-and-kill (no, I’m not at all bitter)

Cons:
* Seemingly a lack of frequent development.
* No live location services.
* No x-callback-url support.
* No subtasks or task dependencies.

Conclusion

For now I will stick with RTM, especially because I am only 3 months into my annual subscription. Todoist will be one I keep an eye on when it comes time for renewal.

iOS 7 Review

iOS 7 has come with much fanfare. It looks different and has animations (although whether it has more animations than previous versions is less obvious). Unlike developers who have been using it for the past two months, I only was able to get access to it (legally) on release day. I have an iPhone 4S and iPad 3, both were on the latest release of iOS 6.

The upgrade itself went smoothly, namely since I was diligent to upgrade all my apps prior to upgrade. Downloading the upgrade binary took longer than actually applying the upgrade. The setup prompted me for a passcode which I enabled. It was something I’ve thought of enabling for a while but decided it was the time since they prompted me. All applications and previous preferences were in place after install.

I have seen plenty of screenshots of iOS 7 after WWDC so I knew what I was getting into visually. A few pieces did surprise me when I started using it hands on. First, the animations do make the system coherent. I’m not sure why but actions flow from one to the other. I attribute it to the fact that things zoom in and out in a consistent manner. I also noticed how crisp the fonts look. They’re svelt and look sharp as can be on the iPhone. I love crisp fonts and this only helps.

Control Center is quite nice to use. It makes common tasks accessible. Works as advertised.
The multi-tasking is nice but does slow down quite a bit on my 4S. I’m expecting the 5s to handle this task much faster. The swipe motion is easier but less intuitive I think than the older “x box” method. iOS 6’s method was more consistent with how to delete applications from the home screen while this has no existing metaphor. Not a huge change though and overall I like the new multi-tasking dialog.
Now onto the negatives.

The new interface isn’t bad but I don’t love it. While it has a refreshing feel to it, using iOS 6 doesn’t feel “old” to me. I’ve heard a lot of people say using iOS 7 makes the old interface feel old and antiquated. I beg to differ. I find iOS 6 to feel much more refined via iteration. I saw someone say iOS 7 feels like their old disco jacket. I didn’t get the honor of living through the disco era but I agree. I can’t find the adjective to use for the iOS 7 interface but I am starting with gaudy.

The colors also get in the way itself. I was driving and using Apple Maps to get around. The map happened to have been white and the “Slide to Unlock” text was off white. I couldn’t tell that it was in the lock screen. On a similar note, Apple Maps has a refined interface and while improved, still isn’t where it needs to be. Someday perhaps I’ll do an Apple Maps review.

The interface has some small quirks which could probably be fixed with tweaks. For example, I was in control center and accidentally turned off bluetooth instead of sliding the window down. When trying to open control center with the on screen keyboard, it pressed a bunch of keys. Small things like this don’t feel like Apple level polish. I’ve also had two phone restarts and quite a few application crashes. I’ve talked to others who haven’t had any problems whatsoever so looks like my mileage is varying.

Finally, the Siri voice is smoother but does some terribly pronunciation. I find it hard to understand and in many ways prefer the old Siri voice. I could work up some examples to show. It is much faster to recognize speech though.

My iPad hasn’t been upgraded as I need some specific functions to work in a couple of weeks and don’t want to take that chance. I’m looking forward to that upgrade and see how it feels on the iPad but I expect my experience won’t change too much.

Overall I like iOS 7. It has a fluidity to it and has some nice features such as control center. However, the interface doesn’t sit with me very well as I prefer more subtle colors to the brightness it has. It also has some quirks which bother me. I’ll happily upgrade my iPad when I can and will be fully iOS 7 then. Unfortunately, using iOS 6 is refreshing for me. Possibly for familiarity. But if iOS 6 is a refreshing escape from iOS 7, I think that will be a bad omen for this release for me.

iOS 8 Wishlist

Note: This list may be updated.

Less Crashing

iOS 7 is mighty unstable both itself and applications. Newsblur crashes almost daily for me and the OS crashes once or twice a week. I’m expecting much of this to be fixed prior to iOS 8. In case Apple doesn’t consider this a widespread problem, iOS 8 needs to be much more stable.

Update: iOS 7.1 appears to be much better in this regard. We’re not a week in yet but this was a focus of Apple’s and seems to be better.

Custom Map Directions

iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks allows sending directions from a computer to a phone. Relatively obvious feature and it works as advertised. Adding the capability to do custom maps on the computer and having the custom map on the phone would be very appealing.

More Keyboard Shortcuts

Apple increased the number of shortcuts available with iOS 7 but they’re still falling short of where it needs to be. Applications are probably going to be adding support for keyboard shortcuts in the near future. Apple needs to step up their game even more though.

Better Animations

A lot of people love the current animations but they wear on me. They feel slow and unnecessary. I disabled them and have been glad they’re gone but do miss having the defaults setup.

Better Siri Integration

iOS 7 “improved” Siri. Supposedly the voice got better although I’m not sure it’s better. That’s another section. I’m looking for integration. Control the Podcasts app with Siri. Allow third-party applications to tie into Siri. That is the killer feature of Siri for people who drive (aka. screw the city folk).

Better Siri Voice

iOS 6 had a Siri voice which was robotic but relatively clear. The new voice is less robotic but makes sounds with humans do not make and that includes the Swedes. Its pauses for commas are awkward as well. “Okay, Paused, Kevin” has spaces more like periods, not like commas. Overall the voice is a step back, not forward.

Crowd Sourced Maps

Waze did a great job with crowd sourcing events on the road such as construction, speed traps, and objects on the road. They took it a step further and allowed collaborative map modifications. Apple’s accuracy problems would disappear in a matter of months if they allowed collaborative map editing. Crowd-sourced events would be nice too. Apple isn’t a social company and this will never happen.

Less U-Turns in Apple Maps

Apple Maps loves u-turns. Stop that. They can update this prior to iOS 8. Just fix this.

Multi-User Support

Not interesting for the phone but could be great for an iPad. Apple’s iPad nomenclature points to an iPad Pro. Multi-user on an iPad could be exciting for families who don’t need a full laptop anymore.

More Intuitive Photo Burst Mode

Using burst mode for photos on iPhone 5s is easy but choosing the desired photo and deleting the others is confusing. I have only used burst mode a couple times but I still fumble around every time.

Unlimited Photo Stream Use

Everpix went out of business. Modify Photo Stream to support all my photos and videos for life. Yes there are scale issues but it would make people’s family photos reliably available even with new devices. Apple could advertise this feature and I expect it to resonate with a lot of people, even if they don’t know it. Oh, and don’t compress the photos.

Better Appearance

I know a lot of people who think iOS 7 looks great. I’m not one of them. I have almost no ideas on how to improve it, but just improve it. Just because Johnny Ive knows how to make great hardware doesn’t mean he has a clue about software. I said this a while and feel like I have been proved right. I’m considering not moving my iPad to iOS 7 for performance and appearance reasons. While I’ve grown used to iOS 7 I am generally happier on iOS 6. iOS 7.1 may make some small improvements but time will tell

Inter-App Communication

x-callback-url exists and is being used well by numerous applications. A fully featured inter-app communication system could significantly change how people use applications. Text can be reliably moved from application to application using native methods. Safari would even play with this as x-callback-url isn’t supported by Apple whatsoever as far as I know.

Improved Touch Targets for Scroll Wheel

Previous versions of iOS used the slot machine style wheel. iOS 7 refreshed the look of the wheel. Not only was the look overhauled but the touch targets were also modified. An article is on the Internet about why it is more challening to use than the old one. Fix this.

Better Fonts

I know Apple loves their new font selection but it’s not a great font. It’s not very easy to read and it’s often too thin. I can’t articulate what I don’t like about it, but I don’t.

Context Sensitive “Grammar”

Full context sensitive auto-correction is hard and processor intensive. Instead, why not just use context sensitive punctuation. If I open a sentence with “Can” a double tap of the space bar should render a ? instead of a ..

Slide to Delete Behavior

A lot of apps have swipe to delete. A recent behavior, iOS 7 related possibly, is they require a very long swipe to keep the delete button visible. If you let go too quickly it will go to another screen. Tis ambiguity and precision required for swiping is very frustrating. Only makes me hate gestures more than I do.

More Informative Lock Screen…On Calls

I don’t want my lock screen constantly showing statuses I don’t care about. However, it’s not uncommon I need to access the phone controls while it’s locked and I’m using the phone. Mute, “press 1 to join the conference”, and similar functions all require access to the basic phone controls. iOS 8 would do me a favor if it gave me basic controls without having to unlock the phone.