Portrait Mode on iPhone 11 Was Made for Pigs

I jokingly mentioned in my iPhone 11 review that Portrait Mode on the new iPhones was made for pigs. The new camera system in the new phones are damn impressive, particularly on the 11 Pro. My pet mini pig, Pablo, has been a great test subject as I’ve played amateur shutterbug. I’ve posted these to my private Facebook and Instagram pages.

Following in the footsteps of BuzzFeed’s John Paczkowski, here’s a take on the iPhone 11 camera(s) from my porcine pal.

Pablo loves his stroller

Pablo loves his stroller

Profile of a piggy

Profile of a piggy

Pablo loves mommy and daddy’s bed

Pablo loves mommy and daddy’s bed

Pablo posing in the kitchen

Pablo posing in the kitchen

The iPhone XR that I’ve used for the last year as my main phone has Portrait Mode, but it’s limited to only humans. As such, it’s been a lot of fun having a second lens on the new iPhones to capture Portrait photos of other things, including my beloved four-legged friend.

Pablo approves of our new couch

Pablo approves of our new couch

Review: iPhone X

With the exception of the SE and the 8/8 Plus, I’ve reviewed every new iPhone since the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus debuted three years ago. I’ve concluded every review by saying that, in one way or another, that year’s model is the best, most accessible iPhone to date. However trite, I’ve stood by that assertion because it’s true. Each model is an iteration on the last, bringing about many improvements. Accordingly, each successive model is more accessible than the last.

The iPhone X is more than iterative—it’s a massive leap forward.

In a month using iPhone X—a review unit provided to me by Apple—I’ve found the device to be everything Apple proclaims it to be. It truly is the best, most accessible iPhone yet. It’s delightful to hold and use. It feels like the future, today.

That iPhone X is the “most accessible iPhone yet” holds new meaning. As I’ve lived with the phone, a thought that’s persisted in my mind is how much iPhone X is not merely the “future of the smartphone,” as Apple boasts, but how it represents a more accessible smartphone of the future. Between the new form factor, Face ID, and wireless charging, using iPhone X is a whole new experience for a disabled user such as myself. These technologies are bleeding-edge, but they’re so compelling that they make iPhone X the most accessible iPhone Apple’s ever made.

Face ID

I published a piece a few weeks ago in which I delve into the accessibility implications of Face ID, Apple’s new facial recognition system. Without rehashing the entire article here, the Cliff’s Notes version is Face ID became most useful to me when I realized I had to turn off the Require Attention option.

The reason Require Attention doesn’t work for me is the strabismus in my left eye. Strabismus is a condition where one or both of the eyes aren’t set straight, and it seems to wreak havoc on the iPhone X’s TrueDepth camera system. After I restored my phone from an iCloud backup, the Face ID setup process would go smoothly, but then I wasn’t able to log into my phone (getting into 1Password and using Apple Pay was also hard). The problem was the phone couldn’t tell whether I was looking at it, even if I knew I was, due to the strabismus. It was highly frustrating initially, but I learned something: I’m an edge case. For the first time using an Apple product, I felt I had to adapt to the technology rather than have the technology adapt to me.

Since turning off Require Attention, Face ID has worked like a charm. It has even started to recognize me at extreme angles, such as when I lean over the phone as it sits on my kitchen table. The only issue I continue to have is I’m still not totally accustomed to holding the phone far enough away such that it can see me. This is because I instinctively hold the phone close to my face in order to see comfortably. I have yet to develop consistent muscle memory to move my arm farther away, and have to consciously remind myself to do so whenever I get the haptic, can’t-log-you-in buzz on the Lock screen.

Overall, Face ID is terrific, particularly given how it’s a “1.0” version of the feature. For as much as I praised Touch ID on its merit as an accessibility tool, Face ID is markedly better. It’s very liberating going from tactilely authenticating with my thumb to simply looking at my phone. Face ID removes another point of friction, effectively making accessing iPhone X a “hands-free” endeavor. If you’re someone with certain fine-motor limitations, the advent of Face ID is a true revelation.

The side effect here is Face ID instantly makes Touch ID on my 10.5-inch iPad Pro feel downright anachronistic. For things like unlocking my phone or paying for a Lyft ride, Face ID is like performing a magic trick. To me, this is the utmost compliment; for as wonderful as Touch ID was (and still is), Face ID bests it in every meaningful way. And, again, this is a 1.0 take.

Size & Weight

In early 2016, I wrote about switching to the iPhone 6s Plus, saying “the ‘monster’ iPhone is the iPhone I've always wanted.” To this day, I maintain moving to the Plus was one of the best technological decisions I’ve ever made. If the iPhone X didn’t exist this year, I certainly would have upgraded to the 8 Plus.

I freely admit, however, loving the Plus for its screen didn’t come without a cost. There’s no getting around the fact it’s a beast physically, and as such, it’s not easily pocketable. Of course I acclimated to the size in hand and in my pocket, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a pain in the ass. As I said in my 6s Plus story, the benefits my low vision reaped from the big screen trumped any concerns over ergonomics and portability.

For its part, the iPhone X strikes me as a blend of both traits: it has the ergonomics and pocketability of an iPhone 6/7/8 and it has the (slightly) bigger screen of the Plus models. In practice, using iPhone X feels like using a “regular” iPhone; I’m able to use it one-handed and pocket it with no problems. It’s so great to have the best of both worlds, because I feel I’m not making a compromise to use the device. It’s all good.

Which is important considering the rumor Apple is planning to release a Plus variant of iPhone X in 2018. In all honesty, I don’t know if I’d be willing to make the switch to an iPhone X Plus. I’d surely like to check it out for journalism’s sake, but I really believe the iPhone X as it is right now is ideal. Like the 10.5-inch iPad Pro, I feel like I’m getting the best of both attributes: Small enough to be portable yet big enough to see.

Wireless Charging

Aside from Tap to Wake, wireless charging is actually my favorite aspect of iPhone X. Like with Face ID, it’s felt incredibly freeing not having to plug in a cable to charge. All I need to do is literally put my phone down, and it charges.

My review kit from Apple included the Belkin charging pad, which has worked wonderfully for me. I’ve seen other reviewers on Twitter say the Mophie one is better, but Belkin’s has been fine in my usage. Maybe it’s just dumb luck, but I’ve never had an issue with finding the right “spot” to charge my phone.

In terms of accessibility, what makes wireless charging so great is, again, it removes a point of friction. In this case, wireless charging means I needn’t have to contend with plugging in a cable. Mundane as it is, this is a big deal. Given my low vision and cerebral palsy, plugging in my devices has always been somewhat of an adventure. I have to not only find the port with my eyes, but I have to use my fingers to plug in the cable. It’s not an easy task if your vision and fine-motor skills are lacking, as mine are. Thus, wireless charging is a lifesaver.

There are people who poo-poo wireless charging as not being any better than using Lightning, which is their prerogative, but it overlooks the accessibility benefits. The bull case for wireless charging is exactly the same case for ditching the headphone jack. Losing the headphone jack on iPhone 7 meant I gained AirPods, which has revolutionized the way I listen to audio on iOS. Wireless headphones absolutely beats plugging in EarPods. Likewise, using a wireless charging mat like Belkin’s (or Apple’s forthcoming AirPower accessory) beats plugging in a Lightning cable. Put another way, a wireless charging mat makes charging my phone more accessible in the same way AirPods makes listening to music and podcasts more accessible. I can plug in a cable, but I’d rather not. With iPhone X, I don’t have to.

New Home Gestures

The absence of a Home button on iPhone X means unlocking the phone, opening multitasking, and exiting apps is done via a swipe-up gesture. I’ve had no problems performing the swipe; it became second nature to me after a matter of hours. The only bad thing is my brain goes wonky when I try to swipe on my iPad. It feels “broken” for a second before it dawns on me it’s different. iPhone X is magical not only technologically, but also in the way it makes newish devices feel old and decrepit.

One amusing aspect of iPhone X lacking a Home button is the popularity of using AssistiveTouch to “put back” the button. It’s a hack—a hack that works!—but it’s funny nonetheless. People are spending $1000 on Apple’s flagship, cutting-edge smartphone only to “hack it” by giving it a pseudo Home button. On the bright side, though, it’s heartening to see more people discovering iOS’s accessibility features. I’ve long championed the idea that accessibility features are not exclusively the domain of users with disabilities. They’re equally beneficial to anyone, regardless of ability. The use of AssistiveTouch (and Dynamic Type) are two examples of this, and I’m happy people are noticing. Accessibility helps everyone, not only the disabled.

Things I Don’t Like

I have only two complaints about iPhone X, both minor.

First, I dislike how I can’t see the headphone icon (🎧) in the status bar at a glance, as it’s helpful in confirming that audio is piping through my AirPods. Because the sensor housing (aka “the notch”) is in the way, there’s less room up there for information. I find I have to swipe down to invoke Control Center in order to see the icon, and it’s annoying. (The same goes for the battery percentage, which I like a lot. Visually, it’s a far more concrete measure for me than the abstract battery icon alone.) I would rather see the headphone icon instead of, say, the cellular bars or “AT&T” whenever I’m listening to something.

Secondly, the home indicator (the horizontal line at the bottom of the screen) gets in the way of content. I understand why it’s there, but I don’t believe it needs to be persistent. I know how to get back to Springboard; I don’t need to see the home indicator all the time. It gets in the way of stuff down at the bottom. I’d like to see Apple add an option to get rid of it.

Bottom Line

The iPhone X is superb. It gives me the same feeling of delightfulness as my AirPods and Apple Pencil do. The phone oozes luxury with its all glass and stainless steel design, and its OLED screen is the best screen I’ve ever seen on any device. I cannot wait to see how Apple will refine iPhone X next fall.

I’ll say it once more: iPhone X is the best, most accessible iPhone yet.

Review: Overcast 3

I don't remember exactly the year I started listening to podcasts. It might have been 2010 or 2011, when I was using the iPhone 4/4S. Whenever I started, podcasts have been a constant source of entertainment (and information) for several years. Put another way, if not something in Apple Music, I’m listening to a podcast.

As I’ve listened to podcasts over time, I’ve nomadically moved from app to app to app in a quest to find the best one for me. I’ve used Instacast (since discontinued), Pocket Casts, and even dabbled with Apple’s first-party Podcasts app. Of those three, I used Instacast the longest, but Pocket Casts was definitely the prettiest.

Then Marco Arment released Overcast in 2014, and my journey ended.

Overcast instantly supplanted Pocket Casts as my go-to podcast client for its design, ease of use, and stellar accessibility support. It’s one of my favorite and most heavily-used apps.

Now in 2017, Arment has released version 3.0, which builds on the success of the last three years. The app has gotten better in every way: better features, better design, and importantly for me, better accessibility. After being part of the beta for some time, I’m convinced Overcast 3 further entrenches itself as the best podcast player on iOS.

I spoke with Arment over email about building Overcast 3. His comments will be interspersed throughout this article. (For Arment’s verbatim comments, along with my questions, see here.)

Same App, New Look

Overcast 3 has a refreshed design, as it now uses the "card-like" interface seen in apps like Apple's built-in Music app. The effect makes the app feel more modern, and iOS's swipe gestures work well in Overcast. In my experience, the app feels lighter with this UI refresh—I don't feel as if I'm tapping a thousand times to get from screen to screen. Overall, though, Overcast's user interface is fundamentally the same as it's ever been. While the design has been updated, the layout hasn't been drastically changed. It's still unmistakably Overcast—it's just gotten a bit of a facelift.

Beyond the card-like interface, there are two aspects of Overcast's new design that stand out: UI controls and the Now Playing screen. Both have positive influence on accessibility.

First are the spruced-up UI controls (read: buttons). Visually, they're thicker and more pronounced, which means much higher contrast against the rest of the screen. As someone with low vision, this higher contrast makes it much easier to find, say, the Share button on the Now Playing screen. As I say often, the less eye strain I endure, the more I enjoy using apps. In this sense, Overcast shines.

When I asked about Overcast 3's updated design, Arment told me the advent of large phones (like iPhone 7 Plus) make it easier to navigate apps via gestures. "With the move to larger phones, it’s much easier to use apps that can be navigated largely by big, imprecise swipe gestures. I think the card design makes the app feel much more modern and easier to navigate," he said. "Visually, most of the icons and text have been thickened and/or enlarged, making everything easier to see and read."

Two areas that could be improved, contrast-wise, are the time scrubber and chapter markers on the Now Playing screen. At least in "light mode," it's hard for me to see how far along I am into a podcast, as well as what topic is being discussed. The numbers and text, respectively, could be thicker akin to other controls. It should be noted, however, that using dark mode alleviates these issues. Still, it would be good to see these admittedly nitpicky gripes addressed in a future update.

Secondly, I'm a big fan of how you can swipe on album art on the Now Playing screen to get to settings, chapter markers, and show notes. It feels more efficient than vertically scrolling, and is reminiscent of how Control Center changed in iOS 10. I like it; it's something more apps should adopt.

On Accessibility in Particular

In my Overcast 1.0 review, I wrote:

Marco is empathetic towards the accessibility community, and tries his best to accommodate disabled users who use his apps by including technologies like VoiceOver. This sentiment is apparent throughout Overcast.

Arment's commitment to serving people with disabilities by making Overcast as accessible as possible remains steadfast. As when it first came out, Overcast is a shining example of the ideal iOS app: well-designed with strong support for accessibility. There are well-designed apps on the App Store, but to be made with accessibility in mind by design is a tremendous, sadly overlooked, benefit. Accessibility is a tough concept to grasp for many developers, so it's great to have apps like Overcast, among others, leading the way in this regard. Arment has created an app that should be aspirational.

Arment believes making apps accessible by all isn't only about doing the right thing—it makes good business sense too. "I see accessibility as a part of whether an app works correctly or not. If my app’s layout breaks on a certain screen size, for instance, that’s a serious bug that needs to be fixed, because some of my customers won’t be able to use it," he said. "Whether an app works properly with different accessibility needs, settings, and technologies is just as important to me for the same reason: if I screw it up, some of my customers can’t use the app."

Of course, due credit goes to Apple for providing the frameworks upon which developers like Arment can build accessible software. The APIs make this all possible.

"The biggest cause of poor app accessibility isn’t a shortcoming in the APIs—it’s developers forgetting to test iOS's accessibility features with our apps, or not knowing they’re there in the first place," Arment said. "There’s really no excuse for major shortcomings in most apps’ accessibility."

Elsewhere, Arment told me Overcast's VoiceOver support has gotten better in the new version. He said the refinement is thanks to "some great full-time VoiceOver users as beta testers, who provide excellent feedback and catch any mistakes that I don't."

The Bottom Line

As long as Marco wants to keep making Overcast, I'll continue using it. It'll always have a place on my phone's Home screen.

Like other nerds, I appreciate design: things like visual flourishes, typography, and the like. Overcast possesses these qualities. But the thing that really pushes me to adore Overcast as I do is its completeness. As I wrote earlier, Overcast isn't just a well-crafted, nice-looking app. It's accessible too—as someone with disabilities, I truly appreciate that. Using it every day makes me feel like I'm eating the moistest, most flavorful cake in the world. It's delicious in itself, but to have a great frosting on top? That's what makes it the best. That's what Overcast is to me.

It's the best, most accessible podcast player on iOS today.

Review: 13-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pro

While I seriously doubt Apple will ever merge macOS and iOS, there is no doubt in my mind that, hardware-wise, Apple’s laptops have decidedly become iOS-like. From the dearth of ports to the chime you hear when plugging into power to thinness and lightness, Apple is taking lessons learned from building iPhones and iPads and applying them to products like the 12-inch MacBook and, most recently, the new MacBook Pros.

From an accessibility standpoint, this transformation has many benefits. If you, like me, are visually impaired and have physical motor delays, the Retina display and the thinness and lightness of, say, a MacBook Pro, are wonderful. The Retina display is wonderfully bright and sharp, and the thinness and lightness makes it easier than ever to throw into a backpack and carry it around. In the time I’ve been testing this 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar—a review unit from Apple—the most striking thing about the hardware is just how iPad-like it is. Never mind the ports—as a person who writes words for a living, I don’t need an abundance of holes on the side of my computer—I’ve been very impressed at how easy it is to move this machine around. Even opening the lid is effortless and delightfully smooth.

In short: In hardware terms, the "iOS-ification" of Mac laptops is, to me, a welcome development for accessibility.

Hardware aside, using this MacBook Pro has been a learning experience in other ways too. It’s reintroduced me to macOS after being predominantly iOS-centric for quite a while. Furthermore, the Touch Bar and Touch ID has made the desktop OS more accessible than ever before. All things considered, the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is the best Mac I've ever used.

Up Close with the Touch Bar

Every iPhone, every iPad, every Apple Watch, every Mac, even every iPod have accessibility features built into them by design. Apple’s ethos is to make products that enrich people’s lives. Apple's commitment to accommodating people with disabilities in its products is proof the company’s mission is not the least bit blustery or patronizing.

So it goes for the MacBook Pro’s marquee feature, the Touch Bar.

The Touch Bar’s accessibility support is bountiful. There is a lot of functionality built into that little strip, all of which makes using the Touch Bar easier. The one feature that stands out the most is Zoom. Zoom is where the magic happens, and it's my favorite Touch Bar accessibility feature.

What Touch Bar Zoom (System Prefs → Accessibility → Zoom → Enable Touch Bar Zoom) does is bring up a virtual Touch Bar on the bottom of the screen when you touch anything on the Touch Bar. Slide your finger back and forth, and the Touch Bar (real and virtual) moves accordingly. A circle icon follows your movement that fills in (think: iOS app updates in App Store) when you select an option, but Apple tells me you don’t need to wait for it to fill completely to select an item. In practice, I find Touch Bar Zoom to work great; animation is smooth and there’s no no lag between moving through and selecting options.

(For more on the Touch Bar and accessibility, including Zoom, I highly recommend watching this video by James Rath.)

Beyond its mechanics, the big takeaway from using the Touch Bar for some time is how it makes UI elements feel “closer.” I’ve said before that my issue with using a laptop is its form factor isn’t conducive to my need to get as close to the screen as possible in order to see. The Touch Bar compensates for that by bringing things to “eye level” so I’m not leaning in so far to see. Especially with Zoom, something like the Send button in Mail is easily accessible via the Touch Bar, as opposed to searching for it on screen. Likewise with emoji, which aren’t visually accessible as-is but shine when viewed on the Touch Bar. In this context, the Touch Bar actually makes using laptops a more accessible experience. There is more Apple needs to do to improve in this area (more on that later), but overall the Touch Bar not only is a tool of convenience but of accessibility.

The Touch Bar also alleviates the friction of using keyboard shortcuts. I can handle simple ones like ⌘-C/V for Copy and Paste, as well as ⌘-S for sending messages in Mail. More complex shortcuts involving more than two keys are problematic due to my weakened fine-motor skills. In fact, the Touch Bar’s utility as replacement for keyboard shortcuts was the first thing I thought of when I saw the demos at the press event.

One ancillary observation about the viewing the Touch Bar: It’s actually easier to see in low light. Counterintuitive, yes, but it’s really true. In my use, I find seeing the Touch Bar is harder with an overhead light because the glare seems to wash out the display. Turn off the lights and everything is vivid and easy to see. I’m sitting at the kitchen table as I type this, with the lights off and only the backlight of the keyboard to guide me. Believe it or not, I’ve found low light situations like this one to be the best for the Touch Bar.

Anecdotally, I remember the hands-on area at the October 27 press event was dark. Very dark. Not the best environment for me to be in in terms of navigation, but I distinctly recall being struck at how nice the Touch Bar looked under those conditions. Maybe Apple came to the same conclusion I did, but it’s funny that someone with low vision would actually prefer a darkened room to use his computer to a well-lit one. Like I said, counterintuitive. Your needs and tolerances may vary, but I felt it's worth a mention, if only for my own amusement.

Touch ID on iOS > Touch ID on the Mac

The accessibility benefits of Touch ID on macOS are the same as on iOS:

The security aspect of using the fingerprint sensor is an obvious one, but I can imagine it also being beneficial to users with visual and/or motor issues (e.g., seeing the keypad and/or having dexterity to tap said keys) who have trouble touching their iPhone’s screen. (Apple has anticipated such a dilemma by including the AssistiveTouch feature on iOS.) What I see Touch ID doing is helping people with the aforementioned acuity/motor issues by allowing them to simply use their thumbprint (or other finger) to unlock their phone, password-free. More specifically, Touch ID would free users from the struggle of manually entering in their passcode.

In my use, I find Touch ID more handy when unlocking 1Password or using Apple Pay in Safari. The experience on this MacBook Pro is every bit as good as it is on my iPhone and iPad. As for unlocking my Mac, I prefer Auto Unlock with Apple Watch. It’s more accessible to me, as it requires no physical interaction with the keyboard, which may be a hinderance to people with certain motor delays. Touch ID could be faster, but for my needs, I think the difference is negligible. Besides, I love the “magical” feeling of logging in without touching anything.

One thing to note about the Touch ID sensor is it’s a clickable button. If enabled in Accessibility, triple-pressing it will invoke the Accessibility Shortcut as it does on iOS. I have it set to turn on/off Zoom, but truth be told, I leave it on all the time. Still, the possibility is there. I didn’t know at first Touch ID was an actual button to be pressed.

Playing on ‘Team Both’

This 13-inch MacBook Pro is thin and light, has a fantastic keyboard, and the Touch Bar. I enjoy the machine very much, so where does that leave the iPad?

Generally speaking, I maintain the iPad is the more accessible computer solely for the Multi-Touch interaction model. Despite the fact I grew up in traditional (i.e., keyboard-and-mouse) computing environments such as Windows, the advent of touch-based interfaces revolutionized how people with disabilities used computers, myself included. Thus, I can't foresee the Mac supplanting an iPad Pro as my primary workhorse. And as the iPad grows and becomes ever more powerful and capable, its accessible nature will be the icing on the cake. Plus, iOS is fun to use, growing pains be damned. Touch is just cool.

But I think there's a place for the Mac in my workflow. There is a sense of comfort and familiarity with using macOS's point-and-click paradigm, insofar that it hearkens back to my first exposure to computers. I can use a Mac with relative ease, thanks to tricks like a ginormous mouse pointer and the double-tap-to-zoom gesture on my Magic Mouse. And, of course, dealing with files and performing tasks like podcasting is infinitely easier on the Mac than on iOS. As someone who wants to get back to actively podcasting this year, it's tempting to keep a Mac around for this reason alone.

So, although I often say tap-and-swipe beats point-and-click, the fact is I've been pleasantly surprised at how effortlessly I've switched between devices, and how I've been able to adjust to the accessibility of the respective OSes. There's the ecosystem advantage (iCloud, Messages, etc), but more to the point, macOS Sierra is good and I want to use it.

There is one thing, however, that I feel would improve my Mac experience exponentially: Large Dynamic Type. Between it and the Touch Bar, I suspect it would address many of the visual problems I have with using laptops and seeing the screen. It's a joy on iOS, and it's frustrating it hasn't yet made its way to macOS. Nothing would make me happier at this year's WWDC than to report that Dynamic Type is supported in 10.13.

I Still Miss MagSafe

Inserting and removing dongles from the USB-C port still is worse, accessibility-wise, than it was with MagSafe. Over time, though, it seems to have gotten easier. Maybe these dongles need to be "broken in" like a baseball glove, but they don't seem to hold on with the jaws of life as they did when I first got it.

Overall, I would ideally like magnetic USB-C ports, although I don't know how technically feasible it is. Nonetheless, I've grown accustomed to USB-C as-is and don't have any problems.

Bottom Line

As I said at the outset, the Touch Bar MacBook Pro is the best Mac I've ever used.

I’m impressed by the Touch Bar all around. Technologically, it’s essentially a computer-within-a-computer, powered by a custom, Apple-designed ARM chip. To my eyes, color is bright and text and icons are razor-sharp. I adore the bits of whimsy too, like how the arrow “points” when prompting you to authenticate with Touch ID. It’s the closest thing to iOS on a Mac I think we’ll ever get. Accessibility-wise, it follows in the footsteps of Apple's other products by being accessible out of the box.

The Touch Bar is a feat of engineering, and I'm excited to see it mature. It'll be interesting to see how Apple propagates the Touch Bar throughout the rest of the Mac product line.

Review: AirPods

I've written about how using the 12.9" iPad Pro as a laptop replacement has made computing more accessible for me, which in turn prompted me to reassess my feelings towards the 5.5" iPhone Plus after using the 4.7" model since its debut in 2014. What I learned is the adage that bigger is better is absolutely true for my needs and tolerances. The large screens on my iPhone 7 Plus and iPad Pro are so great for my vision that they far outweigh any disadvantages in ergonomics and portability. It's a tradeoff that took me time to make.

I sincerely believe my choice to revisit the Plus-sized iPhone was one of the best technological decisions I've ever made. I have been so happy with the large phone (and the large tablet) that I can never again see myself using smaller ones. Contrast my outlook to that of my girlfriend, who's a staunch iPhone SE loyalist. She loves her small phone while despising the bigger ones. Whenever I use her SE—to help her update iOS and whatnot—it feels like a baby's toy compared to my Plus. These moments serve as reminders of how perspectives can change so quickly and starkly; it's kinda surreal.

Yet for all the praise I heap upon big iPhones and iPads, the other side of that coin is I also have great affinity for Apple's small products. Two of these are foremost in my mind: Apple Pencil and AirPods. Both are accessories, albeit important ones, that embody everything that's special about Apple. They're essentially very small computers that not only are engineering marvels, but they possess that "magic" that's historically made Apple products so revered. On their own merits, a strong case can be made that both the Pencil and AirPods are arguably the best products to come out of Cupertino recently.

Regarding the AirPods in particular, my first impressions hold true: AirPods are quintessential Apple. There is both good and bad, especially when it comes to Siri, but the net is unquestionably positive. Like other reviewers, I continue to be delighted by them and am excited to watch them evolve.

Put another way, I adore Apple's big products, but my favorites might be the small ones. And AirPods are a big deal.

Wonderfully Wireless

Beyond being wireless, the banner feature of the AirPods is the effortless pairing process. The flip-open-the-case trick is equal parts whimsical, magical, and accessible.

The idea that Bluetooth pairing is flaky and a pain in the ass certainly is annoying and problematic for anyone, but the pain points can be exacerbated for someone with a disability. This is where the automatic pairing becomes even more of a boon.

The accessibility win here is auto pairing removes the friction of finding and navigating Bluetooth menus. (And because Apple uses iCloud to propagate this info to your other devices, users are saved from the tedium of multiple setup processes.) I say this all the time, but it’s really true: As with many things, this is seemingly an insignificant detail, but the tiniest details often end up making the biggest difference in shaping a positive experience for someone with disabilities. In my case, the fact that I needn’t go to the Bluetooth settings on my iOS devices or my Mac and tap/click a button lessens the load my eyes and fingers need to bear in order to pair the AirPods. Again, a small thing, but the energy savings I get from not having to do that can be put towards other things, and I feel better. It's a win-win.

Another accessibility win related to pairing is the chime you hear when the AirPods connect. This sound is great because it acts as a secondary cue that lets you know your AirPods are paired. It’s a nice touch, as someone like me doesn’t always need to rely on one sense (my eyesight) to confirm my AirPods are ready to go. Therefore, the chime is an accessibility feature unto itself for the blind and low vision.

Pairing aside, the wireless nature of the AirPods has some clear accessibility gains. As I reported in my first impressions piece, the AirPods mark my first foray into the world of wireless headphones. The experience has been so good that I still kick myself for not exploring this space sooner. Living without wires for the past few weeks has me believing my hypothesis was correct: Not having to mess with headphone jacks and untangling cords is truly liberating and more accessible. Like with the abstraction of Bluetooth settings, the friction inherent to my wired EarPods is completely taken away. It’s less hassle and frustration for me, but more importantly, it maximizes my enjoyment of the AirPods because I’m doing so little work. I feel better; all I have to worry about is not losing one or both—or the case. I need only to be extra careful that they’re safe and sound.

The Case of the Clever Case

The AirPods case has accessibility benefits all its own. In many ways, the case is a product in itself, and adds to the overall delight factor.

What I said in my first impressions piece remains true:

The great thing about the case is its size and weight make it easier for me to keep track of my AirPods. Whereas previously I was always searching for the tangled mess that was my wired EarPods, the AirPods case is much easier to see and feel. Furthermore, the case is great in the way that it “sucks in” the earbuds when you put them in to charge. The use of magnets here not only is clever, but in terms of accessibility, it’s effortless to put away the earbuds. All I need to remember is the left bud goes on the left and the right one goes on the right. In addition to the magnetism, they only go one way, so there’s no struggling to figure out how they go.

I also noted the difficulty in getting the AirPods out of the case, and the method I devised to overcome it. As more time has passed, my skill in getting the AirPods in and out has improved to the point where it's no longer an issue. Granted, this may be troublesome for others with more severe motor delays than mine, but for me it’s a solved problem. Furthermore, the amber/green indicator light for charging is beneficial (similar to the chime) insofar that it’s another cue that lets users know charge status. It’s another nice touch.

The only drawback to the AirPods case I can see is the thing is a notorious lint magnet. I keep the case in my jacket or pants pocket most of the time when I’m out, and I’m constantly wiping it clean with a slightly damp cloth or napkin. It does nothing but satisfy my obsessive-compulsiveness for keeping my devices looking nice and in tip-top shape. It’s just a little maddening that I need to wipe down the case so often.

Siri and the “Voice-First” Interface

I’ve spent most of this review thus far extolling the virtues of the AirPods. But that doesn’t mean the product is without warts. There are areas in which it should improve.

Chief among them is Siri. In an accessibility context, Siri is like the 5-tool baseball player whose career is hamstrung because he's injury-prone. All the talent and potential, but he spends more time on the disabled list than in the lineup.

Hence, I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink on the topic of Siri's performance as an accessibility tool. The gist of my concern is Siri doesn't handle speech impediments very gracefully. (I've found the same is true of Amazon's Alexa, as I recently bought an Echo Dot to try out.) I’m a stutterer, which causes a lot of repetitive sounds and long breaks between words. This seems to confuse the hell out of these voice-driven interfaces. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that if I don’t enunciate perfectly, which leaves several seconds between words, the AI cuts me off and runs with it. Oftentimes, the feedback is weird or I’ll get a “Sorry, I didn’t get that” reply. It’s an exercise in futility, sadly.

There are things I try to do to mitigate this, such as slow down while speaking and hold down the Home button on my iPhone, but the effects are nominal. It’s so frustrating that I've historically avoided Siri altogether, despite how her capabilities have grown over the years. The times I do summon Siri are in instances where I know I can get a command out quickly and accurately (e.g., setting a timer).

Which brings us to Siri and AirPods. It definitely shows glimmers of promise as a Her-type “computer,” whereby you have an persistent, intelligent assistant in your ear at all times. But we're not there yet and we're not close.

Siri on the AirPods suffers from the same issues I encounter on my other devices. It’s too frustrating to try to fumble my way through if she keeps asking me to repeat myself. It’s for this reason that I don’t use Siri at all with AirPods, having changed the setting to enable Play/Pause on double-tap instead (more on this later). It sucks to not use Siri this way—again, the future implications are glaringly obvious—but it’s just not strong enough at reliably parsing my speech. Therefore, AirPods lose some luster because one of its main selling points is effectively inaccessible for a person like me.

I realize learning language is hard, and teaching a robot to understand it is even harder. But if these assistants are supposed to be truly "intelligent," I shouldn’t have to adapt my speech pattern to the assistant; Siri, et al, should be nimble enough to adapt to me. If voice-driven computing is the way of the future, as many in the tech commentariat proclaim, then I surely hope engineers are investigating ways to make Siri and its ilk more accommodating. Voice brings with it new paradigms for accessibility, and, frankly, I worry that users like me will be left behind. If Siri or Alexa can't understand me and I’m frustrated, why bother? I'll do stuff manually.

Despite my beef with Siri, however, there is a silver lining. Its presence in the AirPods highlights the greatest benefit voice-driven UIs have for accessibility: they're hands-free. If you're someone who has normal fluency but limited physical motor abilities, you can easily ask Siri to adjust volume, control playback, and check battery levels. This is where Siri's potential as an assistive technology shines, as it gives users who may not be able to use the tap gestures on the AirPods another method with which to interact with their headphones. In fact, this is precisely why I'm so "meh" on voice-driven AI; Siri and its competitors can do so much for accessibility if it weren't for how poorly they handle non-standard speech. (This is a pitfall of adopting HomeKit devices as well.)

It's important I emphasize that although my focus is on Siri because it’s baked into the AirPods, I’m not placing blame squarely on Apple. The accessibility of Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and others is an industry-wide issue—one that I hope more people pay attention to. I have hope for Siri because Apple leads in accessibility. Whatever is in the labs, I’m sure there are people who are aware of this problem and are working on solutions. As I said, voice has new paradigms for accessibility. We mustn't forget about speech impairments.

Some Gripes

My quibbles with AirPods involve two things: configuration and playback control.

Regarding configuration, I feel the settings pane for AirPods is unnecessarily hidden. As it stands today, you have to tap the “i” next to your AirPods in the Bluetooth source list (Settings → Bluetooth) to access the options screen.

I would prefer Apple add a discrete AirPods pane in the main Settings screen, a la Siri. In terms of accessibility, this more straightforward path would be helpful because its top level placement would mean less tapping and searching. But it’s more than visual/motor considerations—someone with a cognitive delay of some sort may have trouble remembering where to find the option to, say, disable ear detection. Besides, as innovative and strategically important as AirPods are to Apple, it feels right that AirPods should get prime real estate somewhere—its status as an optional accessory be damned. (I'm not saying build it into iOS by default, not yet anyway, but if you do have AirPods, it should be front and center in Settings. Better still, it could be shown in Control Center, which seems like a natural fit.)

As for playback control, this is my biggest annoyance with AirPods, particularly when I’m listening to music. With my wired EarPods, I can use the button on the cord to skip tracks and play/pause audio, whereas with AirPods I can’t. I can double-tap to Play/Pause, but to change tracks, I have to reach for my phone and look at the screen. That isn't always practical or accessible. I wish there was an option to triple-tap your earbud to skip tracks, as that would be analogous to the aforementioned button. Maybe Apple planned this and it didn’t make the cut for the initial version, but I hope it comes someday. Playback control would be much more accessible.

Finally, a note about the double-tap-to-Play/Pause gesture. For as disappointing as Siri is for me, I like Play/Pause even more for accessibility's sake. It's much easier to access via an earbud than it is to dig out my phone and tap a button on the Lock screen. I'm glad I made the switch; it works great.

Bottom Line

Jason Snell at Six Colors sums up the AirPods well. He writes:

Once you’ve cooked a meal or run a mile with no wires coming out of your ears, you will wonder how you ever lived without this product. And isn’t that the most Apple-like feeling of all?

As Jason says, “hearing is believing.” If you're an Apple user, AirPods are a no-brainer purchase.

The "secret sauce" Apple's added to AirPods, enabled by the wizardry of its W1 chip, makes AirPods 1.0 a pretty impressive product all around. As I wrote at the outset, they are classic Apple: delightful, magical, and, yes, accessible.

For as much as I love the ever-burgeoning power of my iPad Pro and the supercomputer-in-my-pocket that is my iPhone, it's been a while since I've been so smitten by a product as am I with my AirPods. They're fun to use, and are way more accessible than any other headphones I've ever used.

Go order a set right now. You'll get them… eventually.

First Impressions of the 13-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pro

I’ve been using a Touch Bar MacBook Pro review unit from Apple for almost two weeks. It’s the top-end 13-inch model in space gray. This piece isn’t meant to be a full review—that will come later—but I’ve spent enough time with the machine now that I feel I have a solid grasp of my thoughts on it so far.

My short take is I like this computer a lot. The size is great, the weight is great, the screen is great, and the Touch Bar is great. I’ve enjoyed using this MacBook Pro very much.

Keep reading for the longer version…

Size & Weight. The first thing that struck me when I took the MacBook Pro out of the box was how thin and light it is. It’s amazingly portable; carrying it around the house or in my backpack is no problem. In fact, it feels lighter than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard that I’ve been using as my “laptop” for the past year. It could just be my imagination, of course, but it sure feels like I’m carrying less when I hold the MacBook as opposed to my iPad Pro.

(Sidebar: It was brought to my attention recently that, at 3 pounds, this MacBook Pro weights half a pound more than I did when I was born. I was born three months premature, weighing in at 2.5 pounds. How’s that for perspective? Wow.)

I wanted to test a 13-inch model for the simple reason that it’s smaller and easier to move around. This computer makes my girlfriend’s 15-inch MacBook Pro feel like a ton of bricks, and I can move that around our house with relative ease. The difference is stark; the easier the device is to move from place to place, the more I’ll use it.

The Screen. The MacBook Pro’s display is the best I’ve ever used. It’s brighter and sharper than any other, except for the one on the iPhone 7 Plus I’ve been using for a while. The wide color gamut technology Apple boasts about is no joke either. Retina displays are an essential accessibility tool for me, and the one on the new MacBook Pro is an absolute pleasure to behold. (As on my iOS devices, my MacBook’s screen is always set to full brightness. I need all that light to see.) Even my girlfriend has commented on how much better the display looks compared to the one on her laptop—and that one is pretty damn good itself.

The Keyboard & Trackpad. I love the keyboard on this thing. It feels (and sounds!) wonderful. I’m not a touch typist, so key travel doesn’t matter much to me. I feel faster with my hunt-and-peck method than I have on any other keyboard I’ve used. The older style keyboard feels like crap relative to the new one. I’m interested in seeing how the new keyboard compares to the one on Apple’s Magic Keyboard, which I’m currently eyeing for this new iPad stand that’s reminiscent of my beloved old Incase Origami Workstation. For now, though, the MacBook Pro’s keyboard is my favorite.

The MacBook Pro's keyboard has two distinct advantages over the Smart Keyboard: the keys are backlit and the Caps Lock key has an on/off light. These are huge accessibility wins, especially in low-light situations. The Caps Lock indicator light is so nice, as it’s my biggest peeve of the Smart Keyboard. I can actually tell whether Caps Lock is on.

The trackpad is interesting. It’s practically the size of an aircraft carrier, with tons of room for gestures and my coffee. The thing is, I don’t use it much. I actually prefer using my old Magic Mouse that I bought back in 2011. (Mine is the original model that takes AA batteries.) It still works flawlessly, and I've always loved how it feels in my hand. There’s great irony in the fact I champion iOS devices for their direct, touch-driven mechanics for accessibility, yet I prefer an indirect pointing device to the trackpad on macOS. (The Smart Zoom gesture in Safari is glorious.) It’s surely a vestige of my computing past, when I used Windows (then the Mac) on the desktop. I simply feel more comfortable with a mouse than I do with the trackpad. Or, to put it another way, I’m old.

Laptop Versus iPad. A big reason for my enjoyment of this computer is it’s been nice using a “real” laptop again. I’ve been using the aforementioned 15-inch MacBook Pro more lately at home, but it’s effectively a desktop machine. Neither me nor my girlfriend take it out of the house, so I use it perched on the kitchen table. Thus, it’s nice to have a thinner and lighter machine with which I can go places to work. I’ve used my iPad Pro for this in the past, and while I love it, it’s been refreshing getting reacquainted with macOS. It’s caused me to rethink my workflow, which I think is healthy. I’m increasingly seeing the benefits of being on “Team Both,” despite the fact that an iPad is generally more accessible for me than a laptop due to its form factor and interaction model. I can envision a world in which I have both an iPad Pro and a MacBook Pro, switching between them depending upon my mood and what I want to do. (Although, a 27-inch iMac with a Touch Bar-equipped Magic Keyboard would be enticing.) macOS’s accessibility features are abundant, particularly for the Touch Bar, and I’m getting more comfortable employing them to make the experience more accessible.

Touch Bar & Touch ID. When I saw the Touch Bar demos at the October 27 press event, I immediately became excited. I could see all the potential, accessibility-wise, this technology could have for the Mac. In my testing, I’ve found the Touch Bar to be delightful, and I’m bullish for its future. Watching the Touch Bar's maturation will be fun.

From an accessibility perspective, the best thing about the Touch Bar is how it makes UI elements feel "closer." I spend much less visual energy scanning an app’s interface on screen now that many of the items I frequently click (e.g., Favorites in Safari, emoji) are shown on the Touch Bar. Likewise with keyboard shortcuts; instead of pressing ⌘-S to send an message in Mail, I can tap the iOS-style Send icon on the Touch Bar.

Visually, I’ve had no problems seeing the Touch Bar as-is. Content is bright and generally glanceable; motor-wise, I’ve had no issues swiping or tapping in the small space. That said, the most impressive thing about the Touch Bar, in my opinion, is the Zoom feature. Apple packed a lot of accessibility support into the device, as it supports VoiceOver, Zoom, and Switch Control. The Zoom implementation is really clever: After enabling Zoom in System Preferences, touching the Touch Bar will bring up an enlarged version of it on the bottom of the screen. You slide your finger back and forth to select items. It's very well done, and it’s my preferred way to use the Touch Bar most of the time. Certain emoji is hard to decipher on screen due to their small size, but using Zoom remedies the issue. I love it.

Touch ID on the Mac is nice. I don’t use it for logging in—I think Auto Unlock with Apple Watch is more accessible—but it is great to have for 1Password and using Apple Pay in Safari. I hadn’t used Apple Pay on the Web prior to getting this MacBook Pro, so I wanted to try it out. I bought a nylon Apple Watch band and an USB-C to Lightning cable from Apple’s website, and enjoyed the checkout experience. One of the struggles I often encounter with online shopping is entering shipping and payment information because I have to navigate all the little fields. Like on iOS, Touch ID alleviates this friction. It’s great being able to authenticate a purchase with only my fingerprint, and I hope more retailers integrate Apple Pay into their online stores. Apple Pay on iOS is a terrific, however unintentional, accessibility tool, and I’m happy to have access to it on the Mac now as well.

RIP MagSafe. If there’s one aspect of this new MacBook Pro that I truly dislike, it’s USB-C. I don’t dislike it technologically; it’s versatile and definitely represents the future of connectivity. Rather, what I dislike about USB-C is it's infinitely less accessible than its predecessor, MagSafe. Why does this matter? As with my argument in favor of Apple ditching the headphone jack on iPhone 7, the problem with USB-C in an accessibility context is it’s tough to insert and remove a cable from the computer. The connection is tight, as if it were clinging with the jaws of life. As someone with fine-motor delays, I have a hard time plugging into power, for example. MagSafe was much better in this regard because, being magnetic, the cord would align itself when I got close enough to the port. It was easier to remove for the same reason. This is a tiny, esoteric detail, to be sure, but it's important. I loathe plugging stuff in because it takes much more effort than it used to. It puts a dent on an otherwise excellent computer—in a sense, the loss of MagSafe belies the overall niceness of the machine. All because Apple's industrial design team decided MagSafe had to die. Sigh.

Review: iPhone 7 Plus

"There's always something accessibility-related with new iPhones."

I tweeted that in response to Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times about a month ago, when the initial iPhone 7 reviews hit the news. Manjoo’s take is that while the new iPhone is impressive, he's comfortable sticking with his iPhone 6s.

In a macro sense, my response to Manjoo is interesting in two ways.

First, it speaks to the importance of the iPhone to not only Apple, but to society and culture at large. The iPhone is Apple’s crown jewel, and the resources the company devotes to it (and to iOS) is reflective of that. It makes sense—the iPhone is the moneymaker. It’s the product that gets people lining up outside of Apple Stores on launch day. No one needs to buy a new iPhone every year, as Manjoo decided for himself this year, but that the iPhone and iOS gets better and better every year is a result of Apple continually polishing its bling to attract customers. In short: because it's so important to Apple and consumers, there is always something interesting with every iPhone.

This leads into the second point. A result of Apple’s constant refinement of the iPhone is there's always something notable related to accessibility. I don’t mean only the dedicated accessibility features, such as Switch Control or AssistiveTouch or VoiceOver. What I mean is that with every iPhone comes hardware-oriented details that have as much relevance to the experience for people with disabilities as the software does. The advent of the Retina Display in the iPhone 4 and Touch ID in the 5s are prime examples. As I often say, accessibility is not a concept that is inextricably tied to software. It can apply just as aptly to hardware.

The iPhone 7 is emblematic of this ideal. Of course iOS 10 is improved in many ways, including accessibility. But after using an iPhone 7 Plus—a review unit on loan from Apple—over the past few weeks, what has stood out most are the ways in which the hardware tweaks have influenced the overall accessibility of the device.

As someone with disabilities who’s used iPhones since the beginning, the iPhone 7 is the most fascinating iPhone I’ve ever used, hardware-wise. The iPhone 7’s accessibility story is unique; indeed, it’s unlike any other iPhone before it.

Holding and Using the iPhone 7 Plus

I love the iPhone Plus. It’s the iPhone I never thought I wanted. I so adore its gains in screen size and battery life that holding and pocketing a gargantuan phone is a tradeoff I’m willing to accept. I could never go back to an iPhone with a smaller screen.

My review kit from Apple included a 7 Plus in Jet Black and a “saddle brown” leather case. Believe it or not, the finish and the case have made the most difference in handling and using the new iPhone.

As with many others it seemed, I waffled a lot in deciding between Jet Black and matte black. I tend to baby my devices—I'm obsessively wiping the screen and checking for nicks and scratches. Apple itself even recommends people choose a case if they're, like me, faint of heart. A footnote reads:

The high-gloss finish of the jet black iPhone 7 is achieved through a precision nine-step anodization and polishing process. Its surface is equally as hard as other anodized Apple products; however, its high shine may show fine micro-abrasions with use. If you are concerned about this, we suggest you use one of the many cases available to protect your iPhone.

Knowing my tendencies and considering Apple's guidance, I eventually determined to get the matte black. It occurred to me, however, that going with the "safe" choice would be one that I would regret. I quickly realized the Jet Black is unique not only in its appearance, but its tactile "stickiness" makes for a unique angle in accessibility terms.

I was right to reconsider. Apple's marketing materials, including the Jony Ive-narrated design video, overwhelmingly favor the Jet Black version. It's for good reason: the Jet Black model is both beautiful (more on that later) and has a distinct tactile advantage. The Jet Black is grippier than any other iPhone I've ever used. Other reviewers have compared its feel to the iPhone 3GS, a model I never had. To me, the Jet Black's feel is reminiscent to that of the iPhone 5c. I never owned that one either, but I loved the way it felt in my hand. I rank it the best-feeling iPhone Apple has ever made.

Because of the reduced muscle strength caused by my cerebral palsy, I typically need to hang on to objects tighter than normal so as not to drop them. Especially in context of the slippery iPhone 6 and 6s models of the past two years, it's obvious why a slick phone would be problematic. To compensate for this, I've insisted on using a case. A case adds protection, but more importantly, a case adds friction. It's easier to hold an iPhone (especially the 6/6s) with a case than it is to hold one "naked." The fact that I have something more substantial to grab onto (the case) is reassuring. This, in turn, gives me more confidence when using the phone. Ergo, a good experience causes me to enjoy using the phone more.

As I said, the Jet Black iPhone 7 is very grippy. From an accessibility perspective, that grip can potentially work wonders for users, like me, who have fine-motor delays. In my experience, holding the Jet Black model sans case is much easier than it was holding a 6 or 6s. That said, I still prefer using a case—it’s better to hold that way and, frankly, I am paranoid about those micro-abrasions, beauty be damned.

Speaking of cases, the leather case I received with my 7 Plus deserves mention. Historically, I’ve preferred Apple’s silicone cases because I like the material and I’m not a huge fan of leather. Much to my surprise, I’ve been delighted by the Apple leather case. It feels great, very luxurious. I like the way the back of the case has weathered after a couple weeks of regular use. Interesting for accessibility, though, are the buttons on the case. The buttons are made from machined aluminum, and I love their feel. Whereas the buttons on the silicone case are kinda squishy, these new metal buttons are decidedly clicky. I’ve never had trouble using the silicone buttons, but I’ve found the leather’s metal ones much more satisfying. Adjusting volume or using the Sleep/Wake button is a breeze with these buttons. Better still, the buttons are color-matched to the color of the case; it makes for a nice look.

Overall, I’m sold on the leather cases. I’ll always want a case, but I foresee myself choosing leather over silicone from now on.

The New Taptic Engine: iOS 10 & Home Button

So I don’t rehash it all here, I recently wrote a piece for iMore in which I analyze the effects of the iPhone 7’s Taptic Engine on accessibility. (A good complement to that story is this one I wrote last year for MacStories wherein I give a general take on why haptic feedback matters for accessibility.)

The Cliff’s Notes version is haptic feedback on the iPhone 7 is impressive. The Taptic Engine matters for accessibility because its many ticks and buzzes provide a secondary cue that something is happening with the device. For someone with low vision, that’s huge. For instance: you get a buzz whenever you enable or disable an option in Settings in addition to seeing the green “on” indicator is a big deal. For me, that literal feeling of reassurance greatly enhances the experience. What’s more, the benefits of haptic feedback isn’t limited to iPhone 7. It’s also present in the Apple Watch, as well as the 12-inch MacBook and the MacBook Pros.

iOS 10 on the iPhone 7 is chock-full of haptic feedback. When you invoke Control Center or Notification Center, you feel a tick as the pane moves in. Likewise with moving through time when setting dates in the Clock app. And there’s 3D Touch, of course. It’s been wonderful for accessibility, and I use it all the time. On the iPhone 7, it’s faster and more capable. I like using it in Control Center and clearing notifications.

The new Home button, one of the iPhone 7's marquee features, also is impressive.

It doesn't work mechanically anymore, and I've adapted well to it. Like 3D Touch, users can choose their desired pressure sensitivity from one of three settings: 1, 2, or 3 (1 is the default setting). After some fiddling, I settled on 1 being the best fit for me. It's the path of least resistance, whereas 3 felt as if the bottom of the phone was moving as I pressed the button. In the abstract, 1 is pro-future. 3 feels like an anachronism in a sense; the haptic feedback exists, but using the button in this mode feels much closer to using the physical Home button on previous iPhones. This isn't to imply it's bad or wrong to choose 3—that's why Apple gives us choices!—but it's clear to me Apple is nudging people towards the future by making 1 the default.

In accessibility terms, the new Home button is advantageous over the old one insofar that it's one less button to push. For many with limited strength and/or low muscle tone in their fingers, pressing physical buttons can prove troublesome. Accessibility features such as AssistiveTouch and Touch Accommodations exist to accommodate these users. But someone who doesn't necessarily need the support of AssistiveTouch, but still has some fine-motor issues, should benefit by not having to physically depress the button to get it to work.

Generally speaking, the iPhone 7's increased emphasis on haptic feedback and the new Home button point to an exciting future for accessibility. Add in the Taptic Engine API for developers, and I'm keen to see how Apple and App Store developers leverage this technology in the years to come.

The Headphone Jack & Lightning EarPods

I agree wholeheartedly with Recode's Dan Frommer's sentiment that Apple's removal of the headphone jack has "turned out just fine" in practice.

In my testing, the Lightning EarPods have been fine for me. I haven't touched the Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter in the box. I say "fine," but only to mean that I'm able to use them. However, there are a couple of accessibility challenges.

First, the Lightning EarPods still need to be plugged in. As I wrote for iMore in August, I’ve long had difficulty plugging in headphones because of accessibility. It’s a two-headed beast: My impaired vision and fine-motor delays make finding the jack and plugging in headphones an adventurous task. My success rate is 100 percent, but not after some fumbling. The fumble is the sticking point—persistence wins the race, but it’s clearly an issue. Lightning doesn’t help; instead of struggling with a archaic headphone jack, I struggle with a modern Lightning connector.

The second problem is tied to the first. On iPhone 7, the issue of plugging in the EarPods is exacerbated by the Darth Vader finish. It’s esoteric, yes, but worth mentioning: it’s hard now to see the Lightning port on the phone because the color is so dark. I routinely miss the connection, causing me to scrape the plug into the finish. I’m sure there are micro-abrasions down there, but the color is so dark and my eyesight so bad that I can’t tell. More often than not, I have to get the phone in an angle that hits the light. That makes it easier to plug in.

The obvious solution to my woes is getting wireless headphones. I admit that I probably should have done so sooner, but hesitated because of concerns over Bluetooth and battery life. Which leads to the elephant in the room: AirPods.

I do not have a pair of AirPods. Apple says they’re arriving in “late October,” which, as of this writing, is very soon. I’m extremely excited about them, as I believe AirPods have extraordinary potential for accessibility. They’re interesting enough that they deserve a standalone review. As soon as I get a pair to use, I will file a full report.

Miscellany: Notes on Design & Battery Life

It ism’t relevant to accessibility, at least in aesthetic terms, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the iPhone 7’s design since I got it. In short, I think the Jet Black is gorgeous. While Apple may have used the basic industrial design for the third year in a row, the Jet Black is by no means boring. I got to handle one briefly in the hands-on area at the September 7 media event. It was really nice then, but I gained a new appreciation for how great it truly is after seeing it up close at home.

As I wrote earlier, I’m very happy I changed my mind to Jet Black. It’s very cool, and I hope Apple keeps this finish around for a while. It’d be a shame if it ends up being a one-off deal.

Regarding battery life, the iPhone 7 Plus seems about the same as it was on the 6s Plus. What I wrote last year still applies:

If there’s one reason for Apple to boost battery performance the iPhone, it would be screen brightness.


Toning down the brightness to preserve juice is an untenable compromise; I need all that light in order to use my phone effectively. Nonetheless, I admit to feeling pangs of guilt because I know my phone’s battery has to work harder. Hence, a bigger battery would make me feel better about having my screen so bright.

Here’s hoping Apple’s battery team has some breakthrough in the pipeline.

Bottom Line

To reference my iPhone 6s review once more, the iPhone is the “remote control” to my life. it’s an indispensable tool, and the main reason (aside from, you know, journalism) I want the newest one year in and year out is I want the best tool. And I can always count on Apple to keep making the best tools for me.

Apple’s done it again with the iPhone 7. The Jet Black makes it sexier and the Plus has two cameras, but it’s also the most accessible iPhone yet. Until next year, anyway.

Thoughts on Overcast 1.0

Since getting into podcasts a few years ago, I've used pretty much every podcast client there is on iOS. My client of choice has been Pocket Casts --- a sentiment echoed by my friends at The Sweet Setup. Pocket Casts is deep and full-featured, and while I don't consider myself a "power listener" --- always in want of granular controls and the like --- the app has done well by me for quite some time. It was during this time that Marco Arment announced Overcast, his new podcast app for iPhone. The app went live on the App Store today, and I couldn't be happier or more excited for Marco. Late last month, I received an email from him out of the blue, asking me if I'd be interested in joining the beta team so as to help test for accessibility (VoiceOver, in particular). Though I haven't used the app for very long, Overcast has earned a permanent place on my iPhone's Home screen --- it's designed in typical Armentian fashion (read: exquisite) and very accessibility-friendly. The focus of this review will be on accessibility in two areas: visual design and VoiceOver.

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In my writing, I've long championed the idea of "accessibility as design", whereby app developers and user interface designers take into consideration the disabled when building their apps. I don't necessarily mean incorporating dedicated Accessibility features --- although that's certainly part of it ---- rather, I mean sensibly designing in such a way that interface elements are clear: buttons, labels, typography, etc. Unread, the RSS client for iOS, by Jared Sinclair, is a good example of this. Not only does VoiceOver work flawlessly, but buttons and labels are decipherable and the typography is splendid. Put another way, Unread's clean, focused look is appealing not only to fully-abled users, but to users with visual impairments as well. This is due to the fact that Jared, as Unread's creator, recognizes and empathizes with the disabled, and wishes to help us. Like Jared, Marco is empathetic towards the accessibility community, and tries his best to accommodate disabled users who use his apps by including technologies like VoiceOver. This sentiment is apparent throughout Overcast, where, as Jared does with Unread, Marco's clean design sensibilities and attention to VoiceOver makes the podcast client very appealing, at least to this low vision reviewer. My favorite thing about the app (the gorgeous icon aside) is, interestingly enough, the orange. The color is pervasive throughout the app, and really lends itself to easily identifying interface elements. The orange pops off the white backdrop, which results in huge benefits in terms of contrast. Overcast is decidedly and rightfully iOS 7-y in its look, and while I'm (still) not fond of many of Apple's design decisions, the orange color scheme works really well for my eyes in terms of distinguishing between the app's content and its navigational controls. The greatest example of this is the playback controls on the Now Playing screen. They are gigantic and orange and gloriously easy to see and tap. It's a usability win because (a) I don't have to strain my eyes attempting to locate the playback controls; and (b) that the buttons are so gigantic means the tap targets are also gigantic, which ultimately means I needn't worry about mistakenly tapping or missing a button altogether. The moment I laid eyes on these buttons, I smiled, because I knew they were going to work great, and was so happy to see someone do something different here. If there's one complaint that I have about Overcast's UI, it's that the font size is a bit too small to be comfortable. I find myself struggling at times, squinting to be able to read show notes or whatever, and it definitely puts a damper on an otherwise splendid experience. It would be great if, in a future update, Overcast would add support for Large Dynamic Type, or at least add a font size slider to Settings.


Full disclosure: VoiceOver is not a feature that I use on a daily basis, but I am familiar with it and am confident in critiquing its use, as is the case here with Overcast. In all honesty, there isn't much to elaborate on in this section of the review. In my testing, I've found VoiceOver to work extremely well in announcing the labels of buttons and so forth. Everything I selected in the app read just fine, and I was generally pleased with how it worked. VoiceOver is somewhat tricky to get right because it requires developers to correctly label an app's controls so that VoiceOver can read them correctly. In short: Marco did a great job with VO, and regular users of it will notice.


Despite the fact that this review is focused on Overcast's accessibility merit, being the design snob that I am, I can't help but talk about the little touches of the app. These things aren't so much functional as they are delightful, and they definitely add to the app's ambience and experience. First, the Now Playing screen includes an animated waveform that moves as an episode is playing. Again, I'm unsure of its practical use case, but I enjoy it immensely for the eye candy alone. Oftentimes, I'll just gaze admiringly at the waveform while listening to a show. Secondly, this was pointed out by my pal Jonathan Hoover on Twitter. When you select the "Unlock Everything" option to access the in-app purchase for extra functionality, the there's a tiny radio tower icon within the padlock icon. It's too small for my naked eye to notice on my own, but I smiled when I saw Jon mention it.

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As I said in the beginning, Overcast has overtaken Pocket Cast's spot on my iPhone's Home screen. As someone who listens to podcasts regularly while on the go ---- either on the bus or BART or on foot --- I'm happy to have found an app that is not only aesthetically pleasing but fits well with my spartan podcast-listening needs. Overcast gets two thumbs up from me. If you like podcasts, check it out.

Thoughts on Checkmark 2

An idea most popular amongst the Apple nerd set with which I associate is the use of task management apps such as OmniFocus and Things on the Mac and iOS to get things done. These setups can be pretty elaborate, and while they're cool and all, such tediously-crafted workflows have never worked for me. For as proudly as I wave my nerd flag, apps like OmniFocus have long intimidated me, and, quite frankly, I neither have the time nor the desire to invest in learning all the ways in which you can tinker with them. More to the point, though, such setups are overkill for my spartan GTD needs. Instead, I've relied on a vastly simplier solution in the form of Kyle Rosenbluth's Begin app for iPhone. It's a beautiful, no-frills to-do app that allows a user to pull down to add a task, compiling each as a list. This piece isn't about Begin, but in a nut, what appeals most to me about Begin is that its simplicity meshes perfectly with how my brain works. It just presents a simple list of things that need to get done, and I can easily swipe to mark an item as completed or to move it to tomorrow. Easy. Over the last few months, however, I've been using Apple's Reminders app in conjuction with Begin to, as the name implies, remind me of the mission critical tasks that need my immediate attention. For the most part, Reminders works well, but I'm not a fan of the iOS 7 redesign and I'd prefer some enhanced features. With this in mind, I was excited (and privileged) to be given early access to Checkmark 2, the Reminders-on-steroids app for iPhone. I've been testing it for the last two or so weeks, and I'm very impressed by it. Checkmark 2 has earned a permanent place on my Home screen, and I find it to be a terrific complement to the aforementioned Begin.

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As with last month's Unread review, this review is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive --- rather, I'm going to discuss Checkmark 2 in accessibility terms. (To learn more about how Checkmark 2 works, check out Dan Moren's and/or Shawn Blanc's write-ups.) That said, my critiques will focus on really only two things: typeface and general readability, as I feel these are the two things that dominate the user experience for me.


Checkmark 2 uses my favorite font, Avenir, as its main font. I like Avenir so much because not only is it beautiful to look at, but it is readable to me. I've stated many times that I'm somewhat of a typography nerd, and good typographic choices in apps or on websites are of critical importance to me. Being visually impaired, a good font to me is one that is (a) pretty but also (b) easy to digest with as little eye strain as possible. The strain factor is, in fact, the biggest reason I turned on Bold Text in iOS 7.1. Having anything and everything system-wide appear in boldface may be worse aesthetically, but it's a major win functionally. Hence, that all text in 7.1 is in bold makes it stand out more, thereby relieving my eyes of the burden of straining to find a button or read something. In the case of Checkmark 2, that it uses a typeface that I already use in so many of the apps I use every day ---- Tweetbot being one ---- means there's instant feelings of comfort and familiarity with the interface. In other words, just the presence of Avenir in Checkmark 2 makes the app approachable and usable. The less eye strain I have, the more time I can spend using and enjoying Checkmark 2.


Naturally, a developer and/or user interface designer's typographic choices are going to influence the readability of an app or website. In Checkmark 2's case, as I previously stated, the app is very readable to me. I have no issues with navigating the app. If I had one quibble, it would be to perhaps tweak Avenir slightly so as to use a thicker weight. As it stands, the default weight is a bit light for my tastes, so I'd prefer a heavier one because that would make text stand out even more than it already does. The lighter weight by no means adversely affects my usage so much that I can't do what I need to do, but it could stand to be better. This applies as well to the Scheduled, Recurring, and Done icons in the toolbar and in the sidebar options. Even with the darker contrast of the sidebar and the button highlighting in the toolbar, the Avenir is still a tad light for me, which does add more strain that normal. Other than these quibbles, however, I have nothing else to nit pick. Checkmark 2 really is very well done.


Though I'm still not (nor will I likely ever be) a hardcore GTD power user, the fact is that Checkmark 2 is one of those simple yet powerful apps that I can wrap my brain around. It's made organizing and prioritizing my life a helluva lot easier, and it's pretty damn accessible for my use case (I didn't test VoiceOver because I don't use it). Ryan Cash and the Built By Snowman crew did a great job with 2.0, and I'm looking forward to seeing what's next.

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You can get Checkmark 2 for $2.99 on the App Store now. Get it.

Pencil on Paper: Thoughts on Pencil By 53

One of the ways people like to describe the iPad is to say that it becomes whatever you want. It's an incredibly thin and light slab of aluminum and glass that, with the help of so many apps, can morph from, say, a text editor into a mobile game console. It's been said ad nauseam, but is worth repeating here: the iPad is transforming personal computing. There's no doubt about it --- every day, folks from all walks of life are finding new uses for iPad. Yes, it's cliche and yes, it's trite, but it's also reality. The iPad is the tablet, no question.

One of these use cases is for artistry, specifically drawing and doodling. The iPad quite literally becomes a digital easel or sheet of paper, on which you can create simple stick figures or elaborately detailed pieces that would garner the envy of any Renaissance painter. I personally have zero artistic aptitude whatsoever, and I'm perpetually jealous of those who are far more artistically inclined. (Though I suppose it could be argued that writing words is "art" unto itself, but that's another discussion for another day.) My lack of artistic ability notwithstanding, I always enjoy admiring the handiwork of people with far more talent in this realm than I.

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The preeminent sketching app is Paper, by the folks at FiftyThree. It earned an Apple Design Award at WWDC 2012, and I've had it installed on my iPads since the day it launched on the App Store. Truth be told, I had Paper more for admiration and potential's sake: as I stated, I can't draw worth shit, and I didn't have a stylus that worked *really well with the app. Hence, Paper sort of languished in neglect, only to be opened during idle moments when I felt like looking through new stuff made by others. A couple of weeks ago, I was having tea with a good friend of mine when he showed me his Pencil, the stylus from FiftyThree made for the express purpose of using with Paper. He has the Graphite edition, and he demoed and let me play with it for a while. After only a few minutes, I was hooked. Pencil is an exquisite piece of hardware. Using a stylus specifically made for Paper made using the app fun. I didn't care that I can't draw --- just going through the process of using Pencil to scribble and to explore brought over me a sense of delight thhat I honestly hadn't experienced since first laying my hands on the original iPad in 2010. In short, my friend was correct in saying that I was "blown away". Pencil is so good. So good, in fact, that I bought one for myself. The Walnut version. I got it about a week or so ago, and I really enjoy it. I keep it in my bag with me at all times, just in case I want to doodle or, like my friend did to me, show it to an unfamiliar-with-Pencil someone. Pencil has fast become one of my favorite gadgets, not only for its utility but also for its beauty and craftmanship. In an industrial design sense, Pencil is very Apple-like in terms of build quality. Both the Graphite and Walnut versions have substance to them, but at the same time are light and easy to manipulate. I chose Walnut over Graphite because (a) I have enough aluminum-clad electronics in my arsenal; and (b) it's beautiful in its own right, and I wanted the magnetic stick-em feature. (What this does, and which only works with the Walnut Pencil, is attach itself to the iPad Smart Cover for safekeeping and travel.) I say you can't go wrong with either choice, but the Walnut seems to me to be "truer" to the pencil-and-paper metaphor that FiftyThree has established. It's playful, whereas the Graphite feels more "serious", for lack of a better term. That isn't to the Graphite version's detriment, just that it's a different feel.

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It's rare for me to speak on accessibility it *hardware terms, but I do so on occasion. Pencil affords an interesting take on accessibility because I'm in the unique position to be able to critique it from two angles. First is my ability to write about it from the perspective of a guy with cerebral palsy, obviously. Secondly, given my extensive background in the field of early childhood --- on the floor and in the classroom --- I'm able to assess how accessible Pencil is to young children. I think this is an important detail, considering the prevalence nowadays of iPads being used by children. While there certainly are designed-for-a-demographic, kid-friendly drawing apps conceptually akin to Paper, there's no reason a child couldn't use the real deal Paper. The only question is determining whether or not Pencil in and of itself is the right stylus for the child. (Of course, Paper works with any stylus, as well as fingers, but Pencil, I feel, works best, naturally. It was made for the app.) First, Pencil's accessibility for me. As I mentioned, it took only a few moments to fall in love with Pencil. Part of the reason for this is because Pencil feels so damn good in my hand. Holding it in my hand (I'm a southpaw) feels just as natural as holding a regular pen or pencil. Moreover, as I also mentioned, the heft and bulk of Pencil is such that it's pleasantly heavy but light enough to comfortably manuver. This is an important detail, accessibility-wise, because comfort is a huge consideration for me when holding and using an object. Because of the partial paralysis caused by my cerebral palsy, my body is effectively two separate and disparate parts of my whole being. Where by "separate and disparate", I mean that there are distinct levels of strength and dexterity between the left and right sides of my body. The left side is by far my strongest and most agile side; everything I do is dominated by the left side because it's so stronger and better feeling. Compare and contrast my left side with my right, the latter is far weaker. My muscles are more atrophied on that side, making movements considerably more difficult and painful. (This also makes typing a real bitch too.) Fortunately, being left-handed, using Pencil is not difficult nor painful. It feels completely natural: movements are fluid, and I feel like I'm putting actual ink to actual paper. It's a great feeling, because I'm not thinking about or adjusting for my motor issues. Your mileage may vary, but in my case, Pencil has been terrifically accessible to me. It's great. With regards to young children, the practicality of Pencil boils down to developmental levels. I studied and worked mainly with toddler-and preschool-aged children, and I can say with conviction that Pencil is most appropriate for those children who've mastered the pincer grasp. The size and shape of Pencil requires the correct grip because it's meant to be used, well, like a pencil. The concept of Pencil-on-Paper may be abstract to some children and may need explanation --- particularly the Eraser feature --- but the actual manipulation of Pencil should no problem for children who, again, have learnt the proper form. Conversely, for children who haven't yet mastered the pincer grasp, instead still using the ulnar grasp, I would suggest opting for something like Studio Neat's Cosmonaut stylus, which, incidentally I also own. The Cosmonaut's girth and bigger footprint is more conducive to ulnar gripping children because the bigger size compensates for the child's smaller hands. It makes for better control and precision, which in turn is more comfortable for the child and, more importantly, affords him or her a better, less frustrating experience. (Cf. my aforementioned comment about the process of drawing.) My rationale for offering this early childhood development context is simply to give readers a point of reference in case anyone is wondering about the right stylus for their kid(s). In essence, what I outline above is the same reason fat crayons exist: the bigger ones are more suitable to younger children who have yet to master properly holding a pen or pencil. The time will eventually come when they're able to use the standard smaller and thinner crayons. So, in sum: if you can afford to do so, get both. Your kids will thank you later.
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I've spent close to 1,600 words speaking so effusively of Pencil that I can't say another thing except that it's a fantastic product. I love mine, and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone interested in Paper or just iPad styluses in general. Go buy one right now.

Thoughts on Phraseology 2

As a writer who loves working from my iPad, I've always had a thing for iOS text editors. I've tried most of the big name ones over time, and usually have two or three installed on my devices. As of this writing, here's what's in my Writing folder right now: My current daily driver writing app is Editorial, but I also have Byword and Phraseology on my iPad just in case. In particular, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Phraseology. Although I don't use it all the time, I really like it not only for its clean and simple design, but also for its unique features such as paragraph/sentence arranging, as well Inspect, where the writer can view readability statistics for their work. These features help Phraseology stand out in a crowded field where developers are trying to come up with ways to differentiate themselves. As far as I can tell, what makes Arrange and Inspect unique is that I haven't seen these features in any other app.
Given my affinity for Phraseology, I was excited and honored when Greg Pierce, the man behind the app, sent me a direct message on Twitter asking if I'd like to beta-test Phraseology. I immediately said yes, and have been using it as my main writing app for the last month or so --- in fact, this very piece is being written in it. In short, Phraseology 2 is splendid; other than a couple of minor niggles, I highly recommend it.

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The longer Phraseology story is that this piece is not meant to be a exhaustive review. Instead, I just want to give my general impressions of the app, especially when it comes to accessibility. Aside from Arrange and Inspect, my favorite thing about Phraseology is just how clean the user interface is. The vertical sidebar with the controls is not too crowded, and I love how I can move in and out of full screen mode so as to hide said toolbar and better focus on my writing. As for the actual writing, Source Sans Pro is my preferred font. It looks terrific on a Retina display, and I can see it at a smaller size without straining my eyes too much. As someone who writes exclusively in Markdown, I find Phraseology's Markdown preview to be the best of any writing app I've used, on iOS or the Mac. I use it quite often, and I really appreciate that its just a tap away in the toolbar. Other niceties include the category-standard Dropbox and iCloud integration, as well as parts of speech highlighting and versioning, the latter of which has already saved my ass more than once. As I mentioned, I do have a a couple minor complaints about Phraseology. My chief problem is that the app's user interface is lower contrast than I'd like. While it's not a deal-breaker by any means, the on-screen controls are a bit hard for my eyes to discern. It takes a few seconds for me to tap anything because I make sure I'm tapping the right button. Relatedly, I wish that Phraseology had Markdown syntax highlighting. Again, not a deal-breaker, but it would make identifying Markdown markup from regular text easier. These complaints are minor in scope, as they don't significantly hinder my usage of Phraaseology, but they are complaints nonetheless. My hope is that Greg will address these issues soon. As for accessibility, the aforementioned quibbles regarding Phraseology's lower contrast and Markdown syntax highlighting are the only things that hamper Phraseology's accessibility. As a visually impaired user, having the controls be higher contrast would enable me to more easily and quickly identify them, saving my eyes from excess strain. (As well, the word and character counters could stand to be higher contrast too.) Likewise, Markdown syntax highlighting. would be an accessibility win for me insofar that having the markup be unique in its display (color, etc) would make it instantly discernable for me, as its higher contrast would make it stand out against niormal text. This is one reason why I most of the time prefer Editorial, because it uses blue and gray shading to denote Markdown syntax. It's really helpful, not only in identification but also when inserting links. Overall, though, I have found Phraseology's Accessibility to be good. Even with the issues I outline above, they're not damning enough so as to prevent me from using the app. As I said, this piece is being written in the app without a significant amount of friction. But, as with any creative endeavor, there's always room for improvement.
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I've very much enjoyed my time testing Phraseology 2. It's a well done, feature-rich app that integrates well with Agile Tortoise's other apps, Drafts and Terminology. The iOS 7 redesign is great, and I have no problem recommending it to anyone in want of a top-notch iOS text editor.

A Blind Guy's Take On Unread 1.0

Full disclosure: historically, I've sucked at keeping up with RSS. I subscribe to a good number of feeds, and I have one set up for Steven's Blog, but I've always found myself struggling to achieve the discipline to sit down every day, faithfully, to go through my feeds. I'm plagued with guilt that I neglect RSS --- and, for that matter, Instapaper --- but at the same time, I would be remiss in not admitting that Twitter has filled the catching-up-on-the-news void. The fact is that Twitter is where I get the majority of my news nowadays, so RSS is left largely forgotten. I'd almost given up on the medium altogether.

Then my pal Jared Sinclair sent me a direct message on Twitter about beta-testing Unread.

Though the 1.0 is iPhone-only, I'm pleased to say that using Unread over the last couple of months has gotten me back to checking RSS again. It's a splendid app, and has been on my Home screen since downloading the first beta build. I've had a lot of fun using it, and I bet many others will too.

The focus of this piece isn't, however, a general review of Unread --- I'll leave that to other reviewers. Instead, the aim of this piece is more specialized: I'm going to discuss the app in accessibility terms. (In fact, accessibility was the reason Jared asked if I would be interested in being part of the beta.) As such, my review will critique Unread on three levels: readability, typography, and interaction.


The biggest reason, I think, Unread holds so much appeal is how accessible (pun fully intended) it is in terms of readability. Where by "readability", I mean the ease by which it is to read in the app. Unread is terrific is this regard, accessibility-wise, for two reasons:

  1. Its clean user interface; and
  2. Its VoiceOver support

First, the interface. Conceptually, a cluttered UI replete with toolbars and buttons galore is generally bad for the visually impaired user. This is primarily because the more items on the screen, the harder it becomes to focus on what's important. While this does certainly apply to the normally-sighted just as well, it's even more problematic for someone who's visually impaired because too many items on screen, often many in close proximity, can be a navigational nightmare. Identifying which button does what, as well and trying to focus on the content itself becomes a real chore because many users' eyes aren't strong enough to focus on just a single part of the UI. Hence, the less cluttered and more minimalist the interface, the easier it is to avoid confusion and the better the user is engaged. Unread is great in this sense because, in essence, all it presents the user with is a list of stories and nothing else. Because navigation in Unread is gesture-based (more on that later), there are no toolbars or buttons competing for my attention. What this means is my eyes are focused on reading, not darting around looking at other on-screen elements. This may seem obvious, but again, to a visually impaired user like myself, it's a big deal. My legal blindness is such that I have an extraordinarily hard time making my eyes focus on just one thing, something that every ophthalmologist who's ever examined me can attest to. That all I'm presented with is a headline, a couple lines of metadata, and then the body text means that I can put my visual energy into concentrating on just the text. It makes using Unread much more enjoyable, and also productive, because I'm able to get through more feeds.

Secondly, Unread's support for VoiceOver. Admittedly, VoiceOver is a feature I don't use because my vision is just good enough that I don't need it, but that I did use for the express purpose of testing Unread. In my experience, VoiceOver worked fantastically well in reading my feed, with little-to-no errors. Oftentimes I would invoke VoiceOver when I felt my eyes getting fatigued, so it also can be a feature of convenience as well as one of necessity. There isn't much else to say here except that Apple's implementation of VoiceOver is very well done, and it's nice to know that developers can so easily update their apps so as to include it.


Of course, the readability of Unread has much to do with its typography. Unread uses Whitney as its typeface, and it's glorious. I first learned about Whitney via Shawn Blanc's app recommendation website, The Sweet Setup, which also features it as its main text font. As somewhat of a typography nerd, Whitney has fast become one of my favorite fonts.

What makes Whitney so good is that its clean look and high legibilty make for reading stories in Unread that much easier. As with user interface clutter, choosing the right font matters to a visually impaired person because the cleaner and better-looking it is --- especially at larger sizes --- the better the overall reading experience will be. In my experience, my vision is such that I find it much easier to make out sans-serif fonts such as Whitney (as opposed to serif fonts like Times New Roman), thereby reducing eye strain and fatigue. Moreover, Whitney's legibility is enhanced by the Retina display of my iPhone 5S, which is a must-have for me to use my devices with a high level of effectiveness.

Obviously, good-looking, sharp typography helps those with normal vision too, but the effects of which are even more pronounced for the visually impaired. Especially for a reading app like Unread, if it aspires to be accessibility-friendly, which I know was a goal for Jared, it has to consider every pixel of the interface. Typographic choices matter, because not only do they have to be aesthetically pleasing, but they have to be approachable enough to be viewed with as little eye strain as possible. Eye strain is a huge concern among those with vision impairments; chronic eye strain can adversely affect reading ability and time spent reading. A big reason why Unread has gotten me back into RSS reading is precisely because Whitney is so beautiful and, more importantly, it's such a pleasure to read. My eyes aren't straining any more than they naturally are prone to do, and that means I can read longer and in more volume. Everyone's vision is different, so it's difficult to describe exactly the effects typography has on the eyes and the overall reading experience, but suffice it to say that were Jared inclined to choose another, less friendly font for Unread, the feeling of using the app would be a substantially different affair.


As I stated, Unread's user interface is pretty spartan in terms of menus and controls. The main screen, where you add your RSS service of choice, has a few tappable buttons for Settings, a Tutorial, and other bits of miscellany. Aside from that, there's not much else. Instead, Unread employs a gesture-driven system for interacting with the app. It makes heavy use of the new-to-iOS-7 swipe-to-go-back gesture to move from a story to the list view, and so forth. In addition, swiping left in any story will --- surprise, surprise! --- bring up a panel of action buttons. From this contextual menu, you can mark a story as unread, view it in Safari, share it (usingJared's OverShare Kit protocol), and so on. The swipe-left gesture also works in the list view, offering options to mark all stories as read, change the theme, etc.

While one could validly argue that a gestural user interface is worse for the visually impaired (mainly due to the lack of explicit visual cues), I have found navigating Unread to be no problem whatsoever. In my case, I feel it's easier to not have so many things to look at (cf. my previous points regarding UI clutter), and the gesture-based interface makes it easy to get where I want to go. As with its typography, the fact that Unread has so little in the way of UI chrome makes it so that my eyes get less tired because I'm not so often actively looking for what to tap next. While I undoubtedly value and, for the most part, prefer, explicitness in user interface design, I also appreciate the choices Jared's made for how to interact with Unread. In my opinion, the app is highly accessible. So long as the gestures aren't totally wacky (e.g., figure-8s) and I feel physically comfortable performing them, then it's all good.

If I had one quibble about navigating Unread, it would have to be that at times I have trouble initiating the gestures. That said, this has more do with my cerebral palsy than with the app itself. For instance, it sometimes takes two or three tries to register the swipe gestures, because I didn't pull hard enough or my thumb wasn't properly seated on the screen. Because of my motor issues, I find that I must be more deliberate in my movements, which in turn causes me to not move around as fluidly as a fully-abled user can. But, I do the best I can; all things considered, I move around Unread pretty well.

If there's one big tell about my feelings about Unread, it's that I regularly use it despite* the fact that it's iPhone-only at this point. Typically, I shy away from reading on the iPhone because of its small size, but since testing Unread, it really doesn't bother me. Truth be told, I was initially a bit skeptical as to how I'd do with a reading app on the phone, but Jared has crafted it so well that I don't mind going through my RSS feeds on the small screen. (The 5S's 4-inch display helps here a lot, as I doubt I'd be so enthusiastic were I still using my 3.5-inch 4S.) It speaks volumes that I enjoy a reading app on a small screen so much. In a holistic sense, Unread is a great example of the kinds of apps developers can create that are truly accessible to all. It requires some abstract thinking, some thinking outside the box, but Unread is wonderfully accessible ---- high praise coming from someone who was told that his vision isn't very good. Furthermore, Unread is proof that Jared really values accessibility. Within the Apple community, he's definitely among the foremost advocates of third-party developer support of iOS accessibility. Unread does well to uphold his reputation in this regard.

If you like iPhone RSS clients, I'd say you can't do better than Unread.

One Year with Day One

As I type this, I'm a few days away from marking my one-year anniversary (August 7) with Day One, the journaling app for OS X and iOS by the team at Bloom Built. It's been a wonderful year, and I am very excited to be writing this commemorative piece.

Over this past year, I've written Uses Guide page on the app's website.) There isn't much more praise I can heap upon Day One, nor can I sufficiently reiterate just how much I enjoy using it. As I wrote before, Day One's user interface is still clean and attractive, its sounds still playful, and its feature set still bountiful.

To put it bluntly: Day One is one fucking terrific app.

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Beyond the pixels behind Day One --- the interface, the sounds, the Markdown support and iCloud sync --- the thing that most resonates with me about the app is how it makes me feel. In a nutshell, Day One is the place I go every night to decompress. Perform my ritualistic brain dump for the day. It just feels good to use Day One. Of course its appearance and features accentuate the experience, but Day One just has this existential delightfulness about it that I have trouble articulating fully. In short, Day One is an absolute pleasure to use.

My usage habits haven't changed since describing them a year ago. Of the three-app suite, the iPhone and Mac versions get the most use, by far. I'm still writing in , it's neat to be able to go back and retrace the journey I've been on over the last year. The emotions that I feel through reminiscing run the gauntlet from happiness to sadness to everything in between, and I'm proud to have documented it all with Day One.

* * *

Federico Viticci, who inspired this piece, writes for MacStories:

The fact that somebody out there has made an app that lets me cringe at my mistakes and cherish old moments. The fact that in this very moment I can take these old photos, and send them to my parents with a comment that says, “365 days ago…how things change”.

Isn’t that amazing?

Cringing at my mistakes. Cherishing old moments.

Therein lies the essence of Day One. But there are other journaling apps that allow you to cringe and cherish just as well. But "just as well" implies "good enough", and Day One does so much more than enough good to get by. Day One is spectacular, a shining example of delighting in the details. That the developers put so much thought into every corner of Day One and the subsequent delight it gives me (and guys like Federico) makes its 2013 App of the Year award from Apple so richly deserved.

I've so enjoyed my first year journaling in Day One that I look forward to many more to come. Aside from Tweetbot, Day One is my next favorite app, on the Mac or iOS. And, like Tweetbot, my allegiance to it remains iron-clad. In addition, I'm looking forward to seeing what the Bloom Built team has in store for iOS 7, as I think the app is already in good shape, design-wise, to match the OS's torn-down-and-rebuilt design sensibilities.

* * *

As I said in concluding both previous Day One pieces, if you're someone looking to get into digital journaling and use a Mac and/or an iOS device, look no further than Day One. You literally can't go wrong, and that's an endorsement I seldom, if ever, make. As if it isn't completely obvious by now, to say that I highly recommend Day One is an understatement of massive proportions.

Like I said, it's such a great fucking app.


In terms of my music-listening habits, I find that I'm much more of an album guy. That is, I find myself preferring to invest in entire albums rather than listening to singles on iTunes Rdio. Moreover, I've always been the type of listener who listens to one or two albums over and over, as if on a binge. I'll listen to these few albums until I inevitably get sick of them, but the illness is always temporary. I know that, eventually, I'll come back to these albums whenever the mood strikes again.

In fact, I'm in binge mode right now. I've been listening to Kanye West's new album, Yeezus, virtually non-stop since its release on June 18. It's a terrific album, and I believe its the best of Kanye's six.

* * *

It's hard for me to fully articulate exactly why I love Yeezus so much; it's just so raw and different than anything Kanye has ever done. I think the most apt, succinct explanation is I love it for the sounds. They're different and funky and catchy enough to my ear that I have my head bopping the entire time I'm listening to the album. Furthermore, a big tell that I really like an album is that I listen to it from beginning to end without skipping tracks. Yeezus is undoubtedly one of those albums.

Yeezus is reminiscent to me of Kanye's 2008 album, 808s & Heartbreak, which incidentally happens to be another of my favorite Kanye albums. Like 808s, Yeezus employs sparse, funky beats with some rapping and the occasional Auto-Tune. The two albums are clearly different, to be sure, but I find their similarities interesting, and I wonder if Kanye used bits and pieces of 808s for inspiration. I wouldn't be surprised if he did, because there are a lot of similar ingredients between the two works.

As I mentioned, a clear sign that I really dig an album is that I listen to it straight through without skipping. Again, Yeezus is unquestionably one of those albums. A big reason for this, I think, is the work of executive producer Rick Rubin. Rubin is one of my favorite producers, him being the mastermind behind Jay-Z's "99 Problems" and the last three Linkin Park albums, including LIVING THINGS. That I adore Rubin isn't so much about him as a beat maker --- though the one he created for "99 Problems" is incredibly good --- but rather the influence he has on the artists with whom he's working. He lets them experiment, be different, and encourages boundary-pushing. Such is the case with Kanye and Yeezus.

Here's Rubin on West, in an interview with the WSJ:

He is a true artist who happens to make music under the wide umbrella of hip hop. He is in no way beholden to hip hop’s typical messaging musical cliches. Hip hop is a grander, more personal form because of his contributions, and hopefully his work will inspire others to push the boundaries of what’s possible in hip hop.

Rubin is right on here. Kanye West makes hip-hop better, and Rick Rubin makes Kanye better.

I will never apologize for my liking rap music, and I will forever proudly proclaim that Kanye is one of my favorite rappers. People can hate on him for his narcissism or for the fact he and Kim Kardashian named their daughter North (she's keeping her dad's last name), but that doesn't reflect upon Kanye as an artist. He is an artist in the truest sense of the word.

* * *

Though every song on Yeezus is great, there are a few that I am particularly fond of. These are the tracks that I keep on coming back to when, invariably, I don't want to necessarily listen to the entirety of the album.

These favorites are, in no particular order:

"On Sight" is produced by the Daft Punk guys, and a perfect intro to the album. I love the beat, especially at song's end. "I Am A God", with its insanely pompous title, is in my mind the anthem for the entire album. "I'm In It" is crass and overtly sexual, but I like it. But "Blood On The Leaves" --- wow. It starts slow, with Kanye on the Auto-Tune, then he drops that glorious, infectious beat. It's fucking amazing. Out of all ten songs on Yeezus, I must listen to "Blood On The Leaves" most often. Just a great, great song.

In his review for The Talkhouse, Lou Reed writes:

People say this album is minimal.  And yeah, it's minimal.  But the parts are maximal. 


 It's all the same shit, it's all music — that's what makes him great.  If you like sound, listen to what he's giving you. Majestic and inspiring.

I like sound --- and I like this album. A lot.

If I were to rank Kanye's six albums in order of most favorite to least, it'd go:

  1. Yeezus
  2. 808s & Heartbreak
  3. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
  4. Graduation
  5. The College Dropout
  6. Late Registration

What can I say? I have a thing for the Auto-Tune.

* * *

What I appreciate most about Kanye West is that he isn't afraid to experiment musically and break conventions. He takes risks with his music. Which is why I believe getting Rick Rubin aboard this project was a stroke of genius. Rubin and West are like two peas in a pod in that sense. Both men collaborated on something truly remarkable that I think will appeal to music fans, not just rap fans.

I don't know that I could heap more praise onto Yeezus, other than to say it's been roughly a month and I still haven't tired of listening to it I'll refrain from going to extremes and say it's one of the greatest albums of all time, but I will reiterate what I said earlier: Yeezus is Kanye West's best album to date. It's raw and minimal. There were no promotional singles before release. Even the album cover is minimal --- and beautifully minimal at that. In my mind, Yeezus is the best album I've heard all year thus far. If I were a betting man, I'd bet Kanye will be able to add another Grammy to his trophy case.

I will say this: if you discriminate against hip-hop music and/or Kanye for whatever reason(s), you're definitely missing out. Yeezus is a sonic adventure that's too good to be missed. Whether via iTunes, Spotify, or Rdio, you should do your ears a favor and listen to this album.

Thoughts on Status Board

I know I’m a hardcore nerd when I get giddy with anticipation over the release of an app.

Yet that’s what happened when I saw this tweet from Panic announcing their new iPad app, Status Board. Having long been a fan of their other software -- Transmit and Coda 2 on the Mac, Diet Coda on iOS -- I was instantly excited for the new app. Stellar reviews from Federico Viticci and Chris Gonzales gave me more reason for excitement, so I had no qualms paying my $10 for it.

I’ve been playing with Status Board off and on since its release, and it’s damn impressive. As I said, I’ve been a fan of Panic’s work for awhile now, and Status Board doesn’t disappoint. It’s extremely well done, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for it.

* * *


If there’s one thing I can appreciate about Android, software-wise, it’s the widgets. This is especially true on a tablet, where the larger screen lends itself well to showing little chunks of pertinent information. By contrast, I’ve always felt that iOS on the iPad is lacking in this area, particularly on the Lock screen. For all the praise Apple received for reworking iOS to fit a 9.7-inch space, the Lock screens feels like nothing more than the iPhone’s Lock screen made bigger. As such, there’s a lot of wasted space, space that could be better utilized by adding little chunks of pertinent information. In other words, widgets.

Once I first launched Status Board and saw the interface, my mind immediately thought of widgets. Take this with a grain of salt, though, because what Status Board offers aren’t widgets in the same vein as, say, what’s found on Android. The big difference is that Status Board’s “widgets” aren’t actionable; they’re just static blocks of information that you can’t interact with -- e.g., tapping a mail message doesn’t let you read or reply to it. I don’t mean to imply negativity here; the point is to simply describe what is, from what I’ve read, a deliberate design decision by Panic. If anything, this bit of context is meant to show that the concept behind Status Board is something that I wish Apple would consider elaborating on in future versions of iOS for iPad.


As I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of Panic’s other work, and Status Board perpetuates their reputation for high-quality, polished software. The app is gorgeous and easy to use. (The setup guide is especially great.) I must admit that sometimes I open Status Board just to admire its craftsmanship.

There are a couple little things about the interface that I enjoy very much. For one, the “dock” icons on the bottom “bounce” when you tap the Settings button in the top left corner. Tap an icon, and it bounces again, this time with a boop or bleep. But here’s the really cool thing: tap any of the other icons, and they bounce to a different tune. Secondly, I’m able to tap random icons and create a sort of crude jingle, all the while watching them on command jump into the digital air. I very much enjoy the playful design here; it reminds me of Ollie the Bird of Twitterrific fame emerging from his egg and flapping his wings as your timeline refreshes. Implementation details such as these seem trivial, but in my mind, they make the user experience that much better. Kudos to the Panic team for indulging in some joyous user interface design.

In terms of usability, Status Board is pretty straightforward and simple to get going. During the setup process, the app will ask you for permission to access your mail, calendar, and Twitter information. When in Edit mode, tapping on one of the spaces on the board will bring up a popover menu of options related to that space. For instance, tapping the clock will bring up a menu allowing you to set your location, as well as choose between an analog or digital display. In addition, spaces are also easy to remove by tapping the red Remove button. I had my Status Board up and running within a few minutes, with no problems whatsoever.


For as much as I love the concept and design of Status Board, the fact is that I have no legitimate use case for this app. As John Siracusa so eloquently stated on last week’s episode of the Accidental Tech Podcast, Status Board is a niche app that’s really meant for business environments. I don’t need to have my email messages or my Twitter feed constantly running. Likewise, I don’t need to build tables and graphs which show this site’s traffic at all times. But I’m among the lot of people whom Siracusa coined “curious nerds”. Pragmatism notwithstanding, people like me are going to buy Status Board because (a) we know and like Panic; and (b) we’re nerds, so we like to experience this stuff, even if we don’t require a need for such a product.

Beyond the Do I truly need this? sentiment, the real problem with Status Board at this point, at least for me, is the Lock screen. Of course, this is no fault of Panic’s, but that I can’t view my board without always having the app open, frankly, sucks. Maybe Apple will open up access to the Lock screen in the future, but as it stands right now, Status Board isn’t all that useful to me. (Yes, because Status Board requires iOS 5, I could use my out-of-commission iPad 1 for it, but non-Retina grossness. Ew.) Another issue is that I don’t own an HDTV, so paying the $10 in-app purchase to hook it up to a television is out.

Overall, these circumstances are quite disappointing, because Status Board is so thoughtful and well done, it doesn’t deserve to be treated like a novelty. For better or worse, though, that’s what Status Board is to me right now.


Despite not having use for Status Board currently doesn’t mean it’s forever useless to me. I’m sure the day when come in the not-too-distant future when I’ll find a valid reason to use the app, beyond just superficially gawking at its niceness. Maybe Gaug.es will write a scraper that’ll allow me to view real-time traffic here, or maybe MLB.com will see Status Board and want to create a sort of ticker, who knows. Point being that, again, Status Board is not in want of uses or potential uses. Right now, however, the app doesn’t provide me with a lot of value.

All this said, Federico Viticci has culled together a list of links to various scripts and stuff that allow Status Board to shine as Panic intended. I’m definitely going to keep my eye on this, because I’m very interested to see what the developer community comes up with for the app. As I said, there’s always hope for the future in terms of what Status Board can do for me.

* * *

Chris Gonzales sums up my feelings about Status Board well. From his review:

If they could somehow get this information onto the iPad’s lock screen, that would make it much more useful for me. But as a separate app, I probably won’t spend much time in it except to ogle the pretty graphics from time to time.

Do I regret spending $10 on it? No. Is it an app worth your time? Absolutely, if only to ponder the possibilities. I say get it.

The Tom Bihn Cafe Bag

I’ve long been -- at least, in my adult life -- a fan of messenger bags. I think they look better, carry easier, and are less stress-inducing on my back. Over the last few years, I’ve become sort of a closet bag nerd: I’ve bought several bags from various makers (mainly Incase and Timbuk2) in the search of the perfect fit. The experience has proved similar to that of Goldilocks at the Three Bears’ house. Some bags were too small. Some bags were too big. And others still would be lacking in pockets or the right color to catch my eye. Nothing I found turned out to be the proverbial “just right”. That is, until I discovered the medium-sized Cafe Bag by Tom Bihn.

Pardon me for keeping with the fairytale metaphor, but this bag is just right.

I have Ben Brooks to thank for turning me on to Tom Bihn. His review of the Smart Alec prompted me to check out Tom Bihn’s website, and I’m glad I did. They offer a wide variety of bags and accessories at reasonable prices, and the customer support/user forum were instrumental in helping me narrow down what I wanted. (Bonus: Being that Tom Bihn is Seattle-based, shipping to the Bay Area was fast.) I ordered my bag as part of my Christmas gift to myself, and I’ve been using it daily ever since. It’s been an awesome bag, and I’m very pleased with my purchase.

* * *


My uncle has this theory about physical space, which basically says that the bigger the space, the more inclined one will be to fill it. What happens when it’s filled? You have (a) in all likelihood, a lot of unnecessary stuff; and (b) because of said stuff, the once “big” bag becomes smaller and heavier. He was persistent in reiterating this idea as I researched what was available from Tom Bihn, and most of it stuck with me. I didn’t want something too small nor too big (yes, still with the Goldilocks theme), because I didn’t want to be bound by space, in want or in excess. The truth is, I don’t carry very much with me -- I don’t need much -- so I figured the medium variety was a good compromise. Roughly three months later, the conviction of my choice stands unchanged.

Here’s what’s in my bag at all times:

  • iPad 3 with Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard, inside a case1
  • Large mesh organizer pouch filled with miscellaneous odds and ends, like my Cosmonaut stylus, Olloclip, Mophie Powerstation Duo, gum, and so on.
  • Steno Notepad from Field Notes
  • Small, non-sticky Post-It note-like pad
  • Sunglasses
  • Two pens -- specifically, these pens
  • 30-pin to USB cable for use with the Powerstation

That’s it. With everything inside, the bag is fairly full but not overly so. I have everything packed so that the weight is pretty much evenly distributed throughout, thereby making the bag feel lighter than it really is. I worked hard to determine what I wanted with me wherever I go would be things that I’d actually use, or at least potentially use. Considering my workflow, this is the perfect day bag for me. The bag is just big enough for my essentials; it’s full, but not too full. I don’t feel bogged down trying to hop on BART or the bus, and it’s small enough so as to not take up a lot of room when I put it down somewhere.

As for the color, I ended up opting for a bag in Linen/Steel, as Tom Bihn describes it. The outside of the bag is linen-colored, almost tannish-looking. The color is dominate here, save for the black accents coming off the buckle and strap. The Tom Bihn logo is embroidered on the bottom right corner; in fact, I think the red airplane in the logo plays well with the rest of the bag’s aesthetics. The inside of the bag is the “Steel” color; I like the contrast of the dark gray against the light-ish color of the linen.

Speaking of light, I read several reviews of the bag that mentioned how the linen, perceptually, seems to change shades depending on the ambient light. At first I thought it wasn’t a big deal, but after using the bag, I’ve noticed it too. Indoors, the color seems duller, giving the bag an almost dirty-looking appearance. Of course, it still looks good and isn’t dirty, but the color doesn’t attract the eye as much. Conversely, viewing the bag in a setting with natural light (i.e., outdoors), brings out real vibrant tones. The linen sort of “glistens” in the sunlight, making it very eye-catching.2 It makes for a really beautiful bag, a sentiment attested to in most reviews I saw. I was initially going to get black, but decided against it after concluding it was too boring. I’m glad I did, because I’m very happy with the look of the linen. The pictures shown on the website don’t do it justice.


I’ve become a bag nerd mostly out of practicality. Being that I walk and take public transit to get around most of the time, carrying a bag is really a smart idea. I’d previously gotten by with carrying things in plastic bags and/or the packets of my pants or hoodies. That’s fine for small items, but not so much for bigger things, like my iPad. Since I don’t drive, I don’t have a car where I could throw things in as I move from place to place. Carrying a bag allows me to do so, to the point where not having my bag with me feels not dissimilar to the “naked” feeling I get when I don’t have my phone on me (or I have it but it’s dead). As I said, I searched a long time for the right bag, so I fully appreciate what the Cafe bag allows me to do. For lack of a better word, carrying a bag feels genuinely liberating. Besides, a bag is so much nicer than a plastic bag or overstuffed pockets.

There are little things about the bag I enjoy. The giant buckle on the front is super easy for me to open and close, as is the zippered compartment beneath it. In addition, I love how the bag sits upright as I’m trying to get stuff in and out without tipping over. I love the handle on the top of the bag, which makes for easy grabbing. I love how, on the inside, the bag features an O-ring for my mesh pouch, and the two spaces that house my pens. Most of all, though, I love the textured underside of the buckle on the shoulder strap. It’s grippy, almost as if it were wearing cleats. It’s helpful insofar that the grooves help keep the strap on my shoulder. The friction isn’t noticeable so as to be uncomfortable, but such a feature is so ingenious that I wonder why more bag manufacturers haven’t ripped off borrowed the idea.

In general, I’d say the best thing about the bag, beyond pragmatics and aesthetics, is that I can wear the thing cross-body. I’ve always worn my messenger bags in this fashion; it’s most comfortable for me to do it this way. I don’t like the over-the-shoulder method, for reasons of appearance (a point which I’ll get to below) and of shoulder fatigue. In fact, many of Tom Bihn’s bag offerings are either backpacks or meant for shoulder use; the Cafe bag is one of a select few that offers cross-body wear. Hence, this gave the Cafe a huge advantage in my eyes when it came down to making my buying decision.


The preceding 1,370 words of this review have been, obviously, overwhelming positive, and for good reason. The truth is I really love this bag, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone in the market for one. Thus, there isn’t much that I dislike about the bag. To try to find fault in pursuit of fairness or objectivity would be disingenuous. Again, this bag is damn near perfect for my needs.

That said, I do have one quibble with regards to the outside of the bag. While I use the inside zippered pocket quite often to store papers and whatnot, it’s sometimes hard to access. This is really no fault of the bag itself, as my dexterity is such that maneuvering around buckles and zippers can be difficult at times. I’d prefer it if the outside of the bag, above the buckle, had a zippered compartment as well. This would make it much easier for someone like me to throw something in there with a minimum of fuss. Admittedly, the bag would be worse from a aesthetic standpoint3, but it’d be a huge win in terms of function. Here’s hoping Tom Bihn will consider such an addition in a future update.


This bag is awesome. If I were to rate it in iTunes, I'd give it 5 stars.

* * *

I anticipate the Tom Bihn Cafe bag serving me well for many years to come. It’s well made, stylish, and best of all, functional. I like the thing so much that I don’t mind the friendly heckling I’ve been getting from family and friends, who refer to it as a “man purse”. (Maybe if I got it in purple that’d be appropriate, but I digress.) Anyone looking for a good bag should definitely check out the Cafe bag -- or, for that matter, any other bags from Tom Bihn. The Cafe bag was a great first purchase, and they definitely will have me again as a repeat customer. This was $65 well spent.

Thanks, Ben!

  1. The iPad Cache and pouch are both Tom Bihn accessories.  ↩

  2. In fact, most of the compliments I’ve received have been given whilst I’m out and about.  ↩

  3. Which is probably why there isn’t one in the first place.  ↩

The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover for iPad

I’ve written a lot of words championing the use of the iPad as a productivity tool. What I do most of -- for the Internet, school, or otherwise -- is write, and the iPad is terrific at helping me do just that. The one-app-at-a-time-in-full-screen approach in iOS is great because it allows me to better focus on what I want to say, with a minimum of distraction. Byword, Poster, and Dropbox are all the software I need to get work done. This, coupled with the iPad 3’s Retina display and slim profile, have caused me to abandon my 11-inch MacBook Air, a machine whose original purpose was to be for writing. But I don’t need another full-sized Mac to satisfy my workflow, so the Air -- no doubt, a great little dynamo in its own right -- is left to collect dust, as it were. Put another way, the iPad is my laptop.

For most of last year, I used an Incase Origami Workstation paired with an Apple Bluetooth keyboard. The setup worked well, but I always found it somewhat annoying to have to carry both my iPad and the Origami + keyboard in my bag. So, after reading good things from Shawn and Stephen over at Tools & Toys, as well as MG Siegler, I decided to get a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. I got it on the cheap for Christmas via Amazon Prime, and have been using it with my iPad ever since. Suffice it to say, I very much like my new rig, and don’t foresee myself switching back to the Origami.

* * *

I mentioned that I got the Keyboard Cover on Amazon. I did so for around $85 plus free two-day shipping thru Prime; this made me a very happy nerd, as the regular price for the thing costs $100. (I cannot speak highly enough of Amazon Prime. It’s such an awesome service that I often wonder how I did without.) The lower price point and the free shipping only helped to strengthen my resolve in liking the keyboard, as I was already impressed by the stellar reviews. I was greatly looking forward to receiving it.

The hallmark feature of the keyboard is that it uses magnets to affix itself to the iPad, in a way not dissimilar to Apple’s Smart Cover. The only difference is that Logitech’s solution uses a plastic hinge, as opposed to the Smart Cover’s aluminum one (for the full-sized iPad). I have a black leather Smart Cover for my iPad and, while nice, I wasn’t fond of the little scuff marks the thing left after prolonged use. By contrast, the plastic hinge on the Logitech leaves no such damage, for which I am happy because I hate seeing blemishes on my devices. Another similarity that the Logitech keyboard borrows from the Smart Cover is the automatic sleep/wake feature, although since I usually power down my iPad when travelling, this is something I rarely (if ever) notice.

I very much enjoy the compactness of the iPad + Logitech rig. To my eyes, it resembles that of the Surface RT with Touch Cover. The keyboard and surrounding area is encased in black (or white, if you prefer) plastic, while the outer part is made of aluminum to match the iPad. The iPad rests in a magnetized white strip that runs horizontally above the actual keyboard, at an angle that I find most comfortable to type, etc. The keyboard itself is quite small, akin to a netbook’s, but as someone with small hands, typing isn’t a problem. In a tactile sense, typing on the Logitech feels just as comfortable as typing on my MacBook or Apple’s Bluetooth one. The experience isn’t as crisp insofar that the keys don’t depress and release as smoothly, but it’s nonetheless workable and, again, comfortable.

Another win for the footprint of the iPad + Logitech is how remarkably well it travels. When attached, the thing is effectively the same size and weight as my forgotten 11-inch Air; it fits beautifully into the iPad Cache that goes with me in my Tom Bihn Cafe bag. This rig’s profile is a huge reason why I prefer it to the Origami, because it consolidates everything into essentially one device, and even looks like a laptop when pulling it out of the case.

The keyboard has a set of specialized keys (found within the number row) that correspond to different functions in iOS. So, for example, pressing 1 will take you to Spotlight, while pressing 3 will bring up the soft keyboard. There’s even a dedicated Home key to the left of the 1 key that mimics the Home button on the iPad. Pressing it will, obviously, take you back to the Springboard. Truthfully, I haven’t used these keys very much, if at all, so I’ve had to acquaint myself with their functions. Still, they’re nice touches by Logitech, and I’d probably utilize them more if I could manage to remember what each key does. (Another nice touch: pressing the spacebar wakes the iPad from sleep.)

Speaking of keys, I really like that the Logitech has one for Command. What this allows for is the use of such Mac-centric keyboards such as ⌘-C/V for copy and paste, respectively. As someone who works with a lot of text (naturally), I use these shortcuts all the time. My only quibble is that ⌘-L, which I use all the time in Safari on the Mac to highlight the address bar, doesn’t work with the Logitech. I’m unsure if this is a fault of the keyboard or simply a limitation of iOS, but I find that it slows me down when surfing the Web. My hope is that more support for commonly-used shortcuts is added in the future.

* * *

If I were forced to come up with things that I don’t like about the Logitech keyboard, it’d likely be a pretty short list -- a trivial one at that. The truth is, I really, really like the thing, so my beefs come down to aesthetic design. For one, while I got the black model because it best matches my black iPad, it’s not the prettiest looking thing. Compared to the uber-slim, aluminum-clad Apple Bluetooth keyboard, the Logitech looks like something ripped out of a netbook. (I know, obsessing over the looks of something so utilitarian as a fucking keyboard is kinda lame, but there it is.) For another, I’m not a fan of the plastic interior. I expect the key caps themselves to be plastic, but I don’t see why Logitech didn’t go with aluminum, especially considering the outside of the thing is metal. Maybe this is the problem of all first-world nerd problems, and maybe I’m just spoiled by my Apple gear being clad in aluminum and glass, but the plastic just doesn’t sit right with me. It feels cheap, at least psychologically, even though the thing is, in reality, well made.

Another gripe is the power switch is awfully hard to get to and flip. This is probably my fault, as my dexterity sucks, but it leaves me wishing Logitech would’ve opted for a pressable button, a la Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard. But, again, a trivial gripe, and pretty low on the nits to pick.

* * *

So it’s taken me almost 1,300 words to say that I am a fan of the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover, and heartily recommend it. I take mine with me everywhere I go, and can honestly say it’s one of the best iPad accessories on the market. Logitech makes good products, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

Day One

When it comes to apps, I’m not the kind of person who browses the App Store (be it on the Mac or iOS) and downloads something on a whim. On the contrary, I’m pretty selective when it comes to what I download. Usually I’ll try an app after reading about it from one of my fellow nerd Apple writers. Cases in point: John Gruber turned me on to Tweetbot and Shawn Blanc to Byword. Recently, glowing reviews by Federico Viticci and Shawn prompted me to try Day One.

In a sentence, Day One is already one of my favorite and most-used apps.

I’ve been using the app in its various incarnations -- iPhone, iPad, and the Mac -- for about a week now, and I love it. Day One is a journaling app meant to be the digital equivalent of the analog, pen-and-paper journal. (I refrain from calling it a “diary” because “diary” seems so immature.) I’ve been writing in it every night, and I very much look forward to doing so. (That I look forward to using the app speaks volumes of how much I like it.) What I’ve settled into doing is writing short, stream-of-consciousness entries that essentially review my day. Some entries are shorter, some are longer, but I like that. I appreciate being able to sit down and just write whatever comes to mind. In fact, the hardest part of the whole experience is deciding which version of the app I want to use. To that point, I’m finding the iOS version is more fun because I love the playful boop boop bleep sounds in the app, as well as the ability to add location and weather information. Among the nerdier features I appreciate, Day One supports Markdown, iCloud sync1, and the ability to export your work in plain text. I’m also pleased that, being somewhat of a typography nerd, the Mac version uses Avenir as its default font. Aside from FF Meta Serif Web Pro (which you’re seeing now), it’s my second-most favorite font.

For anyone into journaling (or who want to get into it), I say look no farther than Day One. The guys at Bloom Built did a fantastic job, and I’m grateful to Viticci and Shawn for turning me on to another great app.

  1. It really does work like magic.  ↩

Thoughts on 'LIVING THINGS'

My love of Linkin Park runs deep. Not only does their music combine two of my favorite genres of music -- rap and rock -- but their sound and the lyrics of their songs have always appealed to me. They are, without a doubt, my all-time favorite band. Their fifth studio album, LIVING THINGS, cements their place in my heart as the greatest band my ears have ever heard. It is my most favorite LP album, and arguably their best to date.

What makes LIVING THINGS so great is that it encapsulates all the sounds the band’s ever experimented with. If Hybrid Theory and Meteora represented the height of the nu-metal, rap-rock craze and Minutes to Midnight and A Thousand Suns represented breaking away and maturing artistically, then LIVING THINGS stands as an amalgamation of all the sonic beams the band’s ever played with. And I absolutely love it.

Here’s how LP frontman Mike Shinoda describes the album:

Over the course of the last year, the subject kept popping up, and we talked about how to tastefully bridge the gap between all the musical places we’ve been, to marry together all the ideas we’ve accumulated about how to make a song. And as LIVING THINGS began taking shape, the most powerful shift I saw take place was the acceptance and eagerness to use all the tools in the toolbox, not just some. Everything at once, together.

Everything at once, together. As I said, an amalgamation. The quintessential mash-up.

I, of course, downloaded the album from iTunes when it came out on June 26. I haven’t listened to anything else since. It’s been LIVING THINGS every single time I’ve been in the mood for some music. That I haven’t listened to anything else speaks volumes (no pun intended) about how much I adore what Linkin Park’s done this time around. I really liked that the band were brave and self-aware enough to break for the (albeit successful) formula from their first two albums, and expand musically. They recruited Rick Rubin and embarked on a journey of discovery that, I think, made them better. Most importantly, I think it made them lasting. The worst thing the band could’ve done is clung to the past and fallen complacent, whereby the same type of music is made ad nauseam. It also would’ve been the quickest route to irrelevancy.

Shinoda again:

For me, it’s all about getting back to the real “hybrid theory" -- not the album with that name, but the idea that the six guys in our band have drastically different tastes in music, and the blending of all those sounds into one is exactly what we built our band upon.

Shinoda’s larger point here is this: at its core, the band hasn’t changed so much as it's evolved. Come to think of it, “Hybrid Theory” arguably would’ve been a more apt title for this latest album insofar that the sounds are so clearly representative of Linkin Park as artists. LIVING THINGS exemplifies their maturation. 

In the end1, it’s hard for me to pinpoint which tracks are the best or my favorite2 because I’m so enamored with the body of work. Every one of the twelve songs on the album are great. LIVING THINGS presents one of those rare opportunities whereby a listener can play the album continuously from start to finish. Conceptually, that’s exactly what an album’s supposed to invoke. Skipping tracks or buying them piecemeal is giving the album (and Linkin Park) a great disservice. It deserves to be experienced from beginning to end.

I can’t recommend LIVING THINGS highly enough. 10/10. Get it.

  1. See what I did there?  ↩

  2. Though if you long for the LP sound of old, I suggest “Victimized”.  ↩

My Thoughts on the WWDC 2012 Keynote

With this year’s WWDC having come to an end, I wanted to share my thoughts on the things Apple announced during last Monday’s keynote. There were three products announced: the Retina display MacBook Pro, Mountain Lion, and iOS 6. In this post, I’ll discuss each in order.

Retina Display MacBook Pro

The Retina display MacBook Pro was perhaps the biggest announcement at the keynote -- so big, in fact, that Phil Schiller went old school and unveiled the device with a black shroud.

This new 15-inch Pro is unquestionably the future of Apple’s notebooks line. Its design is sort of a cross between the MacBook Air and the Pro: thinner, lighter, and Flash-based but with “pro” features like the Retina display, a discrete graphics chip, and up to 16GB of RAM. It’s also priced professionally: this new Pro costs $2199. Make no mistake, though, the hallmark feature of this new notebook is the Retina display. It has a resolution of 2880x1800 at 220 pixels per inch. That’s 5.1 million pixels jam-packed in a 15.4-inch space.

The addition of the Retina display to the new MacBook Pro is a prime example of how Apple rolls, whereby a marquee feature starts in one place but slowly spreads across the company’s other products. Even moreso than Flash storage, thinness, and Thunderbolt ports, Apple clearly believes the Retina display is the future of notebooks. It’s only a matter of time -- and economics -- until Apple extends the Retina screen to the MacBook Air. (Not to mention the iMac and the Thunderbolt Display.) The prospect of an 11-inch Air with Retina display is particularly salivating. I had a chance to spend a few minutes with one at Best Buy. The display on that thing is absolutely amazing, and it’s amazingly thin and light. I’m definitely saving my pennies to get one. One oddity, though: when I walked up to the computer, the screen wasn’t set up to show off its Retina-ness. Rather, it was set up to show more space, so everything was tiny. I changed it, but as soon as I walked away, one of the store people changed it back. In any case, the biggest question surrounding the release of the new MBP is whether to buy one or wait for a Retina Air. It’s definitely a tough choice for some. What’s crazy to me about the new MBP is that at 0.71-inches thin and 4.46 pounds, its thinner and lighter than my Late 2008 13-inch unibody MacBook (0.95-inches, 4.5 pounds) I’m using as my main machine. It’s going to be awfully tempting to go for the new 15-inch Pro once it comes time to replace my MacBook.

In sum, John Gruber has the best take on the significance of the Retina MacBook Pro:

The new “next-generation” MacBook Pro with Retina Display is, in short, “Back to the Mac” for hardware. This is an iOS-inspired appliance — battery, RAM, solid state storage — all of it is sealed in a magnificent enclosure. Consider too that it no longer even says “MacBook Pro” on the front of the display. It’s just like an iOS device — a brilliant display surrounded by black glass.

 Nailed it.

Mountain Lion

Truthfully, the Mountain Lion stuff was the least exciting for me insofar that I’ve been using the betas for quite awhile now. In fact, that I’ve been using Mountain Lion for so long makes using Lion --  which my 11-inch Air that I’m using to write this review is running on -- kinda weird. Mountain Lion is pretty much Lion evolved, but you tend to appreciate the little touches MoLo adds, stuff like Notification Center and the Tabs View in Safari.

Because of my experience with using Mountain Lion, I don’t have much to say about it, save for a couple of points. The first point is that the OS now is pretty damn stable. I downloaded the WWDC build after the keynote, and it’s really good. I don’t think we’re very far from seeing the GM seed. As to the second point, I really like the concept of a new feature called Power Nap. What Power Nap does is download apps and other things while your system is in sleep mode. This way, once you wake it up, your system is already up to date. Unfortunately for me, this feature is only compatible with SSD-based Macs, so I won’t be able to use it on my main machine, though it will work with my Air.

Mountain Lion will be available in July on the Mac App Store for $19.99 -- $10 less than the Lion upgrade.

iOS 6

This section has the potential to be long, so I’m going to try to limit iits length by discussing the marquee features that hold the most interest and relevance to me. I’ll also try to mention some of the minor additions that I find interesting. Overall, I will say that iOS 6 is akin to Mountain Lion in that it adds polish and a Wow, that’s nice factor to the OS. Put another way, if iOS 5 was revolutionary for its overhaul of the notifications UI and Siri, then iOS 6 is more evolutionary in scope with its enhancements for Siri and the (somewhat) refreshed look of UIKit.

  • Maps. The rebuilt-from-the-ground-up overhaul of Maps is unquestionably Apple’s big “fuck you” to Google, especially since the MapKit API has been rewritten so that developers can use Apple’s new maps in their own apps. The cartography and, in particular, the 3D Flyover view is beautiful, but it remains to be seen if Apple’s own maps solution can effectively replace Google Maps. (Actually, it’ll be interesting to see if Apple allows Google to have a Maps app on the App Store after this. Somehow I doubt it.) Personally, I’ve never used Maps all that much, but I’m nonetheless excited to check out what Apple’s done. I recommend watching Scott Forstall’s demo.

  • Siri. Apple’s made some really nice enhancements to Siri this year, including the ability to launch apps, compose and send tweets, and look up sports, movie, and restaurant information. And, of course, Siri’s coming to the iPad (3) as well. I’m especially excited to get the app-launching functionality. For all the bitching about Apple’s promotion of Siri and it not working as advertised, the truth is she’s getting better -- it’s another example of how Apple rolls. Having said this, however, I still wish I didn’t stutter.

  • Facebook. Like Twitter in iOS 5, Apple’s built in deep, system-wide integration for Facebook, which is great for someone like me who also uses Facebook a lot. What’s great about this is that it’ll allow me to lessen my reliance on Facebook’s app, which, has become bloated and slow as molasses. Honestly, I don’t like using the app anymore. A nice touch: you can now post to Facebook (and tweet) right from within Notification Center.

  • Passbook. Passbook is interesting: I think it’s a harbinger for a mobile payment system. As it stands today, though, Passbook is your one-stop destination for your boarding passes, event tickets, and gift cards. I anticipate Passbook replacing the Starbucks app for me, as all I really use it for is to pay for my coffee. Also, the paper-shredding animation Apple uses when deleting cards is clever and damn slick.

  • Phone. The additions to the Phone app this year are very cool. Rather than just sending it to voicemail, you can now reply to a call you can’t (or shouldn’t) take with a message like “I’ll call you later”. (I wonder what happens, though, when sending messages to landlines.) Even better, you can have your phone remind you to call/text the caller back. Like in Reminders, you can even set up a geofence around your current location so that, for instance, your phone will pop up with an alert when you get leave work to call whomever it is back. Furthermore, I like the Do Not Disturb feature because it’s highly annoying to see (and hear) notifications come in at 3am.

  • Guided Access. This is one of the new Accessibility features Apple’s added in iOS 6. The biggest thing here is that you can now “lock” the iPad into Single App Mode by disabling the Home button. This is great for someone like me who uses iPads with special needs preschoolers, and wants them to focus on one activity. You can take this even further and disable any of the controls in the app so that, say, your child or student won’t be making inadvertent in-app purchases or switch apps. I know several of my co-workers have wished for a feature such as this, and they jumped for joy when I told them it was coming in iOS 6.

  • Miscellany. Other tidbits I think are cool about iOS 6 include the redesigned stores, app updates not kicking you out of the App Store, the iPad getting a native Clock app, and the new icon-driven Share Sheets. Also, there’s word that Apple plans to give podcasts their own app, but I’m guessing it won’t stop me from using Instacast. One thing about iOS 6 I don’t understand is why the iPhone 3GS gets to run it (albeit a crippled version) yet the iPad 1 doesn’t. Hell, the original iPad has the A4 chip. Makes no sense to me.

    I’m tempted to download the beta, but I might wait until v2 or 3 to do so. We’ll see.

As a whole, what was unveiled at WWDC wasn’t surprising -- most of the Apple rumor sites had a lot of this stuff pegged beforehand. There was no Apple TV SDK nor a standalone TV set, but those aren’t the types of things Apple would use WWDC to announce anyway. If you’re an Apple geek like me, you appreciate what was announced, and you look forward to September/October when the next iPhone is revealed. The next few months are going to be exciting, that’s for sure.