The SD Card Slot

Most discussions I’ve read of Apple’s move to only USB-C on MacBook Pros fail to include a key benefit of the SD Card slot.  Sure a lot of non-photographers probably don’t use the slot much, if at all.  But there is a usage scenario that would probably benefit everybody: storage expansion.

SSD storage is expensive, so most people probably have to compromise on what they keep on internal storage.  Therefore any extra storage that is easy to carry with your laptop is undoubtedly going to be useful.  Micro SD cards are available in a huge 128 GB and they are not overly expensive.  Also available are short SD to Micro SD converters.  This means it is possible to keep a high capacity Micro SD permanently attached to a laptop without worrying about it snapping off.

 

Let’s put that 128 GB size in context.  The entry level storage size for a MacBook or MacBook Pro is 256 GB.  Adding 128 GB to that increases storage by 50%.  That’s a tremendous gain.  Of course the speed is dramatically slower than soldered SSD, but it is fine for storage of files that are not accessed daily.

In the discussions I have read about the move to only USB-C I havent seen anyone discuss the removal of this expansion option.  Discussions have tended to focus on the advantages of USB-C over USB-A, Thunderbolt and/or HDMI.  I completely agree that USB-C is much better than all of these.  In particular the move from a proprietary port (Thunderbolt) to open standard (USB-C) is to be lauded.  So in general I am in agreement with the move to USB-C.  But I view the removal of the SD slot differently based on how I and others use it in practice.

Whilst it is possible to still connect an SD card with a dongle, that isn’t good enough if for an always attached storage option – it’s going to stick out of the laptop and be liable to break.  I have a 500 GB hard drive on my Mac.  That’s big, but I still find it useful to be able to offload large files to an always available 128 GB archive.  This helps a lot to maintain a minimum amount of free storage on my internal hard drive.  In general I thought the introduction of USB-C was a great idea but I do think that it could have been done whilst retaining the SD card slot.

Anyone else got thoughts on the removal of the SD Card slot or the introduction of USB-C?

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#TouchBar a Touch of Genius? Er no.

The long term story of the Touch Bar will be, I believe, that it is a productivity killer.  This is certainly true whilst it is a novel technology with limited support from apps.  But I think it will likely be true in the future too regardless of app support.  This is for two reasons…
In the short term it will be impossible to use the Touch Bar without looking at the bar to see what buttons are available and where they are.  In the long term that may also be true because software keys can’t be navigated by touch like physical keys can.  So people who use the keyboard extensively in their workflows will be hindered by the removal of physical function keys as they will have to continually move their line of sight from their screens to the Touch Bar.
Even if someone can train themselves to use some functions without shifting visual focus to the Touch Bar there are other functions that require visual focus.  For example, if you are in a word processing app part of the Touch Bar becomes word suggestions (like on iOS).  You have to look at the word suggestions in order to check if you want to use any of them.  Given the signalled mass migration of tech. professionals away from Macs on the back of the unveiling of the new MacBook Pros, most people using them will be people using regular word processing apps.  So this will be a big part of the average user experience.
One thing that almost certainly won’t be corrected is the problem of the contextual nature of the Touch Bar.  A different set of controls is displayed depending on which app is being used.  On the one hand that is great for having dynamic controls that are appropriate to the app you are currently using.  On the other hand you lose the global nature of function keys.  A great example of useful global functionality is for music control.  People often listen to music whilst doing other things on their laptops – like write documents, spreadsheets, or code.  So you put some music on and continue writing your document.  Then you want to skip a track, or change the volume.  You can no longer access the required controls immediately because you are in the wrong context for those buttons.  You need to pause your typing, switch back to Spotify or iTunes to get those controls, then change the track or volume, then switch back to your writing.  It would have been difficult for Apple to make this process more intrusive.
Apple have released a laptop with a new component that inflated the cost by a few hundred dollars and simultaneously eats into people’s workflows so that they’re less productive and therefore less able to afford this expensive kit (hyperbole 🙂
I cannot think why Apple do something useful like make a new top end laptop with a full touch screen?  Is anyone impressed with the Touch Bar?  If you are add a comment here or on Google Plus.  If you’re not you can add a comment too 🙂

The Ridiculous and Greedy Limitations of Watching Movies in iTunes

If you want an excellent example of a ridiculous limitation imposed on customers by Apple to force them to spend more money look no further than the Lightning to HDMI adapter. You’d think that you could hook your iPhone / iPad up to a TV and stream your movie rentals from iTunes to your TV via HDMI. But no, you cannot. If you try to a message will pop up on the TV: “This screen is not authorised to play protected content.”

If you want to stream a movie from iTunes on your iOS device to a TV you need to buy an Apple TV. Let’s be clear, this is not a technological limitation; it could be done but Apple don’t want users to be able to do this without paying for more hardware. You can mirror your iPad screen to a TV via HDMI doing any number of things, including watching some TV shows (e.g. BBC shows) from iTunes, but you cannot stream movies and other TV shows.

So Apple have forced their customers into a situation in which they’d need to spend another £100 to buy the Apple TV so they can stream movies and TV shows. There is no need for this approach, it is nothing more than greed. It doesn’t protect against piracy or illegal movie displays to large audiences. If someone just needs HDMI output in order to pirate a movie they can achieve that from the Apple TV. And there is nothing to stop someone hooking their Apple TV up to a projector to show a movie to a large audience.

The fact that Apple sell a Lightning to HDMI adapter at all whilst preventing this usage scenario is ridiculous. Therefore they will lose customers, like me, who would rent movies through iTunes but who will now prefer other platforms because they can stream without an Apple TV. Platforms like Amazon Video. I have a Prime account already and so the added benefit of TV shows and movies on top of the free one day delivery is a bonus.

Amazon provides a better app for viewing TV movies; the stock videos app hasn’t had anything done to it for a long time. The Amazon app allows you to browse TV and movies as well as watch. It has 10 second skip buttons. X-ray is built into it. It’s possible to log into a different Amazon account in it. On desktop all that is needed is a web browser; no need for a proprietary app. Great if you’re visiting friends and want to watch a movie through your account. A Prime account offers a range of periodically updated TV shows and movies for no additional cost. The movies aren’t the latest movies but there is almost always a range of good choices. The TV shows are current series. Lastly Amazon’s prices are better than Apple’s. Taken altogether these make Amazon Video a far more compelling platform.

So if you want a recommendation for where to rent your next movie check out Amazon Video.

Use the macron natively on iOS and macOS with text replacement

By far and away the most popular post I’ve ever written on this blog is how to type math and science symbols (pretty much) natively on iOS.  The method is to use the text replacement feature built into iOS and macOS which will receive unicode symbols you can paste into it.  Whilst it isn’t a perfect solution, it does greatly enhance the potential for productivity on a mobile device.  And then, every now and again, it produces a result above and beyond my expectations.

I’ve recently been designing decks of flip cards for a new app called Tinycards (it’s a great app that you should check out especially if you’re a teacher).  The deck I’m working on currently is about subatomic particles, which include antiparticles.  The symbols for just about every antiparticle require a bar across the top of the symbol (like this or this ).  Unicode includes a modifying macron (this ➝  ̄ is a macron in case you’re wondering), which puts a bar across symbols.  So I created a text replacement “shortcut” for the macron and got to work seeing if I could get it to modify my symbols on iOS (otherwise I’d need to use my Mac).

Lo and behold it worked!  I set up #macron as the “shortcut” for the macron in text replacement.  I then found that if I typed this: u#macron iOS would replace it with: .  It’s a beautiful solution.

To set this up yourself you’ll need a copy of the macron unicode symbol (I’ve included one below).  Copy it and paste into the Phrase field.  Then type the Shortcut you want to use.  I used #macron, but you might want to use something else like #bar.

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If the macron listed below doesn’t work properly you should be able to get a working copy of it from my list of symbols in this Evernote note.  When you copy the macron the selection extends slightly beyond the visible symbol itself, I think that is due to the fact it is a modifying macron.

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macron symbol to copy:   ̄

Convert IFTTT Timestamps into Date and Time Values You Can Use

If you use IFTTT to log data in Google Sheets then you might have wondered if you can make any functional use of the timestamp that goes in the first column by default.  In order to use the actual date from the timestamp I have in the past used formulae in a separate sheet (I call it the Interpreter) to duplicate the raw input data and then to extract the date and time.  The reason for needing the separate sheet is that if you include a formula in IFTTT, e.g. =LEFT(A2,LEN(A2)-11) which will give you the date from a timestamp, the cell reference A2 will become invalid after the recipe first runs.  It isn’t possible for IFTTT to compute the correct cell reference to input each time the recipe runs. But the problem with the Interpreter sheet is that you have to keep filling all the formulae down to accommodate new data, or occasionally fill down formulae a couple hundred rows in advance.  So it’s far from ideal.

The ideal situation is to design a formula that can correctly reference the cell with the time stamp without needing to enter an actual cell reference.  That way IFTTT can input it automatically every time the recipe runs.  Well here is a formula that will return the value of a cell itself:

=INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW())
That will give you a circular reference error, so don’t use that!  We can use the OFFSET() function to reference the cell to the left of itself:
=OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-1)
Or the cell to the left of that:
=OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-2)
So how can this be used to extract the date and time?  If you examine IFTTT timestamps they are all different lengths but the time part of the stamp is a constant number of characters.  Here are a couple of examples:
• February 04, 2016 at 04:09PM
• April 27, 2016 at 09:24AM
The dates are obviously different lengths but the time part is always seven characters long, e.g. “04:09PM”, they can be extracted to provide the time.  To extract the date from the timestamp we just need to cut off the time and the preceding ” at ” part of the string (that’s the last eleven characters of the string).  So the spreadsheet formulae to use are:
• Date:
=LEFT(OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-1),LEN(OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-1))-11)
• Time: 
=RIGHT(OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-2),7)

If you want to set this up in an IFTTT recipe you would have something like this, where {{OccurredAt}} is the marker for where IFTTT will insert the timestamp, and ||| is the marker for a cell division:

{{OccurredAt}} ||| =LEFT(OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-1),LEN(OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-1))-11) ||| =RIGHT(OFFSET(INDIRECT(CHAR(COLUMN()+64)&ROW()),0,-2),7) |||
Hope that’s of help to some of you wanting to work with IFTTT timestamps.
Update 12/10/16
An alternative to the above formulae is to use the IFTTT timestamp string directly in the formula, e.g.
=LEFT(“{{OccurredAt}}”,LEN(“{{OccurredAt}}”)-11)
I’ve had trouble with Google Sheets interpreting the output as a true date value (it interprets it as a string).  To get around that use DATEVALUE(), like this:
=DATEVALUE(LEFT(“{{OccurredAt}}”,LEN(“{{OccurredAt}}”)-11))

The 3.5 mm Headphone Jack

I can understand the drive to replace the 3.5 mm jack with something (genuinely) better and more efficient BUT
1. “Thinner” is irrelevant for smartphones.  Check out this from David Pogue:

The cylinder that accommodates your headphone jack is now among the thickest components of your phone! It’s thicker than the screen guts, the circuit board, or the battery.

The headphone jack is what’s preventing phones from getting any thinner. It’s the limiting factor.

They don’t need to be thinner! That is an outmoded design concept. Existing battery technology is not particularly new either, we have had lithium ion cells for a long time and so we have had pretty much the same energy density in our batteries.  Making thinner phones means less volume available for batteries so less total energy available for use.  Most smartphones cannot survive longer than a day with moderate use.  None can survive longer than several hours with intensive use.  They are first and foremost meant to be mobile devices so having to plug them into charge (at the wall or with a charging device) defeats their primary purpose.

Phones should certainly not get any thinner as that would not solve any problems they face at present.  It would not improve their ergonomics; it might in fact make their ergonomics worse.  Phones would benefit from getting a bit thicker and having larger batteries.

2. Secondly, with the abolition of the 3.5 mm jack we will face a choice of multiple connections to replace it.  The good thing about the 3.5 mm jack was that it was essentially the standard.  Replacing it with a choice of many is not good because we will need to use one type of connection for one device and another for a different device, so in addtion to headphones a range of adapters will be required.  That’s a more wasteful approach to resources in comparison to having a single standard.  Choice is not always good.

Now  consider a usage scenario offered by using the new jacks e.g. the Lightning connector for the iPhone.  They enable the phone to supply power to headphones.  But that’s exactly what is not needed – more power going out of the phone!  We need more energy in the phone; not more going out.    Also with the 3.5 mm jack it is possible to listen through headphones and charge your phone.  Without it you will have to make a choice: charge phone or listen on headphones.  Unless of course you buy another adapter!

What do you think: are you happy to see the back of the 3.5 mm jack, will you miss it, or were you hoping for something better to come out of its demise than has done?