Inbox by Google : Great and Annoying

I like many aspects of Inbox on iOS. It is Google’s own app so it can presumably harness the email data in ways that third party apps cannot, or at least the direct access it has to email data must give it a reliability and speed edge. Snooze to location is good. Built in actionable reminders. Google’s summary cards for standard emails. These are all great things, however the app does has some very annoying limitations.
1. No text formatting options. Five years ago this wouldn’t have been problem as most people would have been happy to be able to email whilst mobile. But these days it should be possible to add bold, italics and underline to your emails. This is all the more problematic given that even WhatsApp and Slack allow for some formatting – WhatsApp only handles bold but Slack has a range of options. If instant messengers can offer text formatting an email app absolutely should be able to do so. At times Inbox has had support for text formatting, but it is there one update and gone the next. Presently it is available, but who knows for how long?

2. No file attachments outside of Photos / Drive. Sure you can browse your file storage app and attach from there, but is it really too hard for Google to add a proper file picker? Furthermore this is no good for replying to emails; you have to start a new thread (not helpful).

3. Lack of draft saving from share sheet. When sharing files from other apps to email from Inbox, if the email fails to send or you stop composing the email you lose the email. Whereas when sharing into other apps (i.e. Spark or Outlook) the file is opened in the email app itself and attached to a new email. If you then stop composing the email you are given the option to save a draft. Inbox’s behaviour is nice in that it doesn’t switch you into the Inbox app; it overlays Inbox’s interface into the app you are sharing from. But as outlined above it is annoying if you start and email and aren’t able to complete it in one go as you’ll lose the entire email. A common problem here is that if you start composing from the share window and then need to check something in the document you’re trying to share (or another document in the same app for that matter) then there is no way to open the document without closing and losing your email. 

4. No printing! If you want to print emails you’ll need a different app. Even attachments can’t be printed unless they are a PDF. I don’t often need to print emails but when I occasionally do this is a major limitation. More often it is the need to turn an email into a PDF that I notice this lack of feature. In iOS you can turn any document / file into a PDF if it can be printed (find out how here). So the fact that I cannot print an email means that I cannot turn it into a PDF.
I hope that these lack of features will be addressed soon. Does anyone have thoughts about their favourite email app?

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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:   ̄

Swipes, snoozes, services and pdf export : Welcome to Spark.

When Dropbox announced that it was closing down Mailbox I thought that was the end of email efficiency for me.  Parallel to use of Mailbox I had played around with Inbox, Boxer and Cloudmagic but never found them up to the mark for how I did email.  Part of that was certainly due to the fact that I had setup my email accounts to work well with Mailbox but there was still a significant part that was down to core features of those apps.
So I was over the moon to discover Spark.  It is an email app that incorporates all of Mailbox’s best features but then does even more on top.  In Spark you can swipe emails in your inbox to archive, delete, snooze, move or several other options.  You see that’s a particularly great thing about Spark: it is so customisable.  Swiping emails makes it super easy to process your inbox.  In the same way that Mailbox offered a short or long swipe (to the left and right) Spark does that too.

Boxer and Cloudmagic have always allowed users to hook other services directly into their email, services such as Evernote, Dropbox, Drive.  Mailbox didn’t offer that, which was a slight source of frustration to me.  Sure I could use IFTTT to hack the service in but that meant having to label emails especially for that service but that’s not necessarily the best way to actually handle your emails.  Spark offers those third party service connections too.  That doesn’t give it the edge over Boxer or Cloudmagic but it does nudge it over Mailbox and Inbox.  So now in Spark I can long swipe left and send my emails direct to Evernote.  I send shed loads of emails to Evernote so the process just got a lot faster and made more awesome by Spark.

Upon news of Mailbox’s demise I decided to set up shop in Inbox.  My most important email accounts are Gmail accounts.  Gmail is awesome.  Ever since the release of Inbox I have subconsciously willed it to be great and I do like it.  But there are some things that really irritate me about it.  Firstly, it doesn’t have a unified inbox.  Why not?  I do not know, but Google have for some reason forced us to keep our inboxes separate and made checking email across multiple accounts that much more tedious.  Secondly, if you want to check a bundle once a day Google have decided that you may only check it at the time they decide.  Well I’m sorry Google but that time does not suit me.  Thirdly, due to the non-unified inbox fiasco described above you can’t have a badge for how many emails are in your inbox.  I like to maintain inbox zero, but Inbox won’t remind me if I have emails to process.  Related to that point is that reminders are pretty much useless if I am in another account’s inbox – oops.  Fourthly, this point I understand but it is there so it should be stated: Inbox only works with Gmail accounts.  I don’t see that changing anytime soon for the obvious reason that I can’t imagine an app made by Google support Yahoo or any other mail.  I do have email accounts with other providers so this situation forces me to use multiple email apps which is undesirable.
A major persuading factor for me switching to Inbox from Mailbox was the ability to snooze emails.  I find that so useful.  (A doff of the cap to the Mailbox team for introducing this feature.)  Well Spark allows me to snooze emails too so a big tick to Spark.
After coming across news about Spark a few days ago I decided to investigate further.  I was impressed by the inclusion of features I had come to love and rely upon in Mailbox and there was more on top: Save emails as PDF, send full attachments, hook third party services directly into the app etc.  Here is a list of Spark’s killer features that have won me over:
  • Spark supports Gmail, iCloud, Exchange, Yahoo!, Outlook and other email providers.
  • With Spark you can send full file attachments not photos or links only.  Attachments are created from cloud storage services (e.g. Drive and Dropbox).  The attachment process gives you the option of sending a link to a file or sending ac copy of the file itself.
  • The services that can be hooked into your email include: Evernote, Dropbox, Drive, Box, Pocket and more.
  • Snooze your emails easily with a swipe and tap.  The list of snooze times is customisable to keep things snappy and convenient.
  • Emails can be exported as a PDF straight to any relevant services you’ve connected.
  • Spark has a smart inbox (which is optional).  It lists all your new/unread emails at the top.  As you read them they move down to a separate section for read emails.  From either section you can process emails by swiping them.
    If you want to pin an email to your inbox you can do that too.  Pinned emails are kept in their own section.
  • Want to find an attachment?  You can view a list of just attachments from your email accounts in Spark.
  • You can customise so much within Spark: which accounts contribute toward the app badge, how the sidebar is laid out, what your swipes do, what widgets are shown on the home screen of the app, you can change which actions are available in your email viewer toolbar (archive, delete or both) and more!
  • Quick replies.  Wow these are good.  At the bottom of an email you can tap an icon to send a reply such as “👍🏻 Like”, “✅ Thanks”, or “😀 Great idea”.  As you can imagine even these are customisable.  You can change the order of the list and create your own quick replies.
  • Respond to calendar invitations from emails.
Mailbox did have one feature that I found useful and that is not available in Spark, which is the ability to auto-swipe emails.  I used this to auto swipe emails from mailing lists to a Gmail label called either “Updates” or “Promotions”.  Then I had an IFTTT recipe to send me an email digest daily for Updates and weekly for Promotions.  Whilst using Inbox I had hoped the bundles would serve as the same thing, but the inability to change the time of day each bundle would be shown prevented it working for me.   So even though Spark doesn’t offer something like this Inbox doesn’t have a useful equivalent for me.
Version 1.5 was released today which allows you to change the notification actions and assign default signatures to specific email accounts.  Spark is on fire.  It is an incredibly well thought through app that is going from strength to strength.  Currently Spark is only available on iPhone, but an iPad app is slated for release in the future.  I cannot wait!

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Type scientific and math symbols on your iOS device with ease

In a previous post I shared a way in which you could use symbols on your iPhone even though they are not included in the iPhone’s keyboard. I find this helpful because I teach physics and use many symbols that are not available on the keyboard.  Often symbols can be displayed on iOS devices even though they are not on the keyboard.  So if you type symbols from a Mac or PC into an app that syncs to your iPhone or into a webpage you can access them on your iPhone.  You can even copy and paste those symbols on your phone.

The method I posted previously was a clunky method for sure, involving making a list somewhere on your phone of all the symbols you need and then copying and pasting a symbol when you needed it.  Well I now have good news about a far more efficient method.

As I happened to be reading this post from Chris Hauk (Mactrast) it got me thinking about combining his method with my need to type certain symbols that aren’t available on my phone’s keyboard.  His method involved copying an emoji which is not available on the iOS keyboard from Twitter and pasting it into an iOS keyboard shortcut field and then creating a keyboard text combination for the emoji.

So I tried it out with “²”, by copying the “superscript two” symbol in as a phrase and then using “^2” as the keyboard “shortcut” and it worked!  Now I can type “^2” and my phone will replace it with “²”.  I then worked through most of my list of symbols to create key combinations for the symbols I use most frequently.  If you aren’t familiar with how to create text shortcuts on an iOS device watch the video below.

If you would like a copy of the symbols I used to copy from it is available here: http://bit.ly/symbols4iOS.  At the top of the document you will see the symbols followed by the text “shortcut” in red if I made one for the symbol to give you an idea of example text combinations.  If the symbol you want is Unicode there is a good chance it will work. Search the web and you will likely find a page where you can copy the desired symbol into your dictionary. 

One of the really helpful things about this method is that the list of symbols you have available on your iPhone is totally customisable.  So you don’t have to search through lines upon lines of symbols you don’t use in order to get to the ones you do need.

I hope this helps if you need a quick and easy way to work with symbols on your iPhone or iPad, if so let me know in the comments or over on Google +.

Having trouble AirDropping? Here are a couple of tips that may help.

iOS to Mac

If you are having trouble AirDropping to a Mac from an iOS device – like I do frequently and randomly – then it may be that for some reason your Mac’s Bluetooth connection is not “visible” to the iOS device.  There is a way that should force the Mac to reveal itself to your phone / iPad.  In the menu bar click the Bluetooth icon and select “Open Bluetooth Preferences…”  A System Preferences window will open, leave it open and try the AirDrop again.

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Hopefully you have Bluetooth visible in the menu bar, if not just open System Preferences and select Bluetooth.

Mac or iOS to iOS

If you can’t find your iOS device as an option in AirDrop maybe Do Not Disturb (DnD) is on, if so that will deactivate AirDrop.  The solution is to turn off DnD : )  If DnD is active a crescent moon will display in your status bar, you can deactivate it by pulling up Control Centre and tapping the crescent moon icon.

Do_not_disturb_turns_AirDrop_offI hope that if AirDrop woes have been getting you down, like they have for me, that these tips helped you!

The good, bad and ugly features of iOS 8 – some of them anyway.

The development of iOS 8 is nearly complete (notwithstanding the inevitable post release bug squashing patches).  New features have been reported by some developers who are running the latest build.  There are a number of features of note, some good and some bad.

Location based apps
Since the introduction of location based passes in Passbook iPhone users have been able to have a pass pop up when they’re in the right location to use it.  Now apps are gaining the same functionality.  If you visit an Apple Store the Apple Store app’s icon will appear in the lock screen (bottom left which is the same location for handoffs between devices you own).  If you visit a Starbucks the icon for the Starbucks app will appear.  But what if you don’t have the Starbucks app installed on your device?  Tapping the icon in this case will take you to the app’s page in the App Store, from there you can install the app if you want to.

Hopefully this will be a customisable experience.  If so I’d say it’s a cool feature.  I reckon that public transport apps could integrate this feature really well.  Perhaps favourite stations/stops could be set and as you approach them the app’s icon appears.
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Background location usage notifications
Apple now wants to expose apps which use location data in the background with new alerts.  Users can already find this information out and should have actively found out already if that is important to them. The new alerts will prompt the user to stop allowing apps to track location or to allow it to continue.  If this alert pops up regularly even after tapping “Continue” this is going to be really annoying.  Right now there is an alert that appears every time I  use a location based app with Wi-Fi off telling me that location accuracy is better with Wi-Fi on.  You’d think that after three times I’d get the idea, but alas Apple knows best!  I hope that this notification can be disabled per app.
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Customisable share sheet
In iOS 8 share sheets will be customisable.  Currently it is a bit frustrating to have to scroll through a list of apps I rarely/never upload to in order to reach the app I want.  iOS 7 should have been learning which apps I use frequently and prioritised their position, but instead it’s a random arrangement.  This new feature of iOS 8 is therefore an excellent step forward.  Apps and options can be added/taken away from the list.  The arrangement of apps can also be customised.
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iOS screen capture on Mac
A nifty addition is the ability to capture video from an iOS device on a Mac. Plug an iOS 8 device into a Mac and it will show up as a camera.  Its screen can then be recorded using QuickTime.

New look for Settings
Some settings have been moved out of Notification Center settings to give that section a more streamlined appearance.  That seems a good thing but there are no longer options to disable the Today Summary, Calendar Day View, Reminders, or Tomorrow Summary.  That’s not good. The removal of customisation is almost always a step backwards.  Maybe there is a good reason for this in the long run but I prefer being able to customise views.

What are your thoughts about reported iOS 8 features?