Alex on the computer

Reminders on iOS, (or 'Writing stuff doing and doing stuff', year 2)

I have had a draft saved here for a year with just the title "The God reminders app". It's a grammatically questionable title, but my vision for the article was always clear: to describe what would make my perfect reminder[s] app for my smartphone.

This is not that article, but I'm starting there because reminders (and calendars) is where my software habits have changed the most since I wrote [what I'm now being referred to as] Year 1 of "Writing stuff down and doing stuff".

In Year 1, I wrote about using Sunrise for my calendar, and Due for reminders and alarms. Since then, Microsoft has globbed an inferior shadow of Sunrise into Outlook for iOS (an email app I actually like). And Due, while still great, simply didn't survive for me. Here's why.

Reminders.app

Okay, don't leave! Hear me out! A year ago I wrote:

Tasks, projects, calendars, reminders... there is a huge industry of software and thought technologies built around keeping you "organized" and connected to all of your responsibilities. Unless you're a GTD nerd (no hate!), extremely powerful tools like Omnifocus or Todoist probably aren't going to help you because you're too busy actually working to invest the time into them.

I favor tools with nearly zero investment or overhead, instead of complex (but powerful!) "system" apps like Omnifocus and Todoist. The lower amount of friction to first use is critical.

So, lets get this out of the way: Reminders is a dumpster fire when it's on your screen. This is mine; it makes no sense.

Reminders home

"Trader joes"? I don't even remember what I was trying to do there. How is this my killer reminders app?

Here's the point: Reminders is the best iPhone app I have ever used at getting me to set reminders, actually reminding me in an effective way... and I never open the app.

On my iPhone, I use Siri 100% of the time to set reminders.

Siri

If your reaction to that sentence was anything like "Fuck that" then trust me, and keep reading for one more minute. I know where you're coming from, and I'm going to tell you how to make using Siri bearable.

I say "bearable" because I know no one likes talking to their phone. At best, it feels abnormal, and at worst you feel impotent and humiliated when it doesn't work. Let me tell you how to make Siri work exactly the way it should every time.

First: pick up your iPhone, hold down the Home button (keep holding it down while you speak), say "take me to your settings", and let go of the Home button. Siri will open her Settings page. Next, tap "Voice Feedback" and set it to "Hands-Free Only". Now, Siri won't talk any more when you use it in public. It will only speak back to you when it's connected to Bluetooth (like a headset or your car), or you've got headphones in.

Second: like I outlined in the last paragraph, pressing and holding down the Home button until you're done talking will keep Siri listening to you--no matter what--until you let go of the Home button. This is a habit that makes using Siri far less frustrating. This empowers you to dictate your thoughts, with pauses, so you can think, without being interrupted--to give commands, without being interrupted.

Third: trust that Siri understood you. This takes time, but you'll soon learn to trust just how good Siri understands you even with a low, clandestine voice. I can murmur to Siri in a small room, with rambunctious discussion and music playing, and she will understand my every word. Once you learn to trust Siri, you can give commands without looking at your phone, let go of the Home button, hit the Sleep button to shut off your phone, and put your phone away... all with confidence. No app can come close to that lack of friction.

Sticky reminders

I pull my iPhone out of my pocket, I press (and hold) the Home button, and I say "remind me at one oh nine to take out the trash". I let go of the home button and I put my iPhone back in my pocket.

At 1:09PM I hear my reminder go off. I ignore it because I'm busy. Before and after that time, I've gotten some email. Email is a constant. So are other notifications.

Reminder with other notifications

At some point, I'm going to swipe on one of these emails, or a text message, or something. It doesn't mean I've taken out the trash, and it doesn't mean I should lose my reminder. With any other app, it would. But Reminders.app has a special power.

Sticky reminder on lock screen

Reminders stick on the lock screen until they are specifically dismissed. Swiping to the left will give you a quick "Mark as Completed" or "Snooze" which snoozes the reminder for 15 minutes (after which it will go off again).

This fixes exactly what is so broken about the iOS model of lock screen notifications for other reminders apps. By definition, a reminder is something you want to keep on top of the heap. You're saying, "Yes, other things will ask for my attention, but I need to remember this.

Reminders stays on top of the heap.


My girlfriend puts post-it notes on the back of her phone to remind herself what she needs to do when she leaves work; what she has to pick up from the store; to call someone over lunch. And it works.

There are a thousand apps that "do" this. It speaks volumes about just how bad our phones are at being effective assistants that a sticky note works more reliably than any of them.

Reminders sticking on the lock screen is the first time my iPhone has managed to be truly better at helping me get things done since I got my first iPhone seven years ago.

Writing stuff down and doing stuff

Great app recommendations are really hard. It's easy to tell other people what apps you use. It's difficult to communicate how and why you use them.

I'm going to describe how I work in two dimensions: writing stuff down, and doing stuff. This is about the apps I use because they've stuck. These are the apps that I continue to use everyday because they're what I actually need, and they don't get in the way -- not software that has its own agenda about how you should be living, requires huge personal investment, and promises to change your life. (I have nothing against that kind of software, I've just come to grips with realizing it's not for me right now, and I'm wagering it's not for you either.)

For all you top ten list-lovin', Buzzfeed-readin', TL;DR "peeps" -- there will be a list of straight-up app recommendations at the bottom.


Notes (or: "writing stuff down")

Here's the trinity, in case you want to jump right in:

nvALT (Mac) ⇄ Simplenote.app (iOS/Android) ⇄ ResophNotes (Windows)

All of these applications and services are free. To get started with what I'm about to describe, register for a free Simplenote account.

I want to be able to see all my notes and write new ones from anywhere. I have a Mac at work, an iPhone in my pocket, and a Windows PC at home. All three of these places are kept in sync by Simplenote. So all my notes are kept on each device and in the cloud. (You can also log into Simplenote.com from any web browser and see all your notes.)

I also need it to be frictionless to enter a new note or to find an old one. To me, this is the most important aspect for note-taking and note retrieval -- if I can't instantly be writing a new note, or instantly find an old one, it's not going to work for me. That's not fussiness, that's just knowing myself well enough to know which tools will stick. And if a tool doesn't stick, and you don't keep using it, then it's useless.

nvALT (Mac)

It is so easy to start a new note, or to find an old one in nvALT. To do either, you do the same thing: Command (⌘) + L, and just start typing! Think of it like the URL bar in your web browser.

Watch me make a new note:

... or find an old note:

nvAlt can also encrypt your notes while they're on your computer. You can have it ask you to enter your encryption key (a password you create) every time you start the app, or have it remember it for you.

Simplenote (iOS or Android)

The two example notes you just saw -- in under 30 seconds -- are now on my phone, too.

And all the notes are secured behind Touch ID (or a PIN number) -- so even if someone got a hold of my unlocked phone, my notes are still behind a second wall of security.

ResophNotes (Windows)

There is really nothing special to show for the Windows side of this trifecta of note-taking goodness because ResophNotes works exactly like nvALT -- that's why I use it. The hotkey is the same to search for and create a note (Control + L); it looks the same, list of notes on the left, note on the right. And it syncs perfectly, just like everything else.

--

Everyone needs to take notes, and find their notes quickly and easily. That means always knowing where they are. For me, it's a huge load off my mind to never have to think about where I'm going to write something down, where it won't get lost, every time I have an idea (which is often), or every time I need to write something down during my workday (which is really often).


Calendars, reminders, and alarms (or: "doing stuff")

Tasks, projects, calendars, reminders... there is a huge industry of software and thought technologies built around keeping you "organized" and connected to all of your responsibilities. Unless you're a GTD nerd (no hate!), extremely powerful tools like Omnifocus or Todoist probably aren't going to help you because you're too busy actually working to invest the time into them.

Another challenge for most people is that they don't get to choose the entire ecosystem they have to work inside. Chances are that you have at least one work calendar telling you where to be, and at least one task manager telling you what to do next, and you didn't get to pick either one of them.

I'm in the same boat, and I need something that is flexible enough to pull all of it together, so that when I wake up in the morning, I have to look in as few places as possible to get an accurate picture of my today.

I am going to cover two simple needs that I have. A calendar app to remember where I'm supposed to be and see what's coming up; and an app to handle quick, spur of the moment reminders and timers where quick and easy entry is key. Remember, these have got to stick.

Sunrise (calendar)

Sunrise is a free app for iOS, Android, and the web -- and I think it's the best calendar app you can get.

What makes it great is that you can plug different kinds of task management tools right into it. So, if you or your employer is using Asana, Trello, or Producteev, you can get tasks and projects that are due sitting right on the same calendar that also tells you what meetings you have today. If you so choose, you can also connect it with:

  • Facebook to pull in birthdays and events
  • use Github? Put your milestones right on your calendar
  • if you're an Evernote user, get your Evernote Reminders on your calendar
  • LinkedIn (if that's your thing) can provide information about your meeting attendees
  • ... and there's more, too.

You can view your calendar as an agenda, or as a traditional calendar.

Adding events is even better. You're not thumbing through stupid dials to pick the right time. There's a genius little interface where you drag your event around to where you want, and stretch it out to the length you want.

What made Sunrise stick for me was that it understood simple but important concepts, like: I might want to see four different calendars, but I only want notifications for two of them -- or, that I've got lunch with my sister next Tuesday and I need to be reminded the day before, three hours before, and 30 minutes before... not just 10 minutes before I'm supposed to be there. And that's all customizable.

Due (reminders, timers, alarms)

I love Due. I love it so much. I've been an iPhone user since 2008 and I have been waiting and looking for this reminders app that entire time. Due 1.0 was released years ago, and I liked it, but it didn't stick. However, 2.0 was released a few weeks ago and it's not only stuck for me, I can't imagine being without it.

I like (and need) to set small reminders for myself throughout the day. It helps me dump what's going on in my head into something that will remember for me, so I can concentrate on the things an app can't do (like my real work). That means making a new reminder has to be as effortless as possible. Due accomplishes this in a few ways.

You can either tap the "+" button to make a new event, or you can pull down on the entire app to either search your reminders, or make a new one. Sound familiar? It's the same concept from nvALT. Combining search and creation into the same action reduces mental load. You spend less time thinking about which button to push, and more time just doing it. There is also natural language processing: if you write "Pick up TPS reports in 2 hours", you'll have a reminder to "Pick up TPS reports" set for two hours from now.

Due - pull down entry

As I've stated before, I don't like time/date picker dials. Scrolling up and down for the right day and time feels tedious, and just doesn't connect with how my brain works. Due has a different idea about how you can quickly set times, and it's customizable to the times of day you're setting the most reminders for. They're called Quick Access Times, and it's a panel of buttons with static times, or time additions and subtractions that you can tap to get the reminder you want. Let me show you:

Due - Quick Access Times entry

Like most iOS apps, if you get a notification on you Lock Screen, you can swipe the notification to the left to reveal some simple actions. In Due, you get "Mark as done", and a snooze button. But, the snooze button is a customizable amount of time. You can set it to 5 minutes, 30 minutes, or whatever works best for you. It might not sound like much, but those little touches make this app so much more useful. When you can make it yours, it'll stick around.

Due has also replaced Clock.app as my alarm clock. I used to set an alarm every night before I went to sleep. Now, Due wakes me up with an intelligently scheduled, recurring alarm clock. Let's set one to go to bed on work nights.

This works because Due also comes with dozens of different sounds. Subtle reminder sounds less than a second long, to loud ~30 second sounds perfectly suited for morning alarms you can't ignore.

Finally, possibly my favorite little feature that sounds small, but has helped this app be so effective for me: it's called Auto-Snooze. A lot of the time, when a reminder alarm goes off, you don't actually have time to follow through with it right this second. You'll say to yourself "I'll take the trash out right after this scene", or "This song is almost over, I'll grab the laundry in just a minute." With Auto-Snooze, Due will keep reminding you without you doing anything. You might not be ready right now, but maybe you are in five minutes. And, as always, this amount of time is customizable so it's as persistant or relaxed as you need it to be.

For me, Due gets everything right. It's not trying to be a task manager or a list-taking app that also has reminders. It's a reminders app, period. Nothing I've used -- and I've used a lot -- that did reminders second to some other primary function, ever did reminders right. This is dedicated... and it shows.


iOS Apps I Really Like

The GIF-laden tome above was about showing how I achieve core functionality on a day to day basis. For me, writing things down, and keeping track of what I'm doing is core functionality. But it's not all I care about or need to be able to do with my phone (and computer).

Without going into too much detail (like the GIF-laden tome above), here are the iOS apps I use and little bit about why.

Photos (and videos)

VSCOcam - editing, Darkroom - editing, Picturelife - backup (and sharing)

VSCOcam continues to have the best filters in the business. Professional-grade, excellent filters that truly add to your photos. Instagram doesn't come close. It also has a great, built-in way to share your photos on the web and in nice collections.

Darkroom is a brand-new app that has immediately done on-the-phone photo editing and quick-sharing very right. It doesn't "import" your photos into it's own library, all edits are permanently stored and reversible, fantastic editing controls, and RGB curves control for a $2.99 in-app purchase. It even lets you export non-square photos to Instagram (hallelujah!).

Picturelife backs up my photos (manually by opening the app, or automatically) with 25GB of storage for $5. Photo storage and backup has gotten incredibly cheap lately, and it's an extremely complicated subject. [Probably] eventually, iCloud Photos will become comprehensible and I can drop Picturelife, but for now it's a second backup to iCloud backing up my entire phone. Also, if you're in a family of iPhone and Android phones and you're all looking for a way to share and keep photos (say, of a new baby) Picturelife has unmatched ability for groups of people to share pictures to each other by pooling all your photos together in an easy-to-understand way.

Money

Square Cash - sending and receiving, Level - day-to-day management

Cash lets you send and receive money directly to and from your checking account just by attaching your debit card to the app (built by Square, a trusted and veteran merchant services company with a proven track-record in protecting financial information). You can send a dollar or thousands. My girlfriend and I use it to split dinner bills. My roommates and I reimburse each other for bills and rent. With most banks, the money is shown (and available) in your account instantly, and settles within 24 hours. I can't imagine being without this app. (Oh, and they'll pay you to try it.)

Level, once you've let it into your bank account and taught it a little bit about how much you want to spend, it keeps track of how much you're allowed to spend today. It's the day-to-day budgeting app I always dreamed of. If you want an app that can keep track of whether you can afford to go out to eat tonight, this is it.

News and reading

Circa - the news, Unread - RSS, Instapaper - read it later

Circa is the best way to read and stay on top of the news. And if you don't really care about reading the news that much, you should download this app even more. Real journalists curate the day's real news from existing sources and break it into readable, few sentence chunks to deliver the important information quickly, all sources cited. You can tell it you want to "follow" a story in order to get updates. You can also trust Circa with push notifications -- they only push important breaking news (I can't say the same for any other news app I've given those privileges to.)

Unread is my favorite RSS reader. If you don't know what an RSS reader is then skip to the next paragraph. If you do, then you probably had a Google Reader account and you probably have a Feedly account now. Unread is my Feedly reader; it has my favorite interface, great color scheme options, unbeatable sharing and saving options. Simple, but powerful. (Also it was recently acquired and is due for a big visual refresh.)

Instapaper is the original read-it-later, and I think the best. The app itself is a beautiful reader that lets you read websites you've saved. What Instapaper lets you do is more than that: you can save a link you want to remember or read later from any app on your phone, and even organize at the time of saving into categories you make yourself. You can save from inside apps or using a bookmarklet on your computer's web browser.

Great odds and ends

Path Talk - messaging businesses, Dark Sky - weather, Canopy.co - curated Amazon shopping, Hopper - best-price airline ticket buying

Path Talk is a weird one. Path is a social network basically no one cares about, and they have an app for chatting with your Path friends. Why am I telling you? Because there is a feature inside it called "Places" that lets you text message local businesses. How? Your texts are received by someone in a call center that calls the business with your inquiry and fields the response to you through the app. It's magical. I've asked about drink specials, ordered delivery food, and made Valentine's Day reservations, without calling anyone.

Dark Sky is still my favorite weather app, although I don't think it's for everyone. They made their claim to fame predicting when it would rain down to the minute. And for the most part it works better than you could imagine. Between their nicely made app, their hyper-accurate predictions, and simple Today Widget, it's the weather app that's stuck.

Canopy isn't just an app, it's also a website -- and it's how I did almost all of my Christmas shopping. It's a human-curated site full of all kinds of items for you or for gifts. The hook is, they're all things that are on Amazon, so you don't have to worry about finding something great and then getting a dead link to a random site that doesn't sell the thing anymore. The picks are fantastic and they have stuff in all price ranges. Great tools for finding what you're looking for put this app over the top.

Hopper is another new one for me that I'm completely sold on. The idea is that you tell it where you want to travel to and from and when; Hopper will then watch your future trip and tell you -- even months from now -- when to buy your tickets. This is all based on tangible, historical data for ticket prices. Hopper will even tell you when it's planning to tell you to buy so you can be prepared, and if you should adjust your dates and airports to achieve the absolute cheapest flights.


Enjoy.

Please don't read this post

Pointy-Haired Boss: I'm starting my own blog!

Tina: Dear God, no!

Pointy-Haired Boss: Every day I will record my personal thoughts about our business. I need you to write the first one by noon. I can't wait to see what I'm thinking.

— Dilbert

This site has been an experiment in every way possible except that it's not the first site I've put onto the internet.

It's a tiny site. It's a preconfigured installation of Ghost running on Digital Ocean's smallest droplet (referral link). The domain was registered with Hover (referral link). The theme is a slightly-modified version of Arabica. There is one static page. There is one external link in the site chrome.

The site was born from what has become a trope online

I wanted a place to share my thoughts. And 'thoughts' is an easy way to say, 'I'm not a writer and I don't want to call what I write "writing" but I want you to read what I write anyway.'

I never wanted to talk about this site on this site. But, as the weeks since it's inception have passed, I've spent too much time thinking about -- wait for it --
what I should write about.

I already hate this post.

Here is the point

I have realized this is a trial of thought I must face, swallow, and move through. I feel immense pressure from myself to -- if I am going to write anything -- produce something solidly written (this will never not be the case), containing facts or ideas that are well-synthesized, and that have a point that either brings resolution to myself or helps deliver conclusive knowledge to the reader. I'm not interested in writing anything else.

The truth of the trial is that subjects for which I have the knowledge and interest to write posts that fit the above thesis may be few and far between.

And I am now going to accept that.

Here are posts I'm working on for the future

  • Voice control and not betting against the smartphone
  • The God reminders app
  • Taking matters into my own hands and fixing OS X Yosemite

See ya.

This is not an Apple defense

Marco Arment, writing "Apple has lost the functional high ground" for his blog.

“It just works” was never completely true, but I don’t think the list of qualifiers and asterisks has ever been longer. We now need to treat Apple’s OS and application releases with the same extreme skepticism and trepidation that conservative Windows IT departments employ.

I work in IT for a small, 100+ employee, client-focused, marketing and web solutions company in the Midwest. Like most companies, we have Macs and we have Windows PCs.

When Mavericks was released late in 2013, I could not have been more confident in it as an upgrade. Let me stress exactly what I'm saying: I was very confident in Mavericks as an upgrade for the employees that needed their computer to work -- which is everyone.

Mavericks had tangible improvements to memory handling (quite literally making computers that had the same amount of RAM before the upgrade perform better after the upgrade), energy efficiency, and multiple displays.

Then, in 2014, Apple debuted Yosemite, alongside iOS 8, and many other exciting announcements. I have never been more excited after a WWDC Keynote. Soon after, Gruber published "Only Apple". Excitement for Tim Cook's Apple was at a fever-pitch and I felt it.

However, the truth that iOS and OS X users have been living inside for the last year is different than the conception by Apple observers that it has never been in a better position to handle multiple projects and work together with itself to make an incredible ecosystem of products.

I find myself apologizing for and explaining away more bugs and UX obfuscations in iOS to my friends and family than I ever thought I would. I struggle to think of something OS X Yosemite has given me that makes my MacBook better than it was when loaded with Mavericks. (I even find myself look wistfully at Mavericks machines -- my regression du jour in Yosemite is worsened SMB/CIFS performance that I dearly need at a job where we run a Windows-based network file server.)

...

I am now on the third draft of this blog post, and I struggle to deliver to you some sort of gleaned conclusion. A genuine distillation of my knowledge and experience having lived and breathed the Apple sphere since 2006 -- but that's not a unique position either. So, I'll say this:

Apple will obviously come through this struggling period. I must remind myself that whether the product is for me, Apple is launching a new product line and I've been through this before. I have the patience to wait for Apple to tighten up; and it will tighten up.

I also believe that iOS is currently in a crucible. Add control and useful complexity without taking away magical simplicity and guaranteed understanding. In all honesty, I don't know if it's possible to make a handheld operating system that empowers me and my mom -- but Apple is finding that out right now, and it's damn hard.

I am not a sucker. I am frustrated. But, I am patient. Because this is how the world works.

As long as I believe Apple is trying to make the devices that I want to use, that I want my family to use, that I want to recommend... then I'm not going anywhere.

Chrome extensions increasing RAM usage by orders of magnitude

This article by Sebastian Anthony made its way around the web today: "Iframe irony: Adblock Plus is probably the reason Firefox and Chrome are such memory hogs"

He reminds us all that the original promise of AdBlock was to speed up browsing by decreasing memory and CPU load and keeping our browsers from loading ads and other unwanted parts of webpages.

And the problem isn't just linear (yes, CSS blacklists have become incredibly large, and that takes CPU and memory every time you go to a site); it's also structural.

Anthony writes,

"... nowadays it is very common for a webpage to have lots of iframes, which are separate, individual webpages that are loaded and embedded within the page you’re currently looking at. The most common example is the ubiquitous social sharing widget (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) which is actually an iframe containing a separate webpage hosted on Facebook/Twitter’s servers."

As an example, he loads the VIM Color Scheme Test site which contains hundreds of iframes. He notes in his tests that AdBlock caused the RAM usage for that site's tab to balloon from several hundred megabytes (without AdBlock) to "almost two gigabytes" with it.

I run quite a few extensions I use daily. The ones I would say I use and feel dependent on:

... and until today, ABP and Ghostery.

So, of course, I tested this myself.

I loaded up the Color Scheme test site and watched in the Task Manager (hit Shift + Esc in Chrome) as the site's RAM usage ballooned into multiple gigabytes and then crashed.

I disabled ABP and Ghostery -- and it did the same thing. Hmmm...

Slowly, and with horror, I realized it was the friendly extensions I used every day that were causing this to happen, not just the maligned ABP.

Here are the numbers:

Test site: VIM Color Scheme Test - C

Starting RAM usage, no extensions: 77,100k

.. with just 1Password: 734,548k

.. with just HoverZoom: 964,764k

.. with just Vimium: 818,696k

With 1Password, Gmelius for Gmail, Hover Zoom, Twipster, Vimium: 1,793,000k and climbing. (And multiple suggestions from Chrome to kill the tab.)

For me, this has been a revelation.

I had no idea the effect modern website building was having on my extensions -- and therefore the performance of my machines.

The conclusion for my own browser choices aren't so much about cutting out AdBlock for performance reasons, but simply understanding what effect iframes are having on all the extensions that are important to me.

Jeff Atwood posted a link to "uBlock vs ABP", and I've switched over; the performance hit is less.

Granted, the increase in memory and processing load is not nearly as high in most cases as with the example site, but I think the takeaway still stands: installing a browser extension affects your computer in a non-negligible way -- and if something is going wrong, you're missing part of the picture by simply blaming the site or the browser.

Further interesting reading and reactions: