My next Mac desktop needs one more thing…

It’s early days, as they say in tech, but Apple’s switch from Intel processors to chips built to its own designs on the ARM architecture seems to be working far better than I expected in June.

Reviews of the opening round of “Apple silicon” Macs have consistently applauded how amazingly fast they are–even when running Intel-coded software on Apple’s Rosetta 2 emulation layer. Witness, for example, Samuel Axon’s glowing writeup of the reborn Mac mini at Ars Technica.

Have I mentioned that I’m typing this post on a 2009-vintage iMac?

Having Apple finally update the desktop Mac that would best fit my circumstances–I don’t want to buy another all-in-one iMac, because a separate monitor would be far more useful over the long run–gets my interest. Knowing that this updated Mac mini would run dramatically faster than the previous model intrigues me even more.

But am I ready to pay $1,099 for a Mac mini ($699 plus $400 to upgrade from an inadequate 256 gigabytes of storage to 1 terabyte)? Not yet. Not because of any hangups over buying the 1.0 version of anything, and not because Apple still charges too much for a realistic amount of storage. Instead, I want this thing to include one more thing: a Touch ID button.

The fingerprint-recognition feature that Apple added to its laptops years ago would not only spare me from typing the system password every time I woke the computer from sleep, it would also relieve me from typing the much longer password that secures my 1Password password-manager software. I’ve gotten used to that combination of security and convenience on my HP laptop, where the Windows Hello fingerprint sensor reliably unlocks 1Password. The idea of buying a new Mac without that feature is maddening.

(I know I could get an Apple Watch and use that to unlock the computer. But then I’d also need an iPhone, and switching smartphones and incurring at least $800 in hardware costs to address Apple’s lack of imagination strikes me as idiotic.)

I would like to think that Apple will remedy this oversight with the next update to the Mac mini. But I also thought adding Touch ID would be an obvious addition to desktop Macs two years ago. Unfortunately, large tech companies have a way of ignoring what can seem unimpeachable feature requests–see, for instance, how Microsoft still won’t add full-disk encryption to Windows 10 Home or simply add time-zone support to Win 10’s Calendar app.

So I might be waiting a while. I do know I’ll be waiting until at least January even if Apple ships a Touch ID-enhanced Mac mini tomorrow–so I don’t get dinged for my county’s business tangible property tax on the purchase until 2022.

WordPress Block Editor considered harmful

The drop cap that starts this paragraph is something I could not have readily done in the Classic Editor here at WordPress.com, so I hope everybody reading this understands that I’ve spent some time looking for upsides to the Block Editor that has replaced it.

But those upsides still look scarce. Five months after WordPress.com anointed the Block Editor as the new default–and well over three years after this project’s debut–I still find basic tasks more difficult in the Block Editor than in the now-deprecated Classic writing interface. Four examples:

  • Inserting an inline image with text wrapped around it, as seen at right, apparently requires a detour to a separate block menu in which you reduce the image’s size, followed by a click on a menu to right-align the image. In the Classic Editor, those options sit in the dialog to select an image from the Media Library.
  • There’s no way to indent text outside of making it part of a bulleted or numbered list. This one sticks in my craw a bit: I told two WordPress representatives this was a problem after they gave a presentation at least year’s Online News Association conference, and they seemed to agree that indenting was a legitimate formatting tool.
  • This may be more of a bug than a design decision, but when I right-click on a link in Safari and paste its address into the Classic Editor, the link appears in a post as a complete hypertext link under the linked page’s title. In the Block Editor, pasting yields the address of the link, leaving it to me to copy its title and then turn that into a link.
  • The addition of a menu option to switch between editing and selecting modes, as if I were back into learning desktop publishing on Aldus PageMaker in 1991, allows for the chance to realize I clicked my way out of revising whatever I’m writing.

I think I understand where WordPress is going with this. The Block Editor offers a lot more options to embed different types of content, as seen in the screengrab above, and for bloggers looking to mash up their media, I can see why that would make sense. I also have a lot of faith in WordPress, having picked this platform instead of keeping my Web home on Facebook real estate and remaining convinced of the soundness of that decision.

Plus, speaking as a long desktop-publishing geek who may still have some muscle memory of PageMaker keyboard shortcuts: Yes, drop caps are cool.

But from my words-first perspective, the Block Editor makes the everyday writing here a little harder. And since indents are a basic element of the weekly-output posts I’ve been writing here since the fall of 2011, sometimes it makes my usual habits impossible.

I can still switch to the Classic Editor at the start of or halfway through a post, so I’m not doomed. But I worry that at some point, its deprecated status will lead to it being deleted. Will that point arrive before WordPress’s developers can get this editor to interface parity with its predecessor? Please wish me luck.

Is it iPadOS 14 or iPadOS 13.8?

It’s been almost a month since I installed iPadOS 14 on my iPad mini 5, and not much about my tablet-computing experience since has reminded me of that.

Why? Compare Apple’s list of new iPadOS 14 features with its brag list for iOS 14: Apple tablets don’t get home-screen widgets or the App Library, even though their larger displays might better fit those interface changes. Apple’s new Translate app, a privacy-optimizing alternative to Google’s? iPhone only for now. Even emoji search in the keyboard is confined to Apple’s smaller-screen devices.

Like earlier iPad releases, iPadOS 14 omits the basics of weather and calculator apps. I guess Apple still couldn’t find a way “to do something really distinctly great,” as its software senior vice president Craig Federighi told tech journalist Marques Brownlee in the least-persuasive moments of a June interview.

There’s also still no kid’s mode that would let a parent hand over their iPad to a child and have it locked to open only designated apps. The continued absence of this fundamental feature–even the Apple TV supports multiple user accounts!–is especially aggravating after so many American parents have spent the last eight months mostly cooped up at home with their offspring.

Apple did add a bunch of fascinating new features in iPadOS 14 for Apple Pencil users–but my iPad mini 5 and my wife’s iPad mini 4 don’t work with that peripheral.

This new release has brought lesser benefits that I do appreciate. Incoming calls in FaceTime, Google Voice, and other Internet-calling apps now politely announce themselves with a notification at the edge of the screen instead of indulging in the interface misanthropy of a full-screen dialog, and Siri shares this restraint with screen real estate. Safari catches up to Chrome by offering automated translation of their text and surpasses Google’s browser with a privacy-report summary, both available with a tap of the font-size button. I can finally set default mail and browser apps–but not navigation, the area in which Apple remains farthest behind Google. And a set of new privacy defenses include the welcome option of denying an app access to my precise location.

But as nice as those things are, they don’t feel like the stuff of a major annual release–more like the pleasant surprises of an overperforming iPadOS 13.8 update. And they certainly don’t square with what you might reasonably expect from a company that reported $33.4 billion in cash and cash equivalents on hand in its most recent quarter.

Android 11 first impressions: payments with less stress

My pick for the single most helpful new feature in Android 11 doesn’t even get a description in Google’s highlights of its mobile operating system’s new version.

This addition lurks behind the power button: Press and hold that, and instead of Android 10’s sidebar menu with the “Lockdown” option that disables biometric unlocking and scrubs notifications from the lock screen, you see a full-screen menu with large buttons for that security feature, your Google-linked smart-home gadgets–and the credit cards you have active in Google Pay.

I’ve been a fan of NFC payments for years, but the world has caught up to me since March as merchants have rushed to provide contactless payment options. But until Android 11 landed on my Pixel 3a 11 days ago, matching a purchase with the card offering the best cash-back or points reward required me to open the Android Pay app and switch payment methods. Now, I just mash the power button and tap the card I want.

The Conversations features that do lead off Google’s sales pitch for Android 11 also seem like they’ll simplify my digital life. That’s “seem” because it took me until today to remember to swipe left on a text-message notification to expose the option to make the sender a priority–starring them in the Contacts app doesn’t affect this, nor do I see a way to promote people from within the Messages app. But at least now I know that messages from my wife will show up on my lock screen with her picture.

Android 11 also brings some less-obvious application-privacy enhancements, as detailed Google’s developer guidance. It improves on Android 10’s ability to deny apps background access to your location by letting you give an app only a one-time peek at your location. If you turn off location services altogether, COVID-19 exposure-notification apps like Virginia’s COVIDWISE now still work. And if you don’t open an app for a few months, the system will turn off its permissions automatically.

The biggest problem with Android 11 is one that has existed with every other Android update–but which fortunately doesn’t affect me as a Pixel 3a user. This update will probably take months to reach Android phones outside the small universe of Pixel devices and those from such other, smaller vendors as Nokia and OnePlus that decided to commit to shipping Google’s releases quickly.

Streaming-TV sites still need some design work

This year’s version of the “what regional sports networks will shut up and take a cord-cutting baseball fan’s money” story was not like the last three. I wrote it much later in the year, it’s at Forbes instead of Yahoo, and it finally brings good news for Washington Nationals fans.

But the process of researching which streaming services carry which baseball RSNs was as annoying as ever, thanks to these companies not fixing the user-interface problems that gummed up last year’s work.

AT&T TV Now: The channel-finder page of the streaming service formerly known as DirecTV Now requires third-party cookies for reasons unexplained, ensuring it will break in Safari and Firefox. You can search by Zip code but then often must choose a county inside that Zip, a detail no other streaming service requests. AT&T also has yet to update this site to include the four sports networks (for the Nats, Orioles, Rockies, and Pirates) that it just added, much less the Seattle RSN it soon will offer.

This site does, however, get one thing very right that its rivals don’t: It inventories the teams featured on its available regional sports networks.

FuboTV: This sports-oriented streaming service has a simple channel-lookup page that you may not know exists, as neither its home page nor its support site seem to point visitors to it. Too bad, because it’s a model of simplicity: Type in a Zip code, and it lists the local channels first, identifying both broadcasters and regional sports networks with a blue “Local” tag. Fubo also lists the RSNs it carries nationwide in a tech-support story that seems to be regularly updated, but neither that nor the channel-finder associate networks with their core teams.

Hulu + Live TV: You can’t miss the channel-lookup interface here, since it’s waiting behind a “View Channels In Your Area” link on this service’s live-TV page. Plug in a Zip code and you get a clean listing of channel icons, with “Live Local Channels” at the top. Unfortunately, they’re all shown only as icons, without any pop-up text to identify the more cluttered graphics among them, and it’s up to you to remember which RSN features which sports franchise.

Sling TV: Sling charges just $30 for the basic service (one good reason why I’m a subscriber) and apparently isn’t too concerned about getting people to buy up to a higher tier to watch pro sports. Seeing what regional sports networks you might get that way requires clicking around a support site that keeps pointing you to a now-useless “Game Finder” page (well, useless unless you had not learned that the coronavirus pandemic has made a mess of every pro sports league’s schedule). The link you actually want, “Finding Your Game On A Regional Sports Network,” clarifies that Sling only carries three such networks, the Comcast RSNs in the Bay Area and Washington, what I like to think of as the Other Bay Area. 

YouTube TV: Google’s streaming service doesn’t make you search hard for a channel lookup–the form is right on its home page and is automatically populated with the Zip code for what Google thinks is your location. Click the big blue “Submit” button or type in a different Zip code before confirming that, and you get an improved version of Hulu’s interface that labels channel logos with their names. But as at everywhere but AT&T TV Now, you still have to look up which RSN carries which teams.

I would like to think that these sites will do better and ease the 2021 version of this work. But in case they don’t, I finally took the time to crate a spreadsheet (the Forbes post features a cleaner, searchable version) that I can update whenever these services add or drop a channel. I hope there’s more of the former happening than the latter, so that when I’m looking at the prospect of a 162-game Nats season next spring I won’t be limited to one service carrying those games.

Here’s how much Facebook was tracking me around the rest of the Web

Facebook finally fulfilled one of Mark Zuckerberg’s campaign promises this week–a promise dating back to May of 2018.

That’s when Facebook’s CEO said the company would roll out a “Clear History” feature that would let its users erase Facebook records of their activity at other sites and apps as gathered by the social network’s Like and Share buttons and other plug-ins.

(If it took you a long time to realize the extent of that tracking, I can’t blame you. Instead, I can blame me: The post I did for the Washington Post when my old shop integrated a batch of Facebook components to its site didn’t spell out this risk.)

Twenty months after Zuck’s announcement, this feature, renamed “Off Facebook Activity”, finally arrived for U.S. users on Tuesday. I promptly set aside that day’s tasks to check it out firsthand.

The good news, such as it was: Only 74 apps and sites had been providing Facebook info about my activity there. And most of them (disclosure: including such current and past clients as USA Today, Fast Company, The Points Guy and the Columbia Journalism Review) had only coughed up isolated data points.

The bad news: The Yelp, Eventbrite, AnyDo, and Duolingo apps had all coughed up more than 20 records of my interactions there, as had the sites of Home Depot and Safeway owner Albertson’s.

To judge from the responses I got from readers of my Facebook when I asked them how many sites and apps showed up in their own Off-Facebook Activity listings, I’m practically living a cloistered life. Most comments cited three-digit numbers, two close to four digits: 232, 356, 395, 862, and 974. One thing most of these users seemed to have in common: using Google’s Chrome as a default browser instead of Apple’s Safari or Mozilla Firefox, both of which automatically block tracking by social networks on other pages. The former is the default on my desktop, while the latter has that place on my laptop.

I’ve now cleared my history and turned off future Off-Facebook Activity–at the possible cost of no longer having WordPress.com publish new posts automatically to my Facebook page. I can probably live with that.

The boring art of testing hotspot bandwidth and battery life

I’m nearing the finish line (I hope) of an overdue update to the Wirecutter guide to WiFi hotspots. The research for that had me repeatedly subjecting an array of loaner hotspots from all four nationwide wireless carriers to tests of the two core metrics of bandwidth and battery life.

It hasn’t exactly been my most exciting work.

For bandwidth testing, I’ve continued to rely on Ookla’s Speedtest.net Web, Android and iOS apps to clock the download speeds, upload speeds and ping times each hotspot has served up. This is pretty much an industry-standard benchmark, and these apps are simple enough to run.

But getting data out of them is another thing:

  • The iOS app creates a .csv file you can open in any spreadsheet app that includes every relevant bit of data–date and time, GPS-derived location, WiFi network name, download/upload/ping measurements, shareable public link–and attaches it to an e-mail message.
  • The Android app also generates a .csv file–except that choosing to have it saved to your Google Drive leaves you with a .eml mail-attachment file. You have to e-mail it to yourself to get a usable .csv, at which point you discover that this export doesn’t include the name of the wireless network.
  • The Web app’s “Export” button yields a third type of .csv file, one without a record of the WiFi network name, your location, or a shareable link.
  • No, the option to create a Speedtest account won’t help–because you can’t log into that from the mobile apps.

Ookla is owned by PCMag publisher Ziff Davis, but that has yet to result in any corporate pressure to make exporting measurements less janky for the hardworking journalists at that and other Ziff tech media properties.

Testing hotspot battery life only requires recording the times you started and ended each trial. But because these things often run for 12 hours or more, it’s not realistic to tether a laptop to a hotspot and keep working nonstop until the hotspot battery expires and the connection drops.

To ensure my laptop would be keeping each hotspot working full time, I opened a page to NASA’s live YouTube channel. Beyond running up the social-media metrics for one of my favorite four-letter government agencies, keeping the browser on a single live channel avoids the risk of YouTube’s recommendations sending me off to some nutcase conspiracy hub.

Because I’m not always that smart, I didn’t think to check my laptop’s ability to log a wireless connection going offline until after I’d spent an hour and change watching one hotspot linger at 1% of a charge.

As a helpful StackExchange thread pointed out, that logged data awaits inside Windows. Type “Event Viewer” in the taskbar search, open that app, select “Applications and Services Logs” in the left-hand pane, double-click the center pane’s “Microsoft,” “Windows,” “UniversalTelemetryClient,” and “Operational” entries in succession, then select “Filter Current Log…” in the right-hand pane. Type “55” in the resulting dialog’s Event ID field, hit “OK” and you’ll see a series of entries.

Assuming you check this right after seeing that the laptop went offline, opening the most recent should reveal a properties field consisting of “Is the Internet available: false,” with the time corresponding to when the hotspot died.

Since I don’t have a Mac laptop, I’m not sure how you’d do this on one. A different StackExchange thread suggests a Terminal command, but that doesn’t work on my iMac–maybe because this aging desktop isn’t running the latest macOS edition. It would be ironic if you have to hit the command line on a Mac to perform a task that Windows lets you accomplish inside a graphical user interface–but the Windows Event Viewer app is mighty ugly itself, and neither operating system covers itself in glory in this aspect.

Happy 10th birthday, iMac

A decade ago today, I set up the computer on which I’m typing this post. That is an absurdly long lifespan for any computer, much less one that’s seen near-daily use over that many years.

But here we–meaning me and the late 2009 iMac that’s now graced the same desk for 10 years–are. Three things made this longevity possible.

One is my working mainly in text and non-moving images. If I had to do any serious video editing, this model’s processor would have forced its retirement long ago. As is, there’s not that much computational labor involved in polishing prose–and while working with high-resolution photos can require a few CPU cycles, I do most of that editing online anyway.

Another is the relative repairability of this model. In the previous decade, Apple still designed desktops that allowed memory upgrades, so I took advantage of that option to double this iMac’s RAM early on. Apple didn’t intend for owners of this model to replace the hard drive, but its design left that possible with fairly simple tools–as in, no need to cut through adhesive holding the screen in place. I didn’t exploit that opportunity until a couple of years later than I should have, but the SSD upgrade I performed last spring now looks like some of the best $200 I’ve spent.

I could have replaced the optical drive that stopped reading CDs and DVDs in the same manner, but instead I bought a cheap Samsung DVD burner and plugged that into a free USB port–so much for the all-in-one concept!

(My second-longest-tenured daily-use computer, the Mac clone I kept from 1996 to 2002, was far more tolerant of tinkering, since Power Computing designed it along the lines of any PC desktop. That box ended its service to me after two processor upgrades, one hard drive replacement, an internal power-supply transplant, a memory upgrade and the addition of two USB ports.)

Last comes Apple’s baffling inability to keep its desktops current over any sustained stretch of time. The company formerly known as “Apple Computer, Inc.” spent several years not updating the iMac or Mac mini at all. By the time it finally refreshed the iMac, buying a new all-in-one desktop would have meant buying a 4K monitor inseparable from a computer would grow obsolete well before the display. But when Apple finally updated the moribund Mac mini last year, it shipped it with a joke of a 128 GB SSD and then listed insultingly high prices for adequate storage.

It’s since slightly moderated the storage rip-off, but the Mac mini has now gone over a year without an update, so I’d feel like a chump paying new-Mac pricing for that old design now. Even though my legacy Mac is now living two editions of macOS in the past–Apple dropped support for this model with macOS Mojave, leaving macOS Catalina completely out of the question. If Apple weren’t still shipping security updates for macOS High Sierra, I’d be in a real pickle.

Okay, I guess there’s a fourth factor behind this iMac’s longevity: I can be really cheap, stubborn or both sometimes.

Updated 12/3/2019 to note my OS-support issues and better crop a photo.

Six updates in, iPadOS still needs work

It hasn’t even been two months since Apple shipped iPadOS, but in that time the tablet offshoot of iOS 13 has seen six maintenance updates–from iPadOS 13.1.1 to 13.2.3.

That plethora of patches has squashed some obvious bugs, like the ones that made Dock shortcuts to recently-opened non-Apple apps inert. They have not, however, cured other trying aspects of iPadOS:

• The new QuickPath gesture-typing option is, for some reason, confined to the floating keyboard you can invoke, not the standard-sized one. Has nobody at Apple tried using Google’s Gboard?

• The new multiple-windows option for an app is buried beneath a long-press of a Dock icon–sufficiently hidden that I did not realize that feature existed until reading Ars Technica’s iPadOS review.

• I appreciate Apple’s attempts to make me aware when apps request my location in the background, but after being nagged 10 times about my choice to let the Dark Sky weather app check my coordinates in the background, I’d appreciate having an option to the effect of “I know what I’m doing and you can stop asking about this.”

• Seeing which apps have updates or have been recently updated takes more steps than in iOS 12–presumably, so that Apple could use that spot at the bottom of the App Store app to promote its Apple Arcade subscription gaming service.

• The process of moving app icons around feels even more maddening than before, especially if I happen to drop an app inside a folder by mistake. Meanwhile, the OS still affords no relief from its inflexible app grid; I can’t leave a row or a column blank as negative space to set off particular icons.

• AirDrop remains as enabling of anonymous harassment as ever.

• I still see display glitches like the charming overlap of portrait and landscape screen modes shown in the screengrab above.

It’s not that I regret installing iPadOS–some of the new features, like the privacy-preserving Sign in with Apple option, are only starting to reveal their promise. Others, such as the Sidecar Mac screen-mirroring option, require newer hardware than the aging iMac on which I’m typing this. But seeing these obscure, illogical or insensitive bits of user experience, I can’t help thinking of all the times I’ve taken a whack at Windows for the same sort of design stumbles.

I’m (still) sorry about the schlock ads here

Yesterday’s announcement of a merger of Taboola and Outbrain–the dreadful duo responsible for those horrible “around the Web” galleries of clickbait ads tarting up many of your favorite news sites–provided yet another reminder of how fundamentally schlocky programmatic ads can get online.

But so did a look at this blog.

When WordPress.com launched WordAds in 2012, the company touted a more tasteful advertising system that bloggers here could be proud of. The reality in the seven years since has been less impressive.

The WordAds program features some respectable, name-brand advertisers like Airbnb and Audible, to name two firms seen here tonight. But it’s also accepted too much tacky crap–including some of the same medically-unsound trash that litters Taboola and Outbrain “chumboxes”–while struggling to block scams like the “forced-redirect” ad in the screenshot at right.

Over the last year, I’ve also been increasingly bothered by the way these ads rely on tracking your activity across the Web. I know that many of you avoid that surveillance by using browsers like Safari or Firefox with tracking-protection features, but I’d just as soon not be part of the privacy problem. Alas, WordPress has yet to offer bloggers the option of running ads that only target context (as in, the posts they accompany), not perceived user behavior as determined by various programmatic systems.

I do make money off these ads, but slowly. Most months, my advertising income here doesn’t exceed $10, and I can’t withdraw any of the proceeds until they exceed $100. I had thought that I’d see one of those paydays last month–but August’s addition to my ad income left me 28 cents shy of that C-note threshold.

So in practice, my major return on WordAds is the opportunity to have my face periodically shoved into the muck of online marketing. That’s worth something, I guess.