Notes on macOS Sierra

I’m now just over a fortnight into using Apple’s macOS Sierra, and I can report that it’s not enough time to get used to that name’s oddball capitalization. The past two weeks have, however, allowed me to come to some conclusions and form some questions about this operating-system update.

macos-sierra-logoThe pleasant disk-space mystery: Both times I’ve installed Sierra–an uneventful 50 minutes on my 2012 MacBook Air, an absurd three hours and change on my 2009 iMac–the OS has rewarded me with multiple gigabytes of free space. The MacBook, which was getting so close to full that I had to delete several gigs’ worth of data to install Sierra at all, gained 17 GB, while the iMac got an extra 18 GB back.

I do have the MacBook set to back up its Documents and Desktop folders to iCloud (neither contain enough data to threaten iCloud’s meager 5 GB quota of free space), but that comes nowhere near explaining the newly-liberated volume. And although Sierra doesn’t count “purgeable” files–synced files and media, rarely-used fonts and dictionaries, and other items that the system can always re-download after deletion–the totals of purgeable data listed in the info boxes for each startup disk don’t come close to explaining the discrepancy either.

macbook-storage-about-boxUniversal Clipboard is kind of magical: When I copy something from my iPad, I can paste it into my MacBook and vice versa. This wireless copy-and-paste feature neatly solves an everyday problem of switching between a mobile device and a “real” computer, and the fact that it’s happened with zero fuss amazes me. (I hope I haven’t just jinxed it.)

My iMac, however, is cut off from Universal Clipboard, as it’s a good three years too old. Once again, Apple: I’ll think about buying a new model when you don’t charge me 2016 prices for designs barely changed from 2014.

Search snafus: On both computers, a search in the Calendar app for events that I know exist–like conferences I’ve attended every year since 2010–now fails to show results older than late 2014 in my Google-hosted calendars. Sierra knows these older events exist, because Spotlight searches still find them. A post in Apple’s tech-support forums cites an unnamed Apple rep as saying this is a bug that should be fixed, which I hope is true. I also hope somebody in Apple PR replies to the e-mail I sent Wednesday asking about this.

Meanwhile, Mail has developed its own annoying habit of bouncing back to the oldest messages in my inbox after I cancel out of a search. I trust that’s a bug too, because I cannot think of many search use cases that conclude with the user thinking “now I would like to see my correspondence from 2011.”

siri-in-sierraStuff I haven’t tried much yet: I know that Siri leads off Apple’s pitch for Sierra, but I only really need one personal-assistant app–and that app serves me best on the device I carry most often, my Android phone. I also have yet to try out Apple Pay on the Web, although that’s mainly a factor of me not buying anything online in the past two weeks aside from one quick Amazon purchase. The new auto-categorization features in Photos sound neat but can’t help the overwhelming majority of my photos taken on my Android phone, which never even show up there. The same goes for the souped-up conversation options in Messages (did I mention I use an Android phone?).

Things unfixed or newly broken: Sierra seems as powerless as its predecessor OS X El Capitan when Safari or Chrome decide they want to gobble up every last morsel of memory on the machine. I sure do wish this operating system would remember that
pre-emptive multitasking” was one of its foundational features. It also annoys me that Photos persists in the user-hostile practice of discarding the title, description and location I added earlier to a photo when I try to export it to Flickr.

Meanwhile, Sierra has broken the GPGMail plug-in I use to encrypt and decrypt the occasional e-mail–something I only realized after I’d installed this OS on both Macs. I e-mailed the developers and got a reply explaining that Apple made non-trivial changes to the Mail app’s internal code (I wouldn’t have guessed, since Mail seems as glitch-prone as ever) that they realized late in the game would require rewriting the plug-in. So if you were going to send me an encrypted e-mail critiquing this post, please hold off until they can ship a Sierra-compatible beta.

Side effect of an aging iMac: Bluetooth mouse rage

Overall, the 2009-vintage iMac that I’m typing this on has aged not just well, but better than any other computer I’ve owned. But every few months, I can expect it to send me into a few hours of powerless rage, all because its Bluetooth mouse keeps making a change of batteries a drama-filled exercise.

imac-mouseIt happens something like this: After a few days of the menu bar flashing a low-battery icon for this “Magic Mouse,” that peripheral will finally go offline–most likely when I’m trying to wrap up an e-mail or a story. I’ll pop open the hatch on its bottom, remove the spent batteries, and pop in a fresh pair of AAs.

And that’s when the green LED on this rodent will either fail to illuminate or blink on and then off. I’ll go through the same troubleshooting steps each time: try different batteries, try cleaning the terminals in the mouse with a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol, then try cleaning the ends of each battery with the same.

Eventually, this rodent will decide to accept its new power source, and that’s when the Bluetooth battle begins. I don’t know if it’s the age of my iMac or of the mouse, but it seems to take anywhere from a few hours to day of having the Bluetooth link repeatedly drop for no apparent reason before the device pairing sets in–as if it were glue that needed time to cure.

I thought I’d knocked the worst of this wonkiness out of the system this spring when I trashed a batch of preferences files and booting the iMac into “Safe Mode.” But then I had to go through another round of iffy Bluetooth pairing after a battery change a few days ago.

A less stubborn person would buy a new mouse already, but I can’t get too excited about paying $49 for a Magic Mouse 2 that can only be recharged with a Lightning cable that blocks any use of the mouse as a pointing device. And would become instantly redundant when I buy a new desktop computer… should Apple ever get tired of selling models that saw their last update a year or two ago. But that’s a separate gripe.

Whenever Apple does deign to ship a revived iMac or Mac mini, one thing’s for sure: I will order it with a wired keyboard.


An iOS mystery: Where and when will Gboard not appear?

The fact that I own an Android phone has rarely been more obvious than when I use my iPad–and I try to “gesture type” as if I were using my smaller mobile device’s onscreen keyboard.

The arrival of iOS 8 and its support of third-party keyboards made tracing a path from letter to letter to enter text not just a pointless exercise but a possibility. And with iOS 9’s less buggy support, it’s become a less annoying possibility, but still not a sure thing.

Gboard app iconThat’s become clear to me since Google shipped its Gboard keyboard app in May and, after a satisfactory tryout, I made that free app the default keyboard on my iPad mini 4.

Most of the time, Gboard appears whenever I touch a text field. I can gesture-type with ease (except when I’m holding the tablet sideways), and I could season my prose with emojis and GIFs were I, you know, 20 years younger.

But Apple’s built-in keyboard keeps on surprising me by resurfacing on its own. To get a better sense of how often that happens, I tried taking notes on this behavior this week and reached three conclusions:

• The system works more often than I gave it credit for. The departures from the norm stick out, but keeping track of them made me realize how rare they are.

• In certain cases, the stock keyboard shows up because it’s supposed to. As an Apple tech-support note explains, iOS’s keyboard automatically takes over in secure data-entry fields like the password dialogs of the App Store and Amazon apps.

• In rare occasions, iOS does get confused about keyboards for no apparent reason. A tap of the address bar in Safari would sometimes invoke the stock keyboard instead of Gboard, while the Duolingo language-tutorial app proved itself capable of alternating between the iOS and Google keyboards in a single session.

It’s tempting to blame Apple, given the iffy quality of much of its software. But I can’t rule out this being Google’s fault. I mean, as good as Gboard is, I still had to do a copy-and-paste job from a Web site to enter the symbol that best captures my latest diagnosis of the situation:



The apps that finally pushed me past my data plan’s limit

For the first time in years, maybe ever, I maxed out the data plan on my phone. Fortunately, racking up 3.68 gigabytes of data when I’d only paid T-Mobile for 3 GB didn’t cost me anything–the leftover data from earlier months socked away in my Data Stash covered the overage, and I still have more than 5 GB in the bank.

Android data usageBut the experience did remind me that you can burn through mobile bandwidth surprisingly fast. And since I’m always asking readers who have had the same experience “what apps did you in,” I should answer the same question myself.

So here are the top 10 offenders listed in Android’s Data Usage screen:

• Twitter: 1.91 GB. This one stands out not just because it’s at the top of the list–that’s a quasi-obscene amount of data for a social network originally designed to function over SMS. Tapping that entry revealed that Twitter ate up almost half of that data, 855 megabytes, while running in the background; I guess that’s why Android has a “Restrict app background data” control.

• Chrome: 723 MB. This didn’t surprise me much, since I haven’t switched on this browser’s Data Saver option. I’m glad it’s there, though.

• Facebook: 244 MB. I expected more, considering how I spend almost as much time in this app as I do in Twitter. The developers at the social network may deserve a little more credit for keeping their app quasi-efficient in its bandwidth use.

• Android OS: 109 MB. Picture me shrugging as I realize how little this entry just told me.

• Gmail: 92.6 MB. I thought this would be higher, considering I have this app syncing three different e-mail accounts.

• Google App: 63.11 MB. This is all Google Now, right?

• Google Play services: 62.55 MB. Here we have another catchall item–this Android library does chores for a vast variety of apps on a phone.

• Vine: 55.79 MB. While Twitter’s primarily text-based app binged on bandwidth, its video-only offshoot sipped this little. Picture me once again shrugging.

• Snapchat: 53.13 MB. I don’t even use this app in any meaningful way (a fuller account of my Snapchat incompetence will require a separate post), so I don’t know how it burned through that much data.

• Flickr: 48.02 MB. This would have been vastly higher had I not set Yahoo’s photo-sharing app to upload photos only over WiFi. The Play Store accounts for a tiny share of my bandwidth for the same reason.

If you don’t mind sharing, what apps top your own phone’s data-usage screen? I realize that in iOS, you can’t get a month-by-month breakdown (the upcoming iOS 10 doesn’t fix that, to judge from the peek I got at it last month), but even the running total iOS keeps should still yield some useful insights.

An unexpected comeback for a paper notepad

PARIS–I’m still not a fan of taking notes on paper, but I was glad I had a reporter’s notepad in my bag when I flew here to moderate six panels at the VivaTechnology Paris conference. Why? As I was getting ready to head over to my first talk yesterday morning, I saw that Evernote’s Android app was stuck on the “Opening note, please wait” dialog when I tried to open the note with my outline, even though I had enough bandwidth to tweet out my annoyance at that malfunction.

Notepad and panel notes(Yes, this happened only two days after Evernote announced it was raising its subscription prices. Regrettable timing all around.)

I don’t trust myself to memorize panel talking points, so I had to write them down on the paper I had available. Then I had to do the same five more times–Evernote’s app continues to have that hangup, even though it opens other notes without complaint.

In this context, ink held some distinct advantages over pixels. I didn’t have to keep my phone refreshed throughout the whole panel, draining its battery that much more. I could rest it anywhere without worrying about it falling on the floor. There was no risk of people thinking I was texting somebody or looking up cat videos in the middle of my panel. And a reporter holding a notepad during a panel looks more natural in a picture than one clutching a phone.

I will admit that I somewhat regretted not being able to use Twitter as a panel backchannel. But at this particular venue, carrying around a paper notepad brought one other benefit: The Paris expo Port de Versailles was a little toasty, and I soon got in the habit of fanning myself with the notepad between panels.

Samsung’s Android versus stock Android: how six common tasks compare

I didn’t get around to reviewing Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge after their introductions at Mobile World Congress this February, but a couple of months ago Verizon Wireless PR offered to loan me one anyway. The device had a useful cameo role in a story about mobile payments, I did my customary battery-life tests, and then I had one last chore: taking notes on the differences between Samsung’s “TouchWiz” version of Android and the stock-condition software I have on my Nexus 5X.

Galaxy S7 and Nexus 5XThese interface gaps aren’t as jarring as they used to be, thanks mainly to Samsung having an attack of sanity and no longer putting a menu button where Android’s standard recent-apps button should be. Instead, a back button occupies that space, with recent-apps’ overlapping rectangles moved to the bottom-left corner.

But some differences remain, and I should keep them in mind the next time I’m writing up a cheat sheet about how to tackle certain Android chores. Consider this post a little FYI to myself…

Enable airplane mode:
• Samsung: Swipe down from the top of the screen to show the Quick Settings bar, swipe left to reveal the “Airplane mode” button, tap that. You may see a confirmation dialog if you haven’t told the phone not to nag you about this again.
• Stock: Swipe down twice (or swipe once with two fingers) and tap “Airplane mode.”

Check data usage:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Data usage” in the Settings app you just opened. Or, less obviously, swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap and and hold the “Mobile data” icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, then tap the signal-strength icon.

View app permissions:
• Samsung: Swipe down to show Quick Settings, tap the gear icon, choose “Privacy and emergency” in the Settings app you just opened, tap “App permissions.”
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, select “Apps” in the Settings app, tap the top-right gear icon, tap “App permissions.”

Pair with a Bluetooth device:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap and hold the Bluetooth icon.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the menu below the Bluetooth icon.

Check per-app battery consumption:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Battery” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the battery icon.

See how much storage space is left:
• Samsung: Swipe down, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage” in the Settings app.
• Stock: Swipe down twice or swipe once with two fingers, tap the gear icon, choose “Storage & USB” in the Settings app.

Overall, I don’t see Samsung’s interface saving any time compared to Google’s. Which makes me wonder yet again why it bothers to craft such a different front end for this operating system.

Event-space review (second in a series): the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center

My work-from-home job doesn’t provide me with a regular commute to an office, but it does allow an irregular commute to a handful of event spaces in the District for one conference or another. Last summer, I posted a guide to the most frequent such venue, the Newseum’s Knight Conference Center; second place on that list probably belongs to the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, a few blocks west on Pennsylvania Avenue. If you’ve got an event coming up in this enormous facility–at 3.1 million square feet, it’s the largest building in the District–here’s what you need to know.

Reagan building Reagan bustLocation

The Reagan Building’s 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. NW address is obviously convenient for anybody walking from the rest of downtown, taking Metro (the Orange, Silver and Blue lines have a stop in the basement) or taking the 14th Street Bridge from Virginia (though I can’t speak to parking options). But with an oversized Capital Bikeshare dock on its 14th Street side and the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track around the corner, it’s also well situated for two-wheeled travel.

Be advised that one does not just walk into the Reagan Building, because its entrances greet you with metal detectors and X-ray scanners. It annoys me that I have to take my laptop out of my bag when I don’t need to do that at airports… by virtue of the Global Entry membership I obtained with a cursory interview in this very building.

Bandwidth and power

Many of the Reagan Building’s meeting spaces are below street level and therefore have terrible phone reception. Inconveniently enough, the WiFi requires a username and password–and yet every event I go to here seems to leave that information out of the program. Half the time, the event organizers also forget to tape a printout with those details in any obvious spot.

Power outlets, however, are reasonably easy to find. I can’t remember seeing the auditoriums get split into two or three, so if you’re in a room you should be able to count on locating one along a wall instead of realizing that you’ve found a temporary divider.

Reagan building atriumCatering

It’s been remarkably good over the variety of events I’ve attended here, not all with high-dollar production values. I can’t say that I’ve had any memorable meals here, but what do you want for free ethics-compliant hors d’oeuvres?


There’s not much of a view to be had from most of the building, leaving you to focus on the Reagan Building’s own fine if restrained architecture. The vast atrium that greets you when you enter from 14th Street is one of Washington’s better public spaces, but otherwise this edifice focuses on fitting into the rest of the Federal Triangle area. Since the Reagan Building filled a parking lot, I’d say it succeeds at that.

If you weren’t a fan of Reagan’s rhetoric about the risks of government power, you can also derive a certain malicious glee at seeing the 40th president memorialized in an $818 million temple–double earlier estimates!–to big government.