A request for travel-app developers: automatic screen brightness

This weekend has many of you on planes and trains, which means many of you have been  fussing with smartphone apps to get a ticket’s QR code to scan properly. Thanksgiving-weekend travel pain may be unavoidable, but code-scanning snafus should be a solvable problem.

national-airport-runway-1They remain unsolved in practice because travel-app developers can’t seem to grasp the idea of brightening the phone’s screen automatically when displaying a boarding pass. Instead, these apps keep leaving that work to you.

That’s definitely the case with the Android travel apps I use most often, United Airlines and Amtrak. With UA, I can sometimes get away with leaving the screen on its usual brightness–but not if I want to have the code scan properly at both the TSA checkpoint and the gate. With Amtrak, even maxing out the brightness–something the conductors always remind passengers to do–doesn’t ensure the ticket will scan on the first time.

(I’m kicking myself for not calling out this shortfall in Amtrak’s app when I reviewed it in 2012.)

If I had an iPhone, I could bring up United boarding passes and Amtrak tickets in the Wallet app, which does brighten the screen automatically. But I don’t own an iPhone, and neither does a huge fraction of the traveling public.

From what I can tell, other airline apps are no smarter about this. American Airlines’ app doesn’t appear to adjust screen brightness (although that company should probably first fix the issue that results in a boarding pass becoming invalid if you don’t bring it up at least 30 minutes before boarding) and Delta’s doesn’t seem to either.

Paper is wasteful, but at least I know my ticket code will work every time. When I go to a Nationals game, it’s my only option–the barcode scanners at the turnstiles have yet to accept a ticket code in an e-mailed ticket, no matter how bright the screen on my phone gets. (My wife’s iPhone 6 doesn’t have that hangup, because reasons.)

Meanwhile, Eventbrite’s app has automatically maxed out screen brightness when I bring up an event’s ticket since the first day I opened it. It’s too bad that I’m almost never asked to show a ticket code on my phone when I show up at an event booked through that service. Perhaps it would help if somebody set up an event for travel-app developers and required Eventbrite mobile tickets?

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.

A taste of Nougat on a Nexus 5X

DENVER–Two weeks ago, I tossed caution out the window of a hotel room and installed Google’s Android 7.0 on my phone one day into a business trip. The computing gods smiled on me, and the upgrade proceeded without incident and allowed me to experience the rest of the IFA show with the smartphone operating system Google also calls Android Nougat.

android-n-patch-install

Google’s sales pitch for Nougat may lead off with this release’s inflated inventory of emoji, but the change I appreciated first is the Settings app. In Nougat, it doesn’t just show categories of system preferences–it shows the current status of most of them.

That’s a thoughtful change. Too bad that phones with third-party interface tweaks will probably bury it.

The Nougat feature I use most often, however, is its new multitasking shortcut: Tap the recent-apps button twice, and Android jumps back to the second-most-recent app.

Nougat also offers a split-screen multitasking mode (that leads off the Google’s list of Android 7 features for developers), but my phone’s 5.2-in. screen doesn’t offer the kind of real estate that would make this useful.

I’ve also made little use of my newfound ability to customize the Quick Settings panel after removing the screen-rotation control (which I only ever used by accident). I do, however, appreciate being able to reply directly to more messages from the notifications list.

android-n-settings-appMonday brought a chance to try out the faster system-software updates Google has been touting. September’s security patches took 7 minutes and 15 seconds to install, which is less than instant but much faster than before–because I didn’t have that long wait as every installed app had to get reloaded.

At Google I/O, the company talked up Nougat’s more efficient use of memory. That got my attention, since the Nexus 5x’s 2 gigabytes of memory have often proved insufficient. I have yet to see my phone bog down the way it sometimes did before, although at least once I saw it fail to display my screen wallpaper for a moment after a round of switching between apps.

The Nougat feature that got me to do something as crazy as install a major software update to a critical device in the middle of a business trip was improved battery life. I haven’t done any detailed testing, but the phone does seem to last longer on days when I’m not using it like a tech journalist–that is, when I’m not constantly tweeting, replying to e-mails, and taking photos and notes, I can see the phone predict another 10 hours of battery life after I’ve gone seven hours without a charge.

But here at the Online News Association’s conference, no such luck applies. The phone doesn’t spend enough time in my pocket to benefit from Nougat’s ability to slow the system to a gentle stroll anytime the phone’s screen is off. So as I type this, my phone and my laptop are tethered to an outlet.

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:

 

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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.

Dear Android gesture typing: Enough ashtray with this one autocomplete error

About 95 percent of the time, the “gesture typing” built into Android’s keyboard is one of my favorite parts of Google’s mobile operating system. I trace a fingertip over the letters of the word I have in mind, that item appears in an overlay before I’m halfway through inputting it, I lift my fingertip, and a Scrabble winner like “deoxyribonucleic” pops into a tweet, e-mail or note.

Ashtray forbiddenBut then I have to try to gesture-type the $10 word “already,” and Android will have other ideas. Specifically, cancerous ones: It keeps subbing in “ashtray.”

I could take some comfort in the privacy-preserving thought that Google’s sense of my interests is so off that it thinks I write about cigarettes all the time. (This post probably won’t help!) But, really, I only want to write a common adverb without having to tap keys one letter at a time, like some kind of an animal.

And because I’m in the same abusive relationship with autocorrect as everybody else, I keep hoping that this time, Android will finally realize I have no interest in tobacco products. That’s when it will humor me by inserting “airway” instead of “ashtray.”

I just don’t know what could lead Google to misread me so consistently. The path you trace to gesture-type “already” requires going significantly farther east on the keyboard than the route for “ashtray,” and Google’s own search results suggest the former word is used about 143 times more often than the latter. Who would see any upside from this pattern of error?

As I said, this is annoying because it’s so unusual. The only other common word that Android gesture typing botches halfway as often is “conference.” And there, it’s at least more creative: The software will sometimes choose to read my attempt to enter this noun for an occupational hazard of my job as me gesture-typing “cicatrice.” Yes, real word: It’s a Middle English-derived noun for tissue that forms over a wound and then becomes a scar.

One thing I do know about this mystery: If there’s a tech conference with “already” in its name, I may have to decline all of its invitations to preserve my own sanity.