Dalliances and deviations.

So I returned my iPhone SE.

I know, I know.

I was so into it. Last time I talked about it, my mind was made up, I was forging ahead, I had everything I needed and my resolve was strong.

To be honest, it was a great few weeks. I really like that phone a lot. It is an incredible, compact, able little thing. And I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who asked about it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that phone. I truly adored it while I was using it.

But after watching the WWDC keynote, my mind started wandering. Although I wasn’t much into 3D Touch this time around, it seemed to be extending in pretty interesting directions. The iOS 10 UI made me pause too. I looked at the changes to layout, fonts, and other elements and realized that while it would work on a smaller screen, it wasn’t designed for a smaller screen.

That’s when it hit me: going against the grain of whatever direction Apple is moving in is not a great idea.

I started to realize that if I wasn’t using the de facto hardware (read: 4.7″ and up), I was not going to be getting the best experience. The changes coming to iOS are built for new hardware, with a typical inclusive nod to the previous year, making the update almost fully accessible, minus whatever secret hardware features are lurking, waiting to be revealed in the fall.

Most importantly, I wasn’t planning on buying a new phone this fall, and even if I was, I couldn’t see Apple refreshing the 4″ size so soon, if at all. I’d like to think that it caught them a little off guard, given that it was a bit hard to get one if you were just strolling in to a store for a while there. Tim Cook even noted that the demand was “much beyond what we thought” during the Q2 earnings call.

Still, the phone I had wasn’t able to take advantage of all of iOS today, let alone tomorrow. So I made the call to go back up to the 6s, and that was that.

But like a pre-teen romance at summer camp, I’ll remember the few weeks we had together fondly. Preferably against an 80s-style montage of Peter Cetera and soft-focus shots of me holding the phone wistfully.

Judge me by my size, do you: the iPhone SE.

(A small review for a small phone)

It’s snappy as hell, and feels terrific. I think the minor updates to the 5s design are even better than the initial phone.

I’ll see if I miss 3D Touch, but my gut says no. The power of a big phone in a small case outweighs that for me right now.

Pretty damned compelling. I’m into this.

Reversing orbit.

For the past few months, I’ve become increasingly iPad-centric in my use of iOS. This had been happening since iOS 9 came out, certainly, but the scales tipped inexplicably about two months ago, and the momentum was only accelerated by the adoption of the 12.9″ Pro. I now spend the majority of my time on the iPad, doing everything I had been doing and a lot more.

My iPhone 6s, meanwhile, has been relegated to a different role. I still use it quite a bit, but if we’re being honest, it’s definitely my second choice if I want to do something. Sometimes it’s the only choice, in a scenario where I don’t have the iPad, but given the choice, at this point, it’s number two.

This got me thinking. I take my iPad to the office each day, and bring it home. It’s my anchor. My iPhone is the smaller device I always have with me: my camera, my hotspot, my payment token. If I’m going to carry two devices (almost) everywhere, why not lighten the load a little bit?

Then this happened.

And I went, “wow, cool, a tiny phone with big phone guts” like a lot of other people. I’ve always liked the iPhone 5/5s style. In fact, I actually still prefer it to the iPhone 6/6s style. I like the new style, but it just never felt as natural to me. And while some folks saw the SE as a step backward in terms of looks, I agree with Apple:

we started with a beloved design…

But I held onto my 6s. Then I was pushing one of my kids in the stroller around the neighborhood while trying to text with the other hand, and it started to dawn on me: my specific use cases for my phone have changed. It used to be my do-literally-everything device, and it has become my do-a-handful-of-things-well device. Which I am absolutely fine with. As such, the thought that kept gnawing at me since then has been clear.

I think I’m going back to a(n even) smaller phone.

Right now, my phone needs to be able to do exactly four things well:

  • camera
  • communication
  • payments
  • capture small bits of information

Prior to the SE announcement, there was no way a 5s was going to close out that list. It’d get there on #2 and #4, but #1 after seeing the 6s photos? Nope. And no Apple Pay–I’d be lying if I said I don’t use it every chance I get.

The SE does those. In a tiny, powerful package. With a design I always liked, without (much) compromise.

Yes, I’ll have to live without 3D Touch. In all honesty, while I do use it, I often forget it’s there. It’s never stuck with me all that much, and I’ve really tried. I always press everything to see what happens, but it’s inconsistently applied, and in some cases, just not worth the time. Maybe someday, but not now.

Yes, there’s going to be a lot less onscreen at once. This is probably the biggest trade off I’ll need to make, and the toughest to come to terms with. It’s nice having a bit of extra room to read and interact with things. But you know what? I interacted with this smaller size for freaking years in the absence of a larger phone, and my world kept turning. I do a lot of reading on my phone, but I’m prepared to make a change in how I use it to see if the difference makes sense.

Yes, there will likely be a new phone in the fall, that does amazing things. See that list up there that I mentioned? Those four things are truly all my phone needs to do these days.

But what it does do well, is plenty. The camera and internals are 6s-quality. Apple Pay is in. Touch ID, while not as fast as the 6s, is there. The things that are integral to the “portable communicator” table stakes are there.

There’s something else though.

I’ve written about my time away from Twitter and the web at large and how it changed me. Part of that was spending less time looking at my tiny screen(s) in general. I’ve set upon an internal logic for this new thought technology:

  1. If I have the iPad, I will use the iPad, because it is better.
  2. If I don’t have the iPad, chances are I am somewhere where it is either not necessary to be looking at a screen, or not appropriate.
  3. If this is the case, the only things I probably need to do are take a photo, pay for something, or communicate quickly.

Which basically means the time I spend looking at screens is better spent, and the time when I am not looking at screens is even better spent. I will be (or at least try to be, I mean, this is an experiment, after all) more present, more attentive, and more in the moment. I feel like this is a natural extension of my thought process for the past few months, and even though there’s a part of my brain that’s like “you are seriously drunk, man”… I’m thinking it’s at least worth a try.

Worst case scenario: I freak out, return it or sell it, and go back to a bigger phone. Best case scenario: I was right, a new pattern emerges, and the things I care about come into focus a little more.

Hey, if this is my biggest challenge right now, I’m thankful as hell. In the meantime, I’m off to buy a tiny phone.

Search wishes on iOS.

In iOS 9, Apple is extending Search’s (née Spotlight) built-in abilities in cool ways. There’s a lot that it can do now, with third-party developers able to plug into it via new API access. But in an effort to make iOS even more of a productivity tool, one thing it still can’t do is replicate the ubiquitous availability that it’s afforded on OS X.

How often do you think of something you want to search for from the Springboard? Now think about how often that might happen while working in another app? Wouldn’t it be great to have a universal search bar in, say, the Today view as a built-in widget like Weather that’s always there to quickly access?

I would love–LOVE–to see a search widget or some similar functionality within the Today view. I can’t tell you how immeasurably useful that would be for me. Having to back out of whatever I’m doing, return to the home screen, and having to swipe once, maybe twice to reach a search field just feels so… old.

Doing what I do every day, I fully realize the interface implications of doing something like this. But it makes so much sense to me, I can’t help but think it’d be worth it.

DODOcase leather back for iPhone 6.

In my seemingly endless quest to find minimal case experiences for my iOS devices, I continue to plod through the internet in search of the Goldilocks fit for my phone. I recalled being a big fan of the DODOcase Bookback for a while, during the 4/4S years. It was a nice way to add a tiny bit of texture to your device without adding any bulk.

So it was with some enthusiasm that I ordered the equivalent product the company offers for the iPhone 6. I suppose the tl;dr here is that I don’t like it as much as my previous purchases.

Part of it is the color. This nude, peachy leather is the only option you have for this thing. Why not a nice rich brown as well, or better yet black, like the BOOKback of yore? I know, it says over time that it’ll become a “deep carmel color” which is interesting, because that’s a place, and not a color. I’ve never been to that part of California, but I’m curious to know how it looks compared to this.

More importantly though, is a problem that isn’t anyone’s fault. The iPhone 6/6+ has these rounded edges, which makes anything you apply to it that doesn’t hug it perfectly feel awfully out of place. When you stick this cover to the back, your fingers find the edges instantly, and although the site claims that’s a feature, it feels like a bug. Like I said, no one’s fault; everyone’s working with the same dimensions of the phone, but it’s a bummer. Who knows, perhaps some people do like feeling the edges of it all the time, but it broke the lines of the phone in a way that some of the other ultra-thin cases I’ve tried were able to preserve.

I’m being a little bit of a baby, I know. I could easily get over the color of it since it’s on the back and I’d probably never look at it anyway. Over time, it would probably get dirtier and evolve into a nice brown. But those older BOOKbacks were so good because they melted into the edges of the phone so perfectly. This one sits behind it like a small skin pedestal.

Into the drawer of failed hopes with ye.

Using Drafts as an Alfred replacement on iOS.

Lately I’ve enjoyed working from my iOS devices more than ever, due in large part to the great changes in iOS 8. But every day, I still do a great deal of work from the Mac as well for reasons of control and speed. I use Alfred for a ton of functionality, for everything from launching apps and quick searches to basic calculations and defining words. It is a single point of entry for so much of the data I interact with on a daily basis, and I love both the quickness it employs and the flexibility it affords me. I can extend it in completely new and crazy ways with workflows and create chained events to perform actions in the background. If you’ve never tried it, you simply must, and shortly thereafter upgrade to the Powerpack because it completely changes the way you can use your Mac.

Due to the essential nature of how iOS works, something like Alfred simply can’t exist in the same way. The company has released a companion app called Alfred Remote, which is interesting, and allows you to create a palette of quick buttons to launch actions on your Mac. But it’s far from an analogue to the functionality you’d find on the desktop. iOS silos its data for a variety of reasons, and even with the great strides iOS 8 brought to developers, the idea of an always-running, ubiquitous utility ready to assist you from anywhere you find yourself simply doesn’t exist. Even Apple’s own Spotlight implementation, while providing some of that functionality, doesn’t run everywhere–it needs to be invoked from the Springboard.

With these constraints in mind, I began to think of how I could replicate the tools I enjoy with Alfred in an iOS environment. Since getting the iPad Air 2, I’ve attempted to set it up as closely to my MacBook Pro’s app/service configuration as possible, so that I can truly work from either device. I’m also going through a process of discovering how I can slim down the number of individual apps I have installed by replicating functionality in other apps like Workflow and Launch Center Pro. It’s a fun way to pass some time, and I always like consolidating things. Sometimes it’s a little puzzle I want to solve, and sometimes the answer is to just use a dedicated app because the experience is better. But the process leads me to examine how and why I do things, and you know how I like gratuitous self-reflection. Ahem.

I had to examine what I do with Alfred on the Mac, and distill it down for iOS. There would obviously be sacrifices and redundancy in some cases, so I’d need to account for that. For instance, there’s no way I can toggle Wi-Fi or Bluetooth with a key command or a keyword on iOS as I can on the Mac, and between Spotlight and Launch Center Pro, my app-launching needs are more than taken care of. (Although, now that I think about it, you’d probably be able to build a simple app launcher into an action group if you really wanted to. Maybe I’ll give it a shot to see how it feels.) That left the core of what I do with Alfred.

Drafts is an incredible app that I’ve been using since it arrived on the App Store, and one that I’ve spoken about before. At a glance, it’s a notepad, ready to accept input as soon as you launch it. But anyone who’s used it can tell you it goes way further than that. You can send that note to a variety of places, perform actions on that text, even script additional functionality to interact with it. There is a vibrant community around the app and the Action Directory is evidence of that. I don’t have the capacity to explain how truly interesting and powerful this app is in the course of this piece, so go see it for yourself.

Thanks to its robust handling of text-based information, Drafts became my surrogate for this experiment on iOS. Through its Notification Center widget, it’s actually accessible from anywhere on my device (can’t say that for Spotlight), so I can always pull down and jump directly to it. It would be the single entry point for text, and I would apply as many different actions as I could to it to emulate my flow with Alfred. I took screenshots of Alfred’s preferences on the Mac as well as the individual workflows I had installed on top of that, and built a list of what I needed to do.

(Note: I’m not going to cover every single action in this post, but apart from the obvious things like controlling Wi-Fi, I’ve pretty much covered this list or I’m working on something that will. Or I’ve decided to ignore something and use a separate app. Whatever.)

First, the basics. The stuff I use that’s built into Alfred.

  • App launching
  • Search (internet/file system)
  • Basic calculations ️
  • Tools/functions
  • Definitions ️
  • Direct file system access
  • Contacts
  • Clipboard history/management
  • System commands

Then, my custom workflow additions.

  • Send to Todoist
  • Send to Due
  • Post to Twitter
  • Append/prepend text files
  • Wi-Fi/Bluetooth toggle
  • Basic conversions
  • Down for everyone or just me
  • Whois lookup
  • Force empty Mac trash
  • Forecast.io lookup
  • Giphy search
  • IMDb search
  • iTunes Store search
  • Determine current IP
  • New calendar event
  • New text file
  • Open current Safari tab in Chrome
  • Random password generator
  • Custom search (Box files)
  • Custom search (Dropbox files)
  • Pinboard search
  • Quick access to Transmit favorites
  • VPN toggle on/off

Many of these can be handled deftly in Drafts without much, if any tinkering. Some of this can’t be handled at all. Some of it just takes a little finesse. Here’s how it looks.

I created action groups: “Actions”, “Search”, “Notes”, and “Tools” based on the type of functionality I was looking for. With Alfred, it all kind of ends up in one big pool as you are able to winnow down what you’re doing contextually as you type–it’s one of the things that makes the app so cool. In Drafts, you need to browse a little. Different, but not terrible at all. Hey, it’s still iOS.

So, the actions. Anything dealing with plain text/notes–nailed. You can create, append, prepend, modify, and pretty much anything else you want to do as long as it’s text and your destination is somewhere Drafts supports. So all my Dropbox actions are buttoned up. Drafts can write to iCloud Drive as well, so that’s an option too for quick zaps between iOS and the Mac.

Same for quickly adding to apps like Todoist, Due, and Calendar to create new items. As long as a URL scheme exists or someone’s built an action and posted it, you can probably do it. Drafts has advanced clipboard handling, so that’s in there too, as is posting to Twitter.

In as many cases as I could, I applied URLs to these actions to open in a browser. Obviously, this makes sense for things like searches, especially since a lot of local apps don’t support any kind of URL scheme beyond opening. In some cases, I preferred native app integrations to web actions, though. It’s much better to open the Twitter app to do a search with its new deep integration than have to boot over to the mobile web, which frankly, sucks. I created a Pinboard web action for searching my own archives, since the app I like to use (Pinner) doesn’t support a search from outside currently. It’s a great app, but it just doesn’t do this one thing I want it to. I also repurposed some of my focused Duck Duck Go searches here, creating a master list of all the places I might want to hit, as well as a few app favorites (like 1Password).

Where things get pretty interesting is within Drafts’ advanced tagging system. It allows you to logically interpret certain things like dates, times, and even latitude and longitude–which came in really handy with the Forecast.io action. If I want the lookup for where I am right now, I don’t even need to enter text, since the URL adds the location tags independently. If I want to search a different location, I can type in “Austin, Texas” and run the Google weather search, which will take me straight to a page with a small weather module right at the top. I asked Greg about doing simple calculations right in the app, and he told me that’s supported as long as it doesn’t get too complicated. In addition to the action, there’s a script key add-on that does the math without needing to pull the drawer out. Hot.

Other cool things:

  • Giphy search goes right to the excellent custom UI in Launch Center Pro
  • iTunes Store search uses fnd.io which is fast and covers the entire store in a nice UI
  • Down for everyone and whois lookup use clipboard contents, and current IP is just a text-less action that runs, similar to the Forecast action

The things I can’t do at all? Well, as I said, toggling system states (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, VPN) is out, as is direct file access and search on iOS. What I discovered in my experimentation, however, was that while the Dropbox iOS app seemingly has no deep URL hooks, the mobile site supports a direct search as part of a URL string! So I’m able to pass a search term from Drafts to the mobile site, and after a few seconds (in my testing, under 15-20), I get a list of results, which I can then link to, or open in the native app. It’s not the real-time file access/search that Alfred provides, but it’s pretty damned cool for an iOS device, since my entire file system is based in Dropbox. Is it quicker to just open the native app and pull down the UI to search right there? Probably. But for the purposes of this experiment, this was a fun discovery.

As an extra bonus, I discovered that my WordPress site supports search in a similar way, so now I have a super fast path into my posts if I want to find something I wrote in the past to share with someone, which is something I do frequently.

Overall, it’s a big change in how I use my devices. I’m not sure if this will stick, but I wanted to try it, and see if I could map my Mac mental model of entry field-data-action to iOS. There are limits, but there are also cool things iOS can do that the Mac doesn’t. It’s interesting to me that on the Mac, my information flow out of my head to an action is so different than on iOS, based on how the environment differs.

It did get me thinking about what could be possible, though. I think that someone could definitely build something like Alfred for iOS and have it be as close to the Mac experience as possible, by which I mean that it would require some serious pre-configuration on the part of the user, and you’d still be limited by the iOS filesystem constraints, but between URL schemes and extensions, something really compelling could exist. I think you could build a UI on iOS that intelligently provided target actions based on what you type. I’m sure it would be a ridiculous power user tool, but I think it could work. I have no idea about what potential market this kind of app would find, but I’d love to see someone try. If it was done well, I see no reason why it couldn’t be sold at a premium to people like me who want to get every bit of power and functionality out of their devices.

In the meantime, this has been a really fun experiment for me and I figured out some cool things both about Drafts and how I can modify basic existing URLs to become more action-oriented. As our iOS devices gain more abilities, I look forward to seeing this process evolve. If you have any questions, you know where to find me.

The iPhone 6 is my new phone.

I said I’d give it some time, but the fact of the matter is that I didn’t need to. After setting up our test device three days ago to see how I liked it, I went out yesterday and bought myself an iPhone 6 to use instead of the 6 Plus. It will be my daily phone going forward.

When the 6 Plus was announced, I was excited to try a completely new form factor for iOS. I was convinced that the unique size and abilities of the Plus would change the way I use my phone. In my mind, it was large enough to be a small tablet, and I would do so many more things on it, potentially obviating the need for an iPad. That didn’t happen for a variety of reasons.

First, the size of the Plus is notable, but it’s just no iPad. I think that’s partially a product of the aspect ratio (16:9 for the phone, as opposed to 4:3 for the iPad) and partially a product of the software. Or more accurately, the fact that no one seems to know what to do with the Plus. Apple demonstrated a split-view that looks like the iPad in some apps, but the truth is that you end up seeing and doing less in those views because of the shorter height of the screen in that orientation. Don’t get me started on the abomination that is the landscape keyboard—extra buttons and features that shift the layout just enough to destroy your muscle memory for typing, along with an uncomfortable width make it virtually unusable.

I don’t blame developers either; the Plus is kind of an outlier in the device family. The apps that support it basically do the split-view thing and not much else, which makes sense because you probably don’t want to bifurcate your app’s phone experience too much. Between maintaining a somewhat consistent UI and the odd landscape shape of the device, I completely understand why most apps don’t go crazy with Plus features.

It runs phone software with a lot of extra room, but is constrained by that shape to not have more abilities like the iPad. As a result, it’s better at a few key things (e.g. battery life, reading, movies), but it’s worse at the things a phone excels at (quick actions, one-handed use, comfort). Throughout my use of the Plus, I was willing to make those trade-offs because I felt that I was getting value from the hardware for what it was. As time went on, I realized my behavior patterns weren’t indicating that, and I wasn’t doing anything on it that I couldn’t do on a slightly smaller screen.

In addition to its unique physical characteristics, based on my personal findings and the feedback of other Plus users, I’ve come to believe that the device is severely affected by its RAM allocation. My theory is that while it has the same amount of memory that the iPhone 6 has, the extra large screen and constant scaling the device does to manage the display put it at a serious disadvantage. I noticed apps constantly relaunching, Safari tabs being flushed extremely quickly, and states across actions and apps not being preserved the way I’d expect. In day-to-day use it gets annoying, but it’s not crippling. That said, for a device I use dozens of times a day, it becomes a pretty glaring negative. The few OS updates that have arrived since it launched have helped a little it seems, but not enough to be unnoticeable. Additionally, this impacts other aspects of use, as an app like Pebble will get flushed from memory more frequently, preventing the watch from working correctly. Any external hardware that requires an app connection to be held in memory for consistent functionality passed between devices is probably eligible for this kind of problem. (I doubt this will be an issue for the Apple Watch though, as the connection will be at a much lower device-level.)

Based on my personal use and my feelings about the device itself, I’m switching to an iPhone 6. It will not have the incredible battery life or the giant screen and spacious keyboard I’ve gotten used to. It will, however, slide into a pocket comfortably, perform all the things I usually do in a day admirably, and fit well in one hand for extended periods of time. It’s markedly lighter than the Plus, and in the past few days, I’ve not noticed the memory issues that plague the larger phone, or some strange bugs that I’ve attributed to the different display and how the software handles interactions with it. Which is not to say I’ll never notice them, but if the frequency of those issues drops significantly, it approaches zero in terms of one’s perception. That’s good enough for me.

The iPhone 6 Plus is a great device, and a lot of people I know have picked them up after talking to me. For most of those people, they’re totally perfect and the things I’ve outlined wouldn’t even show up in the negative column. For me, my use patterns have pushed me in the direction of the smaller phone and I’m very happy in spite of myself. I’m glad I spent a long enough time with the big phone to know this conclusively and I’m thrilled to have a new device to use. In the past few days, I’ve already been in situations where the 6 has been the perfect phone in the moment and the Plus would have been awkward. I so wanted to believe that the Plus was going to be a completely new device that provided a wholly new iOS experience, unlike what I’d been used to. Discovering that it really isn’t was a disappointment, but it led to finding the right phone for me, which makes me extremely happy. It’s the single device I use the most over all others, and it needs to feel like an extension of my arm. As cool as the Plus is, it just never did.

02-09-2015, 5:17 PM
Steve Streza mentioned on Twitter that what I was seeing with regard to the memory issues was not a new thing, or unique to the Plus. Wanted to mention it here as I’d done a lot of hand-waving and complaining, but Steve is actually a developer who would know more about it.

I still feel the hardware of the Plus exacerbates the problem far more than in the other handsets.

Test driving the iPhone 6.

I’ve talked about the iPhone 6 Plus here before. Overall, it’s a fantastic device, but its shortcomings do stand out to someone like me who might notice them (read: for lack of a better term, a power user). The reason I’d initially wanted the 6 Plus was to have a completely new iOS experience, wildly different than my previous phone, which was an iPhone 5. The iPhone 6 didn’t seem like enough of a jump to be exciting, and I was certain I’d be using the 6 Plus for all kinds of new things because of its size.

At first, I did. I marveled at how much I could see on screen at once. The keyboard is large and comfortable. The screen is really very nice. The battery life is mind-blowing. I could VNC into remote machines and pop around easily. I watched some TV shows on it and it blew me away. But apart from some isolated use cases that I haven’t run up against in a while, I’ve started to realize that I’ve begun using it almost exactly like my previous device again, and not like something new. I find that the split-view landscape feature isn’t well-implemented as while it might speed up certain activities, you lose so much viewable space in that orientation that it often isn’t worth it. (I attribute this to the fact that the phone is 16:9 while the iPad’s 4:3 is far better suited to these changes.) I also picked up an iPad Air 2 last fall, and I’m hard pressed to do anything outside the norm on my phone. That thing is phenomenal, and an absolute joy to use.

It got me thinking. If I wasn’t really using the immense screen for more than my usual “phone” activities, what’s the point of carrying something this big around? Certainly I’m used to it, so it’s not that, it’s been four months already. But we have a 2-year old, and she’s a handful. I’m always pulling it in and out of a pocket while I play with her, and it can sometimes be a pain. Also, we’ve got another baby on the way, and one-handed use, while totally achievable with the 6 Plus, isn’t really a great feeling (I’ve got smallish hands). You get used to it, and I’m obviously making it work, but there’ve been some real scary moments, I won’t lie. In real-world applications, I’ve found using Apple Pay to be workable, but often a little awkward just because I’m usually holding a bag of something already, which means a one-handed Touch ID balancing act over the reader.

So I’m doing an experiment. I’m going to set up and use the iPhone 6 I have at the office exactly as I’m using the 6 Plus and see how it feels. I’ll do all the things I’m used to doing, and put it through its paces. If I vastly prefer it after a period of time, perhaps I’ll stick with it. If I decide I miss the vast expanses of the behemoth’s screen, I’ll go back, no harm, no foul, my mental condition satiated for the time being. I’ll make some notes about the experience so as to make this a bit more scientastic, and so that I can actually form a cogent verdict that isn’t based on my vacillating emotional state, brought on by the miserable ice-hell that is winter right now. I’m curious to see how this goes.

Direct Searches with Duck Duck Go and Launch Center Pro.

Since the release of iOS 8 and Yosemite, Duck Duck Go has been available as a default search option in Safari. I recently switched over to it for a few weeks as a trial. It’s a cool search engine with a lot of upsides (a strong stance on privacy, cool customization) but in my tests, I found that my results weren’t as accurate as Google’s in almost every case. This weekend while I was searching for information on Transmit’s terrific iOS version, the first two results were about the app, and then I saw a page full of other… things.

Searches

Now I’m not signed into Google in this example, so that’s a straight search, not tailoring of results as far as I know. So going forward, I’ll be starting searches there, as the information returned seems to be far more accurate for what I’m looking for in a general case.

But there’s something really cool that Duck Duck Go can do, and it’s extremely valuable and interesting. The search engine has its own syntax that can be used to really get results differently. More importantly, there’s an entire system of bangs that can do direct searches on hundreds of sites, parsing your queries automatically. Needless to say, once you start down this rabbit hole, it’s a lot of fun.

My current application for this is created as a menu in Launch Center Pro. I read through the list of supported sites and created a scrolling list of all the places I could potentially want to search (shopping sites, different search engines, review sites, etc.) which then just asks for text input. The request is then sent to Safari, where the it’s parsed quickly and followed to the site. For instance, if you want to look for “Tron” on Amazon, you would type “!a tron” and you’re sent to the browser, to Amazon, and then a search on Tron is run.

Using Duck Duck Go as the default search on iOS means you can do this right from Spotlight, which is super cool. But I knew I’d forget the bangs, and I wanted it to be faster (and I wanted to revert to Google as my default search) so LCP was the perfect place to put it. Now with one tap, I can visually browse a list that looks like this:

DDG Menu

and immediately jump to results. The list item URL looks like this:

Amazon=?q=https://duckduckgo.com/?q=!amazon%20[prompt:Text]

So all you need to do is create a new entry, select “List” from the text input, add this string, and then edit the list item name and specific bang for each site, keeping the rest of the URL intact.

If you know where you want to go, it saves a little time, and it’s really fun. If you’re curious, I’d recommend exploring Duck Duck Go. There’s a lot to like about it.

Entirely anecdotal findings on memory management in the iPhone 6 Plus.

In the course of the month in which I’ve used my iPhone 6 Plus, I’ve noticed some behavior that I had attributed to the phone hardware itself. Being a “new” year, Apple will have taken some steps to create hardware that is of course refined in the following “S” year, strengthening the foundations it put in place with the new model. As adopters and followers of these cycles, many of us become intimately aware with the nuances of how the updates to the hardware affect our expectations. I have been enjoying the 6 Plus immensely, but I’ve found some limits to its abilities and I’m starting to suspect that while 1gb of RAM was really not enough to manage the phone and its massive screen, iOS is making some questionable choices (perhaps dependent on the hardware constraints) as to how it manages app use and memory flushes.

It started to become obvious how aggressively the phone killed apps each time I launched the App Store. Previously on my iPhone 5 running iOS 8.0 and 8.0.1/8.0.2, I would routinely leave the App Store on the “Updates” tab and go about my business. Upon returning to the App Store some time later, I would find myself in that tab, and the content would refresh. It started to annoy me, but I assumed it was a new behavior with the App Store app, potentially to drive users to the “Featured” tab for any number of reasons.

But I started seeing it as I moved across other apps too. Moving between apps that, to my knowledge, almost never got flushed. I was starting to see an app like Mail (which I am in constantly, and should always be retained in memory) open up fresh as I returned to it (i.e., not preserving my place in a message I was reading). The most notable and egregious instance of this happened one morning as I was checking my email in bed upon waking up, having done nothing with the phone for hours. I tapped a link, went to Safari, and when I returned to Mail, was sent back to the inbox as though it had launched cold. iOS is supposed to flush apps from memory after a period of not being used, or when absolutely necessary, not switching between two apps and returning. Something was definitely not right.

I began complaining on Twitter, like any other normal person. A lot of replies validated what I was seeing. Lots of users with a 6 Plus having the same experience, apps always reloading and state rarely being saved. I had several suggestions about what might be causing this:

  • Rogue process? Potentially, but I would assume that I’d also be seeing a sharp decline in battery longevity with something like that, and my battery is still incredible.
  • iCloud backup process? It happens all the time, off wi-fi, unplugged. Doubtful.
  • Background refresh issues? I toggled all apps off for background refresh and saw the same behavior.

I did soft resets/reboots and hard ones. Didn’t seem to make any difference. My apps were constantly getting tossed out of memory. Someone suggested I download a system utility app to see how much memory was actually used/free, so I did. In fact, I downloaded three, to compare results and make sure one wasn’t skewed in one direction or another. All the apps said the same thing: even after a complete restart, my iPhone–before I’d even opened an app–had between 3–8% available memory. Interesting aside: this was brought up on Twitter, and verified by me and a few other people.

Don’t know why it happens, but it’s bizarre. Try it and see. It doesn’t matter, because the phone chews up the free memory almost instantly anyway.

And yes, random Twitter person who felt obliged to point out that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I understand UNIX manages caching differently. Thanks once again for the pleasant lesson about never sharing anything on the internet, ever.

I assume this has something to do with the fact that the 6 Plus is constantly downsampling its graphics from 3x to 1920×1080 because of its unique screen, which would likely require resources to do those calculations all the time. Understanding this, I have to say this scenario is unfortunate and unpleasant. The phone is supposed to be this big productivity enhancing flagship, and it’s taking me longer to do things as I wait for apps to resume state. I’ve gotten reports from people saying that their iPhone 6 will do this, as well as iPhones 5, 5s, and 5c. Which turned my attention from the 6 Plus itself to iOS 8. Specifically 8.1, since I had an iPhone 5 running 8.0.x for a solid two weeks without any of these issues I’ve noted. The fact that the 6 Plus has only 1gb of RAM is an unfortunate truth we have to live with in the light of the insane beast that is the iPad Air 2, which, as you might guess, suffers from exactly none of these issues. Both devices run 8.1, so I was leaning toward it being a hardware issue (and specific to the 6 Plus), but the changes people noted in other models make me think it may be related to software. I honestly don’t know. I do know that having extra RAM seemingly mitigates this, and the iPhones 6 should have an extra gigabyte at this point. In light of all this, it’s disappointing that they don’t, as we’d probably never notice these potential software issues if the hardware could carry the load silently.

It’s all anecdotal at this point (I’ve been busy and haven’t been really inclined to dig deeper), and I really hope that there are improvements to the way these devices feel as we use them that can come from software updates. It’s disappointing to me that my iPhone 5 felt more usable in this regard than this massive hardware upgrade I yearned for. That said, a few people have asked me if I’d recommend the device at this point. I still enjoy it immensely, even with these current shortcomings, and I would say it’s one of the most interesting iOS devices I’ve used. If this is something that can be resolved through software optimization, my feelings would most likely be to wholeheartedly recommend it. If not, I’d still say that the phone is worth it alone for the battery life, which is positively otherworldly.

If you’re having similar issues or feel like getting more technical than I’ve had the time to, let me know. I’m curious to hear other experiences with the 6 Plus.