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Colin Devroe

Photographer. Podcaster. Blogger. Reverse Engineer.

Turning off Push Notifications worked. Now to go one step further.

On March 14th I turned off Push Notifications on my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I no longer get interrupted by text messages, calendar notifications, tweets, email messages, or software updates. If I want to see if I have any new messages I have to check myself.

At first this may seem like a recipe for missing very important notifications the moment they come in. And it is. The only person I’ve made an exception for is my wife Eliza. If she sends me a text message my phone will vibrate and make a chime. If anyone else sends me a text message I simply do not see it until I look. But even though this leads to missing important things from time-to-time I believe I haven’t missed out on a single opportunity that has come my way. It can be very easy to fool yourself into thinking that you need to reply to an email or text message the moment you get it. You don’t.

The important note is that I still look at my phone fairly often – I just choose when I want to.

Since it has been over two months since I made this change I’d like to take it one step further and try to limit the distractions I have even a bit more. I typically keep Gmail (for both personal and business), Tweetbot, Flint (Campfire), Trello, and sometimes an App.net client open on my desktop. I also check Instagram and a few other social networks via my phone a few times a day. I’m going to dramatically reduce the number of times per day that I check these and develop a routine so that I can respond to each of these in a reasonable timeframe that still allows me to eliminate distraction. With the exception of Campfire.

So; no notifications and no apps open unless I want to manually open them. I’m setting a reminder to check back in on this in two months.

Push notifications are the new blog comments

Craig Hockenberry opened the kimono on development of Twitteriffic 5:

Personally, I find myself actively disabling notifications in most of the apps I install these days. Notifications are great when used in moderation, but it’s very easy to use them to the point of distraction. Since I read Twitter as free time permits, I don’t need a reminder. Similarly, a constant flow of streaming tweets interrupting my day sounds more like a bug than a feature.

So do I. And I’m doing it more and more. In fact, I run my iPad in Do Not Disturb mode more often than not. I wonder if we’ll see this as a trend; that app developers decide enough is enough and simply remove the ability for push notifications from their apps.

Perhaps push notifications are the new blog comments.

/via Stephen Hackett.

Twitter’s new @mention notifications

A feature that I’ve wanted from Twitter ever since I ditched Brightkite in April 2009 has finally been released – @mention notifications. Huzzah.

Side note: Remember Brightkite? Oh what could have been.

/via Eric Brophy.

Google Reader subscription notifications

I’ve got an idea for the Google Reader team. When someone on Viddler, or Twitter or Facebook “follows” me I get an email letting me know. This gives me an opportunity to identify who is following me, learn about them as people instead of just statistics and perhaps even follow them back if I want to.

I wish Google Reader did this for people that subscribe to my feed (which is also available on Twitter by the way). According to Google Reader there are a few hundred people that have subscribed to this site that use Google Reader. This certainly isn’t everyone that has subscribed to this site but it’d be nice to know who these people are. It’d be nice if Google Reader, optionally, told me the usernames of the people that subscribed. A simple email notification that says “So and So has subscribed to your site via Google Reader” would suffice. This would give me the same opportunities as today’s popular social networks and I think that’d be great.

Poll: Should my site send Twitter notifications?

Ironically you may be reading this note because you clicked on a link from my Twitter account.

My site is setup to post links to Twitter, every 15 minutes, if there was a new post here on my site. I try to add a little context by adding the category before the Twitter status (e.g. “Link:”) and I also include the title of the note so that people can choose whether or not to click the link from Twitter back to my site.

But I could see this getting pretty annoying for some.

Someone whose opinion I value, Justin Blanton, had said in October 2007, on Twitter no less, that he didn’t like the whole “use Twitter to link to your blog” method of letting people know when you update your site. In some ways I agree with him but in others I find it fairly useful when I am not near Twitter to automate the process. I’m torn.

This process all started when I started to post mobile photos with my iPhone. At first they were going to Flickr and so I once Flickr updated the RSS feed for my photos, I had a script that would notify Twitter of the new photo. Once I began to post my mobile photos here on my site, I figured I would do the same thing.

This slowly expanded into, what is now, a script that will post to Twitter every single time I publish something to my site.

So, I ask – should I continue this? Is it annoying? It is useful? Should I only do it for mobile photos and nothing else? Please let me know in the comments.

My checklist for setting up Windows 10

Once I had decided to switch from macOS to Windows 10 I knew that I would need to unlearn old tricks and learn some new ones. The oddest one that can only happen through brute force is to teach my pinky to do what my thumb used to.

On macOS the CMD button modifier is used for everything. CMD+C = copy, CMD+V = paste, CMD+Tab = switch applications, etc. On Windows 10 CNTRL is the modifier of choice for most but not all things. For instance, CNTRL+C = copy, CNTRL+V = paste… however, ALT+Tab = switch applications. Believe it or not, this is one of the biggest hurdles left for switchers (at least those that rely on keyboard shortcuts like I do). The only way to get used to this switch, to force your muscles to unlearn the old ways, is to immerse yourself in the new environment and rely on the keyboard as heavily as possible until your brain makes the switch.

To that end I borrowed a Surface Pro for a few weeks prior to my new computer showing up and switched to it for most of my daily tasks. This way I had a head start on refactoring my muscle memory. It also afforded me time to experiment with how I would set up my work computer just the way I’d like.

While I relearned how to type, I created a checklist of sorts each time I made a change to the system or installed an app. I did this in hopes that it would dramatically reduce my set up time when the new computer arrived. Turns out, it did.

  • Install One Drive
    • Set up work and personal accounts
    • Create Desktop shortcut to OASIS folder
  • Pair Bluetooth devices
  • Turn on WSL (docs)
  • Turn off auto app updates in Store
  •  Customize taskbar
    • Change to Cortana button
    • Add Downloads Folder
  • Logitech MX Master 2S setup
    • Install Logitech Options software
    • Map buttons
      • Thumb button to Windows Task Viewer
      • Middle button to Snipping Tool – C:\Windows\System32\SnippingTool.exe
  • Install apps
    • 1Password
    • Quicklook (replicates macOS Quicklook feature)
    • Trello
    • 1clipboard
    • Spotify
    • Firefox
    • Twitter
    • LastPass
    • Slack
    • Microsoft Teams
    • Visual Studio Code
    • Visual Studio
    • Adobe Creative Suite
    • DropIt
  • Customize Apps
    • Set up work and personal email and calendar
    • Install Color for Firefox
    • Install Containers for Firefox
    • Install Hack font
    • Install Atom One Dark Theme for VS Code
    • Install Framer Syntax for VS Code
    • Adjust font size to 14px for VS Code
  • Miscellaneous tasks
    • Turn on Windows Insider Program
    • Install all Windows Insider updates
    • Install HEIF Image Support (for iPhone photos)
    • Delete all pinned Start Menu items
    • Turn on Windows Back up
    • Turn on Windows 10 Timeline view
    • Adjust Notifications for all apps in Settings
    • Add appropriate folders to Photos app
  • Notes
    • in Ubuntu, put files in /mnt/c/* so they can be accessed by Windows apps

I still have a few things to do, such as moving development database schemas. And I’m sure there will be a bunch of little things as I continue working (I’ll update this post). But having this checklist made setting up the new computer fairly painless and I was done in a few hours. I remember it taking a few days to get a work computer set up right. I think having so much of our “stuff” in the cloud these days has made this process a bit easier.

If you have any suggestions for Windows 10 I’ll gladly accept them in the comments.

Rob Shecter on switching from iPhone to Pixel 2

Robb Shecter:

Notifications are far better than what I’m used to. They’re are so good, it’s maybe the killer feature for me

This may be more of an observation of Android than of the Pixel 2. But I can say that my experience has been similar to Robb’s. I really, really like my Pixel 2 XL and I can’t wait to see what Google does with Pixel 3.

A review of the Google Pixel 2 XL and Android 8.1 by a longtime iPhone user

After 10 years of using iOS as my primary mobile platform I’ve decided to give Android more than just a casual try. This post is my review both of the Google Pixel 2 XL and Android 8.1 as well as a few comparisons I’ve drawn between iOS and Android ecosystems. I’ve been an Apple fan for decades. But I’ve tried to be as unbiased as possible and truly allow my feelings of day-to-day use dictate my review. I’ve owned the Pixel 2 XL for over a month so I’m hoping that my first reactions have subsided.

The Google Pixel 2 XL

I love this phone.

I’d been thinking about trying out an Android-powered phone for a few months but I think what pushed me over the edge was how many YouTubers rated the Pixel 2 so highly. Many tech reviewers have the privilege of getting their hands on dozens of phones. Which phone comes out on top (or very close) of most of their lists? The Pixel 2 XL.

I switched to the Pixel 2 XL from an iPhone 7 Plus. The iPhone 7 Plus was a great phone — easily my favorite camera system in an iPhone — but not as comfortable in the hand as the iPhone SE. For a sense of how much I liked the iPhone SE you can read what I wrote here.

By going from an iPhone 7 Plus to a Pixel 2 XL I upgraded the camera system in a number of ways. Front-facing portrait mode is far more important and useful in daily use than I could have imagined. I think Apple has missed an opportunity on the front-facing camera for years. It is likely used more often by younger people and yet the hardware and software driving the forward-facing camera is always superior on iPhones. With the Pixel 2 XL both cameras are fantastic and both offer the same software features.

Photo: A rather terrible photo of the Pixel 2 XL’s ambient display. Notice the icons.

The Pixel 2 XL has a few features that are not available on next-generation iPhones, namely; a lightning fast fingerprint sensor, squeezable sides, screen that wakes with a gentle double-tap, an ambient display with clock and gentle notifications, and “what’s playing” feature (showing you what music is currently playing) that is always on.

My phone is my primary camera. On hikes, walking downtown between meetings, or traveling – I like to be quick so I don’t miss any moments. With the iPhone 7 Plus I was like Bruce Lee with nunchucks. If I spotted a fleet-footed while on a hike I could likely capture it. After a few weeks with the Pixel 2 XL I’m beginning to feel my muscles learning the new gestures and maneuvers to get my groove back. One feature that makes this even better than iPhone 7 Plus is being able to double-tap the power button to invoke the camera app of my choice on the phone.

The Google Assistant is a primary feature of this phone. I’ve always wanted to try a different assistant than Siri but Apple simply does not allow you to do so on iOS. You can download the Google Assistant app but it is a neutered experience. iOS does not give third-party apps the control they need to be useful and there is no way to invoke the assistant easily.

On the Pixel 2 XL I have several ways to invoke the Google Assistant. I can squeeze the sides and nearly instantly I can begin making my request. I can say “OK Google” at any time and, again instantly make my request. And I do mean instant, unlike Siri, there is no pause needed between “OK Google” and my request. With Siri I need to wait for the “ding” sound. And lastly, I can long-press the home button to invoke the assistant.

The Google Assistant’s  results are much better than Siri. It gets my query correct the majority of the time. I don’t know what my success rate with Siri is but I would say it is less than 50%. I got so fed up with Siri that I only used it to ask for the weather each morning. With the Pixel 2 XL I’m using the Google Assistant multiple times per day. And, I use it for things that aren’t even possible on iOS like turning down my screen brightness, turning on or off my flashlight, taking a picture, etc.

I charge the Pixel 2 XL at night while I sleep and I routinely plug it in with greater than 50% battery life. I have changed no settings on the phone to extend the battery life. In fact, I’ve turned on the ambient display and “what’s playing” features which warn you that it will use more power. In my use, even with the “always on” features turned on, I have no issue at all with battery life. I also appreciate that it charges with USB-C. I can plug it directly into my MacBook Pro, no dongle.

To sum up, the Pixel 2 XL hardware is as good as the iPhone 7 Plus (and likely the 8) and has a better front-facing camera system, more options, and the squeeze feature.

Android 8.1

I bought the Pixel 2 XL within days of Android 8.1 shipping. Coming from 10 years of iOS, and the very limited number of user preferences it affords, using Android has been really fun. If I was a new user I could leave all the defaults as they are and be happy. However, I’ve enjoyed the number of options Android has.

One of the complaints about Apple I’ve heard the most is that they make too many choices for the user. My rebuttal to that has always been “Yes, but they make good choices”. However, two things have changed in recent years.

First, Apple is making worse choices. I know this is subjective but more and more I’m convinced that Apple’s choices are becoming more anti-competitive than they are user-focused. I can understand limiting some of the user preferences in iOS for the first few years to allow the platform to become rock solid, then slowly add more features and settings. But iOS is over 10 years old and there are a few options that Apple has, in my opinion, criminally omitted from iOS like being able to set default browser, email client, maps app, and assistant.

Second, the resources of these mobile devices are beginning to compete with the speed and storage of slim laptops. The devices beg to be used heavily, for work, and for play. I would say for many people their primary “computer” is their phone. So we are entering an era where it becomes a work horse for people. Steve Jobs thought we’d always have pickup trucks (desktops or laptops) while also owning cars (mobile devices). Well, I believe these mobile devices are beginning to become very pickup truck-like for many. And, let’s face it, a huge number of pick-up truck owners don’t even need them. They just like the look. This mean that the mobile OSes must also become work horses. And that means more options, better compatibility, and power user features.

This is a very long winded way of saying that I wanted to take back more control of my OS and Android allows me to do that. I can tweak Android in far more ways than I expected – even down to choosing a different launcher. Microsoft has one, there is another popular one called Lawnchair (cute name), and dozens of others. These change the device in both subtle and dramatic ways to become whatever the user needs. It makes so much sense. Imagine a launcher built specifically for young students?

To sum up, Android gives users far more control over their devices than iOS.

How Android is better than iOS

Photo: Notice how app folders appear directly below your tap, not in the center of the screen.

  • Powerful notifications – On the ambient display there is a subtle icon letting me know there is a notification for an app. In the status bar that icon is on the left-hand side. Pulling down gives me actionable, and “snoozable” items to deal with. You really need to play with it to understand. iOS’s notifications are clay tablets in comparison.
  • Do not disturb – I’ve found Android’s do not disturb preferences to be far more sane than iOS. Apps do not continue to beg me to turn on notifications. DND turns on when I go to bed, and turns off when I wake up. It turns on while I’m driving (something Android has had long before iOS). It can also be turned on by turning my volume down one click more than just “off”. It is a brilliant feature that is useful for theaters. Also, DND watches your calendar, if you’re “Busy” it turns on DND. At first I thought this would be overbearing, but in fact, it is incredibly thoughtful and sane.
  • An always available back button – iOS 7 brought a “back” button to the top left of the OS. But this is a terrible place for it. Android has an always available back button on the bottom left (bottom right on Samsung I think). It doesn’t just bring you back to the previous app but back in every context. It remembers exactly where you were last and takes you there. When I pick up my iPad I’m always reaching for this back button now.
  • App size – Android apps, and certainly updates, appear to be tiny when compared to their behemoth iOS siblings. Some daily use apps are less than 5Mb on Android. I’d love to take the time to do a true 1-to-1 comparison. My gut says the differences are substantial.
  • Device compatibility – I can plug my phone into my MacBook or Windows 10 PC and see the files on it. It almost seems absurd that Apple never created a similar sandbox approach like this to be able to store files or access files created on the device. This comes in very handy.
  • Home screen reachability – icons on your home screen can be placed anywhere you prefer. Naturally they are on the bottom of the screen because that is where your thumb rests. A feature that I’d bet will be in iOS 13 but that Apple stubbornly hasn’t brought to iOS yet.
  • Widgets – widgets aren’t for everyone. Some of them are poorly designed. But there are a few that are unobtrusive and simply make sense. In the screenshot of my home screen above you can see two in use – one for calendar and one for weather. But many apps ship with widgets that you can place on any home screen panel. I’ve seen others that have note taking apps on their own panel. They just swipe and start typing. It is pretty nice.
  • New app icons – When a new app is installed you can choose to have the icon be placed on your home screen or not. I’ve chosen for all apps to go into the app drawer and keep my home screen tidy. I love this option.
  • Folders open under your tap – This is a subtle thing. When I tap on a folder on my home screen it expands directly in place where the tap happened. It doesn’t open in the center of the screen. And, the app folder is only as big as it needs to be depending on the number of apps in it.
  • Split-screen apps – I’ve used this more than I thought I would. I’ve used it for note taking in certain circumstances but also for phone conferences. I can have my email open and my phone app open to type in the 8 digit pin that I received.

How iOS is better than Android

There are a few things that iOS clearly beats Android on and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point them out. Here are a few that I’ve found that I notice in day-to-day use.

  • Smooth scrolling – iOS really does scroll like butter. I don’t know what Apple does that Android engineers can’t (or don’t, or won’t) but the scrolling on Android isn’t nearly as buttery smooth as iOS. The gap has closed considerably in recent updates but there is still a long way to go.
  • Cursor movement and text selection – I wouldn’t say that iOS great at this, but it is better than Android for me so far. I also feel like this might be a muscle memory issue. I’d like to see Google bring some of iOS’s keyboard dragging features to Android. I’m getting better every day though.
  • Scroll to top – On any list in iOS (say, your contacts list) you can scroll to the top with a single tap on the status bar. Unless I’m missing something, and I’ve asked a few Android users, this simply doesn’t exist on Android. So if you scroll way, way down on your contacts list and you want to get back to the top you have to flick a million times like an animal. Please, if I’m missing something write in.
  • Safari’s Reading List feature – Even with Unmark (which I use daily) I still used Safari’s Reading List every day. Google has, inexplicably, added a “reading list” to Chrome for iOS but on no other platforms. Perhaps they did this to compete with Safari on mobile platforms but why not have it sync with desktop Chrome? Anyway, Google can quickly get on this please because I neeeeeed it.
  • Dictionary lookup – On iOS you can long press any word and get its definition. Because my vocabulary is as deep as a kiddy pool I use this feature a lot. I’ve installed a third-party app that does this on Android but it should be built-in.

So far I’m very happy with my choice to give Android a try. I’ll be using the Pixel 2 XL and Android for the rest of 2018  and plan to reassess where both platforms are at that point.

I still haven’t updated to macOS High Sierra and I have no plans to. In fact, I’ve disabled my notifications for the upgrade.

The Apple Watch is less obtrusive than a phone

Jeremy Keith:

I’m always shocked when I’m out and about with someone who has their phone set up to notify them of any activity—a mention on Twitter, a comment on Instagram, or worst of all, an email. The thought of receiving a notification upon receipt of an email gives me the shivers.

Me too.

I thought this might be a good time to bring this topic of notifications back up. Not only because Jeremy wrote about it but also because I now own an Apple Watch – which may seem counter intuitive to this whole distraction free discussion.

However, I’ve found the Apple Watch to be a lovely little device that can easily be set up to unobtrusively notify you of important things. In fact, I believe it is less obtrusive than an mobile phone.

I have a few notifications turned on for my phone:

  • Text messages – I get very few of these
  • Calendar reminders – I live by these
  • Dark Sky rain alerts – I like to keep dry
  • Night Sky condition and object alerts – I heart the universe

I am not notified of any social network activity or emails. Those things I dive into when I feel like it.

With this set up I feel I’m very rarely distracted by a notification. And now with the Watch, I can say I’m less distracted during a conversation with the persons in front of me physically.

Here is a scenario: you’re have a chat with someone and you get a text message alert. Your phone either makes an audible noise or it vibrates and the screen illuminates. The other person saw and/or heard the alert. So now they know your brain is wondering what that alert could be. Even if you don’t break eye contact with that other person, they know and you know you have a message waiting. With the Apple Watch I get a gentle tap on the wrist when I’ve gotten a text message. The screen does not illuminate. The other person doesn’t know I’ve gotten an alert. I’m able to stay present and check the alert when there is a break in the conversation. In this way, I think the Apple Watch is less obtrusive than a phone.