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Colin Devroe

Reverse Engineer. Blogger.

Follow: @c2dev2, RSS, JSON, Micro.blog.

Best of 2018

This year I’m taking a slightly more comprehensive approach to my “best of” list. I’ve taken a look at previous year’s lists: 2008, 2009, 2017 and comprised a slightly more complete set.

Again, this is only the things I came across this year and can remember. I don’t keep a list throughout the year but rather rely on my memory. If you think I missed something great please reach out.

Best Blog: Becky Hansmeyer

I’ve linked to Becky’s blog 6 times this year. Mostly related to her iOS app SnapThread (which I can’t even use because I’m no longer on iOS). She openly published her thoughts, trials, tribulations, and triumphs (and new children) throughout the year. The epitome of a personal blog.

Runners up: Waxy – Andy Baio is back at it and the internet is better for it. Jeremy Keith’s Adactio is also always good. It might as well be perpetually in this category.

Best Blog Redesign: Lynn Fisher

Each year Lynn Fisher shows off her talent to build responsive web designs in a fun way by redesigning her site/blog. Go ahead and resize your browser on her homepage. Very fun.

Best (new to me) Blog: Windows Central

Hear me out. This blog publishes tons of times per day. The web site is obnoxious with ads (very thankful for RSS!). Despite that, since switching to Windows 10 this year I have been thankful to have a resource like this to keep me up-to-date with all things Windows. It has proven very useful to learn a number of tips and tricks and to know what the latest features are in Windows.

Best place: Iceland

This past September we visited Iceland – and it was definitely the standout trip of our year. The landscape, the water, the horses, the northern lights – everything was amazing.

Runner up: our trip to Kentucky this year to travel along the Bourbon trail. See this post and this post.

Best book: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I certainly laughed out loud more than once while reading this book. It was a fun read and is much better than any of the movies or series I’ve seen trying to adapt it to screen. Though I did enjoy Martin Freeman in one of the more recent movie adaptations.

Runners up: The Road by Cormac McCarthy – sad, but good read. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – what a story.

Best service: Spotify

Spotify continues to be one of the greatest services I’ve ever used. Eliza and I are on a family plan and we use the service every single day at home, on the go, at work. See also.

Best album: Hollywood Africans – Jon Batiste

This is a fun album. It wanders around a little but overall it is a solid album to put on while enjoying a Manhattan (one of my requisites for good music). I also enjoyed his interview with Terry Gross about the album.

Runners up: Free Yourself Up – Lake Street Dive, SYRE – Jaden Smith (don’t @ me).

Best movie: A Quiet Place

I am hoping to watch this one again soon. It isn’t particularly revolutionary or mind blowing – but the pacing, the acting, and the overall balance of the movie is really good. Enjoyed it thoroughly.

Runner up: I just saw the new Spiderman and it is very refreshing. So glad they did something so different.

Best company: Microsoft

In my opinion, Microsoft has been firing on all cylinders for nearly the entirety of Satya Nadella’s lead. Their Surface hardware, Windows 10, Azure cloud services, acquisition of Github, Open Source initiatives, and push into mobile through Android has really been something to watch. Don’t call it a comeback but really, this company is back. See also.

Best hardware: iPad Pro 12.9″

I haven’t had time to write a proper review of this device yet but I do plan to. This is easily my favorite iPad ever – and I really, really liked my iPad Air 2. One quick anecdote; Face ID is extremely fast and works in so many more circumstances than I thought possible.

Very close runner up: Google Home Mini. We now have 3 of these in our apartment (kitchen, living room, bathroom) and we use them every single day for playing music, starting Netflix or YouTube videos on our TV, viewing photos from past vacations, and setting reminders or alarms. I hope to utilize these even more this coming year but I’m delighted at the capabilities of a device you can get for $29 (when on sale and we even got 1 for free with our Spotify subscription).

Best desktop app: Firefox

The Mozilla Firefox team is killing it this year. This browser is my favorite ever on any device. I also use it on Android and iOS. And I’m glad too given recent news re: Edge and Chrome. A few features I cannot live without at this point: Containers, Sync, Pocket (which could work in any browser but is built right into Firefox).

Runners up: 1Password – Eliza and I moved everything into 1Password this year and we couldn’t be happier that we did. Should have done so a long time ago. Visual Studio Code – Still the best code editor on any platform and certainly the best free editor.

Best mobile app: Pocket Casts

I use this app twice a day on my commute to and from work. I never have any issues with it, and every decision made by the design team seems to be right in line with what I want from a podcast app. My feature wish list for this app is relatively short and I believe they are coming with a not-too-distant-future update.

Runner up: Waze this app has saved me hours of sitting in traffic just this year.

Best tool: Trello

I’ve been using Trello more this year than any year previous and I find it to be incredibly well made. I don’t think we’ve had a single moment of downtime the entire year and, although I’d like it to be slightly less expensive for our team of ~30 I feel it is a very useful tool.

I’ve also tried to fit it into my workflow for other things like replacing a previous year’s winner; Bullet Journal. I couldn’t get it to fit. So I now have a hybrid system of using my daily Bullet Journal with Calendar and Trello.

Runner up: OneDrive – I’ve been using OneDrive this year for so many things across all platforms. The utility rarely messes up (whereas Google’s is terrible) and the space is affordable.

Best utility: DropIt

I use this small Windows utility to move files from OneDrive to two backup hard drives and Google Photos from my phone, camera, drone, and Eliza’s phone. It is far, far from perfect but I have wrestled it into doing exactly what I need.

Runner up: Snip & Sketch on Windows 10. I have this app mapped to my Logitech MX Master 2S’s middle click to quickly take screenshots and mark them up. It is an indispensable part of my workflow now working with my team. I just middle click, drag a rectangle, and CNTRL + V into any app I’m using to show my team a screenshot. I probably use this 5 times a day on average.

Best podcast: Meat Eater

I hike a lot. And I like to photograph nature. Listening to Meat Eater, and watching their show on Netflix, has given me a lot of knowledge about how to approach animals, how to know where on the landscape I’m allowed to go, and tons of other tips.

I’m also going to pick up fishing again in 2019 as a result of listening to this podcast.

Best YouTube channel: Zimri Mayfield

This guy is killing it. Each week he produces a new episode in a number of series on design. He’s incredibly quirky and likely not to everyone’s taste but I’ve found his videos both entertaining and educational.

Runners up: Tom Scott – Every video is interesting and the topics are random yet somehow of the same ilk. Nerdwriter – fast, well edited, insightful.

I had a few other categories that I’ve now dropped off because the list got a bit long. So instead, I’m just going to finish off this post with a bunch of random links to things.

Random: @jvdoming, Gutenberg, Floods Part 1 & Part 2, Docker, Cobra Kai, Dark Sky, Micro.blog, Dialog, Cash app, Blue Planet II.

Andrew Kim goes to Apple

Andrew Kim, who I mentioned back when he rebranded Microsoft and eventually was hired by them, has moved again — this time to Apple.

Somehow I missed that he was at Tesla.

Jon Porter for The Verge:

After three and a half years at the company, Kim moved to Tesla, where he contributed to the designs of several vehicles, including the Model 3, S, X, and Y as well as the Roadster V2 and the Semi, according to his LinkedIn profile.

There are several key talents that I personally try to keep track of as they bounce around. A few come to mind like Bret Victor, Mike Matas, and Chris Lattner. There are tons more. Andrew Kim has been one of them. His designs are both striking and practical.

The question is; what is he working on at Apple?

Becky Hansmeyer on iPad Pro

Becky Hansmeyer:

There’s a lot more to like about the iPad Pro, especially if you’re upgrading from an iPad Air 2 like I did. The display is top-notch, ProMotion is one of those things you don’t understand how you lived without, and the Apple Pencil is downright magical. It’s much heavier than the Air, of course, but still light enough to comfortably pick up with one hand. If you love iPads, don’t own last year’s generation, and have the dough: what are you waiting for? You should buy one.

Her review is a lot like what my review will be (coming in a week or two). But, the above snippet is very true – if you haven’t updated iPads in a while I recommend picking up this latest batch. I think by next year the software will catch up with the hardware.

Google Pixel Night Sight on a Google Pixel 2 XL compared to iPhone Xs

My wife has a brand-new iPhone Xs and I have a one-year-old Google Pixel 2 XL. We always compare photos in a variety of situations. When she had the iPhone X my Pixel 2 XL would win handily in a variety of situations. Her new iPhone Xs wins here and there (e.g. in Portrait mode there are a few areas that appear sharper than the 2 XL but overall I still prefer the 2 XL).

Last night came the much anticipated Night Sight Camera update in Google’s default camera app on the Google Pixel. This is a feature that I would think they’d reserve for the Google Pixel 3 (which I am not eligible to update to yet). However, Google has been nice enough to give this feature to all of us Pixel users.

First, let’s see how the iPhone Xs performs in our apartment’s hallway when we close all the doors and rely on ambient light.

iPhone Xs Default Camera Mode

Now, let’s see how the Google Pixel 2 XL does both in normal mode and in Night Sight mode.

Google Pixel 2 XL Default Camera Mode
Google Pixel 2 XL Night Sight Camera Mode

The Google Pixel 2 XL beats the iPhone Xs in Default Mode. But adding Night Sight makes an enormous difference.

I see some commentary that this is a gimmick and that even Google’s explanation for how it works is “just like using a photo editor”. Sure, you can take that stance. I suppose a photographer could use the default output of the iPhone Xs and get similar results by bumping certain values after-the-fact. However, for people that do not know how to use those apps, that would prefer to just take a quick photo while in a bar, in the evening on a hike, or of their sleeping children or pets in low-light – this feature is going to be a boon for Pixel owners.

I love it.

The iPad is Apple’s best product

Faruk, of iPhonedo, on iPad:

iPads are Apple’s best products. They almost never get old. They work for years.

I agree. The iPad is a good investment as a product. Whatever you end up spending on them you get that back and much more. I’m still using my 4+ year old iPad Air 2 and love it. It works perfectly and I have no issues with it. In fact, it feels as snappy as ever.

I’d like to upgrade to the one of these new iPads Pro simply because of the new screen, the pencil, USB-C, and the seemingly amazing internals. But I don’t feel I need to. Usually 4+ years in with a laptop I feel I need to upgrade.

Snapthread is now free to try

Becky Hansmeyer:

You can use all of the app’s features for free with only two limitations: a watermark in the lower left corner and a 30-second limit for video exports.

I’ve mentioned Snapthread in the past. I’m not on iOS anymore, but if I were, I’d use and buy Snapthread in an instant. Looks great. And the new icon is very fun.

How to transfer photos from iPhone to Windows 10

Occasionally I will have need to transfer photos from Eliza’s iPhone X to my Windows 10 laptop. I’ve found the process of transferring the photos to be excruciatingly slow, unreliable, and frustrating. That is, until I figured out a better way.

Most tutorials, including Microsoft’s own, will recommend you plug the phone into your computer, open the Photos for Windows 10 app, and import the files through that app. But this never worked for me. I was attempting to transfer just under 5,000 photos and the process rarely worked for more than a few hundred before the phone disconnected, the process halted, or an error message popped up.

It turns out there is a better way. Here are the steps I recommend.

Transferring files from iPhone X to Windows 10 screenshot

  1. Open iPhone’s Settings app and navigate to Photos and under “Transfer to Mac or PC” choose “Keep Originals”
  2. Connect your iPhone to Windows 10 via USB
  3. Open File Explorer and navigate to “This PC”
  4. Under Devices right click on the now connected iPhone and choose “Import Photos & Videos”

Using this process proved to work reliably and much quicker than going through the Photos app. Also, toggling that one option in Settings made a world of difference in reliability.

Of course, this was my experience, your mileage may vary.

Photos for Mac isn’t a long term photo library option

Bradley Chambers, writing for 9to5Mac, about his photo library backup strategy:

If there is one thing I am obsessed with when it comes to technology, it’s my pictures. I keep them extremely organized and culled.

He then goes on to say, regarding his use of iCloud Photo Library as a sort of backup:

This service puts a copy of all of my media on Apple’s servers, and that means if I lose my iPhone, iPad, or MacBook Pro, I can sign into a new device using my iCloud account, and all my media will be there. One thing to remember is that iCloud Photo Library is a sync service. Syncing means that if you delete a photo on one device, it’ll be deleted elsewhere. For that reason, I don’t consider iCloud Photo Library a true backup.

If you want to use iCloud Photo Library to sync your photos between devices, and even use it as a way to have a full backup of your photos, I suppose you can. However, after doing that for a few years and then wanting to move away from it – I would not recommend Photos on Mac or iCloud Photo Library as a long term photo library solution.

The problem is a few fold, but here are the main points:

  • does not store photo metadata in a readable format or with the individual files at all
  • does not store photos in a directory structure that is human understandable
  • bloats your library’s size dramatically

I have well over 350GB of photos and videos. When I migrated away from Photos for Mac I thought that it must store these in a sane directory structure. When you view the Package Contents of your Photos Library file, it appears as though it does but it does not. Each photo is kept within layers of directories by date within directories by the date they are imported not taken. For me, a huge portion of my library was stored in the 2013 directory, even though most of the photos were not taken in that year. Using various Windows 10 tools I was able to read the file’s metadata to create a sane directory structure and put those files into their proper locations based on when they were taken. Even with automated tools it took me a few weeks to do this.

In addition, all the work you do tagging, face tagging, etc. of photos could end up being for naught. That hard work won’t leave Photos for Mac onto another platform. Perhaps you’re not worried about moving from Mac to Windows or from Photos to another library manager, but you should be. Apple has already killed iPhoto in favor of Photos for Mac and lost a lot of functionality when they did. Who is to say they won’t do that again? Or discontinue the Mac altogether some day?

I still have more work to do before I’m able to share my full workflow for storing, searching, syncing, and backing up my photo library – but this experience has taught me that I always want my library to be future proof, human readable, platform agnostic, and not be locked into any one company’s ecosystem. I’m close and I look forward to sharing my strategy in the near future.

Spotify vs. Apple Music

Sean Wolfe, compares Spotify vs. Apple Music for Business Insider:

The subscription prices are generally the same, there isn’t much disparity in the music that’s available, and on the surface the services all appear pretty similar.

But there are some important differences that will decide which music app is right for you.

This is a fairly comprehensive comparison.

I’ve tested Apple Music a few times and I always come back to Spotify. It is simply better as a music recommendation service.

My experience buying a Windows laptop

After 16+ years working, writing, playing, making, listening, watching on a Macintosh, I’m switching back to Windows. Within a few days from today I will no longer be a Mac user. In fact, the only Apple product I will be using regularly will be my 2014 iPad Air 2 which I plan to replace soon.

(I’m not the only one.)

This is a big deal for me. But not as big of a deal as it would have been if I had made this switch back to Windows a few years ago. A lot has changed. Windows 10 has gotten good. Hardware is arguably nearly as good. And so much of the software is either written cross-platform or runs on the cloud.

This decision to move back to Windows has been years in the making. In fact, it may be about 1 year later than it should have been. While I hope to find the time to write about why I believe it is a great time to switch from macOS to Windows (though, I’ve mentioned it several times here) this post is going to be focused on the experience of researching and buying a Windows computer.

Buying a Windows computer can be a draining task compared to buying a Mac.

Since 2002, when I fully switched from Windows to the Mac, I’ve purchased 9 Macintoshes for personal use, and several others for team members at work. Each time I purchased a new Mac it took me 15-20 minutes to make a decision on what I wanted to buy. Sixteen years of buying Macs has made me a bit lazy.

Deciding which Mac to buy is a fairly simple exercise. First, I would wait until Apple released brand-new models. Then, I would ask myself these questions:

  • What size screen do I want/need?
  • What is my budget?
  • What is the very best Mac I can buy with the screen size I want for the budget I have?

With the answers to these questions I was usually able to pick out the model I wanted within a few minutes, grab the box in the Apple Store or at Best Buy, and walk out.

So a few months ago when I sort of kind of knew for sure that I wanted to switch to Windows I began to look around at what my options were. What is it like to buy a Windows computer?

Due to the abundance of choice, purchasing a Windows computer is not as simple as buying a Mac. This fact is actually something I’ve criticized for years but is now something I see as an advantage. I used to say “I don’t want so much choice, just give me what I need. I like that Apple just gives me what I need.”

However, time has taught me that this is only good if Apple makes all the right choices for me. And for the last few years they haven’t been. They’ve probably been making the right choices for someone else (likely students, casual consumers, etc.) but not for me. What Apple are selling I no longer need.

I digress! Remember, the “why you should consider switching from Mac to Windows post” may come in the future. Back to buying.

Unless you walk into a Microsoft Store and purchase a Surface of your liking (the way I used to purchased Macs) this is what the buying experience is like.

You go to the web site’s of Dell, Lenovo, Microsoft, HP (and others) and pore over all of the configurations they have available.

While you’re there you try to build up your vocabulary both for the manufacturer’s brand names (Lenovo has like three different YOGA type laptops and ten THINKPAD lines, etc.) and for the actual hardware that is inside these laptops. Each of them have their pluses and their minuses and differing options available.

For instance, and this is just one small example, as of this writing you cannot purchase an “ultrabook” sized laptop (13″) with a 4K screen, dedicated GPU, more than 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD. You can purchase some combination of these things but you can’t get this exact thing (at least not via the manufacturer’s that I researched). The combinations can be overwhelming and all of the information about these computers is not in the same place.

One huge, huge resource for me was Lisa Gade and Mr. Mobile on YouTube. Both of these laptop reviewers have a style I enjoy. They get directly to the point, explain real world scenarios for their use, and also take the time to compare one laptop with another in head-to-head battles.

Tech reviewers on YouTube have some serious job security. Not only are they distilling a huge amount of information into a quick video – but they need to do it every single month as manufacturers make slight adjustments to their lineups. It has to be a full-time job just keeping all of this straight.

For a few days I was dead set on buying the Huawei Matebook Pro X. It has everything I want in a Windows PC and – coincidentally, looks exactly like a MacBook Pro. However, it appears it will take a few months to be able to buy one in the United States (thanks Verge). By that time I fully expect the models that are available today to be outdated so I decided I didn’t want to wait that long. Perhaps that will be my next computer in 3 or 4 years if they are still highly rated then.

I happily chose the Dell XPS 13” (Model 9370). Yes, I reconfigured mine with exactly what I needed so it will be a fe days before Dell gets it to me. According to all of the reviews I’ve seen it will work just fine for my needs. And I also plan on buying an external GPU (something I was considering doing for my MacBook Pro set up anyway) to give me a bit more oomph working within the Adobe Creative Suite (something I do far more at my current job than I did over the last few years).

Side note: I would not purchase a Windows computer through many retail outlets that I’ve been to. Best Buy, Target, Sam’s Club, Staples — all have meager selections. These retailers likely have better choices through their web sites but I would recommend buying PCs directly from the source. In fact, if you call the manufacturer you will get a better deal for the exact same hardware. I won’t tell you the deal that I got simply by calling our company’s Dell representative, but I can say it was very worth the phone call.

It took me a few weeks to decide on the Windows PC that I wanted. Now that I have a base knowledge of what is available, of the vocabulary, and now that I know what I’m looking for – it will likely take less time to make a decision next time.

I’ll let you know what I think of the Dell XPS when I get it.

This post was written on a borrowed Surface Pro on Windows 10 that I’ve been using for over two weeks and I’m very, very happy with my Windows 10 experience so far.