Back to the Mac

Five years ago, Apple did something incredibly out of character: it invited a bunch of tech journalists to a round table discussion, admitted to making some serious mistakes, and pre-announced upcoming products.

It was a somewhat bleak time to be a Mac user. While the iPhone was getting yearly improvements, Mac design decisions felt deeply out of touch with people’s needs. The latest MacBook Pros regressed in serious ways, sacrificing useful ports, functionality, and a functioning keyboard for a slightly thinner laptop with a Touch Bar that it turned out nobody actually wanted.

No one really minded Apple’s aggressive minimalism on more consumer-y products; it was even welcomed. The MacBook Air was a successful computer. Pro users, though, were getting less satisfied with what Apple had to offer for them. There were laptops with unusuable keyboards that couldn’t even plug into conference room projectors without an adapter. The Mac Mini had gone years without an update. And most embarrassingly, the Mac Pro, introduced in 2013 by Phil Schiller with the now-infamous line “can’t innovate anymore, my ass”, had not gotten so much as a spec bump in those four years, leaving people to wonder if it was ever getting refreshed at all.

It was feeling like Apple no longer wanted to build computers for demanding pro users. Instead they seemed hell-bent on making a computer that adhered to some sort of minimalistic Platonic ideal; a Mac not only hampered by its hardware, but perhaps soon to have its software get even more restricted until the Mac was less a computer and more an appliance like an iPad. Some even feared that the Mac’s own days were numbered, and that Apple’s future might actually be focused more on the iPhone, which dwarfed the Mac and sales, and frankly, attention from Apple.

In April of 2017, though, Apple brought together a small group of tech journalists to ensure them, and by extension, Mac users, that Apple had not taken its eye off the ball with the Mac. And in this meeting, they laid out a vision for what they were working on for their pro Mac users: specifically, a new Mac Pro, and a new iMac geared toward pro users that would be coming later that year.

They were uncharacteristically candid about some of the troubles they ran into with the 2013 Mac Pro (semi-lovingly referred to as the “trash can” Mac Pro); specifically, they found themselves backed into a “thermal corner”. This Mac Pro had a triangular core that had a CPU and two GPUs. But later GPUs put out a ton of heat, and that design apparently couldn’t move out any more heat than it already was. Apple had no path forward to make faster or better models of the Mac Pro.

Not only that, but pro users really didn’t like the Mac Pro much. It was suitable for some kinds of pro users, like ones who just needed a lot of compute power, but other pro users relied heavily on specialty hardware that would typically be installed in PCI card slots which the 2013 Mac Pro lacked. Apple’s response to this was Thunderbolt 2 but it went over with pros like a lead balloon; it would lead to clunky setups and just overall wasn’t considered suitable.

Apple shared zero specifics about what these new pro Macs would have to offer. There was a fleeting mention of pro users wanting “modularity,” but Apple made no clear commitment to what that actually meant.

So we waited.

As promised, Apple released the iMac Pro later that year, and it was exactly as advertised: an iMac, targeted toward pro customers with more pro-level hardware, but still an iMac at heart.

Later, Apple released a revamped Mac Mini and users rejoiced. There was much concern that this was going to get the same kind of super-minimalist treatment that the MacBook Pro line got, but it didn’t. Instead, the back of a 2018 Mac Mini had ports aplenty (including USB-A as well as USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports), and could be generously configured. It felt like Apple was finally starting to come correct here. In 2019 they finally updated the aging MacBook Air to have a Retina display, another well-received update.

And at WWDC 2019, we got to see a glimpse of their vision for true pro-level computing: the 2019 Mac Pro.

If you follow my blog you know my deep love for the 2019 Mac Pro. Apple gave pros everything they wanted (provided they were willing to show up with some serious coin to buy the machine). It wasn’t just modular; it was the most upgradeable Mac Apple had released in close to a decade. It doesn’t just have upgradeable RAM, it can be upgraded to up to 1.5 TERABYTES of RAM. It can be configured with up to a staggering 28 cores.

It was a love letter to pro Mac users everywhere, and Apple proudly told the world “the Mac is back” (not that Apple PR would ever admit it was gone in the first place).

Apple has since then continued steadily pushing out a stream of Mac computers that show that they really get what their users want. They finally redesigned their laptops to get rid of the worst laptop keyboard ever, and then in 2020 they started selling computers with their own custom silicon.

Apple is letting the Macs be themselves for the right users once again. The MacBook Air remains light and affordable, but the new 14“ and 16” MacBook Pros are decidedly a little chunkier looking, and they can pack a wollop when it comes to computing power.

And most recently, Apple released the Mac Studio, a desktop computer for demanding studio users that easily dwarfs most Mac Pro configurations in CPU and GPU performance.

You might have guessed this was Apple’s new high end pro desktop, if not for the fact that John Ternus mentioned ever so casually that there still remained one more Mac to transition to Apple Silicon: the Mac Pro.

Over the course of the last five years, Apple executed not just one turnaround, but two: it renewed its commitment to making great and appropriate computers for pro users (with a substantially better understanding of what it means to be a “pro user”), and they once again moved the Mac to a new processor architecture, barely skipping a beat.

Now we need a similar revolution, but for Apple’s software frameworks.

But that’s a topic for another day.

SwiftScript

This is longer than a tweet would be so instead of making a Twitter thread that’s super annoying that you have to scroll through, I’ll make an actual blog post like a gentleman.

I have a free idea for Apple: SwiftScript.

It’s the successor to AppleScript. It doesn’t replace Shortcuts, but it’s what you graduate to after you outgrow Shortcuts.

the basics

(note: I’m describing this in present tense like it exist, but it doesn’t. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to get you all excited over nothing; it’s just easier to describe it that way instead of constantly with qualifiers)

It’s an actual programming language. It can look Swift-like. Hell, it could even be Swift. I’m not really digging into details here; I just want to do broad strokes.

AppleScript is an actual programming language too, but SwiftScript drops the cutesy English-like syntax which always sounded great on paper but is a nightmare in practice. Instead, we make SwiftScript really easy and approachable by making everything super discoverable.

Unlike the AppleScript editor which is basically just an empty editor you type text into and click “Run,” hoping for the best, SwiftScript is always meant to be interacted with by offering a REPL. You are constantly expected to dig around with this REPL and figure out what’s what in the language and in the apps you want to automate. Everything you type is very much autocompleted, and things are strongly typed so that the SwiftScript environment can always tell you what a thing is, and what you can do with that thing.

You know how web browsers have inspectors that let you click on any element in a page and see it in the DOM? The SwiftScript inspector can let you do the same, except with all the applications on your device. You can look at the Mail app and click a message in the message list and it’ll tell you about the Message entity, what fields a message has, and what methods you can call on the message. Clicking on the Search box will show you related objects, like an object to construct a search for messages. No guessing at what something is called or poring through docs you don’t quite understand. You see something you want to automate, and SwiftScript will show you what you’re dealing with.

Now, for this to be useful, we have to make apps that have very rich SwiftScript libraries for the scripts to use.

What I mean here is that when an app supports SwiftScript, every single entity in the app exposes a SwiftScript API. Shortcuts has been a cool thing to see in iOS (and now the Mac) but far too often I find myself wanting to automate something only to find that it just can’t be done because there isn’t anything close to resembling an action for it. SwiftScript won’t be limited like that; as a programmer you’ll be able to programmatically do virtually anything you can manually do as a user.

going past just a scripting language

So far, the SwiftScript I’ve described is fundamentally a nicer AppleScript, mostly predicated on the idea that you invoke a script, and then run it.

But SwiftScript can do more. SwiftScript apps can offer hooks throughout the app where SwiftScript scripts you write can act automatically when those hooks happen.

For instance, Mail might offer a hook for a new message coming into the Resumes folder (a folder which gets populated by a filter, perhaps). You might then make a SwiftScript that watches for this event, and then whenever a message of this sort comes in, it searches the message for the resume attachment, saves that file to a designated folder, then creates a to-do item in OmniFocus directing you to review that resume complete with the name of the applicant (from the From field), a link to the file itself, and a link back to the original Mail message.

Then, you might add another script that watches for replies to messages, and if you’re replying to a message in the Resumes folder, and then it will present you with a small GUI that asks you whether you are moving forward with that applicant or not, and based on that response, fills out a message for you with the appropriate details supplied from a template, with fields that you can fill in with the right added information. If we want to get really elaborate, maybe when you email a candidate you want to interview, the email might even include a few options for interview times in the coming days based on your availability in the time you blocked off in the afternoons for interviews.

But SwiftScript goes beyond just the applications’ APIs and the hooks they can provide. SwiftScript also is a powerful general-purpose programing language in its own right, with access to super powerful libraries. So not only can you perform repetitive tasks, the kinds of tasks you can let the computer perform can get increasingly sophisticated.

For instance, you might make a script that fires when you favorite a tweet in Twitter, and then the script will save that tweet’s contents to a database. A lot of tweets’ contents are just an image of text, so your SwiftScript can check to see if the tweet includes images, and if it does, check the image to see if it’s text, and if so, OCR the image and save that text into the database so that it’s easily searchable later.

You could even watch that text for certain key words and then tag that tweet in your database if appropriate.

apple: please take this idea and run with it!

The thing that’s just beautiful about SwiftScript here is that it turns any user into an application developer. But you don’t have to know how to develop a full application yourself; you really just get the power of all the apps you already have, but SwiftScript is there to help you fill in the gaps.

It’s clear that Apple looked at its automation story and saw that although AppleScript is quite powerful and continues to have a cult following (think of how amazing it is that AppleScript actually made the jump from classic MacOS to OS X and it’s still around and even works with Shortcuts), they saw a product that’s too complex, and decided that the future of automation on Apple platforms had to be not just made easier to user, but watered down.

I’m so glad that Shortcuts is a thing, and I’m glad that it’s energizing people about automation on their Macs and iOS devices. But it’s less capable than AppleScript.

SwiftScript tries to fundamentally change what automation means to you as a user. It’s an advanced tool because it’s a programming language but it’s making programming highly approachable by being an exploratory language that you are meant to tinker with at runtime as you build your scripts. It’s still for that sophisticated user, but it has the potential to give that user massive leverage by putting programming-shaped handles on every aspect of their computer. I’d love to live in the alternate universe where Apple built this.

But I guess building a car is cool too.

Photos for iOS: Find All Items From a Specific App

Another little tidbit that I discovered recently: if you are saving a lot of photos or videos to your photo library from a specific app (such as, for instance, TikTok), and you want to collect these images in one place, you can do it pretty easily!

Open one of the photos or videos, then press the Info button. If the item is saved from an app, there will be a button indicating the photo was saved from that app. You can just tap on that, and you’ll then be brought to a search screen that shows images from that app.

I then press Show All, then I will select all the photos and put them into an album.

demonstration of the steps i outline in this post

My life would be simpler if I could just make a smart album based on what app the photo was saved from, but smart albums aren’t able to be created on iOS, and the Mac version of Photos doesn’t seem to keep the metadata about the app a photo was saved from, so for now it has to be done semi-manually.

Space and Rich Dudes

I share a little bit of the bitterness that visiting space has transitioned from being something that countries did, to being a hobby of wealthy people with the funds to end world hunger but instead are like “nah, I want to spend billions on a rocket to send me up into space for a couple minutes.”

Of course, it’s important to watch for those rose colored glasses. Space exploration holds a special place in the heart of many a nerdy type (myself included), and indeed those who were around to see us set foot on the moon remember it as a point of national pride.

Of course, our interest in going to space was mostly a glorified dick measuring contest with the Soviets, and the nobility of our exploration kind of got retconned in there after the fact. And when the narrative we were taught in grade school was being put together, the history lessons left out the fact that it was a number of brilliant black women like Katherine Johnson who were performing important calculations to support NASA’s mission, even though they were treated like second class citizens and their work went unacknowledged for decades.

Exploring space is a worthwhile endeavor, and humankind should be doing it. It’s not inherently bad for someone to be really rich and have the cash to go into space for fun. It will never stop being sad to me that we culturally have set up capitalism so that it is wants so badly for billionaires to be able to exist and go on these adventures that we insist on letting people go without homes, healthcare, and food, and we do it largely on the principle that we want billionaires to become billionaires.

Vacation

a building with a sign that says 'museum of whimsy'. Never have I been so disappointed for a museum to be closed.

It’s early Friday afternoon and I have an entire weekend ahead of me as I write this but I already feel like I’m at the point where my vacation is winding down and the responsibilities of going back to work are already staring me in the face.

Last week I celebrated two fun milestones: I became fully protected by my COVID vaccines, and I celebrated my birthday. It was a busy work week for me. I decided to schedule some vacation time to celebrate both.

On Friday after work I went and floated in a sensory deprivation tank for 90 minutes, the first time I was able to do so since the initial lockdowns of the pandemic last March. I’m a huge fan of sensory deprivation tanks and I’ll post about it shortly!

On Saturday I had (vaccinated) friends over for a barbecue that also served as a birthday get together. We got to enjoy each other’s company unmasked for the first time in ages, and the experience was therapeutic. We had DQ ice cream cake and I am pleased to say it tastes pretty much just like I remember it as a child (side note: Dunkaroos are also back in stores now and they are similarly amazing).

Since then I’ve spent the week living my best life. I took a couple of road trips: one to Astoria, and another to Eugene. I dined indoors. I did some gardening. I took multiple trips to Home Depot and finally fixed our drip irrigation system. I spent a lot of time outside. I entered a grocery store for the first time since last March. I spent a lot of time purposefully appreciating simple and relaxing moments.

Although I’ve got lots of fun projects I want to do on my computer, I spent surprisingly little time using it. I just wasn’t drawn to it that much. I do have a soldering project that I might do this weekend though.

I accomplished just about all the things I wanted to accomplish, and I still have the weekend ahead of me. I would have liked to have dove back into the habit of practicing learning the piano with my Lumikeys keyboard, but that’s just something to save for the future, I suppose.

I kind of knew in the back of my head that I needed a break. I hadn’t really taken any time off since the holidays, and that break was somewhat dampened by not being able to see family (and also emergency surgery the cat needed). The newfound freedom and vanishing stresses of the pandemic allowed me to properly enjoy this week off. Not only that, but even as this little vacation winds down, it isn’t even Memorial Day yet, and the whole summer is ahead of us.

I knew I needed this time off, but actually experiencing it, I now realize the extent to which I needed it.

Standing for Something

I want to see more companies start to actually take a stand on issues.

That’s one of the things I respected about Basecamp. Until their cofounders kind of revealed themselves to have some serious issues, they had a track record of striving to be good citizens.

For the most part, companies love to seem like they’re taking a stand on issues. They love to put out commercials paying lip service to how they believe immigrants make America great, or they’ll talk about how much they value the LGBT community, only to not really act like it when push comes to shove.

I know plenty of tech companies that love to talk a big game about their values, but their political donations paint a different picture. Plenty of tech companies get the opportunity to stand up for the vulnerable, but they don’t bother.

The businesses that are going to win in the next decade are going to be the ones that take being principled to the next level. These are going to be the businesses that won’t just put out feel-good statements; they’ll have policies both internally and externally facing about what constitutes good conduct. They’ll be proud to be vendors to green energy makers, and they’ll turn down the lucrative contract for the oil company.

These winning businesses will win because they’ll be authentic. And traditional companies will try to brand themselves as authentic, but it won’t work for the same reason that millennials killed Applebee’s; authenticity inherently can’t just be the suit you put on. It has to be who you are.

Walk the Planck

If you know me you know my collection of clicky keyboards has been steadily growing since I bought my first one in April of 2012 (a Das Keyboard, if you were wondering). In recent years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for a specific subgenre of keyboards: keyboards that are 40–50% the keys of a full-sized keyboard that are ortholinear. One of the most popular of these keyboards is the Planck, an absolutely adorable little grid keyboard with a 4×12 arrangement of keys.

When I’m recommending a mechanical keyboard for a friend who is relatively new to the game, I don’t want to throw someone into the deep end with a keyboard that also comes with such a dramatic learning curve; typically I aim to provide a soft landing in the mechanical keyboard world with a pretty standard looking full-size or tenkeyless keyboard that is laid out pretty much like a keyboard your computer might come with. That way, I give them a fair shake at getting to love the much better feel of the mechanical key switches without a ton of frustration at having to re-learn how to type.

But lately I’ve been inclined to push people more toward something like the Planck as their first clicky keyboard.

Just look at it:

planck

It’s cute! It’s just 47 or 48 keys (depending on whether you opt for a double-wide spacebar). That’s super approachable, especially compared to something like the Ergodox, which is full of these clusters of keys of different sizes:

source: ergodox EZ

When you first lay your hands on a Planck you’re going to quickly feel like you have a grip on the keyboard; in the top three rows every single key is can be reached by moving a finger no more than one position from home row. And instead of being overwhelmed, you’re actually likely to be asking “Hey, where are all the keys? Don’t I need more?”

And you don’t! The Planck’s clever firmware makes fantastic use of limited keys by making each key do more. Modifier keys like Shift and CTRL can be dual-purpose; for instance, when I tap my CTRL key quickly, it’s treated as an Escape key, but when I hold it, it’s a Ctrl key.

And, of course, there are the layers. So, while you’ll notice there is now row of number keys, they’re actually right there, in the top row, on a different layer. You hold the key to the right of the spacebar to access this layer:

Layout of planck layer

When you factor in how easy it is to reach each key, you’ll find it actually feels quicker pressing 2 keys to press a number than it would have felt to reach up 2 rows to get to that number row. And because the keys are in a perfect grid, your fingers will love how easy and unambiguous it is which key is which! How often do you hesitate for a split second while you try to guess by feel whether you’re hitting the 2 or the 3 key in a staggered layout? With a grid, it’s never in question!

Your Planck will typically come pre-configured with a standard layout that works quite nicely, but you aren’t forced to live with that. The Planck is a fully programmable keyboard. That means its layout can be changed at the firmware level (which also means you don’t need to install special software or hacks on your computer to customize your keyboard’s layout, and you can plug your keyboard into any computer and it works just as you expect). This is my base layer’s layout (I’m a sucker for arrow keys in an inverted-T layout):

My Planck's base layer layout

The Learning Curve

My first keyboard in this category was a Preonic, which is like a Planck but with an extra row of number keys on top. I thought the extra row would make for a smoother transition, but eventually I realized the layers were plenty powerful and the extra row was an unnecessary crutch, and I rarely am using my Preonic anymore.

As a programmer, I’ve found that if I try to dive face first into a new type of keyboard at work, I will get frustrated really quickly. Instead, I spend time becoming proficient in more conversational typing first. I’ll type text conversations with people on it, or write up some blog posts with mostly prose and not a ton of special characters. Then, when I become proficient, I’ll try to gradually introduce more typing that involves the other characters.

If you choose a Planck EZ, they offer a graphical online layout configurator that also has a training mode, allowing you to see your layout in real time as you are holding different layer keys. I haven’t tried this yet myself (it was added after I was already pretty good with the keyboard) but I really like the idea of this.

And speaking of layout configuration, as you are learning the keyboard’s layout, I encourage you to make layout changes early and often! If you keep mistaking one key for a different one, why not just change the layout so that it matches your expectations? Are you finding that you keep hitting the Enter key in inopportune situations? Move it somewhere else or put it behind a layer to avoid accidentally sending a message prematurely!

Customizing

If you haven’t already gotten the hint, Plancks love being customized! After all, the whole keyboard design is open-source from the start, so it was made to be tinkered with; it’s not a black box you’re expected to enjoy as-is. Two popular Planck versions (Drop.com’s and the Planck EZ) have circuit boards where you don’t have to solder the key switches on, meaning you can try out different kinds of key switches to your heart’s content.

Since it’s such a small keyboard, you only have to buy 48 switches to have a full keyboard’s worth, making it cheap to try new kinds out! For the same reason, Plancks also make a great kit (the drop.com version is a kit, for instance). Even if you buy a version that needs soldering, soldering a Planck together is not nearly the undertaking that a full-sized keyboard is).

And, of course, you get to enter the world of customizable key caps! Most custom keycap sets offer a variant to make them compatible with the Planck (look for the “ortho” key set). For the most part it’s not too hard to just take some existing key caps from an existing keyboard and put them on your Planck, but for the bottom row you’ll have to get a little creative since most standard keyboards’ bottom rows don’t have 11–12 single width key caps.

A keyboard that is truly yours

Philosophically the Planck warms my heart. The Planck is a community-designed keyboard, and it is open to its core. When you buy one, you aren’t buying from a big, faceless corporation; you are buying from a cottage industry of small keyboard makers. Hell, you don’t even have to buy one from someone else if you don’t want to; you could build one yourself by hand and hand wire it if you wanted.

The keyboard will give you years of service, but it’s also a simple enough product that it is highly repairable. If an individual key switch stops working, you can replace just that switch. If a component on the circuit board fails, you could replace just that, or have a friend with some know-how replace it. It’s a refreshing departure from so many of today’s electronics.

And most importantly, you aren’t stuck choosing an inferior product just to get something built with these values; the Planck is objectively a better keyboard because of its openness, not in spite of it.

A keyboard for all

The Planck’s birth may have been among some passionate keyboard enthusiasts, but I firmly believe that it’s a keyboard suitable for the mass market. As friendly as the keyboard is to being customized and endlessly tinkered with, it’ll serve you just as well if you set it up just the way you like it and never change anything again.

The keyboard is a very intimate part of the computer. It is the most tactile part of it, and it’s the part of the computer you use when you want to precisely express your thoughts. It’s a peripheral that’s essential to people who work at a computer for a living, and if you’re like most computer users you’re just using the one that came with your computer without giving it a second thought. Believe me, it’s worth exploring better options, and a great keyboard is a solid quality of life improvement!

The iPhone 12 belongs to the ages

The last phone I reviewed on here was the iPhone 5 back in 2012. I generally get a new phone each year, but I suppose I’m not religious about posting stuff on here.

Looking back at that review, I remarked primarily on two things: speed, and the transition from the 30-pin connector to Lightning. While it might have seemed silly at the time to spend 928 words on a port transition, Lightning has nonetheless been on every phone since and continues to ship on phones to this day (though there are rumors that its days are numbered). I guess it was time well spent!

I don’t plan to be reviewing every iPhone, but I do think it’s worth taking time to write up thoughts on the iPhones that are particularly distinctive. If I had been patient and bought the iPhone X in 2017 it probably would also have earned a review; it was Apple’s first major rethinking of what the front of the iPhone should look like and it will likely be used for even longer than the original vision that incorporated a home screen button.

The iPhone 12, overall, strikes me as a phone that is teeing Apple up for a new years-long era of design (and 5G).

The Phone

I bought a blue one with 256 gigs of space, on the Verizon network. One note: the blue is not nearly as bright as the marketing pictures would have you think; they’re photographing these in insanely well-lit environments.

Industrial Design

When you pick up the iPhone 12 in your hand, something strikes you about its fit and finish. It’s difficult to rank things on a scale of niceness, but I would have to guess that my iPhone is quite possibly the nicest thing I own. It’s not the most expensive thing I own (that is a recognition my house enjoys), but perhaps with the exception of my Mac Pro, the iPhone 12 is my nicest possession. When you hold it in your hands, it has just a perfect amount of heft to it so that you know it’s substantial. It was built to incredibly tight tolerances. It has just a few buttons, but they each feel a nice satisfying and firm “click” when you press them. It feels like a device that belongs to the ages.

Apple’s industrial design for phones has a few distinct eras:

  • The first three phones, during which Apple was still figuring out how to actually make mass market phones. The very first design was only used for a generation, followed by 2 generations of phones with this rounded plastic shell that was really kind of inelegant
  • The iPhones 4 through 5s (and original SE), which fell into line with the rest of Apple’s hardware design language, primarily incorporating glass and aluminum, and going to flat sides and back
  • The iPhones 6 through 11, when Apple started experimenting with more phone sizes. They made the sides rounded, possibly to make them feel slimmer or easier to hold the larger sized devices. Aluminum remains the primary metal, while going to stainless steel for the more high-end devices

And with the iPhone 12, we enter a fourth era, which looks a lot like a refined version of that second era. We’re returning to flat sides, and the chamfers of the iPhone 5 are instead gently rounded as the sides transition to the front and back. Apple has settled on using glass on the front and back, a trend they moved away from briefly in the third era in an attempt to reduce the amount of material that could shatter, but Apple’s gotten wiser about their glass and shattering is less of a concern that it used to be.

And that to me is really what the iPhone 12 feels like. When Apple released the iPhone 4 there was this sense that the iPhone 4’s overall look and external design was the Platonic ideal of what an iPhone should be. It was flawed (the glass front and back were prone to shattering a ton) and there was demand for phones to start getting bigger. Apple inched in that direction with the iPhone 5 (which also removed the glass back) but when it became clear that Samsung was eating Apple’s lunch with their gargantuan phones, Apple radically changed the industrial design of the iPhone to make bigger phones. And finally, after years of iterating on that general look (and possibly lingering on it a couple years longer than they should have), it feels like Apple is coming home again to a design that is quintessentially classic iPhone, but scales all the way from a mini-sized phone to their biggest phone yet.

Display

The displays in this year’s standard iPhone model got nicer. They’re all OLED (last year, only the Pro models had this distinction), and on the 12, pixel density has been increased. The display looks beautiful.

5G

Another first of this phone that mirrors the iPhone model I last reviewed on here: it is the first to offer 5G support.

Despite rumors to the contrary, every (US-based, at least) iPhone has support for both sub–6GHz and mmWave 5G.

mmWave 5G is insanely fast (like, 2 gigabits per second speeds fast), but it uses very high frequencies to get these speeds, and it thus has very poor range (a closed door might cut off a 5G signal). For cities to be blanketed in mmWave 5G would require enormous investments on their part, buying an order of magnitude more equipment to get the same levels of coverage that would probably only work outdoors. mmWave 5G has its place and could be handy in dense areas like stadiums or crowded urban centers where there are lots of people using up bandwidth, but we’re far more likely to be using sub–6GHz 5G for most part in the near future.

Sub–6GHz 5G is an incremental improvement over LTE. I’ve struggled to actually hear any wireless providers provide actual speed numbers you might be able to expect, and early reviewers say that’s mostly because this 5G is often performing worse than LTE in the same location.

It’s also noteworthy that when LTE was first deployed, not that many people had LTE phones, and if you were one of the few to have one, you’d get incredible speeds of up to 100Mbps, and now that networks are saturated, real-world performance is more like 20–30 Mbps on a good day, and because sub–6GHz 5G is mostly piggybacking off of existing LTE signals to provide slight improvements, while 5G might be faster than LTE today, the speeds you’ll see on it are actually slower than when LTE was new to the scene.

And in reality, this sounds kind of dreary, but it’s not that bad. The speeds we get are really just fine, and although I can no longer get really great numbers running speed tests on my phone, as long as I have a decent signal I can generally do what I need to do. If anything, I think that it’d be nice for wireless providers to look to improve 4G and 5G signals in their existing footprint, and only really worry about mmWave in the most densely packed of areas.

MagSafe

As Apple is wont to do with their trademarks, they have resurrected the MagSafe brand, this time equipping iPhones with a magnetic back (prior art: they repurposed the iBook brand name with their e-book store).

This time, instead of being a clever little laptop connector that won’t send your expensive computer sailing into the air when you trip over the cord, MagSafe refers to an array of magnets embedded in the back of new iPhones, which you can use to connect magnetic charging pucks or other accessories like cases, Popsockets, or even wallets.

Apple loves tactical deployment of magnets in their devices, and this is a great use case. Qi chargers are great, but you have to have them positioned just so for your phone to charge, and it’s really easy for the phone to get jostled out of alignment, causing you to wake up with a dead phone.

I haven’t purchased any MagSafe accessories yet; I’m holding out for the perfect nightstand accessory, but I am excited about this concept and I look forward to seeing what kinds of MagSafe accessories come of this.

Environment

This year, Apple’s taken the opportunity to ship fewer things in the box with their devices. This year, the iPhone no longer ships with earpods or a wall charger, and the USB-A to Lightning cable has been replaced with a USB-C to Lightning cable.

The rationale is that most people already have a wall charger, and the amount of material that goes into putting one in every box is substantial. Also, by removing these standard accessories, the iPhone box shrinks and more iPhones can be packed onto airplanes to ship.

That’s all well and good, but the message got muddled by the switch from USB-A to USB-C for the included cable. It’s been awkward that Apple had been for years still shipping iPhones with a USB-A cable, given that none of Apple’s laptops even have a USB-A port, and rumor for years was that Apple was going to start shipping iPhones with a USB-C charger. And while premium models last year did get a USB-C charger, Apple decided to do away with chargers entirely, but people whose old cable was worn out found themselves either needing to buy a new cable too, or needing to buy a new USB-C charger.

The pro-environment message was further muddled by the fact that iPhones this year have an entirely new charging system available in MagSafe, which will surely tempt some people to buy new MagSafe charging accessories.

I suspect that overall this change results in a net savings of materials; I don’t think 100% of iPhone 12 buyers are also buying a USB-C charger or a MagSafe puck; a solid majority are probably going to stick with the charging equipment they have. And I’m sure the percentage of iPhone owners who will be buying some Lightning EarPods with their iPhone 12 is vanishingly small. But of course, Apple mostly comes out of this looking like they’re less altruistic about the environment, and more like they’re nickel and diming. Also worth keeping in mind: this change surely added a much needed reduction to the iPhone’s bill of materials, which increased quite a bit because of the now-standard OLED screen.

Should you buy it?

I didn’t write up a review of this phone in the typical sense of reviewing a phone, where I am trying to give you a recommendation as to whether you should buy it. Apple is solid at pushing out year over year updates; they aren’t likely to be pushing out a dud.

My buying advice: If you are in the market for a new phone, and you have the budget, buy one of the iPhones 12, and pick based on size, or opt for one of the pro models if you are serious about phone photography. If you are more price sensitive, it’s still a fantastic time to buy the new iPhone SE; it contains the very capable A13 chip and sells for half the cost of a 12; it’s an incredible value (and if you’re wearing a face mask, the SE has an advantage over the new phones in that it still has Touch ID).

If you update phones infrequently, this is a good year to make an upgrade. If you are still using an iPhone with a home button and you aren’t ready to make the switch, buy the SE instead; it just came out this year, it rocks a respectable A13 processor and decent camera, and it’s about half the price of an iPhone 12.

Parting thoughts

One of the things that I find most impressive about the iPhone as a piece of hardware is that not only is the iPhone an exquisite piece of kit, these are a truly mass market product.

This is a delicate dance Apple plays when designing its phones. This is the first year Apple switched to OLED screens for all of its phones. Until this year Apple was putting OLEDs in only the more expensive phones because even if they wanted the screens across the lineup, the manufacturing capacity to produce OLED screens that met Apple’s standards for color matching simply didn’t exist.

Apple is quite pragmatic in its industrial design choices; they don’t put out a phone with entirely new external look every year; they repurpose existing tooling to make phones of similar design and size, and they keep around tooling from older models to make budget models like the SE. Even when the iPhone X was released Apple didn’t change too many aspects of it; it still retains the overall shape and rounded edges of its predecessors.

Apple executes incredibly well at a lot of things, and lately there are a lot of things they struggle with. But the iPhone as a physical product stands out to me above all of Apple’s other products. Every year, almost like clockwork (and a little late this year because of COVID), Apple mass produces a new phone that manages to make impressive year-over-year speed and camera improvements over its predecessor, and without fail, the phones manage to be consistently high in physical quality. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; it is of course Apple’s largest source of revenue by a long shot, but the sheer consistency and reliability is something to marvel at.

Clipboard History with Alfred

Note: this is your last chance to win a free Alfred Powerpack!

If you want to enter, you should own a Mac, since you’ll need one to actually use Alfred!

To enter, do one of the following:

  • follow me at @harpaa01
  • Subscribe to icanthascheezburger via email
  • Subscribe via RSS at the link above and leave a comment with your email address (I won’t publish the comment)

If you also mention one of these posts on Twitter or Mastodon or Micro.blog (and mention me so I can see it) you’ll double your chances.

Winners will be randomly selected on Wednesday. I don’t want to reveal too many numbers here, but let’s just say you’d have really good chances of winning if you entered.

homer simpson saying he likes those odds


Copying and pasting is a nice little productivity boost that you get when using a computer, but the fact that you can only ever have one thing in the pasteboard at a time is kind of limiting.

With Alfred, you don’t have to feel limited in this way: enter Clipboard History.

alfred clipboard history

This is the kind of feature where you first hear about it and your reaction is an unenthusiastic “hmm, neat.”

But I promise: once Alfred is keeping your clipboard history and you actually get used to it being there, it’s liberating.

It’s easy, just invoke Alfred, type in the keyword to get to the clipboard viewer (mine is c) and hit Enter, and you’ll be greeted with recent Clipboard items.

“What was that URL I had a few minutes ago? Oh, no worries, I’ll just grab it quick.”

Ever feel a little bit hesitant to delete some text from your document? Just ⌘X and you can cut it with confidence that it’s right there if you change your mind, even if you copy some other text to the clipboard later.

Got a list of different things you are going to copy from one file to another? Don’t keep cmd-tabbing back and forth; just copy them all in sequence, then use Alfred to get the one you need, right when you need it.

The clipboard history is searchable, so even if you don’t 100% remember when you copied something, or even if you don’t quite remember exactly what the text was, you can quickly find it.

If you copy images to the clipboard, Alfred handles that too!

By default, Alfred won’t keep sensitive items in the clipboard history, like things copied from your password manager or the Keychain.

But wait, there’s more!

Keeping recent clipboard items is great, but what if you just have some snippets of text that you frequently want to include in documents?

Alfred’s got you.

Enter snippets!

alfred snippets

You can give snippets of text a name, and then when you’re searching the clipboard history, you can search for the snippet of text by name.

And if you want to use Alfred as a basic version of TextExpander, you can also add the ability to automatically expand snippets when you enter the keyword.

These snippets are highly useful, and you can import them from the web. I’ve imported a collection of emoji by name, for instance.

You should use Alfred!

This is my final post in this Alfred series. I’ve shown you how to do a variety of things with Alfred, and it’s still hard for me to describe exactly what Alfred is for, because Alfred can be used for anything you really can imagine setting it up to do.

But at the end of the day, Alfred buys you back some time in your day, a few seconds at a time. Sometimes when you use it, it buys you back a few minutes. But it helps you do things without effort and without thought.

And when you’re in “the zone” and Alfred can keep you in the zone by making it possible for you to do something like type in the glyph for ⌘ without having to dig into the character viewer, Alfred just gave you back more than just that couple seconds.

I don’t spend tons of time using Alfred (and you shouldn’t!), but I invoke it many times a day:

CleanShot 2020 08 31 at 18 39 51 2x

And if Alfred kept track of my usage across every device I’ve used it on, it would no doubt tell me that I’ve used Alfred at least fifty thousand times since I first installed it 10 years ago, almost to the day.

Thanks, Alfred!

Keyboard Projects: Iris

Over the past year I’ve developed a periodic habit of going on keeb.io and just ordering up a kit for a keyboard just to try it out. Like with most mechanical keyboard supply shops, you have to keep a close eye on when things are in stock, but they have some fun and relatively simple keyboard kits.

I recently embarked on trying to find an answer to the question “what if I had a keyboard that was like the Planck, but had just a couple more keys on it?”

There are a couple Planck-like keyboard projects out there that kind of fit the bill of what I was looking for, but I noticed the Iris kit on keeb.io and decided to give that a shot.

It’s a split ergonomic type keyboard with an ortholinear layout. Each half has 28 keys; a 6×4 grid, plus space for 3–4 thumb keys on the corners of each half.

Now, its default layout is set up not quite like a Planck; it’s actually using the top row as number keys, like this:

Iris keyboard layout (default)

But this is a fully programmable keyboard, so I don’t need to concern myself with such limitations!

Instead, I decided to lay mine out as though it’s a Planck, just with some extra keys added:

my Iris keyboard layout

Switches and Keycaps

Once you’ve picked what kind of keyboard you’re making, the next most important set of choices are going to be which switches you’re going to use, which will in turn inform which key caps you can use. The switches, if you’re not familiar, are the component that goes beneath each key cap, and it’s the “mechanical” part of a mechanical keyboard; it actually has mechanical components within it that are responsible for actuating when you press a key, and are also responsible for a good chunk of the clickiness you feel when you are typing on a mechanical keyboard.

The Iris PCB, luckily, is quite flexible! It supports three main types of switches: Cherry MX-style switches (by far the most commonly used in modern mechanical keyboards), ALPS switches (very popular in the 80s and 90s with some die hard fans still today), and Kailh Choc switches (a thinner switch that enables you to build a low-profile keyboard with less key travel and less thickness).

I initially decided to lay mine out with ALPS-style switches made by Matias. Because ALPS-style switches use a different plastic stem shape, that severely limited my key cap options, so I just bought a set of blank key caps from Matias.

Obstacles

Building the keyboard is pretty straightforward. The latest PCB is basically all pre-made; you just have to solder the switches in, then screw the case together. It’s a good beginner project, too, because there are only 56 contact points you have to solder on each half.

Once I had the keyboard together, and once I ported my layout over to it and flashed it, I gave it a whirl. But the thumb keys proved to be a problem; they were basically blocking the two keys they’re in front of.

So, I decided to try something experimental: what if I bought a few low-profile Choc switches, and used those for the thumb keys instead?

That’s got to work, right? The PCB supports both types of switch.

It was a little janky, and the PCB wasn’t built to have more than one variety of switch in it at once, but with a little flexing, I got the Choc switches (Jades, if you were wondering) soldered in and they worked!

PCB flex

Show me the keyboard!

It came out looking pretty cool. Note that despite my stint living in Wisconsin, I’m not as much of a Packers fan as the key caps let on; the supplier I got the key caps from included some color key caps as freebies.

Iris glamour shot

close up of the Iris keyboard

And of course, you’re probably wondering how it sounds. Well, I am delighted to say that the ALPS-style clicky switches are some of the clickiest you can get, and these are nothing short of really satisfying to listen to:

Mind you, with this particular choice of case and plate and keycaps, I am ending up with a somewhat different sound than these same switches produce on another keyboard. Let’s hear these ALPS switches on my Ergodox Infinity, for instance:

The difference is more pronounced in person, but the sound is deeper than on the Iris.

Also, the four thumb keys are using “thick click” Kailh switches, which also have a lovely little sound and feel to them:

I think if I could do it over again I’d have picked the slightly stiffer Navy Blue Choc switches.

Parting Thoughts

Whenever I’m using a Planck or similar 48-key keyboard, I’m always thinking to myself “if I just had a couple extra keys here that’d be just perfect.”

And so I give myself a few extra keys with the Iris, and I realize it’s not the productivity boost I thought it’d be.

The issue: With the Planck, everything is within super easy reach. The thumb keys on the Iris are just far enough away that your fingers second guess themselves when you try to use them. That slows me down more than you might think. So even if this gives me some new dedicated keys I can now hit without a layer switch, it’s still actually just faster for me to hit the equivalent key on the Planck, even though hitting that same key involves two keystrokes.

I’ll give myself more time though. This keyboard is still a lot of fun to type on and I really do like how rich and clicky it sounds. Also, the switches are still a little stiff and would benefit from a little more time to break in as well as a bit of lubrication.

This is a great quarantining project too. Material costs are $100–150 depending on what components you pick out, and the soldering work is pretty easy. Hit me up if you have questions about it.