A tirade on iOS 10 and iPhone 7

Apple missed the mark with iOS 10, focusing heavily on material updates that do little to make the OS radically different. In fact, iOS 10 looks to me like a redressed iOS 9, which in turn is a redressed iOS 8, which is what iOS 7 should have originally been. The biggest features of iOS 10 (improved Messages app, new lock and keyboard sounds, redesigned Music and News apps, card-like interfaces that take up way too much space on screen etc.) should all have been app updates or minor updates in 10.x versions, not part of a core OS overhaul, and certainly not the highlight of iOS 10.

Share sheets and Extensions were probably the last major iOS change worthy of an entirely new edition of the mobile operating system. This time round, opening up Siri to third-party developers is probably the only notable overhaul — and it too came much later than it should have. A lot of other features I was hoping for (including stock apps residing on the App Store and enjoying regular updates like Apple’s Pages, Keynote etc. already do) never made it to iOS 10. Something as fundamental as natural language input — which Calendar.app on Mac already has — is sorely missing from iOS, and, combined with the fact that Apple now allows us to remove stock apps from the home screen (not delete them, but even removing them is better than having a folder full of junk), I am certainly tempted to wipe the slate clean and start over with a generally better experience. However, some apps like Mail.app are good for everyday, light users, as is Reminders. While on the other hand Notes.app can be useful for power users too.

This wide gorge between parts of the OS is what makes the whole experience feel incomplete. On the one hand is the better integration of 3D touch, which, frankly, I have come to enjoy immensely; however, while 3D touching an e-mail can offer you swipe options to, say, trash the e-mail, doing the same thing on a Messages app notification only allows you to dismiss the message and forces you to unlock your phone anyway and navigate to the Messages app to delete an unwanted text. It seems, once again, that while 3D touch has been used to make existing functionality better (since a 3D touch interaction just feels better than swiping around), Apple failed to do anything new with it. The only things I can think of are options to clear all notifications, access mobile data via the Settings icon, and controlling flashlight intensity via the flashlight icon in the Control Centre: all important changes but far too few in number.

With iOS 10 releasing next month, the OS already looks underwhelming, forcing users to learn a bunch of new interactions that are simply not worth the minor changes they bring along. What bothers me, though, are the new iPhones coming around the same time: all rumours (some of which will turn out to be false, a lot of which will be true, if the past is any indication) point to the larger iPhone having perks and the design of iPhones remaining same for the most part.

The second point is not troubling on its own: I do not see the need for a religious design change with every release. However, look at it in context and it really makes one wonder: when the biggest change in the phone is the positioning of antennae while possibly the biggest design flaw, the protruding camera lens, stays put for the third year in a row, it gives the impression that someone has got their priorities all mixed up. I could have lived with a phone 1mm thicker (even with the plastic antenna bands) if, instead, I got a flush camera with OIS and a beefier battery.

The first point is no less troubling because Apple seems to be making a somewhat unfortunate distinction between its iPhones based solely on screen — and hence chasis — dimension. The 7 Plus (or whatever the upcoming 5.5inch model will be called) is rumoured to carry two camera lenses based on LinX technology from a company Apple acquired last year. This is understandable because a dual lens setup will occupy more space than a single lens setup and only the plus sized model will be able to offer the space to fit it in without making the battery unbearably small or the phone unwieldily thick. But, at least partly, the point of innovating is all about successfully putting a dual lens setup on the 4.7inch phone without any sacrifices. Without this, the choice becomes more than just one between screen sizes, which should never be the case. I have nothing against 5.5inch phones, and it is not always about the price either: I have used phablets for years now, including the 6 Plus, but eventually found the 4.7inch screen of the 6S more to my liking — handy, comfortable, inconspicuous. The point is, some of us just prefer the 4.7inch size, and what is this year’s iPhone 7 likely going to offer us? Nothing much at all. Different antennae arrangement, improved camera; both of these, incidentally, have been features of the S-model released every other year.

Granted, everything I said about iOS 10 is based on the betas and everything I said about the upcoming iPhones is based on popular rumours. But, for years now, neither of these have been too far off from the facts we go on to learn on the actual date of release. The rumours are, to a reasonable extent, representative of the new iPhones (the leaked photographs are often uncannily accurate) and the last of the betas are identical in almost every way to the Gold Master or the first stable release that comes with the new iPhones — perhaps with improved stability and battery life, but carrying nothing radically different in any case.

Has Apple stopped innovating? It is hard to say, especially since nobody knows what goes on in their headquarters. Perhaps they have slowed down, perhaps they are refocussing, perhaps they lost footing and are getting back up, perhaps they are gambling on another year of slow growth to make 2017, the tenth anniversary of iPhone, a memorable one (I agree the last point could just be us dreaming), but the same people who have been calling the shots for years are calling the shots now, so there is no need to dramatically call this anything but an unsurprising period of slow growth. I do look forward to a time when the size of screens does not cause any discrimination between people because innovation guarantees that the features come in all sizes and the only difference between the 4.7inch and 5.5inch phones are the screen sizes. Right now having extras on the phablet model makes as much sense as the gold iPhone alone having faster Touch ID, the silver alone iPhone having OIS, the space grey iPhone alone having a flush camera etc. There should be only one iPhone available in two screen offerings. Not two wholly different iPhones, which is precisely what is happening now.

Think of the iPad Pro in 12.9inch and 9.7inch. They are basically the same thing with different screen sizes and improvements in the 9.7inch model simply because it came much later in the year. If iPhone 6S and 7 have differences, that is understandable, but two iPhones released alongside each other simply should not — besides screen size. Whatever your view on Apple’s marketing strategy is, the only thing that is certain is that 2016 has not been the best of years for us as Apple customers, and we can only hope to look forward to better things next year.

Airmail makes e-mail convenient and effective

Following a month of testing and real-world use, I decided earlier this week to rope Airmail into my workflow as my main (and only) e-mail programme across all my devices. Airmail is a sharp and powerful app from Italian design and development studio, Bloop. For anyone who maintains a certain manner of working with tools that they use regularly, it is understandable that adding new tools — or replacing old ones around which your habits have long since formed — can be too huge a step. This new tool, whatever it is, has to offer something compelling to justify its use because, while it may offer a fun new feature, what is important is to recognise that it demands from the user, more than anything, is a certain level of dedication and investment — particularly of our time and our patience as we develop new habits around new tools.

In this light, Airmail (for iOS and Mac) is a tool that has won me over and so well that I have initiated it into my daily workflow. In other words, I will start out by recommending that the app is worth trying out, and my conclusion is that it is wonderful. The rest of this review, therefore, is meant to tell you why.

The troubles of multiple inboxes

As I have stated several times in the past, Apple’s stock Mail.app is good enough for most people — including me until a couple of years. Having moved to a completely different e-mail management now involving four addresses, I found the stock app limiting. For example, there is no quick way to tell which address an e-mail arrived at while looking through the unified inbox. Also, folder management is obsolete at best. My workflow invovlves three folders: references, to-do, and archival. While unwanted e-mails go to the bin, a majority of read e-mails almost always end up in the archival — or what Google calls the “All mail” lable. This is possible because my IMAP addresses with paltry 500MB storages are set up to forward to corresponding, dedicated Gmail accounts for ease of use and the 15GB space that comes free with every Google account. Some e-mails I may need for reference in the future are filed under “References” and those on which I need to take action are filed under “To-do”.

This is great for a single account, but when you have multiple accounts involved the only way to maintain this workflow is with three such folders in each account, which means, in my case, I end up referencing eight folders every time, especially if I do not recall which address an e-mail came to. Unlike a lot of people, I dislike smart folders and smart e-mail sorting; I prefer to manually handle things myself. And this is where Airmail comes in, tying in fully and vigorously with the idea of manually controlling your inbox. That means you have zero smart features but near-infinite, close control over every nook and cranny instead.

Airmail helps get things done

Airmail has inbuilt “To-do” and “Memo” lists. (I found that the Mac app inconsistently calls the latter as a “Note” list.) But the most important part of this is that the app allows folder mapping. This is one of a horde of customisation options Airmail offers, which I will address presently. By mapping Airmail’s “To-do” list to my existing “To-do” folders in each account, I end up with a single list where actionable e-mails from across all my accounts are filed for me to attend to. The same goes for memos. And the app offers to accent e-mails from each account with a different user-selectable colour in a manner remarkably similar to Cloudmagic — another excellent e-mail app — which means I can tell which address a particular e-mail arrived at just by looking at the swatch of colour.

Unless you are in search of smart inbox features, Airmail is hands down the best e-mail app you can find.

There are also Mailbox-inspired swipe gestures on Airmail, except where Mailbox and other current alternatives offer two, Airmail offers three swipe options on each side, or six quick actions in all. The app also integrates with a handful of services including Clear, Evernote, Wunderlist, Google Tasks, Github, Omnifocus, Fantastical, Asana, Trello, Dropbox and more. Bloop also promises that they encrypt “all communication to and from” the app. Airmail also offers to save smart folders, which can be a bunch of e-mails it filters out based on preset rules (with each set of rules being a folder). Consider this to be akin to saving your searches.

Besides all this functionality, Airmail goes further to offer granular control over almost all aspects of the app — account-wise notifications, display styles, tracking, sidebar ordering (complete with spacers), conversation re-ordering, ways of handling attachments and remote images, several signatures per account and so on. And it syncs all these settings and account details (except passwords) via iCloud across all your devices, so you only ever have to install the app and sign into your accounts and Airmail makes sure they work alike on all devices you access them from. The only apps faster than Airmail at pushing mails was Email by EasilyDo, and that too not every single time. But, frankly, it often does not matter to me too much if I read an e-mail a couple of minutes — or half a day — late.The only downside to Airmail is its 5 price tag on iOS and10 on Mac. In my opinion, they are both worth it for a product I use daily, and, while payment does not alone ensure an app will last, you can be sure that Airmail will last long enough because, unlike most free apps, they have a business model that is not entirely reliant on investors or long winded plans of getting acquired (which sometimes means getting shut down à la Mailbox).

Some things could be better

On the iOS apps that came relatively recently when compared to their years-old Mac counterpart, the app used to feel a little less polished than one would hope. But things got sorted out with a month of active development. Polymail, another slick e-mail programme whose story is taking similar roads as Airmail, is a lot rougher, being only in its alpha stages, but their development seems faster and sometimes I wish Airmail got updates that frequently. However, development is active and right now that is what matters.

Right off the bat the first thing that bothered me was that swiping was not as smooth as I had expected. Spark does it better, and Polymail, even in its alpha, seems to have nailed it. To be precise, swiping gestures on Airmail start late and end soon, so your swiping has to be incredibly precise or considerably slow, both of which go against the reason why swiping gestures exist — convenience and speed. I find myself deleting e-mails I intended to archive and flagging e-mails instead of marking them as tasks, all on a daily basis. Thankfully, Airmail has a contextual undo button that works perfectly.

I found some account profile pictures getting messed up while setting up Airmail on my Mac, but that was easily solved with a restart of the programme and has not occurred since. Also, Airmail (magically) fetches profile pictures/icons to display for everyone who sends you an e-mail, and it has worked for me every single time, happily doing away with the boring, coloured initial letter logos that Gmail and other services stamp next to an e-mail. Lastly, and more important than profile pictures, is that notifications simply do not sync. This means my iPad, iPhone and two notebooks often all blast out the same notification for the same e-mail all at once but the notification itself remains on all other devices even after I respond to it on one, so I often have to manually dismiss it from the other two. Rectifying this should probably be Bloop’s first order of business.

All said and done, Airmail works great, and, unless you are in search of smart inbox features, it is hands down the best e-mail app you can find and is available across all Apple devices, including the Watch. Grab the iOS version supporting both iPhone and iPad, as well as the Mac version today. If you like control over your e-mail experience and consistency across your devices, you cannot go wrong with Airmail. The app is constantly being updated and improved as well, especially since the playground for e-mail programmes is getting competitive, so your $15 will be worth it without a doubt.

The best third-party replacements for stock iOS apps

Having previously written about the positive side of stock iOS apps, I think it is only fair to highlight third-party applications in much the same manner. After all the App Store plays a huge part in the iOS experience and stock, or default, apps — those which are bundled with every Apple device and, much to our chagrin, cannot be uninstalled — may not be powerful enough to meet everyone’s requirements, especially in niche areas.

Not only do third-party apps then become a necessity, they also work towards enriching the user experience of those who do not necessarily need all the features of third-party apps. Stock apps should undoubtedly be bundled with newly bought devices (or set to appear on factory resetting) but should, additionally, come with an option to be uninstalled just like any other app. Apple CEO, Tim Cook, hinted at this in an interview with Buzzfeed and I hope to see it in iOS 10 coming out later this year.

I also hope to see the option to choose third-party apps as defaults, but this is harder said than done since a lot of iOS’s fluid integration comes from the manner in which Apple’s apps talk to one another. However, in several countries outside the US, some services do not work: the biggest culprit is the Maps app which does not seem to know ninety-percent of the places I search whereas Google Maps simply blows it out of the water, but I digress. (All this is part of my iOS 10 wishlist, if you are interested.)

There are some obvious exclusions: Phone, Messages, Settings, Health, Find my iPhone and the like, which are all not exactly replaceable apps. Of the ones that are replaceable, I will cover as many as possible: Browser, Calendar, Camera, Podcast, Calculator, Weather, Notes and Reminders. For everyone’s benefit we will go over two possible alternatives to each. And, as of now, these are, in my humble opinion, the best third-party apps to replace each of the stock/default iOS applications that came along with your phone. Following this is a short note on alternate services to those offered by Apple: iCloud, Photostream, Music and photo editing.

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The CloudMagic of e-mail

It is almost ironic that I should write about (and recommend) a third-party e-mail app exactly one month to the date after I write about how stock apps are good enough on iOS. I still think Apple’s apps are enough for most users, but the beauty of an app-driven ecosystem is that for those of us looking for a little more — and more need not necessarily be better — there are alternatives.

I had a valid reason for looking for third-party apps in the first place (which I will explain presently), and having tried Spark and Outlook, among others, I picked CloudMagic. With the CloudMagic app as your e-mail client, there is more and it certainly is better. I am yet to look at the desktop application, mostly because three-quarters of my e-mail is handled on my iPhone, so at all points of this review I will restrict myself to the iOS app, and, by extension, the Android app.

Replacing Apple mail

This section is about why I moved to a third-party e-mail app, as well as what I was looking for and the apps I tried. You may jump to my review of CloudMagic by skipping this section if it does not interest you.

 

My readers and subscribers are aware of my belief in the capability of stock apps — not a belief readily supported by most — which means I have some explaining to do when recommending a replacement for Apple Mail. For years I used Mail (on iOS and Mac) but have, of late, found it bulky, for lack of a better term.

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iOS apps more than sufficient? — Part II">Are stock iOS apps more than sufficient? — Part II

Exactly one year ago I wrote an article on using stock apps on iOS. Specifically, the case I was making was that for most people, stock apps will do just fine and our seemingly natural gravitation towards third-party apps exists, not always as a consequence of their being better, but as a result of us not giving stock apps enough time to show us their worth. Once again this is mostly because we are used to encountering shoddy bundled apps elsewhere and the trend that stock apps are all bad just sticks.

Now, having spent an entire year with my iPhone, I decided to return to address the same issue (naturally with the same title), and with considerably more experience backing me. One particularly useful trend I noticed through the year as I switched to third-party alternatives was that I found myself returning to stock apps. At the end of the day, this stands as an opinion piece, but one that is worthwhile to everyone contemplating this issue — and especially to those who discard stock Apple apps just by habit.

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