Alexa? Welcome home.

I bought an Amazon Echo Dot last weekend, with the various Amazon vouchers I got from my family for Christmas. I’d been thinking about getting the ‘full’ Echo model – you know, the one that looks like the monolith from 2001?

I opted for the Dot after some intensive online research (a good 15 minutes of flicking between the usual websites) illustrated that the only difference between them is the speaker. I figured that I could plug the dot into one of the bluetooth speakers we have at home and it would effectively do the same thing.

Except for £49, rather than £149!

And it’s about a fifth of the size of the Amazon Echo and much less obtrusive in the home. I don’t really want the apartment looking like I’m completely obsessed with gadgets. Even if I am…

It arrived on Sunday and I set it up in a flurry of geeky excitement only matched by the time I got my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil. The excitement of trying something very, very new. To me, at least. Using verbal commands with a system built for just that.

I’ve previously found Siri to be unreliable and far less competent and consistently accurate than Google assistant. But the online demos I’ve watched illustrated what the Echo – with its built-in ‘Alexa’ assistant – can do were inspiring.

Set-up took less than 10 minutes. I spent more time in fact organising cables behind my bedside table. As that’s where the echo is now located, plugged in to the Beats Pill bluetooth speaker.

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Yeah, yeah…but is it any good?

Yes. Yes, it is. It responds to common-sense commands when you want to listen to music (via Spotify!), when you want to set an alarm, set a sleep timer, listen to the radio… all as you would expect.

“Alexa…play Radio 4”. Boom! Radio 4 comes out perfectly of the Beats Pill speaker sitting next to the Echo.

“Alexa…play my dinner jazz playlist on Spotify”

“Alexa…wake me up at 6am tomorrow morning”

“Alexa…go to sleep in 30 minutes”

Well, you get the picture. It’s extremely intuitive and I haven’t really encountered any situations where it’s not obvious how to ask Alexa to do stuff. And Alexa confirms in a very easy to understand and natural-sounding voice. Soothing, even.

But wait, there’s more!

Quite literally, in fact. I so fell in love with Alexa, I ordered another Echo dot for my study. The external speakers attached to my iMac died a couple of weeks ago. I can’t complain – they were SO old. When I started to think about buying new ones, I realised I could get speakers to connect to another Echo (Alexa’s sister, if you like) who could help me out when I’m at work.

So far (and I’ve not had a lot of time to experiment this week), I’ve connected it to Spotify, my Google Calendar and ToDoist. All of which work very, very well. I’m sure there’s a ton more I can do with it all, but that’s for this weekend. Right now, I’m just happy that Alexa has lived up to my expectations.

I just wish more things (and people) responded so helpfully when I ask them… And I’m very excited to see where Amazon take this platform. Especially as they’re licensing the technology out vendors making everything from fridges to cars.

iOS 10: Lots to learn

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After a less than satisfactory upgrade to iOS 10 earlier this week, I’ve been learning about its bits and bobs through day to day usage. What follows is a far-from-detailed review of the update, which is no way been approaches the thoroughness of some of the excellent reviews (e.g. iMore, MacStories).

So, in no particular order…

I like the widget-type functionality on the new search screen. You can get here by swiping right when on your home screen. It’s editable, so you can see the key information and updates that are more interesting and useful to you. I have it set up with a widget from ToDoist (of course!), a summary of my Activity

, the weather and headlines from the Guardian. I’ll be interested to see what other apps add widgets in the coming weeks. But for now, it gives me a nice, brief summary of key information that interesting to me, without too many clicks or swipes.

The new expanded notifications are also a big improvement. You can act of notifications from within another app (e.g. respond to a text message) and the new design of the notifications leaves me feeling less harassed by them as they pop up on the screen. You may feel differently about them, of course.

I’m torn when it comes to the app store for Messages. While it’s fun to be able to send GIFs more easily (@FrankDJS is enjoying this in particular 🙄) some of the noisier message settings are just plain annoying. Lasers. Confetti. Invisible ink. To me, it all smacks of gimmicks and makes it harder to read the messages. But I’m obviously turning into an old fart. so let’s move on to something more positive.

As an OS, it’s running faster on my iPhone 6s Plus. Noticeably faster. I like the changes to the interface for the most part and the fact that the screen comes to life when to pick it up is a piece of common sense functionality that is both simple and incredibly helpful.

I haven’t really explored what’s new in Photos or Music, especially as I’ve become quite the fan of Spotify in recent months. It was my main source of music when using Android and it’s recommendations engine is second to none. I’ve discovered more great music with Spotify this year than I ever have before. So I’m loathe to move back to Apple Music and deal with its tendencies to recommend pure unadulterated shit. Pardon my French.

I’ve not been as impressed with Siri as I’d hoped. Yes, it now works with a series of external, non-Apple services, but this is limited right now. So while you can control Spotify with it, I still can’t use it to control ToDoist. Being able to verbally add tasks to my inbox via Siri would be magical and a big timesaver. Hopefully it won’t be too long before there’s an integration.

If you have the time, and the inclination, I can recommend Federico Viticci’s in-depth review of iOS 10 over at MacStories. It’s epic. Truly. Otherwise, you can do what I’ve also been doing: just get stuck in and use it, googling the answers to challenges when you encounter them.

Torn between iOS and Android? Kind of.

The experiment isn’t over!

Some of you may remember I got myself all Androided-up a few months back. I bought a Nexus 6P and fell in love with it and its OS, Android. I kept my iPhone and Apple Watch in a drawer and lived a Google-focused existence.

Since then, I’ve moved between the two devices, as well as a Nexus 7 tablet for a couple of months. The good thing about buying your mobile phones unlocked is that you can simply switch SIM cards between them when you want to. All of my apps are cloud-based, so it doesn’t take long for one to catch up with the other (Calendar, contacts, Spotify etc).

Here’s the thing, though. I’m not living in one ‘world’ or the other. I regularly use my Nexus 7 while I’m at my desk, to flip through Twitter or to look at ToDoist. I’m still using my iPad Pro when traveling for business, paired with a bluetooth keyboard. I still wear my Apple Watch (most of the time), which means I have my iPhone 6s Plus on me too.

Torn between the two?

I’ve realised that you don’t have to pick a side, but you can pick and choose from within the two major ecosystems. I’ve regularly gone out for coffee bringing an iPhone and the Nexus 7. Not an iPad. Because the Nexus 7 is what I found useful at the time.

I don’t think it’s a groundbreaking thing to say that both ecosystems and operating systems have their strengths. For iOS, it’s the millions of apps and with iPhones it’s the easily-available multitude of accessories. My bank balance is testament to the latter. I have a drawer full of various iPhone cases, covers and stands.

For Android, (for me at least) it’s Google Now and just how accurately Google understands me when I speak with it. It’s uncanny. It’s also the flexibility of device set-up.

On the other hand, Apple devices cost a lot more than Android ones (mostly). And Android isn’t supported as widely as iOS (for now, at least). I’m talking very broadly here, before a fan-boy from one tribe or the other decides to have a pop.

My tools of choice, app-wise, are available on both platforms and are pretty comparable: Evernote, ToDoist, Spotify, Twitter, Instagram, WordPress, Slack, WhatsApp etc. My mail (iCloud, business and gMail), contacts (Google) and calendars (iCloud and Google) are also ‘out there’ and not tied to a single device.

So in theory, I could swap phone devices on a daily basis, if I had the time and inclination. What stops me doing this is messages. Unless you turn off messages on all your Apple devices, there’s a good chance text messages from others will fail to show up on the Android device. It’s happened before. And it’s very, very annoying.

A second screen

But there’s nothing to stop me using my Nexus 7 alongside my iPhone, for example. The information on both is up to date and the only major difference in content is in Google Now, which is far superior on the Nexus.

Similarly, there’s nothing to stop going out to work with my Macbook and the Nexus 6P. For exactly the same reasons. And as both work off USB-C chargers, this seems to be an ideal pairing.

But what about the “third screen”? My Apple Watch. This is where it gets a little complex. I also got myself a Pebble Time smartwatch at the same time I bought the Nexus 6P. And while are both smart-watches, they’re hugely different. The Pebble’s battery will last for days at a time, even with heavy use. Whereas the Apple Watch needs a nightly charge. The Apple Watch display is a thing of beauty, while I have to regularly squint to see the Pebble’s screen.

It looks like the next update to WatchOS is going to make there Apple Watch even better (in terms of speed, at least), so I’m not tempted to make the switch permanent.

And seeing as an Apple Watch will only work with an iPhone, I’m ever so slightly stuck with the iPhone 6S Plus as a my ‘daily driver’. This is no hardship, by any means, but it does take some of the flexibility out which device I use each day.

Some very full pockets!

Now, there’s no way in hell I’m going to become one of those guys who carries more than one mobile phone out of choice! (As opposed to those poor souls who have to carry a work handset and a personal handset). Neither am I going to wear more than one smartwatch. I mean, I’m a geek, but there are limits – even for me. Yes. Even for me.

In reality, either the iPhone or the Nexus 6P offer enough speed and power to be the only thing I need with me for my mobile needs. Frequently, a tablet is a luxury, especially hen I’m trying to lighten the load of tech I find it my bag.

That said, I’m still leaning towards the world of Apple – if I have to make a choice – due to the Apple Watch pairing and my need to leave one handset at home.

So what does the future hold?

We’re about to see updates to both operating systems in the next couple of months. Google will roll out Android N (Nougat) in the next few days, if the rumour mill is correct. And Apple is going to release iOS 10 and WatchOS “in the fall”. Hopefully, that means September.

I’m going to update all my devices when the time arrives and do another comparison. Meanwhile, it looks like I’ll be using the iPhone 6s Plus combined with an Apple Watch and a (3 year old) Nexus 7 tablet when I’m out and about.

How’s that for eclectic?!

(In fact, I think a blog post all about the Nexus 7 is in order – it’s one of my favourite devices right now).

It works for me. It combines everything I like about iOS, allows me to use my Apple Watch, and gives me access to pure Android and Google Now. And before you ask: yes, you can install the Google app to access Google Now on your iPhone, but its functionality is severely curtailed compared to the Android version. Believe me, I’ve tried it.

Any questions?

I’m also aware that very few people get to buy handsets like this and compare them. I’m lucky like that. So any questions about working in two operating systems are very welcome. Maybe I can help you make up your mind!

Organising the Nexus 6P

The adjustment from iOS to Android isn’t as significant as it used to be. As I said previously, Android is now a lot more polished as an OS and there are so many more cross-platform apps available.

One of the big differences that still exists between the two platforms is the flexibility of the Android interface. You can choose your own launcher, layout, colours, default apps and a ton of other settings that iOS keeps firmly under lock and key.

You could spend far too much time on setting all this up, but I’ve just had a look at the apps I use the most and organised them into some on-screen folders under what I think is a logical categorisation.

(If you have no interest in reading about other people’s mobile phone settings, you may as well stop reading at this point. And frankly, what sane person would blame you.)  Continue reading “Organising the Nexus 6P”

The Android Experiment: one week in

Okay, so strictly speaking I’m not a full week in to my “new life” with Android rather than iOS, but I started using a Nexus 7 this day last week and my new Nexus 6P arrived last Tuesday.

I fully intend to do a full comparison between Android and iOS – a very subjective and incomplete comparison, if I’m honest – but for now, my main take-aways are the following:

Continue reading “The Android Experiment: one week in”

A mini return

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Since I got my iPad Pro 9.7″, my iPad Mini3 has been relatively unused. As in, completely unused. The Pro has replaced it in all things, to the point where when I picked it up yesterday, the little red notification illustrating app updates from the App Store was in triple figures.

A sure sign that I haven’t been using it.

Sure, it’s regularly been placed on the charger to keep it full of juice, but that’s it. I almost felt guilty for abandoning this little, previously-loved, iPad. So I decided to do something about it.

Continue reading “A mini return”

Add tasks to ToDoist from Slack

A nice integration of Slack and ToDoist – both excellent tools! You can now add tasks to ToDoist straight from Slack. As I spend a lot of my working day messaging colleagues from within Slack, I’m definitely going to be trying this out.

Check out the short video below for the (very simple) details on how to do this.

Creating a reading list with IFTTT, Instapaper and ToDoist

I’m a big fan of both Instapaper – a great tool for saving interesting reading materials for offline reading later – and IFTTT, the system that allows you to connect your various online accounts and create magical automated workflows. And, as any reader of this blog knows, I love me some ToDoist action.

Lately, I realised I was saving tons of interesting content to Instapaper with the intention of reading it – but never getting round to it.

Sad face

So, I set up a really simple recipe in IFTTT which means that every time I save something to Instapaper, it adds a task to my in-box in ToDoist with the title of the article and the tag ‘@Reading’. I also have a recurring task every couple of days to check out my Instapaper reading ‘queue’. Hopefully this will mean more reading and less forgetting.

These simple tools are so powerful. If you’d like to do the same, you can use my recipe on IFTTT.

An excellent ToDoist update

The latest update to my task management app of choice – ToDoist – has brought with it something I’ve craved since the introduction of 3D Touch to the iPhone: adding new tasks via force touch.

This update might sound like a small improvement, but it’s something I’ve wanted for a while. I’ll admit I’ve been force-touching the icon each time there’s been a ToDoist update, hoping that ‘this time, it’ll work’. Well, it finally does – thanks guys!

Force-touching the ToDoist icon now brings up three options: 1) a view of the next 7 days, 2) a view of tasks due today and 3) the option to add a new task. Tapping the latter takes you straight into the ‘Add+’ screen. You can also search the contents of your ToDoist task and project database via Spotlight, putting searches just a quick swipe away.

You can see details – and demonstrations – of all the most recent ToDoist updates for iOS and Apple Watch via their latest video below:

The smoother and easier it is to enter a task into an app like this, the more likely you are to use it – at least, in my experience. Making task entry as easy as a force touch of the app’s icon is a great example of this. You remember something important and all you need to do is tap and type.

Just one more reason I like ToDoist – an elegant blend of simplicity and power. I just wish all my other iOS apps were as satisfying to use. I’m looking at you, Evernote!