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Alfred 2: OK, I'm In

Up until now, I’ve been giving Alfred a shot here or there. I would download the free version and play around with it and then run into roadblocks with its support of some things I’m currently doing with Launchbar. I have trouble overcoming the friction and eventually give up on it. It was a shame because people who didn’t use Launchbar swore by Alfred. I found Launchbar seemed very well-suited to how I worked, not to mention the fact that I had already built up considerable muscle memory with Launchbar hotkeys. My interest in Alfred always persisted however and I’m glad it did.

Enter Alfred v2. It is a re-designed (from the ground up, I’m told) new version of the app and after hearing a lot of rumblings about the efficacy of the new workflow system, I thought I’d give it a go. And this was to be a real go – one that wasn’t just a dip into the common features and a surface recognition that things weren’t going to work out for us, Alfred and me. No, this was going to go all the way.

So what did I find? I found a deep, useful and profoundly productive tool which has shown more promise with each day I’ve spent with it. At this point, Alfred has not only replaced Launchbar for common use throughout the day, but it has extended beyond it into things that Keyboard Maestro used to do. If you’ve ever used Keyboard Maestro, you’d know how amazing that is. That’s not to say that it is perfect. It’s also not to say that there are limitations as well. But it is a really, really good product (with the PowerPack installed) and I’m happy with the results so far.

I am not going to go too far down the rabbit hole in this post but I will run down some of the things that struck me about the new version of Alfred as well as some of the features that allowed it to overcome some of its previous shortcomings.

One thing that used to kill me was that I had some really fast, custom shortcuts in Launchbar – “OL” would fire up Outlook, “PF” would fire off Pathfinder, etc. Alfred , however, picked the target apps itself and used heuristics to push things up the list of popular choices. Sometimes it picked “OL” for Outlook but if it decided that OmniOutliner made more sense, you couldn’t “brute force” the choice to always choose Outlook like you could in Launchbar. I am not a huge fan of having to hit ⌘-1, etc. for additional choices so having the first choice be exactly what I want, when I want it, is key.

With workflows, that restriction is gone. I just open the workflow designer, create a trigger, map “OL” to Outlook and I’m done. The whole process takes about two minutes and it’s all clicking, dragging and minimal typing.

Some cursory perusal of the Alfred forums yielded some great workflows to quickly create OmniFocus tasks, completely control Rdio, and provide a fast way to list time zones in various parts of the world. All of this functionality comes from typing a few choice keys the Alfred command box. Brilliant.

Combine that with automating some previously keyboard-intensive things I used to do like launching a terminal and typing some common commands (like “top -oCPU” etc.) or clever ways to launch framed windows to remote machines[1] and I’m saving tons of keystrokes.

I am sure my use of Alfred will change and grow over the coming weeks and, once they launch a better way to browse community workflows[2] the tool will evolve in ways people are barely able to imagine right now. At this point, I can safely say that I won’t be ditching Alfred any time soon. The app looks gorgeous, has lots of options and clearly has a keen design vision behind it. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

  1. Using “open vnc://MyMacMini.local” when on my home network or “open vnc://MyMacMini.{MyiCloudID}” when I want to launch a Back to My Mac session ↩

  2. It looks like they are working on it. ↩

Dropvox: Simple Recording Straight to Dropbox

Shout-out to Shawn Blanc for pimping Dropvox[1]. I am a long-time user and have been putting it through the paces recording lectures I attend and for saving thoughts while driving. It has seamless Dropbox integration and seems to transmit the data to its destination even with bad connectivity. I have been impressed by its stability and simplicity.

The idea is that you hook this app to your Dropbox account and hit “record”. That’s basically all you need to know. The mp3 file is uploaded to a special application directory and you can do whatever you like with it. These recordings can be any length and I’m finding more and more ways to use it. Some recordings become emails, DayOne entries, memos or the framework for a much larger document that I want to get a headstart on before arriving at work. I have also recorded multi-hour lectures with nary a hiccup.

For the files that I record in the car on the way to work that are destined to become emails or documents, I have a little workflow to convert them to text. Sadly, it isn’t a cheap solution but it is one that works pretty well. MacSpeech Scribe ($149USD) is a tool created specifically for transcribing voice files to text. It takes some training but it works quite well.

One hiccup is that recording in the car is much simpler if I use my Bluetooth in-car voice control (and obviously its safer since it is handsfree) but the bluetooth voice quality is much lower than it is for standard recording. As a result, Scribe has a much harder time transcribing my voice files. After training it for a “car voice”, Scribe started getting much better but its not perfect. That said, it is still better than transcribing it by hand myself.

I’ve gotten my $2’s worth from Dropvox. It’s a very simple and handy app and worth a look if you’re in the market for a recording device that integrates seamlessly with Dropbox.

  1. Affiliate links ↩

Rise: My Mini-Review of an Unintentionally-Silent Alarm Clock

Rise is a new app for iOS that has a really nice design sense. This thing is gorgeous. The gesture controls are well thought out and generally it works well. That said, it does have some shortcomings concerning what you really need it for – waking you up.

I was really excited when I picked the app up - so excited I grabbed it on release day. I’ve always wanted to have something wake me up besides my blaring iPhone alarm and having the potential of a replacement, especially one that looked so good, was an inviting proposition. That said, I’ve had little to complain about regarding the built-in iPhone alarm. It has been rock solid for me since I started using it with my iPhone 1. I’ve never gotten up late for work due to an alarm SNAFU which is a pretty decent track record.

Rise allows for setting up repeating alarms, progressive alarms, pleasant sound effects and alarm songs/patterns and, going through the settings, I had high hopes that it would do what I needed it to do.

Luckily, I was able to press it into service during my vacation so if I woke up late it wasn’t going to be the end of the world. How did it go?

Three of the five mornings I used it, the app wasn’t able to rouse me from sleep. The most prevalent problem was that there was no noise at all. In fact, I am doubtful that it caused my phone to vibrate either. Curiously, I confirmed that the app was set to “vibrate” but, if it was vibrating, it was so quiet or brief that it didn’t get the job done. As a further insult, when I eventually woke up, I was met with several screens of notifications telling me it was time to wake up. Thanks, Rise…

Now, it’s certainly feasible that I was doing something wrong. But even if I was, alarms need to be a bulletproof, battle-tested thing and if I should have been doing something differently, then it wasn’t apparent. Remembering to put an app in the foreground and confirm everything before sleeping is something I haven’t had to deal with since… well since forever, so having to do it now isn’t something I want to deal with. The risk of a mess up is just too great at this point.

I realize that there are iOS development restrictions that prevent things like this from working as well as the actual iOS alarms. The hooks for the alarms have very deep integration into the operating system. That’s a disappointment because Rise has a lot going for it visually. Given the downsides, I’d avoid it for now.

Recall - An App To Store Stuff You Want

Recall by Overcommitted is a new app I noticed when it was written up by our good friend Federico Viticci on Macstories.

The gist of Recall is that you can search for apps, books, TV shows, movies and other products that aren’t yet released and then save them in a smart queue. The app will send you a reminder when the selected item is released and also provides links into the respective stores for easy purchasing.

At first, I thought this was the kiss of death for someone like me who likes to be on top of things when they release and generally likes to try apps or read books as soon as they become available. It just gave me an easier way to part with my money – hardly welcome given the great stuff releasing lately.

After a few days of use, it struck me that this app was turning out to be a way to save me money. What I’ve been finding is that just adding something to Recall, especially if it is immediately available, gives me a nice spot to hold ideas until I can thoroughly think through how I might use them. Or, in the case of books, it serves as a reading queue until I can find time to read them.

What was happening before was that I’d buy something to try it out because I knew I would forget about it a week or two later. Having a place to simply hold the thought has cut down on the impulse buys so far (it’s only been a week or so). In the case of books, my Kindle library of purchased books was my reading queue. The problem I faced was that things would be added to it my virtual library faster than I was able to read the books that were already there. The result was a lot of unread books and, ultimately, wasted money.

Having a handy place to park stuff is a good way to provide the space I need to avoid silly impulse purchases. It is an experiment but one that appears to be working. I’ll report back if it continues. For now, my wallet is thanking me.

My Thoughts on Patrick Rhone's Enough

For someone as focused as I am on technology, both at work and at home, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about “when is enough enough?”.

I’ve been reading Patrick Rhone’s pieces on MinimalMac for quite a while now and they have always resonated with me on one level or another. Patrick has some interesting things to say about how we handle ourselves in life but, obviously, his approach to technology has been somewhat of a focus for me.

In the rush to always find the next “most helpful app” or the next “device that fixes your life”, it’s easy to lose sight of the idea of what Kevin Kelly calls “appropriate use of technology”. As gadget geeks, we tend to flit from tool to tool, using something for a brief moment before the next one comes along, and so on. The same goes for apps or workflows or iPad cases. Novelty has come to drive many of us. Being the first to spot the app to solve a problem we never knew we had, or a piece of news that will send the “echosphere” scrambling for context and follow up is like a drug, if twitter is to be believed.

Enter Patrick Rhone’s book Enough, a collection of essays about how Patrick approaches a life with too much. It is a short book but dense in content and strikes at the heart of what has been bothering me lately on this subject of “appropriate use”.

We don’t need to have the latest thing. We don’t need all of it. We don’t have to always have the best. We just need to have “enough” and we need to realize that what is enough for me might not be enough for you. Rhone explores that gray area over the course of 90 pages in interesting ways.

A few years ago, a life change saw me getting rid of most of my “stuff”. I sold or gave away all of my audio equipment, instruments, 95% of my paper books, and traded in all but a few CDs. It was a purge of epic proportions and during that difficult time I saw the saying from Fight Club’s Tyler Durden (by way of Jim Uhls by way of Chuck Palahniuk) was true to a disturbing extent — the things that we own really do end up owning us. 

Now, I’m not saying that you need to get rid of all of your stuff. In fact, as time went on things I slowly started accumulating things again (books not available in ebook format, for example) but forcing a harsh evaluation was an eye-opening experience for me.

Some people like paper books and feel the world is a richer place for their existence, whereas I’m fine with a Kindle app or iBooks and having no book-shaped objects sitting around, collecting dust. At that point, the iPad transcends a mere gadget but becomes something that fundamentally changes the way I approach things. It’s not an extravagant gadget. It is something I use everyday to do something essential and real. That is appropriate use.

Sean Bonner wrote about these topics a while back in his “Year of Less” series of posts right when I was in the heart of my Great Purge and the timing seemed eerily appropriate[1]. They helped a lot when I was trying to form my own ideas about what was really important.

One particularly interesting piece in Enough was entitled “Use Technology To Enrich, Not Distract” and it strikes at the heart of the topic. After getting a sense of similar strains of thought in Kevin Kelly’s book “What Technology Wants” , hearing Rhone’s take was welcome and interesting.

Another chapter in the book is called “You Will Never Catch Up”. In many ways here, Rhone hits the nail on the head. Email will always roll in, your Twitter stream will keep streaming, your RSS articles will keep piling up. It will go on, day after day, and we’re faced with the daunting task of finding ways to manage the chaos. Part of what I enjoy is finding those ways, indeed, but there are still times when you throw up your hands and reset. Ironically, after those resets, it’s rare to find out that you’ve missed anything crucial.

It underlines the point that a lot of what we see as real work is often just busywork. We are just fighting to push back the growing tide of neverending drudgery of digital management. I don’t know about you, but putting technology to work for me instead of making me feel farther behind is something that I think is worth spending time on, as long as it’s done within reason.

Patrick Rhone has a included a lot of good stuff in this book. Its length insures you’ll get through in a few sittings. While some of the writing is introspective and almost like a minimalist poetry, there is some surprisingly workmanlike prose as well. These parts focus on outlining “things to do” and which lists to make, intended to jar your mind into getting some of the book’s more well-meaning points.

Scattered throughout the book are quotes that keep you thinking about it long after the last page is turned.

It is well put together book which reached me at just the right time. I recommend it for those of you who are looking for a quick read and who have been thinking about where our time, attention, money and space go.

  1. Also read Sean’s excellent BoingBoing piece “Technomads” ↩

Tech Note: iTunes Match

I consider myself quite a bit of an Apple nerd at this point, I’ll admit. I have a large number of Apple devices in my house and a couple of them that I carry around with me all day long.

I have come to know “how their stuff works” in that way where, despite something being completely baffling to you six years ago, it just makes sense as to why something is the way it is.

I have lots of examples of this. The “active app” dots under icons disappeared – I got used to it. The trackpad scrolling direction changed in Lion – I got used to that too. Sure enough, I think they were right… it seems pretty damn intuitive at this point.

I like the way the iPhone alarm system works, despite some very vocal detractors (with whom I couldn’t disagree more).

I realize they change things for a reason and their interfaces are sometimes seen as obtuse at first but, in the end, I feel the choices they make fit the greatest swath of users and, in the end, it is all about pleasing the people who pay for their hardware (and, less so, their software).

But, despite understanding Apple’s design decisions on most things, where they leave me baffled is iTunes Match.

What Is iTunes Match?

I used to be really fastidious with my music collection. Everything was immaculately tagged and stored in organized folders, backed up to multiple sites (all 90GB of it at the time, but that was years ago and it has shrunk considerably since then) and kept in the best shape possible with album art and high bitrates.

With the advent of the streaming, all-you-can-eat services, it became a lot less necessary to keep up with that stuff. I also moved to using laptops for most of my computing and keeping a 36GB set of files was untenable. I tried some home streaming options but I found I had less and less time to track down albums I was interested in and Spotify’s selection at the time was pretty good.

With Spotify getting more entwined with Facebook (the Sean Parker connection, no doubt) and lots of the bands I like pulling their catalogs, I moved over to Rdio and I’ve been pretty happy with it. But these streaming services don’t have everything. Some inexplicable exceptions do occur and, when they do, I want to be able to listen to music I own in the iPhone Music app.

That presents quite a problem due to the limited space on the iPhone. Having just the song you want from your collection on your phone when you want it is a very hit-or-miss affair and often you end up having to wait until you get to a computer and the ubiquitous iTunes. Hardly a great solution.

Enter iTunes Match.

You pay Apple a nominal fee of around $25 a year and it will upload or match up to 25,000 of your songs and store them in the cloud – iCloud in fact. When people first hear about this, understandably, it’s not an easy “sell”.

“If I have these songs locally, why would I want to upload them to Apple for $25 a year? What does this get me besides backup?”

Well the answer isn’t as clear as Apple would like it to be but here’s the deal:

  • The songs in your iTunes collection will be upgraded to 256k bitrate if they are matched to the version in Apple’s cloud.
  • Once a song has been uploaded to iCloud, you can delete the song from your local collection and still have access to it.
  • You can stream your music collection to Apple TV (including playlists, etc.)
  • You can stream your music to any of your computers.

As you can see, that’s probably enough of a benefit to shell out the money since $25 a year is a little over $2/month. That’s a small price to pay for a full backup (if you have less than the allotted number of songs) of your music collection. Needless to say, the space in ITM doesn’t count towards your free iCloud 5GB.

Hits and Misses

There are a number of great features that become apparent after you use the service for a while. They aren’t well documented and they don’t always work as you’d expect. Overall, the entire service gives the impression that it was rushed out the door to meet an arbitrary deadline so hopefully some of the rough edges noted below will be smoothed over in the coming months.

So what are some of the more esoteric features that make the hit parade?

First, you can upload all of your music and then delete it from your computer to save space. When you have a MacBook Air as your main machine, this is a pretty important “plus”. If I happen to download any actual music to the MacBook Air, I just add it to iTunes, make sure it syncs to iCloud, and then delete the local copy.

What? Then how, pray tell, can I play this music? Well, the second great part of the service (that no one seems to talk about) is that ITM will stream your music to your computer.* I have no music on my MacBook Air right now. You can see how this is a real plus when you’re sporting a 128GB solid state drive.

The other Apple device that benefits from streaming is my Apple TV.

When you set up the Apple TV to recognize your ITM database, it instantly gives you access to stream all of your music and playlists and even lets you use the Genius to build a smart playlist based on the currently-playing song. It works just like it does in the iTunes client but having that type of feature on your Apple TV ends up being pretty great.

But all is not sunshine, moonbeams and Gillian Anderson JPGs in the land of iTunes Match. There are some strange and glaring bugs that crop up from time to time. Some are merely annoying, some detract from the service’s utility and others are downright baffling.

The one that bothers me the most is that there are times when you open up iTunes to play some music and every song is grayed out. No songs can be clicked or activated, nothing will play and you’re basically screwed.

The only workaround I’ve found for this is to sign out of your Apple account, sign in again, and then restart iTunes. Once you do that, it will refresh your iTunes Match account and the ability to play songs is restored. Pretty annoying when all you want to do is listen to Katrina and the Waves…

Also, there are times when iTunes inexplicably refuses to either upload (or let you know it uploaded) a song to iCloud. This has gotten rarer and rarer as the service has matured but I still see it from time to time.

Overall the iTunes Match experience on the Mac is pretty well done. They’ve made a lot of progress with maintaining stability and speed and the bugs are getting more difficult to find.

iTunes Match on the iPhone

By far the most baffling implementation of iTunes Match is found on the iPhone.

Controls for the service are found scattered throughout the device and some of the controls do some pretty bizarre things when you interact with them.

The basic gist of the service is that the Music app on the phone is a reflection of your ITM account. Every band, album and song appears in your music collection. If the music is on iCloud, it appears with a cloud outline next to the song (or album, depending on the view you are in).

IMG 0470

So far so good, I guess, but this is the point where things start going off the rails.

At this point the songs are on your device which is great if you’re in an area where you have spotty coverage. You obviously don’t want to eat up your monthly data plan downloading 256k bitrate songs so caching the data seems like a good idea – except when your cached songs inexplicably disappear from your phone.

I assume it is because the phone became tight on space for some reason, but you really should be informed if the music you just spent hours downloading is about to be wiped out. I had several occasions when I would open the app to play some music and find it was all in a non-cached state but still showing as “downloaded”. I’d have to go through multiple gyrations to get to the point where I could download music again.

Another rather bizarre omission (which would probably go a long way to fixing the issue above) is that there is no easy way to delete music from your phone.

If you want to delete music, you have to swipe on every song and tap delete to make the “download cloud” appear. Alternatively, you have to go into the Settings app and turn OFF iTunes Match, which will clear your cache completely. This is what we would call the “Nuclear Winter” option. It is also about as elegant as … well something really inelegant. It sucks, in fact.

Why I’m Keeping iTunes Match

Complaints aside, I’m keeping iTunes Match. There are simply too many things that are good about it. The price makes it a no-brainer if you need a good backup solution. Having Time Machine track my 31GB of music seems like a waste to me.

Having my music collection available legally and seamlessly on all of my machines and devices is a pretty attractive offer as well. For now I’ll just deal with the service’s little idiosyncracies and hope Apple finds the time to fix them.

  • The music does seem to go to “Playcache” directory during this streaming process, but it still works really well. My cache is only 350MB, which isn’t large at all, given that my music collection is many gigabytes in size.

My iPhone Home Screen: June 2012 Edition

The last Home Screen post was back in February and there have been some pretty major changes to how I use my iPhone since then. With starting to use my Fitbit and Aria scale daily, as well as changing how I listen to podcasts, I’ve had to make some hard changes as to what is staying in easy reach and what gets moved to a nested folder or Launch Center or what gets buried in the back pages.

Row One

1Password remains on the Home screen and continues to get more and more important with each passing day. I’ve had a few friends see the light on this app recently and all of them sing its praises. If you don’t have this application yet, you’re putting yourself at risk. I also save a ton of time when having to enter address or credit card information.

What I wrote in my calendar apps post still holds true. Week Calendar is still the best of the bunch.

Awful remains a staple of my forum content consumption. Reading about Diablo3, tattoos or corgis on somethingawful’s forums is often insightful (or aggravating). This is a must-have if you’re a goon.

The standard iPhone Camera app is now gone from the Home screen and I have replaced it with the Utilities folder. As before, I have some critical apps in there that need to be quickly accessed but aren’t needed in just one click.

I started using Harvest to track my time and the app is pretty capable for that task. The app that runs on my Macbook Air runs at 5-8% of my CPU (according to “top -oCPU”) which is inexplicable. When I’m not in my office at work or home with my Macbook Air, plugged into a power source, I tend to shut down the Harvest OS X app and use the iPhone version to save laptop battery.

Instagram is in that folder too but since it was purchased by Facebook I’ve deleted my account. Instead, I created an alias which I basically use to lurk tattoo artist’s Instagram accounts since all of the best tattoo artists in the country show their latest work on there.

Google+ recently revamped their iPhone app. The functionality still isn’t quite there but it looks fantastic and hasn’t crashed nearly as much as the old version. It has a Flipbook vibe too it and I really like what they’ve done with the interface.

Soulver lives in this folder too and still gets a fair amount of use.

GV Mobile+ sits in this folder too, just so I have it around for easy access or so I can easily see a red badge if I have a message waiting.

Row Two

Instacast has been replaced by Downcast. You can read why here.

The Fitbit app lives on this row as well, which I use all day long to track what I eat and drink. I outlined that whole deal in this post.

Nebulous Notes is still the reigning mid- to long-form text editing champ for me (on iPad too). I still wish it had a full search capability so I could search entire directory contents but, for now, I can rely on crafty naming tricks and using a few other apps to do deep searches. It hasn’t been a big enough problem to start exploring other options just yet.

Like before, the standard Phone app is on the front page despite my heavy use of Dialvetica. It’s there for the same reasons noted last time – I need access to recent calls or to re-dial a disconnected conference call number and Dialvetica doesn’t provide that functionality. Having this app handy also helps me see if I have a missed call.

Row Three

Tweetbot has gotten a slew of new features since the last one of these posts. If this isn’t your favorite Twitter client, your brain is severely broken. Some might be turned off initally by the overhauled and completely custom look of the app, compared to other, more standard apps, but it is the attention to detail that makes this app sing after you use it for a while. I can’t see needing or using another Twitter client on iOS. I wish they’d create a Mac client so I can just go “all Tweetbot” and be done with it.

Rdio continues to be a great service. I use it to listen to music in the car or when I’m working. It’s a solid app and very stable. I still think this is well worth the $10 a month. Their music selection tends to be pretty great, especially for non-standard fare. They had the new Hot Water Music album Exister and OFF! EPs; they let me stream the new Torche album Harmonicraft and they had all of the Iron Chic albums when I went looking.

Drafts has entered the Home screen scene for me and quickly became an essential app. Lots of folks have been raving about this little piece of software on the internet so I won’t bore you with the same thing that’s been rattling around the echosphere. Suffice to say the first release was great and the developer just keeps improving it with each new version. I love this app.

Safari is still awesome and I use it a lot.

Row Four

Mail is a sad necessity.

Sparrow is fantastic. Love the interface. Love the app in general. My current workflow is to keep all of my work email in the standard Mail app since that tends to be high priority. The push capabilities of Exchange and make it pretty essential. I don’t know that Sparrow will ever be a great choice for corporate email. I do hook up all of my personal accounts on it now, however, and I love the experience of using Sparrow. Still, I qualify it as “good for handling personal email”. Early on, I kept thinking, “I can’t wait until Sparrow gets push notification” but I’m finding I don’t miss the fact that I have every email notifying me of its presence the second it arrives.

OmniFocus remains fantastic and essential on every platform.

The Quick Entry for Omnifocus icon has made a return to the Home screen. If you want to implement it, search around on the OmniFocus forums. It’s pretty easy to track down (or click the link). It is FAST. One tap launches OmniFocus and takes me directly to the Quick Entry screen. I toyed with using OmniFocus from Launch Center on the Home row, but it was still an extra click and, believe it or not, there are times when it matters.

Home Row

Dialvetica is a fast dialer app for iPhone. I can usually dial contacts in 3-4 taps and that includes turning on the phone, opening Dialvetica and hitting dial. An acquired taste, probably, but I use it daily. It’s a cool app.

Messages became a lot less stable with the release of the beta for OS X. I still have issues with its stability and features. I turned off all of the Messages accounts on my computers and deleted all evidence of the beta. After that, things quieted down and it has become usable but Apple’s entire messaging stack has become quite messy. I’m hoping Mountain Lion can straighten it out, but I don’t have high hopes.

Trillian was still an experiment when I wrote the last Home screen review in February. And now, months later, Trillian endures. It’s a stable, reliable chat application and the desktop sync now has me spoiled for any other chat client. Highly recommended. I wish they had a native iPad version.

Launch Center remains an experiment. I like the interface but I wish it worked with more apps. I use the Flashlight every night when I take the dog out. Having some of my travel and navigation apps in there keeps them handy but not too handy. I guess after four months, it’s probably a staple, right?


There you go. Another Home screen post in the books. If you have any recommendations, hit me up on Twitter, Google+ or send me an email using the Contact page. Cheers!

Tech Note: Review of the Fitbit Aria Scale

They say “knowing” is half the battle.

I’ve been trying to get into the business of knowing what’s been going on in my life, food-, sleep- and fitness-wise, since mid-March by employing the services of the Fitbit Ultra and the Fitbit Aria Scale.

As I mentioned in my post about the Fitbit Ultra about a month ago, the device has been collecting data about my fitness and sleep patterns. I log my food into the iPhone app, or the website, after each meal and put the Fitbit into a wristband every night before bed.

The results have been illuminating and, aside from having our dog use one Fitbit as a chewtoy, we haven’t had any issues with their sturdiness or battery life. I take the device everywhere with me and can generally go three to four days on a charge.

The one piece of the puzzle that was missing was tracking my actual weight. I’ve never been a calorie-counter and tried to just be sensible about what I eat and drink but, since I started to use the Fitbit, I’ve seen some of the bad habits in stark relief. Not having an easy, consistent way to track my weight hasn’t really been an impediment but, then again, I haven’t really thought about it too much.

I think I really decided to get the Fitbit Aria scale in order to complete the picture of my fitness and weight for myself and really get a sense of how well I was treating my aging body. In that regard, the device has been a perfect fit and I’ve been very happy with its performance so far.

The device itself is a sleek piece of kit. It comes in black or white (I got black) and is heavier that you might think would be as you remove it from its well-designed packing.

The setup takes a few minutes and has to run on a computer on your WiFi network but it didn’t take a lot of work to make all of the necessary connections. Once connected to WiFi, I had a few rough days of spotty connectivity before I decided to unhook it from my Apple Time Capsule and attach it directly to the Verizon wireless network. I’m not sure if the signal was weaker on the Time Capsule or what, but since I made the change, the scale has connected flawlessly.

Once connected, you can associate the device with up to 6 or 7 users in your household and it will track their weight by name. I associated it with my Fitbit account and, immediately, the data started integrating with the website.

When you step on the scale, it reports your weight, accurate to the tenth of a pound. If you stand on it with bare feet, it will also measure your percentage of body fat.

Upon connecting, I found that I was a few pounds over my weight estimate (I blame the homemade beer) and the Fitbit Trainer asked if I wanted to make a training/fitness/diet regimen to get back down to a target weight (which it suggested based on my height, weight, sex, age, etc.). I accepted the advice and, since then, it has been tracking my march downwards towards the target weight (which has been very successful and almost effortless march so far, I might add).

It was impressive how much the whole package came together and drives home my opening point – “knowing” really is half the battle. I didn’t really change my diet or exercise aside from walking/hiking, but enough to have an impact. I didn’t stop eating fatty foods like cheese and such, but knowing how much I was consuming during any given week (and the fact that it was above average) was enough motivation to eat less of it.

Since the start of the process, we’ve increased our “steps” throughout the week to get more and more beneficial exercise (the Fitbit definitely works as a motivator in that regard), but the weight didn’t drop until the Aria scale arrived on the scene. Since the device arrived, I’ve cut five pounds and lowered my overall body fat with almost no effort at all. It happened because I knew what I was consuming, how much I was exercising and what my current state was and just a few small adjustments to my lifestyle were needed.

The Fitbit Aria scale is a pretty amazing device. While it is on the pricey side for a scale, having something that fits so well into the information-gathering ecosystem documenting your overall health makes it worthwhile. It works flawlessly now, in daily use, and the integration with the Fitbit is nothing short of awesome.

Bartender: Clean Up Your Task Bar

I recently ran across a little Mac application called Bartender the other day.

The tool caught my eye because its purpose is to tidy up the OS X menu bar. After installing Harvest to do my time-tracking, I started to feel like my menu bar was getting a little crowded.

Bartender lets you add your menu bar items to a list and then it will stick these apps into a little drawer, hidden away until you click on the Bartender icon. It seems like a convenient way to collapse the busyness of the menu bar and, on the surface, the tool works pretty much as advertised.

There are a few “gotchas”, however.

Currently, Bartender doesn’t work with system items. Things like Bluetooth, VPN, WiFi, volume and battery life won’t disappear into the Bartender drawer as you’d hope, so, even though my menu bar has shrunk considerably, these icons just won’t go away… (yet, they are working on a fix to add that functionality.)

One other strange thing that happens on occasion is that the app will leave little blank gaps in the menu bar. I’m not sure what is causing it but the app is in beta so I’m sure they’ll clear things like that up before a full release.

During the beta, the app is on sale for $7.50. You also can demo the software to see if it’s something that will help you out.

Instacast vs Downcast

I’ve been a long time fan of Instacast. After discovering an app that let me bypass the anemic functionality of the default iPhone Music app , I was sold pretty much from the start.

As I started learning about some of the less obvious features that were unlocked by long-presses and swipes (often cited as a criticism of the app), I was able to navigate the application quickly and easily. It wasn’t hard to “master” the app and get efficient with it and I decided I had found my near-perfect podcasting app, grateful that I could stop worrying about looking for something better.

Listening to the usual podcasts on 5by5, I heard about Downcast. I downloaded it and gave it a shot but really didn’t like it that much. The interface didn’t seem streamlined and some of the interface elements were clunky. I quickly abandoned it, not regretting the $2 I spent but assured the app wasn’t for me.

Then Instacast 2.0 dropped.

To support the developer of the app I’ve gotten daily use out of for years, I sprung for the $1.99 premium, despite not really needing the features. I assumed a use would present itself eventually (and it did). The price of a good app is often so small, it often boggles the mind that people “take a stand” over a $.99 or $1.99 purchase.

Regardless, I started delving into the new features of Instacast but was not exactly happy with what I saw.

Some of the things I had come to rely on to get things done were missing. Controls that were “hidden” as gestures were now moved, in some cases, to buttons or nested selections. While this may have solved the hidden control criticism, it made things much more inefficient and confusing.

The “long press” that used to start playing the target podcast now produced a list of options. So let me get this straight – where you once had one “hidden” (or at least “non-obvious”) feature, you now have three? And you added another targeted click to reduce efficiency.

I know interface design is hard, especially with such a feature-packed app, but the changes I’ve encountered so far have made the app worse. Overall, the interface had become much more confusing and more difficult to decipher.

There are also bugs that made their way into the app along with the new features. For example, there are innocuous ones like getting pop up messages in German (I thought I was going crazy when I saw those…) or some really egregious ones like a 30 second skip that takes 3-4 taps to work. One thing that iOS devices have always had over their counterparts is instant response to a user-generated action so when something is unresponsive it is especially jarring.

So, rather than get frustrated by the myriad of intentional and non-intentional issues with Instacast, I turned back to Downcast.

Maybe it was my time away from the app or maybe it was improvements to the overall functionality but I am finding Downcast exceptionally well-equipped to handle my podcast listening tasks.

The interface is sometimes a bit obtuse and I’ve had a few crashes but overall, it is a solid contender. For now, it has taken over my needs for a podcast app without a hitch and I’m pretty happy with it.

I’m sure Instacast will fix its issues in time but for now, I am going to be using Downcast full time.