iPhone Doesn’t Have a Mute Switch

It has a ‘Ring/Silent’ switch. If you’re not familiar with last week’s mute switch controversy, start with this post from John Gruber. Then read Andy Ihnatko’s post. Finally, read Dan Benjamin’s take.

I agree that you can’t design around every edge case, and it’s logical to assume that most people want alarms to make noise so important events are not missed (e.g., waking up in the morning). I am such a user. I typically leave silent mode engaged, but I rely on my phone to wake me up for work. That said, I’m sure that many users will naturally assume that the ‘mute’ button on the iPhone mutes. Everything. That’s a logical assumption.

How can we satisfy the need to make our iPhones emit noise in some situations and to remain silent in others? Some have suggested introducing software controls so users can choose on a per-event basis. Others have envisioned an intelligent rules-based system based on GPS location (e.g. remain silent when at the coordinates of the Lincoln Center Plaza). I think both solutions are overly complicated.

Here’s a simpler idea that would catch most user edge cases: leave the ‘silent mode’ functionality as is. When the phone is set to mute, the phone is silent except for events (alarms) that the user has explicitly set. Add, by default, one minute of vibration prior to sounding manually-set alarms when silent mode is engaged.

In most cases, users in concert halls and staff meetings will be physically alerted by their vibrating phone. They’ll have time to pull the phone out and cancel the event before an audible alarm sounds. Sure, some users won’t hear or feel the vibrating phone because it’s buried in a jacket pocket hung behind a seat or stuffed in a purse. But most people will. They’ll have time to react.

in iOS | 307 Words

Useful Little Tools

Over the past few months, a slew of interesting little tools made the rounds in various tech blogs. I thought I’d compile some of the more interesting ones here (and add a few of my personal favorites):

f.lux

This free tool auto-adjusts the color temperature of your display(s) to match the time of day and your lighting source. The night mode is much easier on the eyes. Very pleasant. It can be temporarily disabled for those times when you’re engaged in a design project and need full color.

Alternative: Nocturne (from the developer of QuickSilver) offers ‘night vision mode for your Mac.’ It’s not nearly as subtle and elegant as f.lux, but you can adjust the settings to your liking. It’s especially great if you like it really dark when you’re computing at night…or if you like funky, inverted color schemes.

Cinch

The answer to Windows 7 ‘Snap’ feature, this $7 tool allows you to instantly resize any open window by dragging it to an edge of your screen. It’s particularly great for managing multiple Finder windows on a small laptop screen. I use PathFinder (which offers dual pane and tabbed browsing to the Finder) and don’t really feel that I have a need for this, but it’s a great tool nonetheless.

Readability

This is the only way to read articles on the Web. It removes all the extra formatting, ads, buttons, colors, and other clutter that surrounds a typical Web-based article, leaving only the text you want to read.

I use Readability for articles I want to read now, and Instapaper for articles I want to read later on my iPhone (using the Instapaper Pro iPhone app).

Choosy

If you’re like me and have many installed browsers, this $12 tool is a necessity. It allows you to choose which browser to use when opening an external link or when opening up an HTML file. You can also add other apps to the list. I have Choosy set to prompt me with a pop-up list of all browsers (prioritized with my favorites appearing first in the list), regardless of whether or not the browsers are running. I’ve also added MacRabbit’s Espresso as a ‘browser’ to send HTML files direct to this web development tool.

Alternative: I haven’t tried this one, but you may also want to check out Highbrow.

OmmWriter

A unique tool that’s still in Beta (so it’s free to try), Ommwriter delivers a full-screen, clutter-free writing environment. This app focuses on setting the mood to foster a creative spirit, offering several nice fonts, a choice of ethereal background sounds, and a variety of subtle keyboard clicking noises that I find annoying (the sounds can be turned off).

I still prefer the retro simplicity of WriteRoom from Hog Bay Software when I need to focus on writing. I use it in combination with Hog Bay’s QuickCursor, a wonderful little tool that allows me to edit text from other applications with WriteRoom.

Rapportive

Rapportive replaces the ads you normally see in the right-hand sidebar of Gmail with useful information: a profile of the person you’re emailing. It only works in Firefox and Chrome right now, but I use it via Mailplane (available in the latest preview).

As an aside, if you use Mailplane, you may like the beautifully minimalist Helvetimail style sheet.

SecondBar

This tool places an Apple menu bar on your second monitor. I use it. It works well enough, providing basic menu bar functionality on the extra monitor. It’s quite nice to have the bar on both screens, although it doesn’t work with all apps (that’s because it’s still in early Beta). It’s currently free.

Quix

Quix is an extensible bookmarklet, billed as ‘command line for your browser.’ While it takes some time to learn the commands to use with this tool, it’s worth the effort. I love it.

Skitch

This tool is certainly not new, but it stands apart as the easiest way to capture and mark up screen shots. I use it all the time and will gladly purchase it if and when it ever comes out of Beta.

Feedly

I use Google Reader to manage my feeds, but don’t really like to read feeds with it. Instead, I use Feedly. The more I use this free online service, the more I like it. On my iPhone, I use Byline. Since both tools use the same Google Reader account, my feeds are always synced no matter where I choose to peruse them.

Notational Velocity

In case you haven’t heard, the venerable Notational Velocity is back. This free tool is a simple, minimalist note taking app that is lightning fast. It syncs with Simplenote on the iPhone. It’s still in Beta, but it’s performed flawlessly for me so far.

Before I started using NV again (I had used it many years ago), I was using another great tool called Justnotes (which is currently free and also syncs with Simplenote). It feels a bit heavier and is a touch slower than NV, but it’s still in early Beta. It’s certainly worth checking out. Which one you prefer may come down to your personal design tastes. There is one important difference, though, that may help you make a choice: Justnotes installs in the menu bar, while NV resides in the Dock.

iPhone App Freebies and Sales Abound

This may be old news to most readers, but in case you’ve missed it, Blacksmith Games has organized a holiday giveaway of one iPhone game per day for the month of December. It’s called Appvent Calendar 09. Some of the games are quite good. Today, for example, you can pick up an excellent well-designed, and beautifully illustrated game called Blimp from Craneballs Studios (normally $2.99).

Also of note on the App store, Nuance Communications recently released a very impressive spoken word-to-text translation tool called Dragon Dictation. It’s free for a limited time. I’m very impressed with the accuracy of the app. It’s produced using the same engine behind the popular (and expensive) desktop clients Dragon Naturally Speaking and Mac Dictation. Once you capture your text, you can copy it to the clipboard, email it, or send it as a text message. Note that the app works by ferrying your voice recording to servers at Nuance, hence you need a WiFi or cellular connection. While translation speeds are zippy over WiFi, it’s a bit slow on my Edge connection. Of course, it’ll be faster on the 3G network. It’s definitely worth picking up while it’s free.

Last but not least, it’s worth your time and effort to monitor price drops and giveaways on the App store this month. There are a ton of one-day-only and limited-time holiday deals hitting the store each day. I use a free iPhone/Touch app called AppMiner to keep on top of the deals. Appshopper.com and 148apps.com are also good places to monitor price drops and promotions online.

in tip | 262 Words

NetNewsWire Alternatives

This week, I decided to seek out alternatives to NetNewsWire, the popular feed reader from NewsGator.

My disenchantment with NetNewsWire began soon after NewsGator updated the app, switching from a private syncing service to Google Reader at the end of August. I didn’t have any trouble migrating my feeds to Google Reader, as some users did. I also didn’t mind that the updated version of the NNW desktop client displayed unobtrusive ads. Hey, it’s free (A paid version is in the works to get rid of the ad; a paid, ad-free version for iPhone is already available).

My problem with NetNewsWire is all about the iPhone app. Before NNW switched to Google Reader, my iPhone app was reliable, quick, and pleasant to use. After I upgraded to the newest version of the free NNW iPhone app, syncing began to take much longer and, more importantly, ceased to function reliably. Sometimes it would sync, sometimes it would not. It drove me crazy. Often, it would appear to sync correctly, but selecting a feed would result in a blank screen or (even more annoying) a blank screen with an embedded advertisement. I put up with this spotty performance for weeks (hoping it would get better, hoping it would be upgraded) before deciding to try something else.

I’m not saying that the NetNewsWire iPhone app is terrible. Based on user comments I’ve read, many people seem to be happy with it. I will say that, in it’s present version, I can’t use it. A reliable feed reader on my iPhone is important to me. This frustration led me to consider other options. Since there are many, many front ends to Google Reader for the iPhone, why not shop around? It was an easy decision. And since I decided to try out something new for my iPhone, I also decided to try out other desktop clients. It was sort of a reverse halo effect.

After sifting through a plethora of reviews for iPhone RSS readers, I decided to go with Byline (from Phantom Fish, current sale price: $3.99). I’m pleased with my choice. The interface is clean and simple. There are many customization settings, the best of which is that I can choose to cache from 25 to 200 feeds for offline viewing (great for subway commuting). I can also set it to cache items only when I’m using Wi-Fi, which is a handy option given I’m on a slow Edge network. Another nice touch is that I can choose to cache Web pages linked to feed posts. I can also read my feeds in landscape mode. It’s worth a look. The one glaring item I’m missing is the ability to mark a folder of feed items (or all items) as ‘read.’ As far as I can tell, I can only mark individual feed items as ‘read.’ A minor annoyance. According to the developer notes in the iTunes store, a new version is due out very shortly which promises to be a ‘major update.’ I’m looking forward to it.

As for a desktop replacement for NetNewsWire, the vote is still out. I’m currently testing two options: Gruml and feedly.

Gruml, currently in late stages of Beta, looks and operates much like NetNewsWire. The main difference is that Gruml offers more features. It allows me to send an article link from my feeds direct to a variety of social media sites. Or I can send an article direct to MarsEdit, which I find very handy (more blog tool integration is forthcoming). I can also post to Instapaper, my favorite iPhone ‘read it later’ app. More, I can share items and add notes to articles (options currently unavailable with NetNewsWire). So far, I like it. It’s easy on the eyes and is a quick, efficient way to get through a lot of feeds. It’s much easier to look at than Google Reader.

Feedly, on the other hand, is something completely different. It’s a free browser-based aggregation service (available on the Mac for FireFox or Safari) that presents your articles in a pleasant, customizable magazine style. It offers strong social media integration and fancy algorithm-based filtering/recommendations that purportedly improve over time based on reading habits. It’s also highly customizable. I’ve tried these kind of news readers before and never really cared for them, but this one is pretty slick. I vastly prefer it to the iGoogle service. I’m giving it a go. We’ll see if I like it as much a month or so from now.

Meanwhile, I’ve left NetNewsWire behind. I don’t miss it. If you have a suggestion for a killer feed reader for the desktop or iPhone, I’d love to hear about it.

Entrain the brain

Now for something completely different.

Let’s talk about entrainment, the process by which wave frequencies in two or more interacting systems with different periods eventually lock into phase. You see it nature, for example, when fireflies start blinking together in unison. You hear it in music when different instruments in a jam session start to vibrate together in harmony. It even happens in our bodies. When you slow your breath, it leads to a slowing of heartbeat and brainwaves.

Now let’s talk about binaural beats. Binaural beats are perceived sounds which naturally arise in the brain when two slightly different frequencies are played separately into each ear. It’s best explained with an example: if you listen to a 405 Hz frequency (sine wave) in one ear and a 398 Hz wave in the other ear, your brainwaves will start to oscillate towards a frequency of 7 Hz, or the difference between the two sounds. This process happens through entrainment.

Here’s the interesting part: while human hearing is limited to an approximate range of frequencies between 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, brainwave frequencies associated with relaxation, REM sleep, meditation, and deep sleep fall below the 20 Hz threshold.

Huh?

What this means is that binaural beats can, in theory, be used to entrain your brain to frequencies that fall below perceived human hearing. If you search for brain entrainment on the Web, you’ll find a slew of articles, thing for sale, and wild claims. And I know of at least one institute that will gladly take lots of your money to provide you with a life-changing (patented) brain entrainment experience at their facility.

My interest is more casual. I first came across the idea of binaural beats and brain entrainment back in the early 1990s while researching a paper in college. I found the idea intriguing. I played around with an oscilloscope to observe two waves suddenly lock together after growing closer and closer together. I found the idea of it fascinating.

Then, at some point (the timeline is a bit fuzzy), I came across a sound editor called Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro. This was a classy PC audio editor that once, to my surprise, included a somewhat-obscure menu for creating sound files for brain entrainment using binaural beats and pink noise. I tried it. I liked it. While I didn’t have any crazy experiences, I did find that some of the files I created were effective for relaxation, meditation, and focus.

As I recall, the brain entrainment submenu disappeared at the next Cool Edit Pro software update after I started using it. I don’t know why. Then, years later, Cool Edit Pro was bought out by Adobe. It is now called Adobe Audition.

Fast forward to 2009. While the auditory intrigue of brain entrainment (or, more accurately, the effects of this technique) remains in the speculative and hypothetical range, there are now several choices for the PC and the iPhone/Touch to try this out for yourself. The desktop programs are nice, but these are audio-centric apps that require headphones. It should come as no surprise, then, that the iPhone/Touch apps really shine.

Here’s what you can get for your Mac, Windows, or Linux box

<1. SBaGen. (Mac, Linux, Windows) This is a good, free choice if you like to roll your own, are comfortable with the Terminal, and don’t mind getting your hands a bit dirty. There are sample sounds for backgrounds you can download at the site. If you want to have some fun, and are the type of person who likes the DIY ethic, try it out.

2. BrainWave Generator. (Windows only) This isn’t a Mac app, but I used it in my PC days. It hasn’t really changed at all since those days, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s like SBaGen, but it has a Windows user interface and is much easier to use. It offers a lot of user control to fine tune frequency settings. It’s shareware. It now costs $40 to buy a private license, which is steep for an app that hasn’t been updated since 2005.

2. Pzizz. (Mac, Windows) I tried the trial when it first came out a while back. It uses binaural beats, but also mixes in sound effects, people talking, and music in some sort of fancy algorithm. Many people like it. I didn’t care for it. Why? I can only say it’s a matter of personal preference. I preferred the free SBaGen. I preferred it, that is, until I found the iPhone apps.

But this was made for the iPhone/Touch

1. Binaural Beats. Free. Offers presets with nice background music. You can also try Easy Relax Ultimate from the same company for $2.99. I found the free Binaural Beats app worked for me as a relaxation and sleep aid.

2. AmbiScience. Try the full app for $.99 or the Lite free version. For the price, the $.99 app is nice application that does the job well. It includes entrainment for relaxing, meditating, focusing, or sleeping. The interface is pleasant. I bought it. I use it.

3. mind Wave. The cost is $1.99. Haven’t tried this one. It includes some interesting choices such as headache treatment, weight loss, and creativity boost. I’m a bit skeptical, but it’s not very expensive. You can also opt for “mind Freek,” a separate app from the same developer that also costs $1.99, and offers more esoteric settings such as astral projections, out of body experience, etc. Sounds wacky, and results may vary…but it’s cheap and may be fun to try. I think I’ll probably pass.

There you have it. Does this work, or is it pseudoscience? The truth is likely somewhere in between. I will vouch for it as a tool for sleeping, meditation, relaxation, and focus. What is certain is it costs next to nothing to try aural brain entrainment. So why not?

On the iPod Touch

I’ve been using Omnigroup’s OmniFocus for several weeks now to prepare for my evaluation of this task management application (part of a series). It’s quite an impressive tool. I’m ready to put my thoughts together — look for it by the end of the weekend. Meanwhile, I want to comment on the iPod Touch.

I’m going to retire my battle-worn third generation iPod this weekend. Now that the iPod Touch offers much of the same functionality as the iPhone, I’m ready to ugrade. You might wonder why I’m not going to spring for the iPhone. The main reason is cost — not the cost of the iPhone, but the cost of the AT&T service plan. The cheapest plan equates to over $700 per year. Since I don’t talk on the phone that much (and my current employer provides me with a cell phone), I’ve decided the Touch is my best bet.

The only thing I think I’ll miss is the iPhone’s ability to surf the web and check email via the AT&T EDGE network when one is not near a WiFi source. But I’m confident that WiFi access points will continue to proliferate to a degree that will make it easier and easier to connect wherever I am. If I can’t connect in some locations, no big deal. I don’t really want to be connected in all places at all times anyway! When I’m on a business trip, however, it will be a particularly nice feature to be able to browse the web, get directions, and check my mail from my hotel room or at a nearby coffee shop.

The Infamous $20 Fee

Some iPod Touch owners are expressing outrage at Apple’s decision to charge $20 for a major software upgrade of the device. This upgrade, announced this week at the Macworld Expo, adds five applications (mail, notes, maps, weather, stocks) to the iPod Touch — features that have been on the iPhone from the start. For those who buy a new iPod Touch as of last Tuesday, the additional apps will be included for free.

I have mixed feelings about this. I can understand why some early adopters feel like they are getting ripped off and, in effect, penalized just for being early adopters. However, early adopters bought the Touch with full knowledge that it did not have all the software features of the iPhone. Apple never said that these features would eventually be added, although many hoped for this.

It’s not surprising that Apple opted to charge a nominal fee. The real question, I think, is if $20 is “nominal”. I’ve read that a fee of some sort is legally necessary because of the Sarbannes-Oxley Act. This Act apparently states that you can’t add new features to something that you offer at a one-time fee without charging for the additional features. The iPhone is exempt from this because users pay running fees per month for this device. But what about the Apple TV? You don’t need to pay a monthly fee for this appliance, right? Yet Apple rolled out a major software upgrade for this at Macworld as well…and they’re offering it free to all, including existing Apple TV owners. Apple should better explain their rationale for the fee decisions they have made.

Still, I think it’s not that bad of a thing. If you buy a new Mac, you get Leopard and the latest version of iLife pre-installed. But if you already owned an iMac when these updates shipped, you have to buy these upgrades. I don’t see much of a difference between this and the situation with the iPod Touch. I suppose that’s easy for me to say since I’m going to get these additional apps for free.

So the question really comes down to this: why $20? Why not $5 (or whatever the minimum is to meet business/legal requirements). Twenty dollars seems a bit inflated. One thing is clear: this is a black eye for Apple. They have not offered a clear explanation to justify the upgrade cost for the iPod Touch, so people are drawing their own conclusions and forming unfavorable opinions. The impression Apple is leaving is that they may be getting a tad greedy…and they don’t care much about early adopters (faithful consumers that Apple should want to take care of very well).

Perhaps all the bad press will lead Apple to offer a discount of some sort to those who must pay this fee, as they did for the early adopters who bought the first iPhones only to see the price of the phone drop a whopping two hundred dollars just a few weeks later. Or perhaps they will simply ignore the grumbling of a few iPod Touch owners and press on.

As Apple’s market share continues to expand, I hope they don’t lose sight of what makes them special. I’d hate to see them become more like, er, that other company that sells PC operating systems.