Some Initial Observations About Shortcuts

Apple started accepting requests to download the new Shortcuts app earlier today. I received an invite this afternoon and have spent about an hour using the app. Here are some of my initial thoughts.

  • The app may have some new functionality and a fresh coat of paint, but it's still very much the Workflow we know and love. The interface, how shortcuts (née workflows) are created, and the actions available are basically the same.
  • I don't like how actions are listed. Shortcuts hides the groups of actions behind a set of suggested actions at first. To view all actions, you have to tap the Search field.
  • Shortcuts are run with just a single tap, not a double-tap. To view or edit a shortcut (or run it and see each action take place), tap •••.
  • Unlike Workflow, Shortcuts doesn't show you each action step as it takes place. It hides this out of view, so a running shortcut doesn't have that visual distraction.
  • I didn't have any trouble adding some shortcuts to Siri. I was able to set a spoken phrase and run each of them without issue.
  • Siri Suggestions is an interesting feature. Based on your behavior, it offers a selection of actions that you've done before, such as view an article in Apple News or open an email you've recently read. These are actions you can't replicate in Shortcuts, but they're a bit limited in scope for the time being. I'm sure this will improve as time goes on.
  • There are several new system actions that can be used in Shortcuts:
    • Set Low Power Mode
    • Set do not disturb
    • Set Airplane Mode
    • Set Bluetooth
    • Set Cellular Data
    • Set Wi-Fi
  • There are also some new actions that provide some more functionality in iOS:
    • Run JavaScript on Safari Web Page
    • Markup
    • Show Result
    • Send and Request Payments
    • Share with iCloud Photo Sharing
  • Some third-party actions that Workflow supported seem to no longer be available:
    • Trigger IFTTT applet
    • Giphy
  • Some of my workflows no longer work, though exactly why is a bit of a mystery. Granted, these are really complex workflows, but they run fine in Workflow. I need to dig deeper into Shortcuts to see what might be causing it.

Much more functionality is expected to come in subsequent betas and, eventually, the final release of Shortcuts. I'm already impressed with this first beta, and I can't wait to see the finished product.

Update 2018-07-06: Restarting my iPad appears to have resolved the issue of some of my shortcuts not working.

My iPhone Photography Kit

Photography has long been a hobby of mine, and for the past few years I've pursued this using my iPhone. I've owned digital SLRs and mirrorless cameras in the past, but the iPhone eventually made a separate camera redundant. Nowadays, I shoot with an iPhone X, and it's the best camera I've ever owned.

Latourell Falls in Oregon. Latourell Falls in Oregon. Taken with iPhone X using Halide. Edited in Darkroom. View on Unsplash.

iPhone photography is more than just the performance of a CMOS sensor though. It's also the ecosystem of third-party apps and accessories that can be used to help produce great photos. As I've become a more experienced iPhone photographer, some of these have become an essential part of my hobby.

Halide

I take a lot of photos using the built-in Camera app, but I use Halide ($5.99) whenever I want more control. The app has a range of options, such as ISO and focus, and supports RAW. Halide also provides full support for switching between the 1X or 2X lens of dual-lens iPhones1.

A highly polished camera app. Halide is a highly polished camera app.

You can see how deeply the developer cares about iPhone photography as Halide is one of the most highly polished apps for iOS. One of my favorite features is the way it uses the curved corners at the top of the screen on the iPhone X. Instead of leaving those corners empty, the developer puts the space to good use, displaying a histogram and exposure information.

Darkroom

I've used dozens of iOS photo editing apps over the years, but Darkroom (Free, $7.99 to unlock all tools and filters) has been my app of choice for some time. It's a fully featured iPhone app with a wide range of adjustments and filters, including support for RAW photos. Edits can also be saved as custom filters to use with other photos.

Darkroom's impressive array of adjustments. Darkroom's impressive array of adjustments.

Darkroom has deep integration with the iOS photo library and there's no "intermediate" library you have to import and export photos with. Edited photos are labeled and can be easily filtered, and edits can be reverted directly in the app.

Darkroom keeps getting better and better, and the developers just updated the app with more filters and a framing tool. The one feature I do yearn for, however, is iPad support. For now, I edit all my photos on an iPhone X, but I'd really like to edit photos using the larger screen of my iPad (and maybe using Apple Pencil, too).

The developers of Darkroom and Halide have been collaborating to make their apps work more closely together. Both apps have a shortcut button to open the other app, which makes it a seamless experience to take a photo and immediately start editing it.

Moment lenses

I'm a huge fan of Moment lenses as they add another layer of creativity to iPhone photography. I own the macro, wide, and tele portrait lenses—along with an assortment of accessories—and have taken some really great shots with them.

Tele portrait, wide, and macro lenses. Also pictured: cleaning pen and lens case. Tele portrait, wide, and macro lenses. Also pictured: cleaning pen and lens case.

Moment's mounting system is built into the iPhone photo case. To attach a lens, I just place it on a mount point and turn it clockwise. Since the iPhone X has two cameras, there are two mount points that the lenses can be mounted over.

A close-up of my dog's eye. Photo taken with Moment macro lens and iPhone X. A close-up of my dog's eye. Photo taken with Moment macro lens and iPhone X. View on Unsplash.

The mounting system makes the photo case a little thicker than other iPhone cases, but it's hardly noticeable. There's even a place at the bottom of the photo case to attach a wrist strap. It's actually a solid case that I use all the time to keep my iPhone X protected.

This was the first shot I took with the Moment wide lens and iPhone X. This was the first shot I took with the Moment wide lens and iPhone X. View on Instagram.

If you're interested in buying a Moment lens (or two), you can use my affiliate link to get 10% off your order.

DxO One

Due the smaller size of the iPhone's camera sensor, there are times when it just can't match the performance of a regular camera. The DxO One ($465) is an iPhone accessory that's a 20MP digital camera. It has a 1" sensor—much larger than that found in the iPhone—which is the same one found in Sony's advanced RX100 compact camera. As a result, the DxO One can produce some exceptional photos that are simply beyond the current reach of the iPhone.

DxO One attached to my iPhone X. This photo was taken with an iPad mini 4. DxO One attached to my iPhone X. This photo was taken with an iPad mini 4.

The DxO One app offers as much control as any camera, with the usual PASM options and full RAW support. It doesn't have to be attached using the Lightning connector, as the DxO One can be connected over Wi-Fi, turning the iPhone into a wireless viewfinder.

I've written about the DxO One before, and it's an accessory I still use, though not as much since I upgraded to the iPhone X and invested in Moment lenses. I mostly use the DxO One nowadays for night or long exposure photography. One of the photos I'm most proud of is this night shot of Manhattan, taken with the DxO One.

One of my favorite photos. Taken in September 2016 with DxO One. Manhattan. Taken in September 2016 with DxO One. f6.3, ISO 100, 8 seconds. View on Unsplash.

Joby Micro Tripod

The Joby Micro Tripod ($23) is a handy accessory, especially for night photography. I use it with the Glif so I can stand my iPhone X on something like a table or wall. When not in use, the Micro Tripod folds into the size of a memory stick.

A portable tripod solution. A portable tripod solution.

The mounting point at the center also pivots, providing some flexibility in positioning. In a pinch, this combination has even come in handy to hold my iPhone at a comfortable viewing angle while I watched a movie on a flight.

Despite the diminutive size of the tripod, it's very stable. I've used the Micro Tripod and Glif to hold my iPhone X with the DxO One attached.

Glif

The Glif ($30) by Studio Neat is a deceptively smart tool that every iPhone photographer should own. It's a portable tripod mount that works with almost any phone and case combination, thanks to the way the jaws wrap around the device and the lever locks it in place.

The Glif attached to the Joby Micro Tripod. The Glif attached to the Joby Micro Tripod.

The three mount points allows it to work in either portrait or landscape; even attach other accessories, such as microphones or lights.

Anker and Yoozon monopods

Ok, these are technically selfie sticks, but hear me out. Selfie sticks get a pretty bad rap, mostly because of the obnoxious way a lot of people use them. Fundamentally though, selfie sticks are just handheld monopods, which are an extremely useful photography tool. I own two selfie sticks, one from Anker and the other from Yoozon.

Anker and Yoozon selfie sticks. Anker and Yoozon selfie sticks.

Both of them have a rechargeable Bluetooth shutter button, making it easy to hold take photos one-handed. If I want to take a photo of something up-close, I can just extend the stick and move my iPhone closer; I've been able to take some great photos of flowers and animals by using a selfie stick to get a bit closer than I normally would have been able.

A selfie stick allowed me to take an up-close shot of this butterfly. Taken with iPhone X. I used the Anker selfie stick to take an up-close shot of this butterfly. View on Instagram.

I prefer to use the Anker stick most of the time, simply because the build quality is excellent. The Yoozon feels flimsy in comparison, but it has a few features that make it more useful in some situations. The handle of the Yoozon stick can open up into a tripod, saving the need to carry a separate one with me. In addition, the Bluetooth shutter button is also removable, so I can set up my iPhone and take photos without needing to touch it.

The Yoozon selfie stick used as a tripod. The Yoozon selfie stick used as a tripod.

If you'd like to see more of my photos, you can follow me on Instagram or Unsplash.

  1. The built-in Camera app doesn't always use the 2X lens when selected. Instead, the app might still use the 1X lens and apply digital zoom. Halide's option is an explicit hardware choice, so selecting 2X means the 2X lens will be used. 

A Workflow for Microblogging

The recent changes I made to my blog to add microblogging support included setting up a Micropub to GitHub web service. This allows me to use the Micro.blog app (or any other Micropub-compatible app) to compose and publish new microposts. However, the web service doesn't currently support a Micropub media endpoint, so I can't attach photos to new microposts using the Micro.blog app.

Once again, Workflow to the rescue! I've created this workflow for publishing microposts on my Jekyll-powered blog that can also include photos. Instead of relying on the Micropub to GitHub service, it uses GitHub's API to directly upload and commit the micropost–and attached photos–to my blog's repository. This automatically triggers a site deploy on Netlify, making the new micropost and photos available a few moments later.

When run, the workflow does the following:

  1. Prompts me to write a new micropost.
  2. If the workflow was not run as an action extension, it asks if I want to add any photos (the workflow checks if any photos were shared when run). I can then select photos from my library.
  3. Resizes all photos to 1000px wide. Photos that are already smaller than 1000px are not resized. I don't want to share full-size photos, so reducing the size suits my needs.
  4. Asks me to confirm or change the file name for each photo.
  5. Uploads the photos to my GitHub repository and commits the changes, triggering a deploy with Netlify.
  6. Creates the micropost text file with the composed text and current date. If photos have been included, Markdown-formatted photo links are added at the end of the text file. This text file is uploaded and to GitHub and committed. Netlify then does another deploy, making the post available.

Although I created this workflow primarily as a way to publish photos, I can also use it to quickly publish text-only microposts. What's more, I can even dictate new microposts and publish them straight from my Apple Watch.

If you wish to customize the workflow, change the following parameters in the Dictionary action at the top of the workflow:

  • token: A GitHub token that has read/write access to your repositories.
  • username: Your GitHub username.
  • repo: Your site's Repository.
  • directory: The directory to save images to.
  • site_url: The URL to the website.
  • post_dir: The directory where micropost text files should be saved to.

The configuration options have been created based upon my implementation of microposts. Depending on how (and where) you publish microposts, you might need to make some additional changes to the workflow.

Microblogging

I've made some changes to my blog so that I can also use it for microblogging. Microposts—short posts without a title—are displayed on my home page and published to Micro.blog (I'm @jordanmerrick).

There are separate pages for viewing just blog posts or the microblog, and some additional RSS and JSON feeds:

I didn't want existing followers to start seeing microposts in their feed readers without opting in, so the current RSS and JSON feeds continue to be used for blog posts only. If you're an existing follower and also want to receive microposts, you can either use the new feed for all posts or subscribe to the additional feed for microposts.

Thanks to this helpful guide by Fiona Voss about microblogging with Jekyll (the static site generator this site uses), I've also set up a Micropub to GitHub service. This creates a Micropub endpoint that converts requests into a Jekyll-compatible format and commits them directly to my blog's GitHub repository. With this endpoint, I can use the official Micro.blog app (or any app that supports Micropub) to write and publish posts.

Once a new micropost is added and committed to the repository, a deploy is automatically triggered over at Netlify that publishes the latest changes.

iPad Collective

I recently started a new website, iPad Collective, where I post recommendations for great iPad apps and accessories—from Apple Pencil cases and charging stands, to games and productivity apps. New posts are made a few times a week, and you can also subscribe to the site's RSS feed or follow @ipadcollective on Twitter.

Despite its rising popularity as a personal computer, there aren't many websites that focus on the iPad. I created iPad Collective to be a useful resource for users who want to know what the iPad ecosystem has to offer, which products are worth buying, and how they can further improve their iPad experience.

A buyer's guide for iPad apps and accessories is just the first stage of what I'm hoping to accomplish with iPad Collective. Longer term, I plan to start publishing guides and other content that can help readers of any skill level get the most out of their iPad. I'd also like to have other iPad users contribute and share their knowledge, experience, and personal recommendations, too.

There may be some changes here and there as the site matures, but I have a lot of posts scheduled for the next few weeks. If you have any comments, suggestions, or feedback, drop me a line.

IFTTT Rich Notifications

The IFTTT iOS app was updated earlier today with support for rich notifications. In addition to a custom title and image, these rich notifications also support a custom URL that can be opened when a notification is actioned. For example, an applet that notifies you of a new GitHub issue can now include that issue's URL. Tapping the View button in the notification would then open that URL in Safari.

It's also possible to use app URL schemes in notification URLs, so that tapping a notification opens an iOS app—even passing information into it. I created a simple applet, triggered by a button in the IFTTT widget, that sent a rich notification using the new URL scheme of Things as its URL. This URL simply created a new task in my Things inbox, and included some of the default ingredients as the task's note.

IFTTT automatically URL encodes any information passed as an ingredient, though any manually written text must first be URL encoded.

This update narrows the gap between IFTTT and native apps with URL schemes. We're still a long way off an end-to-end solution, since these URL actions can only be triggered when a notification is actioned, and I'm not quite sure how I might use this yet. However, it's still an interesting new way to leverage IFTTT in more apps.

Quitting Twitter

It's been just over a month since I left Twitter. I did this for the sake of my well-being and happiness, and because I no longer wanted to use a service that allows so much abuse and does so little to stop it.

Twitter had become an inescapable deluge of abuse, anger, bad news, and disinformation, and I was barely treading water. I would wake up each morning filled with anxiety and trepidation about what to expect on Twitter during the day; a constant distraction that was mentally and physically exhausting, and making my life miserable.

The platform also brings out the worst in people because the worst people know they can get away with it. The amount of abuse and harassment on Twitter is overwhelming, and you don't have to look far to see just how toxic it is. The company is well aware of this but doesn't have the courage to take real action. Twitter would much rather work on features to increase revenue and user count than provide existing users with even the most basic tooling and support to deal with abuse.

Quitting Twitter has been a genuine quality of life improvement for me. It's as though a dark, heavy cloud of negativity has lifted, and I no longer get worked up about whatever might be the trending shitstorm du jour. I feel more focused and positive, and generally in much better mental health.

This decision has also boosted my productivity as I have a lot more free time now. I estimate I would check Twitter a few times an hour, a couple minutes each time. On a daily basis, I was probably spending an hour or two just on Twitter. Getting a couple of hours in the day back was an unexpected surprise, so I'm making the best use of it. I'm now much more productive throughout the day, find it easier to relax in the evenings and weekends, and am reading more than ever.

I have no desire to return to Twitter. I'm not ruling it out, but the platform would have to drastically change before I'd even consider it. There's very little Twitter can do for me that I can't go elsewhere for, and what it does provide isn't worth my happiness or support. For my own sake, abandoning Twitter was the right decision, and I only wish I'd done it sooner.

Getting Nespresso Capsule Information With Workflow

I recently added a Nespresso machine to my growing collection of coffee paraphernalia. It arrived with a selection of some of the 26 varieties available in the OriginalLine range—each one has a different strength (intensity) and cup size (ristretto, espresso, or lungo).

However, there's no way to know this information just by looking at the capsule as it only has the name printed on it. To know more, one needs to either keep the packaging, refer to the website, or have this information memorized. There is a Nespresso iOS app available, but it's not easy to quickly find a capsule and get its strength and cup size.

This seemed like a good opportunity to explore Workflow's Dictionary functionality, a feature I hadn't really used before. I created this Nespresso Capsule Information workflow to look up the intensity and cup size for any Nespresso capsule. To make it a little more interesting, capsule information can be retrieved by selecting either its name or an image of it.

Nespresso Information Workflow

All of the capsule data is stored within a Dictionary action inside the workflow. I created a Base64-encoded archive of all capsule images and included it as a Text action in the workflow (that's what the nonsensical first action is). This is decoded and extracted when running the workflow, so no images need to be separately copied or installed anywhere—allowing the the workflow to be entirely self-contained.

Get the Latest Cryptocurrency Prices With Workflow

For those wanting to keep track of popular cryptocurrency prices, this workflow retrieves a list of the top 10 cryptocurrencies on CoinMarketCap using their API. Selecting a currency returns the current price in USD, along with the percentage change from 24 hours ago.

The workflow can be run as normal, from the Today Widget, or directly on Apple Watch.

Opening Reddit URLs in Apollo

Apollo is a superb Reddit client and one of my favorite iOS apps from last year. Unlike the official Reddit app, Apollo can't automatically open reddit.com URLs1, so these URLs open in Safari if the official app isn't installed. However, there are a few easy ways of opening them directly in Apollo.

Copy URL to clipboard

If you copy a Reddit URL to the clipboard, then launch Apollo, the app automatically detects the reddit.com URL and asks if you want to open it. It's a few taps and swipes, but it works fine.

Workflow

Reddit URLs can be opened in Apollo through the use of an action extension workflow that replaces https:// with apollo://. Sharing any Reddit URLs to this workflow automatically converts the URL and opens it, launching Apollo.

Opener

Both of the above options are quick to do but involve a couple of steps to complete. Opener ($1.99) is a useful app and action extension that allows you to open links in any app that supports it.

The benefit of Opener is that it can be set to auto-open URLs with compatible apps. For Reddit URLs, I've configured Opener to auto-open them in Apollo. If I have a Reddit URL, I can just tap the Share button and select Opener, then Apollo launches automatically.

  1. This isn't a fault of the app, it's because of the restrictions iOS has in place. iOS doesn't allow you to specify a default app, and universal links can only be used by official first-party apps (e.g., the official Reddit app for reddit.com URLs). 

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