tech, simplified.

The New Flow is Really Nice

The more professional the tool, the uglier it must be—or so it seems if you look at most business software. The new, simple apps get the stylish new designs—typically simple todo list, reading, and photo filter apps—while tools like Office keep the same traditional style forever. Even newer business web apps typically stick to a more utilitarian style, focusing on features more than UI.

When it comes to team task management apps, though, there’s one that’s always been a showcase of design, even as it’s filled with pro features: Flow. Several years back, I worked with their team doing copywriting and support, and even then it was beautiful for a task app. The design then leaned more heavily towards shiny, almost plastic graphics—a notch above, say, Things for Mac’s style. But over the years, it’s gotten lighter and flatter design while still maintaining its great usability, and today it could be a showcase of what OS X Yosemite designs should look like.

flow

Plus, it’s got more features now than ever. There’s an Android app (the most requested feature when I did support for Flow) along with an iOS app and even a Mac app now (though the latter is just a web view, but still is nice). You can add sub-tasks to your tasks, format notes with Markdown, and more. It’s a seriously powerful team todo list app, one we used at AppStorm, and I happen to find it exciting to see how its continued to improve over the past few years.

If you’re looking for a nicer team task app, you can’t get much nicer than Flow. It’s gotten so much nicer over the past 3 years, it’ll be exciting to see what the next years bring.

Download Files Directly to Dropbox with Ballloon

It’s way too easy to fill up your computer’s storage, especially if you have an SSD. My MacBook Air does good to have more than 15Gb of free space at any given time. Thus, I’m careful with what I store locally, offload most of my pictures and movies to external drives, and selectively sync Dropbox folders to let me store files online, but not have them take up space on my Mac (that’s Dropbox’ best secret, by the way: open your Dropbox app preferences, select Account, then click the Change Settings… button beside Selective Sync. Unselect the folders you don’t want on your Mac, and voila: they’ll stay in the cloud a click away, but won’t take up local storage).

Selective sync is a small patch to one of the broader things that cloud storage doesn’t do right—devices come with terribly small amounts of local storage today, but then say they also have cloud storage. And yet, that does you precious little good if said cloud storage takes up as much local space as it does in the cloud. We need something better—but for now, at least there’s that option.

Except the only problem is, adding files to those selectively synced folders is a pain. You’ve got to upload them through your browser, or add them to another folder then go online and move them.

Now, there’s a simple Chrome add-on that lets you download files directly to a Google Drive or Dropbox folder of your choice: Ballloon. Find a file online you want to download—that image for a project, or an eBook you just bought and need to sync with Dropbox to get it on your phone, or whatever—right-click on it, and select the Ballloon option, and it’ll download it directly to your online storage.

ballloon

That’s handy for the use-case I mentioned previously, but could be a serious usability improvement on a Chromebook, which lacks traditional file management anyhow, and could be the perfect extra for your work computer so you can “download” files and have them automatically show up in your personal Dropbox on your computer back home. And it’s fast—no more waiting for downloads to finish, as Ballloon takes care of it in the background and saves your files online.

So hey. If you’ve ever wanted to download files directly to the cloud—that is, save them to your online storage without downloading them to your computer—Ballloon is the Chrome add-on for you. Enjoy.

So you want to take better pictures. Here's the camera you should buy.

Don't buy a camera.

No, really. The first thing you should do when you want better pictures is not to buy a better camera. Instead, learn how to take the very best pictures you can with the camera you have.

If you have a smartphone from the past several generations (say, an iPhone 4 or newer) or a point-and-shoot camera that’s no older than a half-decade, you can take very good shots with the camera you already have. What you need is practice and techniques to get better pictures with your camera. Learn how to focus and adjust exposure—yes, even your relatively basic camera can do that, and more if you’re using a smartphone with photography apps.

Now, learn to organize and tweak your photos on your own. Don’t use pre-made filters: use tools that’ll let you adjust brightness and contrast, tweak the highlights and shadows, and more. Don’t try to make your photos look old or artificially blurred—instead, try to tease the best colors out of the photos themselves. On your phone, you can use apps like VSCO Cam for that, but again, focus on tweaking the photo itself, not the filters in the app. On your Mac or PC, consider getting Lightroom—it’s a great app to organize and tweak your photos, and even works on iOS these days, and you can get it with Photoshop for just $9/month with a Creative Cloud Photography Program subscription. Again: don’t go buy Lightroom presets, the desktop version of mobile photo filters; practice tweaking your photos by hand instead, and even take a course on Lightroom itself instead if you really want more. You’ll learn far more, save money, and have one less thing to not worry about.

Organize everything you want to keep, tweak those shots to make sure they’re the best they can be, and organize them and back them up so you’ll keep them forever and be able to find them easily later. You’re taking photography seriously now, remember.

If you want more than that, pick up a book about the art of photography—perhaps even one with that exact name: The Art of Photography: An Approach to Personal Expression (which, by the way, is as good an eBook as a paper book, and works great on the Kindle since its photography examples are Black-and-White). You’ll learn how to frame your subjects and use light and tone to get the best pictures possible. And you just might find that the camera you have is quite enough—or you might get lured even deeper into the art of photography, and end up back at square one wanting to buy a better camera. That’s ok: this time, you’ll know more about photography—what aperture and ISO and focal length and more mean—and will be ready to actually put your new camera to better use now that you’ve maxed out your iPhone or point-and-shoot photography skills.

Then, and only then, consider buying a camera. And here’s where you’re going to get overwhelmed. There’s a million point-and-shoot cameras, which you can ignore. If you want better than your phone, you either want a larger sensor (see Wikipedia for a comparison of common sizes, and marvel over how tiny your phone or point-and-shoot’s sensor is) which allows more light in—and which means far more than megapixels (in fact, go ahead and quit worrying about stats: they stop mattering for the most part right here). That means you want an interchangeable lens camera, and likely means you want a DSLR.

But here’s where you need to stop and think for a minute, before you go read any reviews or compare cameras. The new fad is mirrorless cameras—they’re smaller and lighter than DSLRs, and often feature cool retro styling. And they can be nice. But the cheapest ones often don’t have a viewfinder, which takes away one of the very things a better camera usually has that can help improve your photography, and their lenses and accessories are often more expensive. And, aside from Sony and Fujifilm’s offerings, they all use Micro Four Thirds sensors, smaller—thus letting in less light—than the sensor in a DSLR.

Entry-level DSLRs are also cheaper, almost always, for similar features—and here we’re looking for photo shooting performance, not extras like Wifi that don’t truly matter when you’re taking a picture. And any DSLR from the last several years will be great—I own a Canon Rebel T5i (otherwise called the 700D or X7i), but the T3i or T3 from a few years back are still great. On the Nikon side, there’s the 5000 series that’s the most similar to Canon’s Rebel line, and the 3000 series that’s a tad cheaper. There’s a ton of other models for both brands (typically, the shorter the number, the more professional—and expensive—the camera from both Canon and Nikon). You’ll find a number of models from each in the $3-500 range in Amazon’s best-selling DSLR list, or could even get one used.

Don’t worry too much about which one to buy. If you want to focus on specs, you can endlessly compare—and if you want to do so, The Wirecutter’s DSLR and Mirrorless camera guides are a great place to start. But really, don’t worry too much about which camera you get. Any decently new Canon or Nikon will be great. In fact, I’d most strongly suggest checking what camera your friends own; if they mainly have Canon, get Canon. You’ll be able to share tips, and perhaps lenses and more.

I promise: I thought way too much about which camera to buy, made comparison charts and asked countless people for help. And in the end, the camera I bought was the Canon a friend recommended at first—I went the whole way around and, even though it wasn’t the top spec’ed camera, it ended up being the one that made the most sense for me. But any of the cameras could have made sense. Just buy one, and start shooting photos.

Wait: don’t shoot photos just yet. You need one more thing: a prime lens. Your camera likely will come with a so-called “kit lens” that’ll go from somewhat wide to somewhat zoomed-in shots. It’ll be ok, but not amazing. For those amazingly sharp photos, and ones with a sharp focus on one object and a blurred bokeh background behind, you’ll want a prime lens—a fixed lens that only lets you shoot at one focal length (so you can’t zoom in or out). For that, the default choice is the 50mm or 35mm prime for your camera—or for Canon, there’s a 40mm “pancake” prime that’s smaller, and right between the focal length of those two (and that’s the lens I bought). If you can, try them out in a store and see which one feels nice to you—and buy it. That’ll cost you less than $200, and will be the key to taking far better pictures than ever before. Do not buy any other lenses yet; use the ones you’ve got now until you know enough to know for sure exactly what you’d use another lens for.

So, all told, you’ll buy a entry-level DSLR, a prime lens, and that’s it. Unless it’s free, don’t bother getting a camera case and SD card just yet; you can likely pick them up cheaper later, and you’re almost guaranteed to not get a better deal with a set of stuff. You’ve also likely got an SD card laying around somewhere, and the case isn’t that big of a deal—you want the camera around your neck most of the time anyhow.

Now, put that prime lens on your camera, and start taking pictures. Lots of pictures. Shoot in Raw, shoot at your maximum aperture to get the great effects you’ve so desperately wanted from a better camera—and then experiment back up until you know what you can achieve with each aperture—and tweak your photos in Lightroom. Don’t buy a book about your camera itself—read the manual that came with it. Then go back to your photography book, and practice. And practice. And have fun.

Inspired by Stu Maschwitz’ “How to Take Good Photos for Under $1,000” post from last year, which was one of the many things that prompted me to get a DSLR.

Ember: The Screenshot App That Dared to do More

It’s tough to start over, to throw out what you already have and start anew. And yet, that nimbleness is seemingly the most required trait of successful software companies today. Desktop software that made sense a decade ago often needs far more than just updates today—it needs rethought for the needs and use-cases of today’s mobile world. You can either change, or watch a nimbler new startup take away the new version of the market you used to claim.

Thus, it’s far from surprising that Realmac Software decided last year to kill LittleSnapper, their screenshot tool that made it simple to grab screenshots, annotate them, and store them together in a library, in lieu of the new, lighter and leaner Ember. Instead of being a tool just for screenshots—something that almost only appealed to geeks, who themselves are almost as likely to use the built-in Mac screenshot tools anyhow—Ember was designed as a tool that almost anyone could use. If you ever save images that don’t quite fit in your Lightroom photo library—whether design inspiration clippings or screenshots or font samples or color swatches or anything else—you’ll find a use for Ember.

ember

Here’s how it works. You use its built-in screenshot tools—holdovers from LittleSnapper—to clip anything you see on your screen, or drag and drop any image, video, PSD, AI, or text files into Ember. Or, you click the web tab in Ember or install its browser add-ons, then open a page you want to save and click the Ember button, then choose to just bookmark the page (which saves any site metadata and notes you added, along with a small clip of the front page), clip the entire page (which saves a full-length image of the website, along with its full source code), or in the Ember app’s browser you can select just a portion of the site to save.

ember-clip-site

Now, you should head over to the main Ember app, where you’ll see your clipped items—screenshots, images, bookmarks, and files—all in the middle of the window, with an inspector on the right side of the screen that lists the metadata from the selected items. On the left, you’ll find quick collections of your items based on the type of clipping, along with any other collections you add to organize your own items. Then, select an item, and you’ll get mockup tools to quickly tweak your clips and share them using iCloud, CloudApp, and more.

There’s features for screenshot geeks. You can snap full-length websites, for one, and then annotate them with simple tools like the Smart Drawing tool that’ll automatically turn your squiggles into arrows and circles and more. Then, as mentioned before, you can view and edit the full source code of sites you’ve clipped, a great way to see how exactly the designers worked their magic in making the site that inspired you. Then, in the built-in browser, you can even resize the browser view or pick from standard device screen sizes to test responsive sites and screenshot them in the way they’d look on mobile.

There’s features for organization geeks who might go for a bucket app otherwise, but who’d also like Ember’s simplicity. You can bring in most of the files you use, now that it supports text and PDF, and can jot down simple notes right in Ember or select and copy text from PDFs if you want. Then, you can organize everything in smart collections that’ll automatically show items with specific tags, titles, format, rating, and even colors that Ember automatically detects. There’s also search—though for now, it only looks at the items’ metadata: their file names, date created, rating, tags, note, and type of clipping.

And then, of course, there’s features for design geeks, the ones the original launch of Ember seemed to emphasize. You can drag in all your inspiring pictures and clip the sites with the styles you like, then organize them into your own categories. Better yet, you can automatically get inspired with RSS subscriptions to image feeds from Dribbble, Inspired UI, 500px, and more, and add images you like to your library (and the UI feeds there will likely catch the eye of screenshot geeks that might have initially dismissed the design features as silly extras).

design-inspiration-Ember

The original image-only release of Ember wasn’t quite enough to satisfy many, as can be seen in the comments on our Mac.AppStorm reviews of Ember. Simplicity, it seemed, was not enough to stand on its own. But still, there were plenty of people who embraced Ember for its focus and simplicity, and the Ember site has a ton of stories of how designers and more the world over have found it useful.

And now, I suspect, with the addition of bookmarking and support for other file types, Ember will prove itself useful to a far wider range of users. If it’d only let you search through the full-text of clipped sites, PDFs, and text notes (since right now it only lets you search through file names and their metadata), and perhaps include Markdown rendering for notes—along with support for web clipping on iOS—it’d essentially be everything you need for a simple bucket app that looks nicer than Evernote. Already, it’s the perfect graphical bookmarking app as long as you add any info you want in the description box, easily as good as Evernote plus the Web Clipper for that.

Ember won’t be the same app for everyone. For some, it’ll continue to be a place for design inspiration, while for others it’ll be a new graphical bookmarking app, and for others it’ll be the place to put all those pictures and other files that don’t quite make sense anywhere. That’s the magic that can happen when you strip an app down to its bare minimum and build up from there. You can make an app that’s more useful to a far wider range of people.

And that’s exactly what Ember is. Screenshots alone aren’t enough to get most people to buy an app—even me, and I take screenshots all day long with OS X’ built-in tools—but combine those features with a library, annotation features, and file support that goes far beyond screenshots into a bookmarking and basic notes app, and Ember ends up being an app that almost anyone can use. And enjoy.

Purchasing Ember

You can buy Ember from the Mac App Store or directly from the Realmac Store for $49.99. Both versions are the same, with the exception of syncing services: both versions can sync your library via Dropbox, but only the App Store version can sync via iCloud.

Ember for iOS is a universal app for iPhone and iPad, costs $4.99, then offers a $1.99 in-app purchase to automatically import screenshots and a $4.99 in-app purchase to add annotations to images. Altogether, that makes it cost $11.97 for full functionality on iOS.

On Dragons, Horses, Uncanny Valley, and Self-Driving Cars

You get something, you lose something. That’s how it always is with new tech. Digital photography lost quality and something more abstract—grain and physical paper-and-chemicals and emotion, perhaps—compared to film, and it took decades to catch up (and, of course, there will always be the purists who prefer film, ‘till kingdom come). Typewriters took away the uniqueness of handwriting, word processing took away the instantaneous feel of letters pressed into paper, eternally unchangeable. Records and radio took away something from live performances, and digital audio took away—crazily enough—the fuzziness that made the former feel “authentic”. I’m sure the wheel must have taken something away from brute-force work and, well, walking.

And thus it is with transportation. Horseless carriages were an obvious improvement over horses: they didn’t get tired, they were far faster, and they gave us smog instead of dung-filled streets (the former giving lung problems and global warming, the latter causing disease endemics. Ok, this point might be a toss-up.). But they were things. Horses are living beings that, almost, became one with the rider. You had an emotional connection with your horse—it was a real living and breathing creature that you’d feel bad for when it was sick. We mostly just feel annoyed when our cars end up needing fixed.

That very livingness gave something horse-based transportation something else that their technologically superior replacement never gave us: consciousness. It’s what gave us an emotional attachment to horses, but is also what kept people safe on them. Countless movie scenes have the rider dozing off or planning ahead or anything else while their horse trots on, no guidance needed. You’d start your horse off on the right path, then let it go on its own pace through the bulk of the journey. Get near your destination, and you’d switch back to more actively controlling your horse—or if there ever was danger, the horse would alert you to it and you’d take the reigns again, literally. And it’s not just horses: that very concept of the animal you’re riding being able to go on its own for the bulk of the boring stretches of your trip is always picked up whenever there’s a story scene with someone riding something intelligent: How to Train Your Dragon 2 illustrated this perfectly with Hiccup nearly falling asleep while Toothless continued flying to their destination, but then taking control again once there was danger. Self-driving vehicles, for the most boring stretches of the road.

This is what motor vehicles lost. Cars demand full attention, all the time, no matter how straight and boring the road. And yet, we’re terrible at paying attention all the time, gazing instead at billboards and the models of cars around us and—scarily enough—even at phones and newspapers and more. Our minds drift off, and then suddenly there’s something in front of us and we have to slam on the brakes. Surely countless accidents could be avoided daily if only our cars were as smart as horses.

As smart as horses. Imagine cars that could drive themselves on the straight stretches, when we feel save relinquishing control, and then let us take control again when we want. It’s not so hard to imagine, even: light-SciFi for years has shown cars that can drive themselves, but then let you take back control when you want to (of course, for action scenes when we’d want to root for the human who’s controlling said car). See the car in I, Robot, for example. It’s smart, but ultimately still a tool to be controlled by a human.

For there’s something human about being able to steer our own destiny, control our fate, and decide precisely how we want to turn into a curve and avoid the bad guy. We like tools that extend us—keyboards and musical instruments and cameras and hand tools. Automation is hard to trust—we all know that you can’t trust Google Maps absolutely, and are far better off supplementing the GPS with your own knowledge of the roads. How then can we expect people to trust fully automated cars, driverless cars that can take us to a GPS destination but don’t listen for our input otherwise?

That, I think, is why Google’s self-driving cars hit an uncanny valley for so many. We’d perhaps like a smarter car, a car that follows the lines and automatically brakes if we’re going to hit something. Perhaps we’d even accept “smart” cruse control that can drive the straight stretches, the boring parts of our commutes and road trips, for us, as the new Cruse is offering next year for $10k, and that we’ll undoubtedly see in many premium cars as a default feature within this decade. If there’s still a steering wheel, and if we’re still asked to make active decisions about our final destination—by hand, mind you, not just by abstractly punching in a GPS location—we’ll feel ok. The car will feel like a further extension of ourselves than the current gas pedal and steering wheel do. But if the car can only follow a GPS route, and must be fully automated—if it doesn’t give us any more control than entering an end destination—it’ll be far tougher to get us to accept it.

Tesla excites me, because it’s pushing the tech of cars forward in a mechanical way—it’s the most advanced dumb horseless carriage yet. Google Self-Driving Cars scare me in a way I know deep down they shouldn’t, because I happen to love driving, and love the control of being behind the wheel. There’s got to be a middle ground, where we can take back control at will, and give freewheeling directions to our cars—say, by saying out loud “Ok, Car, keep driving until we’re 1 KM from Exit 256, then let me know”. That’s a future of personal transportation I’d be ok with.

But I wouldn’t very much like being strapped to a horse that’s taking me to a destination, without any way to change the course or direct it. High-tech whiz-bang won’t change that.