Download Word Flow for the iPhone and type faster

One of the best third-party keyboards for iOS is from Microsoft. Yeah. Microsoft. Go figure!

It’s called Word Flow, and it’s downloadable from the App Store for free. Word Flow is already available for Windows phones, but Microsoft has developed an iOS version that you can grab. The effort is the work of a group within Microsoft called Garage, the company’s experimental apps group. (Readers have pointed that at least for now, Word Flow seems to be a US-only release. Sorry, international folks!)

I use an iPhone 6, and I often find it unwieldy to type with one hand, using my thumb, as so many of us like to. It’s simply too wide for the radius of my thumb, which requires me to compensate by holding the device with two hands. Word Flow offers a clever adaptation it calls “Arc Mode.” The keyboard can be set on the lower right or left edge of the screen, in an arc, to make it easier to quickly tap keys with your thumb. Word Flow also lets you “swipe” to type words (sliding your thumb between “a” “n” and “d” will cause Word Flow to type “and,” even if you don’t lift your thumb between each key).

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Word Flow is also customizable; you can color it with different themes or even create your own. 

So why wouldn’t you want to install Word Flow? Privacy is the main reason. Like all third-party keyboards for iOS, Word Flow’s predictive text requires you to turn on “Full Access,” which lets the app store data about your keystrokes to help improve the app’s predictive text feature. Apple offers some more details about how third party keyboards work in this support document.

This does not mean that Word Flow is a keylogging application, and it does not mean that Microsoft or Apple suddenly get a full transcript of everything you’ve typed using the application. But Apple’s scare warning and its lack of communication about what Full Access actually does is enough to make some people not want to install third-party keyboards on their iOS devices. You can leave Full Access off, but Word Flow won’t be nearly as efficient at predicting what you’re typing.

Apple’s support for third-party keyboards is begrudging at best. So you’ll often have to tap the keyboard icon (which looks like a wireframe globe) a few times before you see Word Flow pop up.

Having said all that, it’s a free app, and if you’re having trouble with the built-in keyboard on an iPhone – especially a larger one, like a 6 Plus or 6S Plus – this might be exactly what you need.

Should I use an external drive for backup?

With cloud services like Backblaze, iCloud Drive and Dropbox readily available, is it worth it to continue to use an external hard drive for backup? This is a question I tackle in a recent piece at Backblaze.

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Really, there’s no mystery here: A combination of onsite and offsite (cloud) backup provides you with the best possible coverage. So I take a look at something we call our 3-2-1 Backup strategy and how that applies here. The 3-2-1 plan encourages you to consider having two onsite copies of your data and one offsite copy. The two onsite copies include your original and a backup, such as a Time Machine archive, and then one offsite copy can be your Backblaze backup, or backup via another cloud service, backup via iCloud or Dropbox, Microsoft OneDrive, or anywhere else you care to use.

I need an Calendar app that nags me more effectively. Any ideas?

I have a problem I’m hoping you might be able to help me with: I constantly overlook reminders that I’ve set on my devices.

As a baratric patient, I have an entire calendar dedicated, for example, to keeping me on track with the medicine and dietary supplements I’m supposed to take in order to maintain my health. Optimally it should be done on a fairly strict routine, so I’ve got it mapped out – take my multivitamins at this time, take my iron supplement at this time, then take my calcium supplements, etc.

It’s great, My watch buzzes me to remind me. Here’s the problem: I often glance down at the reminder, then go back to doing what I was doing. “I’ll get up in a minute,” I’ll say to myself. Then I won’t.

I’m wondering if anyone’s come across an app for the iPhone – preferably something with an Apple Watch app too – that might be a bit more of a noodge. Something that will nag me into actually getting up to take my pills.

Look, I own my behavior: I really need to start getting up as soon as the watch and the phone tell me to. But I could use a poke in the right direction that I’m not getting from my current setup. If this has happened to you, how have you dealt with it?

Happy 32nd birthday, Apple IIc

For some of my teenaged peers, like my best friend, the Apple II and more specifically, the Apple IIe were the machines to get. The first Apple II I ever got my hands on recently celebrated its 32nd birthday last weekend. I’m talking about the Apple IIc.

Apple IIc with monitor

In the years before Macs and before the IBM PC, Apple IIs ran all the coolest games, and they were such popular systems among hobbyists that you could readily find magazines and books with code to program your own software too. While I had a computer of my own at home (I was one of the very lucky ones), the Apple IIc was the first computer I ever used in school. The Apple IIc was introduced in 1984, the same year the Macintosh made its debut.

The IIc was a downsized version of the Apple II, with a built-in floppy disk drive and a peripheral expansion port, all designed in a much more compact chassis that took up a lot less space on the desktop. It had less internal expandability but less need for it, since Apple integrated much of what had been installed on expansion cards right on the computer. More than three decades later we still see Apple iterating and shrinking its hardware the same way, albeit on a very different scale and different level of sophistication.

The IIc was the perfect computer for a computer lab, which is exactly what my high school did with theirs. I remember having to pass a Keyboarding class as a prerequisite to use them. I did, though just barely, with a D. The class was taught by an old-school typist on IBM Selectrics. I could competently input text on a typewriter, but I’d taught myself to type on computer keyboards. So I didn’t do it the way the teacher wanted.

The Data Processing class was when I first got my hands on the IIc. The teachers taught us the ins and outs of using computers – how to start them up, how to put in discs, how to run software. It was basic stuff at a time when using computers was still largely a novelty. For my friends and I who were already ahead of the rest of the class, it became an opportunity to help the teacher, help the other students, and hopefully have some time to play with the computers ourselves without being burdened too much by the curriculum. Oregon Trail, anyone?

The teachers of that class, Mr. Bernier and Mrs. Ledwith, recognized that I was an enthusiastic computer user. Mr. Bernier  took a shine to me and recommended me for my first summer job: Duplicating software for a nearby financial software developer. I’d parlay that experience into getting more clerical work as an office temp with experience on the Mac, and that ultimately led me down the career path I find myself on today.

So thanks, Apple IIc, for being so awesome. You gave early generations of computer users great service, made it a pleasure to use computers in school, and didn’t take up too much space on the desk, either. And happy birthday. (And thanks also to Mrs. Ledwith and Mr. Bernier for helping to give me my first chance to earn money using computers!)

Can I use an SSD with Time Machine?

Bottom line: Yes, you can. Should you, is an entirely different question. I tackle this in a recent piece I posted over at Backblaze.

Blog ssd for timemachine

Time Machine is Apple’s backup software built into OS X, and it makes for simplified backup, version control and file recovery. If you upgrade your Mac or if you have to get it repaired, Time Machine makes it trivially easy to keep going where you left off.

SSDs, or Solid State Drives, are storage devices that use memory cells instead of “traditional” hard drives. They’re much faster than hard drives – faster to boot, faster to read, and faster to write. SSDs are a popular internal upgrade for older computers that still use conventional 2.5-inch SATA hard drives inside. You can also put together your own external SSD with USB 3 or even Thunderbolt 2 without spending a fortune, and you can buy a few pre-made ones too.

That got me thinking: Time Machine works using an external hard drive, and with SSD prices coming down, you may think that you’ll get faster backups with an SSD instead of a regular hard drive. You’d be right. But SSD performance is much more important for your actual boot drive than it is for backup media, which usually doesn’t have to happen quite so fast. SSDs are cheaper than they used to be, but regular hard drives still win the day when it comes to price per gigabyte.

Anyway, feel free to read on for more details, and let me know here or there if you have any questions.

In praise of AppleCare

Once again, I’m very grateful for having AppleCare, Apple’s extended warranty. Because for the second time in three years, Apple replaced the top case of my 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro. What’s more, it was about a week past warranty when I alerted Apple to the problem, but they covered it anyway.

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About a month ago I first began to notice problems with the trackpad’s operation. Occasionally the trackpad would fail to register a click or a tap. At first I thought it was me, or some software change I’d made. Perhaps an interaction with some third-party software I’d installed, or a setting I had changed inadvertently. By last week it was clear the problem I was having was, in fact, a hardware problem, so I called Apple.

Replacing a trackpad is not a trivial repair on the Retina MacBook Pro. It’s part of one integrated assembly that includes the entire top case. The trackpad, keyboard, speakers and battery are all part of the same assembly, and Apple replaces them as a single part. It’s a pretty major repair that requires almost the entire disassembly of the computer to do. A trained Apple service technician can do the work without any problem, but this isn’t an easily user-serviceable part with replacements readily available on eBay. It’s kind of a big deal.

This computer already has had the top case replaced once, which I think made it easier for Apple to agree to cover this new repair under warranty, despite the fact that it was about a week out of coverage. They were very nice about it over the phone, and while the initial tech I spoke to didn’t have the authority to bend the rules, the next person up the chain had no trouble creating an exception for me to facilitate the repair.

Buying an extended warranty is always a crapshoot, and often a total ripoff. I’ve gotten bilked on things like extended warranties for appliances.

I think getting AppleCare can be a wise investment on something as expensive to fix as an Apple laptop, however. Because the cost of a single repair is almost guaranteed to be greater than the cost of the extended warranty. AppleCare costs $250 for the 13-inch laptops, $350 for the big one, and its price is sometimes negotiable if you do business with an Apple-authorized reseller. 

There are a few exceptions. If you have a credit card benefit that extends warranty protection or some other insurance that will cover the cost of the repair, that may be more worthwhile. Also, consumer protections vary from country to country, so make sure to be familiar with your rights.

From where I’m sitting, my 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro has been my near-constant work companion for the past three years. I’ve put a lot of miles on it and it continues to work well. I don’t treat my gear with kid gloves, but I’m not the worst person with a laptop either. Regardless, my MBP has been in the shop a few times over the years, including once before for this particular problem. I’ve also had the screen replaced, and had to get the main logic board replaced once too. I don’t think there’s an original part on this thing except maybe for the bottom case.

Obviously there’s a case to be made that at least some of those repairs shouldn’t have had to happen, that perhaps there are some issues with product quality or durability. But every repair has been under warranty – manufacturing-related faults, as opposed to regular wear and tear. All of the problems I’ve had have happened after the 1 year mark, so after the point at which Apple’s standard warranty applied. I can’t tell you that you’ll have the same experience with AppleCare as I have, but for me, it’s been worth it – not just on this device, but on my iPhone 6 and on one of my kids’ computers as well. So consider AppleCare the next time you buy a new Mac, and consider carefully what kind of device you’re buying and how you plan to use it. You may find that it can save your bacon the same way it’s saved mine.

My dream keyboard from Apple

Orthogonal to the discussion about the MacBook and its single USB-C port last week, I got to thinking about the one Apple peripheral that I’d love to tweak. If I had my druthers, I’d love to produce a customized version of Apple’s new Magic Keyboard.

Magic accessories

The Magic Keyboard made its debut in 2015 with the refreshed Skylake-equipped iMac that Apple offered late in the year, along with the Magic Mouse 2 and the Magic Trackpad 2.

Apple’s wireless keyboards were overdue for a change; they hadn’t been updated since 2009. The older keyboards used Bluetooth for wireless communication but depended on removable AA batteries (Apple sold an optional, expensive set of rechargeable batteries, though you could use others as well).

The Magic Keyboard looks different than before. Apple’s gone with a more wedge shape, and it’s integrated a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack inside. The keyboard charges using a Lightning cable, just like the iPhone and iPad. And the batteries last a good deal longer per charge than the old keyboard managed.

The shape isn’t the only thing that’s different in the Magic Keyboard. The keyfeel of the keyboard – the way the keys feel when you press them – is dramatically different than it was before. That’s thanks to some clever engineering inside the keyboard replacing the scissor mechanisms that rest under each key.

The keyboard feels much more stable than before, and keys travel less distance with each keypress. The net result, in my experience, is a more precise sensation of typing that enables me to type faster and more accurately with less hand fatigue.

After using it for a couple of months, I have to say that the Magic Keyboard is the best keyboard I’ve used from Apple since the legendary Extended Keyboard II. It’s a real pleasure to type on. In fact, I’d like to type on more of it.

Apple Extended Keyboard II

In my fantasy, I’d create a 101 or 104-key layout based on the Magic Keyboard, complete with number pad, cursor and function keys. I’d also throw in backlighting, because I’m fantasizing anyway. I often keep the office lights dim but still want to be able to navigate the keyboard – I’m accustomed to backlighting on my MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, and even have it on a Moshi Luna keyboard I use with a Mac mini.

I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to keyboards. Almost without exception, my favorite keyboards rely on mechanical keyswitches. They produce a much stiffer, more tactile response (and often a louder audible “click”) than the membrane pads underneath most modern keyboards.

So the appeal of Apple’s new keyboard surprised me, because it’s not the sort of tactile response I’m accustomed to. If you haven’t gotten your hands on the Magic Keyboard yet, I heartily invite you to an Apple Store so you can check it out for yourself.

If all this sounds twee, here’s the thing: I spend my day on a computer keyboard. As a writer, stuff like the feel of the keys I’m pressing is incredibly important to me. So yeah, I spend a lot more time thinking about this stuff than I probably should.

Apple’s not going to make the product I’m looking for, and I’m fine with that. I’ll keep an eye out for suitable third-party replacements, but in the interim, I’ll be enjoying the Magic Keyboard.

The MacBook doesn’t need more ports

Apple’s refresh to the MacBook earlier this week has disappointed people who want Apple to add more ports to the device. It’s a criticism I don’t agree with, and here’s why. It’s Maslow’s Hammer. Yeah, that Maslow. The Hierarchy of Needs guy.


Abraham Maslow once said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

While I understand the argument in favor of increasingly the expandability of the MacBook – yes, that single USB-C port is maddening – I’m willing to accept that Apple has a very different concept of what this computer should do than people who criticize it. The MacBook, unlike any other Mac laptop, is designed to be as wireless as possible.

Apple executives from Tim Cook to Phil Schiller have articulated the company’s design philosophy for the MacBook, and in marketing materials, the phrase “the future of the notebook” comes up over and over again. The MacBook is uniquely designed to showcase technology that Apple wants to see become ubiquitous in the coming years.

To that end, streamlining the MacBook with as few connections as possible is completely keeping with Apple’s aesthetic. Apple hates wires. Wires create clutter. They sully the work area. Apple ships its iMac desktop computer with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse in the box for exactly this reason.

I’m not discounting that some Mac users need wires to connect things like external hard drives, displays and other peripherals. Using a port replicator or the devices offered by Apple and other third parties, you can expand the MacBook’s connectivity. You can attach an external display. You can hook up an external hard drive. And so on. But ultimately, you’re trying to wedge a square peg in a round hole – the MacBook simply isn’t made with that in mind.

Fortunately, Apple continues to make the MacBook Pro and (at least for now) the MacBook Air, and both of them come equipped with Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3. So if you want a Mac laptop with ports to plug in stuff, you still have a choice.

Just not that particular Mac laptop.

Save money on a MacBook with this one weird trick!

OK, I admit that the the title of this blog post is linkbait, but I’ll deliver: There’s a way to save money on the tiny MacBook, and the secret is right on Apple’s web site.


I’m talking about the Refurbished section of Apple’s online store. Apple repackages and resells gear to the general public, offering a full 12-month warranty and eligibility for AppleCare, Apple’s extended warranty program (which I unabashedly endorse for portable devices, anyway).

Apple has recently refreshed the MacBook, its thinnest, lightest Mac laptop. The new laptop comes equipped with a faster processor, faster graphics, faster memory and faster storage, and comes in a new color – Rose Gold. It’s a handsome device that’s better than ever, and while the MacBook has some inherent drawbacks (like its single USB-C connector for power and expansion), it’s an utterly delightful little laptop that’s a lot more capable than most other computers in its size and weight class.

When Apple introduced the new MacBook, they also refreshed the inventory of gear they’re selling refurbished, and the first-generation MacBook is now on the list. You’ll get a 15 percent break on the price. As I write this, you can pick up a first-generation (2015) MacBook for $929. That gets you a 1.1 GHz processor, 8 GB RAM and 256 GB SSD. That price is $170 less than the regular retail price of $1,299. All three colors are available, too: Space Gray, Gold and Silver. (Rose Gold, the newest hue, is only available on the brand new MacBook.)

I’ve bought refurbed gear a few times from Apple and I’ve never been disappointed. The stuff comes as good as new. The big difference is that Apple repackages it in a plain white box instead of the usual colorful livery, but otherwise once you get it out of the package, you wouldn’t know that it’s not brand new.

If you want to pay more, Apple has other options, including models with 1.3 GHz processors and 512 GB storage.

While you’re there, take a look at the other great deals Apple offers on Macs and iOS devices. You might find a deal you just can’t say no to.

The MacBook Air is a better deal than ever

Apple’s main fanfare on this Tuesday was the introduction of a refreshed MacBook, with a new Skylake processor inside, faster graphics, faster memory and faster storage capacity (and a pretty new Rose Gold finish, if that’s your thing). You can read my thoughts on it if you haven’t already. They snuck in a comment at the end of the press release that was easy to miss, but important to note: “Apple also today made 8GB of memory standard across all configurations of the 13-inch MacBook Air®.”


To be clear, Apple hasn’t made any other change to the MacBook Air. The MacBook Air that you’ll buy from Apple today is built using the same processor and other parts that were in it yesterday. The difference is the 13-inch model comes better equipped for $999. Instead of a 4 GB/128 GB SSD, you get 8 GB and 128 GB of SSD instead.

You can argue that 128 GB SSD is a paltry amount, but it’s actually sufficient for a great many of us, especially when paired with external storage like a USB 3 or Thunderbolt hard drive, or even a network attached storage system like a Drobo or Synology NAS.

8 GB RAM resolves one of the biggest flaws in the previous MacBook Air matrix – the need to custom-order a MacBook air with enough RAM overhead to comfortably run the fairly memory-intensive apps that some Mac users rely on. It’s more value for the money, to be sure.

The MacBook Air doesn’t have a Retina display. It’ll be interesting to see if or what Apple does to the Air in the future. At the moment, it seems content to let this system, which has been very popular, continue to run its course.

This doesn’t extend to the base-model 11-inch MacBook Air, by the way – it remains configured with 4 GB RAM and stays priced at $899, making it Apple’s least expensive Mac laptop.