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The 7 Best Apple Home Devices

I keep promising myself that a larger dive into my home automation workflow is coming to this blog. And it is. But I thought that I would first take a moment to outline the top seven apps and devices that I am using in combination with the Apple Home app. These get special attention given that their HomeKit integration allows me to conveniently manipulate them all from within the Apple Home app and command them with Siri. 

All of the devices in this post are also compatible with the Amazon Echo. I only buy home devices that are equally compatible because I use Alexa in my house as well. Furthermore, the home automation space is still very young and fragmented. The more open a platform is, the more flexible it will be now and in the future. 

Philips Hue Lights

Be careful. These WiFi connected light bulbs are the gateway drug of home automation. With them, I can now turn on every light in my house with my phone or voice. For my small house, the bulbs work just fine, but I would recommend the light switches for larger homes for convenience and to save money. Check out the image below to see how these lights appear in the Home app. I can control them individually or group them together. I can automate them by time or location in the Apple Home app. It's really nice to have the lights gently dim around bed time, and gradually wake me up with a gentle red hue an hour before work in the morning. Because my iCloud account also knows who and where my wife is, I can set up an automation that turns off all the lights once both of us have left the house, and another that turns them back on when one of us returns. 

Check out Philips Hue lights here

The Home app aggregates all of my various different home automation devices.

The Home app aggregates all of my various different home automation devices.

The Good Morning scene is automatically set to run at 6:30 am on weekdays and at 9:30 am on weekends.

The Good Morning scene is automatically set to run at 6:30 am on weekdays and at 9:30 am on weekends.

This is the set up screen for my Good Morning scene.

This is the set up screen for my Good Morning scene.

Ecobee Thermostat 

The Nest thermostat was the first home automation device I ever bought. It doesn't work with Apple HomeKit though. So when it unexpectedly died last year, I jumped at the opportunity to try something new. Ecobee thermostats are the best around. Speaking into the thin air "Hey Siri, I'm cold" to turn up the heat is a modern day dream. Of course, I can automate temperature in all of the same ways I can do lights. And I can even group these devices into "scenes" in the Apple home app to streamline frequent actions. For example, the "Arriving Home" scene turns on the air and the lights. This scene is not only triggered by button or voice, but automatically runs when my phone is within close proximity to my house. 

This is what you see when you open the ecobee app.

This is what you see when you open the ecobee app.

Once you tap on a thermostat, you get more detailed controls.

Once you tap on a thermostat, you get more detailed controls.

This is my Arrive Home scene. The door unlocks for me, the thermostat turns on a good temperature, and the lights on the main level of the house turn on.

This is my Arrive Home scene. The door unlocks for me, the thermostat turns on a good temperature, and the lights on the main level of the house turn on.

Schlage Sense Door Lock

My Schlage Sense allows me to unlock my door with the tap of a button. My teaching studio is in the basement of my house and the door is upstairs. It is disruptive to a lesson to constantly be answering my door, so now I just tell my Apple Watch "Hey Siri, unlock the door." It authenticates through contact with my wrist and completes the task. Of course my Arriving Home and Leave Home scenes also unlock and lock the door, in addition to all of the other actions I mentioned above. Having my front door unlock for me when I arrive home makes me feel like I am living in the future. Having it automatically lock when I leave gives me peace of mind that my house is safe. 

Logitech Circle Camera

Of all the HomeKit devices out there, cameras are the hardest to shop for. I have found the Logitech Circle to be the best out there. Nest makes some great cameras but their lack of HomeKit support has driven me away. I have the Logitech set up in our dining room, facing down the primary hallway in my home. It is plugged into an iHome smart plug which is also HomeKit enabled so that I can turn it off and on remotely. This plug is automated in the Home app to turn on when neither my wife and I are home and turn off when one of us arrives home, therefore working like a security camera. When it detects motion it turns on our dining room and kitchen lights. It has a two way microphone so you can chat with someone in your home if you need to. And what I love about it most is that the camera feed shows up right in line with my other smart home controls in the Apple Home app. 

The interface for the Logi Circle 2 app.

The interface for the Logi Circle 2 app.

Eve Sensors

Sensors need no introduction. These things can trigger any other home device to act when they detect motion. Most of mine are set to turn on the lights in a given room when I walk into them. But they can also trigger thermostats and smart plugs. My favorite sensors on the market are made by eve. They are easy to set up and work reliably. Eve also makes a number of other interesting HomeKit products. 

Sensors appear as ‘Triggered’ in the Apple Home app when they have detected motion.

Sensors appear as ‘Triggered’ in the Apple Home app when they have detected motion.

In Apple Home, I can make an automation that turns on the upstairs light whenever my eve sensor is triggered upstairs.

In Apple Home, I can make an automation that turns on the upstairs light whenever my eve sensor is triggered upstairs.

The eve app makes a great alternative to the Apple Home app for controlling all your devices.

The eve app makes a great alternative to the Apple Home app for controlling all your devices.

iHome Smart Plugs

I like using smart plugs as an all purpose way of turning on and off the things in my house that are otherwise not “smart.” In addition to the camera workflow I mentioned above, I also have these plugged into other devices throughout the house. For example, my bedroom fan is plugged into one. I can now turn it on and off in the middle of the night without getting up. “Hey Siri, turn on the fan.” A lot of brands make smart plugs but the iHome is the easiest to set up and use in my experience. 

Apple HomePod

I was hesitant about the HomePod at first given that it shipped with incomplete software and relies entirely on Siri for voice commands. Still, the device offered some compelling features. When iOS 11.4 brought the features that were missing from release (AirPlay 2 and multi room audio), I scooped one up while Best Buy was running a 100 dollar off deal on them, refurbished. 

The HomePod fulfills a lot of the same purposes as the Amazon Echo. It is distinguished by linking into the Apple ecosystem, allowing me to command Apple Music, Apple Podcasts, and all of the home automation devices mentioned above. 

Control of the HomePod exists inside the Apple Home app where it appears as a speaker device. The recent addition of AirPlay 2 allows my two Sonos One speakers to show up in the Apple Home app as well. 

The HomePod is first and foremost a good speaker. But it can also command your other speakers in the house and even the audio output of your Apple TVs. Simply command “Hey Siri, move this music to the living room,” and listen as your music is magically transported from one speaker to the next. You can output your Apple TV audio through to this handy speaker and speak playback commands to your tv and movies with statements like “pause,” “stop,” and “skip ahead 50 seconds.”

The HomePod is the core of the Apple Home experience. Of course, you could just as easily control every device in this post from an Echo. However, as an Apple Music subscriber, and frequent listener to podcasts in the kitchen, having a HomePod makes sense for me to own.

It looks like the investment is going to pay off. This fall, iOS 13 will be adding even more features to the HomePod and Home app. For example, the HomePod will be able to distinguish between my voice and my wife’s. This way, when she asks it what is going on today, it will read from her calendar instead of mine. iOS 13 is also introducing speaker automations for scenes. So my Good Morning scene in the Home app will now play my favorite breakfast playlist in addition to turning on select lights and changing the temperature.

And finally, HomeKit automations and Siri Shortcut automations are going to be better tied together, and will be able to be triggered automatically. For example, doing something like stopping my wake-up alarm will both run the Good Morning scene and automatically run this Siri Shortcut that tells me how I slept, delivers a weather report, and opens a meditation in the Headspace app.

In iOS 13, HomePod play controls show up right in the Home app.

In iOS 13, HomePod play controls show up right in the Home app.

In iOS 13, music playback can become part of your scenes.

In iOS 13, music playback can become part of your scenes.

The new Siri Shortcuts app on iOS 13 integrates home automations and personal automations. It also allows them to be automatically triggered by time, location, opening a particular app, and more! In this example, stopping my wake-up alarm triggers my I’m Awake Siri Shortcut, which sets the Good Morning scene, reads me the weather, tells me how I slept, and starts a meditation.

The new Siri Shortcuts app on iOS 13 integrates home automations and personal automations. It also allows them to be automatically triggered by time, location, opening a particular app, and more! In this example, stopping my wake-up alarm triggers my I’m Awake Siri Shortcut, which sets the Good Morning scene, reads me the weather, tells me how I slept, and starts a meditation.

Brief Thoughts on Apple’s Education Event

Well it has taken me long enough… This past week, Apple held an education event. Below are some brief thoughts on the subject. Chris Russell is coming on my podcast later this week to talk about all of the details. Keep in mind, I do not work in a school with 1:1 iPads or any kind of deployment strategy. But I am very seriously invested in Apple’s role in education and their vision for how their products fit into the classroom.

New iPad

This device looks great. Adding the Apple Pencil to this model will be an asset for schools. But will schools really pay 89 dollars for a pencil after just having purchased numerous 250 dollar iPads? 

The thing that gets me most excited about this device is its consumer potential. I am tempted to buy one for myself as a (more) mobile counterpart to my larger 12.9 inch iPad Pro.

iWork Updates

Apple Pencil support. FINALLY. This was my favorite announcement of the day. I anticipate editing Pages documents, scribbling on bus attendance lists made in Numbers, and annotating Keynote slides at the front of the classroom on a daily basis. I hate to be cynical (which the rest of this post will be), but Microsoft Office for iPad has had the ability to write on documents with an Apple Pencil since the Apple Pencil launched, two years ago. 

iBooks Author

Seems like the Mac app is no longer going to receive development. All book publishing features have been moved to Pages for iOS and Mac. It doesn’t appear that the new feature does everything that iBooks Author can do. Hopefully this is like when Apple rewrote Final Cut Pro X, took away some features, but then eventually added them back. Or when iWork was rewritten to be the same for iOS and macOS, stripping AppleScript features from the Mac, but eventually bringing them back. I would hate to see iBook authors unable to use workflows they have in the past using iBooks Author for the Mac. 

Classroom App for Mac

Apple’s learning management system comes to the Mac. Great! But what took so long? And can Apple keep up with the vastly more mature and flexible Google Classroom? (See conclusion below)

School Work App

An app for teachers to give assignments to students, check their progress, and collect it back. School Work can route students to other apps to do their assignments using the ClassKit API which is very cool. But why is this separate from the Classroom app? And where does iTunes U fit into all of this?

Conclusion

Apple is making a lot of solid efforts here but a lot of it it feels like too little too late, especially the student and learning management software. I really do hope they can keep up with Google Classroom who has been eating everyone’s lunch for years. Apple will have to be aggressive about adding new features to all of these new apps and making sure that their app ecosystem is flexible enough to compete with Chromebooks which use browser based software. Yes, there are way more apps on the App Store than there are Chrome based apps, but in education (and especially in music education) a lot of the big players are writing for Chrome OS. To me, the draw of Chromebooks in education is not their price, but the flexibility of web based software.

Apple’s software engineers seem spread very thin and unable to balance the release of various applications, consistently over time. This is true of many of Apple’s consumer apps. Mail and Reminders, two tentpole productivity apps have fallen way behind the competition. Calendar has not seen any more than a few major feature updates since I started using the Mac back in 2006. Apple’s apps are part of the “nice” factor of being in the ecosystem. Sometimes an app like Notes will get some major new features, but then we won’t hear from it for a few years. Google’s apps, by contrast, lack the same design sense, but are constantly being updated with new features. And they are not locked into annual OS updates like iOS is. In my opinion, this is Apple’s biggest problem right now.

Ironically, software is still my draw to Apple products. Even though their hardware is the most indisputably good thing they are doing right now (I am nearly without complaint of my iPhone X and the iPad 10.5 is perfect), it is the software that locks me in. In other words, I am much more committed to macOS and iOS than I am Mac and iPhone. This leaves me with some long term concern about my interest in continuing to use Apple products. And great concern about any educational institution who jumps on the iPad bandwagon just because apps are bright and colorful and demo well on stage. Apple has to show continual support for their education software if their dream for the classroom is to come true.

 

Black Friday App Deals

Every Black Friday, tons of apps go cheap or free on the App Store. I always use this opportunity to score a bunch of apps I have been waiting on, particular higher priced apps. 

The best resource I have found for keeping track of every deal is MacStories. Check out their blog post on The Best Deals for iPhone and iPad Apps, Games, and Accessories. They have already started collecting apps on sale and will be updating it all throughout tomorrow and in the coming days. It catalogues apps ranging from iOS apps to Mac apps to tech deals on Amazon. 

Happy app purchasing!!!

GarageBand on Mac Now Syncs Projects with iOS

Read Cult of Mac's overview of the new GarageBand update for macOS. I think this is essentially adding the feature to the Mac version of GarageBand that Logic added a few months back. I played around with it for a few minutes last night, trying to sync a project between the Mac and iOS version of GarageBand. Unless I am missing something, this workflow runs into all of the same issues as the Logic feature that I wrote about when it was released. The process is not direct as you still have to manually prepare the file for syncing and create a duplicate copy whenever you go from Mac to iOS or iOS to Mac. And I really wish I could edit the audio on my iPad too. My iPad Pro is powerful enough!!!

Quick and Dirty Thoughts on the WWDC Keynote

Here are some quick and dirty thoughts I have on many of the announcements at Apple’s WWDC Keynote on Monday.

Apple TV

Disappointed we didn’t get any new features in tvOS. Maybe next year with the introduction of new Apple TV hardware. YAY for the announcement of an Amazon Prime app though.

watchOS

Not really impressed here. The main things I think Apple Watch struggles with are…

  1. Access to audio controls
  2. A more predictive, contextual, ability to show things on the watch face

As for 1, Apple did address this by making music controls a swipe away while running a workout in the Workout app. I was hoping for something a little bit more globally accessible. They accomplished 2 by introducing the Siri watch face. But for me, the Siri watch face is too much of a compromise because it can’t show any other complications on the screen at the same time.

I am also disappointed that they didn’t announce a Podcast app or Notes app.

macOS

No complaints here really. I wanted them to start the process of breaking iTunes down into smaller apps. Maybe at least breaking Apple Music into its own app and TV into its own app and leaving the rest of the things iTunes does inside the app known as iTunes. Really though, I am cool with Apple making slower and steadier updates to macOS. My Mac is the machine I depend on the most for work so I appreciate that Apple is focused on stability.

Hardware

The new iPads look great! I can see myself eventually buying the 10.5 size. I love my 12.9 inch for reading scores with the forScore app, but I really miss being able to hold it comfortably with one hand and also reading it in bed. Maybe the 10.5 inch will be the perfect compromise.

The iMac Pro looks fantastic. Its not a machine I am looking for right now though so I will just enjoy it from far away and appreciate that Apple still cares about the Mac and its professional users.

iOS Features for iPad

  • Drag and drop: YES! Love it. Looks really well implemented too.
  • Dock: YES! A great idea I did not expect. 
  • Files app: This is where I started to loose my mind. A native file browser with support for Google Drive and Dropbox is going to completely change the way I use my iPad! This might be my favorite announcement of the entire keynote.
  • System wide markup. This is another one that is going to completely change the way I use my iPad. 
  • Notes app: Sooooo much good stuff here. In line drawing? AWESOME! Document scanner? AWESOME. Text searchable handwriting. YES! Bye Evernote.

… yeah. So this iPad stuff is going to be huge.

HomePod

Smart of Apple to position this device as competition against companies like Sonos instead of as competition for products like Google Home and Amazon Echo. The speaker ecosystem is something I really enjoy about having Sonos speakers but its lack of integration with my phone and music library is a constant hurdle. Something with good quality, that I can operate without using an extra app would be much more enjoyable. 

Will I buy one of these? It is really hard to see how this will play out. Amazon Echo and Sonos are working on some kind of integration. That could potentially keep me in that ecosystem, though the idea of selling the Sonos speakers and eventually replacing them with these Apple things has crossed my mind. It might be the kind of situation where I get one HomePod just to get a feel for it and then wait on additional purchases.

Syncing a File Between Logic and GarageBand (iOS) Through iCloud - First Test

I have taken it upon myself to test out the latest updates to GarageBand on iOS and Logic on Mac. Specifically, I have been pushing this new feature where you can prepare a Logic file you have started on the Mac for use on the GarageBand app on iOS.

This feature is compelling to me because a lot of my audio editing these days requires the power tools of Logic, but also the ease of simply booting up a project and making lots of light edits. For example, when I podcast, I usually only manage 2-6 tracks, not 30+. I need Logic for the control over my plugins, quick workflows, etc… but I also need a light and efficient way to make small edits on the go. I am constantly moving around between a busy schedule of public school, private lessons, concerts, gigs, and other miscellaneous commitments. It is nearly impossible to get any editing done on a Mac alone. The iPad is the perfect platform for this. Press the wake button, launch the app, and make a couple of quick cuts. There has not been a great way to work with Logic projects on the iPad, at least until this recent feature announcement.

Testing the First Project

Here is how I ran my first test of this feature. I created a Logic file on my Mac and added some software instrument tracks and audio tracks. I tried two audio tracks and two software instrument tracks for the first test. I wanted to keep it simple for the OS to handle and simple for me to keep track of how precisely it was syncing my edits (or not). 

After recording some MIDI notes and audio into these four tracks, I went to the File Menu and selected “Share->Project to Garage and for iOS.” This act creates a GarageBand version of the file in the “GarageBand iOS” folder which is stored within the iCloud Drive folder.

File Management is Messy as Usual

Ok, so this is where things get weird. It saddens me that Apple’s iCloud Drive model continues to overcomplicate the file syncing process. In my book, Digital Organization Tips for Music Teachers, I ponder why iCloud Drive does so little to compete with file services such as Dropbox, which has been simpler, more intuitive, and more reliable since the start. The same issue I describe in my book is at play in this Logic->GarageBand workflow. 

It is still weird to me that iCloud Drive has container folders within itself that are app specific. It seems to me that this is an unwelcome abstraction for users who are accustomed to putting files in whatever folder they want. You can do this in iCloud Drive, by the way, but then the counterpart apps on iOS do not practice the syncing the same way. For example, if you sync a Keynote file from a Mac to an iPad by placing it in the “Keynote” folder, you can instantly see it when you boot up Keynote on the iPad. However, if you save it somewhere else in the iCloud Drive folder, it will not appear in the file viewer on iPad. You have to manually go looking for it by clicking the “new” button and then selecting it from within iCloud Drive. I wrote more precisely and clearly on this topic a few years back.

Things get murkier when you consider that iCloud Drive has two GarageBand folders. One for iOS and one for macOS. I get why they did this. Projects made on an iPad and shared with an iPhone are automatically saved to the iOS folder which makes that process less convoluted. And the same is true of two Macs working on the same project that was started on macOS. Mac projects have to do some prep work to get files ready for iOS so it is important to make the distinction. But since macOS is capable of this prep work, why can’t it happen automatically when the Mac version of a file is closed? And why, if iCloud is capable of syncing complex GarageBand projects, does the Mac version still try to save projects to a local folder called “GarageBand” that is stored within the “Music” folder by default? 

 

iCloud Drive still sports these strange, app specific, folders, including two segregated folders for GarageBand projects. This does not even include the local GarageBand folder that is stored within the Music folder on the computer's hard drive.

iCloud Drive still sports these strange, app specific, folders, including two segregated folders for GarageBand projects. This does not even include the local GarageBand folder that is stored within the Music folder on the computer's hard drive.

This process only gets more complicated with Logic thrown into the mix. Here is why…

Back to the Story

Ok, so I prepped my Logic file with four tracks to be worked on from an iPad and it saved it as a GarageBand project and placed it into the “iOS GarageBand” folder within my iCloud Drive. Now I go to my iPad and boot up GarageBand. Hooray! The file is already waiting for me in the file browser when I launch the app. I tap on it, and it opens, reliably! Except my two audio files have been compressed into one track. I can understand this because audio tracks take up far less processing power when they are collapsed. But what if the audio part is what I wanted to edit on my iPad? Shouldn't this be an option when I prepare the file for GarageBand? The iPad version can definetely handle more than one audio track at a time.

Next, I fool around with this project on iPad for a bit, adding audio effects to the vocal track I recorded. In this case, I am adding the effect that makes the voice sound like a monster and the audio track is just me saying “YAAAAAAAAASSSSS” over a funk beat. So my wife is now rolling her eyes from the couch. 

This is the only edit I make, because again, I am trying to keep this simple. I go back to my Mac and find the “GarageBand iOS” folder. Certainly, I can open this file right back up in Logic, right? Wrong. I double click the file and it opens in GarageBand. Fair enough, but wait, now GarageBand wants me to save the file to another location because it has to reformat it for the Mac. So I have to create a duplicate copy elsewhere? Doesn’t that sort of defeat the point of this new feature? Ok, fine. I click “Save As…” Where does GarageBand want to save the new version? The “GarageBand” folder within my “Music” folder. Seriously? Not even the “macOS GarageBand” folder in my iCloud Drive? Ok, I get it. Most users have only 5GB of iCloud space. Apple is making the right decision here. So now I have two versions and have already interacted with four different folders just to manage this one file. 

  1. The Logic file was originally stored in the “Logic” folder from within my “Music” folder.

  2. The “macOS GarageBand” that I saved the GarageBand version of that Logic file to.

  3. The “iOS GarageBand” folder that I had to send the iOS version of the file to.

  4. The local “GarageBand” folder that I am now being prompted to save my GarageBand for Mac file within.

“Sigh.” Am I done yet? Nope, because I have to open the local copy and prepare it to go back to Logic, which then offers me to save a third copy of the file. Where? In my local “Logic” folder, also located in the “Music” folder… Are you keeping up? My original Logic file was created in that folder, so now I have four copies.

I am not really sure what I expected. If GarageBand and Logic can do all of this heavy lifting, it seems some of the file management stuff could be automated. My dream scenario would have been that I could save the Logic file right to the iCloud Drive from the Mac, open it from the same location on iOS (using GarageBand) and then just seamlessly go back and fourth between the two, but who am I kidding. I guess we just aren’t there technologically. 

Conclusion

It seems like this feature is just laying the ground work for a future where either Logic exists on the iPad and can sync projects over iCloud (my iPad Pro is certainly powerful enough for it). Or for a feature much like I just described above, where the iOS never gets Logic but the two become closer and closer in feature parity until it doesn’t matter.

That second scenario is what happened with a lovely app Apple used to make called Aperture. Aperture was to iPhoto what Logic is to GarageBand. iPhoto and Aperture became so compatible that at one point, you could even direct both apps to edit the same photo library. Want to know what happened to Aperture? Apple discontinued it a few years back. Now we have the Photos app to replace both iPhoto and Aperture. And while I miss some of my pro photo editing tools from Aperture, photos are an area where I can get by with most of the features that are still left over in the Photos app. But Logic is NOT an application that I could get by with if it were ever dissolved into GarageBand. So lets hope Apple is not following down that same path…