Sticking with Spotify

I’m aware I’m not a regular user when it comes to music. My reasons for sticking with Spotify are utterly personal and come from how I listen to music and how I’ve configured things on my Macs and in the household. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Now, before even downloading iOS 8.4 or the latest iTunes version and all that, the first thing I did was catching up with Kirk McElhearn’s blog. I’ve been following Kirk for years, and I realised his type of iTunes usage/configuration is similar to mine. I also imagined he wouldn’t miss the chance to test Apple Music and report, so I was waiting to read his reactions in that regard. Especially because my setup doesn’t allow me the luxury of testing stuff. (I keep wishing I could afford a second Intel Mac to use as a test machine, but that, I’m afraid, is not going to happen.)

Kirk wrote a series of short posts whose links are neatly arranged in this summary post: First Impressions of Apple Music. He confirms many of my initial fears. Here are a few quotes.

From Apple Music’s For You Selections Are not For Me:

Apple knows a lot about my musical tastes. It knows what I’ve bought from the iTunes Store, and it knows what’s in my iTunes library through its Genius feature. So it should get a lot better than that.

And:

Over time, Apple Music is supposed to learn from what you like, and what you don’t. In the recommendations in the For You section, you can tap an album and press until you see a (very long) menu. Tap Recommend Less Like This to tell Apple Music that you don’t like their selection. But that doesn’t remove it from the recommendations.

I’ve had a Premium Spotify account since late 2010, and when I access the Discover section, the recommendations I get are absolutely spot-on 98% of the time, considering that I share the account with my wife. She and I have similar musical tastes, and that remaining 2% are recommendations that work specifically for her, who listens to more opera than I do. I don’t have time to train Apple Music to reach the same level of accuracy I already enjoy with Spotify.

From the self-explanatory iCloud Music Library Screws Up Album Artwork:

After turning on Apple Music and iCloud Music Library, I noticed that a lot of my albums had artwork that was wrong.

I don’t want this to happen with my iTunes library. In fact, I really don’t want Apple Music to mess with my library at all. I’ve been building my iTunes library for 13 years. It has grown to a considerable size. It’s not huge, but complex enough. I have a lot of albums ripped from CDs and even vinyls. More than a half of my library contains music that is not on the iTunes Store. A lot of what’s not on the iTunes Store is ripped at high-quality bitrates. Over the years, I have painstakingly searched for the correct album artwork of everything I ripped, and copied & pasted good resolution images; everything is carefully tagged; every album and artist information meticulously entered and consolidated to avoid orphan tracks or strange duplicates or songs belonging to an album being assigned to a different one; and so on and so forth. Maybe I’m paranoid or OCD when it comes to these things, but I don’t need and I don’t want Apple Music or iCloud Music Library to mess up anything, no matter whatever convenience I may get in return.

It seems that lots of people see Apple Music’s integration as the winning feature, but I’m actually happy to keep things compartmentalised. When I’m at home, I use the iTunes library on my MacBook Pro to listen to the music I already own and have ripped for convenience. If I feel like listening to classical music, I have another, separate iTunes library on my G4 Cube with my favourites, all ripped in Apple Lossless format. And if I feel like listening to music I don’t own, or discovering new music and artists, I fire up Spotify and take advantage of what the service offers. Given that my wife and I have different habits and daily schedules, it’s quite rare that we both feel like listening to Spotify at the same time. When that happens, finding an agreement is very easy.

As for the music on my iPhone and iPad, I only have a few albums stored locally. Most of the time, it’s Spotify. Actually, most of the time I’m out and about either I don’t listen to music at all, or if I do, it’s usually random songs picked from a careful selection uploaded on my iPod shuffle. I do the curation work, thanks very much.

I really like how Spotify can be non-intrusive. If I want to add locally saved music to Spotify’s application, I can do so by entering Spotify’s Preferences and telling the app to Show Tracks From: iTunes, Downloads, or My Music. I keep all those settings off, and things stay happily separated. No overlaps, no confusion about what comes from Spotify and what is ripped and saved locally. If I want to discover new stuff or get recommendations, I choose to do so by entering the Discover section. There are no interferences while I listen, there is no training process to go through. I also find very handy to use Spotify playlists to ‘bookmark’ the albums I like to return to often, or things I found after a more complex search (e.g. certain film soundtracks, which I found more easily by discovering first who the composer is and then entering their name, than just looking for the film’s title). I currently have about a hundred playlists on Spotify: transferring all that information to Apple Music — which means finding all those albums on Apple Music manually, etc. — is something I really don’t have the time or the will to do.

To sum up: I manage my iTunes libraries in a very specific, meticulous way. I have sizeable, complex, neatly compiled & arranged iTunes libraries on different Macs and I want them to remain that way, without interferences. I want to maintain the streaming music part separated from the music that’s been ripped, saved and catalogued locally, so using a third-party streaming service like Spotify makes a lot of sense to me. On top of that, I’m happy with Spotify’s service and how easily it lets me keep things separated. And after five years of being a paying customer, I’ve accumulated a lot of preferences in Spotify, and its algorithm for recommending me new music is very well honed and basically perfect.

Last but not least, my Spotify account is shared with my wife. If we close our Spotify account, it’s certain we couldn’t use an Apple Music subscription in the same way, because we would have to use either my Apple ID or her Apple ID, which in turn is a mess because it’s also tied to other Apple services. Yes, we could probably set up a family account, and so on and so forth, but I really don’t see a good reason why we should go to all that trouble when ultimately we’re quite happy with how things work with Spotify. The principle Why fix what is not broken? definitely applies here. Apple Music doesn’t look compelling enough to make such a change.

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Apple Wireless Keyboard and Bluetooth profiles

I read with great interest Shibel K. Mansour’s review of the Logitech K480 keyboard. That keyboard was an option I seriously considered when I was looking for a Bluetooth keyboard to use mainly with my iPad for longer writing sessions. I remember finding the design attractive and sturdy enough. But the most interesting feature was the multi-device support and the ability to retain three different Bluetooth profiles to easily switch between devices.

But since I was looking for something lighter and less bulky (the Logitech K480 weighs 820 grams, which is roughly 200 grams less than an 11-inch MacBook Air), I ended up with the Incase Origami Workstation, which actually was the first accessory I had considered, since I already own an Apple Wireless Keyboard.

I’m really satisfied with the Origami Workstation. My Apple Wireless Keyboard is, by default, paired with the Power Mac G4 Cube (I bought a USB Bluetooth adapter long ago and use the Cube with the Wireless Keyboard and a wireless Mighty Mouse); at first I feared that, every time I wanted to grab the keyboard to use it with the iPad and the Origami Workstation, I would need to pair the keyboard with the iPad and then re-pair it with the Cube when I was done with the iPad. Not a big deal, but a tedious added step nonetheless.

It turns out that it’s not necessary. Perhaps it was well-known and I’m just stating the obvious, but in case you didn’t know this either, I found out that — after the initial pairing with the Mac and then with the iPad — the Apple Wireless Keyboard remembers the pairing with both devices. When I take it with me to use it with the iPad, I simply activate Bluetooth on the iPad, turn the keyboard on, press a key, and it’s connected. When I bring the keyboard back to the Cube, I just turn the keyboard on, press a key, and again it’s connected. Very handy.

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Not a laptop for writers

I have already offered a few first impressions on the new 12-inch MacBook with Retina display. In brief: it’s a lovely machine, it’s light, it has a gorgeous screen, a long battery life, an interesting new trackpad, and it could very well be my next Mac — too bad its quirky keyboard is a deal-breaking feature for me.

Back in April I wrote: I type a lot every day, so keyboard performance in a computer is one of the most important features for me. So, for the better part of the time I spent with the new MacBook, I tried to type as much as I could. And, like Christina Warren, I too found that “extended periods typing on the new MacBook keyboard tired my wrists a bit more than a traditional keyboard.” I also found the short key travel discomforting for my fingertips after just 15 minutes of more-or-less uninterrupted typing. Two months ago, my conclusion on the MacBook (and its keyboard) was:

It’s maddening. What I kept thinking was This should be the perfect computer for a writer and at the same time I was thinking I just can’t write on this MacBook all day.

Meanwhile, thanks to a generous acquaintance, I’ve had the opportunity to try the 12-inch MacBook much more extensively. I was hoping that my initial negative impressions regarding the keyboard would attenuate by spending more time typing on the MacBook and familiarising with the new hardware, using it in generally more comfortable situations than standing at an Apple Store desk without being able to move the computer much. Instead the experience did nothing but confirm I just can’t type consistently, comfortably, and for long sessions on this machine. Which is really a pity.

So when a friend pointed me to Matt Gemmell’s recent piece, A Laptop for Writers, I was curious to read an assessment that certainly promised to be different from mine.

Gemmell writes:

Otherwise, I was fluent and back up to speed with the new keyboard within an hour of switching over. It’s just not as different in use as it at first seems. The only lasting effect of the switch for me is that the keyboards on the Air, and my wife’s MacBook Pro, now feel spongy – but still perfectly usable. The shallower action on the new model still has enough travel to let you know that you’re typing. My error rate after the first day or so wasn’t any higher than on the Air’s scissor-action keys.

I used my loaned MacBook intensely over a weekend (Friday included), and while the typing mistakes almost entirely disappeared after a couple of hours, the keyboard maintained its unfamiliarity under my fingers all the time. When I briefly returned to other Macs and keyboards I use (like my MacBook Pro and my G4 PowerBooks) — as Gemmell notes — their keys felt softer and spongy indeed, but my fingers also felt quite relieved.

I’ve been lucky to never seriously suffer from RSI, but I’ve also always been careful. I believe that shallower-action keys are probably easier on the wrist. Whilst the keypress force on the new MacBook is delivered over a shorter travel, making it feel harder, I suspect that overall there’s less actual muscle movement required to operate each key compared to the much higher travel on the scissor-style keys on Air and Pro models (and indeed the desktop Apple keyboards).

In my experience, the opposite is true. I think we should not consider ‘key travel’ and ‘force to apply when typing’ as always in direct proportion. The keys of the Apple Extended Keyboard II, for example, have way more key travel than all modern Apple keyboards, but their responsiveness didn’t require me to apply more force. They have a different, and probably better, feedback that makes up for the longer key travel. That, in turn (at least for me) makes typing on such a keyboard much less stressful for my fingers, hands and wrists than typing on any modern flat keyboard. The only exception being the keyboard of the aluminium PowerBooks, which may sound and feel mushy to some people, while I find it to be one of the most comfortable and easy-on-the-hands Apple laptop keyboards ever.

Other mechanical keyboards I’ve used in the past, while having more or less the same key travel than the Apple Extended Keyboard II, required more force — perhaps because the keys themselves felt less robust, more wiggly, or because the switch mechanism simply required more force for the key to register.

Back to the MacBook keyboard, I ended up tiring my fingers and wrists much more than with any other keyboard (mechanical or otherwise) I’ve tried previously also because I could not find and retain the ‘right’ force to apply when typing. It’s like the keys always register slightly before the expected travel, and that kept my typing unbalanced and erratic. When you pass your fingers over the MacBook’s keyboard, you have the feeling you could simply touch type, applying very little force. In reality, you have to apply a bit more force, but each time I tapped on a key, I ended up with the feeling I was just hammering on it too much. The feeling I kept having while typing on the MacBook keyboard was: Too little force, and I risk not typing some of the characters; a bit more force and it feels like I’m bashing on the keys.

Perhaps the title I’ve chosen for this article is too harsh and just provocative for the sake of being provocative. Perhaps other writers out there may find the MacBook’s keyboard perfectly adequate for their needs and habits. But I’m really having a hard time believing such a keyboard can be comfortable in the long run for someone who writes for a living. After three days spent typing on the MacBook’s keyboard for very long sessions (e.g. five consecutive hours with brief pauses here and there), my hands and wrists were exhausted. I’m still convinced the new MacBook’s keyboard is for truly casual users, people who type URLs in the browser, write emails and the occasional note or document or blog post. Unlike Gemmell, I don’t think that “[a writer’s] work can happily masquerade as casual use”, nor that it’s comparable to what a blogger does. Writers may use less CPU-intensive tools, and that may give them an advantage in the choice of what computer to use, but their work and their computer usage is certainly not casual.

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My only WWDC 2015 wish: a truly better OS X

In less than an hour the WWDC 2015 will begin. This time I haven’t been reading much about it, and I don’t know anything about related rumours. The only thing I’ve caught on Twitter about the next versions of OS X and iOS is that for both, the focus will probably be more on technical refinements than a superficial list of shiny new features. Oh, and that the San Francisco font will probably become the new system font for OS X 10.11. If these things turn out to be true, well, it’s good news to me.

I’ve nothing to complain about iOS 8, actually. It has been working very well on all of my and my wife’s iOS devices (iPhone 5, iPad 2, iPad 3), and I’ve enjoyed all the new features and improvements over iOS 7. Such improvements, I feel, have made sense, and have noticeably contributed to an overall better iOS experience.

Those who have been following me for a while now will already know what I think about OS X Yosemite. While iOS 8 has truly felt like an improvement over iOS 7 and a further step in the right direction, I can’t say the same about Yosemite. Full disclosure here: at the risk of sounding full of bullshit and unprofessional — no, my stance on OS X Yosemite doesn’t come from direct experience. I still haven’t installed it on my MacBook Pro, and I don’t intend to even if the Mac technically supports it. But I have had enough of it from indirect or ‘quasi-direct’ experience, meaning I’ve used other people’s Macs with Yosemite installed, usually to perform some troubleshooting session.

So far, even without installing it on my Mac, I can say that Yosemite has largely been an unreliable experience, and has felt unnecessary for my Mac computing needs. Let me reiterate the point: the impression of unreliability and unpredictability is not merely derived from hearsay, or simply based on the (admittedly numerous) complaints people have voiced online. It’s something I’ve witnessed with my own eyes when assisting other users with Yosemite installed on their Mac. Most of these users, I should add, are rather tech-savvy people, not Mac novices at all.

As for considering Yosemite an unnecessary upgrade: last year, I was initially excited by this new version of OS X. Especially when it was confirmed it would run on my aging mid-2009 MacBook Pro. I couldn’t wait to take advantage of what I considered the best innovation in Yosemite: Continuity and Handoff. I was ready to forget about my utter dislike for Neue Helvetica as system font and the new design of the user interface. But when I realised that Continuity wasn’t supported by my MacBook Pro’s hardware, the initial enthusiasm rapidly faded away. Meanwhile, friends and acquaintances who had upgraded started asking for my help — their Macs felt more sluggish, they had all kinds of problems with Wi-Fi, and so on.

So I began delaying the upgrade on my Mac. I waited for 10.10.1, then 10.10.2, then 10.10.3… But meanwhile I’ve also been asking myself, more and more frequently, what’s the point? Why should I install Yosemite on my Mac? Mavericks works fine. I don’t like Yosemite’s UI. I don’t have a retina display nor have I good eyesight, so Neue Helvetica is a definite step back compared to Lucida Grande. The only aspect of Yosemite that could be truly useful to me — Handoff — is not supported on my Mac (and my iOS devices are too old anyway). Photos for Mac alone is not compelling enough. Why lose time to install, and then surely troubleshoot, OS X Yosemite, when I can stay on Mavericks, keep working in an environment that’s stable and doesn’t give me surprises or show unexpected behaviour, and whose user interface I actually like better?

So here we are. The WWDC 2015 is about to start, and I really want to know what are the plans for OS X 10.11. I do hope Apple’s focus will be on offering a sort of ‘stable version of Yosemite’ kind of update, like Snow Leopard was to Leopard a few years back. I have come to a point in my computing experience where I’m more interested in stability rather than new features for the sake of adding features. How innovation is implemented is more important to me than innovation ‘just because,’ if you know what I mean. Therefore, my only wish for OS X 10.11 is that it doesn’t feel as ‘beta’ as Yosemite still feels after a few minor updates.

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The hiatus

It’s been over a month since I last updated this place. The other day I tweeted a hint as to why:

Still, since I have received a few concerned messages about my silence, I figured I could give a quick update regarding this hiatus. The short answer is, I’m fine, I’ve just been busy doing other things. The more articulate answer is, There are a few reasons behind my not publishing anything since the end of April.

  1. Vantage Point magazine takes up a fair amount of my time. Working on two issues per month is hard. I knew it when I self-imposed this periodicity at the start, and although I’ve been a bit behind with the schedule, I’m confident my (few) readers will understand that I always try to put quality before anything else and I don’t want to rush an issue just for calendar reasons. Each issue has a theme, and sometimes finding one can be surprisingly difficult. Lately I’ve practically scrapped an entire issue because I was not satisfied with the chosen theme and the articles written about it. I’ve also had to rewrite an episode of Low Fidelity, the sci-fi serialised novel that’s a recurrent feature of the magazine. By the way, if you’re a subscriber and you’re enjoying Vantage Point, please spread the word, help me expand my readership and make this endeavour worthwhile since I’m still operating at a loss and the magazine is still basically at the labour-of-love stage. Thank you.
  2. The (film) photography bug has bitten me once again, and hard. I’ve been shooting more, reading more about photography, spending more time on photography sites (damn you, Japan Camera Hunter), looking for new old gear, even discovering interesting YouTube channels on the subject (gasp!). I also managed to restore both a camera and a lens to a functional state, and that took time as well:

    Canon A-1

    Canon A-1 with 50mm f1.4 lens

  3. I’ve been trying out Textshot+, an interesting app by Lionheart Software — the creators of Pushpin, my favourite iOS client for Pinboard.
  4. Speaking of Pushpin, I’ve also been working on updating the Italian localisation (something long overdue, I know).
  5. Perhaps this will sound strange, but another reason I haven’t published anything tech-related here lately is that I haven’t found anything in tech worth being enthusiastic over. New stuff is introduced all the time, and maybe it’s just that I’m having difficulties with keeping up with the pace, or maybe it’s the maddening pace of the debate surrounding whatever’s being introduced that I find more alienating than ever. Since nobody seems interested in slowing the hell down, well, I did. There is less and less time to process information today — the tech world online is perpetuating this breakneck pace, where, say, a product is announced or introduced, and before you can even take a look at it yourself, a dozen sources are already throwing their opinions in your face. Sometimes the noise of all these opinions and speculations flying around is just too overwhelming and one needs to tune out.
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