RunGap is the Perfect iOS 11 Fitness App

Last year when watchOS 3 launched, I wrote about it and iOS 10 in terms of fitness. The watch update especially was clearly designed to primarily push the device from a general purpose wrist computer to being a specialized fitness tracker, with some other functionality along for the ride.

This year’s releases of watchOS 4 and iOS 11 are not as fitness focused. But there is one change that made a dramatic difference for me, and I imagine for other Watch Series 2 owners. When the Series 2 watch with GPS was unveiled I thought that it would be the perfect run tracking device. And it was so close. But there was a major issue if you used the Apple workout app to track your runs. The maps were trapped inside the Activity app. There was no way to export that data to RunKeeper, Strava, or even a standard GPX file.

iOS 11 changes this. HealthKit now has the ability to store and export GPS data, and third party apps can take advantage of this. And one app to support this feature on day one was RunGap. I have previously used RunGap to sync up RunKeeper data to Strava and a few other running services. This is mainly due to the fact that RunKeeper has been an unreliable service as of late. Their watch app in particular would crash on my constantly. And as much as I previously recommended iSmoothRun, it has been very slow to update and the watch app leaves much to be desired.

An example of a run map stored inside the Health app.
An example of a run map stored inside the Health app.

The built in Workout app on the watch, however, is rock solid. It has become my preferred tool for tracking runs. And now with RunGap, I can still send that workout data to the other services I use. It is the best of both worlds. If you want to use the workout app on your Apple Watch but the previous limitation on data exporting prevented you from doing so, I highly recommend updating your operating systems, downloading RunGap, and giving it a try.

RunGap supports sharing workouts to many different services.
RunGap supports sharing workouts to many different services.

I have previously written about apps that respect you, and I have all the confidence that RunGap’s developers respect their users. I had an issue at one point and they replied to me within an hour. And that was on the weekend! Another sign of this respect for users is that while the app will read from Nike+, it won’t write to it. This is due to Nike’s lock in attempts. They have no easy way to export data. This kind of opinionated design in the app may stick some as restrictive, but it also shows that the developer has thought about user rights.

Aside from the iPad updates, this is my favorite new feature of iOS 11. Once again Apple has put out a solid update to their increasingly powerful fitness platform. RunGap is exactly the kind of app that every user of this platform should have in their arsenal.

We the Writers Must Do Better

Whenever a tech company gets caught doing something sketchy, the response is almost always something along the lines of “We need to do better”. This week it was unroll.me issuing the “Sorry not sorry you are upset / we need to do better” statement after it came to light that they were straight up selling your data out to the highest bidder.1

It is common wisdom in tech circles that if the product is free, then you are the product. And yet, these business keep popping up, offing free services with not a hint of a business model in sight. And they keep growing. Why?

While running a search for more about unroll.me I got the following result in Google, which brilliantly demonstrates the problem.

And it is not just CNET. Searching for results from 2013 (when it became prominent) brings up dozens of articles glowingly covering the service, including LifeHacker, PCWorld, and mainstream news such as ABC and Newsweek.

People use these services because they hear about them. And they are free. So what do you have to lose? Turns out what you have to lose is your every thought, every business transaction, and any hint of privacy you may still have. Because we keep telling people to go ahead and try it out.

So we need to do better. I need to do better, and everyone else who writes about technology needs to do better.

Those of us who write about tech need to start taking this into account. From now on I won’t review any app or service unless I have a reasonable understanding of its business model. If it doesn’t have one, that is a huge red flag. And yes, I will even start reading terms of service and privacy policies. This does not mean I won’t ever recommend an app that allows advertising or tracking. But it needs to be reasonable, and I will be sure to highlight it.

I can’t promise to never lead a reader down there wrong path2, but I will at least make sure they are properly informed. And the Slices of the world can find someone else to push their invasive services. I want no part of it.

  1. Uber in this case. Because there is no rake on this earth that they cannot resist stomping on.
  2. Companies can lie, or at best tell partial truths.

Quiver: Code and Commands

In Part 1 of my series on leaving Evernote I took a look at Google Keep. Part 2 is an app that most people will have no need for, but it ended up being a very useful tool in my day to day work. It is Quiver, a note taking app designed specifically for code.

I actually started using Quiver while I was still using Evernote. While Evernote was an okay place to store code snippets, it wasn’t ideal. Notes are rich text by default, and if you wanted any sort of syntax highlighting, you had to do it by hand. Evernote was not designed with this task in mind.

Quiver is different. Code is its purpose. Yes, it can be made to function as a very nice plaintext note app, but that isn’t the primary purpose. Like Evernote you can create various notebooks, each storing a collection of individual notes. The notes can contain a mix of “cells” that are either rich text, code, markdown, latex, and diagram.

The code cells are the big one for me. Quiver isn’t an IDE, nor is it meant to be. I don’t use it to write any complex scripts or programs. But my job does require me to use a lot of commands, whether it be managing Macs, configuring switches, or setting up servers. I can’t keep it all in my head. Quiver has been extremely valuable for recording and finding these commands. In particular those ones that are used infrequently. I can’t commit them to memory, but I can easily find them in my Quiver library. It provides the answer to those “how did I solve that last time” questions. I also created a few notebooks for my “standard setups”. If I need to quickly spin up a web server, I can open that notebook, follow the commands in order, and end up with a system configured exactly how I want, with all the security settings that are important to not overlook. Yes, I know how to do this in my head, for the most part, but being able to follow a checklist pretty much guarantees I am not accidentally skipping a step.

The only real downside to Quiver right now is that it does not have an iOS component. A beta was announced a while ago, but nothing has come of that yet. Quiver does support sync via Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Drive, so I am able to keep a copy on both my home and work MacBook Pro. I use Dropbox for sync and has been completely reliable. The library can be stored anywhere, so in theory you could set up your own server and sync through it in the event you were syncing sensitive data and would rather not trust a public cloud service.

Given that I rarely do this kind of work on iOS, it isn’t a big deal right now that the iOS version has yet to materialize. It is something to keep in mind if you are regularly using an iPad for this kind of work.

Most people don’t need Quiver, and you could easily use another tool to store code notes. But I like having a tool dedicated to this task. I can very quickly find the commands I am looking for without returning a whole bunch of other unrelated results. If you are a programer, sysadmin, or any job that requires regular use of the command line and / or programming languages, this is a great tool to have in your arsenal.

The Apps that Replaced Evernote

After quitting Evernote I went off in search of the One True Evernote Replacement. Turns out there is no such thing. Or rather, I found that there shouldn’t be. I used Evernote much as the creators intended, as a repository of basically everything I could ever want to recall at a later date. While this has an advantage in that there is one unified place for everything, in practice there was a hidden cost. Actually using the data I had saved was becoming a burden. So rather than replace Evernote with a single app, I replaced it with four.

  • Google Keep: Short, frequently referred to notes, as well as tasks. Basically the modern replacement for Stickies.
  • Microsoft OneNote: The most Evernote-like of my new apps. This is where I take longer text notes, as well as clipping websites I intend to use often and/or annotate.
  • DEVONthink: This is an app I knew about but never used before. It ended up being a near perfect solution to “place where I save things that I may or may not ever need again”. Receipts, attachments, random screenshots, and most of all, web articles I am saving “just in case”.
  • Quiver: Specifically for code notes.

It is counterintuitive that four different apps would perform better and be more convenient than one, but it ends up working better in day to day use. Everything has its place, in an app optimized for that purpose. I will explore each of these solutions in detail in subsequent posts.

One question that you may ask is “Why not Apple Notes?” It is true that Apple Notes has gotten much, much better in recent years. And for most people I think it is the right solution. But that usually ends up a liability for me. Anything that is “right for almost everyone” tends to be wrong for someone as particular as I am. Notes is great, but the apps I ended up settling on are all better in ways that, though small, total up to being a more enjoyable experience. I am not knocking Notes or its capabilities, but it is not quite what I am looking for.

Goodbye Evernote

I am quitting Evernote, and this time it will be permanent. I have have given then the benefit of so many doubts that I honestly can’t remember the last time I was genuinely happy with the product. The level of mismanagement at this company is simply astounding. This week’s change to the privacy policy broke the camel’s back. I said over a year ago I would leave. I have given them much more time to sort things out than I said I would. Despite being in a hole so deep that sunlight can’t reach the bottom, they just kept digging and digging.

Somehow, at a moment when a large portion of the world is in a total panic over their digital privacy, Evernote thought it would be a good idea to opt everyone into letting their staff see our notes without our knowledge. Of course the CEO tried to explain away the change using the Silicon Valley version of “I’m sorry you were offended”. Then, after that didn’t quell the storm, they backtracked entirely. But it doesn’t matter. I no longer have any trust in the leadership at this company to do the right thing.

I stuck around through the product getting bloated and slow.

I stuck around through “Would you like to try Work Chat?”

I stuck around when they started selling socks.

I stuck around when they started inserting links to useless articles.

I stuck around when the jacked up the price with no new features or fixes.

I stuck around when they lost some of my data.

I could excuse a lot if the product got better. But it is slower than ever, to the point that I rarely even open the app on anything other than my MacBook Pro, and even there is painful. They ruined Skitch, which was a great app once upon a time. They don’t need to improve their machine learning. They need to improve the core app. But it seems this won’t be happening.

It pains me to leave. I have been using Evernote since day one of the App Store. I have been a paying user nearly that entire time. I taught classes on Evernote at Tekserve. But at some point you have to admit that the relationship no longer works and it is time to move on.

I expect that one day students in business school will study Evernote as an example of how startups can go horribly wrong.

As I type these words, I am running the Microsoft OneNote Import Tool to move all my notes over. Then I will delete each and every one from Evernote’s servers. And then the elephant will go to the trash.

Super Mario Running Toward One Star Reviews

Super Mario Run launches tomorrow. It will be very successful. It will also get a lot of one star reviews. This is because it will require an internet connection to play. I know this. You probably know this if you have read any tech news recently.

But most people don’t read tech news. They won’t know. They will buy the app because it will be marketed heavily. Mario is a cultural phenomenon. Everyone knows Mario games. This despite being “expensive” by App Store standards at $10.

These users, unaware of the copy protection that will require a constant internet connection, will go into the subway, or on to a plane, or anywhere with no or limited connection, and the app will fail. Nintendo does not have enough experience with mobile gaming to realize the problem. Users will be angry.

And then be on the lookout for 1.1, which will feature a new “offline mode”.

My Year with Google Photos

About a year ago iCloud Photo Library failed me. It was not the first time, but it was the last. While Photo Library has generally gotten much better reviews than most of iCloud’s other services, for some reason I continually ran into issues. So as with nearly everything else in my life, I looked to Google to ease my iCloud woes. And I have been extremely happy. Google Photos was born out of the remains of both Picasa and Google+. The former was a well liked, but aging desktop/cloud hybrid app. The latter Google’s desperate, and ultimately failed attempt at competing with Facebook in the social network field. Photos is Google at it’s best; a fast, reliable, easy to use cloud app.

Getting Started

This proved to be the most difficult part of switching to Google Photos, or at least the most time consuming. At this point all of my photos were in Apple’s Photos app for the desktop. My goal was to transfer this directly into Google, keeping my existing albums. Unfortunately, there were no tools that made this automatic. Google does have an uploader tool, but all it does it point at the originals folder within the Photos library structure. There are two problems with this. The first is that any edits made in Photos will not be uploaded, only the original version. I wanted my edits, and the inability to revert to the originals once in Google was not a concern. The second issue was my albums. The uploader does not load albums at all.

The solution was to first export all the photos from my Albums, and upload each album one at a time to Google. Once those albums were all created there, I exported every single photo and video from my Photos library, using the current version, and uploaded them in batches of 500. Trying to upload more than 500 at a time slowed the process to a crawl. I uploaded everything by simply dragging into Chrome. It is impressive both on the server side and on the browser side that I never experienced a single problem with this upload process. The photos already loaded into albums were skipped. There were no duplicate photos when I was done.

I should also note that I have a G Suite unlimited account, so storage is not a concern and I used the full originals. But even if you don’t have a professional account, Google Drive has very reasonable pricing and in my opinion it is worth paying to be able to upload originals.

There was only one other issue I encountered. Videos I shot on my iPhone as either slow motion or time lapse did not retain these properties when uploaded through the browser. Only when loaded directly from my phone. The solution here was to send these videos back to my phone via AirDrop and use the iOS app to upload these videos. Google’s web app won’t show the slow motion videos the way the phone does, but they do work correctly when downloaded.

iOS Apps

Now that all my historical data was there, I set up the iPhone and iPad apps to upload all photos and videos in original form to Google as soon as they are taken. Unlike iCloud Photos, there was no long sync at the beginning to pull the existing library down. It was all there right away. Uploads are fast and I have yet to see a single photo or video fail. If you have an iPhone capable of taking Live Photos, these will be uploaded and can be displayed within the app. It isn’t quite as nice as in the default app, but it works well enough. The web app does not support Live Photos unfortunately.

Another advantage of Google Photos is that it supports multiple accounts, something you cannot do in iCloud Photo Library. Since my work account is also a Google Apps account, I can take photos on my phone that are work related and upload those, and only those, to my work account. Since only the primary account auto uploads I don’t have to worry about any unintended uploads to my work account. A single tap switches between the two.

Google has heavily marketed this app as a space saving feature. Google Photos will, if you choose to do so, remove any photos and videos from your local storage once they are safely stored in the cloud. Apple does a similar thing with iCloud Library, but it still maintains a smaller version of the photo on your local device. With Google Photos you can remove the photo completely, leaving it only in the cloud. If you have a phone with lower storage this can be a huge help. Even if you don’t (my iPhone 7 Plus is 256GB) it still can help reduce iCloud backup sizes. No need to keep the photos in two places.

Reliablity

I have never had an upload issue with Google Photos. Ever. Only once did I have a problem at all, with the iPad app not displaying new photos uploaded from other devices. The fix was simply to delete the app and reinstall. That was it. When I had to do this with iCloud Photo Library it took hours for the photos to clear from my device (you can’t delete Photos.app, only turn off iCloud).

I can load photos from anywhere. If I am on my work computer all I have to do is open Chrome and upload the photo. Then sign out if I don’t want to keep everything there. While iCloud has a web app for photos, it is extremely basic. Google gives me the whole experience.

Another selling point of Google Photos is its ability to search. Given that it is Google this is not a surprise. But still it is amazing just how accurate this feature is. Apple is trying the same thing, but Google does it faster, more reliably, and can sync everything across the web. Privacy concerns aside, and I will say that I do trust Google to do the right thing, it makes me feel like I can rely on Google much more than Apple when I want to actually find my photos.

Feature Requests

Great as Google Photos is, there are some features they are missing that I would like to see. While search is great on its own, I would like to see some sort of smart album capability. Apple does this well, and its absence in Google Photos makes it a little more difficult to drill down into my library the way I am used to. Another feature from Photos.app that I miss is the ability to create printed products such as books, calendars, and cards. I have used this service extensively over the years and would love to see it built into the places where my photos now live. Having said that, I still keep my old Photos library on an external drive, and will occasionally load photos from Google into it. This way I still have my local photo library and can use those missing features, but I consider Google my true library.

Conclusion

Google Photos is a stellar product. It is all the best parts of Google. Their ability to do a reliable and easy to use web app is unmatched in the industry. Their iOS app is amazingly good, especially considering it is on their main competitor’s platform. While there are certainly people who are wary of Google due to the sheer amount of information they collect, I think Google has proven that, a few lapses in judgement aside, they have been respectful of user’s privacy in relation to this service. Despite Apple’s improvements in iCloud, I see no reason to return. Google Photos gets large feature upgrades frequently, not once a year. Ultimately I trust Google more. I trust that when I sync data to their servers it will work. Apple has a way to go to reach this level of trust for me. And that is okay. The iPhone is the best camera you can get on a smartphone. The fact that someone else provides the best place to keep those photos does not take away from that fact for me.

Pokémon Go Failed at Security, but Google Failed Harder

If you downloaded Pokémon Go (and there is a good chance that you did as it is at the top of the App Store charts), you may have tried to create a Pokémon trainer account, only to find that the servers were overloaded and that you can’t. So you likely moved to the other option, which is to use your Google account. If you happened to be using iOS, what you ended up doing was giving Niantic full access to your Google account. This means that short of deleting it entirely or spending money, they have almost limitless access to your Google data. This includes your emails, you contacts, your documents, your photos, and more.

Full Google account access granted to Pokemon

This is extremely bad. Any rogue employee at the company could potentially access any users personal data if they could gain high enough credentials. That is to say nothing of a potential server breach, which just became infinitely more valuable. While this is likely a mistake, it is a pretty major one.

But even worse is that Google allowed this to happen in the first place. At no point during the login is it ever presented to you that you are giving this high a level of access. Most other apps present a dialog explaining the permissions that you are about to grant before allowing you to confirm. But in this case, nothing. Full access is silently granted. This is a malicious hackers dream come true.

Not only should it never be possible to skip the permissions screen, but anything requesting full access should pop up a big, scary warning to make it painfully clear that you are about to sign over the keys to the kingdom. Especially considering how many Google accounts are being used in education and business. I question whether this should be an option at all for anyone other than a properly vetted and trusted partner. This is inexcusable both in that this is being allowed to happen, and that Google has not as of this writing blocked access. They should take their users account security far more seriously than being an inconvenience to Niantic.

And Niantic needs to issue a statement on this whole mess beyond “No comment to share at the moment.” No, sorry, the correct answer is “Holy crap we messed up and we have our engineers working to sort this out yesterday! All hands on deck.” This is a major security error that requires an emergency patch.

For now at least, revoke the app’s authorization. This will cut it off completely (that’s what is nice about OAuth, your password is not sent to the other company, so you can revoke access without having to change it).

Authenticating through a third party, especially one that is (normally) as secure as Google has its benefits. It means a hack on the third party won’t disclose your passwords, preventing the massive data dumps we have seen time and again. But I can’t help but feel we have allowed ourselves to become way too comfortable granting this access to our most important repositories of information. Google needs some serious quality control over what it allows to access your data. Say what you will about Apple’s app review. They may be heavy handed, but their demands to developers that they explain their reasons for requesting your data goes a long way to prevent this kind of error.

iSmoothRun: Lapping RunKeeper in the Race for Best Running App

I have been a RunKeeper user basically since I started running regularly back in 2009. I would go so far as to credit the app with helping me go from being winded after a mile to completing 13 marathons and over a hundred other races within the last seven years. But lately things have been going wrong. Very wrong. Every update has been worse than the last. I submitted tickets, I hoped that things would get better, but it got me nowhere. The app crashes more often than it works, the watch app is useless, and the whole experience with the platform has become a big bloated mess. Unfortunately, in light of RunKeeper’s sale to ASICS, it appears to be yet another tech startup being destroyed by its own success.

This all reminded me of a running app I downloaded forever ago but gave little thought to over the years, iSmoothRun. After a month of using it instead of RunKeeper, I have no intention to switch back. This app now occupies the space on my home screen that RunKeeper has had for seven years. With this new app in hand, I can continue to use RunKeeper’s backend service for now as it still functions well enough, but am no longer locked into their increasingly buggy iPhone app.

First of all, the most important feature of iSmoothRun is that it is stable. You would think this is an obvious feature, but somehow it seems to get missed amongst the third or fourth rebranding. I have not had it crash on me yet. Not once. It is not my idea of a good run when I have to stop to take my phone out and troubleshoot why an app is no longer working. iSmoothRun gives me the peace of mind that this won’t happen.

iSmoothRun is easily the most customizable app I have ever used. Not just running app, any app. The device’s main display during a run is completely under your control. Want to see average pace instead of current pace? No problem. Or show both, or neither. There are 11 spaces on the main screen for different stats and none are locked in. If, for some reason, you didn’t want to see time and distance, you can swap them for something else. Pretty much every stat you could imagine is available to you here. The same goes for the Apple Watch display. You pick the stats that are important to you.

iSmoothRun dashboard setup
The setup screen for the dashboard displayed when tracking a run. Every single section is editable.

Perhaps the most important reason I am switching to iSmoothRun is its integration with other services. Pretty much every other running app available is all about getting you locked into their system. So while they may offer some import and export capability, it is never straightforward or simple. iSmoothRun has 16 different integrated services (not counting Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, or email) and you are free to use as many or as few as you wish. RunKeeper is one of the services and iSmoothRun has virtually 100% compatibility with it. Looking at runs tracked side by side it would be impossible to tell which app was used. It is that good. But because of the extra possibilities I have started exploring additional services. Strava looks to be the most interesting of the group so far. By signing in and enabling export on save, my run is automatically sent to every account I have chosen. No more lock in, no more requesting downloads of my data. This alone is worth switching for, stability aside.

iSmoothRun supported accounts
Supported accounts. The full list does not fit in a single screenshot!

It should also be noted that if you prefer to stay offline, that is fine too. iSmoothRun does not require you to connect to any service, giving you a completely private running log.

There are a few minor issues with iSmoothRun. Currently, the Apple Watch app cannot actually save a run, which means that it does not reflect in the Workout section of the Activity app. The workaround here is to also start the built in Workout app on the watch, but having to enable two apps is not ideal. The developer has stated that this capability has been developed, so hopefully we see it soon. Also, the Watch app does not do a great job of heart rate monitoring, but this looks to be more a watch limitation. A dedicated chest strap for heart rate is a good purchase if you care about that sort of thing (the Wahoo TICKR works very well for me).

iSmoothRun is one of the few paid-up-front, independently developed fitness apps left in the App Store. It is a travesty what the activewear companies who purchased the rest have done to those products. It is clear that they have absolutely no respect for the users. It’s all about branding and marketing, and the products have suffered dearly for it. iSmoothRun is a breath of fresh air. An app that cares about the user experience, that respects you and your data, and that works exactly as promised every time. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Breaking Up with a MAS-hole

So Mac App Store, we have to talk.

When I first met you it was magical. You promised to solve one of the most annoying aspects of computer usage, app management. No more licenses to lose, no more missing updates. Software would be secure and easy to find. You were a modern, first party solution that would achieve what sites like VersionTracker (RIP) had long ago tried to solve.

I was so excited for our new relationship that I started repurchasing apps from you, even if I already owned them. You were such a big help then. When I got my most recent computer, I didn’t have to do the usual dance of downloading dozens of installers, I just picked the apps I needed from my purchased list. I always looked to you first for apps, even if I could by from the developer’s site.

But lately I feel like you have been taking our relationship for granted. You haven’t been holding up your end of the bargain. In fact, you haven’t even said you’re sorry for messing up a good portion of my week. You just disappeared, leaving me with quite a mess to clean up. I think it’s time I start seeing other stores.

For free apps available outside, I am going back to the non-store version. For paid apps I will reach out to developers and see if they have a method for switching to a non store license. We can still hang out sometimes, but only when I need an Apple app, or if I have the urge to buy a poorly written Facebook notifier.

I’m tired of waiting weeks for important updates while users who purchased elsewhere have immediate access. I’m tired of having to download plugins from other places to make my apps fully functional. I’m tired of having to enter my iTunes password randomly upon opening certain software. I’m tired of not getting upgrade pricing. And most of all I am tired of the buggy, unreliable experience. The apps I bought outside the store have been, for the most part, rock solid.

It’s a shame really. Will and I just finally set up a family account to easily share software between each other. And now I’m back to managing licenses and updates myself. But at least my software will work, and developers won’t be helpless to assist if I do have issues.

Sorry Mac App Store, but you have been too much of a MAS-hole lately. I deserve better. It’s not me, its you.