Top 10 settings to check on family iPhones and iPads

No matter what else happens in my life — professional success (a big win at work!) or personal joys (a new child!) — I have always been my family’s technical support guy. So this holiday season, as usual, I spent hours answering questions for family members and helping tune all their gadgets. This year’s focus was on iPads and iPhones. Between my sisters, parents, in-laws, nieces, and my own kids, we had a total of 21 iDevices. User ages range from 4 to 83, with little technical knowledge and less time to explore their gadgets.

Many settings needed tweaking. Here are the top 10 tips for our collection of iDevices (well, 11 tips, plus two bonus ones). They are designed for our situation — iDevice users who don’t want their kids to spend a fortune on data overages, where a big goal is to encourage more communication inside your family:

  1. Settings→Wi-Fi: Make sure each device is connected to the Wi-Fi at home, and that the connection is working. My 11-year old niece’s iPad was “connected” to an old broken Wi-Fi hotspot. She thought she was using Wi-Fi but in fact racked up 4.5 GB of data usage in less than 3 weeks.
  2. Settings→Cellular: Turn off Data Roaming. My sister turned on her iPhone for 10 minutes in Mexico earlier this year and racked up $350 of data charges. If you have teenagers, and you don’t like spending a fortune on data plan overages, under Use Cellular Data For, make sure YouTube, 8Track, Spotify, and other media streaming services are turned off. This way they will only use Wi-Fi. My 14-year old niece’s iPhone used over 7 GB in cellular data from these apps in just three months.
  3. Settings→General→Software Update: If there are any software updates, including to iOS 7, make a backup first and then do the update. My 10-year old niece’s iPad mini crashed during the iOS 7 update and I didn’t back it up first. The most recent backup was from 5 days earlier, and she lost about 1,000 coins from a few games she had been playing, plus a very special sparkly dragon character she had bought with them. Tears were shed.
  4. Settings→General→Usage: Explain how this shows how much space they are using for different apps. Explain that high definition video is 100MB per minute. Make an effort to get teenagers to delete any unneeded apps. Fail in your efforts.
  5. Settings→General→International→Keyboards: Add an emoji keyboard. To communicate with teenagers, you’ll need both words and emoji. Emoji are a standard set of smileys and other iconography first developed in Japan but are now widely used by teenagers everywhere. For example, when asked if she had the emoji keyboard turned on one of my nieces replied, “Of course I do. What kind of 10-year old wouldn’t?”
  6. Settings→iCloud: Login to iCloud. Turn on Find My iPhone. This not only helps find a lost phone but triggers all of Apple’s nice new anti-theft features. Suggest they use iCloud backups. For most, it’s worth it to get automatic backups every time a device is plugged in. Plus, you don’t need to clutter up your iTunes with the 1000+ apps that your kids download.
  7. Settings→Mail, Contacts, Calendars: For email accounts, make sure they’re connected via IMAP accounts and not POP. Curse email providers who either don’t provide or don’t default to IMAP (I’m looking at you, Earthlink and MSN/Hotmail/Live/whatever). For the teenagers, explain email (“texting for old people” has worked for me).
  8. Settings→Messages: Make sure they’re signed into their own Apple ID, not a parent’s. My 14-year old niece had been receiving/reading all of her father’s iMessages, and replying as him sometimes, because he had signed her into his iTunes store account but not changed her Apple ID for iMessage. Suggest they turn on Send Read Receipts — it’s great. Ensure both their phone number and Apple ID are included under Send & Receive.
  9. Settings→FaceTime: Make sure it’s turned on and they’re logged into their own Apple ID.
  10. Settings→iTunes & App Store: Turn on Automatic downloads for Updates, and maybe the others. Turn off Use Cellular Data. One of my nieces had over 1.7 GB of cellular downloads from the App Store.
  11. Find my Friends: This one is a matter of personal choice, but in our family the principle is that kids and parents — whatever their ages — share location data with each other. I know where my 83-year old mother is, and she knows where I am.

A final note on Restrictions. For parents, Settings→General→Restrictions has a comprehensive set of restrictions you can place on making changes to an iDevice. There are some personal decisions to make about how and when to restrict your kid use. Here are two that we use:

  1. Under Allow Changes, you can lock a variety of the above settings. For example, if you don’t want your child to be able to turn off Find my Friends, change the Cellular Data Use features, Background App Refresh, you can select “Don’t Allow Changes” under each.
  2. For my little kids, we disable Installing AppsDeleting AppsIn-App Purchases. This is mostly to avoid accidental or older-cousin-induced purchases.

The result of all this will, hopefully, be fewer data overages, more communication among family, and general rightness in the world. However, restrictions on installing apps might lead to awkward moment like this sales job from my Fruit Ninja obsessed 6-year old:

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Upgrade review – Panasonic ST60 Plasma TV

This post in the third in a series on home electronics upgrades I’ve considered.

In 2003, Beyoncé put out her first solo album, Arrested Development premiered, Peter Jackson released the third of his Lord of the Rings films, and I last bought a television. It was one of the first HDMI plasma TVs, a Panasonic 42″, and has been a trusty companion over the years. It still works fine; it fits perfectly into the TV cabinet I built around it; and 1080i is pretty good for most things (it doesn’t even have 720p). But the combination of a great experience I had watching the super high quality 1080p episodes of Breaking Bad from iTunes on my Retina iPad, plus $650 burning a hole in my gadget pocket, pushed me over the edge.

v2_TC-in_P50ST60_3-700Why I chose it: I knew I wanted plasma because of its picture quality and viewing angles. I’ve heard lots of positive things about the mid-range Panasonic ST series. In April, CNET published an adulatory review calling 2013’s ST60 its strongest TV recommendation ever. That got my attention. Around the same time, The Wirecutter (which has fast become some of my favorite reading) published its own review recommending the ST60 as the best TV. Even dowdy Consumer Reports got into the game, identifying the ST60 as its top rated “Best Buy”. The confluence of opinions from specialist sources and Consumer Reports is usually a great indicator for me, so I was pretty interested.

When we moved into a new home a few years ago, I built a custom cabinet around my old 42″ plasma. So size mattered — any new TV would have to fit. I got out my measuring tape and headed over to the Panasonic website looking for detailed dimension sheets. The 55″ ST60 appeared to be just the right size with about 1/4″ of room to spare vertically and about 1/2″ on each side.

Things I didn’t care about: The collection of streaming video services (I use my Apple TV for everything). 3D (belongs in the graveyard of mediocre Hollywood ideas, not in my living room). 4k ultra-HD (it’s not worth the huge price premium to me; I’ll wait until there’s content). Lag (I just don’t play enough games). Other silly features of this TV (voice control? electronic touch pens?).

So I headed on over to my go-to dealer for my electronics habit (Amazon.com) and ordered the 55″ Panasonic VIERA ST60 (model TC-P55ST60).

First impressions: Amazon’s delivery service is great. I picked a 3-hour window for delivery when I placed the order, and everything went just according to that plan. As I cut open the box, I was pretty nervous about whether it would fit, wondering in my head what the return procedures were like for such a big purchases. Happily, though, it measured to spec and fit right in our custom cabinet. There wasn’t much room for my fingers (e.g. for pulling it out to pivot it on our built-in swivel stand), but otherwise it was perfect.

I spend a few contented hours that night re-wiring everything in my cabinet. I loved ditching the rat’s nest of component video plus digital audio and replace them all with a few thin HDMI cables from Amazon. I also did a quick calibration, turning off the obvious things like Motion smoother, Sharpness, overscan and running the THX calibration app for iOS.

The video quality was a huge step up from my prior plasma. The blacks are incredibly black. The colors were beautiful, perfectly matched and consistent. 1080p is, believe it or not, a big difference from 1080i and seeing the Apple TV interface as well as the glorious 1080p video from iTunes is great. Even the HD television broadcasts I’ve been used to — like the NBC evenings news — were markedly different, much more vibrant and crisp even to my wife’s eye. Watching some brooding, dark final episodes of Breaking Bad was a treat.

Surprises: The little things about the Panasonic experience were positive. The remote control was usable, with buttons with differentiated sizes and colors and a logic to the whole thing. And while the Panasonic business team managed to sneak in some irritating features like banner ads on the startup screen, the Panasonic product team did a nice job of making it possible to turn them off.

Links: 55″ Panasonic ST60 on Amazon.com

Up next: A new AV Receiver?

Upgrade review – TiVo Roamio DVR

This post in the second in a series on home electronics upgrades I’ve considered.

Next up in my upgrade-a-thon is TiVo. I’m a proud TiVo fanboy and was lucky enough to work at the company for six years back in its heyday. Since we cancelled our pay TV service, we’ve happily used a 2008-era TiVo HD with lifetime service combined with a Mohu Leaf Plus which pulls in the major networks in brilliant true HD (none of the compressed crud that Comcast and AT&T peddle). For years I had entertained an upgrade to a more current TiVo model, but was annoyed at all the little extra pieces I’d have to buy to get the full solution (e.g. wi-fi adapter, streaming adapter). It just seemed cluttery, a far cry from the TiVo team’s legendary commitment to simplicity and elegance.

So the newly announced TiVo Roamio DVR seemed a natural fit. Roamio_LF_w-remoteSupport for over the air antenna. Check. Included wi-fi. Check. Smaller form factor. Nice bonus so check. Supposed to be fast/responsive. Check. Have to buy an annoying $100 add-on to stream. Grrr. I overcame that last one and ordered a Roamio within a few minutes of seeing the announcement.

But then a few things went wrong. I noticed TiVo had charged me $100 for 2-day shipping, which seemed ridiculous given Amazon Prime for a year is only $79. And more importantly I did some thinking about whether this was the highest impact way I could spend $650 dollars of my gadget budget.

I’ve been committed to ditching cable because of the $100/month bills, pathetic DVR software, greedy budling of channels, and mediocre video quality. But I realized that’s not all I dislike about my experiences with Comcast, DIRECTV, and AT&T’s U-Verse. I realized it’s the basic network TV model, with its combination of scheduling limitations, incessant ads, great swaths of mediocre programming, and a slow trickle approach to releasing shows.

Given alternatives like iTunes, Netflix, that model just just doesn’t work for me anymore. In the new era these and other on-demand services have started, I get so many benefits. I never watch crappy TV anymore, because I can focus my TV time on only the good shows (which for my family includes Breaking Bad, Homeland, Friday Night Lights, The Americans). I get to watch a full season of one show if I want, which some call “binge watching” but I call my new normal. And now that I’ve enjoyed some 1080p video, it just feels like a downgrade to go back to the 1080i or 720p of HD broadcast networks. Plus, in particular with iTunes, you get great portability to our family’s trove of iDevices which matters when we’re traveling on airplanes and other offline places.

In a rare moment of gadget discipline, I concluded that my old TiVo, with its lifetime service, was more than enough to get me through the sunset years of the network television era. And I found myself with a credible argument that I had $650 to spend on other gadgets. Uh-oh.

Next up — A new TV

Upgrade review – AirPort Time Capsule

I’m not entirely sure how or why, but I’ve ended up upgrading most of my electronics over the past few weeks. I’ll going to do a short series of blog posts on the different choices I made, why, and some first impressions. First up — a new backup and wireless solution.

90mmThis bout of upgrade mania all started with a full backup drive. I had been using a 2009-era Apple Time Capsule and have been super happy with it. But it’s only got 1TB of storage. Our family has a few Macs, about 10 iDevices, and an SLR which together have generated 400GB of photos and videos in the past few years. I was spending a lot of time tweaking backup settings to deal with the reality that the drive just wasn’t big enough. When Apple released a new Airport Time Capsule this summer, I thought it looked gorgeous and its vertical design might help declutter our office. Plus, I’d decided to switch over my Time Machine backups to encrypted so needed to start over anyhow. It was time, so I ordered a new 3 TB Airport Time Capsule.

Why I chose it: I’ve loved my existing Time Capsule and its Mac integration, reliability, and solid wi-fi. I didn’t consider any other models. I was happy to get the new design, bigger storage, newer /faster 802.11ac wi-fi (which will be much faster than our existing 802.11n which matters for doing backups). Also, I absolutely love the word “beamforming” which Apple uses to describe the antenna’s directional abilities.

First impressions and surprises: After trying a few different physical locations in our home office, I didn’t love the looks as much as I thought. It was ungainly and tall (like I was as a teenager). It occurred to me to put it in my TV cabinet in our living room rather than in the office. It ended up working like a charm, not only eliminating clutter from the office but improving wifi around the house because my living room is a more central location. This approach allowed me to retire an old gigabit ethernet switch, eliminating one device from the clutter that is my entertainment center.

Up next:  to upgrade TiVo, or not to upgrade TiVo?

New MacBook Air, or MacBook Pro Retina?

For the past six months I’ve been holding out on getting a new laptop, planning to get whatever new 13-inch MacBook Air Apple released this summer. So right after the WWDC announcements, before I’d even looked at much info, I ordered the new 13-inch MacBook Air. Then I started hearing about the amazing display on the new 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. In an impulsive moment I ordered one of those too! I got my orders in quickly so both machines arrived a few weeks ago. Last week I got to the end of Apple’s 14-day return window, and had to choose which one to keep. Here what I did.

First some context. I’ve been using 13″ laptops forever. I travel a lot and prize the balance of small size and screen real estate. I’ve had my 13″ MacBook Pro for 3-years now (on my second hard drive upgrade and third battery). I generally assumed that I would keep the Air because I was so comfortable with the 13″ size.

So over two weeks I alternated between the Air and the Pro as my primary machine. I used each at my desk at home, at my local Starbucks, on the couch, in bed. I even stress-tested the roadworthiness by bringing both along on a Southwest flight where I had a middle seat with my kids on either side of me. (I tried as always to live by the principles of good A/B testing.)

As a first-time Air user, my first reaction is wow this is fast. Really fast. Some of that is the faster processor than my old dinosaur, most of that is the solid state drive. It seemed insanely small, compact, and lightweight — so light that at first I had to consciously remember it was in my hand so I didn’t forget it was there. But, it was so light that it lacked heft. For example, when it was on my desk and I tried to open it with one hand the whole thing slipped away from me across the table (Note to Jony Ive: find some crazy new material and use it to invent grippier footpads). But typing long emails in coach on Southwest sure was easy.

The first time I opened the 15″ Macbook Pro i was sure it wasn’t right for me. After so many years at 13″, it felt really large, like typing on one side of an opened Monopoly game board. Squeezing into the tray on a Southwest middle seat was doable but not particular natural. But it was just as fast as the Air thanks to its SSD. It was noticeably thinner than my old 13″ MacBook Pro. And the display. Oh the Retina display. It’s a totally different level of clarity, like reading a nicely typeset page. The blacks are blacker. And the glare is much much better than the Air. Overall, it just felt better on the eyes. Even after using for an hour or two, every other display suddenly felt lame in comparison, like my glasses had fogged up.

I found myself reaching again and again for the retina display. I didn’t love the 15″ size, but I just preferred the Retina display no matter what. I told myself I could really make it work in an economy middle seat. And told myself that hey look it fits into the pocket of my 13″ laptop bag it’s not that big, and hey it’s really a lot lighter than my 13″ pro (.04 pounds lighter, but who’s counting). Once I started rationalizing, I knew I was hooked.

So, last week I returned the MacBook Air to Apple and am now happily typing on my Retina display. I love it.