It’s finally official — Apple has pulled the plug on its line of AirPort routers, and we have some recommendations for how to deal with the loss. Apple also shipped iOS 11.3.1, a focused update aimed at fixing iPhone 8 units with third-party replacement displays rendered unusable by iOS 11.3. In last week’s survey, we asked you how often you use Apple News, and it turns out that you either love it or don’t use it at all. Gmail has revamped its Web interface, and Julio Ojeda-Zapata joins us this week to explain the changes and how to give them a try. Finally, in our ongoing series on home automation, Josh Centers takes an in-depth look at the Ecobee 4 smart thermostat. Notable Mac app releases this week include Security Update 2018-001 (High Sierra), GraphicConverter 10.6, Fantastical 2.4.9, Safari 11.1 (Build 1×605.1.33.1.4), Carbon Copy Cloner 5.1, BBEdit 12.1.3, and Farrago 1.1.
Apple has released iOS 11.3.1 to address problems with touch input caused by third-party screen repairs. You can install the update (49.5 MB on the iPhone X) from Settings > General > Software Update or via iTunes.
It turns out that the iOS 11.3 update caused problems for iPhone 8 units that had received third-party screen repairs (see “iOS 11.3 Adds Battery Health Screen and Much More,” 29 March 2018). Some people assumed that Apple had purposely rendered such iPhones unresponsive, but iFixit dismissed that conspiracy theory, comparing it to Error 53 from a couple of years ago, which also caused problems for iPhones with third-party screen repairs (see “What “Error 53” Means for the Future of Apple Repairs,” 15 February 2016).
In iOS 11.3.1’s release notes, Apple says:
Non-genuine replacement displays may have compromised visual quality and may fail to work correctly. Apple-certified screen repairs are performed by trusted experts who use genuine Apple parts.
As much as we approve of iFixIt’s Right to Repair stance and a competitive market for repair services, we recommend letting Apple-authorized professionals handle iPhone screen repairs when feasible. Third-party displays may not match up to Apple’s quality standards, but more to the point, Apple has made it significantly more difficult to repair screens over the years. While third-party services can be tempting due to lower costs and at-home service (which Apple doesn’t offer, see “Verizon Offering Same-Day Screen Repair in Some Cities,” 10 February 2017), they may not be worth the trouble in the long run.
As commenters have pointed out, however, Apple lacks sufficient infrastructure to repair iPhones as quickly as users need at times, causing people to look elsewhere for help. We’d like to see Apple work harder to authorize and incentivize independent service providers.
Those without an iPhone 8 should still install iOS 11.3.1 because it also includes four security fixes to protect against a vulnerability in the crash reporter, malicious text messages, and maliciously crafted Web content.
The AirPort line of wireless routers has passed away at the age of 18 after a several-year illness. Apple made the announcement to 9to5Mac and other media outlets. Its passing was not unexpected by the Apple community.
When unveiled by Steve Jobs in 1999, the AirPort base station helped popularize wireless networking at a time when broadband was just entering homes. It went through numerous industrial design and hardware changes, and eventually split into three products: the flagship AirPort Extreme, the smaller AirPort Express with support for AirPlay, and the AirPort Time Capsule, which combined an AirPort Extreme with a hard drive for use with the Mac’s Time Machine backup feature.
The AirPort’s decline was slow and hard to watch — Apple last revised the hardware in 2013 (see “802.11ac Promises Better Coverage, but Won’t Hit Advertised Speeds,” 13 June 2013). The writing was on the wall when Glenn Fleishman discussed possible replacements in 2015 (see “Alternatives to Apple’s Wi-Fi Base Stations,” 22 December 2015). While Apple ignored its AirPort base stations, the wireless industry was evolving, with mesh networking products like Eero becoming popular (see “Eero Provides Good Wi-Fi Coverage in a Handsome Package,” 25 June 2016).
iMore’s Rene Ritchie suggested in a YouTube video that Apple decided that Wi-Fi routing has essentially become a solved problem and that it had nothing else to contribute. There’s truth in that — for most people, inexpensive wireless routers work well these days, and for those with larger spaces, mesh systems like the Eero have eliminated the hassle of extending networks. I use a Wi-Fi router that I rent from my ISP for $3 per month, and it works great.
(Some people seem shocked that I rent a router. When you consider that a good router starts at around $150 these days — Wirecutter’s current recommendation is more than that — and that a router generally lasts about 3–4 years, I’m paying less than $150 every 4 years for a commercial-grade router that will be replaced for free if it malfunctions. I explained my rationale in “How to Ensure High-speed Internet Access When Buying a New Home,” 18 May 2017.)
If you still use an AirPort router, don’t panic. Your device will continue to work fine for the foreseeable future, and if major security issues come to light, Apple will likely release a firmware update, as it did late last year for the KRACK vulnerability (see “AirPort Base Station Firmware Updates 7.6.9 and 7.7.9,” 12 December 2017).
Those who are invested in AirPort hardware for some reason can keep buying them while Apple’s stock lasts. We don’t recommend that for most people, though, and would encourage you to check out Wirecutter’s guides to routers and mesh-networking kits.
Last week, we ran a survey asking how often you use the News app on an iPhone or iPad to read Apple News (see “How to Read TidBITS in Apple News,” 19 April 2018). The results are in, and they’re a roughly 50/50 split between those who use News at least several times per week and those who use it much less frequently, if at all. In essence, you use News, or you don’t.
As was pointed out in the comments, Apple News is still available only in the United States, UK, and Australia, leaving out not just the blindingly obvious Canada, but the rest of the world. It’s baffling that Apple would restrict Apple News so significantly, especially given the company’s international emphasis.
Since we launched our Apple News integration earlier this month, about 700 people have started following TidBITS on Apple News, and have viewed articles about 1500 times. So it’s not an overnight hit, but I still have high hopes that it will introduce more people to TidBITS.
Apart from these geographic limitations, what is keeping you from using Apple News now, or if you do use it, what could Apple do to make it better? Let us know in the comments!
Gmail’s Web interface on the desktop has just undergone a significant overhaul, the first in some time. This won’t make any difference to those who read Gmail via an app like Mail on the Mac, and even if you use Gmail in a Web browser or via Mailplane, you won’t be dumped into the new interface automatically. To switch to the new version of Gmail, you must click the gear icon in the upper-right corner and choose “Try the new Gmail.”
Many of these changes come from Google’s alternative Inbox email interface, which, at least for now, isn’t going anywhere. Along with visual tweaks such as a new typeface and less reliance on light-gray accents, the new Gmail interface offers a number of substantive improvements.
New Message Actions & Quick Replies
First off, Gmail has learned some new tricks. You can “snooze” emails that you want to put off for a while. Snoozing a message moves it out of sight to a Snoozed folder until the specified time, at which point it reappears in your Inbox. To snooze a message, hover over it and click the clock button.
Along with the clock button, other buttons appear to archive (the folder with an arrow icon) or delete (the trash icon) the message, or mark it as unread (the open envelope button).
When Gmail sees that you haven’t responded promptly to messages, it will nudge you via orange alerts on the right-hand side of the subject/snippet line.
Also, in another feature brought over from Inbox and the mobile app, Gmail now gains “smart replies,” in the form of short, canned answers derived via artificial intelligence from an email’s content. They are good for quick replies to simple messages, and spookily prescient at times.
Improved Attachment Display
Assuming you’ve set the display density to Default, rather than the tighter Comfortable or Compact, attachments are displayed prominently in your inbox so you don’t have to dig for them in lengthy email threads.
Collapsible Left Sidebar
A click of the hamburger button on the upper left collapses the left-hand sidebar of labels, providing more horizontal space for Subject lines and message previews. While collapsed, the sidebar expands automatically if you mouse into it, or another click restores the expanded view.
Right Sidebar of Google Apps
On the right side of the screen, a new sidebar displays clickable icons for Google apps, including Google Calendar and the Google Keep notes app along with a new Google Tasks app, which gains a standalone version for iOS devices too. The sidebar also accommodates third-party Gmail add-ons such as Boomerang, which helps you schedule email for later sending and reminds you if certain messages don’t get replies.
Clicking one of the app icons expands the narrow sidebar into a wider one for working in the corresponding app.
Google has enhanced Gmail’s security features too. (Or, at least it will; Google promises that some of these features are “coming soon.”)
For messages within Gmail (remember that many organizations rely on Gmail as part of Google G Suite, and thus everyone in the organization would be using Gmail), you can now prevent your outgoing messages from being forwarded, copied, downloaded, or printed. Of course, there are a variety of ways around those limitations. You can also send messages that self-destruct after a predetermined time period, revoke previously sent emails, even require authentication via a text message to access a message.
Gmail now warns you about possibly risky messages, too, displaying a big red banner for phishing attempts.
Evaluating the Changes
As a longtime Gmail user, I have mixed feelings about the new look and features. I like the old Gmail interface. I’m not crazy about the new typeface, and there is also a slightly blurry quality about the new interface that Google needs to tweak.
On the plus side, however, despite the visual updates, it’s still fundamentally Gmail — a service that, at least for me, is as good as any desktop email client, and lets me blaze through my voluminous daily stream with minimal effort.
Some of the new capabilities are interesting, too. Better integration with Google Calendar and Google Keep will be a boon for my daily workflow since I rely heavily on both. And I quite like the features borrowed from Inbox that make acting on messages faster and easier.
Even if the security features won’t be of use for all email, the additional warnings of risky messages are welcome. Kudos to Google for helping users avoid falling prey to phishing.
If you’ve checked out these changes and you’re not enamored of them, you can switch back to the old interface for now. Click the gear icon and choose “Go back to classic Gmail.”
There’s no telling how long Google will let you use the previous interface, but other Google services that have received interface overhauls have kept their old looks available for quite some time. Nevertheless, despite some initial discomfort, I’m going to stick with the new interface.
If you want to freak out dinner guests, try screaming at your thermostat and loudly asking why it won’t answer you. That’s just one tip I can pass along after installing the $249 Ecobee 4, the current premium smart thermostat offering from the company of the same name.
Our guest looked at me as if he was considering whether he should flee or attempt to restrain me, which, to be fair, was an entirely appropriate reaction because I hadn’t yet explained that the Ecobee 4 includes the Alexa voice assistant.
Despite that being the marquee feature of the Ecobee 4, Alexa wasn’t the main reason I had installed it. Specifically, I asked Ecobee for a review unit so I could demonstrate how to install it for Take Control of Apple Home Automation, since I consider the Ecobee 4 to be the premier Apple-centric smart thermostat.
The best-known smart thermostat is the Google-owned Nest, which pioneered the market. But Google refuses to add HomeKit support, and until it does, the Nest is not the best option for Apple users focused on HomeKit.
What follows isn’t an installation guide — look for that in Take Control of Apple Home Automation — but more of a review of the process.
First off, Ecobee’s documentation is excellent and covers the most common installation scenarios. Even so, thermostat installation can be complicated, largely due to how many variables are involved. Before you start, you definitely need a bit of HVAC knowledge, at least about your specific system.
Also note that, to power the unit, you need a common wire, often marked as “C” or “common” on your thermostat. If you don’t have one, the Ecobee 4 includes a Power Extender Kit, which is a little gizmo you wire to your HVAC unit to draw power from other wires to make up for the lack of a C wire. If you need one, I recommend hiring a professional to install it, since it means exposure to high voltages and fiddling with expensive equipment.
(In Take Control of Apple Home Automation, I wrote that the Power Extender Kit could cause damage because I was under the mistaken impression that it used a technique called “power stealing” to provide power to the Ecobee. Power stealing, such as used by Google’s Nest, can cause your thermostat to run unreliably or even damage it, but that’s not how the Ecobee Power Extender Kit works. Mea maxima culpa.)
Ecobee includes some nice touches to simplify installation. The backplate, the part that attaches to the wall and your wires, includes a built-in level to simplify lining it up right. Since there’s almost always an ugly, unpainted spot on your wall that’s revealed when you change thermostats, Ecobee includes a nice-looking trim plate to hide the mess.
Believe it or not, physical installation is the easy part. Once you enter the setup wizard, be prepared for a difficult final exam. You need to know how your thermostat is wired (you should know that, since you just did it), what accessories may be attached, whether you have a heat pump, if you have a geothermal unit, whether your O/B reversing valve is energized on cool or heat, at what temperature to turn off your compressor, and so on.
Ecobee gives you tips and hints, but ultimately you need some HVAC knowledge to set it up properly. I did it all myself, but it took me weeks to configure everything how I like, and even now I’m not certain it’s optimal.
In fact, what I dislike the most about the Ecobee 4 is that it has made me hyper-aware of my HVAC system. For example, it often feels like cold air is coming out of the vents when I’m expecting heat, and I start worrying that I’ve set things wrong. In fact, this scenario isn’t unusual because air that is cooler than body temperature often feels chilly, even if it’s warming up your house. I strongly recommend buying an infrared thermometer so you can monitor the air coming from your vents. It’s also nice to have temperature sensors like the Elgato Eve Degree around your house so you don’t have to rely solely on the Ecobee’s main display.
Speaking of temperature sensors, the Ecobee 4 includes a remote sensor powered by a small watch battery. The sensor also detects motion to determine if a room is occupied. The idea is that you place the sensor on a separate floor of your house and the Ecobee 4 will make sure that the temperature in the occupied room is what determines whether to heat or cool the house, rather than the temperature at the location of the thermostat itself. So if you want to ensure that an upstairs bedroom doesn’t get too cold overnight, the remote sensor can take over from the thermostat’s built-in sensor. It seems to work well, but I don’t have enough of a temperature differential in my house for it to matter.
Using the Ecobee 4
There are a handful of ways to control the Ecobee 4:
- Manually via the thermostat itself
- Via Ecobee’s official apps for iOS, Android, and the Web
- Via HomeKit, with Apple’s Home app, another HomeKit app, or Siri
The thermostat’s native interface is nothing to write home about. While the Nest lets you adjust the temperature with a big knob, the Ecobee 4 relies on fiddly onscreen sliders.
One nice thing about the Ecobee 4 is that it includes built-in weather reports. But here’s what bugs me: when it doesn’t sense movement, it displays the current indoor temperature and outdoor weather conditions. But when it senses motion, it drops the weather display and instead shows onscreen controls with the indoor temperature. This bothers me because it reminds me that I’m being monitored. Worse, if I just want to check the outdoor temperature, that information disappears as soon as I get close, and I have to tap a button to bring it back.
Particularly frustrating are the Ecobee 4’s constant warnings. Every cold morning I see a warning that my auxiliary heat has been running too long. Of course it has been running when it’s freezing outside! Even stupider is when it warns me that auxiliary heat has been turned on when it’s warm outside. Well, Ecobee, why are you turning the auxiliary heat on, then? This is a problem you’re causing, tell me how to fix it!
Anyway, you can control any thermostat when you’re standing in front of it. The reason to buy a smart thermostat is so you can program it and control it remotely. Ecobee’s iOS app is serviceable. It mimics the physical display, but it wisely doesn’t allow access to many advanced settings that could screw up your HVAC system.
But I don’t find Ecobee’s app very reliable. It often shows outdated information, and even forcing a refresh by backing out and going back isn’t always successful. For example, I can tell when the auxiliary heat is on, because hot air is blowing on me, but the app will just say that the regular heat is on. When I get up and check the thermostat, sure enough, the auxiliary heat is running.
Ecobee makes much of the thermostat’s “smart” features, encouraging you to set up “comfort settings” like Away, Home, and Sleep, and then schedule those to trigger at set times or when it senses no occupancy. If you manually set a temperature, the Ecobee 4 lets you know that you’re overriding what it’s supposed to do.
But I find the schedule feature infuriating. Setting times is fiddly and frustrating and makes too many assumptions about my lifestyle. Worse, adding extra comfort settings requires you to use the Web interface — you can’t do it from the iOS app.
Those smart features can leave you hanging. For instance, we visited my in-laws on a bitterly cold night. While we were gone, the Ecobee 4 automatically dropped the temperature substantially, to 64 degrees. When we returned home, we suffered through a chilly night because the house didn’t reach 72 degrees again until morning, even with the auxiliary running. I suspect that letting the house get that cold may have cost more money. I subsequently adjusted the Away comfort setting to keep the house at a higher temperature while we’re out.
I’ve had to tweak settings continually to turn off many of the Ecobee’s “smart” features. Because I work at home, I want to set a temperature and have it stay there. I would undoubtedly appreciate scheduling more if I worked outside the house, but I’d still prefer that it be optional.
The worst thing about Ecobee’s app is that its Web service is often down. Fortunately, the HomeKit route always works well, letting me quickly set the temperature and mode via Control Center, the Home app, or Siri. But it offers only basic controls and can’t show more advanced settings, like if auxiliary heating is on.
Happily, HomeKit can use the occupancy sensors built into the thermostat and the remote sensor to trigger various sensor-based automations. Ideally, the Ecobee would integrate better with HomeKit sensors. Instead of buying extra sensors or contacting an Internet weather service, I wish I could have it read from my Elgato Eve indoor and outdoor sensors.
Apart from that, the Ecobee 4 has wide platform support and works well with Alexa and my Google Home devices. Speaking of Alexa, this review wouldn’t be complete without discussing it.
“Alexa, are you listening?”
The Ecobee 4 is my first dedicated Alexa device, and I’m not impressed. There are several problems with Alexa on the Ecobee 4:
- It’s creepy. A box on my wall can sense when I’m home and listen to everything I say. Give it a camera and it can go full Orwell.
- It’s hard of hearing. I have to stand very close or yell at it for Alexa to acknowledge me.
- The speaker is too quiet. As amusing as it is to play music from my thermostat, a cheap FM radio would kick sand in its face at the beach.
- Alexa feels tacked on. It can’t even control the thermostat until you install the Ecobee skill.
- It doesn’t support all Alexa skills, making it less useful than an Echo speaker.
Overall, Alexa on the Ecobee 4 feels like a gimmick. Worse, yelling at your thermostat makes you look and feel like a lunatic.
You’d be better off with a cheaper thermostat and a dedicated smart speaker. My Google Home sits directly under the Ecobee 4, and I tell it to adjust my thermostat instead of Alexa on the Ecobee 4 every time.
The Search Continues
Although the Ecobee 4 is the most advanced HomeKit thermostat on the market, after living with it for a few months, I’ve decided that I don’t like it. I’d rather have a simple thermostat. Much of that is related to working at home — if I was away for hours every day, the Ecobee 4’s features might be more welcome.
When setting up the Ecobee 4, I studied my old, dumb Honeywell thermostat to see what it could do. It turned out that there weren’t that many settings to adjust — it just works. For that reason, I’ll probably try a Honeywell Lyric thermostat next, since they also work with Apple’s, Amazon’s, and Google’s home automation platforms.
That said, the Ecobee 4 isn’t without merit. If you like the sound of its many automatic features, it might be a fantastic fit for you. I can’t say how it compares to Google’s Nest thermostat because I’m staying focused on devices that support HomeKit.
If you have yet to dip a toe into home automation, I don’t recommend the Ecobee 4 as your first device, due to its complexity and hard-wired nature. Stick to a smart outlet or smart bulbs, and if you do decide to go with a smart thermostat, strongly consider hiring a professional to install it. But if you’re a rugged individualist who likes going it alone, I offer a 22-page guide to installing the Ecobee 4 (or any thermostat, really) in Take Control of Apple Home Automation.