We haven’t done a reader survey since 2007, but as we start in on a major Web site redesign, I’d like to learn more about who you are and what you want to read in TidBITS. So if you have 5 minutes to spare, I would greatly appreciate it if you could fill out our TidBITS 2015 Reader Survey (to be completely up front, it will take a little longer if you want to provide optional free-form feedback about various questions). I’ve built the survey at a site called Murvey, and it’s as easy to take on an iPad or iPhone as it is on a Mac, apart from typing free-form responses.
The survey will remain open through the end of Thursday, 3 December 2015, which will give me a few days to process the data in time to share the results in the next issue of TidBITS. Thanks in advance for participating!
Although our upcoming site redesign was the trigger for the survey, we do have a deeper motive. Every week, Josh and I discuss what we think readers would find useful or interesting, and use those beliefs to evaluate article ideas and outside pitches. We get anecdotal support when an article generates a lot of positive comments or when someone writes in saying how much they appreciate a particular column, but as the saying goes, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” So our other big goal with the reader survey is to calibrate our filters to make sure that we’re focusing on the content that you most want to read (while hopefully still surprising you occasionally with articles you like, but didn’t know you wanted to read).
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This coming Thursday marks the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, and we won’t be publishing an email issue on 30 November 2015 so our staffers and contributing editors can spend the week with family, friends, and food. Many of us will again be consulting the handy worksheets from Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner” for our dinner preparations — no one lays out what needs to be done better or more clearly than Joe, so check out his book if you need help.
Although the weekly email issue of TidBITS won’t appear next Monday, we’ll continue to publish to the TidBITS Web site. To keep up with everything we’re writing, check back at our site, subscribe to our RSS feed (remember that TidBITS members get a full-text feed!), or follow us on Twitter or Facebook. Look for the next email issue on 7 December 2015!
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The latest casualty of the music streaming wars is Rdio, which will be filing for bankruptcy and winding down its service. If the bankruptcy goes through, streaming radio service Pandora will be purchasing “key assets” from Rdio for $75 million (but not the service as a whole) and many members of the Rdio team will be offered positions at Pandora. (Where Rdio enabled users to play any song or album in its collection on demand, Pandora users can only create stations based on song or artist — users have no advance control over what plays.)
In a blog post announcing the news, Rdio said:
Rdio’s service will not be interrupted today. We will have more updates in the coming weeks on what this process means for your Rdio account, but for the time being the service continues unchanged.
We can hope that Rdio will provide customers with ways of exporting collections and playlists, or even ways of transferring them to competing services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play Music. Searching for independent export-import services will reveal quite a number, but I have yet to find anything that works for moving to Spotify or Google Play Music (I have no interest in using Apple Music because of the overloaded iTunes interface; see “Retuning Rdio: Why I Dropped Apple Music,” 7 October 2015).
The one functional utility I have found is the Chrome extension Rdio Enhancer, which adds an Export to CSV button to your Rdio Favorites screen, and an Extras > Export to CSV submenu to the More button in playlists. Just install the extension in Google Chrome, log in to the Rdio Web site, click Favorites, and click Export to CSV. That gets you a comma-separated-values text file listing every track in your collection, and even if you can’t import it elsewhere easily, you at least have a list from which to work manually.
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Wireless keyboards have several advantages. One is to get rid of cables snaking between your computer and peripherals. Another advantage, and the one that made me look into the field several months ago, was to free up one of the four USB ports on my Mac mini. With two external hard drives, an external DVD drive, a ScanSnap scanner, and a webcam, my devices are always fighting for port space. (And yes, I know I could attach a USB hub, but they come with their own issues.)
But my experience with Apple’s original wireless Magic Trackpad was that I was replacing its batteries about every 3–4 weeks, with the low-battery nag starting even before that. The thought of having one more set of batteries to fuss with was a showstopper for me.
So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a solar-powered wireless keyboard? That would be perfect!” Sure enough, a little searching revealed just such a keyboard: the Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K750.
At $59.99, it’s not an entry-level keyboard, though it’s still quite a bit cheaper than Apple’s new Magic Keyboard (see “Apple Adds Retina Displays to More iMacs, Updates Input Devices,” 13 October 2015). Regardless, my old wired Apple keyboard (one of the full-size keyboards encased in clear plastic) was suffering from sticky keys and showing other signs of aging, so it needed replacing anyway.
But before I clicked the Buy button, I read some reviews and was crushed to stumble on the fact that “wireless” didn’t mean Bluetooth, but rather a proprietary Logitech transmission protocol that required a USB dongle plugged into the Mac, defeating most of my goal in going wireless!
Down but not out, I went on a mission to find a Bluetooth alternative, and I found what seems like a perfect one, sort of: the Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K760. When I found a “marketplace” merchant at Amazon selling it for $57.48 shipped, I was sold. The only problem? As far as I can tell from Logitech’s Web site, the K760 isn’t being made any more, which means that the supply is probably limited, and the pricing may vary widely.
Hands on with the K760 -- Made specifically for the Mac, this keyboard has a look and feel that makes Apple users feel instantly at home. It paired seamlessly with my Mac mini. And with Volume, Mute, Play/Pause, Mission Control, and other familiar function keys working out of the box, I was impressed with Logitech’s attention to the needs of the Apple community.
I also appreciate that it can remain paired with two additional Bluetooth devices and switch seamlessly between them via the F1, F2, and F3 function keys. I paired it with my MacBook and my third-generation Apple TV with no hassle. I also connected it to my iPhone, where it can even Show/Hide the keyboard (via the Eject key) or “press Home” via F5.
Given that it’s solar-powered, you might wonder how the K760 performs in the dark. Thanks to the internal battery that charges from either daylight or artificial light, the keyboard has worked fine for me during late nights in the dark. Online specs and reviews suggest it can run for a month in complete darkness.
I can’t compare the feel of typing on the K760 to Apple’s recent keyboards, since the one I replaced was so old, but it’s fairly similar to my MacBook’s keyboard. In a 2012 Macworld review, Dan Frakes commented that he preferred the K760’s keys to those on Apple’s then-current keyboards. Acknowledging that how a keyboard feels is intensely personal, I like the feel of the K760.
My only disappointment is that, unlike its non-Bluetooth sibling K750, the K760 does not include a numeric keypad. Why Logitech’s product design team chose to make the non-Bluetooth model include a numeric keypad and the Bluetooth model leave it out is a head-scratcher for me, and when I approached Logitech with the question, they were no help. Regardless, if the numeric keypad is important and you can spare a USB port for the wireless dongle, I’d encourage you to consider the K750, which is both cheaper ($59.48 at Amazon now) and still listed on Logitech’s site.
A Day Late and a Dollar Short -- Of course, Apple just announced a revised lineup of its keyboard, mouse, and trackpad products with features that appear to suggest that the company finally realizes how bad the battery problem is. Unfortunately, Apple’s solution was to make the battery rechargeable via a Lightning cable rather than to recharge by solar. So even though Apple claims the devices will run for at least a month between charges, you must still add them to your chore list of battery-powered devices that need to be cabled and charged. It’s far less trouble than replacing batteries or fussing with rechargeable batteries, but still requires more attention and interaction than the K760’s solar solution.
Considering that Apple’s Magic Keyboard costs $99 and can’t pair with and switch between multiple devices, I’d still recommend Logitech’s K760 for anyone but those looking for the precise look and feel of Apple’s products.
Logitech: A Logical Choice -- If you want a Mac-friendly keyboard that you’ll never have to plug in or replace batteries for, check out the Logitech K760. And if a numeric keypad is a must, you can spare a USB port, and you have no need to pair the same keyboard with an iPhone, iPad, or other device, give the Logitech K750 a try. They’re both wireless, with no strings attached. Here’s hoping that Logitech releases an updated version of the K760 soon, because it’d be sad if such a great design was lost in time.
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I previously looked at an overview of available apps for the fourth-generation Apple TV in “Apps that Reveal the Apple TV’s Potential” (9 November 2015), and it’s now time to turn our focus toward gaming on Apple’s new set-top box.
While I can’t see the Apple TV supplanting an Xbox or PlayStation in most gamers’ homes, the Apple TV already has some great casual fare. But to really see what the Apple TV can do in the gaming realm, we must first examine its included controller: the Siri Remote.
Game controllers are the heart and soul of any gaming device, and a poor controller will doom a gaming device from the start. Atari’s eventual exit from the game console business might have been prevented, or at least delayed, if not for the atrocious controller designs of the Atari 5200 and Atari Jaguar, both of which were better suited to dialing phone numbers than battling an alien menace. Likewise, a great game controller can propel a system to greatness. The Nintendo Entertainment System resurrected the gaming market in the 1980s, thanks in part to its revolutionary controller, a now-familiar game pad instead of the typical joystick.
After decades of experimentation, game controllers are a more-or-less solved problem. They each have a directional pad, some analog sticks, face buttons to control system functions, shoulder buttons along the top, and four primary action buttons, usually arranged in a diamond pattern (all of these were invented or popularized by Nintendo). You see this in the controllers for Sony and Microsoft’s respective consoles. Nintendo, the most innovative company when it comes to game controllers, bucked this trend a bit with the Wii Remote and later on with the tablet-esque Wii U GamePad, though they stuck to the same basic conventions.
Apple is going its own way. The Siri Remote is not a conventional game controller, but rather a jack-of-all-trades interface device. Along with what Apple marketing calls “the Touch surface” (we’ll call it a touchpad), there are six additional buttons to access the main menu, open in-app menus, play and pause content, and control volume. However, only three of these buttons are available to games: the touchpad’s “click,” the Play/Pause button, and the Menu button, the last of which is restricted to working like a Pause button on a traditional game console. Developers can program Menu to bring up, well, a menu, but can’t assign it to an in-game action like “jump.”
Unlike modern game controllers, the Siri Remote lacks a thumb-operated analog stick, instead using the touchpad for movement controls. While unusual, this isn’t unprecedented. Valve’s Steam Controller uses two trackpads to replicate the traditional PC gaming keyboard and mouse control scheme.
It’s not as precise as an analog stick (or a mouse), but the Siri Remote’s touchpad is surprisingly accurate. A good demonstration of this is Dan Counsell’s Almost Impossible ($1.99), a beautiful, if punishing, platform game in which one wrong move quickly destroys your bouncing-ball character. I die often in the game, but I rarely feel as though it was due to an inadequacy of the Siri Remote. Admittedly, I am a gamer, and am accustomed to learning new controllers. If you have trouble with the precision of the Siri Remote’s touchpad, try a game like Shadowmatic (described later on), where your success isn’t predicated on accurate control of the touchpad.
Another game that works surprisingly well with the Siri Remote is Oceanhorn ($8.99), a clone of The Legend of Zelda series (see “FunBITS: Oceanhorn Emulates Zelda on iOS,” 31 January 2014). The touchpad is again used for movement, with presses of the touchpad activating context-sensitive actions, such as attacking enemies, lifting pots, and opening doors. Unfortunately, the game lost my save file, so I can’t recommend it yet on the Apple TV.
Some games use clever workarounds to bypass the Siri Remote’s limitations. Rayman Adventures (free, with in-app purchases) is a port of the long-lived console platforming series, and it translates well to the Apple TV. The trick is that it’s set up as an endless runner. Instead of always having to hold down a stick or button to move in a direction, Rayman is always running. You use the touchpad to change direction and jump, and a combination of swipes and taps activates other actions, such as punching through obstacles.
Overall, the touchpad works pretty well for game control. I’ve found that the biggest limitation is that it just isn’t large enough. This can be alleviated by choosing Fast in Settings > Remotes and Devices > Touch Surface Tracking, but I still sometimes run out of room.
The Siri Remote also has additional gaming capabilities in the form of an accelerometer and gyroscope. In plain English, this means motion control, similar to that featured in Nintendo’s Wii Remote and Sony’s Sixaxis-enabled controllers.
I’ve never been a big fan of Nintendo or Sony’s motion controls, which tend to gimmicky and frustrating. But Apple has far surpassed the Wii with the Siri Remote’s motion-sensing abilities.
My favorite Apple TV game so far is GameLoft’s Asphalt 8: Airborne (free, with in-app purchases), which you control by putting the Siri Remote on its side and “steering” it like a wheel. This isn’t a new concept — racing games on the Nintendo Wii have long used this scheme — but it’s far more precise than past implementations I’ve tried.
Though the Siri Remote works decently as a game controller, it’s also the single biggest factor limiting the Apple TV’s potential as a gaming device. Graphically, the new Apple TV is roughly equivalent to the previous generation of consoles (the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360), which, while outdated, still deliver rich gaming experiences. Storage is something of a factor, with the Apple TV able to store only up to 64 GB locally (as opposed to the 500 GB or more of storage space on current consoles), but it’s not as limiting as you might think. For instance, the critically acclaimed Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is only a 1.32 GB download on the Xbox 360, and it’s much more of a “hardcore” game than most of what you’ll find for the Apple TV. Between local and cloud storage, Apple TV games can access up to 22.5 GB of data, which should be enough for most games. To put that into perspective, the just-released Star Wars: Battlefront takes up about 20 GB on my PlayStation 4, while Destiny: The Taken King uses a bit under 40 GB of storage. In terms of graphics and storage, the Apple TV has enough power for modern, big-name games; the limiting factor is the Siri Remote.
The Siri Remote is restricted to touchpad input, three buttons, and motion control. The idea of playing a first-person shooter, like the aforementioned Far Cry, on the Apple TV is laughable, since console first-person shooters rely on dual analog sticks for movement and aiming. This also precludes the possibility of modern role-playing games like Fallout 4, which is played from a first-person perspective. Even an iOS first-person shooter like Modern Combat 5: Blackout wouldn’t work on the Apple TV, due to the lack of enough touch-sensitive space on the remote.
Perhaps a clever developer will figure out a way to make the first-person shooter genre work on the Apple TV, but it hasn’t happened yet. However, that doesn’t mean variants haven’t been tried. Galaxy on Fire: Manticore Rising ($5.99) is a space shooter and one of the most graphically impressive games on the Apple TV. It uses motion controls for movement, and the buttons to boost and slow down your ship.
But again, Galaxy on Fire is hampered by a lack of buttons on the Siri Remote. To make up for it, your ship’s guns fire automatically when you have an enemy ship in your sights. I find this frustrating, as I’m used to having control over guns in space simulators.
A more traditional shooter is Xenowerk TV ($2.99), an adaptation of the excellent top-down alien shooter for iOS. It’s not a first-person game, but it’s a fun spin on the “Alien” movies, and a throwback to Nintendo Entertainment System shooting games.
You can use Made For iPhone (MFi) game controllers with the Apple TV. The most popular one for the Apple TV is the Steelseries Nimbus, which I haven’t tried yet, as I first wanted to get a proper sense of how gaming with the Siri Remote works. But third-party controllers won’t help much, because Apple requires that all games (except Guitar Hero, which requires a $99.95 guitar controller) maintain compatibility with the Siri Remote.
Many are frustrated by Apple’s insistence on Siri Remote compatibility, but having used Amazon’s Fire TV, I understand Apple’s reasoning. Amazon allows controller-only apps on the Fire TV, which fragments its app store.
There’s also the fact that, generally speaking, people don’t buy gaming accessories. Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for anything, but while the Amazon Fire TV has over 2,000 reviews on Amazon, the Amazon Fire TV Gaming Edition has fewer than 200, and the optional Fire TV Game Controller has under 50, which gives you an idea about the ownership split. Gaming history is littered with failed peripherals: the Power Glove, the U-Force, the Sega Activator, the Super Scope 6, the EyeToy, ad infinitum. It’s less that these products were bad (though most were), and more that they suffer from the chicken-and-egg problem: developers don’t support them in popular games because no one owns them, and no one buys them because few games support them.
The truth is that it’s almost impossible to create a living room device that is great at both media and games. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both offer media capabilities, but they’re limited and clumsy to operate with a game controller. Microsoft tried to position the Xbox One as a media powerhouse, with HDMI input and motion and voice controls. But that backfired, as Microsoft sacrificed graphical horsepower for media capabilities, which turned off hardcore gamers. Sony, which also made the mistake of focusing on media with the PlayStation 3, didn’t repeat that mistake with the PlayStation 4, and has been crushing Microsoft in the living room.
Apple’s advantage is the near ubiquity of its iOS devices, which can also function as controllers. Developer Hipster Whale brought multiplayer capabilities to the TV version of Crossy Road (free, with in-app purchases), by allowing an iPhone with the game to function as a second controller, as demonstrated at Apple’s announcement (see “The Fourth-Generation Apple TV Is Coming at Last,” 9 September 2015). Matt Braun’s SketchParty TV ($5.99) takes a completely different approach, using an iOS device as the actual game surface which you draw on, while your drawings are displayed on the companion Apple TV app. But touchscreen devices have their limits for gaming as well, since they lack the tactile feedback of a traditional game controller.
So what can we take away from all of this? The Apple TV’s processor and storage are sufficient for deep gaming experiences, but the Siri Remote is either a limitation or a creative challenge, depending on where you sit. Between the Siri Remote’s buttons, motion control, and iOS integration, developers have a lot of possibilities, but it’s uncertain whether the investment in creating new interface paradigms would be worthwhile.
While developers could use iOS devices (or even the Apple Watch) to expand the Apple TV’s gameplay possibilities, it’s more likely that they’ll stick to the ubiquitous Siri Remote, despite its limitations. Because of that, I doubt we’ll see many involved 3D games on the Apple TV for some time, if ever.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Apple TV will be limited to casual fare. A complex role-playing game like Final Fantasy VII (which has been ported to iOS) could be adapted to work with the Siri Remote.
But even if they aren’t all casual, games on the Apple TV will have to be simpler by necessity. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and in fact, I’m almost positive that it’s by design. Take Shadowmatic ($2.99) for instance: it’s a simple, yet ingenious puzzle game that takes full advantage of the Apple TV’s capabilities. It uses different areas of the touchpad for moving pieces, and it even uses the Siri Remote’s motion controls to provide a 3D parallax effect as you play. In addition to its unique, relaxing gameplay, Shadowmatic is one of the best-looking Apple TV games so far.
Gaming for the Rest of Us -- Unless you grew up with complex game controllers, chances are that you struggle with them. I’ve had many friends and family members watch me play video games and naturally want to give it a try. I hand them the controller, only to watch them to flail about helplessly, struggling to juggle the complexities of dual analog sticks, face buttons, shoulder buttons, and a directional pad. One person I know, who shall remain nameless, never got past the first set of stairs in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, despite my best attempts at coaching.
Initially, it’s sort of funny to watch my friends and family members struggle to perform tasks that I find routine, but the amusement turns to sadness as I realize that these are experiences that I can’t share with them. I’m not saying that all gaming needs to go back to the relatively simple controls of the Nintendo, but it’s clear that the gaming industry is losing lots of potential customers to the complexity of the controllers.
Those who identify themselves as “gamers” will likely scoff at this notion, but it’s needless elitism. Every medium has its divide between the casual and hardcore. Literature has plenty of room for both Dan Brown and Marcel Proust. Music has Miley Cyrus and Beethoven. Film has Adam Sandler and Sir John Gielgud. It’s a big world, and there’s room for everyone’s tastes.
Similarly, not everyone will even consider spending hundreds of dollars on dedicated gaming hardware and software or invest hours in becoming proficient. Even hardcore gamers don’t always have time to sink 40 hours or more into a game. And that’s OK. The gaming market is enormous, and has plenty of room for growth.
The Apple TV isn’t the most capable gaming console on the market, but it has the potential to become the most accessible, and that could make it the only gaming device that many people care about. Even for those of us with dedicated gaming hardware, the Apple TV might present a nice distraction when we have a few minutes to kill. In short, the Apple TV isn’t challenging the existing gaming market, but expanding it.
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Transmit 4.4.10 -- Panic has released Transmit 4.4.10, the flexible file transfer program’s first update in over a year, with a short but important list of changes. The update now makes its Transmit Disk feature (which enables you to mount any of your favorites in the Finder) compatible with OS X 10.11 El Capitan, and the app now requires a minimum of 10.9 Mavericks. Additionally, Amazon S3 permissions are now done recursively. Note that the Mac App Store edition is still stuck on the previous version (4.4.8) as of this writing. ($34 new, free update, 30.2 MB, release notes, 10.9+)
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Tweetbot 2.2.2 -- Tapbots has released Tweetbot 2.2 for the Mac with support for full screen and split screen views in OS X 10.11 El Capitan. The Twitter client’s tweet details now display conversations and replies in the same order as Tweetbot 4 for iOS. Tweetbot 2.2 also enables you to Control-click the fav button in order to favorite a tweet from any of your accounts, makes various color changes to match the iOS version of Tweetbot, and adds the capability for muted keywords to optionally mute lists and searches. A followup Tweetbot 2.2.2 release fixes bugs related to Control-Enter adding strange characters, incorrect quoted tweet colors in replies, scrolling to the top with the up arrow key, and multiple requests for permission to access your location. ($9.99 new from the Mac App Store, free update, 11.5 MB, 10.10+)
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Fantastical 2.1.3 -- Flexibits has issued Fantastical 2.1.3, a maintenance update to the company’s replacement for Apple’s Calendar app on the Mac. In addition to unspecified performance improvements, Fantastical now shows canceled event invitations as notifications, enables you to show contextual menus for events and reminders using VoiceOver, fixes a bug that prevented some new invitations from appearing in the invitations section, resolves a potential hang that occurred when editing recurring events from the mini window, and fixes a couple of bugs related to using a Japanese calendar. Fantastical 2 has a 21-day free trial and is available from either the Flexibits Store or the Mac App Store. ($39.99 new, free update, 11.8 MB, release notes, 10.10+)
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Microsoft Office 2011 14.5.8 -- Microsoft has issued version 14.5.8 of its Office 2011 suite with patches for several critical security vulnerabilities, including two memory corruption-related problems that could allow remote attackers to execute arbitrary code. Additionally, the update fixes a spoofing vulnerability in Outlook for Mac that could enable an attacker to trick a user by redirecting them to a malicious Web site. (Free update from the Microsoft Download Center or through Microsoft AutoUpdate, 113 MB, release notes, 10.5.8+)
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Lightroom CC 2015.3 and Lightroom 6.3 -- After excising the popular Import function in the previous round of updates to its professional photo cataloging and editing applications (see “Lightroom CC 2015.2.1 and Lightroom 6.2.1,” 10 October 2015), Adobe has released the standalone Lightroom 6.3 and Lightroom CC 2015.3 (available as part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan) with the previous import functionality returned. The updates also add support for a wide variety of cameras and lens profiles, plus fix a number of bugs, including issues related to Panorama Merge, rotated photos in full screen mode, and edits made and saved in Photoshop or third party plug-ins (which didn’t appear in the Develop module). Both Lightroom CC 2015.3 and Lightroom 6.3 can be downloaded via Help > Check for Updates. ($9.99 monthly subscription or $149 for the standalone app, release notes, 10.9+ for standalone Lightroom 6.3, 10.8+ for Lightroom CC 2015.3)
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This week in ExtraBITS, Apple is investigating unresponsive iPad Pros, Yahoo Mail is blocking some users of AdBlock Plus, and The Wirecutter offers a guide to prepaid cellular plans.
Apple Investigating Unresponsive iPad Pros -- A number of iPad Pro users have reported that, after charging, their tablets stop responding and show only a black screen. Apple says that it’s investigating the issue, but in the meantime the company recommends forcing a restart if your iPad Pro is locked up, which you can do by holding the Sleep/Wake and Home buttons until you see an Apple logo.
Yahoo Mail Blocking Some AdBlock Plus Users -- The war between advertisers and ad blockers has escalated. Yahoo Mail is reportedly blocking some users of the AdBlock Plus browser extension, displaying the following error message: “Uh oh… We are unable to display Yahoo Mail. Please disable Ad Blocker to continue using Yahoo Mail.” For those who don’t wish to disable AdBlock Plus, a workaround is to change Yahoo Mail’s view from Full Featured to Basic, although that may result in an unsatisfactory user experience.
The Wirecutter’s Guide to Prepaid Cellular Plans -- The prepaid cellular landscape is dense and complex, but Rob Pegoraro has written a guide for The Wirecutter that cuts through the confusion. Unlike most of The Wirecutter’s guides, this one doesn’t present a single best choice, but rather a variety of recommendations depending on your needs.