The other day, my iMac crashed. As it was a 2011 model, I was prepared. Well, sort of.
I had been regularly backing up my stuff via Time Machine but had stopped doing this 24/7 a couple of years ago so as to extend my Time Machine’s life. It’s a venerable 2008 model. Also, a lot has changed since 2008 as most of my files are saved online and I don’t need regular backups any more. However when I ran the ‘restore utility’ on my Mac, I realised that I had lost track of time. My Time Machine informed me that my last backup was over four months ago. I mulled it over as my mouse hovered over the ‘restore’ button. By my reckoning, the only new files of any value on my Mac that I added in that period were a few photos and songs. So I gave Time Machine the go ahead with the ‘restore.’
Once the restore was done, the Mac seemed fine. But I could not say the same of apps like Photos, iTunes, Contacts and more. Besides the last four months’ missing files, Photos had also converted many earlier videos to thumbnails. These wouldn’t play when I clicked on them as the original files were missing. iTunes too had randomly made quite a few of my song collections disappear.
The Bermuda Triangle
To be honest, I wasn’t surprised as it’s not the first time Apple apps have played this trick on me, and it’s not just me. Here another victim singing the same tune on the Apple Support forum for iTunes. And here’s a thread about disappearing pictures from the Photos app. The latter seems to have had a happy ending for a few individuals who recovered their photos by tweaking some settings. I’m sure expert users will be able to relocate the missing photos but my heart goes out to the ordinary folks who have lost their precious memories forever.
This sort of thing should not happen, but unfortunately it does with Apple. After several unsuccessful attempts to figure out why, I gave up and concluded there’s a sort of Bermuda Triangle in Appleland where songs and photos and the rest mysteriously disappear. But unlike the Bermuda Triangle, you can’t avoid using apps like Photos and iTunes if you are in the Apple ecosystem.
There were two solutions. The first was to make a clean break an emigrate out of the Apple ecosystem. The second was to find a backup system where I am not expected to expect the unexpected, so to say.
When Apple just works
I had tried the ‘migration’ solution by moving to an Android for a while. But it didn’t work out. I don’t know if this was because I was just more comfortable with Apple, having been on the platform for ages. Or because there were situations when my Android let me down, while Apple actually ‘just worked.’ Let me illustrate with an example.
I once had to make a screen recording as a demo of how to use a certain app on Android, and send it to a WhatsApp Group. After making the demo, I sent it from my Android phone to my iPhone via WhatsApp to test if it was working. It wasn’t. Whatever compression WhatsApp had used on the one minute long video had caused the audio and video to go off sync. Now I could troubleshoot and try to figure out what when wrong. But sometimes you just want to get things done instead of spending time figuring out why it doesn’t work. So I followed my gut feeling that the video might work if I sent it from my iPhone. Accordingly, I bluetoothed the video from my Android to my iPhone, and then Whatsapped it again. This time, the video worked perfectly.
I don’t know why the problem happened. It could have been an issue with the WhatsApp on Android compressing videos using a method that’s different from WhatsApp on iOS. Or it could have been a hardware issue with my Android phone, a Redmi Note 4 with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage (which are pretty good specs). Or it could have been a problem with Android itself.
What I do know was Apple just worked. In that sense, Apple is perfect for people who would rather spend time ‘doing things’ rather than ‘fixing things.’ I guess that’s why the Apple will always have a strong base of loyal users.
However my problem is the situation when Apple ‘just works’ is no longer true.
When Apple just doesn’t work
Since the migrating to Android route wasn’t working for me, I had to check the reliable online backup route. Only one entity fit the bill. Google. One thing I can vouch for after ten years of using Google apps is that there are no Bermuda Triangles. Google is almost a synonym for reliable.
Google’s biggest shortcoming is a loss of privacy. Not to mention all those persevering ads trying to sell me a plethora of hair loss remedies, completely oblivious of the fact that I have a full head of hair. A lot of people I know absolutely refuse to have anything to do with Google for this reason. However having weighed the pros and cons, I figured it was worthwhile for me to to share my data with Google in return for free use of their services. This is probably because I don’t have much to hide. Which means I have more to gain and less to lose in sharing my data with Google. To illustrate, Google’s bots once helped me avoid missing a flight by warning me it was due to leave at 5 am while I was under the impression it was leaving at 5 pm. Google was able to do this because I let them read my mails, and signed in to Google’s notifications. But like I said, sharing data with Google is not for everyone.
In fact, Google had already solved my photo backup issue a couple of years ago when it offered unlimited online backup of all my photos in the ‘Google Photos’ app. It’s not in full resolution admittedly, but it’s good enough for me. In fact, it even backs up ‘live’ photos as tiny videos. The problem is the ISPs in India used to have strict restrictions on internet bandwidth and download limits (wifi), and speeds were very slow. But things have improved in recent times. My connection has gone from a miserly 30GB/month @4Mbps two years ago, to an acceptable 300GB @60Mbps now. Cost too has gone down to ₹1250 per month ($20).
What clinched the deal is Google offers ‘image’ search. Like I can search for ‘elephant,’ and ‘Google Photos’ will visually identify all the elephants in my photo collection. I found this fascinating enough to merit its own post. In fact, nowadays if I need to find a photo in a hurry, my go-to app on my iPhone is not Apple’s ‘Photos’ but ‘Google Photos.’ Yup, it just works.
Setting up automatic photo backup in Google is easy. You first install the ‘Google Photos’ app, and give the app permission to access your ‘Photos’ app. Once the app is up and running, click on the icon with 3- horizontal lines on the app’s top left. This will reveal the settings gear icon. Click on that, then tap on ‘backup and sync,’ and toggle on the switch in the next screen. That’s it.
My Music backup experience on Google was a bit odd. Apple Music and Google Play Music had launched in India with free trial offers, with Google also offering a free backup of all my music (probably to compete with Apple Match). I tried out both the services, and also backed up all my music on Google using the Chrome browser on my Mac (see below). As more free music streaming services came out in India, I discontinued my Apple music subscription, and switched to the free service of Google Play Music. Not surprisingly, it’s supported by ads, which isn’t really a deal breaker as there’s an option to skip the longer video ads similar to the YouTube thingy.
Some time later, my favorite Nobel Prize winning singer disappeared from my iTunes. Maddening, no doubt, but I sort of expected it by now from the whimsical iTunes. Out of habit, I checked my Google Play Music library, and was surprised to find my entire uploaded music collection including the missing Dylan album, still available online. I do occasionally buy music from Google so my guess is they see me as a paying customer and let me keep my stuff for free in return. Anyway, as I started downloading my lost music, Bob started singing, “If not for you, My sky would fall.” That captured exactly what I felt for Google at that instant.
Apple’s mysterious disappearing tricks also happens with people in my Contacts app. My plumber once vanished into thin air, a disappearing act that drove me nuts enough to spew out an entire post about it. Again, it was Google to the rescue as I had backed up my contacts.
Apple actually makes it easy to back up your contacts with Google on your iPhone. Basically you sync your phone’s contacts with your Gmail contact list. This way, you can always retrieve a contact from your ‘google contacts’ if it goes missing from your iPhone. It’s again simple to set up. First, add your Gmail account to your phone’s Mail app. Then go to Settings and enable contacts syncing. As you can see below, my personal gmail account is set to have contacts to be synced on my iPhone.
The other advantage of this system is you can keep your work contacts out of your phone to prevent excess clutter in your phone book. If you look at the middle image above, you can see my Work email account doesn’t have contacts synced. I save work contacts directly in my work email phonebook, and leave them there. If I need to have a work contact on my phone, I temporarily put him in my phone book. This does make him to appear in my personal Gmail contacts. But once I’m done with the job, I remove the contact from my phone, and it automatically diasappears from my personal Gmail. Should I ever need his number, I can always locate his details from my work email account.
There is a better way to prevent clutter in your phonebook. Group all your work contacts in a group called Work, and then hide the group from within the Contacts app. Anytime you wish to see your work contacts, just tap on the groups link on the top left of your Contact app, and toggle the tick mark back on. This is far more convenient method except for one little issue. You can see groups in the Contacts app but you can’t create Groups in it. You have to go to your browser, sign in to your iCloud, and create the Group there. That’s just a bit too much for me. Why not in the app? Apple may have its reasons but they aren’t saying.
However my issues with Apple are not just limited to backup.
Apple’s Photos offers a lot of options in editing images. But Google’s Snapseed is at altogether another level. Let me explain with one feature. Lots of times, when you shoot someone, you get a good mood shot but the details of the face can’t be seen. Now in Photos, you can brighten the whole image and see details. But doing that causes the rest of the picture to get washed out and you lose the mood. With Snapseed, you can easily brighten one particular area, say the face without brightening the rest of the image and washing out the picture.
See above the difference between how Photos and Snapseed fixed the image. What I want to do is see the Buddha’s smile so as to create a contrast with the mysterious jungle with menacing creepers circling around his head. With Photos, you can now see the smile on the Buddha’s face after tweaking the image but there is no more mystery as the dark, creepy jungle effect is gone. On the other hand, Snapseed lets me brighten just the Buddha’s face without losing the mood of the rest of the shot. Of course, this is no big deal for those who use editing software like Photoshop. (In fact, it may be possible to do this within Photos for all I know.) But for layman like me to whom Photoshop is a puzzle, this is a picture saver. In case, you want to know how I did it, here’s a screen recording on my iPhone.
Basically you open the image from within Snapseed, tap on tools, then tap on ‘Selective’ in the second row, then tap the Buddha’s face, and you will see a ‘B’ appear on his face. Now tap the screen with two fingers apart, and a circle will appear. Slowly pinch your two fingers together till the circle only covers the Buddha’s face (the brightening effect only appears inside the circle). Then touch the screen outside and above the image, and slowly swipe right till the brightness count reads 100. To confirm, tap on the window like icon on the top left which gives me a before-after look. Finally, tap the tick mark at the right bottom corner, and then on ‘export’ which send the reworked image back to my Photos app.
Another little gem of an app from Google is PhotoScan for which the closest equivalent on iOS is the scanning feature within the iOS Notes app. But unlike that, it’s perfect for scanning old paper photo albums and uploading it to Google Photos. Photos are usually reflective and it’s hard to scan them with a phone camera. PhotoScan gets around this by ingeniously shooting four shots from four corners of your image, and then combining the four shots to give a perfect scan without any reflections. In effect you are digitising your real Photo albums without having to go through the tedious process of using an actual scanner to scan each image.
Apple Maps just doesn’t work in India. It’s literally crippled and can’t give directions to any location, and instead says, ‘Directions are not available between these locations.’ I think Google Maps has too much of a headstart that Apple just stopped trying to catch up. In fact, Google is so clued into India that it offers offline maps. This is ideal for a country where the mobile network is non-existent in lots of places, and mobile data is limited.
As for the real-time location sharing on Google Maps with one touch, I think it’s originally an Apple Maps feature. Since Apple Maps is semi-dysfunctional in India, Google gratefully appropriated this unique iPhone 3D Touch feature for Google Maps. Just hard press on the Google Maps icon, and a ‘Send My Location’ option pops up. It’s perfect for when you are driving, and have only a moment to tell someone where you are.
If I wish to share large videos shot on my iPhone, Apple suggests we use the ‘Shared Albums’ feature of Photos. Unfortunately, this uses iCloud whose free version only offers 5GB of space. This 5GB has to be shared for all photos, documents and all my iDevice backups, which means it usually has very little free space. Apple would like me to buy extra space on iCloud. But that’s not going to happen when Google offers me unlimited space for free on YouTube, the world’s favorite video platform.
That’s why I upload videos shot on my iPhone to YouTube by default. It’s almost as easy to do as iCloud. Basically you go to Photos where your video is saved, select it, tap the share button at the bottom, and then choose YouTube from the share options. You can even ensure your video’s privacy by choosing ‘Private,’ which means only those you share its link with can view it.
Apple does give me a free iCloud email, but it’s not half as good as Gmail. So like almost everyone else on Planet Earth, I rely on a Gmail account. For everyday use, I operate my Gmail via the stock Mail app as it’s simple to set up. But Mail is limited in its capabilities, especially search. If the Mail app can’t find something, I usually fire up Google’s Gmail app which easily finds what I am looking for.
I know there are many other good email apps. But sometimes having too many email apps to choose from is more stressful than whatever email issues I have. So I stick with combination of Mail and Gmail apps.
Google Drive and Docs
Unlike the previous apps, I use these in tandem with Apple’s apps. iCloud is perfect for backing up my phone, and works seamlessly with online docs like Pages and Numbers. But I also use Google Docs as it’s easier to share across platforms. Space on iCloud is also an issue as I mentioned earlier. Google Drive is that way a far more convenient online vault as it allows me to share large files without having to worry about running out of space. Of course, there are other custom apps for large file transfers like Dropbox and WeTransfer. But that often leads to “Now where on earth did I put that file?” situations, which I would rather avoid.
Google is not always the best alternative when an Apple app falls short. News is one instance where neither Apple nor Google really stand out from the other news apps. Others apps like Flipboard are more popular, at least here in India.
There are many more ways in which Google is deeply woven into Apple and improves my whole iPhone experience . Like every time I type something on my iPhone, I do it via Gboard, Google’s amazingly accurate swipe-to-type keyboard (it’s also a mini Google, a GIF maker and much more). To get something translated into another languages, I use Google Translate. To know how to pronounce a word, I type define: xyz in my Safari browser. To play videos from my phone on my TV, I use the Google Home app (you need Google’s Chromecast device). To transfer money, I go to Tez. To know if a flight is on time, I just feed in the Flight Number in Google…
One last question. Why don’t I just get the Pixel 2XL, Google’s challenger to the iPhone? Maybe I should. Or maybe I’m just plain greedy and want the best of the two worlds of Apple and Google. That may explain things as I belong to the ‘mixed breeds are healthier than purebreds’ school of thought.
In short, I love my iPhone, but I love it better when it’s running on Google.