macOS Monterey, iOS 15: My Apple betas experience

macOS Montrey and iOS 15 are the latest versions of macOS and iOS. They were announced at WWDC 2021. The public beta was released a couple of days ago, and I downloaded it as soon as they were available. I wanted to download them when the developer beta was announced, but I don’t have an Apple developer account. And, admittedly, I was worried about how developer beta may fare. Glad I decided to wait for the public Apple betas.

I am quite happy with the experience so far. I installed both betas on my personal devices and on my work Mac as well. They seem rock solid, and I don’t see a hit on battery life either, which I hear is often the case on Apple beta rollouts.

I blogged about my favorite iCloud+ features previously, which I will be focussing on in this article.

Mail Privacy Protection

I have enabled it on my Mail app for now, but haven’t found if there are stats/analytics of how many trackers are blocked. As I am a pi-hole user, that must cover DNS-level blocks throughout my home but I am curious on seeing how this new feature complements pi-hole.

A screenshot from iOS 15 that shows the new Mail Privacy Protection feature. It blocks trackers on your mailboxes.

Private Relay on both Apple betas

Private Relay is Apple’s double-hop VPN-like service that prevents networks from monitoring your traffic, and prevents trackers and websites from identifying your IP addresses. It’s available on both Apple betas as of today.

My original understanding was that this is basically Apple-backed VPN service, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Is it basically a VPN service?

From a technical reading (I don’t have the link to it at the moment) of this service, it appears this is a double-hop tunneling system. Think of Tor, where there are 3 hops involved — entry node, middle node and exit node.

In Apple’s Private Relay case though, the first hop gets you an anonymous, shared IP address, while the second hop decrypts the website address. In this fashion, none of the parties in these tunnels are able to fully map the original address of the requester and the website address.

DNS leaks with Private Relay on these Apple betas?

Private Relay has assigned me a Cloudflare and Fastly address so far. I hear there are other providers that Apple has partnered with, but my experience so far has been limited to the two of them.

I have also noticed that my pi-hole on the Tailscale network doesn’t work when Private Relay is active. That’s alright in my opinion, because the very purpose of tunneled connections is to prevent leaks to other networks. Think of using a VPN, which assigns its own DNS resolvers, vs using the one assigned by your DHCP on the router. That’s precisely what’s happening here.

A screenshot from iOS 15 that shows the Private Relay functionality's settings.

Private Relay is limited to Safari. That works great for me. When I need to browse websites from my regular, ISP-based IP address, I can use a different browser like Firefox.

My pi-hole setup continues to work normally on other browsers, and other apps throughout the device.

A couple of other things that I noticed:

  • Private Relay on iOS 15 allows me to choose servers from the same geolocation, or from other areas of my country. That’s just a feature of iOS 15 though. I don’t see it on macOS Monterey.
  • Private Relay was enabled by default on my WiFi network. That wasn’t the case for a friend though.
  • As expected on a beta software, Private Relay disconnected a few times as I was browsing.

All in all, I am happy about this functionality, which is one of the many first steps that Apple is taking in privacy.

Hide My Email

Hide My Email is basically an email alias service that generates new addresses on demand. These aliases forward incoming email to your primary address, thus avoiding exposure of your actual email address from spam. I am a huge fan of this concept. I use SimpleLogin already for which I am a paying customer.

It is limited to 100 aliases per account (read so on a beta thread on reddit.) That can be limiting for power users. On SimpleLogin, I have over 1000 aliases, spread across website and apps signups, newsletters, shopping and everything in betwee.

A screenshot showing the new Hide My Email functionality on Apple's iOS 15.

If you start using Hide My Email, consider saving them on a password manager like 1Password or Bitwarden. Otherwise, it’s very easy to lose track of your alias usage across sites.

iCloud Mail with a custom domain

This is probably my most favorite feature announced at WWDC 2021. It’s not available on the beta just yet. Fingers crossed for its availability in the next release!

Safari re-design on both Apple betas

I hate it. Multiple things about this design are distracting:

  • The box-like layout of the tabs resize as I change tabs.
  • The background of the tabs change colors depending on the website’s background color. While it seemed interesting initially, I have noticed that it comes with illegible reading, especially on my non-retina MacBook Air.
  • The position of the search/address bar changes every time I navigate between tabs.

I am not a fan.

Other things I noticed

  • I was late to learning that Shortcuts is available as well! As someone that automates a lot of things with Keyboard Maestro, I am curious to see how Shortcuts can work with it, or how it can complement the former’s features.
  • Universal Control is not available on this beta either. It allows one to use the same input devices (mouse and keyboard) across multiple macOS or iOS devices. I can imagine myself using my MacBook Air’s (2015 model) keyboard for MacBook Pro (2019 model). The latter doesn’t have a butterfly keyboard, which is a good thing, but I still prefer my MacBook Air’s keyboard. There is a mechanical typing sensation which makes the typing experience rich.
  • Tailscale works okay on both betas!

If you want to enroll your devices for Apple betas, the signup program is available here.

Mac fn key: Remap to emoji picker

Great tip from Sindre. Apparently Mac OS settings allow one to map the fn key to the emoji picker. I use the emoji picker many times a day. This remap must be a fantastic time saver. Control + Command + Space is the default shortcut for those curious.

A stock image showing an illustration of a conversation bubble. In this post, you can learn about a Mac OS setting to replace Mac fn key as an emoji picker.

I like Slack-style emoji picker though, where I can type : followed by the emoji name. That displays a horizontal list to choose from, vs Mac fn key popup display. It’s considerably faster, but not all apps support that. I know only of Slack, Flock, Telegram and Signal as apps that support it.

Snowball fight is back on VALORANT!

Snowball fight is back on VALORANT! The mode is different from the regular modes, in that the primary gear is replaced with a snowball shooter. It does not offer agents the abilities though, and is based on the same maps as regular ones. My first game of the day was based at Icebox, where I clutched the MVP title with 15 kills.

An image of the post-game screen of the VALORANT snowball fight game. The screen shows two players, each clutching the MVP title for the respective teams.

Along with this update, a new agent by the name KAY/O is announced. Apparently they can block the enemy agents’ skills! I cannot wait to unlock them.

Day One: My new private blogging app

I am a Day One user now!

The team joined Automattic this month. The acquisition is perfect. Automattic is a pioneer in the web publishing and blogging space, while Day One champions the private journaling experience. I am excited to see what the future holds for Day One, and how Automattic integrates its products with it. Publishing from the app to a WordPress site, the other way around and Gutenberg on the app are few examples of great things that can happen.

An image of the Day One app on a white iPhone
Day One on iPhone

Today on the company-wide townhall, the Day One team met the rest of Automattic. We had a quick overview of the Day One apps. They also offered a premium subscription for everyone working at Automattic. That’s very cool!

I have not been into private journaling most of my life. I have written pieces on and off though. The first time I started private blogging, it was during my college days. I remember maintaining a notebook. That was my first time away from home/neighborhood and writing was a great way to cope with the change. I remember moving to a Dropbox later, where I stored them as text files, encrypted with Cryptomator.

Day One, on the other hand, is a fully encrypted, cross-platform app. Android is an exception though. It does not support end-to-end encryption. I published a copy of this blog post as an entry as well. The Mac app seems polished with a great deal of features. I will not be using the Android app just yet. Hopefully an end-to-end encrypted version is available in the near future.

Download the app

If you are looking forward to trying the app, they do offer a 7 day free trial of the premium subscription. The premium version offers unlimited media storage, sync, and backup, amidst a whole bunch of other features. Get it on Google Play Store or the App Store.

First look at Among Us 15 players update

The popular, cross-platform, LAN and internet-based social deduction game Among Us is dropping a big update today! They are finally supporting lobbies with upto 15 players. This is a big news to me, as my team at work has 11 members. I know teams that are larger as well, and someone always had to sit out, or had to create two different games.

Along with the update to player count, there are a few other changes that I have noticed on the team stream that Innersloth is hosting at the moment.

Changes that stand out immediately:

  • New voting screen.
  • Voting animation gets a new look as well (video below)
  • Dead bodies look different. Is it the backpack which the beans carry that gives the rectangle appearance?

I got a chance to record the new voting animation as well. I think it’s a welcome change as it significantly improves the time taken to show all the votes, especially important in a lobby that’s sized 15.

Besides these, the team announced support for mobile controllers and a certain new “honk” system on Airship. I am not curious about the mobile controller as I am a desktop player, but I am keen on seeing what the honk system is about. The update drops by 3PM EST, which is 12.30am IST. I am hoping to download the release tomorrow morning the first thing. πŸŽ‰

Among Us is available for Windows, Android and iOS.

Opt out WiFi from Google and Microsoft location tracking

I was reading a Hacker News piece about Amazon opting out of Google’s FLoC and I learned something even more interesting. Google and Microsoft have been using information of WiFi networks, including residential properties, for location tracking purposes. It’s mind blowing that companies are able to make decisions as such. These requests must be opt-in, vs being an opt-out which is the case today.

A stock image showing a lock on a fence

Apparently this has been a thing for over a decade, and the earliest article that I could find on this is this blog post from Google where they outline a way to opt-out one’s access points and routers from this location tracking service. It’s fairly straightforward — one has to append _nomap to their router SSID.

As for Microsoft’s equivalent of opting-out, one may add _optout to any part of the router’s SSID.

To chain both opt-outs, _optout_nomap must do the trick. I did so on both bands on router – 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz.

This is generally done by accessing the web-based software for your WiFi router and somewhere on the settings menu, you will see an option to change its name.

Related: Setting up pihole on the Tailscale network to block ads and telemetry on the go.

VALORANT: I like this post-kill effect

An image showing the post-kill animation VALORANT, a 5v5 character-based tactical shooter.
This makes a great background for a desktop, right?
An image showing the post-game victory notice on the popular tactical shooter, 5v5 character-based game, VALORANT.
Clutched to secure the game

On my latest VALORANT game, we had the lead at 4-3, and it was our final plant. 5 Viper agents vs 5 Yoru agents. My team sped to site A while I took the other direction. Besides one agent B, everyone else were A. Tackled the one at B and ran fast to the other site, via their base. We were 3-1 agents by that time.

The other 2 die. I backtrack a bit, reach mid ground, walk to site A, clutched with a final headshot. A nice blue background appeared as well, which apparently is a skill from Yoru. I am yet to try Yoru.

On that note, Replication is back on VALORANT! If you are yet to try, the game is available on Riot’s website.

Taildrop: free, p2p file sharing feature

Tailscale has been on my mind lately. It’s a fantastic software that’s available across multiple operating systems. It allows you to set up your own VPN network that you can connect to from anywhere. I use Tailscale to host my pi-hole nodes, a web server at home and my favorite use-case today is the new Taildrop feature.

An image showing the logo of the mesh VPN software called Tailscale. It offers a file sharing feature as well, called Taildrop.

It is a p2p (peer-to-peer) file sharing system that doesn’t upload your files to the cloud. Best of all, it works between two different works (laptop on WiFi and mobile device on mobile data) as well. That’s because it runs on the top of the Tailscale network.

It costs us, effectively, nothing to run, because it’s your bandwidth (mostly LAN bandwidth), not ours. We just bust some NATs and negotiate the session. Which is why we can give Taildrop away to everybody, for unlimited use, with no file size limits, as part of the Tailscale free plan. It’s also open source.

Avery’s blog post is a great read!

My favorite WWDC21 announcements: all new iCloud+

Last night was fun. Apple’s WWDC21 event announced multiple software updates across their iOS, MacOS, iPadOS and watchOS platforms. I enjoyed the full keynote, particularly the part where they announced the new iCloud+ subscription. The Health-related segments were arduously long though.

It was disappointing that the new 16 inch MacBook wasn’t announced as well.

My most favorite announcement is probably the new iCloud+ subscription that includes privacy-focussed services like “Hide My Email”, “Private Relay” and the new pixel blocking functionality on the Apple Mail app. Other favorite announcements include:

  • TestFlight for Mac.
  • SharePlay for watch party with friends and family.
  • FaceTime on Android, Windows and Linux using web browsers. This brings end-to-end encrypted video calling across all platforms.
  • Universal Control. I can finally use my 2015 MacBook Air keyboard on 2019 MacBook Pro.
  • App Privacy Report. It’s like a mini pi-hole report, for your iOS device.

iCloud+ subscription

I am not an iCloud member at the moment, but with the new functionalities announced last night, I might end up choosing the lowest iCloud tier. It costs 75 INR a month in India, which is roughly about 1 USD. That’s a great price for something that includes,

  • Private Relay, a browser-specific VPN that works on Safari.
  • Hide My Email, to generate random email aliases that redirect all incoming email to your primary email inbox.
  • Custom domain support for iCloud.com email.

It’s not clear what Private Relay is just yet, but in reading beta user experiences on Reddit, it seems that it’s a Safari-specific VPN. The idea seems to be that the customer’s IP address isn’t visible to the websites that they are browsing and their internet service provider. That’s pretty much what commercial VPNs like NordVPN and Mullvad do, and they apply throughout your device. Apple’s service is restricted to the Safari usage though.

I am a devoted Firefox user, but considering that I recently cancelled my NordVPN subscription, switching to Safari for Private Relay feels like a good idea. It boils down to how performant Private Relay is though. VPNs are known to throttle your browsing speeds as they encrypt your data/route traffic through the VPN provider’s node. Private Relay routes your traffic through two hops instead, which is even better privacy-wise but I wonder if performance would take a hit.

I am a huge fan of SimpleLogin and Anonaddy, of which I am a paying customer of the former. They are open source, can be self-hosted, offer API access and offer custom domain support. I wouldn’t be cancelling my SimpleLogin subscription, but using Apple’s “Hide My Email” functionality alongside feels like a good idea. Maybe compartmentalize usage for different purposes?

“Hide My Email” had been a feature that’s part of “Sign in with Apple” functionality but that changes today because “Hide My Email” becomes a standalone app/functionality.

Custom domain support on iCloud.com is very cool as well! In fact, I never signed up for iCloud.com mail until today. I am a ProtonMail user today and I am happy with it in most respects. The end-to-end encryption functionality of ProtonMail isn’t all that useful to me though, as 99% of the communication that I make are with non-ProtonMail customers.

Email, in general, is known to be a protocol that isn’t secure. For anyone that’s looking for secure, private communication, Signal must be the goto option. That brings me to the idea that ProtonMail subscription isn’t necessary for my use case. When it ends in 11 months, I plan on canceling the subscription. Also because iCloud Mail allows usage on third-party apps and platforms, it’s not any different from other IMAP-offerings. This enables me to use the new iCloud mailbox on Android and Windows. Pretty cool for the price it comes at.

TestFlight for Mac

I am very happy with this announcement, mostly because I test Tailscale and Signal releases. Until today, beta testing on Mac has been a waiting game because developers have to submit the release on the App Store, which takes multiple days to be available to the customers. TestFlight speeds up the availability tremendously. I am looking forward to seeing whether Tailscale and Signal devs adopt TestFlight in the coming months. There is no reason not to.

FaceTime

FaceTime’s new link generation functionality is quite nice, which allows inviting non-FaceTime users to join the call using their desktop and mobile browsers. I haven’t used FaceTime ever, but considering that it offers end-to-end encrypted communication (this time even on browsers), I could give it a shot. Performance on browsers is a question though, especially in slow networks.

Signal is my choice of communication today, and it became even better recently because it offers screen sharing, which replaces my occasional need for Zoom. It’s in beta at the moment.

I look forward to trying FaceTime but convincing friends and families to use it is a challenge. Most are devoted WhatsApp users because their social circles are on it. Signal saw an increase in usage briefly in January 2021, which is when WhatsApp announced new terms (they have reversed that decision, by the way) but most of gone back to using WhatsApp because of the lack of social circles.

Overall, WWDC21 was quite nice. I hope to test the betas in the coming days.

Replication mode on VALORANT

The new replication mode on VALORANT is, well, LOL. It starts with 5 players choosing an agent each, and there is a random selector that goes through the list of agents and one is chosen. In our case, it was Raze and the opponents were a Raze bunch too.

I don’t think I like this mode just yet, but I guess I must give it some time.

I cannot imagine how the gameplay would be like when everyone has players with the blind skill. VALORANT social media team give us a sample. Real play must be the same, only 100x worse.