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This week's advice comes from a place of love.

Over the past couple months, my wife has been dealing with a significant uptick in text messages—both personal and work-related—which means some responses inevitably fall through the cracks. I say that's understandable; it's all too easy to forget about replying to text messages, especially if you're in the middle of something else or don't have an immediate response when you first read it.

What my wife would really like, I'm told, is a "mark as unread" function that restores a red notification badge over the Messages app and adds a blue dot next to the unread conversation. This kind of thing is already table-stakes for email, so why doesn't it come standard with text messaging?

In lieu of built-in "mark as read" support in our phones' standard texting apps, here's what you can do:

"Mark as unread" for Android messages

If you're an Android user, the solution is pretty simple: Just replace your phone's default texting app with a third-party alternative, several of which have "mark as read" built in.

A great example is Pulse SMS, which has a clean design and no ads. It lets you mark any conversation as unread by long-pressing on it and hitting the "..." menu button at the top right.

I also like Microsoft's experimental SMS Organizer app, which provides an email-like inbox for your text messages. You can long-press any conversation and hit the "..." menu to mark as unread, or head to the "Reminders" tab and schedule a time to respond. (The app also auto-sorts transactional or promotional messages into separate categories, so they don't clutter your main inbox.)
 

Workarounds for the iPhone

Neither of those options are much help for my wife, who gave up Android phones years ago. But because Apple doesn't allow other apps to read or send text messages, bringing "mark as unread" to the iPhone is trickier.

The best solution I found is to press and hold on the message, tap "More," then hit the forward arrow on the bottom-right of the screen. A new message screen will pop up, and from here you can send the message to your own phone number or email address. This will create a new conversation with yourself at the top of your inbox. Granted, this trick isn't as slick as flagging the actual conversation as unread, but it will restore a red badge to your home screen, reminding you of the unfinished business.

What about reminding yourself to reply, a la Microsoft's SMS Organizer app? For that, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole and rigged up a little iOS Shortcut that turns text messages into reminders. You can install it through this link.

 

To create a reminder, long-press any message, select "Copy," then run the Shortcut. (I suggest using the Shortcuts widget, which you can access by swiping right from your notification list.) You'll be prompted for a name and a reminder time, and the shortcut will create a reminder with the message contents attached. (It will also remove the text from your clipboard.)

Full disclosure: My wife remains skeptical of these solutions, believing that surely the power of my pen alone is enough to pull the necessary levers at Apple. Knowing how Apple operates, though, I'd try the workarounds first.
 

Big laptops are back: After an eight-year hiatus, Dell is reviving its high-end XPS 17 laptop line, packing an HDR display with optional 4K resolution into a 17-inch laptop and a starting weight of 4.65 pounds.

More than anything, the announcement made me wonder if jumbo laptops are coming into vogue again. Last fall, Apple upsized its largest MacBook Pro to a 16-inch screen, seven years after discontinuing its 17-inch model, and I was smitten by the three-pound LG Gram 17 that I reviewed for PCWorld last year. (The latter has since been updated with a faster processor and slightly smaller design, but the same crisp 17-inch screen.)

There are a couple of seemingly opposing trends at work here: First, the borders around laptop displays keep shrinking, allowing larger screens to fit into smaller packages. Second, phones and tablets have taken over the kind of casual use that ultraportable laptops once offered. Instead of shrinking down further, it's time for laptops to stretch out, settling into their role as deskbound workhorses. I'm into it.

An ethical ordering update: A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that Yelp will sometimes try to redirect phone calls to local restaurants through GrubHub for pickup orders, thereby entitling both companies to a revenue cut. Now, Buzzfeed News' Vanessa Wong reports on an even more insidious tactic that's been going on for years: When you look up a restaurant on Grubhub's site, it will list a unique phone number instead of the actual business number. Place an order through that number, and GrubHub will take a commission even though it simply dials through to the restaurant. One spot in New York told Buzzfeed that it paid GrubHub a $6.42 fee for a single coffee order.

GrubHub might argue that it's providing a valuable service by listing restaurants and their menu offerings on its site, but GrubHub's superior search engine optimization allows it to sometimes beat businesses' own rankings in Google results. Besides, GrubHub doesn't disclose its little rerouting trick to customers, who might not realize that just looking up a number can cost businesses money. If you want to make sure the restaurant gets it full share, make sure the number doesn't come from GrubHub first.

The contact-tracing kerfuffle: Last week, the Washington Post ran a story claiming that the COVID-19 exposure notification system in development by Apple and Google will be "practically useless." The gist, based on the Post's interviews with various experts, is that isolating outbreaks won't be easy unless health officials can see where people gathered. By design, though, Apple and Google are building a system that avoids collecting users' location histories. Instead, it uses Bluetooth to detect when iPhones and Android devices come in close proximity, so if one of their owners tests positive, health officials can pass along alerts to the other devices without learning their users' identities.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball has a well-written rebuttal to the Post's story, but the main counterargument is just common sense: Because the whole system will be opt-in, its success depends entirely on people not being creeped out by it. This system will already face an uphill battle for widespread adoption as-is. Persistently tracking peoples' whereabouts and sharing that data with the government—while also draining battery life—would make it a non-starter.
 

Make Google go dark: This week, Google is rolling out dark mode support in its search app for both iOS and Android. If you've enabled dark mode in either operating system, Google will detect that setting and render search results on a dark gray background.

That's nice if you use the Google Search app on your phone, but my first stop for web search is almost always a web browser, and I've seen no indication that Google will be applying dark mode to its mobile search websites as well.

If you're bothered by the bright white search background on Google's website, you've got some options:

  • In Chrome, type chrome://flags/#enable-force-dark into your address bar, then find and enable the option for "Force Dark Mode for web Contents." This works with both the desktop and Android versions of Chrome, the downside being that it applies to all websites at all times.
  • Mozilla's Firefox browser for iOS offers a handy "Night Mode," which you can enable through the menu button at the bottom-right of the screen. Again, this applies to all sites, but it's easy enough to disable as needed.
  • The excellent Lunar Reader extension for Chrome can force websites into dark mode on a schedule, and there's a "Whitelist Mode" you can set up so it only applies to Google or other specific sites. (Midnight Lizard is a powerful alternative for Firefox.)
  • If all else fails, try switching your browser's search engine to DuckDuckGo. The search results will embrace dark mode, and they'll be more private to boot.

The "I'm busy" light: My pal JR Raphael came up with a clever idea for those of us working at home: By setting up a smart light bulb and syncing it to your calendar, you can create a "busy" light that turns on during meetings so no one bothers you. I was so inspired by the idea that I bought a Philips Wiz BR30 Wi-Fi bulb to set up outside my own office.

I made a couple modifications to JR's recipe, though. Instead of using Zapier to trigger a Hue bulb, I used https://ifttt.com/, a separate automation service that supports Philips' Wiz system. (Unlike Hue, Wiz connects directly over Wi-Fi and doesn't require a separate bridge or hub, which is fine if you just need one bulb.) And because the Wiz bulb supports a full spectrum of colors, I took advantage by making it turn red when a calendar event starts.

If you're using both Google Calendar and the same Wiz bulb I linked above, you can activate the necessary automation right here. You'll also want to use this automation to set your light back to a normal color and turn it off when the event ends. For other calendar services and lighting sources, you'll have to fiddle with IFTTT on your own, or shoot me an email for more guidance.

Facebook's answer to Zoom: After announcing it last month, Facebook's Messenger Rooms video chat service is now available. It supports group chat for up to 50 people at once, and it uses meeting links so anyone can join, including invitees who don't have Facebook accounts. You can start a room by hitting the camera icon with a + button on it in the Messenger app or website.

Between Zoom, Google Meet, Google Duo, Jitsi, Houseparty, and others, I don't see a compelling feature-related reason to use Messenger Rooms, but it is a low-friction option if you're using Facebook Messenger already. Doubly so if you've bought into Facebook's Portal video chat hardware.
 

Spotify is offering three free months of its Premium streaming music service for those who've never signed up before. It's also offering three months for $10 if you've had service before but cancelled before April 14. Both deals are available through June 30 at Spotify's landing page.

Meanwhile, eBay is offering some great deals on refurbished AirPods and Apple Watches. The second-gen AirPods are selling for just $85 when you use the code PICK2SAVE at checkout. You can also use the PICK2SAVE code on the Apple Watch Series 3 (38mm) with cellular connectivity in either black or white. Doing so will bring the price down to $146 before tax.
 

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Cheers,
Jared