“Spring cleaning” usually conjures up images of tedious housework, but it’s worth thinking about tidying up your smartphone and tablet, too — and I don’t mean physically, though that might also be a good idea. If you’re anything like us, your devices are full of old photos, files and apps taking up valuable storage space. Now is as good a time as any to start cleaning things out. And if you’re an iPhone or an iPad user, Apple’s Shortcuts feature just might be able to help. What are Shortcuts? In a nutshell, Shortcuts let you quickly perform a specific task, or a more complex sequence of tasks, with a single tap or voice command. This idea isn’t unique to Apple — if you’re a geek of a certain age, you probably know these as strings of actions better as “macros.” Building your first Shortcut can seem daunting at first, but relax: You don’t need to be a coder to create a truly useful setup. All it really takes is a little time to put all the pieces together. More than anything, I’ve come to think of these things as little logic puzzles. You know the result you’re looking for — it’s just a matter of thinking through the steps and finding the right sequence of actions to get you there. There are, of course, limits to what Apple will let you do. Let’s say you’re like me, and you’re just awful at remembering to clear out your notifications regularly. I would love to create a Shortcut that would automatically dismiss notifications generated more than a day or two ago, but Apple doesn’t make information about a notification’s age available to Shortcuts. Similarly, there doesn’t appear to be a way — for now, at least — to figure out the last time you used certain apps, so there’s no way to build a Shortcut that highlights apps you could delete without missing them. As you’ll see later, Apple also has a fairly limited set of tools for interacting with files stored directly on your iOS device. Granted, there are a handful of third-party apps, like Toolbox Pro, Data Jar and JellyCuts, that dramatically expand on the Shortcut tools that ship in iOS, but the thing to remember is that there are some tasks you can’t pull off with Shortcuts yet. Oh, and for the sake of your sanity, it’s best to start piecing together Shortcuts on as big a screen as possible. Since there’s no Shortcuts functionality available on Apple’s Macs — even the new ones running the iPhone-inspired M1 chipset — that means use an iPad if you have one. Don’t worry: As long as your iPad and iPhone are signed into the same Apple ID, any Shortcut you create on one will be visible in the other. How to create a Shortcut Piecing together complex actions to help clean out our devices involves a lot of trial and error at first, so let’s work through a basic example. Meet BackupNotes: It’s the first half-decent Shortcut I ever made, and as the name implies, it’s meant to help you quickly save your old notes in the cloud before you go through and start cleaning house. The logic here is pretty straightforward. First, we check today’s date and dial it back 30 days to make sure nothing relatively new and necessary gets caught in the net. And right off the bat, you have a few different ways to pull this off. At first, I actually created a separate shortcut called “MonthAgo” that takes the current date and subtracts 30 days from it. From there, I could add an instruction to the BackNotes workflow to run the MonthAgo shortcut first, then pass that adjusted date into the Find Notes action. Turns out, that whole rigmarole wasn’t actually necessary. After a little Googling, I could just define the date and adjust it directly inside this shortcut. This new approach is a whole lot cleaner, but I’m still grateful I took the long way around first since it opened my eyes to the possibility of linking multiple shortcuts together. It’s pretty much smooth sailing from there. Searching for actions related to the Notes app in the Shortcuts sidebar reveals a handful of options, including just the one we need to select notes older than the date we defined earlier. Then, just add an action for compressing those notes into a single ZIP file — you can’t see it in the image above, but there’s also a text field to give the new compressed file a name — and cap things off with a save action. I should note that while those last few steps sound like the easiest, they took a little more time to figure out than I care to admit. Originally, I had wanted my iOS devices to open the share sheet so you could more easily get that new ZIP file to contacts, or into the cloud storage app of your choice. You can do that, but there’s a caveat. If you use a Shortcut to give a file a name and try to send it via the share sheet, the name doesn’t actually stick; it winds up with whatever generic name Gmail or Telegram or Google Drive decides to give it. Naturally, the Shortcuts apps’ flexibility means there’s a fairly easy workaround, if you’re game. It just takes a couple extra steps right at the end. You could, for instance, close things out with an action to send that same file via the share sheet, plus one more to delete it after you’ve moved it where you want it. It’s functional when run, but it requires one final tap to confirm you want to delete the ZIP file, which feels a little inelegant. Thankfully, the solution I landed on does just fine for my purposes. By saving the notes backup through iCloud Drive, you can manually choose a third-party storage service (Google Drive, in my case) that you’ve already connected to the iOS Files app. Tweaking the formula Now that your notes are all safely stored elsewhere, you can now scrub through them all and delete as needed. But what could we do if we put a twist on that basic formula? Well, how about this: Let’s back up other files you’ve stored on your iOS device before you go on a cleaning spree. As you can see, the last two steps here are the same as in the previous example, but the lead-in is a little different. Because I want to be able to choose the backup’s file name rather than just tag it with the date as we did before, things start with an “Ask for text” action. The user then punches in whatever file name they want, which gets saved as a variable in the following step. (Pro tip: Once you find actions you suspect you’ll use frequently, you can save them as favorites for easy access.) With the beginning and the end sorted, it’s all a matter of getting to the files we need. That’s easier than it sounds. Rather than use the “Find Notes” action from last time, “Get File” is what we need to dig into your iOS device’s file structure. Once that action is in place, it’s important to make sure the options for showing the document picker and selecting multiple files are ticked. That way, once you actually run the Shortcut, you’ll be able to navigate through the folders on your device and pick the ones you’d like to package up and offload in the final two actions. Once again, you can store that new compressed file in almost any cloud storage service that’s connected to your Files app. (I say “almost” because Dropbox can be added to your Files app, but you can’t navigate to it when it’s time to save the file. If your life lives in Dropbox, you have to use a different, similarly straightforward action to store your backup in there.) As useful as this Shortcut can be, Apple’s limitations mean it’s not as automated as one might prefer. There’s no way that I know of to use the “Get File” action to collect all files in a specific folder, like the one all your Safari file downloads get saved to. Being able to automatically select those files, bundle them up and save them somewhere would be really helpful, but the app just doesn’t offer that kind of granularity. Adding more actions I don’t know about you, but the screenshots album on my phone is a disaster — it’s all fleetingly funny tweets, images of my homescreen I captured by accident and a screen grab of this beautiful nightmare. If your iOS device is starting to run low on storage, clearing up every little bit can help, so let’s take a stab at a Shortcut that automatically deletes some of those old images. Right off the bat, there are two new actions to dig into. The first does exactly what it says on the tin — feed it a snippet of text and the Shortcut will read it aloud. (This obviously isn’t necessary, but what’s life if you can’t goof around a little?) The second, meanwhile, is one you’ll probably find yourself returning to pretty frequently. It gives you the ability to define and display multiple options in a notification that slides down from the top of the screen. In this case, we want to be able to delete screenshots we consider old, or delete all screenshots in one fell swoop. It also introduces us to the idea of carrying out multiple tasks in a single Shortcut. This will definitely come in handy as you continue to build your own. Granted, these are pretty simple tasks — one of them does the now very familiar date adjustment trick, and uses the Find Photos action to select all of the screenshots created more than a month ago. (You can tweak this pretty easily if you’d rather, say, select screenshots that were last modified before a specific date.) Once that action applies those criteria to find the right images, it’s just a matter of adding a Delete Photos action to get rid of them. By default, you’re prompted to confirm you want to erase those files, so there’s always a chance to back out if you think better of it. As for the next task, deleting all screenshots instead of a selection of them? That's easy: Just recreate the previous task, but without specifying how old the screenshots should be. As with the other examples we’ve worked through, there’s plenty of room for experimentation and customization depending on exactly how you’d like things to work, but for now, we have a dead-simple tool for clearing out some of your old, unneeded files What next? So, we’ve created a few helpful Shortcuts — now what? Well, you should probably try them out. All the Shortcuts you make are accessible from inside the app, but there are situations where you might need quicker access to them. For those cases, you can put the appropriate Shortcuts right on your home screen, and as usual, there are a few ways to do this. The simplest way to go is by adding a Shortcut widget. On an iPhone, long-press an app icon and tap the plus sign that appears in the top-left corner. From there, you can pick out exactly the widget layout that feels right, and plop it in the middle of all your apps. If that looks a little too big for your liking, you can also create app icons on your home screen that directly execute your Shortcut of choice: Engadget Alternatively, you could always just use Siri — it can recognize all of your Shortcuts by name, and executes them (almost) the same way as if you had just poked at your screen. The only real difference is that if any of your Shortcuts require text input, like the file name prompts we built above, you’ll have to respond out loud rather than punch text in manually. This is just a crash course for Shortcut creation. If you’re interested in learning more about crafting these clever utilities, there’s no shortage of places to turn — I’ve mostly relied on the excellent r/Shortcuts subreddit and Chris Lawley’s YouTube channel to get a sense of what was and wasn’t possible early on. But, the best way to figure out how to make better Shortcuts is by pulling some apart. Pop into your iOS device’s settings and allow “untrusted” shortcuts. This allows you to install shortcuts created by other people, and looking at how their logic unfolds can be extremely informative. Just make sure you take a few moments to look at how those third-party shortcuts actually work before you run them!
All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission. We all could use a little help keeping our homes clean, and now we live in an age where robots are actually capable of lending a (mechanical) hand. Robot vacuums are some of the most recognizable smart home gadgets available today with their circular shapes and propensity for bumping into walls. While they provide an undeniable convenience, they can also have high price tags. It’s not unheard of to drop close to $1,000 on a high-end robo-vac. But unlike just a few years ago, today there are plenty of budget robot vacuum options to choose from. At Engadget, we consider anything under $300 to be cheap in this space and you may be surprised to see how many there are at that price point. And if you’re new to the world of robot vacuums, you may find that one of these budget gadgets does everything you expected and more. Are robot vacuums worth it? Friends and family often ask me if new gadgets are “worth it,” and when it comes to robot vacuum the answer is yes. The most important thing they have going for them is autonomy — just turn it on, walk away. If you’re someone who wants to spend as little time as possible cleaning your home — or just someone who detests vacuuming — then a semi-autonomous robot is a great investment. There are plenty of other good things about them that we’ll discuss in a bit, but let’s take a look at the biggest trade-offs when opting for a robot vacuum: less power, less capacity and less flexibility. The former two cons go hand in hand — robot vacuums are much smaller than upright vacuums, which leads to less suction. Also, they hold less dirt because their built-in bins are a fraction of the size of a standard vacuum canister or bag. Also, while robo-vacs are cord-free, that means they are slaves to their batteries and will require regular recharging. When it comes to flexibility, robot vacuums do things differently than standard ones. You can control some with your smartphone, set cleaning schedules and more, but robo-vacs are primarily tasked with cleaning floors. On the flip side, their upright counterparts can come with various attachments that let you clean couches, stairs, light fixtures and other hard to reach places. What to look for in a budget robot vacuum Valentina Palladino / Engadget When looking for a cheap robo-vac, one of the first things you should consider is WiFi connectivity. While you may think that’s a given on all smart home devices, it’s not. Some of the most affordable robo-vacs don’t have the option to connect to your home WiFi network. If you choose one like this, you won’t be able to control it with a smartphone app or with voice commands. Another feature that’s typically reserved for WiFi-connected robots is scheduling because most of them use a mobile app to set cleaning schedules. But WiFi-incapable vacuums usually come with remote controls that have all the basic functions that companion mobile apps do, including start, stop and return to dock. And if you’re concerned about the possibility of hacking, vacuums with no access to your WiFi network are the best option. You should also think about the types of floors you have in your home. Are they all carpet? Or mostly hardwood and tile? Carpets demand vacuums with more suction power that can collect debris that gets pushed down into nooks and crannies. Unfortunately, there isn’t a universal metric by which suction is measured. Some companies provide Pascal (Pa) levels and generally the higher the Pa, the stronger. But other companies don’t rely on Pa levels and simply say their robots have X-times more suction than other robot vacuums. So how can you ensure you’re getting a robot vacuum that will adequately clean your floors? Read the product description. Look for details about its ability to clean hardwood and carpets, and see if it has a “max” mode you can use to increase suction. If you are given a Pa measurement, look for around 2000Pa if you have mostly carpeted floors. Size is also important for two reasons: clearance and dirt storage. Check the specs for the robot’s height to see if it can get underneath the furniture you have in your home. Most likely any robot vacuum you find won’t be able to clean under a couch (unless it’s a very tall, very strange couch), but some can get under entryway tables, nightstands and the like. As for dirt storage, look out for the milliliter capacity of the robot’s dustbin — the bigger the capacity, the more dirt the vacuum can collect before you have to empty it. Object detection and cliff sensors are other key features to look out for. The former helps the robot vacuum navigate around furniture while it cleans, rather than mindlessly pushing its way into it. As for cliff sensors, these prevent robot vacuums from taking a tumble down your stairs and they are a must-have if you have a multi-level home. The best budget robot vacuums Best overall: $250 Shark Ion RV761 Valentina Palladino / Engadget It was harder to name a best budget robot vacuum than I anticipated because many of the machines I tested were pretty solid. However, two in particular stood out a bit from the crowd — the Shark’s Ion RV761 and iRobot’s Roomba 694, and Shark’s device ended up besting the Roomba in a few areas: price, battery life and cleaning modes. Buy Shark Ion RV761 at Best Buy - $250 The Shark RV761 comes in at $250 and includes two extra side brushes and one extra filter in the box. Not only is that a great price for the vacuum alone, but those included extra parts increase the amount of time you have before you have to shell out more money to keep the vacuum working properly. Unfortunately, the robot’s design doesn’t do it any favors — it has a bowling-shirt vibe that I can’t get over. But I applaud its clearly labeled buttons, something many other robot vacuums don’t have. No obtuse icons here, just easy to read text for Clean, Dock and Max (the latter referring to the high-powered clean mode). You could rely just on the buttons, but it also connects to WiFi so you can use the Shark Clean app. I had no trouble connecting the Shark to my home WiFi network by following the in-app instructions, and I even got to name it before the setup was complete (Sharkey — I know, very original). It makes as much noise as I’d expect a robot vacuum to — loud enough that I had to up the volume of the podcast I was listening to, but not loud enough for me to hear it when it was cleaning a different room down the hall. I live in a mid-sized New York apartment, so “down the hall” really isn’t all that far away. Surprisingly, switching to Max mode didn’t dramatically increase the noise level either. The Shark doesn’t have a spot-clean feature, but Max mode is good to use when you have a specific area that needs a lot of attention. I gave Max mode a shot a few times, but I found the standard cleaning mode did a good enough job of inhaling dirt, debris, crumbs and even the cat hair embedded in my carpets. I also appreciated the Shark’s adjustable wheels, which raise and lower automatically depending on the “terrain” and the obstacles in its path. I first noticed the wheels when the Shark ran over my cat’s nearly 1-inch thick toy mouse, something that most other robot vacuums just push around as they move. The mouse was unharmed, just a little squished after the encounter, and the Shark avoided sucking up any of my cat’s other toys, too (even if it did push her T-shaped play tunnel around the living room incessantly). Valentina Palladino / Engadget The Shark has proximity sensors like many other machines do, which help them avoid collisions. But in my experience, very few robot vacuums are actually good at doing this — they often bump into walls and furniture, readjust and move on. What sets robot vacuums apart is their ability to avoid getting stuck, or least get unstuck quickly. The Shark was just ok at this — it was tripped up by a display case that had just enough space in between its legs that the robot tried to get underneath it, but alas, failed every time. The robot ran for an hour and a half on average in its standard cleaning mode. That’s right in line with the company’s estimated battery life, and more often than not, the Shark returned to its dock fairly quickly when it was getting low on battery. Only once did I actually have to pick up the machine and set it on its charger. Usually, I used the Shark Clean companion app. The homepage lets you start and stop cleanings as well as switch to Max mode and “find” the robot, which just forces the machine to beep loud enough that you’ll (hopefully) hear it from across your home. You can also see how long the device has been cleaning when it’s mid-job and a full cleaning history, which is helpful to check out if you forgot the last time you ran the vacuum. In the app menu, you’ll find the scheduling feature, which lets you choose recurring days and times for regular cleanings. Ultimately, Shark’s RV761 did everything I expected a good robot vacuum to do and did them well. For a semi-autonomous device, small details — like reliable WiFi connectivity, good battery life and a well designed app — can make or break your experience. While there were a few small hiccups along the way, they didn’t overshadow the fact that the Shark RV761 provides a ton of value for only $250. Runner up: $300 iRobot Roomba 694 Valentina Palladino / Engadget iRobot’s new Roomba 694 comes close to the Shark RV671. At $300, this model will eventually replace the Roomba 675 but, aside from an updated exterior, it’s fundamentally the same vacuum. I much prefer this robot’s all-black design to that of the Shark and it looks better than older Roomba models, too. It has three physical buttons on it — start, dock and spot — and, like the Shark, it connects to WiFi so you can control it via the iRobot app. Unfortunately, your $300 gets you the vacuum and its necessary parts only so you’ll have to pay up immediately when you need a replacement filter or brushes. Buy Roomba 694 at iRobot - $300 Setting up the Roomba 694 is much like the Shark machine — open the companion app and follow the instructions. Once it’s connected to your home WiFi network, you’re able to use the app to control the vacuum whenever you don’t feel like using the physical buttons. However, the spot-clean function is only available as a button, which is a bit of a bummer considering I expected the app to mirror the buttons while adding even more customizable controls. iRobot’s app is a bit better than Shark’s. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the Shark Clean app — it’s reliable and easy to use. But iRobot’s app puts most pertinent controls on the homepage, so you rarely (if ever) need to navigate through its menu to do things like set a cleaning schedule. Overall, it’s a bit more polished than Shark’s app and that might be best for less tech-savvy people. But simplicity can be tricky. The overall iRobot user experience is incredibly straightforward and some will prefer that over a more complicated setup. But customization and flexibility are sacrificed to achieve that. I was a bit shocked to see the features other robot vacuums have that iRobot machines don’t. Direction controls are a good example — believe it or not, most higher-end robot vacuums can’t be controlled like toy cars. But some like the Anker Eufy vacuum has them on its physical remote, and Roborock’s E4 vacuum has digital direction controls in the Mi Home app. The Roomba 694 may not have a ton of bells and whistles, but it gets the job done and does so without you needing to tend to it. It’s on par with the Shark robot in terms of cleaning but it generally only ran for around 45 minutes before needing to dock and recharge. iRobot says run times will vary based on floor surfaces, but the 694 is estimated to have a 90-minute battery life when cleaning hard floors. Regardless, it’s more than a half hour less than Shark’s robot. While 45 minutes may be enough time for the robot to scuttle around most rooms in my apartment, those with larger homes may have to wait for it to recharge in order to clean everywhere. iRobot has made a name for itself in the autonomous vacuum market for good reason. It’s machines are polished, dead simple to use and the accompanying app is excellent. That ease of use (and the reputation of the iRobot name) comes at a slightly higher price tag, which many will be willing to pay. But there are plenty of solid options now that didn’t exist even just three years ago. Best bang for your buck: $230 Anker Eufy RoboVac 11S Valentina Palladino / Engadget Anker’s $230 Eufy RoboVac 11S was one of the cheapest vacuums I tested but it also proved to be one of the most versatile. First thing to note: this robot vacuum doesn’t have WiFi, but it does come with a remote that gives you most of the functions you’d find in an app (including a schedule feature). Eufy also includes additional brushes and filters in the box. Buy Eufy RoboVac 11S at Amazon - $150 The “S” in this robot’s name stands for slim, and it’s roughly 0.5-inches thinner than all of the other vacuums I tested. Not only does this make the 11S lighter, but it was the only one that could clean under my entryway table. The 11S has a physical on-off toggle on its underside plus one button on its top that you can press to start a cleaning. It always begins in auto mode, which optimizes the cleaning process as it putters around your home, but you can use the remote to select specific modes like spot and edge clean. I ended up repeatedly using the 11S’ spot clean feature. My partner’s main hobby involves a lot of craft supplies and usually results in tiny pieces of scrap paper all over the floor. The 11S cleaned them up well when in spot-clean mode which focuses its suction in one area as it spins outward in a spiral. I didn’t even have to pick up and move the 11S to the paper-strewn location either — the remote’s direction buttons let me drive the vacuum almost like an RC car. The 11S has three power modes — Standard, BoostIQ and Max — and I kept mine on BoostIQ most of the time. It provided enough suction to adequately clean my carpeted floors, missing only a few crumbs or pieces of debris in corners or tight spaces around furniture. It ran for roughly one hour and fifteen minutes when in BoostIQ mode and it has remarkable collision avoidance. Sure, it bumped into walls and some large pieces of furniture, but it was the only vacuum that I tried to consistently avoid hitting my cat’s play tunnel that lives in the middle of our living room floor. As far as noise levels go, you can definitely hear the difference between BoostIQ and Max, but none of the three settings is abhorrently loud. In fact, I could barely hear the 11S when it was on the opposite end of my apartment running in BoostIQ mode. Thankfully, error alert beeps were loud enough to let me know when something went awry, like the 11S accidentally getting tripped up by a rogue charging cable (which only happened a couple of times and neither robot nor cable were harmed in the process). Overall, the Eufy RoboVac 11S impressed me with its smarts, despite its lack of WiFi. The lack of wireless connectivity is arguably the worst thing about the robot and that’s saying a lot. It’s worth mentioning that this model is rated for up to 1300Pa suction, but you can grab the next model up, the RoboVac 11S Max, which gives you 2000Pa suction (just know that it’ll likely be louder as a result). But you can’t argue with the value of the $230 11S — especially when it’s often on sale for around $150.