For nerds wanting to automate their devices, iOS 12 is Christmas. This week's new version of iOS brings with it significant developments to user automation. There has never been a better time to get to grips with iOS automation. Between the new academic year in the northern hemisphere, and the release of Shortcuts, I figure now is a good time to share some workflows I have built specifically for academic work and study. Among the good news is existing Workflow routines are fully compatible with the new Shortcuts app, so I can start sharing the workflows I have built up.
Academic Shortcuts: EZProxy Library Workflow
This first workflow is as about as basic as automation can get, and yet it is one of the best timesaving tricks I have set up. I use this shortcut every day to access the full pdf versions of articles I find via Google or DuckDuckGo.
Most university libraries have an EZ Proxy server that can be used to reroute a URL through the library. If you come across an article you want to access, instead of tediously searching for it again via your library, you can use this workflow to access it via EZProxy. When you install the workflow, it will ask for the EZProxy address for your university library, so search for first and have it copied to the clipboard before you install the workflow.
Citation Scanner Workflow: Scan Barcodes for Formatted Citations
I have a much longer post in the works to cover managing citations with Workflow shortcuts, so consider this a preview.
There are a lot of web services and APIs one can find to format citations, but sometimes you need something simple. This shortcut uses a handy little web service called Ottobib that can return formatted citations via URL from ISBN numbers. I have used it to setup my own book scanner. It takes the ISBN from the barcode, queries the Worldcat database, and returns a formatted citation of the book in your choice of style. Consider it a basic version of Citationsy.
Docverter Workflow: Convert Documents on iOS with Pandoc
For academic users, the real value in using Pandoc is in the wonderful citeproc filter that formats referencing. Unfortunately, Docverter doesn’t include that part of Pandoc. What it can do, however, is a fine job of converting markdown, or HTML documents into other file formats. 1
I recently highlighted the dual document feature of Notebooks, along with that app’s support for multiple file formats. One thing Notebooks can’t do is create docx files for Microsoft Word. As much as I would like to avoid Word altogether, that remains wishful thinking in academia. Not only can this workflow help with that problem, it will save you from trying one of those janky conversion apps on the app store. It is also worth mentioning the other wonderful text editors this opens up. Drafts 5 is the first that comes to mind.
Rumours of Evernote’s demise come around ever so often, but the recent ones appear to have more to them than usual. It seems a bunch of senior staff are heading out the door. If privacy concerns, and proprietary database weren’t concern enough, the future of your data should be. I would be especially concerned for academic research. If you are looking for the alternatives to Evernote for Mac and iOS, I humbly submit a couple of options I have written about on this site, DEVONthink, and Notebooks. You may even find room in your workflow for both.
DEVONthink, the Power User’s Alternative to Evernote
I have written at length about DEVONthink for iOS, but DEVONthink's real power still lies on the Mac. In fact, it is one of the remaining reasons I still use macOS. There are rumours of a major overhaul to DEVONthink on the Mac. I certainly hope to see those rumours come to fruition. For all its wonderful power, the interface has aged. Nonetheless, beneath that interface you will find the most powerful software available for information management and research. The AI heuristics and advanced search are some of the best study and research tools you will find in any form.
If aesthetic reasons have stopped you using DEVONthink in the past, I would urge you to download a trial and see if you can’t get over that. I wish had earlier than I did.
OCR and Web Clipping with DEVONthink
I know many users come to rely on Evernote’s OCR and web clipper. Both of those abilities can be found in DEVONthink. 1 The OCR engine in DEVONthink Pro Office is as good as it gets. Between that, and the peerless AI engine you can see why DEVONthink has become the endpoint for all my research materials. The web clipper can clean a web page, and save multiple formats. It might be stripped back compared with the Evernote clipper, but it does an admirable job at capturing what you need. The best part is, it speaks Markdown.
As far as alternatives to Evernote go, DEVONthink is a significant upgrade. Not only is it smarter, but your data remains private and secure. Moreover, you have options for how you use DEVONthink. In short, where Evernote imperils your data, DEVONthink keeps it safe.
Migrating your data to DEVONthink is trivial, as it can connect to Evernote directly to pull everything across with a single click. What’s more, with the DEVONthink Education Discount you can buy DEVONthink Pro Office outright for the cost of one year of Evernote.
If you happen to be an iOS only user, DEVONthink to Go is also an excellent app. And, with the help of Workflow migrating you data on an iPad is not as difficult as many would have you believe. I have even setup some workflow shortcuts to help with the process. See my post on migrating Evernote data.
Notebooks: A Plain Text Alternative to Evernote
In many ways, Alfons Schmid’s Notebooks App is the antithesis of Evernote. It avoids all the pitfalls of a web based, proprietary system by building a stack on plain text. Not only is Notebooks a clever app, it is lean and your data remains future proof. If you want to avoid ever falling into the Evernote trap again, I would give this a serious look.
I recently did a deep dive on Notebooks, but I'm still uncovering some of its tricks. I have just started putting the ability to extract tasks automatically to good use. Notebooks can be set to extract tasks from a line in any note, by nominating a special character or phrase to indicate a line as a task. In practice, this means I don’t need to interrupt my own work when I have something to follow up. I have set Notebooks to extract tasks from any line that begins with two asterisk, so while writing I simply type a new line with ** followed by whatever I need to be reminded of. 2 Like so,
** follow up on citations for Science of Logic
That's it, I'm done. Notebooks will now extract the task from the text, and set a reminder. This is ingenious. It also opens up all kinds of possibilities with Siri Shortcuts, using Notebooks Siri integration.
Mac and iOS users have options for alternatives to Evernote. Apple’s own Notes app has developed into a solid solution. It has everything an everyday user might need, right down to document scanning and shared notes. I can also understand why Bear has become so popular, the interface is a delight. At the same time, both of those apps are built on a database that ultimately obscures the notes themselves. 3 With Notebooks, you can avoid that problem altogether, and you get an app that is much better suited to an academic workflow. For more on Notebooks, see links to my recent posts below.
If you’re wondering how these apps might work together, it is straightforward enough. I keep all my current notes and project materials in Notebooks, but archive everything in DEVONthink. DEVONthink can mange note taking well enough, but it doesn’t have the greatest interface for composing notes — or for writing in general.
On the other hand, something DEVONthink excels at is indexing data. This means you don’t need to store data in a DEVONthink database to make use of its intelligence. Instead, you can index any folder, anywhere on your Mac. Because Notebooks stores data in native file formats, which are accessible directly from the file system, DEVONthink and Notebooks are very compatible.
As Notebooks files are stored in the native file system, I can easily keep my notebooks indexed and make use of DEVONthink’s search super powers. This works well for the simple fact that both these apps work with the files system, instead of against it. Believe it or not, this means I can even use my old favourite plain text utility, nvALT, alongside both these apps. I will leave that workflow, however, for another time.
What about handwriting? On iOS, I use GoodNotes for handwritten notes. And like everything else, those notes pass through Notebooks and eventually end up archived in DEVONthink. While wither one of these apps is a wise investment, they play well together. Notebooks is available on the App Store for both macOS and iOS, and DEVONthink is available directly.
* This is the second of a two part feature on Notebooks, for part one see here
Notebooks Part II: URL schemes and iOS Note Taking Automation
Aside from being an excellent general purpose notes taking app, Notebooks has a host of features uniquely suited to academic work and study — or any kind of research for that matter. Where the previous post outlined some of the feature highlights, this one has some examples for how to use the Notebooks URL scheme with Workflow, Drafts 5 and Launch Center Pro.
URL Scheme Automation Workflows
Automation on iOS is finally growing up. The impending release of iOS 12 will make user automation more accessible than ever, while apps such as Drafts 5, Pythonista, and the OmniGroup’ssuite include powerful scripting tools. At the same time, URL schemes remain the enduring staple of iOS automation. Any serious productivity app will include a URL scheme; they provide an ideal entry point for automation.
Notebooks comes loaded with a number of helpful URLs. It could potentially do more, but the bases are covered for common workflows. The scheme is both simple to understand, and well documented. I have various workflows, and launchers setup using the Notebooks sche
Here are some examples for download. Some will work as they are, while some require minor tweaks for your own purposes.
This simple workflow was published in a post with a couple of other tips recently. To summarise, it is a way of archiving links, articles, or PDFs into a Notebooks task list. You can do the same thing using drag and drop. Check out that earlier post for more, or download the workflow below.
nb. To make this work you either need to create a Notebook called Reading List and set it as a task list in Notebooks. Or, you need to adjust URL in workflow to include a notebook of your own. This workflow can also be adjusted to choose from multiple task list. Again, you will need to change the list to suit your own needs
How to take web clippings is usually the first question from Evernote users. There are a couple of ways to address that. If you simply want to import web pages, then Notebooks is thoroughly integrated with iOS system APIs. The Safari extension works perfectly. The same is true of the Notebooks Bookmarklet, which can also be used in third-party browsers. Notebooks settings can also be tweaked for the grab function to save either web archives, or flat HTML files.
If you’re only grabbing text, and you want something cleaner, I have created a Notebooks MD Clipper using Brett’s Marky Markdown API. This approach also has the advantage of being more judicious. As excellent as the Evernote web clipper is, I find it to be a blunt tool that makes it too easy to fill up a database with nonsense. Nowadays I keep my bookmarks at Pinboard.in, and DEVONthink, and only import what I need into Notebooks. This workflow is ideal for the job.
Notebooks internal linking makes for detailed internal note structure. I have done something similar with DEVONthink in the past, but it works particularly well in Notebooks. The first step is to copy the internal link of the note you want to link to, you do that by swiping gently left on the appropriate title in document tree. From there you can use the workflow in one of two ways, either run it from the today view widget, or type and select your anchor text to run the workflow inline — see the screenshot below.
If you have a lot of workflows accumulating, it can be useful to setup a launcher to act as a kind of folder. As you will see below, I prefer to use Launch Center Pro myself. But for anyone wanting to keep it all in one app, this can help organise things. You can also use an app like Launcher or Magic Launcher, both are very good at what they do.
It seems strange to suggest it, but Launch Center Pro (LCP) is something of a forgotten entity these days. You don’t hear much about it in the age of Workflow. Yet it remains an incredibly useful tool, and has always been an effective way to learn URL scheme automation. Even more useful is the integration with Textexpander. Snippets can be expanded in URLs directly, or via your abbreviations in a prompt. For example, I have a launcher setup to search my notes, along with numerous abbreviations for common names and subjects in my thesis. The launcher presents a search window, where I can type an abbreviation to quickly find notes. I have another that adds a new note, and uses Textexpander to set the current date as title.
Download Launch Center Pro actions:
Append to Notes — This launcher presents a list of pre-existing notes to append text to. To make it work you will need to edit the URL to include the names of your own notes.
As you can see, the Notebooks URL scheme includes everything you need to built automation into your common note taking workflows. It is not quite as deep as the URL scheme you find in Bear, or Ulysses. To be fair, I can’t see much use for automating visual elements like fonts and theme changes, but I would like to see a few things added.
Adding support for the x-callback protocol would open Notebooks up to bidirectional automation. At present the URL scheme is focused inward. If Notebooks were able to return data via URL, it would allow users to pull data out for all kinds of inventions. There are no doubt more pressing features on the road map, but putting these things out there is how we see our favourite apps improve over time.
Unique Features in Notebooks App For Students And Academics
Alfons Schmid's Notebooks app has been on my list of essential apps since I started this site. I’ve since written about it a number of times, and included it among the highlights of last year. I consider it one of the best note taking apps for iPad, especially for students and academics. The combination of writing and organisational tools make Notebooks uniquely suited to research. It has features you won't find in other note taking apps. The following highlights some of the functionality in Notebooks that make it so useful. 1For expediency sake I have broken this in two parts, with the first covering features suited to academic workflows, and a followup post covering automating Notebooks with Workflow and Drafts 5.
I recently highlighted the way I use the task management feature of Notebooks, along with its URL scheme to organise reading lists. Notebooks has numerous other features suited to academic work, here are some of the highlights.
Dual Document Viewer
The minimalism of the iOS operating system is one of the iPad’s strengths. Whether by design, or by accident it encourages focused work. However, from time to time it can lead you to a dead end. One such problem is the inability to run multiple instances of any given app. In practice that usually means finding a workaround for a common research and writing workflow. I’m talking about viewing and editing two discreet documents at the same time.
The ability to view two documents concurrently is often necessary for academic work. Studying the contents of one document for comparison or analysis, while writing in another. Incorporating comments and feedback, or simple proofing. If you do any serious research based writing, eventually you will want a solution for this. This has become a notorious pain point on the iPad that very few apps address. Multitasking has soothed the pain somewhat. Opening documents in two different apps has become the de facto workaround, but you shouldn’t need to.
Notebooks has an elegant solution via the 2up button. A swipe gesture on any given file from the document tree will open a second document in split screen. Even more useful is the long list of document types supported, including plain text documents, Markdown, PDF, iWork, Office, RTF and HTML documents as well as images, movies, web archives or email messages. Scrivener is the only other app I know of that does this, from experience Notebooks does a better job by affording both documents equal screen real estate. 2
Customisable Keyboard Navigation
Notebooks has extensive keyboard shortcuts for everything from document creation and navigation, to time stamping and revealing word counts. I recently heard it suggested one of the qualifiers for a professional app on iPad is keyboard control. Notebooks has this covered, and then some. The pro touch for me is the ability to edit your own keys in the iOS shortcuts bar. Keys can be edited to insert practically anything, including a special function that adds whitespace where the cursor will land. Any matched punctuation pair can be setup using the same function.
This is one of those little touches that are more useful that you even realise at first. For example, I use standard Biblatex citation keys for use with Zotero, so I setup a shortcut key that places an @ symbol between square brackets, using an ellipsis 3 in the middle. Tapping the key types the characters, while placing the cursor in the middle. I can then type my memorised key to signify the text I am working with. The keyboard shortcut looks like this: [@…]. I have further keys set for markup with various HTML tags. I could go on, the keyboard functionality extends much further than this.
Audio and Video Recordings
Audio notes are huge if you’re studying or researching. Whether its lectures, or dictated memos 4, cataloguing them in your general notebook gives them a frame of reference. If you use a separate app for recording audio, the files are often stored without context. If you’re conscientious about naming files this can work, but nothing is more irritating than listening through the start of multiple recordings to find what you need. The same is true of video, which is rightly becoming a more recognised reference material.
Note taking from Audio Visual material is another way to make good use of Notebooks dual document support. Invoking the spit view is not limited to text, so reviewing material while taking notes can be done without needing to open another app.
Structure Content with Contexts and Smart Books
Something that drew me immediately to Notebooks was the flexibility for organising data. There are powerful tools for creating structure without locking users into any predetermined method. The notebook metaphor can be maintained or subverted if you want to use the app as a file manager.
Contexts are a concept taken from the popular GTD method for organisation. I’m not big on the idea of totalising one’s life as a productivity machine, but the idea of contexts can provide a useful way to delineate different areas of work. In practice contexts are uniquely useful for structuring notes and other content. When used with Notebooks smart lists, contexts can provide the basis for compiling a finished project.
Document Processor and Compiler:
Notebooks can process text in a number of ways. Individual texts, and books can form the basis of sections for much larger documents. I have extolled the virtues of plain text enough on this site, but it bares repeating. Plain text is future proof, adaptable and resilient. The underlying engine of Notebooks is built on these foundations.
The plain text philosophy means Notebooks uses HTML for formatting, so with a little CSS, users can create custom styles from which Notebooks can compile PDF documents and ebooks. If that sounds difficult, it’s really not. It comes with a selection of style sheets to get you started, including one with MathJax support. 5 Using HTML means granular control over the finished product,
There is also a kind of neat symmetry here for anyone who knows the history HTML. The original Hypertext Markup Language was built for exactly this reason, as a standard for sharing research documents. This appeals to me as both an academic, and an unashamed geek.
The Notebooks app has the popular PSPDFKit framework available for PDF reading and annotation. This is the same framework used by Evernote, and DEVONthink, and includes thorough pencil support. On top of the deep annotation capabilities, the PSPDFkit framework provides nice page turning animations that give the app a more natural feel when working with PDF documents.
This particular feature s available via an in-app purchase, which like the app itself is inexpensive. The PDF viewer costs US$4.49. 6
This might not seem a big deal for iOS and Mac users, but Windows is everywhere. Apple users tend to forget this. Microsoft devices have improved dramatically recently, and there are plenty of other reasons for cross pollinating platforms.
Private Wifi Syncing and WebDAV support
I would like to see Notebooks add iCloud, and support for the iOS Files App, but the existing syncing options work well. Particularly pleasing is the consideration for privacy coded into the app via the Wifi option. If you have good reason for avoiding Dropbox, syncing can be managed across a local network. WebDAV support means Notebooks can also be synced via Synology and other private cloud solutions.
The Question of Handwriting
Devices like the iPad Pro are finally delivering on the long promise of matching the cognitive advantages of handwriting to digital convenience. At the same time, where handwriting recognition and inking engines have improved out of sight, the apps that deliver these tools can be limited. As such, I have come to think of handwriting apps as an interface for capturing notes. Notes ultimately end up elsewhere, in Notebooks, DEVONthink, or Keep-It.
I have flipped between Notability, MyScript Nebo, and GoodNotes for handwriting. Nebo unquestionably has the best handwriting recognition, but the app hasn’t had much attention 7. Notability is a good self contained app if you can work with its limitations. However, I have returned to GoodNotes since it started generating searchable notes on the fly. Between the now instant OCR, and one of the best drag and drop implementations, GoodNotes is currently my favourite handwriting companion for Notebooks. Once a note is written, I open Notebooks and drag it from GoodNotes in slide over. The notes are preserved perfectly with the searchable layer.
Handwriting is the most obvious missing feature of Notebooks at present, but it’s likely to be added in a future version. If and when that happens, this already excellent tool will become a bonafide killer app. Until then, I still recommend it as a better place to store handwritten notes, and GoodNotes has the most compatible feature set right now.
I say final, there is another post following with Workflow and url scheme automation. Despite this relatively lengthy post, there remains a lot I haven’t covered. Nonetheless, I believe these highlights make Notebooks, in my opinion, the best general purpose note taking app on iPad for academic use. There is room for improvement, no doubt. I expect that handwriting will arrive at some point, and while the hooks are already deep in iOS further integration
I have a final superficial qualifier. If I am going to spend any amount of time working in an app, I want it to look good. No problems here, the understated minimalism and use of whitespace make Notebooks a handsome app.
The scope of the article covers iOS. However, Notebooks is cross platform, with excellent versions on macOS and Windows. ↩
Liquid Text has function for working with two documents, but it work vertically. Besides, Liquid Text is a world unto itself, so a subject for another time, ↩
On Mac Geek Gab recently a listener was looking for a secure solution for transferring files. The question was how to send files securely without the need for the recipient to install anything at their end. Although between the show and geek community, there were some great solutions, I thought I would share my own here. If I ever need quick and easy file sharing, particularly to send large files, I use Dropshare with Backblaze B2 for storage. For extra security, Dropshare can create password protected URLs to protect your file transfers.
Using DropShare to Send Large Files
Dropshare is essentially an open alternative to CloudApp or Droplr. The idea is a quick and easy method to bypass email for transferring files. To risk stating the obvious, email has never been an ideal for transporting anything other small files. Even allowing for limited file size, there are too many moving parts to ensure it is secure, and it can be slow and unreliable. Most people get around this with more generic cloud storage, like Dropbox, but using a purpose built solution is faster and more convenient. File transfer services were built from the need for fast sharing of image files and videos direct from the desktop, and have evolved from there.
The crucial difference between CloudApp or Droplr, and Dropshare, is where your files are stored. Like the first two, Dropshare has its own cloud service1, but not only does it support numerous other connections, but users can setup multiple locations to choose between. That means rather than paying a monthly fee and dealing with usage caps and so on, you can buy the app outright and set it up how you like. Supported connections include Rackspace, Azure, Amazon S3, Google Drive, or any custom S3-API connection, which means using Digital Ocean and others. You can even set it up to use your Synology NAS, or to use SCP over SSH.
Then there is the connection I’m pushing, Backblaze B2. Backblaze gives you 10Gb of B2 storage for free. Not only is that more than enough storage for my needs, but I already use Backblaze for personal backup. Enabling B2 storage requires a tick box in one’s user account, and setting up storage containers is dead easy. In. short, its secure, free and easy. 2
Private and Secure File Transfer with Dropshare
With Dropshare, the workflow is literally drag and drop to have an SSL link attached to your clipboard. If you want further security, you can create an access-restricted URL that adds a password and expiry date to the link. You can even add link tracking, and Dropshare can randomise the file name if you don’t trust yourself to name your transfers carefully 3. You can do similar things with Dropbox and other cloud services, but that almost always requires a paid account.
The way link privacy works is Dropshare acts as a proxy, so the actual URL for the file isn’t revealed. There are a couple of things to be aware of here, first this means the file will pass through a Dropshare server to be downloaded. Dropshare doesn’t save the files or keep any logs, but you are still trusting a third party. Second, this shouldn’t be confused with encrypting files. If you have truly sensitive material you want to send, you need to encrypt the files separately. For a simple solution, an app like MacPaw’s free Encrypto can do that for you.
A Host of Other Cool Features
If a simple customisable, and private workflow isn’t enough, Dropshare has a number of other nice features. Like CloudApp and Droplr, there are tools for capturing screenshots and video on the fly. You can do the same with text by composing a note directly, or better still use the builtin Markdown translator to post an HTML document that can be opened in the browser from the link itself. Setup a custom landing page, shorten URLs, or mirror an iOS device. It even has a command line tool. The list goes on.
To supplement last week’s post on automatically mounting an external drive to create a clone, here is a quick tip for doing the same thing with an encrypted APFS volume. Ideally, you should be encrypting your backups. If you’re running macOS 10.13 High Sierra, or the impending macOS Mojave, then you will be cloning your system to an APFS volume. If that’s the case, you’ll need to no how to automatically unlock APFS volume with AppleScript.
Automatically unlock APFS volume with AppleScript
There is a little more work involved here, but none of it difficult. The file system might be new, but diskutil is still the command line program doing all the work managing volumes. There is simply a couple more commands involved. This assumes you have already encrypted the drive with Disk Utility.
To mount, or rather unlock an encrypted APFS volume with AppleScript, we need the following information:
APFS volume ID
Cryptographic user ID
The encryption password
The password is the same one you used when you formatted the drive. Here is how to get the other two pieces of the puzzle.
Find the APFS volume ID for your clone drive. You can see this information clearly in Disk Utility. For every volume listed there is a table of information, the device field has what you are looking for. It is some variation of disk1s1. Or if you prefer, with the drive already mounted you can run a terminal command to have the information of all your drives listed, like so:
diskutil apfs list
That command will take a moment, then print a whole lot of information to screen like below. Look for volume you intend to clone your system to and note down the APFS Volume Disk.
Once you have the volume ID. In the terminal run the following command (replace ‘apfs_volume_id’ with your disk)
diskutil apfs listcryptousers /dev/apfs_volume_id
You will get something that looks like this:
Type: Disk User
That long alphanumeric code is the Cryptographic user. Copy that code and you have everything you need to make your AppleScript work.
Create the AppleScript to automatically mount your encrypted APFS volume. The script looks like this:
do shell script "diskutil apfs unlockVolume [name_of_your_drive] -user B4BA200D-B0B7-4AB2-A48C-BDE9FFA7E3BA -passphrase [enter your passphrase here]"
Naturally, you will enter the name of your drive, and replace the user code with the one you copied above. Make sure you remove the square brackets.
Find a way to launch the script when you need it. There are a bunch of options in my previous post. My preferred option is currently Keyboard Maestro, but an Automator Calendar Alarm, or Lingon X work just as well.
Congratulations, you can automatically unlock an APFS volume with AppleScript.
If Notebooks isn’t best note taking app for iPad, it is definitely the most underrated. If you're looking for a markdown notes app, a writing app, or a document storage container with a few unique tricks, you won’t find many better. Part notebook, part storage locker, and part GTD task management system. That might sound like a janky combination, but not only does it work well, it looks pretty too. It has been around for a while, so in lieu of a comprehensive review, I want to highlight a particular feature I haven’t seen anywhere else. The ability to turn notes into tasks.
If you have a lot of reading to keep up with from a variety of sources, this is very handy. For planning and tracking big reading projects I still use TaskPaper on macOS, with its counterpart TaskMator on iOS. That system works well, with the outliner style lists making it easy to break up books, journals and so on with due dates. Using Notebooks has a distant advantage over that system, as it can collect the reading material itself. Web pages, notes, PDF documents, Word files, you can read them all directly in Notebooks. It will even let you index epub files to open in a third-party reader, like Marvin. Remember, at its core this is note taking app, while reading you can highlight text, make annotations, take clippings, and more. You can also take notes.
Notebooks Reading List Workflow
This is a simple idea that in practice will help keep track of reading lists, note revisions, or really anything text based. It’s true you can fashion a similar system by chaining apps like DEVONthink and Things 3 together. To my mind this is more elegant, or at least less confusing.
It works like this. As I collect reading material, I drop it into a Notebook that has been setup as a task list. When I’m on the clock I can setup due dates, reminders and so on. More importantly, I can tick items off as I go, meaning a quick visual guide is available to measure progress. It’s easy enough to use Notebooks’ share extension for this — or bookmarklets on the Mac — but there are two alternative methods I prefer. First, Notebooks has a very hand URL scheme which is clever about capturing all kinds of data, which makes setting up a custom action extension for Workflow trivial.
The Workflow action above is especially handy on the iPhone, but the iPad has another option that is easier still. Notebooks has excellent support for the drag and drop feature of iOS 11. So if you don’t fancy using Workflow, you can use multitasking to simply drag links and files directly into a reading list. Or, you can use something like the excellent shelf app Gladys to hold the material you collect before dropping it into Notebooks later. Gladys now has a Mac version too, which adds some continuity to the workflow.
Among the Best Note Taking Apps
If you follow this site, you probably know by now that all my data ends up in DEVONthink, one way, or another. Whatever passes through Notebooks still ends up there, but DEVONthink’s super power is search. It has passable editing and annotation tools, but I prefer doing the interactive work before it ends up in what is essentially a personal research database. For a lot of users Notebooks might even be enough. While the task management features were no doubt conceived for GTD nerds, they end up making Notebooks among the best note taking apps for college, or university users. The caveat being it's not a handwriting app. In fact if anything holds it back, that would be it. I would get around that by using Nebo as a capture tool myself, they complement each other well.
If DEVONthink’s not your jam, or you’re looking to replace Evernote with something private and local, Notebooks is a handsome and feature rich app. It has relative feature parity across macOS, and iOS, and a lot of unexpected touches. GTD purists could configure tickler files, and contexts until their head is sufficiently empty of all that arduous, excess thought. 1. It can even run its own local WebDAV server for private local sync. It sounds strange, but it’s really not.
Everybody’s talking about Things 3. Now that I’m on the bandwagon, here is my take on what makes it presently the best task manager for macOS and iOS — for me at least. Inevitably this mean comparison with what I turned over along the way. Running pathological optimism means I’ve tried them all, but Todoist got left behind this time round. I’m not here to run that app down, it remains excellent for many reasons — maybe even better in ways that don’t matter to my workflow. But, should you be wondering, is Things 3 better than Todoist, perhaps this will be useful.
Todoist or not Todoist
I‘ve only been using Things 3 for a few months. In truth, I’m generally suspicious of trends, so I tried to avoid it while I still had good reason to. Even if I’m only making excuses, I need more than new and shiny. Thankfully, a genuine reason presented itself when my Todoist subscription was up for renewal. The cost of renewing that sub wasn’t much less than buying the Things 3 suite outright. Between the annually recurrent cost, and various Todoist annoyances, it was worth kicking the tyres. As it turned out, a trial on macOS convinced me to jump.
Initially there were two features I missed from Todoist. I’m over them both already. First, the API allowed me to use Zapier, and/or IFTTT for various automations. Second is the natural language parsing for task entry. At least I missed that until I realised it’s either a bonhomie for laziness, or an easy way to fill up a task list with lots of nonsense you’ll never do. Never mind that with a keyboard the difference in keystrokes is minimal. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to see better natural language support added to Things 3 — it does include some basic date parsing abilities — but it doesn’t come close to being the show stopper I thought it might. If anything, the relative slowdown — minimal as it is — helps add a little more deliberation into the process.
To the first point, with native automation Cultured Code has made significant inroads to mitigate some of the abilities lost by not having an API. By all accounts, the recent addition of a deep, and flexible URL scheme is just the beginning, with other innovations on the way.I would argue that inter-app automation is not just as useful, but in some ways more relevant. The automation I used most would automatically copy editorial tasks to Trello. I was able to create an analogue of that on iOS, using Workflow. Anyone who complains about the ‘extra step’ of pushing a button could look out the window once in a while.
Native inter-app automation breaks dependence on the web. In the process it cuts back the surface area of data-sharing with third-parties. More than that, there is an immediacy to working locally that allows for sharing rich data. Being able to delineate notes, mind maps, or outlines into actions opens up all kinds of possibility for continuity. Particularly for a writing workflow. This makes a lot of sense for academic work, research, and writing. Or for any other kind of work that includes creative planning.
It’s true the barrier to entry for URL based automation is a little higher than web automation. It’s not that it’s difficult to grasp, more that building the links themselves can be tedious. Cultured Code appear wise to this, having created a link building tool on their website. With nothing left to miss, one can enjoy all the benefits delivered by clever design choices, and opinionated simplicity. Ironically, my biggest concern over both those features was the possibility for double handling and time wasting. And yet, Things 3 is both an app I would rather spend time using, and one I don’t have to.
While these new automation features are getting all the attention right now, it’s a couple of subtle, but significant design choices that make Things 3 so effective. I found the flexibility of Todoist equal parts powerful and beguiling. Getting the most from it requires one to configure projects, labels, and priorities to facilitate query filters built around those different pieces of metadata. If you get it right you can contextualise your workload with extremely specific queries. This is a major strength if you need that kind of detail, however, with so much configuring, and fiddling to get it right, it can also be a headache. I never felt like I had it configured very well, so the temptation to reconfigure always hovered.
Things 3 is completely different. I'm not going to run through all of its features, there are better places for that. For my money, what makes Things 3 worth recommending is a couple of subtleties that mean I spend less time managing my task list.
The first touch is indicative of the user experience in general. The way Things 3 handles the inbox. Processing is simple, a task only requires one touch for removal from view. If all you ever want to do is put due dates on your tasks, Things 3 will consider them processed and essentially remove them from view, until the day they require actioning. If you’re wired to slowly disintegrate when faced with growing clutter, this is priceless. Most task mangers have some kind of filtered view to show you only the tasks you need to see, but they all require a lot more interaction. Things 3 is designed to cut back on over-processing by making it extremely simple to get a hold on what needs doing. In that way it’s the opposite of Todoist, but that doesn’t mean it is without flexibility.
The emphasis in the Things 3 user experience is on aesthetics. As a method for task management, it leans on visual organisation. Elements like headings, tags, and manual ordering, can be employed in the myriad ways. They can even constitute productivity systems favoured by nerds. On the flipside, Things offers enough customisation to avoid forcing users into an inflexible, or totalising system. Configuration requires little fuss if simplicity is your thing. Or, the various organisational delimiters apply to whatever bespoke version of getting things done you run with.
With this app being written about so much, I might surprised to have hardly seen security mentioned, if it weren’t for the fact this is an area that very little light is shined on in general with task managers. Given I was using Todoist, it would be a little rich to take Things 3 to task over security holes. I would argue that Todoist does the minimum required for data security; they could do more. While the mechanics are similar, it's a fact that Things 3 is better than Todoist on security. Cultured Code use better encryption, and provide better insight into what they are doing. Nonetheless, the proprietary syncing would be dramatically improved with client side encryption.
From a personal point of view — and this was the same stance I had with Todoist — should anyone hack them, my own task list would not be the most exciting or revelatory reading. Unfortunately, in taking this stance I’m part of the problem, as it overlooks the importance of data security in general. Users so commonly make these kinds of compromises, we excuse developers from making improvements. Who can blame them for focusing on the squeeky door? A little more noise would go a long way to ensuring security standards are improved more generally.
Cultured Code suggests they may add client side encryption ‘at a later time’, I would add that it is on users to ensure they do that by making clear it is necessary. This remains an opportunity for them, especially considering the OmniGroup are setting the standard for end-to-end encryption in their software. Which means, if you cannot afford to compromise on security at all, I would recommend using OmniFocus. With all the changes coming this year, OmniFocus is worth keeping an eye on. Should they drastically improve the user experience, the security factor will have me sorely tempted to jump again. In the meantime, if you’re using Things 3, know that your data is pretty secure, but not that secure.
Is Things the best Task Manager for macOS and iOS?
That seems to be the question everyone wants answered, but changing your task manager for the sake of it is madness. Unless it’s your hobby, in which case I can’t help you. 1 If you have something that is working well for you nEverybody’s talking about Things 3. Now that I’m on the bandwagon, here is my take on what makes it presently the best task manager for macOS and iOSow, I’m an advocate for the ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage. On the other hand, if you’re struggling with an unnecessarily complex setup, or software that ends up being another thing to manage, you could do a lot worse than give Things 3 a look. It is being talked about with good reason. 2 If you have never used a task manager before, choosing the right one can be confusing, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to new users.
For my own purposes, right now Things 3 is the best task manager for macOS and iOS. While not perfect by any means, it manages to walk the fine line between simplicity, and customisation. Again, my aim is not to deride Todoist, nothing has stopped it bearing the standard for cross platform support, collaboration, and web automation. But, if you’re already half way out the door, in many ways I have found Things 3 better than Todoist.
For macOS users, a free trial for Things 3 is available, or you can pick it up on the Mac App Store. Unfortunately, the iOS app is not universal, so you do have to buy seperate apps for iPhone and iPad. Although, that does mean if you want to try it out on iOS without going all in, you can purchase the cheaper iPhone version to get started.
Here we are again. It's probably obvious I don’t write this blog all day everyday. All the same, I would like to have gotten this out earlier than now. The first two posts in this little series — for the iPad, and then the Mac — had a more ‘productive’ focus. Essentially, they were about work of one sort or another. The iPhone is different. It’s not that I never use it for any kind of work, more that I find more value in the other things it enables. Not in a million years would I shell out the criminal cost of this device if it were not for the camera, and thankfully the fun doesn’t end there. 1 Among the best iPhone apps of 2017, these were personal highlights.
Yes, I use Telegram. It's still the best cross platform message platform, and a surprisingly effective means for sharing, and transferring media files. iMessage has a way to go before it can match Telegram’s growing network of automated bots. With one caveat, though. If much of what’s been written about Telegram’s encryption has been easily countered, should you have more serious encryption needs I would recommend Signal, or Keybase. I continue to enjoy the service Telegram would be dramatically improved by default end-to-end, standard public key encryption.
The Keybase app is a front end for a public key directory that provides both secure communication, and verification of identity. I have used the Signal messaging app on and off for years, and while I trust the encryption it has never had the greatest user experience. There is more going on with Keybase, but it does an admirable job of making nerdy protocol easier to use. The effort to demystify public-key cryptography is something we should do everything we can to promote.2
This also made the iPad list, it’s even better on the iPhone. Clever touches like the Jump Bar make Reddit a less masochistic experience than ever. Whether or not using Reddit more is good thing remains to be seen. Apollo is a showcase of good design; an advertisement for the Apple design guidelines
Gamification once seemed silly to me, then I got really sick. I have since tried all manner of ridiculous methods for forming new, and better habits. Or indeed to break old ones. This is the only app of its kind that has stuck. That it limits the number of habits you can track at once is part of its charm. Such sensible decisions run through the app. With Apple Health integration, Streaks has been a helpful form of pseudo-psychological trickery.
Getting accurate weather data where I live can be difficult. There are no Weather Underground stations close enough. For accuracy, we tend to use New Zealand’s own Met Service, and their abominable app — if we have to. For the purposes of gathering data, historically, we have been left off the map down here. 3Weather Line uses Dark Sky, 4 so data-wise it is a bit of a Hail Mary. And yet, the forecasting hasn’t been too bad. The app itself is exactly want I want from a weather app, clean, simple, and fast to read. This is single purpose design done properly.
I have tried many different notes apps, but I always end up back at Drafts. The fact that I can do so much with the text when I’m ready to process it makes it ideal. It says a lot about this app that despite how long it has been around, and despite how long I have used it, I still find new uses for it. Yet again, it has genuinely been a highlight.
Still my favourite vocal recorder on iOS. If you need a little more than the built-in memos app can offer, this is probably for you. It also has speech-to-text powers, which work about as well as anything else using iOS native dictation. As you can see from the screenshot, the results can be amusing.5 However, the transcription function is useful for searching recordings. Automated cloud storage is nice peace of mind for important recordings.
My frustrations with RSS clients are akin to those with email apps. I’d much rather be using RSS than email. I still like the layout of Feedly’s official client, the magazine aesthetic is a better reading experience than most RSS apps. Unfortunately, it is buggy, slow, and like a lot of web wrappers it can be really annoying on iOS. Worse, it doesn’t support basic native in-text functions of iOS 6. Lire’s granular full text caching, and clean readability make it an ideal foil for Feedly’s shortcomings.
Novel Shots and Momentos
As I mentioned at the outset, the camera is the reason I dream up excuses for owning this device. The native camera app is almost always good enough. If you're interested, the featured photo of this post was taklen with the native app. There is no filter, and no HDR, it is simply a point and shoot from my balcony one evening. Having said all that, innovation in mobile photography means there are still discoveries to be made. Among the best iPhone photography apps in 2017, these were the ones I got a kick out of.
With the range of impressive camera apps available for the iPhone, it can be difficult to know where to start, let alone where to land. Especially if your enthusiasm outmatches your knowledge. I could have chosen any number of apps, but if the challenge is to pick just one, this is it. Unlike a lot of other manual ‘power user’ cameras for the iPhone, ProCamera can shoot video. It also captures some the best HDR images I have seen.
If you haven’t heard of it, VUE is a montage video camera and editor. Even if what creates is nothing new, this app has always been a clever way to create short, and unique videos. Thankfully the developers have never given in to feature bloat. Changes, and new features have only ever enhanced the app.
It is possible this app appeals more to me as a parent than anything, but I wouldn’t write it off too quickly. It started life as a kind of memory experiment, which even became a TED talk. 1SE received some welcome attention for the iPhone X, adding — among other things — some automation for the nostalgic, but lazy, user. To be fair, I might fit the bill, if it weren’t for being a control freak too.
You might have come across Tasty Pixel’s clever Loopy app. If you haven’t, let Jimmy Fallon show you what it does. On the road to building a pro version of Loopy, Tasty Pixel released this ridiculously fun little app. As much as it is clever way of testing the looping engine, the playful, rainbow coloured interface of Samplebot belies a neat, self-contained package of sound-mingling fun.
There are so many amazing iOS music apps these days. I decided to highlight a couple of apps that absolutely anyone have some fun with, no matter how novice, or expert you might be. This kind of app is not new to iOS, we already have the likes of Figure and Auxy , and Focusrite’s own Blocs Wave. Yet, with Groovebox they really seem to have hit on the formula for accessible, semi-automated composition. Groovebox is free, but heavily extensible. If you ever wanted to make some beats but didn’t know how, this will get you started. Never mind the purists, this is what fun looks like.
Welcome back productivity nerds. This is part two of a gripping trilogy on software highlights from 2017. In part one, I catalogued some of my favourite iPad apps from last year. The meat between the iOS device sandwich, is of course the Mac. So here we go again.
Before we begin, if you’re interested a number of the apps on this list come with Setapp. That is something I’ve written enough about recently, so if you'd like to read more about Setapp, you can do so here. The apps in question are clearly marked with the appropriate links. Remember, these are just the highlights.
The barometer I use for organisational tools is how much time it takes to manage them. That I spend very little time in the app itself, is a good indication Things is doing what it’s supposed to. The way Things handles the inbox is better than any other task manager I have used. I don't feel like I am double handling tasks. I thought I might miss the automation of Todoist, but so far I haven't really, the email to Things feature is enough.
I still haven’t found the time to write this up properly, but I did give it a cursory post. While you can get lightweight versions of some features, there still nothing like Scrivener. This new version is a long way from the early skeuomorphic days. Now that the interface is so crisp, and clean, it looks every bit the modern Mac app. Further to the visual touches, a long list of new features have improved an already powerful piece of software. If you do any kind of serious long-form writing, and you’re still using a traditional word processor, I’m sorry but you’re mad. 1
Ulysses also makes the charts across both platforms. I use Scrivener a little more on macOS. But as I mentioned in the iPad post, all other project based, long-form writing, and content for this blog is created in Ulysses. I now also use it for posting directly to WordPress, and I couldn’t be happier with how well that works. Setapp takes care of my Ulysses subscription on macOS, and iOS.
Most of my reading, annotating, and editing of PDFs happens on the iPad now. I’m so used to doing that work with an Apple Pencil that marking up PDFs on a Mac can be frustrating. Despite that, there are occasions that demand more screen space, and sometime I need to extract a lot of text from a PDF. Highlights can extract highlighted text, and annotations in Markdown, which is something I cannot do on iOS — defintely not in markdown. 2 Now that DEVONthink handles all of my OCR needs, this is the only other PDF app I need on the Mac.
While coverage has focused on the iOS version, 2017 was also the year I went all in with DEVONthink on macOS. I once shared the superficial concerns of some prospective users, but even if i’d like to see the interface overhauled, I’m glad I got over myself. 3 DEVONthink is a heavyweight application, so getting the most from it takes time. The depth of functionality is perfectly suited to the archive, search, and retrieve workflows required of serious research, so that time is worth investing. I no longer have any trouble finding important documents. My records are organised with some sanity, and I know how, and where to find research I have spent considerable time gathering.
I have known about TaskPaper for a long time, but never really used it properly. That changed last year. With TaskPaper’s plain text super powers, I have cobbled together something resembling a system for planning and tracking my reading, among other things. It might seem like overkill to be employing a form of task management on top of a dedicated task manager, but it helps my scattered mind no end to seperate the finer details. Setapp
Anyone working with text should have this in their kit. No matter what that work entails. Marked is a kind of Swiss army knife for writers. If you are relentlessly obsessive about what you do with words, you will recognise a fellow traveller in this app. It even includes features to improve your writing. Anything I write about Marked risks underselling it. It’s worth a hell of a lot more than what it will cost you. Setapp
I archive a lot of data in DEVONthink, but I don’t use it for bookmarks. Instead I use the perennial wonder machine, Pinboard.in for archiving web pages. Spillo is easily my favourite macOS client for pinboard. Minimal, and opinionated with just the right amount of nerdiness. It’s fully scriptable, and even has its own plugin SDK. Since setting up an Alfred workflow with Spillo, I get more use out of Pinboard than ever.
Until last year, I hadn’t done any programming for a long time. I still don’t, but I can at least lay claim to vandalising code in my attempts to learn how to. For my humble use of git as it is, Tower is more than I need. Then again, using such a wonderfully designed piece of software can only be helpful if I’m to learn things the right way. Working Copy on iOS is currently my favourite Git client on any platform, but this is a pretty close second. Things could change any day now.
I agonised over choosing a text editor for learning development skills. With growing support out there for Visual Studio, I gave it a test run. If easier to configure, ultimately I didn’t like working in it. I tried Atom, and liked the general feel, but I can’t yet benefit from its configurability — honestly it felt kind of slow. In the end, true to form, I landed where I started. Now that I have it set up properly, Sublime text has become one of my favourite applications. As for extensibility, the Sublime SFTP package is the best thirty bucks I have spent in some time.
Another of the technical tools I require, this one has a lot of tricks. To call Forklift the best FTP client I know of would undersell it4. With a slick designed dual pane file browser, file syncing, drive mounting, keyboard kung fu, and all round excellence, these days it is always open on my Mac. Setapp
The most deceptively simple looking app I own. Super Duper overcame a momentary rough patch to deliver an unbelievable improvement to an already excellent utility. With the advent of APFS, it now creates bootable snapshots. The scheduler works so efficiently, I hardly even notice. I can’t begin to express the peace of mind.
There was an intense time-tracking trend among a sub-section of nerds last year. Trust me, that’s not happening here. I find the idea of tracking every aspect of your life disturbing. I use this app in a much less pervasive way, for tracking writing projects. I gather data on how long it takes me to write certain things, so I can better understand deadlines. Whether self-imposed, or not. Timing makes this easy, as it can automatically capture time spent in particular applications. Setapp
A contacts app is not something that would ordinarily interest me, I have only humble contact management needs. Since contact syncing started to work properly, I have been happy to use the native contacts app and forget about it. I felt much the same way about calendars until I tried Fantastical. The Flexibits natural language engine is like magic, and sure enough they have put it to good use in Cardhop.
Spotlight can only take you so far. For keyboard warriors, an application launcher is mandatory. Beyond a long list of built in features, Alfred is an endlessly extensible, powerful automation tool. An active, and generous user community means there are workflows for just about anything, and help at hand if you want to hack together your own.
This is one of those utilities I never knew I needed. It’s common knowledge iTunes is a mess. Apple’s answer is to remove things without replacing them. Whenever it seems I can no longer do something with an iOS device, the answer is iMazing. Setapp
I could have put this on the iOS list too. I published a post recently on how I use 1Blocker to keep me sane while using the internet. Whether you want to block ads or not, the web is often a shady place. Stopping yourself from being tracked might be a hopeless pursuit, but you can at least make it difficult. I’m happy knowing my computing resources aren’t being filched for crypto-mining. I’m also a control freak, so I’ll let through what I please thank you very much.
For much the same reason as above. I prefer to know what’s dialling home. While incredibly powerful, Little Snitch is too noisy for my liking. Radio Silence is much more simple, and yet it still gives me the control I want. In short, this little firewall rules.
Without this little utility, my menu bar would look insane. Version 3 was released a few months back. Instead of dropping beneath, the menu bar now toggles between your main utilities and whatever you choose to hide. A subtle, but worthwhile change. It works so well it will probably be sherlocked.
This is an aspirational app at the moment, it’s probably overkill. My image editing needs a fairly simple, and most of it is done on the iPad. Especially now, with Affinity Photo on iPad Pro. However, Pixelmator has always been an app that I could grok easier than other image editors, so I picked this up in the hope that I could develop some chops. What little I have done with it so far, has been a pleasure.
Another project yet to see the light of day led me to this audio marvel. If you have any cause for routing, or capturing audio on your Mac, this is how you do it. The modular, drag and drop, visual workflow, makes sense out of confusing audio chains. Along with all the built in audio processing, it even supports Audio Unit plugins.
The idea of long-form writing seems to have taken on new meaning recently. To be clear, I’m referring to books, theses, and so on. For long blog posts, it might be overkill. ↩