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. ↩
Closing out last year I took a good look at the merits of using DEVONthink to Go as an iOS only user. I am a fairly recent convert to DEVONthink more generally, but the more I use them, the more I understand their immense value.
As I prepare my own version of the indulgent listicles you see everywhere, I am reminded of the myriad ways I have integrated DEVONthink into my workflow. The thing that has surprised me most is the way DEVONthink has affected how I work on iOS. It has even solved a problem I suspect might resonate with a lot of other nerds, which is how to centralise your data if you’re an incessant app swapper. DEVONthink is so easy to get data in and out of, I simply keep everything there. 1 I recently had a brief twitter exchange that got me thinking about DEVONthink as an app silo. Seeing as I have this iOS giveaway for DEVONthink to Go, I thought I might also share a couple of quick thoughts on that
On the Question of App Silos
The way DEVONthink works on the Mac, makes this an easier question to answer on macOS. If putting everything into a database is a problem, you can use the indexing feature instead, and still take advantage of the search super powers. You data remains at large in the native file system. I intend to cover DEVONthink on macOS in the not too distant future, I will look at the pros and cons of taking this route then.
In the meantime, as that option is not available on iOS it might seem more cut and dry. I’m not so sure. This is a crude analogy, but in a sense the architecture of iOS makes it something of a modern day terminal client. Ordinarily, your data is always somewhere else. Even if you maxed out the storage option, keeping all of your data locally on an iPad is not only atypical, but seriously risky. Operating on those terms also tends to raise other considerations, especially concerning security.
Functionally, the question becomes how you access and interact with that data. The key for me is that DEVONthink doesn’t change the structure of your data, which is precisely why it’s not difficult to get it back out again should you ever want to. Although not the only problem, to my mind the most significant concern with app silos is storing your data in a proprietary format. Evernote is the most obvious example in this context.
Perhaps as cloud storage evolves, and Apple improves iOS through their APIs, we might eventually have the option on iOS to index files outside the database. Even then, I’m not sure I would bother when I get the considerable advantage of strong client side encryption with DEVONthink, but it would be a good problem to have. It is also with reiterating that DEVONthink's excellent integration with iOS Files, means entire folders can simply be dragged in and out of the app. In functional terms this makes DEVONthink completely different to what we normally consider an app silo. It's really not something you need to worry about.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think this is an important part of the equation for data storage. But, if like me, the data you manage is largely future proofed as plain text, or kept in universal file formats like PDF, then I feel you're safe. The more important question for me is how I can access that data, and what I can do with it. Especially if you are the kind of person who will secure that data either way. If there is a compromise with DEVONthink, I feel it is in your favour with search, security, and automation worth much more. No doubt it helps that I have a lot of faith in DEVON technologies as developers.
Get Yourself a Free Copy Of DEVONthink to Go for iOS
There is further good news on the DEVONthink front. Not only where the good people of DEVON Technologies kind enough to share my review on the Devonian Times blog, but they have also donated 5 licenses to The Appademic for DEVONthink to Go.
I want to keep this simple. If you want a chance to pick up a copy, signup for the mailing list. If you’re already on the list, you’re a chance. Incidentally, being on the mailing list means I will always include you if I have something to give away. If you want to signup and then unsubscribe, I have no problem with that, but don’t be concerned about spam — I have neither the desire, nor the resources to do anything of the sort.
Thank you to everybody who entered, this draw is now closed. However, from time to time developers of software I recommend will offer promotional licences, joining the mailing list will put you in the draw permanently.
A few days back I posted a fairly detailed introduction to DEVONthink to Go for iOS. To follow that up, I promised some options for iOS users wanting to leave Evernote, and bring their data with them. Whether you want to go all in with DEVONthink, or you have in mind another app, the question is how to migrate Evernote data to another iOS app.
On macOS, you have a number of options. The most simple and clean being a direct transfer within DEVONthink Pro itself. Managing this process without a Mac, on the other hand, requires more creative thinking. What follows are some options for iOS only users wanting to export all Evernote data. DEVONthink is the endpoint in this case, but the process can easily be adapted for apps like Notebooks, Bear, or even Apple Notes.
Some of the Gotchas
I’ll admit I’m fortunate I could use a Mac to do this, but it’s not quite as difficult on iOS as it once was. Some advice out there will have you believe otherwise, but you can migrate your data without having to do it one note at a time. It is worth considering these potential stumbling blocks before you do it. I would pay special attention to the data you consider most important in Evernote, either tag it as such, or place it in a specific notebook. Reading on, you might also want to delimit different data types, such as text, PDFs, and images.
The arrival of drag and drop had me wondering if we could simply drag the notes across to another app. I will come back to this below. You can bring drag and drop come into play, it just won’t solve the problem on its own. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as dragging all your notes from one place to another. If you try to transfer directly from Evernote, these are some of the frustrations you will encounter:
Notes in Evernote are stored in a proprietary rich text format. If you try to drag notes, some apps like Apple Notes, will refuse the transfer when you try to drop them. Others, like DEVONthink, will allow you to drop the note, but will strip all the formatting. That might be fine for text only notes, but everything else is lost. The worst part is losing all your links.
If you try dragging a note with an attachment, you will get the title and nothing else.
If you can open the note and drag the attachment itself, it will come across no problem. Which is fine if you only want to drag a couple of items. I have hundreds of PDF attachments in Evernote.
When drag and drop doesn’t work, you might think you could use the share sheet. You’d be right, if you want to choose between exporting web links for notes, or sending each individual note via email in Apple Mail.
Evernote is mired to a functionality issue that, until recently, has bloodied the foreheads of iOS users. It doesn’t do multiple files.
Yep, it’s painful. Which is why so many people hit these walls and keep the status quo. 1 Thankfully, we now have tools that can help overcome these problems. If you really want to migrate your Evernote data to another iOS app, you can.
The Workflow route is straightforward enough. As alluded to above, depending on how precious you are about the data, it might require some preparation in Evernote. Whether you want to do this could come down to the number of notes you have, but discriminating by notebook or tag can help get better results. Tedious work on iOS, I know. You can always go nuts, and deal with the consequences later, whatever your destination. I’ll confess, that’s how I roll.
I have played around with this for long enough to feel confident advising a uniform approach to importing notes, whether you choose to bring them across as text, or PDFs. Technically Workflow, and DEVONthink can both handle the rich media that Evernote stores. Setting up a complex workflow with IF conditionals is possible, but you can end up with a lot of wacky results in amongst the ones that transfer properly. Likewise, encoding the rich text itself via URL isn’t as consistent I’d like.
Bear in mind, you’re not deleting the data in Evernote through this process. Even if you proceed after testing, and you’re still not happy with the results, you can try the other method below. 2 The best results I get via Workflow are from encoding all the data as a PDFs. That won’t suit everyone.
Alternatively, you can do the same thing using Markdown, but any PDFs in Evernote won’t be encoded, they’ll come across blank. This is where that preparation comes in. If you have separated data types by tag, or notebook, you can run the different workflows individually. You can apply the same logic for images if you wish, although I haven’t set that up myself as I never stored any in Evernote.
No doubt somebody is reading this thinking the workflows don’t need to be separated. That’s true, or at least it should be. As I mentioned earlier, my efforts at combining them turned out some garbage. If you’ve had more success, I would love to hear about it. Read on, and you will see the workflows can be combined more easily when taking a different route.
The workflow will make you specify the number of notes you want to export/import. This is a limitation of the API, you have to specify a number. It’s a good idea to test this anyway, so set the number low to start with.
These workflows also leave the ‘title’ parameter blank, as there seems to be a bug in one of the apps along the chain that interrupts the URL encoding — or decoding. 3 I will update the workflows when I’m certain the bug is squashed, but read on as there are better options below.
You can adapt this workflow for you own needs, of course. If you want to know more about the DEVONthink URL scheme, the documentation is included with the app. Or you can get it here
Optional: Organise your Evernote data by data types using tags, or notebooks for Text and PDF 4. This is a giant pain, so before you go ahead and do it, make sure you have checked out the alternatives below. Either way, the process is as follows:
Download the Workflows above
If you don’t want to distinguish the data types, just run the PDF workflow for everything to come across as PDFs.
If you have separated the data types, run each workflow separately.
Using a Cloud Service with Workflow
This route adds more complexity, but it gives you more flexibility as a result. There are some concessions with the form the data is transferred in, but that is true of all these methods. I have played around with a few different services, the main prerequisite being ease of use on iOS. A lot of web apps have awkward UI for touch control.
Google cloud transfer for Evernote, and you will most likely find results dominated by MultCloud. I can’t recommend it for this job, to start it’s a poster candidate for shitty web UI for a touch interface. But, the real reason is MultCloud transfers without conversion, so you end up with a bunch of ENML documents. 5 Outside Evernote they’re all but useless. At best, MultCloud is a backup option.
CloudHQ is also awful to look at, but it has much more granular options for the transfer, and the real kicker, it will actually work. You can use a free account with CloudHQ to export your notes in PDF, plain-text format, or both. It will export everything to Dropbox, or your pick of service. If anyone is wondering how this fits with my thoughts on cloud storage, data in Evernote is already insecure. This is about changing your ways.
Once you have everything transferred, you will do the same thing as above. However, there is some good news. The DropBox API will expose a lot more information to workflow from the initial call, so it is easier to set conditions in the workflow to combine the actions. In other words, if you transfer the data to a storage service first, you can run a single workflow from there.
Dropbox to DEVONthink Workflow
This workflow is setup to import PDFs, and Plain text files. Migrate your data from Evernote to Dropbox via CloudHQ
Drag and has made a lot of tasks on iOS much easier than ever before, with transferring data among them. With the help of the files, you can forget workflow altogether, and use drag and drop to manage the last part of the migration. The first step is the same as above, prepare and transfer your data from Evernote to cloud storage.
You can do this with with Dropbox, or Box. I haven’t tested it with any other cloud services, so your mileage may vary elsewhere. If you’re using free plans, it’s worth knowing the box free plan gives your 10gb of storage – the maximum file size is 250mb, but that won’t be a problem here, in fact unless you are storing large video files it is unlikely to be a problem ever. 6
The key is how you set the apps up. You probably know by now that integration with the Files app can be hit and miss. This process exemplifies the difference between Files, and the more traditional Finder on macOS. You might expect you can open up Files and drag documents from one service to another, like you would between folders on macOS, but if that works it all it is very limited.
For example, if you try to drag multiple files after selected them via the select function, you won’t be able to drop them anywhere. However, if you collect the files together by taping on them one at a time, then the files will stack together and you can drop them no problem. Then there is the matter of how folders must be setup to accept dragged items; the inbound folder accepting the files has to be added to the favourites section of the Files sidebar, to make it available as a drop destination. When you do get it to work with the files app exclusively, other strange things can happen. Like the metadata being out of whack.
The point I’m making is the process is more complicated than it seems. Illustrative of how much room for improvement remains in the brave new world of iOS Files. But, this is only true if you are trying to manage the entire process in the Files app itself. The story is completely different if you you start in the Files app, and drop your notes in the third-party app itself.
You can skip organising your Evernote data type for this method, it will make no difference
Open up the files app. Select the notes your want to transfer, and dry them into the new app.
Other Apps as a Destination
Using DEVONthink as a destination, the results have been gapped doing things this way. The beauty of this method, however, is any app that accepts compatible data — and supports drag and drop — can be setup to receive the notes. She of the more popular note-taking apps on iOS will make the process even easier by providing an import function. Both GoodNotes, and Notability will let you import directly from cloud storage, without any further rigmarole. You can use drag and drop with both apps too, but you don’t need to.
If you want to migrate data from Evernote to alternate notes apps, all you need to do is transfer it via the CloudHQ method above, then import the notes via the import function of the app in question. If the app is only using iCloud, you should still be able to use the Files app to mitigate that problem. If not, I have setup a quick and dirty workflow to transfer from Dropbox to iCloud, you can get it here7
Evernote’s API offers potential for users migrating data. Like most folks, I’m a little light on time to do this sort of thing right now. I’m not making any promises, but I’m half thinking I will play around with both Workflow, and Pythonista over the holidays to see what can be done. 8Anyone familiar with this site will also know how much I admire the Notebook app. It also has an excellent custom URL scheme. I intend to use it for setting up more workflows.
Even though I have already transferred the bejesus out of data from Evernote, I will still mess around with these workflows some more. If you’re interested in how any of this this progresses, signup to the mailing list. Or, I will post it here at a later date.
I should point out here that my leaving Evernote had nothing to do with the price of a subscription. ↩
This is something that appears to confuse a lot of people. Box don’t do themselves any favours by wording it strangely either. The site says 250mb maximum upload. What it means is file size, not transfer limit. ↩
If you just want to archive your Evernote data in iCloud, this will work for that too. ↩
There are some existing scripts, but Evernote has moved to a new API. I haven’t yet found any in current working condition. Then again, I haven’t looked too closely yet. ↩
Call it a lack of imagination, but the first time I got hold of the Workflow app I was a little disappointed. The gallery made it look like a lot of fun, but most of the automations seemed a bit gimmicky. I didn’t have much need for a local area, pizza speed dial. There were automations I latched on to, but the app's power lay dormant on my devices. Fast Forward, and among the things I have figured out with Workflow is how to automate citation formatting.
I was something of a late comer to iOS. I wasn’t trying to do much serious work on the iPad when I started playing with Workflow. That meant I still had a lot of walls to hit where limitations of the platform were concerned. It soon became apparent that not only could Workflow do incredible things, it could do many things I needed, that I couldn’t otherwise do on and iPad, or an iPhone. Workflow is both a means for overcoming shortcomings of iOS, 1and for automating tasks that are repetitive, time consuming or difficult. For a novice, I would suggest the visual programming design of workflow makes it much easier to automate tasks than it does on the Mac.
Getting to Know Workflow
There is a surfeit of ‘getting started with Workflow’ type posts about the internet. For the most I have found they fall into two categories. You have the listicles of workflows that can either be found in the Workflow Gallery itself, or are similar in kind. Basic, but fun. Don’t get me wrong, some of the uses cases you find on those lists are pretty neat. My feeling is they don’t do a lot to help somebody trying to get the most out of the app.
Then you have serious Workflow aficionados. The best known known is no doubt Federico Viticci of Macstories, but there are others. I posted appreciation for Jordan Merrick’s Workflow Directory recently. Another blog I like for iOS automation is One Tap Less. Although, It hasn’t been updated much lately. If you want to get a head start with Workflow, I would suggest listening to series the Viticci and Frasier Speirs put together for their podcast, Canvas. A podcast might seem like a strange medium for learning something like this, but following along will help with the general concepts.
If you have never done any kind of programming. Despite the relative ease of the Workflow approach, there might be a couple of things that catch you out. Variables are a good example. Somewhere in the deep recess of my mind I have the fragments of what I learned as a school child in the eighties. At least knew what a variable was when I came across it in Workflow. I know that for a lot of people , it is exactly that concept that stopped them grokking the building blocks that make up Workflow automation. Workflow has gotten more clever about the need for variables, and the way that you can use them. But knowing what they are, and how important they are to the flow of information in a program is still a crucial piece of the puzzle. Thankfully, it’s not a difficult concept to pick up.
Getting deeper into Workflow, the developers have done a great job of abstracting concepts like flow. There is another powerful automation app on iOS called Alloy hasn’t enjoyed anything like the success of Workflow. That app has taken the opposite approach, negating the visual programming language by littering the app with esoteric terms. Understanding the flow of input and output is ultimately what makes the workflow applets you build operate as you intend. Which is to say, the further you go, the more likely you will need to understand more of the mechanics beneath the interface. Thankfully, the official Workflow documentation is very good. Then there is a thriving Reddit community of helpful, Workflow nerds.
A Range of Use Cases
To dial it back a little, you don’t necessarily need the most powerful features of Workflow for it to be useful. I have a range of workflow applets, recipes, scripts, or workflows.2Call them what you will, they range from the most basic, to complicated enough that I’m not confident I could recreate them should I ever need to. 3 Then I have workflows built by other people that hurt my brain. Trying to reverse engineer them has been one of the best ways to learn how to use the app. That is the reason I subscribe to Club Macstories, for the workflows.
As an example of a most simple use case. On the Mac I use a couple of different utilities to turn websites into either single purpose browsers, or something close to a native macOS app. For somebody with their dopamine wires crossed like I have, it can be a real nuisance working with web apps when you tend to have a million tabs open. On iOS, when I need a single purpose browser I create it with Workflow. I then place the shortcut on my home screen. Problem solved.
Easier with Web APIs
One area I feel the app provides an advantage over automation tools on the Mac, is how it guides you through using web APIs. 4 Even using a powerful tool like Keyboard Maestro on macOS, you will still need to build and encode URLs to interact with an API. In Workflow, you build the contents of the URL with a form. In turn the App will encode the URL for you. The consequence of this approach is you start to get a picture of what the structure of an API request looks like. I had never worked with JSON before I started experimenting with citation workflows, and yet I didn’t have much trouble putting a request together. If the API has good enough documentation, it isn’t too hard to work out which fields go where. There might be a little trial and error, but that is half the fun.
The upshot of all this fun with APIs is I have workflows to share. I’m going to post the first one here. If you want to keep up with how the effort to add to this, sign up for the mailing list over on the side bar there. 5 The first newsletter will go out in a couple of weeks, I intend for it to include this and some other study and research type tech-fu.
A Remaining Frustration
For academic writing on the iPad, managing citations can still be a pain. Decent citation management is the last remaining frustration for iOS users and academic writing. If I were to code an app for academic users on the iPad, that would be it. You can manage various parts of a bibliographic workflow on the iPad. I use Papers 3 for that job. But on the whole, it remains messy and awkward. 6 This is where Workflow comes in. It can equip you with the tools to build a citation workflow that can solve at least some of the problems for this kind of work on the iPad. If you’re inventive enough, you could put the entire workflow together using Workflow and a text editor. Adding Ulysses , or Editorial into the mix, and you have the tools for an iPad first writing system.
The whole way through my undergraduate studies I never committed a single citation style to memory. With citation managers available, why bother? At worst I could use an online generator. I claim it wasn’t really laziness though. It is an admission of fallibility. As a tutor, and as lecturer I had to take on marking work. Eventually I learned enough about which citation styles were set for the class, so that I could satisfy the requisite pedantry of one who wields a red pen. I just as easily forget the conventions the moment school is out. In the end I would rather automate this particular task and save that precious mind space for something more worthy. Like learning how to use Workflow, for example.
Automate Citation Formatting on iOS
Workflow’s powerful API interactions opens up all kinds of possibilities. It just so happens there are a lot of bibliographic web tools with public APIs. The idea is to start out simple here.7To provide both the utility for automatically formatting citations, and an example of a workflow for anyone starting out with the app. Something I hear ad nauseam — because it is true — is learning any kind of automation, scripting, or even coding, will be much easier if you have an end goal in mind. If you start out with a blank canvas, not knowing what you want to automate, you will have trouble learning automation. If you have a use case in mind, or an example to work with, it is going to work out better.
This workflow uses the Easybib Developer API to format a citation in the style that you need. You will need an API key to make it work. They are free to obtain for personal use. It will be easiest to signup for an API key before you download the workflow, as it will ask you for that key when you install it. I have set it up to chose between the MLA, APA, and the Chicago B reference styles. If you need a different style, the API supports more than 6000 of them, so no problem. Just add the style to the list in the workflow itself, it should be obvious.
A couple of quick points for using the workflow. This example is only setup for citing books with a single author. If you have the inclination, Easybib has quite comprehensive documentation so you can builds upon the workflow to suit your own needs, or replicated it for different sources. When entering an author name, use a comma between the first and last names. To suit my own writing preferences, I have also set it up to format the citation using Markdown. If you would rather it used rich text, simply remove the second to last action called ‘make markdown from rich text’. The workflow will then copy a full formatted reference to your clipboard.
If you have no inclination to commit a reference style to memory, this workflow is for you. You can download it here
Any questions, drop me a line. If you want to keep up with my efforts to use workflow for citation management on iOS, signup for the mailing list. 8 The first edition will be out soon, time willing it will include updates to this workflow to cite different sources, multiple authors, and so on
I don’t have the capacity or the inclination to spam you. Next year I will get the newsletter happening properly ↩
The lack of iPad multitasking is making it harder to recommend that app to new users. Even on the Mac, the acquisition by Read Cube is making me nervous. The most useful support articles from the Papers site seem to have disappeared? ↩
Not that I have chops to make the most complex workflows. But I’m getting there, slowly. ↩
Eventually this site will have a membership component. It will never be costly, but I intend to make the first 50 subscribers free members. Permanently ↩