Setapp: Accessing the Apps Necessary for Study and Research

Talk to anyone who knows anything about the software economy and you will soon find out this is a strange time. Developers are trying to find ways to stay afloat, while coping with a user base conditioned by the so-called freemuim model. I know a lot of normally rational and generous people who balk at paying for software. I have been there myself. There are some legitimate historical reasons for that, it would be easy to implicate some of the biggest software names in the stratification between obscene rents for virtual necessities, and the meagre sums people will pay for the lesser known. These days I feel I have a better grip on the cognitive dissonance between stumping a fiver for a coffee and paying a fairer price for apps. For example, making music on the iPad allows me to purchase incredibly powerful apps that cost a fraction of the price demanded by their desktop counterparts, let alone purchasing the equivalent hardware. And yet, I still know folks who will wince at paying $10 for an app that took a developer years to make, despite this massive difference in cost versus utility from desktop to mobile devices. I can’t imagine how disheartening this must be for the people who make such apps.

While I am primarily referring to iPhone and iPad apps, if you will excuse the pun, these developments have had a tangible impact on the Mac App situation too. Apple hasn’t done much at all to mitigate the difficulties facing developers – something all but the most benighted of Apple fans have started to acknowledge – especially given the 30% tax they claim for access to their walled garden. For independent developers, the situation can be pretty dire. Which is why, along with some of the reasons above, and more besides, I feel relatively positive about the service offered by Settapp. To my mind, the collective nature of it makes sense – just as the single license model of old is unsustainable, so tool is the idea of having an individual subscription to every single app you use.

macOS Study Research Apps
Setapp already has some of the best apps available on Mac, including numerous education and research focused tools.

I have already mentioned a number of the apps available on Settapp. Many of them are available for purchase individually on the App Store, and for a lot of people that may well remain the best option if you only need the likes of Marked, Uylsses or Taskpaper. On the other hand, a Settapp subscription will give you all of these apps, and a whole lot more for ten US dollars per month. It will also mean you never have to worry about purchasing new versions, or dealing with in-ap purchases for monetised features.

As far as students, academics, and other researchers are concerned, Setapp is ideally stocked with a number of apps I would recommend outright. To mention just a few, it includes one of my very favourite writing apps, Uylsses [1]. Both iThoughts and X-Mind are excellent mind mapping tools. Then there is the Findings research notebook, the Studies flash card app, a unique and really promising academic writing app called Manuscripts. Timelines, outliners, task management tools; the list goes on. They are adding to the collection all the time, and better still the service is not loaded with junk. It is an invite only, curated collection; they are banking their reputation on some of the best software available on the Mac.

If you are looking to graduate from piracy, or this appeals to you for any other reason, you can check it out and signup for a free month at Setapp


  1. Which is technically a Markdown editor, but to call it that simply doesn’t do it justice  ↩

Automating Academic Workflows on a Mac – Part I

If ever I find myself in one of those tedious Mac versus Windows conversations I need only point to one thing that tips the balance toward the Apple machine, and that is automation. While it is true that automation software is not the exclusive domain of the Mac, Apple’s historical commitment to it has not only lowered the bar for entry to native automation, but has fostered a platform which has seen a slew of wonderful third-party tools that will allow anyone with a little time and determination to dip their toes in the automation waters. Honestly, it is embarrassing to admit the amount of time I might have saved had I have embraced some of these technologies early than I did. Admittedly, with services like IFTTT and Zapier, automation is becoming less and less platform dependant, but whether you want to go full nerd, or simply save yourself and your fingers from repetitive typing tasks, there is nothing like the Mac for getting started.

This will be another post in parts, there are far too many options for Mac automation to throw them all on a page and hope for that to be useful. The intention is to give you some ideas for getting started with this automation racket.

Text Expander

Perhaps the easiest area to begin is with text expansion. Limited support for text replacement is available natively in macOS, or you go further with apps like Typinator or aText. My favourite app for the job, and probably the most powerful of the lot, is Text Expander . Start with simple things, like commonly used email addresses, your own personal details, signatures or often repeated phrases.

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 4
One of its many tricks, Text Expander has built in macros for automatically formatting dates

Something I have found particularly useful is converting clumsy English spelling of non-English words and names. For example, my thesis contains a number of Māori words that have macrons for long vowels, Text Expander makes sure I neither forget nor mess up the spellings of those words. Likewise for accented European names like Zupancic to Zupančič. The more you use text expansion, the more you will start to notice commonly used text you can automate, and this is to barely scratch the surface of what a tool like Text Expander can do for you.

Smile’s Text Expander Blog is full of examples of how to use snippets in your workflow. One specifically research based use case is to setup snippets for common web searches. For more ideas on how to get started, Zapier have a nice write up on their blog you might like to check out.

Automator

Automator can seem a little daunting at first, and to be fair the user interface is not all that enticing. But, don’t let that stop you from messing around with it. Just as there are many text based tasks that you might not know you can automate, there are many more fiddly and tedious jobs littered throughout most people’s workflows. Academic workflows, in particular, are usually littered with tasks ripe for automation, and this is in no way limited to university work itself. If you are a blogger, an artist, or even a social-media junkie, chances are there is something you do regularly that you can reclaim significant time from. Having said that, like anything the problem is knowing where to start. There are a number of good Automator resources available, but you will never go wrong by starting with Sal Soghoian – the undisputed Jedi Master of Mac automation – at his Mac OS X Automation site.

In the meantime, here are a couple of basic examples to get you started. One of the most commonly cited examples of a basic Automator workflow combines selected PDF files into one document, like so:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos
Automator workflows can be setup as services to manage repetitive actions with a right-click

Another quick and dirty example of an Automator workflow is the one I use to resize images for blog posts. I have it setup as a service, so when I right click on an image and select the service, it simply scales the image, converts it, and renames the file. It looks like this:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 2
Automator Workflows don't need to be complex, all this does is resize images, and rename the files. You can download a copy of this workflow below

You can even setup Automator do some of your research for you by setting up a feed with keywords and collecting the URLs for the articles it returns. This article has an example of one such workflow, along with a means for downloading images and video, and setting up a native, standalone web application for sites you have to keep open.

Hazel

Something all students and academics have to deal with a constant influx of digital documents. Whether they be absurdly arcane forms, journal articles, ebooks, expense claims, or whatever, they never stop piling up. Enter Hazel, put a little time into this thing and you can wipe your hands of repetitive file management and processing tasks. And, it’s not just the mundane and simple jobs either, Hazel can encode media, manage your photo library, add music to iTunes, use pattern matching to rename and file documents based upon their contents, run scripts, take care of your desktop, trash and downloads – in fact, like most good automation, it is more limited by a user’s ability to think of how to use it than by its own features. A little imagination and you can chain all kinds of services together, for example, there are party people who like to trigger their own welcome home soundtracks by using Hazel with Dropbox and IFTTT.

There is nothing overly difficult about setting up Hazel, start out simple and go from there. If you have ever setup a smart folder on iTunes, or in the Finder, then you will already have a sense of how to put an action together. If you haven’t, it looks like this:

Automating Academic Workflows Macos 3
Trigger Hazel actions by setting up conditions as you would in a Smart Folder

The Noodlesoft forum is among the most active developer forums I have come across, and the Hazel user base is full of helpful and proactive people willing to chip in if you get stuck. The forum is also full of inventive Hazel actions that other users willingly share with newbies. Finally, if you are getting stuck and you are the kind of person who likes a visual guide, you can either checkout the innumerable videos on Youtube or David Sparks has a detailed [3] Video Field Guide available.

Downloads

Scale Images Automator Service

Combine PDF Images Automator Workflow

Task Managers for University Life

University Task Managers

Back to School

Thinking about a friend of mine going back to school this year, I wanted to put together some ideas for setting up that shiny new device to make it useful for the classroom, and for just generally keeping everything together. These things can get a little carried away, so the intention is to break them up and post them in parts.

It is a little while ago now, but I returned to university after an intended break of a couple years turned into more than a decade of itinerant avoidance. What confronted me when I (re)started was a ludicrous sprawling bureaucracy that made about as much sense as a Trump tweet. Worse still, it was immediately clear that I had very little, if any, idea of how to organise myself in this new context. Enter technology. I would hardly call the geek in me latent, but here was an excuse to embrace an otherwise embarrassing fetish for details.

I have in mind what is useful for university life, but much of this will likely be true for anyone faced with juggling the demands of a saturated schedule. You have dozens of places to be at different times, assignment due dates, tests and exams. Kafkaesque administration, library book returns, transport timetables, study groups, meetings. And any number of things you should turn down but won't. In short, you have a shit load to keep track of.

My advice is to start using a decent task manager. Sure, you could muddle through with a shambling calendar, email, a fancy moleskin diary, writing on the back of your hand or licking your finger and shoving it in the air, but you know it will all start to unravel pretty quickly. I have a terrible relationship with the word ‘no'. I will overload my schedule by comedic proportions to avoid using that word. Using a task manager has not only meant having some kind of grasp on that particular issue, but it has saved me time and again from the consequences of marrying it to a terminally leaky memory and inability to grasp what is actually possible in a given amount of time. If a task manager can help me it can help anyone.

Time Management Apps

If you are looking move beyond a shambling calendar and perfunctory reminder system, here are some options:

Omnifocus

Omnifocus University Task Manager

If you are actually interested in this kind of stuff (and if you are, you know what I mean) then you have already heard of this. More than an app, this is a system. It requires some commitment and at least a little working knowledge of the getting things done methodology to make sense. Most students will justifiably balk at the price, and there is some complexity to setting it up. However, the payoff for adopting it is large. As an added bonus, Omnifocus itself can handle a fair share of your procrastination needs if you want to dive into automation and customisation. See links below to get you started in case you do want to jump off this particular bridge macOSiOS

2Do

2do University Task Manager

One of the most customisable task management applications you will come across. You can bend it to you will. This will be the best choice for most people who want much more than simple reminders, but don't want to go full nerd and join the GTD cult, although if even if you want that 2Do has you well covered. Also cross platform these days, so if you're mixing and matching devices you can just hook up dropbox, or any number of other options and sync away. You can pick it up on the app store for  macOS or iOS. It is also available with a Setapp subscription.

Todoist

Todoist University Task Manager

Natural language entry is undoubtedly the coolest thing about todoist. To add a task you simply type it in, e.g Essay on the Ontological Necessity of Modern Man's Existential Dilemma due on the 30th – Todoist magically turns what you write into the task parameters, adding an alarm for the date, and so on. If you are interested in nerding out on automation, then services like IFTTT or Zapier have you covered. You can use it right out of the box, but you will need to a subscription if you want to use some of the more advanced features. Unlike most of the other apps here, Todoist is also has genuine collaboration features. Also cross platform, but apple nerds can find it here: macOS and here: iOS

A Left Field Option

This is something a little different. Depending on how you work, employing a means for tracking what you have done can be just as important as remembering what you must do. It doesn't matter what level of academic work or research you are doing, you will, mostly be absorbing a lot of material — doing a lot of reading. keeping track of where you are with the material is more than usual. For this part of my own workflow I use Taskpaper.

Taskpaper

Taskpaper University Task Manager

I have flipped between the more fully featured task management apps above in different ways, and at different times. I'm happy to recommend all three. The natural language parsing has me sticking with Todoist, for the moment.  However, I find myself using Taskpaper more and more on a day to day basis for other things.  Its unique blend of outlining and task management make it ideal for research and writing, and you can dig right in if you want to put it to work in a more comprehensive way. I find it particularly useful for tasks that need to be broken down into a long checklist of smaller actions. Loading everything into your main task manager is not always the best idea, so having something like Taskpaper to supplement your time management is helpful.

Taskpaper is a deceptively powerful application, my use case is seriously underselling its potential. There is no reason you can't go all in with it. For some time using with iOS required implementing one or another minor hack, myself I use Editorial. However, the Tasmator app has received a little love recently, so it is iOS compliant.  You could do worse than to check out a demo of the app Taskpaper, or you can grab it from the Mac App Store. It is also available with a Setapp subscription.

Honorable mentions

  • TrelloTrello is a wonderful service for any number of things. It is especially useful for collaborative projects, but you can really put it to work in any way you want to. If you are a visual thinker, this may be it for you. iOS
  • WunderlistWunderlist is a great option if you want something fairly simple and visually appealing. I use it with my partner for any kind of list we want to share, shopping, travelling, or the secret locations of things we have hidden from our 2-year old. My partner is using it to write a thesis, so it is certainly capable enough. iOSmacOS

Cursory Advice

If I had to choose only one of these to recommend to somebody setting up a task manager for the first time, it would be 2Do. It is easy to learn, simple to setup and has everything you could possibly need in a task management application. If integration with other services, automation, and/or collaboration are what you are looking for, then start with Todoist. On the other hand, if you are want to turn productivity apps into a hobby or implement a full-on life encompassing system of organisation, then Omnifocus could be it for you. If you are into plain text solutions, tend to arrange your thoughts in outlines and like elegant simplicity, then try Taskpaper.

To Get You Started

Omnifocus

2Do

  • The 2Do official site is very useful, with loads of Tips & Tricks
  • You can find a (painfully) detailed (but very useful) introduction to the app at Macstories
  • A much more concise introduction here
  • Here is a comparison between 2Do and Todoist if such a thing might prove helpful Todoist vs. 2Do

Todoist

Taskpaper

  • Again, start with the official Taskpaper site. Try the FAQs and the blog
  • One of Taskpaper's more illustrious users, Brett Terpstra can attest to it's usefulness.
  • Gabe Weatherhead's Macdrifter is a great source for material on any number of things, Taskpaper being one of them. Macdrifter could have been listed in the Omnifocus links
  • Profhacker has a brief introduction to the app. Given the apparent focus of this site, that would seem appropriate.