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. ↩
A little down time can pique all manner of curiosities, especially at this time of year. As folks start reeling in the list of promises they’ll probably never keep, workflow changes are usually in the picture. I’m no different, and much as I’d like to pretend I am. I sometimes like to look in on projects I have either passed by, or promised to come back to. The following are a couple of apps that fit that profile. Canary Mail is an alternative secure email client for iOS, and macOS, while Typora is a cross platform, markdown text editor. The thematic connection between the two is the interesting integrations they both have, Canary with PGP, and Typora with Pandoc.
Alter Secure Mail Client that Isn’t Ugly As Hell
Everybody hates their email client. It’s a difficult problem to solve, but it remains a necessary evil, so we have no choice. Some time last year some time I was invited to participate in the Beta for Canary Mail . At the time I opened it up, thought it looked promising but remained under-developed, then I mostly forgot about it.
I thought of again when I found myself in a discussion about the terrible options for secure email, so I took another look. I was immediately surprised at the pace of development, there is a lot to like. Such rapid development is not always desirable, in the context of email clients you only have to look at the plague of problems faced by Airmail to see that sometimes slowly but surely is a better approach. 1 As for security features, you will find any number of hideous looking, obscure email clients featuring strong encryption, but it is usually shoehorned in as an afterthought in otherwise well designed apps. In fact, believe it or not, security is one of the more compelling reasons to stick with Apple Mail — if you know what you are doing to make it work that is.
This is where Canary stacks up well. If you’re looking for a secure alternative email client, Canary is balanced and feature rich, with PGP encryption built in using the MIT and key base servers. Obviously including encryption is not all that interesting in itself, but making it user friendly is. The best part is how responsive the developers are, early adopters have been actively engaged in the support forum, and rewarded with the fast adoption of features. I can’t remember ever seeing a project work so well, the result is an app that keeps getting better. It still has some raw edges, but if you want to look at something that is bucking the trend of data grabbing applications, it is worth a look. At the very least, it is an app to keep an eye on. Canary is available on both macOS, and iOS. It is now also part of the excellent Setapp collection
Integrating Pandoc with a Text Editor
There is no shortage of well designed, minimal text editors for the Mac — or for the iPad for that matter. If you’re a developer with your heart set on building such an app, you really need something different. For example, as an expression of typography focused, opinionated design, iA Writer is stunning. Ulysses, on the other hand, has somehow found the sweet spot between text editor and word processor to carve out an unlikely niche.
While there is a decided trend towards the plain text and distraction free aesthetic, making a mark in the text editor space is only going to get harder. And yet, there is still room for innovation where more specialised writing is concerned. Particularly for academic writing, there is only so far you can go before minimalism starts requiring too many workarounds for the supplementary parts of your writing. If you’re on board with plain text, this is often where Pandoc comes in. Chances are, if there is something you can’t do with a text editor, Pandoc can do it.
This is why I have been intrigued by Typora, a text editor that uses Pandoc for export and conversion. The abilities of Pandoc go way beyond what Typora is currently doing with it, although it has some other interesting features, and not everyone needs the full compliment of super powers. Notably, the editor previews the output in what Typora calls a real live preview. The result is more of a what you see is what you get workflow, much closer to a rich text editor. The app feels like what you might get if you combined Lightpaper’s live preview with the syntax minimising aspects of Ulysses. It also has a touch of Folding Text about it, as it tracks headings in a Markdown outliner that tucks behind the main editor.
Typora is full of nice little touches. I can see it appealing to writers who want a clean interface, and enjoy the frictionless experience of writing with Markdown, but don’t want to look at the syntax at all. Ulysses will take you a fair way down that road, but Typora goes that little bit further. It might also appeal if you’re stuck working between Windows and Mac, or even Linux. Typora is one of only a few markdown text editors that is genuinely cross platform. I know a lot of academic writers in that situation.
The Mac version is currently free while it’s in Beta. 2 You can download it directly
Like everyone, I really like what Airmail wants to be, but remain frustrated by how buggy it is ↩
It has been in Beta for some time, but the app is definitely still in active development. ↩
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. ↩
This has been a while coming. 1 Having mentioned this app a number of times, I haven’t yet offered a detailed account — something it thoroughly deserves. Those mentions have prompted a reasonable question, is it worth buying DEVONthink to Go for iOS if you don’t have a Mac? The short answer is yes. Qualified by what you want to do with it, but you won’t be short on possibilities. Whether you’re looking for a private Evernote alternative, want to improve your digital file management, better organise research material, or you want secure storage and advanced search capabilities for your data. There is much that DEVONthink can do on iOS. Of course, that leads us to a much longer answer — and, believe it or not, this is a mere introduction.
On Being Unique
Most of the apps we use on iOS can be distinguished by category, or specific task. They’re often things we need, but as long as you have something in that category, capable of a specific job, the app itself comes down to personal preference. It’s true we’re not always spoilt for choice — and I’ll happily point out that some things are better than others. Nonetheless, if it’s a PDF reader, notes app, text editor, or email client, they’re all interchangeable to some degree. Whether you prefer GoodNotes to Notability, or PDF Expert to PDFpen, either will do the job. Until something better comes along, that is. 2
There is a different kind of app where interchangeability no longer applies. Or at least, where it’s not quite so simple. They’re few and far between, but there are some obvious examples. Take Drafts for iOS, sure it’s a text editor — and there are plenty of those — yet, that seemingly simple function belies a unique automation engine for text based productivity. Having popularised the x-callback-url system on iOS, Drafts is as much an inception as it is an app. 3 By all accounts, inter-app automation via URL was only half a hack until x-callback allowed apps to return the call — so to speak.
Perhaps the most obvious example is Workflow. Apple swallowed it whole to make an entire subset of fan-geeks exhale a coordinated, and confused sigh. What will happen? The optimists are betting on some form of native integration with iOS, while the half-empty crowd are clasping their hands and pursing their lips for a round of tutting on podcasts. Jokes aside, if Apple ever took Workflow offline, they wouldn’t so much be shooting themselves in the foot as they would be cleaving the entire leg off the idea of an iPad as a serious working device. These are all unique, and important apps.
Before I digress any further, I’m trying to provide some context for DEVONthink to Go. 4 Both to place it in good company, and to make the case for how unique it is. To view it as nothing more than a companion app for the macOS versions of DEVONthink would be a mistake. Sure, it can be used like that. As far as companions go, it’s a particularly powerful one. The iOS version, however, can stand on its own. It is something of a category in itself, given its crossover functionality. This is quite an achievement, especially as the app was completely re-written for version 2.0. 5
When used to its potential, DEVONthink can be just as important as the apps mentioned above on iOS. It’s easily as unique. But like anything, it comes down to how you intend to use it. Implementation is key. Getting the most from any of the DEVONthink apps means putting them at the centre of your workflow for capturing, storing, and retrieving data. DEVONthink to Go is no different.
All in the Tags
Amid the changes in iOS 11 were significant improvements for managing files. There is no doubt the Files app — even in these early stages — is a welcome and useful development. The caveat is recognising where some of Apple’s long held resistance to such an app came from. For example, organising files and folders — stacking iCloud with a folder hierarchy — is now easier than ever. Yet, to do so embraces an outdated method of organising data. Where research and study is concerned, how one archives important material is a serious consideration. This is not to say you shouldn’t use folders, but if you’re handling a lot of data, it can get very messy.
This is where tags come in. A shallow file structure with carefully chosen tags adds depth to your metadata, giving you more surface area for search queries. Tagging gives you more hooks, but less visual confusion. Not only does the Files app allow more fine control for folders, users now have immediate access to Apple’s native tagging system. Whether carried over from macOS, or implemented locally on an iOS device, tagging can be utilised for search queries and data retrieval.
Apple’s implementation of tagging across platforms has been casual at best. It’s kind to say it remains a work in progress. However, if only a gentle nod, it is still an acknowledgement of the utility in tagging for organising data. Ironically, if you find tagging useful and want to get more out of it, then you will need to go beyond the files app.
This is just one area that DEVONthink shines. Tagging is part of the DEVONthink DNA. Some aspects of native iOS tagging remain mysterious, but DEVONthink is smart enough to import the metadata applied in the Files app. Unfortunately, it doesn’t yet work the other way around.
A Secure Central Repository
While organising a folder hierarchy in iCloud Drive is much easier with Files, ironically that app makes it less necessary to do so. I tend to work in the DEVONthink app directly, but DEVONthink data in Files is incredibly useful, and not just for quick access.
This is something I mentioned in my post on cloud storage. Regardless of the storage provider, by storing data in DEVONthink you can couple the convenience of the Files app with strong client-side encryption. The previous post talks about syncing with macOS, but the same applies if you are only using iOS. The data is encrypted and decrypted on your device, making it secure during transfer, and at rest in the cloud. From that post,
If you are already a user on macOS, adding DEVONthink to Go to your workflow is straightforward. The database itself is encrypted, and the app supports pretty much any file type you can throw at it. Devon Technologies are one of the oldest Apple software developers around. So it is no surprise to see them embracing the new Files App. This means DEVONthink to go can be used as a file provider. So you can store your files safely, and edit them in place using third-party apps. In my opinion, this is a pretty sound option. In many cases, it could be enough. If it is, managing files through DEVONthink will avoid the need for a dropbox alternative.
DEVONthink is also very smart about storage, giving you the option to keep metadata locally, and download files on demand. Or if you prefer, you can store everything locally. As the engine is built to sync databases individually, there is even a little storage hack — if you are so inclined.
Each database can synced using the same, or different cloud services. That means you can use the free tier of different services to save on the cost of storage. Admittedly the supported services are still limited, but if you are just starting they will be more than adequate. Perhaps more to the point, it also means you can sync multiple copies of databases, adding redundancy to your backups. This includes backing everything up to iCloud.6
Backing up data on iOS requires users to think differently, especially if you are not using a Mac or a PC as the mother ship. DEVONthink is one of few apps that can give you extra peace of mind.
All but the most perfunctory writing requires research. Couple that to the focused nature of an iPad workflow, and you have a use case for a purpose built repository. Writers using Scrivener have tools built in to that app, but while they might be enough for some writers, that research is — in practical terms — silo’ed by project. I like to have that material available more generally, whether during, or after a project is complete. 7 Spotlight is a great tool for search, DEVONthink is better.
DEVONthink is built for search. A consistent naming convention, and tags can only be helpful to maintaining a research database. DEVONthink comes preloaded with tools that will either compliment that process, or help you retrieve data regardless. With Boolean search operators, and parentheses, refining search terms will return items with more specificity. You will find more, and lose less.
Search queries can be constructed using the boolean operators AND, OR, NOT, and the truly helpful NEAR. For example, I might remember that I saved an article that included the phrase ‘Why Aristotle was never quite as awesome as Plato’. I can search for the document with: NEAR (Aristotle Plato, 10), and DEVONthink will return items that have the keywords Aristotle and Plato within 10 words of each other. Of course, you can go much further by changing search queries together.
My first example returns a lot of results, but let’s say I remember it was an informal source. I could construct a search query to eliminate results that have a keyword to indicate it comes from an academic journal. I would use something like NEAR (Aristotle Plato, 10) NOT Journal. I could use a DOI number, or Abstract as elements common to those kinds of results.
Even if by trial and error, the ability to construct granular search queries makes DEVONthink to Go an invaluable tool. If you are a user of DEVONthink Pro on macOS, you should know the query syntax is a little different. It can be frustrating if you don’t know that, but the simplified version for iOS makes sense. While accurate searches are crucial, there is a swiftness involved with mobile input. The developers are on record as saying an alternative syntax is on the roadmap, to make the apps more consistent. The existing syntax would remain, which is a good thing to my mind. I have never had so much success at finding what I need among my haphazard collections.
I have consistently recommended PDF Expert for a stand-alone PDF reader on iOS. Until recently, together with the free Documents app from Readdle, and Papers 3 for iOS, that was the extent of my PDF workflow. It is not so clear cut anymore. For one thing, the makers of the PDF framework PSPDFkit released their free PDF Viewer app, making powerful PDF management available to users for nothing. But there are other reasons, one of them is DEVONthink to Go.
Some advice I give out freely but struggle to keep is, try to minimise the apps you use for essentially the same task. Managing PDFs for your research can get out of hand if you don’t have a clear idea of how you organise them. There is no problem with using a third-party PDF app with DEVONthink to Go.The support for editing files in place means you can edit files in other apps, without having to copy them to another app. However, DEVONthink’s built in PDF editor is more than capable. It gets out of your way, includes excellent Apple Pencil support, and has all the requisite annotations tools. You can edit the documents themselves, even add pages if necessary. Sometimes you might need to do more with annotations, but that is about the extent of the limitations.
These are considerations to make if you are assessing the in-app purchase. Especially if you are setting your iPad up for the first time, it could make a lot of sense to go all in and keep your document editing and annotations in one place.
The actual in-app note-taking features are quite sparse, but functionality of the app makes up for that in other ways. I have been making a point of laying out a use case where DEVONthink is a central hub for storing data, but it can be a point of creation too.
DEVONthink to go supports rich text, plain text, and markdown, with the ability to capture, read, edit, or create within the app itself. The editor in the app itself is very basic, so I tend to use a third-party text editor. The ability to edit files in place means you can use whatever app you choose, as long as it supports file providers. In my experience to date, the app with the nicest integration is iA Writer, especially since the recent update. Another with reliable support is 1Writer.
Editing in place means you are opening the file in your choice of editor, and the changes are reflected back in the database. Until recently, this wasn’t really possible. DEVONthink used a workaround it called ‘round trip’, which worked, but wasn’t ideal. Once the file is the database, the changes will be reflected whether you edit it in the third-party editor, or in DEVONthink itself. If you know anything about iOS system extensions, you will now that there are two types of actions in the share menu for files. One opens the file in another app, the other copies the file into the other apps storage. Edit in place means you are not making a copy.
There have have been reports of strange behaviour, although I have only experienced it a couple of times myself. It seems to happen more when using the share extension, rather than starting the edit in the text editor first, and using the files integration. It is also worth pointing out that all of this functionality is new, as are the frameworks in iOS that support it. There are a few bugs in the system, but nothing catastrophic.
This might appear to work back to front at first, but if you think of DEVONthink as the storage facility, it will sink in. Where it gets messy is if you try to edit the same file with multiple editors, you will end up with conflicts and error messages. My best advice is to be consistent.
This is something that comes up a lot in relation to DEVONthink apps. Except for a couple of passing comments, there is conspicuous absence of Evernote coverage on this site. It’s not that I don’t think Evernote is useful. If anything were a gateway drug to digital productivity apps, Evernote is it. I was once a heavy user. The idea behind Evernote is to throw everything you ever come across at it, it can even be therapeutic for a digital pack rat who can’t let anything go. Clip it, and forget; or come back to if you will.
If the defining Evernote feature is its clipper, that can be a problem, as there is nothing judicious about the process. Capturing information is ridiculously easy with Evernote. DEVONthink can operate on the same principle — if you wish — only completely private. The DEVONthink clipper might seem basic 8, but it is a powerful little extension. With the extensive automation feature on iOS, you can customise and extend its capabilities to suit your own needs.
Unlike Evernote documents are not stored with DEVONthink in a proprietary format, so your data doesn’t feel so captive. If you’re a macOS user getting your notes out of Evernote is not difficult. 9 Yet, the more material you store there, the more reason you have to be nervous about the portability of that data. This is a double edged sword for Evernote and some users. The more you get drawn in, the harder it is to leave, and yet if you have a lot of important data there you’ll start to think about what might happen to it.
Truthfully, I hardly ever used Evernote to take notes. As I think many people do, I used it like a database. Moving that workflow to DEVONthink is very simple. Although, even if I still throw a lot at DEVONthink, I tend to do it with a little more foresight. That you can delineate types of data within a hierarchy that goes all the way to database level, means I don’t have the overwhelming sense that my research data is being polluted by gift ideas, and tutorials for obscure automations that I’ll probably never use. As for the data itself, I can still have the convenience of cloud storage, only now it’s encrypted and I can choose how, and what I want to synchronise.
These things are just as true for an iOS only workflow as they are for a full blown DEVONthink Office pro user archiving their email. There remains a problem, however. As I alluded to above, getting your data out of Evernote, and into DEVONthink on the Mac is a trivial matter. DEVONthink makes it very simple, with Evernote API integration. Without a desktop of sone form in the middle, however, the same is not true for iOS users. The pressure points for going iPad only are now much fewer than ever, but there remain a couple. I often mention citations, then there is this kind of data transfer.
There are workarounds for this. If you’re considering it, you’ll be happy to learn I have you covered. I was going to include the options, with different instructions and a couple of workflows I have built in this post, but I took a look at how long it is getting and broke it off into a seperate piece. It will go up not long after this.
Automation Meets Drag and Drop
Speaking of Workflow, an area of considerable value to an iOS only working life is automation. While the default iOS interaction model of one app at a time has been supplemented with multitasking features, the secondary, and even tertiary apps are almost exclusively invoked as part of a singular, focused task. 10 The benefit, whether intentional or not, is the iPad encourages a kind of focused work that more traditional computing interfaces do not. This is particular beneficial for academic work.
This is a curious strength, but as anyone who has done a lot of work on an iPad will tell you, it has its drawbacks. Thankfully, most if not all insurmountable problems have been made history by two significant developments to the platform. The first was the aforementioned Workflow app. That app might be somewhat indebted to the inception of x-callback — as mentioned above — but Workflow kicked the automation door off its hinges, and you get the sense something much more significant is coming from that app. 11 The second development happened this year: drag and drop.
It’s amusing to think the introduction of copy and paste to the iPhone was once an event. 12 Copying and pasting was for so long a cumbersome, finicky, and frustrating. With the APIs available to developers in iOS 11, we can now evaluate particular apps on the basis of how well they take-up native technologies, rather than what they can do to overcome a lack of the same. It might have been a stretch to call url-based automation native, but Apple has burred that distinction with Workflow. Regardless, DEVONthink To Go is tapped into both of those features — automation, plus drag and drop — extensively.
Drag and drop is pretty self-explanatory, although the version we get with iOS 11 makes it feel like a completely new innovation. It’s deep integration, system wide even mitigates the need for some, albeit minor, automations. The kind of work one tends to do with DEVONthink, however, is ripe for automating. Something the developers are keenly aware of.
The URL scheme in DEVONthink to Go allows a user to build very specific automations for every data type a database can hold. This includes, but is not limited to the following:
Create documents, including Plain-text, Markdown, Rich Text, and HTML
Create Web Archives
Retrieve file contents, and/or metadata
Perform custom searches
DEVONthink to Go will even perform service tasks via URL, such as indexing, syncing, and rebuilding caches, and you can change app settings. A lot these touches will be beyond most users needs, but it shows the meticulous level of detail that DEVON technologies drills into. More than that, these options provide troubleshooting options that may prove useful as databases become larger, and more devices are added to the chain. If you never use them, they offer security by way of both usefulness and insight into the forethought put to building the app. A it is intended for storing important information, all of this matters a great deal.
To button this up, by returning to the question. Is DEVONthink to Go worth buying if you are an iOS only user? The answer remains, yes. Whether it is to act as a repository, a midway for automation, or to distill the need for multiple apps into one. There is a lot going on here. I’m not going to pretend it couldn’t be improved, but then DEVON technologies are nothing if not proactive in that regard.
I’ll also admit that I get more from this, as I use DEVONthink on both macOS and iOS, but that doesn’t diminish its role on my iPad by any stretch. If it were to go away, I would have a serious nuisance on my hands to pick apart the various things it does. As I’ve been writing this, the capacity of DEVONthink for working on iPad has had me peeling back layers of functionality.
At this point I’m aware of so many little things I have missed.This is especially true for Mac users, but that it should be obvious that was never the point of this post. At the moment I am experimenting with building more Workflows for DEVONthink to go, and that includes building on the options I have put together for referencing and citations. In the meantime, I have added a couple below that might be of interest.
These workflows are experiments. I’m posting them here as examples of what you can do with automation and DEVONthink. They remain a work in progress. If you are inclined to improve upon them, I would love to hear about it. If you build your own, think about adding them to the Workflow Directory
DEVONwiki — DEVONthink’s internal linking structure remains consistent across platforms. This means you can use DT2GO for setting up a wiki style research library that will work across devices. This workflow uses a note in Drafts to reference PDF documents added to a DEVONthink database, either directly from the web, or from another storage location. With x-callback URL you can maintain the note itself in DEVONthink. I will post variations of this in future.
RSS to DEVONthink — As one of its many powers on macOS, DEVONthink can be used as an RSS aggregator and reader. The iOS version doesn’t have the same feature, but we can achieve a similar result with Workflow. 13
Evernote Text to DEVONthink — I mentioned above, the trouble with getting your data from Evernote to DEVONthink on iOS without a desktop computer in the middle. This should be self-explanatory. Bear in mind it will only transfer text notes. I have a follow post in the works for a more thorough migration,
You can pick up DEVONthink to Go on the App Store for US$21.99, with an in-app purchase case of $11.99 for the pro package 14
Until next time, enjoy.
Longer even, since I tried to stay off the internet as much as possible last week for fear of spoilers. Sadly, I’m not joking. ↩
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 ↩