iOS Automation, Shortcuts: Workflows for Study and Research

Ios Automation Workflow Shortcuts.png

For nerds wanting to automate their devices, iOS 12 is Christmas. This week's new version of iOS brings with it significant developments to user automation. There has never been a better time to get to grips with iOS automation. Between the new academic year in the northern hemisphere, and the release of Shortcuts, I figure now is a good time to share some workflows I have built specifically for academic work and study.  Among the good news is existing Workflow routines are fully compatible with the new Shortcuts app, so I can start sharing the workflows I have built up.

Academic Shortcuts: EZProxy Library Workflow

This first workflow is as about as basic as automation can get, and yet it is one of the best timesaving tricks I have set up. I use this shortcut every day to access the full pdf versions of articles I find via Google or DuckDuckGo.

Most university libraries have an EZ Proxy server that can be used to reroute a URL through the library. If you come across an article you want to access, instead of tediously searching for it again via your library, you can use this workflow to access it via EZProxy. When you install the workflow, it will ask for the EZProxy address for your university library, so search for first and have it copied to the clipboard before you install the workflow.

Download: EZProxy Workflow

Citation Scanner Workflow: Scan Barcodes for Formatted Citations

ios automation

I have a much longer post in the works to cover managing citations with Workflow shortcuts, so consider this a preview.

There are a lot of web services and APIs one can find to format citations, but sometimes you need something simple. This shortcut uses a handy little web service called Ottobib that can return formatted citations via URL from ISBN numbers. I have used it to setup my own book scanner. It takes the ISBN from the barcode, queries the Worldcat database, and returns a formatted citation of the book in your choice of style. Consider it a basic version of Citationsy.

Download: Citation Scanner Workflow

Docverter Workflow: Convert Documents on iOS with Pandoc

ios automation

For academic users, the real value in using Pandoc is in the wonderful citeproc filter that formats referencing. Unfortunately, Docverter doesn’t include that part of Pandoc. What it can do, however, is a fine job of converting markdown, or HTML documents into other file formats. 1

I recently highlighted the dual document feature of Notebooks, along with that app’s support for multiple file formats. One thing Notebooks can’t do is create docx files for Microsoft Word. As much as I would like to avoid Word altogether, that remains wishful thinking in academia. Not only can this workflow help with that problem, it will save you from trying one of those janky conversion apps on the app store. It is also worth mentioning the other wonderful text editors this opens up. Drafts 5 is the first that comes to mind.

Download: Docverter Workflow

If you find these workflows, or shortcuts — whatever we are calling them now — useful, keep an eye out for more posts on iOS automation.

  1. It can handle LaTeX, and a couple other formats too. I suspect if you’re using those formats you will have no trouble adapting the workflow to your needs

Note Taking Automation with Notebooks, Workflow etc

Ipad Note Taking Automation

This is the second of a two part feature on Notebooks, for part one see here

Notebooks Part II: URL schemes and iOS Note Taking Automation

Aside from being an excellent general purpose notes taking app, Notebooks has a host of features uniquely suited to academic work and study — or any kind of research for that matter. Where the previous post outlined some of the feature highlights, this one has some examples for how to use the Notebooks URL scheme with Workflow, Drafts 5 and Launch Center Pro.

URL Scheme Automation Workflows

Automation on iOS is finally growing up. The impending release of iOS 12 will make user automation more accessible than ever, while apps such as Drafts 5, Pythonista, and the Omni Group’s suite include powerful scripting tools. At the same time, URL schemes remain the enduring staple of iOS automation. Any serious productivity app will include a URL scheme; they provide an ideal entry point for automation.

Notebooks comes loaded with a number of helpful URLs. It could potentially do more, but the bases are covered for common workflows. The scheme is both simple to understand, and well documented. I have various workflows, and launchers setup using the Notebooks sche

Here are some examples for download. Some will work as they are, while some require minor tweaks for your own purposes.

Workflow Shortcuts

You can set these up as action extensions, or invoke them from a widget in the today view. If you hold any concerns about workflows in the new Shortcuts app. Fear not, the following workflows will still be valid when iOS 12 comes along, and Notebooks includes support for Siri 

Reading List Workflow

This simple workflow was published in a post with a couple of other tips recently. To summarise, it is a way of archiving links, articles, or PDFs into a Notebooks task list. You can do the same thing using drag and drop. Check out that earlier post for more, or download the workflow below.

Download: Reading List Workflow

nb. To make this work you either need to create a Notebook called Reading List and set it as a task list in Notebooks. Or, you need to adjust URL in workflow to include a notebook of your own. This workflow can also be adjusted to choose from multiple task list. Again, you will need to change the list to suit your own needs

Download: Notebooks Add to List

Notebooks Markdown Web Clipper

How to take web clippings is usually the first question from Evernote users. There are a couple of ways to address that. If you simply want to import web pages, then Notebooks is thoroughly integrated with iOS system APIs. The Safari extension works perfectly. The same is true of the Notebooks Bookmarklet, which can also be used in third-party browsers. Notebooks settings can also be tweaked for the grab function to save either web archives, or flat HTML files.

If you’re only grabbing text, and you want something cleaner, I have created a Notebooks MD Clipper using Brett’s Marky Markdown API. This approach also has the advantage of being more judicious. As excellent as the Evernote web clipper is, I find it to be a blunt tool that makes it too easy to fill up a database with nonsense. Nowadays I keep my bookmarks at Pinboard.in, and DEVONthink, and only import what I need into Notebooks. This workflow is ideal for the job.

Download:  Notebooks MD Clipper Workflow

Notebooks Wiki Style Links

Notebooks internal linking makes for detailed internal note structure. I have done something similar with DEVONthink in the past, but it works particularly well in Notebooks. The first step is to copy the internal link of the note you want to link to, you do that by swiping gently left on the appropriate title in document tree. From there you can use the workflow in one of two ways, either run it from the today view widget, or type and select your anchor text to run the workflow inline — see the screenshot below.

Ios Note Taking Automation Internal Linking
Swiping left on the document tree, you can copy an internal link to the clipboard.
Ios Note Taking Automation Inline Workflow
To run this workflow inline, select the text you want to to use for the link and hit share. You can also run it from the widget in the today view

Download Workflow:  Notebooks Wiki Links

Notebooks Launcher

If you have a lot of workflows accumulating, it can be useful to setup a launcher to act as a kind of folder. As you will see below, I prefer to use Launch Center Pro myself. But for anyone wanting to keep it all in one app, this can help organise things. You can also use an app like Launcher or Magic Launcher, both are very good at what they do.

Download: Notebooks Launcher Workflow

Launch Center Pro

Ios Note Taking Automation
Setup launchers for common workflows in Launch Center Pro

It seems strange to suggest it, but Launch Center Pro (LCP) is something of a forgotten entity these days. You don’t hear much about it in the age of Workflow. Yet it remains an incredibly useful tool, and has always been an effective way to learn URL scheme automation. Even more useful is the integration with Textexpander. Snippets can be expanded in URLs directly, or via your abbreviations in a prompt. For example, I have a launcher setup to search my notes, along with numerous abbreviations for common names and subjects in my thesis. The launcher presents a search window, where I can type an abbreviation to quickly find notes. I have another that adds a new note, and uses Textexpander to set the current date as title.

Download Launch Center Pro actions:

Append to Notes — This launcher presents a list of pre-existing notes to append text to. To make it work you will need to edit the URL to include the names of your own notes.

Notebooks Search — Presents a search prompt

Add New Note with Date — Adds a new note with the current date as title. Requires Textexpander

Drafts 5 Actions

If you’re a Drafts 5 user, the Notebooks URL scheme makes it simple to setup your own Drafts Actions. If you’re just getting started, I have uploaded some actions to the Drafts 5 Action Directory:

Drafts 5: Notebooks Select — To use this for your own purposes, you will need to change the button prompts in the first step to include titles for your own notes.

Drafts 5: Add New Note to Notebooks — Adds a new note to your default notebook with the first line as title, and the body of the draft as the note. This will work without changes.

Wish List

As you can see, the Notebooks URL scheme includes everything you need to built automation into your common note taking workflows. It is not quite as deep as the URL scheme you find in Bear, or Ulysses. To be fair, I can’t see much use for automating visual elements like fonts and theme changes, but I would like to see a few things added.

Adding support for the x-callback protocol would open Notebooks up to bidirectional automation. At present the URL scheme is focused inward. If Notebooks were able to return data via URL, it would allow users to pull data out for all kinds of inventions. There are no doubt more pressing features on the road map, but putting these things out there is how we see our favourite apps improve over time.

 

Note Taking, Research and Organisation with Notebooks iOS

Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students And Academics

* This is part one of a two part feature on Alfons Schmid's Notebooks app.  Part two covers automation using the Notebooks URL Scheme

Unique Features in Notebooks App For Students And Academics

Alfons Schmid's Notebooks app has been on my list of essential apps since I started this site. I’ve since written about it a number of times, and included it among the highlights of last year.  I consider it one of the best note taking apps for iPad,  especially for students and academics.  The combination of writing and organisational tools make Notebooks uniquely suited to research. It has features you won't find in other note taking apps.  The following highlights some of the functionality in Notebooks that make it so useful.  1 For expediency sake I have broken this in two parts, with the first covering features suited to academic workflows, and a followup post covering automating Notebooks with Workflow and Drafts 5.

I recently highlighted the way I use the task management feature of Notebooks, along with its URL scheme to organise reading lists. Notebooks has numerous other features suited to academic work,  here are some of the highlights.

Dual Document Viewer

The minimalism of the iOS operating system is one of the iPad’s strengths. Whether by design, or by accident it encourages focused work. However, from time to time it can lead you to a dead end. One such problem is the inability to run multiple instances of any given app. In practice that usually means finding a workaround for a common research and writing workflow. I’m talking about viewing and editing two discreet documents at the same time.

The ability to view two documents concurrently is often necessary for academic work. Studying the contents of one document for comparison or analysis, while writing in another. Incorporating comments and feedback, or simple proofing. If you do any serious research based writing, eventually you will want a solution for this. This has become a notorious pain point on the iPad that very few apps address. Multitasking has soothed the pain somewhat. Opening documents in two different apps has become the de facto workaround, but you shouldn’t need to.

 

Notebooks Best Note Taking App For Study
Notebooks is one of only few apps available on iPad that can view and edit two documents at the same time

 

Notebooks has an elegant solution via the 2up button. A swipe gesture on any given file from the document tree will open a second document in split screen. Even more useful is the long list of document types supported, including plain text documents, Markdown, PDF, iWork, Office, RTF and HTML documents as well as images, movies, web archives or email messages. Scrivener is the only other app I know of that does this, from experience Notebooks does a better job by affording both documents equal screen real estate. 2

Customisable Keyboard Navigation

Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students And Academic

Notebooks has extensive keyboard shortcuts for everything from document creation and navigation, to time stamping and revealing word counts. I recently heard it suggested one of the qualifiers for a professional app on iPad is keyboard control. Notebooks has this covered, and then some. The pro touch for me is the ability to edit your own keys in the iOS shortcuts bar. Keys can be edited to insert practically anything, including a special function that adds whitespace where the cursor will land. Any matched punctuation pair can be setup using the same function.

 

Note Taking App For Students And Academic
Notebooks comes with predefined sets of keyboard shortcuts, and users can define their own custom keys

This is one of those little touches that are more useful that you even realise at first. For example, I use standard Biblatex citation keys for use with Zotero, so I setup a shortcut key that places an @ symbol between square brackets, using an ellipsis 3 in the middle. Tapping the key types the characters, while placing the cursor in the middle. I can then type my memorised key to signify the text I am working with. The keyboard shortcut looks like this: [@…]. I have further keys set for markup with various HTML tags. I could go on, the keyboard functionality extends much further than this.

Audio and Video Recordings

Audio notes are huge if you’re studying or researching. Whether its lectures, or dictated memos 4, cataloguing them in your general notebook gives them a frame of reference. If you use a separate app for recording audio, the files are often stored without context. If you’re conscientious about naming files this can work, but nothing is more irritating than listening through the start of multiple recordings to find what you need. The same is true of video, which is rightly becoming a more recognised reference material.

Best Ipad Note Taking App For Students
Notebooks can display visual files in its dual document viewer, making it possible to review recording while taking notes

 

Note taking from Audio Visual material is another way to make good use of Notebooks dual document support. Invoking the spit view is not limited to text, so reviewing material while taking notes can be done without needing to open another app.

Structure Content with Contexts and Smart Books

Something that drew me immediately to Notebooks was the flexibility for organising data. There are powerful tools for creating structure without locking users into any predetermined method. The notebook metaphor can be maintained or subverted if you want to use the app as a file manager.

Contexts are a concept taken from the popular GTD method for organisation. I’m not big on the idea of totalising one’s life as a productivity machine, but the idea of contexts can provide a useful way to delineate different areas of work. In practice contexts are uniquely useful for structuring notes and other content. When used with Notebooks smart lists, contexts can provide the basis for compiling a finished project.

Document Processor and Compiler:

Notebooks can process text in a number of ways. Individual texts, and books can form the basis of sections for much larger documents. I have extolled the virtues of plain text enough on this site, but it bares repeating. Plain text is future proof, adaptable and resilient. The underlying engine of Notebooks is built on these foundations.

The plain text philosophy means Notebooks uses HTML for formatting, so with a little CSS, users can create custom styles from which Notebooks can compile PDF documents and ebooks. If that sounds difficult, it’s really not. It comes with a selection of style sheets to get you started, including one with MathJax support. 5 Using HTML means granular control over the finished product,

There is also a kind of neat symmetry here for anyone who knows the history HTML. The original Hypertext Markup Language was built for exactly this reason, as a standard for sharing research documents. This appeals to me as both an academic, and an unashamed geek.

PDF Annotations

The Notebooks app has the popular PSPDFKit framework available for PDF reading and annotation. This is the same framework used by Evernote, and DEVONthink, and includes thorough pencil support. On top of the deep annotation capabilities, the PSPDFkit framework provides nice page turning animations that give the app a more natural feel when working with PDF documents.

This particular feature s available via an in-app purchase, which like the app itself is inexpensive. The PDF viewer costs US$4.49. 6

Bonus Features

Windows version

This might not seem a big deal for iOS and Mac users, but Windows is everywhere. Apple users tend to forget this. Microsoft devices have improved dramatically recently, and there are plenty of other reasons for cross pollinating platforms.

Private Wifi Syncing and WebDAV support

I would like to see Notebooks add iCloud, and support for the iOS Files App, but the existing syncing options work well. Particularly pleasing is the consideration for privacy coded into the app via the Wifi option. If you have good reason for avoiding Dropbox, syncing can be managed across a local network. WebDAV support means Notebooks can also be synced via Synology and other private cloud solutions.

The Question of Handwriting

Handwriting Companion For Notebooks App
Until Notebooks has handwriting support, GoodNotes' on the fly OCR and excellent drag and drop support make it the ideal handwriting companion

Devices like the iPad Pro are finally delivering on the long promise of matching the cognitive advantages of handwriting to digital convenience. At the same time, where handwriting recognition and inking engines have improved out of sight, the apps that deliver these tools can be limited. As such, I have come to think of handwriting apps as an interface for capturing notes. Notes ultimately end up elsewhere, in Notebooks, DEVONthink, or Keep-It.

I have flipped between Notability, MyScript Nebo, and GoodNotes for handwriting. Nebo unquestionably has the best handwriting recognition, but the app hasn’t had much attention 7. Notability is a good self contained app if you can work with its limitations. However, I have returned to GoodNotes since it started generating searchable notes on the fly. Between the now instant OCR, and one of the best drag and drop implementations, GoodNotes is currently my favourite handwriting companion for Notebooks. Once a note is written, I open Notebooks and drag it from GoodNotes in slide over. The notes are preserved perfectly with the searchable layer.

Handwriting is the most obvious missing feature of Notebooks at present, but it’s likely to be added in a future version. If and when that happens, this already excellent tool will become a bonafide killer app. Until then, I still recommend it as a better place to store handwritten notes, and GoodNotes has the most compatible feature set right now.

Final Remarks

I say final, there is another post following with Workflow and url scheme automation. Despite this relatively lengthy post, there remains a lot I haven’t covered. Nonetheless, I believe these highlights make Notebooks, in my opinion, the best general purpose note taking app on iPad for academic use. There is room for improvement, no doubt. I expect that handwriting will arrive at some point, and while the hooks are already deep in iOS further integration

I have a final superficial qualifier. If I am going to spend any amount of time working in an app, I want it to look good. No problems here, the understated minimalism and use of whitespace make Notebooks a handsome app.

 

 

  1. The scope of the article covers iOS. However, Notebooks is cross platform, with excellent versions on macOS and Windows.
  2. Liquid Text has function for working with two documents, but it work vertically. Besides, Liquid Text is a world unto itself, so a subject for another time,
  3. As opposed to dictating notes to text
  4. If you know what MathJax is, chances are you have no problem with editing a few lines of HTML
  5. I’ll be honest, I wish the app cost more since I have come to reply on it. Given what it can do, I feel it is seriously under priced.
  6. It seems to get more buggy as iOS is incrementally updated.

Giveaway: Notebooks iOS for Writing and Research

best note taking app for study

For more detailed content on Notebooks:


Notebooks Giveaway *

I have spent more trying out note taking apps that I would like to admit. You could say I’m picky. Through all the trialing and testing, one app stands out for combining almost everything I want in a note taking app with a number of features I hadn’t even thought of. That app is Notebooks. The more I use it, the more I am convinced Notebooks is the best note taking app for study, research and academic work.

My enthusiasm for Notebooks is its own reward, so it’s a huge bonus to have that enthusiasm met with generosity. The developer of Notebooks, Alfons Schmid, is kindly offering readers of The Appademic the chance to pick up one of ten free copies of Notebooks for iOS.

Notebooks Best Note Taking App For Study
Notebooks has the ability to view and edit two documents at once

Aside from being an excellent general purpose notebook, Notebooks has a host of features uniquely suited to academic work and study — or any kind of research for that matter. I recently highlighted the way I use Notebooks’ task management, and URL scheme features to collect material, and organise reading lists. I have a more detailed review on the way, which will include more worklows that make use of Notebooks' unique features. In the meantime, if you are unfamiliar with the app here are some of the highlights.

  • Markdown support
  • Deep URL scheme automation
  • Internal linking for wiki notes or zettelkasten
  • Support for almost any document type you can think of
  • Private Wifi syncing, WebDAV or Dropbox
  • Future proofed by plain text and html
  • Document processor, ebook compiler and PDF converter
  • Task Management, including GTD contexts
  • Integration with OmniFocus, Things 3, Todoist, 2Do and more
  • TextExpander
  • Customisable keyboard
  • Customisable style sheets
  • PDF annotation and sketching
  • Voice memos

Notebooks is a powerful tool with a clean, and slick interface. It is easily one of my favourite apps on the iPad. It is the best note taking app I have found for my own purposes.  If you want a chance to pick up a copy, signup for the Appademic Mailing list below. If you are already a subscriber, you’re in the draw already. The draw will close on Friday 24th of August, and winners notified via email.  There are 10 copies to be won.

nb. *Sorry this giveaway has now ended. However, developers occasionally donate promotional licenses to The Appademic, and subscribers to the mailing list are automatically included in all future giveaways. You can signup for the mailing under the menu on the left,   ⟵ That Way

Notebooks Among the Excellent Apps in Back to School Sale

best productivity apps for iPhone iPad and Mac

The annual back to school sale from European Independent developer collective, 12★apps, has a few days to run. If you haven’t heard of 12 Star Apps, it is a promotional initiative by a group of European developers who make some of the best productivity apps for iPhone, iPad, and Mac. They run promotions at specific times throughout the year where each developer offers a discount of up to 80% for their apps.

The collection includes some of the best apps I know of for study or research. Among the highlights are the excellent research notebook Findings, flash card revision app Studies, and what I consider to be the best digital mind-mapping tool, MindNode. You can also pick up a copy of Prizmo, which has long been one of the most powerful and accurate OCR scanners on any platform, including iOS where Prizmo Go is the tool I use to automate capture of book sections and other research material.

All of the above are excellent apps, with generous discounts, but the title in the collection that truly stands out for me is the wonderful note-taking, document management and productivity powerhouse Notebooks, by Alfons Schmid. I have written about Notebooks a couple of times on this site, and I have some more content on the way. I recently posted a workflow for creating reading lists on iOS, and after corresponding with the developer I am excited for the app’s future.

During the Back to School Promotion, Notebooks is available from the App Store on iOS for $US3.99, and macOS for $US8.99. Trust me, these are absurdly low prices for such a powerful piece of software. If you do decide to pick up a copy, check back here over the next couple of weeks as I post a few tips on how to get the most out of it.

The list of other apps and their respective discounts can be found at the 12★apps site.

Creating Smart Reading Lists on iOS with Notebooks

Ios Workflow Notebooks Tasklist Reading

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

Ios Workflow Notebooks Reading List
The Notebooks URL scheme is simple to use, and does a great job of importing multiple data types

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.

You can download the workflow here

Notebooks Drag and Drop

Notebooks Best Note Taking Ipad
Multitasking with drag and drop makes collecting articles 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.

Best note taking apps for college
Using a shelf app like Gladys gives you a chance to triage material before it is adding to the list

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.

  1. I’m joking, you beautiful nerd you.

iCloud Sync for DEVONthink

Devonthink Icloud Sync

If I had to name a single app that holds my workflows together across macOS and iOS, it would be DEVONthink. I have tried many other solutions for the problems it solves, with varying degrees of success. I was an Evernote user for some time, but privacy issues, proprietary document formats, and a variety of other concerns were enough to turn me away. Other tools have come and gone, Eagle Filer is probably the closest thing I have come across to 1, but the more you peel back the layers of DEVONthink the more you you understand why all those nerds were telling you to try it out in earnest. 2

For a long time a superficial reticence towards the DEVONthink interface kept me away from it. Once I finally gave function a rare victory over form, it didn’t take long to realise what I had been missing. That is not to say I have no desire to see changes to DEVONthink. A little self-preservation has started to inform my desire to see the user interface refreshed. One gets a sense the DEVONthink user-base is strong and loyal, and the longevity of the company no doubt owes a lot to the maturity of the software. However, I worry that too many potential users are missing out a powerful application for superficial reasons. And, who knows, those potential users might be needed to ensure the sustainability of software that I would now hate to do without.

Adding iCloud Sync

One immediate wish I had for DEVONthink has recently been granted with the addition of iCloud sync. This is a great news for a number of reasons, with the most obvious also related to usability. The iOS version, DEVONthink to Go has been a revelation, both as an advance research tool for iPad and iPhone, but also in terms of advancing the usability of DEVONthink in general.

DEVONthink’s sync end-to-end encryption is one of my favourite features. I even suggested it as a hack for syncing encrypted data to iOS via Dropbox. The one area it fell down was the lack of iCloud support. That was understandable, given iCloud drive hasn’t always had a stellar reputation for package data, but things have changed.

Setting up iCloud sync for DEVONthink is simple; which is the whole point. A user generated encryption key is still required to ensure end-to-end encryption, but there is none of the other rigmarole required for other cloud services. That means no need to nominate a sync-store name, no mucking around with server addresses or usernames. If you already have other sync-store setup, you can either disable them, or consider them redundancy. It’s not quite the same as a backup, but certainly can’t hurt.

 

Icloud Sync Devonthink Ios
iCloud Sync for DEVONthink with end-to-end encryption

 

If you have complex research and retrieval needs, or your simply a ditital pack rat. I cannot recommend DEVONthink enough.   One of these days I will write it up in detail. Until then, I suspect the iOS version might be a good gateway drug for a potential user. You can read a little about that version here.

  1. Eagle Filer is an excellent piece of software, but doesn’t have the same intelligence as DEVONthink, or an iOS version.
  2. You can count me among them now

Secure Email Client Canary Mail Joins Setapp

Canary Mail Setapp.png

Subscription App Store, Setapp, is one of the first things I recommend new Mac new users these days. From inception, the apps included in a membership were always impressive. Setapp can meet the software needs of a large majority of Mac users, and the collection is constantly improving. The latest improvement is the addition of excellent, security focused email client Canary Mail.

Setapp’s other email clients don’t work for me. Boxy looks pretty, but it’s designed for Gmail, and I gave that vice up some time ago. Unibox is a contact focused client, which might be useful if your workflow is focused on particular people. but doesn’t work for a curmudgeon like myself.

Canary’s thing is security. It makes encryption more user friendly by integrating with the MIT and Keybase servers. End-to-end encryption is automated when both sender and recipient are Canary users, or can be initiated manually when sending to other clients. It is probably worth reiterating the point in my post yesterday, about the recently discovered PGP and S/MIME exploit. Using encryption is simply a good habit, and something an app like Canary can help with. However, nobody should be relying on email for genuinely sensitive information. If you need serous encryption for messaging, use Signal. But, securing the content of your mail is not the only security concern with email clients.

Protect yourself from Email tracking with Canary

A feature I really appreciate in Canary is the ability to block email trackers. With all the talk of web tracking, I’m surprised I don’t see more about the tracking that goes on in email clients. While an extension of what happens on the web at large, email tracking is potentially worse for violating privacy. A 2017 paper from Princeton University researchers revealed the extent of the problem.

About 29% of emails leak the user’s email address to at least one third party when the email is opened, and about 19% of senders sent at least one email that had such a leak. The majority of these leaks (62%) are intentional. If the leaked email address is associated with a tracking cookie, as it would be in many webmail clients, the privacy risk to users is greatly amplified. Since a tracking cookie can be shared with traditional web trackers, email address can allow those trackers to link tracking profiles from before and after a user clears their cookies. If a user reads their email on multiple devices, trackers can use that address as an identifier to link tracking data cross-device

It goes on, if you want to read the whole paper you can find it here.

Beyond Image Tracking

The most common form of tracking is via invisible pixels. This is why I advocate for switching off the ‘load remote images’ setting in whatever email client you use. The problem is, blocking images is a blunt tool, it can render some email unreadable. Canary is smart about blocking only the tracker pixel, so it doesn’t ruin the design of html email. Using Canary in conjunction with something like 1Blocker can mitigate many of the concerns raised about leaking your personal data via the seemingly innocent act of opening a newsletter.

I am pleased to see Canary turn up on Setapp. I struggle to see how the proliferation of single-app subscriptions is sustainable in the long run. The outrage might have died down, but the fatigue is starting set in. Macpaw’s setup is smart, it shows in the quality of the software they are offering. I cannot recommend it enough. Especially when a 50% discount for students means over a hundred apps are available for US$5 a month.

If you have no need for the full suite, Canary Mail is also available direct from the Appstore on both macOS, and iOS.

Some Brief Thoughts on Things 3 vs Todoist

Things 3 better than Todoist

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.

 

best task manager for macOS and iOS
Things 3 includes very basic natural language parsing for dates

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.

Subtleties

Things 3 better than Todoist
Subtle design elements make Things 3 a pleasure to use

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.

Data Security

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.

  1. Unless I can recommend a good book
  2. For one thing, it is the first task manager that hasn’t found a way to truly annoy me.

App Highlights: Best iPhone Apps 2017

Best iPhone Apps 2017 Photography

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.

Advancing Interaction

Telegram Messenger

Best Iphone Apps 2017 Telegran
iMessage has a way to go before it can match Telegram’s growing network of automated bots

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.

Keybase

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

Apollo

Best Iphone Apps 2017 Apollo
Apollo is probably the best client for Reddit ever made

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

Day In, Day Out

Streaks

Best Iphone Apps 2017 Streaks
Streaks limits the number of habits you can track at once

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.

Weather Line

Best Iphone Apps 2017 Weatherline
Weatherline is exactly want I want from a weather app, clean, simple, and fast to read.

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. 3 Weather 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.

Capture and Feeds

Drafts

Best Iphone Apps 2017 Drafts
I have tried many different notes apps, but I always end up back at Drafts

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.

Just Press Record

Best Iphone Apps 2017 Just Press Record
Just Press Record is the the app that Apple's own Memo's should have been

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.

Lire

Best Iphone Apps 2017 Lire
Lire’s granular full text caching, and clean readability make it an ideal foil for Feedly’s shortcomings.

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.

ProCamera

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.

VUE

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.

1 Second Everyday

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.

Momento – GIF Maker

I don’t care how you pronounce it, GIFs are lot of fun. Even more so when you can make your own. I also have a lot of family on Android who don’t know what a Live Photo is.

Musical Play Time

Samplebot

Best Iphone Apps 2017 Samplebot
The playful, rainbow coloured interface of Samplebot belies a neat, self-contained package of sound-mingling fun.

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.

Groovebox

Best Iphone Apps 2017 Groovebox
If you ever wanted to make some beats but didn’t know how, Groovebox will get you started

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.

  1. And still it feels indecent
  2. It’s worth repeating, Keybase takes a social approach that involves verifying identity, it is not an anonymous service.
  3. The next time you see a news cast with a world map in the background, see if you can find New Zealand. That is, if you already know where it should be.
  4. Where they are getting their data from for this part of the world is still a mystery
  5. The transcription says “I wouldn’t recommend dictating your faces to it”. I actually said “dictating your thesis”
  6. Like the dictionary, if you can believe that.