If Notebooks isn’t best note taking app for iPad, it is definitely the most underrated. If you're looking for a markdown notes app, a writing app, or a document storage container with a few unique tricks, you won’t find many better. Part notebook, part storage locker, and part GTD task management system. That might sound like a janky combination, but not only does it work well, it looks pretty too. It has been around for a while, so in lieu of a comprehensive review, I want to highlight a particular feature I haven’t seen anywhere else. The ability to turn notes into tasks.
If you have a lot of reading to keep up with from a variety of sources, this is very handy. For planning and tracking big reading projects I still use TaskPaper on macOS, with its counterpart TaskMator on iOS. That system works well, with the outliner style lists making it easy to break up books, journals and so on with due dates. Using Notebooks has a distant advantage over that system, as it can collect the reading material itself. Web pages, notes, PDF documents, Word files, you can read them all directly in Notebooks. It will even let you index epub files to open in a third-party reader, like Marvin. Remember, at its core this is note taking app, while reading you can highlight text, make annotations, take clippings, and more. You can also take notes.
Notebooks Reading List Workflow
This is a simple idea that in practice will help keep track of reading lists, note revisions, or really anything text based. It’s true you can fashion a similar system by chaining apps like DEVONthink and Things 3 together. To my mind this is more elegant, or at least less confusing.
It works like this. As I collect reading material, I drop it into a Notebook that has been setup as a task list. When I’m on the clock I can setup due dates, reminders and so on. More importantly, I can tick items off as I go, meaning a quick visual guide is available to measure progress. It’s easy enough to use Notebooks’ share extension for this — or bookmarklets on the Mac — but there are two alternative methods I prefer. First, Notebooks has a very hand URL scheme which is clever about capturing all kinds of data, which makes setting up a custom action extension for Workflow trivial.
The Workflow action above is especially handy on the iPhone, but the iPad has another option that is easier still. Notebooks has excellent support for the drag and drop feature of iOS 11. So if you don’t fancy using Workflow, you can use multitasking to simply drag links and files directly into a reading list. Or, you can use something like the excellent shelf app Gladys to hold the material you collect before dropping it into Notebooks later. Gladys now has a Mac version too, which adds some continuity to the workflow.
Among the Best Note Taking Apps
If you follow this site, you probably know by now that all my data ends up in DEVONthink, one way, or another. Whatever passes through Notebooks still ends up there, but DEVONthink’s super power is search. It has passable editing and annotation tools, but I prefer doing the interactive work before it ends up in what is essentially a personal research database. For a lot of users Notebooks might even be enough. While the task management features were no doubt conceived for GTD nerds, they end up making Notebooks among the best note taking apps for college, or university users. The caveat being it's not a handwriting app. In fact if anything holds it back, that would be it. I would get around that by using Nebo as a capture tool myself, they complement each other well.
If DEVONthink’s not your jam, or you’re looking to replace Evernote with something private and local, Notebooks is a handsome and feature rich app. It has relative feature parity across macOS, and iOS, and a lot of unexpected touches. GTD purists could configure tickler files, and contexts until their head is sufficiently empty of all that arduous, excess thought. 1. It can even run its own local WebDAV server for private local sync. It sounds strange, but it’s really not.
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.
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.
Eagle Filer is an excellent piece of software, but doesn’t have the same intelligence as DEVONthink, or an iOS version. ↩
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.
Everybody’s talking about Things 3. Now that I’m on the bandwagon, here is my take on what makes it presently the best task manager for macOS and iOS — for me at least. Inevitably this mean comparison with what I turned over along the way. Running pathological optimism means I’ve tried them all, but Todoist got left behind this time round. I’m not here to run that app down, it remains excellent for many reasons — maybe even better in ways that don’t matter to my workflow. But, should you be wondering, is Things 3 better than Todoist, perhaps this will be useful.
Todoist or not Todoist
I‘ve only been using Things 3 for a few months. In truth, I’m generally suspicious of trends, so I tried to avoid it while I still had good reason to. Even if I’m only making excuses, I need more than new and shiny. Thankfully, a genuine reason presented itself when my Todoist subscription was up for renewal. The cost of renewing that sub wasn’t much less than buying the Things 3 suite outright. Between the annually recurrent cost, and various Todoist annoyances, it was worth kicking the tyres. As it turned out, a trial on macOS convinced me to jump.
Initially there were two features I missed from Todoist. I’m over them both already. First, the API allowed me to use Zapier, and/or IFTTT for various automations. Second is the natural language parsing for task entry. At least I missed that until I realised it’s either a bonhomie for laziness, or an easy way to fill up a task list with lots of nonsense you’ll never do. Never mind that with a keyboard the difference in keystrokes is minimal. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to see better natural language support added to Things 3 — it does include some basic date parsing abilities — but it doesn’t come close to being the show stopper I thought it might. If anything, the relative slowdown — minimal as it is — helps add a little more deliberation into the process.
To the first point, with native automation Cultured Code has made significant inroads to mitigate some of the abilities lost by not having an API. By all accounts, the recent addition of a deep, and flexible URL scheme is just the beginning, with other innovations on the way.I would argue that inter-app automation is not just as useful, but in some ways more relevant. The automation I used most would automatically copy editorial tasks to Trello. I was able to create an analogue of that on iOS, using Workflow. Anyone who complains about the ‘extra step’ of pushing a button could look out the window once in a while.
Native inter-app automation breaks dependence on the web. In the process it cuts back the surface area of data-sharing with third-parties. More than that, there is an immediacy to working locally that allows for sharing rich data. Being able to delineate notes, mind maps, or outlines into actions opens up all kinds of possibility for continuity. Particularly for a writing workflow. This makes a lot of sense for academic work, research, and writing. Or for any other kind of work that includes creative planning.
It’s true the barrier to entry for URL based automation is a little higher than web automation. It’s not that it’s difficult to grasp, more that building the links themselves can be tedious. Cultured Code appear wise to this, having created a link building tool on their website. With nothing left to miss, one can enjoy all the benefits delivered by clever design choices, and opinionated simplicity. Ironically, my biggest concern over both those features was the possibility for double handling and time wasting. And yet, Things 3 is both an app I would rather spend time using, and one I don’t have to.
While these new automation features are getting all the attention right now, it’s a couple of subtle, but significant design choices that make Things 3 so effective. I found the flexibility of Todoist equal parts powerful and beguiling. Getting the most from it requires one to configure projects, labels, and priorities to facilitate query filters built around those different pieces of metadata. If you get it right you can contextualise your workload with extremely specific queries. This is a major strength if you need that kind of detail, however, with so much configuring, and fiddling to get it right, it can also be a headache. I never felt like I had it configured very well, so the temptation to reconfigure always hovered.
Things 3 is completely different. I'm not going to run through all of its features, there are better places for that. For my money, what makes Things 3 worth recommending is a couple of subtleties that mean I spend less time managing my task list.
The first touch is indicative of the user experience in general. The way Things 3 handles the inbox. Processing is simple, a task only requires one touch for removal from view. If all you ever want to do is put due dates on your tasks, Things 3 will consider them processed and essentially remove them from view, until the day they require actioning. If you’re wired to slowly disintegrate when faced with growing clutter, this is priceless. Most task mangers have some kind of filtered view to show you only the tasks you need to see, but they all require a lot more interaction. Things 3 is designed to cut back on over-processing by making it extremely simple to get a hold on what needs doing. In that way it’s the opposite of Todoist, but that doesn’t mean it is without flexibility.
The emphasis in the Things 3 user experience is on aesthetics. As a method for task management, it leans on visual organisation. Elements like headings, tags, and manual ordering, can be employed in the myriad ways. They can even constitute productivity systems favoured by nerds. On the flipside, Things offers enough customisation to avoid forcing users into an inflexible, or totalising system. Configuration requires little fuss if simplicity is your thing. Or, the various organisational delimiters apply to whatever bespoke version of getting things done you run with.
With this app being written about so much, I might surprised to have hardly seen security mentioned, if it weren’t for the fact this is an area that very little light is shined on in general with task managers. Given I was using Todoist, it would be a little rich to take Things 3 to task over security holes. I would argue that Todoist does the minimum required for data security; they could do more. While the mechanics are similar, it's a fact that Things 3 is better than Todoist on security. Cultured Code use better encryption, and provide better insight into what they are doing. Nonetheless, the proprietary syncing would be dramatically improved with client side encryption.
From a personal point of view — and this was the same stance I had with Todoist — should anyone hack them, my own task list would not be the most exciting or revelatory reading. Unfortunately, in taking this stance I’m part of the problem, as it overlooks the importance of data security in general. Users so commonly make these kinds of compromises, we excuse developers from making improvements. Who can blame them for focusing on the squeeky door? A little more noise would go a long way to ensuring security standards are improved more generally.
Cultured Code suggests they may add client side encryption ‘at a later time’, I would add that it is on users to ensure they do that by making clear it is necessary. This remains an opportunity for them, especially considering the OmniGroup are setting the standard for end-to-end encryption in their software. Which means, if you cannot afford to compromise on security at all, I would recommend using OmniFocus. With all the changes coming this year, OmniFocus is worth keeping an eye on. Should they drastically improve the user experience, the security factor will have me sorely tempted to jump again. In the meantime, if you’re using Things 3, know that your data is pretty secure, but not that secure.
Is Things the best Task Manager for macOS and iOS?
That seems to be the question everyone wants answered, but changing your task manager for the sake of it is madness. Unless it’s your hobby, in which case I can’t help you. 1 If you have something that is working well for you nEverybody’s talking about Things 3. Now that I’m on the bandwagon, here is my take on what makes it presently the best task manager for macOS and iOSow, I’m an advocate for the ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage. On the other hand, if you’re struggling with an unnecessarily complex setup, or software that ends up being another thing to manage, you could do a lot worse than give Things 3 a look. It is being talked about with good reason. 2 If you have never used a task manager before, choosing the right one can be confusing, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this to new users.
For my own purposes, right now Things 3 is the best task manager for macOS and iOS. While not perfect by any means, it manages to walk the fine line between simplicity, and customisation. Again, my aim is not to deride Todoist, nothing has stopped it bearing the standard for cross platform support, collaboration, and web automation. But, if you’re already half way out the door, in many ways I have found Things 3 better than Todoist.
For macOS users, a free trial for Things 3 is available, or you can pick it up on the Mac App Store. Unfortunately, the iOS app is not universal, so you do have to buy seperate apps for iPhone and iPad. Although, that does mean if you want to try it out on iOS without going all in, you can purchase the cheaper iPhone version to get started.
Here we are again. It's probably obvious I don’t write this blog all day everyday. All the same, I would like to have gotten this out earlier than now. The first two posts in this little series — for the iPad, and then the Mac — had a more ‘productive’ focus. Essentially, they were about work of one sort or another. The iPhone is different. It’s not that I never use it for any kind of work, more that I find more value in the other things it enables. Not in a million years would I shell out the criminal cost of this device if it were not for the camera, and thankfully the fun doesn’t end there. 1 Among the best iPhone apps of 2017, these were personal highlights.
Yes, I use Telegram. It's still the best cross platform message platform, and a surprisingly effective means for sharing, and transferring media files. iMessage has a way to go before it can match Telegram’s growing network of automated bots. With one caveat, though. If much of what’s been written about Telegram’s encryption has been easily countered, should you have more serious encryption needs I would recommend Signal, or Keybase. I continue to enjoy the service Telegram would be dramatically improved by default end-to-end, standard public key encryption.
The Keybase app is a front end for a public key directory that provides both secure communication, and verification of identity. I have used the Signal messaging app on and off for years, and while I trust the encryption it has never had the greatest user experience. There is more going on with Keybase, but it does an admirable job of making nerdy protocol easier to use. The effort to demystify public-key cryptography is something we should do everything we can to promote.2
This also made the iPad list, it’s even better on the iPhone. Clever touches like the Jump Bar make Reddit a less masochistic experience than ever. Whether or not using Reddit more is good thing remains to be seen. Apollo is a showcase of good design; an advertisement for the Apple design guidelines
Gamification once seemed silly to me, then I got really sick. I have since tried all manner of ridiculous methods for forming new, and better habits. Or indeed to break old ones. This is the only app of its kind that has stuck. That it limits the number of habits you can track at once is part of its charm. Such sensible decisions run through the app. With Apple Health integration, Streaks has been a helpful form of pseudo-psychological trickery.
Getting accurate weather data where I live can be difficult. There are no Weather Underground stations close enough. For accuracy, we tend to use New Zealand’s own Met Service, and their abominable app — if we have to. For the purposes of gathering data, historically, we have been left off the map down here. 3Weather Line uses Dark Sky, 4 so data-wise it is a bit of a Hail Mary. And yet, the forecasting hasn’t been too bad. The app itself is exactly want I want from a weather app, clean, simple, and fast to read. This is single purpose design done properly.
I have tried many different notes apps, but I always end up back at Drafts. The fact that I can do so much with the text when I’m ready to process it makes it ideal. It says a lot about this app that despite how long it has been around, and despite how long I have used it, I still find new uses for it. Yet again, it has genuinely been a highlight.
Still my favourite vocal recorder on iOS. If you need a little more than the built-in memos app can offer, this is probably for you. It also has speech-to-text powers, which work about as well as anything else using iOS native dictation. As you can see from the screenshot, the results can be amusing.5 However, the transcription function is useful for searching recordings. Automated cloud storage is nice peace of mind for important recordings.
My frustrations with RSS clients are akin to those with email apps. I’d much rather be using RSS than email. I still like the layout of Feedly’s official client, the magazine aesthetic is a better reading experience than most RSS apps. Unfortunately, it is buggy, slow, and like a lot of web wrappers it can be really annoying on iOS. Worse, it doesn’t support basic native in-text functions of iOS 6. Lire’s granular full text caching, and clean readability make it an ideal foil for Feedly’s shortcomings.
Novel Shots and Momentos
As I mentioned at the outset, the camera is the reason I dream up excuses for owning this device. The native camera app is almost always good enough. If you're interested, the featured photo of this post was taklen with the native app. There is no filter, and no HDR, it is simply a point and shoot from my balcony one evening. Having said all that, innovation in mobile photography means there are still discoveries to be made. Among the best iPhone photography apps in 2017, these were the ones I got a kick out of.
With the range of impressive camera apps available for the iPhone, it can be difficult to know where to start, let alone where to land. Especially if your enthusiasm outmatches your knowledge. I could have chosen any number of apps, but if the challenge is to pick just one, this is it. Unlike a lot of other manual ‘power user’ cameras for the iPhone, ProCamera can shoot video. It also captures some the best HDR images I have seen.
If you haven’t heard of it, VUE is a montage video camera and editor. Even if what creates is nothing new, this app has always been a clever way to create short, and unique videos. Thankfully the developers have never given in to feature bloat. Changes, and new features have only ever enhanced the app.
It is possible this app appeals more to me as a parent than anything, but I wouldn’t write it off too quickly. It started life as a kind of memory experiment, which even became a TED talk. 1SE received some welcome attention for the iPhone X, adding — among other things — some automation for the nostalgic, but lazy, user. To be fair, I might fit the bill, if it weren’t for being a control freak too.
You might have come across Tasty Pixel’s clever Loopy app. If you haven’t, let Jimmy Fallon show you what it does. On the road to building a pro version of Loopy, Tasty Pixel released this ridiculously fun little app. As much as it is clever way of testing the looping engine, the playful, rainbow coloured interface of Samplebot belies a neat, self-contained package of sound-mingling fun.
There are so many amazing iOS music apps these days. I decided to highlight a couple of apps that absolutely anyone have some fun with, no matter how novice, or expert you might be. This kind of app is not new to iOS, we already have the likes of Figure and Auxy , and Focusrite’s own Blocs Wave. Yet, with Groovebox they really seem to have hit on the formula for accessible, semi-automated composition. Groovebox is free, but heavily extensible. If you ever wanted to make some beats but didn’t know how, this will get you started. Never mind the purists, this is what fun looks like.
Here come the lists, finally. I held off a little, given the ubiquity of listicles in the first few weeks of the year. That’s my excuse anyway. I considered revisiting the essentials list in its entirety, but decided to deliver something more concise with a take on the best iPad apps in 2017. Expect a more comprehensive resource when school’s back in below the equator. In the meantime, these are a few of the highlights from 2017, broken down by device. Starting with the iPad.
It might have started life as a companion, but DEVONthink to Go has helped break some of my Mac dependence over the past year. Even without some of the automated sorting the macOS app is known for, it houses a lot of neat tricks. Encrypted storage, intelligent search queries, url x-callback automation are some of the highlights. If you want to learn more about what it can do, I posted a detailed introduction here. The Appademic also happens to have five licenses up for grabs at the moment.
Only recently have I started to need tools like this. Now that I do, I can fully appreciate what an excellent piece of software this is. If learning the basics of Git is straightforward enough, it can just as easily be complicated by a messy client. Working Copy is easy to pickup, and a pleasure to use. It is now fully integrated with the Files app, supports drag and drop, and Markdown syntax highlighting . The excellent documentation means I fumble around in the dark a lot less. I have gone from thinking I had to be on a Mac to work with Git, to preferring my iPad so I can use this app.
While music is well served, iOS is still under developed as a professional audio platform. It borders on silly that the very platform to popularise podcasts, still lags when it coms to creating them. Much of the technology required for the necessary audio routing already exists, but hasn’t yet been applied. Ferrite is both uniquely focused on voice, and wonderfully tuned for touch interaction. If you’re doing any kind of interview work, podcasting, or voice capture on iOS, this is where to do it.
This is cheating a little. I’ve really only been using Things for a couple of months. I tried to avoid the bandwagon, but trialing it on macOS convinced me it was a better solution for me than Todoist. Although there are features of Todoist I miss, in the end it was overkill for my needs. Things doesn’t require as much tuning, and gets out of my way more. I have a more detailed account on the differences between Todoist and Things on the way soon. It made the list, because despite not using it long, it has been a positive change. The less time I use in an app like this the better.
Sometimes software can take care of annoying details in a way that makes you forget how the most trivial things can become annoying. Agile Bits introduced an ingenious innovation into their apps last year that auto-copies information. It makes logging into apps easier, when they haven’t bothered adding generic password extension. Even better, it auto-copies one-time passwords to automatically populate two-factor logins.
Writers are spoilt for choice on iOS now. I have pointed out a number of times what a good writing tool the iPad is. The user experience encourages the kind of focus that writing depends on, in a way a Mac does not.
I’d like to be more of a purist with plain text, but I finally succumbed to the charms of this app. While I’m pleased to have Scrivener on iOS, I don’t like that it only syncs with Dropbox, and the development is a little asymmetric with macOS. The same is not true of Ulysses. Admittedly, I use the apps quite differently, and my thesis ultimately resides in Scrivener. All other project based writing, long-form, or anything for this site, it’s all in Ulysses now. It’s also worth adding I find the Ulysses WordPress integration works so well now that I no longer need Workflow to fill that roll. I get access to Ulysses on both macOS, and iOS as a Setapp subscriber.
For composing anything that I consider singular, or outside of any ongoing project. For short work, or external editing of files from DEVONthink, and even for writing email at times. I use iA Writer. Writing in a different app can be a little like a change of scenery, sometimes it works at breaking the valve. There are a lot of good text editors on iOS, but none of them can match iA Writer for minimalism and typographic design. If you’ve never written in a plain text editor before, this is your gateway drug.
Until this turned up, I had all but stopped using Reddit on iOS. Apollo has quickly gained popularity, and with good reason. It is the first app of its kind to have a truly native user experience. Built by a former Apple insider with meticulous attention to detail, it is now the only way use Reddit. In the developer’s own words, ’the goal was to envision what a Reddit app would look like if Apple themselves built it.’ He nailed it.
The recently released version 5 added a number of nice touches to an already excellent app. I tend to gravitate more towards outlining than mind mapping, but digital mind mapping is now better than it’s ever been. With the faster refresh rate on the iPad Pro, the experience is much more tactile and enjoyable. After flipping between different apps for structured mind mapping, I have happily settled on this for now.
I’m no artist, but sometimes a truly blank page is the best place for scribbling ideas. In fact, a purist take on mind mapping would reject a purpose built app. A blank page, and something to mark it with, are all you need. I used to use the free Paper app, by Fifty Three for this, which is still more than up to the job. Linea is a delightfully restrained app. Minimal, responsive, and easy to use. If I have something to scribble, this is where it happens.
If you have an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil, Nebo ‘s handwriting recognition and ink engine is as good as it gets. The rate of development is a little disappointing, no doubt because this app is something of a showcase for the technology that underpins it. The way I use it, the handwriting recognition matters more than having features you find in apps like GoodNotes and Notability. Most, if not all of the digital handwriting I do at the moment happens in Nebo.
I mention this app often, and every time I try to categorise I feel I'm doing it an injustice. I’m including it again for under research, because that is ultimately how I use it. In reality, it’s a note-taking app first and foremost. Notebooks has a unique function that allows users to set anything it stores as a task. That means if I have a project that requires a specific reading list, I can add the documents to Notebooks and setup a reminder schedule. I then mark material off as I make my way through the list, and it remains in Notebooks. This feature alone makes Notebooks ideal for research and study.
By now this is getting boring, but it honestly was one of the most important apps I used last year. Perhaps because I finally feel I have started to get the hang of it. There is a way to go before I can start making paginated workflows, but I’m getting more out of this app than ever. By now it is so essential that I’m starting to understand the obsession about its future. One can only hope Apple’s acquisition of Workflow — and it’s clearly brilliant developers — means the future of iOS automation is bright.
Again, this is not a revelation. However, I’m putting Copied on the list because of how much it holds things together. Drag and drop has replaced some of its functionality, but I still rely on it a lot. Apple’s continuity can be flaky at times, and the iCloud clipboard just stops working for no apparent reason. Copied’s merge templates, and other automation features are excellent.
Yes, me too. I have tried a bunch of these shelf apps, it turns out this one is popular for a reason. At first I thought I wanted an app that supported multiple shelves, until I realised it would become another place gather unnecessary digital junk. It will no doubt be sherlocked eventually, but for now it does exactly what I need it to.
Scratching the Surface
The iPad has always been well covered for creative apps. Thinking of the best iPad apps 2017 produced, a couple come to mind that could be considered milestones for iOS.
I haven’t yet scratched the surface of this app, what little I have done with it has blown my tiny mind. Every now and then we get pitched an app that will supposedly push the iPad from recreational device to serious professional machine. Notwithstanding that fact that such developments are generally incremental, Affinity Photo taps much further into the potential of the hardware. In ambition at least, it is a genuinely professional app to rival desktop software.
The iPad has always been a brilliant music device, even if it remains underrated. I’ve gathered a silly number of music apps for iPad Pro. That you can still pick up digital instruments for a fraction of the price they cost on desktop computers is too hard to ignore. While I could highlight any number of impressive debuts from last year, if the goal is to name just one that stood out, for me it was Beatmaker 3. Intua have built the kind of hybrid digital audio workstation that feels uniquely suited to iOS. It has its quirks, but this app is epic fun.
There is a lot of conjecture around Panic’s move to step away from developing Transmit for iOS. It seems obvious by now that Apple has left a lot to be desired in their support of pro developers. Something is clearly askew when the App Store is a bandit enterprise, making more cash than a small Island nation. And yet, nobody is really surprised by this decision.
To state the bleeding obvious, developing for iOS is clearly a different game. Without crossing further into the politics, it’s a shame where developers were clearly ahead of the curve with pro features while the platform was still at odds with their apps. The irony being that only now are we starting to see genuine commitment to professional use on iOS from Apple, and once again we have developers moving in the opposite direction.
If you need the kind of file transfer features in Transmit. Viticci has some good alternative suggestions here. As ever, there are compromises, but then the same was true of the app in question.
None of the apps I covered above are “perfect”: each prioritizes different aspects of FTP connections and file transfers, whether it's design, support for dozens of services, or superior integration with iOS 11. Ideally, Transmit for iOS could have been all of this: a file transfer app based on Coda's beautiful design, with support for a plethora of services and iOS 11's latest APIs.
For now, I'm keeping Coda, iFiles, and FileBrowser on my iPad Pro because they all serve different purposes. If you absolutely need to pick just one, however, I suggest you ask yourself what aspect is most important for your iPad workflow – there is a lot of overlap between these three apps, but also clear differences in terms of design and functionality. If you know what you're looking for, choosing a Transmit replacement shouldn't be impossible these days.
Beyond the ruckus around content blockers to iOS, you will find plenty of legitimate reasons to employ them. Let’s face it, these days the internet is cesspool of malware masquerading as legitimate technology. Take one look at the doublespeak around intelligent tracking protection in Safari and you will get a sense of what is at stake. I won't delve into those arguments here. If you read this site regularly, you have a pretty good idea of where I stand.
No, this is not about tracking, but one of the internet’s other most beguiling annoyances. Since the advent of Webkit blocking, projects like Better by ind.ie have tried to work admirably at balancing the blocking of invasive web trackers, and other nefarious practices, with understanding the struggles of independent publishers.1 Yet, as the results are still opinionated the blocker decides what will be let through, and that is that. There is only one content blocker I know of that gives me the kind of control necessary to be considerate, while blocking out elements I'd rather not see. I’m talking about the dumpster fire of opinion found in most comments sections.
What I didn’t expect when I started using 1Blocker, was an interpretation of internet annoyances that dovetailed with my own. Out of the box 1Blocker blocks comments on websites. It’s not perfect, the mechanics of webkit blocking mean if you block comments, it blocks them everywhere. You’re guaranteed to find some of the most base, vulgar, and offensive baiting anywhere on the internet in comments sections. One way or another I would find myself reading comments, then trying to mitigate the ugly feelings I have about the world thereafter. Since installing 1Blocker , the internet hasn’t been nearly as irksome.
If you don’t already know, Webkit content blockers work differently to classic ad-blockers. Using something like uBlock Origin might give you the same results, but it won’t work on iOS, and it can’t offer the performance of a Webkit content blocker. In their own words,
While most other extensions block content by filtering elements of already downloaded page, 1Blocker uses native blocking technology to tell Safari in advance what should be blocked. This vastly improves efficiency and saves battery life.
Elements and Rules
There are places, albeit very few, where comments are still useful and engaging. Chances are, if you happen to frequent such a site, you may be amenable to adding it to the whitelist. Or if you would prefer to work the other way around, you can use 1Blocker’s hide element tool — which works on macOS and iOS — to block elements on a case by case basis. I have chosen the nuclear option, and not just because it defaults to no comments.
I’m using the example of comments, but internet annoyances don’t end there. 1Blocker recently started blocking crypto-mining scripts by default. If you’re happy digging in the inspector, you can build your own custom packages to block anything you want. You can only create rules on macOS, they will sync to iOS automatically.
I don’t run ads on this site, in fact I have been woefully inadequate at encouraging more support of the site. 1 However, there a numerous sites I frequent that include some form of relatively subtle advertising. I use the free Disconnect browser extension to visualise the trackers set by sites, if I’m happy the site is not doing anything nefarious I can whitelist it in 1Blocker. The result is an internet experience that doesn’t make me want to scratch my own eyes out. As a considerable bonus, it allows me to support people doing what I consider to be the right thing.
1Blocker is available on macOS, and has both a free and premium version on iOS
The Appademic is giving away 5 free copies of DEVONthink to Go for iOS. Find the details here
Something I will have to address soon, if it is to live on ↩︎
Closing out last year I took a good look at the merits of using DEVONthink to Go as an iOS only user. I am a fairly recent convert to DEVONthink more generally, but the more I use them, the more I understand their immense value.
As I prepare my own version of the indulgent listicles you see everywhere, I am reminded of the myriad ways I have integrated DEVONthink into my workflow. The thing that has surprised me most is the way DEVONthink has affected how I work on iOS. It has even solved a problem I suspect might resonate with a lot of other nerds, which is how to centralise your data if you’re an incessant app swapper. DEVONthink is so easy to get data in and out of, I simply keep everything there. 1 I recently had a brief twitter exchange that got me thinking about DEVONthink as an app silo. Seeing as I have this iOS giveaway for DEVONthink to Go, I thought I might also share a couple of quick thoughts on that
On the Question of App Silos
The way DEVONthink works on the Mac, makes this an easier question to answer on macOS. If putting everything into a database is a problem, you can use the indexing feature instead, and still take advantage of the search super powers. You data remains at large in the native file system. I intend to cover DEVONthink on macOS in the not too distant future, I will look at the pros and cons of taking this route then.
In the meantime, as that option is not available on iOS it might seem more cut and dry. I’m not so sure. This is a crude analogy, but in a sense the architecture of iOS makes it something of a modern day terminal client. Ordinarily, your data is always somewhere else. Even if you maxed out the storage option, keeping all of your data locally on an iPad is not only atypical, but seriously risky. Operating on those terms also tends to raise other considerations, especially concerning security.
Functionally, the question becomes how you access and interact with that data. The key for me is that DEVONthink doesn’t change the structure of your data, which is precisely why it’s not difficult to get it back out again should you ever want to. Although not the only problem, to my mind the most significant concern with app silos is storing your data in a proprietary format. Evernote is the most obvious example in this context.
Perhaps as cloud storage evolves, and Apple improves iOS through their APIs, we might eventually have the option on iOS to index files outside the database. Even then, I’m not sure I would bother when I get the considerable advantage of strong client side encryption with DEVONthink, but it would be a good problem to have. It is also with reiterating that DEVONthink's excellent integration with iOS Files, means entire folders can simply be dragged in and out of the app. In functional terms this makes DEVONthink completely different to what we normally consider an app silo. It's really not something you need to worry about.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think this is an important part of the equation for data storage. But, if like me, the data you manage is largely future proofed as plain text, or kept in universal file formats like PDF, then I feel you're safe. The more important question for me is how I can access that data, and what I can do with it. Especially if you are the kind of person who will secure that data either way. If there is a compromise with DEVONthink, I feel it is in your favour with search, security, and automation worth much more. No doubt it helps that I have a lot of faith in DEVON technologies as developers.
Get Yourself a Free Copy Of DEVONthink to Go for iOS
There is further good news on the DEVONthink front. Not only where the good people of DEVON Technologies kind enough to share my review on the Devonian Times blog, but they have also donated 5 licenses to The Appademic for DEVONthink to Go.
I want to keep this simple. If you want a chance to pick up a copy, signup for the mailing list. If you’re already on the list, you’re a chance. Incidentally, being on the mailing list means I will always include you if I have something to give away. If you want to signup and then unsubscribe, I have no problem with that, but don’t be concerned about spam — I have neither the desire, nor the resources to do anything of the sort.
Thank you to everybody who entered, this draw is now closed. However, from time to time developers of software I recommend will offer promotional licences, joining the mailing list will put you in the draw permanently.
A 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. ↩