Setapp has a growing collection of apps for education users, with few gaps in the collection the service is becoming a compelling option for students and academics alike
Setapp shows no sign of slowing down, as it adds more quality apps and essentail services. Not that long ago, powerful FTP client and Finder alternative Forklift was added to the stable. For science students and researchers, they have added the wonderfully designed digital lab book Findings, and I recently mentioned the addition of 2Do. In the past couple of days Setapp have announced the addition of third-party Gmail client Boxy.
These are all excellent additions to an already compelling service, but the development that I find most pleasing is the service being translated into Spanish. Not only is this a boon for the Mac users among the more than 400 million Spanish speakers worldwide, but it is a sure sign that Setapp is here for the long haul. If you haven't already checked it out, you have nothing to lose, there is a 30-day trial — no credit card required. If you decide to roll with it from there, you can either pay US$10 per month, or grab the educational discount by paying US$60 annually. With the growing trend toward subscriptions, this is starting to look like a serious bargain.
It is getting harder to see where the gaps are in the collection for education users, unless you are wedded to mainstream giants for your work, like MS Office. The one obvious omission at this point is citation management. Otherwise, from mind mapping to timeline generation, your choice of world class texteditors, and the dedicated Studies App, it is safe to say they have you pretty well covered.
To be clear, I'm not affiliated with Setapp in any way, this is genuine enthusiasm for an approach to the app market that I feel is promising for everyone.
If you are interested, you can Download the trial here: Setapp
It took me some time to get to understand why DEVONthink is so universally admired in the Mac community – especially by researchers. I resisted for numerous reasons, but some were just superficial and stupid. For instance, I didn’t like the user interface at all. Late last year, Despite backtracking, my feeling was that Evernote had transgressed too far beyond the privacy barrier to keep using that service, so I needed a serious solution for getting a daunting amount of data out of it. Not only could DEVONthink Pro handle the transfer of data locally, without a hint of hassle, it is superior in every conceivable way. DEVONthink Pro can do everything that a premium Evernote subscription can do, and more. Better still, you can buy DEVONthink outright for the same price as a year’s subscription of the Evernote, and that’s before you factor in the 40% back to school discount they have on offer at the moment.
This post is intended as nothing more than a head up on the current sale, to do the software justice I will need to write a great deal more – which is exactly what I intend to do. For now, I will weigh in briefly on a question that I grappled with in getting started with DEVONthink, by which I mean how to choose between the Pro version and the Office version. There are only two significant additions to the full office version, the first is in-built OCR, and the second is much deeper Mail integration. My feeling is that most people are scanning documents with mobile apps that can handle OCR, like Scanner Pro for example. DEVONthink’s OCR will be a little more accurate, but there is a value proposition to weigh up there. On the Mail front, arching all of your mail in DEVONthink is not something that most people will want to do, unless you need more powerful search capabilities for your correspondence. In short, DEVONthink Pro is powerful enough to meet the needs of most people, unless you are literally running an office I would suggest starting there. You can always upgrade later if you feel you need the extra features.
The Back to school promotion runs until 15th of September.
I have already written about the value of subscribing to Setapp, but the service just keeps getting better. The utility of this service for academic work should be hard to ignore for a lot of people, especially for students, considering the potential savings on apps you might only need for the duration of your studies. They recently added education pricing, and now they have added one of the very best task managers available to their impressive inventory. I have been a user of 2Do in the past, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone. It is easily the most flexible, and customisable task manager available, and has picked up something of a cult following in the past few years.
2Do is on of the most powerful task management apps available today. It is an ideal app for keeping the demands of study and research in order.
If you happened to have read any of the posts I have made about note-taking, you might think I have a problem. The real problem is not so much being torn between numerous different tools, but being torn between waiting on an old favourite to be reincarnated, so to speak, and moving on to something new. There are trade offs no matter which way you look at it. Apple Notes, for example, has some hard to overlook advantages – native integration means an unparalleled user experience when it comes to sharing material with the system-wide share extension on both the macOS and iOS. The Apple Notes share extension captures URLs in a form it calls rich links, which includes a thumbnail and text snippet to make captured links that much easier to recall. This rich text approach is both the major strength and weakness of Apple Notes, at least now that iCloud syncing has become so reliable and fast. Rich text relies on a proprietary database, meaning portability and future-proofing are open questions for notes kept in a system that relies on them. For that reason, I find myself only using Apple Notes as a kind of place holder for links I will use immediately, or when very basic collaboration is in order.
When it comes to capturing text as quickly as possible on the Mac, I have a hotkey set for nvALT, so it has become so ingrained that it just happens. You might wonder why I would recommend an app kept in the barest of maintenance cycles while the developer openly builds its replacement. To which I would suggest that first, I can’t imagine Bitwriter will depart from the nvALT workflow much at all  – the user base for Bitwriter are nvALT users, so moving to the new app will be trivial when it happens. Second, even if there were significant changes, this is the beauty of plain text, moving to another app will not break your system. Having said all that, I have recently been made aware of another Notational Velocity  clone out there that is in active development. So if you are looking for an a lightweight plain text, open source, note-taking app, then FSNotes is worth a peek.
I should probably add that nvALT can also handle rich text, but I believe most people use it to work with plain text ↩
Although I do hope there is a native iOS app too ↩
Setapp have added education pricing to their already valuable service. I have already written about the usefulness of the platform here. The discount is only available on an annual subscription, but the savings make for a compelling reason to pay for a year, once you have had a look at the 1 month free trial. Signup for Setapp here
With so many of the tools we use nowadays built upon web services, you can end up working in a confusing array of browser windows, and endless tabs. This can get pretty frustrating. Luckily, if you happen to have a preference for stand-alone apps, there are a couple of simple solutions that allow you to turn any website into exactly that. What you end up with are essentially simple web wrappers, in effect single use browser sessions. 
Of the two solutions I know, the first and easier option is to pick up an app called Fluid, for US$5. Using the app is simple, you enter the URL of the web service in question, give the app a name and you’re away. Fluid has some rudimentary settings you can tweak from within the single-use browser it creates, but there is only one that most people will care about. If you are creating a Fluid App for a web service, and you want to keep yourself logged in to that website, then you will need to enable cookies in the security settings.
The second way to do this is to use a clever little utility called Nativefier. Not everyone will feel quite as comfortable with this option as it requires you to use the terminal, but it is still pretty simple in the end. You will need to have Node.js installed, which can be installed with the Node Installer or with the Homebrew package manager if you are that deep in the weeds. Once you have Node, then it is a simple matter of using a couple of vefry basic terminal commands. The first is to install the Nativefier app itself, and the second is to have it build your stand-alone app. I believe anybody can handle entering a couple of simple commands that look like this:
That really is all it takes. The result with Nativefier is a clean, and responsive stand-alone app. As far as choosing between the two options, it depends both on what you want to use the app for, and whether or not you are comfortable running a command in the terminal . Myself, I use fluid for running this website on Squarespace, because I want a stand-alone app, but I need the tabs that a browser instance gives me. On the other hand, I much prefer Nativefier for apps that don’t require tabs.
Which is exactly what you are getting with most desktop apps for web services, you are just compiling it yourself. ↩
If you ever need to convince somebody to use a password manager, try playing them The Russian Passenger on Reply All. The episode covers a service called Have I Been Pwned, which keeps a record of known data breaches that users can search to see if their credentials have ever been exposed. Try searching the email addresses of friends, family and colleagues on the site. It won't take you long to find somebody you know.
A good password manager is easy to use, and simple to learn, and yet convincing people to use one can be difficult. My sense is that most people either don’t realise how insecure their recycled credentials are, or they think ‘that will never happen to me, I have nothing worth stealing’. I can only hope that wouldn’t apply to experienced researchers and academics, but students too need to be aware of how vulnerableuniversitynetworks are. There are numerous reasons for hackers to target universities, gaining access to thousands of usernames and passwords chief among them. Because of all this, I believe it is critical for anyone working within the walls of a university – virtual or otherwise – to have a secure means for managing their credentials. To my mind, a password manager is the best solution – it is certainly the easiest.
Which Password Manager?
As for which password manager, for sheer user-friendliness, ease of use, and excellent design, I still feel that 1Password is the best choice for most people. It actually has the Pwned functionality inside the app itself. A lot has been written lately about changes to 1Password. The concern from security experts has to do with the company’s move to a subscription service, and in turn the service itself being moved to a priority cloud based architecture. The concerns are not around the business model, but with certain technical decisions; specifically with the status of where the default user vaults are stored – i.e on the Agile Bits encrypted servers. It should go without saying that the vaults are mega-encrypted, so worthless to anyone without the user’s key, but to end the debate there drastically oversimplifies the matter.
I’m not going to dive any further into the debate itself, as I believe a lot of what is doing the rounds is either based on a combination of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and the wants and needs of edge-case users who aren’t representative of most people. Moreover, some people seem to be conflating the Mac and Windows versions, and the functionality under debate remains very much a part of 1Password. I would argue that regardless of the validity to concerns around cloud-storage, 1Password is still the best password manager for most people. In fact, some of the features that make it so are only available because of the cloud-based architecture. My take is this:
The vast majority of people are ludicrously vulnerable at the moment, simply because they have next to nothing in place to manage their online security. For most people, not only are obscure security threats not a huge concern, but there is much more to be gained by using a password manager than maintaining the status quo.
In the absence of a clever password scheme – which, let’s face it, most people will never use – even if you do generate strong passwords, you still need an absolutely unique one for every site and service you use. Most people who have taken this half measure are using paper notebooks, or some for of plain text or spreadsheet to store the credentials. Ironically, this is a half measure that will make you doubly vulnerable
A Password manager does all the work once you get used to using it. Not only have I found 1Password to have the best user experience in this regard, anybody I have ever got to use it in earnest has taken to it immediately. The browser extension on the Mac, and iOS Safari automatically generates and stores credentials for new registrations, and automatically populates forms and logins. It can also populate payment forms with one click, making it even more useful than Safari’s own Auto-Fill features.
Take travelling researchers, with the new 1Password travel mode one can remove the entire app from a device and then reinstate it once any overly officious border police have done with their perusal of any given device.
There are further benefits to having secure information in such a vault if you were to ever to lose your mobile device and other valuables. I use 1Password to store my bank cards and encrypted copies of documents.
1Password’s subscription model is one of the more advantageous memberships of its kind. The Families plan gives you 5 licenses for US$5 a month. You can manage vaults for your less technically inclined, younger or older family members. It also means shared vaults for credentials you all need access to, Netflix anybody?
The concerns around the cloud-storage model are moot for anyone wanting to sync a password vault and doing it via Dropbox.
I could go on, but I fear I have lost enough of you already.
Perhaps Agile Bits could have handled this situation better than they have, but to be clear, they are keeping intact the functionality that security boffins most value, i.e local vaults. Unfortunately, it seems people will seize upon anything to reinforce their own reluctance to address their security issues. So controversy like this tends to feed the fear and doubt. My concern is that people use something other than recycling passwords, becoming so blasé about resetting them that they become easy targets for phishing attacks. Attacks that nowadays can easily include the capture of two-factor authentication. A password manager mitigates most of the risks. And without labouring the point, using one will provide a huge improvement to most people’s security.
Lastpass – I have been a user of Lastpass in the past. I have never found it to be as user-friendly as 1Password, but it has a lot of fans. The biggest selling point is its free tier, which is a good start for anyone balking at paying for security – and the upgrade price is only US$12 a year. You will need to upgrade to use things like two-factor authentication and device syncing.
Dashlane – I prefer the user interface of Dashlane to Lastpass. It has a similar ‘freemuim’ model, with similar limitations before upgrading.
Talk to anyone who knows anything about the software economy and you will soon find out this is a strange time. Developers are trying to find ways to stay afloat, while coping with a user base conditioned by the so-called freemuim model. I know a lot of normally rational and generous people who balk at paying for software. I have been there myself. There are some legitimate historical reasons for that, it would be easy to implicate some of the biggest software names in the stratification between obscene rents for virtual necessities, and the meagre sums people will pay for the lesser known. These days I feel I have a better grip on the cognitive dissonance between stumping a fiver for a coffee and paying a fairer price for apps. For example, making music on the iPad allows me to purchase incredibly powerful apps that cost a fraction of the price demanded by their desktop counterparts, let alone purchasing the equivalent hardware. And yet, I still know folks who will wince at paying $10 for an app that took a developer years to make, despite this massive difference in cost versus utility from desktop to mobile devices. I can’t imagine how disheartening this must be for the people who make such apps.
While I am primarily referring to iPhone and iPad apps, if you will excuse the pun, these developments have had a tangible impact on the Mac App situation too. Apple hasn’t done much at all to mitigate the difficulties facing developers – something all but the most benighted of Apple fans have started to acknowledge – especially given the 30% tax they claim for access to their walled garden. For independent developers, the situation can be pretty dire. Which is why, along with some of the reasons above, and more besides, I feel relatively positive about the service offered by Settapp. To my mind, the collective nature of it makes sense – just as the single license model of old is unsustainable, so tool is the idea of having an individual subscription to every single app you use.
I have already mentioned a number of the apps available on Settapp. Many of them are available for purchase individually on the App Store, and for a lot of people that may well remain the best option if you only need the likes of Marked, Uylsses or Taskpaper. On the other hand, a Settapp subscription will give you all of these apps, and a whole lot more for ten US dollars per month. It will also mean you never have to worry about purchasing new versions, or dealing with in-ap purchases for monetised features.
As far as students, academics, and other researchers are concerned, Setapp is ideally stocked with a number of apps I would recommend outright. To mention just a few, it includes one of my very favourite writing apps, Uylsses . Both iThoughts and X-Mind are excellent mind mapping tools. Then there is the Findings research notebook, the Studies flash card app, a unique and really promising academic writing app called Manuscripts. Timelines, outliners, task management tools; the list goes on. They are adding to the collection all the time, and better still the service is not loaded with junk. It is an invite only, curated collection; they are banking their reputation on some of the best software available on the Mac.
If you are looking to graduate from piracy, or this appeals to you for any other reason, you can check it out and signup for a free month at Setapp
Which is technically a Markdown editor, but to call it that simply doesn’t do it justice ↩
Picking up where I left off with the first Mac automation post; we covered some of the more well known Automation utilities on macOS in Text Expander, Automator, and Hazel. To be fair, at least one of the areas I cover this time around is likewise pretty well known, but I also want to highlight a couple of unique utilities that qualify as automation tools. These tools have both explicit and implicit utility for study, research, or indeed any academic related workflows. As with all such suggestions, the limit to what you can do with this kind of software will be somewhere between what you can dream up, and how much time you are willing (or able) to sink into them.
Popclip is one of those apps that highlights a gap in design reciprocity between iOS and macOS. We have always had the right-click  context menu to access functionality in OS X or macOS, but Popclip brings an interpretation of the context menu from iOS back to the Mac. The need to port contextual functionality such as copy and paste to the iPhone and iPad led to the creation of the ubiquitous black speech-bubble that appears from a long press on those devices. Popclip takes that idea, brings it to the Mac, and makes it extensible with customizable actions. I have become so used to using it that if ever I’m on a Mac without it I get a little lost. I use it for text transformations , Shortening URLs, dictionary and thesaurus lookups, adding tasks to my task manager, adding links to Pinboard or Instapaper, adding references to Papers, translations, and the list just keeps going. This link will take you to the pre-packaged extensions that are available, but the good news doesn’t end there. Not only will a Github search reveal many more ingenious uses for Popclip, and you can even code your own. To get you started with customization, check out Brett Terpstra’s Popclip Extension Generator
Alfred, Launchbar and others (…but mostly Alfred)
A lot of Mac nerds would argue that a Launcher is the purist’s starting point for workflow automation. If you want to keep your hands on the keyboard, then using a launcher is essential. Spotlight has developed well beyond its basic search capabilities in the past few years to the point where, although still relatively basic, it is much more than a mere search engine and application launcher nowadays. What’s more, Spotlight comes baked right into macOS, so a lot of people will find that hitting command (⌘) space will allow you to do a lot more with the keyboard than you realised.
Going beyond Spotlight to incorporate automation is where the best third-party launchers excel. As far as which launcher is the best? That honestly depends on who you talk to, but there seems to be a fairly solid consensus that the contenders are LaunchBar, and my personal favourite Alfred.
Both LaunchBar and Alfred are limitlessly extensible; LaunchBar with Actions and Alfred with Workflows. It is difficult to say how one might choose between them , but you may find the keystrokes for one, or the other, more intuitive for the way you work. Other than that admittedly abstract and vague selection criteria , it is fair to say the user community around Alfred appears much more engaged and accessible. Both the official site and forum, and the unofficial Packal site, are loaded with workflows, advice and friendly automation ninjas willing to help you down a rabbit hole, or back out of one.
Again, I use Alfred for all kinds of things. The screenshot of my workflows is only part of the picture. Searching my Papers library, converting documents with Pandoc, searching my Pinboard bookmarks, making currency conversions, task management input, natural-language entry of calendar events, time-stamping notes, Image Optimisation, file management. Alfred is an onion, and in reality I have barely peeled back the first layer. There is a built-in clipboard manager, and text-expander style snippet function. Anything that you can automate via scripting can be triggered via a launcher like Alfred or LaunchBar, which means they capable of all kinds of complicated tasks. As a bonus, they can manage the simple things too, I even lock, logoff and shutdown my Mac with Alfred – and Alfred also has an iOS remote app that allows me to control my Mac from my iPhone or iPad.
These are not the only two apps of this kind, of course. There are die-hards still using the OG launcher, Quicksilver, and given it is open source and free, for some it remains worth a look. Another old favourite of long-time Mac users is Butler, from Many Tricks. There is the lightweight Launcher from Nulana, which is reknown for its advanced calculator and script launcher. Finally, a couple I feel are worth keeping an eye on, the open sauce Zazu App that bills itself as an extensible launcher for ‘hackers, creators and dabblers’, and perhaps the most interesting new app in tis area Lacona, a natural language launcher built on Node.js that already has web automation triggers through IFTTT. 
Dropzone is another extensible utility that can thread automation actions into your workflow. Another example of an app that is incredibly useful even in its most basic use cases, or can be bent to one’s will with a little ingenuity. The basic premise is very simple, Dropzone is a menu bar app that extends the drag and drop capabilities of your Mac, it houses destinations and automation actions on the ‘drop zone’. You can use it to hold, copy or move files between apps , configure it to upload files to cloud services or an FTP server, or social media sites. The real power of the app lies in the customisable actions – I have scripts for renaming files, stripping formatting from text, making animated GIFs, shortening URLs, and so on – but Dropzone also makes for an excellent conduit to other parts of your system. For example, as part of my workflow for posting images to this site I will take a screen shot and drag it to the images folder configured in Dropzone, from there Hazel will invoke an Automator workflow  to resize the image, then pass the file to ImageOptim for compression and removal of personal metadata. I could easily automate the whole process, but I don’t want every single screenshot I take sent to the same place, so Dropzone allows me to have a little more control over the file picking.
Or option-click for you die hard, old-school Apple nerds ↩
Such as capitalisation, Sentence-case for formatting titles, clearing formatting, hyphenating etc ↩
Some people solve this by using them both, but I’m yet to find something I need LaunchBar for that I can’t do with Alfred ↩
And the fact the Alfred’s developers have a commendably irreverent name Running with Crayons ↩
If ever I find myself in one of those tedious Mac versus Windows conversations I need only point to one thing that tips the balance toward the Apple machine, and that is automation. While it is true that automation software is not the exclusive domain of the Mac, Apple’s historical commitment to it has not only lowered the bar for entry to native automation, but has fostered a platform which has seen a slew of wonderful third-party tools that will allow anyone with a little time and determination to dip their toes in the automation waters. Honestly, it is embarrassing to admit the amount of time I might have saved had I have embraced some of these technologies early than I did. Admittedly, with services like IFTTT and Zapier, automation is becoming less and less platform dependant, but whether you want to go full nerd, or simply save yourself and your fingers from repetitive typing tasks, there is nothing like the Mac for getting started.
This will be another post in parts, there are far too many options for Mac automation to throw them all on a page and hope for that to be useful. The intention is to give you some ideas for getting started with this automation racket.
Perhaps the easiest area to begin is with text expansion. Limited support for text replacement is available natively in macOS, or you go further with apps like Typinator or aText. My favourite app for the job, and probably the most powerful of the lot, is Text Expander. Start with simple things, like commonly used email addresses, your own personal details, signatures or often repeated phrases.
Something I have found particularly useful is converting clumsy English spelling of non-English words and names. For example, my thesis contains a number of Māori words that have macrons for long vowels, Text Expander makes sure I neither forget nor mess up the spellings of those words. Likewise for accented European names like Zupancic to Zupančič. The more you use text expansion, the more you will start to notice commonly used text you can automate, and this is to barely scratch the surface of what a tool like Text Expander can do for you.
Smile’s Text Expander Blog is full of examples of how to use snippets in your workflow. One specifically research based use case is to setup snippets for common web searches. For more ideas on how to get started, Zapier have a nice write up on their blog you might like to check out.
Automator can seem a little daunting at first, and to be fair the user interface is not all that enticing. But, don’t let that stop you from messing around with it. Just as there are many text based tasks that you might not know you can automate, there are many more fiddly and tedious jobs littered throughout most people’s workflows. Academic workflows, in particular, are usually littered with tasks ripe for automation, and this is in no way limited to university work itself. If you are a blogger, an artist, or even a social-media junkie, chances are there is something you do regularly that you can reclaim significant time from. Having said that, like anything the problem is knowing where to start. There are a number of good Automator resources available, but you will never go wrong by starting with Sal Soghoian – the undisputed Jedi Master of Mac automation – at his Mac OS X Automation site.
In the meantime, here are a couple of basic examples to get you started. One of the most commonly cited examples of a basic Automator workflow combines selected PDF files into one document, like so:
Another quick and dirty example of an Automator workflow is the one I use to resize images for blog posts. I have it setup as a service, so when I right click on an image and select the service, it simply scales the image, converts it, and renames the file. It looks like this:
You can even setup Automator do some of your research for you by setting up a feed with keywords and collecting the URLs for the articles it returns. This article has an example of one such workflow, along with a means for downloading images and video, and setting up a native, standalone web application for sites you have to keep open.
Something all students and academics have to deal with a constant influx of digital documents. Whether they be absurdly arcane forms, journal articles, ebooks, expense claims, or whatever, they never stop piling up. Enter Hazel, put a little time into this thing and you can wipe your hands of repetitive file management and processing tasks. And, it’s not just the mundane and simple jobs either, Hazel can encode media, manage your photo library, add music to iTunes, use pattern matching to rename and file documents based upon their contents, run scripts, take care of your desktop, trash and downloads – in fact, like most good automation, it is more limited by a user’s ability to think of how to use it than by its own features. A little imagination and you can chain all kinds of services together, for example, there are party people who like to trigger their own welcome home soundtracks by using Hazel with Dropbox and IFTTT.
There is nothing overly difficult about setting up Hazel, start out simple and go from there. If you have ever setup a smart folder on iTunes, or in the Finder, then you will already have a sense of how to put an action together. If you haven’t, it looks like this:
The Noodlesoft forum is among the most active developer forums I have come across, and the Hazel user base is full of helpful and proactive people willing to chip in if you get stuck. The forum is also full of inventive Hazel actions that other users willingly share with newbies. Finally, if you are getting stuck and you are the kind of person who likes a visual guide, you can either checkout the innumerable videos on Youtube or David Sparks has a detailed Video Field Guide available.