iOS Shortcuts: Clipboard Shortcut for Bibliographic Data

Ios Shortcuts Book Scanner.png

I recently shared an iOS Shortcut for scanning citations directly from the barcode of a book. Handy as it is, I have another shortcut I’m getting a lot of mileage from when I write on my Mac. Both Zotero, and Bookends 1 can add references to your library directly by scanning different metadata, including any book’s ISBN. You can obviously search for the numbers, or type them out by hand, but this little trick can add items to your library by using an iOS device as a scanner.

Zotero Quick Add.png
Zotero can add items to your library automatically using metadata, such as the ISBN

The shortcut works by scanning the ISBN from a barcode of any book and copying it to the clipboard.  If the Universal Clipboard is working properly, the ISBN will become immediately available on the nearest Mac to paste into Zotero, or Bookends. I have also set it to copy the number to my clipboard manager in case the universal clipboard fails, as it does far too often 2.

This version of shortcut is configured to use my favourite clipboard manager, Copied. You could also use the equally impressive Paste, which is included with Setapp. Or any other app  with a URL scheme that uses iCloud sync, like Gladys or Yoink. You could even use Apples own Notes App in a pinch.

Download the shortcut and adapt it to your needs here: IBSN Scan To Copied

 

  1. These are the two I recommend, but other reference managers will do this too 
  2. I have lost hours troubleshooting the universal clipboard when it stops working, it’s not worth it.

Using Unclutter as macOS Screen Shot Manager

Unclutter Screenshot Manager Macos

Unclutter is a unique take on a drag and drop shelf app that includes a scratch pad, and simple clipboard manager. I have used Unclutter for some time as a shelf for holding transit items. It helps me avoid dumping loads of junk on my desktop. Unclutter a little different to Yoink or Dropshelf in that the shelf pulls down like a curtain from the top of the screen, but the concept is much the same. The notepad and clipboard manager make Unclutter a useful utility for anybody, but I have found a specific use case for it as a macOS screen shot manager.

For a while I used a handy little menu bar app call Shotty to manage screenshots. Unfortunately, Shotty’s user interface is small, so I find it isn’t ideal on the big screen of an iMac. The difference, depending on how you set it up, is Unclutter can stretch the whole way across the top of your screen. The display options can be set so that screen shots will display in an ad hoc gallery, making it easier to work with the images as you write.

macOS Screen Shot Manager
Unclutter can present screenshots in a gallery across the top of your screen

Setting up Unclutter

If you want to set Unclutter up to manage your screenshots, first you need to set the storage location in Unclutter. You can leave it as the default if you prefer, and use that file path for your set up. Otherwise you can set it to a cloud storage location, which is especially handy if you work across more than one Mac, or you want to access your screenshots on iOS.

Managing Screen Shots with Unclutter
Set the storage location for your screen shots in the Unclutter preferences.

Once you know the file path for files in Unclutter, you need to make sure your screenshots are going to end up there automatically. There are a couple of simple ways to do that.

Changing the Default Screen Shot Folder in Terminal

The first option is to change the default location for screenshots via terminal. Open a Terminal window and enter the following, then press enter. Obviously, you will change the file path to match where your Unclutter files are, or you can copy and paste if you have it setup with DropBox.

defaults write com.apple.screencapture location ~/Dropbox/Unclutter/Unlcutter files

Once you have set the location, you have to run the following command to reset the process that manages screen shots in macOS.

killall SystemUIServer

If you want to change back to having screen shots land on your desktop, run the above commands again but change the location back to /Desktop

Managing Screen Shots with Unclutter and Hazel

Unclutter Screen Shot Manager
Using Hazel to move screen shots means more control than changing the global setting in terminal

I prefer to set up a Hazel rule for this for a few different reasons. First, it makes it easier to switch it on and off if necessary, or if I want to change the location. The second reason has a touch of irony given the apps name is Unclutter, it is easy to accumulate a lot of old screenshots. They’re not as readily visible as on the desktop, so having Hazel come in and clean them up is helpful.

There are more tricks here if you need them too. If you want to archive particular shots and delete others you can add conditional tags with hazel, or even go by the name. My workflow for uploading shots to WordPress from my Mac includes using quicklook to rename files with a Text Expander snippet. Once they are renamed, Hazel will grab them again and run an Automator action that prepares them for this site.

Setapp Unclutter App
Using Unclutter to manage screenshots makes it easier to use Quicklook for viewing and renaming files

Unclutter on Setapp or the Mac App Store

MacPaw describes the Setapp platform as the Netflix for Mac apps, the analogy almost works. It’s unlikely you haven’t heard of it yet, but I have written about it a few times. There are numerous useful utilities, like Unclutter, included with a subscription. They add a lot of value to the heavy hitters like Ulysses, 2Do, and Marked. They have well over 100 apps now, and with the education discount a subscription will cost you five bucks a month.

Unclutter is also available on its own from the App Store for US$9.99

Enable Safari Hidden Features with Debug Menu

I found Safari Browser to be a nightmare in its cross platform days. It says a lot for its progress that has become my preferred browser. The modern version is fast, efficient with resources, and proactive about tracking protection. Recent announcements also suggest that protection will continue to improve.  Using 1Blocker for iOS and macOS , I can manage my browsing experience across Mac and iOS without weighing the app down with extensions. Add to that recent additions such as iOS type privacy settings, and the already excellent continuity features like handoff, and reading list. Put simply, using Safari is easy.  It might not be as extensible as Chrome or Firefox, but like those browsers, Safari has a number of hidden features.

Enabling Safari Hidden Features

Finding Safari hidden features requires enabling a couple of menus that are disable by default. The easiest one to enable is the Develop menu. To do that, open preferences, advanced, and simply tick the box: ‘Show Develop menu in menu bar'. Restart Safari and it will appear, giving you new options to do things like disable Javascript, clear caches, or change the user agent among other things.

Safari Browser Hidden Features
Enable the Develop menu in the advanced preferences

The other hidden menu is the lessor known Debug menu, which requires some basic terminal foo to reveal. The intrepid and curious will have a range of new preferences to tweak

  • Open Terminal: If you’re a mouse jockey click on the Go menu in Finder, and select Utilities. If you’re a keyboard warrior hit ⌘ + Space and start typing Terminal.
  • Once you have the Terminal open either type, or copy and past the following command:

defaults write com.apple.Safari IncludeInternalDebugMenu 1

  • Press return, then restart Safari. Presto, you have a new menu.

Safari Hidden Features to Enable

Macos Safari Browser Hidden Features
From the debug menu users can disable inline video altogether

Until recently, this was the only way you could disable autoplay video on annoying sites. Thankfully, Safari will now allow you to set site specific preferences , content blocking, and so on. It doesn’t always work the way it should in my experience, but setting a global flag in the debug menu takes care of it. Under Media Flags, enable ‘Video Needs User Action’, or ‘Audio Needs User Action’, depending on your needs. You can also disable inline video altogether.

Other handy features include the ability to disable some of Safari’s energy management. If you have attention madness like I do, you might find your open tabs getting out of control. Rather than creating epic memory leaks, Safari will suspend background tabs that aren’t being used. The browser is smart about how it does this, but it doesn’t suit everybody. For some users, having to reload a suspended tab can be a real nuisance. For instance, if you do a lot of research you might want to keep all your tabs live. If this is you, the option to disable background tab suspension is under miscellaneous flags.

There are a lot more flags, some more useful than others. To state the obvious, you can break stuff by playing with them, but that’s half the fun.

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.

Create Smarter Presentations with Deckset for macOS

Deckset Macos Presentation Software

Presenting complex ideas in a clear, and simple way is as undervalued as it is difficult to master. It doesn’t help that established presentation software is mostly dated, awkward, and time-consuming. Just as we have with writing apps, we have painted ourselves into a corner with presentation tools. Keynote can standalone as an alternative to Powerpoint. And yet, if you pressed me for a list of cool presentation tools, you wouldn't find either of those. It would be a short list, but you would definitely find Deckset 2.0 there.

Deckset is a presentation making app with an entirely different user experience. Especially if you’ve only ever used Powerpoint or Keynote. It seems Focus has become common currency in creative software of late, but Deckset delivers it in an unexpected way. Taking all the fuss, and fiddle out of presentation design by creating slick presentations from text files. With Deckset you can get back to what you should be doing, focusing on ideas.

Presentation Software or Powerpoint by default

In 2013, Microsoft estimated there were 30 million Powerpoint presentations given per day. That figure is likely to have moved on considerably. Everywhere there are presentations, there is Powerpoint. Just as Word has become synonymous with writing, and other text-based productivity, Powerpoint is the de facto byword for slide deck presentations. At the same time, Powerpoint is time-consuming, confusing and frustrating. Despite efforts to trim the product, it carries the compound baggage of an ageing codebase, run through with compromise. Like most users of Word, I strongly suspect Powerpoint users are in the application by default.

Deckset has the pedigree to follow the recent success of writing apps like Ulysses, which continue to popularise a previously niche medium. A similar user base will find in Deckset an ideal alternative to Powerpoint, or Keynote. Even if you’re a wizard with one of those apps, I’d wager you could save yourself time, and get to the point quicker if honing the words, and not tweaking transition animations.

I expect Deckset users will be largely self-selecting. Then again, I’m confident that many potential users don’t yet realise they should be part of that group. If the point is communicating ideas, then eliminating friction in the design of a presentation is paramount.Deckset’s neat trick, is to build polished slide decks from the raw material of your content, the text itself. You create the presentations from Markdown files, in a text editor. The slide deck itself literally gets out of your way while you concentrate on the message.

Plain Text is Simply Plain, Text

Cool Presentation Tools
With Deckset, you create presentations in Markdown. It comes with pre-loaded with example based tutorials like this to get your started

Despite the growing popularity alluded to above, there still exists a curious irony around the uptake of plain text utilities. Many prospective users seem concerned that plain text software will be difficult to use. In reality, the program left behind is often more complicated. Applications built around Markdown are some of the most simple and effective apps you will find for any purpose.

I was latecomer to the joys of plain text. If only I could reclaim all the years flushed by grappling with rich text, word processors, and bloated slide-deck programs. A small amount of time learning to write in Markdown can save you hours upon hours. The obvious gains are from time spent dealing with constantly shifting design elements, configuring and adjusting styles over and again. But then, there are the more intangible gains from working with words in their raw form.

Everything written about the focus of writing in plain text applies to slide deck presentations with Deckset. This is what makes it such an ingenious app. Just the same, if you’re still unsure about creating in Markdown, nothing can make this point better than a quick demonstration. The beauty of learning Markdown is you only have to see it to know how it works. It’s not code, it’s a clever markup language that translates into code. With an app like Deckset, you can simply open up the template files, and you’re away. If you want a primer this is everything you need to know to get started using plain text productivity apps like iA Writer, Ulysses, or Deckset.

Markdown in a Minute

Create headings with the hash symbol (#): 1

# Big Heading
## Slightly Smaller Heading
### And so on...

Use two asterisks on either side of words, or either side of a sentence to emphasise words in bold, like so:

**bold type**

Likewise, place an underscore on either side of a word, or sentence to emphasise in italics, like so: 2

_italics_ 

Unordered, and ordered lists are intuitive. Each line starts with a hyphen, or numeral + period, like this:


- Something
- And, something else
- Make up an unordered list


1. First item
2. Second item
3. Item number three

If you want to turn a word into a clickable link, place it in square brackets, followed by the link itself in parentheses:

[Anchor Word](www.yourlink.com)

Explaining how to format a footnote is more complicated than making one, so it looks like this:

[^1]: This is a footnote

Or, you can do the same with a name

[^Bentley-Payne, 2018]: Something Completely Different

With this, you have everything you need to get started with Markdown. There is more you can do with it, of course. There also exists a few variations on the original syntax, with flavours that support additional elements. The differences are always minimal, but the foundations always remain the same.

User Experience, and Careful Decisions

Cool Presentation Tools
Deckset has everything you need for ecuational presentations

Enthusiasts and geeks like to talk about responsive developers. By all accounts the builders of Deckset, Unsigned Integer, have taken a user-centric approach to developing their app. There is nothing more responsive than improving an app with user feedback. Much requested customisation features in the new release allow users to create and share themes, or tweak existing one to suit their needs. And, it’s not just about the nerds.

For a seemingly geeky app, Deckset is welcome respite, either as a Powerpoint and Keynote alternative, or as a first slide deck app. The user experience scales from simple automated layout based workflows to more bespoke, and sophisticated presentations — and all without sacrificing itself to complexity. One gets the impression that behind every feature lies a careful decision.

The considered approach is evident beyond the interface itself, with clarity a feature of the product on the whole. For instance, clearly Unsigned Interger recognise the relevance of Deckset to education. Among the documentation there is a deck outlining features inherently important for teaching presentations. Tabular information, equation formatting, captioned images and videos, it’s all there. As is rehearsal mode, speaker notes, and a PDF export function for class handouts. Taking the decision to leave the Mac App Store, means more flexibility in pricing. Deckset 2.0 is now available to education users for a discount.

Goldilocks and the Slide Presentation Tool

Deckset Macos Presentation App.png

Having run Deckset 2.0 through its paces, I almost wish I had more presentations to give. It would easily make my lists of current favourite macOS apps.  The revelation that slideshow software had become a sinkhole into which ideas themselves could easily fall persuaded me to all but give up on slide decks. Powerpoint is especially guilty. Although I find Keynote still has its uses, they’re mostly off-label, and fewer all the time. For the past couple conferences, I’ve gone analogue, delivering from a piece of paper to the room. Deckset has turned my head back the other way, by finally providing a happy medium.

If you want to take a look, Deckset offers a free trial. A single license is available for a one-time cost of USD $29. Or, if you’re an education user, you can request a generous 50% discount.

  1. Octothorp
  2. Sometimes a single asterisk on each side

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 of the Mac in 2017

Best Macos Apps 2017 Setapp

Welcome back productivity nerds. This is part two of a gripping trilogy on software highlights from 2017. In part one, I catalogued some of my favourite iPad apps from last year. The meat between the iOS device sandwich, is of course the Mac. So here we go again.

Before we begin, if you’re interested a number of the apps on this list come with Setapp. That is something I’ve written enough about recently, so if you'd like to read more about Setapp,  you can  do so here. The apps in question are clearly marked with the appropriate links. Remember, these are just the highlights.

Back to the Mac

Things 3

Best Mac Apps 2017 Things 3
Things 3 has everything I need in a task manager.

 

The barometer I use for organisational tools is how much time it takes to manage them. That I spend very little time in the app itself, is a good indication Things is doing what it’s supposed to. The way Things handles the inbox is better than any other task manager I have used. I don't feel like I am double handling tasks. I thought I might miss the automation of Todoist, but so far I haven't really, the email to Things feature is enough.

Scrivener 3

Best Mac Apps 2017 Scrivener 3
Scrivener's facelift, and feature upgrade improved an already excellent application

I still haven’t found the time to write this up properly, but I did give it a cursory post. While you can get lightweight versions of some features, there still nothing like Scrivener. This new version is a long way from the early skeuomorphic days. Now that the interface is so crisp, and clean, it looks every bit the modern Mac app. Further to the visual touches, a long list of new features have improved an already powerful piece of software. If you do any kind of serious long-form writing, and you’re still using a traditional word processor, I’m sorry but you’re mad. 1

Ulysses

Best Mac Apps 2017 Ulysses
Most of my day to day writing takes place in Ulysses

Ulysses also makes the charts across both platforms. I use Scrivener a little more on macOS. But as I mentioned in the iPad post, all other project based, long-form writing, and content for this blog is created in Ulysses. I now also use it for posting directly to WordPress, and I couldn’t be happier with how well that works. Setapp takes care of my Ulysses subscription on macOS, and iOS.

Highlights

Most of my reading, annotating, and editing of PDFs happens on the iPad now. I’m so used to doing that work with an Apple Pencil that marking up PDFs on a Mac can be frustrating. Despite that, there are occasions that demand more screen space, and sometime I need to extract a lot of text from a PDF. Highlights can extract highlighted text, and annotations in Markdown, which is something I cannot do on iOS — defintely not in markdown. 2 Now that DEVONthink handles all of my OCR needs, this is the only other PDF app I need on the Mac.

DEVONthink Pro Office

While coverage has focused on the iOS version, 2017 was also the year I went all in with DEVONthink on macOS. I once shared the superficial concerns of some prospective users, but even if i’d like to see the interface overhauled, I’m glad I got over myself. 3 DEVONthink is a heavyweight application, so getting the most from it takes time. The depth of functionality is perfectly suited to the archive, search, and retrieve workflows required of serious research, so that time is worth investing. I no longer have any trouble finding important documents. My records are organised with some sanity, and I know how, and where to find research I have spent considerable time gathering.

TaskPaper

Best Mac Apps 2017 Taskpaper
Taskpaper is part nerdy task manger, part super-powered outliner

I have known about TaskPaper for a long time, but never really used it properly. That changed last year. With TaskPaper’s plain text super powers, I have cobbled together something resembling a system for planning and tracking my reading, among other things. It might seem like overkill to be employing a form of task management on top of a dedicated task manager, but it helps my scattered mind no end to seperate the finer details. Setapp

Marked 2

Anyone working with text should have this in their kit. No matter what that work entails. Marked is a kind of Swiss army knife for writers. If you are relentlessly obsessive about what you do with words, you will recognise a fellow traveller in this app. It even includes features to improve your writing. Anything I write about Marked risks underselling it. It’s worth a hell of a lot more than what it will cost you. Setapp

Spillo

Best Mac Apps 2017 Spillo
Spillo is the best macOS client for my favourite bookmarking service, Pinboard.in

I archive a lot of data in DEVONthink, but I don’t use it for bookmarks. Instead I use the perennial wonder machine, Pinboard.in for archiving web pages. Spillo is easily my favourite macOS client for pinboard. Minimal, and opinionated with just the right amount of nerdiness. It’s fully scriptable, and even has its own plugin SDK. Since setting up an Alfred workflow with Spillo, I get more use out of Pinboard than ever.

Being and Nerdiness

Tower

Until last year, I hadn’t done any programming for a long time. I still don’t, but I can at least lay claim to vandalising code in my attempts to learn how to. For my humble use of git as it is, Tower is more than I need. Then again, using such a wonderfully designed piece of software can only be helpful if I’m to learn things the right way. Working Copy on iOS is currently my favourite Git client on any platform, but this is a pretty close second. Things could change any day now.

Sublime Text with SFTP

Best Macos Apps 2017 Sublime
There is a reason Sublime is preferred by so many developers

I agonised over choosing a text editor for learning development skills. With growing support out there for Visual Studio, I gave it a test run. If easier to configure, ultimately I didn’t like working in it. I tried Atom, and liked the general feel, but I can’t yet benefit from its configurability — honestly it felt kind of slow. In the end, true to form, I landed where I started. Now that I have it set up properly, Sublime text has become one of my favourite applications. As for extensibility, the Sublime SFTP package is the best thirty bucks I have spent in some time.

Forklift

Another of the technical tools I require, this one has a lot of tricks. To call Forklift the best FTP client I know of would undersell it4. With a slick designed dual pane file browser, file syncing, drive mounting, keyboard kung fu, and all round excellence, these days it is always open on my Mac. Setapp

Super Duper!

The most deceptively simple looking app I own. Super Duper overcame a momentary rough patch to deliver an unbelievable improvement to an already excellent utility. With the advent of APFS, it now creates bootable snapshots. The scheduler works so efficiently, I hardly even notice. I can’t begin to express the peace of mind.

The Digital Cage

Timing

There was an intense time-tracking trend among a sub-section of nerds last year. Trust me, that’s not happening here. I find the idea of tracking every aspect of your life disturbing. I use this app in a much less pervasive way, for tracking writing projects. I gather data on how long it takes me to write certain things, so I can better understand deadlines. Whether self-imposed, or not. Timing makes this easy, as it can automatically capture time spent in particular applications. Setapp

Cardhop

A contacts app is not something that would ordinarily interest me, I have only humble contact management needs. Since contact syncing started to work properly, I have been happy to use the native contacts app and forget about it. I felt much the same way about calendars until I tried Fantastical. The Flexibits natural language engine is like magic, and sure enough they have put it to good use in Cardhop.

Utilities

Alfred

Spotlight can only take you so far. For keyboard warriors, an application launcher is mandatory. Beyond a long list of built in features, Alfred is an endlessly extensible, powerful automation tool. An active, and generous user community means there are workflows for just about anything, and help at hand if you want to hack together your own.

iMazing

This is one of those utilities I never knew I needed. It’s common knowledge iTunes is a mess. Apple’s answer is to remove things without replacing them. Whenever it seems I can no longer do something with an iOS device, the answer is iMazing. Setapp

1Blocker

I could have put this on the iOS list too. I published a post recently on how I use 1Blocker to keep me sane while using the internet. Whether you want to block ads or not, the web is often a shady place. Stopping yourself from being tracked might be a hopeless pursuit, but you can at least make it difficult. I’m happy knowing my computing resources aren’t being filched for crypto-mining. I’m also a control freak, so I’ll let through what I please thank you very much.

Radio Silence

For much the same reason as above. I prefer to know what’s dialling home. While incredibly powerful, Little Snitch is too noisy for my liking. Radio Silence is much more simple, and yet it still gives me the control I want. In short, this little firewall rules.

Bartender 3

Without this little utility, my menu bar would look insane. Version 3 was released a few months back. Instead of dropping beneath, the menu bar now toggles between your main utilities and whatever you choose to hide. A subtle, but worthwhile change. It works so well it will probably be sherlocked.

Making and Breaking

Pixelmator Pro

Best Mac Apps 2017 Pixelmator Pro
Pixelmator Pro is a powerful image editor that even a novice can understand

This is an aspirational app at the moment,  it’s probably overkill. My image editing needs a fairly simple, and most of it is done on the iPad. Especially now, with Affinity Photo on iPad Pro. However, Pixelmator has always been an app that I could grok easier than other image editors, so I picked this up in the hope that I could develop some chops. What little I have done with it so far, has been a pleasure.

Audio Hijack

Best Mac Apps 2017 Audio Hijack
If you need to capture audio on your Mac, Audio Hijack is as good as it gets

Another project yet to see the light of day led me to this audio marvel. If you have any cause for routing, or capturing audio on your Mac, this is how you do it. The modular, drag and drop, visual workflow, makes sense out of confusing audio chains. Along with all the built in audio processing, it even supports Audio Unit plugins.

  1. The idea of long-form writing seems to have taken on new meaning recently. To be clear, I’m referring to books, theses, and so on. For long blog posts, it might be overkill.
  2. Unless somebody knows an app that can do this?
  3. It could probably lose a few features
  4. Yes, yes SFTP. Of course.

Safari Browser: Improving the Web with 1Blocker

best safari content blocker

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.

best safari content blocker
1Blocker includes a powerful custom package builder that allows users more control of their browsing experience

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

 

  1. Something I will have to address soon, if it is to live on ↩︎