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
This year has seen significant changes to the iPad. Changes have either explicitly relevant to education users, or favourable by virtue of the way developments to both hardware and software suit the various use cases for students, teachers, and researchers alike. With the upcoming release of iOS 11 about to address a number of long-standing usability issues, the iPad is becoming a serious choice for getting your college work done.
I find the inane arguments that do the rounds pitting the iPad against the Mac, or PC, to be mostly pointless. But, to the question of whether or not you can now use the iPad as your primary device for your college or university work, the answer is a resounding of course you can. In fact, in a lot of ways the interaction model and user experience of working on an iPad is not only a good choice for some people, but the best choice. For one, although there has been a quiet evolution of multitasking on iOS, the iPad remains a uniquely focused device for singular tasks. The advantage to such a focused user experience is an especially obvious when it comes to writing. Given that so much of the academic work is writing, embracing a device that, in its design, has a tendency to encourage less distraction can only help.
I would go further, however, to say that the iPad is uniquely enjoyable as a writing device, and continues to improve in this regard all the time. It has seemed obvious for some time that the tablet is an ideal form factor for other academic tasks – namely note-taking and presentation – but if you haven’t yet used it for serious writing, there is no time like the present. With that in mind, I thought I could offer a leg up on the best apps to use for writing on the iPad.
These days I prefer not to work in a standard word processor, but that doesn’t mean I can avoid them altogether. Access to all the usual suspects for word processing is just as good on the iPad, if not better in some cases. Microsoft Word, to my mind, has always been a bloated mess that I can’t get far enough away from. Fortunately, if you absolutely have no choice but to use it, the necessity of paring it down for iOS has resulted in an infinitely more useable piece of software. Although, if you do feel you have to stick with a standard word processor, then you are probably better of sticking with Apple’s own Pages. Not only is Pages compatible with Word, it has all the advantages that come with being a native app. Pages has also had some intriguing updates lately, adding LaTex support for mathematical equations for example.
Beyond Word and Pages, there is always Google Docs, which has admittedly improved on iOS since the inclusion of multitasking support. Google has also sown up deals with universities everywhere, which often means unlimited file storage is available. While Apple has started adding collaboration support to their iWork apps, Google Docs remains the standard bearer for simple collaboration.
If you are looking for something different in a word processor, Mellel is developed with features specifically designed for academic work. Most of these things exist in other word processors, but Mellel has made them design features. This means the document outline, footnotes, bibliography and so on, are part of the workflow rather than an afterthought. As I cover below, I do my own long form writing in Scrivener these days, but Mellel is a solid choice for anybody looking to break away from the big names while keeping with a classic word processor.
A large amount of the writing I do is in Markdown these days. I briefly outlined a case for why I think that is a good idea for note-taking here, but the portability and future-proofing are just as relevant to all forms of writing. If you’re not already writing in Markdown, this is not the kind of article that will persuade you to start. If you are already a Markdown convert, you are well served by the text editors available on iOS. As for my preferred app, I have a couple.
I have already praised Ulysses a couple of times here. It is one of the best writing apps available period, so ideal for writing essays and research papers. Ulysses is an excellent combination of a lean and distraction free text editor with a more integrated writing tool. It includes subtle features to bridge the gap between rich text and plain text writing. Along with built-in tutorials, this also makes it ideal for coaching new users into using Markdown. The syncing between Mac and iPad is seamless. The universal app on iOS also means that should you wish to indulge in note-taking, or even more detailed writing on your iPhone, your text will all end up in the same place.
Ulysses has also embraced iOS automation. Integration with Workflow has essentially made the app extensible, allowing users to adapt their own automations for getting text in and out of the app. I am mot the most proficient Workflow creator, but I have managed to hack together some simple workflows that allow me to gather and annotate links for posting to this site. For example, throughout the week I gather links for the regular Week Links post. I store them in Drafts as I collect them, but that is idiosyncratic, you can go straight to Ulysses if you would prefer. You can download a copy of the workflow here, if you want to see how it works. At the end of the week, I process the document from Drafts to Ulysses using this Workflow . Granted, these are workflows specifically for web writing, but there is no reason you cannot adapt them for academic needs. Workflow can do practically anything, provided your imagination and patience can drive it to do so. Formatting citations, for example. This is something I intend to come back to in detail, very soon.
If you write for the web, Ulysses has publishing integration for Wordpress and Medium. This feature alone has been enough to pique my attention, and start tempting me away from Editorial, a long time favourite on iOS. These are all great things to have in an iOS tech editor, but the real power of Ulysses is in its capacity to organise text on the fly. Breaking down sections, merging them and moving them around is factored into the DNA of the app. What you end up with is an app that has all the elegance of a minimal text editor with the extremely clever ability to manage serious writing projects.
As an alternative to Ulysses, if you want something even more minimalist, an app I have always liked is iA Writer . An example of opinionated design, iA Writer provides a wonderfully spartan, and focused writing environment. The app is the product of two things. First, an obsessive attention to detail in responsive typography. And second, the design principle that form follow content. The result is an app that remains deceptively powerful, while getting out of the way of the writing process. Right down to the inclusion of content blocks for managing embedded media. It was iA Writer on the Mac that first converted me to Markdown. The iOS app is not only faithful to the look and feel of the desktop app, but a pleasure to use on the iPad. As more and more apps smuggle in price rises as they push into the world of subscriptions, the contrast in value is stark with an app like iA Writer that you pay for once.
Next Level Automation
Despite my enthusiasm for these other apps, as I mentioned above, most of the writing I do on the iPad is in Editorial. The main reason is that Editorial includes powerful workflow automation through its Python engine. Not only can I automate a number of tasks, but I can manage citations from a plain text bibliography file. This is something that Workflow could handle with Ulysses, but ultimately Editorial’s Python capabilities are even more powerful. The details of how I mange that are something for a later post, but if you have an inkling of what I am referring to, you can do much worse than pick up a copy of Editorial. Despite my enthusiasm for these other apps, as I mentioned above, most of the writing I do on the iPad is in Editorial. The main reason is that Editorial includes powerful workflow automation through its Python engine. Not only can I automate a number of tasks, but I can manage citations from a plain text bibliography file. This is something that Workflow could handle with Ulysses, but ultimately Editorial’s Python capabilities are even more powerful. The details of how I mange that are something for a later post, but if you have an inkling of what I am referring to, you can do much worse than pick up a copy of Editorial. If anything, managing citations is major halting point for academic writing on the iPad — unless you do it manually, like an animal. It is easy enough to hack your way around it for shorter works, but the more in depth the referencing required, the more tricky it becomes. Most, if not all of the major referencing management conceive of the iPad as a companion device. At best this means apps are designed for reading and annotation, and not for referencing per se. I currently use Papers, which is fine app on the Mac, but is bereft of options on iOS. Luckily, the one thing it can do is export a citekey, and Editorial can do the rest.
Scrivener for Long Form
Finally, this brings me to Scrivener. If you are working on any kind of long form writing, there is really nothing like it. I mentioned the way that Ulysses can cleverly organise text above. While that is true, it does meet with some limits were complex projects are concerned. I put this down to a consequence of maintaining some of the strengths of that app, adding certain features would interrupt its design.
Scrivener on the other hand, is a kind of self-contained writing studio. It has unparalleled features for organising long-form writing projects, including the gathering of research materials and a plethora of tools for mapping, contextualising, and annotating text. Originally developed for novelists, Scrivener has also steadily gained an academic user base of both students and researchers. As far as I can tell, the only people not using it for manuscript work either haven’t heard of it, or haven’t given it sufficient time to grasp its incredible usefulness.
If you are working on a dissertation or thesis, or a book of any kind, then you will be hard pressed to find a better tool. Although designed for longer work, that doesn’t preclude its usefulness for other kinds of writing. As you can probably tell, I have a penchant for separating writing tasks in specific tools, but I wouldn’t advocate indulging in that kind of madness if you can help it. Scrivener excels at any kind of text that requires organisation but it is also on the surface of it a text editor. You can use it to write what you like.
As for using it on iOS. While it started life as desktop only software, the iPad version has near feature parity now. In fact, it was selected among the App Store best of 2016. Again, this is something I have in mind to cover in significant detail here, time willing.
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 ↩
The linked report can give you a better idea of what you are getting into when you trust your private data to the many apps and services that have become so entwined with our daily lives. Privacy and security being the perennial issues they are, this annual report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation should be mandatory reading for students and researchers. Although the idea that Universities themselves have always been at the vanguard of free speech, academic freedom and individual rights is an easily dispelled myth, generally students – and many academics – have been. Regardless, this is something that everybody needs to be across. As the EFF puts it
In this era of unprecedented digital surveillance and widespread political upheaval, the data stored on our cell phones, laptops, and especially our online services are a magnet for government actors seeking to track citizens, journalists, and activists…
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.