Reviews


A Brief Review of the Synology DS213j

Synology DiskStation DS213j

A few months ago, on one of the more nerdy episodes of Shawn Today episodes, I was discussing local backup solutions, my need for a better backup hard drive, and some of the research I was doing on Network Attached Storage drives (NAS) since that’s the direction I was leaning.

All the data in my house consists of:

  • Files I’m using right now
  • Files my wife is using right now
  • Files we want to keep, but don’t use often (if ever)
  • Media (photos, music, movies)
  • Backups of all of the above

The files we’re using now live on our computers, obviously. The rest should be kept on another drive. I, however, had the rest kept on 5 different drives. Ugh. There were two old USB drives with different folders of archived data; two USB drives that I used for my nightly super duper clones; and a Time Capsule that was used for our Time Machine backups, except it bit the dust about a year ago, I hadn’t set anything up to replace it until recently.

I wanted to consolidate all of that stuff into one backup and storage kit that had more functionality beyond being just an external drive and could be expanded if I needed it to. Plus, I wanted to have redundancy with all this stuff — to know that all my old files and all our media and everything else wasn’t just being stored, but was also being backed up here at home and to an off-site service.

And so, now you know why I was leaning towards a NAS, and not just a bigger USB drive.

Well, at first I was thinking of getting a refurbished Mac mini and a basic thunderbolt RAID to attach to it. I knew I’d be able to use it as a media server, a backup destination, and that I’d be able to log in remotely from my iOS devices or my Mac. And, I knew that I could put backup software on the Mac that would do local clones of the RAID and offsite backups of it as well. But I wasn’t ready to spend $1,500 for that setup.

I’d been hearing a lot of great things about Synology and their DiskStations (especially since the software that runs on them was updated about a year ago).

After doing more research it was clear that what I wanted was the Synology DS213j. It would be capable of handling everything I wanted from a Mac mini + RAID setup, but it was much more affordable ($200 plus the price of two drives ($125/ea.).

The Synology DS213j has a gigabit ethernet port and two USB ports. I have it plugged directly into my Google Fiber modem. Which means not only does the Synology have it’s own Gigabit connection to the World Wide Web, I have a gigabit connection to the Synology from within my home. But that’s just the start.

It’s that operating system that separates a Synology from your basic NAS or RAID. With DSM 5 (the software that runs on the Synology), you can install apps and services onto that let you do some pretty clever things with all the files you’re storing on there. And that’s a big part of what makes a Synology more than just a fancy external hard drive. It’s literally a file server. And, it get’s better: there is a whole suite of iOS apps as well. But more on that in a bit.

Setting up the Synology

A site member who was listening to my aforementioned Shawn Today episode had recently purchased a Synology DiskStation but was no longer using it. He emailed me and offered to send it at no charge. I, of course, gratefully accepted his generous gift.

That was 3 months ago. I’ve since been using the Synology quite a bit and it’s time I shared some of the cool things it can do and give a look at how I am using it in real life.

For starters, I put 2 of the 3 TB Western Digital Red drives in there. Between all our media and all our archived files, we only have about 700GB of unique data to store. And so a 3TB disc is plenty and the WD Reds are one of the drives that BackBlaze recommends.

Putting two WD Red drives into the Synology

Here’s a quick rundown of how I’m using my Synology:

  • Consolidated 2 old USB hard drives I had that were storing random, archived files (like design projects I did back in 2006).

  • Created a Time Machine partition for me and one for my wife’s MacBook Air.

  • Created a partition for cloning my MacBook Air with a browsable folder structure.

  • Offloaded my entire music library and photo library, freeing up some much needed disk space on my MacBook Air. If I want to listen to music in iTunes I can see the Synology as a shared library. Also, I simply moved the photos in my Lightroom library to the Synology’s Data drive, and I can see all the images from past years right there within Lightroom still.

    Synology and iTunes

    Synology and Lightroom

But that is all pretty standard stuff for a NAS or RAID. Here’s what I’m utilizing from the department of Things the Synology Does That Are Cool:

Synology’s automatic backups of itself

For local backup: I plugged in a Lacie USB drive to the back of the Synology and set it up to do nightly local backups of the Synology itself. This is fantastic. As any nerd will tell you, a RAID is not a backup — even though you’ve got 2 or more drives in the enclosure (helping ensure that if one of the drives dies, you don’t lose your data), if the enclosure itself were to suffer catastrophic failure (power surge, bug, freak accident of nature, whatever) then it’s possible that all the drives in the RAID could lose their data. So, really, you want to have a local backup of your RAID.

For off-site backup: I set up an automatic off-site backup to Google Drive. It can also back up to Amazon Glacier, Dropbox, and other services, but I went with Google Drive because I have 1TB of free space thanks to Google Fiber. My Synology only backs up the files that are specific to it, (meaning it doesn’t send the Time Machine partitions there).

Synology on iOS

Synology also makes a whole suite of 8 different iOS apps that are for basic things like accessing the files and media on your DiskStation to nerdy things like monitoring your DiskStation or viewing your network security cameras.

The Synology iOS Apps

(From left to right: DS file, DS photo+, and DS audio. The apps are universal and work on iPad, too.)

  • DS file: this gives you complete access to the entire file structure of your Synology. You can log in over the local network, or, if you have QuickConnect set up, you can access your Synology from anywhere in the world.

  • DS audio lets you stream (and download) all the audio files on your Synology. And, unlike the photo package, when you set up the Audio package, it auto-detects the MP3s on the Synology and is ready to go immediately.

  • DS photo+ lets you browse all the images on your Synology, as well as enable instant upload from your iPhone and iPad’s camera rolls. It’s basically your own Photo Stream replacement service, except that it’s not super easy to automatically upload photos in-to (that I know of).

    Another small gripe I have with the photo app is that, for whatever reason, after installing the Photo bundle on the Synology itself, you then have to manually import or move your photos out of the file structure of the Synology and into the Photo app (which exists as its own partition on the Synology). Once added to the Photos partition, the Synology has to convert those images (which I’m not even sure what it’s doing to confer them, and it takes a very long time). It’d be nice if it would just let me tell it where all my photos are and then it automagically does the rest.

    However, since the photos and photo albums exist simply as a hierarchy of folders, you can add photos through the Finder directly via the mounted Synology. I haven’t gotten this far yet, but I see some great options for automating the photo importing and structuring process using some Hazel rules. I should be able to automatically get my iOS photo stream images in there as well. We’ll see.

To get the iOS apps to work, you also need to install the corresponding packages (a.k.a. apps) onto the Synology itself. With the photo viewer, for example, it’s a separate web app that houses all the photos from your Synology. You start by manually uploading photos to the album and then once they are there, you can browse them from your Mac, the Web, or iOS devices. And anyone with the login info to that photo album can view the photos (so good news for families).

Read / Write Speeds

For the first two months I was connecting to the Synology over my 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi (because I’m an idiot), and the connection was pathetic at best: 2-3 MB/s read and write.

A few weeks ago I dropped a Gigabit port by my desk and ran CAT 6 from my router (which is in a different area of the house) to the port. I then got a Thunderbolt Ethernet port (that came with this awesome Belkin Thunderbolt Dock) for my MacBook Air so I could take full advantage of Google Fiber’s gigabit internet.

The advantage of the Gigabit drop is that I’m now also getting significantly better read/write speeds to the Synology (obviously). I can now read/write to the DiskStation at 85 MB/s and 45 MB/s respectively. Which is pretty great.

If I’m on my 5Ghz Wi-Fi connection I can read/write at 24 MB/s and 15MB/s respectively.

Wrap

Since the Synology is attached directly to my modem, it has its own connection to the Internet. But all NAS drives connect direct to the modem (usually). The Synology is cool because, since it has its own operating system, it doesn’t require a dedicated Mac in order for the files to be accessible from my home or from anywhere else in the world. While it’s not quite as powerful as a Headless Mac mini plus NAS setup would be, it is about $1,000 less expensive. And if you’re just wanting to dip your toe in the water with this stuff, from where I’m sitting, a Synology DiskStation is a great place to start.

So, in short, I’ve got a gigabit connected local hard drive that is smart enough to back itself automatically. And it also serves as my own personal media center, photo backup solution, and it just so happens to have a suite of iOS apps so I can access all the files and media from any of my computers or devices from anywhere in the world.

It’s wonderful.

Command Space: A Review of LaunchBar and a History of Application Launchers

For the persnickety power-user, there is but one way to navigate around a computer: with the keyboard.

Let’s talk about application launchers

Want to launch an app on your Mac? There is, ahem, an app for that.

Whenever I do a clean install of my Mac (which is less often these days), the first application I download is LaunchBar.

Because to me, my application launcher is how I get around my computer. Without LaunchBar installed it’s like I’m at a friend’s house, trying to navigate to the kitchen in the middle of the night and I can’t find the light switches and I keep stubbing my toes on the furniture.

On average, I bring up LaunchBar about 40 times per day when I’m working at my computer. I spend about 6 of my working hours at my Mac, which equates to using LaunchBar about once every 10 minutes.

I’ve been using a Mac for 10 years. My first application launcher was Quicksilver, but when it farted out on Snow Leopard in 2009 I switched to LaunchBar. In 2011 I spent several months using Alfred, and I’ve switched over to it on occasion since then as well to stay abreast of its development.

There are plenty of other apps I spend more time in, but none I use more frequently than my application launcher.

If ever there was an app that needed to be as frictionless as possible, it would be the application launcher. It should come up instantly when prompted, it should respond instantly, and I should never feel lost or confused when using it. The whole point is fast launching and fast actions.

Some use cases for an application launcher include launching apps, launching bookmarks, launching AppleScripts, performing custom searches on various sites, doing quick mathematical calculations, opening files, getting at the recently-opened files within a certain app, accessing the clipboard history, performing actions on files (like grabbing a document and attaching it to an email, or resizing an image), and more.

Bottom line, what makes an application launcher such a critical tool is that it’s the fastest way launch and act on common apps, documents, bookmarks, and more.

But it doesn’t end there. LaunchBar and Alfred actually become more personalized as you use them. They literally learn your behavior by weighting certain search results and findings based on your usage over time, and they can be customized to only index the things you’re interested in accessing so that they act as fast as possible.

With Yosemite, Apple has promoted Spotlight to a more front-and-center position, and they are giving it a bit more “power”. So where did this idea of an application launcher come from? I’m glad you asked…

Other application launchers

Though LaunchBar is the original (not including the NeXTSTEP Dock), it’s not the only application launcher available on the Mac today.

For the sake of this article, an application launcher will be defined as any tool on your computer which provides a shortcut to finding and activating files and programs.

The Dock, for example, is the premier application launcher and it ships with OS X. Spotlight is also an application launcher. And there is Launchpad, but does anybody use it?

There are two functions that I consider to be the most important with an application launcher: (a) quickly finding and launching applications, files, and more; and (b) instantly activating an application or script with the use of a pre-defined global hotkey.

Alas, LaunchBar, which is this author’s application launcher of choice, does not have global keyboard shortcuts built in. Alfred and Quicksilver do. And so, in order to instantly activate an application I use a second application, Keyboard Maestro. For example: Mail is Shift+Command+M; Tweetbot is Alt+Command+T; nvALT is Alt+Command+N.

Though the Dock is convenient and ever-present, there are some shortcomings that a dedicated application launcher such as LaunchBar solves. And, in fact, it was this type of shortcoming that actually lead to the development of LaunchBar — the original 3rd-party application launcher.

An aside about Alfred

I think it’s fair to say that the king of the Application Launcher Market is Alfred. I conducted a detailed survey back in 2011 and another more casual one a few months ago, and the majority response to those surveys was that people use Alfred as their application launcher of choice.

Moreover, Alfred is what I recommend over at The Sweet Setup as one of the applications all moderately computer savvy folks should use on their Mac.

Alfred is, without question, a fantastic app. It is actively maintained, well designed, easy to use, and extremely powerful. The reason I pick it for people new to application launchers is that it’s easy to ease in to (when you type into the field, you can take as long as you like), it’s free for the basic feature set, and then you can grow into it if you want to buy the power pack.

But I personally prefer LaunchBar for a few reasons…

LaunchBar

My reasons for using LaunchBar are two fold. For one, I like the way LaunchBar handles Instant Send, browsing recent documents in apps, and its clipboard manager. Secondly, I like that LaunchBar is the original application launcher. It has a long and rich history of development on the Mac that spans literally 20 years. And I’m the sort of fellow who appreciates things like that.

So, all this to say, my review of and praise for LaunchBar is not a simultaneous knock against Alfred. I hope that, regardless of your Application Launcher of Choice, you can enjoy this article for what it is: a story about one of the finest and oldest Mac applications still in active development.

The “Command+Space” Origin Story

The original application launcher was, in fact, LaunchBar. It started back in 1995 and ran on NeXTSTEP.

About 11 years ago, Norbert Heger, the original developer of LaunchBar, shared about the history of this fine app in an interview with Derrick Story.

In the interview, Norbert shares about how when your files are organized with hierarchical structure it is more difficult to get to them quickly. And the sort of person who cares about organized hierarchal structure with their files, folders, is likely to be the sort of person who also cares about being able to get to all of those files and folders and applications quickly because they spend a lot of time making the most out of their computer.

And so, in 1995, LaunchBar began. At first it was a collection of shell scripts and a Terminal window. But as the internal team over at Objective Development used it more and more, they realized that it was a tool the general public would probably benefit from. So in 1996 they released a public beta.

Norbert Heger:

The very first “prototype” was not even an application. It all began with dozens of little shell scripts and a tiny Terminal window. Each of the scripts had a very short one- or two-letter name and just opened one specific application or document. The Terminal window was placed in one of the screen corners, allowing us to bring it to the front quickly using the mouse. When we wanted to launch Interface Builder, for instance, we just had to click that screen corner, enter “IB” (the name of the script we’ve prepared to launch Interface Builder) and hit Return.

From there they developed a rating algorithm and automatic indexing so that you wouldn’t have to write new shell scripts for every app, file, or folder you wanted to launch.

They also came up with the keyboard shortcut that we still use today:

Johannes Tiefenbrunner “invented” the Command-Space hotkey back in 1995. In NEXTSTEP it was nearly impossible to implement a system wide hotkey, but Johannes found a way to patch the Display Postscript Server (also responsible for dispatching keyboard and mouse events), allowing us to activate LaunchBar with a single keystroke. Fortunately, these things became much easier to accomplish in Mac OS X.

LaunchBar 1, running on NeXTSTEP — Circa 1995

LaunchBar version 1

LaunchBar 2, running on Rhapsody

LaunchBar version 2

In 2001, Objective Development ported LaunchBar to OS X. They gave it a mostly “default looking” design, which stayed pretty consisted for the next 12 years.

LaunchBar versions 3 – 5 all looked just about like this:

LaunchBar 4

But today, the design is changing.

LaunchBar 6:

LaunchBar version 6

What’s New in LaunchBar 6?

Quite a bit, in fact. In short, LaunchBar looks better, has access to more items on your Mac (like iCloud tabs!), and you can now write and install custom workflows.

LaunchBar 6 is the first paid update to LaunchBar since 2010. If you’re a longtime LaunchBar user, the $19 upgrade price is well worth it. There’s also now a free version of LaunchBar, that gives you access to all the features, but has a limit on how frequently you can launch it.

The all-new look.

LaunchBar 6 Themes

Bigger font. Central location on the screen. It’s reminiscent of Alfred a bit (and even the new Spotlight coming in Yosemite), but yet it’s still very LaunchBar-y.

I like the new look quite a bit. Still has some of the things I like about LaunchBar, but with some cool things from Alfred brought over.

And there are themes: Bright, Dark, Default, Frosty, and Small. The “Small” theme is the previous LaunchBar design seen in version 5. I personally like the “Frosty” theme — it has an iOS 7- (and now Yosemite-)esque transparency to it. You can also customize your own theme if you want, though it’s a hack.

Actions, Extensions, and Workflows

LaunchBar has always come with some clever actions built in. For example, you can create a TinyURL link, send a tweet, eject any and all ejectable volumes that are mounted to your Mac, have Mail refresh in the background, upload images to Flickr, and more.

Many of these actions and workflows are things which OS X already handles, and LaunchBar just makes it easier to get to. And they aren’t necessarily all actions that do something, but also can serve as quick access to various things.

For example, there is an action that lets you browse the list of all currently open Safari tabs. So, say you want to email or tweet a link to one of the 41 tabs that you know you have open. You don’t have to navigate to Safari and peruse through all the tabs to find the one — you can use LaunchBar to scroll through your list of currently open Safari tabs, find the one you want and then act on that URL (which means you could convert it to a short URL, you could use it as the body text for composing a new email, you could tweet it out, you could simply copy it to the clipboard, etc.).

LaunchBar 6 is more flexible when it comes to the ability for users to create their own workflows and custom actions. Not only can you create Automator Workflows that interact with LaunchBar (receiving input, sending back results, etc.), but you can also write your own custom actions.

There is a documentation page on the Objective Development website which gives more details about how to write LaunchBar Actions.

I’ve been using the new LaunchBar for 10 weeks now, and I’ve yet to create a single custom action of my own that I didn’t already have in my previous versions of the app (such as a my custom Pinboard and Amazon searches). For one, I’m not a very good scripting programmer so I don’t even really know where to start. And perhaps I’m just not imaginative enough to think up ways my computing time would benefit from a custom action.

Because from where I’m sitting, all the built-in actions are pretty great already.

On Twitter, I asked any Alfred users to share what their must-have custom workflows were. Many answers were for things that LaunchBar already does out of the box: toggling Bluetooth, sending a tweet, doing a custom search on a website, adding a new task to Reminders, creating a new calendar event, and more.

One big difference between LaunchBar’s custom actions and Alfred’s is that with the latter you can assign a global hotkey to execute the action. But I use Keyboard Maestro to run all the custom scripts and macros that I want to be hotkey executable (such as this one which will take the current Safari tab and open it in Chrome).

Usage Reports

LaunchBar now keeps track of how often you open the Bar, what actions you perform, and how much time you’re saving. You can view your usage report by bringing up LaunchBar and hitting Opt+Cmd+U (or click the gear and click on Usage).

Live Search Results

You know how in Google when you’re typing in a search, the suggestions auto populate? That now happens in LaunchBar as well. It works with Google, Wikipedia, and a few others. Plus you can create your own custom live searches via LaunchBar Actions.

Emoji

LaunchBar 6 Emoji

Your emails, iMessages, and whatever else just got ten times more fancy with quick access to Emoji from within LaunchBar. Just type in “Emoji” and drill down. (Hi, Casey!)

Better iCloud Calendar and Reminders Integration

You can create iCloud reminders and calendar events from within the app.

If you use reminders often, you can set up a shortcut to the specific iCloud Reminders list that you use most often to bring that one up right away. And because you can send text and things into LaunchBar, you could easily create reminders from selected text or URLs, etc.

You can also toggle which reminder lists and which calendars are indexable if you have some misc lists that you don’t use.

Unfortunately, using natural language for assigning dates and times to a reminder (such as: “take out the trash tomorrow at 2pm”) doesn’t translate to applying that specified time to the reminder (a limitation of Reminders, not LaunchBar). However, you can assign dates and times using the @ symbol and direct time stamps (with the date going before the time).

LaunchBar Reminders integration

As you can see in the above screenshot, how the reminder (or meeting) info is parsed is displayed within LaunchBar’s columns. The text of the reminder is “call mom” the calendar date is this coming Friday, June 13, and the time for the reminder is 5:30pm.

Using LaunchBar to create reminders isn’t bad, but Fantastical’s support for Reminders is a bit better because Fantastical has a superior natural language parser.

In addition to creating reminders, you can also view all the reminders in your list and even mark them as completed from within LaunchBar.

LaunchBar Completed Reminders

In short, LaunchBar now operates as a full-fledged iCloud Reminders client. Not bad if you prefer to use Apple’s Reminders app, but wish there was a better form of quick entry from the Mac.

Aside: thoughts on Application Launchers and their relationship with other apps and services

So long as we’re talking about how you can use LaunchBar to create calendar events and reminders, it brings up a question of just how integrated we want our application launcher to be with our other apps?

For example, LaunchBar has a “Send to OmniFocus Inbox” action that will take whatever bit of text, file, URL, or the like that you’ve sent in to LaunchBar and then create a new task in OmniFocus with that item. It’s quite clever and helpful, but it’s also the same functionality as the OmniFocus’s built-in Clipper.

You can also add Fantastical events with LaunchBar, control iTunes, refresh Mail, and more. The list goes on for how LaunchBar (and Alfred) integrate with other apps.

But there are many times where I prefer to use the native integration of my apps. There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument, of course. Take Fantastical for example: if you use LaunchBar to send an event to Fantastical then the advantage is that you only need to remember your LaunchBar shortcut key. Evoke the app, get Fantastical selected, hit space and type your calendar entry, then launch that text in to Fantastical and finalize the new event. But, I prefer the way Fantastical works when entering a new event. And so that means I have to remember my keyboard shortcut for launching Fantastical.

The advantage of using an application launcher as your central repository for anything and everything is that there is less to remember. However, the integration with the various apps and services is not always as polished compared to the native input methods built in to those apps themselves.

LaunchBar Tips

With an app that can do so much, sometimes it’s tough to know where to start. Here are a few tips for things I do.

  • Quick Send: If you hold Command+Space while there’s an item that is selected in the Finder or text that is selected in an app, then that item will be “sent” to LaunchBar and you can then act on it.

    For example, if I need to crop and resize an image in Photoshop, I’ll navigate to that image in the Finder, then hold Command+Space to bring up LaunchBar with the item selected.

    LaunchBar Instant Send

    Do you see the orange block arrow icon? That means LaunchBar is ready to act on that item, and whatever I type next is the action LaunchBar will take on the selected item. Typing “photoshop” will then give me the option to open that image in Photoshop. I hit Enter and off we go.

    I could type “flickr” instead and then be given the option to upload the image to Flickr, via OS X’s system level service.

  • Getting a contact’s address / email / phone number: When you’ve brought up LaunchBar, search for a contact’s name. Then, hit the right arrow key and you have access to their address card fields. From their you can select their phone number or email for copy and pasting into whatever application you’re working in. Great for when someone emails you asking for the contact info of a mutual friend, or a business contact. Or heck, if someone is on the other side of the room and asks for a phone number, you can display it in large type on your 27-inch monitor because why not?

  • Navigating and acting on recent documents in apps: No only can you use LaunchBar to launch any app on your computer, but LaunchBar also has visibility into the documents that you’ve recently had open in that app.

    So, say you want to open that spreadsheet again. Bring up LaunchBar and get Numbers selected. Then, tap the right arrow and you can drill down to see all the recent documents. And from there you have far more options than just to open them — you can tag them with a color, attach them to a new email message, preview them in QuickLook, and more.

  • Clipboard history: It boggles my mind that OS X doesn’t have some sort of clipboard history by default. Once you’ve used an app that manages and tracks your clipboard history you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it. The fact that now, Copy/Cut is not a potentially destructive action.

    To access your clipboard history in LaunchBar go to the Preferences → Clipboard. Make sure that “Show clipboard history” is selected, and set a hotkey for it. I use Opt+Cmd+\.

  • Creating custom abbreviations: If old habits die hard, you can create your own custom abbreviations, such as “ical” for the Calendar app. To do this just get the app, bookmark, file, whatever that you want as the selection in LaunchBar. Then click on the item (you’ll see the “open” menu when your mouse hovers over), down towards the bottom of the popup menu you’ll see an option to Assign abbreviation.

  • Creating custom searches: you can set up custom searches on Amazon, Pinboard, Giphy, your own website, etc. All you need to know is how the search term interacts with the website in the URL.

    Here’s how: Bring up LaunchBar and click the Gear icon in the right side of the Bar. Go to Index → Show Index. Then go to Web → Search Templates. Create a new one for the website you want, and simply put an asterisk to serve as LaunchBar’s wild card to know where you want the search result to show up.

    For example, this will launch a search on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/s/&field-keywords=*

    This will launch a search on Giphy:

    http://giphy.com/search/*

    To use your custom search, just bring up LaunchBar and type the initials for the search you want. When you have it selected, hit space and a text box will show up. Then type your search into the field and hit enter. LaunchBar will send you to that URL. Magic.

    LaunchBar also has a ton of pre-built search templates, such as for the iTunes store, Mac App store, Google, Dictionary, Wikipedia, and more.

Additional resources

The Take Control of LaunchBar book has a ton of information, though it’s not yet updated for LaunchBar 6.

And Macworld has several articles with tips and tricks: here, here, and here.

A Review of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Here is a dorky chart showing what I call The “Spectrum of ‘GTD workflow’ Tools”:

The Spectrum of GTD Workflow Tools

Click for full-size

What does it mean?

Basic task-management tools shine with short term tasks and goals. They are simple and have no learning curve. However, they can strain under the weight of too many tasks, long-term projects, tasks which are not yet relevant until several months from now, or tasks which need additional layers of information beyond the action item itself.

It’s because of these “shortcomings” of basic tools that more complex tools exist. The complex options excel at managing detailed and long-term projects, tasks with due dates in the far future, and action items with multiple bits of additional information.

However, the complex tools have a trade-off as well. They take time to learn, they beg us to input as much information as possible for every action item thus requiring an extra step or two (or five) when creating a new task, and it can sometimes feel like we’re spending more time managing our task system then actually doing our tasks.

And that’s why in-between the basic and complex tools are those that support a basic structure of projects and lists (and perhaps even due dates with reminders), but which don’t allow or require additional layers of information.

Somewhere along this spectrum is a tool and system that works for you.

Using too basic of a workflow tool when your circumstances require a complex one will cause unnecessary mental friction and will lead to wasted time and forgotten tasks. But using a too-complex tool when your circumstances don’t require it can lead to unnecessary management of and tinkering with your workflow and tools.

There is no single right or wrong solution here. Some of us use a certain tool for task management because our circumstances require it, and some of us a certain tool because our personality prefers it. There are also those who use a non-ideal tool because they don’t know a better option exists (or because they are too stubborn/lazy to seek out and learn the proper tool).

If you can: find a tool that makes sense to you.

Your tools should always be available to you when you want to use them for adding or completing tasks; it should be as easy and fun to use as possible for a tool like this; and it should support a system that you trust with your tasks and projects, that way you’ll be predisposed to continue using it without weighing the other options every other week.

Factors that I think are important but which should not be the ultimate deciding factors include the cost, the learning curve, and the trendiness. No doubt, for many of you reading this, the system you use to get things done is the backbone of your day-to-day work. Choosing the inexpensive shortcut may save as much as $200 and a few weeks of learning the ropes, but it may also mean taking on a long-term handicap related to your productivity. I’m not saying to go buy the most expensive software out there, but I am asking that you consider your needs and give yourself permission to invest in the best tools available that will aid you in the activities you do every single day.

My tool of choice is OmniFocus

I’ve read David Allen’s book, and I totally get it. I love it. His whole philosophy for getting things done, staying organized, and getting our task management systems out of our heads and into some other system all makes a lot of sense to me. The parking lot, the reviews, it clicks with how my brain works.

And so, yes, my own system of productivity is theoretically similar to what Allen lays out in his book. Except that my practice of “GTD” seems so very sloppy.

For the past 4 years I’ve used OmniFocus as my task-management system. Like a good wallet, OmniFocus has held together the crazy and necessary bits of my life through all sorts of seasons. From my time as a creative director managing a team of 17, to my transition as a self-employed full-time blogger, through dozens of business trips and vacations, through two kids, innumerable projects around the house, and so, so, so much more.

I’ve got a lot of crap in OmniFocus, to be honest. Like I said, my GTD system is sloppy — I don’t keep my task-management software neat and tidy because I don’t care that much. I don’t have perfectly formatted lists with thought-through start and due dates, proper contexts, accurate time estimations, or anything else. And yes, I’ll admit that I don’t always start my tasks with a verb (call, ask, go to, pick up, fall over, etc.). Also, I’m very bad at regularly reviewing all my active projects.

If I did all these things well, OmniFocus would be an ideal tool. It is SO GREAT at managing all the crazy metadata that goes along with a finely-tuned productivity workflow.

But in my years of using this app, I’ve found that it’s also great at managing my more sloppy and unorganized style of “productivity workflow.”

OmniFocus is awesome at letting me be messy and disorganized with my tasks. Because the truth is, I’d rather just be doing stuff — like writing, reading, or (ideally) sitting outside in my hammock drinking some lemonade — instead of going through all my active projects and dusting my someday-maybe list.

I’m not an OmniFocus ninja, and I don’t spend a lot of time fiddling and tweaking my software. But I have been using OmniFocus long enough to know what it’s capable of, how to use it best for my needs, to know that I still have room for improvement with how I use it, but still trust that it can handle whatever I can throw at it.

I know OmniFocus can conform to my needs, I trust it with my tasks, and based on how I use the app and how I manage my tasks and projects, I know that when something important is due, OmniFocus will let me know. Once I’ve put something into the app, I let it go. And that is worth the price of this software times ten.

How I use each version of OmniFocus

OmniFocus is a 3-app suite: iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I use all three apps daily. Here’s how:

iPhone

I predominately use the iPhone for two things: (1) quick capture of a new task, and (2) checking items off a list when out and about (such as errands, shopping, etc.)

The iPhone version of OmniFocus is my least favorite of the three apps. And, unfortunately, it’s my least favorite because it handles one of its most important functions very poorly: quick entry.

So say I’m standing in line at Chipotle and I suddenly think of an excellent topic I want to add to my upcoming book, and I want to work on it tomorrow morning during my writing time.

Here’s the steps necessary: (1) unlock iPhone; (2) launch OmniFocus; (3) tap the Quick Entry button on the bottom right; (4) enter task name: “Add cool new section to the book”; (5) tap the Project picker; (6) type in the first few letters of the name of the project; (7) tap the name of the project; (8) tap the Due date picker; (9) tap the “+1 Day” button to set the task to be due tomorrow; (10) tap “Save”.

If you don’t include the time it takes to pull my iPhone out of my pocket and unlock it, then the time it takes to enter in this “quick” entry takes about 30 seconds. Not an incredibly long time, but it’s not an easy 30 seconds.

I could just toss the task into my OmniFocus inbox and save myself half of those steps, but why would I do that when I already know the project and due date for this task? Ignoring that data is simply putting it off to a later time.

In a nut, my quibble with the iPhone is that the new task entry page does not have a clearly defined hierarchy. Thus, even after 9 months of using it every day, I’m still not familiar with the new task entry layout.

iPad

I use the iPad mostly for doing my reviews and scrubbing my daily list of things to do. The iPad version of OmniFocus was my favorite, but it’s now tied with the Mac because the new Mac version is so great.

Every morning, I scrub my to-do list by looking at what’s due today and what’s available to be done in the projects I’m excited about working on today. I start by writing down my “Big Three” tasks I want to get done (these are sometimes important tasks that are due, but they’re often part of the projects I have motivation to keep working on). These “Big Three” are how I’ll define success for my work day, and it’s what gives me the primary direction for what to work on once I sit down at my keyboard.

I also have a bit of admin and email time as part of my day, and so I use OmniFocus to tell me what specifics I’ll be working on during the day.

I then move that day’s tasks to paper and map out a rough timeline for when I plan to tackle the big tasks and when I plan to wrap up my day.

The Morning To-Do List Scrub

Mac

Since I work from my Mac for hours a day, I use OmniFocus here quite a bit. It’s almost always running because I send a lot of tasks into OmniFocus using the Quick Entry popup, and during my times in the day when I work through some of my “Admin” context tasks, I reference OmniFocus for what needs to be done.

And with that, let’s talk about the new version of OmniFocus for Mac.

New and Improved: OmniFocus 2 for Mac

It’s brand new, and here’s what’s most awesome:

  1. Gorgeous new design — finally.
  2. Forecast view — straight out of the iPad app.
  3. Much improved Review mode — also from the iPad.
  4. Quick Open — a way to jump to a specific perspective, project, context, or folder without leaving your keyboard.

There’s more, of course, but these are the new elements of OmniFocus 2 for Mac that I personally am most excited about.

The Design of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Form follows function. Design isn’t just how it looks, design is also how it works. Etcetera. Well, OmniFocus 1 had the function — it worked great — but form? Not so much.

Fortunately, you could tweak the colors, typefaces, and spacing of the original OmniFocus. Myself, and others, had our own neat themes to improve slightly on the default design of the app. I felt my theme helped give some much-needed space to the app, but it never felt great.

Which is why there’s no contest about what the biggest update to the new version of OmniFocus is: the design.

For me, the complete visual overhaul of the app is reminiscent of getting my first Nintendo for Christmas — I wanted it so badly for so long and I cannot believe it actually happened. Yes!

A Visual History of OmniFocus

I’ve written about OF’s visual history before and I’d like to do so again. Not only do I think it’s interesting and fascinating, I think taking a look at how far the app has come gives some context and appreciation for the current state of the app as well as it being a brief study in user interface design.

OmniFocus’s roots are as an add-on to OmniOutliner Pro called Kinkless (kGTD), which was built and developed by Ethan Schoonover. Though it was incredibly brilliant, kGTD was also a hack. It was a bunch of AppleScripts that ran on a single OmniOutliner document to bring it certain features. It also had some custom buttons and even some Quicksilver actions for quick entry.

Here is what Kinkless GTD looked like (circa 2006):

Khoi Vihn's Kinkless GTD Setup

In 2006, Omni Group asked Schoonover, along with Merlin Mann, to help take the ideas and functions of kGTD and turn them into an official Omni task-management application.

Here’s the first publicly displayed mockup, showing what OmniFocus could have looked like:

Original OmniFocus UI Mockup

After more than a year of private development with a group of about 500 alpha users, OmniFocus went into public beta in November 2007, and in January 2008, OmniFocus 1.0 was released.

OmniFocus 1.0 (circa January 2008):

OmniFocus Version 1.0

OmniFocus 1.10 (circa yesterday, May 21, 2014) :

OmniFocus User Interface, version 1.10

As you can see, not much in the UI has changed from the original Kinkless implementation of 2005 to what OmniFocus is today in 2014.

But all that began to change with the first beta of OmniFocus for Mac 2.

Little over a year ago, on February 1, 2013, the beta of OmniFocus 2 for the Mac was introduced.

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 (circa Feb 2013):

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

However, during the beta testing process, the Omni Group realized they needed to go back to the drawing board, and in June 2013 they pressed pause on the public beta.

During that 5-month testing window in 2013, I gave the beta 1 a good college try but kept drifting back to my original version of OmniFocus that I’d been using for the past 4 years. In short, I never felt all that comfortable navigating that OmniFocus beta. It felt more like a fancy new theme for the Mac app and not a significant improvement of the app’s primary functionality.

Omni Group’s time at the drawing board paid off, and a couple months ago they re-introduced the OmniFocus for Mac beta with a completely overhauled design.

And that awesome design is front and center of what is shipping today.

OmniFocus 2 for Mac (May 22, 2014):

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

As you can see, there are quite a few noticeable changes between the beta 1 and beta 2 designs of the new OmniFocus for Mac.

For one, the left-aligned checkboxes have been swapped out with right-aligned checkcircles. The checkcircles are pretty cool, I think. For one, they’re a design cue from the iPhone app. But they’re also quite clever.

Technically, they’re called “Status Circles”. From the release notes:

Status Circles provide a colorful nexus of information about each task: is it overdue, flagged, complete, repeating?

Here’s a look at several of the various states of the status circle. (Note that all these items are due, and thus the circles are orange/red instead of grey.)

OmniFocus 2 for Mac - Status Circles

From top to bottom:

  • Red means it’s overdue
  • Orange means it’s due today
  • Grey with a check means it’s been completed
  • The blue background with blue stroke on the edge means that’s the currently selected task
  • The orange box hiding behind the circle is the click target to flag an item. It appears when the mouse is hovering over a task.
  • The little flag to the right means the task has been flagged. The top of the circle also turns a darker orange.
  • The three dots inside a circle mean it’s a repeating task.

The right alignment of the Status Circles is growing on me. At times they feel a bit annoying because when I’m in OmniFocus to check off a task I’ve just completed, I need to first scan the left margin to find the task and then use my mouse to follow that column over to the right in order to decipher which circle on the right-side corresponds with the task on the left. But, the more I use this app the more I like the Status Circles, and their clear portrayal of an action item’s status.

Moreover, by right-aligning the circles, they fit right in with the app’s overarching task hierarchy layout, which now has a clear structure that flows from left to right:

OmniFocus 2 - the left-to-right hierarchy

Click for full-size

  1. On the left-most side are the tabs for different views. Note also that these tabs sport “color bars” to indicate when they have “interesting” content, such as due or overdue actions in the Forecast Perspective, projects that need to be reviewed in the Review Perspective, or unfilled items in the Inbox. You can adjust which tabs can be highlighted in the Notifications panel in the app’s Preferences.

  2. Next to the Tabs column is the list of information relevant to the selected tab. If you’re in Forecast view then you’ll see a calendar, if you’re in the Projects view then you’ll see a list of all your projects, etc.

  3. Third is the main task list displaying the tasks themselves. Here you see only the to-do items for whichever project, context, or date you have selected.

    And here is why the right-alignment of the Status Circles makes sense. Because the status of a task (due, overdue, flagged, repeating, completed, available) is logically more granular than the task itself.

  4. And lastly, on the right-most pane is the task’s information panel where you can adjust all the detailed metadata related to that task if you so desire.

Every one of the design changes in OmniFocus 2 for Mac is an improvement on an app that has been desperate for a visual overhaul for years. The visual overhaul has been worth the wait.

Quick Open

Mash down on CMD+O and the “Quick Open” dialog box pops up.

OmniFocus 2 for mac - Quick Open

Type in the name of a project, folder, context, or perspective and it will auto-fill your text and give you live suggestions (just like you get when doing a Google search).

Quick Open

Quick Open is an easy and fast way to jump to any other section within OmniFocus. But I wish it were just a little bit more powerful…

Whither Universal Search?

My biggest gripe here is that I would love to see universal search. This has always bugged me in OmniFocus, and it was something I was hoping would make it into the new version. Alas, not yet.

When searching in OmniFocus you only see results (or lack thereof) based on the current view. Which means that if you are ever looking for a specific task, if it’s not in front of you already, you have to change OmniFocus’s perspective to one that will list out all your tasks in a giant list. Then you can search for that task and hopefully find it.

I would love to have a universal search that helps me find a task based on its title or note regardless of what my current view / perspective is.

Review and Forecast

The two greatest features of the iPad version are now with us on the Mac. As stated above, I now pretty much live in the Forecast view, and the review mode is just great — though I still prefer to do my reviews on the iPad. I’m glossing over these a bit here, because anyone who’s familiar with OmniFocus on the iPad or iPhone is already aware of how great and useful these two features are. Anyone new to OmniFocus entirely will get introduced to these features when first launching the app.

OmniFocus 2: Standard vs Pro

OmniFocus 2 for Mac now comes in two flavors: Standard and Pro. They cost $40 and $80 respectively (or upgrade for $20 / $40 respectively). All the information about upgrading can be found on the OmniFocus support site.

The biggest difference between the Standard and Pro version is that the latter has a few additional (and powerful) options for customization and adding your own “power features” for seeing and manipulating your tasks. But the core function of the database and everything else is there for everyone.

The Pro features are: (1) the ability to create custom perspectives and to place them in the sidebar; (2) a special Focus view with its own shortcut key that shows you only the currently due tasks within a certain project; and (3) AppleScript support.

From where I’m sitting, I think the Standard version of OmniFocus is probably going to be great for most people. If you don’t already know that you want the Pro features, then save some money (and fiddle-ability) and get the Standard version. While there are a lot of cool things people will tell you that you can do with custom perspectives and AppleScripts, how likely are you to utilize them?

Or, here’s another way to figure out if the Standard version is right for you: Do you almost exclusively use the default views and features in the iPad? If so, then the Standard version of the Mac app will suit you great.

However, that said, here’s a bit more information about what’s in the Pro version (and why I personally am upgrading to it):

  • Custom perspectives: They are nice, but I don’t find them nearly as necessary in OmniFocus 2 as I did in OmniFocus 1. In OF1 I used a custom “Today” perspective that only showed me items that are due (or overdue) today. But that perspective is moot in OF2 because I now live almost entirely in the Forecast view.

    What’s nice about a custom perspective is if you have a particular project or context that you often want to bring up. You can set a project / context as its own new perspective by going to the Perspectives menu → Add New Perspective. Then, when you click the star next to the perspective, it will show up in your OmniFocus sidebar.

    As always, you can set your own custom icons and images for your custom perspectives. I’d highly recommend checking out Jory’s Year of Icons and grab one of the PNGs to use as a custom icon. Unfortunately you cannot replace the default icons that OmniFocus ships with for Inbox, Projects, Contexts, Forecast, Flagged, and Review.

  • Focus on Folders and Projects: This is one feature I don’t utilize at all, but depending on how you have your projects and areas of responsibility organized, it could be a massive help.

    When you enable Focus mode (found under the View menu), OmniFocus hides any and all tasks and projects that aren’t part of the folder or project that you’re focusing on. And they’re not just hidden from the current view, they are hidden throughout the whole app as if they never existed.

    I was talking with Derek Reiff of the Omni Group about the Focus feature, and he shared with me how he uses it:

    Focus is about moving away everything you don’t currently need to see. I separate my tasks at the very top level by using two folders: Work and Home. When I’m at the Omni Group office, I enable Focus on the Work folder and every view or perspective I switch to from that point on will only show Work actions and projects. Then, when I go home, I enable Focus on the Home folder to hide all my Work-related actions and projects.

    If you keep the whole of your life’s tasks in OmniFocus — your job, your side hobby, your home projects, etc. — you just might love the Focus mode.

  • AppleScript Support: This is what compels me to upgrade to the Pro version of OmniFocus 2. I have a couple of AppleScripts that I use with OmniFocus on a regular basis, and it’s worth it for me to pay the additional cost of upgrade to continue to have access to them.

    Here are some links to those scripts, only the OopsieFocus script needed to be updated to work nicely with OmniFocus 2:

    • OopsieFocus: An AppleScript that launches OmniFocus and brings up the Quick Entry box for you on those times you hit the Quick Entry hotkey but realize that OmniFocus isn’t actually running.

      (If you’re using the Standard version of OmniFocus 2, this script can still launch OmniFocus, but it won’t be able to automatically bring up the Quick Entry box.)

    • Send all the Safari Tabs to OmniFocus (with this addition for adding a confirmation notification): This script grabs all the open tabs in Safari’s front-most window and creates a new to-do item in your OmniFocus Inbox with the Title and URL of each tab listed out within the task’s note.

    • Send current Safari Tab to OmniFocus: This isn’t an AppleScript, it’s a snippet of Javascript that’ll work with the Standard version of OmniFocus 2 (and it works in the iOS apps, too). All it does is bring up the Quick Entry box with the title of the website as the task name, and the URL of the website in the note.

Wrap up

This new version of OmniFocus is more feature-rich while also being cleaner, more organized, and more logical. The design brings a structured peacefulness to the wild animal that is my never-ending task list. And that’s quite a feat, because our to-dos are, by nature, neither structured nor peaceful.

You can get OmniFocus 2 on the Mac App Store, or direct from Omni Group’s website.

Flickr 3.0

Flickr for iPhone version 3

Flickr shipped a massive update to their iPhone app just a few days ago. As an avid user of both Flickr and an iPhone, I wanted to share my thoughts about their new app and bit about the state of Flickr in general.

In short, it’s a fantastic app sporting one of the best iOS 7 updates I’ve seen. It has many visual tie-ins with the also-recently-updated Flickr website. All in all, I am encouraged about the future of Flickr and their resolve to avoid obsolescence.

Instagram Inspiration

There is a lot of Instagram-type inspiration going on, and I like it. When scrolling down the main timeline view you can double-tap on an image favorite it; all images in your main timeline view are shown as edge-to-edge squares even if the image itself is a different aspect ratio.

The notifications screen that shows all the activity happening on your account (people who have liked your images, favorited them, and/or new followers) is also reminiscent of the Instagram notification screen.

In the main photo stream timeline, when someone has uploaded several photos, you see them as a collage of 2 or 3. You can tap on one of the photos you see to bring that photo’s detail view, or you can tap the button to “view all photos” and you’re taken to a gallery-type view showing all the photos in that set.

Navigating around the app

Virtually everything within the app is tappable as a link, which is great. It’s very easy to find and explore new photos and photographers, and thus it’s easy to drill down deep within the app.

Alas, there is no shortcut to get back to any of the top level tabs of the app. Suppose you tap on someone’s photo, then go to their profile timeline page, then tap onto another photo in their timeline, tap onto the comments of that photo, and then tap onto the someone who left a comment to view their profile timeline. Well, now you’re 5 layers deep into the app and it will take 5 taps to get back to the top. And, to add some lemon juice, to exit out of an individual photo view, you have to tap the “x” that’s in the top-right corner of the screen, but to go back a level when you’re on someone’s profile page, you have to tap the back arrow that is on the top-left of the screen. Moreover, since the Flickr app doesn’t have any gestural-based navigation (you can’t swipe from left-to-right to go back), the only way to navigate out of someone’s profile photo stream view is to scroll to the top to reveal the back button.

Overall, the app is extremely well designed and easy to navigate and figure out. The nature of the design and content encourage (in a good way) getting lost in the app and discovering photos and photographers. Just an easier way to get back to the trail head is all I’m asking for.

Pull to Refresh

The pull-to-refresh animation is quite clever. If you’re at the top of the main timeline view, pulling down reveals a white dot. As you continue to pull down to refresh, the white dot gradually turns pink as it simultaneously gets surrounded by a thick blue line (the two colors of the Flick logo). Then the blue line and pink dot separate to form the the two-dot Flickr logo and they sort of spin/orbit around one another.

This animation is even cooler when you pull to refresh from someone’s profile page. The blue line forms around the person’s circle avatar, and those two dots orbit around one another as the page refreshes and then the avatar sort of slingshots back up to where it was.

Auto-Uploading and Privacy

The Flickr app can auto-upload your iPhone photos just like Dropbox does.

So far as I can tell, once you’ve enabled the app’s auto-uploading feature, only your preceding photographs (and screenshots) will be uploaded to Flickr. It won’t begin uploading your whole iPhone Camera Roll.

All your auto-uploaded photos are automatically set to private. This is, in fact, a setting that you cannot change. I like that it’s a non-adjustable setting because it means nobody will accidentally set all their uploads to be public.

Photos that are set to private won’t show up in any public timelines and they are hidden from anyone who views your Flickr profile. You, however, will see the photos the same way all other photos appear in your timeline, and you can set any image to be public if you wish.

Within the iPhone app, photos that are set to private have a little lock icon in their top-left corner. On the Flickr website, the only way to know if a photo is set to private or not is by going to the image’s permalink page where you can see a lock icon.

On the left is what my Flickr photo stream looks like to me, and on the right is what it looks like to others.

Flickr for iPhone version 3

p.s. Here’s what it looks like in a web browser.

For photos that you upload manually from the Flickr app, you are given the option to set the photo’s visibility to Public, Private, Friends only, Family only, or Friends and Family only. (For those not familiar with how Friends and Family works in Flickr, when you chose to follow someone you can define if they are a friend or a family member. Thus, you’re given the option to also set a photo’s visibility to only those groups. Which is actually really great.)

You can also share the upload to Twitter, Facebook, and/or Tumblr. As well as adding the photo to a location (via the Foursquare API), and adding to any of your Flickr Albums (or create a new Album).

The idea of Flickr as a photo Syncing and sharing service

Flickr gives you 1TB (!) of free photo storage, which is pretty amazing.

That amount of storage is certainly enticing when trying to consider a photo backup service to use, but I see two downsides:

  1. For one I’m not sure if I want all my iPhone photos to be in my Flickr account. The past couple years I’ve been only putting my best / favorite photos up to Flickr. There are a lot of silly, blurry, goofy images on my iPhone’s camera roll.
  2. Secondly, not counting the iPhone app, there’s no automatic uploading of my photos to Flickr. I have to manually upload my images. And, suppose I were to upload today all my photos from 2013 — they would appear at the top of my Flickr timeline, because Flickr doesn’t auto-sort by original photo date.

While there are some cool possibilities with using Flickr as a hub for photo sharing and syncing, it’s still not there yet.

In-App Filters

The Flickr app continues to let you take and edit photos as well.

Below is an image of my wife, Anna, holding our new nephew, Simon. The image itself was shot with my E-M10. In clockwise starting with the top-left image: (1) the original out-of-camera JPG; (2) a version edited with the new Flickr app using the Brooklyn filter; (3) edited on the iPhone VSCO Cam app using the F2 filter; and (4) a version edited in Lightroom on my Mac using the VSCO Film 05, Agfa Vista 100 preset.

Flickr for iPhone version 3

(Tap the image to bring up an enlarged view.)

I tried to pick the filter in each app that I liked best for this photograph. Here, comparing them side-by-side here, the Flickr version looks the most dramatic and “cheesy”. I think the VSCO Film version looks the most natural and nice. The VSCO Cam version looks great as well, though it too — for a one-tap filter application on an iPhone, I’m impressed.

Miscellany

  • For a few days, if you installed the Flickr iPhone app onto your iPad you got a watermelon icon. Apparently it was an easter egg placed there by Flickr as a hint that the iPad app is coming soon.

  • When you’re in the detail view of a photograph, you can “toss it around” just like you can with Tweetbot 3 for iPhone. This is a neat and fun touch. However, it’s also the only way to exit the detail view aside from tapping the “x” in the upper-right corner.

    When you tap a photo, it brings up that image in full-view. Tap it again and all the text and photo info on the screen disappears, giving you the “lightbox” mode. Tap in lightbox mode to go back to image-only view with the relevant text again.

  • When leaving a comment, there is no way to reply to a particular person’s comment. You can only type your comment out, but not have it be an “@reply”.

Wrap

The new Flickr app is one of the nicest iOS 7 apps I’ve seen. Its links and tappable areas are clear, it does a great job using blur effects, and it’s easy and delightful to use.

Flickr has so many things right. The whole way the site works is clever, thought through, and useful. But times are changing and so there is still much that Flickr needs to catch up on. But I love that it’s making serious strides forward, and that Yahoo is taking the service seriously. I’ve been a Flickr user for years and I use it now more than I ever have. It’s encouraging and exciting to see these improvements to their website, service, and mobile apps.

A Visual History of OmniFocus for Mac

The Omni Group has been around for 25 years.

Founded in 1989 as a technology consulting firm, they used to build custom software for NextSTEP users until Apple bought NeXT in 1997. Now Omni builds and sells their own software for OS X and iOS. Not least of which is OmniFocus.

But did you know OmniFocus for Mac was somewhat built by chance?

OmniFocus’s roots are as an add-on to OmniOutliner Pro called Kinkless (kGTD), which was built and developed by Ethan Schoonover. Though it was incredibly brilliant, kGTD was a hack. It was a bunch of AppleScripts that sat on top of a single OmniOutliner document with some custom buttons and even some Quicksilver actions for quick entry.

Here is what Kinkless GTD looked like (circa 2006):

Khoi Vihn's Kinkless GTD Setup

In 2006, Omni Group asked Schoonover, along with Merlin Mann, to help take the ideas and functions of kGTD and turn them into an official Omni task-management application…

Here’s the first publicly displayed mockup of what OmniFocus could have looked like:

Original OmniFocus UI Mockup

After more than a year of private development with a group of about 500 alpha users, OmniFocus went into public beta in November 2007. At that time they also began pre-selling licenses and OmniFocus pre-sold over 2,500 copies in the first 5 days of the public beta.1

Finally, on January 8, 2008, OmniFocus 1.0 was launched.2

OmniFocus 1.0 (circa January 2008):

OmniFocus Version 1.0

Here’s the latest public version of OmniFocus (version 1.10):

OmniFocus User Interface, version 1.8

As you can see, not much in the UI has changed from the original Kinkless implementation of 2005 to what OmniFocus is today in 2010. You could say that OmniFocus 2 is kGTD 2.

But all that changed with the beta of OmniFocus for Mac 2.

On February 1, 2013 the beta of OmniFocus 2 for the Mac was introduced.

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 (circa Feb 2013):

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

However, during the beta testing process, the Omni Group realized they needed to go back to the drawing board, and in June 2013 they pressed pause on the public beta.

Last year, during the testing window, I gave the beta 1 a good college try but just kept drifting back to my original version of OmniFocus that I’ve been using for the past 4 years. In short, I never felt all that comfortable navigating the previous OmniFocus beta.

However, earlier this week, Omni Group re-introduced the OmniFocus for Mac beta with a significantly updated design.

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac (circa March 2014)

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

There are quite a few noticeable changes between the beta 1 and beta 2 designs of the new OmniFocus for Mac.

For one, the left-aligned checkboxes have been swapped out with right-aligned checkcircles (a cue from the iPhone app). Additionally, the whole task hierarchy now has a clear structure that flows from left to right.

On the left-most side are the tabs for different views, then in the next column is the list of information relevant to the selected tab, next to that is the main task list displaying the tasks for the project, context, or date selected, and then on the right-most pane is the task’s information panel where you can fine-tune metadata related to that task if you so desire.

Aside from the right-hand alignment of the new checkcircles, I think every one of the changes in this newest OmniFocus beta is an improvement on an app that has been desperate for a visual overhaul for years.

The new beta version of OmniFocus for Mac feels peaceful to me. It’s open, clean, organized, and logical. I like it.


  1. Contrast that against today’s public beta which has 30,000 users on the list.
  2. It seems like OmniFocus has been around for ages, but it’s actually younger than the iPhone.

Checkmark 2

Here is a huge update to my favorite location-based reminders app, Checkmark.

In addition to location-based reminders, Checkmark 2 now supports scheduled and repeating reminders as well as a general project/list section. So not only is Checkmark the best app for location-based reminders, but it now aims to be your one-stop shop for all tasks and reminders, regardless of when, where, or what they are for.

I’m still deep into OmniFocus for my general to-do list, and I usually use Siri or Fantastical for setting time-based reminders. But the location-centric stuff in Checkmark is the best there is, and now it’s even better than before.

The big update with how Checkmark handles the location-based reminders is that you can now create location groups. Hooray!

Now, I don’t know about you, but my wife and I don’t shop at just one grocery store all the time; we shop at like six. In Checkmark 2, I created a location group with all the grocery stores we shop at. Then, no matter which of those stores I show up to, Checkmark will remind me of any items I’ve added to that group. (Gosh would I love to see shared reminders with this.)

Here’s how you create a group:

  • You start out just like you would create a location.
  • From the “Where” section, tap the plus button and name your location (example: “Grocery Stores” / “Hardware Stores” / “Ice Cream Shops”).
  • Next tap “Add from map” to search for the places you want to add (or Add from location if you’re at the place you want to add).
  • Once you’ve found one of the locations and the pin for it has dropped, then tap into the search box again to search for the next place you want to add.
  • Once you’ve got all the pins for that group dropped, then tap “Done”
  • Select your icon and tap Done again.

Now you have a location group and you are on your way to being the the master of never forgetting to check out this season’s sink selection next time you go to the hardware store to buy charcoal for your grill.

You can add or remove locations from a group by tapping into that group, tapping the settings gear icon in the upper-right corner, and then editing the location. I have found creating and editing groups to be a little bit finicky at times. But once a group is created, then your golden.

In addition to the awesomeness of the new groups feature, Checkmark is still faster than using any other app for adding a location-based reminder (even for specific spots, not groups). And, most importantly, Checkmark is incredibly reliable for triggering upon the arrival / departure of a location.

My one quibble with Checkmark is it’s assumption that time-based reminders are the most important. When launching Checkmark, it opens to wherever you last were in the app. If however, the app has been cleared from memory since the last time you launched it, or if you’ve restarted your iPhone, then Checkmark’s default landing screen is the “When” section. And currently there’s no way to change this setting. Which oftentimes means creating a new location-based reminder requires two additional taps: one to open the basement menu and one to tap the “Where” tab. But this is a minor quibble, and I’ve heard it may be resolved in a future update to the app.

I’ve long been a user and a fan of Checkmark because I think it handles location-based reminders better than any other app out there, including Apple’s own Reminders app. You can snag Checkmark 2 in the App Store for just $3.

This Is a Review of Day One’s New Publish Feature

Day One Publish

In a nut, the new Publish feature in Day One is a way to share your thoughts and memories with your closest friends and family or with the whole world.

Publish lets you selectively upload Day One entries to the Web, and from there you can share the URL with whomever you like.

For example, here is an entry in my Day One journal about my recent excursions at a local coworking space. And here’s another entry with a rating/review of this morning’s cup of coffee.

As of this review, you can only publish an entry via the iPhone app, though there’s a soon-coming update for iPad that will allow publishing. Meanwhile, the Mac app has been updated to support the new custom Publish metadata (such as views on an entry, retweets, etc.), but an update to the Mac version that allows you to publish entries won’t be available until later this year.

To publish an entry from your iPhone, start by creating an entry (or going to one that you’ve already made) in Day One. Then tap the little ribbon-bookmark icon in the bottom left corner (that’s the Publish icon). If it’s your first time you’ll be prompted to create an account, and then you can publish that entry to the Web.

Before publishing, you get control over if that entry is auto-posted to your Twitter, Facebook, or Foursquare account. You also get to choose if the location of that entry is shared.

Once you’ve published an entry, the Day One app will show you stats about how many people have viewed that entry and how many liked, faved, or RTed your tweet / Facebook status update about that journal entry. And Published entries are quickly identified within your Day One app’s timeline view because of their blue date instead of black. Moreover, you can update a published entry and/or remove it from being published.

You don’t have to share your published entries with your legions of social network followers. You see, people can only get to entries that they have the direct link to. So, say, for example, you publish two entries: one you share with all of your twitter followers and the other you share with just your family. Well, neither group will ever come across a link that would send them on to the other entry you published.

Day One Publish is not like a blog where links to other entries are auto-generated and once you come across one you can find all the others. No, each published entry is an island.

I asked Paul Mayne, the man behind Day One, to share a bit more about just how private / non-discoverable published entries are and why there is not an option for password protecting them. Paul wrote to me in an email, saying:

By default, published entries are hidden from search engines and visible only to anyone you give the URL. Of course, if you are sharing to a public feed on Twitter, Facebook, or Foursquare, the URL will be indexed and searchable.

We feel our current approach is a solid solution to share entries semi-privately with close friends and family. Also, we’re planning to add an option to easily share published entries via email in a future update.

I’m satisfied with how Day One handles the privacy of each entry. I’m obviously never going to publish anything that is so sensitive or personal that I wouldn’t want just anybody to come across it. If and when there are certain journal entries that I don’t want to be online at all but that I do want to share with close friends or family, it’s quite easy to just email those entries from within the Day One app.

After using Day One’s Publish feature for the past two weeks, I think it’s cool on a couple of levels.

For one, Publish gives you the chance to share moments you want to share. And thus, it actually gives a bit of “social motivation” to enter things into Day One. The truth is, we like to share thoughts, photos, quotes, and musings with the world, but a lot of times we also want to save those moments for later. Publish is a classy way for us to create journal entries in our own personal journal, but then, with the tap of a button, we can share those entries with whomever we want — even the whole world.

Secondly, with Publish, the Day One team also wins because when people share their Published entries they are, in a sense, advertising for Day One. They’re providing an awesome service to current users that will, in term, generate new users, and therefore make the app’s development more sustainable and profitable.

This brings me to another question I asked Paul, regarding the cost of Publish and if it would be free forever. He replied that the current offering is free, but they are looking into additional premium features in the future.

Also, Paul wrote to me saying: “We’re currently hard at work on Day One 2.0. A cool feature with it will be current and historical activity feeds as starting points for creating and adding entries to Day One. We are [also] working towards enabling more web-based Publish and Day One features.”

* * *

The whole point of a journal (digital or analog) is to chronicle as much of our life as we are willing. I’ve been using Day One for a couple of years now, and the more I use it, the more I get ideas for how to use it better.

The guys at Day One say that Publish has been a side-project of theirs since the very beginning and is the start of “an exciting 2014 for Day One.” In my short time with Publish, I’ve found that it has a surprisingly ancillary effect of encouraging the journaling process just a little bit more. I still consider Day One to be the best journaling app out there, and if this is just the start of what they’ve got in store for updates coming this year, then I’m excited to see what’s next.

You can get Day One for iPhone + iPad here and the Mac version here. Although, right now you can only use the Publish feature from the iPhone version of the app.

Unread for iPhone: A New Breed of RSS Reader

There are some apps which, due to the nature of their usage and/or contents, seem to earn a more personal connection from the user than other apps. Twitter apps I think are like this because they’re filled with the life updates, corny jokes, and selfies of our friends and family. Writing apps also can garner a connection with their users because they serve as the tool where we express our thoughts and feelings.

And though one might expect an RSS app to be insipid, or, at best, utilitarian, I find them quite the opposite — because they’re filled with the recent articles, photographs, and stories of my hand-chosen, favorite writers, photographers, and news outlets.

An RSS reader is the window into your curated world.

* * *

Like so many other life-changing moments, my relationship with RSS readers began in a church pew.

It was a Sunday morning in early 2007, and our Church had Wi-Fi, and I was sitting in a back corner with a friend, and instead of using my PowerBook G4 to take notes I was surfing the web reading all my favorite blogs.

If you’ve read my review of NetNewsWire, you’re already familiar with the story: I used to keep all the blogs I enjoyed reading in a bookmark folder in Safari on my Mac. But that Sunday morning, sitting next to my friend, he introduced me to an RSS reader.

“You can follow all those sites in one spot, you know?”

I didn’t know.

He set me up with the RSS reader in Safari (which has long since been removed). But I soon moved on to Vienna, and then NetNewsWire 3.1 on the Mac (which, in my humble opinion, is one of the all-time best pieces of Mac software ever).

I’ve also used Google Reader, NewsGator Online, Reeder for Mac, iPad, and iPhone, ReadKit, NetNewsWire on my iPhone, Byline, Fever, and probably a few more.

And now, today, we have Unread. It’s a brand new RSS app for the iPhone, and it is fantastic.

Unread

I have been using Unread throughout its beta period for the past two months, and in that time it has quietly usurped the previous RSS reader on my home screen.

Unread works with Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, and Feedly. I’ve been using it with my Feed Wrangler account and it loads my unread items extremely quickly.

Unread is also very fun. It’s full of subtle animations and easy gestures. The app is understated, extremely readable, and welcoming.

It’s not that there’s anything in particular. There’s just a simple elegance to it. The app is well designed and nice to use.

It’s on launch sale for just $3 and I think it’s worth 10 times that. I paid $30 for NetNewsWire on my Mac half a decade ago, and now, years later, I’m using Unread on my iPhone instead.

Unread is somewhat different than any other app I’ve used before. And yet it’s also quite familiar. It has all the expected features — you can send an article to Instapaper or share it on Twitter or text message it to your friends — and yet they feel unexpected. The share sheet slides in from the right-hand side, and feels akin to the bouncy and playful animations of Tweetbot 3.

Design

I’ve long been a fan of Jared Sinclair’s design taste, and I consider Riposte to be one of the finest apps on my iPhone. I can’t put my finger on precisely what it is, but if I had to explain it in one word then I’d say Unread is peaceful.

But my hunch is that Unread will prove to be a somewhat polarizing app. Some, like me, will love it. Others, undoubtedly, will not like it.

The app has nearly both feet in iOS 7, but there is still a toe or two in iOS 6. There are little things — such as the design of the status bar at the top of the screen — that still feel reminiscent of iOS designs from yesteryear. But don’t read that as a dig against the app’s design…

The status bar doesn’t look like it belongs in the past, but it does have a slight nostalgic feel to it that is reminiscent of the more skeumorphic, graphics-heavy iOS designs of old. I am a fan of the status bar.

Gestures

When talking about Riposte, developer Jared Sinclair, said this:

We take push/pop transitions at face value: swiping to go back is like pulling yourself back to where you were before. If I can’t picture an app as a set of cards laid out in a grid on a table, I can’t understand it.

That exact same gesture-reliant design philosophy is prevalent all throughout Unread as well. The set of cards include (starting at the left-most, topmost “card”) the Home screen, the list of subscribed feeds and any folders or groups, the list of articles in those feeds, and then the article itself.

Hovering (theoretically) at all times to the right, is the share/action card. Pulling from right-to-left in any screen slides in the share sheet. From there you get access to a list of relevant actions and settings.

Unread App - Share Sheets

Common settings include changing themes (dark, light, and others), marking all articles as read, and more.

But the action sheet shows different options based on the context of when it was summoned. If you’re acting on a specific article, for example, then you have the option to “Share” the article and thus send it to Instapaper, Pinboard, OmniFocus, Twitter, your Safari Reading List, and more. To share a specific article directly from the article list view you have to tap and hold on that article.

By using this gesture-based share sheet, Unread has no persistent toolbar when reading an article. When in the various list views you see the status bar on top and a “navigation” bar on bottom that tells you where you are in the app. But when reading an individual article, you’re in full screen mode with nothing visible but the article itself.

Navigation and density

Unread’s home screen is where you start with access to the app’s settings and other special miscellany, as well as the RSS syncing platform of your choice (FeedWrangler, Feedbin, and/or Feedly). You then drill down to the high-level list of your feeds under your syncing engine account, and from there you can select which list of your articles you want to dig in to: all unread, all articles, one of your smart streams or folders, or your specific site feeds.

All of these sections — these “cards” — exude the basic design philosophy and opinion of Jared Sinclair: that the app would be a relaxing and enjoyable experience. But it is especially present when perusing down your list of individual unread articles.

Unlike most other RSS apps I’ve used, Unread shows considerably more content-per-article when viewing the list of articles. I’m used to seeing a condensed list of articles that shows each article title and time of posting (akin to email). In Unread, however, you see the article title, name of the website, time of posting, the first few sentences of the article, and, if there is an image as part of the article, then the image is shown as well.

Unread is not dense.

Unread App - Article List View

At first, this less-dense view irked me. But I quickly acclimated to it and now prefer it, even look forward to it.

Scrolling is free. In a context where I am assessing each individual article to decide if I want to read it or not, viewing just 2 or 3 article summaries on the screen at a time can be just as efficient as viewing 5 or 6 headlines. In fact, I’d argue that this less-dense list view is more efficient. For one, it presents more data per article, allowing you to read a bit of the article to help with your decision to drill down and read it in its entirety or not. And secondly, it is far easier to make a choice between 2 options than 6.

Quibbles

I do have a few nits to pick, however.

  • As it is now, when you are done reading an article, you can not go directly on to the next unread article. It would be nice to be able to go from one unread article to the next without having to go back to the list first.

  • By default, unread items persist in the list of articles (in a grayed-out state). You can get around this by tapping directly on the unread item count in a list instead of tapping on the list’s name in which you will see only the unread items in the list. However, I wish this behavior were reversed.

  • When you’re going to read a web page, the previously-loaded web page is there waiting for you until the new one comes up. Something about this feels slow or unconsidered to me.

Hooked

It was the design of Unread that hooked me right away — the app is clean, friendly, and warm, and all its type is set in Whitney — but the more I used it the more I began to appreciate and enjoy the functionality and feature decisions built into the app.

Unread is refreshingly simple and elegant. If you subscribe to RSS feeds and read them on your iPhone, take some time and use Unread for a while — I think you’ll be glad you did.

* * *

You can get Unread on the App Store (still propagating) for just $2.99.

The CODE Keyboard with Clear Switches

It’s quite easy to nerd out over mechanical keyboards (I have the blog posts to prove it). There is a type of satisfaction that comes with typing on a mechanical keyboard that is rare in our touch-screen, trackpad, chicklet key world. The thud, the click, the clack — the physical work it takes to type — of a mechanical keyboard is something that hooked me once I experienced it.

My first mechanical keyboard was the Macintosh version of the Das. It’s splendid, but giant. After testing a half-dozen other mechanical keyboards over the course of a few months, I’ve been using a Filco Majestouch-2 Ninja for quite a while now and I think it’s fantastic. The Filco Ninja is tenkeyless, well built, and uses the Blue switches.

I did not order a CODE Keyboard when it went on sale because the keyboard uses Clear switches which I knew I didn’t want.

My cousin, however, did order one, and over the holiday he brought it out to Kansas City so I could use it for a few weeks and then he left it with me to use for a while because he’s cool like that.

I’ve been typing on this keyboard since December 21st and my consensus is this: The CODE is an awesome keyboard, but I don’t like the feel of the Clear switches.

Right off the bat, anyone familiar with a keyboard using the popular Blue switches, will notice that the Clears are quieter. They are more muted and produce a “thud” rather than a click. The keyboard is quieter but not necessarily quiet. If you were in a small office, sitting next to someone, the keyboard is still going to make a bit of a thud and clack as the key caps themselves bottom out when you’re typing, but there isn’t the neighborhood-waking click-clack that accompanies the Blue switches.

The CODE Keyboard has been sold out for a few months primarily because of the difficulty of getting Clear switches. On the keyboard’s website they’ve posted a few updates (one last September and another last November) stating that new keyboards are in production and will include a variety of switches to chose from: Green, Brown, and Blue.

The Green switches are a new switch. They’re pretty much identical in sound and feel to the Blue switches in that they are tactile and clicky, but the Green’s have an actuation force of 80g and a bottom-out force of 105g (the Blue switches are 50g and 65g respectively). Thus, the Greens are going to offer noticeably more resistance than just about any keyboard you’ve ever used.

If/when the CODE keyboard becomes available with Blue switches, I’ll buy it in a heartbeat. Of all the different types of mechanical keyboards I’ve tried, I still remain a fan of the sound, feel, and tactile feedback of the Blue Switches. The CODE keyboard is of equal build quality as my Filco Ninja, but the LED backlighting of the CODE is just fantastic and I love it. It’s unfortunate WASD Keyboards don’t let you build a custom keyboard with LED backlighting as an option.

First Thoughts on Writer Pro for iOS

The iPad makes for a fantastic writing device.

A cup of hot coffee, my bluetooth keyboard, and my iPad makes for one of my favorite ways to write. The one-app-at-a-time mentality along with the relatively difficult way to switch between apps (when compared to the Mac’s CMD+Tab) make iOS a pretty good “anti-distraction writing enviroment”.

Moreover, there are some truly exceptional writing apps for the iPad.

Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time with a lot of writing and note-taking apps. The ones that have stood out to me the most?

  • Simplenote (which I don’t really use for long-form writing, but I do use often because I have lots and lots and lots of notes in there).
  • iA Writer: For whatever reason, I never got into iA Writer all that much (neither on the iPad, iPhone, or Mac). Mostly because, as silly as this may sound, it didn’t have a “night theme”.
  • Byword: What I use on the Mac for all long-form writing.
  • Writing Kit: I used this app for quite a while because of its built-in web browser and several other nifty features.
  • Editorial: the iPad markdown writing app that changed the world.

Now, I am, of course, writing this text in Writer Pro on the iPad. It just came out a few hours ago and so naturally I can’t say too much about it yet. But iA Writer has a well-deserved fantastic reputation, and this new version of the app — Writer Pro — promises to take things to the next level. And, clearly, it does.

Is Writer Pro a significant upgrade from iA Writer? Absolutely.

Writer Pro has all the simplicity and charm of its predecessor but now applied to the whole workflow of writing process — from idea to done.

What’s special about Writer Pro is its obsessive focus is on the writing process. There are four “sections” your documents can be slotted in to: Notes, Writing, Editing, Reading. Each section has its own typeface and cursor color. The “Writing” section is, more or less, what the whole iA Writer app used to be.

This is an organization structure I could get behind. I follow this concept loosely already by keeping all of my notes and ideas in Simplenote and all of my “currently writing” articles in Dropbox (where I use Byword on the Mac and Editorial on the iPad). No other app that I know of has this sort of persnickety focus and structure.

So, after poking around and doing some typing, do I find Writer Pro awesome enough to pull me away from my current apps? It’s early to say, but I don’t think so…

I have three quibbles:

  • Unfortunately, Writer Pro on iOS has no auto-markdown completion, nor markdown syntax highlighting.

  • Secondly, there is no document storage option like iA Writer had (in iA Writer on iOS you could chose iCloud or Dropbox for document syncing). Writer Pro syncs with iCloud or nothing. Which means your documents are sandboxed into the app. And there is no export option to get out all the documents at once. (You can email individual documents out of the app.)

    And, from what I can tell, if you use iCloud document syncing for both iA Writer and Writer Pro, the two apps do not have access to one another’s files. But, since Writer Pro on the Mac can access documents you have in Dropbox, if wanted to use Writer Pro on your Mac you could keep it in sync with iOS apps that have access to Dropbox (such as Byword, Editorial, etc.).

  • Third, when writing in Writer Pro with a Bluetooth keyboard (as I am now) the custom keyboard row does not persist at the bottom of the screen. And so to get access to the custom Editing and Syntax highlighting buttons you have to bring up the entire soft keyboard, tap your options, and then dismiss the soft keyboard.

    Update: Anton Sotkov points out that the keyboard shortcuts in the Mac app work on iOS as well.

    Update 2: The Writer Pro team told me via Twitter that many of these issues will be gone in future updates. I understand that you’ve got to draw the “1.0 line” somewhere, and I have a lot of appreciate for opinionated software like iA Writer and Writer Pro.

Is Writer Pro an impressive, beautiful, and useful piece of software? Absolutely. Is it going to find a place in my iPad writing workflow? I don’t think so.

The Olympus E-PL5 Mirrorless Camera: My One-Year Review

It’s been a year since the Olympus E-PL5 showed up at my door, and I want to give a report.

The Olympus E-PL5

The Olympus E-PL5

The E-PL5 is the first nice camera I’ve ever owned. A year later, as I look back at how often I’ve used the camera, the pictures I’ve taken with it, and what my opinion is of the camera itself, the short answer is that I still use it regularly and often, and I’m still very happy with it.

It was the fall of 2012 that I began researching mirrorless cameras to find a setup I could easily take with me anywhere I went, and which cost under $1,000 (for the body and a nice prime lens). I wanted the camera to have an Auto mode so I could just point and shoot if I needed to (I still am a beginning photographer, and don’t always know which manual adjustments to make to get the exposure right). I also wanted an Auto mode so I could hand the camera over to a family member to let them point and shoot with. But it also needed to have good manual modes so I could learn and grow into the manual controls as I learned more about the technical details of photography.

The setup I went with was the then-new Olympus E-PL5 and the world-famous Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens.

As I mentioned in my official review, it was the iPhone that actually led me to getting a better camera. I was taking more and more and more pictures, but wasn’t doing much with them other than keeping them on my iPhone. A year later, I still couldn’t be happier about my decision to get a nice camera and I am still very happy with the camera I chose.

I’ve had and used the E-PL5 through Thanksgiving 2012, Christmas, my son, Noah’s, first birthday, a few trips to Colorado, a trip to San Francisco, a camping trip, a trip to New York, the birth of my second son, Giovanni, and countless other weekend and weekday excursions.

Last year we bought several new photo frames to put around the house. And every couple of months I order a few new 8×10 photos printed from Shutterfly and we swap out all the pictures in the house. It’s inexpensive1 and it’s so wonderful to have high-quality photos of our kids and family.2

Something we did last year, and which we’ll do again this Christmas, was get a few of Apple’s iPhoto photo books. Photo books make great Christmas presents to parents and grandparents. Last year’s book was half photos from my iPhone covering January through October, and then half photos from my E-PL5 covering November and early December. This year the photo book will probably be 90-percent (or more) E-PL5 photos.

I still consider the E-PL5 to be one of the best-kept secrets in the mirrorless camera landscape. For the body only, it’s very reasonably priced. And it’s fast, has great battery life, works with all the micro-four thirds lenses, is well built, has 4-axis in-body image stabilization, and has the same sensor found inside the critically acclaimed Olympus E-M5. It’s a beast and it won’t break the bank.

On Twitter I was asked if a better camera in this space has come along. For the same price as the E-PL5, no, I don’t think so.

Of course, since I got my E-PL5 a year ago, the mirrorless camera landscape has improved quite a bit. There’s now the Fuji x100s and X-E2, the Olympus E-P5, and the new Olympus E-M1 (to name a few). These are all really great, but they’re also all more expensive than the E-PL5.

You can get the E-PL5 body and a very nice prime lens for about $800-$900 (depending on the lens you pick). The E-P5 is $900 for the body alone; the Fuji x100s is $1,300 and comes with a great lens (that cannot be swapped out), but it is not a beginner’s camera.

In my opinion, someone looking to get a great camera and a great lens (where by “great lens” I mean “a prime lens” — not the kit zoom lens), can’t go wrong with the E-PL5. It’s compact, it’s easy enough to use that a beginner could pick it up and take decent shots with it (no comment about technique), and it has most of the same internal components (same sensor, similar IBIS) found in Olympus’ top-of-the line cameras, the E-M1 and the E-P5.

Here are answers to a few other questions I got from folks on Twitter:

  • What’s the best first lens? The Panasonic 20mm f/1.7. It’s one of the less expensive among the good prime lens selection; it’s a pancake lens, so it takes up very little space; it takes wonderful photographs; and the 20mm focal length (which is the 40mm equivalent on a full-frame camera) is in the sweet spot range for all manner of photos. So, if you don’t know which lens to get, get the Panasonic 20/1.7.

    Other great lenses include the Panasonic 25mm f/1.4, the Olympus 45mm f/1.8, and the Olympus 17mm f/1.8. I’ve rented the 25/1.4 and the 45/1.8 and they are both fantastic.

  • What is your most-used lens? Just the one I have: the panasonic 20/1.7. It’s a fantastic lens for the price and size. My favorite lens of all the ones I have used is the Pany 25/1.4, but I like the size of the 20/1.7 pancake too much. And, since the 20mm and the 25mm are so close in focal length, it seems silly to keep them both.

  • Have you been tempted by any other cameras? Yes; the E-P5. It has all that’s awesome about the E-PL5, but in a nicer body with more manual controls (without giving up automatic modes), and with an even better sensor and IBIS. However, the E-P5 is several hundred dollars more expensive, and I honestly don’t know if that increase in price is worth it for me at my current skill and usage levels.

  • How do you travel with it? For outings, I use my DSPTCH strap. As for a case, I don’t have one yet because I haven’t yet found one I like (well, the Hard Graft camera bag looks gorgeous, but I’d rather buy a lens).

  • What do you wish was different? What annoys you about the camera? The same thing that I’m tempted by with the E-P5: I wish the E-PL5 had better manual dials. You can set it in Aperture or Shutter priority modes, but you have to use the menu dial to quickly change the aperture / exposure / shutter settings. This can be a bit awkward or inaccurate. But… It doesn’t bother me so much to dislike the camera, and like I mentioned above, I’m not sure it’s worth the cost for me to buy a more expensive camera right now. I’ll probably keep the E-PL5 for a few more years and invest my money in lenses instead of upgrading my camera body.

  • Has your frequency of use decreased since you first got the camera? Yes and no. I’m not forcing myself to take it out like I did when I first got it. But I still use it often around the house and at family events, trips, and other things. Since the first day of owning it I have always felt silly taking it out and using it. But, looking back, I wish I would get out with the camera more often.

  • What about ergonomics? The camera feels great. It’s very light, it has incredible build quality, and it’s very easy to hold with one hand. The flip-out view screen makes it easy to take photos at all sorts of angles.

  • Auto-focus and other settings? The E-PL5 with my Panasonic 20mm lens does hunt a fair bit in super low light, but in my understanding it’s no better or worse than most other cameras like this. When I was renting the Olympus 45/1.8 lens, the auto-focus was a bit quicker, but not significantly so.

    I mostly shoot in Aperture Priority mode, but when I’m having trouble I’ll switch to Auto and the camera does a great job at deciding what sorts of settings I want.

  • To what degree does the camera’s physical size impact when/where you use it. How often have you wished you had it but didn’t? The size of the camera is fantastic. It’s small enough to fit in my winter coat pocket or my small laptop bag without bothering me. It’s also light enough that when I’m wearing it with the shoulder strap I can have it on for hours and never consider its weight.

    There are often times I wish I had taken it somewhere but didn’t. This, however, has everything to do with me not being in the discipline of taking the camera and using it. It has almost nothing to do with the size of the camera.

  • What is the most important thing you’ve learned about photography since getting this camera? That I regret 100% of the shots I don’t take. Too cliche? Okay, fine. But it’s true. Like I said above regarding frequency of use, I want to get out with the camera more often.

  • What is your usage of the E-PL5 compared to your iPhone camera? I certainly use my iPhone more often than the E-PL5 just because of the fact that my iPhone is with me all the time. But I don’t often take “great photos” with my iPhone. Usually they are cool snapshots that I will then share on Instagram, email to friends and family, or put into Day One. And that’s exactly why I got the E-PL5. I didn’t want to all-out replace my iPhone, but I wanted something I could use to take much, much better photos when it mattered most.

  • What are your favorite pictures taken with the E-PL5? This one is probably my most favorite:

Anna and Noah reading

These are also favorites:

The B&B Cafe

Nohawk

You can see more of the photos I’ve taken on my Flickr page.

* * *

So. If you’re in the market for an awesome and pocketable camera, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, there are a lot of really great options. The bad news is, there are a lot of really great options. Good luck!


  1. 8×10 prints are normally 3.99 each, but Shutterfly seems to have sales all the time to get things for 40-percent off or more. I’ve also heard great things about WHCC’s pricing and quality, but haven’t yet used them myself.
  2. I’ve also been using the camera to take “fancy” hero images for use on this site and on The Sweet Setup.

Editorially

Leading up to the launch of The Sweet Setup, we were wrangling about 20 active documents. I was working with half-a-dozen different authors on their app reviews along with writing several reviews and blog posts of my own, and Jeff Abbott was editing everything.

To manage all of these documents we use Editorially.

It’s awesome. Here’s why.

  • Markdown support: All the writers we work with prefer to write in Markdown. I prefer markdown. And, well, Editorially supports markdown syntax highlighting in the browser. It also displays images inline. When you’re done writing you can export your writing as an html, markdown, plain text, Latex, rich text, MS Word, or ePub file. Wow.

  • Collaboration: invite people to join the document as read-only privileges or with editing privileges. You can highlight words and passages to make notes about, and you can comment on the document in general.

  • Track changes and version control: Editorially auto-saves as your working on a document, so if your browser crashes you don’t lose your work. It also keeps all the versions of a document, and allows you to compare the changes of one version with another.

  • Document status: Documents start as “Draft”, and as you progressively work on them you can change their status to “Reviewing”, “Revising”, “Copyediting”, and “Final”.

    These states worked perfectly with our workflow, and followed perfectly the progression of our articles from the initial submission by a contributor, my reviewing of it, the author’s revising of it, and then Jeff’s editing of it. When visiting my Editorially dashboard I could see instantly what the state of each document was, and knew which ones I needed to attend to myself.

  • Dropbox support: you can link Editorially to a folder in your Dropbox and then send an article to that folder. This is Editorially’s answer to “archiving” since there is nowhere to move documents that are in their final state and which have been published and that you no longer need to keep on your dashboard. This is how I archive all of our published articles, and it works very well.

  • Pasting into a document: Copy rich or formatted text from one place and when you paste it into Editorially it will format in Markdown. Even images. Amazing.

  • iPad and iPhone friendly: Editorially is a web app only with no native apps. However, it has a responsive design that works great in Safari on the iPad and iPhone. It can be a bit clunky if you’re making lots and lots of notes and annotations, and I wouldn’t want to spending hours a day, every day, working in Editorially on my iPad. But I edited several documents from my iPhone and iPad with no trouble.

Our Editorially Workflow

Being editor-in-chief, I was reaching out to potential writers asking them if they’d like to do an article for the site. Once they submitted their draft to me I would paste it into Editorially and read through it.

Because Editorially lets me make highlight words and passages, it was easy to make comments about what I felt were good, what needed improvement, and what was missing altogether. I would also make general comments on the document itself such as, “All done. Your turn.”

If I hadn’t already, I would then invite the author to join the document so they could see all my comments and edits, and then they make any changes and leave comments of their own.

Some articles were done after just one pass. Others took several rounds of back and forth work to get it to a place where we were completely happy with it.

Once the article reached the point where the author and I were happy with it, then I would invite Jeff to join. (Jeff is the editor for The sweet Setup.) He would then read through the article for the first time, making sure it had a good flow, made sense, covered all the bases, and was free from typos and other grammatical errors.

When Jeff was done, he’d set the article’s status to “Final”. I would then export the markdown out of Editorially and paste it into our CMS. Editorially also supports publishing to WordPress, but I don’t use this feature — we have quite a few custom fields and other metadata tables set up in our WordPress install that hinder us from just publishing straight to the site from Editorially.

Technically, Editorially is still in beta. There are a few bugs here and there (for example, the dashboard doesn’t remember my preference for displaying documents in a grid format or a list) and there are some other features I’d love to see added (such as the ability to transfer ownership of a document from one user to another, or an “inbox” that listed all the recent activity on all my documents). But these are small issues, and Editorially has proven to be an invaluable tool for us.

We are using it to get a lot of work done without losing our minds. I can’t imagine what our workflow would look like without Editorially.

iPad Mini and iPad Air First Impressions: Both Favorites

These two new iPads are marvels.

It’s already amazing that there exists gadgets made of aluminum and glass which weigh less than a pound and have screens that rival the resolution of a printed magazine. Now add to that the fact these devices have touch screens so true-to-life and so responsive that it feels as if you’re literally manipulating the pixels with your fingers.

And it doesn’t end there.

Pacing around the coffee table in my office, thinking about the new iPads while contemplating the big picture of things like personal computers that fit in our pockets and purses, it’s easy to get swept away in just what an incredible day and age we live in.

These devices are also connected to the world wide web — allowing me to communicate with friends, family, members, and strangers alike. A photo I took of my son using my phone has magically appeared on my iPad, and I can email it to my parents with ease; I can write words and publish them to a place where anyone in the world can come to read; I can download music and books; and so, so much more.

But then, returning to Earth, what are the brass tacks here? I’ve been sending emails for over half my life; I’ve never owned a cell phone that couldn’t send a text message; I’ve been making my living publishing to the web for nearly three years; and this isn’t my first iPad.

But yet, in a way, this is my first iPad.

The iPad Air is, hands down, the most amazing iPad I’ve ever owned. And I’ve owned several.

I bought an original iPad on launch day; I bought the iPad 2 on its launch day; and I bought the iPad 3 on its launch day. Each of those successive devices got better and better and better.

Keeping with tradition, I bought the iPad Air on launch day, too. Thirteen days later I can say, unequivocally, that it is the greatest iPad ever. The change in size and weight and speed when compared to the iPad 3 is something that must be experienced and not read about. Trying to describe the difference in usability between the iPad Air and its predecessors is an exercise which puts my wordsmithing skills to the test.

My iPads have always received quite a bit of use from me. Even from the very first generation iPad, I have toted these things with me to meetings, coffee shops, vacations to the Rocky Mountains, “business” trips to WWDC, my living room, and everywhere in between.

Moreover, I am quite comfortable using the iPad as my “laptop”. My work is such that I’m fortunate enough to be able to do pretty much everything I need from the iPad. Nearly all of my daily tasks and routines related to work or play are things I can do on iOS.

Every design and engineering progression with the iPad has been a nice, incremental, and welcomed step. Thinner and lighter, then Retina, then faster. But the iPad Air is a leap and not a step. It feels impossibly thin and impossibly light while also being extremely fast and responsive. It is quintessential.

And then, yesterday, the iPad mini with Retina display appeared. And, well, it is also the best iPad I’ve ever owned.

Here is a device that will fit inside my wife’s purse or the pocket of my peacoat. And it’s ideal for all the most common personal computing tasks of doing email, surfing the Internet, and checking Facebook and Twitter. And we all know the iPad can do so much more — there’s no reason why the iPad mini couldn’t be someone’s only computer.

And that fascinates me. Who knew that one day our uncompromising personal computers would cost a few hundred dollars and would comfortably fit inside a woman’s purse?

I’ve been using the Retina mini for just a day now, but I am confident that I could use it for all the tasks which I’ve been using my full-sized iPad for all these years. The question is not about the capabilities of the mini; the question is about my own preferences. And, at the moment, I don’t have an answer.

It’s different than deciding between an 11- or 13-inch MacBook Air, or between a 13- or 15-inch MacBook Pro. For laptops you mostly use them while they are placed on top of a desk or table (or perhaps your lap) while you sit in front of them. You mostly pick which laptop you need based on your computing tasks and needs, size plays a role in terms of portability, but once the laptop is out and on the desk it mostly doesn’t matter what size it is (unless you’re sitting in coach).

But with the iPad Air and iPad mini, computing usage is not the only factor. There’s also a tangible, kinesthetic-centric factor at play here. Because the iPad is something you hold and touch while using.

Which is better: an iPad Air that has a bigger screen and which is thin and light enough? Or an iPad mini that is very thin and light and which has a screen that is big enough? I just don’t think you can pit these two devices against one another. They are not competing — they are two of a kind.

They are both great. Both favorites.

Over the next several weeks and months I plan to use both iPads for the same tasks. It’ll be interesting to see how the dust settles and if I’ll naturally be drawn more to the smaller device or the larger one, and why.

Fantastical 2 for iPhone: The Best Gets Better

The new Fantastical is the best calendar app on the iPhone. It was great before, but now, it’s, well, fantastic.

Fantastical 2 for iPhone

Let’s talk for a moment about friction, learning interfaces, and natural language parsing

I’ve always been a fan of Fantastical’s natural language parsing and it’s simple-yet-powerful design. When I say Fantastical is the best calendar app for the iPhone, I define “the best” as being the easiest to use (adding/editing events) and the easiest to read (checking schedule) for most people.

About a month ago I took a little poll on Twitter. It’s nothing scientifically conclusive, but it does provide some interesting data points to say the least. In the poll I asked people how many events they enter into their iPhone on a weekly basis.

Of 179 total responses:

  • 73% enter 1 or fewer events per day (130 people)
  • 21% enter an average of 2 events per day (38 people)
  • 6% enter an average of 3 events per day (10)
  • Less than 1% enter 4 or more events per day (1)

So, 94-percent of the total respondents use their iPhone’s calendar app 2 or fewer times per day to enter in a new event with most of those people actually using it just once or less per day.

Think about the situations you’re typically in when adding an event to your calendar using your iPhone. For me, I’m usually in the middle of a conversation with someone and we’ve just agreed upon our next meeting or a meal together. Or I’m in the lobby at my kids’ doctor’s office making their next checkup appointment, or I’m at my dentist making my next cleaning appointment. Etc.

In short, the times I’m using my iPhone to enter an event are times when I’m usually in the middle of something else. I want to add the event and get on with life.

The more we become familiar with a calendar app’s new-event interface, then the faster we can navigate it. However, as my Twitter poll hints, people entering in just one event or less per day is not much usage to learn an app’s interface.

I’ve been using my iPhone to enter calendar events since 2007, and the default new event entry sheet provided by iOS has always felt like an obstacle course. If most of us are entering one event or less per day on our iPhones, then are we ever really learning the event input interface of our calendar app?

That is why natural language parsing is so divine. Because what’s an “interface” we are all extremely familiar with? Natural language.

We say sentences like “I’m having lunch with Steve tomorrow” all the time. It’s called “natural language” for a reason — we say these sentences in our everyday conversations, emails, text messages, etc. It’s natural to us.

And so a calendar app that can understand our own natural language is one that we can use as infrequently as we want without suffering the consequences of not learning its input UI.

Fantastical has, by far and away, the best natural language input mechanics of any other calendar app on the iPhone. It is fast and smart at parsing just about any event- or reminder-based sentence, and it has easy-to-understand animations which let us know how the app is translating our words.

As Dr. Drang pointed out, Fantastical’s animations do more than dazzle:

The animations are providing instant feedback on how Fantastical is parsing your words and, more important, they’re teaching you Fantastical’s syntax.

What’s New in Fantastical 2?

In a sentence, it’s faster, it’s built and designed for iOS 7, it has Reminders integration, light and dark modes, and there’s a swell new week view if you flip your iPhone on its side.

Let’s dive in.

Landscape Mode’s Week View

Flip your phone into landscape mode and Fantastical shows you your week view with the time plotted on the calendar (not unlike Calendar shows you on the Mac).

Fantastical week view in Landscape mode

I’m a fan of this view because it’s a great way to visualize what blocks of time I’m booked for during the day and what blocks of time are open.

Moreover, from this weekly view you can drag and move events very easily. You can adjust their start and end times. And if you tap and hold on an empty spot, you can create a new event (which also means, by the way, that Fantastical now supports the landscape keyboard for creating a new event or reminder).

Speed

Pulling down on the day ticker and/or the month view is how you transition between one or the other. This animated transition is smoother and faster in the new version of Fantastical.

iOS 7

Updated with a 64bit architecture, background updating, and dynamic text. New events and reminders you add via your Mac or iPad or any other app beyond Fantastical still will sync to Fantastical in the background.

Reminders Integration

You can add a reminder by typing “Remind me to…”, or you can manually tap the toggle on the new event creation window that will switch Fantastical between new calendar event and new reminder.

Custom keyboard row

If you’ve got an iPhone 5 or 5s, above the QWERTY row is a 5th row with numbers, a forward slash, and a colon to help enter in calendar data faster. In my time testing the app over the past several weeks this row has proven to be immensely helpful.

Auto-import your settings

Your Fantastical 1 settings auto-import into Fantastical 2.

This seems like a non-trivial thing, right? We’re used to updating our apps and having our settings persist through the update.

But with developers releasing new, iOS 7-only, paid updates to their apps, a paid update like this is actually like installing a new app. Of course your calendars sync right up, but your app-specific display settings — such as having weekends highlighted, if days with no events show up in the day ticker, etc.. — are imported from Fantastical 1 into Fantastical 2. It’s the sort of thing you’d only notice if it didn’t happen.

So?

If you’re not satisfied with your current calendar app, Fantastical is just $3 on the App Store.

The New Tweetbot for iPhone and iOS 7

Long have I been a fan of Mark Jardine’s heavy-handed design aesthetic. The dark grey industrial materials, the gradients, noise textures, and the playful graphics and icons. These design elements have been inextricably tied to the signature and brand of the Tapbots app lineup.

Today, that all changes.

The new Tweetbot is a ground-up re-design and re-thinking of what is one of the most popular Twitter clients out there.

Tweetbot 3 for iOS 7 - Account Screen

This is the new Tweetbot, for iOS 7. As you can see the design is very new. It’s a starting over, not only for the app itself, but for the Tapbots’ brand.

For this new app, Mark and Paul had to out-Tweetbot Tweetbot. And I think they did just that.

Tweetbot 3 for iOS 7 - the main timeline view

This new version has all the underpinnings of what has made the app great since its 1.0 release in April 2011. It has fast and smooth scrolling, it has clever animations all throughout, swipe or tap-and-hold to act on a tweet, etc.

But, be it familiar, it is still an all new app.

Save for the icons, the new Tweetbot is a radical departure from the look Tapbots has become world famous for. The main timeline view now sports circle avatars and a white, gradient-free background. Tapping on images blurs brings them up full-screen while the background goes blurry. This app has all the design elements of a native iOS 7 app, but with a unique twist all its own.

It’s not all just a new coat of paint. The new Tweetbot supports background updating in iOS 7, which means that when you launch it your tweets are already there waiting for you. (This feature alone is worth the price to upgrade.)

Also, Tweetbot uses dynamic text from the size you set in the iOS system settings. Personally, I find this to be unfortunate. I prefer my system text (such as for emails and Safari’s “Reader mode”) to be just one notch above the tiniest. However, I find that size of text to be too big in Tweetbot. Even at the very smallest setting for dynamic system text size, it is still too big for me in the Tweetbot timeline.

When it comes to whimsy and personality, though the heavy-handed design aesthetic is now mostly gone, there are fun animations and bounce effects to nearly every element of the app. One of my favorites is tapping the profile image up to to bring up the account switcher — the individual account pictures and names slide in from the right and bounce off the left margin.

When you launch the new Tweetbot for the first few times, there is certainly a bit of shell shock at just how different it is. But, as you use it, you realize that it’s still a Tapbots app at heart. It’s just as delightful and just as powerful as its siblings, but it marks the next generation of Tapbots apps. And I’m looking forward to what’s next.

The new Tweetbot is a paid update for all users, and is on sale right now for $2.99 in the App Store.

Weather Line

Weather Line is a cool new weather app from Ryan Jones. Ryan sent me a copy of the app earlier this month and I’ve been using it for a bit.

When I launched Weather Line for the first time my initial impression was that it’s not a general purpose weather app. I assumed it was more niche, with a focus on forecast data rather than current conditions.

But that’s not the case at all.

As you can see from the screenshot, the primary element of the app is its line graph (the “weather line”) which shows the temperature forecast.

Weather Line

When you launch Weather Line, or navigate between the Hourly, Daily, and Monthly tabs, the left-most temperature animates itself with a sort of balloon effect. This instantly grabs the attention of your focus and draws your eye to the current temperature.

So, Weather Line is, in fact, a nice general purpose weather app. And, as I’ve been using it, I have come to enjoy the quick view I get of the current conditions right now and how they will change in the next 8 hours.

However, I do have two quibbles with the app:

  • All the navigation is up top. To navigate between locations you swipe on the location name; to navigate between Hourly, Daily, and Monthly forecasts you tap on those respective tabs. But on an iPhone 5/5s these tap targets are just out of reach for my thumb and it makes the app a little bit difficult to fully navigate one handed.

  • No radar view. Though Weather Line does use the Dark Sky API to give the 60-minute precipitation forecast, it does not have an actual radar view. Ryan, the man behind the app, said the reason there’s no radar view is because he can’t find one that is beautiful enough for him.

    In an email, he said to me, “Our app takes ugly boring data and uses beauty to make it easily understood, we want the radar that does the same thing.”

    I appreciate Ryan’s commitment to excellence, but for me, a weather app without radar is an incomplete weather app. My two favorite weather apps — Perfect Weather and Check the Weather — both have the standard radar views and I’ve never thought them to be ugly.

So, is Weather Line the best new general purpose weather app you can buy? I don’t think so (because of its lack of radar). But it is a fantastic app nonetheless.

Weather Line is simple, delightful, and very responsive. It feels right at home on iOS 7. And the icon is fantastic — it’s one of the best weather app icons on my iPhone. Just $3 bucks in the App Store.

Revisiting All My Past Product Reviews and Recommendations: What Stuck and What Didn’t?

I’ve been writing about hardware and software for years. Some things I review because I think they’re awesome and I want to recommend them. And then some of the things I link to or review are things I find noteworthy for one reason or another.

But things change over time — things like my own workflow habits, my software preferences, and even the software itself.

This site’s design puts the most emphasis on that which has been most-recently published. But what about that review of MarsEdit I wrote back in 2008? How can you know if I am I still using that app (if you ever even read the review in the first place)?

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. It can be easy to write a positive review of a cool new app or gadget, but how does that product hold up over time when the newness wears off and the routine of life settles back in?

There are a lot of apps that I’ve endorsed after a few weeks or months worth of usage, but am I still using them years later?

Well, over the past three days I went through every single review and recommendation I’ve written in the past 6 years in order to take inventory of which products I still use and which I don’t.

(I encourage all of us who write about, review, and recommend products to do something like this. Especially when we highly recommend something, it would be a great benefit to come back to that review in 6 months or a year and let our readers know if we are still using that product or not.)

My list below contains about 50-or-so apps and gadgets. Surprising (to me, at least) is that only 13 of them are products which I no longer use.

Which means I’m still using about 75-percent of the things I’ve reviewed and recommended over the past 6 years. So either I’m incredibly lazy, or I have excellent taste.

What Software am still using?

  • OmniFocus: I’ve been using the OmniFocus suite of apps (Mac, iPhone, and iPad) for over three years now. Sometimes I wonder if they are overkill for me now that I’ve somewhat settled into a grove with my work-from-home schedule. But I just can’t quit them because it’s a task management system that I trust. I know that if and when an important task becomes due, then OmniFocus will show it to me.

  • Simplenote: Gosh, I’ve been a hardcore Simplenote user since I first learned of it back in 2008 (thanks to John Gruber). Recently I even went looking for alternatives to Simplenote, but I just couldn’t quit it. And, I’m a big fan of the updated Simplenote app for iOS 7, and the Mac app, too, has become a daily driver for me as. In short, I put a lot of text into Simplenote and am happy to do so.

  • MarsEdit: This, my friends, is quality software. It’s hard to believe I’ve been using this app just about every day for 6 years.

  • Rdio: Access trumps ownership, or so they say. Anyway, I am an avid fan of Rdio. And I still use Airfoil to adjust the EQ of Rdio’s output and to send the audio to my nicer sound system that’s hooked up to the Apple TV if I want.

  • Keyboard Maestro: I haven’t written any formal reviews of Keyboard Maestro because I don’t know where I would start, and once I did start reviewing the app I don’t know how I could stop. I’ve been using Keyboard Maestro for years and it does just about everything. About a year ago, Ben and I recorded a Tips & Tricks episode of the B&B podcast (RIP) giving some use-case scenarios for Keyboard Maestro.

  • LaunchBar: Another critical app that I haven’t written a review about but have long been an advocate of. This is my application launcher of choice. Also, there’s a B&B podcast Tips & Tricks episode about LaunchBar in the archives as well.

  • Hues: When I’m designing a website, Hues is always running. Been using it for a few years now.

  • Coda 2 and Diet Coda: I’ve been using and loving Coda since it shipped years ago. I’m not a developer, but I do know enough HTML, CSS, and PHP to build and maintain my own WordPress websites. And when I do need to update, create, or fix something I do so in Coda 2 (or Diet Coda if my Mac’s not nearby).

  • Editorial: I’ve only been using it for 2 months, but it’s splendid.

  • Byword: On the Mac, I do almost all of my longform writing in Byword. I then keep all my “in-progress” articles in a folder in Dropbox. If/when I need to access them on the iPhone I use Byword on the iPhone (the iOS 7 update is splendid, by the way). But on the iPad I use Editorial.

  • Reeder: Reeder has long been the best RSS reading app on iOS.

  • ReadKit: This app is good enough. So far as I know this is the only Mac app that syncs with Feed Wrangler. The app has seen a lot of consistent development and improvement over the past few months, but I still consider it pretty slow at updating my feeds and it’s not extremely easy to navigate using the keyboard.

  • Tweetbot: Still my go-to twitter client on the Mac, iPhone, and iPad. I talk often of how awesome Twitterrific is — it’s beautifully designed.

  • Riposte: I think Riposte is more than just the best ADN client for the iPhone — it is one of the nicest iPhone apps, period. I find it very easy to use; it’s fast, clever, well designed, and it has a slew of killer features.

  • Feed Wrangler: This has been my post-Google Reader sync service of choice and after several months I’m still quite content with it.

  • 1Password: Gosh. I’ve been using 1Password for several years, and the more I use it the more I’m glad I use it. Such a well-done and valuable app.

  • Transmit: It’s the best FTP client for the Mac, so why wouldn’t I still be using it?

  • TextExpander: No official review of this fine utility, just many links to it over the years. You bet I’m still using the OS X and iOS versions.

  • Backblaze, SuperDuper, Arq, and Dropbox: This is still my backup strategy, and I’m quite happy with it. Though (thankfully) I have yet to encounter a time where I needed disaster recovery of my data, so it’s hard to say exactly how it would all pan out were my laptop and external HDDs all destroyed or stolen.

  • Day One: This is certainly the best journaling app out there. I keep the iOS apps on both my iPad’s and iPhone’s Home screen and write in them often. I have the Mac version as well, but don’t use it nearly as much. Probably because journaling is something I don’t tend to do when sitting at my desk. And also, a lot of my Day One entries are photos I take with my iPhone.

  • Fantastical and Agenda: These are the two calendar apps I’ve written about over the years. I still use and love Fantastical on the Mac, and up until recently used Agenda on the iPhone (the latest iOS update to Agenda is quite nice).

    However, there’s a new website project I’m working on that has me doing a lot of digging and testing with iOS calendar apps right now. Calendars 5 is a new entry to the iOS calendar market and it’s pretty amazing. And so, honestly, I don’t know which of these three (Agenda, Calendars 5, Fantastical) are my favorite on iOS. They’re all great in their own way — the jury is still out.

  • Junecloud’s Delivery Status app: still use this to track shipments. It’s great.

  • Droplr: I’ve been using Droplr since it was in beta back in 2010, and I still use it every single day.

  • Checkmark: Checkmark does location-based reminders better than iOS does, in my opinion. It’s faster at setting them up and more accurate at reminding you. Though I don’t set reminders like this very often, when I do I still use Checkmark.

  • Breaktime: This app is helping me live longer. It’s sitting in my menu bar right now, reminding me that in 21 minutes I need to stand up again and walk around for a bit.

  • Bartender: My goodness I am so thankful for this app. It cleans up your Mac’s Menu bar. Still highly recommended.

  • Quickshot: Still using this to take photos of receipts (for tax purposes) and then upload them to Dropbox. A Hazel rule then moves them to my receipts folder.

  • DropVox: This app is extremely dated, but it still works and I still use it to record Shawn Today episodes whenever I’m away from my Mac. And, so far as I know, there are no other apps which take a voice recording and pipe it to Dropbox.

  • Timer: The guys behind Timing were sponsors of the site a few times in the past, but I’ve also personally had this app running in the background since it came out in 2011. And even though I use it, I don’t really make use of the data it tracks — I have a hard time parsing it all myself. I’ve been considering setting up an account with Rescue Time instead, to see if the reporting there is better and more useful.

What gadgets am I still using?

  • Mid-2011 MacBook Air: Stilly gutsy, still glorious, still using it every single day.

  • iPad 3: I still use my iPad as a laptop replacement (though, to be honest, I do leave the house with my MacBook Air a bit more often these days).

  • Last Year’s Kindle Paperwhite: Still love it. I wouldn’t mind getting the new one, but I don’t think it’s worth paying to upgrade.

  • My Clicky Keyboard: After a whole lot of fiddling and typing on mechanical keyboards (both big ones and tenkeyless versions) I picked the Filco Majestouch-2 Ninja with the Cherry MX Blue switches. I’ve been typing on this keyboard for over a year now and still love it. And, as a matter of fact, I’m typing on it at this very moment. Click! Clack!

  • Uni-ball Signo DX 0.38mm: Still the greatest, inexpensive, fine-tip gell ink pen in the world.

  • Audyssey Computer speakers: Earlier this year I bought these white Audyssey Bluetooth speakers because their sibling version (which are black and non-Bluetooth) were recommended by The Wirecutter. I don’t use the Bluetooth connectivity, but I think the white is much better looking than the black and the price is actually cheaper. The Audyssey’s are bigger than they look in the pictures, and they sound absolutely fantastic. Very full, rich, and crisp. For $145, you can’t go wrong. I’m jamming out with them as I type this very sentence.

  • E-PL5 mirrorless camera and Panasonic 20/1.7 pancake lens: It has been almost a year since I got this camera and lens and I am still very satisfied. While I do wish it had more dials for faster manual adjustment of the aperture and other settings, I have never felt frustrated or constrained. If I were buying a mirrorless camera today, I’d probably go with the new E-P5.

  • Doxie Go, Hazel, and my Paperless Office: Still using this setup and workflow every single week to keep my office paperless. Of course it’s a chore, but one that’s easy enough I don’t not do it. (See also my review of the Doxie Go.)

  • Origami Workstation for iPad: I’ve had this thing for a few years now and still use it near daily. What I wrote in my review still stands. One thing I’m noticing is that the velcro on the tabs that holds the flaps together is starting to lose a bit of its grip strength. My guess is that in a year or less I’ll need to replace the velcro somehow.

  • AeroPress: You know I’m still brew coffee with it just about every single day (if I’m not brewing with a Clever or a v60).

  • Blue Yeti: Still use (almost) every day to record my Shawn Today podcast. I also used it to record all the interviews and the audio book version of Delight is in the Details.

  • My gray-market 27-inch IPS LCD: I bought this display last fall when my 23-inch Apple Cinema Display died. It’s great for the price, and I’ve been happily using it for over a year. But a very faint shadow has appeared across the bottom of the screen. I am crossing my fingers that Apple will update their Thunderbolt displays later this year so I can upgrade.

What I am no longer using

Here are apps and gadgets that I’ve recommended and said I liked but am no longer using today.

  • The Jawbone UP: I thought it was so cool at first, and I still do love the idea of it, but the bracelet never got comfortable for me. Over time I just tired of charging it and syncing it and wearing it in my sleep.

  • Triage: This is a very clever email app for the iPhone. But when I installed the iOS 7 beta onto my iPhone 5 earlier this summer, I wiped the phone and started fresh. Triage just never got installed again.

    And, so long as we’re on the subject, no 3rd-party email client has ever stuck for me beyond the stock Apple email apps (on iOS and on OS X). I’ve tried Postbox, Sparrow, Mailbox, Triage, and probably a dozen others, but I always just come back to Apple’s email apps.

  • Writing Kit: This is a great iPad writing app, and it was my favorite until Editorial came along.

  • NetNewsWire 3: This was one of the best. It would still work as a standalone RSS reader, but I use Feed Wrangler to sync my feeds and the old NNW doesn’t sync with anything any longer.

  • Recall: Another really cool app that just never stuck for me.

  • Yojimbo: I raved about this app for years, and I still consider it to be one of the finest Mac apps I have ever used. But alas it didn’t scale well for my needs, and I ended up moving to a few individual applications and services.

  • Nexus 7 tablet: I think I’ve got it sitting in the bottom of a drawer around here somewhere.

  • Visual, iOS timer: I used this for a while as a way to keep my time spent on email to a minimum. But it never became habit and the app never stuck for me.

  • Instacast: Instacast is great, but I just don’t listen to podcasts any longer. And with a toddler, I no longer queue podcast episodes up for road trips — instead we listen to white noise or music.

  • Pastebot: Some apps you just slowly stop using, and Pastebot was one of those for me. It’s neat, but I no longer use it for the things I used to use it for. And with the ever-increasing number of apps and services which sync, I don’t have as much need to copy/paste things between my Mac and iPhone.

  • Fever: I have Fever running on a server, but never ever check it these days.

  • Mint: I would still be using Mint, but something in its database farted out on me a few months ago and MySQL is something I know nothing about. So I signed up for an account with GoSquared, which is nice but I don’t love it.

  • Things: I stopped using things because I really needed a to-do list app that synced over the air. So I switched to OmniFocus in 2010. But then, even after Things got OTA sync, I kept using OmniFocus because the iPad app and the review function are just so, so great.

The New Simplenote Apps

If asked to trim my iPhone and iPad Home screens down to just one app, that app would be Simplenote.

I have been using Simplenote for as long as I can remember. What first won me over to the app was certainly not the icon. Rather, it was (a) Simplenote’s ability to sync my notes over-the-air to my Mac, and (b) its use of Helvetica. These were two huge improvements on Apple’s native Notes app which synced over USB and used Marker Felt as the typeface.

Simplenote shipped in 2008 when the iPhone App Store was fresh and there was only a rumor of an iPad. In many ways, the app has barely changed since its very first version, seeing mostly only refinements and iterations of the original design.

Today, 5 years later, look at the App store today and you’ll find no shortage of minimalistic, well-designed, note-taking apps that sync over-the-air. And many of these apps are absolutely fantastic. But, even after my foray into Simplenote alternatives and doing research and trying out other note-taking apps, I’ve stuck with Simplenote as my iOS note-taking app of choice.

So much of how I use my iPhone and iPad is text based: ideas, articles, to-do items, lists, and more. Because I have an affinity for apps that do one thing well, currently all these “text-based” things are handled by unique apps:

However, I could consolidate them all into just one app if I had to. And that app would be Simplenote. The reason I’d choose Simplenote is because it’s a quick, easy-to-use app with great search and it has fast, reliable sync.

Today we find a significant update to Simplenote on iOS as well as a brand-new, native Simplenote app for the Mac.

These huge updates to Simplenote came as a bit of a surprise to me. When Simperium, the Simplenote development team, was acquired by Automattic, I was hopeful yet also had concerns that the future of Simplenote was in question. The announcement stated that Automattic founder, Matt Mullenweg, was a fan of Simplenote and had plans to keep its development, but that’s not always how things pan out after an acquisition.

Fortunately, I was wrong. And today we see one of the best updates to Simplenote yet.

Simplenote on iOS

The new iOS 7 version of Simplenote for the iPhone and iPad is even more simple (if that were possible) than its predecessor.

From a feature standpoint, what’s new about new Simplenotes is more like a list of what’s gone from the previous version.

In the previous version of Simplenote there was a modicum of preferences that allowed you to adjust a handful of options. Such as how your “timeline” list of notes was sorted, what font size you wanted for reading and editing a note’s text, and more.

However, in the new Simplenote, those options are all gone save one: the option for your list of notes to show a preview of text under each title or not.

Simplenote old and new side-by-side preferences

In one of the early iOS builds I tested, the preference for condensing the note list wasn’t even there. Fortunately, the developers were willing to be persuaded to add back in this preference which I consider essential.

The option to sport a collapsed notes list is huge for how I use Simplenote. Since I usually have around 10 active notes going at any given time, I love being able to see all of them at a glance when I open Simplenote on my iPhone.

I have no doubt that other preferences will slowly be added back in. But this initial purging marks the beginning of the next generation for Simplenote.

In the iOS apps, the most significant change you’ll see right away is Simplenote’s new typeface: Source Sans Pro. Other than the many refinements to several current features (such as sharing and version history) almost all of the biggest changes are under the hood. In fact, iOS apps have been re-written from the ground up in order to lay a new foundation for future iteration and evolution.

Tom Witkin, who also went to work for Automattic a few months back and is now one of the Automattic team members working on Simplenote, said to me that their general thinking throughout the entire Simplenote design process has been “to create a great platform to build Simplenote upon going forward.”

For an app with simple in the name, I’m delighted to see that it’s staying true to its nature. While I do miss a few of my legacy features, after a few weeks with the betas, I would not go back to the old version. The app feels faster, more professional, more modern, and more refined. Everything the new Simplenote does, it does very well.

Search

Search itself remains as great as ever. Simplenote’s search has always been second to none, and it continues to be one of the app’s finest features. I use it often, and it’s one of the primary reasons I chose to stay with Simplenote when looking into alternatives (as mentioned above). I can’t say how glad I am that search in Simplenote continues to be a top-priority for the developers.

In the new Simplenote, search has seen some nice design improvements that makes it a more polished and refined experience. When searching a term, the list of notes is pared down in real time to only those with that term in the title or the body text. If the term exists in the title, that word gets set in blue text. Tapping on a note from the search results takes you to the first result of that term within the note’s body text, and that term is highlighted in a blue rounded rectangle. Arrow buttons at the bottom-right in the note’s toolbar take you to the next and previous instances of the term, and next to those arrows you’re told how many total instances of the search term there are in the current note.

If you’re familiar with search in Simplenote, the overall experience is more or less the same. What’s new is primarily the above mentioned design details (the blue treatment on the words and the better highlighting within a note). But these are details that make the searching experience easier and more efficient.

Collaboration

What used to be called Sharing is now called Collaboration. This works on the Mac and iOS versions of Simplenote.

You collaborate a note with someone by adding their email address as a tag to your note. If you add the email address associated with that person’s Simplenote account then the shared note shows up in your collaborator’s Simplenote list. If you add an email address that’s not associated with a Simplenote account, then that person will get an email and can either (a) log in to Simplenote if they have their Simplenote account associated with a different email, and the note will be added; or else (b) create an account.

In the new Simplenote app, there is no longer an icon letting you know which notes in your list you’re collaborating on. Which means if someone shares a note with me, then the only way I know it’s been shared is because I notice there’s a new note there that didn’t exist before.

Moreover, if someone shares a note with you, the only way to know who has shared it is by the email alert. For an incoming shared note, there are no tags with the originator’s email addresses, nor does their email appear in the “Collaborators” list.

I’d love to see the collaboration area improve even more, by (a) offering better information about who is collaborating on a note regardless of the originator, (b) giving me the option to accept or decline incoming shared notes; and (c) some sort of marker letting me know a note in the list is shared.

Also, I see some options for pro features here, such as a list of trusted collaborators whose notes automatically get added to my list (first assuming Simplenote added the ability to accept/decline incoming shared notes), push notification options for new shared notes and when updates to a note are synced, and better visibility into the changes of a note when peering back at the note’s history. Also it’d be nice to add more email address to my Simplenote account (similar to how you can have several iMessage IDs).

Additional Tidbits Regarding New / Updated Features

  • As mentioned above, the default typeface is no longer Helvetica. Simplenote now uses Source Sans Pro for the note list and note body text. Though, as you can clearly see in the above screenshot, the settings pane still uses Helvetica.

    Source Sans Pro: the new Simplenote typeface

  • Simplenote on iOS now auto-completes unordered bullet lists when you start a list and continue it by tapping the return button.

  • Publishing your note to a URL (so you can make that note’s contents public to anyone you like) has a much nicer in-app interface, and an updated look to the Simplenote website is in the works as well.

  • When typing in a note on the iPhone version, the top navigation bar “minimizes” (a la Safari) when scrolling down in your note, and in landscape orientation, the nav bar disappears altogether when you scroll down. A nice touch.

  • The Pro subscription has been temporarily removed. For now, all Pro users will keep on getting their benefits (no API sync limit, Dropbox syncing, etc.) while the Simplenote guys figure out what to do next with the Pro subscription model.

  • Gesture navigations: On the iPhone you can swipe left-to-right on a note to return to the note list. On the iPad, you can “pinch” the note closed.

  • On the iPad there is no longer the 2-column view that sports the list of notes on the left and the text on the right. There is only one view at a time: your list of notes or else the note you’re viewing/editing. I prefer this “simplified” viewport setup because it often saves me an extra tap, since I usually prefer to view my notes in the iPad in fullscreen mode anyway. Now, they always are.

Simplenote on Mac

For the past several weeks that I’ve been testing the new Simplenote apps, I’ve eschewed my regular use of nvALT to give my full attention to the Simplenote Mac app.

Some things I like about it are its clean and classy design that feels very open and yet not wasteful. Also it features full integration with all the Simplenote features (obviously).

However, there is no autocompletion of any syntax such as unordered lists, there is very little keyboard navigation — CMD+F for search and CMD+N for a new note. Though I’m told that the basic syntax completion is planned for a future release.

Since nvALT now uses the new Simplenote API (the same API that the native Simplenote Mac app uses), as someone who’s grown used to the keyboard-friendly features of nvALT I see no advantage of switching to the Simplenote Mac app unless you make heavy use of tags, collaboration, or you prefer the design.

Wrap Up

The new Simplenote apps are free. The Mac app is available only in the Mac App Store, and the iOS apps are, obviously, only available in the iOS App Store.

While there are a lot of things I use my iPhone for — email, text messaging, Twitter, Instapaper, RSS, taking photos and videos, journaling, to-do list managing, music listening, and more — the one thing I would likely miss the most is the ability to take notes, make lists, write ideas, and have those all in sync with my Mac and iPad. Which is why Simplenote continues to be one of my favorite and most-used apps.

iOS 7: The Delightful Details

Your iPhone and iPad have never looked so fresh and different. The new look and feel of iOS 7 is the most significant design change since the toggle buttons went from rounded rectangles to circles.

With so much new, I wanted to focus on a handful of the smaller, delightful details.

The Lock Screen

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I find the design of the Lock screen to be wonderful. I love the open, airy feel and how you can swipe from anywhere on the Lock screen to unlock your iPhone.

If you use a passcode lock, the Pin Pad slides over from the left side of the display. It’s a nice touch, and I bring it up because for future 5s owners, this is something you won’t be seeing very often come Friday.

And one more cool little detail of the Lock screen is that if you’ve snoozed an alarm or set a timer, the Lock screen shows the time remaining.

Launching / Exiting Apps

When you open an app, it expands from the app icon’s location on the Home screen to fill the display. When you exit an app, it minimizes back into the icon.

The Clock App’s Icon

If you look at the icon for the Clock app, you’ll notice that not only does it now show the correct time, even the second hand moves just like an analog clock.

The Music App

When you are looking at an album or playlist list and the currently playing song is in view, an “EQ” graphic is animated to the left of the song that’s now playing.

iOS 7 - bouncing EQ bars in the music app

Your entire iTunes music collection (of songs you’ve purchased from the iTunes music store) is now listed in the Music app. And you can now stream and download any song in your iTunes library even if it’s not downloaded to your iPhone.

Turning your iPhone into Landscape mode to see the new Cover Flow design shows a thumbnail grid of album covers.

Safari

If ever there was a case where you shouldn’t judge an app by its icon, this is it. Safari in iOS 7 has the worst of the new icons, yet it is my favorite new app. In it are a slew of changes and improvements to the graphics, design, and functionality.

  • Reader mode: The look of Safari’s Reader mode is much improved compared to iOS 6. It’s cleaner and ties in with the overall Helvetica-gushing design aesthetic of iOS 7.

    Tap the three-line “paragraph” icon that’s in the left of the Address bar and a sheet slides down over the website you’re on presenting you with a reader friendly text-view.

    If you see no icon, then Safari doesn’t know how to parse the text, or it doesn’t think there’s text worth parsing.

  • Minimizing Chrome: When you scroll down on a web page you’ll see how Safari’s chrome minimizes: the address bar gets smaller and the icon tool bar on the bottom disappears altogether.

    And when viewing a webpage in landscape orientation, Safari will go into full-screen mode with all the chrome disappearing — even the status bar — in order to allow as much vertical space as possible.

    Tapping the bottom of the screen will bring up the bottom tool bar.

There are many, many more design changes and improvements to Mobile Safari. Overall, the updates to this app are just fantastic. Well done, Mobile Safari team.

Messages

You’ll notice this right away the first time you scroll an iMessage / SMS conversation: the chat bubbles are slightly springy and bouncy, moving as you scroll the conversation.

I love the use of the circle picture avatars in group message threads. And if no picture is attached to a contact, then the iPhone uses their initials as their “avatar” instead.

And, something else you may not know but which is very awesome: swipe from right to left in a Messages conversation to view the individual timestamps of each sent and received message.

Control Center

This isn’t a “small” detail by any means — it’s one of the headlining features in iOS 7. But it’s one of my favorite additions to iOS. I love having the quick access to toggle certain settings (such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and more), and it’s very helpful to be able to launch certain apps from anywhere in the phone, even the Lock screen.

For example, when I’m brewing my morning cup of AeroPress’d coffee, I can get to the stopwatch with just a swipe up from the Home screen and then a tap to the Clock app.

Also, if you look closely, the on/off button on the flashlight icon toggles up and down as you toggle the actual switch in Control Center.

Toggling Flashlight icon in iOS 7 Control Center

Notification Center

The Today view learns about your commuting habits and gives you information about how far away you are from your next destination. Also, it shows the natural language summary of your day today and tomorrow with weather, appointments, etc.

Checking the Today summary of my day has become part of my morning routine. Notification Center can be called from the Lock screen, so I simply tap the Home button, then swipe down from the top of the screen to see a brief overview of what the weather is going to be and what (if any) appointments I have today.

Scanning in an iTunes gift card

Launch the App Store app, scroll to the bottom of the Featured page, then tap on “Redeem.” Then…

Delight is in the Details

I’ve been running iOS 7 on my iPhone since the day it was first announced. It is a stark contrast to what we’ve been so familiar with on the iPhone and iPad, but it quickly grows on you. And all of these little details that are sprinkled throughout iOS 7 — some obvious, some not so obvious — just go to show that even when doing a major overhaul of their most popular operating system, Apple still takes time to sweat the details and add in those little design decisions which surprise and delight.

OmniFocus 2 for iPhone

Today, the OmniFocus app for iPhone gets a huge redesign for iOS 7.

The redesign is two-fold. For one, it’s a complete re-skinning of the app’s look and feel, with a swing of the pendulum deep into iOS 7 territory. Colors and thin weights of Helvetica abound in the new OmniFocus.

The second element of the redesign is the layout and overall UI — it too gets a massive overhaul. The app’s “home” page has been completely re-organized. Gone is the standard list view, and in its stead is a more grid-based layout.

OmniFocus Home screens

I have been using this new OmniFocus for about a week and it’s a mixed bag for me. While there are many great things about it, a few things just don’t sit right. I am a fan of the updated layout and much of the new design aesthetic. And I love that the new look fits right in with iOS 7. But, again, there are a few bits and pieces of the design that cause me to pause when using the app.

Though OmniFocus sits on my iPhone’s first Home screen, it’s not an app I spend a lot of time in. I mostly open it when I’m out and about to either quickly add an item or to check items off from a list.

When it comes to checking items off, you could say the new app is a bit more friendly to right-handed use. The task checkoff boxes (which are now circles) are on the right side of the screen instead of the left, making it a bit easier to reach those tap targets.

The project and context list view has been slightly updated. Now when viewing your list of Projects or Context, under the title of each project/context sits a row of dots signifying the number of tasks still remaining and if any of them are overdue or due soon.

Like before, a quick entry button for adding a new task from anywhere is always available in the bottom right. Unlike before, the quick entry button is now the only thing at the bottom of the screen. The bottom toolbar is now gone, and so the quick entry button simply hovers.

Adding a New Task

For the most part, the item detail view really just doesn’t sit right for me. The previous version, though outdated in style, had a clear visual hierarchy and clarity to it. The new version feels lost in the monotones and subtle tones.

OmniFocus adding new tasks

The design element I like the least is the date and time picker for setting when a task is due and when the task is available. Now, to be fair, OmniFocus is using the iOS 7 default date/time picker. And, unfortunately, I think the default date/time picker is one of the turds of iOS 7.

In the previous OmniFocus for iPhone, when you selected the start/due date(s), a whole new screen would slide up. In the new version, when you tap the “Due” column, the date picker slides into view along with a grid of buttons for quickly going to a predefined timeframe (such as setting the item as being due today, 1 day from now, 1 week, 1 month, or 1 year).

An item’s start date is now called “Defer Until.” Tapping the Defer column gives the same animation as setting the Due date. One cool thing about setting the defer date is there is a button for “Later” and it selects a random time in the future, usually 6-8 weeks out.

While I do think the new layout and experience design is superior to the old version, I miss the easily defined hierarchy. I don’t know the answer here, but I do know that the Omni Group will be working to refine their app. And perhaps I’ll get used to it.

Something new and clever is that when adding a task there is a “Save+” button. Tap that after you’ve entered in a new to-do item and the current view sort of falls down off the screen and a new “card” is then ready to go for a new item. If you have several tasks to enter at once, this is a great time saver.

The iOS 7 Transition

As I stated above, OmniFocus 2 has a lot of great new design and layout elements with a few things that still need work.

The transition to the new iOS 7-esque look and feel won’t be an easy one. For a while, we’re going to see a lot of apps that look and feel very similar to one another. With iOS 7 Apple completely re-wrote the app design language. It is going to take some time for 3rd-party devs begin to get more ideas and more comfort to take risks, try new designs, and innovate in this new space.

By this time next year, if not sooner, I expect that we’ll be seeing a much broader range of mature designs from 3rd-party developers (and from Apple themselves). App designs that feel at home on iOS 7 while also feeling unique, distinct, and full of personality.

The New Reeder for iOS

Reeder 2. It’s here, it’s a universal app, it costs $5, and it’s darn awesome.

Like many of you, I’ve been using Reeder for quite a while. It was over 3 years ago that I quibbled about the iPhone’s lack of a world class feed reader:

Tweetie and Instapaper are two classy apps. They are easy to read from, easy to get around in, and a ton of fun. But tweeting and reading things later should not be the only place where all the action is. I would love to see a top-notch, Tweetie-level, RSS reader for the iPhone. [...]

There are tons of nerds who were using Twitter way before Ashton was and who have been riding the RSS train for years and years. And since nerds are the pickiest of all when it comes to usability and interface design, they are the ones most in need of a great feed reader app for their iPhone.

I wrote the above back when the 3GS was the latest iPhone and the iPad was brand new. Of the RSS apps available at that time my favorite was Reeder. Soon after I wrote that article, a significant update to Reeder shipped which improved upon nearly every little thing in the app. Then, Reeder for iPhone got another significant update a year and a half ago during WWDC 2012.

Today’s new version of Reeder continues its journey of getting better and more refined while staying clever and familiar. Moreover, today brings a huge update to Reeder for iPad — an update we’ve been holding our breath for ever since the iPhone app’s 2012 update.

For the past several weeks I’ve been using the new versions of Reeder on my iPhone and iPad and I’ve found them to be wonderful.

There are many parallels when you consider the journeys of visual design between Reeder and OS X. The very first version of Reeder featured a bit more visual fluttery stuff than necessary. But each subsequent version has seen a bit of refinement until now we have a very clean design. And, like OS X, one thing Reeder has not traded in is its personality and whimsy.

No other feed reading app on my iPhone or iPad has the level of speed, polish, and visual delight that Reeder does.

Reeder continues to works with many of the numerous RSS syncing services, including my personal favorite, Feed Wrangler. And what’s great is that this new version of Reeder has added support for Feed Wrangler’s Smart Streams. Yay! (Though I do wish Reeder would list Smart Streams at the top of my feed list instead of the bottom.)

The new Reeder is a premier example of an app that adapts to the iOS 7-style look and feel of less gradients and more gestures yet without giving up on personality and whimsy.

You can download the universal app now for just 5 bucks on the App Store.

The Fourth Agenda

Today, Agenda 4 is out. It’s a calendar app for the iPhone and it’s awesome.

The core of Agenda is its gesture-based navigation — something that has gone pretty much unchanged since version 1.0. This navigation style makes it so easy to quickly get between the different calendar views. And once iOS 7 makes its debut this fall, we’ll be pining for gesture-based navigation even more.

Agenda’s “left-most” calendar view shows a high-level look, displaying a traditional calendar view with visibility into 6 months at a time. The “center” view is a one-month calendar with view of today’s events. The right-most view is a running list of all your events in chronological order, with dividers separating each day.

My preferred calendar view is the right-most pane in Agenda: the running list. At a glance I can usually see a quick overview of what I’ve got going on today, tomorrow, and maybe even the next day. And I can quickly scroll down the list to see future events, or scroll up the list to see past events.

But, when setting up an appointment, my visual-thinking brain usually wants to see on a traditional calendar where a date lands. Which is why I love that I can quickly swipe over to the month view and see a particular date, or range of dates, in context to the week and month they’re in.

What’s new in Agenda 4?

I’m glad you asked. For one, the app has a brand-new icon and a fresh coat of interior paint. Giving it a nice iOS 7 vibe that will make it feel right at home this fall.

Also new are some options for how you can create new events. In the settings pane you can chose your preferred method for entering a new event. Agenda gives you 4 options:

  • The new “Agenda Mini” pane which lets you type in the name of an event and then quickly select a start and stop time.
  • The Agenda expanded pane which is an improved version of Agenda’s traditional event creation pane. This view lets you pick different alarm times, add notes, adjust which calendar the event belongs to, and more.
  • The default iOS event entry card.
  • And a text box which you can type in natural language and then send to Fantastical. Using URL-schemes, your text is opened in Fantastical, you can then adjust if you need to, and once the event is added you’re sent back to Agenda 4.

At first consideration, all these event entry options may seem like overkill. But a large part of what makes or breaks a calendar app for people is how it handles event creation. Everyone has different need and different taste when it comes to viewing their calendar and adding events.

I for one never liked Agenda’s previous event creation view. Which is why I would often use Siri or Fantastical to create a new event.

However, the new “Agenda Mini” pane for creating a new event is excellent. Since almost all of my events exist on just one calendar, and a default alarm of 15-minutes works well for me, this quick-entry pane is a breeze to use.

Agenda 4 is two bucks in the App Store, and is a paid upgrade for existing Agenda users.

This app has been my primary iPhone calendar app since the day it launched as a 1.0 back in the summer of 2011, and it just keeps getting better. Which is why, two years later, it continues its reign as the calendar app sitting on my home screen.

Sent From Byword 2

Byword on the Mac is one of the three apps in my writing workflow toolkit — working alongside nvALT and MarsEdit, it is my go-to writing app for anything longer than a few sentences.

And today Byword 2 is out for the iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

When Byword for iOS first shipped about a year ago I wrote a review of the 3-app suite, and my thoughts regarding the Byword suite still stand: it’s a glorious set of applications that are feature rich and delightfully designed.

On iPhone and iPad, the 2.0 update rocks some nice visual enhancements that really make it the app easier and more enjoyable to use than before. And that’s saying quite a bit since Byword was a handsome app to begin with. Additionally the iOS apps have some stellar improvements to document syncing for the iOS apps which include better offline support, the ability to move files to different folders (you can even move a document that’s in Dropbox to iCloud, and vice versa), and a clever approach to conflict resolution.

Byword can quickly search through the title and contents of hundreds and hundreds of notes. And with the aforementioned improvements to the design and syncing features, it’s fair to say that Byword on iOS now makes an even more compelling option to those looking for a Dropbox-syncing note app.

The paramount feature of Byword 2 is that you can now use the app to publish directly to your site. If this is a feature that interest you, it’s a $4.99 in-app purchase. I can testify that publishing to WordPress works quite well, though I would like to see better support for assigning tags and categories.

To give Byword access to your weblog, you select Publish from the Byword menu and then enter your site’s credentials. Then, when you’re done with an article and are ready to publish you can either select “Publish” from the File menu or you can click the Publish button that presents itself when you’re in Markdown Preview mode.

Once you hit Publish on an article, a popover window appears where you can then set the metadata for your article. For WordPress this includes title, slug, tags, categories, and even custom fields.

Byword 2 Mac Publishing Fields

My only quibble here is that Byword doesn’t pre-load the categories of my site and allow me to select from a dropdown list or something — you need to manually type in the name of each category — and there is no auto-complete for previously used categories. Which means you must remember and then type without error the names of the categories you wish to publish within.

Needless to say, I’m really excited about all the updates to Byword. Since I type all of my long-form articles within Byword, it’ll be nice to circumvent my copy-and-paste-to-MarsEdit routine and publish right from Byword itself.

The New Backblaze iPhone App

It’s been almost two years since I began using Backblaze. If you don’t have an off-site backup solution, I highly recommend them.

Recently, Backblaze released an iPhone app for accessing all the files from your computer which have been backed up. I’ve often wished there were an iOS app available so I could view and access my Backblaze data — a great way to get at non-Dropbox’d files when I’m away from my computer. Alas, the Backblaze app leaves some things to be desired.

When you launch the app you’re prompted to sign in with your Backblaze account info. You then select the computer whose data you want to view, enter the encryption key for that computer, and you’re in. You now have full access to every file which Backblaze has backed up from your computer.

Note that every time you leave the app and come back you’ll have to re-enter your encryption key and then re-navigate through the file system. I very much appreciate the security this brings, but it’d be nice if I could set a timer for how long I want the app to wait before re-asking for my encryption password.

Since Backblaze backs up regularly in the background, you’re theoretically looking at exactly what’s on your computer (or nearly identical). For situations where you just need to get at a particular file, this is a much quicker and easier way than screen sharing or remoting back to your Mac.

When you navigate to a file, you can then download it to your iPhone. From there you’re able to preview it, and, through the “open in” button, you can save it to Dropbox, open it in another app, send it as an email attachment, etc.

Unfortunately, if you download a file type the iPhone doesn’t natively recognize (such as .zip files), you cannot do anything with the file. For example: though I can download a zip file to my iPhone, tapping that file gives me an error dialog box. And without being able to preview the document Backblaze doesn’t show me the “open in” options. Thus, I cannot even email the zip file from my Backblaze backup.

This to me is the app’s biggest shortcoming. The advantage of getting at my Backblaze data is that it gives me the opportunity to find and then do something with virtually any file that’s on my Mac. But being limited to files which my iPhone can natively handle severely limits the usefulness of the Backblaze app.

Shortcomings aside, I’m glad Backblaze has shipped something. And I trust that, like the Backblaze service itself, the app will only get better over time.

Review: Riposte 1.2

Riposte is an iPhone app for App.net (ADN). It first launched in January this year and quickly became my personal favorite ADN app. In March, Riposte got even better when it brought support for private messages (individual and group) as well as granular control over push notifications (meaning you can select what you want to get a push notification for).

Today, Riposte 1.2 is available and brings a handful of new features and improvements, as well as a host of new “Pro” features.

The Pro features include customizing the app using one of several new typefaces, including Avenir; an auto-saving of drafts; a Private Messages quickview button; auto dark and light mode depending on time of day; a 3-finger gesture to control brightness; option to hide the Status Bar; and more. These features become available after a $5 in-app purchase.

Riposte is now a free app, but it hasn’t always been. When it first launched it was a $5 app, and about 2 months later it went free. If, like me, you were one of the users who bought Riposte when it first launched, to get the new pro features you’re now looking at a $10 app. But Riposte is one of the premier iPhone apps for ADN — it is fast, feature rich, packed to the rafters with clever and helpful details, and is on an active development cycle. Even if you paid full price when it first came out and now chose also to upgrade the Pro features, I consider $10 to be a fair price for Riposte.

Riposte doesn’t need the Pro features to be a great app — it already handles the core functionality of ADN with aplomb.

When Riposte first shipped, the two things which most stuck out to me were its inclusion of a 1Password shortcut button on the login screen, and its use of the hamburger / basement menu design. Though some advocate against this sort of navigational design, I think it’s great when used in a good setting. And for an app such as Riposte it especially makes sense because the primary view is just the unified timeline.

A few months after its initial release, Riposte 1.1 came with support for Private Messages and granular settings for push notifications. The granular push notification setting means you can enable or disable push notifications for many different types of interactions — I like this because it means I can choose to only get a notification when someone sends me a Private Message.

Private Messaging in Riposte is great. The app supports individual chats or group chats, and since ADN doesn’t require following for PMs, anyone can send and be a part of a private message. It’s more like a private reply versus a public reply. I’m thinking that ADN group messaging will be the new Glassboard for me this year at WWDC.

One of Riposte’s new Pro features is the option to enable a quickview button for private messages. This button hovers at the bottom-left of the screen and offers one-tap access to the messages pane from just about anywhere in the app (as opposed to having to drill down to the Menu screen to switch to the Private Messages view).

If you have any unread PMs, the icon will be filled in with blue; otherwise it will be more transparent.

Riposte QuickView Private Messages Button

Similarly, if you have the Full Screen mode enabled (as shown above — a setting you can toggle under Riposte’s General Settings), the button for creating a new post hovers in the bottom-right corner of the screen at all times. By turning on the Full Screen mode, the common “back” button (for returning to previous screens if you’ve drilled down into a conversation view or a web page) is gone.

Riposte gets past the missing “back” button by using a swipe-left-to-right gesture for going back. Pretty much from any screen you are in, swiping left to right will take you back one level.

This has become one of those gestures I find myself using in many other apps — similar to how I was always trying pull to refresh in apps that didn’t even support it, I’ve begun swiping right to go back in apps that don’t support it.

Jared Sinclair, one of the developers of Riposte, said:

We take push/pop transitions at face value: swiping to go back is like pulling yourself back to where you were before. If I can’t picture an app as a set of cards laid out in a grid on a table, I can’t understand it.

It’s clear the Riposte guys thoughtfully implemented this swipe gesture. For example: on the screen for composing a new post, swiping left-to-right or right-to-left moves the cursor one character respectively. Thus there is a “Cancel” button on the post compose screen for going back to where you were.

There are several other swipe gestures, such as two-finger swiping up/down to switch between light and dark mode, or two-finger left-to-right swipe to get back to the root Stream view.

And speaking of swipe gestures, one of the gestures included in the Pro feature is a 3-finger brightness control. While using the beta of Riposte 1.2, I showed this brightness control shortcut to my wife, and she asked why that wasn’t something you could do in every app. I agree (sort of).

In the iPhone’s Settings there are a handful of toggles buried too many taps deep, and I wish it’d be easier to get to them quickly. Brightness control is one of those, and while I don’t know that a universal iOS gesture of 3-finger swipe is the answer, I like that Riposte guys at least did something.

Typefaces

Preeminent among the Pro features in Riposte 1.2 is the option for different typefaces.

There are a total of 9 unique typefaces (a combination of iOS stock and free options, including Avenir, Exo, Gill, Signika, Source Sans Pro, and others). Some faces have multiple weights, making a total of 14 different font options.

Of the options, Avenir and Signika are my two favorites — I’ve been using Avenir at the Extra Small size.

I asked the Riposte guys why they were charging for a Pro update that didn’t include licensed typefaces such as Proxima Nova, Whitney, or Chaparral Pro. Their reply was that the typefaces they like are a little too expensive to license until they see what sales are like for the Pro update. Their intention with the Pro upgrade is for it to be the locus of future features, so it will only get better.

If I were in their shoes, I suspect I would make the same choice. Licensing a typeface for use in an iOS app is not cheap — costing in the thousands of dollars — and the ADN app market is still relatively small. Hopefully Riposte will be successful enough to both sustain its development and warrant the licensing of some elite faces like we’ve come accustomed to in the more mainstream apps like Instapaper and Twitterrific.

Post Drafts

Another Pro feature of Riposte is the auto-saving of any un-published post. You can view all your drafts by tapping the paper icon in the compose view.

Riposte Drafts

Basically, when you cancel a post that has text in it (or if you quit the app), a draft is automatically created for you. It means no lost posts and not having to tap an “are you sure you want to cancel” button every time.

But it also means you end up with a lot of draft posts that should just go in the trash. After 2 weeks using the beta I had about 12 draft posts I didn’t want. A swipe and delete on each of them cleared them out before I wrote a few better drafts in order to stage the screenshot you see above.

Conclusion

ADN has become far more than just an ad-free Twitter replacement. And eventually the service will reach a point where any one single client cannot (or at least should not) handle all the functionality of ADN. But at the moment, for the core functionality of ADN as a social network, Riposte handles everything I am most commonly using with flying colors. It has become one of my favorite and most-used Home screen apps.

It’s impressive to me just how far and how fast this app has come in the short amount of time since its release. I am, as usual, looking forward to what’s in store for Riposte and for ADN in the days to come.

* * *

Free App.net Invitations

And, of course, no ADN-related article would be complete without some free invites, courtesy of the Riposte developers and the App.net team. If you want to join ADN, click here to sign up for free (while invites last).

Note, when you join ADN your new account will automatically be following me (@shawnblanc). Free accounts can only follow up to 40 people, so feel free to unfollow me if you want.

Review: The Origami Workstation for iPad

Incase Origami Workstation for iPad

The Origami Workstation from Incase is little more than a folding, rubberized board that wraps around an Apple Bluetooth keyboard.

Incase Origami Workstation for iPad

It has two tabs with velcro that flip underneath and strap to the underside when not in use. Or they fold towards one another to form a triangle stand when you want to prop your iPad up to write. The Workstation uses a half-circle plastic clip that is the exact size for securing the round, battery-holding tube area of the Apple Bluetooth keyboard.

Therefore this case doesn’t work with any keyboard other than Apple’s.

Incase Origami Workstation for iPad

Fortunately, Apple’s Bluetooth keyboard is excellent. It’s sturdy, well built, and capable of controlling the iPad’s volume, brightness, and media playback.

There are, however, other iPad-specific keyboards (such as Amazon’s Basics) that have additional iOS-specific buttons which can return you to the Home screen, or take you to the Spotlight page. While these iPad-specific keyboards have some cool features, I’ve yet to try one that felt better for typing on than Apple’s keyboard. Giving up quality and size for a couple neat buttons is not a fair tradeoff.

Keyboards aside, there are many other reasons I like the Origami Workstation.

The Workstation’s best feature is that it doesn’t permanently affix itself to my iPad. Most of my iPad usage is comprised of non-typing activities like reading iBooks, Instapaper, RSS feeds, surfing the Web, etc. For those activities, the plain iPad is plenty — there is no need for an external keyboard (especially not one that’s attached.)

Well, why not just use the iPad’s smart cover, and carry around the keyboard by itself? I’m glad you asked. For one the Workstation allows me to use the iPad with keyboard on my lap (for times I’m sitting in a conference room or an airport terminal). Secondly, the Workstation offers a sturdier support for the iPad than the Smart Cover. Thus allowing me to press the Home button and navigate the touch screen without using two hands to keep the iPad from tipping over. And if you prefer to type with the iPad in portrait mode, you can do that no problem.

Incase Origami Workstation for iPad

Incase Origami Workstation for iPad

Another great benefit of the Workstation is that it’s device agnostic and future proof. It works perfectly with an iPad 1, 2, 3, 4, iPad mini, or even an iPhone. And it will work with whatever else comes next so long as it isn’t any thicker than an inch.

My Origami Workstation has seen nearly 18 months of use on the road, in coffee shops, and at the kitchen table. It continues to be the ideal typing companion to my iPad.

Review: Writing Kit for iPad

When writing long form on the iPad, I write almost exclusively in Writing Kit. It’s an app full of great features and options without being overly complicated.

I first fell in love with Writing Kit while writing Diary of an iPad 3 Owner. I wrote that article exclusively on the iPad and exclusively in Writing Kit. And I’ve been writing in the app ever since.

Writing Kit is a Dropbox-syncing, markdown-supporting, iOS text editor for writers. You can find it on the App Store for just 5 bucks.

Unlike some apps, Writing Kit gives me visibility into my entire Dropbox folder hierarchy. But I keep it pointed at my “Writing” folder because this is the folder where I have any and all articles that are in progress. This folder differs from my Simplenote database in that these articles have moved past the “idea” phase and are actually in progress. Currently I have 3 files in this folder, one of them being this Writing Kit review. After publishing, I move the document to a “Written” folder.

My biggest complaint against Writing Kit used to be its poor Dropbox integration. Writing Kit used to store a copy of its documents locally on the iPad and then would upload a copy of them to Dropbox whenever the user manually initiated a sync. That wasn’t an ideal syncing setup and led to conflicted copies on occasion.

However, Dropbox integration was completely rewritten a few versions ago and has since become significantly more reliable. The new Dropbox sync gives us access to our entire Dropbox folder hierarchy, and files are saved directly to Dropbox. And you no longer have to save manually (though you still can if you want) — Writing Kit saves your work automatically in the background while you are typing. Also, when you exit the app, your article is uploaded and saved in the background as well. I haven’t lost a single word to sync since Writing Kit’s Dropbox support was rewritten.

Like the small handful of other Dropbox-enabled iOS text editors out there, Writing Kit also has its own Markdown-friendly custom keyboard row, and it integrates with TextExpander. But this app is not like all the others. There are a handful of things that set Writing Kit apart for me. Specifically: (a) the fine-grained control of fonts and type, (b) an in-app Web Browser, and (c) some clever gestures support. The more I use it, the more I enjoy using it.

Font Control

Spitting in the proverbial wind of iA Writer, Writing Kit gives extremely granular controls over the font you choose to type with. A list of 15 “popular fonts” sits just above another list that gives you access to every single typeface that ships with iOS. Against your better judgment, you could type in Marker Felt or Papyrus if you wanted to — just don’t get caught. I usually type in Inconsolata, but have recently switched to Avenir Book.

Additionally, you have control over font size, line height, and several pre-defined color schemes (including the light and dark Solarized schemes). I use the Default theme, which is just black text on a white background. And I keep the line height somewhat generous.

The In-App Browser

Tap the upper-right compass icon and up pops a full-fledged Web browser. In the browser’s “omni bar” you can type the URL of a page you want to visit or simply type a search term to conduct a search via DuckDuckGo.

While browsing and researching, you can add and tag bookmarks locally in Writing Kit’s browser by tapping the “plus” icon. Unfortunately these bookmarks do not sync with Writing Kit on the iPhone (nor to any app on the Mac).

For bookmarking I prefer to use Pinboard. Writing Kit does support Pinboard, but it’s somewhat difficult to find and it isn’t exactly the greatest integration of all time. Tap the Bookmark icon and then tap the “Local Bookmarks” title badge. You’ll see an option to log in to Pinboard and/or Zootool. From there you get a mobile Web view of your Pinboard account which is, unfortunately, read only. So, in short, you can access your Pinboard bookmarks, but you cannot add any from Writing Kit.

However, Writing Kit does have fantastic Instapaper integration. You can view a nicely formatted view of your Instapaper queue, open those links in the browser, and you can send any web page you’re viewing into your Instapaper queue. (Gosh, I’d love to see this same type of polished integration with Pinboard.) Moreover, on any Web page, tap the “Text Only” button at the bottom and you get the mobilized view of the site, courtesy of Instapaper’s Mobilizer.

Now, presumably, with at least some of the websites you’re loading up in the browser you will want to link to within the article you’re writing. And this is one thing that makes the in-app browser so great versus switching back and forth with Safari.

When you’re on a Web page, tap the “share” icon in the lower right hand corner (it won’t be there if you have the cursor active in the Address Bar). From there you can choose to insert the URL of the current page into your text document. Tapping that option sends you back into your document with a new menu bar at the bottom of your screen, which gives you the option to either ignore the link or insert the link at the cursor point. Tapping the latter will place a fully formatted Markdown link using the title of the Web page and the URL.

If, however, you prefer to link your text after you’ve written the words you want to be hyperlinks, you can still highlight the words and then have Writing Kit wrap them in a Markdown format via the popover menu.

This text-document-to-browser integration is one of my favorite things of Writing Kit. I hope to see continued iteration and refinement here.

Clever Gestures

It seems that it’s always the little things that grab you and get you hooked. And it was the margin tap targets that first hooked me with Writing Kit.

Tapping on the left or right margin moves the cursor one character in the respective direction. If you’re writing with an external keyboard this isn’t that big of a deal, but when working with the iPad’s on-screen keyboard, having tappable margins is like a dream. Long have I wished Apple would implement this functionality into Mail.

There are additional gestures as well. Tap in the margins with two fingers and the cursor moves one word (instead of just one character) in the respective direction. Also, a two-finger swipe from right to left works as Undo, and 2-finger swipe from left to right works as Redo.

There are more gestures, and you can learn them all under the “i” icon for help, and then tap the “Gestures” cheat sheet.

Additional Unordered List of Miscellany

  • I’ll start with my biggest quibble: when creating a new document, Writing Kit gives you a seemingly nonsensical title. I don’t understand why not at least use the date/time stamp instead of some random string of numbers?

    Update: Turns out this is a feature. Now that I know the “why” behind this, I can’t help but think it’s devilishly clever.

  • Terminology integration: tap a word, then tap “Replace” and you are sent to Terminology. You can then select a different word and Terminology will send it back to Writing Kit, replacing your original word.

  • The Markdown formatting keyboard row: It is present even when the external keyboard is active, thus giving one-tap access to link insertion, formatting, and more. The default has one-tap buttons for headers, bold and italic formatting, inserting links, images, code, and block quotes, and unordered and ordered lists. Swipe to the right and you get parentheses, brackets, quotes, and more.

    When you tap on the bold formatting button, your text selection is wrapped in double asterisks for bold. If no text is selected, then Writing Kit generates the double asterisks with selected text in between ready for you type into. Tap the bold formatting button again and the double asterisks are removed. Clever.

  • Format selected text: Highlight any bit of text, and then tap a Markdown formatting button and that selected text will have the formatting applied. Be it bold, italics, code, or even a list.

  • TextExpander support: I already mentioned this above, but an app without TextExpander support is an app I’m not interested in.

  • Export: You can export your document as Markdown or as HTML to any number of other apps, but you can also send it as an attachment in an email or as inline text in an email. For example, once I’m done writing this review, I’ll email it as an attachment to my editor right from within the app. Won’t he be delighted?

  • Outline view: There is a dynamically-generated outline view that lists out the hierarchy of your document based on heading tags and links. I don’t use this often, but when I do need it I find it insanely helpful. Especially when writing multi-thousand-word articles on the iPad.

  • Inline link conversion: If you write your links as inline links, Writing Kit can then convert them all to reference links. Tap the “share” icon in the upper-left corner, then tap “Convert Inline Links to Refs”.

  • The icon: The icon, which was part of the 3.0 update, is both unique and gorgeous.

    Writing Kit Icon

  • Quick Search: The in-app browser is not the only way to search the web. Tapping the magnifying glass icon in the upper-right brings up the Quick Search tool. And it’s not just for searching the document you’re in. This little magic box can also do many site-specific searches, calculations and more. You have to use it a few times to begin to understand its usefulness and cleverness.

    Then, if you’ve drilled down into a site and you want to move over to the in-app browser, just tap the “full screen” icon and the page you’re on will open up in the browser.

    My only quibble with the Quick Search is that it does not do find and replace.

Wrapping Up

Writing Kit is obviously one of the more full-featured writing apps out there. And I find its rich feature set to be comforting and useful. The app offers a simple enough view to qualify as a “distraction-free” writing environment, but also has enough bells and whistles that it’s great for getting work done.

Compared to many of my favorite apps that do “one thing well,” Writing Kit seems to be on a different end of the spectrum. But, on second thought, maybe it isn’t. Maybe Writing Kit does do one thing well. And that one thing is being an awesome text editor for writers.

Camera Review: The Olympus E-PL5

It was the iPhone that convinced me to buy a better camera.

My son was born in February of 2012. Later in the year — some time after our summer vacation to the Colorado mountains — as I was looking through the photos we had of him, I realized I wasn’t giddy about hardly any of them.

There were many great snapshots of some very fond memories. But none of the images were of a quality where I wanted to print them out and frame them. They pretty much only looked good on the small screen of my iPhone.

That’s when I decided my iPhone shouldn’t bear the burden of being the best and only camera in the house.

I began researching mirrorless cameras looking for a rig I could easily take with me anywhere I went, and which cost under $1,000. I wanted the camera to have an Auto mode so I could just point and shoot if I wanted to, or so I could hand it to a family member to point and shoot with. But it also needed to have good manual modes so I could learn and grow into the manual controls as I learned more about the technical details of photography.

The rig I chose was the new Olympus E-PL5 and the world-famous Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens.

The Olympus E-PL5

The Olympus E-PL5

After 6 months shooting with the E-PL5, I continue to be impressed and pleased by the quality of the images this small and sturdy rig is capable of.

(Note: Click the images to zoom them.)

The B and B Cafe in Castle Rock, CO

Though my skill behind the lens still leaves much to be desired, my slow-growing collection of great images has long since proven to me that getting a nice camera was a good idea. The photographs I’ve taken with the E-PL5 juxtapose themselves against my iPhone pics because the images from the E-PL5 are ones which look better when on a big screen or printed out and framed.

This isn’t something exclusive to the E-PL5, of course. Any decent camera with good sensor and quality glass will take some great shots. At $900 — the price for the E-PL5 body and the Panasonic 20mm f/1.7 lens — I would be upset if this rig did’t produce some great images.

Noah

Anna

Siphon Coffee

There are a few reasons I went with the E-PL5 instead of the many, many other options out there in the mirrorless category:

  • I didn’t go with the RX-1 because its price tag is 3 times what my budget was.
  • I didn’t go with any of the Sony NEX line because I wanted a better lens selection and smaller camera body.
  • I didn’t go with the Panasonic GX-1 because I could afford a better camera if I could find one.

In short, the E-PL5 was the smallest camera I could find with the best possible sensor inside and most features.

As I’ll talk more about below, this camera is basically the guts of the E-M5 put inside a smaller body with a few less pro features on the outside. And that, my friends, is why I consider the E-PL5 to be one of the best-kept secrets in the Micro Four Thirds category.

Aside regarding the King of the M4/3 Hill, the OM-D E-M5

I didn’t want to write a review of the E-PL5 without at least a little bit of context and experience with some of the other offerings out there. So I rented the Olympus OM-D E-M5 along with the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens for a few weeks.

The E-M5 is widely regarded as the best Micro Four Thirds camera out there.

When I bought the E-PL5, it was so new to the market that I could hardly find any hands-on reviews. But what made it so special is the fact that its sensor and processor are the same as what is found in the E-M5. Because of all the great reviews I’d been reading about the E-M5, I felt confident buying the E-PL5 on blind faith, trusting that it would be able to perform admirably.

I rented the E-M5 to give myself some context for how the E-PL5 compares against the best M4/3 camera out there, and also to find out for sure if I had made the right choice in getting a smaller and cheaper camera with a few less features and controls.

The most significant differences between the E-M5 and the E-PL5 are the pro-level features the former has which the latter does not. The E-M5 has a built-in electronic viewfinder, two manual dial controls, and a slightly larger hand grip. The E-M5 is also weather proof (meaning you can take it out in the rain without fear of ruining it), while the E-PL5 is not.

On the inside, the E-M5 and E-PL5 are much more similar. They have the same 16MP sensor and image processor that made the E-M5 so famous. They both have in-body image stabilization (though the E-M5 has 5-axis IBIS, while the E-PL5 uses conventional 2-axis), and they both have a dust reduction system that silently vibrates the sensor each time you turn on the camera to help “fling” any dust which may be there.

In my usage and comparisons, the two cameras produced nearly identical images. In several situations I took images with both the E-M5 and E-PL5, even switching lenses so as to try and take the exact same image with both cameras. To my eye, the shots look like they’re from the same camera.

Below: taken with the E-M5 and 45mm lens, 1/100sec at f/1.8, ISO 500 Taken with E-M5 and 45mm lens

Below: taken with the E-PL5 and 45mm, 1/80sec at f/1.8, ISO 400 Taken with the E-PL5 and 45mm lens

Below: taken with the E-M5 and 20mm, 1/60sec at f/1.7, ISO 400 taken with the E-M5 and 20mm

Below: taken with the E-PL5 and 20mm, 1/50sec at f/1.7, ISO 400 taken with the E-PL5 and 20mm lens

In my opinion, the advantages of the E-M5 over the E-PL5 are almost entirely in the bells and whistles and not in the end-product capabilities. For photographers who have used bigger DSLR rigs, or who really want a viewfinder, then the E-M5 will probably feel more comfortable. But for everyone else, the $400 you’ll save by buying the E-PL5 instead of the E-M5 is probably better spent on a nice lens.

E-PL5 Overview

With the Panasonic pancake lens attached, the E-PL5 is small enough to fit in my coat pocket, the glove box in my Jeep, or alongside my MacBook Air, iPad, and Moleskine inside my extra small Timbuk2 bag.

The build quality is excellent. The camera is sturdy but not heavy, weighing just 1 pound with the 20mm pancake lens and wrist strap attached (body only, the E-PL5 weighs a mere 12 ounces). And because of its smaller size and lack of a viewfinder, the E-PL5 doesn’t look too intimidating.

The humble appearance of the E-PL5 is one of its best features. With it I feel less like a “wannabe pro photographer” and more like a “casual photography enthusiast” when I have the camera out in public.

My goal with the E-PL5 wasn’t to get my toe in the waters of professional photography. I just wanted a high-quality camera nearby for when I would have otherwise reached for my iPhone.

Having a non-giant camera makes it far more likely that I will take it with me when I’m leaving the house and to actually use it while I’m out. Coat-pocketable means “it will get used” in this case. And isn’t that the whole point?

Sans Viewfinder

The E-PL5 does not have a built-in electronic viewfinder (EVF) — to frame your shots, you use the view screen.

For some people, this may be a deal breaker. What’s nice about having a viewfinder is that you can hide behind it, and also you can steady your camera a bit better by holding it up to your face. But in my few weeks with the E-M5 (which does have a viewfinder), I found myself using the E-M5′s view screen instead of its built-in EVF.

For me, sacrificing a viewfinder is worth the tradeoff because it means having a smaller camera body. However, since the E-PL5 supports add-ons via its hotshoe connection, you could buy the Olympus VF2 or VF3.

The View Screen

On the back of the camera is a 3-inch, tilting, LCD touch screen.

You can tap to focus, tap to adjust color settings, and more. There is a dial control “d-pad” placed just to the right of the screen which also evokes the menu and is used to navigate through all the levels of settings.

The screen isn’t stationary either — it flips out and can tilt.

The Flip-out view screen on the E-PL5

I was worried about the fragility of the flip-out screen. But to my relief, the hinges are incredibly sturdy and well built. I am often taking shots with the camera held down near my waist, and it’s easy to just flip the screen up 90 degrees and look down into the view screen. In short, it moves easily, holds in place just fine, and is a considerably useful feature.

The quality of the display itself is excellent as well. Though Olympus does not say what the actual screen resolution is, they do say it’s a 3-inch diagonal screen with a 16:9 aspect of approximately 460,000 dots. If “dots” means “pixels,” then the view screen would have a resolution somewhere in the neighborhood of 904×507 pixels with a PPI density of 345. Now, the view screen is certainly nice, but it’s not that nice.

On Twitter, Milosz Bolechowski pointed out that the “dots” are likely referring to each of the 3 RBG dots in a single pixel. Which I agree is most likely the case. Meaning the 460,000 or so dots in the view screen equal approximately 153,333 pixels.

Thus, the view screen most likely has a resolution of 533×294 with a PPI density of 200.

To protect the screen, I bought one of these plastic screen covers. It’s sized for the NEX cameras, but it’s a near-perfect fit for the E-PL5 as well — I never even notice that it’s there. Highly recommended.

The Grip

The E-PL5 comes with a small, removable hand grip. Without the grip attached, the camera has a bit more of a classic look to it, akin to the thin and simple rangefinder bodies of old.

But I can’t imagine not wanting to attach the grip. It adds hardly any size and makes the E-PL5 significantly easier to hold with one hand. When attached, the grip stays quite secure, as if it were built in as part of the camera body from the start.

Manual Dials and Shooting in Manual Mode

As expected, the E-PL5 has several different shooting modes: Auto, Program, Aperture-Priority, Shutter-Priority, and Manual. As well as Movie, Scene, and Art modes.

I mostly shoot in Aperture-Priority mode and am happy to let the camera pick the shutter speed for me in order to get the right exposure.

The Movie and Art modes allow you to choose an artsy filter to apply to your movie or photograph — it’s like having Instagram built in to your camera. I’ve never used these in real life (I prefer to edit my images in Lightroom 4), but here are two sample shots I took for this review: one using the Pin Hole filter and one using the Grainy Film filter. Both of these shots are the out of camera JPGs, but the E-PL5′s in-camera filters are applied to the RAW image file as well, so I could take remove them in Lightroom if I wanted.

What I most wish the E-PL5 had was a few dedicated manual dial controls. When shooting in Aperture-Priority Mode, Manual, or the like, having a few dials that give you quick and instant access to adjust the aperture, shutter, and/or ISO are very nice. The E-M5 had these dials and I found myself using them all the time.

On the E-PL5, when I’m shooting in Aperture-Priority mode (which is the most common setting for me), adjusting the aperture number requires a tap “up” on the menu D-Pad to highlight the aperture setting, and then a tap left or right in order to increase or decrease the aperture. Moreover, the D-Pad is pretty small (smaller than a Dime) and therefore is not easy to navigate. This is not nearly as nice or fast as having a dial that you can click left or right without having to lean back and look at the camera for a few seconds.

Battery Life

Battery life is absolutely fantastic. On the very first charge, after 4 days of shooting and about 500 images, it was low on battery. After that first charge I didn’t need to charge the battery for over 2.5 weeks, and that was with near daily use.

The camera seems to go forever. The battery is one thing I’ve never once worried about, nor have I been out shooting and had the battery die on me. If I know I’ll be using the camera a lot over the weekend or something then I’ll charge it up ahead of time.

The only thing I don’t like about the battery is that it comes with its own charging station. This means when traveling there is one more cable and trinket to pack. I’d prefer to be able to charge the battery by plugging a USB cable into the camera itself.

Low-Light Performance

For what I know about low light performance, the E-PL5 performs wonderfully. Low-light images have very little noise, and can generally be doctored just fine in Lightroom.

With the default white balance settings, I’ve noticed that images straight out of the camera tend to have a bit of a warm tone to them, giving portraits a bit more orange-colored skin tone than is to my liking. This can be adjusted in the camera’s white balance settings to have a more “cool” tint to them, or the orange skin can be easily fixed in Lightroom.

The biggest downside of low light shooting is not the image quality, but the autofocus. The 20mm lens already has a tendency to hunt at times, and in low light situations you can sometimes wait 2 or 3 seconds for the autofocus to find a contrast point and snap the image.

There have only been a few low-light situations where the lighting was so dark that I was frustrated with the E-PL5′s ability to focus and snap a shot. One of those times was when we all went out to dinner for my dad’s 60th birthday. We were at a fancy steak restaurant where the lighting was extremely dim.

The E-PL5 comes with a flash that attaches via the hotshoe port on top, but I’ve never used it. In a setting like the steak restaurant, using the flash would have been rude; in most other settings the flash isn’t even necessary.

For most low-light settings (such as indoors in the evening), the camera does great with very little noise in the images.

Speed

  • Startup speed: From the time I press the power button to when the camera is ready to snap a picture, it’s less than 2 seconds.

    The E-PL5 is usually up and ready to go before I even have the lens cap off. Which means if the Olympus is nearby, it’s actually faster for me to grab it, turn it on, and snap a shot than it is for me to pull my iPhone out of my pocket and launch the Camera app. Even when racing against the Lock Screen Camera app shortcut, the E-PL5 wins by about 1 second.

  • Shot-to-shot speed: If you want to manually shoot several shots in succession, in decent indoor light or better, the the E-PL5 takes just 1.5 seconds to autofocus, snap a picture, write to the card, and then be ready to focus again.

  • Autofocus speed: The Olympus is well known for its fast autofocus. As I mention below in the section on lenses, the autofocus on the Olympus 45mm lens is so fast it seems instantaneous; with the Panasonic 20mm the autofocus is a bit slower.

    You can hold the shutter button halfway down to have the camera autofocus on either an area within the viewfinder grid, or the camera can automatically find a face and focus on the nearest eyeball. Then, pressing the shutter button all the way down snaps the image. But, if you want the camera to snap a photo as soon as it’s grabbed focus, you can press the shutter button all the way down right away and it will snap as soon as it has focus. In decent light, this is almost instantaneously.

    Moreover, you can focus and shoot an image using the touchscreen. You can set the camera to tap to focus on any area of the screen, but you can also configure it to snap the shot as soon as it locks the focus.

    Using the E-PL5′s touchscreen reminds me a lot of using the camera on my iPhone. The camera’s software is responsive, clever, and useful. Well done, Olympus.

Camera Straps

The stock camera strap is lame. It’s not detachable, nor is it long enough to let the camera rest at a comfortable distance when over one shoulder and under my other arm.

DSPTCH makes some pretty awesome shoulder straps. I ordered one from them that I really like, but after a couple months of use I felt like I didn’t always want a shoulder strap attached. In fact, I often don’t — most of the time the camera is in my bag or in my jacket pocket and I’m not walking around with it around my shoulder. (Of course, now that summer is approaching, that may change.)

So I ordered yet another strap. This time a small leather wrist strap from Gordy’s. The wrist strap is small enough to not be in the way when just grabbing the camera, and I think it looks great.

I probably should have ordered one of DSPTCH’s wrist straps which use the same clip that their shoulder straps use. This would have made it easy for me to swap out the shoulder strap and the wrist strap depending on my need. But the leather straps at Gordy’s were too cool to pass by. Whatchagonnado?

One of Gordy's leather camera straps

Lenses

A Micro Four Thirds sensor has a crop ratio of 1/2. So, for example, a 20mm lens on a M4/3 rig is actually a 40mm equivalent when compared to a full-frame sensor. Which is why shooting with the 20mm as my daily glass is not as fishy as it sounds, because it’s just a bit bigger than shooting with a good ole 35mm lens.

I’ve used 3 of the most popular Micro Four Thirds lenses:

  • Panasonic 20/1.7 lens: This is the lens attached to my rig. Though this lens is certainly no slouch, perhaps it’s greatest advantage compared to the lenses below is its size. The pancake lens looks great on the small body of the E-PL5 and affords the rig to easily fit in coat pockets, etc.

    The disadvantages of the 20mm is that because of its compact size it doesn’t grab quite as high-quality images as a “regular sized” lens. But, at least to my eyes, the difference is barely noticeable and the advantages in both size and cost far outweigh the very slight disadvantages in image quality.

    Unless you know that you want a different lens, this is the one I would start with.

  • Panasonic 25/1.4 lens: Compared to the 20mm pancake, this 25mm produces higher quality images, has faster autofocus, and is capable of a better and creamier depth of field. But it’s also a larger piece of glass and it costs $150 more (so, obviously it had better take better images).

    Though this is my favorite lens of the 3 I’ve tried, the size turned me off to the 25mm as my daily glass — it is too big to allow the camera to easily fit in my coat pocket. And the focal length is too similar to the 20mm to justify owning both lenses (as much as I would love to own them both). So I returned the 25mm and kept the 20mm.

  • Olympus 45/1.8 lens: This is the portrait lens of the Micro Four Thirds world. One thing Olympus lenses are known for is their lightning-fast auto focusing, and it’s true. This lens hunts far less than the 20mm, and its images are so clear and crisp.

    If and when I decide to buy a second lens, it will likely be the 45mm. Compared to the 20mm pancake, the 45mm is not nearly as compact or attractive (seriously, a silver lens on a black body?). If the 45mm were my only lens, I know I’d be using the E-PL5 less often.

Editing Workflow

So far my editing workflow is simple and straightforward. I plug my camera’s SD card into my MacBook Air, import the photos into Lightroom 4, and then make some minor edits using one of VSCO’s Film packs.

During one of our B&B shows, my pal Ben Brooks told me how he uses a 0-based rating system which I’ve also adopted. When going through the latest lot of imported photos, I flag all the blurry, crappy, or duplicate images for deletion. Then I go through and rate what I think are the best photos with a 3-, 4-, or 5-star rating.

I then upload my favorites to my Flickr account. We’ve had a few printed and framed so far, and I think it’s just great to have my own pictures of my own family up and around in my home. Printing through Shutterfly is cheap and easy enough that with a few easy-swap frames, we can change out our 8×10 prints pretty much as often as we like.

Perhaps a more-detailed writeup on this subject is in order because there are a few things about my editing workflow that I’m still not happy with. Primarily:

  • Archiving old images — right now they’re all on my MacBook Air and quickly encroaching on my disk space.
  • Posting my favorite images — while Flickr is nice, I’d like a spot that’s a little bit more my own. I’ve been considering setting up my own image portfolio website just so I can have a spot that encourages more regular posting of images.

Real-Life Usage

One of the most rewarding parts of photography is when, after a lot of shooting, I plug the card into my MacBook Air, import all the most-recent photos, and begin to look them over. If there are 1 or 2 (or even 3) shots that turned out awesome, then all the energy that went into capturing those few photographs was worth it.

When I find those few great images from the batch, I lean back in my chair. Looking at one of them, I take a deep breath and smile. Then I call my wife to come downstairs and check out the latest photos, and we talk about what it is that we like about it. Maybe it’s an image of our son, Noah, that captured one of his many funny faces. Maybe it’s a shot that’s framed just right, or has light that’s doing some incredible thing.

I’m still learning, and so right now maybe 1 in 500 shots turn out that good. But when they do, I love it that the quality can be there to match the times when the composition is just right. When I compare moments like that with the times I’ve gone through my iPhone’s photo library, though I have lots of pictures, they are all more like snapshots and not photographs (if that makes sense).

Shots like this are the rare ones which justify my camera purchase a hundred times over.

Anna and Noah reading

Images like these are, of course, not going to be exclusive to the E-PL5. There are many other amazing cameras out there. For me, going with a small rig instead of a large DSLR (or even a medium-sized NEX) means I’m much more likely to actually take the camera with me.

And that is the entire point: The E-PL5 is an extremely capable and delightfully portable camera.

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