Too Nerdy for Words


Thoughts on the iPhone 7

iPhone 7

It was 2:00 o’clock in the morning, and I was sitting up in bed, barely awake enough to keep refreshing the Apple Store app.

While I was somewhat concerned that the iPhone 7 might actually sell out in the middle of the night, in truth I was mostly awake at that hour because it’s tradition.

It wouldn’t be New iPhone Season without having to wait in a line of some sort, even if it’s a virtual one in the middle of the night.

One week later, my matte black iPhone 7 arrived. It sat at my house for a couple of days because my wife and I were in the hospital that weekend having our third son.

This is my 9th iPhone.

(I skipped the 3G because it was far uglier than the original and so I didn’t upgrade until the 3GS came out. And I have bought the newest iPhone every year since.)

Like many of you have probably done, I used to sell my previous model iPhones for more than it cost me to upgrade to the new one (thanks to my partial subsidies on my AT&T contract). Thus, I’d actually make a little bit of money each year — enough to “upgrade for free”, basically…

Then my wife got her first iPhone, and we started upgrading on a tick-tock schedule with AT&T. In even number years it was my contract’s turn to upgrade through subsidized pricing, and in odd number years it was her contract’s turn.

Whoever’s contract was due for the subsidized pricing would use that line to buy the newest iPhone. Then, I’d give her my “old” iPhone and I’d get the new one.

But that whole upgrade process changed last year with the advent of Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, et al.

AT&T (and Verizon, too, I think), are working hard to move away from subsidized upgrades and instead offering their “lease to own” options. AT&T calls theirs “AT&T Next”; Verizon calls it their Annual Upgrade Program.

With all of these programs you are effectively getting an interest-free loan to buy your iPhone over the course of 24 months. And then, if you want to upgrade every year the new iPhone comes out, you just trade in your current phone for the new one.

It’s the access over ownership model. And I think it makes sense for folks who simply want the latest iPhone each year. So I finally signed up, and for first time ever, my wife and I both upgraded. (Rose Gold 7 for her, matte black 7 for me.)

The iPhone 7 in Matte Black

First, let’s address the former elephant in the room: My former iPhone 6s Plus.

Last year I bought the gargantuan. The Hercules. The Titanic. The giant. The iPhone 6s Plus.

It took some time to get used to the massive device, but I did eventually acclimate. By far and away, what I loved most about the Plus was its larger screen and the better battery life.

Once it became natural for me to use both hands when dealing with the Plus, it stopped being quite so awkward a device and the advantages of the larger screen were pretty great.

However, as awesome as it was to have the larger screen, the better battery life, and the nicer camera… it just wasn’t worth the tradeoff for the unwieldy size. More often than not I found myself frustrated by my inability to wrangle the phone with one hand and just how clumsy I felt when trying to use it.

After a good year-long run with the iPhone 6s Plus, I’ve returned to the regular size iPhone. And I have no regrets.

There are, I believe, a few reasons it wasn’t too terrible of a “downgrade” to move from the 6s Plus to the “regular” 7.

Basically, the battery life of the iPhone 7 is improved enough that for my own day-to-day usage it’s just as good as it was on my iPhone 6s Plus.

According to Apple’s specs for the iPhone 6s Plus and iPhone 7, the former gets up to 12 hours of internet usage on LTE or Wi-Fi and the latter gets the same if not slightly better.

Secondly, my iPhone 7 now has in-body image stabilization just like my iPhone 6s Plus had. And since the camera optics in the iPhone 7 are improved over last year as well, I actually have a better camera.

So, in the end, the only thing I “gave up” was screen size. And that is exactly what I wanted to give up.

Needless to say, I’m glad I went back to the regular sized iPhone.

Additional Miscellany

  • The new home “button”. It took a few days, but I’ve gotten used to the new “button”. But it doesn’t feel like a button, really. It feels like the whole front of my iPhone is on a hinge, and I’m pressing the entire front bezel of the phone down.

    There is also this issue where you can’t press the button with gloves on…

    imyke tweet

    But, at the same time, if you had gloves on you couldn’t operate the home screen anyway. So what do gloves do other than turn on the screen? Well, with raise to wake and the side buttons — is there truly a loss of usability? There’s a loss of functionality, yes. But is there a loss of usability?

  • The Camera Bump: The iPhone camera bump is probably here to stay. At least for a few more years. Now that they’ve had it for 3 years in a row, it’s become “accepted”. Heck, in this year’s marketing material Apple is no longer trying to hide the bump, they are showcasing it front and center.

    The advantage of keeping the bump is that it gives the iPhone engineers so much more space to work with for improving camera optics and lenses. And, well, if the iPhone is anything it’s a camera.

  • Matte Black: Three cheers! I is so great to have a black phone instead of that Space Gray. I went with the Matte Black over Jet Black because I think the former looks better and because I knew it wouldn’t get fingerprints all over it.

    However, the extra grip you get on the glossy finish of the Jet Black is appealing. And while the matte black iPhone is a bit less slippery than 6 and 6s were, it’s still slippery-ish. Oh well.

  • Future Colors? With the process that creates the Jet Black iPhone, I wonder if Apple will introduce new colors in the future that have the same glossy, grippy finish as the Jet Black? Like a 5c-esque color lineup, but made of aluminum.

* * *

Year over year, the iPhone continues to be my favorite gadget of all time.

The best reasons to upgrade (in the author’s order of preference) are:

  1. New matte (and Jet) black colors
  2. Better camera (with IBIS for the “regular” size iPhone)
  3. Better battery life
  4. Stereo speakers that are also louder
  5. Water Resistance

Special B&B Throwback Episode: The iPhone 7 Event



My friend, Ben Brooks and I recorded an impromptu podcast episode to talk about yesterday’s iPhone 7 event. (Those of you who remember the B&B Podcast, you’ll like this.)

Topics we cover include our first impressions of the new Apple Watch, the iPhone 7, the shift toward carrier upgrade and payment plans based, buttons, and more.

If you’d like a direct download that you can toss into Overcast, you can grab the MP3 from the SoundCloud player above (by clicking the download icon). Or download the file directly here.

Apps and Workflows: iPhone (6s Plus) Edition

Shawn Blanc iPhone Home screen 2016-02-15

“Hercules”
Wallpaper via Unspalsh.



The First home screen is a peculiar spot. You want it populated only with the most frequently-used apps. But, what happens when there are but a few apps that you often?

My first Home screen has a few “classifications” of apps:

  • Those I use several times per day: Slack, Tweetbot, Weather Line, Fanastical, OmniFocus, Safari, Simplenote, Messages, and Music.
  • Those I use several times per week: Overcast, Day One, Google Maps, and Instapaper.
  • Those I use often enough that I like to know exactly where they are: such as VSCO, 1Password, Pcalc. I also a couple of folders with some miscellaneous apps related to work and life.

Just a little over two years ago, I wrote about all the iPhone apps I used at the time. Since then, things have changed quite a bit for me. Not only have I consolidated the amount of iOS apps I use now compared to then, but I’m also trying to use my iPhone less often.

Another big change (pun intended) is that I’m currently rocking the iPhone 6s Plus, which is just altogether a different device than the iPhones of yesteryear. As I’ll get to in a second, because the iPhone 6s Plus is a two-handed device, it lets me get away with having less apps on my first home screen. Since 95-percent of the time I’m using two hands, I don’t usually need to have the apps reachable by thumb when holding the device with just one hand.

If you’re wondering, I’m not nearly as thoughtful with my second, third, fourth, and fifth (!) Home screens. Those screens are basically no-man’s land. One of my email apps is over there; there are apps I’ve downloaded to try out that are now just floating around; some games; and other miscellany.

A Brief Aside About the iPhone 6s Plus

Last fall, I went big. I bought the iPhone 6s Plus, named it Hercules, and decided to give it a shot. It has definitely taken some time to get used to, but I think I’ve certainly acclimated.

The tipping point was when I no longer tried to treat the Plus as a one-handed device. For years and years my iPhone was something that could be used with one hand. The Plus? Not so much.

But, once it became natural for me to use both hands when dealing with the Plus, it stopped being an awkward device and the advantages of the larger phone — namely the larger screen and superior battery life — are absolutely wonderful.

With the battery life, I often forget just how spectacular it is. I can’t remember the last time my iPhone’s battery was in the red.

Another thing with the iPhone 6s Plus is that it somehow managed to take over the spot my iPad used to hold. It was such a sly move I never saw it coming. But somehow, over the course of a few months, I just stopped using my iPad for reading and note taking.

In part, I think it’s the speed. My 6s Plus is quite a bit faster than my 2nd generation iPad mini. But also, it’s that the iPhone is just big enough that it’s not worth bringing along and using another iOS device for the purposes of reading, researching, and note taking.

Perhaps I’ll get a new iPad when it eventually comes time to replace my 5-year-old MacBook Air, but I’m not sure. I’m pretty happy with my iMac in the office and my iPhone everywhere else. And, for when I’m on the road and need to work, my Mac Book Air still gets the job done.

That said, today’s article is all about the apps. So let’s dive in…

My iOS Apps and Workflows

This will almost certainly be far less nerdy than it sounds.

Today I mostly just want to share a bit about the iPhone apps I rely on the most, why I use them, and how they fit in to the day-to-day rhythm of my life.

Simplenote

We’ll start with Simplenote because if I had to pick just one single app to have on my phone this would be it.

There are many, many, many apps that allow you to create notes and sync them to your iPad and Mac. And most of those apps are far more feature-rich than Simplenote is. But I don’t mind.

I’ve never been let down by Simplenote’s speed, reliability, or search. It handles these features with flying colors and to me they are the most important features of all.

With Simplenote I have the ability to find any note I’m looking for within a matter of seconds, I’ve never lost a note, and I’ve never felt that I’m using the app wrong.

In a future post I’ll write more about my writing routine, what I do with all my bad ideas, and the like. But for now I’ll just say that Simplenote is pretty much at the heart of it all.

Messages

If I could have just two apps on my iPhone, the second would be Messages. Because I like to text with my friends and family. Who doesn’t?

Apple Music

First, a moment of silence for Rdio…

While Apple Music has a lot going for it, it is without its charms. But, nevertheless, I use it every day.

My home office is downstairs. And directly above it are hardwood floors and two toddler boys. Which means I wear headphones almost all morning.

The first thing I do when beginning my work day is to put on those headphones and hit play on the Monument Valley soundtrack and listen to that music for an hour or two while I write.

Fantastical

The best app there is for calendaring and remindering on iOS.

OmniFocus

I’ve been a hard and fast OmniFocus user for more than half-a-decade. Something I’ve always liked about the app is that it can be flexible to work the way you work best.

When I first began using OmniFocus I was managing an in-house design team. At any given time we had roughly 45 active projects. It was crazy. And OmniFocus helped me keep everything moving forward.

Nowadays, I have about 3 or 4 active projects at a time. I’m managing far less action items. And in both situations OmniFocus could be as powerful or as simple as I need it.

I should say, however, that I’m considering a move to Wunderlist. At the beginning of this year Blanc Media hired it’s first full-time employee, and so now I’m looking at getting a task management system that allows for group collaboration.

Safari

Probably my favorite 1st-party app on iOS (Trailers is a pretty stellar second) and, if you count in all the in-app browsers that use Safari, this is surely the app I use the most on my iPhone.

Tweetbot

For checking the Twitter, of course.

Weather Line

Every night before I go to bed, I set out my clothes for the next day. And so I’ll check what tomorrow’s weather is going to be so I can dress accordingly.

PCalc Lite

Yep. I can’t every post a picture of my iPhone Home screen without getting comments about how I use Pcalc Lite. Well, it’s not. I have the full version of PCalc via in-app purchase, but went with the “Lite” app because I prefer the looks of the orange icon over the blue one.

Slack

Who’s not using Slack these days? This is the app we use to communicate about and basically run Tools & Toys, The Sweet Setup, and The Focus Course.

Scanbot

This is the app I use to take photos of business expense receipts when I’m out and about. It does OCR on the receipt and uploads it to my “Receipts” folder in Dropbox.

1Password

Of course. Thanks to iCloud Keychain I don’t need to open up 1Password on my iPhone all that often, but it’s still a critical app.

Instapaper

While I still use Instapaper every day (to send things to it) I only read about a half-dozen articles in a week (if that).

Nearly all of my reading is with physical dead-tree books now a days. It started over a year ago when I ordered a whole slew of books off Amazon while researching for The Focus Course. It was far cheaper to order used books from Amazon than to by the Kindle versions. And then I just got hooked on how much easier and faster it was to read a paper book.

Speaking of reading, savvy readers may have noticed a lack of an RSS reader in my list. Since all the reading I do these days is with physical books, I haven’t check in on my RSS feeds in at least a year.

Overcast

This is the app I use for listening to podcasts whenever I’m in the car. Which, since I work from home, isn’t all that often.

Even though I’m subscribed to a few dozen podcasts, I only listen to about 1-2 episodes per week. And so I’m very particular about which episodes I listen to, choosing only the ones that look the most interesting or relevant to me.

Which is why my number one feature request for Overcast would be a custom playlist that works like a “listen later” queue. I’d love to be able to flag individual episodes and have them show up in a list and I could just work my way through that list.

Day One

Though I use Day One all the time, it’s not always from my iPhone. I also do a fair amount of my writing from the Mac. But what I love most about the iPhone version is how I can quickly snap a photo and create a new journal entry with that photo, add in a brief caption, and the location data is automatically placed. Between a picture, the geo-tagged location, and a brief explanation, it’s pretty easy to have a robust journal entry in a few seconds.

* * *

When I first started writing this article a few days ago, my home screen had one more row of apps than it does now. But the process of writing about the apps helped me realized that I had more apps than I wanted. So, thanks to a couple folders on the Home screen and the ability to search for an app from any Home screen, I’ve simplified things a bit.

As I wrote last week, the apps and workflows we use need an audit from time to time. For me, just the process of writing this article caused me to think again about if the apps that were on my Home screen were the apps I still wanted there.

Friday, October 16

Speaking of podcasts, this is an awesome tip / app suggestion from Bradley Chambers this week over on The Sweet Setup.

If you’re like me and you come across one-off audio files that you want to listen to, but wish you could (a) easily get them onto your phone without side-loading them or dealing with Dropbox’s audio player (which doesn’t remember listening state); and (b) take advantage of your favorite podcast player’s Smart Speed features then this is the service for you.

The Apple Watch Apps I Use

Getting the Apple Watch, I didn’t know what to expect.

I’ve worn a watch for years. In part because I often want to know what time it is, but also because it’s one more “barrier” to keep me from pulling out my iPhone.

Do you ever do this? Do you pull your iPhone out of your pocket in order to check the time. But before you know it, you’ve already unlocked the thing and you’re half-way through your Twitter timeline before you realize what you’re doing? And then you don’t even remember what time it is (which was the whole reason you got your phone out in the first place)?

I used to (still often do, alas) do that all the time. And it drives me nuts. I want to be more intentional about when I’m going to mindlessly check twitter.

Earlier this spring, after having the Apple Watch for just a week, I wrote about how it was Just Smart Enough.

So, several months in with the Apple Watch. Do I still wear it? Is it still “just smart enough?” How do I use it? Has Apple Watch changed my life and will I ever be the same?

The short answer to those questions is that yes, I still wear my Watch every day, and I think it’s fantastic and convenient and helpful. But if I didn’t have it, I would still get by just fine.

The longer answer to those questions is below…

The Main Complications

The vast majority of how I use my watch is to tell time, check the current temperature, or set a timer.

In fact, being able to see the weather on my wrist at a glance is awesome. It sounds so simple, but, it’s the little things in life, you know?

The Apps I Don’t Use

I thought I’d start off by sharing the apps I don’t use.

The promise of being able to check email, calendars, and stocks, and to answer phone calls from your watch are cool. But for me, I don’t want the Watch to replace my iPhone. I want the Watch to help me stay connected in the ways that are important to me, and allow me to use my phone less frequently.

Some of the apps I don’t use include email, the phone, (tip) calculator, podcasts, the Camera, OmniFocus, and Twitter.

Of course, now that I’ve got the iPhone 6s Plus (a.k.a. the Airplane Wing), I may start putting my shopping list on my watch.

The Apps I Do Use

Aside from the timer and the weather apps/complications, these are the other apps I use on a regular basis:

  • Fitness + Activity: I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve gotten out of my running regimen. Ironically, building and launching The Focus Course, followed by a long vacation to Colorado, a trip to Atlanta, another to Dallas, and then the building and launching of a new product (announcement about that coming soon), has all accumulated into a wrench being thrown into my daily fitness routine.

  • Remote: The remote to our Apple TV just stopped working about one week before the new Apple TV was announced. Instead of replacing the remote, we’re waiting to replace the whole box. And in the meantime, the Remote app on my Apple Watch has gotten much more use.

  • Alarm: With “nightstand mode” in WatchOS 2.0, I started using the alarm on my Watch instead of my iPhone. And I discovered that the Watch’s alarm is night-and-day less obnoxious than the iPhone’s. So now I use the Watch alarm to wake in the morning instead.

  • Messages: Getting incoming text messages on the Watch is one of my favorite features. Not only does it serve as an additional reason not to get my phone out all the time, but it also means that I can leave my iPhone on the mantle in our kitchen and still be reachable via text / phone call.

    This is great for two reasons: (1) the iPhone 6s Plus isn’t as pocketable as my previous phones have been; and (2) it means my boys see me using my iPhone less frequently.

  • Slack: I also get notifications on my Watch for Slack messages. Since this is how the Blanc Media team communicates, it’s important for me to be reachable through private messages or mentions.

  • Music remote control: When using the iPhone to play music through a bluetooth speaker or to my bluetooth earbuds, the watch makes a very convenient remote control.

  • Apple Pay: Once you’ve used your Watch to pay for something, it’s hard to go back. So easy, so quick, so awesome.

* * *

After five months, the Watch gets far less “nerdy” usage than I originally thought it would get. And yet, at the same time, it has proven to be far more useful — and fun! — than I expected.

It’s an expensive little gadget, but I think it’s worth it. I’m excited to see what the future holds for the Watch.

Thirteen Days With an iPhone 6s Plus

On iPhone pre-order day, I lost my mind for a few minutes and decided it would be a good idea to order the gargantuan iPhone known as the 6s Plus.

The iPhone 6s Plus

I named it Hercules, because, well, it’s a hoss.

My friends who also use a 6/6s Plus told me to give it at least a week or two. It’s been 13 days, and I’m still not sure about it.

There are some things which I love about the phone. Namely: the superior mechanics for photography and videography, and the bigger screen real-estate. But I am not yet convinced that the tradeoff for those things — having a device that is unwieldy at best when using it with one hand — is worth it.

That said, here are some miscellaneous thoughts and observations about the iPhone 6s Plus.

Battery Life

For me, at least, this isn’t an issue. But it’s not because the Plus has made it a non-issue, it’s just that battery life has never been an issue for me with any iPhone I’ve owned.

Maybe my old 3GS would get into the red sometimes, but honestly I can’t remember the last time I had an iPhone that I had to regularly keep charged throughout the day.

I know people who say their iPhone has a dead battery by lunchtime, but I just don’t have a grid for that. So, the advantage of the better battery life of the 6s Plus is (unfortunately?) wasted on me.

Image Stabilization

The in-body image stabilization is pretty awesome.

Maybe its placebo, maybe not, but in the week and a half I’ve had this new iPhone, it definitely seems to contain a noticeably superior camera to my iPhone 6.

Here are two cute photos I’ve taken on the 6s Plus:

At the park -- Shot with the iPhone 6s Plus

Story Time -- Shot with the iPhone 6s Plus

These don’t really show off just how great the camera of the 6s Plus is, but they are photos of my family so I think they’re awesome.

For a much better comparison of the in-body image stabilization, check out this video that shows a side-by-side comparison of shooting video with the image-stabilized 6s Plus and the non-stabilized 6s.

Screen Density

In addition to having a larger screen, the Plus also has a higher pixel density.

As for the pixel density, even when side-by-side with my iPhone 6 I can’t see the difference between the two phones. So while it’s a cool feature on paper that makes a good reason to get the bigger phone, it’s not actually relevant in day-to-day life. At least, not for me.

The larger screen is definitely nice for a lot of things. Such as editing photos in VSCO Cam, browsing the web in Mobile Safari, reading in Instapaper or Kindle or the News app, typing, and more.

The iPhone 6s Plus

3D Touch

This new tech is awesome. Apps that support 3D Touch from the Home screen are instantly more useful. OmniFocus’s “New Inbox Item” action is one of my favorites (aside from the Camera app’s Selfie shortcut, of course). As I was writing this, Fantastical just shipped an update to support 3D Touch. So now I’m just hoping Simplenote will add shortcuts for creating a new note and searching.

And then there’s Trackpad Mode. Which is awesome.

Here are John Gruber’s sentiments about the new feature:

This might be the single best new feature for text editing on the iPhone since the addition of selection and Copy/Paste in iOS 3 in 2009. In addition to moving the insertion point around, you can press again and switch to selection mode — like double-clicking the mouse button on a Mac. Trackpad mode is a once-you’ve-used-it-you-can’t-go-back addition to iOS.

Agreed. This is the thing you demo to your friends about why getting the new iPhone 6s is worth it.

The Home Button (Literally)

That’s what it’s always been called, but that is literally what it is now.

It used to be that if you clicked the Home button while the screen was off then you’d see the Lock screen. But Touch ID is so ridiculously fast now that clicking the Home button is simultaneous with unlocking the iPhone.

This is both awesome and frustrating.

It’s awesome because the added level of security that Touch ID brings is anything but a burden. In fact, it’s now faster and easier to unlock your iPhone using Touch ID than it is to swipe with no security passcode at all.

Think about that. Having a more secure phone is also more convenient in day-to-day use.

However, the frustrating part of Touch ID’s speed is, ironically, that it makes it harder to get to the Camera app.

There are two ways to get around this. One way is to press the Home button with a finger that’s not registered with Touch ID. The other way is to press the Lock / Wake button. Alas, both of these options leave you in a spot that’s not easy to slide up on the Camera app icon that’s down in the bottom-right-hand side of the screen. On the 6s this wouldn’t be as much of an issue because it’s easier to hit the Lock / Wake button while still holding the phone comfortably. But for me, my thumb literally can’t reach the Lock / Wake button while holding the 6s Plus comfortably with one hand.

The iPhone 6s Plus

That Super Cool Wallpaper is via the Super Cool Unsplash.

Daily usage

The iPhone 6s Plus works best when you’re in a calm and controlled environment. Such as the couch, or at your desk. Basically anywhere that you’re stationary and have both hands free. In this context the Plus is awesome.

It is extremely easy to hold and use with two hands. Typing on the larger-but-not-too-large keyboard is fantastic. And the bigger screen is an excellent size for Instapaper, Twitter, Instagram, Day One, VSCO Cam, the News, Safari, and more.

As many other iPhone 6 Plus users have said before, with the larger iPhone, there’s not a huge need for an iPad mini. Slowly, over time, you realize the Plus is big enough for most of situations when you would have used the smaller iPad, and so you actually don’t need both devices.

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of my writing on the iPad. And from time to time I enjoy reading comic books. For the evening reading and research that I often do with the iPad, while I could see the iPhone 6s Plus taking over that role, the iPad is still a bit better suited to it.

Where the iPhone 6s Plus does not shine is when you’re out and about. Walking through the grocery store, pushing a shopping cart, wrangling two toddler boys, and trying to check-off items on your shopping list app is not the ideal environment for using the 6s Plus with one hand. I’ve quickly learned how to push a shopping cart with just my elbows.

In short, for me, the 6s Plus is equal parts wonderful and terrible. There are some people who find the size to be just right, and so they have no sense of trade-offs with the device. But it is just too large for me to comfortably use as a hand-held phone.

The question is: Are the advantages of the Plus worth the disadvantages? A lot of people say absolutely. Some still say no way.

For me, I’m honestly still undecided. I’ll have to give it another 13 days.

Monday, September 14

An excellent, as always, overview of last week’s Apple event, as well as John’s initial thoughts on the new iPhones, iPad Pro, Apple TV, and Watch.

I was bummed that I couldn’t watch the Keynote last week — I was in the air during the event, on my way to Dallas to speak at the 2015 Circles Conference (more on that later). Being at Circles, I was offline most of last week and missed a lot of the new Apple product news (aside from this ridiculous newspaper headline).

But I did still wake up at midnight to pre-order a new iPhone. I decided to go crazy and went with the iPhone 6S Plus. I’m perfectly happy with the size of the 6, but I thought it would be fun to try out the bigger sized phone. Just about everyone I know with the 6 Plus loves it. So we’ll see. Also, after getting a massive headache trying to figure out the new pricing structures and what would be the best route to go, I decided to jump off the subsidy bandwagon and bought a contract-free, unsubsidized phone through AT&T. I prefer to keep my iPhones after the contract on them is up, either for resale, or — now that I’ve got two boys — for watching Mighty Machines on long road trips.

Another thought on the new iPhones: 3D Touch looks fantastic. It was pretty obvious that it’d be coming to the iPhone; after just a few weeks with my Watch I was already naturally trying to Force Press app icons and menu buttons on my iPhone. It may be “for power users” but I also think it’ll be quick to acclimate to, and in a few days we’ll all be grumbling about how our iPads don’t have it.

I’m also excited about the new Apple TV. Like a lot of you, I suspect, my house doesn’t have cable TV — we watch all our shows and movies via Netflix and iTunes (with an attic antenna we use during football season).

What John Gruber had to say about the new Apple TV only makes me that much more amped:

Apple TV is hot. I only got a brief period to play with it, but it seems fast, responsive, beautiful, and intuitive. It feels alive. If I worked at Apple I’d want to be on that team. On first impression, it is everything I wanted to see. It sounds like a small talented team got to build the Apple TV they wanted to see and use themselves. There is a clarity and vision to the entirety of its design. I think it exemplifies the best of Apple. […]

I think Apple TV might be the most disruptive product from Apple since the iPhone. Not the most lucrative, necessarily, but the most disruptive — in the sense of defining how all TVs will work in a few years.

Little Things That Improve the Way I Work on a Mac

Let’s talk about tools, services, and apps that can help you reduce cognitive friction during your day.

Computers are great at doing the boring, automated stuff we don’t like to do. So why not automate common tasks (like performing backups of your computer), pre-make decisions for your computer to carry out on your behalf (such as auto-filing certain email newsletters), and generally just find ways to make yourself more efficient?

I think the biggest reason we don’t do these things is because we don’t care. Seriously. In the moment, it seems easier to just continue suffering through our broken and inefficient workflows that it does to take a step back and consider if there’s a better way.

You could spend an extra 5 minutes every day for the rest of your life sorting through the spam and newsletters in your email inbox, or you could take 15 minutes today and tell your computer to do it for you.

I think another reason we don’t set stuff like this up is because we don’t even know what options are available to us. And so that’s why I’ve put together this brief list of all the apps, tools, and services I use to help me do things better when I’m at my Mac.

  1. Email Rules: In an ideal world, the only emails that would show up in your inbox are the ones you want to read. Email is not the enemy, but it sure can get unwieldy in a hurry.

    Step one is, of course, to unsubscribe from all the incoming email newsletters you don’t want to get. I am subscribed to some email newsletters because I like what they have to say; some of these emails I keep out of my inbox and auto-file them into my “Bacon” folder. I also have rules set up to flag certain emails that contain the word “sponsorship” or “typo”. And I use VIP sparingly — my accountant and my wife send me an email, it will set off a push notification on my iPhone.

  2. Keyboard Maestro: This is a utility app for bending your Mac to your will. It’s hard to explain what KM does because it can do just about anything. I use it to launch certain apps with just a keyboard shortcut; I use it to streamline the exporting of my podcast audio out of Garage Band; I use it for doing bottom-posting email replies when appropriate; I use it to automatically launch the Doxie importing software and to import all my document scans as soon as I’ve plugged my Doxie Go into my Mac; and more. Basically, what Keyboard Maestro is good at is automating certain certain tasks for you

  3. Hazel: Hazel is like the cousin to Keyboard Maestro. While also great at automating tasks, it works under slightly differently contexts. Hazel works with the files on your computer, and mostly runs under the hood. You can have it do things like automatically clean up all the files on your Desktop at the end of the day and move them into a “Desktop Cleanup” folder. Hazel will notice if you delete and app and then ask if you also want to clean up all the system files related to that app. Hazel can automatically take any new images you’ve added to Lightroom to your NAS drive and copy them onto your NAS drive for backup and archival purposes. And more.

  4. LaunchBar: The whole point of an application launcher is to quickly get to the files and apps you frequently access on your computer. You bring up LaunchBar with a keyboard shortcut, type in the first few letters of an app, bookmark, or file that you want and LaunchBar presents a list of the best results sorted by most-likely-what-you-want.

    As you use it, LaunchBar learns your most common searches and provides weighted results. There’s a lot you can do with LaunchBar, custom searches, zipping and emailing files, and more. I wrote a whole review about the latest version here.

  5. TextExpander: Surely everyone reading this knows about this utility app which runs in the background on your Mac to expand snippets of text into sentences, words, dates, and whatever else you can imagine. It makes a great tool for quickly punching out common things you type on a regular basis (such as common email replies, email signatures, misspelt words, etc.) For example, I use the snippet ;email to automatically insert my email address, and I use the snippet ;home to automatically insert my home mailing address. (A tip about using the semicolon before the word: that helps guarantee that the snippet isn’t something I would type in any normal situation.)

  6. 1Password: Another app I hope you’re familiar with. Yes, 1Password is great for storing all the various logins and other sensitive bits of information. But it’s also a very efficient tool. When I need to log into something, insert my Credit Card info, or whatever, a quick keystroke to bring up the 1Password quick entry window and I’m off to the races.

  7. OmniFocus: One of the things I most love about OmniFocus is the Quick Entry. I use CMD+Shift+Space to bring it up and quickly enter in a task. I also use a Javascript bookmarklet that will send the current Safari tab’s Title and URL to my OmniFocus inbox. I also have an Applescript that takes a whole Safari window of tabs and drops them all in to OmniFocus as a single to-do item.

  8. Fantastical: Fantastical is an awesome calendar app. And one of the things I like most about it is how quickly accessible it is (since it lives in the Menu Bar, a keyboard shortcut brings up the app instantly and I can see the list of my agenda). But I also like the natural language parsing. When it comes to events and appointments, we all just naturally speak in sentences. And so, having a calendar app that interprets that language so well makes it much easier to enter in new events (and reminders).

  9. Time Machine: I can’t stress how important it is to have regular backups of my computer. And Time Machine takes all the thought out of it by automatically backing up my computer to an external hard drive several times per day.

  10. SuperDuper: I also like to have a bootable backup of my computer. And I use SuperDuper to do this every night. And there’s an option in SuperDuper that will automatically launch the app and begin a smart update backup as soon as I plug in my USB drive. So that means, when my computer’s apps are all closed out and I’m ready to do the nightly backup, all I do is plug in the USB drive.

  11. Maximum internal storage: One thing I’ve learned about computers is that there is never enough internal storage space. I would rather spend my time taking photos and listening to music than shuffling files around. And so I always get as much internal storage as I can so hopefully I don’t have to keep fighting that ceiling.

  12. BreakTime: A simple app that reminds me to move around every 45 minutes.

  13. Timing: A utility app that tracks how I spend my time when on my computer. Hindsight is 20/20 you know?

  14. iBank 5: This financial management app has auto-import rules that properly re-name and assign transactions when I’m importing them from my bank. It also has income/expense reports, budgeting, and more. I know that any banking software worth its salt will have this, but I use iBank because I think it’s the best. I do all my own bookkeeping, and having as much of the busywork automated by my software helps me so I only need to spend less than 5 hours per month doing my books. (iBank also becomes extremely handy come tax season.)

  15. Tweetbot: I use lists when I need a quieter timeline and I use some muting rules so I don’t see certain tweets that I’m not interested in (such as those “whatever daily is out!” announcement tweets).

Things I need to improve at

For the sake of transparency, I want to be clear that I am not Mac Zen Master. My desk isn’t always free of clutter (it’s usually not), and there are many areas of work that I know I can improve on.

Such as my podcasting workflow. I record a podcast almost every single day, and it takes me time every day to save, export, master, and publish it. The routine is almost the same every day, but I haven’t found a way to speed up that process now that I use Auphonic for mastering the audio after I’ve exported out of Garage Band.

I also recognize that one of the greatest ways to work smarter isn’t by using a “hack”, but by simply getting better at focusing and seeing a task through to the end.

I know there are places I can get better at focusing and at improving my own habits. Such as not checking Twitter as often as I do. Or improving my habits for processing incoming emails. Even my task management habits need help. (Don’t tell anyone, but I often find myself playing the “due date game” with my tasks instead of properly assigning due dates based on actual urgency and then reviewing all my projects on a regular basis.)

Mindfulness

It can be easy to get hyper nerdy about this stuff, and to spend forever and a day tinkering and fiddling and “optimizing”. I listed out the above things not to say that you should be utilizing them as well, but instead to give you an idea of perhaps one or two ways that you could work smarter.

It just boils down to being mindful about the work we are doing. When we notice that there’s something we do repeatedly, step back for a moment to see if there’s a way to automate that task. And if there is something we do that annoys us, step back for a moment and question if that task is truly necessary — or if it can be delegated to someone or something.

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.

My URL Schemes for Posting Links From My iPhone and iPad Using Poster

After publishing my iPad App Playlist, several folks asked me via Twitter and email to share the workflows I use for posting links to this site.

The app I use is Poster, and unfortunately it’s no longer available for sale in the App Store. Thus I didn’t make a big deal out of how I use the app because I assumed many people wouldn’t be able to make use of such nerdy information. But, based on the feedback I’ve been getting lately, perhaps I was wrong.

And so here are the details for how I use Poster on my iPad (and iPhone) to post links to this site.

* * *

There are three places I come across things worth linking to: Safari, my RSS feeds, and my Instapaper queue. (Technically there are four, counting Twitter, but I don’t yet know of a way to get from Tweetbot to Poster, and so often most things I want to link to that I find in Tweetbot I’ll either send to Instapaper or open in Safari.)

Since I use YJ’s Linked List plugin on my site to handle the “swapping” of the permalink URL and the linked-to URL in the RSS feed and on the Home Page, the name of the Custom Field in my WordPress install is linked_list_url. Poster allows you to add the value of a custom field from within the URL scheme by defining it as such: customfield_YOURCUSTOMFIELDNAMEHERE

Also, I have the callback_url set as this site’s homepage. That way once I’ve posted the link from Poster I’m automatically sent over to shawnblanc.net to make sure that the link properly posted.

Safari → Poster

If I’m in Mobile Safari on my iPad or iPhone, I tap this javascript bookmarklet and it will send me to Poster and create a link post with the Title of the website set as the title of my post, and the URL of the web page set as the linked-to URL for my post.

javascript:window.location='posterapp:///create?text='+encodeURIComponent(window.getSelection())+'&title='+(document.title)+'&customfield_YOURCUSTOMFIELDNAME='+(window.location.href)+'&callback_url=http://example.com/';

I then can paste in the quote I want to use (if any) into the body, type in my commentary, and hit Publish.

One thing the Poster URL scheme does not allow is the pre-defining of a category. All my link posts are in the "Linked" category; all my articles are in the "Article" category, and I use some custom WordPress hooks for adjusting the style of a post depending on if it is in the linked category of the articles category. In the WordPress admin panel, I've selected the Linked category as the default. Thus, if I publish a post without first assigning the proper category, WordPress will automatically assign it to the Linked category. Therefore I don't even have to set the category for my link posts when sending them from Poster (thus saving me a few extra taps).

Mr. Reader → Poster

I recently discovered that Mr. Reader supports custom actions. I've now switched over to Mr. Reader as my RSS reading app of choice, and build a URL scheme that allows me to take the title, URL, author, and any highlighted text and then place it into Poster so I can publish it as a link on shawnblanc.net.

My URL looks like this (with my personal site-specific tidbits swapped out for generic examples):

posterapp://x-callback-url/create?title={[TITLE]}&text={[AUTHOR]: > [TEXT-SELECTED]}&customfield_yourcustomfieldnamegoeshere={[URL]}&callback_url={http://example.com/}

To set up a custom action in Mr. Reader you tap on the Settings icon → Services → scroll down to Add → Other App

From there, if you have Poster installed on your iPad, you'll see it in the list. Add it, insert your custom URL scheme, and you're good to go. Now, when you're reading an article in Mr. Reader that you want to link to from your site, just tap the actions button, and then tap Poster.

Instapaper → Drafts → Poster

Within the Instapaper app there is an option to share to Drafts, so I use Drafts as the "middle man" for taking an interesting article and getting the title, author, link, and any quoted text into Poster.

To start, when I've come across an article in Instapaper which I want to link to on my site, I highlight any text I want to quote and then tap the "Share" button which appears after highlighting. (If I want to link to the article without highlighting any text from it, simply tap the action button in the top right, then tap Share.)

When the Instapaper share sheet pops up, I chose to create a draft in Drafts.

Instapaper automatically inserts the title of the article on the first line, the URL on the second line, then a line break, and then any text I had selected.

This is where Drafts gets awesome. You can define certain lines, and/or ranges of lines, to be the content for different components when sending the text file into Poster.

So, after my draft is auto-created from Instapaper, I tidy it up a bit, by cleaning up the title (if need be), adding an extra line break between the title and the URL, and then writing out any additional commentary, etc., in the body.

I then send the Draft to Poster, using my custom action which defines the title (the first line) of the Draft as the title of the link post, the 3rd line of the Draft as the URL for the custom field, and then everything from line 5 on as the body text.

posterapp://x-callback-url/create?title=[[title]]&text=[[line|5..]]&customfield_linked_list_url=[[line|3]]&callback_url=http://shawnblanc.net/

(Tapping here from your iPhone/iPad should allow you to install this action in Drafts automatically (you'll then want to tweak it of course to your own usage needs.)

1Password and iCloud Keychains: How They Work Together

I’m posting today’s episode of Shawn Today here to make it available for everyone.

With Mavericks support for storing passwords and credit card info in Safari, combined with the iCloud keychain syncing of that info to our iOS devices, I wanted to share about how that impacts my favorite password manager, 1Password.

In short, I wanted to talk about why I still consider 1Password to be vitally important and useful.

On today’s podcast episode I share how I’ve been using the new iCloud keychain in both Mavericks and iOS, how I use 1Password, why the two make a good pair, and why 1Password is still important and useful.

Direct download link. (09:01)

Note: In the show is that I didn’t know if you could look up individual passwords from within iOS (to do things like fill in the UN/PW information for an app). It turns out you can look up password information if you go to the Settings app → Safari → Passwords & AutoFill → Saved Passwords. (You can also find your Saved Credit Card info here as well.)

1Password 4 and Duplicate Passwords

One of the premier benefits to using 1Password is how it empowers you to use a unique password for every single one of your website logins.

Instead of having all your passwords memorized, you just install the 1Password extension in Safari or Chrome, and then when you are logging in to a website, you simply let 1Password log in for you. With 1Password, there’s no reason not to have unique and strong passwords for your bank, your weblog’s admin panel, your Flickr account, your Twitter, Facebook, Adobe, etc.

Then, when one of the websites or services you use gets hacked, and your username and password are both compromised, it’s far less of a risk to the rest of your logins because the hacker has a password of yours that was unique only to the website they hacked. Therefore they can’t take that username and password and use it to log in to your email account, bank account, or anything else.

In 1Password 4 there is a brilliant new section called Security Audit. In the sidebar it shows you tabs for finding weak passwords, duplicate passwords, and old passwords.

1Password 4 Security Audit and Duplicate Passwords

Clicking on the Duplicate Passwords tab gives you a list with every single login item that has a duplicate password. If you have any items here then you can begin working your way through each account, by logging in to the site and changing your password with a new unique one and saving that into 1Password.

(Side note: in 1Password 3 you can create smart folders that search for a common term. If you’ve got a few passwords that you know you use for most of your logins, then do create some smart folders for that password and boom, you’ve got a good list of all your duplicates.)

If you’ve been using 1Password for a while then it has no doubt collected most of your login details, making it easy to identify which accounts have duplicate passwords.

If you’re new to 1Password, it won’t yet know your various website login credentials until you enter them in. I’d suggest starting with the handful of websites you visit most often, your email address(es), and your bank’s website — changing your password in each of them to be something unique and saving that login info to 1Password. Then, over time, as you log in to the sites you visit less often, 1Password will automatically save your login credentials. And so, maybe in a month from now and then again in 6 months from now, re-check your duplicate passwords and update them.

A Beginner’s Guide to Pinboard

On Friday, May 4, 2012, I signed up for Pinboard, a website that lets you bookmark URLs.

My move to Pinboard was prompted when Yojimbo, unfortunately, got too big for its britches. In Yojimbo I had more than 600 bookmarks, plus hundreds of other notes and files and things. Alas, because Yojimbo doesn’t weigh its search results by relevancy, it became increasingly difficult to find what I was looking for. In short, the more I was adding to Yojimbo, the harder it became to find what I was looking for.

A good filing system is one where you can find whatever you’re looking for in less than a minute. As of this sentence I have 2,334 bookmarks — I use Pinboard to collect any and every URL that is or was interesting to me — and I’ve never had trouble finding what I’m looking for when I go to search for a particular bookmark.

I wanted to share a few of the tools and services I am using with Pinboard. If you are wanting to get more out of Pinboard, then hopefully this will help you out.

Why Pinboard?

Pinboard is a great bookmarking service because it lives on the web, and so many of the apps and services I use every day can send bookmarks to my Pinboard.

For example: any article I “like” in Instapaper gets bookmarked to Pinboard; if a tweet that I “fave” has a URL in it, that URL gets bookmarked to Pinboard (you can configure this yourself in your Pinboard settings). And because Pinboard connects with IFTTT, you can set up a gazillion other ways to bookmark URLs.

In a nut, it’s very easy to add bookmarks into Pinboard. And it’s equally easy to find those URLs later by searching or by tag lists.

A Smarter bookmarklet

Beyond going to the Pinboard website itself and clicking the “Add URL” button, the most basic way to save a URL to Pinboard is through a bookmarklet.

I use Joel Carranza’s “Particular Pinboard” bookmarklet to save links when I am on a web page in Safari.

Joel’s bookmarklet is a bit more clever than the default ones found on the Pinboard website. It does some cleanup to the tile of the web page, populates the description field with selected text or else with the page’s description from the header, and will auto-add tags you use if they are relevant to the article based on keywords.

There is one thing I changed in Joel’s bookmarklet, and that is the height and width of the popup window. At the end of the javascript I changed the width from 610 to 700 and the height from 350 to 550. For some reason the default dimensions were causing the popup window to display without a status bar and without a window shadow. The slightly larger dimensions fixed that for me.

A Tag-Specific Quick Bookmark

Let’s say there is a tag you use often in Pinboard, and you want a way to save a URL using that tag with the least amount of fuss possible.

Then use this bookmarklet.

This will take your current Safari tab and save it to Pinboard using a pre-defined tag that you chose, all without showing you a pop-up dialog window or anything.

Tab collections

You know when you’re doing research on something and you end up with about 30 open tabs and then you don’t know what to do with them all?

Pinboard Tab collections are your friend.

This Safari extension will grab all of your open Safari tabs, organize them by windows (say you’ve got 3 windows with several tabs each) and then let you save them as a set.

Sometimes it’s nice to use this as nothing more than a placebo bookmark, when all you want to do is quit out of Safari and save your work for later (maybe).

Mac Apps

There are some Mac menubar and desktop apps, but I don’t use any of them. I think the Pinboard website is very easy to use and so Safari is my go-to place for accessing Pinboard from my Mac.

Search via LaunchBar

If you use LaunchBar you can set up a custom Search Template for Pinboard that lets you enter your search query from within LaunchBar and then search the Pinboard site.

Bring up LaunchBar, click the “gear” icon that’s on the right-hand side, then go to Index → Show Index. Or hit OPT+CMD+I when LaunchBar is visible.

When the LaunchBar Index is up, click on the Search Templates label in the sidebar. Click “Add”. Name your Search Template something like “Pinboard”, and then place this code as the Details:

https://pinboard.in/search/?query=*+&mine=Search+Mine

Now, bring up LaunchBar, type "Pinboard", hit Space Bar, type your search query, and hit Return.

Search Pinboard with LaunchBar

iOS Apps

I actually have two favorite iOS apps for Pinboard.

  • Pushpin: It has a clean interface, it's a universal app which works on iPhone and iPad, it lets me browse through my list of bookmarks, tags, and notes, and it offers access to Pinboard's Popular list and more.

  • Pinbook: This app has a more narrow focus than Pushpin does — Pinbook excels at search. Searching your bookmarks in Pinbook is fast, and you can search by Title, Tag, or Description. So if there is a particular tag you want to pull up, just search by tag.

Both these apps have URL schemes, so you can send bookmarks to them from other apps. Here is the Javascript bookmarklet I use to add a URL from Mobile Safari to Pushpin. It's based on the very same Particular Pinboard bookmarklet mentioned above.

I realize it's a bit nerdy to have two Pinboard apps. If I had to pick just one, it would be Pushpin. If you don't want to spend $10 on a Pinboard app, and you just want a nice way to add and find your bookmarks from your iPhone and iPad, get Pinbook. You won't be disappointed with either.

Using Pinboard

Pinboard is like Birdhouse was — there are many like it, but each person's is their own.

To get the most out of Pinboard it helps to have easy ways to save bookmarks, and then to know that you can search them when you need. Hopefully what I've shared above gives you some ideas for how you can use the service better.

The iOS 7 Home Screen Upgrade

Unlock your iPhone, click the Home button, and what do you see? The Home screen.

My current iPhone Home screen looks like this:

iphone home screen

It’s a grid of app icons. Tap one and you’ll launch that app.

Aside from the new aesthetics of iOS 7 and the slow-churn change of various apps that come and go in this space over time, my iPhone’s home screen looks and functions the same as it did in 2007 on the original iPhone OS. And so has yours.

However, I think the Home screen in iOS 7 got a significant improvement right under our noses.

I’m talking about the updated Notification Center, the new Control Center, and the new placement of Spotlight.

Apple implemented some fantastic updates to the Home screen, and did so without making any obvious changes to the way things have looked and functioned since day one. It’s a vast improvement that didn’t require us having to learn anything new or re-orient ourselves to the way we’ve been using our iOS devices for the past 6 years.

Here’s what we can do from the iOS 7 Home screen that we couldn’t do before:

  • We now have one-swipe access to turn on or off our iPhone’s Wi-fi and Bluetooth, enable/disable Airplane mode and Do Not Disturb mode, and lock/unlock the screen orientation.

  • We have one-swipe access to adjust the brightness of the screen.

  • We are one swipe away from being able to launch the Clock app, the Calculator, the Camera, and turning our iPhone’s flash into a Flashlight.

  • We have one-swipe access to the currently playing audio, and the ability to adjust the volume, pause/play the audio, and skip to the next or previous track.

  • We are one swipe away from being able to search our entire phone’s catalog of apps, emails, contacts, notes, music, and more.

  • From any Home screen, we have one-swipe access to our calendar of events for today and tomorrow, as well as the current weather, anticipated drive time to our next routine destination, and a list of all recently updated apps, incoming notifications, and missed notifications.

Since these new and improved features are not tied directly to the Home screen itself, they can be accessed from anywhere on the device — inside any app, and even from the Lock screen.

If Apple had instead chosen to incorporate some of these features by doing Home screen widgets, then access to them would be restricted to only our first Home screen (or whichever screen we’d placed those widgets on).

There is still much growth and iteration that can — and I believe will — happen here. But with iOS 7, Apple has begun to let us interact with iOS in significant ways that don’t require the launching of an individual app. Certain functions of iOS are slowly expanding out of their silos.

Feed Reading: Today and Tomorrow

When I was using Google to sync my RSS subscription list, my setup was NetNewsWire on my Mac and Reeder on my iPhone and iPad. As Google Reader was shutting down, I ported my subscription list to Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, and Digg. A little time with each and Feed Wrangler was the one I landed on. Two months later and I’m still using it.

For apps I use Mr. Reader on the iPad, ReadKit on the Mac, and Reeder on the iPhone.

Feed Wrangler

The backbone for my RSS subscriptions is my favorite of the whole bundle. I’ve been more than content with the service, and my original stance on Feed Wrangler still stands: it is the most “future-Shawn proof” of the feed reading syncing services out there.

Because of Feed Wranglers use of Smart Streams and filters, it’s the one that I expect to best accommodate my changing habits and interests over the years. The feeds I read today aren’t necessarily the feeds I’ll be reading tomorrow, and my interests today aren’t guaranteed to stay the same.

Feed Wrangler’s foundation is built on catering to flexibility and letting the service do as much of the heaving lifting of sorting your incoming news for you as it can.

When porting my feeds from Google over to Feed Wrangler, I didn’t keep my old folder structure. Instead I just sort of started over organically creating new folders and streams based on my needs.

I have 3 smart streams that show me all the unread items within a selection of feeds: my “Faves” stream has the handful of sites I enjoy reading every single day; my “Photo” stream has the handful of photography-based websites I follow; and my “Too much!” stream has all the high-volume tech-news sites I don’t pay attention to.

I also have some search-based smart streams. Currently one for the term “Mirrorless” and one for the term “iOS 7”.

After a few months of regular use, I’ve also come across some workflow pebbles I’d like to see improved in Feed Wrangler:

  • For one, I’d love to see an easier way to add a new feed and pipe it into a smart stream immediately. Currently that workflow is a bit convoluted.

    I pretty much only ever add feeds using the bookmarklet. Click that link from any site with a valid RSS feed and Feed Wrangler will add it to your master list. However, once you’ve added a new feed to your Feed Wrangler, you’re then put you then left at the “add new feeds” page.

    You then need to click on the smart stream you want to place your new feed into. Then click “Edit” in the upper right corner, find the new feed, and check the box to the it to the stream.

  • The second pebble is with marking a whole stream as read. It doesn’t actually mark all as read, but only the items currently in view. When viewing a smart stream on the Feed Wrangler website, it displays the 50 most recent unread items, and after clicking “Mark All Read” just those 50 get marked as read, but if there are more than 50 items in my smart stream then the page refreshes with the next batch.

    Suppose I’ve got a smart stream with 2,000 unread items in it. To mark the whole thing as read requires 40 clicks of the “Mark All Read” button. This, however, is only a limitation of the website itself. When marking a stream as read from within one of the 3rd-party apps I use (such as Mr. Reader or ReadKit), then the whole stream is marked as read.

These pebbles, however, are just that. As a service, I continue to be impressed with Feed Wrangler’s reliability and speed. I have high hopes for what it could look like down the road.

ReadKit on Mac

ReadKit is a seriously feature-packed app. It’ll sync with Instapaper, Pocket, Readability, Pinboard, Delicious, Feedly, NewsBlur, Fever, Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, your kitchen sink, and it can manage it’s own local copy of an OPML subscription list as well.

Currently, ReadKit has the monopoly on Mac apps that sync with Feed Wrangler. I mostly check my feeds from my Mac, and prefer using a native app instead of the Feed Wrangler website. ReadKit is a nice Mac app that’s been in very active development over the past several months.

For $5 on the Mac App Store, ReadKit is one heck of a bargain. But I don’t yet love it.

My biggest quibble is that I can’t launch ReadKit without it sending my Mac’s fans into hyperdrive. Also, the app takes a fair amount of time to sync my 177 feeds (Mr. Reader on my iPad syncs in about one-third the time). And so I usually try to check my feeds as quickly as possible and then get out so I can reclaim some CPU cycles.

As I said, it’s a pretty good app, but it’s not yet amazing. I still think there is room for a few truly great desktop RSS apps that are fast, polished, feature-rich, and easy to use. An app like that takes time to build, but I believe the market will be found waiting.

Reeder on iPhone

Though this is one of my all time favorite iPhone apps, it is, ironically, the one I use the least now. Though Reeder for iPhone works with Feed Wrangler, it doesn’t support Smart Streams. Which means I only see a single list of all my individual feeds. This

Reeder also works with Feedbin, Feedly, and Fever, and it supports folders for these services.

Mr. Reader on iPad

This is the best 3rd-party Feed Wrangler app among my trio of Mac/iPhone/iPad apps. It’s fast, feature rich, and has native support for Feed Wrangler’s Smart Streams. Not only can you view the smart streams, you can add new ones and edit existing ones.

The Future of Feed Reading?

The transition away from Google Reader hasn’t been nearly as rocky as I thought it would be. As a reader I’ve experienced very little inconvenience — the biggest pain point has been learning and using new apps.

I’m hoping it doesn’t stop here though. Google’s retreat opened up the RSS syncing and news aggregation market all over again. And I hope this means we’ll see innovation and new services in this space.

There is so much great stuff being written and published every day. We’re subscribing to some of the sites and writers who are producing it, and we’re trying to read what we can, but a lot of great things to read fall through the cracks every day. And a lot of dumb stuff gets much more attention than it deserves.

When we ask our inboxes and communities what to read, usually the answer is whatever the newest or most popular item is at the moment. And how often are those the best two metrics for deciding that something is going to be interesting and worthwhile for me?

What if there was a different and deeper approach to “automated news aggregation/recommendation”?

Suppose I was willing to give a service access to a broad scope of data points related to my reading and consumption habits. Things like what articles are in my Instapaper queue, what articles I’ve “liked” in Instapaper, what URLs I’ve bookmarked in Pinboard, who I follow on Twitter and the URLs they link to, what RSS feeds I’m subscribed to, what books and gadgets I buy on Amazon, what apps I buy from Apple, what albums are in my Rdio collection, what movies I’ve liked on Netflix, etc.

This sounds like a lot, but it actually isn’t all that different from what I’m already doing. ReadKit has my login credentials for FeedWrangler (all my RSS feeds), Instapaper and Pinboard (so I can send items to there) and Twitter (so I can share articles). My Rdio listening habits are already public info for anyone who follows me there because that’s the nature of Rdio’s social network, and so the only bits left to share would be what books I buy from Amazon, what movies I like on Netflix, and what apps I’ve downloaded from the iOS and Mac App stores.

And so, could this hypothetical service take all that information, put it into a database, and then find and recommend things for me to read? I think yes. That’d be the easy part. The hard part is if the service could pick out articles for me as well as Pandora can at pick out songs, or as well as Netflix can pick out 4-star movies. Now, wouldn’t that be something?

This Weekend’s To-Do Item: Download Your Google Feeds List

Come Monday, Google Reader will be gone and you’ll have no access to your old data. Even if you’re not planning on moving to a Google Reader alternative, if you’ve ever had a Google Reader account and a list of feeds, I’d suggest downloading your list just so you’ve got it. And it only takes about a minute.

There is more than one way get your RSS feeds list from Google Reader. Here’s a few — feel free to pick whichever sounds the most exciting to you:

  • Dave Winer points to this link which, will create an XML file listing all your subscriptions.

  • Michael Schechter explains how to use the Google Takeout service. Exporting via Takeout gives you much more than just a list of your feeds. It also includes all the people you were following, the people who followed you, and all the items you’ve starred, shared, and liked.

    I don’t really care about any of that extra info, except my starred items. But they’ve been auto-imported into Pinboard using IFTTT anyway.

  • Which is why I went a different rout: I just opened up NetNewsWire 3.3.2 and clicked on File → Export Subscriptions. From there I selected to export all of my subscriptions as an OPML file with groups, and now I’ve got a nice backup of all the feeds I was subscribed to in Google Reader.

Feed Wrangler’s Smart Streams

As the dust settles, my feed-reading service of choice continues to be Feed Wrangler.

Feed Wrangler has been out for a few months now, and I’ve been an advocate of the service on this site, on Twitter, ADN, and to just to anyone who asks.

There are two main reservations I’ve heard from people regarding Feed Wrangler, and they are: (1) that the iOS apps and website are ugly; and (2) that Feed Wrangler doesn’t support folders.

Well, I can’t argue with the first point. And I don’t think David Smith (the developer behind Feed Wrangler) would argue with you either. His goal with the apps was simply to have something that worked with the service. His primary goal with Feed Wrangler is to build a killer syncing service with a full-featured API and get the best-in-class 3rd-party apps to support it.

And so far, that’s exactly what’s happening. Just yesterday Mr. Reader for iPad was updated with support for Feed Wrangler. This morning, ReadKit for Mac was updated with Feed Wrangler support. And we know that an update for Reeder is in the works which will also bring support for Feed Wrangler.

So the concern about how Feed Wrangler looks has been, and is being, addressed.

As for the reservation about Feed Wrangler’s use of Smart Streams instead of folders, let me explain how I use these streams and how they can be set up to work like folders.

The Smart Stream

What sets Feed Wrangler apart from so many of the other RSS solutions is its Smart Streams.

As I’ve given accolades to Feed Wrangler over the past weeks since its launch a while back, I’ve received quite a few emails that people don’t fully grasp what all you can do with a Smart Stream.

I, too, had the same hurdle when I was initially beta testing Feed Wrangler, and it took some chatting with the developer behind it, David Smith, before I grasped just how awesome the Smart Streams can be.

Streams as Folders

To set up a smart stream as a “folder” do this:

  • Under the Smart Streams box on Feed Wrangler’s sidebar, click “Create”.
  • Enter a name for your new stream.
  • Leave the search filter blank.
  • Check: “Only include unread”.
  • Uncheck: “Stream should include all feeds?”.
  • After unchecking that last option, you’ll get a list of every RSS feed that’s in Feed Wrangler. From there you can select exactly which feeds you want to be in this stream (a.k.a. folder).
  • Once you’ve selected all the feeds you want in this stream, click the “Create Stream” button and now you’ve got a Smart Stream that acts like a folder. Showing you all the unread items from all those feeds.

Smart Stream Setup in Feed Wrangler

I currently have three “folder” smart streams: One for my favorite sites which I read just about daily, one for photography related sites, and one for Apple news.

Though, in truth, these are not so much traditional folders as much as they are smart collections. Because the same feed can exist in multiple Smart Streams, and read status of items will persist across multiple streams if you have crossover.

Streams as Streams

You can also build a stream based around a topic or keyword. Create a new stream just like outlined above, but this time enter in one or more search terms and your stream will be populated with only articles that match your search criteria. You can set the scope of this stream to cover all your feeds, or, like above, you can pick only certain ones.

I create Smart Streams unreservedly. They are a great way to stay on top of certain hot topics (like iOS 7) as well as more narrow topics I’m interested in (like Mirrorless Cameras).

Leading up to, and then during WWDC, I had a “WWDC” Smart Stream. I used it to see all the sites I follow that were talking about the event. Then, when WWDC was winding down, I deleted the stream. I’ll likely do the same with my iOS 7 stream later this fall.

Filters

The brother to the Smart Stream is the filter. Filters will search your feeds for a keyword you specify, and if that term shows up then the item will be marked as read so you don’t ever have to see it.

In the Feed Wrangler sidebar there is an option to “Manage Filters”. From there you can create your filters. Note that Filters are global — you cannot select which feeds they apply to or don’t.

Some people, I suspect, would use a Filter for the same topics I used a Smart Stream for. Supposed you’d heard enough about WWDC or iOS 7. Just create a filter for it and those topics will, more or less, be muted from you RSS feeds for as long as you leave the filters active.

* * *

So far, most of the Google Reader alternatives I’ve seen and tried seem to be, more or less, a copy of how Google Reader worked.

As I wrote in my link to Feed Wrangler back in April, its Smart Stream versatility is exactly the sort of forward-thinking innovation I hope we’re going to see more of in a post-Google Reader world.

Anyone who has been subscribing to RSS feeds for longer than a few months will know your subscription list regularly needs pruning and adjusting. Well, I want my RSS reader to help me with that task.1 Smart Streams can help by making it easier to wrangle my feeds based on more than just which website they came from. I expect in the long run that they will prove very accommodating and useful as my interests change and as my attention ebbs and flows.


  1. One of the things I loved about NNW 3.x was the Dinosaur list and the ability to sort by attention. These lists would show you, respectively, which feeds hadn’t updated in a long time and which feeds you opened the most and clicked through the most. It was great for unsubscribing from sites that were “retired”, and for re-sorting your folders and subscriptions based on the actual usage data of which feeds you were interacting with.

Your TextExpander Tip of the Day

Last week I linked to the LaunchBar 5.5 update and commented about its new Snippets feature:

One great advantage of LaunchBar’s snippets is that you can access your whole list with a keystroke and then search for the one you want. Don’t tell anyone, but sometimes I forget what abbreviation I assigned to this or that TextExpander expansion (especially ones I use infrequently). And so, for some cases, I expect I’ll be using LaunchBar snippets instead.

After writing that, I received some feedback from folks about a preference in TextExpander that I’ve been ignorant to: you can set a global hotkey which will bring up a search box to search your TextExpander snippets.

TextExpander Search Preference

Hitting the hotkey gets you this search box, which searches both the contents of the expansion as well as the shortcut:

TexExpander Search Box

Yes, some abbreviations are unforgettable, but not all of them. And so if, like me, you sometimes forget what abbreviation you’ve assigned to a TextExpander snippet, then this hotkey preference is for you.

Smarter Email Signatures With Keyboard Maestro

There are 2 things I don’t like about using signatures in Mail on the Mac.

For one, if you don’t always write messages which are either bottom-posted replies or top-posted replies, then half the time Mail puts the signature in the wrong spot. In the Signature preference pane you can check a box telling Mail to place the signature above quoted text, but then it’s in the incorrect place when you want to do a bottom-posted email reply. And vice versa. If you don’t check that box then your email signature is at the very bottom of the email message whenever you want to do a top-posted reply. Ugh.

Secondly, email signatures which are generated by Mail are in rich text. If, like me, you compose your emails in plain text then your signature can stand out like a formatted sore thumb.

For a long time I’ve been using TextExpander to expand my email signature when I’m done typing my email.

Ideally, however, I’d love to even forgo TextExpander and have my email signatures there before I even begin typing. But, as stated above, using Mail’s built-in signatures doesn’t place the signature in the right spot. And I want the signature inserted in the proper place regardless of if I’m composing a new message, top-posting my reply, or bottom-posting my reply.

Using Keyboard Maestro I can do just that.

Since Keyboard Maestro sees keyboard shortcuts before OS X does, it’s easy to “replace” an app’s default keyboard shortcuts with a Keyboard Maestro macro that does what you actually want the app to do when you hit that hotkey.

I set up five macros to replace my five most common email actions:

  • OPT+R: Bottom-posted, in-line reply (Since there is no default keyboard shortcut for bottom-posting a reply, I use Option+R. That way if I want to top-post my reply I use the default keyboard shortcut, or if I want to bottom post my reply then I use this alternate shortcut.)
  • CMD+N: New message
  • CMD+R: Top-posted Reply
  • SHIFT+CMD+R: Reply all
  • SHIFT+CMD+F: Forward

A few notes about these macros:

  • These macros assume you use non-account-specific signatures. If you do use a different signature for different email accounts, you could work around that by duplicating each macro for each specific signature you use. Then, give those signature-specific macros the same hotkey and Keyboard Maestro will ask you which signature you want to use.

  • The macro for bottom-posting a reply is based on this age-old AppleScript of John Gruber’s which I’ve been using for years. It essentially creates a better-formatted bottom-posted email reply by simulating some keystrokes and inserting the cursor in the proper place.

  • For creating a New Message, an AppleScript is used because when composing a new email you want the cursor to be in the “To:” field while the new message’s body already contains your signature. Running a simple inline AppleScript does the trick just fine for this:

    
    tell application "Mail"
        set theMessage to make new outgoing message with properties {visible:true, content:"
    
    — Shawn"}
    end tell
    
  • The macros for Top-Posted Reply, Forward, or Reply All, include two additional Return strokes underneath my name to give some breathing space below my signature and above the rest of the email message.

If you don’t use Keyboard Maestro that’s unfortunate. But you can still reap the rewards of this Mail hackery by whipping up some AppleScripts and using a hotkey launcher such as FastScripts or Alfred.

You can download the Keyboard Maestro macros here.

Patrick Welker’s Sweet Mac Setup

1. Who are you, what do you do, etc…?

I’m Patrick Welker from Berlin, Germany. I live and work together with my brilliant girlfriend Maria in a 689 ft² (for the metric reader: 64 m²) apartment.

In our living room slash office we’re both working as freelancers. She’s a 3D artist and I do graphic and web design whenever there’s an occasional job for me.

I’m also a part-time student. My fields of study are English and German. Prior to that I was an audio engineer. Since I’d have to relocate and leave my girlfriend behind to stay in business I decided to listen to my heart which resulted in me staying in the city and starting to study “something which involves reading and writing”.

I let my inner geek out at RocketINK where I write about how I tweak my Mac. Beside that being my number one topic, I have plans to write some more personal and in-depth pieces.

2. What is your current setup?

Patrick Welker Desk Overview

Patrick Welker Displays

Almost all my gear is placed on a large 15-year-old desk. I don’t know the exact model but when looking at the construction I guess it is a safe bet to say that its origin is a Swedish furniture store (hint: four-letter word, all caps).

My main machine is a 2x 2.8 GHz Quad-Core Xeon Mac Pro with 10GB of RAM, and it is connected to two 24-inch Dell displays (model: 2405FPW) which give me enough space to toy around with. The first hard drive bay with the operation system is a 160GB SSD from Intel, the other three bays carry bigger regular hard disks.

I’m a die-hard fan of the wired Apple aluminum keyboard. This particular one is the English version, more specific: the international one with a larger return key and some other minor differences. Oddly enough it isn’t listed in the Apple Store anymore. Furthermore I also own a Magic Trackpad which is placed to the right of the keyboard along with a Magic Mouse. I switch frequently between the mouse and the trackpad. If I feel that my wrist is overstrained I throw my mouse into the drawer for the rest of the day and use the trackpad. Apart from this being my regular setup, sometimes I put the trackpad on the left side of the keyboard just to scroll through documents and use my left hand a bit more.

Patrick Welker Portables

My secondary Mac is an 11-inch MacBook Air (1.6 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 4GB RAM) which I tend to neglect when I’m at home and not working on the Mac Pro. My 32GB third-generation iPad is now the undisputed champion of the living room and gives the MacBook a hard time finding the attention it deserves. When my iPad is resting it sits on the Compass stand from Twelve South. The daring position of the Compass is on the left edge of my desk… and so far my iPad took the plunge “only” once. Terrible, I know.

The following are my additional gadgets for the iPad: (my girlfriend’s) Maglus Stylus, an old $5 pogo stylus, a black leather Smart Cover, a Havana smart cloth from Toddy Gear and a Tabü tablet poüch to give the iPad some extra protection.

When I’m on the road I use a messenger bag to carry my MacBook and iPad. I choose to go with the Ristretto from Tom Bihn (link to successor) despite the high shipping costs and customs tax that are due when importing something from the United States. The bag is equipped with the fantastic Absolute Shoulder Strap and a lot of their nifty pouches and leashes. Ninety percent of the times when I leave the house I travel with my bike, and due to Tom Bihn’s Guardian Dual Function Light I feel a lot safer when riding in the dark.

In case I’m not on one of the above mentioned devices my right hand becomes unusable for common tasks. You might think this is because I’m such a reasonable person and finally give my hand some rest, let it calm down after the heavy duty mouse and keyboard work it endured. Far from it! It’s unusable because it automatically grabs my 32GB iPhone and merges with it. I have the theory that this is a widespread disease. By the way, my phone is wrapped in a BookBook case. Despite the fact that I love the look and feel of a naked iPhone (after all it’s a beautiful device), for me the sheer practicality of the case justifies adding a bit of bulk.

Patrick Welker Audio Gear

Now we come to the relicts of my activity as a producer. First there are my beloved Dynaudio BM5A studio monitors (“monitors” is the term used by audio engineers to refer to their speakers, and, by the way, the link points to the successor). Secondly, my current Mic setup consists of an AKG C 4000 B Studio (a condenser microphone) and the Shure SM58 (a dynamic microphone).

Next, my midi-controller is a Novation ReMOTE 37SL and the audio interface of my choice is a RME Fireface 400. Finally, the last part of my audio gear are three headphones: a Philips SHP8900 for listening, an AKG K240 Studio as my personal reference monitor and a Sennheiser MM 550 Travel (link to successor).

Lastly, there is just enough room for one more gadget on the desk: my old Wacom Intuos 3 (6×8).

Below the desk

On the lower surface of my desktop is a EXSYS EX-1177 USB 2.0 HUB with 7 ports. It is connected to my equinux TubeStick and all things USB. I label all cables going into the hub by writing the name of the gadget with a felt marker on a piece of crepe tape.

Beside my Mac a drawer unit is also placed under my desk. In the first drawer are pens and chargers to my various gadgets. Additionally, to have my Tom Bihn pouches close at hand the second drawer is solely reserved to them. On top of the drawer is a power manager from Brennenstuhl with one main switch and 6 separate switches to selectively toggle my equipment on and off. My cable modem, WLAN router and an ICY DOCK ICYCube sit on top of the power manager.

Health Appliances

Health Appliances

The last part of my setup is what I call my health appliances. Strictly speaking they don’t belong to the setup, but I regard them as important components of my work, that’s why I decided to include them here.

When you live and work all day long within a tight space and share it with another person, my belief is that the room you choose needs to have a feel good atmosphere. Moreover, if it is a home office you have the permission to go nuts. To conclude, for me this means transforming my workspace into a whimsical little world with a touch of kawaii.

On the wall in front of me is an empty yellow picture frame to which I added a red curtain with a floral pattern on the upper side and a wooden shelf on the bottom. On this shelf is the DVD, the excellent soundtrack and a cinema ticket from one of my favorite movies. Since there is still some space left to fill with cuteness, I put a few anime figures (i.a. from Azumanga Daioh) and a plant. The lower surface of the shelf is covered with artificial turf and little flowers (the latter are hard to spot on the photo).

Below this frame is my illuminated “cave”. A Philips Living Colors lamp was one of the best investments I made so far for my workspace. It might sound stupid to say this about a lamp, but it really increased my quality of life — it literally brightens my day. No wonder they call it a mood light.

The surface of the cave (again) consists of artificial turf and there’s a Living Colors Mini on the side of it. On the turf my MacBook rests and charges along with a Stache Labbit from Frank Kozik, another plush rabbit my girlfriend made for me, a branch, a raccoon figure, Ollie and lastly a plush carrot and a marzipan carrot for the rabbits because they always look hungry.

To the left of my desk is a window bench where a little bowl with an forrest inside of it and some animals is placed. I grew up on the countryside and miss mother nature from time to time, so my girlfriend did some handicraft work and made me this present.

Other health related gadgets:

  • My relatively okay office chair is from Tchibo, a German coffee company which apparently also sells a of lot other things.
  • A Thera-Band Hand Exerciser with an egg shape to fight my arthritis.
  • A Powerbar 2 which I use every time I feel drained.
  • An Aqua Select Water Filter because I drink about 1.1 gal (4,2 liters) a day.
  • Some plush animals who occasionally visit the office. Yeah, I’m about to turn 32. So what? I’m a child at heart.

The last piece of equipment on my list is our printer-scanner-fax Swiss army knife — a Samsung CLX-3185FW — which is located in the storeroom. It barely gets used since I work pretty much paperless.

3. Why this rig?

Here’s the short story of how I came across my gear.

The Big Mac

I bought the Mac Pro for two reasons. The first reason is that my Power Mac G5 was one of the loudest computers I ever owned. It was terribly nerve-racking for me and all of the smaller audio samples I recorded had the Mac’s omnipresent background noise as a feature. I even bought a soundproof cabinet to tackle that problem. The second reason was that the Mac Pro can take up to four hard drives. I needed a lot of space for storing my audio material and USB or FireWire 800 wasn’t an option for me at that time. The CPU power and the amount of RAM were also pretty helpful when running multiple instances of a demanding plugin in Pro Tools, Ableton Live, and Logic Pro.

However, now my daily work is writing, reading, coding and designing. I don’t necessarily need a Mac Pro for this kind of work, but since the machine is already here and is still an excellent computer, I see no real need to replace it anytime soon (except if Apple decides to stop supporting it when they release the next version of OS X).

Peripheral Computer Devices

I use an English keyboard because it’s part of my “all-in” language learning strategy. Despite German being my native language I write down everything in English. Besides that, I also wanted to try if the keyboard layout is a better fit for writing code, and so far I’m more than happy that I took the plunge. Although it took quite a while to reroute some hard-wired movements to their specific new counterparts on the keyboard. Another thing I have to admit was, that at first I was a tad bummed out since I accidentally bought the international version on eBay. But, I soon realized it was a fitting choice because thereby I gain consistency over all my Macs: for the MacBook I just had to order some keyboard stickers and henceforth all the keys are in the same place again. This wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

The second monitor was an heirloom from my father who moved on to an iMac. I was quite happy with one 24-inch screen, but having two displays opened up a whole new world for me. The result is that I’m now really lazy when it comes to managing windows on the Mac.

The ICYCube has room for 4 hard drives just like the Mac Pro. I searched for a simple multi-bay enclosure and tried quite a few. Since I didn’t need a fancy RAID setup and all I wanted was to slide in the hard disks I already own. This piece of equipment met my criteria perfectly, if I exchange an HD on my Mac Pro I buy a new drive tray for the ICYCube and gain another backup drive. Indeed the enclosure works as my backup solution. At the same time it’s the place where I have stored all my unedited home video recordings which I might not come to edit in a lifetime since I pay way to much attention to details (also I’m not very fast when it comes to editing videos). The downside of the enclosure: it’s pretty loud if you don’t remove the fan. Then again I only fire it up once a week to copy over the backups from my Macs.

Let’s talk USB for a second. I’ve had trouble with Apple Computers and their USB ports for my whole Apple life (since 2005). I’ve always had a lot of audio equipment connected to my Mac via USB. The Mac’s power supply unit could never satisfy the energy-hungry battalion it was faced with. Even on my 2009 Mac Pro the USB ports began to fail until out of six ports only 3 working ones remained. The best investment I’ve made is an industry USB hub — it’s the one and only hub that I tried which delivered enough power (and I tried quite a few). The hub I use is from a swiss company, EXSYS. They offer excellent products in this segment of modern technology. My hub has 4.5 A which is more than enough. Every port gets up to 500 mA. All my devices work properly for the first time.

Regarding the Wacom tablet I have to admit that I neglect it carelessly. My girlfriend borrowed it over the last few years and it just has returned into my possession since she bought herself a Cintiq for Christmas. I have nothing else to add to my defense.

The Little Apples

I ride my bike a lot during the week. Be it my route to the University, or, more rarely, visiting a client. If you have carried a laptop before you know that you feel every ounce of it after a few blocks. The 12-inch PowerBook was my favorite portable computer, but the tiny 11-inch MacBook Air is like a dream come true and it instantly pushed the PowerBook off the throne. It’s so small, slim and light that I can take it with me everywhere I go, and in addition I don’t feel like I’m carrying any additional weight. It is amazing that this is not a toy but a full-fledged system for web development and graphic design work. Also, I still prefer it over the iPad when I’m on the go and want to write something. Using an iPad at the University isn’t an option for me because I need to switch between a (digital) book, references and notes all the time. Having two windows open in split view is a great help and the full-sized keyboard is ideal for lectures where I take a lot of notes. Being able to watch and listen while writing down everything in a blind flight over the keyboard is not possible with an iPad (at least not without an external keyboard).

I still take my iPad with me to University on days where I know I don’t need to write down a lot of information. On those days the MacBook is allowed to stay at home. However, where the iPad shines in my opinion is when working with clients. I prefer to take my iPad with me to them rather than the MacBook because it’s nice to pass it on to people. They instantly know how to use it and get a better feel for how the product they’ve ordered will look and work like.

Since the retina iPhone was released in June 2010 I knew that Apple would come up with an iPad featuring a similar display. So I decided to wait because I don’t wanted to use a phone or tablet on a daily basis which lacks such a stellar display. In March 2012 the wait was over. I couldn’t afford it at that point in time, but finally managed to buy one… shortly before the released the fourth-generation iPad — didn’t see that one coming. For me the iPad is the best device for reading and learning in existence. If I find an elaborate tutorial on the internet I usually save it and read it on my iPad.

Back to the iPad’s little brother. I bought the iPhone 5 because the iPhone is the device I use most religiously out of all my gadgets. Since Apple changed the form factor — which they presumably keep for a while — I felt it was the perfect time to update from my old iPhone 4. I use my phone constantly for all kind of tasks, but here’s a small list of where it has proven to be most helpful to me:

  • snapping a picture
  • reading feeds and Instapaper articles
  • as a reference book
  • as a companion when working out
  • relaxing
  • communication

The accessory that is always with my phone is the BookBook case. It is the ideal choice for me since I always forgot my wallet at home. The purchase has paid for itself: I haven’t had an embarrassing moment at the local grocery store’s counter since I own the BookBook. Everything important is where I iPhone is. My iPhone is at my side 24/7.

My Audio Gear

This is a short one. My current setup is the result of a compromise. At the same time I started my studies at the university I moved in together with my girlfriend into a smaller apartment. My complete rack wouldn’t have fitted into the new tiny place. I sold almost all my gear to pay the rent for the upcoming months. Since I always had a passion for graphic and Web design and worked as a freelancer in that field while studying as audio engineering my new economic center shifted. (I still miss part of my gear.)

I kept the microphones because they barely take up any space. In addition I only own one audio-interface now. It’s from RME. They are famous for their excellent analog-to-digital conversion. You get one of the best conversions you can buy for money — naturally it’s a keeper too. Another thing I couldn’t bring myself to part with were my speakers. In spite of using headphones almost all the time because my girlfriend doesn’t listen to such a wide variety of music as I do while working, it’s still good to know that I could cause a medium-sized earthquake with the speakers if I feel like it.

Lastly, I decided to order a smaller keyboard to at least leave the possibility open to produce a little bit in my spare time. Sadly I only managed to make one track per year since 2008. To look on the bright side of things I really amped up my front-end web design skills in that time.

4. What software do you use and for what do you use it?

There are so many great Mac apps out there in the wild and currently 465 of them are in my applications folder. Here’s a selection of the ones I use most on my Mac:

Writing:

  • nvALT is my storage for text and code snippets, links to references, general references, lists and TaskPaper documents. It’s constantly open.
  • FoldingText is my go-to writing application. I just love the clean look, that it auto-formats Markdown and the possibility to fold sections.
  • When I’m writing longer articles or take-home exams I switch between FoldingText and MultiMarkdown Composer.
  • Since I write in Markdown all the time, no matter what, I often have Marked running to preview my documents.
  • I’m also a fan of outlines. OmniOutliner Pro and Tree are often starting points for more elaborate projects.
  • When writing research papers for the University I use Pomodoro because if I don’t I have trouble focusing on the job at hand.

Reading:

On the Mac I use the Google Reader web application to read my feeds. I haven’t yet looked for an alternative for when the service shuts down. I might end up finally using the Fever installation I set up a while ago or even go back to NetNewsWire.

When I read on the Mac it’s usually in a browser. Google Chrome is my browser of choice. I’m a heavy Pinboard user and Chrome extensions are my favorite way of adding and searching my bookmarks.

Coding:

When I code a website I use Coda 2 since it has smart features I still miss in other editors. I find it most helpful that Coda remembers my open tabs on a per project basis. Even more important, it remembers the split tabs where I grouped documents that are interacting with each other. It’s a great feature that I specially enjoy every time when revive an old project.

To preview websites on my mobile devices I use Adobe’s Edge Inspect and LiveReload.

To store tutorials, references, books about web development and sites that inspire me I use Together. What I like about it is that it doesn’t use a single database file. I can drop files into specific folders and they automatically get tagged when I open Together.

If there is something to code and it is no website, then my favorite editor is Sublime Text 2 — if it would remember the split sets like Coda I’d instantly switch to it since it’s so highly customizable.

I also use Tower for managing my git repositories. Terminal and iTerm apps companions for my way through the shell.

Designing:

I’m paying Adobe to let me use their feature rich programs aka Photoshop and Illustrator.

To optimize images for the web I use JPEGmini and the hand-made ImageOptim I wrote about in my blog.

Audio:

When it comes to listing I’m still undecided whether to stick with Rdio or Spotify. Both have drawbacks and great features.

For composing I use Ableton Live and Logic Pro with an armada of plug-ins and virtual instruments.

Miscellaneous:

  • Path Finder and Finder help me manage my files
  • Sparrow is my default mail client.
  • TaskPaper, GeekTool, and OmniFocus build my GTD setup. OmniFocus is the main brain which keeps me from forgetting tasks. I prefer the Mac version over both of the iOS apps in terms of swiftness when it comes to organizing tasks.
  • 1Password is another application which is constantly open. I like to try a lot of new web services.
  • Dropbox keeps the main part of my system — be it files or preferences — in sync across all my Mac’s.
  • I use iStat Menus to keep an eye on my SSD’s disk space and my memory.
  • With myPhoneDesktop and DropCopy Pro I send files to iOS. Since my girlfriend is still running Snow Leopard, DropCopy is our go-to app for sharing files or links with each other.
  • CloudApp is my favorite app for sharing Internet finds with my friends.
  • Fantastical is the best way for me to get an overview of important upcoming events. It’s also the best way to add them to my calendar.
  • Aperture is my database for all personal photos.
  • Growl, Alarms, and Due to remind to exercise, making a pause and to sit straight.
  • And… I use Keyboard Maestro for everything!

iOS — Work:

On my iPhone and iPad I have about 350 apps each. A lot of them are tucked away in a folders. I keep barely-used applications around for easy access in case I really need them. A good example for rarely-used apps would be all the ones that are specific to my home town. On the iPad, however, I don’t have a lot of these specialists. But I have more folders with apps that I haven’t checked out yet. In any case, here’s what I use on a regular basis.

I write in Drafts despite preferring the Markdown toolbar of Scratch. The iPad version of Drafts has one, and I’m still hoping that the iPhone gets one too some day.

If I need to make corrections to a post I open Byword and edit the post. And while we’re at the blog, sometimes I have to open Prompt to analyze a problem or restart my Jekyll blog.

The header images for my blog are drawn in Paper. I love its ease of use, the app is also the starting point for all of my mockups and general ideas for websites.

When I need to share files with someone I use Dropbox, ClouDrop for Cloudapp, or ClouDrop for Dropbox by TouchMyPhone. If I want my screen shots on my Mac I use PhotoSync since it’s faster than waiting for iCloud to sync the files in question.

For research I have couple of apps that most folks will be familiar with: Pinbook and Delitouch iPhone for browsing Pinboard, Tweetbot, Bang On, and Google Chrome.

In addition, I always have my iPhone at hand while reading — if there’s a need to clarify something I open up one of my Dictionaries. I have a couple for different purposes: linguistics ones, literature specific ones, and one for every coding language.

My RSS client of choice is Reeder on the iPhone and Mr. Reader on the iPad. If I find something I like to act on or would like to link it goes into Pocket, and if it’s a longer read I send it to Instapaper — both of these apps are jam-packed to the point that I doubt I can ever catch up with everything in there. If I’m about to continue working on another device I open the article in question with Google Chrome to ensure that I can resume where I left off.

Apart from reading feeds I also like to read books on the iPad. I collect them in my Dropbox and import them into iBooks via GoodReader or DropCopy. If it’s a shorter PDF I read it directly in GoodReader.

When I study for a test I use Flashcards Deluxe. I have a macro which formats a Markdown document of my study notes into the format that the app reads. The macro also puts the file into my Dropbox. All I have to do is to import the file and start learning.

Beforehand I admitted that I barely use my scanner. I digitalize University or office documents most of the times with Scanner Pro and send them directly to my Dropbox.

While we’re still in the category of work related apps that I use most frequently, there are some classics that are hits on the iPhone for a reason. These ones are on my Homes creen: LaunchCenterPro, OmniFocus, Sparrow, 1Password, Fantastical, and the TomTom navigation app.

I mentioned in the beginning that health plays a big role for me when it comes to work. Here’s one of my shorter morning rituals and the apps I use with it: my day starts with two glasses of water, then I put my bluetooth headphones on, fire up Spotify and select some relaxing music for my Yoga exercises. Repeat Timer Pro is the best app I found so far for basic interval training.

To conclude this section about apps I use for working, I also want to end with Spotify since music can increase creativity and help to focus better. I often use my iPhone or iPad to play music instead of my Mac. Unlike the Mac version of Spotify the mobile app doesn’t chuck away on my upload stream. I send the audio signal to Airfoil Speakers on my Mac and I’m good. Furthermore, to focus while studying I have a binaural playlist on Spotify and this little collection of apps: Attractor, MindWave 2, and some AmbiScience apps.

iOS — Everyday Life:

My smartphone has alleviated my everyday life, that’s for sure. Here are some key aspects where I find it utterly useful:

Notesy is one of the most important apps on my phone. Everything that’s inside of nvALT is also in Notesy, for instance when I plan to cook something new I save the recipe in my notes folder and have the Markdown preview right in front of me. I have an array of Due timers for cooking and baking.

If I’m not working it is highly likely that I have my headphones on and listen to a podcast via Downcast or even better, an audiobook (I’m a sucker for audiobooks).

The iPhone is also my main camera, so Camera+ and the default camera app are on my Home screen to make sure I can easily access them any time. I sold my regular cameras because the iPhone suits my needs just fine. I’m the point-and-click guy when it comes to capturing moments, and it’s enough for me.

Another thing I like to do on iOS is to remote control my Mac with Keyboard Maestro Control or iTeleport. Most of the time it’s nothing important but it’s a nice feature I like to use when I’m on the couch.

The last big point where the iPhone shines for me is it helps me to keep track of…

  • my lists with Listary;
  • cartoons and series I’m following with iTV Shows;
  • movies I want to see in the cinema with TodoMovies (side note: I hope to see a Letterboxd app some day);
  • apps that I want to buy with AppShopper;
  • the weather with WeatherPro (which has proven to be the most reliable app for Europe, but not the most beautiful), and RainAlarm (since there is no Dark Sky for Europe).

5. How does this setup help you do your best creative work?

At some point in my twenties I suddenly realized that I had back pain many a time, that I gained some weight, and that my mood swings were in fact a full-grown chronic depression. It was obvious that I couldn’t perform my best under these circumstances.

To fight all of the above I started to do Yoga along with some other exercises, to eat more healthy and to create a work environment which makes me happy. In the last 5 years I managed to drop the extra 22 pounds (10 kg) I gained beforehand and developed an interest in cooking which revealed that one’s own kitchen can serve better food than 90-percent of the restaurants in the close vicinity. These measures lead to fewer periods of depression which I’m very thankful for.

If you work on a desk with a monitor in front of your face from dusk till dawn, then time truly flies. I get easily distracted; I even managed to ignore my own health. By taking breaks and exercising I find myself to be more cheerful, recharged, and overall a bit healthier. It’s a wonder by all the optimizations I made to tweak my operating system that it took so long for me to recognize that my body’s “OS” also was in need of more organization and maintenance.

My point with the 3 paragraphs above is that a healthy body is the only way for me to not drop into a hole of darkness. My other tactic to reduce the likeliness of such a thing happening is to surround myself with stuff that makes me happy. That’s why I called the constituents of my playful environment “health appliances”.

To keep this system running, a good part of my setup consists of different ways to remind me to eat, exercise, and take a break. I change those reminders regularly so that I don’t get too accustomed to one set, otherwise I would sit on my Mac non-stop and forget everything around me. I don’t know the feeling of being bored when I’m in front of one of my gadgets. Combined with decent internet access they work like a creativity accelerator for me. I always find stuff to do and have a variety of lists where I gather different creative projects.

The Mac and iOS devices do a splendid job at reminding me of my goals and showing me what I could and should do next. The only glitch in the system is me, since it’s me who sometimes ignores the good advice and gets lost in a side-project.

6. How would your ideal setup look and function?

A 13-inch MacBook would be sufficient for me to get things done — I’ve worked with one for years. But since I’m allowed to dream a little bit, here we go:

I would love to trade in the two 24-inch displays for one larger retina display. I hope Apple has something in the pipe to can make the Retina Cinema Display work over Thunderbolt — from what I’ve read Thunderbolt could be the bottleneck there.

Particularly with regard to the high energy consumption of the Mac Pro in combination with the two monitors, I can imagine a more lightweight solution. My number one requirement would be a retina display — be it an iMac or a MacBook with a large retina Cinema Display. The next technical condition would be a multi-bay enclosures that is silent, affordable, and fast (think Thunderbolt) to make up for the 4 drive bays which I would leave behind. I just don’t see the latter three conditions happening at the moment.

Speaking of gadgets, here are some more realistic purchases I plan to acquire. I think an Adonit Jot Pro might do a better job when writing things in the Papers app, and another nice addition to my setup would be the Twelve South PlugBug World.

Besides the above mentioned, switching to a lightweight setup feels far away. Some of my gear speaks another language: my MacBook’s display for instance. The right side on my smallest Mac is malfunctioning — it flickers like crazy. Sooner or later the computer needs to get replaced. The next defect device is my bluetooth Sennheiser. I dropped it on a marble floor because the carabiner with which I attached it to my Ristretto bag snapped open while I was fumbling in the bag. I was toying with the idea of switching the brand. The problem is, I only know of one pair of bluetooth headphones that has no problems switching between multiple bluetooth devices, but it isn’t on par with the Sennheiser quality-wise. So my wish would be a good set of headphones where switching from the Mac to my iPhone or iPad is effortlessly possible. Luckily Airfoil exists and so I will swallow the bitter pill and send in my Sennheiser as soon as I have enough cash to pay for the costly repairing.

Since I talked keyboards before, if I were to buy a new MacBook, this time I would order one with a genuine US English keyboard. And in addition, after reading about Brett Terpstra’s switch to the bluetooth aluminum keyboard here on the Sweet Mac Setups, I can picture myself trying to make the switch to a bluetooth keyboard for my desktop Mac too. I was afraid that I would miss all the lovely extra options for additional shortcuts which a numeric keypad provides, but there are other ways to work around that. A bluetooth keyboard would also work great with the iPad.

The last item on the wish list gadget-wise is a NAS. I’ve being comparing the pros and cons of a NAS vs. a Mac mini lately, and at the moment a NAS server from Synology has the best chances to be one of my next investments. Okay, since this part of Sweet Mac Setups is encouraging dreaming it would be a NAS at home and a Mac mini from Macminicolo.net (which I just can’t afford anytime soon) to have my own powerful server.

That’s about it for the gadgets. In terms of a better workflow I wish that I’d already have a more automated way to post on my blog. On the Mac it’s already happening, but my goal from the beginning was to make it work with the iPad too. I’d like to send my drawings from the Paper app to my (shared) server. Federico Viticci’s has a crazy cool Pythonista workflow, and I hope to get there too. On the server the images should get optimized, filed into my upload directory and the corresponding Markdown image links should be appended to a scratch file.

Another workflow issue I have is when I write something for University. Sometimes Markdown doesn’t cut the chase. Here, with all the footnotes, citations, annotations and references Pandoc sounds like the better solution. I definitely have to look into it (… and Scrivener).

There’s also an application wish I have had for a long time: Listary for Dropbox. I’d like to keep everything that closely resembles a note inside my nvALT folder and I still haven’t found a better list app than Listary.

Lastly, some enhancements for my work environment: I want some nice graffiti for the concrete bricks on my desk.

Almost all of the above is not really important. Like I stated in the beginning. A 13-inch MacBook is enough to get the work done. But there are things that would be great long-term investments. By far my biggest wish is a fancy desk which is adjustable in height so that I can switch from working in a chair to working on a standing desk. The best thing I come across so far is the Anthro Elevate Adjusta (check out this YoutTube video for a short demo of the basic functions).

Along the lines of a more ergonomic workspace my second biggest wish is the Falto Wip 37. I tested it on a trade show years ago and have fallen in love with it since.

That’s it. Sorry for being a chatterbox and breaking the character count record here on Sweet Mac Setups.

More Sweet Setups

Patrick’s setup is one in a series of sweet Mac Setups.

Setting Up a Basic Mac Media Server

Repurposing an old Mac into a home media server is a great idea. A nerdy, tedious, somewhat overrated, great idea.

For years I was wanting to convert all my DVDs (where by “all” I mean a whopping 35) into digital versions which could be accessible via my Apple TV. I’m glad I never bit the bullet and bought a Mac mini, because about a month ago the video card on my wife’s MacBook Pro started going out. The screen shows random red lines and flickers — it’s just bad enough that she can’t use it on a daily basis, but still good enough that I could repurpose it into our new file and media server.

All in all, the tasks I’ve assigned to my Mac Media server include:

  • Run Printopia to enable AirPrinting on our non-AirPrint printer (Nerd score: 4/10)
  • Let Mail.app run 24/7 so that certain sorting and filing rules are executed at all times, not just when my MacBook Air is on. This helps keep emails out of my iPhone’s inbox that shouldn’t be there in the first place. (Nerd score: 4/10)
  • Host video and audio files so we can put our box of DVDs in the attic, and access the movies directly from the Apple TV. (Nerd score: 6/10)
  • Run Dropbox and Hazel so I can do things like upload audio to my Amazon S3 server from my iPhone, rename and move pictures of receipts, and more. (Nerd score: 9/10)

Printopia and Mail.app are pretty self explanatory. Below are more details on how I went about ripping my DVD collection into iTunes and how I’m using Hazel and Dropbox to enable some workflows on my iOS devices.

Ripping DVDs

First things first, I backed up the MacBook Pro, updated it to Mountain Lion, and then did a clean install.

The whole process of downloading and installing, and then erasing and installing again took about 3 hours. I then changed the name of the Mac from “Shawn Blanc’s MacBook Pro” to “Media Server”, and installed HandBrake, Hazel, LaunchBar, 1Password, and Dropbox in order to start getting around.

I set the MacBook Pro up on the edge of my desk, and began ripping DVDs with HandBrake. It took about 90 minutes to convert the DVD into an .m4v file. After which I had to add the file to iTunes, go online and find artwork, add the artwork, then tell iTunes the movie’s media kind was “Movie” and not “Home Video”. The whole process was slow and tedious.

Setting up the Media Server was a topic of one or two Shawn Today episodes, and I received a lot of feedback from folks who’ve been down this road before. In short, I was doing it all wrong.

If you’ve ever set up your own media server, you know there is more than one way to go about it. You can set up cron jobs and hazel rules to automate the whole process from DVD to iTunes, you can do everything manually, or somewhere in between. Since I was only converting 30-some-odd DVDs, I chose not to go crazy with the automation scripts.

Here’s the workflow I finally landed with (thanks to several awesome readers who sent suggestions in):

  • Rip movies using RipIt. This app copies over the whole disk in under 30 minutes as a .dvdmedia file. I plugged in an external hard drive and ripped the DVDs to there.
  • Since HandBrake takes nearly 90 minutes to encode a movie into an .m4v file I could basically rip 3 DVDs to disk while HandBrake was encoding one.
  • This meant I could just load up the Handbrake queue with all the ripped .dvdmedia files, and let it encode a batch of movies (into m4v using the Apple TV 3 setting) while I’m sleeping.
  • In the HandBrake settings you can choose to have files sent to a metadata filling app once they’ve been ripped. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of ripping your DVD collection to digital, you really want an app that will fill in the movie’s metadata for you so when you browse the movies in your library you see all the relevant and important info (movie description, actors, director, rating, artwork, etc.).
  • I used iDentify which worked alright. There were a handful of movies that iDentify thought were something else, or that it couldn’t find data for at all. Fortunately it was an easy fix. For those few movies, I simply looked up the film on IMDb and entered the IMDb code (you can see it right in the IMDb URL) into iDentify.
  • From there, iDentify requires that you hit “Save” before the metadata is written to the .m4v files. Which is unfortunate because it meant I couldn’t use Hazel to toss the files into iTunes once they were all done because who knows when I would get around to saving all the metadata of the batch-processed movies.
  • Thus I would manually drop the m4v files into the “Automatically Add to iTunes” folder.

The whole process took me about 10 days. I could have done it in 4 had it not taken me a few days to figure out a faster workflow using RipIt and HandBrake’s queue, and had I not gotten tired of babysitting the Mac and ejecting a disk and putting in a new one every half-hour. I understand why some folks tell me they’ve slowly been ripping their DVD library for years.

Video Quality: Ripped vs Original

A ripped DVD, streamed over WiFi to my Apple TV is of a noticeably less quality than a DVD played in my player. But, it’s not that bad.

I watched and compared scenes from a handful of different films — including Hero, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Pirates of the Caribbean 3: Dead Man’s Chest (don’t judge) — to see how the quality of the digital version compared to the DVD disc.

Hero and Pirates both looked good. The digital version close to the same quality, but not quite equal — almost on par with an HD movie that’s streamed over Netflix. The Count of Monte Cristo was much better on DVD than digital — especially the darker scenes. It was about on par with an SD-quality film streamed on Netflix.

But you don’t rip DVDs to your computer for the image quality. You do it for convenience and for the sake of simplifying. Our DVD library is filled with films we rarely, if ever, watch. It’s worth the tradeoff in order to have all our movies in one spot, accessible through the Apple TV, while also being able to get the physical DVDs put into storage somewhere. (I’d give them away, but I think that’d be illegal.)

Dropbox, Hazel, and additional Nerdery

Now, so long as you’ve got a Mac that’s running and connected to the Internet 24/7, there’s no reason not to use it for some nerdy fun.

Thanks to some fantastic 3rd-party apps, the iPad is a fully-capable work machine for me. It’s my new laptop, while my MacBook Air has, more or less, become my desktop.

There has been, however, one particular area that the iPad could not replace my MacBook Air. And that was in the uploading and posting of the audio files for my daily Shawn Today podcast. Last summer at WWDC, I traveled only with my iPad. For all my writing, reading, and email needs the iPad performs fantastically. But I had no way of posting Shawn Today while on the road.

However, thanks to this Python script from my pal Gabe Weatherhead, I just add a little bit of Dropbox and Hazel magic to take an audio recording from my phone and upload it to my Amazon S3 bucket for publishing to the podcast.

Here’s how it works: First, I use the iPhone app DropVox, which records a voice memo and uploads it to a Dropbox folder.

Next, Hazel grabs any new audio files that appear in that folder and renames them to something proper. Then, using Gabe’s script, the file is uploaded to my S3 bucket and the uploaded file’s URL is copied and pasted into a Simplenote note. Hazel then moves the original file into an “Uploaded” folder, and finally emails me a text message letting me know the file is up.

My Hazel rule looks like this. And the emailing of the text message is through a simple Applescript:


tell application "Mail"
    set theNewMessage to make new outgoing message with properties {subject:"Shawn Today", content:"Successfully Uploaded", visible:true}
    tell theNewMessage
        make new to recipient at end of to recipients with properties {address:"5555555555@txt.att.net"}
        send
    end tell
end tell

Once I get the text message notifying me of the completed upload, I launch Simplenote on my iPhone or iPad to find the audio file's URL. I then copy that URL, launch Poster, and publish the latest episode of my podcast.

See? For some of us, all we need for an iOS-only workflow is a Mac at home doing the heavy lifting.

A Foray Into Simplenote Alternatives

My history with iOS notes apps is briefly recounted. I used Apple’s own Notes app until 2009, which is when I learned of Simplenote. And I’ve been using the latter ever since.

To say I’m a fan of Simplenote would be like saying I kinda like coffee. Aside from Apple’s Messages and Phone apps, I don’t think any single app has been on my first Home screen for longer. And it’s the app I rely on the most because it’s where my “digital brain” lives. Notes, ideas, information — just about anything relevant or important to me right now — is stored inside Simplenote.

This, of course, isn’t the sort of thing that only Simplenote can handle. There are many options for those of us who have important bits of information we want to write down and have available to us regardless of if we’re with our iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Some folks live and breath in Evernote, others with a different notes app which syncs via Dropbox. If you’ve got a repository for where all your “stuff” lives, then you know what I mean when I say if I had to pare the apps on my iPhone down to just one, Simplenote would be the app left standing.

It’s not just about the app, of course. It’s about the data inside the app. Simplenote is invaluable to me because of the notes it holds. But a great app encourages regular use the same way a crummy app discourages it. And I can think of no higher priority for finding a great app than when looking for the one which will hold my digital brain.

* * *

The initial appeal of Simplenote over Apple’s Notes app was two-fold: (a) Helvetica; and (b) cloud sync. At first, the only non-iPhone access to our Simplenote notes was via the Web app. It may sound rough compared to what we are used to today, but compared to what it was like back when our notes were drowning in skeuomorphic legal pads and Marker Felt, Simplenote was a glorious, cutting-edge breath of fresh air. (And it has come a long way since those early days of an icon that pictured a high-school locker with a yellow sticky note.)

The first Mac client for Simplenote I used was a Dashboard widget called Dashnote. I used it for a few months until, in January 2010, Notational Velocity added Simplenote sync. And my iPhone, Mac, and iPad have had shared notes ever since.

Today, thanks to The Cloud, a huge part of my personal and professional workflow is underpinned by the syncing of my everyday data like documents, bookmarks, notes, and tasks.1

The broad strokes of my job here at shawnblanc.net include reading, writing, and publishing. If I had to, I could do those things from any of my 3 devices — iPhone, iPad, or Mac — at any given moment because everything important is pretty much in sync and accessible at all times.

To give a brief overview of my writing workflow, most articles start out as ideas and/or collections of information. And that always starts out in Simplenote (on iOS) or nvALT (on OS X).

(Of course, my database of notes is comprised of much more than just ideas and reference material for pending articles. They are made up of just about any tidbit of information which is relevant or important right now, or which I may want to access when on the go. For example: flight and hotel information for an upcoming trip; my shirt size for fitted, button-up shirts; some recipes; lists and references for random things (such as some favorite Supply Decks in Dominion); and more.)

Once I’m ready to turn my reference note into an article, I paste the note into a new Byword document and save that document to a Dropbox folder named “Writing”. All the articles I’m writing right now are in that folder.

On my iPad I have Byword, iA Writer, and Writing Kit all pointed to my “Writing” folder. These are all awesome apps and I use them on my iPad for long-form writing. Which one I use often depends on the weather or what type of coffee I made that morning, but these days it seems to usually be Writing Kit.

Now, some people keep both their notes and their articles-in-progress within their Notes folder. I, however, like having a separate place and separate apps for my Notes and Articles. Notes are notes, which for me means they are small, tidbity, random, and many. I don’t organize them by tags or folders, I just search for what I’m looking for. Simplenote and nvALT are fantastic apps for quickly jotting down or finding a note, but they are not the best apps for writing and editing big chunks of text in.

* * *

Over the past several months, I’ve encountered occasional syncing hiccups. Posts like Michael’s and Brett’s led me to believe it has something to do with the combination of Simplenote and nvALT that I use. These hiccups slowly eroded my trust in the Simplenote syncing engine to handle my data. That is a bad place to be with an app you use so regularly. Therefore, a few weeks ago I reluctantly began looking into alternatives to Simplenote.

My options were: 1. Keep using my Simplenote/nvALT setup and hope the syncing issues resolve. 2. Find an alternative to nvALT and continue using Simplenote on iOS. 3. Find an alternative to Simplenote on iOS and begin syncing all my notes via Dropbox, whilst continuing to use nvALT.

Friends shouldn’t let friends look for a new iOS note-taking app that syncs with Dropbox.

There are a lot of great notes apps out there, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Once you start looking around it’s easy to get sucked in, never to be heard from again. If you’ve ever been in a similar boat then you feel my pain (maybe you still haven’t yet found land).

This entire article is the results of my rummaging around in search of answers. Is there a fix to the syncing hiccups? Is there a good alternative to nvALT? Is there a good alternative to Simplenote? Can someone please bring me a fresh cup of coffee?

The Root of the Simplenote / nvALT Syncing Hiccups

Early on in my quest, I found the root cause of the syncing hiccups I’ve been encountering. While my suspicions were correct that it had to do with the combination of Simplenote and nvALT, the problem is not as serious as I thought.

The syncing hiccup happens when creating a new note from within Simplenote’s iOS app. If it’s an extended note, the text will sometimes get cut-off as I’m in the middle of writing and a few sentences worth of text just disappear. Fortunately, a look into the note’s version history will reveal the text as it was just before getting cut off — thus, I haven’t actually lost any data. But having the ever-looming prospect of losing text is worrying to say the least.

The cause of this syncing hiccup is, however, not within Simplenote’s servers. Rather, it’s a bug in nvALT, and it only has to do with the first time a new note syncs into nvALT that was created via the Simplenote iOS/Web apps.

Knowing that there’s no real threat to losing my notes, and knowing the cause of the bug, gave me some fresh trust in my Simplenote/nvALT system. I could continue on and wait for a bug fix, look for a different Simplenote app on the Mac, or flat out move to Dropbox syncing.

Simplenote’s Dropbox Sync

Since my original plan all along was to use Simplenote’s Dropbox syncing service, I decided to keep using nvALT and move to Dropbox. Except, you can’t do that.

At first, I had assumed Simplenote’s option to enable Dropbox syncing meant my Simplenote iOS apps would use a Dropbox folder of text files to sync my notes instead of their proprietary Simperium syncing API. That is not the case at all.

What Simplenote’s Dropbox syncing actually means is that all your notes get pushed to a Dropbox folder and the Simplenote sync engine checks that folder ever 5-10 minutes and syncs any changes between it and your Simplenote database.

Simplenote Dropbox Sync explained

Though the Simplenote Dropbox syncing is not what I thought it would be, it still makes a great way to easily migrate my notes into Dropbox as individual text files. Also, it makes a great backup of all my notes. If you’re using Simplenote and are a premium subscriber, I highly recommend enabling the Dropbox syncing.

Savvy readers may know there is another way to get your Simplenote notes into Dropbox as individual text files. You can do so via nvALT. And it’s been outlined here in great detail by Michael Schechter.

I will add that something I like about the Simplenote export is that each note created uses the first line as the text file’s title, but also keeps the first line within the note’s body. nvALT’s creation of plain text files places the first line within the text file’s title and that is it. Thus, if you’re not somewhat careful about making sure the first line of your notes in nvALT are title-worthy, you’ll end up with some weird note titles and body text that begins by missing the first half of your sentence.

All this to say, if you are having trouble with nvALT and Simplenote but want to keep using Simplenote, there is but one good alternative: Justnotes.2

Justnotes

Justnotes is a great app with reliable syncing that works with Dropbox, Simplenote, or both. I’ve been using the app for the past couple weeks and I like it (though not quite as much as nvALT).

For the keyboard-committed among us, Justnotes is not as powerful or robust as nvALT. Also, Justnotes’ window has a bigger minimum footprint than nvALT. But I like that you can manually force a sync. And I’ve talked to the developer via Twitter and learned he is working on updating Justnotes to use Simplenote’s new API (which is faster, more robust, and handles conflict resolution better) and is also making some UI improvements.

Cody Fink and Ben Brooks both wrote reviews of Justnotes when it launched last Spring.

Dropbox Text Editors

After discovering that I wouldn’t be able to point my Simplenote apps to Dropbox instead of the Simperium sync servers, I began looking into other apps that I knew did sync with Dropbox.

There is a cornucopia of Dropbox enabled text editors and notes apps for iOS. So on Twitter I asked what people are using these days, and the overwhelming response was for either Notesy or Byword.

In addition to these two apps (the latter I already know well) I spent time with these two apps, as well as Elements, Nebulous Notes, WriteUp, and PlainText.

If I was to make the switch away from Simplenote, I’m looking for an app that has a clean interface, high-contrast, fast scrolling, syncing, and searching, and powerful search. Surprise, surprise — that description pretty much sums up Simplenote. Well, I don’t mind gushing about Simplenote. It’s an app I’ve relied on for years and it works exactly as I’d like it to.

For one, I love Simplenote’s searching. When you search for a term, not only does the list of notes shorten based on notes that contain that term, but then when you tap into a note, you’re taken to the first instance of that term, which is highlighted, and two arrows at the bottom of the screen help you navigate to all the other instances of that term in your note. So, say you’ve got a note with 100 quotes in it. If you search for “Franklin” the quote note would appear in the list and then when tapping on that note you’d start at the first instance of “Franklin” in the note. Simplenote makes it extremely easy to find exactly what you’re looking for quickly.

Since my foray into other apps was not due to a fault with the Simplenote app itself, each other option left me unsatisfied. Of all the other notes apps I spent time with, none were quite the right combination of design and functionality that I was looking for. Either too much or not enough…

Which Combo?

In the end, I’ve come back full circle and am sticking with Simplenote and nvALT. Though the syncing can hiccup at times, I still consider it to be the best. And, of course, now that I know more about the cause behind the syncing hiccups I no longer fear losing my data.

But, what’s best for me may not be what’s best for you. Through this process I came across additional note-syncing setups which I heartily recommend. The two best notes apps on Mac are nvALT and Justnotes. The two best notes apps on iOS are Notesy and Byword. Pick two, sync them up, and happy note keeping.


  1. Interestingly, as huge a role as Dropbox plays in my computing life, most of my aforementioned syncing happens outside of Dropbox and on the the app’s proprietary service. Text documents exist in a Dropbox folder, but bookmarks are synced with Pinboard, notes with Simplenote, and tasks with OmniFocus.
  2. Recently, the Simplenote team announced they are working on their own Mac app. If it’s anything like their iPhone and iPad apps then I have high hopes.

The Paperless Puzzle

A few months ago I was given a Doxie Go scanner. I’ve been using it semi-regularly to scan in certain documents and receipts that I want digitized.

At my fingertips were all the tools I needed to set up a clever and usable workflow for a “paperless office,” but it was like having all the pieces to the puzzle without a picture of what the overall end product should look like. I knew that a scanner, an image-to-PDF converter, an OCR app, and some clever folder hierarchy was all necessary, but it all seemed like more trouble than it was worth. Therefore, the majority of the paper documents that came through my home office still get filed away in my physical filing cabinet.

It wasn’t until recently when a comment from David Sparks got me re-motivated to research a better and more consistent way. I had bought David’s ebook, Paperless, back when it first came out in July and I’d read through the first half. But I never made it through to the end which is where he lays out how he actually uses all his tools for his own paperless office. About a month ago I sat down and finished the rest of the book, and upon reading how David actually does things, it all finally clicked for me and I had a clear picture of how to put the puzzle pieces together.

After finishing the book, I spent the better part of my Sunday creating a folder structure on my Mac that mirrored my physical filing cabinet, setting up a few dozen rules in Hazel, and scanning important personal documents as well as all my tax-related documents for this current fiscal year.

Below is an outline of what I’ve set up in hopes that it gives you an idea of how you too can set something like this up. I’m assuming you’re nerdy enough to recognize the tools you may need and you’re clever enough to know how to use them.

  • QuickShot iPhone App: I use this iPhone app for saving all my business-related tax-deductible receipts into a folder on my Mac. Since I use my bank statements to manage and balance my books, the receipts themselves only need to stick around in case I get audited or confused about a particular charge.

    QuickShot takes a picture and then uploads it to a Dropbox folder of your choosing. I use it to snap a picture of a receipt which then gets saved into my Receipts folder. I can then toss the physical receipt.

    Any and all digital receipts I get via email also get saved as PDFs into this same Receipts folder.

  • Doxie Go Scanner: This is the scanner I have, and since going paperless it’s proven well for me so far.

    For a Paperless Office the Doxie Go has a few downsides: it can only scan one page at a time, it doesn’t scan duplex, and it’s not super fast. For me, this hasn’t been a deal breaker because I’m only dealing with about a dozen documents a week. It takes me just a few minutes to scan them in.

    If I was dealing with a multitude of pages on a regular basis, or if I get motivated enough to convert years worth of past documents, then David Sparks recommends the NeatDesk scanner which can handle 50 pages at once, does duplex scanning, and scans documents much quicker than the Doxie Go. (Of course, on the other hand, the NeatDesk is about twice the price of a Doxie Go.)

  • Doxie Software: The document importing software that comes with the Doxie Go has proven to be fantastic. Once I’ve scan my documents I import them to my Mac using the Doxie application.

    Once imported, I can “staple” multiple scans into a single PDF file (for documents that have front and back sides, and/or are multiple pages), and then save all the scans to my Mac. I use the “Export as B&W PDF with OCR” option — this saves my scans as black and white PDFs with optical character recognition.

    Saving the scans as black and white is an easy way to greatly reduce the file size, and I’ve found Doxie’s OCR to be great. All in all I’m very happy with the quality, file size, and searchability of a document once it’s traversed the path from its original physical state to its new digital state.

  • Hazel: This was the missing piece for me and this is where the magic happens.

    I save all the PDFs from the Doxie into an “Incoming Scans” folder. Against this folder I have about two dozen Hazel rules watching for specific types of documents. These are documents that I commonly deal with, such as:

    • Gas, water, electric, and internet utility bills.
    • Health insurance notices of benefits received.
    • Tax deductible receipts from certain organizations we support regularly.
    • Auto and home insurance statements.
    • Financial statements.
    • Property tax receipts.
    • Etc.

    What I realized was that each of the above types of documents could easily be identified by my unique account number with each company. And so I set up rules in Hazel to look at the contents of a document, and depending on which criteria that document matches Hazel renames the PDF accordingly and then files it into the proper folder on my Mac.

    For example: if the contents of a document contain the words “Gas” and the numbers “555555” then Hazel renames the document to “Gas Utility Bill – 2012-09” and moves it to my “Utility Bills” folder.

    Hazel Rules for Gas Utility Bill

To sum up, once I’ve scanned in all my paper documents, I simply save them to my computer and then Hazel takes care of the rest. For the few documents that don’t match any pre-defined criteria, or for which the OCR wasn’t properly rendered, they simply are left in the “Incoming Scans” folder and I can manually deal with them. I then shred what I don’t need, or if it’s a physical document that’s important to have a physical copy of, I file it away.

This new process makes it far easier to file away documents than my previous way. It’s now a task which can be done almost mindlessly instead of having to remember where each type of document goes in my physical filing cabinet, looking for that file folder, and then stuffing the sheet of paper in.

I wish I would have taken the time to set this up a long time ago. But better late than never. Needless to say, I highly recommend paperlessness.

iOS 6 and Every-Day Life

Remember in 2010 when Apple held an iPhone 4 Press Conference as an answer to the “Antennagate” hubbub?

After his presentation, Steve Jobs was joined by Tim Cook and Bob Mansfield. They all sat on barstools at the front of the room and had a Q&A with the press in attendance. John Gruber asked if any of them were using cases on their iPhones. All 3 of them held up their iPhones to show no case. Steve even demonstrated how he uses his phone (by holding it using the infamous “death grip”) and that he has no reception issues.

What these guys also showed was that they’re using the same phones we are. Three of the top leaders at Apple sitting in a room full of writers and broadcasters, and everyone’s got the same phone in their pockets.

We like to think that Cook, Mansfield, Ive, Schiller, Forstall, and the rest of the gang are walking around with private versions of the 2014 iPhone and its corresponding (though surely buggy as all get out) version of iOS 8.

Everyone knows Apple is an extremely organized and forward thinking company that puts a lot of thought and energy into the planning and testing of its future products. But Apple is also riding on the cusp of its production and engineering capabilities.

After Apple announces and demoes the latest iOS at a WWDC event, most developers wait for the first few rounds of updates to ship before installing the iOS beta on their main devices. And it’s far more likely that the hardware prototypes for the next iPhones are locked away in some design vault, and the software roadmap for the far-future versions of iOS is still mostly on the white board. Meanwhile the folks at Apple are using the same daily driver iPhone and the same operating system you and I are.

Today, right now, we’re using the same mobile operating system with the same apps as the guys in Cupertino who dream this stuff up and make it happen.

And it seems to me that there are several things in iOS 6 which reveal just that. This version of iOS is not full of any one amazing new jaw-dropping feature that will have our minds spinning. Instead it’s filled with dozens of little things that will get used by real people ever day. And it will make our lives a little bit nicer and a little bit easier.

Things like Do Not Disturb mode, and the slide-up options you can act on when you get an incoming call, and VIP emailers, are all things that were thought up by guys who uses this device day in and day out and says to themselves, man, I’m tired of always declining phone calls when I’m in a meeting, texting the person back, and then forgetting to call them when I’m done with my meeting. (Or, perhaps, man, I am tired of getting text messages from my crazy uncle at 2 in the morning, but what if my mom calls and it’s an emergency?)

With that said, here are a few of things in iOS 6 that I am most glad about:

Open Browser Tab Syncing via iCloud

The browser tabs you have open on all your devices are now shared via iCloud. Had a website open on your Mac but then had to jet out the door, no problem. You can open it right back up from your iPhone or iPad.

If your Mac is running Mountain Lion, click the cloud icon in Safari and you’ll see the list of tabs open on your iPhone and iPad. And from your iPhone or iPad, tap the bookmarks icon in Mobile Safari and the drill down into the iCloud Tabs bookmarks folder.

Do Not Disturb

Another one of those features that is so simple and obvious, and yet has a significant impact on the day-to-day usability of our phones. You can activate Do Not Disturb mode from the Settings app.

You can turn it on and off manually (like Airplane mode), and you can set it to automatically start and stop at pre-defined times. (Not unlike Glassboard or Tweetbot allow you to set sleep options for when you do not want to get a push notification.)

To fine tune your Do Not Disturb schedule, and who you’re willing to allow to get through, drill down through the Settings App → Notifications → Do Not Disturb.

The Slide-Up Options on Incoming Calls

This has become my main “show off” feature.

When a friend asks me what’s cool about the new iPhone software I ask them to call me. Then I demo the slide-up menu for incoming calls and watch as they “get it” instantly. We’ve all been in that situation — whether it be a board meeting, dinner, a movie, or whatever — where we have to decline an incoming call from a friend or colleague. This is a feature that makes perfect sense and makes you scratch your head a bit about why it took so long to get here.

Pull to refresh in Mail

We were all doing it out of habit anyway. Now it actually accomplishes something.

Notifications for VIPs

I have worked in places were emails are sent like text messages. I often would get an email asking for me to come to a spontaneous meeting that was starting in 5 minutes.

Or how many times do you watch for that email from your boss or assistant or whomever? There are whole conferences centered around the idea of how checking your email every 5 minutes is a massive productivity killer (and it’s true). But that doesn’t mean the fact remains: a lot of workflows and company cultures are still very much dependent upon people being near-instantly-reachable by email.

VIP emails — and, more specifically, the way iOS (and OS X) are helping us to set them apart — are a great example of how iOS is becoming increasingly usable in real life.

High-Resolution Spinner on shutdown

I mean, finally, right?

Folders shown in Spotlight

After 4 years worth of App Store, some Home screens (including the one on the iPhone that’s sitting here on my desk) are getting unwieldy. There are apps I know I have, but I don’t know where they are. For those I have no choice but to use Spotlight to get to them, but say I want to move them to a more prominent spot?

Now when you use Spotlight to launch an app, if it’s in a folder Spotlight will tell you the name of that folder.

This is one more (of what feels like a) bandaid fix towards a better way to launch and mange apps.

Launching Apps using Siri

Siri is becoming the way of “ubiquitous capture” on the iPhone. It’s the quick-entry popup of OmniFocus on the Mac. Assuming Siri can connect to the servers, she is the fastest way to get sports scores, directions, set a timer, log a reminder, and now launch an app that’s not on your first Home screen.

* * *

The mobile phone industry has is no shortage of impressive, whizbang features which sound great and make fun ads but which rarely get used by real people in their day-to-day lives.

The niceties shipping as part if iOS 6 are great because they’re the sorts of little things that will play big, unsung roles in our everyday lives.

Review: Tenkeyless Clicky Keyboards

Mechanical keyboards are addictive.

I think I have a problem. But I’m quitting now. Once you’ve acclimated to the tactile feedback and the clickety clack, typing on anything else doesn’t feel (or sound) the same.

Earlier this year I spent a nerdy amount of time testing and comparing the three most popular Mechanical Keyboards for the Mac. I landed on the Das Keyboard as the winner and my preferred keyboard for typing.

My Clicky Keyboard conclusion ended thusly:

If you too want to adorn your desk with an ugly keyboard — one with a loud personality and which increases typing productivity — then I recommend the Das Keyboard. I prefer both the tactile feel and the sound of the blue Cherry MX switches, and though I find the Das to be the ugliest of the bunch, a serious typist knows you shouldn’t be looking at your keyboard while you’re typing.

I’ve been typing away on the Das every day for the past 6 months, but there has always been one thing in particular which bugs: the size.

Every time I’d reach for my Magic Trackpad I was reminded of how big the Das is. Aside from improved aesthetics, the only thing that could make the Das Keyboard any better would be the removal of its number pad — a tenkeyless Das would be a dream.

Last month, at the recommendation of several readers, I bought a tenkeyless Leopold with Blue Cherry MX switches. These are the same switches in use by my Das, and though the Leopold is technically intended for Windows use, a bit of tweaking in OS X’s System Preferences has it working fine with my Mac (see below for more on that).

The Leopold

I used the Leopold for a month, and as a keyboard I liked it pretty well. I especially liked having the Magic Trackpad back in the same zip code as the rest of my rig.

But when compared to the Das Keyboard, however, I find the Leopold to be slightly inferior in certain areas:

  • The Leopold has an ever-so-slight ring from a few keys that you can hear if it’s quiet in the room and you’re really pounding away. I hardly ever notice it, but sometimes my ear catches it.

    This was perhaps my biggest gripe with the Matias Tactile Pro. It was a fine keyboard and felt great to type on, but nearly every key press brought with it a slight ring. The Das Keyboard does not ring.

  • The Leopold’s key action is not as “quick” or “snappy” as my Das. Technically this is not an issue of inferiority at all — it’s just a difference. But I’ve grown used to (and apparently fond of) the way the Das clicks.

However, there are things about the Leopold which I find to be superior to the Das, not least of which being the smaller footprint:

  • Obviously the Leopold is smaller because it is tenkeyless, but it’s smaller in other ways as well: (a) the bezel around the whole keyboard is thinner, and (b) the keyboard has a slightly shorter stature (that is to say, the top of the space bar is closer to the top of my desk).

  • The Leopold is cheaper by about $35. But you cannot return it unless you get a DOA unit.

I suppose the best way to compare the two is that when using my Das I was frequently bothered by how far away the Magic Trackpad was. However, when using the Leopold, I rarely ever think about how it types differently.

The Filco Ninja Majestouch-2 Tenkeyless

Not being completely satisfied with the Leopold, I decided to give one more keyboard a try. (After trying and testing 4 mechanical keyboards so far, what’s one more? Right?)

And so I ordered the Filco Ninja Majestouch-2 Tenkeyless.

It’s “Ninja” because the key caps have the lettering on the front side instead of the top, which I think looks awesome. And I made sure to get the one with Cherry MX Blue switches.

Filco has a great reputation for their keyboards. Part of the reason I didn’t go with the Filco over the Leopold in the first place was because a few of the reviews I’d read said the Filco rings a bit. But there is no ring. At least with the model I bought.

The Filco has a high-quality build and the same “quick” typing action like the Das. Moreover, it has the small footprint and thinner bezel like the Leopold (the Das looks like a boat when pulled out next to the Filco). It’s the most expensive of the three (about $20 more than the Das and $50 more than the Leopold), but it’s worth it — the Filco Ninja is superior in every way that’s important to me.

In short: the Filco Ninja is the best keyboard I’ve used yet. This is my new keyboard, and I’m done trying others.

Aside Regarding the Windows Keys

Part of the reason I didn’t originally review any tenkeyless keyboards was because (so far as I know) there are none made specifically for the Mac.

Both the Leopold and the Filco are Windows keyboards. Basically all this means is that the Command and Option keys are flip-flopped — both physically on the keyboard itself and within software.

Swapping the physical keys is easy. The Filco comes with a key cap puller; Elite Keyboards sells one for cheap. This little tool makes it a piece of cake to easily change any key on your keyboard.

Swapping the Filco Keys

And flip-flopping the keys in software is easily done from System Preferences → Keyboard → Keyboard → Modifier Keys.

Adjusting the Modifier Keys in OS X System Prefs

* * *

So, which mechanical keyboard should you get? It ultimately just comes down to the question of the number pad.

  • If you want a number pad — or if you don’t care either way — go for the Das. It’s Mac-specific, high quality, and a bit cheaper than the Filco.

  • If you don’t want a number pad, go for the Filco Ninja. It’s the best-looking of the bunch, it’s of equal quality as the Das, and it’s easy to set up to work on your Mac.

Some OmniFocus Linkage

The Internet has been bubbling up with all sorts of OmniFocus-related nerdery lately. I realized that one reason to favor OmniFocus over other to-do apps is that a lot of my super-smart friends use it, and they’re always finding or building clever tricks to decrease friction.

Here are a few recent things worth sharing. Listed in order of Nerd Score.

Tuesday, August 28

Sometimes the number of tabs I have open in Safari gets ahead of me, and I find myself with a few dozen sites waiting for my attention but I’m out of time. Or perhaps I’ve got several tabs open for a current project I’m working on but I need a break from working on that project. Or maybe I’ve got so many tabs open that Safari starts taking up more than its fair share of CPU resources.

Well, here’s a clever little AppleScript that grabs all the open tabs in Safari’s frontmost 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.

This script is far easier and faster than Instapapering or otherwise bookmarking them one by one. (And yes I know that I can reopen the windows from the previous session, but sometimes that’s not practical, desirable, or possible.)

Since I use Command+4 to clip the current URL into its own OmniFocus Quick Entry panel, I set this other script to execute via Keyboard Maestro when I hit Option+4 if Safari is the frontmost application.

Moreover, since I like confirmation when a script has been successfully executed, I added this Growl notification to the end:


tell application "Growl"
    set the allNotificationsList to {"Success Notification", "Failure Notification"}
    set the enabledNotificationsList to {"Success Notification", "Failure Notification"}
    
    register as application ¬
        "Safari Tabs to OmniFocus Script" all notifications allNotificationsList ¬
        default notifications enabledNotificationsList ¬
        icon of application "Safari"
    
    notify with name ¬
        "Success Notification" title ¬
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Backup

It’s unfortunate that many people don’t think about backing up their data until it’s too late. I can’t imagine how devastating it would be to lose weeks, months, or years worth of family photos, important documents, project folders, and more.

External hard drives seem to get cheaper by the minute; off-site backup services are more affordable and easy to use than ever; and heck, OS X has been shipping with built-in backup software for years.

With very little effort and cost you can set up an automated and trustworthy backup system. I can only assume most people don’t back up their data because they are either lazy, unsure where to start, don’t see a need, or all of the above.

Assuming Mat Honan’s horror story gives you the motivation for backing up, here are some tips on how to set up a rock-solid backup system.

* * *

A great backup system looks like this:

  • Local: an external hard drive at your desk that has a copy of the same files on your computer.
  • Off-site: Cloud storage of your most important files.
  • Automated: everything backs up on its own without you having to initiate the backup every time.

For Local Backups

Keeping a regular backup on an external hard drive is the smartest way to keep your data backed up. It’s also the easiest way to restore something if your computer has a catastrophic failure.

The easiest way to back up your Mac is to plug in an external drive and turn on Time Machine. If you don’t have an external hard drive, here’s a big and fast one.1

For my local backups, I also use SuperDuper because there’s no reason not to use SuperDuper and Time Machine. What I like about SuperDuper is that it creates a bootable clone of my MacBook Air.

For Off-Site Backups

The point of an off-site backup is so someone breaks into your house and steals all your gear, or if your home is destroyed by a natural disaster, you won’t lose your most important files.

You don’t need to keep an exact clone of your entire computer in the Cloud so much as you should make sure that your most important and valuable files are stored somewhere other than the hard drive in your desk drawer.

For my off-site backup I actually rely on three different services: Backblaze, Arq, and Dropbox. It’s a little nerdy, I know, but I have my reasons.

Backblaze

For off-site backup of all my documents, music, photos, and other media I use BackBlaze.

Backblaze is relatively cheap for what they offer: unlimited file storage for $5/month or $50/year. They’ll even back up external media drives (if you’ve got a drive or two that only keep photos and music).

The Backblaze utility runs natively on your Mac and allows detailed control over the frequency and speeds at which your files are backed up. Your data is encrypted on your Mac before being sent to the Backblaze servers. For those who want more security (like me) you can set your own private encryption key, making your data unreadable by anybody who doesn’t know the key.

There are some system folders that Backblaze will not back up, such as the ~/Library folder. Because of this, if I were to lose all my local data, and had only Backblaze to turn to, there are a few important bits I would not have. Primarily, the data stored within apps such as Yojimbo and MarsEdit (which keep their database in their respective Application Support folders in the Library folder). And that is why I use Arq…

Update: I was mistaken about the ~/Library folder not being backed up. Turns out Backblaze does back it up, which means all of my Application Support folders are backed up. This is great. I will still continue to use Arq for the handful of files that I want redundant backups of.

Arq

Arq is a utility that creates encrypted backups of whatever files or folders you chose, and uploads them securely to a bucket on your Amazon S3 account.

I use Arq to keep certain Application Support folders backed up via Arq. So that way my Yojimbo database and other apps can be restored if necessary.

And with Amazon’s every-decreasing S3 pricing, my budget of $6.75/month gives me more than enough space.

Dropbox

Like most of you do, I assume, I also keep all my current projects in Dropbox. Since Dropbox syncs on save, anything I’m working on right now gets backed up to my Dropbox account. And so, supposing I write a 1,000-word article while at the coffee shop, and then on the way out my MacBook Air gets struck by lightning, I didn’t lose any of my work.

What else is great about Backblaze, Arq, and Dropbox is that they work anywhere I have an internet connection. If I take my laptop with me on a trip to Colorado, I don’t have to give up my daily off-site backups while traveling. (Though it may take a bit longer on my dad’s slow-as-molasses DSL.)

Keep it Simple, Keep it Safe

For $10 month and very little energy I have a system that backs up my data redundantly, securely, and thoroughly. And I don’t have to initiate anything to make it happen.

All this may sound a bit complicated or expensive, but now that it’s set up it all takes care of itself. It is great to know that if my MacBook Air’s SSD ever fails, I won’t lose any files. If my house is destroyed in a fire, I won’t lose any files.2 If somebody steals my laptop, I won’t lose any files.

If all of the above sounds like too much, I’d recommend this basic yet top-notch setup:

With that you’ll have everything you need for a rock-solid backup system: local and off-site backups of all your files and folders that happen without you ever having to think it.


  1. I always buy LaCie enclosures because they’re reliable and good looking.
  2. To be honest, the biggest relief is knowing that if there’s an emergency at my house, my computer files are something I don’t need to worry about. Since all my vital documents and important projects are backed up to another location that I can retrieve later, I am completely free to focus on getting my wife and son out of the house safely. Everything else is replaceable.
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