Too Nerdy for Words


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 ¬
        "Successfully Logged" description ¬
        "All Safari tabs have been sent tot OmniFocus" application name ¬
        "Safari Tabs to OmniFocus Script"
end tell

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.

How Microsoft and Apple are Fighting the Prejudice that Tablets Are Not For Creating

Microsoft announced the Surface with most of the attention aimed at their clever keyboard cover and the tablet’s built-in kickstand. However, the heart and soul of the Microsoft Surface will be its software. And I believe the keyboard and the kickstand are byproducts of a software decision.

As Chuck Skoda aptly said: “The keyboard cover does one thing critical to the design of Windows 8, enable classic Windows apps.”

A software decision begat a hardware decision that begat another hardware decision. And this is how Microsoft expects users of the Surface to create on their tablets.

Creating on an iPad

Out of the box the iPad already comes with some great apps. Writing and note-taking, email, Web, video chatting, reminders, and more. In fact, if I was forced into a hypothetical situation where I had no choice but to use a stock iPad to do my job, it could be done. It wouldn’t be easy. But it would be possible.

Of course, not everyone can say that. The only way I would be able to squeak by working only on an iPad would be through extensive use of Safari on the iPad. I’d also have to hire some people to take care of any future web designing I may do on my sites.

However — suppose I were able to negotiate my hypothetical situation to allow the use of 3rd-party apps and a Bluetooth keyboard? Well, as a matter of fact, that’s the portable setup I use right now.

When traveling, I take only my iPad. Loaded with a handful of 3rd-party apps, the iPad makes a great work device that causes me negligible loss in productivity.

When at my home office sitting at my desk, I work much faster and more efficiently on my Das Keyboard, 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, and my MacBook Air. But for the times I am away from home, the iPad works just fine as a competent, capable, work machine. There is virtually nothing I can’t do on the iPad. Moreover, the iPad’s LTE connectivity and indestructible battery life make it a great traveling device with advantages that far outweigh its disadvantages.

So far as I see it, there are two sides to the going-iPad-only coin. One of practicality and one of sentiment:

  • Practically speaking, are you even able to use the iPad as your only computer for a while? Will you be unreasonably handicapped in your needs or responsibilities?

    I posted a survey to Twitter, asking people if they could use the iPad as their only work computer if they had to? Out of 1,814 total responses:

    4% — Yes, right out of the box using the stock apps.
    34% — Yes, thanks to some 3rd-party apps.
    21% — Probably, but it wouldn’t be easy or enjoyable.
    41% — No way. I need a Mac.

    As you can see, only less than half could said they could not use the iPad as their only computer. This is far less than I expected, even considering the nerdy, developer-friendly demographic of my Twitter followers. I received many replies on Twitter from folks saying they need a Mac but only because of a particular program such as Xcode or Adobe Creative Suite.

  • Secondly, if there are no practical hinderances to keep you from using an iPad as your only device, then you must get over your prejudice against the iPad as a primary computer. For the many people that could use an iPad as their only computer, they are either afraid or unwilling to. Perhaps it is the fear of the unknown, or perhaps it is an unwillingness to give up the familiar work environment of a Mac.

    Is the iPad slower or more cumbersome than a Mac for certain tasks? Of course. But as I mentioned above, the iPad also has advantages which could outweigh its handicaps for some.

Apple has answered, and is answering, the practical question through iTunes App Store and the plethora of 3rd-party developers. There are hundreds of thousands of apps in the App Store that are empowering people to build things and communicate with people in ways that used to be limited only to traditional computers.

The prejudice of using the iPad as a primary device is one that will only be eroded over time and through word of mouth. As more families adopt iPads as their home’s primary computer then it will lead to even more doing so. Likewise, as more and more professionals find ways to use their iPads as a competent work device, then they will lead the way for even more professionals following suit.

Microsoft’s Proposed Solution

Microsoft is attempting to answer the practical and prejudicial conundrums surrounding their tablet by allowing the Surface to run classic Windows applications and by shipping it with a keyboard and trackpad disguised as a cover.

Microsoft needs a compelling reason for customers to see the Surface as a legitimate computing device. And since they don’t (yet?) have a gangbusters App Store, they built a keyboard cover instead.

But… what if the Surface for Windows 8 Pro’s ability to run classic Windows apps is akin to the iPad’s ability to run pixel-doubled iPhone apps? An inelegant but necessary solution that will not only justify marketing speak such as, “look at all the apps this tablet can run,” but also that can tide some users over until native apps are developed. Which, or course, raises the question: who will develop Windows 8 apps?

Review: Reeder 3 for iPhone

As I write this very paragraph, I’m sitting in front of my MacBook Air typing in iA Writer. Twitter and nvALT are peeking out from the left-hand side of my text document, OS X’s Dock waits on the right-hand side of my screen, the Menu Bar watching from its usual top 20 pixels of the monitor, and my Desktop wallpaper rests in the background. Naturally, a fresh-brewed cup of coffee sits on the table next to my keyboard.

If I wanted, I could “remove all distraction” and temporarily transform my MacBook Air into a dedicated iA Writer machine by punching Control Command F and thus entering Full Screen Mode. But I’m not in a full-screen-mode-writing kind of mood.

Full Screen Mode on the Mac showed up last summer when Lion shipped. It is one of the elements brought over to OS X from iOS. It’s a way of removing all chrome from the screen save that used by the app itself. Even the ever-present Menu Bar gives up its 20 pixels.

On iOS, you’re always in full screen mode. When you’re using an app on your iPhone or iPad, the device, in a way, becomes that app.

And I find that because of this, writing about an iPhone or iPad can be difficult. You can’t give an iOS app review justice by reciting just the raw technicalities of the app. iOS apps have a bit of heart mixed in as well. Because you always only ever use the apps in full screen mode, they get your undivided attention in a way a Mac app often doesn’t. Moreover, due to the touch-screen nature of the device, iOS apps have a bit more personal of a user experience than mouse and keyboard driven apps.

OS X has heart too, of course. But most of it is found only in the design of the app. The blue progress indicator in Safari’s address field and the way application windows would shrink into the Dock when minimized were just a couple of the many interface and experience characteristics of OS X that enticed me to become a Mac user in 2004.

iOS is a UI Design Playground

The very first long-form software review I ever wrote was about an RSS reader you may have heard of: NetNewsWire. When I wrote that review, the original iPhone was only a few months old and iPhone software was still in its infancy. The Home screen couldn’t be re-arranged and there was not yet a whisper of an App Store or native 3rd-party apps.

Two years later, in 2009, John Gruber wrote about how Twitter clients are a UI design playground. The plethora of Twitter clients that were, and are, available for multiple platforms showed the vast array of design opportunities the seemingly simple service allowed. In his article, he made a statement about iPhone software that I think is even more apt today:

I read web sites and email and RSS feeds on my iPhone, but Twitter is the one service where reading on my iPhone doesn’t feel constrained compared to reading on my Mac. Put another way, MobileSafari is a good web browser for the iPhone, MobileMail is a good email client for the iPhone, but my favorite few iPhone Twitter clients are just plain good Twitter clients, with no need for a “for the iPhone” qualification. It doesn’t feel limiting to only use Twitter from my iPhone.

If you were to list out phrases that describe Apple’s software you’d come up with things like: intuitive and easy to use; it just works; fun and playful; simple; well-designed; beautiful. And I think it’s fair to say that Apple’s touch-based operating system epitomizes these characteristics even more than OS X does due to the inherent intimacy of iOS. The best 3rd-party developers know this and use it in their own apps.

It’s been 3 years since John wrote the above quote and it is more true of more apps today. And not just Twitter apps. How many tasks or activities do you prefer to do on your iPhone or iPad? It’s no longer limited to something as simple as Twitter. Some people are even replacing their entire computing experience with iOS software — taking their iPads on the road and leaving their MacBooks at home.

A few nerdy examples of iOS apps that are just plain good apps without the need for a “for iOS” qualification? OmniFocus, Diet Coda, Tweetbot, Writing Kit, and, as we’re about to discuss in great detail, Reeder.

Reeder for iPhone

For 5 years my iPhone has never been more than an arm’s length away. It’s my cell phone, my camera, my iPod, alarm clock, grocery list, task manager, note-taker, direction-giver, Twitter client, feed reader, and more. Affectionately referred to as Command Central.

In 2010 I lamented what I considered to be the non-ideal state of RSS feed readers for the iPhone. Reeder (still in version 1 at the time) was the best option at the time, but I felt there were several things about it that were still missing.

Reeder 2.0 launched shortly after my 2010 lamentation, and it answered nearly all of my needs. Today, with version 3.0, Reeder continues its hold as the best RSS client on the iPhone, period.

Version 3.0 of Reeder for iPhone is a major update. Not only are there a slew of new features, but there are an equal number of design improvements. The app has been completely re-written from the ground up and every corner of the UI has been refined. In short, Reeder runs better, looks better, does more, and is easier to use.

Some of Reeder’s hallmark new feature include:

  • Support for two new account types: Fever and Readability.
  • Subscription Management for Google Reader. You can now add and remove feeds, as well as move them around within folders, all from within Reeder.
  • Support for multiple accounts: you can have more than one Google Reader account, as well as
  • A re-written sync engine: and you thought Reeder was fast before.

More on these new features in a bit. First, let’s dive in to what I consider to be the best thing about Reeder 3: its new look.

Reeder’s Grown-Up Look

It starts with the icon. Though new, it is still familiar. You may notice it’s the same star found in the previous icon, but the “book spine” and the “RSS satellite waves” have been removed. It’s also the same star that sits on the front of the Mac application’s icon, and is more or less, the same icon as the 16×16 variant of the Mac app.

Reeder Icons: New and Old

Reeder’s new icon is only the tip of the iceberg. Once you launch the app you’re greeted with a design that’s been revamped from the Status Bar to the Home Button.

Remember how prevalent brushed-metal window chrome and striped backgrounds were in the early versions of Mac OS X? Now, nearly all of its general UI design elements sport a much more subtle design aesthetic. Gone is heavy-handed window chrome — giving way to a more simplified design.

Likewise with Reeder, much of the application’s design has been cleaned up and simplified. And all of it for the better. Articles have a more defined hierarchy and less visual clutter; menus have better contrast. This is not to say that the previous design of Reeder was poor — far from it — but the new design is unquestionably superior, and it makes the previous design instantly feel dated.

UI Comparison: Reeder 3 on the left and Reeder 2 on the right.

List View in Reeder 3 (L) and Reeder 2 (R) The feed list. In version 3 you can tap the plus button in the top-right corner to add a feed. Also the “scotch tape” header divider has been slightly re-drawn.

Article Views in Reeder 3 (L) and Reeder 2 (R) An individual article. The layout is far more attractive, tapping the top-right typography button gives you control over font size and line height. Swipe left-to-right and you’ll return to the list view, swipe right-to-left and you’ll go to the article’s permalink.

Popover Menu in Reeder 3 (L) and Reeder 2 (R) The popover menu. Tap on the action button and you get a slew of options for the current article. Notice how the background dims ever so slightly?

Item Saving in Reeder 3 (L) and Reeder 2 (R) Saving an article to Instapaper. Instead of a spinning progress meter you get an icon that matches the style of the rest of the menu popovers in Reeder.

Pull for next article: Reeder 3 (L) and Reeder 2 (R) Pull for next or previous article and the title of that article unfolds. Same functionality as Reeder 2, but a more fitting animation.

Apps like Reeder which immerse you in their custom interface design are often some of my favorites.

This is what the default iOS dialog box looks like: iOS Default Dialog Box

But in an app like Tweetbot or Reeder, every pixel has been assimilated to fit with the world of that app, and thus it’s an entirely customized experience.

Compared to the above iOS dialog box, here is a dialog box in Tweetbot: Tweetbot Dialog Box

And here is a dialog box in Reeder: Reeder 3.0 Dialog Box

Reeder’s New Functionality

Reeder has always sported a nice and customized look, but this app is more than just a pretty face. As I mentioned above, Reeder is jam packed with new features. Some are huge, some are subtle, but all are awesome.

Feed Reeder a Fever

If you’re a nerd with your own server, you want to set this up.

Fever is a self-hosted RSS app written by Shaun Inman. I reviewed Fever when it first came out in 2009 and it’s still just as hot now as it was then. Setting it up is a piece of cake. You upload a folder, do a quick server compatibility test, and then your locked and loaded. Fever literally installs itself.

Once you’ve got Fever set up and you’ve uploaded your OPML file — or you’ve scurried around the web adding your favorite websites using the Fever Feedlet (a bookmarklet that will grab the RSS feed of the website you’re on and subscribe to in within Fever) — then it’s time to add it to Reeder.

At the top-level screen for Reeder, tap the Plus icon in the top-right corner, and then tap Fever. For the “Server” field, enter the URL of your Fever install, then your login credentials using your Fever email and password.

With Fever, you’re basically rolling your own RSS server that is in sync and accessible via your Desktop, iPad, and iPhone. Reeder for Mac and iPad does not yet have Fever account support. But there are other apps, such as Ashes.

One caveat to Fever is that it doesn’t auto-refresh itself if you’re not logged in. There’s a way to get around waiting for a refresh by setting up a cron job to auto-refresh Fever for you.

You can find the cron job code in your Fever install under “Extras”. But basically, it’s going to look like this:

curl -L -s http://YOURSITE.com/fever/?refresh

I have my Fever install running on a side-domain I have on a Media Temple Grid Service, and the (gs) control panel allows me to schedule a cron job. There I have it set to refresh Fever every 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can trigger the cron jobs from your Mac (on a schedule or remotely) by doing what Gabe does and using Keyboard Maestro to execute a shell script.

Reeder will refresh Fever when you launch the app, but you’ll have to wait for Fever to update itself and then for the updates to download to your iPhone. This isn’t the fastest process, and so I highly recommend setting up Fever to refresh via cron. And if you do use the cron job to refresh I’d secondly recommend that you disable the option in Reeder to refresh your Fever server when you open the app. Though your RSS feeds may be as much as 10 minutes out of date, it will save you time waiting first for the server to refresh before updating Reeder with the latest feeds.

Checking your Fever feeds in Reeder is virtually identical to checking your Google feeds. The subscription list and article view looks the same and (mostly) acts the same. You can still send articles and links to Instapaper, Pinboard, Evernote, etc. Tapping on the star adds the article to your Fever “Saved” list.

The big difference between a Fever account and a Google Reader account is that there’s an additional list — a Hot list.

Reeder 3 showing Feever's Hot List

Here is where you see the most-linked-to items within all of your feed subscriptions, as well as the list of who is linking to them. This is the premier feature of Fever, and it is a great addition to Reeder.

Tapping on a Hot item, or on a supporting article, takes you to that article within Reeder. Swiping left or right on a Hot item to mark it as read and remove it from the Hot list. Often a hot item stays hot for a while, and this is a great way to clear away items you’ve already seen.

If you want a multi-device alternative to Google for syncing and reading your RSS feeds, Fever is the only answer I know of. I use Fever and Google Reader (because I’m extra nerdy, I guess). The former because of the Hot list, and the latter because it’s faster.

Readability

Reeder’s integration with Readability’s mobilizer service is not new. But what’s notable is that you can now add your Readability “read later” bookmarks as an account within Reeder. If you use Readability’s read later service, then Reeder 3.0 could become your one-stop mobile reading application. Containing both your RSS Feeds and your read later queue.

Google Reader Feed Management

Reader now lets you add, delete, and move around specific feeds.

When you are in a list of a specific feed’s articles, tapping on the site’s favicon that sits in the top-right corner takes you to an information pane. In previous versions of Reeder this would take you directly to the website.

Reeder now presents you with a slew of helpful options for the specific RSS Feed.

The Feed-Specifi Info Pane in Reeder 3

You can unsubscribe to the feed, add or move it to a folder, or create a new folder altogether. If the feed is already in a specific folder and you unselect that folder then Reeder plops the feed into your top-level subscription bucket.

The Little Things:

  • When you mark all items in a feed as read, a confirmation box appears at the bottom of the screen, rather than sliding up. And in Reeder 3, the box is a custom design rather than the default iOS slide-up buttons.

    Previously in Reeder, you had the option of disabling the “mark all as read” confirmation right from within the slide up notification pane. That option still exists in Reeder 3, but it must be manually configured within the app’s settings.

  • Also a nice touch when it comes to the dialog boxes: when one appears, the rest of the app dims out ever so slightly.

  • In Reeder’s built-in browser, there is now a button to enable Readability’s text mobilizer. When you tap on it to enable or disable the mobilizer a small triangular arrow slides up from the bottom menu bar.

  • When in article list view for a specific feed, do a two-finger swipe above or below an individual article and you can mark all the respective items as read.

Back to the iPad

The look, the feel, the new functionality, all of them come together to take Reeder 3.0 over the top. This update is a big step forward for Reeder. Next in line will be the iPad app says Reeder’s developer, Silvio Rizzi.

I have always preferred to read through my RSS list using Reeder on my iPad, but for the past several months that I’ve been using the Reeder beta, its new look and new features have been compelling enough that I now reach for the smaller device when it comes time to check my RSS feeds. I can’t wait for the next version of Reeder for iPad.

The New Codas

I perform all my own stunts. Some people get sweaty palms when they look down from tall buildings, but for me it’s when it’s time to upgrade WordPress or migrate to a new server.

As nervous as I may get doing database- and server-related tasks, the things that I am comfortable doing — such as stylesheets and basic php functionality to make this site do spiffy things — are a lot of fun for me. I’m not a professional programmer, nor do I play one on the Internet, but I love taking time off from writing on occasion to tackle a web design project. It’s the sort of work I can do with the music turned up.1

If I’m coding, it’s in Coda. I have been using Coda 1 since shortly after it came out more than 5 years ago. The site you’re reading now was built entirely from scratch using Coda and Transmit.

I have never felt constrained by Coda. It is fast, reliable, fun to use, and the way it works with files makes a lot of sense to me.

Coda 2.0

As the saying goes, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

There is a challenge with apps like Coda that have much functionality. That challenge is to design the functionality in such a way that it is the user who discovers and then defines how simple or complex they want the application to be.

Coda 1 did this well, but Coda 2 does it better. There are so many options, features and functions within Coda that it seems there is nothing it cannot do. But even for the amateur programmers like myself, Coda never feels overwhelming or overbearing. It expands or contracts to the needs of its user.

In my review of the Coda 1 I wrote:

Panic didn’t set out to make the best text editor, CSS editor, etc… They set out to make one single application that contains all you need to build a website. And Panic has done a great job at keeping each of Coda’s components concise, powerful and focused – giving you the features you need while not requiring you to learn 4 or 5 new applications simultaneously to be able to use Coda efficiently. Sometimes good development decisions are about what you don’t put in.

After its launch on a Monday morning in April of 2007, Cabel Sasser said: “This was by far the most complicated program we’ve ever built.”

Coda went on to win an Apple Design Award at WWDC in 2007 for Best Mac OS X Experience. And rightfully so — Coda was a groundbreaking application. Five years later comes Coda 2 — an application that is better than its predecessor in every way.

Coda 2 has kept all that was great about the original and improved all that was frustrating or confusing.

Using Coda 1 was like sleeping with a pea under the mattress. Or, as Joe Kissel said in his review, “like buying your dream car, only to find out that the seats are kind of uncomfortable and there’s no heater.”

The idea of a one-window web development tool that wasn’t built and priced by Adobe was a dream come true. Yet there was a slight frustration that accompanied the Coda workflow.

Web development usually consists of four (yea five) apps: (1) a text editor, (2) a web browser or three, (3) an FTP client, (4) reference material, and (5) perhaps the terminal.

Coda brought all of these apps together into one so that you wouldn’t need four or five different applications all open and running. It was good, but it was not great.

When I do coding for this site I use Coda as my text editor and FTP client, but that’s it. I still have a browser open in the background because switching between code view and preview always felt a bit clunky to me.

In his review of Coda 1, John Gruber wrote:

The appeal of Coda cannot be expressed solely by any comparison of features. The point is not what it does, but how it feels to use it. The essential aspects of Coda aren’t features in its components, but rather the connections between components.

The premier difference between Coda 1 and Coda 2 is its improvement between components. The workflow. Though each individual component (the text editor, the FTP client, etc.) has been improved upon, the most significant improvement to Coda is its central aim as a one-window web development tool.

Those who have been using Coda 1 as their primary web development app will love the update. Those who use other applications for their Web development may likely find Coda 2 to be a worthy companion.

It is the application I use and recommend for people looking to build websites. Now let’s take a look at some of the highlights in the new version.

The Tabs

The toolbar in Coda 2 is actually a document navigator. Like tabs in a web browser toolbar tabs are for different workspaces and documents. There are two tabs that are always there, always active, and those are the “Sites” tab and the “Files” tab.

The “Sites” tab is the standard start screen we know and love from Coda 1. It’s basically a favorites list containing the remote login information for any and all websites you hack on. Something new here is that sites can now be grouped together. Simply drag one site onto another as you would two apps from your iPhone’s Home screen.

The “Files” tab is basically Transmit integrated right into the app. This is a huge improvement to Coda’s previous FTP functionality. Coda has always used the same FTP turbo-engine from Transmit, but the visual file browser was not nearly as robust. If you’ve ever found yourself using Transmit and Coda at the same time, that habit may change with Coda 2.

After these two tabs, any additional open tabs are yours to set up as you need for your project. You can open multiple documents, a preview tab, a reference tab, and more. This is the meat of what Coda is all about and this is where things have improved the most.

Tabs Improved

The way Coda 1 handled workspaces and open files was awkward at best. And though I became familiar enough with it to feel comfortable, it was never quite natural — for example, a document tab could be both a file and a preview of that file.

In Coda 2, however, the new tabs and the way open files are managed is much more intuitive; this is the area that needed improvement and Panic has improved it greatly.

Tabs Designed

The tabs in Coda 2′s toolbar don’t just function different — they are completely redesigned. Visually, they have three optional states: Small Icon and Text; Large Icon and Text; or Text Only. You can select these from a contextual menu when Control-clicking on the toolbar, or you get them automatically if you resize the toolbar.

Coda 2 Tab Options

I prefer the Text Only tabs if only because I’m short on vertical screen space. However, the tabs with icons are tempting because they give you a live preview of that tab’s document.

For the Sites tab, Coda 2 will grab the Web Clip Icon in your root folder, assuming you’ve got one, and give you a high-resolution thumbnail image for the remote site you are currently working in. This beats the pants off a pixelated favicon.

To correspond with the fluidity of the toolbar and the different tab designs, even the traffic lights in Coda 2 have two different states. For the text only tabs you get the standard left-to-right layout. For the icon-based tabs, you get the top-to-bottom traffic lights akin to our old pal iTunes 10.0.

The Different Styles of Tabs in Coda 2

Additional Tabbiness

  • When you create a new document, it is saved to your local machine by default. If, however, you are in the middle of working on a live site and you want the file to be on your remote server, just grab the tab of your document and drag it into the sidebar file browser to upload it to the folder of your choice.

    Alternatively, you can Control-click within the file browser and select the option for New File.

  • In Coda 1 a small blue circles showed up in the sidebar’s file viewer, just to the right of an unsaved document. Now unsaved documents you are working on sport that small blue circle within their tab as a way of letting you know the current working version of this file has not been saved to the server.

    The iPad version of Coda (Diet Coda) uses these blue dots on the tabs in the file drawer as well.

Preview

If you’re going to have a one-window web development application, you need good in-app preview of the site you’re working on. This is something that never felt easy or natural to me in Coda 1, and so I still used Safari to view and check my changes.

But, thanks to the improved tabs, previewing your work in Coda 2 is much simpler.

You have four options for previewing:

  1. A dedicated tab with web page loaded in it.

  2. Split screen previewing that is side-by-side with the document you are coding.

    Split screen previewing works quite well. You can code in the top window and preview your work in the bottom window. In fact, as you work, the bottom preview pane updates in real time as you code. Hit save and your changes are pushed to the server.

  3. Previewing in another window. Ideal for multi-monitor setups. When your document is in Preview mode (the right-most breadcrumb) click the settings gear icon in the bottom-left corner of the window and choose Preview → New Window. A new Coda window will pop up with a browser preview of the file you’re working on. As you make changes to your document you see them live in the Preview window.

  4. AirPreview: connecting your iPad as an external monitor like a boss.

    Coda 2 will pair with Diet Coda on your iPad to turn your iPad into a dedicated window to preview the site you are editing in Coda.

    You first pair your iPad with your Mac by pointing the camera at your Mac’s screen while a box flashes bright random colors. Then, anytime you have Diet Coda open on your iPad, you can turn the iPad’s screen into a secondary preview window.

    Furthermore, the iPad preview auto-refreshes when you save your changes to the file you are editing in Coda 2. No more hitting save and then navigating to the browser and hitting refresh.

    You don’t have to be working on the root file of your preview window either. You can be working on the CSS stylesheet, or a related php document, while viewing your rendered Index page. When you make changes to the file you are working on, then your previews are auto-updated and relevant changes are then shown. This makes many instances of Command-Tabbing and refreshing far less necessary, if not obsolete.

Miscellany

  • Pro-tip for the Sites tab: If you don’t want to use the auto-generated image for your site, you can Control+click on a site and choose to change the artwork.

  • Coda 2 cannot import the .seestyle settings for syntax highlighting from Coda 1.

  • The new way that auto-tag completion works is much more friendly. In Coda 1, when you typed an opening tag, such as <p> or <span> or <div> then you would get the closing tag auto-inserted into your text immediately. If you were just starting out your opening tag then that’s all fine and dandy, but often times (at least the way I code) I would find myself placing opening tags in front of lines of code that I had already written. And then, Coda would auto-insert the closing tag right there at the front as well.

    Well, Coda’s new format for auto-tag closing is much more clever. They wait until you begin to close the tag yourself by typing </ and then Coda plops in the rest for you.

  • Coda 2 does not support Lion’s auto-saving and versioning for local files.

  • If you buy the Mac App Store version, you get iCloud syncing of your sites. This, however, does not mean that your iPad version and Mac version stay in sync (yet). But if you have more than one Mac that is using Coda 2, then those sites will sync.

* * *

Coda 1 was ambitious. It takes a lot of guts (or, in some cases, naiveté) to build an all-in-one application for a task as extravagant as web development. It also takes self-control to keep that application from getting too big for its britches. Coda 2, while following in the ambitious footsteps of its predecessor, is also more useful and more elegant.

I have been using Coda for years, and all the updates in Coda 2 meet my needs almost exactly. But there was another need I had, and that was the ability to access and edit files on my websites using my iPad.2

And Panic has done it. They not only improved an already impressive one-window web development tool, they also built an equally-impressive one-app web development tool. It’s called Diet Coda for the iPad.

Diet Coda

Diet Coda is an example of why the iPad is thriving as a personal computer.

Using FTP, Diet Coda is both a terminal and a text editor built for the purpose of making changes to files which are already on your remote server. Moreover, Diet Coda is the best name for an iOS app ever. If there were an ADA for app names, Diet Coda would win it.

Does the advent of Diet Coda mean professional web developers can now put away their iMacs and replace them with iPads? No. And that was never the intention.

Diet Coda isn’t meant to be a full-featured web-development tool for the iPad. Because, seriously, who is going to use an iPad for full-fledged website development? Virtually nobody.

But who wants to use an iPad to remote in to their server to update a file, copy a link, reboot something, or perform some other form of on-the-fly maintenance or editing? A lot of us.

My point isn’t that you can’t use the iPad for web development, but that most people won’t. And so why build an app to prove a point when you can instead build an app that meets genuine need just right? For this reason, Diet Coda is the best on-the-go web-development app you can buy. It’s not too much, it’s not too little; it’s just right and that’s the point.

What I like about Diet Coda is that it follows the same flow of working with files that Coda for Mac does. I have worked with a handful of other FTP / text-editing apps for the iPad and while they offer some features that Coda does not, they also make me shuffle my files around in a way that is not completely intuitive to me.

With Diet Coda I connect to my site, navigate to the file I want, edit that file, and then save my changes to the server. I don’t have to juggle both a remote and local version of the file — I just open it, edit it, and save it. This is how Coda 1 worked, it’s how Coda 2 works, and it’s how Diet Coda works. It makes working in Diet Coda feel comfortable and secure.

iPaditized

When creating an iOS version of a desktop app you can’t just drag and drop the code and click an “iPaditize” button. You have to balance the juxtaposition between the two platforms. Keeping the same core functionality of the Mac version, yet completely reimagined what the user experience and interface will be.

There are two dynamics to successfully building two versions of the same app, one for iOS and one for OS X:

  1. Both apps need to feel native on their respective platform. The iOS version needs to feel like it belongs on the iPhone/iPad, and the desktop version needs to feel like it belongs there. This doesn’t just mean the buttons should be bigger to accommodate for fat fingers, it means the presentation of the core functionality, along with the flow of navigation and the user interaction within the application all have to pull together to form a well-developed iOS app that still has striking familiarity to its desktop counterpart.

  2. Both apps need to feel like they are the same app. Meaning, Panic had to reconcile the two-fold need for Diet Coda to feel like a native iPad app while also feeling like the very same application they made for the desktop.

Because iOS and OS X exist side by side — two separate but similar platforms — we are seeing software innovation attain new heights as the two different platforms lean on and learn from one another. Put another way: iOS software is teaching us new things about Mac software and Mac software is teaching us new things about iOS software. The two are playing off one another.

The Omni Group is a prime example as ones who are helping lead the charge in this way. Their suite of iPad apps stand on the shoulders of their already award-winning desktop software, with OmniFocus being one of my favorite examples this. It started as a powerful and feature-rich Mac application and it was then perfectly ported to the iPad. In fact, I find the iPad version of OmniFocus to be superior to the Mac version in many ways, and I have no doubt that the next Mac version will be using many of the best components found in the iPad version.

We even see Apple doing this. With Lion and Mountain Lion they are taking much of the functionality and applications found in iOS and bringing it over to OS X for the sake of unification.

And, of course, Diet Coda is great example of Mac-app-gone-iOS. In addition to having the heart of its desktop sibling, Diet Coda is also filled with many iOS-esque details and innovations that delight.

  • There is the Super Loupe. The Super Loupe is the real steel deal. It is Panic’s take on the iOS magnification bubble for cursor placement, and it is clever, fun, and extremely useful.

    Diet Coda's Super Loupe

  • If you have connected to a remote site and are in the file browser view, a tap on one of the four purple buttons in the Info Panel emits what I can only describe as a purple orb that radiates out from the button.

    Diet Coda's Purple Radiating Buttons

    But the functionality of these buttons is also quite handy. You’re one tap away from copying a link, a URL, a file path, or the img tag with the source URL embedded (though it does not auto-detect the width and height when copying the image tag code).

Working with Files

Diet Coda makes it extremely easy to navigate around your remote server, working with live files, moving them, editing them, and previewing them. However, as I mentioned above, Diet Coda has no place for you to save files locally on your iPad. If you want to create a new file it must be saved to your remote server, and any work you do on server-side files is pushed back up to that live file when you tap save.

This is by design, and as such, it means there are some clever tricks for making sure you don’t lose your work when switching to another app for a moment, nor make an erroneous error to a live file.

If you have a document open in Diet Coda and then leave the app, the file is saved locally just as you left it, even if Diet Coda has to “force quit”.

In Diet Coda, though you are working with a file as it is on the server, you can preview your document before committing your changes. Diet Coda renders the web page as if the local version were the live version. This doesn’t work for dynamic files of course, only static ones.

Quibbles

Diet Coda is not perfect in every way, though. I do have a few requests:

  • I’d love to see support for Amazon S3, and more robust FTP capabilities such as being able to upload files that are on my iPad.

  • I wish I could duplicate a site’s details to more easily create additional sites that are subdomains that use the same connection credentials. (Or better: I wish Coda 2 and Diet Coda synced Sites.)

  • There is no master password for the app. Thus I either need to remember my FTP passwords and enter them every time I connect to a remote site, or else I allow Diet Coda to be freely accessible to anyone whom I let use my iPad.

    (If you wish to have Diet Coda ask you for your FTP password every time you connect, simply leave the password field blank when entering the site info.)

Additionally I’ve found that Diet Coda can get memory constrained when working with large CSS files, or if too many documents are open in the Document Drawer. And though the app has crashed on me a few times, not once have I lost any work.

A Concluding Remark

To say I’m impressed and pleased with Coda 2 and Diet Coda would be an understatement.

My initial impression of Diet Coda is that it is the Tweetie 2 of iPad text-editing apps. As many people have proclaimed, Tweetie 2 was not just one of the best Twitter apps for iPhone, it was also one of the best apps for the iPhone, period. Although Diet Coda is still brand-new, it strikes me being a best-in-class code-editing app as well as a great iPad app, period.


  1. Writing, however, requires silence.
  2. This isn’t so I can turn my iPad into my primary work machine, but rather it’s so I can leave my laptop at home more often without having to sacrifice anything. Though I prefer to work on my MacBook Air, I don’t want to be restrained if I’ve just got the iPad. Put another way: MacBook is now my “desktop” and my iPad is now my “laptop”.

In Praise of Pixels

When it comes to pixels I can’t get enough. Ditto my need for a huge desk. I want a lot of pixels on my screen and I want a lot of space on my desk.

It’s not because I want to use these spaces to store application windows and external hard drives. Quite the opposite: I want to use this space for nothing. I work well when I’m sitting at a large and oversized desk that has little on it beyond a big glowing screen and a clicky keyboard. The same goes for my computer monitors. I like a lot of pixels available so that I can not use them.

Why this is, I’m not sure — it’s a part of my personality, but it’s also how I imagine my mind working. When the mind is clear like an open field on a blue-sky day it has absolute liberty to run and twirl and throw the frisbee as far as it can. There are no walls or hinderances or buildings that stand in the way of clear and imaginative thinking.

When I’m at my desk typing on my computer it means my mind is working. And the more open my physical and digital workspaces are then the more open my mental one can be.

In Praise of the 23-Inch Apple Cinema Display

My first Mac was a 12-inch PowerBook that sat on the wrong side of the excessive screen real-estate scale. It was the smallest and cutest computer Apple made at the time, and it had a screen resolution of 1024×768 pixels. I cut my teeth as a print designer on that tiny screen, learning the ropes of Photoshop and InDesign and giving myself a splitting headache. I constantly worked in a slouched over position, with my neck stretching forward to get my head closer to the screen.

After my first paid print job I used the funds to buy myself an external monitor: a 19-inch Somethingorother from the Tiger Direct catalog. A few years later I had saved enough for a Mac Pro and with it I bought a 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, a device that I consider to be one of Apple’s finest pieces of hardware ever.

I had spent many occasions in the Apple Retail store looking at the displays, and I read all of the famous Mac setups featured on Glenn Wolsey’s old blog. The 20-inch model was too small; the 30-inch was too big even though it entitled bragging rights; and so, by deduction, the 23-inch was just right. (I think Apple realized this as well and they cut the sizes of their Cinema Displays down to just the 27-inch monitor. This is a great size, it’s big enough to be big but not so much that you lose open applications.)

I have now been working on a 23-inch Apple Cinema Display for half a decade. I’m on my second one because my original was sold with the Mac Pro. You can’t find them as easily as you could even just a few years ago, especially if you want one in good condition.

What I like about the aluminum Apple Cinema Display is that it epitomizes what I consider to be the highest breed of products designed by Apple in California.

The front of the display is nothing more than a matte screen surrounded by an aluminum bezel. The bezel is not so fat as to distract for your attention. Nor is it too thin. Its proportions are sound.

At the bottom-center of the bezel is the Apple logo in shiny aluminum — subtle. The bezel wraps over the top and bottom of the display, and covers the whole back of the enclosure in a sheet of aluminum as well. The corners are rounded, the sides are white plastic, and the base is a hearty aluminum foot.

On the right edge are the only three buttons: one to power the display on and off, and two for adjusting the brightness of the backlights up or down. At the bottom right-hand corner of the front bezel is a small hole cut out with a white light that shines through. This light “breathes” as the old PowerBooks did when the computer is sleeping. When you turn the display on or off that small light gets bright all at once and then dims down to darkness again.

The greatest feature of all however, is what this display lacks: there is no glass panel glued to the front. The aluminum cinema display sports the great matte screens of yesteryear. And a CJ7 will always be cooler than a modern Wrangler.

What has kept me from upgrading to this next generation of displays found in today’s Apple stores has been that front glass panel. I have worked on these displays (and their iMac cousins), and I admit that they are nice and crisp and pleasing on the eyes. They pose well in pictures of our desks and they display colors and text vividly. They are also much easier to keep clean — the solid glass panel on the front makes it easy to wipe off any trace of dust and fingerprints without fear of damaging the pixels underneath.

In Praise of Retina Display Macs

My 12-inch PowerBook had a good long run. After it I bought a 15-inch MacBook Pro (the aluminum body kind that closely resembled the Power PC laptops that had come just before it). I bought the 15-inch MBP for a few reason: I wanted a laptop with more screen real-estate for the times I was working not at my desk, and Apple had discontinued the 12-inch lineup and replaced it with the 13-inch plastic MacBook which came in white or black. Those plastic laptops never appealed to me, which meant there was only one option: the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Fast forward a few more years to the summer of 2011 where the laptop which superseded my MacBook Pro was a 13-inch MacBook Air.

Everything about the Air was appealing to me except for one thing: the screen. By the summer of 2011 I was no longer doing print design work and so I wasn’t in absolute need of the biggest screen I could carry in one arm. But my affection for a large screen remained. I was able to justify this conflict thanks to the fact that the 13-inch MacBook Air has the same number of pixels as my 15-inch MacBook Pro. Therefore it would provide me with all the same screen real-estate, just in a smaller and sharper image. I was okay with that; I have good eyes.

But there was a second drawback to the screen on the MacBook Air and that was the screen itself. Though it’s not adorned with a sheet of glass like you find on the modern MacBook Pros and iMacs, it does have a slight shine to it. It’s not matte, it’s glossy.

I thought long and hard about if I could handle working on a glossy screen. It seems like a trite detail, but if you’re a nerd then you understand. We all have our various trite details which can act as peas under our mattresses, and I feared that the MacBook Air’s glossy display would cause me to lose sleep at night.

In my mind’s eye I placed the glossy screen on one side of the scale and on the other I placed the all the rest of the hardware (the new i7 Core Duo processor, the Solid State Drive, the long-lasting battery, the Thunderbolt connection, the slim and light form factor). It was no contest and the scales tipped heavily in favor of the bells and whistles of the new MacBook Airs. I drove to the local Apple store and bought one.

And after all that the glossy screen has proven to be a non-issue for me. What a boring end to the story, right?

There is something that I left out, however. And it’s that all my time using my 15-inch MacBook Pro, I was wishing for a version of it that copied the Air’s form factor. A lightweight, teardrop-shaped laptop that was minus an optical drive and had a Solid State Drive and 15-inch screen. To me, at the time, that sounded like the ideal laptop.

You can do well to figure out future Apple rumors by simply betting on what seems obvious-but-is-not-yet. And a 15-inch MacBook Air strikes me as just such a device. It’s not “mind-blowing” because we can all imagine what it will look like. And it’s not “exciting” because we can all pretty much see it coming — surely it’s only a matter of time.

Earlier this week 9to5 Mac posted a rumor about the what an upcoming 15-inch MacBook Pro may look like. According to this rumor, however, the new MacBook Pro would look just like the current model but thinner, rather than sporting an Air-like teardrop shape.

The biggest talking point, however, isn’t about the size or shape of the laptop but rather the pixels on the screen. The next MacBook Pro is supposedly going to have a Retina display.

The iPhone 4 was too amazing to not push that display into bigger and bigger devices. Retina display Macs have been a long time coming. Last summer, with Lion, the phrase being whispered on the air was the Back to the Mac tagline which Apple themselves used when first demoing the new operating system. That tagline continues to stay relevant, because not only is the software of iOS continually influencing OS X, but we are seeing iOS hardware make its way “Back to the Mac” as well. The Magic Trackpad is a good example, “natural scrolling” is another, and next will be the Retina display.

The idea of a Retina display on a Macintosh sounds fantastic. The words I’m typing at this moment are onto my iPad with its high resolution screen, and the text looks stellar. Retina displays rock. Sure, there are downsides and ugly bits that a Retina display Mac would bring with it — such as non-retina applications and websites — and Marco Arment does a good job of articulating those.

I have the good fortune of using applications on my Mac that are developed by bleeding edge developers. In addition to the native OS X apps I use (Mail and Safari), the 3rd-party apps like OmniFocus, Yojimbo, Coda, Transmit, MarsEdit, Byword, iA Writer, and others which are all run by developers which I have no doubt will be quick to update their Mac applications to support Apple’s new high resolution displays.

While it’s true that non-Retina apps on a Retina screen are like sandpaper on the eyes, the tradeoff is worth it to me. I will suffer ugly graphics on the Web in exchange for print-like text, sharp high-resolution photos, and all the other elements of the operating system which will have Retina assets.

I heard someone mention that it’s not unlike iOS shipping without support for Flash. There was a short period of time when you didn’t get the “full web” when on your iPhone and iPad, but now, a few years later, I can’t remember the last time I visited a website and my iPad was sent back out to the cold thanks to its lack of Flash.

* * *

I began this article talking about how fond I am of big displays with lots of unused space. Contrasted against this truth is the fact that I also enjoy working from my iPad. My iPad is the smallest screen I work from.

Not including my iPhone (I don’t work on that device) I have three work screens. Listed in order of screen size, from smallest to largest, they are: iPad, MacBook Air, and Cinema Display. But listed in order of pixels, from least to greatest, they are: MacBook Air, Cinema Display, iPad.

The smallest working screen is also the one which sports the most pixels. Surely there is a connection here as to why I prefer to work from either my extra large Cinema Display or my extra dense iPad.

Retina displays are coming to the Macintosh — it’s only a matter of time — and the sooner the better.

Clicky Keyboards

As do most people, I suspect, I’ve always used the keyboard that came with my computer.

The first computer I ever used on a regular basis belonged to my tech-savvy grandfather. I’d play games on it during the weekends when my family visited, until one summer when he upgraded and my folks inherited the hand-me-down IBM. Many years and a few family computers later, I bought my own computer: a Dell laptop that went off to college with me.

After the Dell was my first Mac, the iconic 12-inch PowerBook G4. A few years later, in the spring of 2007, I bought a Mac Pro. The Mac Pro is a beast of a machine. So beastly, in fact, that it doesn’t come with a single peripheral attachment — you have to pick out your own monitor, keyboard, mouse, and anything else you may need. And so, for the first time, I got to pick my own keyboard. At the time, I didn’t know any better and so I went with an off-the-shelf Bluetooth white plastic Apple Pro Keyboard.

The white and clear Apple Pro Keyboard was perhaps the worst keyboard ever designed in California. It was dull and soft to type on, it was neither quiet nor loud, and it had a see-through casing to display all the food crumbs, wrist hairs, and dead bugs that fell between the keys.

In the fall of 2007, Apple redesigned their keyboards to the new slim aluminum keyboards they still sell today. I eventually bought one of those to go with my Mac Pro. Though the thinness of the keyboard made it seem to me like a less-serious keyboard for folks who type a lot, it looked extremely cool. And we all know how important it is to have a clean and hip-looking desk.

It turns out, however, that Apple’s slim aluminum keyboard is quite nice to type on. I’ve been typing on them in some fashion or another ever since 2007. In addition to the full-sized USB version I bought to replace my clear Apple Pro Keyboard, I also bought one in Bluetooth flavor to pair with my original iPad, and the MacBook Air I bought last summer has the slim chicklet-style keyboard built in.

Recently, when I was interviewed on Daniel Bogan’s site, The Setup, he asked me what my dream computing setup would be. My reply was that thought I pretty much already have a dream setup, the one component that I have never truly considered is that which I interface with nearly the most: the keyboard. I wrote:

I think I might like a better keyboard. I’ve never thought anything bad about the slim Apple bluetooth keyboard I use, but recently I spent some time using my cousin’s mechanical keyboard and there was a completely different feel to it. I’ve never been a keyboard snob, but considering my profession, perhaps the time to get snobby about keyboards has come.

As someone who writes for a living it befuddles me why I never thought to research a proper keyboard.

As a computer-nerd-slash-writer, I am always looking and advocating for the right tools. But for years, I have always equated “writing tools” with “software” — I own more text editors than I have fingers to type with — but it never dawned on me until recently that a good keyboard could be equally as important as a good text editor.

I own a dozen different writing applications, a programming application or two, an email application, and a blog-posting application. And what do they all have in common? They all get typed into via a single, solitary device: my keyboard.

A month ago I ordered a Das Keyboard for my Mac. Not because I was dissatisfied with my beautiful and trusty Apple keyboard; rather, I needed to know if life could be better with a bigger, louder, and uglier keyboard.

When I placed the order, I had no idea what I was getting into. Owning a mechanical keyboard is like owning a Jeep Wrangler — there is an unspoken fraternity amongst owners that others don’t quite “get” and which I honestly don’t think I can explain in a blog post of only a few thousand words.

Mechanical keyboards like the Das are bulky, loud, and fantastic for typing. Compared to the slim Apple keyboards, the Das is different in every way except that the end result is still the same: words get onto the screen.

How I felt when I upgraded my keyboard to a mechanical one, reminds me of the excitement James Fallows felt when changing from a typewriter to a personal computer for the first time:

What was so exciting? Merely the elimination of all drudgery, except for the fundamental drudgery of figuring out what to say, from the business of writing.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Das Keyboard has eliminated all computing drudgery, but I would say that it has greatly enhanced the act of typing. Especially the act of typing for long periods of time, which I happen to do on a daily basis.

The construction of a mechanical keyboard is much more friendly to typing. As I discovered by taking several typing tests (the results of which I share below), a mechanical keyboard actually does help me to type both faster and more accurately. The sound of the keys clacking and the feel of the key switches clicking makes for an aura of productivity and work that fills the senses.

When using a mechanical keyboard you don’t just see your words appear on the screen as you type them, you also feel and hear them. A mechanical keyboard engages all the senses but smell and taste. Which is why you should always type with a hot coffee at your side.

The Keyboards

The sound, size, and durability of a mechanical keyboard make it a device to be reckoned with. It is a wholly different keyboard than the slim Apple ones, but that is not to say I have been turned off to the slim Apple keyboard. When I’m working on my iPad (using the bluetooth keyboard) or my MacBook Air’s built-in keyboard, I still type quickly and comfortably.

This review has been typed out using three of the most popular mechanical keyboards for Mac. They are:

  • Das Keyboard Professional Model S: This is the keyboard that I started with. I pre-ordered one a few months ago for $113, and it arrived about a month ago. The Das Keyboards begin shipping on Friday, April 27 for $133.

  • Apple Extended Keyboard II: Bought on eBay, the keyboard itself is circa 1990, uses Alps switches, was not made in Mexico, and cost me $31.45 shipped. I also had to purchase an ADB cable for $8.35 and a Griffn iMate ADB to USB adapter for $25. Total cost: $64.80.

  • Matias Tactile Pro 3: A well-known 3rd-party keyboard that bills itself as the modern version of the Apple Extended II. It seemed unfair to write a review of Apple mechanical keyboards and not include the Matias Tactile Pro. These sell for $149, but Matias was kind and generous enough to send me a review unit.

Further down I have written more in-depth about the sound, feel, and overall typing experience of each of these three keyboards. But, before we get into that, let’s first check out some side-by-side statistics to give context for the general differences between these three keyboards.

Weight & Size

Keyboard Length (in) Height (in) Weight (lb)
Apple Extended II 18.68 7.50 3.75
Das Keyboard 18.00 5.83 2.53
Tactile Pro 3 18.00 6.50 2.96
Slim Apple, Full, USB 16.80 4.50 1.25
Slim Apple Bluetooth 11.00 5.25 0.69

Typing Scores

They say that using a mechanical keyboard doesn’t necessarily make you a more productive typist. But based on the typing tests I took it would appear that a mechanical keyboard does improve your actual typing productivity.

I took this typing test to measure the speed and accuracy of my typing. As you can see, I typed the slowest and the least accurate on the Apple slim aluminum chicklet-style keyboard that I’ve been using for over 4 years. My fastest and most accurate test was performed on the Das Keyboard.

Keyboard Words Per Minute Accuracy
Das Keyboard 91 100%
Tactile Pro 3 81 95%
Apple Extended II 80 95%
Slim Apple 74 93%

I typed a staggering 15 words-per-minute faster on my Das Keyboard than on my Apple slim keyboard, and at least 10 words-per-minute faster than on the Matias or the Apple Extended keyboards. And the words typed on the Das were more accurate. The difference in speed adds up to at least 900 additional words (with fewer typos) for every hour of typing.

Of course, nobody types at a constant rate, especially when the typing is creative. But nevertheless. Considering I spend nearly 6 hours a day at my computer, mostly typing, that difference in speed and accuracy is not insignificant.

Sound

Not all clicky keyboards are noisy, but I greatly enjoy the sound of the mechanical keyboards. At first I was timid about the noise coming from my home office, but I have since become acclimated and comfortable with it. Even proud of it.

Each keyboard I tried has a different sound. The Apple Extended II is the quietest and has the lowest tone of clack. The Tactile Pro 3 is the loudest and has a hollow ring that accompanies the clicks of the keys (more on this later). And the Das Keyboard has a crisp higher-pitched click.

Of the three I prefer the sound of the Das Keyboard the best. But, if I could mix and match, I would place the letter keys of the Das with the spacebar of the Apple Extended II and the Backspace of the Tactile Pro.

Here is a brief audio overview of the sounds between the Das Keyboard, the Apple Extended Keyboard II, and the Matias Tactile Pro 3:

Mechanical Key Switches

As I began researching mechanical keyboards and the different types of switches they use, I had no idea the rabbit hole I was crawling into. For brevity’s sake, I’m only going to share a little bit about the differences between the switches found in the 3 keyboards I have.

If you want to learn more about mechanical keyboards and the various switches used, then I’d start with this Mechanical Keyboard Guide. The writer of this thread wrote a well-said opening paragraph for why you want a mechanical keyboard:

For most people it’s all about the feel. With the keyboard you’re typing on right now you’ve got to press the key all the way down to the bottom to get it to register. This wastes a lot of energy and causes fatigue, as most of your effort is spent pushing against a solid piece of plastic. Mechanical keyswitches are designed so that they register before you bottom out, so you only need to apply as much force as is necessary to actuate it, not wasting any. And with as many different types of switches as there are you can pick and choose which one you’re the most comfortable with, as each one has a different feel to it. And most people who try one can never go back to using rubber domes, as they realize just how “mushy” they really feel.

As I quickly discovered, not all mechanical key switches sound or feel the same. Not only are there many different designs of switches, but some are better for typing, some are better for gaming, some have a slight snap-resistance that provides a tactile feedback as you press the key, and some give off a noisy click or clack.

Of the three keyboards I tested, they use two (yea three) different switches:

  • Blue Cherry MX switches in the Das Keyboard
  • Complicated white ALPS in the Apple Extended II
  • Simplified white ALPS in the Tactile Pro

For reference, the slim Apple keyboards shipping today all use plastic scissor switches. Most all laptops use scissor switches because it allows for about half the travel of the more common dome switches used in most all commodity keyboards.1

Cherry Switches

The Das Keyboard uses blue Cherry MX switches. The blue Cherry MX switches have a very pronounced 2-stage travel with a very audible click that happens upon activation.

Blue Cherry MX Switches

The total travel of a Cherry Blue MX switch is 4mm; the switch actuates and clicks half-way down at the 2mm mark.

This two-stage click is not nearly as pronounced on the ALPS switches, and it is this pronounced two-stage click that leads many people to consider the blue Cherry MX switches to be the best for typing. They have low resistance and a very noticeable tactical “bump” or “click” that can easily be felt when typing.

You don’t have to bottom out the key to get it to activate. Once you’ve pressed past the “click” at the 2mm mark, that is when the key switch activates and the keystroke is registered by the computer. It’s hard to explain the tactile sensation of typing on the Das Keyboard compared to using the Apple Extended or the Tactile Pro. I would say that because of the pronounced 2-stage switch, the Das has a more defined tactile feel, is less work, and is more enjoyable to type on.

ALPS Switches

ALPS switches are not only a type of switch, but also a brand. Tokyo-based Alps Electric Co., Ltd. makes the switches. You may have also heard of their brand of car audio gear: Alpine.

The Apple Extended Keyboard uses white Alps switches, as does the Tactile Pro. However, the Apple Extended Keyboard uses what is known as “Complicated ALPS” switches, while the Tactile Pro uses “Simplified AlPS.” This is because the complicated switches are no longer in production.

Over time, the complicated ALPS switches can be known to generate resistance because of dust and other elements that can build up within the switch. The Simplified ALPS switches, which the Tactile Pro uses, are less prone to this.

Based on my typing experience with both the Tactile Pro and the Apple Extended II, the Simplified ALPS switches give a bit more resistance than the older Complicated switches. The newer ones seem to have a more pronounced “click” or initial force of resistance. They are also louder. This is not necessarily a bad thing — one of the things that makes mechanical keyboards so great for typing is their click and their clack.

Apple Extended Keyboard II

Apple Extended Keyboard II Mac Setup

Before you’ve even typed a word, the first thing you notice about the Apple Extended Keyboard II is how huge it is. The AEK is the widest keyboard of the bunch. It measures just wider than 18.5 inches. My son, Noah, was 19.5 inches when he was born. He could have taken a nap on the Apple Extended Keyboard. Who knows, he may have written something clever in the process.

With the AEK on my desk, my 23-inch Apple Cinema Display, which measures 21-inches across, now seems tinier than it used to. When I used the thin and sleek Apple Bluetooth keyboard, the cinema display seemed so large in contrast. With the Apple Extended Keyboard in front of the monitor, the screen now has a peer it must reckon with.

Next, you realize that the Home Row markers are on the “D” and the “K” as opposed to the “F” and the “J”. The latter is now the de facto standard and it takes some time to acclimate to the feel of the markers being under my two middle fingers rather than my two pointer fingers.

Lastly, the Apple Extended II uses an ADB cable. The keyboard I bought off eBay didn’t come with the cable, so I had to buy an ADB cable separately ($8) along with a Griffin iMate (an ADB to USB adapter that cost me another $25 on eBay).

I had been typing on my Das Keyboard for nearly two weeks before the Apple Extended II arrived. I expected it to sound and feel nearly the same as the Das Keyboard, but the complicated white ALPS switches are quite different than the blue Cherry MX switches. It is true that they are both clicky mechanical keyboards, but if you did not know that and you were only to type on each of these you would not classify them as being the same type of keyboard.

My Apple Extended II feels softer and sounds quieter than both other mechanical keyboards I have here. If you’re listening to the different audio tracks I’ve recorded, the MP3s may sound a bit deceiving. Sitting here, in my office, the Apple Extended Keyboard II is the quietest of the bunch. It is certainly not quiet — but it does not have the same high-pitched click. The Das is like a snap, the AEK is like a clap. The AEK has more bass to it, and the sound is more muted.

Again, I don’t know if the stark differences are because the ALPS switches in my Apple Extended II are used and 22 years old, or because they are the complicated ALPS switches. Perhaps I will never know because I don’t feel compelled to invest nearly $200 for a “brand new” 22-year-old Apple keyboard. The $32-find I got on eBay is simply the best one that was guaranteed to work and which was not assembled in Mexico.

Matias Tactile Pro 3

Matias Tactile Pro 3 Mac Setup

The Matias Tactile Pro bills itself as the modern version of the Apple Extended Keyboard II. Though the look of the Tactile Pro is patterned after the design of black-keyed Apple Pro Keyboard circa 2000, it uses white ALPS switches, akin to the 1990-era Apple Extended and Extended II keyboards. But the switches are not the exact same because those used in the Apple Extended are no longer made today.

The key switches on the Tactile Pro feel very different than those on my Apple Extended Keyboard II. The click-down on the Matias is much more pronounced than on the AEK II. Though I am not fully certain that this is because of the difference in switches rather than the age of my Apple Extended keyboard, the reviews I read online about the differences between the complicated and the simplified ALPS switches did seem to be concurrent with my experience.

Typing on the Tactile Pro is bittersweet for me. The tactile feedback of the key switches is quite pleasant, and there is a firm resistance within the switches that gives the keyboard a sturdy and hearty feel. I like the slightly higher resistance that the Tactile Pro gives.

Moreover, the sound of the Tactile Pro when typing is much louder than the Apple Extended II. I like the louder volume, but unfortunately it has a hollow sound to it that seems incongruous with the sturdiness of the switches. Additionally, there is a ringing that echoes around in the chassis of the keyboard itself.

Here is an audio recording which tries to catch the ringing that reverberates after a keystroke. You may need to turn your volume up to hear it:

After typing on the Matias for two days, as much as I liked the tactile feel of it, the sound was constantly a distraction. I asked Matias about the ring, and was informed that the noise comes from the springs in the ALPS key switches. Matias tells me they are advancing the key switches to remove the ringing in a future version of the Tactile Pro. Also, the chassis design of the original Tactile Pro is built in such a way that the spring ring is not nearly as audible.

Das Keyboard

Das Keyboard Mac Setup

This new model of the Das, which has the keys mapped out especially for a Mac, seems to be re-kindling the interest in mechanical keyboards. It is the first mechanical keyboard I got, and before that the first (and only) mechanical keyboard I had ever used was my cousin’s Adesso MKB-125B. Both the Das and the Adesso use the blue Cherry MX switches. It was through using the Adesso that I first began considering upgrading my typing tool.

Unfortunately, the Das (like the other 2 keyboards I tested) is big, bulky, and generally an eye sore. In fact, of the few other reviews I’ve read about it, the general consensus is: it’s ugly, but it’s great to type on. The clickety-clack quickly makes up for the aesthetic sacrifice by telling everyone within earshot that you are getting some serious work done.

The aesthetics of mechanical keyboards today baffle me. Just because it has mechanical switches, which were especially common from keyboards of the ‘80s and ‘90s, doesn’t mean it should also look like it’s been rescued from 20 years ago.

In addition to being the ugliest of the three mechanical keyboards currently in my office, the typeface used on the key caps of the Das is horrendous. Perhaps the worst offender is the single-quote / double-quote key, which rests just to the left of Return. At a glance, it looks like a period and a single-quote.

The Quote Key on the Das Keyboard

However, the Das Keyboard has two great things going for it. More than the other two keyboards, I prefer the tactile feel of the blue Cherry MX switches and the audio click of the Das. Since you don’t buy a mechanical keyboard for its aesthetics, for those looking to get a clicky keyboard, this is the one I would recommend.

Mapping the Special Function Keys

Though the Das Keyboard for Mac has custom modifier key commands drawn onto its function keys, those special modifier keys aren’t recognized by OS X. The “F14″ and “F15″ keys work to dim and brighten the display (rather than the traditional F1 and F2), but in order to control the previous track, next track, play/pause, and volume up/down/mute you have to press the Function Key which is awkwardly placed under the right-side Shift Key.

Since the System doesn’t recognize the Das Keyboard’s special keys, you can’t tell it to treat F1 like it would on an Apple keyboard without pressing that Function key. For the life of me, I don’t know why this is, but it just is.

Fortunately Keyboard Maestro is a keyboard’s best friend. A little bit of fiddling with the Macros and I was successfully able to map F6 all the way through F11 to act as the blue markings say they should act.

Moreover, since I use Rdio as my tunes source, I hacked together a rather clever if/else macro that allows me to control iTunes if I’m in iTunes, but otherwise to default to controlling Rdio from anywhere else in OS X.

With the Keyboard Maestro hacks in place, you may have trouble using your normal modifier keys on your MacBook Air (assuming you use your Das Keyboard with your laptop in clamshell mode). If so, check out this cool little utility called Function Flip.

Outro

After a month of using and testing the three most popular clicky keyboards for Mac, I am extremely glad I jumped into these waters. The sound and the feel of a clicky keyboard only takes a few days to get used to, and what follows is this intense feeling of productivity that now accompanies anything I type.

Something I like about mechanical keyboards is that each key has its own unique sound and feel. You could tell how many words someone types, and how many in-line typos they fix, simply by listening. Space Bar, Backspace, Return, and the letters — each produce a unique sound and have their own tactile feel. There is variety when typing on a mechanical keyboard. All of these keyboards are just so darn loud that there’s no ambiguity as to if I am typing or not — I know it, Anna knows it, and heck, the neighbors probably know it. When I set out to type a sentence, I am committed — it is like the typing equivalent of writing with ink.

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.

Update: See also the review of tenkeless clicky keyboards.


  1. For even more on the difference between membrane, dome, scissor, and mechanical keyboards see this Wikipedia article on keyboard technology.

Fixing the AirPrint Conundrum

I own two printers and neither of them support AirPrint. Which means even though iOS supports printing, I haven’t been able to print to any of the printers in my house.

However, there are some 3rd-party applications which you can install on your Mac to enable printing from your iPhone or iPad. These apps work by sharing the printers it has access to and tricking iOS into seeing those printers as being AirPrint enabled.

If you don’t own an AirPrint-enabled printer, yet you want to print from your iPhone or iPad, you will need to install a 3rd-party app. But, which one? I found that with certain 3rd-party apps you get additional functionality and benefits beyond just being able to print from your iPhone.

Here is a quick look at some of those 3rd-party apps:

Fingerprint

Fingerprint was the first app I came across that could solve the AirPrint conundrum. And the reason I came across this application is because initially I was helping a friend set up AirPrint with his Windows-equipped office. We were searching for AirPrint enablers that worked on Windows.

Fingerprint has both a Mac and a Windows version, and so if you’re on Windows this may be the ideal solution for you.

It costs $10 and not only does it allow you to print to your printers, but it also lets you set up folders and print to a folder on your computer.

But there was one critical deal breaker for me: Fingerprint runs in the Menu Bar. I am ardent about having as few icons in my Menu Bar as possible, and therefore I kept searching for alternatives.

AirPrint Activator

If all you want to do is print, then AirPrint Activator may be the app for you. It is a free application (donations are encouraged) that does just one thing: take the printers your Mac is connected to and share them as AirPrint enabled printers.

The latest version — 1.1.3 — requires that the application be open and running in the Dock in order to work. Background utility apps like this should not require being run in the Dock. It’s even more of a deal breaker for me than being run in the Menu Bar.

The developer is currently in active development on version 2, and there is a public beta available. I gave the latest beta version a try (2.1b7 as of this writing) and it seems that AirPrint Activator can now run in the background without showing it’s Dock or Menu Bar icon.

However, this latest beta of AirPrint Activator seems finicky for me. I could get it to work a few times, but not every time. If you’re looking for the least expensive and simplest way to enable AirPrint for your iOS devices, then I would keep an eye on AirPrint Activator.

Printopia

Printopia is the app I ended up going with, for several reasons:

  • Lives in System Preferences;
  • runs in the background with no Menu Bar or Dock icon;
  • allows me to print to my home printers;
  • prints to any folder on my Mac;
  • allows me to “print” directly to an application (such as Yojimbo or PDFpen);
  • and it works very well, very quickly, and very consistently.

Printing to a folder is just like the “Save as PDF…” options in your Mac’s print dialog box. Using Printopia to print to a folder means that whatever it is your printing gets saved as a PDF to that folder on your Mac. You can save it to a standard folder, a Dropbox folder, or send the file to an application (such as iPhoto, Yojimbo, Evernote, etc.)

If my Mac is running, I can now send an email or a photo or a SimpleNote note directly to my computer. I’ve set up a few folders with Folder Actions that will allow me to import directly into Yojimbo and assign tags for those imports.

Though I mostly use Printopia for actually printing out documents, it’s helpful to have its additional features. If you want to read more, Dan Frakes wrote a review for Macworld last November.

Diary of an iPad (3) Owner

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

11:51 am CST: With a thermos full of coffee on my desk, half a dozen Safari tabs open, and Twitter in the corner, I am ready to watch the liveblogs.

12:21 pm: Tim Cook announces the new iPad!

12:23 pm: Phil Schiller is now talking about it. Overview of features: Retina display; better camera; 4G LTE; voice dictation; and 10 hours of battery life. Wow.

12:38 pm: Phil Schiller: “This new iPad has the most wireless bands of any device that’s ever shipped.” Wi-Fi, GSM, UMTS, GPS, CDMA, LTE, and Bluetooth to be exact.

iPad wireless bands

1:13 pm: Phil Schiller: “Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t create on an iPad.”

1:45 pm: Schiller says that the non-Retina-optimized apps will still look great on the new iPad’s screen. I disagree. They will look blurry and poor, especially when contrasted against the apps which are Retina optimized.

1:21 pm: Apple is calling the new iPad the same thing everyone else is going to call it: “The new iPad.”

Later this year? “The new iPhone.”

1:30 pm: “Resolutionary” is a brilliant tagline. Reminds me of “Thinnovation” and “The Funnest iPod Ever”.

1:49 pm: Now attempting to order a 16GB, Black, AT&T new iPad.

2:49 pm: Make that trying to order a 16GB, Black, AT&T new iPad.

3:09 pm: Got through. But it looks like the LTE models are not available for in-store pickup when pre-ordering. I’d prefer to wait in line, but I’m not going to wait inline without a pre-order guarantee to get the right model.

Thursday, March 8

1:14 pm: Well, apparently AT&T’s map of 4G coverage (which is linked to from Apple.com’s website talking about LTE coverage) doesn’t actually mean LTE coverage.

I went with AT&T because I thought they had LTE in both Kansas City and Denver, but turns out they do not in Denver. Now canceling my AT&T order and going with Verizon instead.

2:44 pm: Just received the order confirmation email, and fortunately the new iPad is in fact expected to arrive on Friday the 16th. I’m a bit bummed that I won’t be standing in line this time. Me and two other friends were all planning to pre-order for pickup but the Apple online store didn’t have pickup available at the time and so we had to choose to get it delivered to our house.

And, I see that my time spent refreshing store.apple.com yesterday was pretty much in vain.

Wednesday, March 14

7:12 pm: Watching a few episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation with Anna while we wait for the reviews of the iPad to hit the wire.

7:14 pm: Okay, fine. While I wait for the reviews to hit the wire.

8:31 pm: Looks like the embargo has lifted. Reading the Reviews.

Using my “old” iPad 2 to read reviews about the new iPad seems like some sort of cruel joke.

11:57 pm: I dig the long-form, personal, in-depth stuff. Folks have been griping about bullet point posts for years but I read this type of writing as entertainment. I especially enjoyed Jason Snell’s review.

Friday, March 16

8:00 am: Brewing coffee and getting ready to wait out the day.

8:32 am: Just got a text from my friend who is at the local Apple store and he says there is no line. He just walked right in and snagged a 64GB Black Verizon model.

Well, in that case, why should I sit around and wait for FedEx? Moreover, I’ve been thinking about how 16GB may not be enough any more. Already my iPad 2 is maxed out and I’ve had to delete all my music off of it. I think I’m going to cruise over to the Apple store and pick up a Verizon 32GB model instead. I can simply return my 16GB later.

I guess 32 is the new 16.

9:52 am: After waiting for Noah to go down for his nap, I am now leaving for the Apple store. Anna jokes with me that she’ll sign for my FedEx iPad while I’m out.

10:04 am: I arrive at the Apple store. It’s weird to be here on launch morning but with no huge lines out front. There are the customary police officers, carts of Smart Water, big signs on easels for the pre-order line, and dozens of blue-shirted Apple employees… but only a handful of customers.

I ask the employees manning the front door how the morning has been. They say that yesterday at around 11:00 am the first person arrived and that this morning when the store opened at 8:00 there were about 80 people in line. I hope that guy who waited 21 hours didn’t stick around to see the line totally dissipate after just an hour.

10:11 am: New iPad purchased. This is the 3rd iPad (3) that I’ve bought. (!) First was the AT&T one, then was the 16GB Verizon model, and now this 32 GB Verizon. Oy.

10:43 am: Now back home and beginning setup. The first thing I notice, right away, is the weight. The new iPad is obviously heavier. I think it feels thicker, but if I didn’t know that it was thicker, I’d probably chalk it up to the fact it weighs more.

And since this is a 4G-equipped iPad it’s even a bit heavier than a Wi-Fi-only iPad 3. To get nitty gritty: according to my kitchen coffee scale, my iPad 2 weighs 613 grams and my new iPad weighs 663 grams.

10:44 am: The second thing I notice: the screen. It looks familiar and yet not at the same time. I’m not as shocked to see the iPad’s Retina display because I’ve seen one before (on my iPhone). And yet, I am so thankful that a device which is pretty much just a screen, now has such an incredible screen.

10:53 am: Doing a quick iCloud backup of my iPad 2 so I can restore from that backup to the iPad 3. Since I don’t charge my iPad 2 in on a daily basis, I don’t have a recent iCloud backup of it.

10:58 am: Initiating iCloud restore onto the new iPad.

10:59 am: 21 minutes remaining. Time to brew another cup of coffee? I think yes.

11:40 am: While waiting for all my apps to finish downloading, I set up my Verizon service. I imagine that I could use 1GB without trying too hard, so I’m going with Verizon’s 2GB for $30/month plan. but I guess we’ll see in practice. How often will I take just my iPad when out and about? And how often will I need the cellular data?

It seems Verizon wants me to set up my own account and enter in my credit card info. I was hoping they would charge me through my Apple account and so I could just enable it via my iTunes password, but I had to enter in complete billing info. If I cancel my data plan next month but want to enable it the month after that, will I have to re-enter all this billing information again?

The 4G cellular connection works different than what I thought. For some reason I thought the cellular connection would be off most of the time and if I wanted to turn that on then I would have to manually switch it on each time. But no, it works on the iPad just like it does on my iPhone — it is always connected. If it has a Wi-Fi signal nearby then it grabs that, but if not then it uses the cellular signal. Thus there’s no interruption of connectivity.

I could manually turn off the data connection but I’ve read that leaving it active has a negligible drain on battery life, so I see no point in keeping it disabled when I don’t need it.

11:52 am: The apps download in order of priority. Apps in the Dock download and install first, then left-to-right and top-to-bottom starting on the first Home screen.

Sadly, the apps did not download their latest versions. They downloaded the version I had on my iPad 2. Now go into the App Store and update them all. So more downloads

3:04 pm: FedEx finally arrives with my Apple.com-ordered 16GB iPad 3 and my Apple TV they tried to deliver yesterday. The FedEx guy looks tired.

7:25 pm: The battery was at 94-percent this morning when I first turned it on. I’ve been using surfing, reading, tweeting, and emailing pretty much nonstop since 11:00 am and it is now at 40-percent.

8:30 pm: Hey! The Retina update to Instapaper is now available. It looks fantastic. Loving Proxima Nova.

Saturday, March 17

7:42 am: Rearranging my iPad’s Home screens and apps. What else would I be doing on a Saturday morning?

8:32 am: Setting up the last of the apps that need new passwords entered and to sync their data: Rdio and 1Password.

Apps that are not updated for Retina yet don’t strike me as being as blurry as non-Retina iPhone apps were. Perhaps it’s because I am further away from the iPad screen than the iPhone’s? Or perhaps because the iPhone’s Retina display has a higher pixel density than the iPad’s?

9:10 am: Battery is currently at 22-percent. Letting it charge for a bit while I make my morning cup of coffee.

9:37 am: People on Twitter are talking about difference in color temperature between the screens of the iPad 2 and the 3. I see a color variant but it’s not a temperature difference — rather my iPad 3 is more vibrant and rich.

2:15 pm: The battery is now fully charged, but I’m not sure how long it’s been there. Based on the past few timeline notes, it seems like the iPad charges at about 15-percent per hour.

11:02 pm: Doing my first LTE speed test. It’s averaging 10Mbps down and 3Mbps up. That’s here in the south end of KC, where I live. So it’s not quite as fast as my home broadband connection, nor is it as fast as some of the jealousy-inducing speeds that some folks are tweeting about, but it still pretty impressive and nothing to complain about.

11:14 pm: Streamed an HD video trailer (Unraveled) over LTE with only one minor hiccup at the front end. The HD looks stellar on the new iPad.

Sunday, March 18

9:53 am: Decided to move the Mail app out of the iPad’s Dock. I have every intention of using the iPad more and more as a serious work device. And a serious work device needs its email application in a place where it is least likely to wiggle its way into the center of attention.

Monday, March 19

1:25 pm: After recording Shawn Today and listening to the Apple financial conference call this morning, I’ve been spending the rest of the day working solely from the iPad. Writing, reading, emailing, and linking — all from the iPad while I watch Noah in the living room so Anna can get some down time.

What I like about working with the iPad is that I feel like it’s just me and my work. Even if there are other distractions available (like Twitter) they are not present. They are in the background and in another app, not peeking out from behind the frontmost window.

I remember two years ago, when the first iPad came out, I very much wanted it to be a laptop replacement but it couldn’t be. For me, at least. When the iPad and its 3rd-party apps were still in their infancy I couldn’t properly manage my email workflow, my to-do list, nor could I write to the site or even have synced documents.

Since 2010 so much of that has changed. In part, my own workflow has simplified and can now acclimate mostly to what the iPad is capable of. But also the apps for the iPad have come such a long way, that in some regards (to-do list management, for example) the iPad is a better tool than my laptop.

4:01 pm: While visiting my sister and her husband, I thought I’d bring the iPad so I could do a speed test at Mark’s house and wow, Verizon’s LTE is much faster here than at my place. Seeing speeds around 30Mbps up and 20Mbps down.

9:07 pm: I haven’t touched the older iPad 2 in a few days. But I just now picked it up to do some comparisons of websites rendering on the different displays and it’s amazing how much lighter and thinner this thing feels.

I’ve gotten used to the thickness and the weight of the new iPad and in day-to-day it doesn’t affect its usefulness, but it still is interesting that the difference is so noticeable when picking up the iPad 2. Or, put another way, the difference in weight and thinness is much more noticeable when going from heavy to light than the other way around.

The second thing I noticed with the iPad 2 in hand was how horrid the Internet looks. Everything is fuzzy. Text isn’t clear; Retina display-optimized header graphics look just as blurry as non-optimized graphics on the new iPad. There is no going back.

9:51 pm: It strikes me that the Retina display is the other side of the coin to iOS. Meaning, iOS is the software and the screen is the hardware and that’s it. Those are the two sides to this coin. On a laptop or desktop computer you have three user interface components: the keyboard, the mouse, and the screen where you watch the user interface. On the iPad you have one user interface: the screen. And you touch and manipulate what is on the screen.

I love the way Ryan Block explained why the new iPad’s Retina display is such a big deal:

The core experience of the iPad, and every tablet for that matter, is the screen. It’s so fundamental that it’s almost completely forgettable. Post-PC devices have absolutely nothing to hide behind. Specs, form-factors, all that stuff melts away in favor of something else that’s much more intangible. When the software provides the metaphor for the device, every tablet lives and dies by the display and what’s on that display.

Ever since 2007, one of the hallmark engineering feats of iOS has been its responsiveness to touch input. When you’re using an iOS app it feels as if you are actually moving the pixels underneath your finger. If that responsiveness matters at all, then so does the quality and realism of the screen itself.

Highly-responsive software combined with a dazzling and life-like screen make for the most “realistic” software experience available.

I don’t know how this relates exactly, but it makes me think of how I would flail my hands and the controller of my Nintendo Entertainment System when I was trying to get Mario to jump over a large pit. As if, by moving the controller around I could give Mario that extra boost of speed for his jump. Have we always had that natural tendency to relate our physical actions to the manipulation of pixels on a screen?

10:12 pm: My only disappointment with the new iPad’s display is that it’s not laminated to the glass the way the display of the iPhone 4/4S is. The iPad’s screen is significantly larger than the iPhone’s, and so there is an epic element in that regard, but there is a unique beauty to the iPhone’s Retina display that the iPad does not have.

Tuesday, March 20

1:30 pm: Putting Noah in the car seat to take him to his one-month doctor checkup.

1:38 pm: I need a sleeve for this iPad because, already, taking it out on its own is becoming more common.

This X Pocket iPad case from Hard Graft looks absolutely stellar, but do I really want only a sleeve? If I’m going to be leaving my Air at home it’d be nice to have an iPad bag. My beloved Timbuk2 is already the smallest size they make and though it’s perfect for holding my Air, iPad, keyboard, and other little peripherals, the iPad alone seems to swim in it.

Another option could be this sweet bag from Hard Graft, but it may be just a little bit too small because I’d want to be able to fit my bluetooth keyboard in there as well. My pals Ben Brooks and Brett Kelly both use Tom Bihn’s Ristretto, but I prefer cases that are horizontal rather than vertical.

2:09 pm: Did a quick speed test here in Overland Park before going in to the pediatrician’s office. The LTE service here is faster than by my place, but nowhere near the speeds it was seeing at my sister’s home.

You know, all these speed tests keep me thinking about what I’ll do if and when an LTE iPhone comes out. Will I cancel my AT&T contract and switch to Verizon, will I stick with my 4S for an extra year and move to Verizon when my contract expires, or will I stick with AT&T and get one of their LTE phones?

2:13 pm: Anna’s looking at me like can we go in now?

Wednesday, March 21

12:13 pm: I remember when the iPad was a luxury item and I was embarrassed to use it in church or the local coffee shop. But now? Now it seems everyone has one. I walk into the coffee shop and half of the people here are reading or working on their iPads.

Two years ago, we didn’t know where the iPad fit in. It was a $500 luxury item that went somewhere between a smartphone and a laptop. But now, people are using iPads as their main computers. As a $500 computer replacement the iPad seems sensible, not extravagant.

10:48 pm: Whoa. Turn a page in iBooks.

Thursday, March 22

9:58 am: I have figured out how to properly classify the three generations of iPads: * Vintage * Old and Busted * New Hotness

Friday, March 23

12:45 pm: Ugh. Hit with the stomachs flu; I’m taking it easy today. But while I’m upstairs in bed, trying to relax, I’d like to do some work on my development site. Surely I can do this from the iPad, no?

I search the App Store for “FTP” and come across two apps which allow me to access and edit FTP files: FTP on the Go PRO, and Markup. However, asking for recommendations on Twitter yields a single answer: Textastic.

1:28 pm: Coding on the iPad is a much more delicate process than coding on my Mac. When on my Mac I have at least a few Safari tabs open with the site launched, and Coda going with 3 or 4 or more tabs worth of documents I’m working in. On the iPad it’s a bit more uni-tasky, and you can’t see as many lines of code all at once on the smaller screen.

While I don’t see myself ever doing large-scale coding projects solely on my iPad, it’s nice to know that if I need to jump in and make edits or changes to my site I could do so. Also, it’s nice to be able to make small tweaks to current back-burner projects.

Saturday, March 24

8:37 am: Downloading songs for Anna on the iPad 2, and again I’m reminded of how thin and light this device is compared to the new one.

It is an interesting juxtaposition of the senses to hold the iPad 2 after getting used to the new iPad. The older hardware feels superior according to the physical senses — eyes closed (or screen off) and you would assume you’re holding the latest and greatest iPad. However, one look at the screen and your mind wonders how it was that your hands could have deceived you. How can this lighter and thinner device have such a vastly inferior screen?

John Gruber describes it well:

Apple doesn’t make new devices which get worse battery life than the version they’re replacing, but they also don’t make new devices that are thicker and heavier. LTE networking — and, I strongly suspect, the retina display — consume more power than do the 3G networking and non-retina display of the iPad 2. A three-way tug-of-war: 4G/LTE networking, battery life, thinness/weight. Something had to give. Thinness and weight lost: the iPad 3 gets 4G/LTE, battery life remains unchanged, and to achieve both of these Apple included a physically bigger battery, which in turn results in a new iPad that is slightly thicker (0.6 mm) and heavier (roughly 0.1 pound/50 grams, depending on the model).

The trade off is worth it. After a short while of using the new iPad I quickly acclimate to its size and weight. And who among us would vote for a new iPad that didn’t have 4G LTE, or that didn’t have the Retina screen, or that didn’t have 10 hours of battery life and was instead as thin and light as the iPad 2? Not me. And, well, if you did vote for that, then you can just buy an iPad 2 and even save $100.

11:12 am: Anna’s friends are over for brunch to celebrate her birthday. One of them is currently in nursing school and we all get onto the subject of studying, textbooks, laptops, and iPads.

Her school is excited about the soon-coming transition to when textbook money will be a part of the tuition cost and it will be used to buy the student a new iPad and cover the cost to load up that iPad with the course-necessary electronic textbooks.

But these girls are not excited about that. They don’t want textbooks on iPads because they can’t write in them, can’t highlight them, can’t spread them all out and reference multiple pages simultaneously. And they don’t like the idea of needing a laptop and an internet connection either because it means you have to study at home or at a coffee shop or library, and you can’t go somewhere outside and away from it all.

Sunday, March 25

7:29 am: Checking my iPad to see when the latest iCloud backup was, and yes: the iPad automatically backed up to iCloud last night. This has got to be one of the most underappreciated features of owning an iDevice. Automatic iCloud backups are like Time Machine but better. All my apps, all my settings, all my pictures, backed up to the cloud while I sleep and while my iPad charges.

Remember when we had to plug into iTunes and manually sync? Ew.

Monday, March 26

11:27 am: Finally able to pair my Apple Bluetooth keyboard to the new iPad. In short, this keyboard seems to only want to be paired with a single device at a time. I had to tell my MacBook Air to forget the keyboard (plugging in my Apple USB keyboard instead). Though I like this keyboard more for typing, I had been using the Amazon iPad keyboard with the iPad 2 and, though it is a great and inexpensive Bluetooth keyboard, it isn’t quite on the same par as Apple’s.

Coincidentally, this Apple Bluetooth keyboard is the same one I bought two years ago when I bought an original iPad. I always intended to use it with the iPad but it ended up becoming my desktop keyboard instead.

12:05 pm: Was planning on heading out for the afternoon to field test the iPad some more, and to wrap up this piece, but Noah is having a rough and fussy afternoon. I’ve opted to stay home and give Anna some time off. So hey! I’m “field testing” in the backyard.

I’m in my camping chair out on the back patio, a baby monitor by my side, my lunch shake resting in the cup holder, and the new iPad resting on my lap in its InCase Origami Workstation.

It’s unfortunate that the iPad’s glassy screen doesn’t do well outdoors. If the screen is light and the text is dark, it works pretty well, but only so long as you are away from sunlight. And I notice that there’s virtually no difference of increased visibility between 50- and 100-percent brightness.

12:15 pm: The thing that bothers me the most about promoting the iPad to a more regular work device is that it still doesn’t fit my email workflow. On my Mac I have many rules in Mail that process and file away those “bacon” emails that I want but never want to see. Also, I get a lot of receipts via email, and most of these are for tax-deductible items that I need to keep and process. I can’t do that on the iPad because I use AppleScripts and Yojimbo…

Hmmm. What if there a way to send an email to a Dropbox folder?…

Doing some research reveals there are a few options. Send To Dropbox looks to be the best. It’s a service that connects to your Dropbox account and then gives you a unique email address. It will store any attachments as well as store plain text or HTML version of your emails. Sounds ideal.

12:35 pm: The sun is creeping over to my shaded spot. I may be forced to move inside.

1:02 pm: For the past 30 minutes I have carried on a couple of iChat conversations (thanks to Verbs App app), researched some ways to send an email to Dropbox, worked on this article, and changed a certain baby’s dirty diaper.

However, my backyard is now completely bathed in sun and I have no choice but to move back inside. Noting that the battery level is currently at 68-percent; about an hour ago it was at 82.

1:21 pm: Since I am “field testing,” I’ve been using LTE instead of my home Wi-Fi. This morning I checked my Verizon data plan and it reports 307MB used since the 16th. Today is the 26th, and so that averages out to 31MB per day so far. My plan allows me 2,048MB per month, and that averages out to 66MB per day — twice what I’ve been averaging so far. I think the 2GB plan will prove to be just right.

3:11 pm: Now taking that field trip and driving to the Roasterie.

3:23 pm: The weather is so nice today that everyone else thought they’d head over here as well. I could sit inside, but that’d be a disservice to the weather.

So here I am on a sidewalk bench down by Le Creuest, some kitchen accessories store. This is where the oddity of using an iPad in public comes in to play once again. Sitting on a bench in front of a kitchen store drinking an Italian Soda and tapping away on my new iPad. I’m too timid to bust out the Origami Workstation in this environment.

3:29 pm: Alas, I cannot connect to the coffee shop’s Wi-Fi from way over here on this bench, and Verizon service seems to be poor on this side of town. Ah well, I am mostly only writing and therefore Internet speeds are inconsequential to me at the moment.

You know, it’s funny. I bought a 4G iPad and signed up for a data plan so that I could take the iPad anywhere and still be able to use it with an Internet connection. In some ways the data plan is a safety net — if I find myself in a place with poor or no Wi-Fi, then no problem because I can use my data connection. But in some ways the data plan is a permission slip — if I’d rather go work at the park instead of a coffee shop I can.

In my mind I imagine the permission slip mindset as being the more exciting and freeing option. I mean, that is one of the great advantages to cellular data and it’s certainly the main reason for why I bought the 4G model. Yet, I find myself too timid to take advantage of it in fear that I’ll use up my data plan too fast and then not have it when I need it, or pay unnecessary overage rates.

Tuesday, March 27

11:13 am: Checking the Verizon data usage and today it reports a total of 350MB used. So yesterday, while on the field and using my data connection what seemed like a lot, I only used 43MB. That is still under my daily allotment of 66MB.

3:49 pm: Finished setting up my Send To Dropbox workflow, and I now have a Folder Action and an AppleScript working on my MacBook Air so that any receipts I get via email I can simply forward on from my iPad or iPhone and they’ll safely land in Yojimbo.

And, relatedly, thanks to Printopia I can also now print from my iPad (since I don’t have an Air Print-enabled printer).

All these tricks and workarounds and 3rd-party services that make my iPad work better with my Mac strike me as an odd necessity for a “Post-PC Device”. In some ways it makes the iPad seem more like a thin client rather than its own, stand-alone computing device. Perhaps it’s not a fault of the iPad so much as it is my own desire to fit the iPad into my particular and age-old workflows that I’ve long since gotten used to on my Macs over the years.

Yet, even with my workflows aside, I suppose the iPad is still, in a way, a thin client — a thin client to the World Wide Web. How many of the apps on my iPad have need of an Internet connection? How many of the tasks I do on the iPad require an Internet connection? How often do I front load Instapaper and Reeder before getting on an airplane?

The answer is: a lot.

Because the iPad works best when it is connected to the Web. It is intended to be connected.

Having an iPad with a cellular data connection instantly raises the overall utility of the device. Because it takes it from a device that works best in the comfort of a home or coffee shop Wi-Fi connection and turns it into a device that works virtually anywhere your feet will take you.

This tablet is extremely portable. And its software makes it usable as a work and entertainment device. These are the things that excite me most about the iPad. And I don’t mean this specific new iPad that I am using to write these very very words. I mean the iPad as a product category — as the next generation of devices where things are versatile, robust, and yet simpler.

Using Dropbox, Email, and AppleScript to Get Files and Email Messages Into Yojimbo From the iPad or iPhone

Yojimbo is where I keep all my tax-related information and all my tax-deductible receipts. I have a simple tagging system and use AppleScripts to toss receipts into Yojimbo from my email, scanner, or wherever else they show up.

About a month ago I wrote about the iPhone app QuickShot and how I use it to take pictures of physical receipts. QuickShot uploads the picture I take into Dropbox, and I have a Folder Action script set up on my Mac to automatically toss the pictures of the receipts into Yojimbo for me. This is especially wonderful for when I’m on a business trip, or just out and about.

One thing that has always bugged me about my Yojimbo system is that it breaks down when it comes to email on my iPhone and iPad.

Until yesterday I knew of no way to get receipts out of my email inbox and in to Yojimbo except for when I was at my Mac. Therefore, if I was checking email on my iPhone or iPad, I had to deal with the receipts in my inbox twice. First when I came across them on my iPhone or iPad, and then again when I sat down at my Mac and remembered to go back to those emails and then toss them into Yojimbo.

Moreover, this meant that I couldn’t truly do all my email work from my iPad. I could only do some email management from my iPad and had no choice but to do the rest from my Mac.

Yesterday I came across a web service that will take any file you email to it and save that file into a folder within your Dropbox account. The service is called, appropriately, Send To Dropbox.

Send to Dropbox is like QuickShot and DropVox but for emails.

Send To Dropbox is free, and when you sign up you get a unique email address. When you send an email to that address the service saves the email in a Dropbox folder. The service can save the email message itself as HTML or plain text, and it can also save attachments and even un-zip ZIP files.

I set it up yesterday using the same Folder Action AppleScript I use for QuickShot and it works perfectly. Now if I forward a receipt from my iPad or iPhone it will end up in Yojimbo where it belongs and with all the proper tags.

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