My iPad App Playlist: Constraint and Creativity

This is the iPad version of my App Playlist articles. You can read my iPhone App Playlist here; Mac version coming next.

Constraint and Creativity

Though the topic of iPads and content creation versus content “consumption” sure gets its fair share of air time, I have yet to tire of the conversation.

The first computer I personally ever owned was a Dell laptop. I bought it with my high school graduation money and took it with me to college. Almost all of of my college friends had HP towers, Dell towers, or (like in the case of my roommate) built their own machine. Laptops were (and are) more expensive, but had less power, less storage, and less screen real estate. But I didn’t care.

Laptops have always been cool to me. My Dell laptop was succeeded by a 12-inch PowerBook G4, then a 15-inch MacBook Pro (the aluminum body), and then a 13-inch MacBook Air (the computer I use now). In a way, laptops represent a sort of “free spiritedness” that desktop computers don’t. And, over the years since that Dell, the tradeoffs in laptops have grown smaller and smaller — today’s laptops are so powerful and fast that most people are not sacrificing any noticeable performance tradeoffs for portability.

And now, it’s the iPad that’s the new cool. Except with the iPad Air and new iPad mini, the tradeoffs are all but gone as well. While we could compare the nitty gritty specs of how fast a MacBook Pro loads a web page versus how fast an iPad does, most of that is inconsequential for most users today. Not to mention, there are many hardware features of an iPad which make it superior to a Mac: the hours long battery life, the built-in LTE connectivity, the very small and light form factor, the retina screen with multitouch input.

You could say that pretty much the only “tradeoff” of getting an iPad as your main computer would be the tradeoff of software. But I don’t think even that is accurate. Because defining something as a tradeoff requires you put that tradeoff in context.

Regarding software, for many people, I think it’s fair to say the lesser machine is actually the Mac, not the iPad.

Over on The Sweet Setup, we recently tested 17 different iPad apps that manage and edit PDF documents to find the best one. Our pick, PDF Expert 5, is a fantastic app. And guess what? There are things PDF Expert 5 does — such as merging PDF documents, making annotations, or zipping up a group of files and sending them to someone in an email — which are far easier and more intuitive to do on the iPad app than on a Mac.

Sure, iPad software — and iOS — has its limitations. For instance, I can’t hack together awesome system-wide shortcut keys and scrips using Keyboard Maestro, nor can I get TextExpander to work in iOS’s Mail app. But that’s okay. Never once have those limitations hindered me from doing some great work from my iPad. In fact, oftentimes it is the limitations of iOS which empower me to do better work. Because constraint breeds creativity.

This is why, for me, the iPad makes for a fantastic writing device. I am neither a programmer nor designer by trade — the bulk of my work day is comprised of reading, writing, tweeting, and emailing.

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

But there is much more I do from the iPad beyond writing. And that’s the point of this whole post. So, without further ado…

Let’s start with the apps I use on a regular basis — my Mission-Critical Apps

  • OmniFocus: I’ve been using the OmniFocus suite of apps (Mac, iPhone, and iPad) for over three years now. Of the three apps, I find the iPad version to be the best. Coming back to one of the points I made at the beginning of this article, OmniFocus on the iPad is a quintessential example of iPad software being superior to Mac software.

    However… once a year, usually around the New Year, I like to step back and consider if the tools I’m using are still the best tools for me. If the answer is “yes” then I leave things alone and get back to work. But if the answer is “no” then I try to consider if its my use of the tools or the tools themselves that are flawed.

    Lately, I have been wondering if OmniFocus is now too complex for me as I’ve settled into a grove with my work-from-home schedule. But, as I’ve considered other alternatives, I just can’t conceive of quitting OmniFocus — it’s a task management system that I trust. I know that if and when an important task becomes due, OmniFocus will show it to me.

    This is something that I will be revisiting in the near future but for now, OmniFocus remains one of my “mission critical” apps (on all devices).

  • Day One: This is the best journaling app out there. I keep Day One on my iPad’s Home screen even though I mostly write in it from my iPhone or Mac. I have no rules for how I use Day One, nor for how often I use it. My entries are all sorts of things, including photos, one-line milestone mentions about my kids, deep thoughts, brain dumps of ideas, and more.

  • Tweetbot: My go-to Twitter app on the iPad. I am very much looking forward to an update influenced by the iPhone version.

  • 1Password: 1Password is far more than just a password manager. If that’s all it was then the updates to iCloud keychain sync would have negated the need for 1Password. However, 1Password also stores secure notes, bank information, and pretty much anything else I can think of. Though I use 1Password most often from my iPhone or Mac, I couldn’t imagine not having it on my iPad.

  • Instapaper: Years later, Instapaper continues to be my go-to Read Later app. I love the design and I’ve got an IFTTT recipe that takes all of my Instapaper “liked” articles and drops them into Pinboard for me. I used to use the iPad version almost exclusively. But since having kids I now use the iPhone version almost as much as the iPad version. There are often times I’ve got just one hand free and it’s a great time to catch up on some reading. But still, my preferred way to read in Instapaper is on the couch with the Retina iPad mini.

  • Drafts: If you consider yourself an “iPad-toting power user” in any level at all, then you probably want a quick-capture text app. I’ve gravitated towards Scratch on my iPhone mostly because I like the design, but I use Drafts on the iPad.

    There are a lot of articles I read in Instapaper which I want to link to on shawnblanc.net. For those, I have a cool URL-scheme workflow thing that helps me get links and text from Instapaper to Poster with Drafts as the mediator.

  • Diet Coda: The iPad has a few apps that just kind of blow your mind when you realize just how powerful and awesome they are, apps that are textbook examples of why the iPad is thriving as a personal computer. And Diet Coda is such an app.

    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.

  • Pinbook / Pushpin / Pinner: There are a lot of good Pinboard apps out there right now. Pinbook was my favorite for a while, but it’s in desperate need of a good update. Pinner and Pinbook are also quite nice. The jury is still out on this one, but needless to say, there are quite a few nice options for anyone in want of a good iOS Pinboard client.

  • TextExpander Touch: Though it’s not really an app that I launch, many of the apps I use support TextExpander snippets.

  • Dropbox: This app/service could go without saying, but yet, at the same time, it’s worth mentioning because Dropbox is such a critical back-end component to so many of the apps I use. I use Dropbox to sync my 1Password database between my iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I use it to keep all my “Currently Writing” articles available to me on all my devices. I use it sync Day One, and my TextExpander snippets. Moreover, since all my current projects have folders in Dropbox on my Mac, I can access those files at any time via the Dropbox app on my iPhone.

  • Calendars 5: This is, in my opinion, the best calendar app for the iPad. It’s very powerful but also simple.

  • Reeder: My favorite RSS reader, though, I don’t go nuts over RSS like I used to. I usually will comb through my folder of favorite feeds about once or twice per day and that’s it. I already am finding so much interesting things to read on Twitter that I don’t often comb through RSS hunting for nuggets.

Let’s talk (a little bit more) about iPad writing apps

Hands down, the main thing I lean on my iPad for when it comes to work, is writing. As I mentioned at the outset of this article, the iPad truly is an excellent writing device. You can couple it with any bluetooth keyboard (and I do), but you don’t have to. I know several people who love to type using the on-screen keyboard.

For my professional work writing text that gets published on the Web, the iPad is awesome. But I think the iPad is an even better device for writing prose sans hyperlinks. I have used many writing apps on my iPad over the years (the original built-in notes app with Marker Felt and all, to Pages, to iA Writer, Byword, Writing Kit, Editorial, and more). The best each have their own bit of charm.

  • Simplenote: Speaking of writing, for me, hands down the most important “workflow thing” is to have text in sync between my iPhone, my iPad, and my Mac. There are a lot of apps which do this well, but for my needs, Simplenote is the best.

    As I wrote in my iPhone app playlist, when it comes to my writing workflow, I’ve basically got two buckets for all my text. First there is my bucket of ideas, lists, thoughts, and all sorts of other miscellany. And second is my bucket of current articles I’m working on. The former is what I use Simplenote for; the latter is a Dropbox folder filled with markdown files.

    My thoughts on Simplenote always start along the lines of how it’s the app I’d chose if I had to pick just one app only for use on all my iOS devices. It’s not that Simplenote, as an app in and of itself, is the best app on my iPhone or iPad. But there are a few things Simplenote does really well which make it indispensable for me.

    Simplenote has amazing and fast search. Searching for a note searches both the note’s title and the contents within. Then, tapping on a search result from the list takes you the search results within that note where you can the see all instances of that term within the note’s contents. Because I just toss all sorts of ideas and other bits of miscellaneous information into Simplenote, being able to quickly and efficiently search all my notes is vital. That, and its ability to sort notes based on their modification date (which means all the notes I’m dealing with right now are floating at the top of my list), makes it very easy to handle hundreds and hundreds of notes with very little mental overhead on my part.

  • Editorial: The app that changed everything for me when it comes to long-form writing on my iPad. I used to use Writing Kit, and it was great. But Editorial has taken things to a whole new level. If you just write words and don’t do a lot of writing for the web, you may not geek out over Editorial like myself and so many others have been. What I love about Editorial is its ability to define and install custom scripts and workflows (making it easy to insert links, find apps in the app store, etc…), as well as its built-in browser. Editorial has a very nice and clean design, and it is easy to use. Since the vast majority of the writing I do is for the Web, and I write exclusively in Markdown, Editorial makes all of the little things I need from a text editor easier and more efficient.

  • Aside about Writer Pro: iA Writer was one of (if not the) original apps in the minimalistic-Markdown-writing-apps-that-sync-with-Dropbox category. The predecessor to iA Writer, Writer Pro, is an impressive app. While there are things about the iPad version that are deal breakers for me — primarily its lack of Dropbox syncing and its lack of auto markdown completion and markdown syntax highlighting — I do like the workflow paradigm built into the app.

    For my work writing for the Web, Writer Pro is not the ideal tool because even if it did have the aforementioned features it will never include all scripts, workflows, and built-in browser of Editorial. However, for other a certain big project I am working on (like maybe another book) which does not require a lot of inline hyperlinks and other HTML-y stuff, Writer Pro could prove to be a brilliant app. Basically, the app itself could serve as the top-level folder for the book with each workflow state serving as the different “folders” for each chapter. I haven’t yet moved my current work into Writer Pro, but I think it could work quite well in this way.

  • Byword: Byword is the best Markdown writing app on the iPhone, and the iPad version is splendid as well. There is a lot to like about Byword — it’s fast, it has excellent search, it’s gorgeous, it’s powerful.

  • Poster: This is the app I use to post links and articles to shawnblanc.net. Alas it’s no longer available for sale because the developer, Tom Witkin, now works for WordPress. Fortunately for those who already have Poster, it is still being updated.

  • Editorially: Editorially is a web app, not a native app. And technically it is still in beta. But Editorially has proven to be an invaluable tool for the collaborative and group work we are doing at The Sweet Setup. We are using it to get a lot of work done without losing our minds. I can’t imagine what our workflow would look like without it.

And what about play?

  • Marvel Unlimited: I’m not nearly the comic nerd I was in my early teenage years, but I do still enjoy reading comics some evenings. I have a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, which, if you’re not familiar with the app, is a bit like Netflix for Marvel comic books. There are a lot of comics available through the app, and you can read any of them you like. There are a few drawbacks to the Marvel Unlimited app such as a pretty horrible process for reading more than one comic in a row (after each issue you have to exit back to your library, select the next comic, then chose to read it); no ability to save a whole story arc into your library (you have to save each comic issue one at a time); and the fact that most issues don’t show up in the app until they are about one year old. However, the good (the huge selection) far outweighs the bad. For someone who enjoys comics enough to read a dozen issues or more in a month, but isn’t serious that it’s important to own every issue, then Marvel Unlimited is a great thing.

  • Kingdom Rush: There are a few games I’ve played on the iPad that I’ve really enjoyed. But none so much as Kingdom Rush and Kingdom Rush Frontiers.

  • Loom: After Everpix shut down I switched to Loom at Bradley Chamber’s recommendation. There are a lot of things I like about Loom (such as its design and auto uploading of images from my Mac) and it’s still better than Photo Stream when it comes to don’t-make-me-think-about-it photo syncing from all my devices to all my devices.

  • Paprika: I’ve recently migrated all my recipes out of Simplenote and into Paprika. I don’t have a lot of recipes, but the ones I do have are delicious and it makes a lot more sense to keep them in a nice recipe app. Paprika is great, and having a 3-app suite across the Mac, iPhone, and iPad has proven to be quite helpful. Over on The Sweet Setup we tested quite a few recipe apps and found Paprika to be the best.

* * *

Earlier this year I began taking monthly screenshots of my iPhone and iPad Home screens so I could track, over time, how my usage of apps evolved and changed.

This is what my iPad’s Home screen looked like on May 1, 2013:

Shawn Blanc iPad home screen, March 2013

And this is what my iPad Home screen looks like today, Dec 23, 2013:

Shawn Blanc iPad home screen, December 2013

Most obviously, there is the visual change iOS 7 brought, and the new wallpaper I’m sporting. In terms of apps, my general types of apps has not changed, but a few of the apps themselves have. Most notably the replacement of iCal with Calendars 5, Writing Kit with Editorial, and the new Reeder with the native Feed Wrangler app.

Doing “work” from the iPad

As savvy readers of this site will know, I am an advocate for using the iPad to get work done. And often I prefer it to my laptop, especially when traveling. But, that is not to say I force the iPad into a workflow or use-case scenario that makes no sense just to “prove the iPad can be used for work”.

I enjoy the simplicity of the iPad, the change of pace its different apps bring, and, yes, sometimes I do enjoy the challenge of seeing what I can accomplish with it even when it’d be easier to just take my laptop. Because in a day and age where things are always speeding up and up and up, it’s nice to use a device that inherently causes me to slow down a bit.

My iPad App Playlist: Constraint and Creativity