MagicGrips for Your Magic Mouse

Elevation Lab MagicGrips

A few weeks ago I happened across this new to me product from the folks at Elevation Labs, and it’s pretty awesome.

The MagicGrips are a pair of rubber grips that attach to the side of your Magic Mouse to make it more comfortable to hold.

They’re $13 (cheap) and work exactly as advertised.

As you can see from the super-bokeh’d image up at top, the MagicGrips fit perfectly, and don’t interfere whatsoever with the functionality of the mouse.

On the bottom side, the grips don’t interfere with two “skis” that the Magic Mouse rests on. And on the sides, the grips don’t touch the button’s edge, so there’s no hindrance with using the mouse.

Elevation Lab MagicGrips

Elevation Lab MagicGrips

They attach like stickers to both sides of the Magic Mouse, and took me about 30 seconds to put on. And I think they look great — it’s not a degradation of aesthetics.

After years of using the Magic Mouse, it took me a little while to get used to the new grip. But now, with the grips, the Magic Mouse is much more comfortable.

It’s a nice little upgrade to a tool that I use pretty much all day every day.

MagicGrips for Your Magic Mouse

Rescue Time Review

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life’s made of.”

— Benjamin Franklin

* * *

Protip: There are four ways to help yourself avoid squandering time:

  1. Plan ahead (make a schedule)
  2. Awareness of how you tend to spend your time
  3. Accountability
  4. Don’t be dumb

Regarding (1): There are a lot of resources available to help you improve how you spend your time. Heck, I’m building an entire course to help you be more focused and do more meaningful work (and then some).

Regarding (4): well, that’s up to you.

Regarding (2) and (3): There’s an online service called Rescue Time that I think is pretty awesome.

* * *

In the past 8 weeks, I’ve logged more than 400 hours of my time using Rescue Time. They say hindsight is 20/20, and the Rescue Time service is a way to see how you’re actually spending your time. Its insight and data can help you make better decisions about what you do with your day.

In a nut, Rescue Time is an online service that tracks and categorizes how you spend your time. It’s ideal for folks who spend most of their time working from a computer.

You start by signing up on their website. Then you download and install the app to your Mac (they’ve a PC version as well), and then you register the app with your online account.

Once your computer is connected, you create your profile. Rescue Time asks you what your top three most distracting activities are and what your top three most productive activities are.

I put (a) Social Networking, (b) News & Opinion, and (c) Shopping as my top three most distracting activities.

Then I put (a) Reference & Learning, (b) Design & Composition, and (c) Business as my top three most productive activities.

I also asked Rescue Time to prompt me for time spent away from my computer. This way, when I return to my Mac after taking a lunch break, reading break, or going for a run, the Rescue Time app will prompt me to ask what I was doing while I was away.

Rescue Time Prompt

Once your Rescue Time profile is created, you’ll have some default preferences set up for you. The two goals Rescue time starts you with are:

  • More than 2 hours spent daily on your first-listed, most productive activity.
  • Less than 2 hours spent on all of your most-distracting activities combined.

I changed my first goal to be 2 hours spent on writing each day. I feel like all the things which fall into my top 3 categories would easily be accomplished in 2 hours and then some. I wanted to try and have 2 hours focused just on writing itself. This is, for me, my most important thing every day.

Unfortunately, after my first week, I didn’t hit my goal. [Shakes fist in the air.] But it turns out Rescue Time was set to average my goal of 2 hours of writing across a 24/7 schedule. Since I take Saturday and Sunday off, that was messing with my average. So I adjusted the goal to be 2 hours/day between Monday-Friday 6am-8pm. And boom.

Rescue Time Goals

For the first week I tried to log all of my offline time including sleep and personal time in the mornings before sitting down at my desk. That proved to be tedious. So I just stopped logging sleeping hours. I’m not going to try and let Rescue Time keep tabs on all 168 hours of my week, just the ones when I’m at the computer.

It’s been 8 weeks now, and twice I’ve gone in to my Rescue Time dashboard to fine tune the categories and productivity score (between 1-5) of my activities. For example, I do a lot of basic note taking and writing in Simplenote (I’m doing my initial notes for this Rescue Time review right now, in Simplenote). But Rescue Time defaulted to seeing Simplenote as being a Business-related activity, not a writing-related one. Well, I want Simplenote to count toward my 2 hour goal of writing.

This is easily changed when viewing the activity page for Simplenote: I just Edited it and changed what activity category it should fall under. I also changed its level of productivity (on a scale of 1-5 from very distracting to very productive).

The productivity level of each activity contributes to the overall “productivity score” that you receive at the end of the week. Right now for the 8 weeks I’ve been using Rescue Time, my overall productivity score is 79. Which I think is pretty good.

Rescue Time Dashboard

I know there is some margin of error in there. For example, not all the time I spend on Twitter is distracting. But sometimes it is. I suppose that to keep a clear distinction between “productive Twitter” and “distracting Twitter” I could set the twitter.com website as distracting and Tweetbot as productive. But that’s easier said than done when it comes to keeping yourself on track. So I just let Twitter be distracting and try not to be too productive on there lest I feel cheated.

Focus Time

For the paid, Pro level of Rescue Time you can choose to have certain websites blocked. This is called “Get Focused”.

So far as I can tell, when you “Get Focused” it only blocks websites. Which means you can still launch certain apps. So, for instance, twitter.com would be blocked but Tweetbot still works.

(Matt Gemmell has an article about this, and shares about some certain apps that run on your computer and full-on block websites and APIs and apps and more.)

The slight conundrum about Rescue Time’s Get Focused tab is that things like checking Twitter and email are a mixed bag. I often use Twitter for productive work, but also it can be a time sink. So it’s not this one-to-one direct ratio where Twitter equals unproductive every time. But it can be unproductive. And I think having at least a little bit of understanding about how much time I tend to spend on Twitter can be helpful to keep myself on track.

Alerts

When you’ve met a goal you can get an alert, or when you’ve spent too much time on “distracting” activities, you can get an alert. I’ve gotten pretty good at hitting my daily goal of writing for 2 hours, so I don’t get an alert for that. But I get an alert if I spend more than one hour on distracting activities.

Also, Rescue time works with Zapier. I haven’t figured out just how I’m going to exploit this, but it’s awesome nonetheless. You could use it to log your WordPress blog posts, MailChimp email campaigns sent, and who knows what else.

Time Away

As I mentioned earlier, Rescue Time knows when I’m away from my computer via inactivity. Which is awesome and kind-of annoying. When I come back to my Mac, Rescue Time prompts me to categorize the activity I was doing while away.

I can define and set these categories so that my time away options suit my most common time away activities. And I can give a description detail about the time away if I want.

Some other apps I’ve used for time tracking like this don’t do a great job at watching when I’m away. And so they’ll say that I spent 5 hours one day in OmniFocus b/c I left that as the frontmost app when walking away from my computer or something like that.

Since I try to spend a good amount of my time reading and working away from my Mac, I like that I can still log that time and have it count.

Defining “productive”

One thing I don’t like about Rescue Time is how bent it is on office work as the center of everything. I had to go to the Miscellaneous category and create two new sub-categories: one for “Family” and another for “Personal”. And then I had to set those as “Productive” times. Oy.

I’m not sure if Rescue Time assumes I treat family time as non-productive (as if time with my family means time when I’m not doing anything of value) or if they just assume that I don’t take breaks in my day to be with my family.

But for me, I often take breaks in the afternoon and into the evening to be with my kids. (It’s a huge reason why I quit my job 4 years ago to work from home.) But then I may come back to my computer in the evening to wrap up some tasks or work on photos or something. Rescue Time’s default was to log that Family time as uncategorized and neutral. But no way — it’s just as much a valid use of my time as writing is.

So, that said, my biggest gripe against Rescue Time is its bias toward defining productive as “working”. But with a little bit of customizing my reports and categories, I’ve been able to change the definition of Productivity to something more along the lines of “doing what’s important”. (Now that’s what I call meaningful productivity.)

Rescue Time and the Small Wins

And this ties in with something I wrote about a while ago regarding celebrating progress.

Acknowledging our daily progress is a way to strengthen our inner work life. In our efforts to create meaningful work, it can be easy to get lost in the mundaneness of our day-to-day.

And so, one way we can thrive in the midst of the daily chaos is to recognize the few things we did today that made progress on meaningful work or that strengthened an important area of our lives.

When we take the time to celebrate our small victories — to celebrate progress — then we are re-wiring our brain (our thought process) to seek out the reward found in doing meaningful work instead of the quick-fix high we get from putting out meaningless fires and filling our time with busywork.

I’m an advocate of journaling my daily progress as a way to give myself a daily boost of confidence and motivation. Which then impacts my behavior to keep on doing the important work, which leads to better and better results and increased performance.

Rescue Time plays a role here as well. It’s a 3rd-party telling me that I met my daily goals and had a productive day / week. Rescue Time’s report is mostly just the amalgamation of time spent in productive and very productive categories. But since I’ve defined those categories and their level of “productivity” for me, I trust the reports and use them to boost my own motivation.

Having a 3rd-party service track your time may sound crazy to you. But I think it’s worth it, if even for a short season. It’s not always easy to view our habits, workflows, and calendars objectively. But if we can learn about how we spend our time and use that knowledge to rescue even just 15 or 30 minutes a day, wow! That time adds up fast.



As I was getting the links for this article put together, I discovered Rescue Plan has an affiliate program. If you want to sign up for the Pro account, use this link and I get a small kickback. Their free plan is great, too. And a good way to test the waters. Thanks!

Rescue Time Review

My First Baron Fig

It was the middle of March that I began my first Baron Fig notebook. About 255 days later, I’ve now hit the end of its 192 pages. Roughly one page every 32 hours.

Baron Fig

I ordered the Dot Grid, of course. As water tends to flow downward, I tend to choose black when buying gadgets, devices, and cars and I choose grid when buying notebooks.

The design of a Baron Fig notebook itself is full of character. The yellow ribbon and the grey cloth cover are both unique and friendly. The binding is of the upmost quality. And the notebook is sized to the exact dimensions of an iPad mini. Making it an ideal analog sidekick to the mostly-digital worker.

Baron Fig

Baron Fig

There are flaws to the notebook. For example, the cover doesn’t lay flat when closed. And I had to take a lighter to tend of the ribbon because it was fraying. Yet, after 9 months of use, these flaws are not points of frustration. Rather, they’ve become endearing shortcomings. Much like the flaws found in ourselves and in our friends — these are no longer flaws, they are quirks we’ve come to love.

Baron Fig

Baron Fig

I’ve owned and used many different journals and notebooks over the years. I have a growing collection of Field Notes which I don’t even use, but love to collect. My first foray into the world of “GTD” was my own version of a Hipster PDA (remember the Hipster PDA?). Mine was a pocket-sized Moleskine, with a few sticky-notes for tabs.

The Baron Fig may be my favorite notebook I’ve ever used. If I’m at my desk, it’s at my desk. I’ve taken it with me on many trips this year — traveling to WWDC in San Francisco; a family vacation to Colorado in August; Portland for XOXO; Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And it’s been to just about every (good) coffee shop in the greater Kansas City area.

As may be evident with my aforementioned collection of mint-condition Field Notes, I often self-sabotage my own notebook usage. A brand new notebook is too nice to be used. Paper is so full of character. It’s tactile. Real. Fragile. Permanent and impermanent at the same time. It just begs to be used for something awesome. And I never feel that my silly ideas and temporary to-do lists qualify. But if not those, then what?

My Baron Fig and I made a pact. I would use it for the most mundane, menial, impermanent things I could think of. And if I ruined this book by filling it with nothing of consequence, then I would order another to sit on the shelf and collect dust as it waited patiently for something more historic and epic.

But the truth is, when it comes to using our everyday notebooks, quality is found in quantity; meaning in the mundane.

As I thumb through the pages of my spent Baron Fig, the early pages reveal tasks both accomplished and unacomplished. The very first to-do item is a reminder to buy a screen protector for my then-new Olympus E-M10 (something I never did get around to doing until many months later). A few pages further I find my review notes for the Flickr iPhone app which came out in March.

Further in I continue to find scattered notes, ideas, and sketches for the big update to Delight is in the Details that I shipped a few months ago. I also find outlines for reviews I was working on and have since published, notes for the book I’m writing now, budgeting math, and more.

Since I started this notebook, my wife and I celebrated our 9-year anniversary as well as each of our birthdays; my youngest son turned one; a huge re-design to Tools & Toys was conceived, built, and launched; and I wrote and shipped a significant update to my book, Delight is in the Details.

The two biggest trends found in my notebook are regarding my daily tasks and my podcasts. I often write down the talking points and outlines for my Shawn Today and The Weekly Briefly podcasts. And the vast majority of pages are filled with my daily action items and schedule.

According to my own handwriting, it was on May 6 that I adopted a much more analog approach to my tasks and routine. It was then that I began writing down my “big three” projects for the day along with any additional admin tasks, and then scheduling time for those things to get done during the day. For most days from May until October I did this. I would sit down with OmniFocus on my iPad and I would review through the items which were due, and I’d transfer things out of OmniFocus and in to my Baron Fig.

Baron Fig

I’ve slowly moved away from this routine over the past month or so since I re-vamped my usage of OmniFocus to make better use of due dates and flags. However, there is something awesome about having 255 days worth of crossed-off to-do items, notes, and the like. And the fear of losing this ability to flip back through the pages is one thing that keeps me tethered to the analog.

As interesting as all of the text in this notebook is, aside from what’s written down on the most recent 8 or 9 pages, I’m not sure if anything is still needed. My Baron Fig is has 192 some odd pages of nothing in particular. And yet, in aggregate, it’s everything. In here are the footprints of my life from the Spring to the Fall of 2014.

Baron Fig

Baron Fig

Comparing the old notebook to the new one, I am impressed with how well it has worn. There are a few scuffs and stains on the old cover, but it’s not dramatic.

As I open up my new notebook, the binding cracks and stretches. It’s now ready to get to work. This new one will probably see me through to next summer, sometime around my 34th birthday. What will be done between now and then?

Baron Fig

My First Baron Fig

Using VSCO Cam for iPad

Waking up this morning turned out to be a little bit like Christmas. At long last, VSCO Cam has a native iPad app.

Ever since I upgraded to the Olympus E-M10 earlier this year, the iPhone’s VSCO Cam app has become an excellent way to edit my photos when I’m traveling. It’s not exactly ideal compared to importing a batch of images onto my Mac and editing them in Lightroom. But for sharing one or two images here and there, it’s great.

For the past year, VSCO Cam has been the “missing” iPad app for me. When I travel, I often take just my iPad as my “main PC”. And I’ve always wished there was a way to use VSCO to edit my images on the iPad instead of on my phone. I think the VSCO photo filters are second to none. I use them in Lightroom on my Mac, and I have the VSCO Cam app on my iPhone’s first Home screen. Aside from my lenses and my own eye, VSCO is one of the most important aspects to my photography workflow and style.

All that said, I’ve written below some of my first impressions of the new VSCO Cam app for iPad and what’s good and bad about the app.

Also, I bought one of Apple’s Lighting to SD Card readers so I could directly import my photos to the iPad instead of using my Camera’s wi-fi connection. I’ll explain the process of each, but in short, the latter is quick and easy for one or two images at a time, while the former is better when importing many photos to the iPad.

The E-M10’s Wi-Fi connection and the Olympus iOS App

Though not exactly cumbersome, neither is it delightful to import more than just a few images to the iPad using the Olympus Wi-Fi connection and the Olympus iOS app. The process looks like this:

  1. Turn on Wi-Fi on the Olympus E-M10
  2. Launch the iPad Settings app and join the Olympus’ Wi-Fi network
  3. Open the Olympus Share app
  4. Chose to import photos
  5. Browse the photo viewer to find a photo you want to import
  6. Tap on that photo
  7. Wait for the photo to load
  8. Tap the “Share” Icon and chose to save to Camera Roll
  9. Once the photo has been saved to the Camera Roll, the Olympus app asks you if you want to turn off the camera. Tap no if you want to keep importing more photos.
  10. Go back to the photo viewing gallery and repeat steps 5-9 for each photo you want to ad.
  11. When you’re done, the photos you’ve imported will be in the Camera Roll as well as an album called “Olympus”.

I’ve been using this process on my iPhone since February of this year. It works great for weekend trips and times that I just want to import and share a few photos before I get back to my Mac.

Moreover, I’m grateful the E-M10 has Wi-Fi because the Lightning to SD Card dongle doesn’t work with the iPhone (no, really). And so the Olympus importing workflow is the only way to get photos directly from my camera onto my iPhone.

Long have I wished for an iPad-centric workflow. For one, the larger screen of the iPad far better suited to photo editing. Moreover, for extended trips, I’ve always wanted to be able to edit a dozen or more photographs and then send them out to the relevant friends and family. But importing them one at a time and then editing them on my iPhone just never felt appealing.

But, now there is VSCO Cam for the iPad. Combined with the Lighting to SD Card Camera Reader, my wish may have been granted. Is it all I ever hoped for? I don’t know — I’ll find out at Christmas when I go back to Colorado for the holidays and leave my Mac behind. But in the meantime, here are my first impressions of using the adapter to import photos and using VSCO Cam on the iPad to edit them. This is how I spent my afternoon.

The Lightning to SD Card Reader Dongle for iPad

How the Lightning to SD Card Reader works

Unsurprisingly simple, but not exactly quick.

  • When you plug in the adapter with an SD card in it, the Photos app instantly launches and you are taken to the Import tab.
  • The iPad then loads up all the images that on the card so you can preview their thumbnails. This took my iPad mini literally almost one second per photo. So, if you’ve got hundreds of images on the card, it will take several minutes before the Import tab is ready to go.
  • You can then tap on any of the photos you want to save to your iPad, and those thumbnails will get marked with a little blue checkmark circle.
  • The Import button is dangerously close to the Delete button, be careful when you are ready to import your selection.
  • You can then chose to import all the photos on the card, or just import the ones you’ve selected.
  • Once imported, you get the option of deleting those images from the SD card, which is nice. But I’ll keep them for now, thanks.

Something else I like about importing to the iPad from the SD Card reader is that iOS remembers which photos I’ve imported already. And so, if I’m importing just a few images now, next time I go to import photos from that same card, I won’t be forgetful about which ones I already brought in.

However, there are two things I don’t like about this process.

  • It loads the images from oldest to newest. So if you plug in the SD card to import a few images you just took, you have to wait for the whole card full of images to load before you can select the most recent images.
  • You can’t enlarge the images to view them in full-screen before importing — you have to import them based on the merit of their thumbnail view alone.

Once imported, the photos get saved in the default Camera Roll and photo stream albums. From there you launch the VSCO Cam app, and add them to your VSCO Cam Library at which point you can edit them on the iPad. Wouldn’t it be great if the VSCO Cam app could see the SD Card and I could add directly to my VSCO Library? Ah well

VSCO Cam on the iPad

VSCO Cam for iPad

The VSCO Cam app for iPad is great. Just like the iPhone app, VSCO on the iPad is free and the filters it comes with out of the box are fantastic. And the design of the app makes it feel like a first-class citizen on the iPad, as it should.

The layout of the iPad interface is different than the iPhone’s. The filter selection and editing tools are on the left and right sides, instead of on the bottom. Holding the iPad in landscape orientation with both hands is the best way. This way you can operate the app somewhat like a game — using your thumbs to navigate the controls on both the left and right sides as you move around the app, editing images, uploading them, etc.

With this update, your VSCO Cam Library now syncs across devices. You can tell if a photo is synced by the double-circle icon in an image’s top right corner.

And, not only do the images themselves sync, so too do the edits you’ve made. But! Not only do the edited images sync, it’s the non-destructive edits. Meaning, you can edit an image on your iPad, save it, sync it, open it up on the iPhone, and revert it back to the original version. Slick.

There are, however, a few things I’d love to see added to the app:

Right now, there is no way to apply the same edits to a batch of photos. Not only does the larger screen of the iPad make it more friendly to editing photos, it also makes it more of a go-to device for editing a lot of photos. The way I edit in Lightroom is that when I’ve got a batch of images all from the same event, I edit one to get just right and then I synchronize those edits to the group of photos. It’d be awesome to have that same functionality in VSCO Cam.

And, curiously, there is not yet a share extension for iOS 8. This is unfortunate. It means you can’t make VSCO edits to your photos without first importing them into the VSCO Cam Library. In my link to VSCO Cam this morning, I commented on the lack of the share extension saying that who knows if the omission of the share extension is due to technical hurdles or if it’s a philosophical move.

The VSCO Cam app is much more than just a photo editing app — it’s an entire photo platform. It’s clear that VSCO Cam wants to be your one-stop shop for all your mobile photography needs: from the camera, to the photo library, to the best editing software, to their own Instagram-esque publishing platform (Grid), and their own photo-centric blogging platform (Journal). What’s awesome is that VSCO Cam does all of these things with aplomb. Their in-app camera is excellent, their Library is easy to navigate and it syncs seamlessly, their editing tools are second to none, and their Grid and Journal platforms are polished and well used. But not everyone wants to use all of these tools. Some folks just want to snap a photo from their iPhone’s Lock screen, apply a one-tap filter, and then share it on Facebook. It would be unfortunate if VSCO Cam was holding back on their implementation of an iOS Extension for political and philosophical reason.

However, considering the fact VSCO Cam was highlighted during the iOS 8 introduction at WWDC, something tells me their missing extension share sheet is due to a technical hurdle, and eventually it’ll make its way out.

* * *

All in all, I’m so glad to have a native VSCO Cam app for my iPad. Though it’s not a life-changing revolution to my photography workflow, it certainly is something I’ll be using.

And now it has me curious if we’ll see VSCO Cam for Mac some day. I mean, we know that VSCO’s bread and butter is their Lightroom presets. Why not roll those presets into a stand-alone Mac app that they sell? And now that they’ve got the Library syncing, it’d be a piece of cake for the photos you take on your iPhone and/or iPad to sync to the VSCO Cam app on the Mac.

Using VSCO Cam for iPad

A Week With the Retina iMac

My review of the new Retina iMac could be said as one word: sensational.

I once read that a man buys something for two reasons: a good reason and the real reason. I bought a Retina iMac for a very good reason: my primary computer — an aging MacBook Air — was due for an upgrade. But the real reason? It’s a 27-inch Retina monitor and it is astonishing.

Of course, it wasn’t entirely an easy decision to make. For as long as I’ve owned my own computer I’ve loved laptops. I love that I can close the lid, put the computer in my bag, and take my main work machine with me anywhere I want. There’s no syncing between two machines, or wondering if this or that file is on the computer or not, and no compromises when I’m on the road.

And so the choice to get the Retina iMac was also a choice to give up my perceived sense of freedom and portability that comes with having a laptop as your one and only computer. And honestly, it’s turned out to be not a big deal.

Over the past few years since I began writing here as my full-time job, a few things have changed regarding my work habits. For one, I work here at this desk in my home for about 80-percent of my hours. There were a few months at the beginning of this year when I was commuting to a local co-working space, but that didn’t quite stick for me (but that’s a story for another day and it’s underpinned by my hope that WELD will one day come to Kansas City).

Secondly, when I do travel to a conference or drive to a local coffee shop for the day, I mostly prefer to take my iPad. The work I do revolves around reading, writing, and communicating with my team. All of which are things I can do quite easily from my iPad thanks to apps such as Instapaper, Drafts, Poster, Unread, Editorial, Slack, Mail, Basecamp, OmniFocus, Safari, and Pushpin.

All that said, leading up to Apple’s special event I knew I’d be upgrading my MacBook Air. The question was, to what would I be upgrading?

Plan A was a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro and a Thunderbolt Display. The new computer to replace my old Air and the new Display to replace this grey market IPS display as a stop-gap while I waited held my breath for an updated Thunderbolt display (if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past decade of being an Apple user it’s to not hold my breath waiting for updated external displays).

But there was a rumored iMac with Retina display that was throwing a wrench in my upgrade plan.

And as I thought about my various upgrade options — either stay a laptop-plus-external display user, or switch to become a desktop user — I thought about how I mostly work. And realized that the vast majority of my computer working time is spent at my desk. I’ve been mostly using my Air in clamshell mode practically since I bought it in 2011.

And here at my desk, it’s more than just the computer that I have going on. I use a standing desk, a clicky keyboard, and gigabit internet. There are many incentives (comforts, really) that make my home office workstation comfortable, efficient, and preferable. Honestly, I like it here.

And so I decided that I was willing to double down on my home-office setup and that my next main Mac would become a desktop machine if it meant I could get a Retina display.

Welp, that’s exactly what happened. Apple announced the new iMac with its Retina 5K Display, and I ordered one right away.

Built to Order

I’ve been a Mac user since early 2005 when I bought a 12-inch PowerBook G4 so I could learn Photoshop. And if the last decade is any indication, I use my computers for almost exactly 3.5 years. And so I try to get the highest-specced version of a machine that I can afford so as to prolong its usefulness.

Graphics and Processors

When ordering my iMac I went all out. It has the upgraded processor (4 Ghz Quad-Core Intel Core i7), the upgraded graphics card (AMD Radeon R9 M295X 4GB GDDR5), the 1TB SSD, and 32GB RAM (via OWC’s upgrade kit). In short, I kinda ordered the absolute top-of-the-line iMac. But it’s worth it, and here’s why.

The step up CPU and GPU were an easy choice. It’s $500 extra for both, but considering this is a bleeding edge machine with a bazillion pixels to push, it seemed prudent to get the better graphics card and processor in order to handle the screen. My personal computing needs consist mostly of open browser tabs and text documents — hardly the sort of work that demands the top-of-the-line iMac’s outrageous horsepower. But my gut tells me the iMac’s 14.7 million pixels will appreciate the octane, and I’d rather be safe than sorry.

Jason Snell received a baseline review unit of the Retina iMac from Apple. And in his review he encounter occasional graphic stuttering:

In my use of the stock system, graphics performance was generally fine, though if I opened a whole lot of windows and spaces and then invoked Mission Control, I could definitely see pauses and stuttering. I have no idea how much of that is the fault of the system hardware, and how much is the fault of the software.

I’ve got 18 applications with 22 windows open at the moment, and when I invoke Mission Control it’s about 98% smooth as butter. Meaning, if I’m looking for pauses and stutters, I can kinda notice one, but then it’s gone the next time. And every other graphic animation — scrolling, moving windows around, resizing, minimizing, maximizing — looks perfect (save Time Machine, which I’ll get to in a bit).

David Pierce reports of there being some tearing during fast-paced graphics games, even on his high-end review model. In my usage over the past week I haven’t seen any tearing, but I also don’t play any games on my iMac.

Upgrading the RAM was another easy choice. There’s a little plate in the back of the Mac that pops out and it’s a piece of cake to add new memory yourself. It took me about 5 minutes. And OWC has a page set up with recommended upgrade options.

The iMac ships with 8GB of ram as 2 sticks of 4GB. The most reasonable upgrade is to simply add two more 4GB sticks to get a total of 16GB. You can get this from OWC for $100. I decided to go all out and upgrade to 32GB of RAM because we all know Safari will drink that RAM up like liquid gold once she’s got more than a few open browser tabs. I hear extra memory is also helpful when working in Lightroom.

Solid State Storage

And as for the storage. Well, I went with the 1TB SSD for the sake of minimalism. Seriously.

I went with the SSD instead of a Fusion Drive because I’m not a huge fan of the latter. I’m sure they’re great, but I’d rather stick with pure solid state.

Disk Speed Test Retina iMac

What blows my mind about the Solid State Drive is the Read/Write speeds I’m seeing. My very first SSD was an OWC Mercury Extreme Pro that I put into my aluminum MacBook Pro back in 2010. At the time it had a read/write speed of 134 and 109 MB/s respectively. And when the SSD in my MacBook Air was brand new its read/write speeds were 265 and 248 MB/s respectively.

As you can see from the screenshot above, the SSD in my iMac reads at 688 MB/s and writes at 705 MB/s. (!) That’s really fast.

Compared to the baseline Retina iMac that Engadget reviewed, which included a Fusion Drive, my write read speeds are about the same but my write speed is more than double that of the Fusion drive.

The reason I went with 1TB is because a bigger capacity hard drive makes life so much easier. It means I don’t have to juggle with storage, wonder which drive a certain folder is on, nor worry about if I have room to import a card full of photographs.

I could get by with a 512GB drive because right now, all my data takes up about 400GB. But since taking up photography two years ago, it has become a very serious hobby, and I’m taking more pictures now than I was 2 years ago. And so the reason I wanted the biggest drive is so I wouldn’t have to start playing file storage musical chairs again in just a year from now.

Having a larger internal drive that can hold all of my files, also makes backups easier. With my MacBook Air, I had to offload most of my photographs and media to my Synology and then access those over the network. Not exactly a huge deal, but definitely a bit complex and also it meant I had two drives each with their own unique and priceless files on them.

Therefore I had two drives which each needed their own local backup and their own offsite backup. The Synology is pretty awesome in this regard. It runs in RAID and thus internally has its own redundancy. Additionally, it can automatically back itself up to a local USB drive (just in case the Synology unit itself ever gets fried), and it can back itself up to Amazon Glacier or Google Drive (among other options). But the only thing better than having all my files available on an awesome network attached storage drive is having all my files on my main computer.

Not to mention, even with NAS-grade hard drives and a gigabit network connection, I’m still only getting read/write speeds that are a fraction of those I’m seeing on my iMac’s internal drive.

Now that all my files are on the iMac, I have just one local and one off-site backup to manage. I use SuperDuper and an external Western Digital drive for nightly clone, and I have a Time Machine partition on my Synology.

Now that I’m no longer using the Synology as a media hub, its can be, and should be, so much more than a Time Machine destination. I’m going to do some research into using it as a VPN as well as possibly sync my Documents folder to the Synology because the iOS app for remote access to files is great (too bad there is nothing like that for accessing files on my Mac from my iOS device through Back to my Mac).

Special

The creative professional has long been one of Apple’s primary user demographics. And it used to be that if you were doing serious work, you bought a Mac Pro. But over the years, not only has the iMac line gotten more and more powerful, so too has the MacBook Pro line. In fact, over the past several years, many a creative professional has become a “laptop primary” person. Myself (previously) included.

Anyone who deals with graphics and images and videos is always looking for fast and powerful. Naturally, it’s fun to have a computer that boots up faster than you can pour a cup of coffee. But it’s also practical to have such a beast. A more powerful machine means less time waiting for videos to render, apps to build, and photos to export. And that genuinely makes life better for a lot of us.

And that’s why its so wild that the high-end Retina iMac is faster than the entry-level Mac Pro in some cases. This is not your mom’s iMac.

And yet, despite what an amazing workhorse this computer is, you don’t buy it for the power. You buy it for the screen. For the first time in desktop computing history, the speed and power of this machine is not the primary story or selling point. Rather, it’s all about the display.

And what a display it is. What I’m discovering is that the wonder of a Retina display is directly proportional to its size.

The more I use and learn about this iMac, the more I’m amazed with it. It’s a ridiculously powerful computer underpinning a jaw-dropping display. Put those two things together and you get something truly special. I know you know this.

Now, I’m someone who rarely does any graphic design, nor do I shoot or edit any video in 4K, and I’m a hobby photographer at best. What do I need a Retina computer for?

Text.

That’s right.

I work with words all day long, and text is perhaps one of Retina’s primary beneficiaries. We’ve been saying this since the iPhone 4 came out in 2010, but it has yet to cease to amaze me: type on a Retina screen is sharp, crisp, and print like. And on a 27-inch monitor, it’s all better. Especially when this is the screen I am in front of for the vast majority of my work day. Yes, I have my iPhone with me all the time, but I spend exponentially more time in front of my computer than my phone.

The most marketable use-case scenarios for the Retina iMac are for video and photography professionals. But if you deal with text and words as your primary vocation — i.e. writing, programming, editing, layout design, etc. — I think you’ve just as much reason to get a Retina Mac as those professional video editors and photographers do.

As a writer by trade, part of me wants to argue that wordsmiths have even more of a legitimate reason to go Retina than those working with images and graphics. But, then I open up Lightroom to process some of my recent photography and I’m blown away at just how stunning my pictures look. So I guess we all have equal grounds.

Setting up the new iMac

It was a week ago this morning that FedEx delivered my iMac. I get a new computer so rarely, that when I’m setting it up I use it as a chance to start fresh.

Instead of using Migration Assistant to port over all the apps and settings and preferences from my MacBook Air, I simply set up the iMac with the clean install from the factory and only added files and apps as I needed them.

While things are certainly a bit more tedious this way — especially the first day of setup — I like having the chance to once again pick and choose which apps I install. It lets me start with only what I actually use on a regular basis.

Dropbox and iCloud Keychain make things surprisingly easy in this regard.

Most of my apps that have any sort of syncing engine (1Password, OmniFocus, TextExpander) are up and running just as I left them on the MacBook Air. Others, such as Keyboard Maestro, Transmit, and Hazel, I had to export my settings out of those apps on the Air and then import them into those apps on the iMac.

This is one area where the Mac App Store shines. Installing a dozen or more apps from the MAS is as simple as scrolling down the list of purchases and clicking “Install”. For those apps I own which I didn’t purchase through the MAS I needed to go to the respective website, download the free trial, launch the app, and then dig up and enter in my license info for that app.

After syncing my Dropbox folder I then just copied over all the files in my Air’s Documents folder, all the music and photos from my Synology. And while that was running, the apps I installed right away were Dropbox, LaunchBar, TextExpander, and 1Password. After those I installed Byword, MarsEdit, Reeder 2, OmniFocus, Rdio, Coda 2, Transmit, Bartender, Hazel, Backblaze, Lightroom, Day One, Fantastical, iBank, Droplr, Simplenote, and Tweetbot. But not in that order.

On my Air there are 216 items in the Applications folder. On my Mac, there are currently just 66. Feels good.

Aside about 2-Factor Authentication

I have 2-factor authentication enabled on pretty much any service that offers it. This was the first time I’ve gone through a complete ground-up setup where all my logins were guarded by verification codes. To my surprise and delight, it was surprisingly painless — and even encouraging — to use all the 2-factor authentications I have set up.

Lightroom on the Retina iMac

As mentioned above, my photography hobby has been the biggest bane to my MacBook Air. Both in terms of storage space and processor capabilities. As explained earlier, the guts of my iMac have obliterated my two biggest pain points with photography. The new computer (a) has plenty of storage space to hold all the photographs I’ve taken over the past 2 years with room to spare for the next few years’ of photos; and (b) has the processing power to work much more quickly in Lightroom.

Beyond the fact that it’s a better computer for doing photo editing, it is a vastly superior screen. My Olympus shoots RAW images at 4608×3456 pixels. It’s bigger than 4K video, and quite a bit taller as well. So I can’t fit 100% of my image onto the screen while working in Lightroom, I can however view it at 50% pixel-for-pixel resolution and it looks so nice.

Time Machine Oddities

Time Machine in Yosemite

Looking at the photograph above (click here for full size), you can see some lines and odd graphics where there should be smooth graphics and gradient shadows. I asked around on Twitter, and several other folks are seeing the same thing with Time Machine on Yosemite, and, from what I can tell, it’s pretty much only an issue on Macs with Retina displays. Which includes not only the new Retina iMac, but also the Retina MacBook Pros.

However, if I take a screenshot of what you see above, then the screenshot doesn’t capture any of the graphics oddities. It looks just fine.

Something else with Time Machine is that the timestamp for the current file / folder in view renders blurry, like an image at non-retina scale:

Time Machine Pixelated Time Stamp

Fan Noise

One concern some folks have had about the Retina iMac is how loud the fan will be. My experience pretty much mirrors exactly that of Jason Snell:

I notice when I’m recording a podcast and my MacBook Air’s fans are loudly blowing because some runaway app is using way too much processor power. When I ran stress-testing processor and GPU-based tests on the iMac, the fan would definitely come on, and in a quiet room it was audible. It was also, to my mind, vastly quieter than the fan in my MacBook Air. The iMac’s not going to match the Mac Pro for quiet fan blowing, but neither is it going to beat out any Mac laptops in a contest to see who can make the most noise.

I can’t remember the last time my MacBook Air’s fans weren’t running at full speed and volume. And while my iMac certainly does have an audible fan at times, even at its “loudest” it’s nearly unnoticeable except when my office is completely silent.

A few Yosemite hacks

The Dream

Last week, Ian Hines asked me how apps and websites hold up in on the Retina screen. The fortunate answer is that they hold up extremely well.

This iMac is not the first web-connected Retina device, nor is it the first Retina Mac. And so, at this point, the vast majority of websites and Mac apps have been updated to look great on a Retina screen.

While I do encounter some blurry bits on occasion, they are few and far between. The only downside I can think of with this computer is that it cannot run as a standalone monitor.

When I’m standing here, using the iMac, I keep thinking about how it’s all about the screen. But what’s crazy is that the screen is only half the story. Inside this iMac just so happens to be one of the fastest Macintosh computers on the planet. Take away the Retina display and you’ve still got an incredible machine. But you don’t have to take away the display. With the Retina iMac you’ve got your cake and you’re eating it, too.

From all I’ve read about this iMac, combined with all I’ve experienced, this is the real deal. There is no disadvantage to being an early adopter here and there is no major tradeoff. I am so happy this computer exists. This is the dream. This is Retina Desktop Without Compromise. And it is wonderful.

A Week With the Retina iMac

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.

A Brief Review of the Synology DS213j

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

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

Let’s talk about application launchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other application launchers

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

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

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

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

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

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

An aside about Alfred

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

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

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

But I personally prefer LaunchBar for a few reasons…

LaunchBar

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

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

The “Command+Space” Origin Story

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

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

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

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

Norbert Heger:

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

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

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

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

LaunchBar 1, running on NeXTSTEP — Circa 1995

LaunchBar version 1

LaunchBar 2, running on Rhapsody

LaunchBar version 2

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

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

LaunchBar 4

But today, the design is changing.

LaunchBar 6:

LaunchBar version 6

What’s New in LaunchBar 6?

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

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

The all-new look.

LaunchBar 6 Themes

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

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

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

Actions, Extensions, and Workflows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Usage Reports

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

Live Search Results

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

Emoji

LaunchBar 6 Emoji

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

Better iCloud Calendar and Reminders Integration

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

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

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

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

LaunchBar Reminders integration

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

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

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

LaunchBar Completed Reminders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LaunchBar Tips

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

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

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

    LaunchBar Instant Send

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    For example, this will launch a search on Amazon:

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

    This will launch a search on Giphy:

    http://giphy.com/search/*

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

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

Additional resources

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

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

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