October 18, 2018

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Much of the work I do involves adding new content to client websites. It’s usually a mix of text and imagery and the images can come in many forms though they usually get posted as jpg files. One of the most time consuming tasks is processing images from email or Messages. Some images are already web-optimized and can be posted as is. But more often than not they are too large or can come in file formats I need to change. Everything from Apple’s new image format HEIC to pdfs to tiffs come to me. Sometimes the image will need cropping, color or light adjustments or other work in which case I’ll open it in Affinity Photo.

But quite often the images don’t need much work, they  just need to be optimized and converted to jpg. That’s when I use a Shortcut. This is especially useful when I’ve got multiple images that need to have the same thing done to them. Most recently a client sent 10 images in the HEIC format. These were originals taken with an iPhone. After selecting and dragging them all from mail into Files I selected them in files and then shared them to my Batch Process Images Shortcut. The Shortcut then ran through each image prompting me to select a size, image format and quality level, and finally, a save location.

There are various ways of doing this that would save even more time. I‘ve also created a Shortcut with a preset image size, format and quality level which is set to save in a processed images folder. If I choose this Shortcut all the images will be processed and saved with no intervention from me. Each image takes less than a second and so 20 images can be processed in just a couple of seconds. It’s a fantastic timesaver. The only thing that will be left for me to do is re-name images which is not something I want to automate and then move them into place in the appropriate project folder.

Download Batch Resize with options.
Download Batch Resize with presets.

A big thanks to Jeff Perry of Tablet Habit who helped me create the Shortcut! I’d tried a couple of times and failed. Turns out I was missing 2 important steps. He added “Repeat with each” to the beginning of the workflow and ended it with “End repeat” and that’s what I was missing.

Apple stock app favorites: Files and Notes

I wrote recently about using Apple’s Stock Apps rather than third party apps. It was a response to a thread over at the Mac Power Users forum. I’ve since seen quite a few threads pop up there regarding third party utilities designed to store text, images, pdfs, etc. Some are semi-permanent, longer term storage such as Evernote and others are temporary shelf type apps such as Yoink and Gladys. Like many productivity and to-do apps these seem to be a constant magnet for nerds that want to experiment. Funny that as I write this I’ve come upon David Sparks’ most recent post as he experiments and considers a move from Apple Notes to Bear. I’ve tried many of these myself. But when it comes to notes and similar utilities, I’ve always come back to using Apple Notes and Files.

Recently version 2.0 of Yoink was released with one of the new features being iCloud syncing. I read the review over at MacStories and thought, hmmm, yeah, that’s nice but I reached the same conclusion I’d previously come to: I can just as easily use Files and Notes instead of Yoink. With the Apple apps I’ve had iCloud syncing for awhile and they sync to the Mac too. With this latest update Yoink on iOS will now sync but won’t sync on the Mac yet. So in that regard it’s still not on par with Apple’s apps.

With the introduction of system-wide drag and drop in iOS 11 Apple made it extremely easy to transfer content from practically anywhere via dragging and dropping. I’m really interested in the benefits of using Files and Notes as the end (or middle) point of this content collection in place of third party apps. Also, once in Files or Notes, how easy is it to use content in other apps?

What’s the difference in third party apps and the Apple apps? Well, for starters, the third party apps are often more specialized. Apps like Evernote are for long-term storage and indexing of content for retrieval later. I think of them as digital scrapbooks. The shelf apps are usually for temporary storage while working on a project. Drag text, images, pdfs to a shelf app and then use it a short time later and then likely delete it from the shelf. With third party apps the user is likely making a decision between longer term storage and short term storage.

With the combination of Files and Notes I’m not necessarily thinking that way about my content. Neither of those apps is really designed for short or long-term content. These apps are a bit more general purpose, a little less specialized. If I’m working on a project today, tomorrow, or next week, I can drag images, pdfs, or text right into my Documents folder in Files or into a project specific folder if I have one. The Files app works just as well (in most ways) as a dedicated shelf app and in fact I use it as a shelf app everyday. And in so many ways it is better than the dedicated apps.

Here are a couple of recent examples in which the Files app served as a “shelf”. I recently made a forum post and wanted to illustrate with screenshots. I took the screenshots and saved them into my Documents folder using a Shortcut that also converts them to jpg, shrinks the size and dimensions. Note, you generally can’t save files to a shelf app, they are for dropping files. Then I opened the Files app next to Safari and started my post. I was able to drag and drop the jpgs into my compose field with no problem. Another example, a client sent images I needed to use on a website. In this case the images were sent via both email and Messages. I opened Mail and Messages into splitview and then opened up files as a third slideover window on top. I navigated to my project folder in Files then it was a quick drag and drop from Mail and Messages. Done. There was no need in this case for a shelf as they were going straight to where they needed to go.

I should also point out that the Files app has several important features that the shelf apps generally seem to be missing. These are pretty basic for a file browser but are often essential to getting work done efficiently when using files.

  • Sorting based on date, name, size, tags
  • Quick view via “Recents”
  • Labels/Tags
  • Quicklook or preview files (this sometimes works on shelf apps but often does not)

Of course Files has its limits. The most notable (in my use) of the app is its handling of text clippings. It accepts text via drag and drop but often turns it into RFTD files which can then be difficult to open without extra effort. The shelf apps are pretty good at handling this sort of thing and this is where I’ll tend to use Notes as it handles text very well. Notes is my go-to if I’m not quite ready to work with the text or if I’m gathering bits of text from different sources. In that case Notes becomes my shelf app. In some cases where I have an immediate use I‘ll skip Notes and just bring up the app I’ll be using to process the text. If it’s a document for design purposes I’ll drag the text right into Pages or copy/paste it into one of the Affinity apps (the Affinity apps do not accept text via drag and drop. If its for a web page I’ll copy/paste it right into Textastic (Textastic also does not support drag and drop of text!).

Notes is also a good option if a client has sent me a mix of text, pdfs, and images that I need to use for a website update. In that case I drag and drop it all into a note then I switch from Mail to Textastic and work off of the note to process everything. Text is copy pasted while the images or pdfs are sent to from Notes to Shortcuts for resizing or converting if needed then saved into the appropriate project folders. I’m taking the same steps I would take if I had saved it all to Yoink or another Shelf app.

I mentioned above that David Sparks, like many, is trying out the notes app Bear. It’s a nice app with a few features that Notes doesn’t have, namely themes, tagging and Markdown support. Regarding Markdown support though, I don’t really need that in my Notes. I already have Drafts and iA Writer which is where I usually write blog posts, not sure I need a third app for that. Themes are very nice but not something I really need. Tags though, I’d really like to have tags in Notes. But are tags worth the subscription cost of Bear? Nope. I will say though that the cost of Bear, as a subscription, seems pretty reasonable at $1.49/month or $14.99/year.

Notes has an incredibly rich feature set some of which is not available on Bear. For example, Notes can be locked for relatively secure keeping and they can be shared with other iCloud users as collaborative documents.

Like most other text apps it’s also possible to share Notes content with the sharesheet. The sharesheet is incredibly flexible at letting me share in a variety of ways: pdfs, Messages, Slack, email, or even as a WordPress post with images. It reminds me a bit of Drafts in that it’s a great place to just begin with some text. But while Drafts has greater flexibility through automation, Notes has the added benefit of being able to add various media from images to gifs to movies to audio. And while I personally don’t do much note taking with the pencil it’s an option other folks might like. For those that record meeting notes or lectures I can see how having notes open with Voice Memos in the background for recording would be useful. After the event the audio recording could be saved right into the note. Playback happens in a bar at the top of the note which allows for editing of the note while playing and pausing. Most of these are features that neither Bear nor Drafts have.

Notes also has an excellent scanning feature via the device camera, sketching, and mark-up of pdfs and images. Of course Notes also has excellent text formatting with the usual and expected things such as bold, italics but also Title, Headings, Body, Lists, indented text and tables. Much of this formatting is intact when shared with apps such as Mail allowing for more formatting in those apps should you need it. While sharing via the sharesheet strangely lacks Pages as an option, copy/pasting into a Pages document carries over the formatting perfectly. Very nice should you decide a note needs the more advanced layout features in Pages.

For example, you start a note for a class assignment which ends up including formatted text, a couple images, an audio file and a sketch. You spend a few days writing and gathering content for the assignment but then need to package it in a nicely designed document. Just select all, copy and paste into a new Pages document. You’re ready to do some layout.

Given the deep feature set of Notes and the integration of Notes and Files with iCloud, they form a solid foundation for getting things done on iOS devices. Not only are they adequate but they are a pleasure to use and they come with the operating system so no subscription or extra payments are necessary. Of course I like to see third party development but I don’t have limitless budget and cost is a factor for me especially when subscriptions are involved. For now and the foreseeable future I’ll be sticking to Apple’s Notes and Files in these categories of apps.

Test post from Apple Notes

So, I’m working on a post about the benefits of Apple Notes and it occurred to me that I might be able to post to WordPress with an image. I already knew I could post text but how would it handle a note with an image? Well, apparently it works just fine! I’ll get back to that now but will just leave this here because… why not?

 

WatchOS 5: Closing my green rings is easier!

We’ve had WatchOS 5 for just over a week now and I’m really happy with the changes in the calculations of exercise activity. I recently wrote that I felt the threshold for earning green ring minutes was too high. Apple states that a brisk walk is what is needed to close the green rings but I was finding that I usually needed to jog. A brisk walk was usually not enough and that’s a problem for people that might have joint problems. I have a bum knee so jogging is something I have to be careful of. For the past few days I’ve been earning my green rings with a brisk walk again. Whatever calculations are being performed to determine exercise minutes seems to have been changed to a lower level. Previously it seemed I needed to keep my heart rate at 110-120bpm or higher and now it would seem that 100bpm is enough. In my case this is perfect as my bpm during a brisk walk is usually in the range of 90 to 110.

Siri Shortcuts

I’ve been using the public betas of iOS 12 since July and right off something I noticed about the suggested Shortcuts were that the specificity made them mostly useless. Why would I want to resend a message to my sister which I sent 30 minutes ago? No thanks. No, I’ve already viewed that website, I don’t need it suggested again for a voice controlled command. Another pitfall is the repeated suggestion that I can call my brother or another recently called contact. I can already do that with Siri simply by saying “Hey Siri, call my brother.” Why would I bother creating a Shortcut? During the beta period I failed to find a single suggested Shortcut that would be useful. They were all duplicates of something Siri already handles or they were far too specific to a previously done action to be useful. But I had hope that with the release of the updated Shortcut app and new apps designed to take advantage of the new system we would get some useful voice commands.

We’re only a couple days in so it’s too hard to say. There’s a lot of excitement in the Apple nerd community but I will say that I think this is going to take some time. Of the apps currently offering recordable Shortcuts, my favorite is Carrot Weather which offers several very easy to set-up voice commands. This Shortcut makes sense to me as it allows me to get my weather via voice. I can listen and be done. What makes less sense to me are the recorded shortcuts for apps that I’m likely to be interacting with on-screen. Two examples are Drafts and Things which also offer Shortcuts.

Mixing up the inputs: Visual and Audio
What we have with Shortcuts in iOS 12 is a merging of visual and audio computing. We’ve had a taste of the audio for the past few years with Siri. This is Apple’s attempt to mix it up a bit and it will be interesting to see how it pans out. Frankly, in these early days I find it a bit confusing as do my devices.

When I’m at a screen, usually the iPad, sometimes the iPhone, I will use the occasional Shortcut created by the Shortcut app. For example I’ve got one that I’ve used consistently to convert pdfs into jpgs with cropping and resizing as steps. Very handy for turning pdf flyers into jpgs for posting to client websites. I’ve also got Shortcuts for opening or creating file archives which can be handy and nice to be able to do this without third party apps. Various shortcuts for blogging such as one which takes the url and rich text from web pages and copies the combination for pasting into Drafts or iA Writer.

Another, this one used from iPhone, is a mileage calculator that I use to append text to a plain text file stored in iCloud. I get gas then run shortcut which appends the date, gallons, miles and mpg to the text file. Just a tad easier than tapping the text into Notes which is what I used to do.

Speaking of Notes, I’m surprised and disappointed that Apple has done nothing to connect Notes and Shortcuts. If they expect third party developers to take advantage of Shortcuts they should do the same. As of this moment the only Shortcut step for Notes is to create a new note. Why not let me do more? I don’t use the Bear notes app but those that do have access to at least six built in Shortcut functions. I’d love to be able to use a Shortcut to append to a note, for example,the above mentioned gas and mileage log. I’d rather keep it in Notes.

Another log that I keep is for heating and cooling my sister’s vacation cabin. We share a utility line so in the hot and cold months I keep track of the heating and cooling so that I can better estimate our shared utility bill. I’ve set-up a Shortcut that lets me simply say “AC Log On” or “AC Log Off” whenever I’ve turned her A/C on or off. At the end of the month I have a much better idea of how much her bill is. That will also come in handy during the winter when I run her heater. This also goes to a text file when it could be stored in Notes. This difference between this and the mileage log is this is one I trigger just using my voice. I wanted something super convenient because I do this action often and it is indeed very easy to do! I can use this via iPhone, iPad or HomePod. I should also be able to activate via the AppleWatch but currently get an error.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be exploring Shortcuts a bit more. Will they live up to the hopes and dreams of the Apple Nerdery? Will they prove useful for average users? Also, how do they fit into personal and work life? I’m looking forward to finding out.

September 19, 2018

Spent the day, the whole day, at least 8 hours, trying to learn more about how to save time with iOS Shortcuts. Not sure I’ll ever come close to getting this 8 hours back. As with all time saving automations, learning takes time.

Shortcuts User Guide

At the moment I’ve just about finished up a post about Shortcuts. Nothing too extensive, just a few thoughts about using it. I’ll be giving Apple’s Shortcuts User Guide a thorough read-through soon.

Shortcuts in iOS 12 let you get things done with your apps, with just a tap or by asking Siri. In addition to running shortcuts available on your iOS device, you can use the Shortcuts app to create custom shortcuts, simplifying everyday tasks by combining steps across multiple apps.

First year with an Apple Watch: A few hits, a few misses

First, a bit of context. When I purchased the Series 3 last year I was already in pretty good health. I was averaging about 9,500 steps for the year based on the Pacer app on my phone. My weight was about 176 which has been my usual for most past 15 years and about right given my height of 5’10". Dropping to 168 might be ideal, I just haven’t pushed for that. I started tracking steps and diet in 2014 because I had a few life changes at the time that led to dietary changes that led to a gain of about 22lbs over just a few months. I got that under control, lost 15lbs and then eventually lost the remaining 7. As of March 2017 I’ve hovered at my historical normal of 176.

Also, at the time I purchased the Apple Watch I had not been a regular watch wearer. Not for many years. My primary reasons for purchasing were Siri/Homekit, health tracking and for using with AirPods. In this latter intent, using for playback with AirPods it’s been perfect. It’s super nice to be able to playback music from the watch itself or control playback that I might be streaming from my iPhone. And now it’s not even just playback on the AirPods that can be controlled but also streaming from the iPhone to the HomePod. Siri has been excellent on the watch too. I expect all of this will be even better with the upcoming watchOS update.

My main gripe has been activity tracking. Overall it seems to track well. But it’s not without some problems. I’m 49 years old and have had a bad knee since I was a teen. It was better for a while then not so much. I’m not someone who can cycle or run. But I can walk and if I’m really careful I can handle a gentle jog. But my ideal is a vigorous walk. Within the first week with the AppleWatch I learned that I was walking to slow. Not surprising to me as my walking was more for enjoyment than working out. Yes, I considered it exercise and a part of being healthy but I didn’t consider it a workout. And the AppleWatch confirmed that. My green rings didn’t move much when I went out for my 2 daily walks which usually consisted of 2 miles each. During the first week with the watch I would look at the end of the day with 4 miles walked and I might have 10 minutes on the green ring. The red rings were closing based on the initial default of 420. So, I picked up my walking pace. I went from a casual dog walk to a brisk walk and without much trouble could close the green ring with just one 2 mile walk. Then I’d take it easier with my second walk.

At also learned that I could get a more accurate account by using the Outdoor Walk workout if I was cutting grass or walking the dogs because often in that case my arm was not moving back and forth as it normally would during a walk. But over the past few months I’ve been taking note of a few things that bug me.

In April, for the 2nd time in my life, I came down with the flu. My 7 month streak came to an abrupt end and my rings went unclosed for 2 weeks. I later learned that it’s possible to do the “Other” workout and close the rings. Would be nice if Apple enabled some sort of option for sick days. Along those same lines, for those of us that don’t have access to home exercise equipment or a gym, days of bad weather can be a problem. Again, I know now that I can use the “Other” workout on those days but I only learned about that workaround by accident. Maybe Apple does document it more obviously and I missed it? But maybe just a better way to handle sick and bad weather days and the occasional rest day?

Another problem I have is that nearly a year in to closing my rings every day (except for the sick days) and I’m now noticing that even a brisk walk 2 mile walk often does not close my green ring. I guess my cardiovascular system is healthier (obviously a good thing) and so I need to go faster to get my heart rate to the point at which the green ring will close. But as I said, with my knee I’m not able to run and I have to be very careful even with a gentle jog. I’d guess this sort of thing might be an issue for quite a few people with knee or other joint problems. It would be helpful if Apple could allow for a manual setting of some sort. If my brisk walk is now only getting my heart to 110bpm then I should be able to set 110 as the point at which my watch counts green ring minutes. I don’t want to risk damage to my knee so that I can close my green ring.

One last observation. Sometimes the watch just seems a bit crazy. I’ve had days where I’ve gotten 10 minutes of green ring credit for no reason at all. Today while walking I ended the workout half way through the walk. I just wanted to compare the green ring accounting during workout and out of workout. For the walk back I just tapped every so often to calculate the heart rate. When walking at a brisk pace that would normally have me in the 110 to 120bpm range I got 63. I tapped again and 63. Again and 63. Finally it jumped up to 123 which is what I expected. Once it jumped up to 200 which was obviously wrong. In short, sometimes it seems wildly inaccurate.

Overall I consider the watch a good addition to tracking fitness but looking around online it seems many other folks have similar issues. Apple offers a an excellent overview of how the rings work but it seems many people are still confused. Clarification on closing rings and perhaps options for manual settings would be helpful far many.