Switching from a dedicated financial ledger app to Numbers

A few months ago I posted about my switch from FileMaker Pro to Numbers for my client invoice tracking. It’s worked out very well. Recently upon opening the iFinance app where I track my banking I was greeted to a message that there was a new version available. The amount is not too much but my current version works fine and browsing through the changes I didn’t see anything new that I needed. But it brought to mind that it would mean that the current version wouldn’t be seeing any more updates. Not a problem for now but perhaps in the future with OS updates. So, I had a similar thought, why not try to move my banking to a Numbers spreadsheet?

My needs are pretty basic. I wanted to mimic iFinance. I exported each account to a CSV and imported into Numbers. Then I created a master account file and set-up multiple sheets, one each for the various accounts. So, for example, Cash, Apple Cash, bank, PayPal, credit card, etc. Each is a simple line-item ledger that keeps a balance along with the usual: date, description, payee, category and note if needed.

Screenshot of Numbers Spreadsheet depicting multiple sheets and a table

The table for cash on hand. Different accounts are visible in the top row of sheet tabs.

Image

The first sheet, Account Overview, consists of a series of simple 1 row, 2 column tables each showing the balance of each account. At the top is a table that calculates the total balance of all the accounts. Last, I added a simple bar graph showing the total amount in each accounts.

Screenshot of Numbers Spreadsheet depicting multiple sheets and a table

The Account Overview shows the current balance of each account as well as a bar graph.

It’s fairly simple but works exactly as I hoped and only took a couple hours to create. I can open with any of my devices and I know that because it’s based on Apple’s own Numbers app, it’s likely to be supported for years to come.

Stage Manager for iPadOS is coming together

3 windows side by side taking full advantage of the 13″ iPad Pro. Apps: Spring, Twidere X, Taio

For the iPad enthusiasts that are tuned in to the various pundits of Twitter, YouTube, Blogs, Podcasts, the common narrative is that Stage Manager is a hot mess of bugs, poor design, etc. While I’d generally acknowledge that it’s been buggier than recent years’ beta cycles I don’t think it’s the dumpster fire some are making it out to be. A few thoughts.

Windowing: Free form or tiled
Some will like overlapping windows, some won’t. Notable iPad enthusiast Federico Viticci doesn’t seem to like overlapping windows and was hoping for tiled windows instead. I do like the idea of tiled window options as an extension of the current 2 window split. Having options for 3 or 4 windows in splits might work very well. That said I think the current implementation is a good start.

As currently implemented one a general opinion seems to be that truly free form windows would be better than Apple’s attempt to manage windows for users with a kind of size snapping and window juggling that seems hard to predict. Apple’s goal is to make it easier but it may be that it’s actually just making it harder. I think it’s still a work in progress and I’m not sure if I have a preference. But I do think that with the last beta the behavior is better.

The Dock and side strip of recent app spaces

In regards to the bottom dock and the side strip of recently used apps, I like that there are options here to hide one or both in stage manager. What I’m finding is that I like to leave both on because I always have the option to size windows such that they can occupy the full screen, temporarily hiding both the dock and the strip as needed. It’s easy to use a finger swipe or just push the cursor to the bottom or side to bring forth either as needed.

The Home Screen and Stage Manager

Like many who have noted, I agree that it seems silly to blur the Home Screen when using Stage Manager. Also, as noted by others, when tapping or clicking the Home Screen behind a window, it would seem to be an expected behavior that this would hide/minimize the current windows and reveal the Home Screen.

Other notes on recent betas

I’m seeing a lot of improvement, as we would hope and expect, in the latest beta released on October 11/12. Happy to see the return of the feature enabling a tap at the top of a window to quickly scroll to the top. Generally it’s been very stable with fewer bugs or confusing behaviors.

The only reproducible crash I keep seeing is with two specific apps that both use second windows for posting content. Spring for Twitter when composing a tweet and the TestFlight beta for the Micro.blog client.

It’s rumored that Apple will release 16.1 in the next couple of weeks and, given that it’s not on by default, I think it’s ready to go. They’ll continue bug fixing over coming months and whatever bugs or inconsistencies that remain will get ironed out. The vast majority of iPad users will never even know Stage Manager exists. Of those that are aware of it I’d guess only a small percentage will try it. For the more advanced “power” users, well, they’ll try it and for some it will be great, others not so much.

I think it will end up being an excellent multi-window mode for those that want it. And, as has been the case in previous years, Apple will continue to refine it’s vision of multi-tasking on the iPad going forward.

Social media and Blogging updates

I’m currently experimenting with a new host and may move this blog there at some point in the near future. The address for the experimental blog is: http://beardystarstuff.blot.im.

This current blog is hosted via WordPress and while it’s not a bad system it’s got a lot of accumulated cruft and posting can sometimes take longer than it should. I don’t need much of what WordPress offers. By comparison is Blot.im is lighter on code, fewer features, fewer options for themes but, frankly, wonderful. Once an account is set-up it’s simply a matter of dropping files into a folder on DropBox or Google Drive and they’re published. That’s it. Drag, drop, published. I’m using markdown but html also works. Any image can be dropped in and be published directly or added to a text post.

Blog.im requires DropBox or Google Drive for hosting files but beyond that the cost is only $4/month. Really, a fantastic deal. If you’re looking for a blog host, I recommend it. This is especially true if you’re starting from scratch with a new blog.

In regards to social media, I still have a Twitter account but I’m using it less and have been redirecting most of my attention and effort to a mix of Mastodon and Micro.blog.

Mastodon
Micro.blog
Twitter

Stage Manager

Matthew Panzarino has an excellent write-up on Stage Manager over at Tech Crunch.

“As a user, you appreciate that you’re not constantly accumulating clutter, you’re not cleaning things up, you’re not managing where things are, you just do what you want to do. And it’s there. And it’s, it’s all managed for you,” says Federighi on their approach to Stage Manager’s design. “It’s clean and focused. Traditional windowing environments are the opposite. They are mess making by default, everything you open contributes to clutter. Everything involves you having to kind of manage where things are and how things might cover each other up and so forth. And then you’re responsible for sort of cleaning up after yourself the whole time.”

Screenshot of Stage Manager windows

Image courtesy of Apple

I won’t be using it until the first public beta but the more I look at images and videos the more I think this is going to work out very well for those of us that use iPad Multitasking. There’s a lot being said at the moment about the M1 system requirement as well as certain aspects of how it’s currently implemented. I’m not sure I have much of an opinion just yet.

June 14, 2022

Been a week since WWDC 2022 and I’ve still not put together a proper post. For now I’ll just say, while I’ve been very happy with iPadOS as it is, I’m also excited about Stage Manager and extended desktop support coming in iPadOS 16.

Switching from FileMaker to Numbers for Invoicing

I began using FileMaker around 2001. I developed a handful of databases for clients but in recent years I’ve just been using it for my invoicing system and for personal projects. This past fall it occurred to me that it might be time to move on. I was thinking in terms of future updates, cost, simplicity and easier access to data from multiple devices. So I started looking around at possible small database apps as well as the possibility of using Apple’s Numbers app.

I’ve been a long-time user of Apple’s iWork apps and honestly, I love them. Pages is the one I’ve used the most but I’ve also spent a good bit of time in Numbers and have really enjoyed using it. Could Numbers replace FileMaker for my invoicing? It’s not something I’d ever considered as FileMaker is ideally suited to this purpose and my FileMaker invoicing is a database I’ve been using and evolving for over a 15 years. It’s perfect for me and works well on my iPad with FileMaker Go. Why in the world would I ever switch to Numbers? It’s not really the best app for this kind of task.

FileMaker, while a fantastic app, is really more than I need. It’s expensive (for what I do with it) and new versions of the desktop development versions as well as mobile versions are released fairly often. But I don’t actively work on FileMaker projects for clients these days and my only use in-house use is invoicing. And while my slightly out-of-date versions of the mobile and Mac apps get the job done I don’t know when they won’t be supported on my devices in the future. Even now, I’ve recently switched to the M1 Mac Mini and I’m not sure the version I have will run natively. I haven’t even installed it on the new Mac. I have not opened it on the 2012 Mac Mini in a year or so. On the iPad, where I use it the most, I’m at least one version behind. Various reviews of the most recent version of FileMaker Go for iPad indicate that it’s buggy so I’m not interested in updating.

Not only is there the cost factor, there’s also the simple fact that I don’t need the growing power and complexity of FileMaker. My invoicing needs are fairly minimal and in recent years it’s largely remained the same with the exception of a few visual design changes I made a couple of years ago. With FileMaker, a database, especially a multi-table database, can begin to feel like an app in and of itself. Thanks to the power and flexibility of FileMaker, it really is an app to develop systems that begin to resemble applications themselves with a multitude of layouts and interfaces.

I briefly considered a few database options such as Airtable and Tap Forms but decided to try Numbers first. My reasoning was that Numbers likely has a stable development future and comes free with every Apple device. It’s an app I’m familiar with and, though a spreadsheet application rather than a database app, I expected it would be enough for my needs.

Simplicity in use is another aspect of what I was considering in this move. With a switch to Numbers I am getting seamless sync between devices. With FileMaker I was using FileMaker Go on the iPad most of the time and just copying that over to the Mac as a back-up or to make changes to the design of the database where the Mac is a requirement. iCloud makes copying unnecessary and all changes can be done on the iPad, Mac or iPhone for that matter.

So, with the intent of exploring Numbers as an alternative to FMP for invoicing I began to tinker. My first effort resulted in a sort of dashboard file with two tables. One table was to record line items date, client, description and time worked. The second sheet would be an overview of invoices with totals and paid status. Then, each client would then get their own, separate Numbers file, each new invoice would just be a new sheet with the date for that invoice. So, I’d have an Invoices folder with Invoice Dashboard.numbers and then ClientName.numbers for each clients invoices. When it was time to send an invoice I’d do a quick filter for client name to get all of the unpaid time slips for that client, copy the rows then paste into a duplicated invoice sheet for that client. One benefit to this would be that if, at any point, I wanted to have a quick view of a particular client’s invoices they would all be accessible in that one file, organized by date in individual sheets.

I think the above method would have worked fine but before I could really test it I came across a macmost.com tutorial on creating a single file numbers invoice and that seemed a better way to go. I downloaded the sample file and began making a few customizations. I concluded this method would be a better solution. It consists of three sheets, each with it’s own table. The first sheet is for adding clients and their contact info. The second is for line items/consultations, I just add the client ID then the date, description, rate time. The third sheet is the invoice. After watching the video a couple times I think I have a pretty good idea about how some of the more complex features work and I see the logic of setting it up this way. With this method the “Invoice” sheet is an invoice template that uses the Lookup function and present the data for the client ID number provided. All of the associated/related line items for that client that are not marked with a paid date will appear in the invoice. Then I just export the invoice as a pdf to email. Once an invoice is paid the date is added to the paid cell for each of the line items in that sheet.

Clients Sheet
Consultations/Line Items
Invoice PDF Template

After four months of use I think this will work well as a long-term replacement for FileMaker.

As a follow-up, part two of this story, a couple of months after I transitioned to this new system, one of my website/design clients asked me for advice on setting up a system for tracking/creating invoices and various other bits of data for his retreat which provides courses, lodging, etc. I’d just assumed he had a proper system in place as he’s been running his business for 20ish years. No, not so much. He’s gotten by with a patchwork reservation/invoicing system but concluded that it was more work than it needed to be. We went over the various options and I explained my recent transition from FileMaker to Numbers.

Within a day or two I further modified my invoice system with new features and sheets to cover his more complicated needs. What I’ve learned is that Numbers is far more capable than I ever realized. Over several years of casual use I’d gotten a lot out of it but I knew I was just scratching the surface of what could be done with this app and now I’ve gotten yet another glimpse of what’s possible.

Obviously, Numbers is not FileMaker Pro, it’s not a relational database and there are limits. But I find it is very enjoyable to use, fairly easy to learn as I go

Universal Control

Universal ControlIt’s just one computer. That’s what I’m telling myself when I use Universal Control. The Mac, the iPad, functioning as one. It’s a computing experience with two screens. In the week or two since the release of the new feature there’s been a bit of debate about the usefulness of the new feature with some suggesting it’s a gimmick or just not that useful. And I suppose it’s possible that the usefulness might be a question depending on your workflow.

But in my case as I’ve been making more of an effort to use my Mac and sitting at a desk to do so, I’ve worked out a pretty comfortable flow between the two. There’s nothing here that’s set in concrete. It’s all about flexibility and flow and learning to move between the screens just as I might if my Mac were using two screens. But rather than the Mac driving both I’m using the extra compute power of the iPad as needed. The key here, and I believe Apple’s intent, is that the movement of cursor and keyboard between multiple screens be so fluid that we just do what we do without thinking too much. Initially there may be a tendency to over-think it.

An example of how it’s been useful to me. I often need to design newsletters, reports or brochures. For longer documents I’ll likely use Affinity Publisher which currently is not available on the iPad. In that case I’ll open my document full screen on the Mac and use the iPad for sourcing material sent by the client. I might have text saved to Apple Notes, or in a Word document or in an email or webpage. I can effortlessly move my cursor to the iPad, select, copy and then paste into my document. Or select and drag the text back to the Mac screen and drop it. Both work. If it’s an image I need I can do the same. The 13″ iPad Pro has a large enough screen that I can have two apps open from which to source content from, all the while my Publisher document remains focused and in full screen on the Mac.

Flipping it, while I’ve got the Mac set-up now to do website edits for clients that’s something I usually do in Textastic on the iPad. I don’t have a problem multitasking on the iPad but if I were at my desk already this would be an ideal time to use the Mac for the reference material sent by the client via email or Messages as I use Textastic to edit and upload the html files on the iPad Pro. Or, I could do the opposite.

The beauty of Universal Control, iCloud and having a similar set of tools on the Mac and iPad means that however I choose to work at any given moment, I’ve got two screens, two computers, but one fast, seamless point of control for both. As I said at the beginning of the post, it feels as though I’m working with one computer.

The last change I’ve just made to the set-up is a monitor arm for the 27″ display and two bookend speakers as the monitor has no built in speakers and the Mac Mini’s internal speaker is pretty useless. With this arrangement it occurred to me it might be better to place the iPad under the display rather than to the side as I’ve been using it. This makes room for the speakers on either side and the iPad fits perfectly below the display and just above the Keychron keyboard. Not only does Universal control work perfectly via this vertical arrangement it actually feels better and less error prone than it did when I had it off to the side.

All in all I think Universal Control will be the kind of feature, like the other Continuity features such as Handoff and Shared Clipboard, that will prove really useful in my workflow as I suspect it does for others that are using multiple devices.

M1 Mac Mini and iPad Pro Set-up

After a bit of consideration these past few months I finally bought an M1 Mac Mini. My 2012 Mini is still running but with inflation, war and the general state of world affairs, I thought I’d go ahead and get set-up with a Mac that should last the next 10 years. The new Mac will largely fill the same role as the old, essentially, a file server, internet sharing, and occasional projects that require Affinity Publisher which is not yet on the iPad.

All that said, as I posted a couple days ago, thinking about a battery powered Mac Mini and modular computing, it’s also on my mind to reconsider the value of the Mac. To that end, upon setting up the Mac Mini last week, I determined to spend as much time as possible using it over the course of the week. Largely that was to explore the new features of macOS Monterey but also just to get a feel for the new M1 hardware and finally to compare both to working on the iPad. There were even a couple days that I didn’t touch the iPad Pro.

After several days sitting at the desk I did a quick stand-up desk modification and now have everything setup as I used to 5 years ago, in terms of a standing desk set-up. I’ve got plenty of room for the iPad too. One consideration, knowing that Universal Control is coming next week, was to have a set-up that would allow me to easily move back and forth between the Mac and iPad. And of course, it’s also still very easy for me to plug the iPad in to one usb C cable and be using the external screen that’s shared with the two Mac Minis, each with their own input. The downside of the Universal Control set-up is that the Mac would be driving the larger 27″ display and the iPad Pro would be restricted to its smaller display. We’ll have to see how that goes. For now it’s acceptable as the Mac takes full advantage of the screen whereas the iPad looses a bit on each side. But letting the iPad take over the screen is as simple as using the screen sleep hot corner on the mac.

Okay, so, to compare the experience of coming back the Mac after several years of my regular, daily use of the iPad. What I’ve noticed in the past week is that while this new M1 Mac hardware is fast it still feels slower than the iPad in my normal, day-to-day usage and I think that’s largely due to multitasking.

iPad Multitasking versus Mission Control on the Mac
I’ve gotten used to the iPad way of using apps either in full screen or split screen. And so, upon returning to the Mac I’ve set-up several virtual desktops in Mission Control and have various apps assigned to them. It’s similar to the iPad multitasking experience with the most noticeable downside being that the thumbnails for screens are all at the top and small. I can’t tell what I’m looking at because the label for each is “Desktop 1”, “Desktop 2” and so on.

There is an option to run them in actual split screen (referred to as tiled), 2 apps to a shared screen which puts a label at the bottom with the app names. The downside to that is that the window becomes unavailable to other app windows. It feel locked. Compare that to an iPad where I can have my side by side apps and easily pull in an app as a slide over or a Quick Note. It’s a small thing but important in how it feels in use. Tiled apps on the Mac won’t even allow for a Quick Note and there is no such thing as slide over so it feels really restricted.

For many long-time Mac users the iPad is described as restrictive and as an environment where getting things done is more difficult due to what’s described as inferior multi-tasking. I’m finding the opposite to be true but I’ve also gotten out of the habit of using my Mac and having lots of windows open on a single screen. For many Mac users I think this is the key thing, just lots of windows from different apps on top of one another. I guess I did that as well in the days before the multi desktops brought by Mission Control. And to some degree, even after that. I think I often used overlapping windows but it now seems cluttered to me. Nevertheless, I’m going to continue for another week or two in an effort to give macOS a nice visit. My hope with this experiment is to discover how I can best use the Mac and the iPad together, as complimentary computers and screens. I’ve got two very powerful computers, if I can use both side-by-side I will.

And on the topic of multitasking and windows, I’ve decided to download and use an app called Raycast primarily for window management. There are paid apps to do this but Raycast seems to do what I want. It does a lot more than window management but that’s what I’ll start with. I changed the Command-Space shortcut to open Raycast and Spotlight is now Option-Command-Space. Raycast has the added benefit of doing window management. So I can activate it and start typing “right” and it has learned that I probably want to tile the current window to the right using half the screen. Then I can tap over to any other window and type “left” and it will prompt me to move the window to the left half. Or I can type “center” or a variation such as “center third” to place the window. Lots of options. All in all, it will make keeping windows organized easier when I feel that need, which I expect to be most of the time. I found it odd that I had to download a third party app to do this kind of keyboard shortcut window management.

App Launch Times
Surprisingly, the M1 Mac Mini is not as fast as I expected. Coming from the contrast of a 2012 Intel Mac and the iPad Pro, I expected apps to launch faster than they do. Many do launch with one bounce though the Affinity apps take longer to launch than they do on the iPad, about double the time. The same can be said for Pages and Numbers. If they’ve been open recently then they open with one or two dock bounces. Otherwise it’s 4 bounces or more. This compares the iPad where they appear to open instantly. This is part of the experience is very much related to memory management so I’ll dive into that a bit next.

Memory Management
This is an interesting one that is surprising me a bit. I knew going in that a budget Mac Mini running 8GB would be a bare minimum. It was the right choice for me though. Still, it’s worth mentioning a comparison to the iPad Pro with the same 8GB memory and M1 processor. Given how I’ve been using the iPad Pro, it seems noticeably better at managing memory for multitasking and yes, this goes against the common narrative that Macs are better for multitasking. I bring it up because yesterday as I worked on an Affinity Publisher project on the Mac I needed to open Affinity Photo to optimize a few images. Most edits can be done within Affinity Publisher’s very cool Studio Link feature that just opens a sort of Photos Mode. But I actually wanted to open an overly large png file externally and export it to a smaller png. Upon clicking the Photos app in the dock I found myself waiting for quite awhile for the app to open. Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce. It seemed to go on forever. I wish I’d counted. I expected maybe 4 bounces but guessing it was over 10. Now, to be fair, I had several other apps open and both of these Affinity Apps are resource intensive. But here’s the thing, on the iPad often bounce between Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer and then over to Safari, Mail, Obsidian then back to Photo to Designer then to Messages to News Explorer. As I type this in Obsidian I did the above to test. The sort of thing I do often on the iPad but I wanted to try it again to confirm my memory. It wasn’t till I got to News Explorer that I saw an app reload and that’s not surprising because I hadn’t used News Explorer since sometime yesterday afternoon. And the reload time was a mere half second.

I find that with the iPad I don’t “close apps” or manage them in the same way I do on the Mac. On the Mac when I see an app in the dock that indicates it is an open app I’m more likely to close it if I’m not using it or planning to use it. Perhaps that’s unnecessary and something I need to let go of as a habit from previous years’ habits. As a test I’m going to try to leave apps open longer and see how well the system manages it. I noticed the other day in the System Preferences app that there is an option to turn off the dock indicator for open apps, I’ve just turned that on so I’ll no longer know which apps are open. This brings me closer to the iPad experience and might also change how I think about managing app usage.

Finder on the Mac, Files on the iPad
This is one that’s brought up often as a subpar experience on the iPad. For the most part I disagree. Comparing the two, they seem to be very close to the same in experience. The one primary advantage that the Mac does have is that Finder has a customizable toolbar and the ability to view more columns of data about files in list view. It’s also got better file searching in that the contents of pdfs, text documents, etc are all indexed and searched. There’s no doubt that there’s room for some of these features to be added to Files and they should be. Sure, Apple probably needs to keep the default simple but certainly settings could be added for those that want more. All that said, using the Finder this past week has not led to any sense that I’ve been missing out anything essential on the iPad. In day-to-day, probably the most notable feature would be adding extra columns in list view then having the ability to click those column headers for quick sorting.

Built in Mac apps have all been as expected. I notice slight changes coming from macOS Catalina but mostly small refinements. Speed wise, it all seems to be about the same, perhaps just a bit faster in daily tasks. I guess that says something, too, about how optimized macOS is at this point. Made for iPad apps seem to run pretty well on the Mac.

Working together
Overall, I like and appreciate the refinements of macOS. Also, that while it still looks like macOS, visually, it’s getting closer to iPadOS. They’re coming together in a way that it’s easy to fluidly move back and forth without it being a jarring experience. And really, that brings my to my final point and something I was already thinking about even with Catalina, and something I touched on with my last post, that the Apple ecosystem, particularly the Mac and iPad, function so similarly that I could just as easily be on the same device. I think that’s counter to much of the narrative online which is focused so often towards which of the two is better, always framed as a competition and the differences. I’d much rather enjoy them both and use as needed.

A final edit to add after initial publishing, Apple released the OS updates hours after I posted this that include Universal Control. It seems amazing. I’m planning to return in a week with more about this experiment of using my Mac and iPad together and if it’s been impacted by Universal Control.

Modular Computing and the Mac I Want

Just a few days ago I wrote, not for the first time, about having mostly quit the Mac. I t was a response to a forum post over at Mac Power Users though it was also a post that had already been brewing in my head as a general frustration that I’ve had with managing my Mac. I’ve been a Mac user since around 1993 when I purchased my first, a Mac Color Classic. Still have it. Since then many Macs and I’ve loved using them. It’s only been the past couple of years that I started finding macOS frustrating largely because the simplicity of the iPad has sort of spoiled me, especially in terms of background maintenance type tasks. Also, window management. Bit’s of friction that just kind of crept in with the Mac. But really that might move me from the real topic of this post so I’ll save that bit for another day.

But more relevant to this post is that over time the iPad, as the simplest possible computer grew to feel like a comfortable extension of me. First and foremost a slab of glass. I’ve never gotten over that simple fact that this simple tablet was the computer. It not only set a new standard of simplicity but also of personal, direct interaction. And also the beginning (for me at least) of a new way of thinking about modular and portable computing.

Of course the laptop is that to a degree. Certainly portable and a complete package. I sold my last laptop in 2016 because I’d mostly stopped using it. I was either using my Mac Mini or my iPad. I no longer wanted a mobile device that was permanently attached to a keyboard. At that point the iPad OS was more limited so I often still used my Mac Mini at a desk for many computing tasks.

The past few weeks I’ve been getting closer to purchasing a replacement for the 10 year old Mac Mini. It’s still working pretty well but with inflation, supply chain disruption etc, I thought I’d go ahead and get the replacement, a 2021 M1 Mac Mini. I’ll keep the current Intel as a backup, maybe a server (which is already it’s primary function) or gift it to a family member. In any case, before purchasing I carefully considered a MacBook Air.

Why I skipped the laptop and went with the Mini is the subject of this post as it speaks to the modular, portable Mac I really want but which does not exist. I’ll say first that I went with the Mini because I have a 27″ 4K display which is what I’ll be using anytime I use the Mac. Why pay extra for the 13″ screen, keyboard and trackpad I don’t want or need? The reason I almost spent the extra was that the laptop also comes with it’s own battery, essentially, a back-up power supply and can be charged via USB C from AC or DC power supplies. If I’ve got a power outage my iPads, mobile hotspot, iPhone, etc can all be charged via a solar powered battery indefinitely. As would a MacBook Air. Sure, I can use the standard AC wall plug such as the one that the Mac Mini comes with and run it for many hours from that back-up. But not indefinitely. That’s okay and not a problem because when it comes down to it I’ll be using the iPad for most tasks anyway. But thinking about it did send me down a rabbit hole.

The modular Mac I want most would be a Mac Mini with a battery and the option to charge/power via USB C. But why? Why not just a laptop? Because as I get older I want a bigger screen for larger text. And because I want to be able to have that screen at various heights as needed. And because I’m happy to use an external keyboard and mouse or external trackpad. So, in part, it’s very much a hardware positioning issue. Again, the iPad has spoiled me. I’m used to being able to arrange work spaces in all sorts of ways between the iPad, keyboard and trackpad.

But it’s also an expression of the Apple hardware and software ecosystem. Between my iPhone, 2 iPads and Mac, everything is connected. While not perfect it mostly works most of the time – generally speaking, it feels like like being in a very functional, useful and often magical modular computing ecosystem. I expect I’ll notice and enjoy this even more with an M1 Mac running the latest OS and features like Universal Control.

But about this Mac Mini with a battery, well, I suspect that the current Mac Mini could be much smaller with the lower energy Apple Silicon. I’m imagining a device about half the size and weight. Unlike a laptop, the dimensions of this device would not be constrained by the dimensions of the built in screen, keyboard and trackpad. Maybe a fan, maybe not. But with a built in battery it could be an always on device, easy to transport from home to office or even to different locations within a home. With one of the new portable screens, a keyboard and trackpad, the overall package wouldn’t have to be much more than a laptop. But has the option of a larger screen set at an optimally ergonomic height with different arrangements between the keyboard, mouse and screen rather than for optimal ergonomics.

I can imagine a scenario where I’m at the home office working at the 27″ display attached to this portable Mac Mini and/or iPad and the usual peripherals. But a quick unplug of the display and I’m off to the library or a coffee shop or office. Maybe I’m headed to an office where I’ve already got another display, keyboard, etc waiting so I just take this tiny Mac Mini and my iPad. Or maybe I’m going to another space and I can take a portable 15″ display, keyboard and mouse. Certainly that’s more heft and bulk than a laptop but it’s still very portable and, the key point, at the home office it has advantages over the laptop.

One last thing I’d want in this kind of set-up would be a new macOS and iPadOS feature, an extension of Hand-off, Continuity, Sidecar and Universal Control that would allow me to initiate control of the Mac from the iPad without a third party app and without the Mac or iPad initially being on the same network. In this setting the iPad would see the nearby Mac, recognize it as mine and that it was running without a display, and prompt a connection, turning the iPad into a wireless display for the Mac, no dongles or third party software needed. Currently I can control the Mac via an app like Screens but that requires that both be on the same wireless network. Or I could use a third party wireless dongle or a wired connection via an app like Duet (see below story).

I can imagine that carrying a portable, battery powered Mac Mini and an iPad that could seamlessly initiate screen sharing/control would be a very cool feature in certain circumstances.

I’ll end with this story that popped up in my RSS feed as I neared the end of this post: Dave Mark at the Loop posts about this project to DIY a portable Mac Mini! Similar to what I’ve been thinking here though I would stress the value of a screen that is NOT attached.

Why I quit the Mac (Mostly)

I had a chuckle late yesterday afternoon when I opened up the forum and found this thread: iOS and iPadOS are endlessly frustrating to me.

The reason for my amusement was that earlier in the day was one of the rare occasions I found myself at the keyboard of my Mac Mini and I found myself frustrated with the experience for most of the time. I had a few things I needed to do in the Contacts app that aren’t up to snuff on that app on the iPad. Also not great on the Mac but a little better. Side note, Apple needs to give the Contacts app on all platforms some attention. It’s been awhile since spent any time managing contacts and it’s not a great experience. (Cardhop on the iPad is fantastic, a much better experience and I could have used that but hadn’t checked on the Mac in a couple weeks so figured I’d check for software updates, etc).

So, as I was working on that I had a tech question texted to me from a relative that resulted, after a series of exchanges between us, in my checking my Time Machine back-up. Huh, no back-ups since January 11th. No notifications that it had stopped. Upon investigating I found an error “A disk you are backing up is case-sensitive, but the backup disk is not. Select a different backup disk or exclude the case-sensitive disk from backups.” One of those fun Mac power user exercises! I do some searching and no resolution. Fine, I’ll come back to that later. I’ve had issues with Time Machine for years. For some it seems to work very well, for me, well, this is just the latest in a long, long list of failures.

I get back to my task. A client is having issues with his Contacts app throwing up the spinning beach ball which is why I’m tooling around looking at options for possibly moving some of his workflow to Numbers spreadsheets for contacts relating mailings, class sign-ups, invoicing and various other bits of data tracking that he’s never gotten around to doing.

While I’m at the Mac this same client messages me with a few requested changes to his website. I instinctively reach over to the iPad attached to the Magic Keyboard and open Textastic in split screen with Messages to reference the text and images he’s sending. He also sends a hyperlink to gather additional images and text from a website so I tap over to Safari. I select some text with the Magic Keyboard trackpad and copy. Then I use my finger to tap and hold an image in Safari, then use another other finger to drag up the dock and open Files to navigate to my client’s website folder. I drop the image in. As my hands are already near the screen I use my thumb to drag the dock up and tap over to Textastic. I finger tap the images folder, then tap and hold the new image to rename from the contextual menu then rename it using the keyboard. The client wants another image that I have in my Photos library so I Command-Space and type “flowers” and from those Spotlight results I open Photos app which opens a search for my flower images. I tap the “moments” section of the photos search results which has groupings based on date and within a few seconds I’ve got the image. I tap the share icon to send the image to a shortcut that resizes and compresses the photo which I save straight to the website images folder.

Over the course of this 5 minutes of activity my fingers and hands have danced back and forth from screen, to keyboard to trackpad. I can’t say that I know exactly how I’ll do any particular task, whether it will be the trackpad or touching the screen, I just do it. If my fingers are already on the keyboard I’ll likely use the trackpad. But because they’re always close to the screen tapping is easy and often I find that I can go quite a bit faster because I can interact more directly with the screen via touch and with two hands – with the trackpad I am limited to one cursor. This kind of interaction isn’t possible on the Mac and I feel slower because of it. The Mac limits me to one cursor, one point of on-screen interaction with a mouse or trackpad. I have to drag that cursor, and aim it. Not so with the touch screen where I can much more quickly move a finger right to the place I want to interact.

Another place where the Mac slows me down is in the processing of mail. The iPad and a touch screen feels far superior when processing mail. When it comes time to delete and move mail around the two hand, multi finger process is excellent. My left hand goes up towards the left side of the screen and I use my thumb and/or other fingers to multi select multiple emails to drag and drop. Or I can slide delete or tap delete using a second finger on the delete key if I’m doing this with the keyboard attached. Lots of options and I tend to use all of them.

Same thing for files. I feel slower on the Mac with a trackpad or mouse. On the iPad, whether I’m in split screen with two Files windows open or just one, multi-touch file selection is fantastic. Two finger drag to select multiples is great. Almost everything feels faster.

Another area that I’ll mention is multi-tasking. It’s often said that multitasking on the iPad is cumbersome, difficult and still not finished. It is true that on a Mac I can have as many windows of as many apps as I want, all on one screen, placed free form wherever I want and overlapping as I see fit, and yes, sometimes that is useful. Sometimes, it’s just a complicated mess of windows.

After several years working on the iPad I prefer the iPad multitasking model of interaction, especially given the improvements of the past few years. Having a single app window open is generally fine and when it’s not it takes me no time to bring up a split screen and/or a slide over as needed. Dragging up from the bottom of the screen to get multitasking or using any of the new keyboard shortcuts, again, all of these work very well for me. I don’t need third party window managers to help me organize or keep my windows tidy. I just use the iPad as it is intended and find that it’s fluid and fast and fun to use.

To compare, I just hopped back to my Mac to see where I left things yesterday. A Finder window open and 7 minimized windows in the dock. I can run the cursor over those tiny minimized windows in the dock to get a label to identify them but it feels slow compared to multitasking on the iPad. On the iPad I can more quickly activate the multitasking view which gives me a view that’s much quicker and easier to navigate with less eye strain and cognitive load. Not only that, but I can more quickly get back to an app or task from further back in time right where I left off. This is especially true of the newer M1 iPad Pro with increased memory. I can often, with just a couple of swipes pull an app from multitasking right where I left off at some point earlier in the day or a previous day.

A few more ways that I find the Mac to be too restrictive are tied to the hardware limitations. I don’t know how folks can deal with a permanently attached keyboard. A MacBook Air is more flexible than a desktop Mac in terms of location but it’s still stuck to landscape mode and a keyboard/trackpad. Sure, I use my iPad with a keyboard/trackpad much of the day. But as needed I give the iPad a gentle tug and it’s free to continue using in landscape or rotated to portrait without the extra baggage. I can keep using my fingers to touch the screen directly or I have the additional option of using the Pencil. There’s a fluidity of form, handling and function that come with the iPad that I can’t get with a Mac that’s locked to a keyboard, trackpad and/or mouse.

I’m not sure at what point I began viewing the Mac as more of a hinderance and something I had to over-manage. I’m not certain if it’s the complexity of the OS, troubleshooting things like file permissions, window clutter or just the form factor that requires a cursor. But at some point around 2018 I’d spent enough time with the iPad as my computer that going back to the Mac was more trouble than it was worth. When I was younger I enjoyed the Mac more in part I think because I didn’t mind maintenance, it was a part of the fun. The iPad came along and matured at a rate that matched my own needs and inclinations I suppose. 12 years on and it’s not as simple (or limited) as it was in those first few years. But nor is it overly complex.

Ultimately we’ll all chose the tools we’re most comfortable with for various tasks, environments and at different times of our lives. I’m grateful that the iPad has been iterated in such a way that my mom can still have her easy to use iPad, mostly unaware of all of the new features that have been added. The same is true for my father and quite a few others in my family. For them the iPad is still that simple computer that they don’t have to worry about or spend time maintaining. But for me Apple has provided another version of this same device, one that is far more capable and yet, still, not cumbersome or overly burdened with troubleshooting or maintenance.

The Mac served me well for 25 years and while it will still have it’s place I’m happy to have moved on to the iPad.

I had to recharge so here’s the iPad in desktop mode.