Category Archives: iPad Journal

iPad Journal: Zugu Case Review

As I mentioned in my recent post about my evolving iPad workflow and workspace, I’m currently trying out the iPad Pro in a Zugu Muse case with an external keyboard. This is a change from recent months using the iPad with no case and having it in a stand when typing or hand-held for browsing. Previous to that I usually had it in the Smart Keyboard Portfolio.

Briefly, the move to the Zugu case is not so much about protecting the iPad (though the case is designed to be very protective and in that regard it’s much better than Apple’s Portfolio) but more about having a variety of angles possible as well as ease of use in my lap or on the futon beside me.

The Zugu Muse is the specific case I have and the first selling point listed on the website is exactly why I’m giving it a go. It’s designed to allow for 8 angles which are securely set but easily changed with magnet-based slots. The many reviews echo the product demo video in saying that the case is very sturdy and stable when the iPad is in use. The metal stand I’ve been using is very stable and sturdy but only useable on a shelf, desk or other hard surface. Also, unfortunately, the angle on that stand is not easily adjustable.

I’ve had the Zugu for a couple weeks and can report that it is very sturdy and stable as promised. This is true for all 8 angles. At the moment I’m sitting/reclining on my beanbag chair and my legs stretched out straight in front of me. The iPad is fairly stable in the Zugu just above my knees and my keyboard is sitting in front of the iPad.

I can move my legs around a bit, stretch and so on with no fear that the case will flip. If I want or need to reposition my legs I can adjust the angle of the iPad/Zugu accordingly to get what I need. It’s not as easy as a laptop but it’s close enough.

I have only three critiques at this point.

First, when, changing the angle I do have to be careful to get both of the slots set. The magnets are very strong once the folding flaps are in place though.

Second, there is room for one more slot closest to the iPad/hinge that would result in an even more vertical position and still retain the stability of the other positions.

Third, I’m still not quite sure what the best way is to pick this up when I’m moving a short distance, say from my futon to the desk 10 feet away. It just seems a bit clumsy to move around. In that regard, the Smart Keyboard Portfolio seemed a bit more stable and sturdy when picked up in it’s typing position and moved. With the Zugu sometimes I’m not sure where to put my hands when picking up and as a result I’ve knocked the folding brace from the magnet slots a few times causing a moment of panic as the cover/bottom flops loose. Perhaps more practice?

So, to compare the set-up to Apple’s solution, the Smart Keyboard Portfolio. For the 12” iPad Pro the SKP is $200. I love the typing experience of the SKP and find it very stable in the lap. It does not flop around or seem unstable at all. The downsides: lack of backlit keyboard, no special function/media keys and only two angles to choose from.

Another downside with the SKP, as I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve already had to replace it once. From my experience with the current and previous version I expect that these cases won’t last for much more than a year given the amount of daily use they get. Now, I’ve got a replacement under warranty that should last another year. But, $200 for a keyboard that only lasts a year, so two keyboards in two years at $200. That’s not acceptable. These should be more durable. I expect to use this iPad for at least 2 if not 3 more years. A $200 case should last 3 to 4 years.

The Zugu with an external keyboard, usually my beloved Logitech K811, is still fairly mobile. The Zugu and Smart Keyboard Portfolio weigh about the same and are about the same thinness. But, of course, with the Zugu there is the added weight of a separate keyboard though it is a more functional keyboard. I’ve also got the very thin and light Logitech Keys-to-Go that I can take instead though it is less functional and not as nice to type on.

As mentioned above, the iPad in the Zugu is very stable and a pleasure to use at all 8 angles, on the desk or shelf or on my lap or on my chest when laying down. It does not easily tip. The separate keyboard can be a hassle at times but is a great benefit at other times.

Another difference between the two is that with Apple’s portfolio it’s possible to easily pop the iPad off entirely. With the Zugu it’s held in the case pretty snuggly, not something I’ll be taking off very often. So, it’s semi-permanent. But, it’s super easy to fold back the cover/bottom piece behind the iPad just as one might do with Apple’s portfolio. And, again, it weighs about the same so hand holding, should I want to do that, is comparable to the experience with Apple’s portfolio folded back.

My tentative conclusion in comparing the two is this. If Apple sold a more durable Smart Keyboard Folio with backlighting and the special function media keys that would be my choice. I’d be willing to forgo the 8 viewing angles. But, given what that product is today, I would go with the Zugu and an external keyboard. The 8 slots are very useful and having a backlit keyboard with media keys is something I really do like to have. And considering the cost, the Zugu and an external keyboard also make sense. The K811 and Zugu is less that $170 and other keyboards are even less. I don’t yet know how durable the Zugu will be but it is made very well so I’m hoping it will last at least 2 to 3 years.

A final note (for now) and a consideration. Apple’s product is 1 piece, the Zugu and an external keyboard, 2 pieces. There are times when a 1 piece, laptop like experience is better. There are times when separate is better. In my scenario I think I’d choose the 2 piece because of where I usually sit to work.

iPad Journal: Shortcuts Update

Many in the iOS user community really, really love Shortcuts. This is especially true of the iPad power users. There are some that have made Shortcuts a key component to most of their workflows.

Apparently I am not one of these users. Way back when it was Workflow I built out a few and downloaded a few. I usually ended up just using 2-3 of 20 that I had. And that’s fine. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to prove useful and it doesn’t hurt to try. The app is now Shortcuts and is more deeply integrated and more powerful. I’m using it more than before but nothing like what some do.

A few thoughts. When I see what power users like Federico Viticci, Mathew Cassinelli and David Sparks do with Shortcuts I’m often not sure whether I should be impressed or if I should laugh. I’ll explain.

There’s no doubt Shortcuts is a powerful way to assemble workflows. But often what I see happening is the creation of Shortcuts that don’t seem to do much more than what an app can do on it’s own. Or, it may just be that the examples provided are un-relatable to my needs as they are often very specific to the workflow of the user. And for that user it seems they are very useful.

Something else I’ve noticed, and I’m sort of restating the above, but many shortcuts seem to just be solutions in search of a problem. Again, solving something that already is solved in the app. I can illustrate with an example that popped up on Twitter as I’ve been writing this post. Federico has tweeted that in this week’s Club Mac Stories he is introducing a new series on using Shortcuts with the Apple Music API. His tweet states that:

The first shortcut I’ll share lets you search the entire Apple Music catalog in 2 taps.

That’s pretty cool. But here’s the thing, I can do that right in Apple Music. If I long press the Apple Music app icon I can jump right into a search in Music. Or, I can Command-Space to open Music then tap the search icon at the bottom. His shortcut allows for first typing a search term then presents a list of choices: song, album, artist, and playlist then presents the result. I’m just not sure that’s any faster.

Much of what I see being presented by Shortcuts enthusiasts falls within this category of tasks that apps already do without a shortcut. That said, I think Shortcuts can be very useful. In my case I get the most benefit when I use it to do specific utility type functions that iOS itself does not do. Or, it provides a noticeably faster way to do something.

Here are examples of my current favorites and they are fairly simple and usually saved as widgets for quick access:

  • Unit price calculations. I use this one on the phone when I’m shopping to do quick comparisons of items. The shortcut asks for unit quantity and the cost then gives me the cost per unit. Very fast.
  • File converters. These only get used on the iPad, usually when I’m doing work on a website. I often need to convert a png or pdf to jpg and while I can use an app like Affinity Photo this shortcut is much quicker.
  • Switching audio playback. Apple Music, Podcasts, Overcast and any other app has an Airplay icon to send audio to a HomePod or AirPods. It’s easy to use. But it often takes a few seconds and if I’m on LTE I may also have to first tap once or twice to turn on and connect to my WiFi if, for example, I’m coming back from walk and want to switch from AirPods to HomePods. With a shortcut on my home screen or a widget I can tap once and my iPhone connects to my WiFi network and then changes audio playback to the HomePod. It’s not a huge difference but it is noticeably faster and it’s something I do often.
  • Reliability and consistency have been issues for me. Shortcuts sometimes just seem to fail. Or they work for a period of time and then stop working. Sometimes it would seem something should be possible and I’ll spend time trying to build an automation only to find out that it’s not possible. A recent and very frustrating example. I often want to use a screenshot on a website but the native png screenshot files are huge. I can save to Files then share the png to a Shortcut to convert to a jpg, set quality and size. But I cannot do this directly from the screen shot interface to Shortcuts. I have to take the extra step of saving the file then opening it up. Why?

Another example. With iOS 13.2 a new feature is handoff from iPhone to HomePod or HomePod to iPhone. Sounds nice but in practice that’s been very slow or unreliable for me. Instead, I’ve got a Shortcut which has the added benefit of also working with iPads. If I’m playing a podcast or music on iPhone or iPad I can tap a widget or icon on my home screen to very quickly send the audio to the HomePod. It’s quicker and easier than using the Airplay picker which sometimes seems to have a long delay. BUT, I have to tap. I should be able to use Siri. It would be very cool to step inside after a walk and just say “Hey Siri, HomePod” to have my audio hop over to the HomePod. But there’s an error and it fails. While I mostly want to do this from the Phone I’ve also tested with iPad and it fails there too. Again, why?

Oh, and a note about using shortcuts that have been saved to the home screen, this experience feels weird because it actually opens the app when it runs the shortcut. Why not just do it with a progress indicator in the icon similar to what we see when an app is updating? Having the whole app open up seems janky.

I love the idea of Shortcuts but in practice it’s still bumpy and still very much for the tech crowd. I’ve asked my extended family and of 16 or so using iPads and iPhones, ranging from young students to older, retired folks, not a one is using Shortcuts. Most of them don’t even know that the app exists let alone what it does. And really, I think that’s for the best. I consider myself a fairly advance iOS user and if I’m struggling with Shortcuts they would very likely have an even more frustrating experience.

All that said, with iOS 13 Shortcuts have taken a big step in the right direction. I hope Apple keeps pushing it forward. I’m not sure it will ever be an app for most people but there’s great potential there for power users if reliability and consistency can be improved.

iPad Journal: Workflow and Workspace Updates

A few updates…

iPadOS
I’ve been using iPadOS now since installing one of the early public betas in July. Word on the internet has generally been constant complaint that iOS and iPadOS 13 have been way too buggy. In my use I would not agree. It’s been buggier than iOS 12 which was notable as one of the more stable iOS releases in years. But my experience is that 13 has been a fairly stable release.

The most noticeable bug in my use has been slowness in working with the new Files app. In general use Files is actually quite fast but when I’m using other apps and have need to pick a file for uploading to a website or attaching to an email, I often have a fairly long delay while I have a blank Files picker window. Eventually, usually in 30 seconds or so, the app will show the files and I can carry on. As of mid-November recent incremental updates to 13.2 seem to have fixed the problem.

The most notable changes that have a positive impact on my workflows:

  • Multi-window apps, while not game changing, have been been fairly helpful in reducing a bit of friction. Especially true of the Files app.
  • Widgets on the home screen have been more useful than I expected!
  • Better, free-form local storage of files on iPad have been helpful.
  • Safari download manager has been one of the more notable benefits of the new Safari.
  • Multiple slide-over apps is a fantastic new addition to multi-tasking.
  • Column view in Files and the new long-tap contextual menu are both great additions.
  • The new organization of the sharing menu is proving helpful. Initial organization of shortcuts in that menu takes some time but I think the result has been worth it.
  • The Apple Reminders app has gotten some very nice updates with 4 built in smart lists and sub tasks. John Mitchell at Everything is Ablaze has a fantastic post about updated Reminders.
  • Last is the new accessibility mouse support. I’m not using it all the time but I am using it for certain tasks.

Accessory and configuration changes

In August I had my Smart Keyboard Portfolio replaced under warranty. I’m using the new one less. Partly due to concerns about longevity I’ve been limiting use to mobile use out of the house. In the house/office I’m spending more time with Bluetooth keyboards and different stand/shelf arrangements. One thing to note here is that during the colder months my tiny house interior is my primary workspace and I often make use of perspective changes to keep things interesting. I can work at a window, a beanbag/futon, my desk or standing desk. It’s a small space so I’ve done a lot to maximize the ways I can use it. You’ll note in the image of my desk that the wall contains a variety of shelves. One or two of those often has an iPad on it. It’s easy to adjust as needed for different heights and positions.

An interesting and fun result of the change from the SKP is that I’ve been using the iPad with no case. It’s either in a stand or on a shelf when I use a Bluetooth keyboard with it. Or it’s in my hands being used as a tablet. Either way, I like this non-laptop arrangement as it feels more true to the iPad. It’s quite nice to have the iPad up at eye level while I’m using an external keyboard with it. In those cases I’m using touch less and am relying more on keyboard shortcuts to navigate between and within apps. Or using a Bluetooth mouse.

When in use the keyboard is usually in my lap. The shelf/desk swivels and is useful in a variety of positions.

When I want to use the iPad as a tablet it is super easy to pick it up and use. With the Smart Keyboard Portfolio I often kept it in the case and just folded the keyboard back behind the iPad. That was fine as it was easy and the case was pretty light, so, very little friction. But there’s even less friction with this new arrangement and no case at all weighs even less!

A side benefit is that because I’m relying more on the multi-device Logitech K811 keyboard I can very easily switch between iPads. I tend to switch to the older iPad Air 2 in the evening. I just put the iPad Pro on the desk for charging and grab the smaller Air for the evening. The same shelf/stand combination by my beanbag works for either iPad and the keyboard is always there. Yet another side benefit, as much as I like the feel of typing on the Smart Keyboard, the K811 remains my favorite keyboard to type on and of course, it has backlighting and media/function keys. It’s a pleasure to use.

All that said let me now completely contradict myself! I’m about to try out a change which would be putting the iPad Pro in a Zugu Case. Why mess with my system that seems to be working so well? There two downsides to the current arrangement (there always seem to be downsides to any set-up!).

First, the stand is is very sturdy but is somewhat limited in the angle I can use. Adjusting the angle requires taking the iPad off because the hinge for adjusting the angle is very tight by design. As a result I tend to keep the iPads at one angle in that stand and it mostly works. But sometimes I do want to change it and it’s not as easy as it should be. The Zugu case has 8 different angles and is super easy to change between them.

The second downside of the current set-up is that sometimes I want to use the iPad while laying down or in a position where I might want to type but not be near my shelf/stand combo. The shelf/stand is perfect when I’m sitting in a very particular spot, namely on the beanbag futon. But sometimes my animals are there and I end up reclining on the futon. Or I may be on the beanbag but may be reclining or at an odd angle.

The Zugu case is reported to be VERY sturdy and stable, easy to use in a variety of places and angles. It adds back the same weight and thickness of the Smart Keyboard Folio and I can still fold it back like the Folio when I want to hand hold the iPad like a book. I’m expecting the combination of the Zugu and K811 keyboard to be a replacement of sorts for the Folio that I’m relying on less. I’ll write about it after I’ve had a few days using it.

New Keyboard: Logitech K780

In late fall I was doing a lot of work at the table on my porch and wanted an easier way to use two iPads together without dragging out stands. I ordered the Logitech K780 which is one of two that Logitech makes that has a built in tablet holder. I have the other one and use it as well. I’ve written previously about using two iPads, specifically when I’m using text content sent by a client in one document on the iPad Air 2 which I’ll copy/paste using the handoff feature. My previous arrangement has one iPad low, the other on a stand above. This new keyboard allows for them to be used side by side. The K780, like the K811, is very nice to type on. It does lack backlighting but I can deal with it. The convenience of being able to slot two iPads in is really nice. I didn’t care for the angle that the iPads are held at so I added some felt spacers to hold them at a steeper angle.

It’s all a bit fussy I suppose but I think of it as an ongoing experiment and enjoy the process. If it makes working more comfortable I’m okay with changing things up a bit. Regardless of the changes I make, I continue to be very happy with the iPad form factor and consider the experimentation a feature that comes with the flexibility of a tablet.

iPad Journal: iPad Keyboards

Okay. I have to admit I have a problem. Keyboards. Possibly cases too. And stands. Just, in general, iPad configurations. The beauty of the iPad is that as a computer it is not hard wired to a keyboard. That, along with iPadOS, is what I love about this device. But, along with this freedom from the keyboard comes the possibility of seemingly endless configurations.

I’ve written recently about this obsession. And now I’m writing about it again. Here’s the thing, I move around a good bit when I’m using the iPad. I use it on my porch, on my futon, my bean bag, at a desk/shelf thing, at the library and when I’m visiting my folks. Much of the time I’m happy using it with Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio. But not always.

The benefit and shortcoming of that keyboard is that it is attached like a laptop. It’s very stable to use in the lap and fine for a table. Until it isn’t which is usually when I want to elevate it to a higher level, closer to my eyes. At that point there are stands I can use to raise it up. At that point though I need an external keyboard.

So, this is where my various and ongoing experiments come in. Different ways to raise it or position it and the various keyboards to then use with it. It’s a lot of fun and I quite enjoy the many possibilities.

The last time I wrote I was primarily experimenting with the iPad for working on podcast transcripts by flipping the Smart Keyboard Portfolio over into an A-Frame configuration and using the K811 Logitech keyboard with it. It’s a great set-up that I use for podcast transcripts or night-time work because the K811 has back-lighting as well as media control keys. Having the play/pause key on the keyboard is a great help over the course of transcribing 40+ pages of text.

But a few things I’ve tried since that post are different methods for elevating the iPad up to eye level and also adding in two other keyboards for different situations. First, the elevation. I’ve got two things I’m using for this, each to be used in different settings. One is a home-made but very functional stand. It’s made from plywood and is the exact maximum height I want when sitting outside at the table on my porch. I flip the iPad into the A-frame configuration and I’m good to go. Now with iPadOS I can also use a mouse to make it easier for screen taps/clicks rather than always raising my hand up 8 inches. Mostly I try to use the keyboard but still, the mouse might prove handy. In this case I generally use the K811.

However, I’ve got another Logitech keyboard, the K480 which has a slot for tablets or phones. I purchased this a couple years ago for use with the iPad Air 2 and used it quite a bit. I still use it with that iPad on occasions such as this. Two notes about this keyboard. First, it’s HEAVY. This is not a mobile keyboard. It’s great at a desk or even in a lap as the iPad is pretty stable in that slot. Super nice to be able to just grab it and use it in the hand with no need to disconnect. Second, it’s loud and creaky.

As you can see in the image, I’ve got both iPads in action here and it works great, similar to having a Mac with 2 screens. My workflow in this case is that the smaller iPad is my reference screen with a document sent by a client for a newsletter or brochure design. Then the iPad Pro above is where I’m doing the design work. I can copy text on the iPad below then, using the magic of Handoff, paste the text into the document that I’m designing on the iPad Pro. I could use split screen just on the iPad Pro but when I’m doing design or layout work it helps a lot to have the whole screen devoted to just that document. The K480 is also a multi device keyboard so I’ve got it paired with both iPads and can switch between them with a flick of a little dial. Very handy.

I’ve also got a new stand for use when I’m working from my bean bag or the desk/shelf inside the cabin by the window. This raises the iPad up anywhere from 4 to 6 inches. When I’m working from the bean bag I often have a lap desk and this stand is a bit more manageable on my lap than the home-made stand which is way too big and heavy for that. It’s not quite as tall but it’s enough.

Usually, in these situations, I’m using the K811 keyboard. That said, I recently remembered that I also have the Logitech Keys-to-Go keyboard. I bought it three years ago for on-the-go work with my iPad Air 2. It’s an excellent keyboard. Super light, very thin and small. It’s got a similar covering and feel to Apple’s Smart Keyboards but with the benefit that it is completely silent (if you prefer that in certain settings) and also it has the special row of function keys along the top row. It’s smaller and some might think slightly cramped but it’s still very useable and I love it. I type about as fast with it as I do any other keyboard. This is a great keyboard for the library where I sometimes work because it’s so quiet.

The only negative is that after a year of use the top layer of fabric that covers the keys began to bubble up from the keys forming air pockets. It still works pretty well but now the fabric covering feels loose above the keys and it’s a bit of a distraction. But getting it back out the other day I was reminded of how much I enjoyed using it before I got the first Apple Smart Keyboard. It’s $70 at the Logitech website, usually only $45 on Amazon.

I’ve ordered another one and expect it will mostly get used when I go out to public places where a quiet keyboard is of benefit. Though, to be honest, I like it enough that it might get used a fair bit even at home. The great thing about the iPad is getting to choose what way I want to work and what tools I want to work with on any given day! I’ll also be watching it for signs of the above mentioned defect. Logitech offers a 1 year warranty and I’ll take them up on that if I have issues.

Which brings me to yet another keyboard related point that almost requires it’s own post but I’ll try to fit it in here. Namely the question of durability of these fabric covered keyboards. I love both Apple’s new folio and this Keys-to-Go. While they’re both missing back lighting and Apple’s offering is also missing the top row of special function keys, I’ve really come to enjoy the feeling of the fabric covering as well as the weather/moisture/dirt resistance they offer. That said, I think a keyboard should last more than a year. My previous Apple Smart Keyboard needed to be replaced after about 8 months. I suspect the current folio version will also need to be replaced before a year of use. As stated, the Keys-to-Go, while it still works, should not have the issue it has. It was only in use for about a year when I put it on the shelf.

Perhaps it’s just not possible to design a keyboard of these kinds of materials and have it stand up to 5+ hours of daily use for more than a year. I don’t know how widespread the issues are but I know that I’ve seen several references online to exactly the same issues I’m having so they’re likely not rare. I hope that Apple, Logitech and others can sort out the problems because I think these kinds of keyboards are a natural fit for the tablet form factor. Fabric covered keyboards offer dirt and weather resistance, can be very light weight and a pleasure to type on but if their expected lifespan is less than a year that would seem to be a problem. The lifespan of most of my keyboards, be they Apple or third party, laptop or Bluetooth, has ranged from 5 years on up. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect this new style of keyboard to last a minimum of 3 years.

Using the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard Portfolio in non-standard configurations

It’s been over six months since I posted my thoughts about the 2018 iPad Pro and the new design of the Smart Keyboard Portfolio and my thoughts on the keyboard remain the same. I continue to love it. The design and typing experience are excellent and it is far more stable than the previous version. I regularly use it in my lap with no issues.

That said I still have two gripes: the lack of media control keys and the lack of backlighting. If these two features existed this would be the perfect keyboard for me (and I suspect many others). As we are fresh in the month of May we’ve now seen the release of three different takes on iPad Pro keyboard cases. Actually, I’m sure there are others but these are from three of the better known manufacturers: Zagg, Brydge, and Logitech.

These all look excellent and have those two features I want: backlit keyboards and media keys. I’ve looked at them all and thought about getting one. But there’s one common drawback to all three that keeps me saying no: They are heavier and more importantly, they confine the iPad in ways I don’t like, the Zagg and Logitech require the iPad be held in a shell-type case that’s hard to get in and out of. The Brydge has clips that are very tight and while it’s possible to pull the iPad in and out it’s still quite a bit more effort that releasing it from Apple’s offering. Also, the Brydge design makes flipping the dock up for multitasking more difficult. Also, all three are an added expense of more than $100.

One of the features of the above mentioned Zagg keyboard folio is that the iPad shell which has a kickstand detaches from the keyboard allowing it to free stand so for watching video and/or just using in a different arrangement with the keyboard. I like his and have often done this in the past with various stands and my beloved Logitech K811 keyboard which has backlit keys and the media keys I want for use with the iPad.

I began to wonder, not for the first time in 5 months, how I might make better use of this keyboard. Could it be better used in conjunction with the Apple Folio?

I’ve known of the trick of flipping the Folio backwards and upside down for creating a drafting table sort of angle for use with the Pencil. While it looks a bit odd it works great and it was that sort of thinking I was after. How might the case be flipped or otherwise used in a non-standard configuration with an external keyboard?

The first and an embarrassingly obvious thing to do (and I can’t believe I’ve not tried it till now): I just sat it on top of the keyboard of the Smart Keyboard Folio and started using it instead. I think I’d assumed that there would be issues with the keys of the Folio keyboard registering taps but they don’t. (Well, in my lap they don’t. I noticed that on a hard surface the keyboard does sometimes actually register key presses on the spacebar and the keys on the bottom left and right). But there were also two additional problems. For some reason, if the iPad is docked in typing mode on the Folio the Command-Tab and Command-Spacebar shortcuts for app-switching and Spotlight stop working. Well, that’s no good! I use them far too often and won’t do without. But now I was somewhat hopeful that I might find another configuration.

What if the iPad is used in a sort of A-Frame position? Would it be stable? Yes, this has some real potential.

In my lap while sitting in my favorite work spot, a big bean-bag chair and my legs up on my table. Actually very stable and now I can adjust the angle. Been working this way all morning. I often use a little homemade lap-desk, just a bit of shelf wood that is 12” deep and 20” or so in length. Perfect for having a cup of coffee on my lap next to the iPad. This A-frame configuration also works great on that little desk.

Out on the porch you can see the variety of angels possible. Also, conveniently the Apple Pencil still has a place to sit though it obviously won’t charge. Note, on some smooth surfaces the iPad would probably slide a bit but in my lap and on this table it stays put.

So, now I’ve got a set-up that cost nothing extra, allows me to make more use of a keyboard I already had and which has the added benefit of more viewing angles.

Mind Mapping Experiment

A year or so ago a friend on Twitter asked me if I used or had ever tried any mind mapping apps. I had not. He was pretty excited and suggested a couple. I took a look at a couple and thought they might be useful for particular projects. I downloaded iThoughts and gave it a spin. Then I almost never used it. Why not? The short answer is that I think this is the sort of app that is useful for larger, more complicated projects and those happen to be the kind of projects I don’t take on very often.

Most of my work is of a repetitive nature, small one off projects finished in one to three days and most of them come in one at a time so I’m rarely balancing two or three projects at a time. Most of my work is website updates and document designs and layouts. I have no need for mind maps for these things.

In my initial test I came away thinking that mind maps would be great for long writing projects and larger projects that require more steps and ingredients than I usually handle. As it happens I’ve got a potential project coming up that would probably benefit from actually diving in with this kind of app. It’s only a potential project at the moment. It is a volunteer project involving the local library which may involved several people, organizations, and an ongoing and complicated process (compared to my usual).

A few days ago I saw the new version of MindNode was released so I downloaded it for the free 2 week trial. I spent an hour with each app and came away with the impression that iThoughts is a more powerful app in almost every way.

MindNode is better in the area of visual style with a couple of added features. It’s also got newly announced support for second, external USB C monitors which might be nice for some.

But iThoughts seems to be the more capable app. It’s got support for markdown in the notes for nodes, the ability to import a greater variety of objects, and far more export/sharing options. After an hour of using them I felt like I’d gotten a solid handle on how they each work (very similar) but also had the sense that I’d reached the limit of MindNode’s feature set.

With iThoughts there is more to learn and more that I could do. An example, the project I’m mapping, is a collaborative local history project which includes several small non-profits, various resources being digitized, a podcast and a website where the materials will be catalogued. iThoughts has the ability to work with special categories of notes such as tasks with due-dates, resources (people in orgs), cost calculating nodes, and project progress (for nodes that have tasks). Also, I can drag and drop contacts which will add clickable email links for the contact. I can also drag and drop websites and many kinds of files. Some files, such as Pages files, cannot be drag and dropped but can be added via the attach context menu. MindNode does not seem to support any of these features and really, they are the kinds of features I think I’d want to have available for the kind of project I’m likely to use a mind mapping app for.

Back to my case test, as I developed my mind map I wanted to add people to the workflow and add email addresses to those people. Ideally it would give me the option to add a link to the contact vCard but the email is what it attaches and in most cases that’s what I’d want. I’ll also be wanting to add project resources such as forms and documents and as already stated, this is no problem. Also in my case test I added a node for possible project costs. This is a potentially very handy tool! As new child nodes are added a designated parent node calculates the costs listed in each of those children. So, in my case, web hosting has already been added. Any new possible costs can be added as nodes and the parent will keep it tallied.

I’m liking the way this is going and I can see this being a tool I use for future projects of this kind. As this particular project continues, IF this particular project continues, I look forward to continuing with iThoughts.

A few thoughts on Apple News and RSS apps

I’ve been using RSS apps since the early(ish) days of it’s existence. I think it was 2002 or 2003 that it became a habit for me. I’ve had at least one RSS app on my Mac and then iPad ever since. For years that app was NetNewsWire. I’d occasionally try others but that was the gold standard. As I recall there was a time when it became a bit stagnate and then was sold. During that time other apps popped up, namely Reeder which became my RSS app of choice. Then along came the iPad and a flurry of RSS apps along with it. I tried several but when Reeder became available for iPad I settled on that. For many Reeder took the place of NetNewsWire as the new standard.

Reeder 4 on the iPad. There’s a lot of wasted space there.

What’s the point of RSS? Well, it makes subscribing and skimming a large number of publications easy. Scrolling through headlines with article summaries becomes very easy. Rather than load an entire site I can refresh 30 or 40 and then skim through them all at once. I can do this by topic area or with all of them mixed up. In my case I’ve got groups (folders) by categories such as news, Apple, tech, environment, etc. On slower internet in rural areas it’s a fantastic help.

This is the Apple News page in all it’s glory. Nice images, headlines and pleasant to browse

A couple years ago Apple released their iPad and iPhone take on a news reader called Apple News. They’d dabbled for many years with RSS built into Safari and even the mail app at one point had RSS built in. But with Apple News they built a dedicated app they really worked pretty well. While RSS and Reeder remained my primary tool I found myself gradually using Apple’s app more and more. I really enjoyed the design of the app which presented the news as a full page of news thumbnails each with an image (usually) and the headline broken up into sections and source publications that I could follow or unfollow with the ability to like or dislike stories as well as save them for future reading. Apple throws in sections and stories from other sources to provide variety and the reader has the option to dislike stories or block sources as needed. In theory this is training which is supposed to improve what Apple provides.

That’s a lot of wasted space for what is, essentially, an ad for Apple’s News+ service. I can’t hide it.

What I find most enjoyable with Apple News is the full screen layout of stories, the mix of stories and the reading experience of a story. But there’s a downside (there’s always a downside) and it is three things.

  1. Ads
  2. Apple+ is Apple’s new News and magazine service and the stories are mixed into my feed. Sometimes a new magazine will take up nearly half a page. If I were a subscriber I’d be okay with that but I’m not and I have no option to turn it off.
  3. When sharing Apple News articles the link is a proprietary Apple News format. Fine for sharing to Apple users but I often share to a Slack group that has several folks who don’t use Apple. I’ve got a fix in the form of a Shortcut that converts but I should not have had to do that.
  4. The training is not all that great. I often see stories I do not want to see and it seems no amount of training with dislikes helps. Even worse, when I block a source it often persists for a day or two rather than disappearing immediately. No, no, no, I don’t want to see stories about the British royal family, not interested in sports either!
  5. Last, some stories in Apple News have ads and some stories, if viewed on a web site would have comments I’m interested in seeing. So, while the reading experience is often great, it can also be a bit cluttered and often requires that I load the story in Safari.

But all in RSS land is not perfect. Reeder, was recently updated to support the new iPads and added a few new features. Nothing game changing but still a solid app. Funny though, I had switched to another RSS app, Newsify, which had added support for the new iPads and have come to like it’s interface as much as Reeder’s. It’s not perfect but it works. I spent the past couple days bouncing back and forth between them and found that each had features that I wished the other had. Neither felt complete.

Newsify is properly using the space of my iPad to display a variety of articles with images

After some experimentation I’ve found a solution that, I think, brings the best of all three. My main annoyance with Reeder was its huge waste of space when browsing stories. It only takes advantage of a small column on the left for browsing through articles. The primary part of the app is empty. After months with Apple News this was bothering me immediately. In the time I’d been using Newsify I came to enjoy the fact that while the number of articles displayed was about the same they stretched across the screen and more information was provided about each. Still not as nice as Apple News but at least the screen was being used! But there’s a fix that I discovered yesterday while poking around settings in Newsify: It can be displayed using “Newspaper View”. Perfect. Now I had something that looked nearly identical to Apple News!

Apple News on the left, Newsify on the right. To my eyes both are very pleasing to browse.

So, now I’ve got the article browsing I want without Apple’s ads and no Apple News+ articles I can’t read. What about the reading experience? Close. Unfortunately you’ll note that in Newsify this article does not display the full text but has a “more…” link to click through.

Viewing an article. Almost there but Newsify does not display the full article. Notice the “more…” link

Of course that takes me to the full page on the website which is chock-full of ads. But Newsify has a setting which will load the page in the built in Safari View and switch it over to “Reader mode” which is, of course, the perfect uncluttered display comparable to Apple News. I just tap the article title and I’m ready to read in a few seconds. Side benefit, if it’s an article I want to view comments for I can turn off the Reader mode and they’re already to go.

Apple News on the left, Newsify on the right in “Reader mode”. Perfect.

Newsify does have a premium subscription which includes a full text display for these kinds of articles but either way I have to tap just once to get a result with is nearly identical.

So, with Newsify and a few tweaks to a few settings I’m getting as close to an ideal (for me) RSS reading experience on the iPad.

Voices of the Ozarks

This is a new project I’m working on with my local rural library. The idea is pretty straight forward: We ask library patrons to share a bit of their life story with us. We record for 1 to 2 hours and then do a bit of minimal editing to remove long pauses. We write up a summary then post as a podcast and burn a CD for sharing the old fashioned way: check-out from the library.

Over the years I’ve had a couple of short-lived podcasts. Never anything that lasted for very long. Every so often I get the itch to start another but I’ve never been clear in what I’d want to say. I have interests I like to share but I often feel satisfied with my on-again-off-again, though somewhat steady, blogging. Even that is done as much for me as anyone. I don’t have, or care to grow, an audience. I just occasionally like to write and if someone finds it and enjoys it or finds it helpful then that’s a bonus. And, thinking about podcasts, well, there are many thousands available covering a vast array of topics. As much as anything I think my interest was in editing and the technical process, I particularly wanted to have a go at using Ferrite on the iPad. Which brings me back to this current project.

It occurred to me several months ago that what might be an interesting and useful project would be the dusting off of an old and not so original idea: the gathering of other people’s stories, particularly the elders in our community. I’ve done this in the past, creating mini-documentary videos of my grandparents made for the family to enjoy and have.

This new project would be different as it would be audio only and it would be interviews with strangers. But still, each would be an abbreviated documentary of that person’s life in this area. While the podcast and YouTube ecosystems are full of young people’s voices (which is great of course), I think older folks are often left behind.

When I mentioned the idea to the head of our local-regional library system she was very supportive. We’d previously talked about possible projects that the library could host and this fit in very well.

After a few months of prepping a few things we finally started the sign-up of interviewees. Last week we had our first recording session and it went very well. Our recording set-up was very simple. A current gen iPad and a Shure MV5 microphone. I recorded using the Voice Memos app then shared via AirDrop to my iPad Pro for editing in Ferrite.

I spent the evening editing with Ferrite and it was a very smooth process. I learned a good bit about editing with the app and the end product is pretty great I think. It took a little longer than I expected but I’ve no doubt the next go will run more smoothly and quickly. There are steps in the process, namely removing gaps in speaking, that I did manually at first. I was aware that their was an easier way but I wanted to practice a bit with manipulating the clips manually. After a bit of that I moved onto the easier method.

Ferrite has two built in actions that are very fast. When a clip is selected just tap “Strip Silence”. There are a couple possible adjustments for that action. The result is that one large clip with gaps is cut up into many clips and the silence removed between speaking. It works very great.

This is followed by “Tighten” which is performed while the audio is all still selected from the previous action. It removes all of the new gaps that were created when the clip was cut-up, essentially it pushes them all together again. I started with a recording of about an hour and 18 minutes. By the time I was finished I was down to 55 minutes. The trick of course is removing the unnecessary bits but producing something that sounds unedited. Ferrite made that fairly easy and the final result has a very natural sound. I put together a folksy sounding 17 second intro/outro clip in GarageBand and then imported it into the Ferrite project.

Then I gave it a final listen through to type a summary/show notes with timestamps. As I wrote the show notes I made a few last edits to the audio. Finally, as a last step I added my meta data and artwork, all in Ferrite and again, very easy. Exported and uploaded to the server. The final result: Voices of the Ozarks – Phyllis Fencl.

I’ll soon submit it to Apple’s Podcast directory. Until then it can be added manually via this feed: http://ozarkregional.org/blog/?feed=podcast

All in all a very enjoyable first recording and editing session. I’m looking forward to hearing and sharing more of these stories.

2018 iPad Pro: The review scene and bigger picture context

As I write this we’re about two weeks in since the new iPads were delivered and there are reviews everywhere and most of them say the same thing which I can sum up as “fast and powerful but limited by iOS and the lack of professional apps”. I’d like to offer a counter to those reviews and the half-baked argument they make to cover-up their own lack of effort and knowledge. But first just a few words, not about iOS or the professional app ecosystem, but about the new iPads.

By way of introduction let me say that I don’t use an iPad as my primary computer because it is the most powerful computer I own (though it is). I use the iPad because it enables me to do the work I need to do (as does the Mac) and because I find it the most delightful computer I’ve ever used. I have said this about the iPad Air as well as my previous iPad Pro and I’ll say it again about this new iPad. This is the best computer I’ve ever owned. As tech goes, the 2018 iPad Pro is a stunner in every way. By itself or attached to the Keyboard Folio with the Pencil, this is a beautifully designed computer that is so much fun to use.

I’ll discuss in order of impact as to how it feels in my use. I’ll start with the Keyboard Folio because I use the iPad attached to a keyboard at least 60% of the time.

The new folio is a much more stable experience than the previous Smart Keyboard. With the Smart Keyboard there was always the feeling and the chance that it could tip or flop backward or, more likely, forward. Even so I used it all the time because I appreciated the proximity of my hands to the screen. Also, I really liked the feel if the keys.

The new Smart Folio Keyboard is so much better because while the keys are the same, the solid base and new magnetic back attachment means the iPad is now very stable even in the lap. I feel completely safe using it knowing that it will not flip or flop. In fact, it feels as stable as a traditional laptop. With this design the only thing I feel I’m missing is the back-light and top row of media control keys. And those are big misses to be sure, but even so the experience is still excellent. I really like the sound and feel of this keyboard, more than any other keyboard I can remember using. It’s a personal preference and some might dislike it.

Another aspect of the new keyboard is the much easier set-up and the new available angle. I can go from closed to typing with less effort. For the tablet experience I can remove the case all together with little effort or fold the keyboard all the way back. Both are very nice. With the keyboard folded back it has a nice grippy feel as the magnet is strong enough to hold it solidly in place but with a flick of my fingers I can easily drop it down for use in the keyboard position.

A last note about the keyboard is just how satisfying the feel of the magnets are. Closing it up results in a subtle but nice click which can be felt and heard. Seating the iPad in either of the two slots also has a satisfying feel and click which affirms the sturdiness of the new configuration.

Then there is the tablet itself. If I had to summarize the difference between the new design of the 2018 iPad Pro compared to the previous it is this: the 2018 feels solid and compact while at the same time lighter and thinner. As much as I enjoyed using the 2017 iPad Pro as a tablet, hand-held with no case, this one is even better in the hand. It feels very solid and yet impossibly thin given its other dimensions. Of course it’s very fast but so was the 2017 version. Even my iPad Air 2 is still fast with apps appearing nearly instantly.

Face Id is better on the iPad than the iPhone though it is excellent on both. The only failures I’ve had have been the result of covering the camera while holding it as a tablet. In those cases correction is quick and easy. When attached to the keyboard I simply tap the space bar twice and I’m good to go with no delay.

The Pencil is so much more convenient! The new combined inductive charging and magnetic storage method is vastly better than the previous. And, like the case, the magnetic connection provides a satisfying click as the Pencil is securely pulled into its place.

The last feature that is not at all new to the iPad but which I really rely on is LTE. My first two iPads had cellular but I then skipped it with the following two purchases. My reasoning was that between tethering and my home internet I would not need built in cellular. In practice my satellite internet is too slow. Tethering to the iPhone is faster but often fails the first few attempts to connect and too often my iPad would sleep and loose it’s connection or I might walk away with the phone and have to reconnect upon returning. In other words, it feels fiddly. Having the always on LTE is so much better. The iPad antennas provide a signal that is equal to or better than the phone and so my connection is always strong. Going forward any new iPad I purchase will have cellular because the experience is just too good to pass up.

Lastly, let’s talk about iOS and the app ecosystem. With iOS 9 I began the shift to iPad as my preferred computer. This was solidified further with the release of the multitasking features in iOS 11 and improved with iOS 12. Much has been made in recent weeks about the missing features of iOS. I won’t argue against facts. It’s true that iOS does not support mice or trackpads or accessing files stored on attached hard drives. It’s true that it’s missing certain Apple pro apps such as Logic or Final Cut Pro. As of this writing these things are true.

That said, the echo chamber of tech reviewers is stale and, even worse, misleading. It seems to me that many of these reviewers have not used iPads enough to know what is possible with iOS or the app ecosystem. Or, if they do, they are deliberately leaving out important information which counters their preferred narrative.

For example, yes, it’s true that I cannot plug in a usb drive and access files unless they are media files recognized by the Photos app, namely videos and images. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most reviewers mentioning the lack of file access on hard drives also consider themselves power users. That’s certainly what they imply or state. In this picture of professionals working in an office setting, it’s to be expected that they have access to a network and nearby computers. Using an app such as FileBrowser or Documents they can easily access their files in such an office setting. I myself have a MacMini that I use as a media/file server and it’s not uncommon for me to need access to older project files. In just a few seconds and a couple taps I have access to all of the files on my Mac or any hard drives attached to the Mac. I can open files from the Mac, copy them to my iPad’s local storage or save/export any of my local files back to the Mac.

If tech reviewers are going to position themselves as advanced power users, shouldn’t they be more aware of the many apps available which allow for access to any local file attached to a nearby networked computer? A part of being a professional user is being aware of the available tools, in this case, apps. But many “professional” reviewers seem to be largely unaware of what’s available on the App Store. That’s their shortcoming not the iPad’s. Take for example the many reviewers who mentioned the lack of Final Cut Pro. Are they unaware of LumaFusion? Apparently so. It’s #2 in the Photo & Video category with almost 5,000 ratings and an average of 4.8 stars.

Apple cannot and will not provide all of the needed software for their devices. That’s why third party app developers exist. From the well known giants such as Microsoft or Adobe to fantastic (though sometimes less known) developers such as Serif (the makers of the Affinity suite of apps, one of which is #1 in the Photo & Video category), Readdle, Omni, just to name a few. If reviewers are going to ding the platform because it is missing essential professional apps or app types then they should know that those apps are indeed missing. It is my contention that they would rather have something to complain about because that’s the in-thing to do with Apple these days. It get’s clicks. Meanwhile, the people who are actually using iPads know about these apps and use them every day.

I’ll round this out with what might seem an odd comparison. In recent years Apple has become quite large as a company (both in financial resources and employee base) and as they have increased in size so too have expectations that they are all powerful. At the same time many of their products are offered at higher prices. iPhones at $1,500!? iPads for $1,800?!? Outrageous. And so now there is the narrative of the “Apple premium”. One result is that reviewers feel they can and should hold Apple to a higher standard. I get that. But at the same time the reviewers themselves should be held to a higher standard. Critique is fine but it should be fully informed and thoughtful. Mostly I see cheap repetition in reviews.

Apple does charge a premium. But you know what else Apple does that is not mentioned in the reviews? Apple has gone to extraordinary lengths to become an excellent environmental citizen. To my knowledge no other company has come even close to what Apple has achieved. This is worth something and it has to be paid for by everyone including consumers. Along the same lines, few reviewers mention the fact that Apple devices get new OS updates for many years, far longer than those in competing systems. So yes, if one purchases a top of the line device they can expect that it it will continue to receive updates and function well for 4 to 5 years or more. These are not throw away devices to be tossed aside after two years.

While I don’t use it often I still have a 2012 MacMini that stays on 24/7 as a file and media server. I occasionally use it for InDesign projects as well. It still has plenty of power and runs the latest macOS. I will be able to use my iPhone X for at least another 3-4 years if I choose to do so. The 2018 iPad should serve me well for at least 3 to 5 years. I’m still using an iPad Air 2 introduced in 2014. It’s 4 years old and I expect I’ll get another two years, possibly more from it. While I greatly prefer the larger screen of the iPad Pro the Air 2 could be my only iPad because it still functions very well. Apps open up nearly instantly and rarely do I see a slow-down when I’m using it.

Rarely do reviewers mention the longevity of Apple devices and this is an oversight. Their reviews are incomplete without this bigger picture.

One last bit. In reviewing Apple products and the bigger picture, I’d suggest that reviewers should at least mention the value added by Today at Apple. This isn’t just a sales gimmick being offered up by Apple. It’s a real offering that requires real resources and it’s offered to Apple customers for free. If I lived near an Apple Store I know I’d take advantage of the program. Aside from this excellent post at MacStories I’ve barely seen mention of the program in any of the Apple Press and that’s a disservice to their readers.

Pages Fall 2018 Status Update

Because Pages is one of my most loved and used apps I pay very close attention to the feature set. In particular to the features as compared between platforms.

Five years ago, October 2013, Apple released Pages 5.0, a complete rewrite of Pages on the Mac and iOS to bring them into a unified format and more similar feature set. It freaked a lot of users out because it meant that the Mac version lost many features it previously had. I’m not going to go into comparing the current version of Pages on Mac to the previous version. In my recollection, we’ve gotten back almost everything that was lost. What I’m most interested in is the still missing features on Pages for iOS.

It’s been 5 years. How are things going?

Apple’s done a good job of bringing the iOS version into near parity with the Mac version but it’s still not there. I still have to make some tweaks on the Mac and that’s not something I should have to do 5 years in. So, what’s still missing?

  • Line spacing is still limited to pre-set increments. I can have 1 or .75 or .5 but not .9 or .8 and sometimes I need .9 or .8. This seems like something they should be able to fix.
  • Spacing between characters.
  • More keyboard shortcuts.
  • Shapes are still not editable. On a Mac I can make any shape editable and then drag the points around in all sorts of useful ways create new shapes with curves. Very useful for brochures and that sort of thing.
  • Multipart lines are still not possible. With the Mac I can create a line with the pen tool that has many different points which can then be curves or straight and the positions moved around. With the iOS version I can create a line with just one adjustable point.
  • Advanced gradient fills are not possible. Included in this would be a gradient with transparency.
  • I still can’t change a document type to “Page Layout”.
  • Formatting table borders is still lacking basic options such as color and line width.
  • It’s not possible to edit the color, angle, distance or spread of drop shadows.
  • When exporting to pdf it would be nice to have the ability to choose the quality of the images.

I’m sure there are other missing features but these are the things that I’ve come across in recent weeks that have been problems.

But let’s give credit where due. What’s been added in recent versions to bring the iOS version of Pages up to par? Some of the most recent notable changes include:

  • Paragraph styles can be created and edited
  • Character styles can be created and edited
  • Custom document sizes in document setup
  • Facing Pages
  • Page masters
  • Switching from Portrait to Landscape
  • Drawings
  • Equations

One last bit. Apple has positioned the iPad Pro as a pro device. Not only should they finally fill in the above mentioned gaps between the Mac and iOS versions, but it might be nice to see a few advanced features added that would bring it more on par with apps like InDesign. For example, drop caps! Sure, I can create those with text boxes but I shouldn’t have to work around this. One feature that might be considered more advanced would be the option to have an art board around documents. A place off the document that allows for storing bits of text, shapes, images, etc. I don’t expect it but it sure would be helpful. More advanced PDF export would also be nice.

All in all I find Pages to be an incredible app and I use it several times a week. For what I do it is essential. I’m happy with the progress made thus far and it’s so close to being “finished”, as in, feature complete when compared to the Mac version.  Tomorrow is the 2nd big fall event in 2018, new iPads are coming. Would be a special treat of a substantial Pages update were also announced! Come on Apple!