Category Archives: iPad Journal

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!

The shared clipboard in a multiple iPad workflow

As we come up on Apple’s October 30, 2018 event and the almost certain announcement of new iPads I’ve debated whether I will sell my current iPad Pro or keep it. Over the past few months I’ve found a great use for a second iPad when working on certain projects. Something I’ve started doing for certain tasks is using my iPad Air 2 as my reference screen. I can usually do everything just on the Pro in split screen but on occasion I’ll have a project that requires two larger screens and at that point it’s like having a dual monitor Mac.

One such task involves my use of the Affinity Apps, Designer and Photo. Both of these apps are full screen only, no split screen. Which is actually fine with me as the work I do there really requires the most screen I can get. But sometimes I need to reference both text and files for a project. If I can only have a slide over I’m limited to one or the other. I just finished such a project, a promotional postcard for which the client sent images and text to be used as content.

My workflow in this case was made so much better with the second iPad which became my text provider. On the Pro I had my Affinity Photo document and the Files app as a slideover window. I placed the two iPads side by side and got to it. I could reference the iPad Air for my clients directions and needed text. I selected text on the Air and copied it. Then on the Pro I pasted the text into place. Then I used the Files app slideover to drag and drop the images into place. In some cases this drag and drop happens from Mail, Notes, or Safari as the images provider. It’s also possible to copy the images on the second iPad for pasting into the Pro. Anything that can be copied to the system clipboard can then be pasted into the second device.

While it’s not quite the same as working with one computer and two displays it comes close to feeling like that which is what matters. Other than reaching over to the second screen or keyboard I don’t notice a slowdown to my workflow.

Batch processing images with Shortcuts

Image.jpeg

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

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

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

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

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

Apple stock app favorites: Files and Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes has an incredibly rich feature set some of which is not available on Bear. For example, Notes can be locked for relatively secure keeping and they can be shared with other iCloud users as collaborative documents. PDFs and practically any media can be easily embedded in Notes. Any app that can save or print to pdf can also send that PDF to Notes and bonus, the content of PDFS is intexed. Bear supports some but not nearly as much embedded media.

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

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

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

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