apps

A Blogging Experiment

Yesterday I posted The 7 Best Apple Home Devices on this blog. In part this was an effort to condense some of my intense study on the subject of home automation over the past four or five years so that someone could benefit from a broad-stroke overview of how I set everything up.

But this post was also 50 percent an experiment. Two summers ago, I posted The 6 Best Automation Apps for iOS. Strangely, this has become the most popular blog on my entire website, by far. This is despite it not really being about music or education, and despite the fact that blogs like MacStories pump out articles 100 times better on the subject, regularly.

My second most popular post is a video about indexing large PDFs using the musical score app forScore on iPad. It is far less popular from the post on automation, but still far more popular than anything I have ever posted. I feel like it represents my niche pretty accurately.

I did some thinking on what could have made my automation blog post so popular. Was it that the title is concise? Bold? Simple? Was it that it had a bite-sized, concrete, number of apps in that same title? Or was it that I successfully tagged the post so that it shows up in a lot of web searches? I tried to replicate a little bit of that format in yesterday’s home automation post, while still writing about something I am passionate about. We will see how well it does.

And please do tell me if the home automation post was helpful to you in any way.

Skepticism about Evernote’s new announcement

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As you probably know, I have been a huge advocate for Evernote in my book, clinics, and numerous podcasts. If you know that, you might also know that I have been looking for a replacement for it for years now. 

Evernote’s future has been unclear to me for a number of years now. While they have managed to keep their apps up to date with the latest iOS features, no major new features have been added to the platform in recent memory. Yet the company has raised prices, removed features from the free tier, and had some other small missteps. 

Yesterday, Evernote unveiled this post on their site. Its a followup to this post from earlier in the year. I thought the post from earlier in the year was a load of meaningless corporate and marketing speak, but today’s really takes the cake. And don’t even get me started on the post within today’s post that goes on and on for paragraphs about redesigning the app’s Elephant mascot, amongst other things. Dropbox tried this exact kind of thing earlier in the year where they make a huge rebrand announcement that is all graphic design and marketing fluff without any meat about how it will impact the user experience. And it hasn’t changed anything about how Dropbox is actually used other than making the user interface more difficult to understand in some places.

Like, really, Dropbox. In this limited space, could you seriously not think of any more information I might want to see while playing back an audio file other than this dude dancing next to a disco ball? This particular page is even worse on the small screen of an iPhone.

Like, really, Dropbox. In this limited space, could you seriously not think of any more information I might want to see while playing back an audio file other than this dude dancing next to a disco ball? This particular page is even worse on the small screen of an iPhone.

To me, yesterday’s blog posts are further proof that Evernote does not have a clear vision for how to make their products better for users. The community has been very clear about what they want from the company. A better redesigned Mac app, markdown support, and code blocks, to name a few. But rather than disclose a roadmap of user facing product improvements, Evernote seems only committed to blowing steam through the use of fancy graphic design, photography, and web design. If only they put all of that time and money into actual features that would make users lives better. 

So I think this is the final straw. I am going to let my Evernote subscription lapse this fall when it comes to a close. The real challenge about this situation for me, and other Evernote users, is that it is the most fully featured note app on the market. Of all the things one might want from a note app, Evernote covers more of them than any of the competition. But unfortunately for Evernote, stock software like Apple Notes is good enough to do most of the things people need. And for those who want more, there is an emerging bunch of independent developers making note apps who show way more hustle, adding major features to their apps, annually (Bear, for example).

Apple Notes does such a nice job with simple text scraps, web clippings, and check lists, that the only primary use of Evernote I need to replace once my subscription lapses is the “everything bucket” use case. “Everything bucket” is the phrase I use to describe the dumping of PDFs, images, emails, and websites into a digital “drawer” so to speak, where I can later search these documents by the text within them. 

This summer I have been giving DEVONthink a try. It is a Mac and iOS app that is a one time paid purchase on each device. It is a document management app that has all of the “everything bucket" features of Evernote and more. I hope to write more on it soon. For now, I am pretty happy that I have an easy way to clip receipts, websites for later review, and emails, and have them made automatically text searchable. The DEVONthink app on Mac is hideous, and setting up iCloud sync took me a minute, but the utility of the app is worth it so far. I prefer something like this rather than to continue to support companies who string their customers along while they spend time and money on making their elephant mascot look more 2018. 

I may be wrong. Evernote could come out with a killer set of new features in the next 12 months, convincing me and the rest of the world to return to it. I’ll believe it when I see it. 

 

The Class Nerd Podcast (Sneak Peek)

I am excited to share a sneak peek of a project I have been working on for the past few months.

Nashville based educator, Craig McClellan, and I are launching a podcast later this summer called The Class Nerd. Our hope is to introduce teachers to some really cool technology tips and workflows that will help them on their path to being better educators.

As we sort out all of the technical details that come with managing a podcast, check out "Episode 0: Tech Origin Stories" where Craig and I discuss our paths to becoming classroom tech nerds.

App of the Week: Drafts 5

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My ability to handle the cognitive load of teaching middle school band is largely supported by a wonderful app called Drafts, made by Agile Tortoise. I will detail a little bit about how I use this app below, but I want to first say that the developer of Drafts, Greg Pierce, very generously chatted with me about it on my podcast recently. Greg also has a background in guitar, ethnomusicology, and folk studies. He has an interesting journey towards app development, which we also talked about on the show. Listen to the episode here.

So what is Drafts? Drafts is the starting point for all text on my iPhone and iPad. It sits on the dock, right under my thumb, and I press it every time I have any kind of thought that I don’t want to slip away. Drafts opens to a blank white screen and a keyboard so you can instantly start typing. Adding a new Draft is as simple as tapping the plus button. You don't need to worry about what kinds of thoughts these are, or what kinds of apps you should be capturing them in. They can be todos, messages, emails, future blog posts, anything. Picture me at the front of the classroom before band rehearsal. 70 students pouring into the room. Instruments blaring loud. Countless questions being thrown at me at once. Chaos all around. From the podium, I leave Drafts open alongside my sheet music and type anything that comes to mind. If a student tells me they don’t have a 2nd trombone part to Air and Dance, I write a note in Drafts. If a flute is broken, I start an email to the repair shop requesting for them to come pick it up. If I want to take general notes on our rehearsal progress, I start typing that in another draft. Even if I remember I need eggs at the grocery store later, I type that too!

A beautiful, distraction free, user interface, as soon as you launch Drafts.

A beautiful, distraction free, user interface, as soon as you launch Drafts.

Drafts pairs perfectly with the sheet music app forScore in split view mode.

Drafts pairs perfectly with the sheet music app forScore in split view mode.

All of this stuff is categorized in the inbox where I can easily access it by swiping to the right. Here I can view any current or past archived draft, flag important ones, or send them to the trash. Once I am ready to process it all, I swipe left to reveal actions. Actions can do many things. At the most simple level, they send text to other apps like messages, email, a todo app, or Twitter. But actions can be heavily customized. They can perform multiple steps on text, and even run JavaScript on them. In the example below, you can see that I have a variety of drafts. Meeting notes, a few tasks, a start to a grocery list, a text to my wife, and the beginning of an email. To process these I would use the following actions, respectively: Send the meeting notes to the Apple Notes app, the tasks go to OmniFocus (where I manage all of my todos), the groceries go into my Reminders app grocery list, the text to my wife goes to Messages, and the email goes to Mail. Many of these actions happen in the background, meaning that I don't leave Drafts, and can therefore process them really quickly. You don't need to be a fancy pants to get awesome actions into Drafts, by the way. Some of my most frequently used actions are built into the app. There is also an Action Directory where you can steal the wonderful actions that others have already made. 

Swiping right reveals all unprocessed drafts. 

Swiping right reveals all unprocessed drafts. 

Swiping left reveals all of the various actions you can perform on drafts.

Swiping left reveals all of the various actions you can perform on drafts.

Drafts 5, the newest version, was released recently. The app is free which means there is absolutely no excuse not to give it a try. Some of the power features like creating your own actions and using automation require a subscription price of $1.99 a month or $19.99 a year.

This is the Edit Action screen. Actions are highly customizable. This particular action a) saves meeting notes to Evernote, b) saves tasks begining with "@" to my OmniFocus task app, and c) emails the notes to others in attendance.

This is the Edit Action screen. Actions are highly customizable. This particular action a) saves meeting notes to Evernote, b) saves tasks begining with "@" to my OmniFocus task app, and c) emails the notes to others in attendance.

I have always treated Drafts as a starting point for text. Interestingly, the new version has added some features that encourage using it as a note app replacement. You can now tag notes, create lists with checkable boxes, and even create custom workspaces that you organize your text into (paid feature). I am not sure if using Drafts this way is for me, but here are some ways I have been experimenting with it…

Processing Text

I have a "default" workspace depicted by the blue star icon below. Navigating workspaces is as easy as tapping custom icons in the lower left. My default workspace is where all of my unprocessed notes go. These generate a badge that appears on the icon of the Drafts app so that I don't forget to act upon them later. This workspace resembles the extent to which I was using the previous version of Drafts.

My default workspace. This functions like I used to use Drafts before workspaces became available.

My default workspace. This functions like I used to use Drafts before workspaces became available.

Simple Lists

My next workspace is where I keep active lists of things like recommended movies to see, blog ideas, and even a list of things I do every time I migrate to a new Mac. I can automatically append this list by pressing the "Add to list" action (available here) and then choosing which list to add to. 

My lists workspace.

My lists workspace.

If a friend recommends a movie to me, I quickly write it in a draft without fiddling around with apps on my phone and getting distracted from conversation. Later, I append it to my movie list in one tap.

If a friend recommends a movie to me, I quickly write it in a draft without fiddling around with apps on my phone and getting distracted from conversation. Later, I append it to my movie list in one tap.

Blog Drafts

My next workspace is for blogging. I usually write my blog posts in a third party text editor called Ulysses which means that I usually get started in Drafts and then tap an action that sends the text there. But sometimes I do like to spend a little bit of time in Drafts writing before I take that step. For these types of drafts, I now have a tag called "blog" that allows them to show up separate from my other notes that need to be processed.

Blogging workspace.

Blogging workspace.

Lesson Planning and Note Taking

My last workspace is called Sectionals. My band program has weekly classes for each instrument. Once a week, I see the flutes from my band during one period, the clarinets the next, etc. I do some lesson planning for these sectionals in a note app called Bear. In those same notes I also write down things that happen in the sectionals. Things I assigned, things I assessed, things I said, students absent, instruments I repaired, etc. Fiddling through my notes app to add these notes was getting cumbersome and was distracting me from engaging with my students. So I created a series of sectional related actions that enable me to automate part of this process. The “R1, R2...” actions in the image below are examples of text expansion. Tapping buttons like these expand text that I commonly type. R1 stands for Rotation 1, which I would type if I were taking notes on the first week trumpet sectional for the quarter. The other actions automatically append my sectional notes. For example, tapping SW Trumpet would take my draft and append it to the bottom of that particular note in the Bear note app.

My sectionals workspace. Custom actions can be organized into different groups. This particular one has actions that expand common text that I type in my sectional notes like which weekly rotation we are on. It also contains buttons that take the text and append them to different notes, depending on which instrument group I am in front of.

My sectionals workspace. Custom actions can be organized into different groups. This particular one has actions that expand common text that I type in my sectional notes like which weekly rotation we are on. It also contains buttons that take the text and append them to different notes, depending on which instrument group I am in front of.

My sectional note in the Bear note taking app, now appended by Drafts.

My sectional note in the Bear note taking app, now appended by Drafts.

As you can see, Drafts is a simple note app with infinite customizability. Check it out today at Get Drafts.

Black Friday App Deals

Every Black Friday, tons of apps go cheap or free on the App Store. I always use this opportunity to score a bunch of apps I have been waiting on, particular higher priced apps. 

The best resource I have found for keeping track of every deal is MacStories. Check out their blog post on The Best Deals for iPhone and iPad Apps, Games, and Accessories. They have already started collecting apps on sale and will be updating it all throughout tomorrow and in the coming days. It catalogues apps ranging from iOS apps to Mac apps to tech deals on Amazon. 

Happy app purchasing!!!

The 6 Best Automation Apps for iOS

Interested in learning some apps this summer that will make your school year easier in the fall? Here are my favorite automation apps for iOS and a very brief explanation of each. Don't worry, I am planning on blogging about a few of these at length later this year. 

Note: All of these apps take a little bit of an investment to learn but the payoff is HUGE. You will find yourself doing things on your iPhone and iPad you never thought were possible. If customizing your own automations seems daunting, every one of these apps has a user-submitted gallery where you can download actions that other people have already made.

1. Workflow 

Download here

Workflow is an automation tool that allows you to string together various different actions so that they can be initiated with a single tap. The list of actions you can choose from is dense and many of them are easy to understand without any coding experience. You could do something as simple as open the camera, take three pictures, and generate a .gif file all in one tap (see below). This idea is novel of course. The real power is in figuring out how to take tedious actions that require multiple taps and apps and string them all up into one tap using Workflow’s rich list of integrated apps. One of my favorite Workflows looks into my Dropbox folder for a PDF of a seating chart, generates a copy, and opens it in Notability on my iPad, where I can scribble information about my student’s progress with an Apple Pencil. (See this workflow depicted below). 

Apple just purchased Workflow earlier this year. My hope is that this will allow users to better automate Apple’s own apps and even system level actions down the road. 

2. Drafts

Download here

Drafts is a clean and minimalist text editor that allows you to send text to other apps. Think of it as the starting point for all text on you iPhone or iPad. It functions like a simple, text based, note taking app, until you swipe left and reveal a series of actions you can perform on the text. You can perform actions as simple as posting your text as a Facebook status, Tweet, text message, or email. You can also create actions so complex that they can include JavaScript. One of my more basic Drafts actions takes a list of items I have typed in a rush and imports them all into my Grocery list, which is a list I keep in the Apple Reminders app. 

 

3. IFTTT 

Download here

IFTTT (If This Then That) is a web service that allows you to create If-Then statements that trigger actions to happen in apps. First, the user logs into all of their connected services (Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress, Philips Hue Lights, Gmail, etc…). Then the user creates “Applets” where something that is done in one service can trigger something to happen in another service. For example, I could say “IF I am tagged in a Facebook post, THEN save that photo to my Dropbox. Or “IF I favorite that YouTube video, THEN save it to my Evernote notebook and tag it videos.” Of course, you can get really crazy with home automation apps and do things like “IF someone mentions me on Twitter, THEN flicker my Philips Hue light bulbs red.” 

4. Editorial 

Download here

Editorial is a text editor meant primarily for longer form writing. If you have a blog and an iPad, this app really shines. The app supports plain text, Markdown, and TaskPaper. Markdown is a syntax that allows users to create formatting like headings, bullet lists, tables, and expressions for the web without actually using HTML. For example, when I wrote this blog post, I did not click around in the toolbar to make each of the sections of this post into headings. Instead I just typed '##' in front of each of them, and my blogging service of choice, Squarespace (which interprets Markdown), automatically did the formatting for me. See below for an example.

TaskPaper is an amazing app for Mac that allows you to create checkable todo lists using only plain text. The syntax that the app uses also goes by the same name - TaskPaper. It is a really friendly way to work with checklists without taking your finger off the keyboard to format things. See the example below to get an idea what TaskPaper does. TaskPaper doesn’t have an iOS app, so the fact that Editorial works with TaskPaper files is great!

Much like Drafts, Editorial also has powerful user customizable workflows that you can perform on your text. You could have it post to your Wordpress blog in one tap, for example. My favorite Editorial Workflow takes a list I wrote in the TaskPaper format and uses it as a template for reoccurring projects in my task app of choice, OmniFocus. Certain projects that I perform over and over again contain similar tasks. For example, I always do the same fifteen to twenty things every time I put on a band concert at my school. I keep a checklists of these tasks stored in Editorial so that every time I have a concert, take a sub day, or go on a field trip, I tap one button in Editorial and it imports the list into OmniFocus, complete with due dates, flags, and tags. 

5. Launch Center Pro

Download here

Launch Center Pro is kind of like a springboard (the screen of apps you see when you unlock your iPhone) only it launches actions instead of apps. Actions can do almost anything. In fact, all of the apps in this post can be launched from within Launch Center. For example, I can publish my Workflows as buttons in Launch Center. I can create buttons in Launch Center that trigger IFTTT Applets. Launch Center actions can also launch apps, turn lights on and off in my house, take me into specific lists within my todo app, and more! 

Launch Center Pro took me a little more time to get my head around because it assumes that the user knows a little bit about something called x-callback-url. This is a protocol that most of the apps in this post take advantage of but don’t quite expose to the user. With Launch Center Pro, I felt like I really had to learn this system before digging in. Fortunately, MacStories has a great tutorial that you can read here.

6. Launcher

Download here

Launcher is a much simpler and friendlier version of Launch Center Pro. Setting up actions is very straightforward and a number of them are available as pre-built templates. Launcher lives entirely inside of a Today Widget, which is a special widget that you can invoke on iOS by dragging down from the top of the screen or by swiping to the right of your first screen of apps. Launch Center Pro also has a widget available that does much the same thing, but you might find that you prefer Launcher if the learning curve for LCP is steep.

New podcast episode! - Working with PDFs, featuring guest, Paul Shimmons

In this weeks episode, I am joined by Paul Shimmons (band director, music tech in education blogger, and podcaster). We have a great time talking about our various workflows for reading, editing, annotating, and organizing our PDFs. This episode was recorded shortly after the announcement of iOS 11 which will bring a lot of new productivity features to the iPad. Naturally, we had to discuss these announcements and how they might reshape our PDF workflows next fall.

You can listen to the episode here.

Control your computer's data usage on the go with TripMode 2

If you tether your PC to the cellular connection of your phone or tablet while traveling, you might want to check out this app.

From David Sparks at Macsparky.com...

TripMode 2:

There’s a new version of TripMode out. I’ve written about TripMode before. It’s a Mac app that will monitor your internet traffic and selectively turn off apps. This can be a lifesaver when tethering. As a quick war story, I once had a very large podcast file come in over Dropbox while I was tethering my Mac and burned through a month’s wireless data in about an hour. With TripMode, when I tether, I turn off Dropbox so that doesn’t happen.

I have been looking for an app like this for a while. The idea of tethering my Mac to my iPad’s data connection while I am away from a reliable wireless network is appealing. I always worry about the data that my computer is hogging throughout the various processes that run in the background (things like Dropbox and photo app syncing). With TripMode, that is no longer a concern. You can download TripMode 2 here.