drafts

Raw first impressions of the new iPad Pro

I am all set up with my new 12.9 inch iPad Pro. Here are my gut thoughts on the process of purchasing the device and the first few hours of use.

I ordered the 11 inch device on day one and then immediately regretted it once I heard reports of the 12.9's lightness. This mixed in with the fact that the 11 inch still runs apps in a different size class than the 12.9. For example, when you run Mail and Notes side by side, it is possible to see the list of notes/messages and the contents of the note/message on screen at once in the 12.9 model.

I went in to the Apple Store today with the idea in mind that I would test both out, most likely buy a 12.9, and then return the 11.

Things I tested in the store:

-Holding each device in hand with and without Keyboard Folio attached.

-Running two productivity apps side by side in 50/50 split view on both devices to see how much content was visible.

-Typing an email on each keyboard.

-Looking at sheet music on one half of the screen while taking handwritten notes on the other. (In landscape and in portrait)

-Fitting each device in and out of my back pack.

-Taking handwritten notes in Apple Notes while holding the device in the other hand.

Making the decision

It was a hard decision. I really miss watching movies and reading books on the couch with my current 12.9. It's too big. It is also too heavy for me to hold in one hand at length. Still, I purchased it. Because I don't want to miss out on any software features now, or down the road. The fact that you can put 15 apps on the dock of the 12.9 and that you can run apps with more features in split view was enough to sell me on it. Apple could add those features to the 11 inch later through software. But Apple could also add new features to just the 12.9. Another tie breaker was the keyboard. I just can't type on the 11 inch keyboard as comfortably. I don’t think I will regret this. An honest look at my iPad use over the past year reveals hours and hours a day reading sheet music from far away while viewing a seating chart on the other half of the screen. Can I just have two iPads? The thought crossed my mind and then I realized how needlessly complex that could be. My wallet rejoiced.

First thoughts

The inductive charging pencil that snaps to the device is brilliant. It is going to make the pencil feel so much more delightful to use.

Pencil only attaches to the top while in landscape. Bummer.

It will take some time to retrain myself to swipe up to go to home screen and double tap the pencil to change tools. These are superior methods, but habit is habit.

Using the pencil with Apple Notes is a dream. Combine the higher refresh rate (my first time experiencing this since I own the first gen iPad Pro) with the feel of the new pencil, along with the responsiveness of "tap to wake," and you get as close to paper as I can imagine. Tapping the pencil tip to the sleeping iPad screen instantly gets you handwriting in the Notes app. This feature has existed before, but it is so smooth now, that... you really just have to try it to believe it. It's so good that I am already thinking about how to work Apple Notes back into my note workflow (I can’t ever seem to avoid using less than three or four note apps at once). I was so compelled by this idea that I sketched out some workflow ideas in Apple Notes with the new pencil. I have to conceive of note apps with a healthy dose of metaphor.

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12.9 is lighter but still too heavy to hold in one hand with ease. It actually feels grippier to me when the case is on. Less like I am going to drop it.

New Keyboard Folio is way easier to unfold but harder to detach from the iPad.

Apps that aren’t optimized for the screen are currently letterboxed. I don’t mind it as much as I thought I would.

This device is going to feel so much better to use all around, but as many members of the tech press have stated, it is still powered by a limited OS. iOS hasn't seen features to differentiate the iPad since iOS 11. Rumor has it that iOS 13 is going to bring a lot more iPad productivity. Until the other shoe drops, I wait in eager anticipation for what this iPad could become.

Features I would need from iOS to allow me to use my iPad for 99 percent of my work (that are within Apple's control)

-Trackpad and mouse support

-Open two instances of the same app side by side

-Faster animation when I press Command+Tab

-Desktop-ier Safari

-Improvements to the Files app (I need more control in iCloud Drive over which documents are stored in the cloud vs. local to the device. Third party providers like Google Drive do not show up in the search results when I search in Files app or in Spotlight.)

-Default apps. Not just for stuff like Mail and Maps. I need to be able to specify which app a document opens in when I tap it in the Files app.

-Ability to manage my iTunes Library.

-Logic Pro (they have to be working on this, right?)

-Bonus point: Ability to have more than one audio in or out running at the same time.

-Bonus point: some sort of rethink to the home screen. I would love to be able to launch a file or a folder from there. A widget with recent notes wouldn't suck either.

-Bonus point: three apps 33/33/33 percent at the same time.

-Extreme bonus point: keyboard intent to allow TextExpander to work.

-Extreme bonus point: extension for apps to put a window in the middle of the screen that allows for viewing or editing content. Example: a quick note function, or the ability to add a task to OmniFocus.

I think about half of the things I did not label as Bonus could happen in the next year. I would be disappointed if they don't, but fortunately, I bought the new iPad for what it is, not what it will be. And what it is is an extremely powerful iPad that is 100 percent more delightful to use in every respect. I can't wait to test this thing out in the classroom tomorrow.

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.

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.