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Favorites of 2018 - Things

These posts will never happen if I don’t make it fuss free. So here is it! With little introduction or fanfare, the ‘stuff’ that made up my year. My favorite albums, live shows, apps, and ‘things’ of 2018.

The final installment features the most tangible and miscellaneous. My favorite things! The stuff that didn’t fit into any other category but that brought me joy this year.

Things

Prepd Lunch Box

This modular lunchbox helps me to better plan my lunches throughout the week. After mass prepping on Sunday night, I slam all of my meals into a weeks worth of these containers and then easily swap them out at the end of each day. This lunchbox is slim enough to fit in my backpack. There is a companion app that has recipes for meals that easily fit into the containers.

Series 4 Apple Watch

Of all the Apple products I own, this is the one that I take the most delight in. My Series 4 watch has this new watch face that allows me to slam a ton of information onto it at a glance. My current version of it I call the 'status circle' watch face. It keeps track of my progress on activity, sleep, water intake, and tasks, while also helping me stay on top of alarms, timers, and calendar events.

Rx Bars

If you are what you eat, I am a coconut chocolate Rx Bar. These energy bars are delicious, and most importantly, they are substantial. I can sub one of these out for breakfast or have it as a late afternoon snack. It carries me through. And there are tons of delicious flavors, all made with a minimal list of natural ingredients.

Rx Bars come in diverse flavors.

Rx Bars come in diverse flavors.

The Prepd lunchbox.

The Prepd lunchbox.

Hidrate Spark Smart Water Bottle

This water bottle reminds me when to drink. It automatically senses how much I drink and displays my progress on my Apple Watch. It even remembers the last location it was connected to my phone in the event that I loose it (like yesterday...) This water bottle is a big motivation for me to drink more water. I love it.

My Apple Watch Series 4, with my ‘status circle.’ watch face. When I am not taking screenshots at 2 am, the blue status ring on bottom represents the water I drink in the Hidrate Spark water bottle.

My Apple Watch Series 4, with my ‘status circle.’ watch face. When I am not taking screenshots at 2 am, the blue status ring on bottom represents the water I drink in the Hidrate Spark water bottle.

You read that last caption right! This water bottle automatically logs my water intake. And much much more.

You read that last caption right! This water bottle automatically logs my water intake. And much much more.

Ableton Live Hoodie

My wife got me this last Christmas and I love it. Everyone loves it. I feel a little bit phony wearing it because Ableton is not an app I use much anymore. But it carries with it the general spirit of an audio editor. And some bright colors! I am down with that.

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Nintendo Switch

Over a year into owning this thing and I am still amazed that I can play the latest Mario game the same way on an airplane that I can on my living room TV. Our latest craze is Overcooked 2. It’s the most addictive local multiplayer I have experienced in a long time.

Thrive Market

Thrive sells health food items in larger than normal quantities at discounted prices. As I continue to experiment with adjustments to my diet, this service is becoming my go to for essentials like nuts, cooking oils, fresh water fish, and more!

Territory

For busy teaching weeks (like a week where my music team puts on four concerts), it is hard to manage meal prep. For those weeks I turn to Territory. Territory makes healthy, delicious, meals that are pre-made and shipped straight to my front door. The amount of diet customization you can do with this service keeps me coming back for more. 

2018 iPad Pro

I also upgraded my iPad Pro this year and gave my old one to my wife. What is there to say? I really like this iPad. It makes the Apple Pencil feel like magic. I am still frustrated by the keyboard case, and iOS is still not an OS I can get all of my work done on. But somehow, the hardware improvements to this device (larger display, FaceID, inductive charging Apple Pencil) makes it a real delight to use.

It does not fundamentally change the way the iPad works. But it also does.

It does not fundamentally change the way the iPad works. But it also does.

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. 

 

Recent Podcast Episodes - "Noteflight Marketplace" and "Going Paperless"

In case you do not subscribe to either of my podcasts, each had a new episode published this past week. They are good ones...

 

Going Paperless (Semester 1, Episode 8) | The Class Nerd - 

This week, The Class Nerd breaks down their paperless process. In this one, we cover scanning apps, file organization, PDF annotation apps, and handwritten note apps.

 

Noteflight Marketplace, with Friend John Mlynczak (Season 3, Episode 6) | Robby Burns + Friends -

This week Robby catches up with John Mlynczak, Managing Director of Noteflight, about their new Marketplace platform and the state of digital music publishing.

The Class Nerd - Episode 4: Drafts

This week on The Class Nerd, Craig and I pick apart our favorite iOS productivity app, Drafts.

I always explain Drafts as the app that most diminishes the cognitive load of my music teaching job and beyond. Gone are the days of writing down notes, todos, and other reminders on whatever scrap piece of paper is nearest to me only to forget everything when its most important. Drafts is the fastest way I know to take down an idea. I don't even have to think about what kind of idea it is because Drafts offers a rich list of actions that can send the text to other apps.

This episode might be out most technical yet, but don't let that scare you off. Drafts is one of those apps that is as complicated as you want it to be. You can get a ton of productivity out of it with very little learning curve.

Listen to the episode here.

 

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.

Microsoft Office for iPad now supports opening files from the Files app more directly

Microsoft Office and the Files App Finally Play Nice Together:

Today Microsoft updated its Office suite for iOS, with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint all reaching version 2.12. Office updates rarely receive detailed release notes, and today was no exception, but user Teddy Svoronos discovered that the updates brought 'Open In' capabilities to the share sheet, which previously only enabled making a copy of an Office document. The 'Copy to' option has now been removed, replaced by the more convenient 'Open in.'

After seeing Teddy's tweet, I did a little playing around in the Files app and discovered that, while Excel and PowerPoint documents accessed in Files will load Quick Look previews and require tapping 'Open in' from the share sheet, the experience is even better with .docx files. Those Word-associated documents open directly in the Word app with just a single tap from the Files interface – no need to open the share sheet first.

It is really nice to see proper use of the Files app user interface being adopted into apps by third party developers. The more time passes, hopefully we will see this adoption so wide that opening documents using the native file browser will feel no different on an iPad than it does on a Mac. It always feels jarring on Mac when the “Open” option doesn’t show the Finder. On iPad, custom “open” UIs have been standard since its beginning. Hopefully the Files app introduced this past fall with iOS 11 will continue to change that. 

What I really thought was interesting about this article was something I have been wondering about the Files app since the summer. 

Update: One of the developers working on Office has confirmed my suspicions: the reason Word files open for me with a single tap while Excel and PowerPoint files do not is that I haven't opened those files enough for iOS to know that I would prefer to bypass the share sheet.

I had noticed that tapping on files in the Files app could open them within third party apps but I never understood how iOS knew which apps to use. (For example, standard text files were opening in Byword on my iPhone and 1Writed on my iPad for a time.) It seems that the user can to some extent control these apps by using the “Open In…” option from the Files app and choosing the desired app frequently. Still though, I would love the option to set default apps on iOS. I can tell my Mac which app I want to open PDFs. Why not on my iPad Pro?

Brief Thoughts on Apple’s Education Event

Well it has taken me long enough… This past week, Apple held an education event. Below are some brief thoughts on the subject. Chris Russell is coming on my podcast later this week to talk about all of the details. Keep in mind, I do not work in a school with 1:1 iPads or any kind of deployment strategy. But I am very seriously invested in Apple’s role in education and their vision for how their products fit into the classroom.

New iPad

This device looks great. Adding the Apple Pencil to this model will be an asset for schools. But will schools really pay 89 dollars for a pencil after just having purchased numerous 250 dollar iPads? 

The thing that gets me most excited about this device is its consumer potential. I am tempted to buy one for myself as a (more) mobile counterpart to my larger 12.9 inch iPad Pro.

iWork Updates

Apple Pencil support. FINALLY. This was my favorite announcement of the day. I anticipate editing Pages documents, scribbling on bus attendance lists made in Numbers, and annotating Keynote slides at the front of the classroom on a daily basis. I hate to be cynical (which the rest of this post will be), but Microsoft Office for iPad has had the ability to write on documents with an Apple Pencil since the Apple Pencil launched, two years ago. 

iBooks Author

Seems like the Mac app is no longer going to receive development. All book publishing features have been moved to Pages for iOS and Mac. It doesn’t appear that the new feature does everything that iBooks Author can do. Hopefully this is like when Apple rewrote Final Cut Pro X, took away some features, but then eventually added them back. Or when iWork was rewritten to be the same for iOS and macOS, stripping AppleScript features from the Mac, but eventually bringing them back. I would hate to see iBook authors unable to use workflows they have in the past using iBooks Author for the Mac. 

Classroom App for Mac

Apple’s learning management system comes to the Mac. Great! But what took so long? And can Apple keep up with the vastly more mature and flexible Google Classroom? (See conclusion below)

School Work App

An app for teachers to give assignments to students, check their progress, and collect it back. School Work can route students to other apps to do their assignments using the ClassKit API which is very cool. But why is this separate from the Classroom app? And where does iTunes U fit into all of this?

Conclusion

Apple is making a lot of solid efforts here but a lot of it it feels like too little too late, especially the student and learning management software. I really do hope they can keep up with Google Classroom who has been eating everyone’s lunch for years. Apple will have to be aggressive about adding new features to all of these new apps and making sure that their app ecosystem is flexible enough to compete with Chromebooks which use browser based software. Yes, there are way more apps on the App Store than there are Chrome based apps, but in education (and especially in music education) a lot of the big players are writing for Chrome OS. To me, the draw of Chromebooks in education is not their price, but the flexibility of web based software.

Apple’s software engineers seem spread very thin and unable to balance the release of various applications, consistently over time. This is true of many of Apple’s consumer apps. Mail and Reminders, two tentpole productivity apps have fallen way behind the competition. Calendar has not seen any more than a few major feature updates since I started using the Mac back in 2006. Apple’s apps are part of the “nice” factor of being in the ecosystem. Sometimes an app like Notes will get some major new features, but then we won’t hear from it for a few years. Google’s apps, by contrast, lack the same design sense, but are constantly being updated with new features. And they are not locked into annual OS updates like iOS is. In my opinion, this is Apple’s biggest problem right now.

Ironically, software is still my draw to Apple products. Even though their hardware is the most indisputably good thing they are doing right now (I am nearly without complaint of my iPhone X and the iPad 10.5 is perfect), it is the software that locks me in. In other words, I am much more committed to macOS and iOS than I am Mac and iPhone. This leaves me with some long term concern about my interest in continuing to use Apple products. And great concern about any educational institution who jumps on the iPad bandwagon just because apps are bright and colorful and demo well on stage. Apple has to show continual support for their education software if their dream for the classroom is to come true.