iPad update

Herewith an update to this post. 

Since I still don’t have a Mac I can easily use without broiling my fingers, I have continued to work on being a better user of the iPad. I’m running the iPad OS 14 beta, and am find it very useful to create Shortcuts for common actions and put them among the other widgets and also directly on the Home screen. For instance, here are my widgets:

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For those top two I created emails addressed to myself with the students in those classes BCC’d. So when I need to email my classes, as often I do, I just tap the relevant widget and an already-addressed compose window appears. Then I type the email, hit send, and I’m back where I was. Very neat.

The Daily widget opens a spreadsheet in Numbers where I keep track of various daily activities (exercise, food, and the like). I don’t need an additional app for that kind of thing because the one-tap access to a particular file fulfills that function.

Yeah, it’s hot in Texas.

The Drafts widget allows instant access to an app that I have come to love and rely on heavily. The library of add-ons for Drafts makes the app almost infinitely customizable and automatable. Most of what I write starts in Drafts, and many things finish there as well, because I can send text messages directly from Drafts and likewise post directly to my micro.blog page. (Posting directly to this blog from Drafts doesn’t seem possible right now but I am working on it.)

Here are some Shortcuts I’ve added to my Home Screen:

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The “Reading Mode” shortcut is one from Apple that I have edited to meet my needs. When I tap it, it (a) puts my iPad in Do Not Disturb mode for a pre-set number of minutes, (b) starts up my preferred background sound in Portal, and (c) opens my Kindle app. The “St. Alban’s” shortcut also puts the iPad in Do Not Disturb mode and opens my parish’s YouTube page. I do this each weekday morning at 7:30 — well, okay, most weekday mornings at 7:30, which is the time when one of our priests, either our rector Aaron Zimmerman or our associate rector Neal McGowan, says Morning Prayer for his socially-distanced flock. Note that Apple allows me to choose an appropriate glyph for my “church app.”

There are still some things I need to do that I can’t do from the iPad, or can do only with great difficulty, but those are growing fewer in number. Certainly I’ve never had a Mac that was as precisely calibrated to my needs as this iPad is, though I suppose I could have had one if I had devoted enough attention to apps like Keyboard Maestro, or to the power of AppleScript. But Drafts and Shortcuts make automation very, very simple. It wouldn’t be easy for me to abandon the system I have developed over the past few months.

betwixt and between

My employer, Baylor University, graciously provides me with a computer, a MacBook Pro; but it also loads that computer with a whole bunch of enterprise software apps that from the perspective of an IT manager are useful but from the perspective of a user are sheer malware. The chief problem: these apps eat CPU cycles at a terrifying rate — consistently over 100%, sometimes spiking to 300% or more, which I didn’t even know was possible — which means that the computer’s fan runs full-speed all the time and the computer is still too hot to touch. As a result, I’ve had to turn the laptop into a desktop by hooking it up to an external monitor and keyboard, which works just fine … but I really need a machine I can carry around. So I started shopping for one.

If this had happened a year ago, I would have bought another MacBook straightaway; but the release of the new iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard complicated the choice for me. Not to prolong the suspense: I bought the iPad, and have been using it for a couple of months now; recently I’ve been using it full-time, because the MacBook Pro is in the shop to have its battery replaced.

How do I feel about my choice? It’s complicated.

On the plus side:

  1. Everything about the iPad is faster: It starts up, wakes from sleep, connects to Bluetooth devices faster, and connects to WiFi networks far more quickly than the Mac does.
  2. Its battery life is roughly three times that of my Mac. (No matter what Apple promises, my portable Macs always get 4–5 hours of battery life at most. If I get on a Zoom call that goes down to two hours.)
  3. The Magic Keyboard is fabulous to type on, better than any other keyboard I own (and I have several).
  4. Annotating PDFs with an Apple Pencil is an elegant experience (and using the Pencil is only going to get better with iPad OS 14). This matters because I read a lot of PDFs.
  5. Generally, the modularity of the iPad, its usability in a variety of configurations, is delightful.

On the minus side:

  1. The best software for the iPad is elegant, but rarely is it as powerful as its Mac equivalents. For instance, no text editor on the iPad has even a quarter of the functionality of BBEdit. There’s no blogging app remotely like MarsEdit.
  2. Because the iPad is so thoroughly sandboxed, it is impossible to create the kind of system-wide utilities that accelerate and simplify work on the Mac, especially repeated tasks. There are a number of individual apps on the iPad that support TextExpander, but on the Mac TextExpander works everywhere. You can’t have a Keyboard Maestro or a Hazel for the iPad. You can, of course, create Shortcuts that perform some of the tasks those utilities perform, but you have to run those shortcuts. Nothing happens automatically.
  3. For similar reasons, you can’t control the sound inputs and outputs on an iPad the way you can on the Mac: the magnificent audio software from Rogue Amoeba simply can’t be made for the iPad. (By the way, Apple’s App Store polices make it difficult for Rogue Amoeba even to make Mac apps, as they explain here.)
  4. While the Magic Keyboard’s trackpad works quite well most of the time, some apps don’t support it well, and it still behaves inconsistently at times. That should get better over time, though.
  5. The iPad has no Terminal.

What’s my overall verdict? Honestly, I just don’t know. I wrote this post for myself, as a way of trying to figure out whether I should have bought the iPad, but also as a way of figuring out what I should to in the future. Right now I don’t have much of a choice: I have to make the iPad work for me. But I have a feeling that as time goes by I’m going to be increasingly frustrated with its limitations. 

it’s official …

… MacOS is now more stable than iOS/iPadOS. Which I wouldn’t have believed even a couple of months ago. Marco Arment has gone on an appropriate rant about this, concluding, “Your software quality is broken, Apple. Deeply, systemically broken. Get your shit together.” 

I’ve had plenty of problems since iOS 13 arrived, but here’s my most recent story: I was using Instapaper and Fantastical in split screen view on my iPad, and then one of them (I think it was Instapaper) crashed, which brought down the other. Tapped on one, both showed up for an instant, then both crashed. Tapped on the other, same result. Used swipe-up-to-quit both apps, tried again, same result. Re-booted the iPad, same result — the two apps are apparently joined in a suicide pact. So if I want to use my iPad I have to do so without using either of those two apps, both of which are longtime daily fixtures to me. I guess I have to wait for an update to one of the apps or for the next point release of iPadOS. 

So I’m on my MacBook, whose keyboard I’m not crazy about — though at least it actually registers the keys I type, and does so only once per keystroke, which sets it apart from the Macs of many users. 

These persistent Apple problems have been enough to drive longtime Mac user and developer David Heinemeier Hansson to Windows. But that didn’t go so well

inaccessible

Of all the many task-management apps available for the Apple platforms, the one that fits my needs best, by far, is Things by Cultured Code. And if I’m using the iOS version it’s a sheer delight. I can organize everything from small daily tasks, to lists of movies I want to watch, to complex multi-stage projects. It’s beautifully designed and has lots of power when I need it.

But often I work on a Mac, and when I do, Things makes me miserable. I blink and strain my eyes until they hurt, I crane my neck towards and away from the screen. After anything more than five minutes I’m frustrated and in pain. The reason: the makers of Things have since day 1 of the Mac version of their app — twelve years ago — refused to allow users to adjust the size of any text in the app. They like text small and so they keep it small. But my aging eyes can no longer adjust, even with my fairly sophisticated lenses. So sometimes when I’m using the Mac I will pull out an iOS device rather than struggle with the text on the Mac version of Things.

It’s not rare for software companies to do less than they might, and probably less than they should, to make their apps accessible to people whose senses don’t function peecisely as a healthy 25-year-old’s do. But it is really rare, these days, to find a company as actively hostile to non-ideal users as Cultured Code. It’s hard to imagine a usability feature more basic than the ability to adjust text size. But they won’t do it. It’s like someone producing a music app that doesn’t allow you to adjust the volume. (“We’ve chosen a volume level that we think will be best for most of our users.”)

I have a lot of money and time invested in the Things apps, but it looks like I’m going to have to turn to an alternative that may be less well-suited to my workflow. But that’s okay; I can adapt my workflow. I just can’t adapt my eyes.

(And dear reader, please do not respond to this post by giving me advice. Whatever you think I ought to do in this matter, I have tried it, and I do mean whatever. And while I have you on the line, please don’t ever give anyone advice, about anything, unless they explicitly ask for it.)

getting a new Mac up and running

Things I do when I get a new Mac, more or less in order:

  • install Homebrew
  • use Homebrew to install pandoc
  • install BBedit
  • install MacTex
  • type this into the terminal: defaults write com.barebones.bbedit FullScreenWindowsHogScreen -bool NO
  • type this into the terminal: defaults write com.apple.dock single-app -bool true (followed by killall Dock)
  • enable Night Shift
  • install TextExpander
  • install Alfred
  • install Hazeover
  • install Hazel

Everything else can wait; once I have the above in place — plus of course syncing all my existing TextExpander snippets — I can do almost everything I really need to do on a computer, with maximum focus and speed. 

back to the Mac

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year trying to leave the Mac behind and move full-time to iOS. I’ve done this in large part because the many and various problems I’ve had with the last several versions of Mac OS have convinced me that it’s not getting Apple’s best attention, that iOS is likely to be the more reliable platform in the future, and that I’d do well to start adapting my patterns and habits accordingly.

Of course, iOS isn’t the only option, and in fact, a couple of years ago I tried to move to Linux. But not only am I pretty heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem, my family members are also, and on Linux I really missed the convenience of sharing apps, answering phone calls on my computer, Messages, FaceTime, etc. So I was gradually sucked back into Cupertino’s orbit.

So, I tried Linux, and then I tried iOS. Now I’m back to the Mac. Why? There are many reasons, but here are the biggies:

  • As many, many people have pointed out, text selection has never worked consistently in iOS and has not improved even a little bit over the past few years. And text selection is something I do a lot of.
  • I have often sung the praises of pandoc — it is essential to my work — and there is simply no equivalent of pandoc on iOS. You can do most of the things pandoc does there, but with more steps, more effort, and less consistent results.
  • Mojave has fixed all the problems I had with the previous two or three versions (I’m especially pleased that wifi and Bluetooth both work flawlessly now).
  • On iOS, TextExpander works in some apps; on the Mac, it works everywhere. This is huge for me. I have developed a very large library of TextExpander snippets over the years, and when I’m writing in an app and they don’t work I get weird glitches in my neural software.

And I don’t enjoy getting weird glitches in my neural software. So I’m back on a Mac.