Setting up my new Mac

So, I got an unexpected refund from the Student Loan Company (bonus!) recently and spent it on one of the new MacBook Airs. It’s a beautiful machine. Apple seem to have fixed the keyboard issues they were having a little while ago, it’s lightning quick, and the screen is gorgeous.

I’ve not had a Mac for a few years now, relying on my work-supplied Windows laptop, and a Chromebook for other personal bits and pieces. I must admit, I didn’t think I had missed it much – but I’ve found myself realising that, actually, I had just learned to put up with a load of frustrations!

So what software did I put on this thing?

Browsers – it comes with Safari as default, but I added Chrome and Edge. I’m logged into Safari with my personal Gmail account and use that for day to day browsing. Chrome I use with a G-Suite account, to keep that tidy and in one place, and Edge I use for an Office 365 account for the school I help govern. I know there are many ways to create standalone apps from websites, which is an alternative way to keep all these account separate, but I’m happy with this solution.

From the Mac App store I installed some stuff I bought years ago, but are still perfectly good for my needs:

  • BBEdit – I use the free version of this veteran Mac app as a simple text editor
  • Pixelmator Classic – good enough for the image editing I do, although there is a new, Pro, version out
  • Evernote – still the best way to capture notes of all kinds, I’ve tried others, like OneNote, Bear and Notion but keep coming back to this.
  • Omnioutliner – not something I use a lot, but sometimes using an outliner to plan thoughts is a really helpful method, and I’ve not come across a better tool that Omnioutliner.

Stuff I installed from the web:

  • Transmit – a great, easy to use FTP client. Mostly used to help managed websites
  • Zoom – well, duh
  • Microsoft Office – I don’t actually use it that much these days – Google Docs does the business most of the time, but occasionally the MS suite cannot be avoided so it helps having it on here. Also it comes with Teams, so…
  • NetNewsWire – previously, I used Reeder for my RSS aggregation (yes! I still do that!) but on this Mac I went ‘back’ to NNW. I put ‘back’ in quotes because it’s an entirely new, open source application these days. It works great.

I also took out a subscription to SetApp, which gives access to a whole host of useful Mac apps for a tenner a month:

  • Bartender – helps keep my menu bar tidy. Inessential but nice.
  • Capto – a fairly easy to use screen recording app. Screenflow used to be my default choice in this space on the Mac, but as this was included in SetApp’s bundle it saved me money to use this
  • CleanMyMac X – tidies up the crud that builds up on any computer over time
  • Cleanshot X – an improvement on the default screen grabbing tool
  • Gifox – makes simple animated GIFs
  • Marked – takes documents written in Markdown and exports them to various formats. Useful when it is needed, which isn’t all that often
  • MarsEdit – the grandaddy of desktop blog editing apps, every post I write starts off here
  • MindNode – mindmapping tool that’s a joy to use
  • Paste – a clipboard manager. If you’ve never used one before, you don’t know what you are missing. Keeps a record of everything you copy, so you can paste it at any time in the future
  • PDFpen – for wrangling with PDFs
  • Prizmo – turns scanned documents into editable text (OCR type stuff)
  • Rocket Typist – like Paste, a tool you don’t know you need until you try it, then you can’t live without it. This allows you to set system wide shortcuts that automatically expand short snippets of text into longer ones. My personal favourite app in this space is TextExpander, but this works well and doesn’t cost me any more money.
  • Ulysses – an app for composing longer form writing projects. It uses markdown and presents a pretty minimalist writing experience. This is an app I felt I ought to download but haven’t actually used for anything yet.

I also invested in an Anker USB hub thing, to make up for the lack of ports on the laptop. It’s an elegant design and seems to work very well.

Photo by Thom on Unsplash

The soul of a new iPhone

So I got my new iPhone 6 on Friday – don’t judge me, I was due an upgrade anyway – and have been using it all weekend.

Here are some early thoughts.

1. The size – it’s a bit too big. I didn’t go for the ludicrously sized plus model, but even so. This thing is a lot bigger than the iPhone 5 I upgraded from and it’s just – just – slightly too big.

I have to stretch my thumb to reach the top layer of icons and it isn’t comfy. I know I can double tap the home button to bring them down, but at the moment this isn’t coming naturally to me.

Also it’s too big to fit comfortably in the breast pocket of a shirt, every time i move, it threatens to fall out. Annoying.

Another factor with the size is that there is no way I can put one of those oversize cases that double as an extra battery on this thing, so will need to find a new way of carrying emergency charge around with me.

2. The camera – is excellent, but I cannot believe they have released it with the lens poking out of the back of the phone like it does.

There’s a lot of nonsense written about post-Jobs Apple, but this is one of those things that would never have been released while Steve was in charge. It’s ugly and means you absolutely have to put a case on this thing if you don’t want to knacker it.

3. The storage – I went a bit mad and ordered the top storage option of 128gb. When I found out everyone else was getting the 64gb model I felt a bit daft, but not now.

It holds pretty much my whole iTunes library, as well as every app I would ever want, plus a load of podcasts, and a few downloaded episodes of Peppa Pig for those moments – and I still have 30 odd gigs free. Love it!

4. Some apps aren’t working – am finding I am having a lot of trouble with quite a few apps. Is this an iPhone 6 thing or an iOS 8 thing? I don’t know.

I restored the phone from an iCloud backup of my previous one, and a fair few apps either didn’t download properly at all or crashed when I tried to open them. Deleting them and reinstalling fixed most but not all.

The Chrome browser, for instance, refuses to work for me. Hopefully they will update it soon.

5. Touch ID is something I love, and I’m surprised by that. This is where you can unlock your phone by just holding your thumb over the home button to identify yourself.

My previous iPhone didn’t have it and I was always a bit sniffy. But it seems to work really well, really quickly, and I’ve got used to it right away.

What next?

Those are just my initial thoughts and I am sure I will be able to add more about how I end up using this phone differently to my previous one.

It would be great to hear how others are getting on with theirs in the comments!

My current favourite toy

apple-ipad-mini-blackJust before Christmas, and as a bit of a Christmas treat for myself, I bought an iPad mini with retina display and 3g mobile broadband access (ie not the wifi only model). I love it.

Up til now my tablet of choice was a second generation Nexus 7, produced by Asus but sanctioned by Google as the best of breed Android tablet. That I found to be my favourite tablet device so far, better than the full size iPad. However, while I used the Nexus 7 fairly regularly as a device to quickly check emails or check something on the web, it never became a vital piece of kit for me.

Since I have had this iPad mini though, it has barely left my side. Why is that?

  1. The size – and weight is absolutely perfect for pretty much any task. It is finally an iPad that works as an e-reader in that I can hold in one handed without getting a wrist strain. The smaller screen size doesn’t really matter to me when the resolution is as good as the retina one is on this thing and pinching and zooming is fine when I need something to appear a little bigger.
  2. The apps – is still where the iPad wins against Android devices. Sure all the big ones are on both platforms (Twitter, Facebook etc etc) but it’s the iOS only ones which you may not have heard of where the iPad stomps all over the competition. I’ve not come across an Android editor that can beat Byword, or an RSS reader as good as Reeder 2 – just to name two examples.
  3. The 3G – as mentioned above, my iPad mini has mobile data access for when I am out of range of a wifi network. My Nexus 7 didn’t, and it’s a game changer. A tablet is basically of little use without the net, and being able to access it pretty much anywhere significantly enhances the usefulness of the device. By the way, here’s a tip from your Uncle Dave – make sure your phone and your tablet use a different carrier for mobile data. That way, if one has a shonky signal, the other one ought to be ok. Mine are Vodafone for my phone and 3 for the iPad and I’ve never been without signal on both.
  4. The keyboard cover – After a couple of weeks, I picked up a Logitech slim keyboard cover for the iPad, and it is great. This being a mini iPad, it’s a pretty mini keyboard, although after a couple of days with it I could type fairly quickly on it- and much quicker than I could using the on screen keyboard. An additional bonus is that using a hardware keyboard with the mini frees up some vital screen real estate. The case works beatifully, snapping shut with magnets to protect the screen, and also using a magnet to hold the screen at a helpful angle when typing. It does all this without adding much to the size and weight of the device, which is fantastic.

I should probably think of a fifth thing, but these four pretty much cover it. What tablet do you use, if any? Do you love it like I do this one?

iPads and apps

I’ve been playing with a new iPad recently – and I love it. The screen resolution on these things literally has to be seen to be believed.

I had an original iPad before – the one without a camera – and it was also a wifi only one, without a mobile data plan. The result of this was that I rarely took it out of the house. My new one has a 3G connection, which means it’ll get online anywhere with a decent mobile signal.

This latter fact means I’m more likely to break Briggs’ Law – which states that it’s impossible to use a tablet computer in public without looking like a twerp.

Anyway, here’s my home screen with my most used apps. Let’s have a look at what I’ve been using, going through the rows from top to bottom and left to right.

WordPress – mainly for managing this blog, and if I’m honest for moderating comments and so on, rather than writing posts.

Calendar – I occasionally look at this, it seems to sync reasonably with my Google calendar.

Maps – handy for planning trips and so on.

Basecamp – not a native app but a web app whose bookmark I’ve saved to the home screen. Helps keep on track of projects.

Evernote – my favourite note keeping app which syncs nicely with the website and the app on my laptop.

Articles – a client for WikiPedia which seems to work quicker and formats more nicely than the website.

Remote – I can control my stereo in the lounge using this app.

WriteRoom – a lovely distraction free text editor. great for bashing in text, but if I’m honest I tend to just use Evernote.

Photos – for, you know, looking at photos.

RTM – Remember the Milk is a dead simple app for managing and syncing to do lists.

Camera – takes photos.

Draft – very simple app for drawing things with your finger, particularly outlines for website wireframes and so on.

iPlayer – it’s brilliant being able to watch BBC shows on this. It upsets me sometimes that my son doesn’t realise how magical it is!

iAnnotate PDF – I tried a few apps for annotating PDFs and this seems the best. Great for meetings – no printing required! I can type notes, highlight bits, scribble and doodle to my heart’s content.

Instapaper – if I see something online I want to read later, I can save it to Instapaper and pick it up later on, formatted beautifully for the iPad.

Mindnode – simple way of drawing mind maps.

Dropbox – the easiest way of getting documents to and from an iPad in my experience.

Reeder – my RSS reader of choice. Beautiful design and easy to use – and syncs with Google Reader.

OmniOutliner – I don’t tend to type too much on the iPad but I do like to plan documents using it, and an outliner is a great tool for that.

OmniFocus – the Rolls Royce of iPad todo list apps. Having played with it, it’s too much for me and RTM suits me better. To be replaced on my home screen by something new, soon, I’m sure!

John Naughton on the iPad

So true:

The iPad is great for some things, but hopeless for others. I’ve had one since its launch in 2010 and I use it every day. It has a terrific battery life, springs instantly to life when opened, is robust and portable and, when fitted with a sim card, provides good connectivity on the move. One could, I suppose, try to write a book, edit a movie or build a big spreadsheet model with it – just as one could, in principle, dig the garden with a teaspoon. But you’d be mad to try. The truth about computing is like the truth about steeplechasing: it’s always horses for courses.

The iPad: computer or device?

There has been a flurry of reviews and opinions about Apple’s new gadget, the iPad, this weekend as the devices has been launched in the States. They should be in the UK by the end of April, and I still haven’t made up my mind about whether I’m going to get one or not.

ipad

A really interesting debate was kicked off by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing with a specific philosophical problem with the iPad, in that it is a computing device that is seemingly at odds with the prevailing culture of computing:

The way you improve your iPad isn’t to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn’t a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it’s a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals.

In other words, where is the room for tinkering with a device like this? How can you get a piece of software onto your iPad, other than by having it accepted by Apple onto the AppStore?

Jeff Jarvis also has issues with the iPad:

The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them. The most absurd, extreme illustration is Time Magazine’s app, which is essentially a PDF of the magazine (with the odd video snippet). It’s worse than the web: we can’t comment; we can’t remix; we can’t click out; we can’t link in, and they think this is worth $4.99 a week. But the pictures are pretty.

There’s no denying it is a beautiful bit of kit, though, and a winning user experience. Take the review by Jason Snell:

One day, devices like the iPad may very well change the way we view computers and technology. But right now, I don’t believe the iPad is going to make anyone stop using their main Mac or PC. If you were in the market for an e-book reader or a supplemental laptop, though, I’d give those plans a serious re-think.

Because the iPad is such a new concept, Apple faces some serious challenges in making people understand how they might use it and why they should buy one. It’s not a product type people are familiar with, like a PC or a phone, or a TV or a lawnmower. It’s neither fish nor fowl, and consumers are pretty comfortable with their chicken and salmon, thank you very much.

Joe Clarke also has an interesting take:

This was the weekend those of us with high standards lost their remaining residue of patience for ideologues who hyperbolize about open systems without actually creating something people want to use.

I think there is an important distinction to make between those who use computer purely to consume stuff – whether it’s web browsing, playing music and videos, doing a bit of online shopping, Facebooking and emailing, and those who create on a bigger scale using technology – those that produce a lot of content, whatever the medium, and those that want to program computers to do things.

The idea, frankly, that someone would buy an iPad so that they could learn PHP on it, or something, is a bit daft. Instead the iPad could be seen as the type of device people first use to get online, and if curiosity makes them want to find out how stuff is created, they graduate to more flexible machines, in other words a laptop or desktop computer.

I suspect then that iPads – and similar tablet devices – could begin to replace netbooks, which are often bought as cheaper alternatives to full laptops. As Tim Anderson’s recent piece shows, though, even an entry level netbook can be a pain to get working.

My main use for an iPad would be in using tools like my email, Twitter, and especially Google Reader, in a comfy way when I am away from my desk. Whether that’s worth £500 I’m not sure.

The interesting thing is to watch emergent technology to see where it will go. The great example is SMS and mobile phones – it was never thought likely that people would use text messaging, and yet it is a phenomenally popular tool.

Here’s another example, from my own technology use. I bought a Kindle a few months ago, mainly to have a play and without any serious idea that I might stop reading paper books. However, I’ve found myself using it more and more – but not to read books.

Kindle

It’s really easy to get PDFs on the Kindle, either by emailing them into a dedicated address for my device (which costs a few pence) or just transferring by USB when the Kindle is connected to my computer, like any other external storage. The Kindle has now become the thing I use to read documents published electronically, whether white papers, instruction manuals, policy documents, whatever. Rather than staring at my laptop screen, or printing them out, I now just download them onto the Kindle and read them on there.

So it’s possible that the game changing use of devices like the iPad hasn’t even been identified yet. But I think it is important to recognise that these things are devices and not computers, at least not in the sense that a lot of us are used to.

iPhones

I’ve had an iPhone for about 18 months now. In the summer, I upgraded from my 8gb first generation model to a 32gb 3GS. It’s awesome, and with the 3G, extra processor speed and storage, plus improvements to the camera and the phone experience, I’d say it is the first true experience of what the iPhone was always meant to do, if that makes sense.

Here are a few recent examples of how the iPhone doesn’t change your life, but does subtly make it so much easier, and sometimes stranger:

  1. Before having an iPhone, when I went on trips to London for meetings and things, I’d take a laptop, mp3 player, and my phone. Go back a couple of years and I’d have a PDA as well (a Palm Tungsten T5, if you’re interested). I might have had a separate camera, and possibly something like a Flip, just in case. Now, unless I have a bit of work to do when I am traveling that involves a lot of typing, I just take the iPhone.
  2. I got a phone call the other day, when I happened to be in London, from someone asking to meet up. They told me where they were, and as soon as I hung up, I looked up where it was on the map on the iPhone, and where the nearest tube station was from it, and where the nearest one from me was. Then I went straight to the Tube iPhone app to get the best route from where I was to where I needed to be. This is great for me, as I don’t really know London that well, and means I don’t have to faff around with loads of maps, looking like a tit. Instead I get to stare into my phone, looking like a tit.
  3. Today I was in Halfords, looking for a bike rack. I found the one I wanted, but it wasn’t priced up! A normal person would find a Halford’s staff member to ask. I just went to the Halford’s website on my iPhone and searched for the product’s reference number. I got the price in a couple of seconds.
  4. On the train home, before Christmas, I was having several conversations, all through my phone. One was using SMS, one on Yammer, another on Twitter, another through email and another on IM. I skipped around them, keeping up and responding to each without any real thought. When I got home, I really couldn’t think why I was using each medium to talk to those people – I had the mobile number of the person I was emailing, so I could have sent them a text, for example.

The interesting thing about 2,3 and 4 is that I didn’t have to think about what I was doing, it just happened. The iPhone’s interface isn’t perfect – for instance, why are the compose buttons for SMS messages and emails at different ends of the screen? – but it’s still fairly intuitive and keeps out of the way. Having all these different streams coming into one device just makes everything so fluid.

The one issue is that typing a lot just isn’t feasible. This seems to be a great way of sorting that out, though:

I’m not willing to jailbreak my phone though. Let’s hope something similar that’s authorised will appear soon.

Mini

I treated myself to a new toy today, a Mac Mini. Here it is, next to the rather splendid curtains in our spare room:

Mac mini

To be honest, I really want a nice big iMac but can’t afford it. The Mini is a nice, relatively cheap alternative. Working on a MacBook all the time really isn’t good for the eyes – and with the Mini plugged into a 20″ monitor, that’s no longer a problem.

Mini and monitor

In terms of grunt, the Mini is slightly less powerful than your average MacBook, but seems to be fine with what I need it for. Editing video might be a struggle, though.