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My Must-Have iOS Apps, 2017 Edition

With the transition to iPad Pro as my primary computer fully achieved in 2016 and not surprising anymore, in 2017 I turned my attention to three other key areas of my life: working with the MacStories team, managing my time, and finding my favorite apps among many competing alternatives.

For the first time in several years, I didn’t publish a story documenting my journey towards the iPad and iOS in 2017. In many ways, that’s a closed chapter of my career: the iPad Pro has convinced millions of people that it can be a suitable replacement for or addition to a Mac; with iOS 11 and its productivity features, Apple only cemented that belief. While part of me misses arguing in favor of the iPad against widespread skepticism, I felt it was time to move on from explaining the “why” of the iPad to helping others get the most out of the device. For this reason, I spent the better part of 2017 covering iOS 11 (first with my wish list, then with an in-depth review), discussing the details of iPad productivity, and creating advanced workflows for Club MacStories.

As much as I like to write in isolation, MacStories is also a team that requires a direction and a business that begets further responsibilities. Learning how to balance the multifaceted nature of my job with my hobbies and personal life (which got busier thanks to two puppies we adopted in April) has been an interesting challenge this year, and one that taught me a lot about allocating my time and attention, as well as the kind of writer I am and aspire to be.

There has been a recurring theme that has characterized my relationship with iOS in 2017: I’ve made a conscious effort to try as many new apps and services as possible, ensuring I would have a basic knowledge of all the available options on the market for different categories.

As I was settling on a routine and set of apps that worked well for me, I realized that I didn’t want to lose the spark of excitement I used to feel when trying new apps in previous years. My job is predicated upon writing about software and having a sense of where our industry is going; while finding something that works and using it for years is great, I don’t want to become the kind of tech writer who’s stuck in his ways and doesn’t consider the possibility that better software might exist and is worth writing about. Even though my experiments didn’t always lead to switching to a different app, they made me appreciate the state of the iOS ecosystem and helped me understand my app preferences in 2017.

Thus, I’m going back to basics for my annual roundup this year. In the collection below, you’ll find the 75 apps I consider my must-haves – no web services, just apps for iPhone and iPad. Apps are organized by category and, whenever possible, include links to past coverage on MacStories.

As in previous years, you’ll find a series of personal awards at the end of the story. These include my App of the Year and Runners-Up; this year, I also picked winners for Feature, Redesign, Update, and Debut of the Year.

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    Annotable 2.0 Adds Deep Customization Features

    Annotable, an image annotation app from developer Ling Wang, received a major update yesterday. Version 2.0 of the app is all about customization. From the tools that appear when you open the app, to the formatting of text added to an image, Annotable gives you precise control over how you use the app and the look of marked up images, making it my hands-down favorite app for image annotations.

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    My Must-Have iOS Apps & Web Services, 2016 Edition

    2016 has been the year that I got used to iOS as my primary computing platform. After years of slowly transitioning from macOS, 2016 was all about optimizing my workflows and getting the most out of my iPhone and iPad.

    As I documented in two stories – one in February, the other last week – the consolidation of my iOS-only setup revolved around the iPad Pro. I see the 12.9-inch iPad Pro as the ultimate expression of iOS for portable productivity. With my 2011 MacBook Air now used three hours a week exclusively for podcasting, I invested my time in understanding the iPad platform at a deeper level. Thus, following two years spent assessing the viability of working from iOS, 2016 was characterized by the pursuit of better iOS apps for my needs. That effort was most notable on the iPad, but it also affected the iPhone, which I see as the mobile sidekick to my iPad Pro.

    Two trends emerged once I began outlining a list of candidates for my annual Must-Have Apps roundup. First, the apps that define how I work on iOS haven’t dramatically changed since last year. As you’ll see in this year’s collection, the core of what I do on iOS is in line with last year; there are some new entries and apps that have left the list, but my overall app usage is consistent with 2015.

    The second pattern is more interesting. To be able to accomplish more every week and automate more aspects of my routine, I have increasingly switched to web services in lieu of iOS-only apps. In looking back at the past year of MacStories, I realized that a good portion of new workflows were based on web services, web automations, and open APIs. Some of those web services also offer iOS clients; others are strictly web-only, but I integrated them with iOS apps through Workflow and Zapier.

    For these reasons, you’ll notice a difference in the 2016 edition of my roundup. In addition to my must-have iOS apps, I’ve added a section for my must-have web services. Whether I primarily use them with iOS counterparts, in Safari, or via an API, these are the web services that have helped me handle more responsibilities for my two businesses at MacStories and podcasting duties at Relay FM.

    As in previous years, you’ll find a series of personal awards at the end of the story. These include my App of the Year and Runners-Up, and, for the first time, a Web Service of the Year and winners in other iOS categories.

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    A Computer for Everything: One Year of iPad Pro

    I wasn’t sure I needed a 12.9-inch iPad when Apple announced the iPad Pro in September 2015. And yet, over a year later, the iPad Pro is, by far, the best computer I’ve ever owned. I’ve never felt so satisfied with any other Apple device before – but the transition wasn’t easy.

    After years spent adapting what I learned from the Mac to bring it to iOS, what I found on the other side was a more focused, efficient way of working and communicating with people. The iPad Pro accelerated my move to an iOS-only setup; today, I genuinely don’t know how to perform certain tasks on a Mac anymore.

    I use my iPad Pro for everything. It’s my writing machine and favorite research tool, but I also rely on it to organize my finances, play games, read books and watch movies, program in Python and Workflow, and manage two successful businesses. While I’ve been advocating for such multi-purpose use of the iPad platform for a while, the iPad Pro elevated the threshold of possibilities, reaching an inflection point that has pushed others to switch to an iPad as their primary computer as well.

    Much of the iPad’s strength lies in iOS and its app ecosystem. If Apple were to stop making iPads, I’d still prefer to work on a device that runs iOS rather than macOS. iOS is where app innovation happens on a regular basis with developers one-upping each other in terms of what software can achieve; I also prefer the structure and interactions of iOS itself. The iPad Pro is the purest representation of iOS: it’s a computer that can transform into anything you need it to be.

    Even if this discussion was settled a long time ago, it bears repeating: millions of people today like working on iOS more than they do on macOS, and the iPad Pro is the best machine to run iOS. There is no sarcastic subtext about the Mac here, which is still a fantastic environment that many Apple users love and need for their line of work. The Mac and the iPad can coexist in a market where customers believe one is superior to the other. I prefer working on the iPad; others like their Macs more. And that’s fine because, ultimately, the Apple ecosystem as a whole grows stronger and we all reap the benefits.

    Over the past year of daily iPad Pro usage, I’ve made it my personal goal to optimize my iPad workflows as much as possible. This is one of the best aspects of the iOS platform: competition between developers is fierce and you can always choose between different apps to get work done – apps that are improved on a regular basis and are constantly updated for the latest iOS technologies. With enough curiosity and patience, iOS rewards you with the discovery of new ways to work and save time.

    Since my last iPad story in February, I’ve taken a hard look at my entire iPad setup and rethought the parts that weren’t working. I tried new apps, created new automations, and optimized every weak spot I could find. I improved how I collaborate with my teammates and produce weekly content for Club MacStories members. Thanks to the time I invested in understanding and fine-tuning my iPad Pro, I was able to embark on more projects, double MacStories’ growth, and manage a larger team.

    As a result, my iPad Pro today is noticeably more capable than it was a year ago – all without the need for a hardware refresh.

    Here’s what I’ve done.

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      Annotable Is the Most Versatile Image Annotation Tool for iOS Yet

      Over the years of writing at MacStories, I’ve covered a fair share of image annotation apps. As reviewing apps is part of what I do for a living, I end up taking a lot of screenshots of software on a daily basis, and, often, those screenshots need to be annotated.

      I’ve tried them all – Skitch (let’s pour one out), Pinpoint (née Bugshot), PointOut, image annotations in Workflow, and others. A problem persisted: I couldn’t find an image annotation tool that would pack the simplicity of Pinpoint and Skitch and the variety of tools I’d expect from a Mac app. Every app ended up missing one or two functionalities I needed, which resulted – and if you work on iOS, you’ve likely been in this situation, too – in having to keep a folder of multiple annotation apps, each serving a different purpose.

      This changes today with Annotable, a new app for the iPhone and iPad created by developer Ling Wang. Annotable builds on the foundation of Skitch – with a layout heavily reminiscent of Evernote’s product – and adds annotation features seen in Pinpoint, PointOut, and various Mac apps to provide a powerful annotation environment with support for screenshots and photos.

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      Dropshare 4 is a Great Alternative to File Sharing Services

      I have tried a bunch of file sharing services over the years and many of them are good, including Droplr and CloudApp. These services have the advantage of being dead simple to set up and use, but they also happen to be subscription services. Over time, the expense adds up. The tools that come with those services are also limited.

      Recently, Timo Josten released Dropshare 4 for Mac, an app that helps you create your own file sharing by connecting to services like Amazon S3, Rackspace Cloud Files, or your own server. I was skeptical about whether setting up Dropshare with one of these services would be worth the trouble, but I knew Amazon S3 has a generous free tier, so I thought I would give it and Dropshare for iOS a shot. The setup process was much easier than I anticipated and now with Dropshare I’m spending less, and can do more, with the files I share.

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      Carbo: Digital Storage and Editing for Handwritten Notes

      “Handwriting in the digital age.” It was such a claim, along with its feature in Apple’s productivity sale, that drew my attention to Carbo. From reading the app’s description, developers Creaceed seemed confident in the app’s handwriting altering and organization. After spending some time with Carbo and thoroughly enjoying the experience, I now understand their confidence.

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      Bugshot Relaunches as Pinpoint

      I was a fan of Marco Arment’s Bugshot when it launched in 2013. As someone who takes screenshots for app reviews on a daily basis, any tool that can help me annotate and edit those screenshots quickly is welcome. Evernote hasn’t been paying much attention to Skitch over the past couple of years, and even after they introduced iOS 8 support two months ago, they did so with unstable extensions that I still can’t use reliably.

      This is why I’m thrilled to see that Bugshot has been relaunched as Pinpoint by Lickability, makers of longtime MacStories favorite Quotebook.

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      Evernote for iOS Gets New Camera Mode

      Speaking of scanning documents, Evernote released version 7.7 of their iOS app today, bringing a new “Scannable-inspired” camera mode that automatically detects document types. From the Evernote blog:

      We learn a lot about what features work well and how people use them when we build products like Skitch and Evernote Scannable.

      The successes of our stand-alone products can help quickly deliver improvements within our core apps like with this update to Evernote for iOS.

      We’re very excited to debut an all-new, Scannable-inspired camera experience in the latest Evernote for iOS (update 7.7).

      That’s not exactly reassuring for users of their standalone apps, though – the latest compatibility update to Skitch was in September 2014, and a feature update goes all the way back to June 2014 (version 3.2). I, like others, appreciate the simplicity of standalone utilities that are tightly integrated with Evernote, but the company makes it sound like these apps are more like experiments for features that are eventually added to the main Evernote app.

      The new camera mode is nice – it’s the Scannable engine, only in the Evernote app. At this point, however, I’m curious to know if Scannable will suffer the same fate of Skitch, or if Evernote has plans to keep it as a standalone app with more functionality. Having the same features available in multiple apps from the same company seems confusing.

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