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MacStories Selects 2022: Recognizing the Best Apps of the Year

Introduction

John: It’s time for the MacStories Selects awards, our annual celebration of the apps we love and the people who make them. Every year since 2018, we’ve paused at the end of a busy year to reflect on the hundreds of apps we’ve tried and recognize the best.

It’s been another big year for apps, driven by the ingenuity and creativity of the developers who make them combined with new technologies introduced by Apple. Note-taking apps were big again, and just as we get ready to put 2022 in the rear-view mirror, the read-later app space has begun heating up like it’s 2010 all over again.

Last year, we kicked off the MacStories Selects Awards with a new Lifetime Achievement Award, which we gave to PCalc by James Thomson whose app will celebrate its 30th anniversary in a couple of days. This year, we’ve got another app that has stood the test of time and had an outsized impact on the world of apps, which you can read about in a special story written by our Alex Guyot, whose history with the winning app makes him the perfect choice to present the award.

It’s also time to pause and honor the best apps of the year in the following seven categories:

  • Best New App
  • Best App Update
  • Best New Feature
  • Best Watch App
  • Best Mac App
  • Best Design
  • App of the Year

which were picked by the MacStories team, plus the winner of the Readers’ Choice Award, which was picked by Club MacStories members, for a total of nine awards, plus six runners-up, all of which are covered below.

We also recorded a special episode of AppStories covering all the winners and runners-up. It’s a terrific way to learn more about this year’s apps and includes an interview with our Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

You can listen to the episode below.

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So, without further ado, it’s my pleasure to introduce the 2022 MacStories Selects Awards to the MacStories community.

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iOS 16.1 and Apps with Live Activities: The MacStories Roundup, Part 2

When Live Activities debuted with iOS 16.1, a long list of apps supported the feature. There were some great examples, like the ten apps I covered in October and Timery, which was updated shortly thereafter. Because developers didn’t have a lot of time to prepare their apps for Live Activities, I expected a steady stream of updates that take advantage of the feature, but that hasn’t happened. Live Activity support is still being added to apps, but I thought I’d have more interesting, innovative examples to share by now, but I don’t.

Still, I’d be remiss if I didn’t follow up October’s story with a few additions to my favorite examples of Live Activities. I’m sure there are some I’ve missed and others that will be released in the future, which we’ll cover in the future, but today, I’m going to focus on Dark Noise, Shelf, and Lock Launcher.

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Lock Screen One: Text Widgets for Your iOS 16 Lock Screen Automated with Shortcuts

Yesterday, I covered Widgetsmith, which among many other things, can display whatever text you’d like in an iOS 16 Lock Screen widget. Lock Screen One is a new app from Sindre Sorhus, the maker of Shortcuts utility Actions, which does something similar, but with a twist. Like Widgetsmith, Lock Screen One lets you add text to an inline or rectangular widget, but it also lets you automate the process with Shortcuts. Let’s take a look.

I’ve been thinking about text-based widgets ever since trying them in Widgetsmith. Paired with Focus modes, they can be used as an added contextual reminder of the Focus mode you’re in, displaying information relevant to what you’re doing, for example. However, the downside of a Focus mode approach is that it’s inflexible. Who wants to change that text manually or set up multiple Focus modes with different text widgets? I sure don’t.

Lock Screen One solves that problem with Shortcuts. The app has just two Shortcuts actions, but they’re exactly what you need, along with personal automations to check and change a Lock Screen widget’s text on a schedule or based on other conditions. Add the Always-On display of the iPhone 14 Pro to the mix, and you can create an element of dynamism with simple text widgets that’s impressive.

The only real constraint on what you can do with the ability to update a text widget is space. Neither widget size offered by Lock Screen One holds a lot of text, but that still opens up possibilities like displaying sports scores, short daily quotes, weather data, and more.

My demo Daily Stats shortcut.

My demo Daily Stats shortcut.

To give you an idea of what’s possible, I created a shortcut that feeds into a Lock Screen One rectangular widget that lists my total time tracked in Timery for the day, the number of incomplete tasks I have in the Reminders app and my next event in Calendars. The shortcut, called Daily Stats, uses Lock Screen One’s Set Lock Screen Text to change the widget’s text and can be tied to personal automations that are triggered throughout the day to update the widget regularly. Lock Screen One also offers a Get Lock Screen Text Shortcuts action that returns whatever the app’s widget is currently displaying.

You can download Daily Stats, which requires Timery, here.

Note that I’ve seen some circumstances where data in Timery or Reminders doesn’t update every time the shortcut is run. I’m not sure if this is a Shortcuts or Lock Screen One bug. I’d also like to see Lock Screen One updated to allow for its inline and rectangular widgets to use different text. Currently, if you use both widget types, they display the same string of text.

Lock Screen One is a great example of an app that uses Shortcuts to its advantage to make what would otherwise be a static widget that you’d have to change manually or with Focus modes into one that is far more dynamic. Not only do Lock Screen One’s Shortcuts actions extend how its widget can be updated, but it opens the widget to data from other apps and web APIs, greatly expanding what is possible with a simple text-based widget.

Lock Screen One is free to download on the App Store.


iOS 16: The MacStories Review

Customization is back, and Apple’s having fun again.

When is the last time your iPhone truly surprised you?

The answer to this question is a fascinating Rorschach test that can say a lot about a person’s relationship with Apple’s mobile platform. Some might say it was over a decade ago, when they feasted their eyes upon the Retina display for the first time in 2010. Some might say it happened when the iPhones got bigger – and sales skyrocketed – with the iPhone 6 lineup in 2014. Others might argue that it happened with Face ID on the iPhone X, or the first time they tried Portrait or Night mode, or perhaps when they first took an ultra-wide shot.

My point is: if you ask someone about the last time an iPhone truly surprised them, chances are they’ll reply with a hardware feature. That’s not a shocker: Apple prides itself upon the tight integration they’ve been able to achieve between the iPhone’s hardware and iOS; they’ve successfully managed to turn their design philosophy into a selling point of their entire ecosystem.

People buy iPhones because they know they’re going to work well for a long time, and, usually, because the model they’re getting has a cool new gimmick they want to try. For this reason, it’s not absurd to postulate that, by and large, the iPhone’s software serves to enable hardware sales and subscriptions. I do not mean this pejoratively: I like Apple’s approach, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing annual reviews about their operating systems. But I also recognize that on the iPhone (the situation is the exact opposite on iPad) the software now largely takes the backseat compared to hardware and services.

Which is why whenever the iPhone’s software truly surprises me, I get excited.

Software-related surprises are more rarefied on iOS these days, but the kind of people who are reading this story can point to a few examples in our recent history. Apple buying Workflow, turning it into a system app, and outright claiming that Shortcuts is the future of automation was a surprise. The extent to which Apple integrated dark mode in iOS 13 was a surprise.1 The arrival of two iPad features – Picture in Picture and inter-app drag and drop – on iPhone felt like a surprise. But, of course, no modern feature comes close to the surprise that we all witnessed with iOS 14 two years ago: a renewed focus on user personalization with custom Home Screen widgets and the ability to create multiple Home Screens.2

That’s why, following last year’s welcome (if perhaps a tad uninspired) quality-of-life update that was iOS 15, I’m excited about a new version of iOS again.

iOS 16, launching today for a variety of iPhone models dating back to the iPhone 8, marks Apple’s triumphant return to user personalization, with a twist: while in 2020 customization might have felt like a happy consequence of Apple’s engineering, this time the company has intentionally marketed iOS 16 as an update that will make an iPhone feel truly your own. As we explored in June and July, the first thing you see on your iPhone – the Lock Screen – is fundamentally changing in iOS 16. With the ability to create multiple Lock Screens, choose from a diverse collection of wallpaper sets, and customize each one with widgets, you’ll now have endless possibilities for the screen you always see when you pick up your iPhone.

Sure, there’s an argument to be made for Lock Screen widgets also being developed in service of new hardware, but I don’t think that takes away from the breadth of this feature and how Apple created a whole narrative around wallpapers, widgets, photos, and Focus modes this year. As you’ll see, the customizable Lock Screen will be the main character of this review: I’ve had a lot of fun exploring different permutations of my Lock Screen this summer, and I’ve been able to test dozens of widgets from third-party developers, which I’ll also showcase in this story.

In keeping with my theory that modern iOS updates always need to have a little bit of something for everyone, there’s a ton of other (some bigger, some smaller) features I’ll be covering in this review.3 Messages, one of my most used apps on iPhone, has received a substantial update with the ability to edit and un-send messages, making it, in some ways, even superior to WhatsApp for me now. Mail – of all apps – has gotten a major upgrade with modern features such as scheduled send and, almost unbelievably, a revamped search that actually works. Reminders has officially turned into a serious task manager with even more filters for smart lists and the ability to create and share templates with others.

The new Lock Screen takes center stage this year and everything else pales in comparison to the massive update it received, but, overall, I find iOS 16 a more fun and useful update than iOS 15.

So, as with every September: let’s dive in.

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  1. Then again, wasn't that in service of OLED displays? ↩︎
  2. Perhaps the iPhone 14 Pro's Dynamic Island will be another major surprise for iPhone users. Fascinatingly, it's going to be a unique blend of hardware and software that shows how Apple has been playing the long game with their design strategy for the past few years, which is now paying off. However, the iPhone 14 Pro is not out yet and I haven't tested the Dynamic Island, so that's beyond the scope of this review. ↩︎
  3. That's in addition to the apps and features we've already covered in our annual OS Summer Series on MacStories↩︎

The Club MacStories and AppStories Expansion: One Year Later

One year ago tomorrow, we introduced the MacStories audience to all-new versions of Club MacStories and AppStories. Club MacStories+, Club Premier, and AppStories+, were the culmination of months of work on ideas that we’d been considering for years and represent the first step in offering MacStories readers and listeners a tightly integrated experience across everything we do. There’s more to come, but to mark the first year on this journey, we wanted to take a quick look at how the Club and AppStories have evolved in that time and announce what we’re doing to celebrate this week.

Our Discord Community

Our Discord community, which is part of both a Club MacStories+ and Club Premier membership, has become a pillar of the Club. It’s a dynamic community rich with terrific recommendations for apps, hardware, automations, and more.

However, the Club Discord community is more than a resource for tips and tricks. It’s where members share their passion for all sorts of media, photography, development, their pets, and more. The Discord server is also where we regularly gather for community Town Halls, which are live audio events hosted by the MacStories team, often with special guests from the community, covering Apple events, WWDC, Automation April, and other events.

Discord is the home of Beta Beat, a series of channels where we invite developers to share their upcoming apps with members who provide feedback. So far, Beta Beat has included apps like LookUp, Play, Timery, MusicBox, and Runestone.

Our periodic bookclub-style AV Club events happen on the Discord server too. We collectively pick and enjoy a book, TV show, movie, or other media and then discuss it during a special Town Hall. We’ve even got a special Discord bot for giveaways that we’ve done for events like Automation April.

Speaking of which, Discord played a big role during Automation April, one of two new special events we debuted in 2022. Participants shared their shortcuts in discord, traded tips, and attended Town Halls dedicated to the event. Participants and winners received special Discord roles too. The community played a big role in the success of the event, which is something we plan to expand to our other MacStories events.

Most important of all, though, are the people who make up the Discord community. We have heard repeatedly from members who join our Discord server about how much they enjoy the civil, respectful conversations with other members. We’re very fortunate to have such a great group of people along for the ride. Of course, we’re also incredibly grateful to our moderators, who have provided valuable feedback to us along the way.

Automation Academy and The Macintosh Desktop Experience

The expansion of the Club marked the debut of two Club MacStories+ and Club Premier-exclusive columns. Automation Academy is Federico’s column where he breaks down Shortcuts actions and techniques to help Club members get more from Apple’s automation system. So far, he’s covered topics from Reminders and Files actions to ways to optimize your shortcuts for the Mac. The column is where Federico debuted his shortcut that creates a podcast feed from articles stored in Matter too.

The Macintosh Desktop Experience is my modern spin on Apple’s oldest OS. In the past year, I’ve written about ways to combine AppleScript, Shortcuts, and third-party automation tools to create advanced automations, covered hardware like the Loupedeck Live, explored modern app launchers such as Raycast, and explained how I’m using Universal Control to incorporate the iPad Pro into my Mac setup.

MacStories Weekly, the Monthly Log, and Discounts

Of course, we’ve also continued to publish our MacStories Weekly and Monthly Log newsletters, which have been greatly enhanced by Calliope, the web app and technologies assembled by Alex Guyot that underly everything we do with the Club and AppStories. Calliope allows all Club members to read the newsletters on the web in a format that’s far better than Mailchimp’s web versions of newsletters and manage their Club account.

Explore allows Club MacStories+ and Club Premier members to filter Club stories based on a long list of metadata.

Explore allows Club MacStories+ and Club Premier members to filter Club stories based on a long list of metadata.

Plus, Club MacStories+ and Club Premier members can search and filter seven years of newsletter content by keyword and an extensive set of predefined parameters. Better yet, Explore’s filtered results can be turned into individualized RSS feeds, allowing members to build a personalized Club MacStories experience.

Explore results can be turned into RSS feeds.

Explore results can be turned into RSS feeds.

The new Club website is also where Club MacStories+ and Club Premier members will find a rotating list of deeply discounted apps and services, including CleanShot X, Keyboard Maestro, Typefully, and Hook.

AppStories+

Last but not least, we launched AppStories+ one year ago, which is our extended, ad-free version of the show that is published a day early for subscribers in high bitrate audio. AppStories+ is available as a standalone subscription from us or via Apple Podcasts, but the show is best experienced as part of a Club Premier plan. Not only is that the most economical way to enjoy everything we offer at MacStories at just $2/month more than the standalone Club MacStories+ membership that’s included as part of Club Premier, but the show is also recorded live in the Club MacStories+ Discord community for special events like Apple events and WWDC as an added perk for Club members.

After over a year of recording AppStories+, there’s a big back catalog of bonus content, too, with over 70 extended episodes published since May 2021. In total AppStories+ subscribers and Club Premier members have access to more than 14 hours of bonus content on a wide range of topics.

What’s Next

To kick off year two of our expanded offerings, we have a few special things in store for Club members this week. The first is a special Town Hall in the Club MacStories+ Discord. Federico, Alex, and I will be on hand to talk about the Club and AppStories+ and will answer member questions. Mark your calendars to listen in live at 4:30 PM Eastern on August 23rd. We’ll release the audio of the Town Hall later in the Town Hall podcast feed too.

We’re also welcoming Vidit Bhargava’s app LookUp back to Beta Beat, so users can test what Vidit is doing with Lock Screen widgets.

Finally, we’ve got a special digital download gift for all Club members, which will be announced in Friday’s issue of MacStories Weekly.

Thank You

Thanks to all of you who subscribe to Club MacStories and AppStories+ and who read MacStories. The direct support of readers and listeners has been critical to MacStories’ growth for years now, and the expansion we launched last year is the fuel that will drive the next generation of MacStories forward.

We have lots of new ideas in the pipeline for the Club and AppStories for the coming year that we can’t wait to share with you, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s too early to announce anything, but we’ve been clear from the start that last summer’s expansion of the Club and AppStories was part of a much longer-term project. We’ve spent the past year testing and fine-tuning the technical underpinnings of what we built last year, and it’s ready to take on more. So, stay tuned for the next chapter of MacStories.


Last Week, on Club MacStories: Quick Note as an Obsidian Launcher, AppleScript’s Role in Shortcuts, and MacStories Unplugged

Because Club MacStories now encompasses more than just newsletters, we’ve created a guide to the past week’s happenings along with a look at what’s coming up next:

MacStories Weekly: Issue 322

Up Next

On Tuesday, August 23, at 4:30 pm Eastern US time, Federico, Alex, and I will mark the first year of Club MacStories’ expansion with a special live audio Town Hall in the Club MacStories+ Discord community.


A Month with iOS and iPadOS 16: A New iPad Era

iPadOS and iOS 16.

iPadOS and iOS 16.

Sometimes I truly have excellent timing with my stories.

As you may recall, a couple of months ago in the lead-up to WWDC, I published an article on my experience with using the M1 Max MacBook Pro for six months. That story was born out of a desire to get to know macOS again after years of iPad-only work; as I shared at the time, my curiosity was also the byproduct of Apple’s incoherent narrative for iPad power users for the past couple of years. Great hardware held back by lackluster software had long been regarded as the core weakness of the iPad platform; I hadn’t always agreed with the Apple community’s “consensus” on this, but an M1 iPad Pro carrying MacBook Pro-like specs with no new pro software features to take advantage of it was, indeed, a bridge too far. So when I published that story just in time for WWDC, I did it because a) that’s when it was ready and b) I wanted to bring some chaotic energy into the iPad discourse and see what would happen.

Like I said, sometimes I do have excellent timing with my stories. And in this case, not even my wildest expectations could have predicted that, in one fell swoop a week later, Apple would reimagine iPadOS around desktop-class apps and a brand new multitasking with external display integration, a new design, and – the unthinkable – overlapping, resizable windows with iPadOS 16.

Today, Apple is releasing the first public betas of all the operating systems that will launch to the wider public later this year: iOS 16, iPadOS 16, macOS 13 Ventura, and watchOS 9. We’re going to have overviews of all these public betas today on MacStories.1 As you can imagine given my annual reviewer responsibilities, I installed both iOS and iPadOS 16 as soon as they became available after the WWDC keynote on my iPhone 13 Pro Max and 12.9” iPad Pro with M1, and I’ve been using them as my daily drivers for the past month.

Obviously, I have some early thoughts and first impressions to share on iPadOS 16: it is fundamentally changing my relationship with the iPad platform and my workflow, which has been untouched for years since the introduction of multiwindow in iPadOS 13. Stage Manager, while still in need of refinements in several areas, is a game-changer for people like me, and it signifies a major course correction on how Apple thinks about iPadOS for power users.

But I should also say that I’m equally intrigued by iOS 16, which marks Apple’s return – after two years – to user customization with a drastic revamp of the Lock Screen, which can now be personalized with widgets, multiple wallpaper sets, and deep integration with the Home Screen, Focus, and even Apple Watch. The new Lock Screen is the proper follow-up to iOS 14 widgets we’ve been waiting for, and it’s going to be the feature that will push millions of people to update their iPhones to iOS 16 right away later this year. Besides the Lock Screen, there are dozens of other quality-of-life improvements to built-in apps and system intelligence that have caught my attention in iOS 16 in the past month, from the welcome updates to Mail and Reminders to system-wide unit conversions based on Live Text, Safari tab groups, and more.

There’s a lot to uncover in iOS and iPadOS 16, and I can’t possibly get into all of it today with this story. All the details and final opinions will have to wait for my annual review in the fall. Instead, below you’ll find a collection of initial thoughts, impressions, and suggestions for aspects of iPadOS and iOS 16 I’d like Apple to improve this summer. As with last year’s preview story, I’m going to include two recap segments at the end of each section with a list of improvements I’d like to see in iPadOS and iOS 16 before the public release.

Let’s dive in.

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Last Week, on Club MacStories: Federico’s Shortcuts for Mac Tips, a Pre-WWDC Town Hall, iPad ‘Pro’ Mode, and John’s WWDC Home Screen

Because Club MacStories now encompasses more than just newsletters, we’ve created a guide to the past week’s happenings along with a look at what’s coming up next:

Monthly Log: May 2022

WWDC13.

WWDC13.

WWDC Preview and Federico’s MacBook Pro Story Town Hall

Federico and I were joined by Lachlan Campbell to talk about:

  • Our expectations for WWDC
  • Federico’s story about the M1 MacBook Pro and what it means for long-time iPad Pro users

Automation Academy: Tips for Optimizing Your Shortcuts for macOS Monterey

Federico published the latest edition of Automation Academy with 8 fantastic tips for getting the most out of Shortcuts for Mac.

The Macintosh Desktop Experience: A Pre-WWDC 2022 macOS Check-In

I revisited the features introduced with macOS Monterrey to consider which have been hits and which were misses.

MacStories Weekly: Issue 323

Up Next

We have a big WWDC week planned for Club members:

  • Members of the Club MacStories+ Discord community can join us Monday through Thursday for live recordings of AppStories. In addition to covering everything announced at WWDC, we’ll be taking questions from the audience and releasing that as part of the extended AppStories+ version of the show for subscribers.
  • We’ll also be doing two daily app giveaways during WWDC in Discord and two more in MacStories Weekly on Friday.

Rediscovering the Mac: An iPad User’s Journey into macOS with the M1 Max MacBook Pro

The 14" M1 Max MacBook Pro.

The 14” M1 Max MacBook Pro.

For the past few months, I’ve been living a double life.

Most of you probably know me as “the iPad guy”. And rightfully so: the iPad – more specifically, the iPad Pro – is my favorite computer Apple’s ever made; my coverage of iPad, iPad apps, and, later, iPadOS has far exceeded everything else on MacStories for the last 10 years. I’ve long considered myself primarily an iPad user and someone who strongly believes in the platform because there’s nothing else like it. I don’t think I need to tell that story again.

For these reasons, as you can imagine, when Apple got in touch with me last November asking if I wanted to try out one of the new MacBook Pros with the M1 Max chip, I welcomed their suggestion with a mix of surprise, trepidation, and, frankly, genuine curiosity. What could I, a longtime iPad user, even contribute to the discourse surrounding the comeback of the Mac lineup, the performance of Apple silicon, and the reality of modern Mac apps?

But I was intrigued by the proposal regardless, and I said yes. I was very skeptical of this experiment – and I told Apple as much – but there were a few factors that influenced my decision.

First and foremost, as many of you have probably noticed, I’ve grown increasingly concerned with the lack of pro software (both apps and OS features) in the iPad Pro lineup. As I wrote in my review last year, iPadOS 15 was, by and large, a quality-of-life update that made iPadOS more approchable without breaking any new ground for existing pro users of the platform. As much as I love the iPad, at some point I have to face its current reality: if Apple thinks iPadOS isn’t a good fit for the kind of functionalities people like me need, that’s fine, but perhaps it’s time to try something else. If my requirements are no longer aligned with Apple’s priorities for iPadOS, I can switch to a different computer. That’s why I believe 2022 – and the upcoming WWDC – will be a make-or-break year for iPad software. And I don’t think I’m the only iPad user who has felt this way.

Second, the arrival of Shortcuts on macOS Monterey gave me an opportunity to expand and rethink another major area of coverage for MacStories, which is automation. Along with iPad and iOS, I consider Shortcuts the third “pillar” of what I do at MacStories: with the Shortcuts Archive, Shortcuts Corner and Automation Academy on Club MacStories, and Automation April, I’m invested in the Shortcuts ecosystem and I know that our readers depend on us to push the boundaries of what’s possible with it. With Shortcuts on macOS, I felt a responsibility to start optimizing my shortcuts for Mac users. That meant learning the details of the Shortcuts app for Mac and, as a result, use macOS more. From that perspective, Apple’s review unit couldn’t have come at a better time.

Third, and perhaps most important to me and least helpful for you all, is one of my greatest fears: becoming irrelevant in what I do. As a writer, I guess I shouldn’t say this; I should say that I write for me, and that I would write regardless, even if nobody read my stuff. But as a business owner and someone who’s gotten used to having a medium-sized audience, that would be a lie. I love the fact that I can write for my readers and get feedback in return. I love that I can write something that is wrong and be corrected by someone. I don’t want to lose that. Do you know what’s a really easy way to make it happen? Grow into someone who’s stuck in their ways, only writes about a certain topic, and doesn’t think anything else is worth trying or even remotely considering. In my case, I don’t want to look back at MacStories in 10 years and regret I didn’t at least try macOS again because I was “the iPad guy” and I was “supposed to” only write about a specific topic. I make the rules. And the rule is that curiosity is my fuel and I was curious to use macOS again.

So that’s my context. For the past six months, I’ve been using my MacBook Pro instead of the iPad Pro to get my work done on a daily basis. I’ve kept using the iPad Pro to test my shortcuts, read articles, and write in places where I didn’t have enough room for a MacBook, but, by and large, I’ve lived the macOS lifestyle for half a year by now.

As we head into WWDC, here’s my story on how this experiment went.

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