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Working on the iPad: One Year Later, Still My Favorite Computer

My iPad Pro Home screen.

My iPad Pro Home screen.

Four years ago, I struggled to move from a Mac to an iPad. Today, I only have to open my MacBook once a week. And I wish I didn’t have to.

In February 2015, after years of experiments and workarounds, I shared the story of how the iPad Air 2 became my primary computer. The article, while unsurprising for MacStories readers who had been following my iPad coverage since 2012, marked an important milestone in my journey towards being Mac-free.

As I wrote last year:

Three years ago, as I was undergoing cancer treatments, I found myself in the position of being unable to get work done with a Mac on a daily basis because I wasn’t always home, at my desk. I was hospitalized for several weeks or had to spend entire days waiting to talk to doctors. I couldn’t write or manage MacStories because I couldn’t do those tasks on my iPhone and I couldn’t take my MacBook with me. I’d often go weeks without posting anything to the website – not even a short link – because I couldn’t do it from my bed. I began experimenting with the iPad as a device to work from anywhere and, slowly but steadily, I came up with ways to speed up my workflow and get things done on iOS. I promised myself I’d never let a desk set my work schedule or performance anymore.

Being tied to a desktop computer isn’t an option for me. No matter what life has in store for the future, I have to be ready to work from anywhere. I have to consider the possibility that I won’t always be okay, working from the comfort of my living room. That means having a computer that can follow me anywhere, with a screen big enough to type on, and a higher degree of portability than a MacBook. That means using an iPad. That means iOS.

The past 12 months have cemented this vision and raised new questions. But, more importantly, the iPad and iOS 9 have been essential to launching a project I’ve been working on for years.

At this point, I can’t imagine using a computer that isn’t an iPad anymore.

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Samsung’s Head of Mobile: “We Didn’t Copy Apple’s Design”

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Samsung’s chief of mobile division J.K. Shin explained why the company is heavily committed to the Android platform and why, considering the history of mobile devices, the fight with Apple won’t be “legally problematic.” In the ongoing series of lawsuits between Apple – which first sued Samsung back in April claiming the company copied the “look and feel” of the iPhone and iPad with its Galaxy phones and tablets – a document uncovered over the weekend revealed Samsung’s lawyers asked the court to get access to final versions or production units of Apple’s next-generation iPhone and iPad, so they could evaluate whether the products they’re working on could be subject to Apple’s legal action in the future. The bold move came after a judge ruled Apple’s legal department (not engineers or executives) could see Samsung’s upcoming Droid Charge, Galaxy Tab 8.9, Galaxy Tab 10.1, Infuse 4G and Galaxy S 2 – some of them unreleased devices, but teased and unveiled anyway by the company months ago.

The Wall Street Journal reports the following statements:

We didn’t copy Apple’s design,” Mr. Shin said. “We have used many similar designs over the past years and it [Apple’s allegation] will not be legally problematic.” He suggested the scale of the lawsuit could grow, though he didn’t provide more details.

Android is the fastest-growing platform and the market direction is headed toward Android so we’re riding the wave,” added Younghee Lee, senior vice president of sales and marketing. Samsung also aims to differentiate itself from Apple and other tablet makers by continuing to offer various sizes, Mr. Shin said.

Samsung is a key partner in Apple’s production chain for iOS devices, as also confirmed by Apple’s Tim Cook at the Q2 2011 earnings call when directly asked about what effects the lawsuit against Samsung’s mobile division would have on the collaboration between Apple and Samsung’s component business. In fact, whilst LG’s shipments of iPad displays in the first quarter of 2011 reached only 3.2 million units, a report claimed Samsung shipped 4 million iPad displays in the same quarter. It is unclear at this point what Mr. Shin meant by “not legally problematic” referring to a lawsuit that could grow in the coming weeks, though it appears none of the companies is willing to back down until the court decides or a settlement is reached.


iBackupTunes: Copy, Backup & Share Your iOS Music Library

Released yesterday in the App Store, iBackupTunes by drahtwerk is one of the most powerful music apps for iOS I’ve recently installed on my iPhone and iPad. This time, though, I’m not talking about a new iPod replacement app that aims at enhancing music playback with Wikipedia or last.fm integration: instead, iBackupTunes is “powerful” in the way it lets you copy songs and albums off your synchronized iPod library, back them up locally on your device and share them with others, even wirelessly. Whilst the procedure of importing songs might sound a little too complicated at first, iBackupTunes provides a graphical user interface that makes it easy to choose music, listen to it, and back it up. Read more


Establish Simple Networking Reminders with MicroCRM. 20 Codes Up for Grabs!

Whether you’re a freelancer, a contractor, or perhaps even a technician, life is full of social networking. Everyday we continue to add contacts to our address book, but every so often we come across leads - pathways to financial opportunities. Your leads, who may eventually become your clients, are important to keep tabs on and stay in touch with.

MicroCRM is to tracking these potential contacts as what TaskPaper is to GTD - dead simple.

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iOS and iPadOS 14: The MacStories Review

Even with (unsurprisingly) smaller releases, Apple is pushing forward with bold ideas across all platforms.

How do you prepare a major new version of an operating system that now spans two separate platforms, which will be installed on millions of devices within a few hours of its release, amid a global pandemic? If you’re Apple, the answer is fairly straightforward: you mitigate the crisis by focusing on a narrower set of features, perhaps prioritizing bug fixes and stability improvements, but then you just have to do the work.

In my time as an iOS (then iOS and iPadOS) reviewer, I never thought I’d have to evaluate an OS update with the social and political backdrop of iOS 14. Let’s face it: when the COVID-19 outbreak started fundamentally changing our lives earlier this year, at some point many of us – including yours truly – thought that, among more serious and severe repercussions, our tiny corner of the Internet would see no new phones, OS updates, videogame consoles, or other events over the course of 2020. Or that, at the very least, changes in hardware and software would be so minor, they’d barely register in the grand scheme of things as tech companies and their employees were – rightfully so – adjusting to a new, work-from-home, socially distant life. Yet here we are, over a year after the debut of iOS and iPadOS 13, with brand new versions of both operating systems that were announced, as per tradition, at WWDC a few months ago. Remove all surrounding context, and you wouldn’t guess anything has changed from 2019.

Context is, however, key to understanding Apple’s background and goals with iOS and iPadOS 14, in a couple notable ways.

First, I think it’s safe to assume slowing down to reassess the state of the platform and focus on quality-of-life enhancements and performance gains would have worked out in Apple’s favor regardless of the pandemic. In last year’s review, I noted how the first version of iOS 13.0 launching to the public wasn’t “as polished or stable as the first version of iOS 12”; in a somewhat unpredictable twist of events, managing the iOS 13 release narrative only got more challenging for Apple after launch.

Late in the beta cycle last year, the company announced certain iOS 13 features – including automations in Shortcuts and ETA sharing in Maps – would be delayed until iOS 13.1, originally scheduled for September 30th. Following widespread criticism about bugs, various visual glitches, and stability issues in iOS 13.0, Apple moved up the release of iOS 13.1 and iPadOS (which never saw a proper 13.0 public release) by a week. Despite the release of a substantial .1 update, the company still had to ship two additional patches (13.1.1 and 13.1.2) before the end of September. Before the end of 2019, all while the general public was lamenting the poor state of iOS 13’s performance (just Google “iOS 13 buggy”, and you’ll get the idea), Apple went on to ship a total of eight software updates to iOS 13 (compared to iOS 12’s four updates before the end of 2018). The record pace, plus the mysterious removal of features that were originally announced at WWDC ‘19, suggested something had gone awry in the late stages of iOS 13’s development; it wasn’t long before a report covered Apple’s plans to overhaul its software testing methodology for iOS 14 and 2020. The pandemic may have forced Apple to scale back some functionalities and deeper design changes this year, but it’s likely that a decision had been made long before lockdowns and work-from-home orders.

Second, context is necessary because despite the pandemic and rocky rollout of iOS 13 and its many updates, Apple was still able to infuse iOS and iPadOS 14 with fresh, bold ideas that are tracing a path for both platforms to follow over the next few years.

On the surface, iOS 14 will be widely regarded as the update that brought a redesigned Home Screen and a plethora of useful quality-of-life additions to the iPhone. For the first time since the iPhone’s inception, Apple is moving past the grid of icons and letting users freely place data-rich, customizable widgets on the Home Screen – a major course correction that has opened the floodgates for new categories of utilities on the App Store. In addition to the upgraded Home Screen, iOS 14 also offers welcome improvements to long-standing limitations: phone calls can now come in as unobtrusive banners; Messages borrows some of WhatsApp’s best features and now lets you reply to specific messages as well as mention users; Siri doesn’t take over the entire screen anymore. There are hundreds of smaller additions to the system and built-in apps in iOS 14, which suggests Apple spent a long time trying to understand what wasn’t working and what customers were requesting.

iOS and iPadOS 14 aren’t just reactionary updates to criticisms and feature requests though: upon further examination, both OSes reveal underlying threads that will shape the evolution of Apple’s platforms. With compact UI, the company is revisiting a principle introduced in iOS 7 – clarity and content first – with fresh eyes: the UI is receding and becoming more glanceable, but the elements that are left are as inviting to the touch as ever – quite the departure from Jony Ive’s overly minimalistic, typography-based approach. We see this trend everywhere in iOS 14, from phone calls and Siri to widgets, new toolbar menus, and Picture in Picture. Intents, the existing technology behind SiriKit, Shortcuts, and intelligent Siri suggestions, is also at the center of widget personalization. Intents already was one of Apple’s most important frameworks given its ties to Siri and on-device intelligence; iOS 14 proves we haven’t seen all the possible permutations and applications of Intents yet.

Then, of course, there’s iPad. In iPadOS 14, we see the logical continuation of pointer and trackpad support introduced earlier this year in iPadOS 13.4: now that users can control an iPad without ever touching the screen, Apple is advising third-party developers to move away from iPhone-inspired designs with apps that are truly made for iPad…and somewhat reminiscent of their macOS counterparts. We can see the results of this initiative in modernized system apps that take advantage of the iPad’s display with a sidebar, multiple columns, and deeper trackpad integration – new options that every iPad app developer could (and, according to Apple, should) consider going forward. Although some of the iPad’s oft-mentioned ongoing struggles remain unaddressed in iPadOS 14 (see: multitasking and window management), Apple is embracing the iPad’s nature as a modular computer this year, and they feel comfortable leaning into lessons learned with the Mac decades ago.

The context of 2020 is what makes iOS and iPadOS 14 so fascinating and, to a certain extent, fun to review. On one hand, we have two major OS updates that may or may not have been impacted by the global pandemic in their focus on fewer groundbreaking additions and more consistent improvements across built-in apps; on the other, just like any other year, we have a suite of overarching themes and potential implications to dissect.

But for all those users still pausing over that ‘Install’ button, pondering whether updating their most important communication and work-from-home devices is worth it, there’s only one consideration that matters:

Will this go any better than last year?

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    Textastic: The Code Editor for Your iPad and iPhone [Sponsor]

    Textastic is the most complete and versatile code editor available for your iPad and iPhone. The app’s versatility starts with its extensive support of syntax highlighting for more than 80 programming and markup languages. Textastic handles highlighting for HTML, JavaScript, CSS, PHP, C, C++, Swift, Objective-C, Java, LaTeX, Python, Ruby, Perl, Lua, and dozens more.

    Textastic is also a full-featured Markdown text editor that includes a built-in web server and Safari support for previewing your work. The app is compatible with Sublime Text and TextMate syntax definitions too.

    Textastic goes well beyond the features of a classic text editor, though. You can manage remote file transfers with FTP, SFTP, WebDAV, Dropbox, and Google Drive and there’s a terrific, full-featured SSH terminal built right into the app. Because Textastic supports tabs, you can even have multiple files and SSH terminals open simultaneously.

    With robust search and replace that supports regular expressions, keyboard shortcuts that are customizable, and support for Git repositories using Working Copy, it’s the most powerful code editor you’ll find anywhere with a long list of features, including support for the Files app, drag and drop, printing, iCloud Drive, Split View, multiwindowing, context menus, and a whole lot more.

    The app is regularly updated and maintained too. With the release of version 9.3 in June, Textastic gained new keyboard shortcuts for code comments, a setting for automatically inserting a matching closing character for parentheses, square brackets, and curly brackets, code awareness that allows for automatic indentation based on syntax context, an adjustable line height setting, and a setting for displaying the selected line indicator in a document’s gutter. Dark mode has been improved too, allowing users to select a separate code editor theme and keyboard appearance and preview Markdown using a dark color scheme.

    To learn more about Textastic and what it can do for your code editing needs on the iPhone and iPad, visit textasticapp.com, to download a copy today. You’re going to love it.

    Our thanks to Textastic for sponsoring MacStories this week.


    Ulysses 19 Brings iPad Cursor Support, External Folders, Material Sheets, and More

    The latest version of Ulysses, the excellent Markdown editor, is available now. Ulysses 19 offers enhancements in several different areas, from fully optimizing for the new iPadOS cursor, to supporting external folders for the first time, introducing a new ‘material’ designation for sheets, and adding keyword improvements, exportable backups, and even a new font. It’s a strong update, and one that continues to prove Ulysses the best app for my writing needs.

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    Modular Computer: iPad Pro as a Tablet, Laptop, and Desktop Workstation

    My iPad Pro desktop setup.

    My iPad Pro desktop setup.

    When I started my iPad-only journey in 2012, I was stuck in a hospital bed and couldn’t use my Mac. It’s a story I’ve told many times before: I had to figure out a way to get work done without a Mac, and I realized the iPad – despite its limited ecosystem of apps and lackluster OS at the time – granted me the computing freedom I sought. At a time when I couldn’t use a desk or connect to a Wi-Fi network, a tablet I could hold in my hands and use to comunicate with remote colleagues over a cellular connection was all I needed. Over time, however, that state of necessity became a choice: for a few years now, I’ve preferred working on my iPad Pro and iPadOS (née iOS) in lieu of my Mac mini, even when I’m home and have access to my desk and macOS workstation.

    The more I think about it, the more I come to this conclusion: the iPad, unlike other computers running a “traditional” desktop OS, possesses the unique quality of being multiple things at once. Hold an iPad in your hands, and you can use it as a classic tablet; pair it with a keyboard cover, and it takes on a laptop form; place it on a desk and connect it to a variety of external accessories, and you’ve got a desktop workstation revolving around a single slab of glass. This multiplicity of states isn’t an afterthought, nor is it the byproduct of happenstance: it was a deliberate design decision on Apple’s part based on the principle of modularity.

    In looking back at the past decade of iPad and, more specifically, the past two years of the current iPad Pro line, I believe different factors contributed to making the iPad Pro Apple’s first modular computer – a device whose shape and function can optionally be determined by the extra hardware paired with it.

    The original iPad Pro showed how Apple was willing to go beyond the old “just a tablet” connotation with the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. Three years later, the company followed up on the iPad Pro’s original vision with a switch to USB-C which, as a result, opened the iPad to a wider ecosystem of external accessories and potential configurations. At the same time, even without considerable software enhancements by Apple, the creativity of third-party developers allowed iPad apps to embrace external displays and new file management functionalities. And lastly, just a few weeks ago, Apple unveiled iPadOS’ native cursor mode, finally putting an end to the debate about whether the iPad would ever support the desktop PC’s classic input method.

    The intersection of these evolutionary paths is the modern iPad Pro, a device that fills many roles in my professional and personal life. Ever since I purchased the 2018 iPad Pro1, I’ve been regularly optimizing my setup at home and on the go to take advantage of the device’s versatility. I’ve tested dozens of different keyboards, purchased more USB-C hubs than I care to admit, and tried to minimize overhead by designing a system that lets me use the same external display and keyboard with two different computers – the Mac mini and iPad Pro.

    At the end of this fun, eye-opening process, I’ve ended up with a computer that is greater than the sum of its parts. By virtue of its modular nature, I find my custom iPad Pro setup superior to a traditional laptop, and more flexible than a regular desktop workstation.

    So how exactly did I transform the iPad Pro into this new kind of modular computer? Let’s dig in.

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    The Mighty mini: Adapting Apple’s Diminutive Tablet to Work and Play

    Make no mistake, whether it’s a Mac, iPhone, or an iPad, I prefer big screens. I think most people do. A big, bright screen makes reading easier, and a larger canvas for the apps you use is rarely a downside.

    Still, there’s a reason we carry mobile phones when a tablet, laptop, or desktop could accomplish the same tasks: portability. Smaller is often better, even as the compromises start to pile up when you shrink a device.

    Portability is why foldable phones have captured the imaginations of so many people. They promise the portability of a traditional smartphone with a screen that’s closer to a tablet’s.

    Just over one year ago, in March 2019, Apple released two new iPads: a 10.5-inch iPad Air and the first new iPad mini in over three years. The 5th-generation mini was a big surprise, largely because the mini hadn’t been updated in so long, leading many people to write it off as dead.

    Perhaps an even bigger surprise, however, was the mini’s hardware. The design didn’t change, but the 5th-generation mini upgraded the device to an A12 processor, the same chip in the then-current iPhone XR and XS. The update also added a Retina laminated screen with True Tone, P3 color support, and the highest pixel density of any iPad. The mini doesn’t support ProMotion, it only supports the first-generation Apple Pencil, and still relies on Touch ID for security. Still, in terms of raw horsepower, the mini is more similar to the 10.5-inch iPad Air than it is different, allowing it to hold its own in Apple’s iPad lineup despite its diminutive size.

    Table of Contents

    The previous fall, I had ordered a 2018 12.9-inch iPad Pro and fell in love with it for writing and other tasks. As much as I enjoy the iPad Pro’s big display, though, it’s not suited for every task. For example, the size of the iPad Pro makes it awkward for reading in bed. Also, although I love to play games on my iPad Pro with a connected controller, that only works well if the iPad is sitting on a table.

    When the mini was introduced, I immediately wondered whether Apple’s smallest tablet could be the perfect complement to its largest iPad Pro: a powerful but tiny device that could work well where the Pro doesn’t. I also figured the mini could be a great ‘downtime’ device for activities like games, reading, chatting with friends, and watching TV, movies, and other video content. So, I sold some old gear I no longer used and bought a mini with 256GB of storage, so I’d have plenty of space for games and locally-downloaded video.

    The plan was for my new mini to serve almost exclusively as my downtime iPad. What’s happened in practice during the past year is very different than I anticipated originally. My use of the mini has expanded far beyond what I’d expected, despite the compromises that come along with its small size. The iPad Pro remains the device I rely on for most of my needs, but as we approached the iPad’s first decade, the time felt right to consider how far the mini has come and how this unassuming device fits so neatly into the spaces between the other devices I use.

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