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Exploring the Most Impactful iPad Apps of the Decade


John: It’s hard to understate the importance of the iPad’s large screen. Early critics dismissed the device as a big iPhone, but that criticism revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of the product.

By jumping from the iPhone’s small 3.5-inch display to one that approached 10 inches, the iPad delivered a canvas that allowed Apple and third-party developers to rethink not just the concept of mobile apps, but of apps altogether. The additional screen real estate allowed developers to flatten and spread UIs in a way that made new uses possible. That, in turn, led to richer, deeper experiences for everything from reading a comic book to managing complex projects and automating repetitive tasks, allowing users to interact directly with the software beneath their fingers.

After years of using the very best apps developers have to offer on the iPad, it was remarkably easy for Federico, Ryan, and I to come up with a list of the iPad apps that have been the most impactful for us during the past decade. There’s a lot of factors at play in arriving at these apps. Some forged a path by adopting the latest Apple technologies in a unique way that set an example for apps that followed. Others are apps that define a category that takes unique advantage of the iPad’s hardware. These are also apps that work on the iPhone or Mac too, but are most at home on the iPad’s unique platform.

Although there is no single formula for which iPad apps have been the most impactful, one thing each app in this collection shares is a rich, personal experience. These are apps inspired by and reflected in the image of Steve Jobs sitting onstage in a comfortable black leather chair swiping through photos. The iPad and the apps that run on it have come a long way since then, but the intimacy of directly manipulating apps that transform a slab of glass into anything a developer can imagine hasn’t changed, and remains what makes the iPad so special.

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The iPad at 10: Emerging from the Shadow of the iPhone

The trouble with looking back over a long period is that time has a way of compressing history. The clarity of hindsight makes it easy to look back at almost anything and be disappointed in some way with how it turned out years later.

We certainly saw that with the anniversary of the introduction of the iPad. Considered in isolation a decade later, it’s easy to find shortcomings with the iPad. However, the endpoints of the iPad’s timeline don’t tell the full story.

It’s not that the device is short on ways it could be improved; of course, it isn’t. However, the path of the iPad over the past decade isn’t a straight line from point A to point B. The iPad’s course has been influenced by countless decisions along the way bearing consequences that were good, bad, and sometimes unintended.

The 10th anniversary of the iPad isn’t a destination, it’s just an arbitrary point from which to take stock of where things have been and consider where they are going. To do that, it’s instructive to look at more than the endpoints of the iPad’s history and consider what has happened in between. Viewed from that perspective, the state of the iPad ten years later, while at times frustrating, also holds reason for optimism. No single product in Apple’s lineup has more room to grow or potential to change the computing landscape than the iPad does today.

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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 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 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, and a whole lot more.

The app is regularly updated and maintained too. With the recent release of version 9, the app supports dark mode, multiwindowing, and context menus. Context menus are perfect for accessing a wide range of editing functions, managing multiple windows, and quickly grabbing a document’s file path.

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

Our thanks to Textastic for sponsoring MacStories this week.


My Must-Have Apps, 2019 Edition

My Home screens.

My Home screens.

Every year in late October, I start putting together a rough list of candidates for my annual ‘Must-Have Apps’ story, which I’ve historically published in late December, right before the holiday break. As you can tell by the date on this article, the 2019 edition of this story is different: not only did I spend the last months of the year testing a variety of new apps and betas, but I also kept tweaking my Home screen to accomodate MusicBot and new Home screen shortcuts. As a result, it took me a bit longer to finalize the 2019 collection of my must-have apps; in the process, however, I’ve come up with a slightly updated format that I believe will scale better over the next few years.

In terms of app usage, 2019 was a year of stabilization for me. Having settled on a specific writing workflow revolving around iA Writer and Working Copy, and having figured out a solution to record podcasts from my iPad Pro, I spent the year fine-tuning my usage of those apps, refining my file management habits thanks to iPadOS’ improved Files app, and cutting down on the number of apps I kept tucked away in folders on my iPhone and iPad.

Two themes emerged over the second half of 2019, though. First, thanks to various improvements in iOS and iPadOS 13, I increased my reliance on “first-party” Apple apps: I embraced the new Reminders app and its exclusive features, stopped using third-party note-taking apps and moved everything to Notes, and switched back to Apple Mail as my default email client. I’ve written about the idea of comfort in the Apple ecosystem before, and I’ve seen that concept work its way into my app preferences more and more over the course of 2019.

The second theme, unsurprisingly, is my adoption of a hybrid Home screen that combines apps and shortcuts powered by our custom MacStories Shortcuts Icons. Following changes to running shortcuts from the Home screen in iOS 13, I realized how much I was going to benefit from the ability to execute commands with the tap of an icon, so I decided to mix and match apps and shortcuts on my Home screens to maximize efficiency. Thanks to the different flavors of MacStories Shortcuts Icons (we just launched a Color set), I’ve been able to assemble a truly personalized Home screen layout that puts the best of both worlds – my favorite apps and custom shortcuts – right at my fingertips.

For this reason, starting this year you’ll find a new Home Screens section at the beginning of this roundup that covers the first tier of my must-have apps – the “ultimate favorites” I tend to keep on the Home screens of both devices. Because I like to keep my iPhone and iPad Home screens consistent, it made sense to start grouping these apps together in their own special section. These are the apps I use most on a daily basis; I’m pretty sure you’ll find at least a couple surprises this year.

This entire story features a collection of the 50 apps I consider my must-haves on the iPhone and iPad, organized in seven categories; whenever possible, I included links to original reviews and past coverage on MacStories. As for the traditional list of awards for best new app and best app update: those are now part of our annual MacStories Selects awards, which we published last December and you can find here.

Let’s dig in.

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MacStories Selects 2019: Recognizing the Best Apps of the Year

John: The process of picking the MacStories Selects awards is simple. During the past year as we used and reviewed hundreds of apps, Federico, Ryan, and I kept a shared note in Apple Notes with a list of the apps that struck us as potential candidates for one of our 2019 awards. Not long ago, each of us revisited that list and refined it. Then, we convened in the MacStories Slack and hashed out the winners and runners up.

Today, we are pleased to announce the winners of the second annual MacStories Selects awards. As we explained when we introduced the inaugural Selects awards, we expected that we would expand and evolve them in 2019, which is precisely what we’ve done.

This year, the Selects Awards feature four new awards:

  • Best New Feature
  • Best Watch App
  • Best Mac App
  • Readers’ Choice Award

Best New Feature recognizes a new app feature that stands out for its impact. We also added an award for the Best New Watch app; in a year that saw Watch apps gain independence from the iPhone, this is an award that felt like an obvious and natural addition to Selects. With Apple’s renewed focus on Mac hardware and apps, we also wanted to recognize the 2019 Mac app that we feel represents the best that macOS has to offer.

Finally, for 2019 we are debuting a Readers’ Choice award selected by members of Club MacStories. All of our readers care about the apps they use, or they wouldn’t be reading MacStories in the first place. However, Club members’ interest and dedication to discovering and using the very best apps available rises to an entirely different level, so we felt it would be fitting to tap into their refined tastes with this special award.

When we looked back on our 2018 Selects picks, we couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. The awards were well-received by readers and developers alike, but they lacked a sense of permanence and concreteness found in other awards ceremonies. So, we’re very pleased and excited to announce that this year, we have commissioned custom, hand-made awards that we will be sending to each Selects award recipient later this week. From New Zealand to Texas and many points in between, each of the eight MacStories Selects awards will be in the hands of winners soon.

Congratulations from the entire MacStories team to the winners and runners up this year. Every one of these apps represents the best the App Stores have to offer. Thanks too to the developers of all the apps we use and love; your hard work doesn’t go unseen. 2019 has been a fantastic year for apps, and we can’t wait to see what you come up with in 2020. Also, thanks to the Club MacStories members who participated in the Readers’ Choice award voting. The Club is an important part of MacStories, so it was great to find a way to involve its members.

With that, let’s get on with the 2019 MacStories Selects awards.

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My Modern iPad Home Screen: Apps, Widgets, Files, Folders, and Shortcuts

My iPadOS Home screen.

My iPadOS Home screen.

For several years after its launch, one of the best and worst things about the iPad was that it was basically just a blown-up iPhone. This meant the device was extremely easy to use and intuitive, but it also meant lots of “computer-like” tasks were difficult to perform on an iPad. When the iPad Pro debuted in late 2015, that began to change. Features like Split View, Slide Over, Picture in Picture, and drag and drop made the iPad a more capable computer than ever. However, despite those advancements, it took until this fall before one of the iPad’s core iPhone inspirations was altered: the Home screen.

Before iPadOS, the iPad’s Home screen was just a larger version of an iPhone Home screen, with no unique advantages to it. That finally changed mere months ago, when iPadOS 13 brought two primary improvements to the Home screen: it could hold 30 icons rather than 20, and it could include pinned widgets.

These two changes alone weren’t radical departures from the Home screen’s iPhone origins, but combined with other discoveries, they unlocked significant new possibilities.

On a recent episode of Adapt, I challenged Federico to try re-creating a Mac-like desktop environment on the iPad’s Home screen, complete with file and folder launchers. What he came up with is exactly what I’d hoped for. This newfound ability, alongside iPadOS 13’s enhancements to how shortcuts work when added to the Home screen, and the debut of MacStories Shortcuts Icons, meant it was time for me to seriously consider a new approach to my Home screen.

What I’ve come up with includes apps, app folders, files, file folders, shortcuts, and of course, widgets. It’s a diverse setup, and it all lives on a single page of icons. Let me explain.

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FS Bookmarks: A Shortcut to Reopen Files and Folders Directly in the Files App

A couple weeks ago on our iPad-focused podcast Adapt, Ryan challenged me to figure out a way to turn the iPad’s Home screen into a desktop-like environment with icons to reopen files and folders directly in the Files app. At first, I thought it couldn’t be done: unlike the Mac’s Finder, Files doesn’t let you create aliases to folders or place files on the Home screen; the Shortcuts app can create Home screen icons, but it doesn’t have access to documents located outside Shortcuts’ iCloud Drive container.

As I detailed on Adapt yesterday, I’m happy to introduce FS Bookmarks, a shortcut that lets you create direct launchers for files and folders stored in the Files app. FS Bookmarks is a hybrid Shortcuts-Scriptable tool that takes advantage of a native Files API (which I will call “bookmarks”) to expose the filesystem path of any file or folder stored in the Files app.

With the launchers created via FS Bookmarks, you’ll be able to reopen any document in the Files app (in Quick Look preview mode) or navigate to any folder you want to quickly access. Best of all, you don’t need to know or even see Scriptable’s JavaScript code at all: FS Bookmarks takes care of installing the necessary scripts for you; you just need to pick the files and folders you want to create launchers for, and that’s it. FS Bookmarks was designed to abstract the complexity involved with retrieving the filesystem paths used by the Files app.

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Pixelmator Photo Adds Direct iCloud Photo Library Access, Batch Editing, and New Export Features

Pixelmator Photo for the iPad has been released with a trio of new features that greatly increase the power of the app. With the update, you can now now edit images in your iCloud Photo Library non-destructively without creating duplicates. There are also new batch-processing workflows and better options for exporting images. It’s an interesting mix of updates that I expect will appeal to a wide audience even though there remain iPadOS features I’d like to see adopted in the future.

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Drafts 15 Review: Multiwindow, Shortcuts, and More

One of my favorite things about Drafts is its quick adoption of the new OS features that come year-over-year. Not only are they quickly adopted, but they are well implemented, carefully considered, and provide increased capability for both existing and new users alike.

This year with the release of iOS 13, iPadOS 13, and macOS Catalina, Drafts gains an updated look, improvements to the interface and navigation, full iPadOS support, and greatly improved Shortcuts integration. While this may not seem like a big list, I can assure you that the new features of the app are fantastic, and have made a monumental improvement to my daily workflows.

Let’s dive in to what version 15 of Drafts has to offer.

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