In researching topics for the Automation Academy over the past few months, I’ve been digging into all the details of Apple’s built-in actions and comparing them against older versions of the Shortcuts app as well as third-party options offered by developers. In doing this, I’ve realized something that has been bothering me for a while: there is a clear inconsistency between modern features in Apple apps and their associated Shortcuts actions. The gap between functionalities in apps and matching Shortcuts actions has expanded over the years, and I think it’s time Apple takes a serious look at its app actions to reverse this trend.
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The Stream Deck has been a favorite of Mac users who are into automation for a while now, but the device’s utility has grown substantially for a couple of reasons. First, you can use the Stream Deck to run Shortcuts, which expands the device into an entirely new realm of automation.
Second, the Stream Deck opens up new ways to approach all automation on your Mac that aren’t possible with any single Mac app, allowing you to mix and match different kinds of automation in one interface. It’s a powerful combination that unlocks the ability to organize the automation tools you use to fit with the way you think and work.
To get you started, I’m going to cover:
- What the Stream Deck is and how it works
- The many ways to run your Shortcuts from the device
- Approaches for organizing your shortcuts and other automations with the Stream Deck
- An alternative to the Stream Deck
Let’s dig in.
OSes are never truly finished. macOS has been continuously evolving for decades, and it would be foolhardy to declare it ‘finished’ in any sense of the word. It’s not.
However, when you step back and look at macOS over time, trends and storylines emerge from the feature list minutiae of each release. For the past few years, no narrative thread has been more important to the Mac and its operating system than their realignment within Apple’s product lineup. It’s a fundamental transformation of both hardware and software that has taken shape over years, beginning publicly with Craig Federighi’s WWDC Sneak Peek in 2018.
A parallel story has been playing out with the iPad’s hardware and OS. The iPad’s trajectory has been different than the Mac’s, but today, we find ourselves with two distinct but more closely aligned platforms than ever before. To get there, the iPad has grown into a powerful, modular computer, while the latest Macs now run on the same processor architecture as the iPad Pro and no longer work differently in places just because that’s the way it’s always been.
The journey hasn’t always been easy, especially in the wake of questions about Apple’s commitment to the Mac. The company took those concerns head-on in an unusual meeting with a handful of tech writers in 2017. Still, it was only natural for users to question whether the direction macOS was heading was the correct one.
It didn’t help that those first Catalyst apps that were part of the 2018 Sneak Peek – Home, News, Stocks, and Voice Memos – were rough around the edges and a departure from long-held beliefs about what constitutes a great Mac app. The Mac’s apps had historically been held out as a shining example of the kind of user experiences and designs to which developers who cared about their apps could aspire. Unfortunately, many early Mac Catalyst apps weren’t very inspiring.
The realignment has been rocky for iPad users, too, especially for iPad Pro uses. The Pro’s hardware has been infrequently updated, and the performance of the Apple silicon processors they’ve run on has outpaced what the apps on the platform can do.
Users’ fears have also been fueled by Apple’s institutional secrecy and the multi-year scope of the company’s undertaking. Early communications about Mac Catalyst and SwiftUI left developers and observers confused about the role of each. The situation is more clear today, but at the same time, the question of how to approach building a Mac app is best answered with ‘it depends.’ That isn’t a very satisfying answer. Nor does it help that despite the added clarity, technologies like SwiftUI still have a long way to go to reach their full potential.
Yet despite the bumps along the road, macOS has made great strides since that 2018 Sneak Peek. With Catalina, we saw the first steps down a path that pointed the Mac in a new direction. Although sometimes messy, the promise of Catalina was exciting because, as I concluded in that review:
There’s no greater threat to the Mac than resistance to change that exists not because the change is worse, but because it’s different.
Catalina was a counter-strike against the sort of inertia that would have doomed macOS eventually, even though at the time, it was more a promise than a destination.
Big Sur picked up where Catalina left off, adjusting course and clarifying where macOS was heading. The update continued the harmonization of user experiences across Apple’s entire lineup, creating a more natural continuum among the company’s products through new design language and updated system apps without abandoning what makes the Mac unique. I don’t mean to suggest that Catalina or Big Sur were unmitigated successes. They weren’t, and some of the missteps of those releases have yet to be addressed, but there was no mistaking where macOS was headed after the release of Big Sur.
Monterey’s focus is all about system apps, a topic near and dear to me. With the technical building blocks in place and a refined design out of the way, Monterey is one of the most tangible, user-facing payoffs of the past three years of transition. More than ever before, Apple is advancing system apps across all of its platforms at the same time. Finally, everything is everywhere.
However, as much as it pleases me to see the groundwork laid in years past pay dividends in the form of new features being rolled out simultaneously on all platforms, Monterey’s payoff isn’t an unqualified success. Every OS release has its rough spots, but this year, Shortcuts is especially rough. As optimistic and excited as I remain for Shortcuts to be the future of automation on the Mac, it’s too frustrating to use at launch. That’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed any upside using Shortcuts on my Mac, and it has improved over the course of the beta period, but it still gets in my way more often than it should.
Alright, that’s enough looking back. Let’s dig in and see where things work, where they don’t, and what lies ahead when you install macOS Monterey.
On Monday, Apple announced that it was expanding the integration between Siri and Apple Music. Zane Lowe, Apple Music’s co-head of Artist Relations and radio host, explained that the company’s team of music experts had created hundreds of playlists for moods and activities. Ask Siri to play a playlist for your dinner party, to help you relax, or for hiking and Lowe said Siri will start a playlist that fits the moment.
Apple also announced Apple Music Voice Plan, a $5/month tier for Apple Music that is operated using Siri. The new playlists are perfect for the new monthly plan, but they’re available to all Apple Music subscribers.
The playlists have begun showing up on Apple Music, so last night, Federico and I began searching the streaming service to see what’s new. What we found was over 250 playlists each designed to fit a mood or activity that use animated cover art with simple line drawings to set them apart from Apple’s other playlist. Although they were announced as Siri playlists during the event on Monday, anyone with an Apple Music subscription can view and play the new playlists in the Music app like any other playlist in the service’s collection.
You won’t find a directory of the new mood and activity playlists in the Music app, and there’s no filter that can be applied to see the entire collection, so we’ve complied a massive link list of all the playlists we have been able to find so far, organized into categories. Think of it as a sort of ultimate MacStories Unwind weekend pick.
To make it fast and easy to access Apple’s new playlists, Federico has also created a shortcut organized by the categories. You can grab the shortcut below or visit the MacStories Shortcuts Archive where you’ll find it along with hundreds of other shortcuts we’ve published over the years.
Apple Music Siri Playlists
View and open Apple Music’s new playlists without using Siri.
With the introduction of iOS and iPadOS 15, Apple has created an entirely new class of utility app on the App Store: Safari web extensions. Mac users have enjoyed extensions for years. However, for iPhone and iPad users, they’re brand new and promise to make Safari more useful than ever by opening up new power-user functionality that extends Safari in ways that Apple hasn’t. Judging from the initial crop of extensions available, I think Safari users are going to be very happy.
There are a couple of ways to install Safari extensions for iOS and iPadOS 15. First, you can go to the Settings app, select Safari, and inside the Extensions section, turn on any extensions you’ve installed and give them permission to interact with webpages. Second, you can enable or disable extensions by tapping on the puzzle piece icon in the address bar and then choosing ‘Manage Extensions.’ The same popover that appears when you tap the puzzle piece icon also lets you ‘Edit Actions,’ picking favorite extensions that will appear at the top of your extensions list in whatever order you drag them into, similar to the way picking favorite share and action extensions and rearranging them works.
Okay, let’s dig into some of the best extensions already available.
For the past week1, I’ve been using Apple’s sixth-generation iPad mini, which is officially launching this Friday. I’ll cut right to the chase: I’ve been waiting for this kind of iPad mini refresh for years, and the device absolutely delivers on all fronts. The new iPad mini fulfills my longstanding dream of an iPad Pro/Air-like device in a diminutive form factor, providing a highly portable experience unlike anything else in Apple’s lineup.
The iPad mini was already in a class of its own; with this redesign, Apple has made the best small iPad I’ve ever tried – one that is a joy to use on a daily basis. Whether you’re looking for a companion device to your iPad Pro or a portable iPad to complement your Mac experience, this little iPad is worth the price of admission.
The new iPad mini was the missing piece to my iPad workflow; now that I have it, I want to use it as much as possible.
Let me explain.
We’ve come a long way from the Wild West of watchOS’ early versions. Changes in recent years have been thoroughly iterative in nature, suggesting that Apple believes that the platform has reached maturity. watchOS 8 heralds no deviation from this path, but as usual, a host of features bring new minor excitements for us to explore.
Health and fitness are established pinnacles of any good watchOS update, and this year’s offerings include a new Mindfulness app, sleep tracking improvements, and expanded workout types. Since Complications can now communicate with Bluetooth devices, health and fitness data from Bluetooth accessories will be more accessible than ever.
The usual host of first-party app updates are back this year too, with Home and Timers getting the most interesting changes. As for watch faces — another common source of easy feature additions — Apple seems to have dropped that ball this time around. Only two new faces are joining the ranks, and existing faces have remained stagnant.
At the system level, text input has received some nice updates. While still a bit clunky, some of the strictest limitations have been lifted, making the Apple Watch useable in more situations where I would previously have never considered it. The always-on display in Apple Watch Series 5 and higher will be far more useful in watchOS 8 as well, as third-party apps are finally able to utilize it.
Despite a lot of tidbits scattered throughout, watchOS 8 is easily the smallest annual update in the Apple Watch’s short history. This shouldn’t be a surprise given that we’re in the second year of a global pandemic, but it still feels disappointing.
Hopefully next year Apple will devote a bit more time and effort to watchOS, but for now let’s dig into the new additions that we do have to explore. Despite the small size of watchOS 8, its features are all positive improvements, and it’s still the best iteration of the Apple Watch operating system to date.
A quieter release for even stranger times.
In my career as an iOS reviewer, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a response as universally positive and enthusiastic as the general public’s reception of iOS 14 last year. From the “Home Screen aesthetic” popularized by TikTokers to the incredible success of widgets and the resurgence of custom icons, few iOS updates managed to capture the cultural zeitgeist as globally and rapidly as iOS 14 did. The update broke out of the tech community and, perhaps for the first time in decades, made UI personalization a mainstream, easily attainable hobby. For once, we didn’t have to convince our friends and family to update to a major new version of the iPhone’s operating system. They just did it themselves.
The numbers don’t lie: five weeks after its release, iOS 14 was already set to surpass iOS 13’s adoption rate; in April 2021, seven months after launch, over 90% of compatible devices were running iOS 14. Which begs the obvious question: if you’re Apple, you’re planning to follow up on what made iOS 14 successful with even more of it, right?
Well, not quite.
With the world coming to a halt due to the pandemic in early 2020, Apple could have easily seized the opportunity to slow down its pace of software updates, regroup, and reassess the state of its platforms without any major changes in functionality. But, as we found out last year, that’s not how the company operates or draws its product roadmaps in advance. In the last year alone, Apple introduced a substantial macOS redesign, pointer support on iPad, and drastic changes to the iOS Home Screen despite the pandemic, executing on decisions that were likely made a year prior.
Surprisingly, iOS 15 doesn’t introduce any notable improvements to what made its predecessor wildly popular last year. In fact, as I’ll explore in this review, iOS 15 doesn’t have that single, all-encompassing feature that commands everyone’s attention such as widgets in iOS 14 or dark mode in iOS 13.
As we’ll see later in the story, new functionalities such as Focus and Live Text in the Camera are the additions that will likely push people to update their iPhones this year. And even then, I don’t think either of them sports the same intrinsic appeal as widgets, custom Home Screens, or the App Library in iOS 14.
It’s a slightly different story for iPadOS 15, which comes at a fascinating time for the platform.
As I wrote in my review of the M1 iPad Pro earlier this year, Apple needed to re-align the iPad’s hardware and software on two fronts. For pro users, the company had to prove that the new iPad Pro’s hardware could be useful for something beyond basic Split View multitasking, either in the form of more complex windowing, pro apps, or desktop-like background processes; at the same time, Apple also had to modernize iPadOS’ multitasking capabilities for all kinds of users, turning an inscrutable gesture-based multitasking environment into a more intuitive system that could also be operated from a keyboard. It’s a tall order; it’s why I’ve long believed that the iPad’s unique multiplicity of inputs makes iPadOS the toughest platform to design for.
Apple’s work in iPadOS 15 succeeds in laying a new foundation for multitasking but only partially satisfies the desires of power users. Apple managed to bring simplicity and consistency to multitasking via a new menu to manage the iPad’s windowing states that is easier to use than drag and drop. Perhaps more importantly, Apple revisited iPad multitasking so it can be equally operated using touch and keyboard. If you, the person reading these annual reviews, have ever found yourself having to explain to a family member how to create a Split View on iPad, tell them to update to iPadOS 15, and they’ll have a much easier time using their iPads to their full extent.
But after three months of running iPadOS 15 on my M1 iPad Pro, I can’t help but feel like power users will still be left wishing for more. Yes, iPadOS 15 brings extensive keyboard integration for multitasking with a plethora of new keyboard shortcuts and yes, the new multitasking menu and improvements to the app switcher benefit everyone, including power users, but iPadOS 15 is a foundational update that focuses on fixing the basics rather than letting the iPad soar to new heights.
While Apple is probably preparing bigger and bolder updates for next year, there are still plenty of features to discover and enjoy in iOS and iPadOS 15 – some that could still use some refinement, others that already feel like staples of the modern iPhone and iPad experience.
Let’s dive in.
At today’s Apple event, the company unveiled updates to the iPad mini and the 10.2” iPad. The 10.2” version continues to serve as Apple’s entry-level iPad at the lowest price point of any iPad, while the mini takes a more pro-like turn compared to its predecessor.
The new iPad mini was my favorite announcement of today’s Apple event. In the 18 months since I wrote The Mighty mini: Adapting Apple’s Diminutive Tablet to Work and Play, I’ve heard from many MacStories readers who have the same affection for Apple’s most portable tablet that I do. However, the trouble was that that iPad, which was released about 2.5 years ago, came with a lot of compromises compared with any other iPad you could buy until today.