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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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Sensei: A Beautifully-Designed Dashboard and Set of Utilities for Your Mac

Sensei is a brand new Mac app that monitors the status of various components of your Mac’s hardware and provides a set of utilities to optimize its performance. The app is certainly not the first to offer these features – there are tools built into macOS and third-party apps that can accomplish many of the same functions, and in some cases more. However, what sets Sensei apart, and what has quickly won me over, is its ability to translate the data it collects and implement its utilities in a beautifully-designed, standalone app.

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Desktop-Class Safari for iPad: A Hands-On Look at the Difference the iPadOS Update Makes to Apple’s Browser

For about four years, I’ve sat down at my Mac to produce Club MacStories’ two newsletters using Mailchimp. There’s a lot I like about Mailchimp, but that has never included the company’s web app. Mailchimp relies heavily on dragging and dropping content blocks in a browser window to build an email newsletter, which abstracts away the raw HTML and CSS nicely, but didn’t work well or reliably on iOS.

That finally changed with iPadOS 13, which brought one of the most extensive updates to Safari ever. The result has been that roughly half of the issues of the Club’s newsletters have been produced on my iPad Pro since October. Before iPadOS, that simply wasn’t possible. Whenever I tried to assemble a newsletter on my iPad, I ran into a show-stopping roadblock at some point.

If you’re wondering why this matters, the answer is flexibility and choice. Whether I’m traveling to another city for several days or just sitting in a local coffee shop for a few hours, I know I can rely on a stable mobile data connection on my iPad. I don’t have to worry about whether WiFi will be available for my Mac or fiddle with tethering. I just open my iPad and start working. As a result, I prefer my iPad to my MacBook Pro when I’m away from my desktop Mac.

I also enjoy the freedom of picking the platform I use for a task. Some days that’s my Mac, but just as often it’s my iPad. Sometimes that’s driven by the platform I’m working on at the time, and other days it’s nothing more than the device I feel like using that day. Until iPadOS 13, though, if that day was a Friday and I had a newsletter to produce, nothing else mattered. I had to have a Mac, and if I was traveling for more than a couple of days, that often meant I brought both devices along.

This isn’t a tutorial on how to use Mailchimp on an iPad. Few people need that, and if you’ve built a newsletter in Mailchimp on a Mac, you already know how to do it on the iPad. That’s the whole point. Safari in iPadOS has become a desktop-class browser. There remain differences between it and its desktop sibling, but the gap has been dramatically narrowed and the differences that remain purposefully leverage the distinctions between the Mac and iPad. The result has transformed frustrating experiences with web apps that simply didn’t work before on the iPad into a productive environment for accomplishing tasks that once required a Mac.

I don’t know that I’ve ever used a web app that I prefer to something native to the Mac or iOS, but the reality of contemporary computing is that many people rely on a collection of web apps in their work and personal lives. The changes to Safari in iPadOS are an acknowledgement of that reality. The experience isn’t perfect, but the latest iteration of Safari is a major step forward that eliminates hurdles that make the difference between getting work done and not.

If you’ve run into roadblocks with web apps in the past, it’s worth revisiting them in the wake of iPadOS 13. For me, the updates to Safari in iPadOS have been a tipping point in the way I work that has opened up new options I didn’t have before. I suspect the same is true for others who are looking for the same sort of workflow flexibility, which is why I want to share my experience and thoughts on producing the Club MacStories newsletters using Mailchimp on my iPad Pro.

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Using Sofa to Track TV Shows and Movies Watched in 2019

As December comes to a close, now is the perfect time to reflect on how the year was spent, both with deep existential questions but also lighter, fun matters – such as surveying your TV and movie consumption over the year. Until recently I didn’t have a system I was satisfied with for tracking my viewing history, but now I’ve settled on Sofa.

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How I Modded the Silicone Tips of AirPods Pro with a Memory Foam Layer

My modded AirPods Pro.

My modded AirPods Pro.

I love my AirPods Pro and, ever since I bought them last October, I’ve been taking advantage of their noise cancellation technology to use them in more contexts than the original AirPods.1 They sound better than any other wireless earbuds I’ve tested (obviously, they sound much worse than my Sony IER-Z1R, but that’s to be expected) and they cancel almost as much noise as my Sony WH-1000XM3, which is pretty remarkable for such tiny earbuds. AirPods Pro retain all the magic of the non-Pro line, but they bring the additional freedom granted by noise cancellation and transparency mode. There’s one thing I don’t particularly like about them, though: the default silicone tips.

Unlike others (e.g. my girlfriend), I can use in-ear silicone tips without getting a headache after 20 minutes. It’s not my favorite method of listening to music, however, because I know that memory foam tips are a better fit for my ears since they can better adapt to the shape of my ear canal and, as a result, provide better isolation and a more bass-y response. Over the years, I’ve developed an appreciation for Comply’s popular foam tips (right now, I’m testing their Audio Pro and Comfort tips with my IER-Z1R) and was hoping they’d release AirPods Pro-compatible tip replacements made of memory foam.

Much to my disappointment, the only foam tips designed for AirPods Pro I’ve found so far are these no-brand tips from Amazon US that I can’t purchase from Italy (and which do not inspire a lot of confidence). I’m assuming that since AirPods Pro require tips to have a special clip attachment that secures them onto the earbuds themselves, it’s taking a while for third-party manufacturers to come up with a compatible design. I really wanted to figure out a way to use foam tips with my AirPods Pro though, so I kept looking for ideas or recommendations on how to make it happen.

The solution I’ve adopted isn’t ideal since I still haven’t found complete foam replacements made specifically for AirPods Pro, but, at least for me, what I’m using today is better than using Apple’s default silicone tips. As I shared on Twitter a few days ago, I’ve modded the AirPods Pro’s silicone tips with an extra memory foam layer, which helps the tips fit better in my ears, resulting in a warmer sound and overall more comfortable feel. The best part: I didn’t have to cut the memory foam layer myself – I simply took the foam layer from a pair of Symbio W eartips and fitted it inside the AirPods Pro’s tips. The final result looks like this:

An additional memory foam layer for my AirPods Pro.

An additional memory foam layer for my AirPods Pro.

I love the orange accent.

I love the orange accent.

Allow me to offer some context around how I discovered this method and how you can perform this mod yourself with relative ease. I was looking around for discussions related to AirPods Pro and memory foam tips a few weeks back, and I came across this discussion thread on the MacRumors forums where a few users reached the following consensus: until third-party manufacturers come up with a compatible clip that attaches to AirPods Pro and lets you use alternative tips, for now the best DIY mod involves taking a memory foam insert and sliding Apple’s silicone tips inside it so that the foam layer ends up sitting between the central plastic “stem” of the tip and its outer layer. This is what I mean:

The foam layer sits between the plastic clip and silicone exterior of the tip.

The foam layer sits between the plastic clip and silicone exterior of the tip.

Based on the aforementioned MacRumors thread, I purchased a set of Symbio W eartips from Amazon Japan2 (Symbio also has an official website with worldwide shipping, but I haven’t tried it myself). Symbio’s in-ear tips are well suited for this kind of mod for a couple reasons. First, they’re hybrid tips that feature a silicone membrane with an inner memory foam layer; if you pull out the silicone part, you can access the memory foam “ring” contained inside it and remove it so you can use it elsewhere. And second, the Symbio W’s foam layer is thin and short enough that it can fit in the gap between the plastic stem and silicone layer in Apple’s tips, while matching their height in all three sizes as well (just like AirPods Pro, the Symbio W eartips come in small, medium, and large sizes). This means that, unlike other mods, applying the Symbio W’s foam parts to AirPods Pro’s silicone tips will let the AirPods Pro case close just fine.

Now, if you want to replicate this setup yourself, here’s how you can do it in less than a minute for each AirPod. Grab one of the Symbio eartips (if you’re using the medium tips for your AirPods Pro, use the medium Symbio tip too) and pull out the silicone exterior so that the memory foam portion is clearly visible:

Pull out the silicone part of the Symbio tips to reveal the inner memory foam layer.

Pull out the silicone part of the Symbio tips to reveal the inner memory foam layer.

Next, gently remove the memory foam ring from the eartip:

Remove the foam layer from the silicone tip by sliding it out.

Remove the foam layer from the silicone tip by sliding it out.

Grab the tip of your AirPods Pro and pull out the soft silicone part – again, don’t apply too much pressure because you don’t want to break it – so that it looks like this:

Pull out the silicone part of the AirPods Pro's tips.

Pull out the silicone part of the AirPods Pro’s tips.

Slide the plastic base of the AirPods’ tip into the foam ring, then carefully adjust it so that it doesn’t cover the vents (which help relieve pressure in your inner ear), as pictured below:

Fit the foam layer around the plastic stem of the AirPods Pro tip.

Fit the foam layer around the plastic stem of the AirPods Pro tip.

Lastly, pull down the outer silicone layer of the AirPods’ tip so it covers the newly inserted foam part, adjust the foam again so it doesn’t cover the vents, and voila:

The final product.

The final product.

Now, obviously this is a DIY modification and it’s by no means an absolutely perfect match for Apple’s design – but it’s a close approximation that has helped me enjoy some of the benefits of memory foam tips despite the fact that I still have to use Apple’s official tips.

Another look at the final result.

Another look at the final result.

I’ve been rocking this setup for the past week, and not only do I find my AirPods Pro more comfortable to wear for prolonged listening sessions because the tips fit better in my ears and don’t wobble as much as before, but sound isolation is also better (as confirmed by Apple’s fit test in Settings). Thanks to the extra foam layer, the modded tips “fill” my ears, creating a better seal and ensuring the AirPods stay in place. As a result of the superior fit, I’ve also noticed a slightly warmer sound with a bit more bass than before, which I believe is a pleasant addition. Best of all, my right AirPod always stays in place now (which wasn’t the case before the mod) and the additional foam layer hasn’t been an issue for the case, which still closes perfectly.

I recognize that after spending $249 on AirPods Pro, I shouldn’t have to invest roughly $18 (plus shipping) on a mod that only sort-of lets me use foam tips with them. Apple should provide users with more choice in terms of the materials used in the default tips: ideally, for $249 the company should offer a selection of silicone and memory foam tips in the box. But I also like my AirPods Pro a lot, and I use them for several hours every day, and I wanted to make them fit my ears better today. I’m pretty happy with this temporary mod; until a better solution comes along3, Symbio’s W eartips have proven to be good companions to Apple’s silicone tips, and I recommend them.


  1. Train trips, riding the subway in Rome, or writing without hearing surrounding noises. ↩︎
  2. A tip I picked up from Cabel Sasser years ago: you can register for an Amazon Japan account even if you don’t live in Japan, use the website in English, and take advantage of fast worldwide shipping. I’ve spent more money on Japanese videogame and manga imports than I’m willing to admit. ↩︎
  3. For real, Comply: please make memory foam replacement tips for AirPods Pro that match the size and plastic attachment of Apple’s default ones. Thank you. ↩︎

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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Apple’s Cycle Tracking: A Personal Review

The Cycle Tracking app on watchOS and inside Health on iOS.

The Cycle Tracking app on watchOS and inside Health on iOS.

Menstruation is often forgotten or overlooked – ironic considering that 50% of the population experiences it. This applied to health tracking on Apple Watch and iPhone too, which for the first year offered nothing related to menstruation, but this year Apple Watch received a dedicated Cycle Tracking app, and symptom tracking in the Health app which includes fertility tracking as well. The previous absence of this feature was notable, primarily because other competing health trackers like Fitbit offered it a long time ago.

Everyone who menstruates has different needs when it comes to tracking cycles – if you should track birth control, sexual activity, fertility, and more. What I like most about Apple’s implementation of this feature is that you can turn off elements which aren’t useful for you; I’m sure many others will do the same as me and turn off the vast majority of the options. I personally get the impression that a lot of the features are targeting people trying to conceive, and honestly, that’s not me. That said, I’ve spent a few months evaluating this setup, and comparing it to previous systems I’ve tried, and now I’m ready to talk about it.

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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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Adobe Releases Photoshop for iPad and Aero, an iOS AR Creation Tool, Plus Offers a Peek at 2020’s Illustrator for iPad

Source: Adobe

Source: Adobe

Adobe MAX begins today in Los Angeles and runs through November 6th. As in past years, the three-day conference is an opportunity for Adobe to announce new products and updates to existing ones.

Last year, Adobe previewed Photoshop for iPad and Aero, an iOS AR creation tool. Today, those apps are finally out of beta and are available to everyone in the App Store. In fact, both Photoshop and Aero showed up on the App Store the evening before the start of MAX, providing me with a little hands-on time with them in advance of their official release.

Adobe has also previewed an iPad version of Illustrator, another of its core Creative Suite apps, which the company says will be available sometime in 2020.

Adobe’s announcements are packed with updates to a wide range of its products, but there’s a clear focus this year on mobile apps. In addition to Photoshop, Aero, and Illustrator, the company also announced updates to Lightroom for iOS and iPadOS and its Rush video creation app.

However, the centerpiece of Adobe’s mobile announcements is Photoshop, the company’s iconic professional design app relied upon by creative professionals worldwide. Ever since word of Photoshop for iPad was leaked to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman in July 2018, the idea of ‘full’ or ‘real’ Photoshop on the iPad has captured imaginations. That initial leak, combined with Adobe’s early marketing efforts, led to outsized expectations for the first version of the app.

Instead of the full-featured, desktop-replacement app that some people were expecting, Adobe says that it has built a foundation with its new cloud-based PSD files and Photoshop’s desktop engine, upon which it will evolve with the guidance of users. Based on what I’ve heard from Adobe and seen from my limited use of the app, I believe the company truly is committed to building a more fully-featured version of Photoshop for the iPad; however, it doesn’t appear that users will be able to abandon their desktops anytime soon.

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