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MacStories Starter Pack: Why I Abandoned the Search for the Perfect Email App and Am Making Do With a Hybrid Approach

Editor’s Note: Why I Abandoned the Search for the Perfect Email App and Am Making Do With a Hybrid Approach is part of the MacStories Starter Pack, a collection of ready-to-use shortcuts, apps, workflows, and more that we’ve created to help you get the most out of your Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

I’ve been revisiting my approach to email every year for what seems like forever. No matter which app I picked, I was never satisfied. On one level, that’s surprising because I don’t think my email needs are unique or complex. Even so, the features I value in an email app are ones that I care about a lot. The trouble is that a lot of MacStories readers could say the same thing but would pick an entirely different set of features they care about the most. This is a problem and conversation that goes back to the early days AppStories, and really, long before even that.

As 2021 came to a close, I knew something had to change and that I’d have to let go of my longstanding preference of using the same app across all of my devices. I don’t abandon that approach lightly because I don’t like the mental overhead of juggling multiple apps with different features to accomplish the same task. However, what started as patience as I waited for Apple to modernize Mail or a third-party developer to build something better, began to feel like stubborn inflexibility on my part. I knew it was time to make the most of an imperfect situation by cobbling together a hybrid solution that I hope will provide readers with some pointers on how they can improve how they manage email too.

Before I get to the apps I’m using to manage my email day-to-day, I want to cover how I dealt with my email backlog. My email accounts get messy as the end of the year approaches because it’s our busy season at MacStories. I used to feel bad about it, but I don’t anymore. It’s not my job to have a perfectly organized inbox, which is good because it can be a mess at times. Still, a backlog of messages makes any email app harder to use no matter how good it is, so I spent some time over the holidays tidying up.

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MacStories Starter Pack: Clean Up URLs and Remove Tracking Parameters with URL Cleaner

URL Cleaner for iOS.

URL Cleaner for iOS.

Editor’s Note: Clean Up URLs and Remove Tracking Parameters with URL Cleaner is part of the MacStories Starter Pack, a collection of ready-to-use shortcuts, apps, workflows, and more that we’ve created to help you get the most out of your Mac, iPhone, and iPad.

Picture this:

You’ve just come across an interesting article or product you want to share with someone, so you copy the URL and you’re ready to send it over iMessage, tweet it, link it on your site – you name it. Then, you notice that the URL has a bunch of ugly tracking parameters appended to the end of it. I’m sure you’ve seen them too: it’s those ?utm and soc_src1 and similar strings of text that some web publishers rely on to monitor where traffic is coming from and track other parameters about clicked URLs. For a publisher, those bits of data can actually be useful; for the end user, however, I’ve always wished there was an easy way for apps or extensions to “clean up” URLs and return the vanilla version of a link without any tracking parameter attached.

So, for the debut of our MacStories Pack event, I decided to fix the problem myself with a shortcut I appropriately called URL Cleaner. With this shortcut, which you can download for free at the end of the story and find in the MacStories Shortcuts Archive, you’ll be able to instantly remove popular tracking parameters from any URL and get a “cleaned up” version of it copied into the system clipboard. Best of all, URL Cleaner has been specifically optimized for iOS, iPadOS, and macOS, taking advantage of desktop-specific actions in macOS Monterey all while remaining integrated with the share sheet and Siri on iPhone and iPad.

Let’s take a look.

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Pixelmator Photo for iPhone: First Impressions

Pixelmator Photo has long been one of my favorite iPad photo editing apps. The app makes great use of the iPad’s large screen, which provides space for tools alongside the image you’re editing. Reducing that experience to even the largest model of iPhone is a tall order, but from my preliminary testing, it looks as though the Pixelmator team has pulled it off.

Pixelmator Photo on the iPad offers an extensive suite of editing tools that strike a nice balance. The app makes it simple to apply the app’s machine learning-based tools for quick editing and sharing, but it also includes fine-grained controls for when you want to more finely tune a photo. The same is true on the iPhone, but the design tilts in favor of quick access and edits, which I think is appropriate on a device like the iPhone. The deeper tools are still there, just beneath the surface and easy to access when you need them, but on the iPhone the emphasis is on accessing frequently-used tools quickly.

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The MacStories Selects 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award

PCalc

John Voorhees: I’d love to tell you that there was drama surrounding the selection of this year’s first-ever MacStories Selects Lifetime Achievement award, but there wasn’t. In the end, it was the easiest pick of the lot. Last month, I sat down with Federico in Rome to go over the Selects awards, and we began by scanning a list of potential Lifetime Achievement candidates that we’d put together over the previous weeks. In the end, PCalc by James Thomson, which started on the Mac and has been adapted to every possible Apple platform, was the obvious choice. Not only are James and PCalc longstanding pillars of the Apple community, but PCalc represents the sort of innovative and creative spirit that we value most at MacStories.

Below, you’ll find a written interview that Federico conducted with James about PCalc’s history, what makes the app special, having to adapt to hardware and software transitions by Apple, and what the future may hold. James also joined us for a special segment of AppStories, covering the Lifetime Achievement award and other MacStories Selects winners. Before we get to the interview, though, I’d like to take a moment to introduce you to PCalc, which has a long and rich history that not all readers may know.

PCalc 1.0 for the Mac (1992) and PCalc 1.0 for the iPhone (2008).

PCalc 1.0 for the Mac (1992) and PCalc 1.0 for the iPhone (2008).

PCalc was first released almost exactly 29 years ago with an email to Info-Mac, an online file hosting service that pre-dates the Internet. In the years since version 1.0, PCalc has updated, refined, and ported to other platforms, including the iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and even the Apple TV, where you can enter calculations using a videogame controller.

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MacStories Selects 2021: Recognizing the Best Apps of the Year

John: The MacStories Selects Awards are our annual celebration of the apps we love and the people who make them. Every year, the MacStories team uses hundreds of apps. Some are familiar favorites, but most are new. So, after many months of testing those developers’ apps, we stop to recognize the best.

This year, as we headed into the final stretch of the year, we decided it was time for the MacStories Selects to honor more than just the apps from the past year. MacStories has been covering apps since Federico published his first story in 2009, and having covered thousands of apps spanning more than twelve years, it’s time to look back at all of those apps and honor the standouts that have withstood the test of time with an annual Lifetime Achievement Award, which you can read about more in a special story that includes a bit of history about the winning app and interview with its developer.

Apps have become part of the fabric of our daily lives, which makes it easy to forget that they’re the result of hard work by creative people. The MacStories Selects awards are our chance to pause and appreciate just how fortunate we are to have such a wealth of fantastic tools available from so many talented developers before we start the new year.

2021 has been an exciting year for apps. The resurgence of note-taking apps ignited by apps like Craft, Obsidian, and Roam Research continued unabated. We also saw new apps successfully remix technologies and approaches and apply them to new domains, and of course, automation continued to be a central theme, with a long list of established and new apps testing the waters of Shortcuts for Mac for the first time.

As a result, we had a wealth of apps to choose from as always for the following awards:

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

Along with the Lifetime Achievement Award and Readers’ Choice Award, which was chosen by Club MacStories members, that makes a total of nine award winners plus seven runners-up for these fourth annual MacStories Selects Awards, which began in 2018. As we did last year, we have also created beautiful physical awards commemorating the winners, which we will be sent to each of the winners this week.

We also recorded a special episode of our podcast AppStories all about the MacStories Selects winners and runners-up. It’s a terrific way to learn more about this year’s apps.

You can listen to the episode below.

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59:20

We will hold our Monthly Town Hall live event with additional MacStories Selects coverage in our Discord community for Club MacStories+ and Club Premier members tomorrow, December 14, 2021, at 12:30 PM Eastern US time and release it later as a Town Hall podcast episode for those who can’t join live.

So, with those preliminaries out of the way, it’s my pleasure to introduce the 2021 MacStories Selects Awards to the MacStories community.

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How to Batch Convert Shortcuts for Use Throughout Monterey and with Other Automation Apps

My latest Shortcuts experiments began in earnest on my way back from Rome. I stopped in Ireland for a few days to deal with COVID testing and start ramping back up to my normal work routine. I wasn’t quite ready to tackle the day-to-day yet, so I decided to revisit a Shortcuts experiment I had started back in June.

I’ve been a fan of PopClip for years and have played around with creating my own extensions for the app occasionally. So, shortly after WWDC, I tried building a PopClip extension that triggered a shortcut that had been saved as a Service. PopClip works with services, and the extension I built came tantalizingly close to working, but it had too many issues to be useful, so I set it aside.

PopClip.

PopClip.

Sitting in Dublin with the released version of Monterey and a new version of PopClip that had been updated to work with Shortcuts, I revisited my early experiments. The updates to macOS and PopClip made adding shortcuts as PopClip extensions trivially easy, as Federico demonstrated recently in MacStories Weekly. Then, when I got home, my Stream Deck was waiting for me, which led to another round of experimentation and an in-depth story on the many ways it can run shortcuts.

Since then, I’ve been incorporating Mac shortcuts I’ve built into my workflows using multiple third-party apps like BetterTouchTool, Alfred, and, of course, PopClip. It wasn’t long before I wished there was a way to batch process shortcuts, so I could use them in multiple ways across Monterey and in third-party apps.

Scripts built with AppleScript are just one way to integrate shortcuts with other apps.

Scripts built with AppleScript are just one way to integrate shortcuts with other apps.

To streamline the process, I turned, of course, to Shortcuts itself. In total, I’ve created four shortcuts to help me deploy my favorite shortcuts across macOS:

  • Script Builder: Generates .scpt files that can be incorporated in other apps from multiple shortcuts using AppleScript
  • Dock Applet Builder: Creates Dock applets from shortcuts that can be launched from the Finder, app launchers, and more
  • Script Applet Builder: Converts shortcuts into AppleScript applets with custom icons that behave like Dock applets but don’t get automatically deposited in your Dock
  • PopClip Builder: Produces and streamlines installation of multiple PopClip extensions with custom icons that run shortcuts

I’ll cover the first two shortcuts here. Script Applet Builder and PopClip Extension Builder are included in The Macintosh Desktop Experience, my column for ClubMacStories+ that explores new ways to make your Mac work for you.

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The Curious Case of Apple’s Missing App Integrations for Shortcuts

Shortcuts for Mac.

Shortcuts for Mac.

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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Getting Started with Shortcuts for Mac and the Stream Deck

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.

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macOS Monterey: The MacStories Review

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.

The story begins with a Sneak Peek at the end of a WWDC keynote in 2018.

The story begins with a Sneak Peek at the end of a WWDC keynote 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.

Catalina was full of promise, but the road ahead was unclear.

Catalina was full of promise, but the road ahead was unclear.

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's design changes brought the direction of macOS into sharper focus.

Big Sur’s design changes brought the direction of macOS into sharper focus.

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 harmonizes system app updates across all of Apple's platforms.

Monterey harmonizes system app updates across all of Apple’s platforms.

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.

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