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Thinking Different: Keys to Adopting an iPad-First Workflow

No matter how tech-inclined a person may be, no one sits down at their first computer and instantly finds themselves at home with the device. We all have our own tales of computing learning curves – figuring out how menus, file systems, and other traditional software elements work. Similarly, when making the move from one type of computer to another, there's an adaptation cost in acquainting yourself with all that's new. This is true when switching from a PC to a Mac, and also a Mac to an iPad.

Before the iPad Pro debuted in late 2015, transitions from Mac to iPad were extremely scarce. The iPad's hardware and software were both far too limited to compel many switchers. The software has advanced since that time – thanks to Split View, drag and drop, and Files, it's far easier to work on an iPad than before – but there's plenty more progress still to be made. The hardware, however, is where the iPad has shined most, especially with the newest iPad Pros.

Compare the iPad Pro's hardware to Apple's modern Mac lineup and the difference is striking. The iPad has Face ID, while Macs are stuck with Touch ID; the iPad has a Liquid Retina display with ProMotion, and Macs are still Retina only; the iPad Pro benchmarks comparably to the most powerful portable Macs; iPads can include LTE, while Macs cannot; and where Mac keyboards are vulnerable to specs of dust, the iPad's Smart Keyboard Folio can endure any crumbs you throw at it – plus, with the iPad you can choose the keyboard that's best for you. To top off all these advantages, the iPad Pro is also more affordable than most Macs.

Software limitations aside, the iPad clearly has a lot going for it; the iPad Pro is a more attractive Mac alternative than ever before. But moving to the iPad still involves some growing pains. The longer you've used a traditional computer, the harder an iPad transition can be. There are a few key things, however, that can help make your iPad adoption a success.

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MacStories Selects: The Best New Accessories of 2018

iOS devices and Macs sit at the center of our computing lives, often accompanied by a host of accessories. And each year brings a few standout new accessories that extend what our favorite devices can do in meaningful ways – 2018 was no exception. From dongles and hubs to cameras and headphones, the MacStories team tried a wide range of gadgets this year that made an impact on our daily lives. Below is our favorite, along with our runners-up.

Best New Accessory

Netgear Orbi Outdoor WiFi Satellite

John: There are few aspects of my computing life more important than a reliable, fast connection to the Internet. There are several good options available when it comes to WiFi mesh networking systems, but it’s Netgear’s Orbi Outdoor WiFi Satellite that makes its system stand out and has added the kind of flexibility to my setup this year that wasn’t possible before.

Federico and I both use Netgear’s Orbi WiFi router and indoor satellite to blanket our homes in WiFi. I started with an Orbi router and one satellite. The router sits in my basement where our Comcast service enters the house, the satellite sits in the kitchen, and recently, I added an Orbi Wall-Plug on the second floor. That combination of Orbi devices alone has been enough to blanket the interior of my house in fast WiFi and handle around 40 connected devices when my entire family is home.

This past January at CES, Netgear announced it was adding to the Orbi lineup with the Orbi Outdoor Satellite, an extender for the Orbi router designed to withstand the elements. Admittedly, there’s probably no one more susceptible to the promise of outdoor WiFi than me sitting at home staring out at the snow while reading roundups of CES gear. Still, I waited until the device was released and reviewed before finally giving in early this past summer.

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My Must-Have Mac Apps, 2018 Edition

Last year when I wrote about my must-have Mac apps, I was coming off a tumultuous year that started with a daily commute into Chicago for my old job and ended with me working from home. As the year came to a close, I was exploring what that meant for the way I work on the Mac.

That process continued into 2018. With the number of new things I took on in 2017 and the transition to indie life, I made the conscious decision to step back and settle into my new life. That wasn’t easy. There’s a natural tendency to take on everything that crosses your path when you go out on your own, but I’ve seen too many people fall into that trap in the past. Instead, I concluded that 2018 would be the year to improve the way I already work by refining existing workflows and reevaluating how I get things done, including on the Mac.

Three events led me to work on my Mac more in 2018. The first was the 27-inch LG 4K display I bought in January. It was a big step up from the 23-inch 1080p one I had before and, combined with a VESA arm, improved working at my Mac substantially.

The second factor was our MacStories coverage of the App Store’s tenth anniversary. For it, we produced seven extra episodes of AppStories that were released in the span of one week, which kept me in front of my Mac recording and editing for long periods of late May through June.

Third, just after WWDC, I destroyed the screen of my iPad Pro thanks to the trunk hinges that invade the interior of the 2016 Honda Accord.1 I decided to hold out for the new iPad Pros, but that meant writing for four of the busiest months at MacStories without a good iOS work solution. I used a current-generation 9.7-inch iPad some, but it couldn’t compete with my LG display.

As 2018 comes to a close, the changes I’ve made haven’t been dramatic despite the extra time I’ve spent in front of my Mac. Instead, I’ve fine-tuned existing workflows and added new apps for specific tasks.

Below, I’ve broken down the 49 apps I use roughly by activity and function. I’ll mention where Apple’s apps fit into my workflow as I go because without them there would be a few big holes in the landscape of apps I use, but the focus of this roundup is on third-party apps, not Apple’s.

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  1. I’m right there with you on this one John. ↩︎

Magnets: A Common Apple Magic Trick

As a young kid, I thought magnets were about the coolest things ever. Here in my 30s, I kind of feel the same way.

Magnets made nerdy headlines recently, with the new iPad Pro, which is chock-full of them to keep its Smart Keyboard Folio in place. Marques Brownlee had a tweet showing off just how many are in the tablet's thin chassis:

Apple's use of magnets in its products goes back further than the most recent iPad Pro, with its keyboard and Apple Pencil, or even the fun and functional AirPod case. Magnets allow Apple to do things without the need of mechanical components, keeping the design of its products clean and streamlined. Here are a few of my favorites over the years.

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My Must-Have iOS Apps, 2018 Edition

Putting together my annual list of Must-Have iOS Apps is an exercise in analyzing the trends of the year and considering which ones had the biggest impact on how I use my iPhone and iPad. Two years ago, it was web services and open APIs; last year, I focused on collaboration with the MacStories team and making my workflow consistent across devices; this year, there isn't a single overarching theme behind this list, but rather a collection of trends and changes that I've observed over the course of 2018.

First and foremost is the switch to a subscription-based business model by some of my favorite apps. As we noted in our look at the modern economics of the App Store earlier this year, it is becoming increasingly challenging for indie developers – the ones who make the apps we tend to use and cover most frequently on MacStories – to find a balance between reaching new customers with paid app updates and supporting an app over the span of multiple years for existing users who already paid once.

A subscription seems like an obvious solution: new customers can try an app for free and later decide to subscribe; longtime users of an app get to support their favorite app over a longer period of time; developers are more incentivized to keep making an app better thanks to the financial security provided by an ongoing revenue stream. Recurring subscriptions for all apps launched two years ago just before WWDC, and it feels like we've only now reached a point where more and more developers are willing to experiment with them. This major shift in app pricing wasn't always met favorably by longtime users of existing apps, which has resulted in developers testing different approaches such as optional subscriptions, bundles containing subscriptions and In-App Purchases, or even multiple ways to unlock the same features. In looking at the apps included in this list, I was surprised by how many now include some form of recurring subscription; I think this transition will only become more prominent in 2019.

The second trend I noticed in my usage of third-party apps is a strong preference for those that fully embrace modern iOS technologies. From Siri shortcuts (by far, the most important iOS developer framework of 2018) to Files integration and support for external keyboards on iPad, I tend to prioritize apps that eschew proprietary functionalities and adopt native APIs such as iCloud, the Files document browser, or Reminders. With iOS growing more powerful and complex each year, I think it's only natural that I've stuck with apps that shy away from Apple-provided solutions as little as possible; those frameworks are always going to be more integrated with the rest of the system than any alternative a developer can come up with, and I seek that level of integration because I enjoy the comfort of an ecosystem where all the pieces work well together.

Lastly, I've noticed some overall changes in the kinds of apps I consider my must-haves for iPhone and iPad. In the "pro" app department, the Photography and Development lists have grown to include apps such as Lightroom, Scriptable, Darkroom, and Halide – all new entries this year. One of my goals with the new iPad Pro is to use it as a workstation for editing photos and programming my own little additions to iOS; I felt like my increased usage of these apps warranted some changes in the annual picks. You will also find more apps designed to interact with macOS as a result of my purchase of a Mac mini (which I'm using as a home server for various tasks) and different utility apps as some of the old ones have been replaced by Shortcuts. An app that, by the way, I can no longer include in this roundup due to my self-imposed rule of not featuring Apple apps because they're kind of obvious choices for an iOS user (this also applies to Shazam, officially acquired by Apple this year).

Below, you'll find a collection of the 60 apps I consider my must-haves on the iPhone and iPad, organized in nine categories; whenever possible, I included links to original reviews and past coverage on MacStories. What you will not find is the usual list of awards for best new app and best app update, which we've relaunched as a team effort under the MacStories Selects name this year. Instead, at the end of the story you'll find my App of the Year, which is also joining MacStories Selects as an award that recognizes an overall outstanding iOS app that had a profound impact on my workflow over the past year, regardless of its release date.

Let's dig in.

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Introducing MacStories Selects: The Best New Apps, App Updates, and iOS Games of 2018

Over the course of a year, the MacStories team tries hundreds of apps. We test them, live with them, poke, prod, and break them, and then we write and talk about them. Collectively, it amounts to thousands of hours of thought and analysis that on a macro level seeks to answer the question: what makes a good app? There’s no single factor or simple formula; if there was, nearly every app would achieve greatness. But after evaluating as many apps as we have, each of us has a fine-tuned instinct for standout apps when they come onto our radar.

We write about lots of terrific apps, but every year a handful stand out as exceptional. The precise quality that sets an app apart is often harder to identify than the app itself. Some are apps that push the boundaries of Apple’s OSes into new territory, while others are fresh takes on old problems. Despite the millions of apps on the App Store, every so often an app emerges that is truly inventive and opens up a whole new category of apps.

This year, we’re starting something new to celebrate those apps that stand out from the pack with a new feature we call MacStories Selects. For this inaugural year, we are covering three app categories: Best New App, Best App Update, and Best New Game. Along with a top pick for each category, we have selected runners-up that also stood out from the crowd. Before the end of the year, we’ll reveal two other components of MacStories Selects as well:

  • Federico’s App of the Year, which will be published as part of his annual Must-Have iOS Apps of 2018; and
  • Picks for our favorite new hardware accessories of 2018.

In making today's app picks, we only looked at titles released in 2018. In addition, for Best App Update we evaluated each stand-alone update independent from any others, as opposed to aggregating updates from throughout the year.

Selects is something new for us here at MacStories that we expect to grow over time. We hope you enjoy. Now, on to our picks...

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Hopes and Expectations for Apple’s 2019


Forward-looking columns about Apple's business in the new year are usually saved for late December, but I wanted to get ahead of all those pieces because we now know what Apple's full 2018 product lineup looks like. While new AirPods and the AirPower charging mat are both suspiciously still absent, and one or both could in theory be launched via press release any time, most likely what we have now from Apple is what we'll be left with until after the new year begins. As such, today seems like a great time to start sharing hopes and expectations for the year ahead.

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My Today at Apple Experience

It took nearly 18 months of Apple's regular Today at Apple promotions through keynote events and press releases, but I finally had my interest in the program piqued. As I wrote earlier this month, whereas every other Apple product is analyzed to death by writers, podcasters, and YouTubers, the company's retail stores and Today at Apple program are often ignored by tech media. But Apple's increased trumpeting of its retail initiatives, in the face of a collective shrug from the press, made me wonder what exactly we're all missing out on here. I mean, if the company is passionate enough about Today at Apple to host over 18,000 sessions per week, then there must be something special about the program.

So I attended my first session.

Last Monday morning I opened the Apple Store app and booked a session at Apple Fifth Avenue called "Photo Lab: Crafting Your Shot Co-created with Chase Jarvis." As I suspect is true of most iPhone owners, I love taking pictures with my phone, but I know absolutely nothing about the ins and outs of quality photography. As a result, the Photo Lab session seemed like a great place to start.

Much of the time when Apple promotes Today at Apple, it highlights sessions taking place in its global flagship stores, with beautiful open forums and enormous wall displays. My experience was a lot more low-key, as the Fifth Avenue location is currently approaching two full years in temporary housing as major renovations to its previous location near completion. While the revamped Fifth Avenue store will undoubtedly come with all the beauty and grandeur of locations like Michigan Avenue and Regent Street, for now the site lacks all those modern bells and whistles; rather than taking place in a forum, my Today at Apple session took place around a small table that sat eight participants.

I'm not going to get much into the specifics of the session's contents, which were solid overall; instead, I want to share three simple takeaways from this first Today at Apple experience. They're the three main things that were on my mind following the session, and after rewatching portions of Apple's October event in Brooklyn, I realized that my takeaways actually line up with statements shared by executives at the event.

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