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Introducing Automation April: A Month-Long Community Event About Automation, Featuring Shortcuts, Interviews, Discord Workshops, and a Shortcut Contest

Welcome to Automation April.

Welcome to Automation April.

Over the past decade, MacStories has become the hub for all kinds of user automation. Starting with URL schemes, then Workflow, and eventually Shortcuts, we’ve created hundreds of shortcuts for MacStories readers and Club members and published stories about automation that have been read by millions of people around the world. With the MacStories Shortcuts Archive, launched three years ago, we unified our catalog of free shortcuts in a single gallery; with the arrival of Shortcuts on macOS, we’ve expanded our Mac coverage for Club members and launched a new column and Discord channel all about automation.

I love automation because of what it stands for: giving users – the people – the power to fully control their computer and make it more efficient. To make it truly their own. This is why I’ve been writing about the Shortcuts app for years and why I’ve always believed in it as the future of automation on Apple platforms: it’s the software equivalent of a bicycle for the mind.

For this reason, I’m absolutely thrilled to introduce Automation April, a month-long showcase of automation on Apple platforms by us, developers, and MacStories readers – with a focus on Shortcuts.

For the entire month of April, we will cover automation and Shortcuts – even more than we normally do – on every property of the extended MacStories universe. There will be shortcuts and articles on MacStories; we will post Automation April-themed episodes of AppStories; there will be special content in MacStories Weekly and AppStories+ for Club members; we will host special ‘Town Hall Workshops’ and a dedicated Automation April channel in our Discord community.

But there’s more:

In addition to all of the above, we are launching a contest to pick the best shortcuts submitted by MacStories readers for Automation April.

Starting Monday, April 4th, until Wednesday, April 20th, we will be accepting up to two shortcut entries per user via a dedicated Automation April website. The contest will be open to everyone with a free MacStories account (more on this below). We’ve also assembled a panel of Shortcuts experts who, alongside the MacStories team, will judge shortcuts submitted by people.

Oh, and we’re giving away an Elgato Stream Deck XL and an Analogue Pocket for the Best Overall Shortcut prize. Yep, you read that right.

April has always been a special month for MacStories: the site turns 13 (!) on April 20th, and this isn’t the first time we’ve organized a special event to celebrate our community. But with Automation April, we’ve prepared the biggest event we’ve ever done that will encompass every single aspect of the MacStories family – from the articles you know and love to Discord, the Weekly newsletter, and a brand new community contest.

The next four weeks are going to be fun. So let’s dive in and let me give you an overview of what you can expect from the first edition of Automation April.

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iPad Air 2022 Review: Refined Balance

The new iPad Air.

The new iPad Air.

The last time I wrote about the iPad Air in October 2020, I explained how its fourth-generation model intrigued me again. A year and a half later, here I am, once again fascinated by the iPad Air, captivated by its hybrid nature caught between a base model iPad and the aspirations of an iPad Pro.

Here’s why: while the new iPad Air, which goes on sale this Friday starting at $599, doesn’t break any ground for the Air line, I believe it has reached its most balanced state yet.

The new iPad Air catches up with the iPad Pro and iPad mini in supporting 5G networking; it’s the final iPad in the lineup to get Center Stage; like the iPad Pro, it now comes with an M1 chip and the same 8 GB of RAM. The 2022 iPad Air refines what Apple started with the relaunch of this model in 2020 and achieves a balance of features, size, and price that makes it the ideal iPad for most people.

The iPad Air and the features it adds compared to its previous-gen model are, at this point, known quantities. The design, 10.9” display, and implementation of Touch ID are unchanged from the 2020 version; I covered Center Stage (we even built a custom app for it), the M1, and 5G in my 2021 iPad Pro review; the Magic Keyboard, Apple Pencil, and Smart Folio covers are the same ones we’ve been using for years.

The same is true regarding how I see Apple’s pitch for the iPad Air as a product: it’s a distillation of the most essential traits of the Pro line, made accessible to more customers at a lower price point. I wrote this in 2020, and it still applies to the new iPad Air:

While the 10.9” Air won’t replace the 12.9” iPad Pro as my primary machine, I’ve been impressed by this iPad for a different reason: the iPad Air democratizes the notion of “pro iPad”, bringing key features of iPad Pro to more customers, while at the same time looking ahead toward the future of iPad with hardware not seen on the current iPad Pro lineup. The iPad Air sits at the intersection of old iPad Pro features trickling down to the rest of the iPad line and new ones appearing on this model first.

If the “new” features of the iPad Air aren’t new at all and if the strategy behind this product hasn’t changed since 2020, I could reasonably wrap up this story here, right?

Well, not quite. Something happened recently that allowed me to evaluate the new iPad Air from a fresh perspective: Silvia started using my iPad mini and fell in love with it. So when I received a review unit of the new iPad Air from Apple last week, I asked myself: could I use the iPad Air as my secondary iPad, replacing the iPad mini for reading, chatting on Twitter and Discord, and watching YouTube videos, plus doing the occasional note-taking and having a small extra monitor for Universal Control?

I had been feeling like the iPad mini was a bit too small for my hands anyway (hence why I was okay with Silvia taking it); perhaps the new iPad Air could be a good opportunity to reassess its capabilities as a general-purpose tablet for people who want just one iPad in their lives as well as folks who, like me, work on a 12.9” iPad Pro but also want to complement it with a smaller, more focused iPad.

So that’s the experiment I’ve been running for the past six days. Let’s see how it went.

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macOS 12.3: The Magic of Universal Control and More

macOS 12.3 Monterey has arrived, delivering Universal Control, the long-awaited feature that allows users to transition between Macs and iPads with a single set of input devices. Federico is covering the feature from the perspective of iPadOS 15.4, so I’ll focus on the Mac. In addition to Universal Control, macOS 12.3 includes other smaller features, which I’ll cover at the end of this story.

I’ve been using macOS 12.3 as my daily OS throughout the current beta cycle for a couple of reasons. First, Shortcuts has been steadily improving ever since Monterey’s fall introduction, so I wanted to stay on top of those improvements in real-time. Second, I’ve been fascinated by the possibilities created by Universal Control since it was announced at WWDC last year. I’m pleased to report that the feature hasn’t disappointed me and has quickly found a place as part of my core computing setup.

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iOS and iPadOS 15.4: Hands-On with Universal Control, Face ID with a Mask, and More

iOS and iPadOS 15.4 are available today.

iOS and iPadOS 15.4 are available today.

Today, Apple released iOS and iPadOS 15.4. The fourth major updates to iOS and iPadOS 15, originally released in September 2021, offer a long list of miscellaneous improvements and feature tweaks (which I will detail later in the story) as well as two major additions for iPad and iPhone users: the long-awaited Universal Control and the ability to use Face ID while wearing a mask, respectively.

I’ve been testing both iOS and iPadOS 15.4 since the first beta in late January, and I was able to spend some quality time with both of these features and everything else that is new and improved in these releases. Let’s take a look.

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Mac Studio, M1 Ultra, and Apple Studio Display: The MacStories Overview

Yesterday during their Peek Performance keynote event, Apple unveiled the Mac Studio and Apple Studio Display. The former is an all-new computer joining the Mac lineup, with specs that are blowing away Apple’s previous offerings due to the introduction of a new top-of-the-line M-series chip: the M1 Ultra. The Apple Studio Display marks Apple’s true return to the consumer display market after a near decade-long hiatus.

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Six Colors’ ‘Apple in 2021’ Report Card

For the past seven years, Six Colors’ Jason Snell has put together an ‘Apple report card’ – a survey that aims to assess the current state of Apple “as seen through the eyes of writers, editors, developers, podcasters, and other people who spend an awful lot of time thinking about Apple”.

The 2021 installment of the Six Colors report card is now out, and you can find an excellent summary of all the submitted comments along with charts featuring average scores for different categories on Six Colors.

I wasn’t able to participate in last year’s report card, but I’m happy Jason invited me back to share some thoughts and comments on what Apple did in 2021. As it turns out…I had a lot of opinions I wanted to share this year, particularly about the Mac. This may be surprising coming from me – a longtime iPad Pro user – but I’m incredibly fascinated by Apple’s new direction with the Mac platform and how it’s changed thanks to Apple silicon.

I’ll have much more to share about macOS and the M1 Max MacBook Pro I’ve been testing in the near future. In the meantime, I’ve prepared the full text of my answers to the Six Colors report card, which you can find below. Once again, I recommend reading the whole thing on Six Colors to get the broader context of all the participants in the survey.

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MacStories Starter Pack: Taking Apple Music Discovery into Your Own Hands

Editor’s Note: Taking Apple Music Discovery into Your Own Hands 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.

Apple Music’s tools for discovering new music could be better. A lot has been written about the problems, which I’m not going to rehash here. Instead, I’ve got a long list of tips, apps, and workflows you can use to discover new music now.

I’ve collected these apps and tips over many thousands of hours of listening and written about some of them here and for Club MacStories members before. However, this is the first time I’ve gathered and expanded those tips and workflows in one comprehensive story.

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MacStories Starter Pack: Reverse-Engineering the Matter API and My ‘Save to Matter’ Shortcut

My Save to Matter shortcut.

My Save to Matter shortcut.

Editor’s Note: Reverse-Engineering the Matter API and My ‘Save to Matter’ Shortcut 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.

For the past few months, I’ve been enjoying and keeping an eye on the development of Matter, a new read-later service that aims to combine a powerful text parser with elegant design, social discovery features, annotations, and the ability to listen to articles as audio. I’m not one to typically care about the latest VC-backed startup that promises to revolutionize reading articles with social features, but Matter struck me for a few reasons: the app’s reader mode is gorgeous; the ability to annotate articles with highlights is great; and, more importantly, it has the best, most human-sounding text-to-audio conversion engine I’ve ever tested.

Something else happened a few months ago: Matter introduced an official plugin to sync your article highlights as Markdown notes to Obsidian. Integration with PKM-style apps is a hot trend right now in the modern crop of read-later services (John covered this very topic here), so I wasn’t shocked to see that Matter joined Readwise in supporting Obsidian with a plugin. Something about it piqued my interest though:

If Matter didn’t have a public API, how could the Obsidian plugin even sync to the Matter service?

Obviously, there had to be an API involved behind the scenes, which Matter hadn’t announced yet, but which I could potentially reverse-engineer and integrate with Shortcuts. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past month.

My experiments with the still-unannounced Matter API have developed on three separate fronts, and I’m going to share the results in three different places:

  • Today on MacStories, I’m going to share a one-click shortcut called Save to Matter that lets you save any article to your Matter queue directly from the share sheet or anywhere else on iOS, iPadOS, or macOS without having to use the Matter extension;
  • Tomorrow on MacStories Weekly for Club MacStories members, I will share MatterBot, an advanced Matter shortcut that lets you take complete control over your Matter queue with support for exporting annotations as Markdown or even downloading articles as MP3 files;
  • Next week for Club MacStories+ and Premier members only, I will share MatterPod, another advanced shortcut that lets you turn your Matter queue into a Matter podcast feed hosted on your own web server.

Before we dive in, I also want to confirm that I privately reached out to the folks at Matter weeks ago about my experiments, and they were cool with me writing about my findings and sharing shortcuts I’ve built for the Matter API.

With that being said, let’s take a look at how you can get started with the Matter API and the Save to Matter shortcut.

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MacStories Starter Pack: Customizing Your Workflows with Deep Links

Editor’s Note: Customizing Your Workflows with Deep Links 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.

In my story yesterday, I covered how I manage links to content I come across every day. Today’s story is also about linking, but it’s not about collecting and processing the content you stumble across. Instead, it’s about creating links between the apps you use to tie your projects and the content related to them together in a cohesive way.

Deep linking between apps isn’t new, but it has seen a resurgence of interest. Part of that seems to be a natural extension of the popularity of internal linking systems in note-taking apps, but it’s also thanks to apps like Hook, the entire purpose of which is to help users link the content inside their apps together more easily.

When you step back and think about productivity apps, most involve some sort of list. You’ve got lists of messages in your email client, events in your calendar, documents in your text editor, and so on. Those lists, which serve as inboxes for an app’s content, are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having everything consolidated and organized into lists is valuable. That’s true of the kinds of links I wrote about yesterday, but even more so for things like upcoming appointments and tasks. Apps like calendars and task managers exist because there are better solutions than a pile of scribbled notes to yourself.

It's easy to get lost in a long task list when you should only be focused on the task at hand.

It’s easy to get lost in a long task list when you should only be focused on the task at hand.

On the other hand, though, any list has the power to distract you the moment you open it. You go looking for one thing but end up browsing everything or following up on something else. Before you know it, you barely remember why you opened the app in the first place. For me, the trick to staying on task when I open any app full of distractions is to find a way to go straight to what I need, bypassing the distractions entirely with the help of a deep link.

Linking to Gmail in Mimestream.

Linking to Gmail in Mimestream.

Email is one of the best examples of this sort of setup. As I explained in my story about my email setup on Monday, getting information out of whatever email client I’m using and into Obsidian where I can integrate it with my own notes helps keep my inbox under control. When I pull text out of an email message and paste it into my notes, I do my best to get everything I need. However, when there’s a back and forth conversation about a topic, it can be valuable to go back and see the entire context of the conversation, which I can do by linking to the original message thread.

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