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My Must-Have iOS Apps & Web Services, 2016 Edition

Utilities

Weather Underground. I’ve tried hundreds of weather apps since the App Store launched in 2008; Weather Underground is the only one I was able to stick with for over a year. In addition to a great UI with a dark theme, Weather Underground is powered by hyper-local data that provides more accurate forecasts than any other app or service I tested.

Weather Underground can even connect to Netatmo weather stations shared by the community, and I happen to have one available at the end of the street where I live. I check the weather with Weather Underground every day, and I like its new widget on iOS 10.

iFinance. Unfortunately, none of the popular finance management apps with automatic bank sync work with my Italian bank, but I’ve found a great manual alternative in iFinance. To my knowledge, this is the only app that lets you set up import rules that automatically tag and assign transactions based on keywords found in a CSV file. Every month, I download my account’s statement, import it into iFinance, and the app categorizes expenses and incomes for me based on keywords and categories I created last year. It’s not direct sync, but it works well.

Astra. This recent addition to my Home screen is an Alexa client to issue commands to Amazon’s assistant from an iOS device. Alexa Web Services is the same technology that powers the Amazon Echo speakers, and by signing in with your Amazon account you can take advantage of the same skills and commands you’d use at home.

I can create tasks with Todoist, get my news brief, turn on my lights and coffee maker, and ask for anything I’d ask Alexa on my two Echo speakers. With Astra, I have most of the power of the Echo on my iPhone. [Review]

Excel. I’m not a heavy spreadsheet user, but I have to send monthly income and expenses as a spreadsheet to my accountant and I prefer Excel’s desktop-like approach to Apple’s Numbers. There is no specific design detail or feature that I appreciate; I just feel like every option is where I’d expect it to be, whereas Numbers’ interface always confused me. The charts that we publish for Apple’s financial results are generated by Excel in combination with Workflow in Split View on the iPad.

Documents. As I detailed last week, Readdle’s Documents is my favorite file manager for iOS. Documents combines local storage with web services like Dropbox and Google Drive. Among my favorite features, Documents supports revisions for Dropbox files and it can sync specific folders as favorites, making it easy to retrieve files from a Dropbox folder without having to navigate manually into it.

Pushover. A lot of my web automations on Zapier involve some kind of output message that needs to be delivered to me. My favorite utility for this is Pushover, which is an app dedicated to displaying notifications from other services. Zapier doesn’t have an iPhone app, so every time I put together a web workflow that returns a message at the end, I hook it up to Pushover and let the app push the alert to me on iOS. Pushover features various urgency levels for important notifications, custom tones, and it even lets you choose whether a URL appended to a notification should be immediately opened. I also rely on Pushover to tell me when there’s a new Apple press release, YouTube video, or online store update.

PCalc. I don’t remember what Apple’s Calculator app looks like anymore because I’ve been using James Thomson’s PCalc for several years now. I’m not an engineer and I don’t need to perform complex calculations on iOS, but I appreciate PCalc’s versatility and customization features.

PCalc allows me to create my own layout and mix traditional buttons with custom ones for currency and unit conversion. I use PCalc everywhere, whether it’s on the Home screen, from a widget, or on the Apple Watch when I’m grocery shopping.

Opener. This is an excellent utility to open links in third-party clients instead of the official ones that natively support their links. With Opener, a Twitter link can be opened in Tweetbot instead of the Twitter app, and a YouTube video can be easily sent to ProTube. Opener does this with an action extension and a large database of apps that have registered as handlers of specific domains. I’ve described Opener as “Universal Links for third-party apps” before. Opener does one thing extremely well.

Moves. I used Moves to create an automated archive of my location before Facebook acquired it, and I continue to let it work in the background despite the lack of major updates. I’m too lazy to remember to check into places with Swarm and I prefer Moves’ automatic location tracking that follows me constantly.

After years of training and location edits, Moves is accurate in how it tags places and I’ve never had major issues with battery life. Best of all, Moves has an open API and it integrates with external services: among many, Moves powers location tracking in Gyroscope. When Facebook eventually discontinues Moves, I’ll have to look for a replacement.

DS File. I bought a Synology NAS earlier this year, and, of all the apps from the DS line, DS File is the one I use the most because it lets me manage files and folders on the server with a Finder-like interface. It’s not the most attractive app, but DS File is functional and it supports logging into a Synology server from a local IP address or through the Internet with the QuickConnect service.

DS Get. Along with DS File, I use DS Get to start download tasks on my Synology, and specifically torrents. DS Get registers as a compatibile receiver of .torrent files on iOS, which makes it the default option in Safari after tapping a torrent in the browser. Like DS File, DS Get can connect to a Synology from anywhere, and it also lets you monitor the status of ongoing downloads.

Google Maps. While Apple Maps has improved, I still use Google Maps for local directions in Rome and to look up nearby businesses with Street View. I like what Apple has been doing, but I prefer the exploration features and integrations that Google Maps offers.

Among the features Google recently rolled out, I found myself using the “busy times” functionality for local businesses a lot: if I know I need to go buy something at a store in Rome, I first check Google Maps to see when it tends be more crowded. This has allowed me to save time and avoid queues, and it’s the kind of data-based option that Google does well at scale.

TextExpander. I do a lot of typing on my iOS devices, and there’s no better way to save time with words than TextExpander. Smile’s app has evolved into a full-blown service with features for team collaboration, but I still use it as a basic snippet manager that holds bits of text I often have to insert into emails and blog posts. TextExpander’s web sync makes my snippets available on all my devices (unlike iCloud’s unreliable text replacements). TextExpander is a must-have for my longform pieces, especially since it’s integrated with Ulysses and other note-taking apps on iOS.

Scanbot. Since the iPhone’s camera got very good with the iPhone 5s, I stopped using physical scanners to turn paper documents into PDFs. For the kind of receipts and documents I have to scan, my iPhone is enough. Scanbot is my favorite scanning app for iOS thanks to its elegant design, good performance, and useful integrations. Scanbot can save documents to iCloud Drive, but it can also automatically upload PDFs to Dropbox or send them to Shoeboxed, the service I use to extract expenses from receipts and generate spreadsheets for my accountant.

Deliveries. I buy a lot of stuff from Amazon and the online Apple Store. To keep track of packages and see when they’ll show up at my doorstep, I use Deliveries. I’ve trusted this app with all my tracked packages for years. Deliveries automatically recognizes tracking numbers for popular shipping companies, but, even better, it understands order numbers from the Apple Store. Whenever I buy something from Apple, I can copy the order number in Safari, open Deliveries, and the app will see the number in my clipboard and offer to start tracking a new Apple delivery.

With Deliveries, Junecloud has made the kind of app with dozens of details that I appreciate coming across every time I use it. There’s a map preview that tells you where a package is in the world, which you can share as an image by omitting personal details. There’s support for 3D Touch, an iOS 10 widget, an Apple Watch app, iMessage stickers, and Safari View Controller to check order webpages without leaving the app. Tracking packages is no fun, but Deliveries makes it enjoyable thanks to its intelligent use of iOS features and a fantastic design. If you buy things online, Deliveries is for you.

Web Services

Zapier. After optimizing how I use iOS apps with Workflow, I turned my attention to web automation and the web services we employ at MacStories every day. Over the past year, I’ve gone all-in with Zapier and created dozens of web automations that connect services together and automate critical aspects of our collaboration in the background without having to manually trigger them.

According to my Zapier stats, I use about 8,000 zaps every month. I have automations that go off daily for a variety of reasons: I count how many new Twitter followers we get on our site accounts and save them to a digest delivered every morning; questions submitted by Club MacStories members via Google Forms are converted to Trello cards; Google Calendar events are logged as time entries in Toggl; emails, RSS feeds, Stripe disputes, and anything else I might otherwise forget gets saved as an urgent task in Todoist. Zapier makes these connections easy thanks to its complex multi-action workflows – a big difference from IFTTT’s limited applets – and there’s a lot of depth to the service that I plan to write about in the future.

Zapier is one of the reasons I was able to complete more and bigger projects this year, and it’s redefined my idea of web automation and API integrations.

Kraken. Every image you see on MacStories has been optimized with Kraken and then uploaded to our CDN. Kraken is based on the same concept of ImageOptim: it reduces the file size of images with minimal loss in quality on the final product. Kraken has a web API that we can use with Workflow to upload images from iOS. Kraken’s API comes with settings for lossy and lossless optimization; it can even handle direct uploads to Rackspace Cloud Files (our CDN). We make hundreds of requests to Kraken every month, and this service has saved me thousands of dollars in CDN costs.

MailChimp. We’ve used MailChimp for every newsletter we’ve sent since the humble beginnings of Classic MacStories Weekly in 2014. I don’t use MailChimp much myself – John does the heavy lifting in the web interface – but there’s no doubt that Club MacStories wouldn’t have been possible without it. The company has an iOS app I use to check stats, but I wish they also provided an API to save templates with Markdown support and a proper campaign editor for iOS.

Shoeboxed. This is a recent discovery of mine, and I’m amazed by what the service does. Shoeboxed uses artificial intelligence and human employees to extract information from receipts and categorize them for you. I’m okay with their privacy policy and I have a business account because Shoeboxed has improved my relationship with my accountant. Thanks to this service, he likes me now.

Every time I get a receipt or an invoice for something I bought, all I have to do is forward the PDF to Shoeboxed’s email address, which will analyze the document, extract bits such as dates and amount, and save it in my account. Expenses can be exported en-masse as spreadsheets or original documents, which is what I’ve been doing for my accountant, who appreciates my newfound precision and timeliness. Furthermore, if Shoeboxed finds an expense in a different currency than the main one, it’ll automatically convert it using historical exchange rates. I used to do this manually until last year, and I hated the whole process. Shoeboxed has saved me weeks I would have spent throughout the year to verify my receipts, file them (often incorrectly), and convert them from USD to EUR. I wish I knew Shoeboxed existed sooner.

SaneBox. I covered my SaneBox setup in detail in my story on one year of iPad Pro. SaneBox is an email intelligence that lives in the cloud and connects to any email provider to separate important messages from the rest. Anything that isn’t deemed important ends up in a SaneLater folder, while newsletter-type emails are filed into a SaneNews folder; everything else stays in the inbox because it’s important.

What makes SaneBox special is that, unlike similar proprietary features of iOS email apps, its cloud-based brain can be integrated with any email client. SaneBox is simply a system that moves messages across folders independently of the email app you use. You can train SaneBox, create custom forwarding rules, mark contacts as VIP, and lots more. I should have started using SaneBox years ago – I’ve never been as efficient and satisfied with my email as I am with SaneBox.

Toggl. To better understand how I’m spending my work hours and surface patterns in my daily habits, I started tracking my time with Toggl in October. Of all the time tracking services I considered, Toggl caught my attention because it looked nice, featured integrations with other services (including Zapier), and had an API for apps to plug into.

I’m religious about tracking any work-related activity with Toggl. The service doesn’t have an iPad app and their iPhone client is a barebones timer with several bugs, so I created my own workflows to start new timers and check for how long an existing one has been running. I mostly interact with the Toggl web app in Safari for iPad when I want to check timers and visualize reports about my projects. Toggl has made me more aware of my bad habits and it’s helping me get better at managing responsibilities.

GitHub. Most people know GitHub as a code hosting platform for developers. GitHub repositories, however, can be much more than code: we’ve been using GitHub to store Markdown files and collaborate on revisions of text files with multiple writers making changes to the same draft over time. GitHub has an excellent diff tool that highlights changed paragraphs and individual words, which we leverage to quickly see which edits have been made to a document.

Since switching to a GitHub-based workflow in February, we’ve set up a private repository for each writer, as well as a general repository for Club MacStories. This has allowed everyone on the team to check out each other’s stories in advance, suggest edits, and leave comments. After seeing the benefits of shared Markdown hosting with GitHub, I wouldn’t go back to any other system.

Inoreader. I stuck with the RSS service I mentioned at the beginning of the year. Inoreader is RSS for power users: it’s integrated with some of the best clients for iOS, and it supports server-side rules for articles. Rules can perform a variety of actions on your behalf: for example, you can automatically mark as read articles that contain a certain keyword, forward starred articles to someone else, or receive a notification for a story that matches pre-defined criteria. In my case, a rule that marks articles with specific keywords in the title as read ensures those items don’t get pushed to Fiery Feeds on iOS – thus, I never see them.

There is a lot of power to Inoreader, and I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this service offers. I haven’t had the time to explore the Bundles and the Teams functionalities yet, let alone text highlighters and integration with IFTTT. I plan to build more Inoreader workflows in 2017.

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