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Posts tagged with "iOS"

iPad Diaries: Using a Mac from iOS, Part 1 – Finder Folders, Siri Shortcuts, and App Windows with Keyboard Maestro

iPad Diaries is a regular series about using the iPad as a primary computer. You can find more installments here and subscribe to the dedicated RSS feed.

After several years without updates to a product that, somewhat oddly, "remained in Apple's lineup", the Mac mini was revived by the company last November with a major redesign geared toward pro users and designed for flexibility. As listeners of Connected know, one of the show's long-running jokes was that I would buy my last Mac ever as soon as Apple released a new Mac mini1; when it happened, I took the opportunity to completely rethink my home office with a new desk, well-specced Mac mini, and 4K display that supported both modern Macs and iPad Pros via USB-C.

Effectively, I had never owned a desktop Mac until2 this Mac mini arrived. I always preferred portable Macs to workstations, and over the years I moved from a late 2008 MacBook Pro to a 2011 MacBook Air and, in 2015, back to the (now Retina) MacBook Pro again. Over the past couple of years, however, and particularly since the introduction of iOS 11, my penchant for Mac laptops started clashing with the realization that the iPad Pro had become my de-facto laptop. I was using a MacBook Pro because I thought I needed a portable Mac machine just like when I started MacStories in 2009; in reality, the iPad had been chipping away at the MacBook's core tasks for a while. Eventually, I saw how my MacBook Pro had become a computer I'd open twice a week to record podcasts, and nothing more.

With the iPad Pro as my primary computer, the Mac's role in my life evolved into a fixed environment that was necessary for multi-track audio recording and Plex Media Server. And as I shared on Connected on several occasions, I realized that my workflow in 2018 wasn't the same as 2009 anymore: it no longer made sense for me to have a Mac laptop when what I really needed was a small, but powerful and extensible Mac desktop. That's why I started waiting for a new Mac mini, and my wishes were granted with the 2018 relaunch of the mighty desktop machine.

For the past three months, I've been busy setting up the Mac mini and optimizing it for the tasks that inspired its purchase. I bought external SSD drives (these two) to use for Plex and Time Machine backups; I set up a homebridge server to add unsupported accessories to HomeKit (such as our 2017 LG TV) and turn iTunes playlists into HomeKit scenes; I rethought my podcasting setup (I now have a Zoom H6 recorder and a taller microphone stand) and arranged my desk to make it easier to use the same UltraFine 4K display with the Mac mini and iPad Pro (I just need to plug in a different USB-C cable). Because this Mac mini is fast enough to handle 4K transcoding for Plex without breaking a sweat, I started using youtube-dl to enjoy 4K YouTube videos on iOS devices with the Infuse or Plex apps. I'm trying to take advantage of a powerful, always-on Mac server in any way I can, and I'm having lots of fun doing it.

This doesn't change the fact that the iPad Pro is my main computer, and that I want to interact with macOS as little as possible. Aside from recording podcasts using Mac apps, I rely on the Mac mini as a server that performs tasks or provides media in the background. Any server requires a front-end interface to access and manage it; in my case, that meant finding apps, creating shortcuts, and setting up workflows on my iPad Pro to access, manage, and use the Mac mini from iOS without having to physically sit down in front of it.

In this multi-part series, I'm going to cover how I'm using the 2018 iPad Pro to access my Mac mini both locally and remotely, the apps I employ for file management, the custom shortcuts I set up to execute macOS commands from iOS and the HomePod, various automations I created via AppleScript and Keyboard Maestro, and more. Let's dive in.

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  1. It was funny because everybody thought the Mac mini line was done. ↩︎
  2. Many years ago, I did use an iMac for a few months. However, I never considered that machine truly mine – it was set up at my parents' house (where it now sits unused) and I worked on it for a while until I moved in with my girlfriend a few months later. ↩︎

Apple Frames Shortcut, Now with Support for the 11″ iPad Pro and Apple Watch Series 4 40mm

Apple Frames, my shortcut to add device frames to screenshots taken on modern Apple devices, has been updated with support for the 11" iPad Pro and 40mm Apple Watch Series 4. This marks the second major update to Apple Frames, which now supports the following Apple devices:

  • iPhone 6, 7, 8, and X
  • iPhone XS and XS Max
  • iPad Pro 11" and 12.9" (2018 models)
  • Apple Watch Series 4 (44mm and 40mm)
  • MacBook Pro (Retina 13")
  • iMac 5K

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Apple Music Wrapped: A Shortcut to Visualize Your Most Listened Songs, Artists, and Genres of the Year

When Spotify was my music streaming service of choice, one of the features I really liked was its personalized Wrapped report generated at the end of the year. I've always been a fan of geeky annual reports and stats about the usage of any given web service – be it Spotify, Pocket, or Toggl. I appreciate a detailed look at 12 months of collected data to gain some insight into my habits and patterns.

I've always been annoyed by the lack of a similar feature in Apple Music; I'm surprised that Apple still hasn't added a native "Year in Review" option – a baffling omission given how the company is already collecting all of the necessary data points in the cloud. Official "Apple Music Wrapped" functionality would bolster the service's catalog of personalized features, providing users with a "reward" at the end of the year in the form of reports and playlists to help them rediscover what they listened to over the past year.

But Apple doesn't seem interested in adding this feature to Apple Music, so I decided to build my own using Shortcuts. The result is the most complex shortcut I've ever created comprising over 540 actions. It's not perfect due to the limitations of iOS and Shortcuts, but it's the closest I was able to come to replicating Spotify's excellent Wrapped feature.

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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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Launch Center Pro 3.0 Review: Universal Version, New Business Model, NFC Triggers, and More

Launch Center Pro, Contrast's popular launcher for iPhone and iPad, has been updated to version 3.0. It may be hard to believe, but Launch Center Pro 2.0 came out five years ago (in 2013), before Workflow, when Pythonista, Editorial, and Drafts were the only other apps pushing forward the idea of iOS automation thanks to URL schemes and x-callback-url.

The iOS automation landscape is vastly different five years later. While Apple still hasn't shipped a native automation framework for inter-app communication and URL schemes are still the only way to let apps exchange data with one another in an automated fashion, the evolution of Workflow into the Shortcuts app now provides users with an easier, more integrated solution to craft complex workflows. Not to mention how, thanks to its widget, 'Open URL' action, and ability to add custom launchers to the home screen, Shortcuts alone can supplant much of the functionality the likes of Launch Center Pro and Launcher have become well known for. Apple may not necessarily think about the Shortcuts app as "iOS automation" (they never used this expression in public), but it's undeniable that Workflow (then) and Shortcuts (now) are a superior, more powerful alternative to perform actions that were previously exclusive to Launch Center Pro.

For this reason, I believe it's best to think of Launch Center Pro in 2018 as a companion to Shortcuts – a more intuitive, perhaps simplified, versatile front-end to launch actions and apps in different ways, using triggers that aren't supported by Apple and which can complement Shortcuts rather than replace it. And with version 3.0 released today, Contrast is embracing this new role of Launch Center Pro as well, doubling down on what makes it unique compared to Shortcuts, and expanding the app's launcher capabilities in a handful of interesting ways.

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Apple Frames Shortcut, Now with Support for the 2018 12.9″ iPad Pro

Apple Frames, my shortcut to add official device frames to screenshots taken on iPhones, iPads, Macs, and Apple Watch Series 4, has been updated with support for the 2018 12.9" iPad Pro.

Since Apple announced the new iPad Pro in late October, I was frequently asked by MacStories readers whether I could update Apple Frames to support the device's new rounded display. While I could have updated the shortcut a few weeks ago to include third-party frames for the new iPad Pro, what I personally like about Apple Frames is that it uses Apple's official device frames adapted from the company's Product Images webpage. Unfortunately, it took Apple a few weeks to post official assets for the new iPad Pro.

Last week, I noticed that Apple updated their Marketing mini-site with new assets for the 12.9" iPad Pro, and I immediately asked Silvia (who worked on the original Apple Frames assets) to optimize the new frames for my shortcut. Alas, Apple hasn't shared frames for the 11" iPad Pro, and I would prefer to stick to official device frames created by the company itself.

Below, you'll find links to download both the full version of Apple Frames as well as the iOS-only version for iPhone, iPad, and Apple Watch. The shortcut works just like I originally described it: you can pick one or multiple screenshots you want to frame from a Photos picker in the Shortcuts app, or you can share images with the Shortcuts extension. In any case, framed screenshots will be saved to your photo library after a few seconds of processing. If it's dealing with multiple screenshots at once, the shortcut will also combine framed screenshots into a single image.

If Apple ever shares device frames for the 11" iPad Pro, I'll update my shortcut accordingly. In the meantime, you can find the updated Apple Frames shortcut below.

Apple Frames

Add device frames to screenshots for iPhones (6, 7, 8, X, and XS generations in standard/Plus/Max sizes), iPad Pro (11" and 12.9", 2018 models), Apple Watch S4 (40 and 44mm), MacBook Pro (Retina 13-inch), and iMac (5K). The shortcut supports portrait and landscape orientations, but does not support Display Zoom. If multiple screenshots are passed as input, they will be combined in a single image.

Get the shortcut here.

Apple Frames (iOS-only)

Add device frames to screenshots for iPhones (6, 7, 8, X, and XS generations in standard/Plus/Max sizes), iPad Pro (11" and 12.9", 2018 models), and Apple Watch S4 (40 and 44mm). The shortcut supports portrait and landscape orientations, but does not support Display Zoom. If multiple screenshots are passed as input, they will be combined in a single image.

Get the shortcut here.


Agenda 4.0 Brings Support for File Attachments, Improved iOS Automation

Agenda launched earlier this year with a fresh take on note-taking apps focused on dates and a timeline-based approach. As John noted in his original review of the Mac version (and later iOS), Agenda prioritizes dates as a means of note organization rather than folders or tagging; while it is possible to store notes in folders (called Projects in Agenda) and add hashtags to them, Agenda shines when your notes become actionable, time-sensitive steps that you can access in the top level 'On the Agenda' view, the 'Today' section, or, even better, the system calendar. Given its unique nature, it takes a while to understand Agenda and evaluate whether or not it may have a place in your workflow; I recommend reading our reviews of the first version of Agenda if you still haven't tried the app.

As I mentioned on AppStories and Connected recently, I've been experimenting with Agenda as a mix of an outlining tool and note-taking app that I use in addition to Apple Notes. Whenever I'm planning an article or long-term project, I always start by saving thoughts or links in the Notes app. I find Notes to be the only app that removes as much friction as possible when saving notes while still maintaining the benefits of a traditional folder structure with instant iCloud sync between devices. The fact that I can throw text, links, and images into Notes makes it a superior choice to Drafts when it comes to quickly assembling a collection of ideas and references.

Once I have enough material to turn an idea into a story, I move everything from Notes to Agenda, where I can start giving notes more structure, tag them (and thus create saved searches), and, more importantly, give them deadlines with due dates. If I'm supposed to start writing an article before the weekend, for instance, I'll give the associated note in Agenda a due date of Friday; on that day, the note will appear in the Today section of the app and, if I enabled the integration, on my system calendar as well. I've also been using Agenda to store notes for my podcasts (I work on them each week and make them due on recording day), ideas for shortcuts I want to build, and other bits of technical documentation that benefit from Agenda's support for code snippets and sub-headings. But mostly I use the app because its timeline-oriented design lets me see which note I have to turn into an article or podcast outline on any given day without having to create a separate reminder for it.

That's a long-winded introduction to say that, yes, it took me a while to "get" what Agenda is all about, but now I understand when its system can work for me and when I should stick to Apple Notes instead (such as for personal, non-work notes or notes shared with other people). Which is why I'm happy that with version 4.0, launching today on macOS and iOS, Agenda is getting support for a feature that levels the playing field with Apple Notes: image and file attachments.

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My Markdown Writing and Collaboration Workflow, Powered by Working Copy 3.6, iCloud Drive, and GitHub

For the past couple of years, I (and the rest of the MacStories team) have used Working Copy to store and collaborate on Markdown drafts for our articles. As I explained in a story from late 2016, even though Working Copy is a Git client primarily designed for programmers, it is possible to leverage the app's capabilities to perform version control for plain text too. Each MacStories team member has a private GitHub repository where we store Markdown files of our articles; in the same repository, other writers can make edits to drafts and commit them to GitHub; this way, the author can then pull back the edited file and use Working Copy's built-in diff tool to see what's changed from the last version of the file and read comments left by whoever edited the draft.1

As I mentioned two years ago, this system takes a while to get used to: GitHub has a bit of overhead in terms of understanding the correct terminology for different aspects of its file management workflow, but Working Copy makes it easier by abstracting much of the complexity involved with committing files, pushing them, and comparing them. This system has never failed us in over two years, and it has saved us dozens of hours we would have otherwise spent exchanging revised versions of our drafts and finding changes in them. With Working Copy, we can use the text editors we each prefer and, as long as we overwrite the original copies of our drafts and keep track of commits, the app will take care of merging everything and displaying differences between versions. From a collaboration standpoint, using Working Copy and GitHub for file storage and version control has been one of the best decisions I made in recent years.

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Home Screen Icon Creator: A Shortcut to Create Custom Icons for Apps, Contacts, Solid Colors, and More

Update: Thanks to MacStories reader Thomas, I was able to remove the need to upload image assets to Dropbox. The shortcut is now much faster to run (takes about 5 seconds instead of 20) and doesn't need to save any file in your Dropbox account. You can get the updated shortcut at the end of this post.


I've always been intrigued by Workflow's implementation of 'Add to Home Screen' – a feature that Apple kept in the transition to the Shortcuts app, and which allows users to create home screen icons to launch their favorite shortcuts. So earlier this month, I decided I wanted to learn how Shortcuts was handling the creation of home screen icons.

After a few weeks of experiments and refinements, I ended up reverse-engineering Shortcuts' 'Add to Home Screen' implementation, which turns out to be an evolution of Workflow's existing hack based on Safari and web clips. The result is Home Screen Icon Creator, an advanced shortcut that lets you create custom home screen icons to launch apps, custom shortcuts from the Shortcuts app, or specific actions for any of your contacts; the shortcut can also generate icons with solid colors, which you can combine with matching wallpapers to create custom home screen layouts.

This shortcut is, by far, the most complex piece of iOS automation I've ever put together for MacStories, and I'm happy with the final product. It fully replicates a native Shortcuts feature while giving you the freedom to create icons and launchers for anything you want. There is no configuration necessary on the user's end: it'll take you 20 seconds to create your first custom icon, complete with onscreen instructions. Allow me, however, to offer more context on how this shortcut came to be, how it works behind the scenes, and what you can build with it.

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