In the first part of my ongoing experiment with controlling and accessing a Mac from the iPad Pro, I covered FileExplorer – the app I use to open Finder locations from iOS' Files app – and shared a collection of shortcuts to control certain macOS features via Siri and the Shortcuts app. I also described my podcasting setup and how I've been taking advantage of Keyboard Maestro to automate window resizing across my two displays connected to the Mac mini. Today, I'm going to cover one of those two external displays – the iPad Pro running the Luna Display app – and how I've been using it to have "macOS as an app" on my iPad Pro. If you find this idea of reducing macOS to an app that runs on the iPad upsetting, the rest of this article likely isn't going to make you happy. If you're intrigued, however, strap in because I have a lot to share.
Posts tagged with "iPad Diaries"
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.
- It was funny because everybody thought the Mac mini line was done. ↩︎
- 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. ↩︎
One of my favorite aspects of working on the iPad is the flexibility granted by its extensible form factor. At its very essence, the iPad is a screen that you can hold in your hands to interact with apps using multitouch. But what makes iPad unique is that, unlike a desktop computer or laptop, it is able to take on other forms – and thus adapt to different contexts – simply by connecting to a variety of removable accessories. The iPad can be used while relaxing on a couch or connected to a 4K display with a Bluetooth keyboard; you can work on it while waiting in a car thanks to built-in 4G LTE, or put it into a Brydge keyboard case and turn it into a quasi-MacBook laptop that will confuse a lot of your friends who aren't familiar with iPad Pro accessories1. In a way, the iPad is modern computing's version of Kirby, the famous Nintendo character that is a blank canvas on its own, but can absorb the capabilities of other characters when necessary.
Thanks to its USB-C port, the new iPad Pro takes this aspect of the traditional iPad experience even further by enabling easier connections to external devices that don't come with a Lightning connector. At this stage, the new iPad Pro does not integrate with all USB-C accessories like any modern Mac would; also, connecting to Bluetooth keyboards has always been possible on iPad, as was interacting with external USB keyboards if you had the right Lightning adapter. But the point is that USB-C makes it easier to connect an iPad Pro to other USB devices either by virtue of using a single USB-C cable or, in the case of USB-A accessories, using existing USB-C hubs from any company that isn't Apple. Not to mention how, thanks to the increased bandwidth of the USB 3.1 Gen. 2 spec supported by the iPad Pro's USB-C port, it is now possible to connect the device directly to an external 4K/5K USB-C monitor, which can power the iPad Pro and act as a USB hub at the same time.
We haven't seen the full picture of built-in USB-C with the new iPad Pro: external drives still aren't supported by iOS' Files app, and other peripherals often require app developers to specifically support them. However, I believe the removal of Lightning is already enhancing the iPad's innate ability to adapt to a plurality of work setups and transform itself into a portable computer of different kinds. For the past few weeks, I've been testing this theory with Bluetooth and USB keyboards, a 4K USB-C monitor, USB-C hubs, and a handful of accessories that, once again, highlight the greater flexibility of the iPad Pro compared to traditional laptops and desktops, as well as some of its drawbacks.
I have a love/hate relationship with Apple's Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro.
On one hand, I've always been a fan of its small footprint and ability to almost become part of the device itself from both a hardware and software perspective. The Smart Keyboard snaps itself into place and attaches magnetically to the iPad Pro; it doesn't require you to even think about charging it as the Smart Connector takes care of it; thanks to the trivial magic of magnets, the keyboard and cover stay attached to the iPad as you carry it in a bag, but can be easily disconnected at a moment's notice should you need just the iPad's screen. The software experience is equally intuitive and exquisitely Ive-esque: the Smart Keyboard requires no pairing because it eschews Bluetooth altogether, and it integrates with all the keyboard shortcuts supported by iOS and apps. In the latest iPad Pro, the Smart Keyboard is even Face ID-aware: you can double-tap the space bar to authenticate from the lock screen instead of extending your arm toward the screen to swipe up – a welcome enhancement for those who work with their iPad Pro constantly connected to a keyboard.
There's plenty to appreciate about Apple's Smart Keyboard – an accessory designed on the premise of integration between hardware and software, following the same core principles at the foundation of AirPods, Apple Pencil, and (even though some liked to make fun of their peculiar design) Smart Battery Cases. But since its debut in 2015, I've been saving a series of small complaints and bigger annoyances with the Smart Keyboard that I'd like to revisit now that Apple has shipped its evolution for the new iPad Pro – the Smart Keyboard Folio.
Two days ago, I walked into my local Apple Store and bought the new 12.9" iPad Pro along with a Smart Keyboard Folio, second-generation Apple Pencil, and LG's UltraFine 4K display (plus, of course, AppleCare+ because these iPads don't come cheap). As I shared on Twitter and the Connected podcast on Wednesday, I went for a 1 TB configuration (with cellular) in Space Gray, and the display is the monitor I'll primarily use with a new Mac mini I also plan on buying very soon. It's been a busy couple of weeks in our apartment: we've been doing some renovations and buying new furniture, including a larger desk for my "office" (read: a section of our bedroom). As I've shared on my various podcasts for the past few months, getting a bigger desk with a Mac mini and 4K display that would support both macOS and iOS was always part of the plan.
While in previous years I was able to offer reviews for the new iPad Pros before launch day, that wasn't possible this year. For this reason, I decided I didn't want to wait several weeks to prepare an in-depth review of the new iPad Pro and avoid questions from MacStories readers until the story was finished. So in a break with tradition, I'm trying something different this time: as part of my semi-regular iPad Diaries column here on MacStories, I'm going to share a collection of shorter and more topical articles about the new iPad Pro over the next few weeks.
I believe this generation of iPad Pros is one the most exciting changes to the iPad line in years, and I want to jump straight into the discussion by detailing, step by step, my ongoing experience with the new iPad Pro from the perspective of someone who's been using an iPad as his main computer for the past five years. I plan to write about iOS, apps, and my iPad Pro workflow soon, but today I'd like to start by explaining my purchase decision and sharing some initial impressions about the iPad's hardware. Let's dive in.
A couple of weeks ago, I shared a series of pictures on Twitter showing how I had been using iOS 11's Type to Siri feature on my iPad Pro, which is always connected to an external keyboard when I'm working.
I left Type to Siri enabled on my iPad Pro since it's always connected to a keyboard anyway, and it's kind of like having a smart command line, which is pretty nice. pic.twitter.com/vRcGeAiHSX
— Federico Viticci (@viticci) January 20, 2018
I did not expect that offhanded tweet – and its "smart command line" description – to be so interesting for readers who replied or emailed me with a variety of questions about Type to Siri. Thus, as is customary for tweets that end up generating more questions than retweets, it's time to elaborate with a blog post.
In this week's iPad Diaries column, I'll be taking a closer look at Type to Siri, my keyboard setup, and the commands I frequently use for Siri on my iPad; I will also detail some features that didn't work as expected along with wishes for future updates to Siri.
You can download my wallpaper here.
Even though I never depended on Transmit for my daily iPad file management needs, I was sad to read that Panic couldn't find a market for it on the App Store. Thousands of iPad owners use Panic's app to manage their FTP servers and Amazon S3 buckets; integration with the latter is particularly important as it's hard to find apps that combine FTP access with S3 support and aren't hindered by questionable interface choices or a lack of updates.
Transmit for iOS was (and, until it is removed from the App Store, still is) one of a kind. Its excellent Mac foundation was adapted to iOS with taste and elegance, leveraging a split-pane UI long before iPad users were comfortable with Apple's native Split View; thanks to Panic's penchant for beautiful and intuitive design married to power-user functionalities, the Mac-like approach worked surprisingly well on iPad too.
It's difficult to pin down what, exactly, made Transmit for iOS unprofitable. The iOS counterpart always lagged behind the cloud integrations from the Mac app (Backblaze B2 and Rackspace Cloud Files, for instance, never made it to iOS); Panic didn't update Transmit to take advantage of major additions to iOS 11 such as Files and drag and drop; perhaps more importantly, Transmit for iOS is a product of the pre-iOS 11 era, back when the concepts of desktop-like file management and drag and drop were alien to the platform. Ultimately, I think Transmit for iOS lived and (slowly) died because we had it too soon.
But this isn't a post-mortem for Transmit on iOS, which, according to Panic, may even relaunch as a new app on the Store someday. Instead, I'd like to take a quick tour of some of the alternatives for Transmit available on iPad today. In case Panic decides to pull Transmit from the App Store, or if the app stops working in a future release of iOS, these FTP clients and file managers should compensate for the features of Panic's app. Most of them don't offer the same sophisticated and polished UI design, but some of them may even turn out to be more flexible and better integrated with iOS than Transmit.
In my review of iOS 11, I noted that the impact of drag and drop – arguably, the most powerful addition to the iPad – would be best measured in the following weeks, after developers had the time to update their apps with richer implementations of the framework. I dedicated a large portion of my review to drag and drop as I felt the feature would fundamentally reshape our interactions with iPad apps and the entire OS altogether. However, I knew that wouldn’t happen right away. With iOS 11 having been available for nearly two months now, I think it’s time to reassess the effect of drag and drop on the iPad’s app ecosystem.
Starting this week, I’m going to take a look at some of the most important tasks I perform on my iPad and how drag and drop is helping me rethink them for my typical workflow. For the comeback of this column, I chose to focus on Bear and Gladys – a note-taking app and a shelf app, respectively – as I've been impressed with their developers' understanding of iOS 11 and intricacies of drag and drop.
When I started researching this mini-series, I assumed that drag and drop hadn't dramatically affected my favorite third-party apps yet. I was wrong. Drag and drop has started to trickle down into several areas of my daily iPad usage, often with surprising and powerful results.
When I covered DEVONthink To Go in the first iPad Diaries column back in February, I briefly mentioned the app's limited support for URL schemes and automation. I concluded the article noting that DEVONthink's advanced file management features were ideal candidates for my writing workflow – particularly given the app's ability to store different types of documents, reference them with unique links, and search them with Boolean operators. I also expanded upon the idea of using DEVONthink as my only iOS file manager in the latest episode of Mac Power Users.
I've been moving more work documents and other research material (web archives and PDFs, mostly) to DEVONthink over the past two months. The turning point occurred a few weeks ago, when DEVONtechnologies began adding advanced x-callback-url automation to DEVONthink's beta channel and were kind enough to let me test and provide feedback for the functionality.
I was genuinely excited by the prospect of a scriptable DEVONthink: due to iOS' lack of a deeply integrated Finder, I've always wanted a file manager that could be extended and enhanced through automation and other apps. With an improved set of URL commands and various optimizations for usage in Workflow, DEVONthink To Go can now be that kind of file manager. I made my decision: this is the app I'm going to use to manage the research content for my iOS 11 review this summer.
The automation features introduced by DEVONtechnologies in the latest DEVONthink for iOS go deep into the app's structure, covering discrete functionalities such as file creation, search, and data retrieval. These changes will enable a greater number of users to integrate DEVONthink with their favorite iPad apps and workflows. And while the new commands are documented in the app, I thought it'd be useful to provide some concrete examples of how we can take DEVONthink to the next level through automation.