Observations from a new Mac user

So, a few weeks ago, I bought my first Mac. It’s a 13″ retina MacBook Pro, and it is without a doubt the finest computer I’ve ever owned. But, given that I’m coming from the Windows world — with diversions to Chrome OS and Linux — a lot of things required just a bit of adjustment. Not nearly as much as I’d feared, though. So here are a few things I’ve noticed about switching to the Mac.

  • Retina matters. OMG the screen on this thing. This is the first laptop I’ve ever seen where I can’t see the screen door effect between the pixels. While I’m running at the equivalent zoom of 1280×800 on this 13″ screen, the text and icons are so crisp and clean that it makes going back to my iPad 2 feel like sandpaper on my eyes. I can see replacing the iPad and my iPhone 5S entirely with a larger iPhone 6 and just using that and my MacBook Pro going forward.
  • Thin and light. Speaking of which, the 13″ MacBook Pro is only 8 ounces heavier than the 13″ MacBook Air. And with the all day battery life in Mavericks/Yosemite, I can see taking this laptop with me almost everywhere. And the SSD is not only blisteringly fast, but the no-moving-parts thing means I can tote this around with impunity.
  • See above. Those two factors fundamentally change the way I approach personal computing. With this screen, light weight and no worries about battery life, this is the first laptop that I’ve felt can really be my primary computing device, a role previously filled by smartphones. For the first time I understand people like @ismh for whom the iPhone is a peripheral device secondary to their Mac.
  • ⌘Q is your friend. The biggest problem I’ve had adjusting to the Mac is getting that closing a window doesn’t necessarily close the app. Sometimes it does (Reminders, Calibre) and sometimes it doesn’t (Safari, iTunes), allowing the main app to keep running in the background with no visible windows. I’m having to get int the habit of closing apps with ⌘Q instead of clicking on the red X with my mouse.
  • Yosemite makes more sense to Windows users. The behavior of the green “traffic light” control in Mavericks baffled me. As I understand it, it toggled between the standard, developer-selected window size for a window and the user-selected size, which was often but not always maximized to take up as much of the screen as possible without overlapping the Menu Bar or Dock. That’s a little wishy-washy. In Yosemite, it toggles between full-screen view and windowed, which is not only more consistent, but is also closer to the maximize behavior from Windows, Linux and Chrome OS. And on a 13” screen, a find a lot of benefits to running big applications like Evernote and Omnifocus in full screen.
  • The Menu Bar is a great idea. I wasn’t sure how I’d like having a constantly mutating single menu bar at the top of the screen rather than each window having its own. #Turnsout this does work better, mostly because of Fitts’ Law. That, and the consistency Apple enforces in where certain universal menu items are going to be. “File, Edit, View” is always going to be “File, Edit, View.”
  • Apps are expensive, unless they’re not. A lot of the apps I use on my Mac are the same apps I used on my Windows laptop: Evernote, iTunes, Kindle, Calibre, Lord of the Rings Online, etc. And most of these are free. But when apps do cost money on the Mac, they’re often significantly more expensive than their Windows counterparts. Omnifocus was $40, and I still can’t create custom perspectives (that’s another $40 in-app purchase). Pixelmator was $30, but that’s still a hell of a lot cheaper than Photoshop. Tweetbot for Mac is $20, and doesn’t support many of the features found in the much cheaper iPhone version. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not opposed to paying for software I find useful or entertaining. And for-pay Mac software is wonderfully free of the nagware you often find in free Windows programs. But it’s an adjustment.
  • You need less software. Something else to consider is that you typically need less software on a Mac beyond what Apple gives you. I get Pages, Numbers and Keynote out of the box. Yes, I bought Scrivener for $45, but I could have used Pages if I wanted to. I’m still on the fence about Omnifocus versus iCloud reminders and Fantastical. And system utilities are much more rare. The only must-have icons in my Menu Bar are Evernote, BetterSnap Tool (which gives me Aero-like half and half tiling of app windows) and 1Password. Right now I have Alfred and Dropbox as well, but those will go away by the time Yosemite ships, replaced by Spotlight and iCloud Drive.
  • The stock apps are very good. In Mavericks, and even more in Yosemite, the stock Apple apps are pretty awesome if you’re already “all in” with Apple. Mail.app works great for me, but I’m using iCloud mail, not Gmail. Same for iCal, Reminders, Messages and Safari. In fact, I’ve found with the Reading List and synced tabs between my Mac and iOS devices, I don’t need Pocket or Pinboard anymore at all.
  • It just works. I know that’s a cliché, and sometimes it doesn’t just work. But most of the time, yeah, it does. There are so many little details, tiny touches in OS X that just work better than doing the same thing in Windows. Clicking ⌥Notification Center toggles Do Not Disturb. You can get to any special character right from the Edit menu in any app, or by typing ⌃⌘Space. And don’t get me started on Services, which are much better than monkeying with the “Send To” menu in Windows.

So far, enjoying the heck out of being a Mac owner, and I’m just getting started. Further updates as events warrant.

Stop the ecosystem, I want to get off

Ecosystems are starting to bug me.

I’m losing track of which of my stuff is where. Remember when apps were apps, and not cogs in some greater ecosystem? When all your data could be in one place? It was nice, wasn’t it? I miss that.

Today, my digital stuff is scattered all over the place. I have some movies and TV in Amazon’s cloud, and others in Apple’s. I have music collections with Apple, Google, Amazon, Rdio and Spotify, and have long lost track of what playlist I created where. I have all my ebooks and audiobooks on Amazon, except for the handful I have with Apple and the now woefully out of date un-DRMed backup in Calibre on Dropbox (or did I move that to Google Drive?). 

Speaking of which, my actual documents are an even bigger mess. I have blizzards of similar but slightly different collections in Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive and Evernote. When I actually need something, I have no idea where to look. Or if the version I find is current.

And it’s not like I can just pick one and stick with it. Thanks to the miracle of cloud storage, everyone wants to silo my data, segregating it where they can control it. My artwork lives in Adobe’s Creative Cloud (unless I didn’t create it in Photoshop). My Word documents have to be on OneDrive, or I can’t edit them on my iPad or my Chromebook (neither the web nor iOS Office apps support keeping your files in Dropbox).

This makes the file format confusion of two decades ago look quaint by comparison. At least .doc files and .jpg files could live in the same folder if they were related to the same project. Now not only are things tied to the app that created them, but they’re physically segregated to the apps, or ecosystems, that own them. Because under this model, you the user damn sure don’t own them. 

Don’t get me wrong. I get a lot more done now with my iPhone than I did 20 years ago with a DayTimer. But I miss knowing where my data was. 

My iPhone 5S is the most powerful computer I own

This kind of threw me for a loop. My A7-powered iPhone is the strongest, fastest computer currently in my possession. It not only easily outclasses my two A5-based iPads (an iPad 2 and first-gen mini), but it’s also more powerful than my Acer Chromebook or Windows laptop based on a 3-year-old AMD E-350 APU.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the decline of the iPad and tablets generally, that they’re not selling the way they used to. While I think this is mostly overblown, I will confess that I do a lot more with my phone than I do my tablets. Not only is the phone always with me, but thanks to the A7 it’s powerful enough to handle a lot of tasks I used to require a PC for, like photo editing (not painting, which still needs a bigger screen, but I don’t know how much bigger; I’d love to try Procreate on a 5.5″ iPhone).

For all intents and purposes, my iPhone is my “primary” computer. The iPads rarely leave the house, and the Chromebook is mostly used as an RDP terminal to remote into my always-powered and headless Windows laptop. They’re all special use computers, though. For most of my work, my iPhone is not only the right tool for the job, it’s the most powerful tool I have.

Do one thing well

It’s one of the fundamental adages of Unix programming. It’s better to do one thing well than many things badly. This is why traditional Unix programs tend to be small and focused on single tasks and get chained together into workflows. Awk does the pattern recognition, but Sed actually changes the text file.

While iOS is Unix under the hood, iOS apps are considerably more complex. But, it occurred to me, they don’t have to be  too complex. So I started looking at my phone (and tablet) to see where I was using apps that were a dessert topping and a floor wax but weren’t terribly good at either.

The biggest culprit was Evernote. I was using Evernote to do almost everything. It was my archival storage, journal, word processor, task list, shopping list, etc. I’ve been told to beware of “everything buckets” because they’re typically one-way black holes that data goes into and is never seen again. I can attest that this is true. Despite my best intentions, stuff I put into Evernote effectively disappeared until I searched specifically for it. It’s good for reference, but not skimming. 

So I decided to break out what I was using Evernote for into discrete applications that were specialists at what I wanted to do. 

Day One is my new journal and it works so much better. Journaling in Evernote was a chore I rarely got around to. Journaling in Day One is fun, and it’s easy to scan back over recent history to jog my memory.

Simplenote is my new notes app. When I need to jot something down or look something up, it’s just faster because it’s all plain text. No notebooks, less than a dozen tags. 

Dropbox is my filesystem. This was a close duel between Dropbox and Google Drive. Drive offers 10x the storage for the same price, and Google doesn’t have torture-proponent Condi Rice on their board of directors. But, ultimately I had to be practical. The apps I want to use support Dropbox and very few of them support Drive. If this should change, I may revist this. 

I update my blogs in Squarespace Blog. There’s no point in writing them somewhere else and copy/pasting them over. I just store half-finished work on Squarespace as unpublished drafts and edit them over time.

I keep bookmarks and read-later content in Pinboard, using Pinner on iOS. I decided on Pinboard because I was getting out of Evernote and Pocket isn’t really an archival/bookmarking service. Also, I really appreciate that Pinboard, unlike Pocket, has a discernable business model. I’m more than willing to pay for services I use if that keeps them around. 

I write fiction in Storyist. This was updated for iOS 7 recently and most of my complaints are no longer valid. Because it’s designed specifically for writing screenplays and manuscripts, it’s got all the features I couldn’t find in Pages, Word or Google Docs, and none of the cruft I don’t need. When the time comes to work with my editor, I can export from Storyist to Google Drive, but for drafting I’ll stick to a specialist app. (and yes, I’ll consider Scrivener if/when the iOS version ever comes out) 

I’ve also gone back to basics for a lot of functions where I used to use third party apps. I’ve gone back to Messages instead of third party messaging clients, the iOS Mail app instead of Gmail, Music and iTunes Radio instead of Spotify or Rdio, Safari instead of Chrome. I’m using Fantastical instead of the native Calendar and Reminders apps because there is a value to seeing my tasks and events on the same screen, but I’m not married to the idea. I’ve also ditched all my RSS readers and just read a “News” list on Twitter in Tweetbot with the same sources. 

How can you simplify your workflows? 

Not sure if want

We’ve seen a lot of cool stuff from Microsoft recently, first with the iPad Office announcement and then with the BUILD conference. New CEO Satya Nadella comes from Microsoft’s cloud division, and with him in charge and Ballmer gone, Microsoft looks like they might be serious about going from “a PC on every desk” to “Microsoft services on every device,” no matter who makes that device or what OS it runs.

So I started wondering. Could I be happy with Apple hardware, Apple media (aside from Kindle, because really, Apple, iBooks is embarrassing) and Microsoft services? I decided to find out.

Yesterday I signed up for a free month of Microsoft’s Office 365. This gives me the ability to edit data on documents in my Microsoft OneDrive via the iPhone, iPad and the web on my Chromebook. I have calendars, contacts, email and tasks via Outlook.com, and the tasks sync to my iOS devices, something Google Tasks doesn’t do.

So. How is it?

Meh.

The first thing I noticed is that Microsoft’s apps are maddeningly inconsistent. The iPhone version of Office (it’s not split into separate apps like the iPad’s Word, Excel and Powerpoint) has a nifty feature for viewing the “outline” of a document and jumping back and forth via headers. This is hella useful on a small screen and just the thing novelists need to quickly get to a particular chapter.

Word for iPad doesn’t do this. Neither does Word Online. So for the platforms where I’d be more likely to edit my manuscript, I’m stuck scrolling through an 80,000 word document. If I want to be able to jump around the document and type comfortably, I need to use the Windows or Mac versions of Word (which I can have on up to five computers).

But okay, maybe I can work around that. What about styles? As both an author-publisher myself and in my business formatting ebooks for others, styles are a must for formatting. Manually applying font styles or adding a discreet page break before chapter headings is something savages do.

The iPhone version doesn’t support styles at all. You can make text bold, italics or underlined, and you can change the text and background colors. But that’s it. The iPad version and the web version do support applying styles. And in opening a .docx file saved from Google Drive in Word Online, I found that the styles I actually wanted weren’t in the style chooser, crowded out instead by loser styles like “Heading 7″ and “Intense Emphasis.” Seriously, who uses those? And oddly, there was no way to change this.

The iPad and web versions of Word don’t allow you to alter or remove styles in any way. The only way to get back to my beloved “Heading 1,” “Heading 2″ and “Normal” was to — stop me if you’ve heard this one — open the file in Word for Windows and edit the styles there. Once I’d done that, the styles I wanted showed up just fine in Word for iPad and Word Online.

So currently, I’m still testing, but I have the sinking feeling that the New Microsoft is still more an idea than reality. Too often I’m sent running back to Windows to do any “real” work. I’m not saying the non-Windows versions of Word are afterthoughts, but they’re certainly not equal citizens, either. 

Next up: Microsoft’s OneNote vs Evernote.

Still thrashing about looking for the perfect ecosystem

I’ve come to realize that despite my honeymoon giddiness with the Chromebook, I’m still going to be buying a MacBook Pro as soon as I can afford one (next year? WHEN APES RULE THE EARTH?). As such, my insistence on “Apple hardware, Google productivity and Amazon media” probably needn’t be that strict, especially where it doesn’t, you know, work.

For example, iTunes Radio really is my best streaming audio play. On my iOS devices, it’s cheap (at $25/yr, it was cheaper than commercial-free Pandora even before they jacked up their rates, and minuscule compared to $120/yr for Rdio or Spotify), reliable and pretty good at finding stuff I want to hear. It doesn’t work on the Chromebook, but how often do I need to listen to music on the Chromebook and I don’t have my phone or iPad nearby?

And of course, if I’m going to listen to iTunes Radio, it follows at I should organize and purchase music via iTunes as well. Again, it works just as well as Amazon Cloud Player, but has the added benefit of being able to purchase music on the go.

Similar arguments could be made for iTunes as my store for movies and TV over Amazon Instant Video. The prices are about the same, the for-sale catalogs are about the same, but it’s much less of a pain in the ass to actually buy new stuff on the devices I’m typically using. The only advantages for Amazon are that I can buy and view on my Chromebook, and view on my Roku. But the Roku is due to be replaced, and I could easily replace it with an Apple TV instead of a Roku 3. I’d lose Amazon Instant Video but gain iTunes video. As for watching video on the Chromebook, there’s always Netflix. And I would be able to watch iTunes video on the MBP.

So the big question is how committed am I to Apple hardware? I think I got the answer to that when I looked into doing a Verizon EDGE upgrade to an HTC One M8. As soon as the Verizon rep told me I’d have to give up my iPhone 5S, I almost physically pulled back. The phrase “recoiled in horror” is thrown around a lot these days, but…

So. The Chromebook is a nice and affordable stopgap until I can buy a 13″ retina MacBook Pro, and a backup or spare laptop after. I won’t be moving to Android anytime soon (and it’s worth noting that Amazon Instant Video isn’t available for Android either) and as a result, Apple makes more sense than Amazon for media.

Except.

I’m sticking with Amazon for books, Kindle and Audible. Whispersync Voice is too useful. But there are really no downsides to picking that over iBooks. I’m not missing out on any integrations other than Flipboard.

Okay, so with that exception, I’m using Apple instead of Amazon. But what about Google?

The problem here comes down to tasks. Currently, I’m using Todoist, but it feels heavy. Not as heavy as Omnifocus, but close. I have an inherent contradiction when it comes to task management. I want something that can handle the complexity of nested projects and tasks, contexts and start dates when I’m planning. But anything that can do all that is going to feel too unwieldy for capture and doing, so after I get all my stuff into it, I tend not to look at it and stuff doesn’t get done.

So I’m considering going with the simpler alternatives built into Google and iCloud. But which one? The obvious answer is Google. There are good Google tasks clients for iOS, not the least of which Pocket Informant. Google tasks seems to support nested tasks to an arbitrary level, at least on the web, and it integrates with Gmail and Google Calendar.

But.

Google Tasks doesn’t support repeating tasks, and a lot of the tasks I have are for things I have to do periodically. Now, I could argue that I don’t really need tasks cluttering up my tasklist for things like laundry, trimming my fingernails and getting a haircut. When those things need to be done, I’m going to notice without having to check my list. So maybe I can do without those and just use Google Tasks to remind me of things I need to be reminded of.

The other problem with Google Tasks is that it hasn’t been updated in years, and a lot of the functionality of it seems to be duplicated in Google Keep. Just as Hangouts seems to be about to replace Voice, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tasks is discontinued soon. This would be unfortunate, as Keep doesn’t work very well on iOS.

So what about iCloud? Here I’d have simple lists that support both repeats and location geofencing. And iCloud Reminders would actually make a fine GTD system if patterned on the original paper list concept of GTD. One Inbox list, one Projects list, one Someday/Maybe list and however many context lists I need. Only, if I use that, wouldn’t I be better off moving my calendar, contacts and mail to iCloud too?

For calendar and contacts, that’s not so bad. But mail is a problem. Mostly, that iCloud doesn’t allow me to send email from jeff@kirv.in. I don’t want to start using my @me.com address for everything.

So the question here is do I need to have everything productivity-related under one roof? Contacts and mail kind of need to stick together, and it’s nice to have calendar the same.

And then there’s the question of notes and documents. I’m digging Google Drive for my document storage, and there’s no problem with continuing that on the MBP. But it doesn’t work so great with iOS. The Google Drive app on mobile (iOS and Android) is ridiculous, and certainly not viable for quick notes.

Evernote is also heavier than I’d like, but it does work pretty well across platforms. Simplenote is tempting, but the web version has issues with the Chromebook.

So I’m torn between Google and Apple for PIM/email data, and no idea what to do about notes at all. Although with Drafts adding support for Google Drive, I suppose I could just create documents there called “[[topic]] Notes” and append notes to them as needed.

I think I’m going to try sticking with Google for all my data (as opposed to media), keep Google Tasks as flat as I can and see how things go.

My life with a Chromebook

I needed a laptop.

This was tough for me to accept. I’ve been pretty insistent recently that I could do everything I needed to do with just my iOS devices. I mean, that’s a big part of what Writing On Your Palm is all about. But now that Kathleen and I have launched Taledancer, I knew I needed more than I could really do on iOS. Particularly, I needed the ability to use Google Drive with something approaching a real keyboard. And while the iOS version of Drive is better than it used to be, that’s not saying much. It still can’t do word count, for crying out loud. I’ve also come to realize that while the iOS Squarespace apps are fine for writing blog posts, they can’t manage pages or do other site management. I needed something that would let me use full web apps with no compromises.

And unfortunately, I’m moving later this year and changing jobs next month, so shelling out $1,500 for a shiny new 13″ retina MacBook Pro was also out of the question. I still plan to buy one of these eventually, but probably not until next year. And I needed something now.

Of course, I could have gone back to my Lenovo G575, a netbook APU with a 15″ screen and less than an hour of battery life, and over six pounds to lug around with the AC adapter. Running Windows. Uh, no. I get paid to be frustrated by Windows in order to fight for the users in my day job, but I’m certainly not doing it on my own time.

Since the only thing I was using on the Lenovo was Chrome, I started wondering, “why not Chrome OS?” I’d had a Google Cr-48 back in 2010 when they first sent them out to early adopters and other test-minded people. It was an interesting machine that I eventually bricked trying to reflash the BIOS to run Linux. As you might surmise, Chrome OS wasn’t really powerful enough then to meet my needs. But hey, it’s four years later. Maybe things are different now.

I did some research on Amazon, discovered the Acer c720 that my friend James Kendrick speaks so highly of is generally well-reviewed and decided to swing by Best Buy on the way home to take a look at one in person, maybe even buy it there if the price difference wasn’t too outrageous rather than waiting nearly a week for Amazon to send it to me.

First Impressions

Looking at the display model, it was way smaller and lighter than I’d expected. It’s half the weight of my Windows laptop and not much bigger than my encased iPad 2. The screen is bright and crisp, though the matte-finish, TN display washes out quickly at any angle other than head on. This makes it less than ideal for watching Netflix in bed with my girlfriend, but fine for typing and web surfing. I have the iPad 2 or the iPad mini for video, anyway.

The keyboard seemed responsive and large enough for my ham-hands, something that became an issue over time with the ZAGGkeys Cover for the iPad mini (which, I might point out, cost half of what I paid for the Chromebook). Not backlit, which is disappointing considering the ZAGGkeys and my Logitech K810 are, but I’m a touch typist so it’s not necessary.

The touchpad is great in showing exactly how bad most Windows touchpad drivers are. It supports multitouch gestures like two-finger scrolling and I can even reverse the direction like they do on newer versions of OS/X so scrolling feels more like it does on a tablet — pull down and the window contents move down. It’s responsive and just not derpy like the trackpads on my HP and Lenovo laptops.

Initial Setup

Setting up a Chromebook is pretty simple. I connected to WiFi — it may be worth noting here that the c720 doesn’t have a wired Ethernet port — and signed into Google. That was it. It synced my extensions and bookmarks from my other Chrome installations and I was ready to go. It had some difficulty connecting to my home WiFi, but I attribute that more to my crappy WiFi router, which seems to take much longer to connect than most devices expect.

It’s also worth pointing out that if you use a complex, non-human-readable Google password and a password manager like 1Password, you’re going to have trouble with Chrome OS. You have to type your Google password quite a bit, at least on every bootup, and you’ll have to do reboot at least as often as Chrome OS updates itself. It didn’t take me long to decide that I don’t like manually typing it in one character at a time looking at 1Password on my phone. So, like my 1Password master password itself, my Google password is now an XKCD-style passphrase, something I can memorize and type in myself when needed. And while I kept the HTML version of 1Password open in its own window via Dropbox on my Chromebook, I couldn’t change passwords in it from the Chromebook or use the Chrome extension to add new ones.

Apps

Of course, every platform comes down to what you can do with it. My initial run with Chrome OS was cut short because I just couldn’t get the utility out of it that I needed to. Is it any better now? Yes, but.

Yes, the app situation is much better. Most of the apps and services I use daily are usable on Chrome OS. 

First off, the Google apps work great on Chrome OS, as you’d expect. I can even switch between Google profiles pretty easily, something I was worried about since I’m signed in to the Chromebook itself with my main Google account. And Google Drive integrates with the Chromebook down to the filesystem level. I can save stuff from the web and upload stuff to the web directly from Drive, so the 16GB of local flash storage is mostly cache. My real file system is my 115GB Google Drive.

Other things designed to be web apps also work great. ToDoist, my current pick for task manager, looks and works great either in a side-docked pane or drop down extension in the toolbar. Evernote works fine, though a bit clunkier than native variants. Feedly, Verizon Messages, Couple.me, Squarespace, Twitter… All fine.

But.

1Password got to be a pain in the ass very quickly. Even running the HTML version from my Dropbox was less than optimal, especially since it couldn’t offer to save or generate new passwords. I ended up switching to LastPass for my password management since it works cleanly and without compromise on both Chrome OS and iOS. This would become a pattern.

I’ve also mostly dropped Dropbox in favor of Google Drive. This is partly because of how seamlessly Drive works with Chrome OS, and partly because as I was getting my Chromebook set up, Google dropped the prices on Google Drive storage space. I’ve got 115GB for free for a year just as part of buying a Chromebook, but I’m seriously considering giving Google the $10/month I was paying Dropbox and instead of 100GB from Dropbox, getting 1TB from Google. That’s enough for me to store all my ripped DVDs and back up all my music if I decide I need something in addition to Amazon, Google and iTunes.

Basically, I’ve done an audit of what services I use for what activities, and settled on services that work on any platform. Google Drive instead of Dropbox. ToDoist instead of Omnifocus. LastPass instead of 1Password. Verizon Messages instead of iMessage.

You can see where this is going.

By keeping all my media with Amazon (books, audiobooks, TV, movies, music), all my productivity data with Google (mail, contacts, calendar, files) with a few cross-platform standalones where they fit (Evernote, Comixology, LastPass, Twitter, ToDoist), I’ve pretty much divorced myself from needing any particular hardware. The Chromebook does everything I need. So does my iPhone. And my iPad. So would a shiny new Moto X, but let’s not get into that right now.

Odds and Ends

It’s also worth noting that on the off chance the Chromebook doesn’t do something I need it to do — thinking mostly about ebook format conversion here, for which I need Calibre — Chrome OS has another trick up its sleeve. Chrome Remote Desktop. Through this, I can remote into my laptop at home or my laptop at work, hit the full screen key and it’s pretty much like I’ve got a Windows laptop. I wouldn’t watch video over it, but it’s fine for my occasional needs.

Battery life has been impressive, and it charges quick. Because this is running a full Haswell processor, it can’t do the microUSB use-the-same-charger-as-your-tablet trick that the new HP Chromebook can do, but the upside is that the full PC-style charging brick works fast. I’m getting between 5-8 hours on a charge, more than enough for a typical outing, and it recharges back to full in an hour or so. If I’m using it all day, I usually have to plug it in in early afternoon, but then it’s good for the rest of the day.

Conclusion

I’m far more impressed with the Chromebook that I expected. This is not only adequate for my needs, but it feels like the right computer for me. Small and light, cloud-aware, as simple as possible, but no simpler. The more I use it, the more I want to, and I’m rethinking whether I need a “real” laptop at all now. Time will tell if online tools like Pixlr will be able to do the kind of graphics work I need, but if I end up doing all that on an iPad Air and everything else on the Chromebook, I think I’ll be pretty happy.

Introducing Taledancer

I’m proud to announce Taledancer, my new business for providing author-publishers everything they need to get from manuscript to published ebook.

One of the common complaints I see from new author-publishers is that they don’t want to learn all the skills necessary to be a publisher. They just want to write. The problem is that as many happily traditionally published authors will tell you, a publisher provides a lot of services apart from the actual writing that are necessary to produce a book. They design an eye-catching cover. They work with the author to edit and shape the manuscript into a novel. They proofread and typeset that novel. These are professional skills that not every author wants to learn.

Taledancer aims to provide those services for authors that just want to write. Come to us with a manuscript, and we’ll work with you to edit it, design the cover, format the ebook and post it to various online stores. We offer individual services and discounted bundles, so we can do as much or as little as you need. And in the coming months, we’ll also be offering new services like covers with completely original commissioned artwork and print book layout for CreateSpace or Lulu.

So if you’re an indie writer who wants to sidestep the technical stuff, or a midlist traditional writer looking for an easy way to get some backlist novels posted now that you have the rights back, drop by and take a look at what we can do for you.

Taledancer.com

Just write. We’ll do the rest.

ZAGGkeys Cover for the iPad Mini

Originally posted on my WordPress blog on December 7, 2013.

I’m really digging the iPad Mini. Like I said before, I think this is the ultimate writing machine. All the power of a full size iPad, but more portable. So it’s perhaps not a surprise that it didn’t take me long to try to turn it into a laptop.

I swung by the Apple Store and took a look at their keyboard offerings for the iPad Mini. I’m still pretty happy with Kate — my Logitech K810 — overall, but I was looking for something even more portable. Something that wouldn’t require a bag to carry. The only thing Apple carries in their stores like this is the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard for the Mini, and it didn’t impress me. It’s plastic, requires disconnecting it from the magnetic Smartcover-like hinge before sticking it in a slot with only one viewing angle to type, and because they needed room for the slot, the keys were cramped. I shrugged and went home. On the up side, I got in and out of the Apple Store without spending any money, which is rare.

Then as I was catching up on Amplified on the mighty 5by5 podcast network, Jim Dalrymple mentioned the ZAGGkeys Cover for the Mini. It seemed to solve a lot of the issues I had with the Logitech keyboard, and he picked up his in FutureShop, the Canadian version of Best Buy. So I thought it might be worth swinging by my local Best Buy to take a look at one in person. Before I went, I downloaded the Best Buy app and verified that they had some in stock. Remember when you had to just get in the car and go look? #likeananimal

For the most part, I’m very impressed. The keyboard is a smaller, improved version of the ZAGGkeys cover I had for my iPad 4. The big difference in this version is that it holds the iPad Mini by the edge in a rotating hinge like a laptop screen. Especially on a keyboard the size of the iPad Mini, this allows the keyboard to be much closer to normal size. Basically, it’s no worse than a netbook keyboard, and thankfully doesn’t try to cram the up arrow inside the right shift key, a common size hack a lot of portable Bluetooth keyboards used to use which made touch typing impossible for me, as every time I tried to capitalize a letter on the left side of the keyboard, I’d find myself typing in the middle of a word on the previous line.

Which isn’t to say this keyboard is without compromises. The 1, ;, ‘, and [ keys are half-width, and the apostrophe key in particular is causing me some trouble as I tend to overreach and hit enter when I mean to type a contraction or possessive. Tab is also moved down to share a key with Caps Lock, and dash, underscore, equal and plus are all bunched on a single key requiring the Fn key to get to the latter two. But all in all, I’m not having too much trouble getting adjusted to it. The key action and travel are up to ZAGG’s usual high standards, and the keyboard is backlit with 3 brightness settings and a variety of colors. I tend to leave it on white considering it’s a white and silver keyboard mated with a white and silver iPad.

There’s a row of special keys across the top, since this keyboard has the vertical space for them. The usual media control keys, copy and paste — but oddly, not cut — and keys for home, lock, dictation/Siri and showing/dismissing the on screen keyboard for more esoteric characters. There’s also a “world” icon on the Command key that when paired with the Fn key, gives you access to other language on screen keyboards. I pretty much just use this for emoji, but it’s nice to have.

When closed, the keyboard matches the iPad perfectly and really does make it look like the world’s thinnest netbook. The keyboard is about a millimeter thinner than the original iPad Mini fits snugly. The extra weight is noticeable, but is definitely preferable to carrying a separate, detached device like the K810. As I tend to leave the full size iPad at home as a media device, this means when I leave the apartment I’m generally only carrying the iPhone, the iPad/keyboard and maybe my Anker battery pack for recharging them both if I expect to be really busy or away for the whole day.

I’m also finding myself keeping the keyboard attached when holding the iPad in portrait orientation for reading, using the keyboard as the left half a hardcover book. The whole kit is surprisingly comfortable to hold this way.

I really only have one quibble. The hinge holds the iPad by friction, not magnets, and I noticed a hairline fracture in the plastic on the outside edge. I was going to exchange it at Best Buy, but when I got there I took a look at two of the other devices on the shelf. Each had a similar fracture in the same place, and one had two. So it looks like it’s a very minor design flaw that I’m just going to have to live with. So far it hasn’t been a problem, but it’s something I’m going to watch out for.

I’ll also note that because the keyboard holds on to the iPad by friction and has a pretty tight grip, I’ve heard it doesn’t work so well with the just fractionally thicker retina Mini. But if you have a first generation iPad Mini and you’re looking for a quick and portable way to get some real writing done with it, I heartily recommend the ZAGGkeys Cover.

The Prompt and why I can’t use OmniFocus

On this week’s “The Prompt” on the mighty 5by5 podcast network, Federico Viticci and Mike Hurley discussed using URL schemes to make and use advanced workflows in iOS. It’s a great discussion, but what really got me thinking was Ticci pointing out that while Apple talks a big game about this being the “post-PC” era, they don’t really give a lot of visibility to people who really use an iOS device as their primary, even sole, computer.

I’ve been running into the same mindset with OmniGroup, a developer who has been making OS/X apps since OS/X was NeXTstep. They make a GTD-oriented task management app, OmniFocus, that’s widely considered to be the bee’s knees by all the productivity gurus.

The problem, though, is that while the iOS versions of OmniFocus are priced as premium iOS apps (I’ve paid $20 for the 1.x verison for iPhone, another $20 for the 2.x version for iPhone and $40 for the iPad version), they are missing crucial features (namely, the ability to create saved searches, or “perspectives”, something the iOS version of Evernote has done perfectly well for years) that you only get if you also have the Mac version (which I believe costs $80).

This isn’t about money, or at least not directly. I don’t have a problem paying for a tool I get a lot of use out of. But it seems to me that, like Apple, OmniGroup talks a big game about iOS but doesn’t really mean it. They’ve been coding for OS/X so long, they just assume you use a Mac. And their iOS apps are crippled because of that assumption.

As it turns out, I don’t use a Mac. And I have no intention of buying one just to run OmniFocus. I’ve already spent $80 on OmniFocus and I’m staring down another $40 when the iOS 7 redesign for iPad comes out. And for my $120, I get a watered down solution that doesn’t really work as advertised. Hell, you have to have the iPad version just to do a proper GTD weekly review; the iPhone version lacks that feature. And neither allow you to create perspectives, meaning switching “head spaces” is an arduous process where you have to set your view settings all over again every time you move on to something else.

I’ve asked OmniGroup about this and generally gotten the brush-off. They have no intention of fixing this feature gap between the same product on different platforms, and they tend to seem baffled as to why I don’t just use the Mac version.

And for as much as OmniFocus does well, so much better than the competition, I think I have to accept that they don’t write software for me, or others like me. They make iOS software, but they don’t really understand post-PC computing. I don’t want a Mac. I want to use my iPhone, or iPad, whichever seems better for the job at hand, without compromises if I choose the smaller, more portable screen.

Are developers out there listening?