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.