The State of the Apps & Tools: 2018

Photo by Nikita Vantorin on Unsplash

A craftsman has a paradoxical relationship with his or her tools. On the one hand, tools are the primary conduit through which their skill and passion are made manifest in the world. From this perspective, tools are incredibly important and the careful consideration of them makes perfect sense. On the other hand, a true craftsman knows that their skill and ability isn’t contingent upon the quality of their tools. They know they can take supbar tools and still create beautiful work.

All of this is to say that I think about the tools and apps I use to do my work a lot. I use the former perspective when I’m trying to feel okay about trying my third email app in three months and the latter perspective when I need to berate myself to focus on what actually matters (i.e. my actual work).

To indulge my “tools are important!” side for a little bit I thought I’d write a summary of the key pieces of software and hardware I’m using as I go into 2018. It’s always interesting to see what stays the same from year-to-year and when I’m successful in introducing a new tool that actually sticks around for the long haul.

So, let’s get to it.

Hardware

MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, Early 2015, 8 GB RAM, 250 GB storage)

This computer is entering what is probably going to be it’s last year of service. In the fall I’ll start looking for a replacement as this one will have reached the three-year mark. All-in-all, I love this computer. I’ve had a few of the well documented keyboard problems earlier in the year but am currently riding a nine month wave of keyboard bliss (knock on wood). It’s getting a little long in the tooth when it comes to anything computationally challenging at all but I’m either becoming more patient in my old age or its pokeyness just feels normal now. When it’s time to upgrade I’ll have to decide whether I want to keep rocking the lightweight MacBook or go with something a little bit more powerful. I think it’ll partly depend what my reliance on iOS/iPad is at that time.

iPad Pro 12.9" (first generation, Wi-Fi & Cellular, 256 GB) with Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard

I went through long swaths of 2017 using this as my primary computing device. If the Google suite of apps weren’t unecessarily neutered (why are the advanced sharing settings different on iOS?!) I’d be able to use it almost 100% of the time. Whenever I use my iPad exclusively for a long period of time I start to feel like I’m living in the future. However, every time I come back to using my MacBook I feel like I can work smoother and quicker. Basically, I shift back and forth between using my iPad and my MacBook as my primary device on a pretty regular basis. The Apple Pencil is great and some of the best client reactions I’ve gotten in awhile were in response to the hand drawn slides I pulled together and the real time drawing/note-taking done during a meeting while connected to a projector.

Unfortunately, this iPad is currently having some issues that prevent it from staying reliably connected to its Smart Keyboard. I’ve taken it to an Apple Store and swapped out the keyboard several times, all to no avail. So, if I want to keep running this iPad experiment I think I’m going to have to make a new purchase fairly soon. I’m thinking about downgrading to the smaller Pro size as 12.9“ has felt slightly unwieldly at times. I think the 10.9” might be perfect.

iPhone 7 Plus (256 GB)

In many ways, my phone is the cornerstone of my work and personal life. I really enjoy the Plus size and have been impressed with its overall resilience. I like to use my iPhones without a case (or more specifically, I consider Apple Care+ my case) and so far I’ve only needed to seek assistance with a cracked screen once over the nearly 2 years I’ve owned this phone. I think I’m going to skip this most recent generation of iPhones and take a hard look at what’s released this fall with an upgrade likely to happen around then.

Apple Watch (first generation)

I love my Apple Watch. I use it all the time, including while I sleep. It makes me a more active person and while it may feed my unhealthy connection to notifications, I do feel like it adds more value to my life than it does detract. I’m very anxious to update to one of the newer models (not sure if I’ll get the LTE version or not) since I’m still rocking one of the original slow ones. Considering how much I like this version I’m a little afraid of how much I might like one with better battery life and quicker response times.

Kindle Paperwhite

The minimalist in me likes to do all his reading in iBooks on my phone or iPad. The reader in me likes my Paperwhite. I’ve decided to lean back into my “use the best tool for the job” mentality and that means my Kindle has re-entered my life with a vengeance.

Software

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I have two primary “modes” that I seem to alternate between every couple weeks. One mode I already mentioned above — the “use the best tool for the job” mode. When I’m in this mentality it means I’m using primarily third party apps (often extensively customized to meet my preferences). I probably spend about 70% of my time in this mode.

My other mode is what I call “default” mode. When I’m in this mentality I’m all about keeping my needs as simple and minimal as possible. I’ll use the default apps and settings and try to minimize my reliance on third party apps or fancy workflows of any kind. I’ll often find myself switching to this mode when everything feels overwhelming and I feel the need to get back to basics. I probably spend about 30% of my time in this mode.

I used to berate myself for switching between modes because there’s always some switching costs in doing so. In some ways, it can become a distraction and a crutch (often it’s a sign that I’m avoiding real work) but I’ve decided to become a little bit kinder toward myself. I think having these two modes helps me stay fresh and aware of both a.) what my actual needs are and b.) new developments that might make my work better or easier to do. Therefore, in the section below I’m going to share both categories of apps when appropriate (Default Mode first, then Best Tool for the Job Mode second).

Web Browsing (Safari)

I use Safari everywhere because I’ve never been annoyed enough by it to seek out something else. I like the design and I like that it seems to sip battery power across all my devices as compared to Chrome. I keep Chrome around for emergencies but it never feels as good to use as Safari so I rarely let it come out to play. I’m thinking I may give it another whirl, especially when I’m in Best Tool for the Job Mode but for now I’m a Safari man across macOS and iOS.

Email (Apple Mail/Airmail)

Airmail has lots of great preferences that allow me to really craft an email experience that works with my productivity workflows and the way my brain works. I like being able to kick emails over to Things extremely easily — something Apple Mail doesn’t make as easy. I also appreciate that Airmail has versions for iPhone, iPad, and my MacBook that all look and work about the same.

Maps (Apple Maps/Google Maps)

I want to use Apple Maps more and more, but articles like this make it tough to not use Google Maps. I do think Apple Maps has gotten significantly better since iOS 11 (the turn-by-turn driving directions especially) but it’s hard to beat how much more information is easily reached via Google Maps.

Notes (Apple Notes/Bear)

Gosh, I love Bear. I’m not 100% sure why, either. I’m not a huge fan of tagging systems (I tend to prefer folders-based systems) and I don’t even really use Bear’s all that much but for whatever reason I happily pay for a yearly subscription to this app. I think it’s just really well designed and incredibly stable. As with all my key software, it has great versions for all my devices, too.

Music (Apple Music/Spotify)

Last year I spent most of my time in the Apple Music ecosystem before switching back to Spotify in the last few months of the year. I like the design of Apple Music better but I can’t deny that Spotify’s recommendations are much, much better. This year I’m going to try to stay as completely within Spotify as possible so my end-of-year report is actually accurate (what can I say, I’m a sucker for automatically generated year-in-review reports).

Twitter (Official Twitter app/Tweetbot)

Every time I get all excited to use default apps I’m always really excited and motivated until I get to Twitter. God I hate the algorithmic timeline that the default app pushes on you. It fundamentally changes how I view and use Twitter (for the worse). I can’t help but think that there will come a day when this is the only option I have for Twitter but until then you’ll find me using Tweetbot (and more or less being a timeline completionist) the vast majority of the time.

Calendars (Apple Calendar/Fantastical)

Nothing beats Fantastical when it comes to easily adding events with natural language. On the other hand, the default Calendar app has some nice integration with Siri (pulling information out of my email and other apps) and features like Travel Time that I find myself longing for when I use Fantastical for too long.

Task Management (Things)

There is no default app that replaces Things. I’ve tried using Reminders as a simple task management system but I always seem to come back to Things within a few days. Things drives nearly all of my productivity and it’s in the place of honor (far right position in the dock) on all my devices.

Shared Lists (Apple Reminders/AnyList)

Until recently I used Reminders for all shared lists but on the advice of The Sweet Setup I decided to give AnyList a try. So far, I like it quite a bit and it has taken over the shared list job in my life.

Longform Writing (Apple Notes/Byword)

I debated whether this was still a category worth having as Bear has seemed to cannibalize a lot of the writing that I used to do in Byword. However, considering I’m writing this article in Byword right now I figured it was worth keeping, for now. I like that I can publish to my Medium account directly from the app and I think that’s what has helped keep it around instead of just using Bear for all writing. When I’m in Default Mode, Apple Notes becomes the place where I do all writing, including longform.

Other Software I Use A Lot (Slack, Trello, MindNode, Day One, Reeder, Deliveries, Dark Sky, Instapaper, Apple Files, AutoSleep, Moment, Exist.io, Keynote, Google Docs, Insight Timer)

MindNode, Day One, Dark Sky and Instapaper have all been in active use for years. I’ve tried alternatives in most of those categories but always come back to these apps. I’ve gone pretty deep into the iCloud Drive world, hence the use of Files. In fact, I don’t even have Dropbox on any of my devices anymore.

A Word on Notifications and Other General Setttings

  • Do Not Disturb: I have DND set to turn on from 10:00 PM to 7:00 AM on all my devices. I would love, love, love Apple to introduce DND by app at some point in the future. For example, being able to set all my communication-centric notifications to start appearing around lunch time while allowing utility-centric or system-centric notifications to appear earlier.
  • Notifications, in general: Like with my software preferences, I seem to have two modes when it comes to notifications on all my devices. When I’m deep under the influence of Deep Work and Flow and feeling like I need to focus intently, I’ll adopt a notification strategy where I basically eliminate all of them. At other times, I like keeping all my notifications on because it helps me feel connected to the rest of the world. With as much travel as I’ve been doing and with the fact that my family and my girlfriend all lived far, far away I tended to keep notifications on. However, even in this mode I will feel no compunction about manually flipping on Do Not Disturb when I need to sit down and really focus on something (like writing this article, for example).
  • “Military time”/24 hour time: I use a 24 hour clock on all my devices because I think it’s simpler than the AM/PM system. There’s never any ambiguity and I appreciate the simplicity.
  • Tap to click: I’m all about settings that allow me to make things happen with less effort. Therefore, my trackpad settings on my MacBook are set to tap to click. Unfortunately, I’ve seemed to have built impossible to remove muscle memory that always makes me do a “for real” click. I’m trying to re-learn!
  • Highest sensitivity settings on trackpad and mouse: Keeping in line with my preferences for settings that allow me to do more with less movement, I have the sensitivity settings for my trackpad and mouse setup to be as responsive as possible. Apparently that isn’t super common because it’s the #1 thing people comment on if they use my computer at all.
  • Camera privacy slider: In the past year I got skeeved out enough about the possibility of hackers doing nefarious things with cameras to buy a privacy cover for my MacBook. I got this one and it looks good and works well.

2018 Intentions

In general, I hope to do less fiddling with my setup this year. When I do feel the urge to switch modes, I want to do so mindfully and as swiftly as possible. I’ve done things like collect all the apps I like to use in each mode into a single folder so that when I decide to switch into that mode it’s easy to update my homescreen and get myself arranged (as opposed to hunting for each app each time I want to switch modes). Hardware-wise, it’s likely that every major component of my setup will get upgraded this year. That really won’t change much other than making it more enjoyable to use the software I’m already using. There is a small part of me that keeps getting tickled by the idea of getting an iMac for my home office but so far I’ve been doing a good job of tamping that thought down.

Curious about anything I didn’t go into enough detail about here? Leave a question below and I’ll collect them all into a Part 2!