Category Archives: Tech

Bring On the Darkness

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Despite mounting evidence that staring at a screen before bedtime is detrimental to your sleep, I do it every night. (I sleep horribly, by the way). Before I drift off to dreamland my face is awash in LED light as I read a few chapters in Kindle, chink away at my Pocket queue, catch up on Twitter in Tweetbot 3 and flick through my RSS feeds in Unread. Do you know what all of those apps have in common? They all have optional dark themes that display dim white text on a black background. To me, this is a killer feature.

The dark theme may not be as exciting as fancy gesture control or a sleek user interface, but it’s an under-appreciated feature, and it’s time it got its due.

Reading in bed without a dark theme is like staring at the sun on a clear day. It’s hell on the eyes, and it’s especially joyless for the person sleeping next to you. Imagine how many divorces could be prevented if all apps had dark themes.

For what it’s worth, my favorite implementation of a dark theme is in Tweetbot 3. It uses a clever two-finger swipe gesture to switch between modes: Swipe up for the light theme and down for the dark theme–like a light switch. The reason Tweetbot is notable in this department is because many other apps make you burrow into the settings menu to change themes, which takes up precious time I could otherwise spend ruining my night’s sleep by reading in bed.

So if you make an app people might want to use before bed, do your customers a favor and include a dark theme. Just think of the marriages you’ll save.

The Best Journaling App for iOS

Do you ever go back and read journal entries you wrote years ago? I do, and I love it. I’ve forgotten so much of my life! I was so funny/lucky/stupid! Time is fleeting, and we’re all hurtling toward death!

But seriously, keeping a journal is a good thing. It’s a tool for self reflection. It defrags the brain. It helps you sort through the clutter of daily life and hone in on what’s important. I just wish I did more of it.

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Anyone who follows the world of apps can tell you that Day One is the premier journaling app for Mac and iOS. Apple even awarded it Mac App of the Year in 2012. And rightfully so: Day One is a beautiful app, with a host of useful features. It syncs between platforms, it lets you add a photo to each entry, it’s Markdown compatible, it logs lots of metadata, and it has multiple export options. It even makes your entries look like beautiful, minimalist web articles. What more do you want in a journaling app?

As great as it is, Day One never clicked with me. All of those features are amazing, but they have weight. Each Monday, when the app chimed to tell me it was time to write in my journal, I didn’t feel like writing–I felt anxious.

The problem was all those amazing features. I wanted to write something that was worthy of them. I wanted the photo to look just right, and capture the tenor of the entry. I wanted the writing to be as witty as Twain and as polished as a New Yorker article. And who has the time for that?

I take full responsibility for this reaction, by the way. This says much more about me than it does about Day One and its makers.

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I finally solved my journal anxiety by using another app: Drafts. Drafts is a writing app that opens with a blank page, a cursor, and a keyboard. You enter text into it, and then use shortcuts to send the text wherever you want it to go. The app doesn’t do pictures, location data, or modern minimalist output–it deals strictly in words. It creates a no pressure writing experience.

No pressure. For me, that’s a key feature for a journaling app.

Drafts wasn’t designed for journaling, but here’s how I use it. With the push of a button, I send the text I’ve written in Drafts to my journal’s .txt file in Dropbox. It even automatically adds the date. Boom: instant journaling app. Easy peasy.

I write in my journal all the time now. Sometimes I treat it like a personal Twitter feed, jotting down a thought here and there and sending it to my journal. Other times I type out long entries that I edit carefully before adding. Either way, there’s no friction and no pressure. It feels good.

If you haven’t tried Day One, it’s definitely worth a shot. The results are amazing, if you can handle it. But if you struggle to find the bandwidth to write in your journal regularly, Drafts just might do the trick.

Ulysses III Review

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Right after I wrote a post about the top three minimalist writing apps for Mac and iOS, I downloaded Ulysses III. Almost immediately it became my go-to writing app for Mac.

Like iA Writer, Ulysses III is a gorgeous, minimal word processor. It has a killer dark-themed fullscreen mode. When you use Markdown features, it highlights them in beautiful colors. If you save your documents to Dropbox, you can edit them using any iOS word processor (my favorite is still iA Writer). You can export your documents to .txt, .rtf, PDF, or HTML. It’s powerful and customizable, but not complicated.

But for me, the killer feature of Ulysses III is that it shows your folders and text files in columns on the left side of the screen. This lets you do things like bounce between your in-progress blog posts, or separate a book into chapters and zip between them and your notes quickly.

Ulysses III is useful and beautiful. It’s my favorite writing app for Mac.

The Best Minimalist Word Processing Apps for Mac and iOS

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I spend a lot of time writing, so I’m always on the hunt for better writing apps for Mac and iOS. As luck would have it, you can find apps for every type of writing imaginable. If you write research papers, you might want a word processing app that allows for notes, links, references, and outlines (like Scrivener). If you write novels, you might want an app that helps you track plot points and character development (like Storyist). For general writing, my requirements are less demanding. Here’s what I look for in a word processor:

  • Minimalism: Focus is important. The app must focus entirely on writing, and offer a full-screen mode to prevent me from being distracted by e-mail, Twitter, or any of the other alerts and feeds vying for my attention.
  • Dropbox compatibility: I’m not always near my computer when I want to work, so it’s important to have access to my documents from my iPhone and iPad. The two most popular online file systems are Dropbox and iCloud. Dropbox is more flexible and reliable, so that’s what I use.
  • Style: I spend a lot of time looking at words on a screen, so it’s important that they look good. If the font is ugly or the text is too scrunched together (I’m looking at you, TextEdit) writing can be a headache. A beautiful writing app eases the pain.

To find the apps that meet those criteria, I spent hours researching Mac and iOS word processing apps. I read as many professional reviews as I could find and dug through user reviews on the various app stores. Then I downloaded the top three Mac and iOS apps and tried them out.

But first, a note on file types

If you’ve been writing for years, your documents probably end in an alphabet soup of file extensions, several of which may be unreadable by modern programs. My advice (along with others) is to save everything in .txt format. The .txt extension is the bread and butter of minimalist word processing apps, and all of the ones I discuss below support it. On iOS, the .txt format is doubly important, because most iOS writing apps can read nothing but .txt files. On Mac, you have a little more wiggle room with .rtf files, but that’s useless if you intend to write on all of your devices. 1

The main drawback of .txt files is that they don’t allow for rich text features like bold and italics. To sidestep that issue, I suggest using Markdown syntax, which all of the word processors below support.

Mac word processors

All of the following Mac apps look great, offer full-screen modes, and have Dropbox support. If a minimalist word processor is what you’re after, any of the apps below will work. They’re also likely to be updated regularly, so the specifics might change at any time.

WriteRoom for Mac

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WriteRoom sparked the whole “less is more” word processing philosophy, and for that I’m thankful. This was the first one I tried, and the moment I started using it, I knew I would no longer write in apps like Word or Pages if I could help it. While certainly useful in some instances, those programs are overstuffed with loads of features I usually don’t need.

What sets WriteRoom apart from the other minimalist apps is its huge list of options. You can choose from several (often ugly) visual themes, change the font, adjust the margins, pick your level of zoom, adjust the color of everything, and on and on. The default settings are fine, but once you start tinkering, if you’re anything like me, you may never stop. Also, there are no special Markdown features here, so that may cause problems depending on your needs.

On the plus side, WriteRoom handles both .txt and .rtf files and can automatically log your writing sessions to a spreadsheet, which data-mining types may appreciate. But for my taste, WriteRoom offers too many options, many of which make the app look worse.

Byword for Mac

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Byword, on the other hand, looks downright elegant. It has a simpler options menu that only lets you choose light or dark themes and adjust the margins and fonts. It can also handle both .txt and .rtf documents.

Byword is great for Markdown users as well. As you write, it tastefully dims the Markdown characters, making them easier to skip over as you read back what you’ve written. It also has a Markdown preview mode. If .rtf is important to you, this is the app you should use.

iA Writer for Mac

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iA Writer treats minimalism like a religious calling, and that’s what makes it great. If all you need is a word processor that supports .txt files, then iA Writer is your holy grail.

Unlike the other apps, iA Writer offers zero options or preferences. You open the app, and there’s nothing to do but write. It’s perfect for anyone who wants a crystal-clear focus on their words.

Beyond that, it handles .txt files like a boss. It looks drop-dead gorgeous, with an ideal font size and comfortable margins no matter how big or small you make the window. And while the other apps on this list offer “focus” modes, iA Writer’s is the best of the bunch: it dims all text in the document except the sentence you’re working on. It also offers excellent Markdown support.

The only potential shortcomings I found in iA Writer for Mac are that it doesn’t support .rtf files and it does’t have a dark theme. But if you can do without those, look no further. iA Writer is amazing.

iOS Word Processors

All of the following iOS apps are universal, offer Dropbox support, and put an extra row of useful keys above the standard iOS keyboard. One downside to all of the iOS apps is that they don’t support .rtf files. In these apps, it’s .txt. or nothing.

WriteRoom for iOS

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WriteRoom is a good-looking iOS app that works about as you’d expect, but a couple of features set it apart from the others. Like its Mac counterpart, you get a lot of options here. Unlike the other iOS apps, WriteRoom supports all fonts built into iOS, and lets you fine-tune your background and text colors. So like on Mac, if you want customizability, WriteRoom is the app for you.

Byword for iOS

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Just like on Mac, the iOS version of Byword falls somewhere between iA Writer and WriteRoom when it comes to customization. It has light and dark themes, as well as four fonts–but only one of them looks very attractive for writing. The Dropbox support is solid, but not robust.

Byword’s extended keyboard row, however, is ideal for Markdown users who write for the web. It offers shortcuts that let you easily add links, pictures, and lists to your text.

Byword for iOS is also the only app to offer a Markdown preview mode. So if you’re a heavy Markdown user, despite any shortcomings, Byword might be the app for you.

iA Writer for iOS

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Feature for feature, iA Writer for iOS is almost identical to the Mac version: It looks fantastic, with a beautiful font, a clean interface, a great focus mode, and–again–zero customization options.

What most sets it apart is that it offers the fullest Dropbox functionality on iOS, including the ability to create folders and even move files between folders using an intuitive touch-and-hold mechanic.

iA Writer is my iOS word processor of choice. It looks the best, requires no tinkering, and offers superior Dropbox support.

My Workflow

Any combination of these apps will help you get the job done, but my choices are as follows: On Mac I use iA Writer for .txt documents and Byword for .rtf documents. Both apps are gorgeous, and easily handle everything I need them to do. I save all of my files to Dropbox, where they’re available to be edited by other apps on other devices. On iOS, I use iA Writer because it looks great and offers superior Dropbox compatibility.

This is a great set-up that works well for me. As soon as another minimalist writing app comes out, I’ll look at it with an open mind. You never know what works for you until you try it.

  1. If you need .rtf compatibility, your options on iOS are limited at the moment to Pages, Evernote, and Google Drive, all of which use online file systems that no other programs can access. So if you don’t mind using those apps on both Mac and iOS, those will work for you. However, none of those apps look very good in full-screen mode, and they’re needlessly bloated for my needs.

    Textilus is the one iOS app that meets most of my needs and has .rtf compatibly. However, I’m not crazy about it, because it’s iPad-only, it uses its own separate folder in Dropbox, and it has a clunky overall feel.

Social Networking: You’re Doing It Wrong

I think social networking is a good thing. And I’m not alone: just ask any of the millions of earthlings who log onto the Twitters and the Facebooks every day. These sites are wonderful platforms for discovering cool Internet content, engaging in lively discussions, promoting your work, and connecting with near-strangers for exciting new sexual encounters.

But all too often well-intentioned people bring the whole experience down by posting things that only their closest friends and family members could possibly give a crap about. This is called oversharing, and it makes everyone uncomfortable.

I’m talking about the people who post updates about the most banal details of their life (“Listen to this dream I had!“) and post photos of what they’re about to eat for lunch (“A peanut butter and jelly sammich!“). I’m talking about the people who use Facebook’s “check in” feature everywhere they go (and these are usually the people who go everywhere, all the time). I’m talking about the people who post about their fragile emotional states (“how could she cheat on me…“), and their money problems, and their religious inclinations.

“What’s wrong with posting that stuff?” you might be asking.

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it: none of those topics are appropriate for a public forum.

“But hold up. The only people who can see my posts are my friends, right?”

Wrong.

The vast majority of the people you’ve “friended” on Facebook aren’t your actual friends. Many of them are people you would never think about again if they didn’t show up in your news feed. Some of them you probably don’t remember meeting in the first place. I’ll even bet you have a few you actively hate. And yet here you are, broadcasting boring or overly-personal details of your life to them.

“Then how can I share this juicy information with the people who care?”

One way is to have actual conversations with those people, in real life face-to-face situations. Other ways include e-mailing, texting, video chatting, and instant messaging. Take your pick.

Regardless of how you go about sharing that kind of personal information, don’t do it in a public forum. Instead, consider your audience. Take a second to decide whether what you’re about to post is appropriate for and potentially interesting to everyone who will see it. If not, don’t put it online for all to see.

I’m all for social networking. But what your Facebook “friends” and Twitter followers want is different from what your real friends want. Real friends will care (or pretend to care) about nearly anything you have to say. The people in your online networks, on the other hand, are far more selective. They want your opinions on things you’re passionate about, pithy witticisms, links to interesting articles and funny videos, and that’s about it.

What your jerkface boyfriend said to you this morning? Save it for your actual friends, or your therapist.

Using Google Voice on an iPod Touch

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A guy could list a slew of reasons to use a Google Voice number as a primary phone number, including the financial (free texting, free long distance, cheap international calling), the convenient (ringing multiple phones, text and voicemail backups, customized greetings for individual callers), and the creepy (voicemail listen-in, easy call recording).

To me, one of the coolest reasons is that you don’t even need a phone to text and talk to people. You can do those things from a computer, an iPad, or an iPod Touch. For the sake of this article, I’ll talk about using a 4th generation iPod Touch, but everything here applies equally to an iPad.

To use your iPod as a Google Voice phone, you need two free apps: Talkatone and Google Voice. These are not the only apps with the necessary features, but they’re both free, and no single app that I’m aware of gives you the functionality of these two combined. The Google Voice app handles texting, and the Talkatone app lets you make and receive VOIP calls using your Google Voice number.

Talkatone has all the important basic features you’d want for handling phone calls: your Google Voice number shows up on the recipient’s caller ID when you make a call, and the sound quality is great for both the caller and the recipient (assuming you have a strong Wi-Fi connection), and the app also stays open in the background when you’re not using it, so it rings when you get a call.

However, Talkatone has a few drawbacks. First off, it doesn’t have a texting feature (hence the need for the Google Voice app). Not a deal-breaker, but annoying. Another problem is that you’re told to sign out of Google Chat any time you leave your computer, because an incoming call might be routed there instead of to Talkatone. And even after you sign out and close the browser window, it can take up to 15 minutes to switch where your call will show up. This could lead to missed calls (wife having a baby, job promotion, reminder of a Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy), which you might find unacceptable for a primary phone line.

Also, Talkatone functions through Google Chat, so when you have it set to receive calls (which, if you’re using your Google Voice number as your primary number, is likely to be always), you’re also listed as “online” to all your Gchat buddies. You can set your status to “Away,” but people can still message you. And anyway, it’s hard to remember to switch your status to “away” every time you don’t want people messaging you.

So Talkatone handles phone calls from your iPod, but you need to use the Google Voice app to send and receive text messages. Just like Talkatone, this works pretty well but it’s not ideal. First, if you open a blank text message and start typing the name of the person you want to text in the “To” field (like how you would in your phone’s texting app), it doesn’t connect to your contact list. So if you put “Bob” in the “To” field, it won’t associate Bob with a phone number. If you send the text, it will actually try to send it to the word “Bob.” So you have to go through your contact list to choose a recipient, or reply to a text you’ve already received.

Once you do that, you can start typing your message. However, there’s no character counter, so you don’t easily know how many texts you’re sending. Also, using Google Voice, you you can’t send MMS messages (pictures or videos), and you can’t send text messages to more than one recipient at a time without doing one of a few high-maintenence workarounds.

Which actually points to the larger issue: the whole Google Voice system is incredibly confusing. It’s great that Google Voice gives you so many options and so much functionality, but that functionality comes at the cost of having to wade through numerous settings menus and remembering tricks and shortcuts to do the things you want to do. And even though Google Voice can do lots of things regular phones can’t do, there are still certain basic functions it can’t do (like MMS and bulk texting) which are far likelier to be deal breakers.

To its credit, Google Voice it has continuously gotten better since it was launched. The longer it’s around, the more functionality it gets and the more platforms it becomes available on. Now some users can even port their existing number to become their Google Voice number. I won’t do that yet because of the deal breakers listed above, but in a few months, who knows?