New Workflows from 2016: 2Do

Hi everyone!  I’m finally on Christmas break for the year, so I’ve got some more free time, and I wanted to get back to the blog and do some writing.  A lot has changed in the way I use my tech in the past year.  I’ve discovered several new apps that have really changed the way I use my devices to get things done.  That being said, I wanted to share a few of them over the next couple of weeks.

One app I’ve just started using is 2Do.  I’d been using the stock iOS reminders app for almost 4 years now, and it’s never worked away I wanted.  2Do, on the other hand, meshes with the way I use reminders perfectly, and I really enjoy using it.  This post isn’t meant to be an app review, it’s more just a commentary on the way I use 2Do to get things done.


The way I used the reminders app was weird.  I had all notifications except the app badge turned off, and all reminders set for the morning (the default time of 9am).  That way, everything was technically “overdue,” and the app badge just showed my total number of tasks for the day (side note: I know some people hate app badges but I love them and think they’re incredibly helpful and useful).  That worked OK, because most of my tasks aren’t time specific.  But that meant I couldn’t make a reminder that went off at a certain time (or location) if I wanted to, since notifications were off.  This system had once worked for me, but more and more now it felt like I was fighting it (and don’t get me started on fighting the Reminders app itself).

I know there’s lots of great to do list apps out there, but I refuse to use one that doesn’t at least sync with iOS reminders: I simply can’t give up setting reminders with Siri.  I had initially overlooked 2Do because I didn’t think it supported iOS reminders – it doesn’t ask to access your reminders the way it would photos or contacts.  However, 2Do supports syncing with iCloud reminders as a CalDAV server.  This seems odd to me, but it does work, so no complaints I guess (and I’m sure there’s a good reason for this that I don’t understand).

One of the most important features 2Do has is separate due dates and alarm times.  This means I can have most of my reminders due on a certain day, without that 9am alarm, and yet still have notifications on for other alerts.  I ended up turning off notifications for 2Do and letting the stock reminders app handle them, just in case I add a reminder with Siri that goes off before 2Do gets a chance to sync.  More on the way I implemented Siri later.

Before that I want to talk about the app itself.  It runs so much better than the stock reminders app, which is always crashing for me.  And it has so many more features, like due dates and tags and projects with subtasks.  Some of these advanced items are a little wonky when they sync over to the reminders app, which I still use on the Mac (because 2Do for Mac is $50), but it’s not a big deal.  I realized that I’d really outgrown the Reminders app; I really need the extra power of 2Do.

Speaking of power, the last thing I want to talk about in 2Do is smart lists.  2Do has unbelievable search and filter tools, with lots of keywords and AND/OR/! logic operator support.  My first smart list is my “Today and Location” smart list, which uses the search: !hide type: nodue OR overdue OR duetoday.  This list shows everything due today (or that I missed prior), and the “nodue” keyword includes location-based reminders (which don’t have a due date).  This list also excludes anything with the “hide” tag.

My other smart list is my “Inbox” for tasks I’ve set with Siri.  Trying to implement Siri was a conundrum.  I wanted alerts if I told Siri to “remind me in two hours” or “remind me when I get home,” but I didn’t want that default 9am reminder for something I set for next week.  So first I went to the reminders app and created a new default list named “Siri.”  Any new reminders created with Siri go on this list, but 2Do’s default list is still my standard “Reminders” list.  All this mess brings me to my smart list: !hide Siri type: alarms AND !duetoday OR nodue AND nolocation.  This shows all reminders: #1 On my Siri list, #2 That still have an alarm, and #3 That aren’t set “in two hours” or “when I get home.”  I then just keep an eye on this list and remove the alarms on any task that show up here (and then they disappear from the Inbox because they no longer match #2).

Is this a little convoluted and maybe even absurd?  Sure.  Does it fit the way my brain gets things done and help me accomplish more?  Oh yes.  ••

 

January App Review: Tiny Scanner

App: Tiny Scanner
Developer: Appxy
Price: Free
Platforms: iOS, Android

After switching from Evernote to the new iOS Notes app (more on that in a future post), I lost the excellent Evernote document scanner.  Because of that, I needed a new app.  Enter Tiny Scanner.


Tiny Scanner is a simple app that pretty much does what it says.  You point the phone at a document and take a picture.  After that, it automatically selects what it thinks the region of the photo that contains the page, and you adjust that as needed.

Then the magic happens.  Have you ever taken a picture of a document with the camera app?  I’m guessing the photo didn’t come out very well.  I mean, I’m sure it was usable, but it’s certainly not pretty.  The paper is an off-white, the page probably isn’t completely straight, and there’s a big shadow of your hand on half the page.  Tiny Scanner processes the photo into black and white, with a truly white background and nice, crisp, dark text.

And that’s honestly about it.  You can choose between a black and white document, a color document, or just the unprocessed photo.  You can also choose how dark the text is, sort of like a photocopier.  Then you just save it as a PDF, and share it to any app.

One more cool thing – what happens if you already took that awful, discolored, crooked photo?  You could go dig up the original document again, or you can simply import the photo in Tiny Scanner, and it’ll do it’s regular processing.  Neat!

There’s lots of share options that Tiny Scanner gives you, but most of them require the $5 Pro version.  However, if you click “Open In,” you’ll get the default iOS share sheet (which I prefer to almost any app-generated share sheet), you can share to Notes, Evernote, Dropbox, and many other apps.  Since I’m using the Notes app, that means I don’t need the Pro version.  One more limitation with the free version: you can only have two scans saved in the app at one time.  Again, since I’m exporting everything to Notes, this isn’t really an issue, but it’s sort of a pain to have to delete old documents every time.

A document scanner was basically the only thing I lost when I jumped ship from Evernote, and Tiny Scanner filled that gap nicely.  It looks nice, it’s simple to use, and it works great.  What more could I ask for?  ••

The Back to School Dilemma

This past week was my first week of real college.  I dual enrolled last year, meaning I had a few college classes and a few high school classes, but this year I’m an honest-to-goodness full-time freshman.  I’m excited.  Having dual enrolled, I already know what to expect, where everything is on campus, and all that stuff that makes freshmen nervous.  This semester’s going great so far.

Last spring, I wrote several different pieces on using my iPad instead of my laptop at school.  Last fall semester, we did lots of in-class writing in English, so I always brought my laptop.  But spring semester wasn’t like that, and so I opted for an iPad and a bluetooth keyboard instead of my heavier, less convenient laptop.  I really liked this setup last year; it worked well for me.  This semester is different, however, and I’m faced with a bit of a dilemma: do I bring my laptop every day, or my iPad?

I had originally planned for sure to bring the iPad.  I don’t have an English class at all this semester, so the only writing I’d be doing is this blog, which I did on the iPad no problem before.  However, the first day of class made it apparent there’d have to be exceptions to this rule.  My communications class tests will take place online, but will be proctored in person.  This means I have to bring my computer and take the test on it in class.  The teacher said you could bring a computer or a tablet, but I’m definitely opting for the computer.  Using the web on a tablet is great, but sometimes it gets a little wonky, and that’s not what I want during a test.

So no big deal, just bring the laptop on the days that I have communications tests.  It seemed like the rest of the semester I could just use the iPad.  Then I got to my Intro to Electrical Engineering class.  This class was going to have pop quizzes.  I don’t know whether they’ll be online, but if they are, I’ll have to bring the laptop to that class for sure.  Also, looking at the syllabus, it looks like we’ll be doing quite a bit of computer aided design and other stuff like that, so I’ll have to have the laptop there too.  (At first I was worried that whatever software we need wouldn’t work on my Mac.  Fortunately, it turns out that the professor used to work at Apple and is an even bigger Machead than I am, so I’m sure we can work something out.)

So it looks like I’ll have to bring my laptop on Mondays and Wednesdays, if only for the EE class and the occasional communications test.  Tuesdays and Thursdays I only have history class, and Friday I only have calculus class, so I can definitely get away with the iPad those days.  In fact, I may not need to bring anything at all.  I probably will, though, just in case.  I’d hate to be stuck at school and need to do something that really needs a computer, but all I have is my iPhone.  I’ve had to do that before; it’s not a pretty sight.  ••

The iPad as a Productivity Device

Last week I wrote about how I’ve switched from a laptop to an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard while I’m at school.  This got me thinking about the iPad as a productivity device.  When the iPad came out, it seemed like a lot of people thought that this device was going to forever change the way we do work.  However, five years down the line, this doesn’t seem to have quite materialized.  Sure, we’ve got every bit as much potential as we started with, but for some reason it hasn’t come to fruition.  Why?

For starters, let’s start with what the iPad is: a consumption device.  This is one of the biggest criticisms I hear about the iPad.  People say, “Oh, sure, it’s a great consumption device, but if you want to create content or get work done, you’ve got nothing.”  Let’s just examine the first part of that statement for a second.  The iPad is a great consumption device; what’s wrong with that?  If all you want to do is sit on the couch, surf the web, and watch YouTube, the iPad is a great device.  I’d argue that it’s the greatest media consumption device ever made.  Is that a failure?  What’s wrong with creating a device that does one thing really well?

But I think there is a point to be made about the iPad as a work device.  What’s really interesting is why people condemn the iPad in this way.  The only reason people say the iPad isn’t a good productivity device is because it has so much potential to be one.  Nobody has ever looked at a TV and said, “Man, this TV is great for watching shows, but you can’t use it to create your own TV shows, so it’s a failure!”  The TV never had any potential to be a content creation device, so no one held it to that standard.  However, when one sees an iPad, it’s almost natural to say, “Wow, could I replace my laptop with that?”  The iPad has such huge potential to be a real productivity device, but we’re just not there yet.

So why aren’t we?  Frankly, I don’t know for sure.  I’ve got a few thoughts, though.  First, the iPad isn’t as good for productivity as a computer because it doesn’t have a mouse.  Don’t get me wrong, the iPad is better for lots of other things because it doesn’t have a mouse.  But when you’re using a word processor (or any number of pro apps), there are simply too many functions and buttons to make a touch interface that works well.  A mouse allows you to have more, smaller buttons.  If Apple releases an iPad Pro, with a larger screen and a stylus, this could change dramatically.  For now, though, the mouse remains a problem.  The second issue with using the iPad for productivity is the fact that every app runs full screen, and you can only run one at a time.  Sure, extensibility helps this problem some, but I think that, in order for the iPad to truly mature, it will have to run two apps side by side.  Thing is, this raises all sorts of other problems.  Will developers have to add more screen sizes for their apps to work with (Yes)?  Will the apps be too small?  Can you drag and drop between apps?  There’s a lot of hard questions to answer.  Like the mouse, this is more an inherent problem with the device, rather than simply a missing feature.

So will Apple solve these hurdles?  Will the rumored iPad Pro be a competitor to the Surface Pro 3?  I don’t know.  It seems like there’s two paths here: either the iPad evolves towards the desktop, or desktop software evolves towards the iPad.  The first option sounds like a step back, but the second option seems like the way forward.  It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out.  ••

On iPads and Bluetooth Keyboards

Last fall, I wrote about the technology I use on campus at SPSU.  At the time, it included my iPod Touch (now replaced with an iPhone) and my MacBook Pro.  Last semester, I did a ton of in-class writing for English.  The class did take place in a computer lab, but I preferred to bring my own laptop so I didn’t have to fiddle with saving my work to a thumb drive.  This semester, I just assumed that my class would work the same way.  Well, it doesn’t.  The professor is running it as a mostly online course, and we barely meet in class at all.  This means that I do all my writing at home, not at school.  For some reason, though, I kept bringing my laptop anyway.  I realized over spring break that about the only thing I use the laptop for at school is writing this little blog I do called Staring at Phones.  Then it hit me: what if I could do that on my iPad Mini, using a Bluetooth keyboard?

First, I knew I’d have to make some sacrifices.  Microsoft Word for iPad is pretty good, but not quite as good as Word for Mac.  If I ever needed to do any writing, it would be a little bit of a pain.  Also, I can’t upload documents to my online assignment submission from the iPad.  However, I figured that I could always submit when I got home, or if I absolutely had to submit right then I could go to the library and use a computer there.  So I decided that the hurdles wouldn’t be too big of a deal.

Then I needed a keyboard.  I wasn’t yet sure if this would really work out, so before buying a keyboard, I borrowed one that my dad had but didn’t really use.  I used this on campus for about two weeks (in fact, last week’s post was written on it), and decided…

…that I was still a little unsure.  However, I was intrigued enough to go ahead and buy a keyboard, since my dad’s is a little cramped.  It’s meant to be a cover for an iPad, so it’s narrower than a laptop keyboard.  Since I have an iPad Mini, a keyboard cover is completely impractical anyway, so I wanted a full-sized keyboard.  I found what looked to be a good one on Amazon* for only $11 (with Prime shipping).  It had good reviews, and I thought that for $11, it was worth the risk.

I’ve had the keyboard for about a week now, and so far it’s working well (I’m using it to write these very words).  I definitely like leaving my laptop at home; it’s much easier to just grab my iPad as I go and let the keyboard live in my backpack.  The keyboard is the exact same size as my laptop keyboard, and the layout is a total ripoff of an Apple keyboard.  This all means I get the same typing experience that I do on my laptop, which is really nice.  I’m using the WordPress mobile app to write posts, and so far it’s working pretty well.  It’s surprisingly robust.  It doesn’t quite have all the features that WordPress.com has, but I’ve found I can write a post on the iPad and then tidy up the little details the next day when I’m on the computer.  So it’s been working out OK.

The one thing I don’t like about the keyboard is that it’s really loud.  That’s not that big of a deal, but it is a little annoying.  Also, the Bluetooth connection sometimes drops out; I’m still unsure whether this is going to be a real problem or just a minor annoyance.*

In conclusion, I really like using an iPad as my school “computer.”  It’s so much lighter than my laptop, and the tools for content creation are getting better all the time.  (To be fair, though, the whole reason I’m using the iPad is because I’m not creating as much content.)  The iPad is a fascinating device, and it will be interesting to see where it goes as a productivity machine in the next few years.  I’ve got high hopes for it.  ••

*Update 4/9/15: The keyboard I bought is a little finicky.  The connection drops out from time to time, sometimes constantly so it’s impossible to use.  I’ve removed the link above, and I don’t recommend that you buy it (the link is here in case you still want to look at it).

I Can’t Live Without Widgets

Hands-down my favorite iOS 8 feature is Notification Center widgets.  Android has had widgets on the home screen for a long time.  Before iOS 8, I had thought about widgets on the iPhone, but they hadn’t really made sense to me.  I didn’t like the idea of putting a widget on the home screen, it seemed to mess up the simplicity of just having apps there.  However, as soon as I saw widgets in the Today View of Notification Center, it made perfect sense.  In iOS 7, the today view was cool; it provided a good way to see information on weather, calendars, and reminders.  It made sense to split that off from the rest of Notification Center, but it never quite felt like it was enough information to fully justify a separate screen.  Now that we have third party widgets, the separate makes complete sense.  I love widgets and use them all the time.  So, without further ado, here are the widgets I have active in my Notification Center right now.


Reminders
The very first widget is reminders.  I, quite literally, plan my life around my iPhone’s reminders, and I wouldn’t accomplish anything without them.  I really don’t like how iOS 8 doesn’t show all your reminders in Notification Center (it limits them to four or five), but I still love being able to see (and check off) reminders from the lock screen.

myHomework
This is an app that I just started using this semester, and it works really well.  It’s a good way to keep track of assignments, quizzes, and questions I have for professors.  Yes, I could just use the Reminders app for this, but myHomework allows a little more granular control that’s designed specifically for homework assignments.  Best of all, it shows me everything I have due today right there in Notification Center.

Calendar
Simple and straightforward, the stock Calendar app in iOS does everything I need it to.  I don’t have the Today Summary activated in Notification Center, because it only shows your first event (not very helpful).

Yahoo Weather
I also don’t like the weather report in the Today Summary.  It’s too concise and doesn’t give much information.  The Yahoo Weather widget gives the current temperature, as well as today and tomorrow’s highs and lows.  I only wish they would remove the nice little picture and halve the widget’s size to save space.

WordPress
Another simple one, the WordPress widget shows how many hits and visitors I’ve gotten on this site each day.  The only problem is that after a few days, it doesn’t seem to refresh correctly, getting stuck on a certain number of hits.

Writing Aid
I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but the Writing Aid widget shows a new word and definition each day.  Nice for (telling myself that I’m) learning new vocabulary words.

Bible
The YouVersion Bible app is pretty much the gold standard; you can get almost any translation of the Bible absolutely free.  The Today View widget conveniently shows you the app’s verse of the day.  There are two buttons to launch the app: one goes to the verse of the day and the other to wherever you were last reading.

Evernote
I recently switched all my memos over to Evernote, and the widget is a really nice part of the Evernote app.  It has buttons to create a new text note and a new note from the camera, as well as a few other things.  It also shows your three most recently viewed notes (and not, importantly, your most recently edited notes).

Clips
Clips is a great clipboard management app.  Put something on your iOS clipboard, and you can swipe into Notification Center to add it to your list of clips.  Add multiple items, then just tap one again to put in back on the iOS clipboard, or paste it anywhere using the Clips keyboard (another great iOS 8 feature).

PCalc
Another must have, PCalc allows you to make quick calculations from right within Notification Center.  There’s even copy and paste buttons so it fits into your existing workflow.  You might think that it’s just as easy to launch the stock calculator app via control center, but you would be wrong.  PCalc quickly becomes an essential part of your device.

Tomorrow Summary
I mentioned that I don’t like the Today Summary, but the Tomorrow Summary is definitely helpful.  It’s pretty straightforward, it just tells you how many events you have for the next day, as well as telling you what time your alarm is set for.  I just wish it would also include the number of reminders scheduled for the next day.

I’ve arranged my widgets in a very specific order.  First are the apps that I look at constantly: Reminders and myHomework.  Next are the apps that I look at several times throughout the day: Calendar, Yahoo Weather, and WordPress.  After that come the apps that I look at once a day: Writing Aid and Bible.  The last group contains utility apps, the ones that offer functions (read: buttons) instead of just information: Evernote, Clips, and PCalc.  The groups I use most often are the first and last.  Why don’t I just put the utility widgets second?  I like being able to swipe rapidly to the top or bottom to get to what I need.  It feels to me like this is actually faster swiping to the top, then down just a bit.  These widgets make my day easier and allow me to get things done faster.  Have I missed anything?  Let me know your essential widgets in the comments or on Twitter @NickFoster56.  ••