Playing Around with the WordPress Mac App

So a week or two ago, WordPress, where this site is hosted, threw a major bone to us Apple users, a Mac app!  This means that I can read the blogs I follow, as well as write new posts, from a dedicated program on my computer, instead of in a browser.

So what’s so special about this app?  Well, honestly, not much.  It’s basically just WordPress.com in a special, separate window.  Opening the app brings WordPress users to a familiar reader screen, with blog posts front and center.  At the top are the two bars to switch between the reader and “My Sites,” a place to manage your blogs.  Both of these screen have pretty much identical interfaces to WordPress.com in a browser, and the app won’t work at all without an internet connection.  So if the app is basically just a web browser, what makes it useful?

Well, it’s going to be nice to separate my writing from any other tabs I have open.  I often have multiple other tabs going when I’m writing a post (double checking information, getting app store links for reviews), and it’s a pain to switch back and forth between them.  When there’s only two, it’s not a big deal, but four or five becomes a pain.  Having a WordPress app means that I can have one window for my writing and another for research, and that’ll be nice.

As an aside, I’ve experienced a similar sensation using Google Docs lately.  I do most of my writing for school in Microsoft Word, but I’ve been in a couple group projects lately, and Google Docs is hands down the best way to collaborate.  Honestly I’ve really liked Doc’s web interface (it starts faster than Word) and the fact that all my documents are permanently and only stored in the cloud.  However, as nice as browser word processing can be, it’s a total pain when you’re trying to switch between tabs.

Ooh, just hit a major snag while writing this post.  I wanted to go back to My Sites to look at another post.  Normally, when I want to do this, I just Command-click My Sites in the upper left, and it opens in a new tab.  Uh-oh, no tabs here (funny how I just praised that so loudly).  That’s going to be an issue for me, as I often look back at previous posts while writing new ones.  I’m not saying WordPress should add tabs to their app (then, honestly, it really is just a browser), but maybe there could be a way to “minimize” drafts that I’m currently working on and look at other stuff.  This is a good opportunity for WordPress to really make the app something special, and give it features that aren’t available in the web interface.  Obviously, WordPress doesn’t want to exclude web users, but this would be a feature that fixes a problem web users don’t actually have (since they have tabs).  Just a thought WordPress!

So anyway, I’m excited about this new app.  I’m not sure whether I’ll use it long-term, but I’m definitely going to give it a shot for now.  And even if I don’t like it, I’ll keep checking back.  One good thing I will say about WordPress: they do an excellent job of continually improving their products.  ••

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Why I Enjoy Apple News So Much

Last week when I announced that Staring at Phones is now available on Apple News, I mentioned how much I like the service.  But I didn’t really say why.  This week, I’m going to go into more detail about how I’m now using Apple News as my primary news reader.  When I was thinking about how to describe why I like Apple News so much, I started thinking about what makes it better than other services I’ve tried.  So I’m going to do this as a comparison, listing other news consumption/RSS feed apps and saying why Apple News is better.

WordPress
Probably the app I used for the longest amount of time as a reader was WordPress.  WordPress is still the best way to read blogs that are hosted by WordPress, because you can like and comment right there in the same app.  Because of this, I’m still using the WordPress app for the few WordPress blogs I follow.  However, I’ve stopped using WordPress as a general RSS reader, because I like Apple News’ layout better.  Apple News uses a grid layout, with stories taking up different amounts of space based on headlines, images, and so on.  This is in direct contrast to WordPress’ single column of posts.  I like Apple’s grid better because it makes it easier to browse and surf through stories, picking out the ones I’m most interested in.

Flipboard
I’ve never used Flipboard extensively, but it’s actually very similar to Apple News.  You follow specific blogs and general topics, and it gives you a grid-layout “magazine” of articles.  The thing that bugged me most about Flipboard was that it showed the articles in pages that you “flip” through, instead of in a scroll line.  For some reason I prefer scrolling, I guess it lets me see the context of each article, and how many more there are above and below it.  Also, as far as I can tell, Flipboard’s articles are endless.  This is nice if you have a lot of time on your hands, but I prefer to just scroll through what’s there and be done.

Pocket
For awhile there, I used a rather unconventional way to follow blogs: I set up IFTTT recipes for each one that took every post and put it in Pocket.  Pocket isn’t really meant to be a place where articles come in from blogs, it’s meant to be a place where you put things you found other places but want to come back to.  Because of this, it’s not ideal as a reader, since articles sit there until you delete them, so stories start to pile up.  However, sometimes I wanted articles to wait until I could get to them, so that could be nice.  Fortunately, Apple News has a “Saved” section for just that.  I just wish that you could add articles you found elsewhere, say, on Twitter, to this section.  Personally, I think Apple should just make the Apple News Saved section and the Safari reading list one and the same, but maybe that’s just me.

There’s just one question left: what kind of content am I following on Apple News? Well, for traditional “news”, I’m really enjoying the content from Vox.  It’s not too partisan, and the stories are really varied, instead of being all politics.  As for Apple related stories, Six Colors is my go-to blog.  I’ve tried adding other RSS feeds to Apple News with mixed results; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Fortunately, 99% of blogs I follow are either on WordPress or Apple News, so between those two, I’m pretty happy with the way I’ve got things set up right now.  ••

June App Review: WordPress

App: WordPress
Developer: Automattic
Price: Free
Platforms: iOS, Android

Awhile back I wrote about how I used the WordPress app on my iPad to write posts at SPSU.  However, the WordPress app is useful for other things too.  Because of this, I decided to go ahead and give it a full write up.  I’m going to focus on the iPad here (because it’s better both for writing and reading), although just about everything I’ll mention also applies to the iPhone.


I’m going to split this review into three sections – one for each of the main things I do with the WordPress app.  The first is writing posts.  I haven’t been using this much lately, as I’m currently on summer break, but I intend to go back to writing posts on my iPad at school when the fall semester starts.  Writing in the WordPress app is pretty simple, as it should be.  The main writing screen (see image 1) is mostly dedicated to just that: writing.  There’s a few rich-text options at the bottom, nothing too fancy but nevertheless a solid set of tools.  I was most impressed that the WordPress app also had plenty of support for adding extra metadata to posts (see image 2).  Categories, tags, an even a featured image can easily be added.  The WordPress app also has good support for unpublished drafts.  This is imperative for me since I write posts in advance and then spend a few days editing them.  The app’s writer doesn’t have every feature WordPress.com has – for example, I can add images to a post, but not an image gallery – but it has enough that I can write the majority of a post on the iPad and then tidy it up the next day when I get on the computer.

The second part of the WordPress app that I use is the reader.  This (obviously) allows me to follow other people’s blogs.  Of course I can follow other WordPress blogs, but the WordPress app is also an RSS reader, so I can add pretty much any other blog I want.  I was using IFTTT to send my RSS subscriptions to Pocket (see this recipe), but recently I’ve been exploring WordPress more and I liked the convenience of following blogs with one click.  We’ll see what I end up using in the long term.

The last part of the app I want to talk about is notifications.  I get push notifications every time someone follows this blog, comments on a post, replies to a comment I posted somewhere else, and so on.  This is nice because it makes it easy to stay up to date about what’s happening here.  WordPress notifications work well, and they’ve also done an excellent job managing notifications across multiple devices.  With many apps I can only look at notifications on my iPhone because otherwise I’ll get tons of duplicates.  I’m actually less concerned about multiple devices ringing at once; the big problem is that after I’ve dealt with a notification on one device it’s still there on another.  However, WordPress avoids this problem.  If you get a push notification on one device, but then look at it on another, the first device’s push notification automatically clears.  This retroactive notification clearing is something every app should have.  The only other apps I know of that do this are iOS Mail, iMessage, and Twitter.  These are all super-high level apps (two of them preloaded, system apps), and it’s impressive that WordPress is in the same plane in this regard.

So as you can see, the WordPress app is a pretty good jack of all trades.  It’s not perfect, but right now it’s doing a great job of helping me keep up with this site and the greater WordPress community.  The WordPress app is definitely one of my iPad’s indispensable apps, and I hope WordPress continues improving it in the future.  ••

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).