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Introducing the Finer Things in Tech Patreon

I’ve been running this site for a few years now, and back in March I launched a weekly newsletter that’s received wonderful feedback. I want to take both of these things to the next level, and I need your help to do it. That’s why I’m introducing the Finer Things in Tech Patreon.

A while ago, I removed all advertising from the site. The newsletter hasn’t had any ads either, and I want to keep it that way. I also want to bring you:

  • More web writing – I want to publish more tips and articles on the site, including reviews, explorations of tech, app recommendations, and more. I also want to expand beyond blog posts and into a resource.
  • Voices from others – I want to commission a truly diverse array of writers, developers, and others in tech about their journey, how to improve the industry, and other topics requested by you, my readers.
  • Newsletter exclusives – My articles, good reads from elsewhere, commissioned pieces from others, and some surprises if we reach my goals.
  • Even more – I have a few more ideas, but I also want to hear yours. Get in touch and tell me why you supported my Patreon or what it would take to get you there. Would you prefer to support the site another way? Want a higher tier with unique rewards, or to see different topics or resources? I want to hear it all.

I’m open to adding other ways for you to support the site and/or newsletter, including Memberful and others. Let’s see what readers prefer.

The weekly newsletter is going supporter-only

One big change is that the weekly newsletter of tips and my recommended good reads from around the web is going supporter-only. All current subscribers will still receive it; I’m not dropping anyone. But if you are a current subscriber, please consider joining my Patreon newsletter tier to support my work.

Thanks for reading

I want to bring you even more writing, articles from great, diverse voices in the community, and some future surprises I’m working on. To make it happen, please support this site and the newsletter on Patreon, or let me know what would bring you on board.

As always, thank you for reading.

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Good Google Drive alternatives for collaborating on documents, notes, presentations, and more

Back in the day, Google Drive was early to market with a halfway decent, browser-based collaborative document editor. Relatively bare-bones and free, it caught on quickly with a portion of the market.

These days, Google Drive is far from the only game in town. Subjectively, it also isn’t very good anymore, and bugs often stick around for months or years. Remember the “randomly indent parts of paragraphs for nearly two years, even in Chrome” bug? The iOS apps have also steadily deteriorated.

Thankfully, there is a strong selection of alternatives for different audiences. Whether you need a full-featured professional suite or just a scratchpad to jot notes with others, give these a look.

Quip

Quip is perhaps the closest to Google Drive in terms of browser-based simplicity and mobile apps. It has a unique, minimal interface for basic editing. But for simple, collaborative documents, adding notes, and discussion about the document (instead of getting lost in email), Quip is a great choice.Bonus: Quip has partial support for Markdown. If you paste it in, Quip leaves it alone. But if you use Markdown syntax while you write, Quip will turn it into rich text. If you’d rather keep it as markdown, just press Delete once after the auto-conversion.

Office

You heard me. Microsoft Office has improved significantly over the past few years, especially on iOS and macOS. I can’t speak to the depth of its feature set, but it feels more organized, approachable, and usable than ever.

The native apps and web apps also have collaboration now. It doesn’t have a free version like Google, but Microsoft also isn’t mining your documents for advertisers. Paid Office 365 plans start at $5, which include the web apps and hosted domain Exchange email. Compared to Google Drive, the entry level Office plan gives you far better web apps, broader industry file compatibility, collaboration, and more standard, app-friendly domain email for the same price.

Jessi and I share a family Office subscription, which gives both of us access to the native apps on iPad and Mac. I’ve use the email for Chartier.land and my business Bit & Pen domains for about a year now, and I’m happy.

iWork

Considering this crowd, I probably don’t have to say much about iWork. It’s a solid suite for documents, spreadsheets, and presentations, and Apple recently added collaboration on both the web and native apps. I think it’s also free when you buy a new Apple device now, so financially it’s a win.

Apple Notes

If you just need a simple place to share things that are more note-like than full-on documents, and everyone you want to share with is on an iPad, iPhone, or Mac, Apple Notes is a good choice.

It does basic formatting like headings, lists, bold, and italics. It handles photos and you can add rich media links from Safari. I’ve heard from people who use Apple notes to share family todo lists, idea scratch pads, and even collaborate on blog posts. It’s pretty flexible.

Dropbox Paper

Dropbox recently launched its own basic document collaboration tool. I can’t speak to it much since most of my work is in Quip, Google Drive for some clients, or Ulysses, but I‘ em heard from people who are happy with it.

Zoho

Zoho has its own growing collection of web apps and services that I would put somewhere between Google Apps and Salesforce. At the core, though, are apps for documents, spreadsheets, presentations, databases, sites, wikis, and much more.

You can sign up and use some of the apps for free, and pricing varies based on the collection of apps you want.

Honorable Mention – Texpad

Texpad is another online collaborative document system with native apps. It’s built around LaTeX, a “document preparation” system popular in academia, hence the honorable mention. Its audience is niche, but enough people responded to my original question on Twitter that I wanted to include it.

Any others?

This list is mostly stuff I know about and have used at least a few times. Did I miss any good ones? I’m happy to expand this list, so let me know on Tumblr @chartier, Twitter @chartier, or here.

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Oscar and Maddy in the Apple Store

Much of the work I do for my business is helping app developers with their content—blogs, social media, documentation, occasional in-app UX, etc. One of my current clients is Bear, an excellent app for storing notes, files, code snippets, and more.

Apple recently approached the Bear folks about adding their app to Apple Store demo devices. Of course we said yes, and I was tasked with creating the demo content that would be loaded into the app.

For one of the demo notes, the fine folks at Bear gave me the green light to include a photo of Oscar and Maddy, the cattle dogs Jessi and I have raised since they were each eight weeks old. If you are so inclined, you can see more of them on my personal blog. Maddy (the one on the left) passed away suddenly and unexpectedly a year ago this month. At just a hair under 10, she went too soon.

I want to thank the Bear folks for letting me do this. Jessi and I love our amazing dogs, and this was a great, subtle way for us to offer a small tribute to her.

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My favorite behind-the-scenes iOS utilities

I rely on a handful of iOS utilities—things that help me or other apps get things done. I think they all deserve a lot more attention, so here’s my shot at that.

GIFWrapped

GIFWrapped for iPhone and iPad is a simple, useful app for collecting GIFs. An app extension can pull them from webpages, tweets, and elsewhere. Dropbox sync has you covered. A search tool and clipboard sniffer make it easy to expand.

Terminology

Terminology for iPhone and iPad is an excellent dictionary and thesaurus with a lot of smart features. My favorite is the app extension, which makes it easy to define words while reading and use a thesaurus while writing. Synonyms and antonyms are all linked, making it easy to explore for the right word.

Annotable

Annotable for iPhone and iPad is a damn useful image annotation and basic editing tool. It’s easy to highlight areas, zoom in on something, and blur elements for privacy. If you need more than Apple’s built-in Markup tools, Annotable is where it’s at.

Zinc

Zinc for iPhone and Apple TV is like Instapaper or Pocket for video. Use its app extension to save videos from Vimeo, YouTube, web pages, tweets, and elsewhere, then watch them later all in one place. By far, I watch videos the most on the Apple TV app. It could use some polish, but it works.

Opener

Opener for iPhone and iPad is a clever utility for opening links in the apps of your choice. For example: use its share extension on a Twitter link to open it in Tweetbot instead of Twitter’s official app or a Safari tab. I think it also works on email links so you can draft your message in Airmail, Spark, or other Apple Mail alternatives.

Copied

Copied for iPhone and iPad (and Mac) is a multi-clipboard utility. It has two app extensions and a custom keyboard to make copying stuff and pasting elsewhere a breeze.

My two favorite tips: 1) The main app extension has great tools for reformatting the text you copy. For example: you can select text on a Safari page, then use the extension to copy it, plus the webpage URL, plus the title of the page or article, then reformat it all as a linked Markdown quote—all with one tap. I know, right? Hot.

And 2) On an iPad, if you open Copied in Split View alongside another app, Copied can scoop up everything you copy in that app. Once you have Copied in an easily accessible place and you get in the habit, it’s a decent alternative to not being able to let it run constantly in the background.

Launch Center Pro

Launch Center Pro for iPhone and iPad is a great app for simplifying many of your common, repetitive, everyday tasks. Let’s say you often snap a photo, then iMessage it to a specific friend. You could create a one-tap Launch Center Pro action that creates a new message to this friend and grabs your latest photo. All you need to do is tap Send.

LCP can do much more powerful things than this. But I have 3D Touch and widget shortcuts for all sorts of things, like sharing my ETA via Chicago transit, searching 1Password and many other specific apps or services, and messaging certain people.

Drafts

Drafts for iPhone and iPad is an unassumingly powerful app for capturing, manipulating, and sharing text to all kinds of apps and services. It supports scripting, appending and prepending text, and sharing custom actions with other users.

One of my main Drafts workflows: I use the Apple Watch complication to instantly dictate new ideas for stories and tweets, which are then saved to Drafts on iPhone. Later, I can move that text into my other apps for writing, sharing, creating lists, and more.

Blink

Blink for iPhone and iPad is a great app for creating iTunes and App Store affiliate links for, say, articles like this. You can add multiple affiliate tokens (accounts), and create multiple campaign tokens to help track click-through from various sources. There’s an app extension for quickly creating links, and a good amount of customizability, including Markdown formatting of links and content names.

That’s enough for now

I certainly have more apps, but what do you use? And how? I love hearing and sharing new ideas for doing more with apps, so let me know on Tumblr at @finertech and @chartier, or on Twitter @finertech and @chartier, or right here.

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My first macOS ‘meh’ upgrade

I feel strange.

There’s a big new version of macOS out today, High Sierra. Since I got my first Mac in 2002 and started writing about them in 2004, days like today were exciting. I’d usually have my PowerBook MacBook with me and I’d rush to get the DVD start the download as soon as it was out. But this year is the first time I’ve ever felt indifferent about a major macOS upgrade. I’ll get to it when I get to it.

I do so much of my work and personal stuff on my iPad these days, I am uncharacteristically not in a rush to upgrade macOS. My Mac takes more of a backseat these days. Actually, it’s probably closer to the trunk; around for emergencies and rare cases when I need it, but otherwise usually out of sight and mind.

I’ve been steadily shifting from my Mac to iPad since around iOS 8 and 9. 10 helped a good bit, but 11 is a huge leap forward in nearly every respect. It also helps that more and more companies gradually caught up with the monumental, societal shift to mobile, introducing apps, or at least web apps, suited for it.

Still, this is the first year where I’ve felt this indifference to a major macOS upgrade. In many ways, the Mac opened the door for my career when I started writing at Download Squad and TUAW (RIP) for Weblogs Inc. But the iPhone, and later iPad, blew that door wide open.

Admittedly, my Mac hasn’t been completely shelved. I’m even considering replacing it in a year or two since it is getting a little long in the tooth. I still do bits of client work that require a Mac (like screencasts, promo videos, and Squarespace site setup, management, and training). I also might need it if I move my podcast beyond the current Anchor channel, although I’ve heard it’s gotten easier to podcast on iOS in recent years.

Aside from those two use cases, though, I now think of my Mac as a safety net more than anything else. It feels strange to think about a Mac that way, but I’m also really happy with my iPad and iOS. Onward and upward, I guess.

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A simple way to ease social media anxiety, use it as a positive, healthy distraction

I live in the U.S. and I am the most anxiety ridden and frequently demoralized about our current state of affairs than I have been in my adult life. Already a little overweight before the election, I’ve gained 10 pounds since November.

Social media has been an overwhelmingly negative influence, but I recently had an idea for turning it into a positive tool. It’s helped me a decent bit. Maybe it can help some of you too.

It’s a simple idea: find accounts, hashtags, and channels on various social media that focus entirely on positive, helpful, or simply entertaining content. Create lists and bookmarks, or just do your thing to keep them within easy reach. They can be a soothing reprieve for the times when you don’t want to disconnect, but the current state of affairs is utterly draining. Tumblr and Reddit are my tools of choice here.

A strong driving force in both is the idea of focusing on a topic, which makes it easy to curate a feed around just the stuff you want to see. Tumblr makes it easy to create multiple blogs on a single account, which encourages users to spin out single-serving topical blogs instead of jumbling everything in a single place. Reddit is entirely based on communities, called subreddits (much like forums), all of which are laser focused on just about any topic you can imagine. No, seriously.

Recommendations

If you could use a head start, here are a few I like:

  • ARCHatlas – A Tumblr of gorgeous, unique architecture, design projects, and art. One of my favorite Tumblrs ever
  • We Rate Dogs – A Twitter of cute, funny, great dog photos
  • City Landscapes – A Tumblr of beautiful city scenery
  • ZandraArt – One of my favorite Tumblr illustration artists
  • r/Get Motivated – A subreddit of generally motivational quotes, stories, discussions, and community help
  • r/Real Life Doodles – A subreddit where people anthropomorphize and GIF objects and food for humorous effect
  • r/Animals Being Bros – A subreddit of uplifting, cute, and endearing pet and animal photos, videos, and GIFs

I know it’s a simple thing. But those can sometimes be the best solutions. When I need a break from our daily horrors, or want to switch gears from work but don’t need to see Trump’s daily stupidity, accounts like these have been a great alternative for me. I hope they can help you too.

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Things 3 after 5 months

Over the past few years, I’ve been searching for the right task manager for my needs. Doing both client work and freelance writing—almost entirely on iPad now—I navigate a mix of teams, Slack channels, and tools. I’ve tried a number of apps including Todoist, 2Do, Trello, OmniFocus, and others. But when Cultured Code released Things 3 for iPad, iPhone, and Mac back in May, my interest piqued.

Getting started

My original goal for trying Todoist and Trello was that my clients and editors could collaborate on tasks with me. Unfortunately, more often than not, they either already had their own task manager or they couldn’t get into those options. I work in Trello a little with a couple clients, but it hasn’t become a staple.

I picked up Things 3 on iPad and iPhone toward the end of Cultured Code’s beta and moved over a couple small projects. It’s certainly a unique experience from most other task managers; surprisingly simple and focused. You can’t pick your favorite (or any) colors for projects or set a pretty wallpaper photo.

After a couple weeks, I found that simplicity and focus to be refreshing. Once I caught onto the flexibility in Things 3, it clicked.

One thing I’ve never liked about many task managers is how rigidly dependent they usually are on deadlines. Working with clients (mostly) in the indie app space, projects sometimes slip or suddenly grow in complexity. It means a lot of tedious fiddling with calendar pickers and number wheels.

“Today”

A core feature that draws me to Things is its clever, fast, no-pressure “Today” system. You can quickly and easily mark one or more tasks as “Today,” and they’ll all appear in that section in the sidebar. They don’t get stale or turn red if you don’t complete them today. It’s just an easy way to quickly build a list of tasks you want to focus on.

Now, you can set due dates, deadlines, and reminders for tasks, and I do for some. But these options are not a primary focus of the interface or organizing tasks. I like that.

Due dates, deadlines, and reminders

When you do want a due date or need a nudge to finish a task, Things 3 does some cool stuff. There are three options, which can be used separately or together:

  • Due Date – The task will appear in Today on the day you choose. Does not fire an alert, does not become overdue
  • Deadline – Similar to a Due Date, but can become Overdue and get marked as such. Does not fire an alert
  • Reminder – An actual task alert. Can fire at a specific time on a due date, deadline, or any other time

I thoroughly enjoy this system. For example: when I have a MacLife column due, I create a task with a deadline for a specific day. I also set a due date of a few days before. This makes the task appear in Today, but gives me a few days to finish it because I don’t always finish a column in one day. Sometimes I need to research or stew on a concept, or finish a first draft, trash it, and go for round two.

In most other task managers, a task simply has a due date. If not checked off that day, the task takes on some variety of scolding, anxiety-inducing OVERDUE badge. For a lot of my work, I don’t think or operate that way, so I’ve usually had trouble with this aspect (and others) of most task managers.

Drag & drop and headings

Another of my favorite aspects of Things 3 is how thoroughly it supports drag and drop. To reorder tasks or projects on any device, simply drag them up and down the list.

On iOS, you can tap and drag the new tasks (+) button anywhere in a list to creat a task right there. It’s very useful, especially with the next and final feature I’ll mention here: Headings.

You can now create multiple Headings in a project to organize tasks. I find it to be a great way to break down large projects or just create separate ‘buckets’ or types of tasks. For example: in the past few months, in my Finer Tech newsletter project (to which you should totally subscribe!), I had an “iOS 11” heading for collecting those tips. I also have an “Ideas” heading for saving ways to improve the newsletter.

Things 3 all the way

If it isn’t obvious by now, I fully switched to Things 3 for all of my personal and most work project management. Previous versions lacked a few things I wanted, but I’m very happy with 3. Since I work mostly on iPad and iPhone, I use it there the most.

I’m hopeful that Cultured Code will soon add iPad goodies like keyboard shortcuts and support for iOS 11 drag and drop from other apps. And, while we can filter by tags in a project on iOS, I’d like at least iPad to mirror the Mac version and place those tags under the project title at the top for easier access.

If you’re queasy about trying Things 3 on iOS, remember that the App Store has a decent refund policy now. For Mac users, Cultured Code’s website has a trial.