Bill Bennett

Menu

Tag: Apple

Apple is one world’s largest companies. It got there by giving people the technology they want. Products include the Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and AirPods.

Mac writing apps November 2014

Writing on Apple computers has evolved since I looked at Mac writing apps in September 2013.

One change is Continuity: part of iOS 8 and OS X 10.10. In Apple’s words “Continuity seamlessly links documents” on different Apple devices. It means you can move between devices while writing or editing a document without losing a beat. You could start writing on a Mac, continue on an iPad and polish on an iPhone.

Not every writing app handles Continuity at the time of writing. Some app developers say they promise to include it in future upgrades. I guess the others will follow.

As you’d expect Continuity already works well with Apple’s Pages word processor.

Apple Pages 5.5

Pages has been through a major update since last year’s Mac writing tools round-up. Although Pages 5 shares a name with the earlier Pages ’09 and key elements are familiar, the code is all new. It has been rewritten from the ground up.

Apple Pages 5.5
Apple Pages 5.5

When it first appeared, Pages was as much about page layout as writing. There’s still a whiff of that. You can design great looking documents if that’s what you want from your writing tools. However, the move to Pages 5.0 means the application now works better as a more conventional word processor.

Compared to Microsoft Word:mac 2011, Pages 5 is stripped back.

That’s good for writers like me who prefer minimal word processing apps. Not everyone was happy when Apple first redesigned Pages because the company took out many of the more complex features, although some of these came back in a later refresh.

Mac, iPad, iPhone integration

Apple changes to Pages 5.0 — some critics call it ‘dumbing down’ — brought the desktop version more in-line with the iOS version.

That means if you have an iPad or an iPhone and a Mac, you can start writing something on your iPhone and polish it off later on the Mac. Or you can make last-minute edits to a document that started life on your Mac with your iPad.

You can do this with iCloud. Save documents in iCloud from one device, then open them from another. However, Continuity takes this a step further with  handoff between devices. You’ll need to set things up in advance, but once it is working it feels almost like magic.

Although I’ve only been using Continuity with Pages 5.5 for a little over a week, I’ve already noticed a huge productivity gain. If, say, I’m away from home and have an idea, I can jot down notes on the phone, then polish them into a story on my Mac. A client rang and asked for some changes to a document when I was at a press conference. Thanks to Continuity I could make the changes on the fly and resend within minutes.

Apple also added real-time collaboration in Pages 5.0. I’ve not used this other than to test it as I work alone, it brings Pages collaboration up to date with tools like Google Docs.

Since moving to Pages 5.0, Apple has moved fast, the 5.5 version arrived in less than a year. On a Mac it now looks a lot more like the new OS X 10.10 Yosemite. Apple added support for the iCloud Drive and made it easier to use Pages with Gmail and DropBox.

Before the 5.5 upgrade I found myself moving away from Pages to other writing apps. The new version has brought me back. That may change as the other apps catch up with Continuity.

Pages 5.5 is free to anyone who purchased an Apple computer after September 2013. Upgrading from an older version of Pages is free. For everyone else it costs US$25.

iCloud Pages

In May 2014 Apple updated the iCloud version of Pages as part of Apple’s iWork for iCloud suite. There’s still a beta label on the online word processor but it works fine.

Apple iCloud Pages 2014
Apple iCloud Pages 2014

iWorks competes head on with Google Apps and Microsoft’s Office for the Web. Unlike its rivals, Apple built iWorks from the ground up as an online suite. This means you get a more polished and streamlined experience, although perhaps not as many features as the more established suites. I’m comfortable with that, you might not be.

The extra polish is everywhere. iCloud Pages is more elegant than online rivals like Google Docs and Word for the web. By that, I don’t just mean pretty — although it does look good. iCloud Pages integrates more smoothly with the other cloud apps in the iWork suite. It’s also easier to use. I doubt anyone moving to iCloud Pages from another word processor will struggle to be instantly productive.

In practice the software is similar to the desktop version, with the same stripped-back minimalist feel.

Like the Pages 5.5 app, Apple has boosted iCloud Pages collaboration. Apple says more than 100 people can work on the same document at the same time. I doubt many projects will see 100 people sharing a document in this way. Nevertheless the update matches Google Drive’s collaboration.

Apple goes beyond Google or Microsoft by allowing cross device collaboration. You can have the same document open in desktop Pages, iCloud Pages and iOS Pages — a change made in any one of these will turn up immediately in the others.

Apple’s iWorks for Cloud is free.

While iCloud Pages is an excellent minimal word processor, it suffers from being, well, there’s no nice way of saying this, pointless.

Anyone thinking of using iCloud Pages will already have Pages installed on their computers and, possibly, also on their iPad and iPhone. Adding a cloud version to these versions doesn’t make much sense. I bookmarked iCloud Pages on my Mac when I first tested the app and found I never naturally returned between first testing the software and taking another look to write this round-up. On the other hand, it could be useful in an emergency, especially if I had to use a non-Apple device.

Microsoft Word:mac 2011

It has been four years since the last Apple version of Microsoft Office. Four years is a long time between software releases. This is now a fast-moving market, Apple Pages has been through two versions in the past year. Apple’s OS X and iOS operating systems get an annual overhaul. In recent years Microsoft has updated Windows at the same pace. Windows versions of Microsoft Office arrive about every three years.

Microsoft Word Mac OS X screen shot
Microsoft Word Mac OS X

Apart from a few tweaks Microsoft’s Word:mac 2011 hasn’t changed in the past four years. So the new version is overdue. Microsoft told me to expect an update in early 2014. Then I was told the second half of 2014. Now there are suggestions the next Mac Office upgrade will be in 2015.

The good news, is the late update means Microsoft should be able to have Continuity working when the next version of Word arrives. I suspect Microsoft is preparing a similar technology to use on Windows as well.

The most recent Windows version of Word has a cleaner user interface. Compared with earlier Mac versions of Word it does a better job of staying out of the way, letting writers focus more on words and less on word processor mechanics.

Even so, Word:mac 2011 now looks out of date compared to the Windows version and Apple’s Pages 5.5. For this reason Word is rarely my first choice. If I have a writing job that needs a heavy-duty Word session, I reboot the Macbook in Windows 8 and use Word 2013. It is worth the effort. Word 2013 sings and dances where Word:max 2011 plods.

It’s hard to avoid Microsoft Word, it is the standard. Clients expect to get documents in Word format.

Almost everyone buys Word as part of Office. These days that generally means a NZ$165 annual Office 365 Home subscription, although there is also a NZ$119 Office 365 Personal edition. I recommend the Home subscription, it means you can use Office on up to five PCs — useful if you have a family with school or university students. The subscription also includes phone and tablet versions of the software.

Word is the world’s most popular application after web browsers. Everyone knows it, everyone has come across it. I Some people love it. It is powerful and full-featured. Every imaginable formatting option is in there somewhere. It can be clumsy and confusing at times — just try to wrap text around an image on a page without cursing.

iA Writer

For a year or so Information Architect’s iA Writer was my favourite writing app. iA Writer is a text editor, not a word processor. It has few features. You can’t change fonts or text size. In use it doesn’t show bold text or italics. There is nothing there except your words. Even the title bar disappears when you start typing.

iA Writer Mac OS X
iA Writer Mac OS X

As I have written elsewhere, it’s the nearest thing to using an old-fashioned mechanical typewriter. It’s fast, it’s productive and it never gets in the way.

These are all reasons why I loved it. I used iA Writer for all my short form writing jobs. The lack of navigation cues make it impractical for long form writing.

Although I love minimalist writing tools, iA Writer’s brand of minimalism became a problem for me earlier this year when I started having eye problems. The app uses a thin, typewriter-style serif font. It has a fixed size and runs across a fixed width. These are to minimise the options and stop writers from being distracted: admirable goals.

However, in my case I found as my eyes got worse I struggled to read the text. Not being able to make adjustments went from being a plus to a minus overnight.

iA Writer allows minimal levels of mark-up using Markdown, you can transfer this text directly to other Markdown-supporting tools, like, say, WordPress or save your documents as .rtf, .html or .docx format. I often do the latter when writing for clients who prefer getting stories in Word format.

At the time of writing, iA Writer is on sale in the OS X app store for US$10. There’s also a iOS version. When I last checked iA Writer hasn’t been upgraded to use Continuity. This isn’t that big a deal — iA Writer mainly stores documents in the cloud either at iCloud or DropBox. So picking up where you left off isn’t difficult.

The last iA Writer upgrade was to version 1.5 in August 2013, so a new version is due. This may not happen as Information Architects, the company behind iA Writer released the US$20 iA Writer Pro late in 2013. This app now seems to be the company’s main focus. I haven’t tested the pro version yet.

Byword

There’s no such thing as a perfect writing app. And anyway, those of us who write for a living can’t get away with using just one tool. But if there was a perfect app and if I could use just one, Byword would be my choice.

Byword Markdown preview
Byword Markdown preview

I wrote a more comprehensive review of Byword earlier. It isn’t for everyone, but the writing app ticks all my boxes.

Byword has all the simplicity and minimalism of iA Writer. There are few distractions, almost nothing to tinker with And yet you can set up comfortable typefaces, type sizes and screen widths.

Like iA Writer, Byword lets you focus on your words, not how they look. That’s great for productivity. It also does Markdown. That’s useful, Markdown is a simple way of marking up text documents with information like heads, subheads, bold text and so on. Byword’s Markdown comes into its own when you use the Publish add-on to file stories directly to WordPress, Blogger or Tumblr.

No-one begrudges software developers making money from their apps. I’m happy to pay. I’m less sure about Byword’s price structure. You pay US$13 for the OS X app and another US$5 for the iOS app — there’s no discount for buying both. You need to stump up another US$5 so that each app can publish. That’s a total of US$33.

Byword is good value. I can see it makes sense to break out the publishing capability so those who don’t need it can get going for less. On the other hand, I’d have liked a buy everything for US$25 option. The pricing structure feels like a drip feed.

If you run Apple devices alongside your Mac investing in the iOS version is worthwhile. For now you’ll have to be content with moving between devices using iCloud, the software hasn’t been updated for Continuity yet. On the other hand, Byword works as well on a phone or a tablet as it does on a PC.

I now use Byword for almost all my writing. There are no obvious flaws and after two months of intensive use, I’ve not run into problems. Of all the writing apps I’ve looked at here, this is now my favourite, but it isn’t for everyone. You don’t get much handholding from the app and there’s little scope to pretty-up words before sending them off.

Google Docs

Google Docs is a sleek cloud-based word processor. It is the best tool for live collaboration. For years I used it as part of a remote team putting together a daily news report.

Google Docs
Google Docs

Although there are professional writers who swear by Google Docs — some are my friends — it always strikes me more as a tool for casual writers. Google seems to have put more effort into collaboration and functionality than into the user experience. So you’ll find there are fewer keyboard short cuts which means a lot more mouse work.

You’ll also find it harder to read or proofread documents. There’s less control over the way things appear on screen, so you can end up dealing with long lines of text stretching across the screen. It’s years since I first noticed a problem with zooming and it still hasn’t been fixed. I’m also nervous about privacy with Google Docs. None of that is good.

Some users don’t like the lack of features in Google Docs. This is a problem for a lot of writing tasks, but it’s never bothered me. A lot of the baggage in, say, Microsoft Word, gets in the way of my work.

Finding Google Docs is not as easy as it once was. The web writing app is now part of Google Drive — that’s where you’ll find it. Just to confuse things there are standalone Google Docs apps for iOS and Android.

However you get it, Google Docs is free. I barely use it except when I need to collaborate on a writing project. For any other task it is the least productive writing tool on the Mac. When it comes to the Chromebook, it rules supreme.

Writing apps missing in action:

Scrivener: A number of friends and readers swear by Scrivener. It looks like a specialist writing tool for people who like to work in a different way to me. I’m put off by the opening line in the iTunes description “powerful content-generation tool” which is both poncey and scary. Anyone who describes writing as ‘content’ misses the point.

Another negative is the Scrivener image on iTunes shows precisely the kind of clutter I need to get away from when writing. The asking price is a barrier too. Although NZ$56 is not expensive if Scrivener does what you need. I’ve not tried Scrivener yet. Hopefully that will change by the time I wrote my next update.

Marsedit also falls into the specialist category. The app is for desktop blogging. As with Scrivener, plenty of readers contacted me after my last wrap of Mac writing tools to sing Maredit’s praises.

I downloaded the trial and found although it works just fine, Marsedit does nothing for me. Apart from anything else, most of my writing isn’t for this blog. It would be a clumsy app for writing a case study or a white paper. When it comes to blogging, I’m comfortable typing directly into WordPress. If I had difficulties connecting to the internet it would be a useful tool for composing offline.

Marsedit is another cluttered app — they work better on big screen iMacs than on my MacBook Air.

ComWriter is another alternative that popped up after my earlier look at OS X writing apps. The app is aimed at academic writers. It has academic references baked in to the main software. Like the iCloud version of Pages and Google Docs, ComWriter is web-based. The basic package is free, you pay more to manage research libraries.

Touch Voicemail iPhone app makes phones smarter

Modern cellphones are smart, but that’s not what it feels like when it comes to voicemail. Until now the only way to get at missed incoming messages is to call your phone network’s voicemail service, wade through clumsy prompts and listen to messages one-by-one.

Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees all say they have visual voicemail apps on the way which will change that. Meanwhile Hamilton-based Bridge Point already has an iPhone Touch Voicemail app in Apple’s iTunes app store.

Bridge Point director Ben Wilson says the app allows users to manage voicemail without calling their mobile carrier.

Touch Voicemail has a clean iOS7 — soon iOS8 — user interface. It looks almost as if it is part of the iPhone’s operating system and works as if it were. So, you can swipe items to delete them just as in the iOS Mail app.

The app shows a visual list of callers. You can listen to the messages in the order you want. That’s great for voicemail triage: skipping past unimportant or non-critical messages to the essential ones.

Once you open a message, you’ll see the caller’s photo if that’s stored on your phone. You’ll also see a playback button so you can listen to the message they left. There’s also a return call button. A third button allows you to send an SMS message to the caller.

Touch Voicemail intercepts missed calls and send them to its own server. From there Bridge Point sends the message to your phone as data, either through the mobile data network or by wi-fi if that’s available.

While the basic Touch Voicemail app is free, there’s also a NZ$25 a year Pro version. The extra money allows you to store more voicemail messages and to create different greetings for different circumstances.

You will use minutes from your mobile account to transfer calls to the server. That might not work if you have a prepay account. If you’re not connected to wi-fi, you’ll need to pay for the downloaded data. This isn’t expensive and you’ll save on the cost of calling conventional voice mail.

Byword: Mac writing tool that leaves you to focus

Byword is the ideal Mac writing tool if you just want to focus on words. There are versions for OS X (US$12.99 in the Mac app store) and iOS (US$4.99 in the iTunes app store). This review looks at the Mac version.

The key to Byword and the reason it is ideal for focusing on words is that it is not a word processor: it’s a text editor.

Word processor mission creep

That’s important because while word processors are useful, they have moved beyond their original intention. Most do jobs other than writing. As a result word processor developers threw the writing baby out with the bath water.

Apple’s Pages word processor is good at document layout. Microsoft Word does mail merge and tracks changes.

Most word processors do countless things that go beyond writing. This means the apps are complex and bloated. Let’s face it, with all that other stuff going on, it’s easy to be distracted.

How text editors differ from word processors

Text editors do little more than manage strings of letters, numbers and other characters. In general they are not concerned with fonts, layouts, creating tables and so on. Being pretty doesn’t come into it. They usually create plain text (.txt) files — although that’s not the whole story.

It’s true, text editors also do many things that go beyond writing. You can write programming code in a text editor. In fact, that’s what many of them are used for. I wrote my first HTML pages using a text editor. Even now I tinker with HTML, PHP and CSS using TextWrangler. That text editor is optimised for code. Unlike Byword it’s not great for writing.

A text editor’s power comes from its relative simplicity. A word processor’s power comes from its relative complexity.

Good text editors, like Byword, do one thing, manipulate text, but they do it well and stay out of your face.

Typewriter-like, in a good way

Byword is the nearest thing to using a manual typewriter that I’ve found to date. That’s not a new thought. iA Writer and my iPad are like a typewriter.

The typewriter comparison is important. Typewriters made for productive writing because of their simplicity. They didn’t offer scope for unproductive fannying about.

Of course typewriters couldn’t store documents. Editing was a pain, usually involving a red pen and white-out. And you needed to buy paper and ink. Even so-called portable typewriters were anything but portable by today’s standards.

Byword shares much with iA Writer. Both are text editors optimised for writers not coders. They both work with Markdown.

You can sync documents across your Mac, iPhone and iPad using iCloud with both apps. Both can produce plain text documents readable on any device. And both can save text documents in popular formats like .docx.

Minimalist

Although Byword and iA Writer look different, they share a minimalist user interface that means nothing gets between you and your words. There are zero distractions.

However, much as I love iA Writer, it takes minimalism a step too far. Nothing illustrates this better than its inflexibility about the font it uses. You can’t change the iA Writer font, nor can you change the font size.

This is deliberate, in the name of simplicity and minimalism, admirable goals. And yet, the font is ugly and that is a subtle form of distraction.

You may be OK with that. What I briefly couldn’t live with is the inability to change the font size. Earlier this year I had an eye condition that affected my ability to read text on a screen. The work around was to zoom the document and crank up the font size — things I couldn’t do with iA Writer. This is why I spent four months back in the word processor world with Pages and Word.

Readability

Byword allows font and font size changes in a non-distracting way. There’s a minimal preferences panel. You can choose whether the display shows white text on a black background or black on white. Better still Byword also allows a choice of wide, medium and narrow text columns.

These are wise options and in my view, essential for productivity. Most of the time black on white text works best, but there are times and lighting conditions where the reverse is better. You might be working at night — possibly on a flight or train — where a bright white screen disturbs others.

Changing the font means you can pick something you’re comfortable with. I use Apple’s Myriad Pro font at a 17pt size — it’s perfect for my needs. I find it easy to read and non distracting.

A trick I learnt years ago is to proofread my writing using a different font and size to the one I used to write the document. Try it yourself, you’ll notice you’ll spot errors you didn’t see first time around. That’s all to do with the way you read on-screen text.

Never mind the quality, feel the width

Being able to change the column width is great for a similar reason. There’s a good reason old school printed newspapers and magazines used narrow text columns, the way eyes track across the page means people comprehend better when the width is less than 72 characters wide.

Wide column widths are harder to track and that means it’s harder to proofread your copy. Set Byword to the narrow measure, which given your font choices could mean the columns are about 60 characters wide. That’s ideal.

Byword’s preferences are only about what you see on the editing screen. They are not about what the reader will see. The font, width, colour information is not stored in a text document. Once set they are universal for everything you write.

iA Writer has a focus mode where everything but the three lines you are working on fades into the background. It’s a great feature when you need to concentrate on tricky passages. Byword takes this feature a step further with a line focus and a paragraph focus. Both do exactly what the name suggests.

Where Markdown sings

Another thing wrong with traditional word processors is that they still revolve around printed documents even though most writing is now purely digital. Byword is digital though and through.

It uses Markdown, which is an easy way of embedding simple formatting in a document. A single # character at the start of a line makes it a header, that’s H1 in HTML. Two #s marks a line as H2 and so on. A single * before and after a word indicates italics. Two stars mean bold text.

These days most of my writing is published online first. I spend more time in WordPress than anything else. Because WordPress also uses Markdown, it is easy to move between Byword and WordPress. This also works for Blogger, Tumblr and Evernote among others.

Writing blog posts with Word, Pages or any other word processor means ten minutes clearing up before hitting the publish button.

Byword handles Markdown beautifully on-screen and that brings a surprise benefit I wasn’t expecting. With iA Writer long stories are hard to navigate. When writing you often need to scroll up and down to cross reference and check others parts of the story. Because iA writer is wide and the text all looks much the same, it’s hard to quickly hunt down sections. Those heads, bolds and italics, along with the narrow column width and ragged right justification take a lot of the hard work out of navigation.

If that’s not enough, there’s a preview option. The upshot is what you see on the preview screen is close to what you’ll see on your blog post.

Blog integration

While you can cut and paste text from Byword into WordPress or another blog, there’s a more direct channel. A US$5 premium version of Byword allows you to post stories directly from the text editor without opening your blogging software’s back end.

If you’re cautious you can save the post as a draft. The premium add-on allows you to add categories and tags.

Using Byword

This post is the first long story I’ve written using Byword. I also tested it with some shorter posts and stories. It’s clearly a productive writing tool, I can see it becoming my main workhorse.

Byword manages to deliver a writing tool that’s made for writers. In practice it feels like it combines the best things that you’ll find in a word processor with the minimalism of a text editor. Much as I love iA Writer, it sometimes feels a little too much like working in a foreign territory, I don’t get that with Byword.

Apple, Microsoft — two tablet visions

When Steve Jobs took the wraps off Apple’s first iPad, he showed a new class of device. The iPad was neither a new type of PC nor was it a giant smartphone. The iPad opened new territory.
Apple sold the original iPad as a personal digital media device. It stuck with that approach for the first three tablet generations.
 
It wasn’t until the iPad Air that Apple’s marketing bowed to the inevitable. The company admitted tablets are also useful for creating content and as business tools.
Even now that’s not Apple’s main sales pitch.
 
Google doesn’t sell its own tablets. When partners began selling Android tablets they followed Apple’s lead. Samsung took pains to emphasis the entertainment and media aspects of its Galaxy Tab S. Business takes a back seat.
 

Microsoft Surface Pro — productivity tablet first

That’s not how Microsoft views tablets.
 
Even before CEO Satya Nadella told the world Microsoft is a ‘productivity and platform’ company, it called the Surface a business tool.
 
This explains why Surface evolved fast. It had three generations in 18 months and went from tablet to tablet-cum-laptop. Microsoft’s marketing says the new Surface Pro 3 is a “PC when you need it and a tablet when you want one”. That speaks volumes.
 
The message is “you need a laptop to do real work, but tablets have a place too. Here’s something covering both bases”. It’s no accident that almost every Surface buyer picks up a keyboard along with their tablet.
 
How does this play out?
 
You could argue the Surface, particularly the Surface Pro 3, is the tablet corporate technology buyers always wanted. That’s the market Microsoft wants.
 
And yet, Apple does a great job selling iPads to large companies. Walk into any CBD glass tower you’ll see people using iPads.
 
The iPad took root in business from the bottom up. People who bought iPads for personal use took them to the office and found new ways to be productive. In some cases using third-party add-ons and apps from the iTunes store.
 
Companies had little choice but to adapt to this trend. It explains hence all the hand-wringing you hear about BYOD, bring your own device. I’ve no evidence, but suspect companies buy most Surfaces. They give them to staff as productivity tools. The other market people committed to Microsoft products and services. I also suspect many Surfaces replaced PCs.
 

One device or two?

Microsoft thinks you need only one device to do two jobs. The Surface Pro 3 could be the best Windows laptop. It’s a good tablet, but not fabulous and it is expensive.
 
In Apple’s world, there are two jobs needing two tools. The tablet is a consumption device.
 
If you are serious about creating content, buy a MacBook. You are, of course, welcome to buy both. Apple is doing something right. While iPad sales have hiccupped, sales of Apple laptops continue to rise. Windows laptop sales are falling, attacked from above by Apple and from below by the Chromebook.

MacBook Air – the first year

Last June I switched from a Windows 8 desktop, without a touch screen, to an Apple MacBook Air.

Four reasons prompted the move:

  • For the first time in ages I needed portability and my older Windows laptop was too long in the tooth.
  • After looking at and test-driving UltraBooks I saw Apple’s 2013 MacBook Air cost the same as a comparable Windows 8 PC. In the event I picked up a 13-inch Apple MacBook Air with a 256 GB solid state drive for NZ$1700.
  • I’d been using an Apple iPad for a year and an iPhone for a few months. It was clear Apple’s technology stack suits the way I work.
  • The MacBook Air’s thin, light design was important but more than anything I couldn’t go past its claimed 12-hour battery life

How did it work out?

Portability

Although I didn’t work away from home as often as expected, when I did, the MacBook Air’s thin, light design  was everything I hoped for. It did service at four or five away from home conferences and many client offices around Auckland. I also used it on planes and in cafes.

Because I’m a journalist, I need a decent keyboard and a good, readable screen. Windows UltraBooks offer  similar hardware, to date no-one has improved on the six-year-old MacBook Air format.

MacBook Air all-day battery

Battery life isn’t what it was. A year ago I could work more than ten hours on a single charge. Today there’s still enough juice to last a whole day away from home. I get about eight hours out of the MacBook Air now.

I rarely feel the need to pack a power supply when I’m working in someone’s office which means I can slip the computer into a neat leather case.

In part the shorter time is because battery life declines over time. However, I’ve changed the settings and now crank up the screen brightness which drains power faster. I also tend to leave Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on even when I’m not using them.

Even  so, I’d say Apple delivered on its battery life promise.

Keyboard, screen

I worried about ergonomic problems when I moved from a Windows desktop with full keyboard to the MacBook Air. There were none. Even when I ran into serious eye problems earlier this year, the MacBook and its ability to zoom was just fine.

Some complain the MacBook Air doesn’t have the high-resolution Retina display found on the iPad Air or the MacBook Pro. Presumably a big increase in pixels would push the battery harder — I prefer to stick with the existing display.

One other point, the MacBook Air’s 3:4 format screen is better for writing than the thinner postbox-shaped displays found elsewhere.

OS X, applications

Moving from Windows to OS X didn’t present any serious problems. A year on I still have to look up how to do obscure, rarely performed tasks on the Macintosh operating system. But I didn’t experience any hiccups. OS X is stable, I can go a long time between reboots and I’m not always sure they are necessary anyway.

Microsoft makes it easy to switch from Windows to OS X. My Office 365 subscription means I have to put up with out-of-date Office apps.

When I wrote Two months with the MacBook Air I said:

The 2011 Mac version of Microsoft Office is a disappointment after the 2013 Windows version. I find myself using it less and less preferring other tools. Unless Microsoft fixes this, I won’t renew my Office 365 subscription when it lapses early next year.

That didn’t happen because my Office 365 licence is shared with the other computers at home and my iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone. Damn it, Office 365 is too good a deal. And anyway Microsoft says a refresh is due soon. Maybe. In the meantime, I’ve been using Apple’s iWorks software.

What happened since buying the MacBook Air?

Microsoft’s first generation Surface devices were on sale when I bought my MacBook Air. I passed over these because the original RT Surface was underpowered and the first generation Surface Pro was both a touch underpowered and overpriced.

Although Chromebooks are not ideal tools for journalists and professional writers, their throwaway price and ridiculously low management overheads make them worth thinking about. OK. I’ve stopped thinking about them. The keyboards, screens and writing software are not up to the job. Let’s move on.

To me the Surface sits somewhere between the MacBook Air and the iPad. It’s a tablet, but the letter box-shaped Window means it’s not so comfortable switching between portrait and landscape modes. It’s a tablet, but I bet few Surface owners choose not to buy the optional keyboard.

Microsoft Surface

In practice Surface feels more like a touch screen laptop. I’ve nothing against touch screens. They have their place, but when you bang out words for a living, you don’t want to move your fingers too often from the keyboard to the screen. When I spent time with a Surface I ended up with horrible wrist pains from that action.

Despite all that, second generation Surface devices — and more recently the Surface Pro 3 — are fine alternatives to the MacBook Air. Surface would be my second choice behind a new MacBook Air.

Three things give the MacBook Air an edge:

  • A better, squarer display is important for writing. I need to see more lines of text and not a greater width of text. Incidentally, it’s harder to proofread across a wide measure. And the 13-inch screen makes for better writing productivity.
  • Microsoft’s newer Type Cover 2 keyboards are better than most tablet add-ons, but they are not as good for my kind of bashing out words typing style as the MacBook’s keyboard. Also, having the keyboard as an add-on means there’s something that conceivably could get left behind. I can’t risk that.
  • Microsoft’s Surface makes the MacBook Air look inexpensive. A 2014 MacBook Air with 13-inch screen and 256GB storage costs NZ$1650. A Surface Pro 3 with the same storage and a typewriter style keyboard is 25 percent more expensive at NZ$2077.

One year on

So far I’ve not mentioned what is perhaps the most important aspect of owning any work computer: productivity.

Life with the MacBook Air is more straightforward than my time with Windows. I doubt I’ve spent more than an hour or two doing anything resembling maintenance since I got the computer. In contrast I spent a couple of hours last week fixing a minor problem on my daughter’s Windows laptop.

The hours I’ve regained are more than worth the price of the computer.

At the same time, OS X does better at getting out-of-the-way than Windows. There’s a better focus on the user interface and that leads to greater productivity. On the flip side, there’s less flexibility, but that’s not what I look for in a work tool.

After one year I’m still convinced I made the right decision with the MacBook Air. I’d certainly buy another, perhaps after the next refresh or the one after that.

Mac Word, Windows Word and Parallels desktop

Microsoft says a new Mac version of Word is coming later this year. Hopefully, it will be more like  Windows Word 2013 than OS X Word: 2011.

When I switched to a MacBook last year, the thing I missed most was writing longer features in the Windows version of Microsoft Word. It does a great job of staying out-of-the-way and hiding complexity.

The Mac Word 2011 version has a few annoyances. I still struggle with them. Not least the way the most naked screen option resets the moment you switch focus to a different window.

Microsoft Word, Bootcamp

Recently I ran Word 2013 on my Mac in a Windows 8 partition using Bootcamp.

There are minor keyboard weirdnesses, but otherwise, it works well. The problem is that switching between OS X, which is more productive for other tasks and Windows requires a reboot. That’s not an efficient way of working. I don’t want to do that too often.

This week I’m running the Parallels Desktop 9 trial.

Parallels Desktop sets up Windows 8 in a virtual machine. You can configure Parallels to make Windows invisible and integrate Windows apps, like Word, with OS X. In effect this means I can run Word 2013 as if it were an OS X app.

OS X, Parallels Desktop 9

Parallels works fine, up to a point. I’ve tested a handful of Windows-only apps and the integration is first class. There are a handful of minor keyboard niggles — oddly not the same as those when running Windows Word in Bootcamp.

Perhaps the oddest behaviour is how the screen scrolling sometimes goes one way and sometimes goes another. A downstroke on the touchpad moves down screen while at other times that downstroke scrolls the screen up. It’s possible that’s a confusion between OS X and Windows over which OS is running the show.

I’m also not entirely comfortable that my Command-S keystrokes are saving the document — there’s nothing visible or audible to show anything has happened.

Parallels Desktop 9 good software but pricey

Parallels is expensive. A licence costs US$80, that’s around NZ$100. I’m told each new version requires a new licence, Parallels doesn’t sell updates. That seems expensive by 2014 software standards. I paid NZ$40 for Windows 8 and nothing to upgrade OS X from 10.8 to 10.9.

To be fair, Parallels is a sweet piece of software. It does a difficult job with panache. I’m impressed with how smoothly it works. You could forget it was there if it were not for the nagware message that continually pops up telling me to pay for a full licence.

However, I can’t reasonably justify spending 100 on that having a slightly nicer Word experience, especially when my Office 365 licence means I’ve already paid for a Word upgrade that could be just weeks away. So for now I buy that licence.

Update: I forgot to mention that I’ve round-tripping between Windows Word, iPad Word and Mac Word for a week or so and have yet to see a hiccup.