Bill Bennett

Menu

Tag: MacOS

Ten years of Markdown and iA Writer

It may not work for everyone, but switching from Microsoft Word to a Markdown or text editor boosted my productivity.

Almost every post written on this site over the last 13 years was written using Markdown.

If we want to be technical about it, Markdown is a simple, lightweight markup language.

At a pinch you can write Markdown using a plain text editor. It is better when you use an app. My favourite Markdown app is iA Writer.

Swiss Army knife

Microsoft Word is the writing equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. It aims to cater for every possible need.

In comparison, Markdown and iA Writer are like one of those extra sharp Japanese cooking knives.

They do far less, but what they do, is done better with greater efficiency.

If you don’t know what life will bring you, the Swiss Army knife makes sense. But a chef would choose the latter to prepare a meal.

Simple, minimal, that is the whole point

The beauty of Markdown is there are a mere handful of commands to remember. There are few features.

That is a good thing. It means you can focus on writing words. Nothing else.

In this sense it is the closest thing to using a typewriter.

A few good commands

You can type out the commands for, say, bold text. That would be a couple of * symbols before and after the words you want in bold.

In a Markdown app you could also use Command-B (on a Mac) and the symbols are inserted for you. That’s the same code used in word processors like Microsoft Word.

This means there is almost nothing new to learn. You can be up and running with Markdown immediately.

Zero distraction

The advantage of this simple, minimal approach is you are not distracted by things that don’t matter.

There is no dithering over font choices or layout options.

Trust me, you can spend hours wondering if that editor waiting for your latest story prefers to get copy in Arial or Times Roman.

Faster

Simple means fast. A moment ago I fired up Microsoft Word on my state-of-the-art Apple M1 MacBook Air.

The app took three minutes to check for and download upgrades. Then it did something in the background before opening.

There are times when I have waited much longer to get started.

A Markdown editor is there immediately with a blank page ready to go.

Sure, there are times when I use Word. I have clients who expect to receive Word files or Google Docs. It can be easier to go there from the outset.

That said, converting Markdown to Word or Google Docs is no more than a mouse click away.

Comfortable

Markdown has another advantage. It is all about text.

If, like me, you can touch type, it means you can spend more time with your hands on the keyboard and less time mousing.

I find that over time Microsoft Word needs extra mouse activity – or touch screen action. That can give me overuse pains in my hands and arms. The more time you stay with the keyboard, the less discomfort.

It’s easy to miss this point, but if you find yourself cutting text from PDFs or web pages, pasting them into iA Writer is a cinch. Compare that with the fussiness that can happen when you past text into a word processor.

Markdown apps

Many of the posts on this site were written with iA Writer. A handful were written using Byword.

Byword is a Markdown Editor for Apple users. There is a Mac version and an iOS version that will also run on iPadOS.

iA Writer started life in the Apple camp. There’s a reason for that1.

Today there are Windows and Android versions of iA Writer.

iA Writer and Byline

For me two apps run on iOS, iPadOS, which for a long time was, in effect, the same as iOS, and they run on MacOS.

My first iOS version of iA Writer cost NZ$2.59 at the end of 2011.

It was, and remains, a bargain. That was the best $2.59 I ever spent on software. In 2016 iA charged a further NZ$5.99 for an upgraded app.

I’m not complaining. Even after buying MacOS apps, iA Writer works out at a fraction over one New Zealand dollar a year.

Phone, tablet, laptop, desktop

Because both apps store files in Apple’s iCloud, you can switch between Apple devices without missing a beat.

I can, and have, started writing on a phone, edited on a desktop, polished on a tablet and send from a laptop.

iA Writer and Byword are both solid apps. I recommend iA Writer over Byword because it has had more consistent attention from the developer over the years.

Although there is not a lot in it.

At the time of writing the most recent update of iA Writer was three months old. The most recent Byword was six months ago.

In my longer review of the latest version of iA Writer I explain why it can be better than a word processor.

Ten years on

After a decade with iA Writer, it remains my main writing app on iPhone, computer and iPad.

There are a few minor niggles. iA Writer works best for my journalism and blog posts.

Once a story needs to go longer than a few thousand words it can be unwieldy. Last year I wrote around 4000 words for a book chapter using iA writer.

If that happens, I find it best to break the text into smaller chunks.

There is no question I’m more productive with Markdown than with any alternative. I get more done with less mental and physical strain.

That has to a killer feature by any standard.


  1. Markdown has a strong Apple lineage. One of the authors is John Gruber who runs Daring Fireball, a blog about Apple products and services. ↩︎

macOS 11 Big Sur review: Homage to iPad

Last week Apple released MacOS 11 Big Sur. The latest version of Apple’s desktop operating system is most significant update in two decades.

In part this is timing. MacOS 11 Big Sur arrives as Apple is moving Mac hardware from Intel processors to its own chip technology.

The first Apple Silicon computers launched earlier in the same week the OS dropped.

Discontinuity

Apple Silicon is beyond interesting. It marks a once-in-a-generation discontinuity on price-performance curves.

The ARM-based M1 processors are part of the same family as the A14 chip found in the latest iPhones and iPads.

While Apple is converging its hardware designs, something similar is happening with operating systems.

iPad fingerprints everywhere

MacOS 11 looks a lot like the latest iPadOS. The two share a similar translucent menu bar, dock, icons and other key parts of the user interface.

Apple has moved the on-off switches found on iOS and iPadOS to macOS. Likewise the full height sidebars will be familiar to anyone who uses iPadOS 14.

There’s a Control Centre that has more than a passing resemblance to the iOS or iPadOS Control Centre.

Here you can find settings for common control such as the volume, screen brightness and other things. In earlier versions of MacOS you could get at these through the menu bar. If you choose, you still can.

Apple has given the Notification centre a similar overhaul. Again it looks like iOS. The Mac Messages app is now much the same as its iOS or iPadOS counterparts. The Maps app has been given the same treatment.

Safari

Safari has been through a similar makeover. It looks markedly different in places. You can now see favicon on tabs, these are the little icons used to identify web sites. Pop-up previews let you know what to expect when you hover the cursor over a tab.

There are more customisation options. You can now roll-your-own Start page. And, very Apple 2020, there’s a built-in privacy report. It shows which websites are tracking you and how they watch you as you move around the web.

Much of the initial customer reaction to the update centres on this user interface redesign. There are high profile long-time Mac users who don’t like the changes. A handful hate them.

iPad convergence

The convergence is deliberate and strategic. Apple may not merge its operating systems in the foreseeable future, but it will be possible to run iOS or iPadOS apps on a Mac in ways that look and feel natural. Moving between the different devices won’t be a jarring experience.

While this is important for many Apple customers, the underlying MacOS remains much the same as before. The same features are there, in many cases they work as they did before.

One thing I’m now acutely aware of is how the new look and feel help with accessibility. This might seem counter intuitive. In places fonts are smaller and skinnier than before. The menu icons are also smaller.

Yet macOS 11 Big Sur arrived as I was recovering from an eye condition1 that, at times, meant I was down to 20 percent of normal vision. In practice I found the newer operation system is easier to see and navigate than before.

The more vibrant colours help. There’s more transparency than before, this can be bad from an accessibility point of view, but you can turn it off if you find it a problem. Oddly, and I find this hard to articulate, I didn’t. Even when my vision was at its lowest ebb, macOS 11 Big Sur was readable.

Likewise, while Big Sur has less contrast than early versions of macOS, it wasn’t an issue.

There are a couple of minor niggles. Since the upgrade, I can no longer use an Apple Watch to unlock the desktop iMac. If there’s a setting that needs tinkering with I can’t find it, not have I found help in the support forum.

Something strange is going on with Apple’s Continuity and the new OS. This could be linked to the Watch issue.

In the majority of cases Continuity works as before. Yet if I, say, go to Safari on the iPad to open a browser window that shows on my Mac, I can’t see the current batch of tabs. Instead I get a set from a few hours ago.

These problems are tiny. Apple may fix them in an update or it could be my settings aren’t right. They are not deal breakers.

Big Sur verdict

There’s a lot that’s new in macOS 11 Big Sur. Much of that is out of sight to everyday users.

Apple has been preparing the ground for this upgrade over the last year or two, which means it is not as jarring as major upgrades were a decade ago. You won’t get lost although you may need a degree of adjustment. A month from now this will be as familiar as your last macOS.

The iPad’s influence is everywhere. It feels as if Apple is using the iPad to push its vision of computing forward, then adopting these features on the Mac as they mature.


  1. Much better now. Thanks for asking. ↩︎

Dragon Professional for Mac V6: Near perfect dictation

You have to hand it to Nuance. The latest Dragon Professional voice recognition software is impressive. So is its business model.

Dragon’s software is expensive by today’s standards. A single user licence for Dragon Professional version 6 costs US$300. You can buy a PC for less.

Keep in mind both Apple and Microsoft include voice recognition software as part of their operating systems. Neither application is free, but they are already paid for. So, in effect, Dragon is, asking people to pay again for something they already have.

That puts the business’s livelihood on the line. To make it work, Dragon has to offer something special. It does that. Dragon Professional version 6 performs far better than the alternatives from Apple and Microsoft. It uses something called deep learning to improve accuracy.

Dragon Professional more accurate than alternatives

Dragon claims this means the software has 99 percent recognition accuracy. There’s no easy way to verify the claim, but in testing the software does a near perfect job of turning spoken words into computer text.

What the numbers don’t tell you is that even a small improvement in voice recognition accuracy means a vast improvement in the experience. The difference between going back and correcting every tenth word, 90 percent accuracy, and every hundredth word, 99 percent accuracy is huge.

You can improve performance by training the software. If you’re committed to using Dragon, then investing some time makes sense. Yet in practice the software works so well out of the box you might decide to just get on with it.

It seems the software does some form of training when in use. Every so often there’s a message to say Dragon is updating your profile.

Integrated app

Dragon Professional isn’t a stand-alone application. It is integrated into the operating system. It works with other apps. Apple Pages and Microsoft Word are the obvious candidates, but any program using text input should work.

It works with almost every Mac app that uses keyboard input. In theory you can control less word-oriented apps such as image editors, but that doesn’t make practical sense. Having said that, Dragon Professional is excellent at performance everyday MacOS commands. It would be an ideal tool if you had access problems with your hands.

A small icon appears in the Mac’s menu bar, in much the same way as other system level apps. When the software is in use a small floating window opens on the screen with three more icons. There’s also a guidance window with help when you need it.

For most of the time the second window keeps out of the way. The main one is small enough to not be a distraction. The microphone icon shows green when it is on and red when it off, otherwise there’s not much to see.

If you like using the cursor you can switch between Dictation, Command, Spelling and Numbers mode using the main floating window.

There’s a transcription mode which allows you to turn audio files into text. It’s a lot more hit and miss than the normal dictation software. It manages to cope with a few minutes of audio where there is only one speaker, but chokes if you attempt to transcribe, say, an interview with two people talking.

A personal productivity note

While the technology in Dragon’s latest voice recognition software is impressive, it’s not for me. After forty years of touch typing, I write with my fingertips. Any attempt to compose faultless prose using my voice ends in an embarrassing mess.

That’s not to say I don’t make typing errors. Anyone who has read my tweets can see that. Yet the flow of my writing is so much better when I hit keys than when I speak. No doubt that would change if I spent thousands of hours improving my technique. Simple economics says I’m better off sticking with what I know.

Take this blog post as Illustrating how this works. I started out trying to use the Dragon Professional software to write the post.

It was a disaster. Although professional scribes are taught to ‘write like you talk’, that advice is not meant to be taken literally. When I gave up on voice recognition, I hit the ground running and finished the post in minutes.

There’s another problem that may affect some readers. I feel self-conscious and uncomfortable when dictating to a machine. There’s nothing worse than knowing people can hear you as you compose a story. That’s not an issue when I type.

While we are on the personal stuff I should mention another major plus for Dragon. Most voice recognition tools struggle with my accent. It’s a hybrid British-antipodean thing.

UK voice recognition settings don’t work for me. Nor do New Zealand ones. Oddly, Australian settings get me the best result on Apple equipment. Nothing seems to cope with my voice on Microsoft systems. Dragon Professional worked out of the box even though the settings are hard-wired to New Zealand.

Verdict

All the above leaves me in an odd position. I’m about to recommend a product that I wouldn’t normally use myself. So let’s run through the main points again. Dragon Professional version 6 does an excellent job of turning spoken words into text. The software is accurate and reliable. It also provides a great way to control a Mac when you can’t or don’t want to use hands.

Acorn 6: MacOS image editing for the rest of us

For years Adobe Photoshop was my image editor. I used it on a Windows PC. Then switched to the Mac version. Now my first choice image editor is Flying Meat’s Acorn 6.

Acorn only runs on a Mac. Last week the software updated from version 5 to 6. The upgrade brings a raft of new features, improvements and bug fixes.

Photoshop is a heavyweight image editor in every sense of the word. It has a vast array of features.

Designers and other professionals love its power. So do hardware makers. Photoshop chews through computing resources. You need a powerful processor and lots of ram to make it work. Even then it can be slow.

Acorn 6 compared to Photoshop

Acorn is the polar opposite. It has fewer features. Relative to Photoshop, it sips resources.

I found Acorn when I moved to a MacBook Air . Photoshop runs on the Air, but it isn’t pretty. After asking around I found and purchased Acorn 5. I wish I had found Acorn earlier.

While there is power in Photoshop, I only ever scratched the surface of the software.

As a journalist, my image processing is cropping and tweaking to make pictures clearer. Often that’s simple. It means applying filters or adjusting colours and contrast.

On the rare occasion I want to do more, Photoshop’s steep learning curve is, well, steep.

It means struggling for a few minutes. Then giving up by reverting to a less ambitious plan B. If the job has enough budget, then a professional can do the job.

Which meant I wasn’t getting value out of Photoshop.

The cheapest way to buy Photoshop is to pay a little over NZ$30 a month for a subscription.

At the time of writing you can buy Acorn 6 outright for about three weeks’ Photoshop. There is a limited-time US$15 promotion. When the price returns to US$30, Acorn 6 will still cost less than two months of Photoshop.

Everyday image editing

I use Acorn 6 every day. While I still only scratch the surface of the software, going deeper is less time consuming. It’s less daunting. Flying Meat software provides all the online help and tutorials you might need to solve problems.

The software never pushes against the resource limits of my MacBook Air. Acorn is snappy all the time, no matter what you throw at it. OK, that might not be the case if you try something heroic. That’s not somewhere I go.

I’ve yet to find any image editing task that I want to do, but can’t. If there’s something tricky and there’s a budget, I’ll still hire a pro to do the work with Photoshop.

Knowing when to walk away from time-wasting is a useful life skill for a freelance. So is knowing when to buy a low-joule image editing application.

On switching Mac to Windows, or Windows to Mac

surface book
Microsoft Surface Book

Is it time to swap your Mac for a Windows laptop? 1

You don’t have to look hard to find similar stories elsewhere. A number appeared after Apple launched the MacBook Pro in late October.

Other Apple users used social media to wonder out loud about jumping to Windows or to announce an actual move.

And Windows users are thinking of moving to Mac.

On one level moving is easy

This level of fluidity is unprecedented. In many respects it has never been easier to move from Mac to Windows or Windows to Mac.

Yet switching from one to the other or for that matter to Linux or a Chromebook can be trouble. It can be so much trouble that you need powerful reasons to move.

A missing HDMI port is not enough reason.2 At least not on its own.

Wrenching…

Wrench number one is that most long-term computer users have invested in one or more expensive apps that don’t make a good journey to the alternative operating system.

This is less of a problem now that many apps are cloud-based or purchased as a subscription. It’s not going to worry anyone who uses, say, Xero.

If, say, you move from a Mac to a Windows machine, and use Microsoft Office then you can kill the MacOS account and download the applications to your new Windows computer in a matter of minutes.

Cloud

You can keep your iCloud account active long after moving to Windows. Likewise, Microsoft OneDrive works well on Macs.

More specialist applications and games can be more troublesome.

There aren’t many third-party hardware devices still limited to only Apple or Windows. Printers, back-up drives, routers and so on can make the switch in minutes.

If you like a big screen or typing on a mechanical keyboard your old devices will all work with your new computer. Although you may need to buy a dongle to connect them to the ports on the new machine.

Phones

You may run into unforeseen compatibility problems between devices like phones or tablets. iPhones and iPads play nice with Windows PCs and Macs, but the experience is much better when you are all Apple.

Likewise, the flow between your Android phone and your Windows laptop will be different if you switch to a Mac. Maybe not worse; different.

There will be minor niggles.

Standardisation and convergence mean from a hardware and software point of view moving from Windows to Mac or Mac to Windows isn’t a big deal.

Brain

However, moving your brain from one way of thinking to another is harder.

This isn’t so much of a problem for casual users who don’t dive too deep into their operating system. There will be frustrating mysteries in their new system, but there already are in the old one.

More sophisticated users can struggle. All of us who work many hours each day with computers develop habits, learn shortcuts and productivity hacks to get more done in less time. These rarely translate from one operating system to another.

You’d be surprised how many you have accumulated over the years.

Peak productivity

It can take hours to get used to the basics of a new operating system, it can take months to get to peak productivity.

This is why moving can be trouble.

Within hours of firing up a new computer with a different OS you’ll take delight in features that were missing from your old one.

Not long after you’ll start to wonder why simple things that were so easy with your old computer are suddenly hard — or even seem impossible.

You have to build this learning curve into your planning before moving.

If you are unhappy with what you have, if your frustrations have reached boiling point or if you like the look of that fancy new computer then by all means move to another operating system.

While changing may be rewarding in the long-term, in the short-term it could be harder than you expect.


  1. Spoiler alert: After testing the Surface Book Hern is not moving. ↩︎
  2. If you’re a disgruntled MacBook Pro user you’d have to be crazy to spend up to NZ$6000 on a Surface Book because of a missing port. In comparison dongle costs are nothing. ↩︎

WordPress.com OS X app

The WordPress.com OS X app is beautiful software. It’s also close to pointless.

The app is wrapped around the most recent browser version of the blogging software. That’s it.

It runs well enough, but it doesn’t do anything that you can’t do in the browser. Many of those tasks work better in the browser.

Moreover, there are some things the app doesn’t do, so you are sent back to the browser version anyway.

There are only three reasons to use the WordPress app:

  • To keep Safari or another browser set aside for non-WordPress tasks.
  • To go straight to WordPress.com from the Dock or Application launcher.
  • If you want to store your WordPress data locally on your Mac.

None of these are compelling:

  • WordPress.com and WordPress.org both work well in Safari. But even if you hate working that way, like it or not, there will be times when the app sends you there.
  • If you keep WordPress in your Safari bookmarks you can get there in two clicks instead of one.
  • Storing data on your local computer may help if you have a poor internet connection, otherwise, it’s rarely an issue.
  • If you feel the need to compose a post outside of the site, you could use a Markdown editor like iA Writer or Byword. iA Writer integrates well with WordPress. There are many other editors which link to the software. If you want to use an online service, you can publish to WordPress from Google Docs.

In short, there may be a  case for people who spend all day managing their sites to use the app, but for most people it’s just clutter.

There is another flaw with the app. It doesn’t appear to automatically update the display. If it does, then the updates are infrequent. And there’s no obvious refresh button to hurry updates along. This matters if, say, you want to watch the traffic roll in after a new post.