iA Writer 5

Is iA Writer a text editor? Or is it a minimal word processor? The software is both and neither at the same time. It’s an elegant stripped down writing tool that’s perfect for 2018.

iA Writer starts from the premise that some writers focus on their words, not how they look on a page.

There are no distractions. The software has almost no moving parts. Words on a screen, that’s it. iA Writer feels the nearest thing to using paper in a typewriter and yet it is as modern as the iPhone X.

If you like your writing software flashy and complex go elsewhere. If you need to do tricky typographic work or lay out pages, this is not for you. It is a writer’s tool, pure and simple.

MacOS and iOS

There are versions of iA Writer for iOS, MacOS and Android. It works best with Apple kit. If you don’t use Apple hardware, the software is a good reason to change. If you have an iPad Pro, this would be a good time to invest in a keyboard, although iA Writer is fine if you write on a glass keyboard.

That’s because cloud is central to the software. You can store documents locally on a Mac, iPhone or iPad, but why would you when you can save them the cloud and have them sync between devices.

This works so well that you can type away on, say, a MacBook, race out the door and pick up from where you left off on an iPhone.

The app-OS-hardware integration has only improved with Apple’s recent move to iOS 11.

A breeze compared to Word, Pages

Of course you can do much the same with, say, Microsoft Word or Apple Pages. Up to a point.

Word is a hefty MacOS app. It rarely starts without checking to see if there is a software update — usually once a week. Often you’ll need to wait 15 minutes or so before working while Microsoft handles the latest updates to all the Office apps.

Even when there are no updates Word is not instant on. iA Writer is ready immediately. Often a Word work session starts with something other than jumping straight into writing. Maybe you need to find the right fonts or styles. There are always things to fuss over.

With iA Writer you are ready to go almost from the moment you click the app’s icon. There is nothing to fuss over. Almost no possible choices to make.

Focus

The idea behind iA Writer isn’t new. A decade ago there were minimalist word processors and writing tools for Macs and PCs. You may recall WriteRoom or Q10.

There were others. And if you didn’t want a special app, there were the basic text editors shipped with operating systems and tools derived from the Linux or Unix text editors. Even the MS-Dos versions of Word Perfect were minimal in this way. So were older programs like WordStar.

All of them attempted to keep out of your way. In place of a fancy user interface and menus full of esoteric commands, they relied on the user learning a few standard codes. These were embedded among the words to handle things like bold text, heads and so on.

Markdown

iA Writer uses Markdown to do this. Markdown is simple and keeps out of the way. Type a single hash # character at the start of the line for a top level head, two hashes means second level head and so on. It takes seconds to learn a days to master.

One key difference between iA Writer and earlier simple writing tools is the beautiful integration with the hardware, software and cloud services.

It’s as if the the software developers digested the entire Apple less-is-more credo and spat it out as a perfect writing application. Perfect is not too strong a word here. Although this style of perfection may not be to your taste.

iA Writer’s rival

Only one other application comes close to iA Writer’s elegance and simplicity. The excellent Byword has its own minimalist aesthetic. It too is lightweight, simple and stays out of the way.

Unlike iA Writer which offers next to zero choices, Byword gives you some options. You can change a few things.

This may sound like a cop-out. It isn’t. I have a medical condition which means my eyes sometimes don’t work well. When I’m having bad eyesight days, I can’t adjust the iA Writer type to a bigger size, I can’t alter the font or screen colour to make reading easier. With Byword you can make these changes.

Subtle difference

The result is the two similar minimal writing tools have distinct personalities. They work for different types of use. iA Writer is all about the writing and precious little else. You can use it for complex writing jobs, but it works best for blog posts, putting down thoughts and things like journalism.

Byword is a touch more sophisticated. You can write a book or a 3000 long-form feature in either app. If you want something more, Byword is the first stop on the road from iA Writer to more complex tools like Apple Pages or Microsoft Word.

Efficient

There’s something else important about iA Writer and Byword. The two apps have an impact on the way you write. I find I can sit at a Mac or iPad and zip through a thousand words or so in quick time. This blog post will take less than an hour to write.

Between the minimal software and the Markdown editing language there is almost no reason to move your hands from the keyboard. That’s when you have one on a Mac or say with your iOS device.

With, say, Word, the composition part of the writing process takes longer. There’s more scrolling up and down the page. More distraction. Sure, you can make the words look pretty as you go, but that’s a barrier to getting the right words written efficiently.

Version 5

In November iA Writer reached version 5. It was a free upgrade to those who had earlier versions. There are changes. First the iOS version now works with the new iOS file system.

There are other changes which added functionality without adding complexity. One is that it is now easier to create tables in text.

iA Writer’s other big change is there is a new duospace font. Since the software first arrived there has been no choice other than a standard monospace, typewriter-style font. Now you can choose monospace or duospace.

This sounds like a big deal. In many ways it is. And yet, you’d hardly notice it. I knew I had set the new font in my preferences after downloading the update, but had to go back a moment ago to check I was using it. That’s how subtle it is.

Indeed, while typing away you hardly notice any of the improvements in the last seven years and five versions of iA Writer. That’s the whole point of a minimalist application.

You can find iA Writer in the app stores or visit the company’s website.

 iA Writer 5: When you want words without fuss was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

Flying meat acorn 6For 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.

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Duet DisplayDuet Display started life as an iOS app to turn an iPad into a second screen for a Mac or Windows PC.

It has since moved on. The latest version adds a Touch Bar interface. There’s also an optional upgrade that turns an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil into an advanced drawing tablet.

I’ve been using Duet Display for a couple of years. It was great in its day. There are still times when it comes in handy.

Yet, changes to both Apple operating systems means it’s no longer as useful as it was. At least not for my purposes.

Turning an iPad into a second screen is a breeze.

You connect your iPad to a computer using the charging cable. This may seem odd in an era when everything is wireless. It turns out having wire between a computer’s USB port and an iPad’s Lightning connector gives Duet a huge advantage. The connection is fast, responsive and reliable. The two devices act as one.

Duet Display needs two apps

There are apps to install at both ends. The iPad app shows up as a normal icon, like any other iOS app. There is also an icon for the MacOS app. When the software is in use, you see a second, small icon on the Mac menu bar.

Duet Display takes no time to set up. It’s as easy as connecting the cable. Once connected, the iPad works exactly like you’d expect an external screen to work.

There are settings to fiddle with. My iPad is set up to work a 60 frames per second. There is a slower, more energy-efficient 30 frames per second option.

You can choose between four different resolutions. The highest Retina resolution on the iPad uses more power, you can wind it down. If I connect from my 1440 by 900 pixel MacBook Air there’s an option to mirror the screen.

Touch Bar

The other option is to add a Touch Bar to the bottom of the iPad display. While this can be handy with some apps, I find I don’t tend to use it.

In practice it pays to tinker with the settings to get everything right. Some of this is a matter of taste. Some of it is depends on the apps you use.

If, say, I run my MacOS Mail app on a 12.9-inch iPad Pro screen at the highest resolution, text is too small to read. It is worth cranking the resolution up that far to work with a graphics app.

Duet Display seems useful for productivity apps. I might have an editor open on the Mac screen and have a research document open on the iPad. This used to be the best way to work.

Today it is often simpler to use the Mac and iPad as standalone devices. Thanks to iCloud it is as easy to have the editor run on the Mac and use, say, Preview, to look at the research document on the iPad. Sharing documents between devices is trivial if you have iCloud.

Duet looks helpful if, say, I’m editing CSS or HTML and want to see my changes on the page in a browser. Again, this works as well, maybe better with two standalone devices.

Integration

If I had written this post 18 months ago, Duet Display would have been the best way to go. These days the Mac and iPad integrate so well with each other it is less essential. I can hit control-C on the Mac to copy, then post the information on my iPad.

There are still times when using it as a second screen is a productivity boost. Say, you’re working with two word processor documents. Having two open windows in the same instance of the application can be useful if you move text between them. It’s a fraction smoother than Apple handing over between iOS and MacOs.

Duet Display brings the iPad’s touch screen to the non-touch Mac. There are times when this is useful. MacOS isn’t designed for touch, so you won’t use it that much.

It also uses the Apple Pencil. Again, there’s not much MacOs support, so it’s of limited use.

The Mac app is free. I paid NZ$20 for iOS app. There is a NZ$32 in-app purchase to unlock the Pro version. That’s a lot of money by iOS app standards. Whether it is worth paying depends on your needs.

Pro version

Duet Display Pro version has more Apple Pencil support and better colour matching between devices. It means you can use your iPad as a drawing tablet with apps like Adobe Photoshop. That’s no use for me, I’m terrible at drawing, but if you have an artistic bent, it would be powerful.

You can use Duet Display with an iPhone, although it’s hard to see what benefit there is in having a tiny second screen.

At times Duet Display is useful and powerful. Those times are fewer than in the past. When they come around, it is an ideal and impressive way of solving a problem. It’s the kind of software you should know about and file away in your memory until you need it.

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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. ↩︎

Apple’s 2016 MacBook Pro has a slim new body. It boasts a faster processor, larger trackpad, improved keyboard, better speakers and a glorious high-resolution Retina display.

Everything in that list, except maybe the keyboard, is an improvement on earlier MacBooks. If you own an old MacBook Pro that’s approaching the end of its life, now is a good time to upgrade. You’ll get a definite performance bump, a better experience and greater mobility.

Complaints about ports and dongles are real enough, but overstated. In a year or so everyone will wonder what the fuss was about.

The more expensive new MacBook Pro models have two important additions. The Touch Bar and Touch ID sensor are a departure from earlier computer designs.

Apple’s Touch Bar replaces the row of function keys while the Touch ID button sits on the far right of the function key row where the power button once lived.

Cosmetic or innovation?

People want to know if the Touch Bar and Touch ID are gimmicks or whether they help productivity. They may not be a Great Leap Forward, but they are useful. More useful than you might think. And they are more than just cosmetic upgrades.

Touch ID works on the MacBook Pro in the same way it does on iPhones and iPads. You can use it to bypass the login password. It maybe not give you a huge productivity boost, but it makes for a better experience.

Move back to a Mac without Touch ID and you’ll miss it.

Touch ID also works as verification for some apps and websites. If you have Apple Pay you can use it to make payments. You can login to some services with it. It won’t change your life, it will rub a few rough corners a fraction smoother.

Touch Bar controllers

Replacing the function key row with a Touch Bar is more radical than it looks. You can still use the function keys by hitting the function key. If you’ve memorised function key short cuts they are all still there. At times I’ve managed to turn unchanged type the keys and they are exactly where my fingers expect to find them. But replacing function keys is not the whole story.

Because the Touch Bar is a long, thin touch screen many apps can use the space to let you know your function key options. They can display function names, not just F1 or whatever.

They can have names written on them, show icons or be displayed in bright colours to draw your attention. The functions can change dynamically depending on the state of the software.

In the Safari browser tiny thumbnails of tab displays show allowing to switch quickly between pages. Navigation keys are also more obvious.

Touch Bar when a video is playing in Safari
Touch Bar when a video is playing in Safari

The Touch Bar comes into its own when apps need slider controls. In iTunes you can move a slider to control the volume.

Touch Bar for iTunes
Touch Bar for iTunes

In Garage Band the slider controls various functions for things like the mixing desk or dials used for synthesiser settings and so on. In graphics apps and photos editing tools you can use the Touch Bar to pick colours and so on.

It’s a touch screen…

With the Touch Bar Apple has drawn a clear line in the sand between Macs and Windows computers.

Apple company wisdom has it that if you want a touch screen device, you can get an iPad. If you want a more traditional Keyboard-based computer get a Mac. That way won’t need to keep reaching from keyboard to screen and back again.

Touch Bar for MacOS Mail app
Touch Bar for MacOS Mail app

Apart from anything else, that constant reaching an occupational overuse hazard waiting to happen. The reach from keyboard to screen is neither natural nor comfortable. I found aches on my forearms when I first spent a lot of time with the Microsoft Surface.

So the Touch Bar gives you some of the functionality you might get from a touch screen, but without the constant reaching.

Theory, practice,

That’s the theory. In practice it works better than you might expect. If it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you see the idea written down, wait until you start using it for real tasks. It takes a little adjusting.

Apple hasn’t done a great job of explaining any of this in its marketing so far. The Touch Bar wasn’t well described during the October 27 MacBook Pro launch.

To be fair, there wasn’t a huge amount of software support for the feature at the time of the launch. It has been progressively added over the past six weeks or so with more and more software using the feature. You also get the feeling that many developers have yet to learn how to make the most of the Touch Bar.

It’s hard to estimate how much extra you pay for Touch Bar and Touch ID because the specifications of models with and without the features are somewhat different.

Even if it is not a great leap forward, it is a useful step towards greater productivity. Often when Apple makes a change of this type, there’s a little market noise or even sneering from rivals, then other computer makers add the feature or something similar to their products. This may not happen with Touch Bar as the Windows world is busy ploughing ahead with full-on touch screens.