State of the Apps – 2019

That time of the year’s come again, where I go over the apps I’ve used throughout the last twelve months, evaluate them, talk about them a bit, and determine whether or not they’ve been good to me this 2018. Here we go!

For reference, I am an undergraduate student in the social sciences. My main platforms are macOS and iOS. I am not sponsored by, or in any way affiliated with any of the products mentioned in this post.

Writing

iA Writer – for daily writing

For those who don’t know iA Writer, it is the distraction-free writing software. Clean, lean, mac-like, no-fuss, no-Electron1, no scammy subscription models, it just works. This app was in the list last year, and it keeps its hard-earned spot as my writing app of choice for good reason. Throughout the year the developers have kept on updating it, carefully adding functionality, ironing kinks out, and quickly adapting to new macOS features (see Dark Mode), but without giving in to feature creep. Every new feature added in the last months is initially invisible unless the user specifically chooses to make use of it. It’s incredibly lightweight, responsive, and clean. That’s all one needs from a writing app. And the year isn’t over yet, as they are planning to release a new major version before Christmas.

TeXShop – for formal writing

Of course this category would be taken up by a TeX2 editor, but which one? There are admittedly a number of very valid TeX editors for macOS (Texpad to name one), but none can hold a candle to TeXShop. Don’t be fooled by the old-school website. It’s free and open source, lightweight, minimalistic, very regularly updated, and complete with everything you might need to compile documents in LaTeX, including the highly sought-after command autocompletion. You might start to notice that the word lightweight appears quite a lot in my mini-reviews: as I’m often on the go and on battery power, it’s very important for me that the software I use cause as little battery drain as possible.

OmniOutliner – for outlining

OmniOutliner is quite honestly overkill for my needs. It’s a über-professional outlining tool, allowing you to organise information hierarchically. It’s just one of those things that you have to see to understand, so here’s a picture of my typical use case:

The software is so flexible that I’ve read people online using it for speech writing, and all other sorts of interesting uses. As someone who really likes to organise their info under “headings,” this is good stuff. I like to, for instance before exams, just take the time to create an outline with everything that’s been done so far throughout the semester. This, then, gives me full control over the content: if I want to have a bird’s eye view, I can. If I want to delve deep and nest information 40 levels down, I can do that too. Yet, I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what this software can really do. And again, as with every other app mentioned so far, it’s lightweight and a true, honest-to-god Mac app.

MarsEdit – for blogging

Not that I post a lot, but when I do, I do it with MarsEdit. It’s a text editor and interface that allows you to post to your blog, be it WordPress, Tumblr, or whatever else, straight from the desktop. There are advantages in using something like MarsEdit over using the platform-offered web-based editors. For one, you can compose your posts while being offline. Then, MarsEdit offers a live preview function which updates as you type, showing you what your post will exactly look like even before it ever leaves your computer. I’m using it right now and, as far as I know, it’s the best in its category.

Productivity

Things – for to-dos

The to-do app war is over. Things and OmniFocus are the only two powers left, and everyone else needs to do their bidding. While Things might not have the same “depth” as OmniFocus, I like its simplicity and cleanliness, and its seamless, free syncing with iOS. It strikes a perfect balance, for me, between features and overall simplicity. It’s good. Only real downside is the price, plus the fact they charge separately for the iPhone and the iPad app. That turns me down, but not so much as not to use it. (I just run the iPhone app on the iPad).

Beeminder – for forcing myself to do things

I have talked about it extensively in another blog post, so I won’t delve too deep here. What it is, it’s a website to which you give money if you don’t stick with your habits. Threatening, but effective.

Thyme – for keeping track of time

I like to keep track of how much I read, and Thyme helps me with that. It is my favourite kind of software because it’s free, open source, it does one thing only and does it really well. Thyme is, simply, a stopwatch which sits in your menu bar. You can configure a global shortcut to start and stop it, and that’s all. When I start reading, I press the shortcut, and when I stop, I press it again. It keeps a database of your last couple of data points. 10/10.

Security

AzireVPN – for online privacy

You’ve just got to have a VPN these days, to help protect your identity online. Of all VPN services I’ve tried (and believe me I’ve been through at least 5), Azire is the one for me. It strikes a balance between price and speed: I quite literally do not even notice when it’s on, and its prices are among the most competitive in the market.

Apple Keychain – for password management

If you use the same password everywhere, stop! That’s exactly how I got my Spotify account breached in the past. You need a way to create passwords “randomly” and a way to store them somewhere. Apple Keychain gives you that, and best of all, it’s free and already included in your Apple devices. Whenever you sign up for a service, or go to the “change password” section, your device will suggest a strong password for you to use. It will then also store it for you and synchronise it with all of your devices. It will also make sure to enter your username and password for you when logging in onto apps or websites. It just works. Yes, sure, there’s other password managers around, but why use a third-party tool and add unnecessary overhead when what you have already works well enough?

Misc

NightOwl – for night and day

I’m not one of those who defends dark mode with their life (you must know at least one person like that). I also don’t exactly sing the praises of light mode either, though. You know what’s best? Using light mode when there’s light outside, and dark mode when it’s dark. It just makes sense (to me at least). NightOwl is a tiny utility which sits in your menubar. You can set it to switch your system between the modes at a set time or at sunset/sunrise. Simple, unobtrusive, functional.

Reeder – for RSS feeds

If you have a couple of blogs you want to follow, or news sites, chances are they support RSS, and you can get their feeds directly onto your computer by using an RSS reader. Reeder is one such readers, except it’s the best. Full keyboard shortcuts support, various themes to choose from, macOS and iOS apps, beautiful typography, and professional-looking. It’s been good to me.

Preview – for viewing media

I know Preview is one of the first-party tools preinstalled onto every Mac. That doesn’t make it any less powerful. Preview has matured incredibly well while maintaining its trademark lightweightness. Fully annotate PDFs? Check. Quickly make edits on pictures/documents? Check. Extensive support for almost all kinds of files? Check. What’s not to like? I tried other PDF readers and while they are incredibly functional (special mention to PDF Expert), Preview is more powerful than you think.

Bartender – against menubar clutter

It’s a very simple utility: it’s like a box in which you put menubar icons you don’t always use, so that they don’t sit there cluttering your field of view every day. Bartender is one of those classic Mac utilities which will never go out of vogue (unless Apple includes it into the OS themselves).

Alfred – for accessing things quickly

You know Spotlight in macOS, the thing you can activate with ⌘+Space to search files and open apps? Alfred is like that times 900, as it allows you to set up custom web searches and much more. For instance, you can just type

wiki France
and it will open the relative Wikipedia article on your default browser. Of course all of this is fully customizable. I really want to use an open source alternative to this though, so if you know some, please do leave a comment below. Same for Bartender really.

Conclusion

There are virtually no changes from last year. That’s actually a milestone for me as I was changing things around all the time, and it’s nice to finally find a degree of stability. I also feel better recommending these workflows too, as they are proven to be working for me. Thank you for reading.

  1. For those who do not know what Electron is, it’s essentially a way to embed an instance of Chrome inside a regular macOS “app window,” so that a developer does not have to truly develop for Mac but can instead develop for Web and then just publish on the Mac. Since when you run the program you are essentially running a fully-fledged instance of Chrome, it’s absolutely murderous on battery life, not to mention it’s just un-Mac-like.
  2. If you have no idea what TeX, LaTeX, or any of these weirdly spelled things are, they are essentially systems which allow you to create well-formatted documents from plain text, much in the same way HTML and browsers “create” websites from plain text. This is a huge oversimplification but that’s all I can fit in a footnote.