Category Archives: iPad

Drafts for iOS

Drafts is a tinkerer’s DIY dream of a text editor. It nails the basics, and allows you to customize its editor and its tag and folder system to fit your specific needs—it just takes a little time (and, maybe, some JavaScript skills, for some things) to do so.

Drafts is where text begins

Drafts, by Agile Tortoise, isn’t exactly an unknown app. On the contrary, it is one of the crown jewels of the iOS platform. It is one of the few apps with an in-app purchase tip jar that I actually threw money in—a few times, actually. Drafts makes my life simpler, in little ways, every day. Like one of my other favorite writing apps, Ulysses, it is a pleasure to use.

Drafts is primarily meant for quick text entry, and then pushing that text to another app for processing or storage. For example, I type most calendar entries and Google searches in Drafts (which is in my home screen toolbar) and, in two taps, open them for processing in Fantastical or Safari (which are not in my toolbar). Drafts 4, which has been out quite a while now, expands on that basic idea, and delivers a very useful utility and a top-notch text editor.

Not just for automation—for writing!

Drafts is already well known for its automation capabilities. It is great for drafting a tweet and posting it to Twitter (either natively or via another app), or for writing out a calendar entry and pushing it to Fantastical or Calendars 5 for parsing. What it is not well known for—but should be—is that it is the most customizable text editor on iOS. Editorial has long held that crown, thanks to its its support of snippets and extensibility with Python scripts. Drafts, however, outdoes Editorial when it comes to customizing the editor itself, which has a profound effect on writing experience.

In Drafts, actions can change the text your are writing, send some or all of it to another app, turn on/off night mode within the app, and so on. You can download actions from the developer’s extensive library, of, if you are a bit of a programmer, you can them yourself in JavaScript, from within the app. You can assign these actions to the main menu, which is accessible from the top-right icon, or from a swipe to the left. That’s the basic stuff. You can also assign these actions to a custom toolbar that is displayed over the keyboard. Even better, for hardware keyboard users, you can assign your own hardware keyboard shortcuts to these actions, too. No other iOS app that I use does this!

I use Drafts on my iPad primarily for writing notes, such as when I get a phone call or am in a meeting. I use my custom toolbar buttons to input today’s date, paste text, format headings and lists in Markdown, send various lines (text selections) to my todo.txt file (via Dropbox), and so on. At the end of my writing session, I send the entire note to Dropbox for storage.

Notes don’t have to be exported, however. They can stay in Drafts and sync to all your other iOS devices via iCloud. You can also organize them there. There are three basic folders—Inbox, Archive, and Trash—to put notes into. You can flag notes for future retrieval, and filter them them by folder, flag status, and keywords (search terms within the note text) into custom “folders” or saved searches as well. I have not switched over to using Drafts as a full-fledged notes app (most of my drafts get automatically deleted after 30 days in the Trash folder), but I am thinking about it.

Drafts in the future

Drafts 4 has been around for a while now. Drafts 5 is coming, someday, with even more features: TaskPaper editing is a feature that I am looking forward to. I expect the pricing model to change from paid upfront to a subscription; I will be happy to pay for it, as a valuable companion to Ulysses for writing, and a valuable sidekick to practically every other app in the iOS ecosystem.

Jannis Hermann’s blog post: The iPad as main computer for programming

Jannis Hermann’s blog post about developing full time on the iPad Pro is fantastic. I’ve heard about others using his approach: offload development tools to a server and connect to it using Mosh. I wish I could set something similar up for my programming hobby, but it wouldn’t apply very well to Xcode. Still, Jannis’s blog post inspires me to figure out a better way to update my non-Wordpress-based websites via my iPad, which is just something I haven’t tried yet.

Programming on the iPad

It seems that many programmers who are actually programming on iPads are writing code that runs elsewhere, either on a web server, or on a remote system they SSH into. That doesn’t describe what I do anymore. My non-work programming has shifted almost entirely to Swift, due to my obvious love of Apple platforms and my love of the language. This makes the iPad Pro less than useful for my programming needs.

I code in Xcode. Developers have been awaiting Xcode for iPad for years now, despite nearly nothing coming out of Cupertino to indicate that this will ever happen. Xcode on iPad would be great, I guess, but it seems too big and too complicated for me to even contemplate on iOS. I don’t think I would even want to develop full apps on the iPad, but I would love to work on models, custom subclasses to iOS controls, and creating unit tests, even when I’m away from my MacBook.

I know Swift Playgrounds exists, but I really wish there was something more fully-featured than it available. It doesn’t let me export my work to anywhere I can use it, which is the largest problem. I know I could code Swift on an simple text editor on the iPad, but what I really want is a compiler. Coding in Xcode is like having a conversation with the compiler, and seeing what it will allow you to do. I like that. I wish I could do that on the iPad, perhaps in a multi-file playground and export it to a Git client like Working Copy. I could get a ton of work done that way, without even trying to build and test a full app.

Perhaps Apple will make me happy this fall, when iOS 11 is finalized, or next year with iOS 12.

Setting up a new iPad

Setting up a new iPad is an opportunity to start over with a clean slate, and fix whatever problems you have on your old device’s setup. Fortunately, operating stability tends not to be a problem these days. What is a problem, however, is the sheer number of apps you can end up having installed, and the many notifications that come with them.

An app strategy

The App Store started out with a Unix-like philosophy about software. Remember the phrase “there’s an app for that?” Most apps did one thing. Most people do a lot of things, so we end up with a whole lot of apps. Not much has changed over time. Springboard, the launcher on iOS, is deliberately primitive. All your apps are spread out across various home screen pages. Once you have more than two or three pages, it is really hard to remember where all your apps are. Apps can be grouped into folders, but once in folders they are harder to find, unless you have a good organizational strategy.

With a new device, such as my new iPad Pro, I simply don’t install apps unless I need them right then. For those apps that get installed, I reduce their notifications to a bare minimum. If you get notifications on your phone, and you always have your phone with you, do you really need them on your iPad? Probably not.

Even after doing these smart-sounding things, I have 72 applications on my iPad Pro (and this is a machine with zero games on it!). Because of this, I often use Spotlight search to launch apps. I do this on my iPhone, too, where it feels inferior to tapping an icon. I’m learning, however, that on the iPad, just as on my Mac, it’s the right way to do it.

(I probably use about ten productivity apps most of the time, and those apps will likely be in the Dock once I install iOS 11, but I still use at least 20 of those other apps on a daily basis for reading, scanning, and videos.)

How do you launch an app on an iPad?

With the keyboard, just like on a Mac. Simply hit Command+Space to launch Spotlight, type the first few letters of an app’s name, and hit Enter. Without a hardware keyboard, pull down on the home screen to launch Spotlight, and type with the onscreen keyboard.

This behavior is fast and efficient. As a side benefit, it drastically reduces the need to organize apps efficiently on the SpringBoard.

Home screen organization with activity-based folders

I tried briefly to not organize the Springboard at all, but I ended up with several pages of apps and it looked like a jumbled mess. So I went into the other direction: I put everything into folders, all of which fit on one screen. The folder names are all verbs, based on activities:

  • Configure (iOS Settings, IoT device settings, and apps related to fixing things on my home server)
  • Secure (VPN, and password and other authentication-related apps)
  • Plan (Calendar, Reminders, Maps, brainstorming apps, etc.)
  • File (cloud data providers)
  • Communicate (Mail, Messages, FaceTime, etc.)
  • Scan
  • Photo (“photo” is stretching it as a verb, I admit)
  • Draw
  • Eat (MyFitnessPal, recipe apps)
  • Program (my BitBucket app and Pythonista, for now)
  • Shop
  • Read
  • Write
  • Watch
  • Play (this one would be there if I had games on my iPad Pro)

Other verbs, such as “research” and “listen”, may be useful for folder names in the future, if my hobbies and/or media diet increase.

The apps within the folders are not organized. Unless I have more than 16 apps in a folder, all the icons are visible at once, and their order does not matter to me.

My Dock contains the six apps I use all the time throughout my work day: Safari, Overcast, Music, SwiftoDo (my todo.txt task list), Drafts, and Ulysses. When I put iOS 11 on this machine, my use of the Dock will change somewhat, mostly by allowing me to put more apps in it.

(I don’t have a junk or “Apple” folder for unused and unloved default apps anymore. Since iOS 10, you can remove (hide, really) Apple’s default apps that you don’t use. I just do that.)

After a couple weeks of this

This organization scheme is working out very well for me. It helps keep me focused on what I’m doing and what I intend to do, and kind of forces me to use Spotlight to both launch and switch between apps, which is the behavior I want to reinforce. (It is still ingrained in me, based on how iOS worked prior to multitasking, to close an app and go to the home screen to switch apps, but it is not necessary to do so, and it is faster not to.)

Choosing an iPad Pro Case and Stand

Having given up on a keyboard case, I felt adrift in subpar options for an iPad stand and case. I admit, it is not that hard to get something decent; most people would just buy an Apple Smart Cover (or a decent knockoff) and be done with it. I, however, wanted something very specific, something I had in my old iPad Air 2 case, which is apparently rare: a kickstand.

The reason is that the kickstand made my iPad feel rock solid. It never moved or wobbled on a table. It never fell down because the folded up case collapsed beneath it. It felt real and solid, like a high quality tool rather than a fragile slice of glass and metal.

The Logitech Create keyboard case (which I didn’t like) had a kickstand, but nothing else I could find at the Apple Store or on Amazon did. Apple’s Smart Cover seemed expensive and far worse as a stand than what I had for my old iPad. There was a charging stand, the Logi Base, that looked like a good, sturdy platform, but was overpriced, had a number of unfavorable user reviews, and was not a case at all, so it was an incomplete solution. I basically didn’t want to spend so much on either case or stand, but after lots of thinking and comparison shopping, I bit the bullet and bought them both. I am very happy I did.

An extravagance, but a nice one

The Logi Base, once you get over the initial cost of it, is unexpectedly great. It’s a stand that charges the iPad through the Smart Connector. Unlike a folded-up Smart Cover, it is rock solid. It basically sticks to the desk, and provides the iPad a secure backing. You can bang the screen with your fingers and it would not move. That, for me, is key. A wobbly iPad feels like a toy. A secure one feels like the future of computing.

Docking and undocking are simple: a strong magnet helps keep everything in place. Charging through the Smart Connector works just fine. Numerous product reviewers complained that charging is slow and doesn’t support fast charging. Perhaps that is true, but charging is fast enough to keep up with battery use, and then some, which is all I actually need.

The final thing that delights me about the Base is that it actually gives me a place for the Pencil. It has a tiny amount of ledge space in front of the iPad that is just big enough for the Pencil to rest on its side. There is just enough magnetism there (it is near the Smart Connector) to keep the Pencil there rather safely.

Necessary protection

While a stand is nice for desktop use, you still should have something to protect the iPad’s screen sometimes. I bought the Apple Smart Cover for travel, whether around town or around the house. I actually take it off (you have to) and store it in a desk drawer when the iPad Pro is on the Logi stand. I did spend more on it than it is worth to me, but when I ordered it, cheaper third party cases were not widely available yet. I find that I take the Smart Cover off when actually using the iPad, and put it back on when I put the iPad away. That’s different than how I’ve treated every other iPad/case combination I’ve owned, largely due to the difference in size and weight between the 9.7″ and 12.9″ iPads.

All in all, I am happier using the iPad with no case, and it stays on the Logi Base at my desk most of the time anyway.

Choosing an iPad Pro Keyboard

iPads are great for writing, but if you are a touch typist, you need an external keyboard to have a top-notch experience.

I am a touch typist, and used to be a very fast touch typist as well, until RSI (repetitive stress injury) slowed me down to more reasonable speeds. Due to RSI, and the fact that using an ill-suited keyboard physically hurts, I am very picky about keyboards. I prefer a keyboard that is clicky and gives me a precise feeling when the key is activated. Mushy keyboards, by contrast, are awful for me; my accuracy decreases, and retyping increases. Key spacing basically has to be as close to a full-size key board as possible for me, because my hands cramp up when typing on anything smaller than a standard MacBook keyboard. Travel distance is important, too. Too little throw on a keyboard, such as on the first generation 12″ MacBook, makes my fingers hurt.

As I said, I am hard to please when it comes to keyboards.

Smart Connector Keyboards

The iPad Pro comes with a special connector, mostly useful for keyboards, called the Smart Connector. It promises rock solid communication between the iPad and the keyboard, meaning no dropped keypresses, which are my chief complaint about using Bluetooth keyboards. Unfortunately, there are only two keyboards that pair with the Smart Connector on the iPad Pro: Apple’s Smart Keyboard and Logitech’s Create Backlit Keyboard.

Trying out these two keyboards, however, quickly led to disappointment. The Apple Smart Keyboard just felt awkward to type on. It has very little tactile feedback, and almost no throw. It is floppy enough to be poorly suited for use on the lap (which, admittedly, would be rare). The case it comes attached to is slim, versatile, lightweight (for what it is, not overall), andstylish. But, alas, it is not for me.

The Logitech Create Backlit Keyboard, at first, appears to correct all of the Apple Smart Keyboard’s shortcomings. It has real keys! It has decent key travel! It has a sturdy kickstand case instead of a floppy folding case! While it has real keys, and more features plus a lower price than the Apple Smart Keyboard, typing on one for a while felt awful to me. It started to feel mushy to me. It is also much heavier than the Smart Keyboard. I loved the kickstand, but I wanted something I could remove more easily, because the 12.9″ iPad Pro is heavy enough on its own when used handheld.

So, after lots of time trying them out, both Smart Connector keyboards were out of the running for me.

What about Bluetooth keyboards?

While there are hundreds of Bluetooth keyboards you can pair with any iPad, they have a couple drawbacks. The main one for me is dropped keystrokes, due either to flaky Bluetooth connections, low quality components, or the keyboard requiring a keypress to wake from sleep. A secondary one is that they require batteries or recharging of their internal battery periodically, but that period is a few months long. Lastly, Bluetooth pairing can be tricky, especially if you try to use the same keyboard with multiple devices.

After trying out and being disappointed by the typing experience on the Apple and Logitech Smart Connector keyboards, I went back to my favorite keyboard of recent years, the Apple Magic Keyboard. It’s a full-size keyboard, which is comfortable to type on. It has a shallow keyfall distance, but it is not as shallow as the 12″ MacBook. Keypresses feel solid and clicky. The battery lasts for months. Build quality is top notch.

I have not had any problems with dropped keystrokes when waking up the Magic Keyboard, but that is likely because my new iPad Pro itself goes to sleep, which is an option I had disabled on my old iPad. Whatever the reason, a single keypress wakes up the iPad Pro and I go on to typing without thinking about it. That’s good enough for me.

So, after an honest effort to upgrade to on of the Smart Connector keyboards, I passed on both of them, and settled for the Apple Magic Keyboard, because it offers the best typing experience for me. I am actually surprised about that, and a little disappointed that I did not like the other two options. Because I went with a detached keyboard, I had to consider different case and stand options, which I will go into in a later post.

If the 12.9″ iPad Pro is a computer, is it no longer a decent tablet?

Choosing between iPad Pro sizes

There’s a definite trade-off between size and portability when choosing between the two sizes of iPad Pro. The 10.5″ version is lighter and more portable—it’s essentially the same as the familiar 9.7″ model. The 12.9″ version is heavier and has a larger screen, and, unfortunately, has larger bezels as well (it is the same size as the prior 12.9″ model).


The smaller iPad Pro is nicer to hold in your hands for long periods of time. Even more importantly, if you read books on it in bed, where the screen is only about 12″ away from your eyes, as I do, it is easier to read on. Because you can focus on the whole screen at once, you don’t need to move your eyes as much. It is small, but it is perfectly usable for productivity as well as videos and reading.


The larger iPad Pro is, in my opinion, an even better size for getting work done. The 12.9″ screen, when paired with a hardware keyboard, feels like a computer screen for productivity apps. It’s barely smaller than my old 13.3″ MacBook. There is plenty of room for multitasking and slide-over. It also feels even better for handwriting and drawing, because the usable screen area is basically the same size as a standard piece of paper (i.e., A4 or Letter size), which feels natural.


Does the additional size and weight make it less useful as a tablet? In short: yes, but only a little.

The 12.9″ iPad Pro (2017 model) weighs about as much as the iPad 4th generation (about 1.5 lbs), so weight is not really a problem for handheld use, at least when held without a case. Apple’s Smart Cover comes off easily, so you could just take it off to read with for long periods of time, and put it back on when you want to protect the screen. Also, the weight is very well balanced, so you can hold it in one hand comfortably despite its size.

As for reading in bed or in an easy chair, the larger model is slightly worse. It’s more natural to read such a large screen at an arm’s length away, rather than perched on your stomach or thereabouts. The large screen has the same DPI as the smaller iPad Pro, so crispness at that distance is not a problem. It’s just too big to focus on the whole thing evenly, unless it’s about as far from your eyes as your laptop screen normally would be. (This is, obviously, a very small problem in the grand scheme of things.)

It’s easy to have no trade-offs when you can just have both

One reason behind my purchase of a 12.9″ iPad Pro was that I realized that I didn’t necessarily have to give up my old 9.7″ iPad Air after doing so. Sure, it might be the smart thing to get back $100 or so by selling it, or it might be nice to give it to someone else in my family, but it is still worth a lot more to me than it is to somebody else. (I admit, it does help that my kids are too young to care about electronic devices.) This decision made it much easier to go for the larger-sized tablet.

So, if you already have a smaller-than-12.9″ iPad, like I do? Honestly, if you can get away with it, keep the old iPad around for reading and use the new, larger one for desktop use.

Upgrading to the iPad Pro, generation 2

When iOS 11 and the new iPad Pro were announced at this year’s WWDC, I was very excited and more than a little confused. I was excited because the hardware looked fantastic, and I knew I was going to buy one. I was confused because iOS 11 made me no longer know what the iPad was for.


Long before WWDC 2017, I decided I would use some of the earnings from my iOS app and Mac app (todo.txt task lists, under the name SwiftoDo) to upgrade my iPad Air 2 to the newest model—whatever Apple would release next. I had hopes for a larger-screen, smaller bezel iPad, which ended up being the 10.5″ iPad Pro.

Even though the tech press has decried slow iPad sales for years now, I absolutely love the iPad. I use one for music, podcasts, videos, writing, Twitter, web browsing, and reading at least 8 hours every day. (It helps that I work from home.) I love the screen. I love the touch interface. I love driving it with a Bluetooth keyboard. I love how native apps can deliver a superior experience to web pages. I even love developing apps for the platform.

Since I purchased my 2013 MacBook Pro, I have bought three iPads (not counting the Pro model I was considering) and zero MacBook Pros. This year I was not really due for an upgrade, but I use the iPad so much, I decided it was worth it.


Despite my general iPad Pro excitement, I was also confused, because iOS 11 looked to me like a computer operating system, rather than a tablet operating system. iOS 11’s new app launching dock, file-oriented architecture, and extensive drag-and-drop support gave me the impression that it made the iPad more like the next generation of Mac, rather than a tablet.

This is important because, to me, and iPad is way more intimate a product than a computer. I read on it at the breakfast table and in bed. I listen to music all day at work, and sometimes just have it display a big clock or the blank text area of a note-taking app. These are things I would never dedicate an entire laptop to. But a tablet is small, low power, and low stress.

I installed a developer beta of iOS 11 on my iPad Air 2 to get an idea of how the new UI worked. I also visited my local Apple Store to look at the 10.5″ iPad Pros the day they were released. I actually walked right right past them; the store had replaced all the 9.7″ models with 10.5″ models, and I could barely tell the difference. After a minute I found the 2017 9.7″ iPad (the new budget/consumer model) and a new 2017 10.5″ iPad Pro side by side. The difference in size was more slight than I had imagined. The larger size was obviously an improvement over my iPad Air 2 screen, but it didn’t feel like a big enough difference to warrant an upgrade. I was actually a little upset, because I really wanted to upgrade to the newest iPad, but the 10.5″ model did not seem much better than the iPad Air 2.

A surprising decision (at least to me)

What dawned on me at the Apple Store was that iOS 11 would make the 12.9″ iPad Pro, which I had previously thought was ridiculously oversized, very attractive. With a keyboard, it would be a much better desktop computer than the 10.5″ model. Without a keyboard, and indeed without a case, it would light enough to hold while reading in bed, and not really too large for that either. It would have better software and require less maintenance than my MacBook Pro, and would be a lot more fun to use. So I played with one for a while and decided to buy it.

Now I’m writing this blog post on it, and plan to write more about the other hardware I bought to go along with it, and the changes I made to its software. It’s a wonderful device, and is clearly, with iOS 11 on the horizon, the next iteration of the Mac.