Review of Build Your OmniFocus Workflow
I’ve been using OmniFocus for a long time. In fact, OmniFocus was the very first paid iOS app that I paid bought back in 2008 when the App Store debuted. At this point I’m definitely not a novice user, but I’m always looking for ways to use OmniFocus to manage my tasks more effectively. It plays a central role in my ability to get my work done so any improvement will pay dividends across a wide variety of areas.
In that vein, I recently read Build Your OmniFocus Workflow by Ryan Dotson and Rosemary Orchard. The book offers a comprehensive guide to using OmniFocus to manage your tasks, with an emphasis on how to fit OmniFocus into a larger system of task management.
Thanks to its customizability, OmniFocus has always been a bit of a “build your own task manager kit”. With the addition of tags, OmniFocus 3 leans even more in this direction thanks to the many new options for how to use the app. What started out as a fairly vanilla GTD app has become a very powerful and flexible piece of software that can be used to support many different takes on task management. As the book puts it: “There are two keys to getting started using OmniFocus: understanding the software and developing a workflow.”
Build Your OmniFocus Workflow does a great job of looking beyond the four corners of the app to talk about how to fit it into a broader context. It’s really a cross between a software manual and a higher level treatise on task management.
While the overall emphasis is at the system level, Build Your OmniFocus Workflow starts with the absolute basics (setting up the software, using the interface, and fundamental concepts) and builds up from there. As a guide to the apps, it’s quite comprehensive in exploring pretty much every feature, both on the Mac and iOS (there’s also a short section on OmniFocus for the Web, currently in beta).
Despite being a long-time user of OmniFocus on both platforms I still learned quite a few new things about the app. For instance I had no idea that on iOS you can drag the “add to inbox” button to add a task in a specific place. I also have to say that Rose and Ryan’s explanation really made me get how a single action list differs from a regular project, which is something that I’d never really understood despite a decade of using the app.
As one would expect from Rose, there’s quite a bit of material on automation. Everything from AppleScript, to IFTTT, to Shortcuts. There’s also an appendix listing and explaining all of the rules you can use to create custom perspectives. This is nice since not all of these rules are necessarily obvious.
Interwoven with the software guide are Ryan and Rose’s thoughts on how to build your larger system. Again, it starts with a very basic workflow (capture, process, review, and do) and builds on that. They talk about what does and doesn’t belong in OmniFocus, how to define effective projects, what to do when you get overwhelmed or fall of the wagon when it comes to keeping your system up to date.
I really appreciated their thorough take on the review process, not just using OmniFocus to review your projects and actions, but also reviewing your system as a whole. Another tip I really like is to tag actions that you’re procrastinating on so you can go back and think about why (Is the action unclear or not well defined? Is there some obstacle that prevents you from doing it? Is it really something you need to do?).
Finally, Ryan and Rose wrap things up by laying out their own workflows as examples, explaining how they use the app and the systems and practices they’ve built around it.
The book comes in PDF, ePub, and .mobi formats, so there are plenty of reading options. I read the ePub version on my iPad using the Books app.
Build Your OmniFocus Workflow has definitely helped me get more out of OmniFocus, both in terms of running the app and thinking about my task management system more broadly. Not only is it a great guide to using OmniFocus effectively, I think it really encourages a thoughtful approach to setting up your task management system. I definitely recommend it.
Comparison with the OmniFocus Field Guide
One question I’ve seen asked on the Mac Power Users forum is how Build Your OmniFocus Workflow compares to David Sparks’ OmniFocus Field Guide. I think the two are quite complimentary. Some of this is just the differing format; it’s easier to get certain things across using video while other things are easier to explain textually. However, this is also a product of differing perspectives on OmniFocus and how best to use it; there are areas where Ryan and Rose have a different view than David.
In some areas one goes into more depth than the other. The book delves deeper into review, for instance, while the Field Guide has a considerably more thorough treatment of tagging systems.
Both encourage using OmniFocus to build your own unique task management system. Build Your OmniFocus Workflow takes a somewhat broader view of OmniFocus as one element embedded in a larger system while the Field Guide concentrates a bit more on building a system within OmniFocus. They also take a somewhat different approach to presenting these systems. The book mostly lays out a series of options throughout the text that the reader can assemble into something that suits them, then details Ryan and Rose’s workflows as examples at the end. David presents six different systems (in varying levels of detail) giving the viewer a look at several widely varying approaches. He also spends a bit more time talking about the pros and cons of various ways to use tools or features within OmniFocus, and why one approach might fit a particular set of needs better than another.
Both Build Your OmniFocus Workflow and the OmniFocus Field Guide are quite good, and I think that if you get a lot out of one of them, you’d get a lot out of the other as well.
January 21, 2019
Three months with the iPhone XS
Now that I’ve had my new iPhone XS for a few of months I feel like I’ve used it enough to have an informed opinion on it. Rather than burying the lede, I’ll start out by saying I really like this phone.
I’m coming from an iPhone 7, so many of the features that make me like the XS so much aren’t really “new”, though they are new to me. First and foremost is Face ID. This has been awesome. It really is like going back to the days of my iPhone 3G when I didn’t have a passcode on my phone: just slide to unlock.
Face ID has been pretty close to 100% reliable for me. The only situation where I consistently have issues is when I’m not wearing my glasses or contacts (at night in bed, for example). My vision is quite bad so when I’m operating without corrective lenses I end up holding the phone very close to my face; too close for the Face ID sensors to work correctly. Once I remember to hold the phone further away at a more normal viewing distance it will unlock. The only other time I had issues was one morning where it simple failed immediately every time I tried to authenticate (a reboot got it back to normal).
Contrast this with Touch ID, which was usable, but never great. I often had to put my finger on the sensor several times before it would unlock. If my hands were too wet or too dry, the fingerprint sensor wouldn’t read correctly. In particular, during a trip to Montana last fall the cold weather dried out my hands dried out so much that my success rate with Touch ID plummeted pretty much to zero. In contrast, when I went out there on a hunting trip this year just after getting the new phone I didn’t have any issues. The only time it failed to unlock was when I had my face covered on a very cold morning.
I’d been anticipating that Face ID would be a really big feature of the iPhone XS for me. The impact of Qi charging has been more of a surprise. Initially I was skeptical about the utility of wireless charging, but since it was a feature of my new phone I decided to give it a go. It’s surprising how much easier it makes it to top off my phone. Plugging in the cable was just one more point of friction that I don’t have to deal with any more.
At this point I’ve got three Qi chargers. One sits on my nightstand and charges my phone overnight. While this Anker charger isn’t the least expensive, it offers the ability to turn off the light that indicates the phone is charging, which is important to me in a bedside accessory.
I’ve also got Qi charging stands that hold the phone up at a nice viewing angle on my desk at home and at work. I initially bought an Anker charging stand for my desk at work. Unfortunately, the stand is tall enough that it contacts the camera bump so the phone sits somewhat unsteadily in it (this probably wouldn’t be a problem with the XS Max). I brought the Anker stand home and replaced it with this charger from Samsung. The circular design means the camera bump clears the top of the stand, making it much steadier (the rubberized material on the stand helps too). I use the one at work quite a bit. The one at home, not so much, in part due to the inferior stand, in part because I just don’t have as much call to constantly have my phone out on my desk when I’m at home. Both stands hold the phone at an angle that makes Face ID fairly easy to use.
The XS’ camera is definitely an upgrade from the iPhone 7. This is the first dual-lens phone camera that I’ve had, and I’ve found the 2x lens quite useful. On the other hand, I don’t really get much out of portrait mode, largely because I take few pictures of people. The front-facing camera on my phones has never gotten much use, and the one on the iPhone XS is no different (aside from FaceID).
Frankly, I thought going to the OLED screen would be a bigger deal. I’d heard lots of great things about the iPhone X screen. It’s a nice screen, but in day to day use I don’t really notice it. The notch doesn’t really bother me. I think part of this is because my phone spends the vast majority of it’s time in a portrait orientation.
I’ve always been a “small phone” guy. I really think the iPhone 5 was about the ideal size for a smartphone, largely because I primarily use my phone one-handed (if they made an iPhone X style phone in that size I’d be all over it). Like the iPhone 6/7 size phones the XS is a bit large for my taste, but workable. It’s still mostly a one-handed device for me, but I do find myself bringing up a second hand to help stabilize the phone more often. This is not so much because the phone itself is bigger than the iPhone 7, but because the larger screen means some things are a longer reach.
I’ve gotten used to the new gestures and the lack of a home button. Tap to wake is great and swiping to go home works well. I really like the ability to swipe right or left on the home indicator to switch between apps. It makes quick app switching much more accessible on the phone than it was on the iPhone 7.
Finally, this is a very nice looking phone. This is the first time since my original iPhone 3G that I’ve bought a white iPhone (all of my others have been space gray or black). I like the look of the pearlescent white back and the stainless steel outer band. Mine is currently careless (though I do have a screen protector on the front glass, as well as Apple Care).
Overall, I really like the iPhone XS. I know a lot of folks weren’t all that excited by it, but coming from the iPhone 7 it’s been a very worthwhile upgrade. Well worth the cost.
January 14, 2019
2018 12.9″ iPad Pro First Impressions
When I got my 1st generation 12.9” iPad Pro back in 2016, my overwhelming impression was of how large it was. Compared to the iPad Air 2 that I had previously, it seemed huge. With the new 12.9” iPad Pro, my first impression is how small it is. Some of this is coming from the old 12.9”, of course. I don’t know how someone coming from a 9.7 or 10.5” would feel. Compared to the old 12.9”, the new one is about an inch narrower (in landscape) and a quarter of an inch shorter. It feels quite a bit lighter as well; both because it is about an ounce lighter and because the smaller size means the center of gravity is closer to your hand when holding it in landscape. I was already fairly comfortable using my old iPad Pro handheld, but it’s noticeably easier with the new one.
I really like the design. The slim bezels seem like the natural design for the iPad. The squared off edges look nice and don’t create any issues when I’m holding it.
FaceID rocks! I know some people have had issues with it on the iPhone, but in my month using it on the iPhone XS, it’s worked very well for me. So far, the iPad has been similar. I’m still getting used to making sure I don’t cover the camera with my thumb, however. That will be a matter of training myself on where to hold it (yes, “You’re holding it wrong” is still a thing). It may just be setting up a new device and having to log in to a bunch of stuff, but I’m finding Face ID to get into 1Password almost as useful as Face ID to unlock the iPad.
I really like tap to wake too. If anything tapping the screen to wake up the device seems more natural on this than it does on the iPhone. Being able to double tap the smart keyboard to open great, though I’m not at the point where that’s second nature yet. As an aside, I’ve heard this describes as “double tap the spacebar”, but for me, it works with any two taps in succession (even two different keys). The first keypress wakes the iPad, allowing FaceID to do its thing. The second slides the lock screen out of the way.
Speaking of the keyboard, think the Smart Keyboard Folio is an improvement on the old Smart Keyboard. It’s considerably more stable than the older version. While most of my brief use so far has been on a desk or countertop, it does seem more “lappable” as well. I’m not finding the more vertical ”desk” angle very useful, however. Some of that may be due to my height (6’5”). If I were 6” shorter the more vertical position might be better for me (I know @macsparky complained some about the angle of the old Smart Keyboard, but I never found it to be a problem). As it stands, I think it’s going to live at the less steep “lap” angle (which is almost exactly the same as the old Smart Keyboard).
The typing experience is almost identical to the old one. If you liked the old model, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t like the old one, I doubt you’ll find this one any better. Personally, I liked the typing feel of the Smart Keyboard. While it’s not as good as a nice mechanical keyboard, I do think it’s the best keyboard Apple currently makes.
One minor affordance that I just read about today is that when you have the keyboard folded around to the back of the folio (“tablet mode” basically) it has some magnets to keep the keyboard part of the folio in place, rather than flopping around the way the old one did. I’ll still probably take it out of the folio most of the times that I’m not actively using the keyboard, but leaving the folio attached in tablet mode does seem like it will be less annoying than with the old one.
I haven’t really spent enough time with the Pencil to say much about it. The pairing and charging seem to work well. I tried the double tap gesture to get the eraser in Apple Notes and it is a lot easier than switching tools.
The last “accessory” is the new 18-watt power brick. It seems surprisingly big. Since the prongs don’t fold it’s actually a bit longer than Apple’s 29-watt MacBook Adorable power brick (smaller in the other dimensions though). Honestly, I don’t think I’ll be using this much. I’ve got a bunch of MOS bricks which have 2 USB-A ports in addition to USB-C, as well as one of the MacBook bricks. All have folding prongs, which are nicer in a bag and while the 18-watt brick is smaller, it’s not that much smaller. I know a lot of people were eager to get a more powerful iPad power brick from Apple, but I’m not that impressed.
Power brick aside, I’m very pleased with the hardware. On the other hand, the software experience was a bit rougher. I restored mine from an iTunes backup and it stalled right at the end of the initial sync process. I did a restart and it seems like all of my content got synced over.
Once I got past that obstacle, every single app stalled with the progress circle about 2/3 of the way around. Restarting did not fix this, so I ended up deleting apps and redownloading just the ones I really needed. Doing this has the potential to delete local data, but I was pretty confident that everything important was in the cloud, plus I’ve still got my iTunes backup (and until I send it in to the Apple Give Back program I could always pull data off of my old iPad too).
Partway through this process, the logjam broke and the rest of my apps started downloading. I figure there must have been a few apps that were gumming up the works and once I deleted those the rest were able to download. Since I was getting rid of so many apps that I hadn’t used in years (if ever) I went ahead and completed the process of winnowing out old apps, so some good did come of this frustrating experience.
My only other issue so far was not with the device, but with my AppleCare+ coverage. When I got the Proof of Coverage email from Apple it appeared to list two iPads, rather than one. One of the serial numbers matched my new device, but the other did not. It also said both were 1tb models when I had the 512gb version.
I wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be any issue with my AppleCare coverage if I have to use it, so I gave Apple a call. The first rep I called looked into it (using screen sharing to take a look at the email I received and the serial number of my iPad) and passed me on to a person from the AppleCare team. She did some research and was able to explain that the second “iPad” listed was actually my Apple Pencil. She couldn’t say why it listed my iPad as the 1tb model, but she assured me that it wouldn’t affect my coverage. The Proof of Coverage email is rather confusingly drafted, but the Apple support reps I talked to were very helpful.
November 12, 2018
Omni Focus Field Guide, Third Edition Review
I have long been a fan of David Sparks’ MacSparky Field Guides. These originally started out as a series of Apple iBooks that used the unique characteristics of the iBooks format to combine text and screencasts to cover technical topics like Paperless workflows, Presentations, and, most recently, the iPhone. The iBooks Field Guides were brimming with content, often pushing up against the 2-gigabyte maximum size for the format. Along the way, David also started making Video Field Guides, which were shorter, video-only products covering topics like Hazel, Photos, and OmniFocus.
Recently, David announced that given the uncertainty about Apple’s commitment to the format, he wouldn’t be putting out any more of the iBooks Field Guides. Instead, he set up a website at learn.macsparky.com to host video courses. While this was initially populated with streaming versions of the existing Video Field Guides, he quickly added two new ones: the Siri Shortcuts Field Guide and the OmniFocus Field Guide, Third Edition. While these share the all-video format of the Video Field Guides, in spirit they’re much closer to his iBooks Field Guides. They’re truly massive, with over three hours of content in the Shortcuts Field Guide and more than five hours in the OmniFocus Field Guide.
The OmniFocus Field Guide, Third Edition is an all-new product, covering OmniFocus 3 for both iOS and Mac. As you might guess from the length, it’s very comprehensive. That said, it does not feel at all padded out. Instead, it has a clear progression from simple content for users who are new to OmniFocus, ramping up to power user features and in-depth discussion of how to set up a system in OmniFocus most effectively to get your work done.
I’m a long-time user of OmniFocus 2 (and OmniFocus 1 before that), so I’m more on the power user end of the spectrum. However, I’m also just now making my transition from OF2 to the new OF3. I held off on OmniFocus 3 for iOS until the Mac version also became available. It was released last Monday, as was this Field Guide, so it came along just at the right time for me.
David starts with the basics, installing the software, setting it up, and walking through the various areas of the user interface. Throughout the course, he gives fairly equal weight to the iOS and macOS version of OmniFocus 3. If there is a bias, it’s not leaning towards one OS or the other, but that within iOS he tends to spend a lot more time demonstrating the iPad version than the iPhone version.
He doesn’t just confine himself to telling you how to twiddle the buttons, however. As he steps through how to capture and process tasks he’s also introducing the fundamental concepts that drive OmniFocus (and doing a bit of an introduction to the Getting Things Done system that OmniFocus was originally designed to implement).
There’s quite a bit of content on Tags (about 45 minutes by my count). These are a new feature in version 3 of OmniFocus and David spends quite a bit of time talking about how to use them effectively. Making the transition to tagging tasks and projects is going to be the biggest change for me moving from OF 2 to OF 3, so I appreciate the comprehensiveness of his coverage.
He also spends a lot of time talking about various perspectives. Perspectives are a tool that allows you to slice and dice your project and task list using various criteria to pull out specific tasks. They’ve only gotten more powerful and flexible with the addition of tags in OmniFocus 3. This is an aspect of OmniFocus that I know I haven’t been using to its full potential, so I was happy to see it covered in depth. One area David is clearly opinionated about is the benefits of custom perspectives available in the Pro version of OmniFocus. While he talks about how to make good use of the built-in perspectives in the standard version, you can tell his heart is really with the custom perspectives of the Pro version.
One area I thought could have used a bit more depth is review. David goes through the mechanics of reviewing projects and talks about how he customizes the review intervals to suit the needs of different projects. He also talks a bit about “meta-reviews” where he goes through at a higher level and thinks about his system and workload as a whole. Despite this, I do think the course could have gotten further beyond the mechanics of the project reviews to a more in-depth discussion of what you should think about when reviewing a project.
As befits one of the hosts of the Automators podcast, David spends quite a bit of time talking about how to automate OmniFocus. He starts out with very simple automation using tools like Text Expander, or even just copying and pasting templates from a text editor, all the way up to much more complex automations using the Shortcuts app on iOS.
Unlike some other task managers, OmniFocus is not a very opinionated piece of software. While it started as a very traditional GTD app, it’s always been very customizable and amenable to being used in a variety of ways. If anything it’s gotten even less opinionated in version 3, as tags enable even more flexibility (and allow you to get even further from traditional GTD methodologies). This lends a bit of a “do it yourself” vibe to OmniFocus. In some ways, it’s a toolkit for building a task management system rather than a fully-fledged task management system itself.
David embraces this aspect of the software by discussing six different task management systems you could set up OmniFocus to implement. He covers a system built around defer dates, one based on flagging tasks, and one that leans heavily on the new tagging features. He also talks about using OmniFocus 3’s enhanced forecast perspective as the center of your task management (though this is less of a full-fledged system than a technique that could be applied to defer date, flag, or tag based systems). He also briefly covers a system built around higher level tasks (as opposed to the concrete “next actions” of classic GTD). Finally, David talks about his own system, which leans heavily on tags, but also blends in elements of flags and defer dates.
Not just in this section, but throughout the Field Guide, David talks about various ways of using OmniFocus, even if they’re not how he personally uses the software. He clearly has some opinions about the best way to use it, but he realizes that what works best for him won’t necessarily be best for everyone. He does an excellent job of laying out the pros and cons of various strategies.
As with many of the Field Guides, if you’re looking for a laugh, it pays to keep an eye on the example tasks and projects David is using. His OmniFocus database seems to indicate that David is some sort of mad scientist.
If there’s a unifying theme in this field guide, it’s “The Manager and the Maker.” This is the idea that OmniFocus can be the manifestation of our inner manager, organizing what we have to do and getting it out of our way quickly so that we can do creative work, letting out our inner “maker.” Some folks don’t think that OmniFocus or GTD really work for creative pursuits; that they’re just meant for salesmen and CEOs. David seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about this. He uses OmniFocus to manage the creative work of his MacSparky empire, including articles, blog posts, and this very field guide and he makes clear that he thinks OmniFocus is very useful for creative work.
September 30, 2018
The Multipad Lifestyle
David Sparks is a bad influence. The idea of having multiple iPads first got into my brain listening to Mac Power Users #317 when he confessed to Katie Floyd that he had bought a 9.7” iPad Pro to go with his 12.7” one.
My path to multiple iPads was a little different. For many years I ran 9.7” iPads. Originally, of course, 9.7” was the only choice. I was never really tempted by the iPad mini, not so much because of screen size, but because my iPads tended to spend a lot of their time connected to external keyboard cases. While some manufacturers make keyboards sized to the mini, they’re really too small for effective touch typing (even 9.7” sized keyboards are on the cramped side).
The iPad Pro
When the original 12.9” iPad Pro came out, I thought it was interesting, but not something I’d really be interested in. It was so big, and I had a fairly new iPad Air 2 that I still really liked. Then my Air 2 was stolen and I had to figure out what to replace it with. After quite a bit of debate I ended up getting a 12.9” iPad Pro.
I really do like the big iPad Pro. The big screen is great, especially for watching video and it does split view multitasking much better than the smaller iPads. The Apple Pencil has been useful, but not anywhere near as big a deal for me as it has for some other folks. I use it mostly for occasionally marking up PDFs rather than drawing.
For me, though, the real killer feature is the Smart Keyboard. As I mentioned, I’ve run external keyboard cases with my iPads almost from the very beginning. While I’ve found them much better than the onscreen keyboard, cases sized for 9.7” iPads have always been a little cramped to type on. The larger size of the 12.9” is finally enough to fit a real, full sized keyboard layout. The magnetic connection makes it much easier to get the keyboard on and off the device, so I can easily swap back and forth between typing and just using the iPad without the keyboard to watch video or browse the web. The Smart Connector is a big advance over Bluetooth in that the keyboard is always on. With Bluetooth keyboards if you haven’t typed anything in a while you have to wake the keyboard up before typing.
While I have not gone nearly as far down the route of making the iPad my primary machine as folks like Fraser Speirs or Federico Viticci, the 12.9” Pro has allowed me to go further in this direction than I previously thought. These days I don’t usually take my MacBook Pro with me when I travel unless I think I’ll have a particular need for it.
As much as I love the 12.9” iPad Pro, there have been some disadvantages to it. When I had a 9.7” iPad, it was pretty much my constant companion. With the help of a Tom Bihn Ristretto I had it with me almost all the time. I don’t carry the 12.9” around nearly as much. The extra size and weight make it easier to just leave it and only bring my phone. It’s not really a “take everywhere” device for me the way the 9.7” was.
The big iPad is also sometimes awkward around the house. It’s great for working at a desk or table, or sitting on the couch watching a video, but it’s big enough to be a bit awkward to hold in one hand and tap or type with the other.
Thinking about a smaller iPad
Initially, these disadvantages had me thinking about getting a larger iPhone. Ever since the iPhone line split into the regular and plus sizes, I had stayed with the smaller phone. Since my phone was effectively taking on some of the roles that the 9.7” iPad had filled for me, it had me considering whether an iPhone 7+ would make sense. In the end, though, I just couldn’t do it. The bigger phone just wouldn’t fit in some of the places where I keep my phone, and it’s not really friendly to one handed operation.
Eventually, I came round to the idea that the only way I could fill the gap left by the 9.7” iPad was another iPad. Unlike David, however, my solution to this was not a 9.7” Pro, but a iPad mini. I thought the mini would nicely split the difference between the big Pro and my iPhone.
I’d been thinking about going this route for quite a while, but part of the reason I decided to jump on it was the signs that the iPad mini might be on the way out. Apple recently dropped all of the mini models except the 128gb size, as well as undercutting it price-wise with the new $329 iPad. If I wanted the new one, this might be the time to do it.
While buying a second iPad is pretty much the definition of a splurge, I did economize in a couple of ways. This is my first iPad without cellular data. I relying on wifi and tethering to my iPhone for this one. I also went with just a 32gb model, which is the smallest amount of storage I’ve ever had in an iPad. I figure that the big iPad Pro is going to remain my primary platform for watching video and I don’t sync my music library to any of my iPads, so all I really need is enough space for apps. While Apple isn’t selling the 32gb iPad mini any more, it was still available from other sellers. I found a good deal on one from Walmart. It had evidently been sitting on the shelf for a while, since it came out of the box with iOS 10.0, rather than the then-current 10.3.1.
The iPad mini
This was the first time in a long, long while that I’ve set up an iOS device from scratch. Usually, when I get a new iPad or iPhone I just restore from my old device’s iCloud backup. Thinking about it the last iOS device I set up completely from scratch was probably the original iPad.
That said, cloud services make getting all my data on a new device pretty easy. Download the apps and set up iCloud, Dropbox, and a couple of app-specific syncing services (like OmniPresence).
There are some aspects of the smaller iPad that take some getting used to. The touch targets are all a bit smaller, for instance.
The keyboard is really way too small for touch typing. I find myself doing a lot more hunt and peck, often with the mini in my right hand and typing with my left. Holding the device vertically in both hands and typing with both thumbs is probably the fastest way to enter a non-trivial amount of text. When I’m using the mini I also find myself missing the number key row from the iPad Pro onscreen keyboard (though the flick keyboard in iOS 11 may mitigate that). The mini clearly isn’t going to be a machine for serious typing, compared to the iPad Pro or a Mac.
I use Split View quite a bit on my iPad Pro, but it definitely isn’t as useful on the mini’s smaller screen. I find myself using Slide Over when I need to access data in a second app (I did this with 1Password quite a bit during the setup process when I needed to enter credentials in other apps).
So far I find myself using the iPad mini quite a bit as a secondary screen. It’s what I grab when I’m doing something else and want to look something up on the internet or check email. If I’m sitting down to concentrate on one task I’m more likely to use the big iPad (or the Mac).
When I got the mini I did some hunting for a shoulder bag that really took advantage of the mini’s small size. Getting the smaller device in putting it in a bag sized for the 9.7” iPad seemed like a waste, so I really wanted something designed for the mini, but those are few and far between. I ended up getting a nice Waterfield Design iPad mini sleeve with a shoulder strap. This is about as minimalist as you can get (if anything I wish it had a bit more space for extra gear than the one very flat outside pocket that the sleeve sports). I’d link it, but it looks like Waterfield isn’t making the iPad mini sized one anymore.
The other piece of gear that I got for my iPad mini was a cheap folding stand. Frankly, these are not very high quality (though I haven’t broken one yet), but they are the lightest and most compact stand that I’ve been able to find. Everything else would be bulkier than the iPad mini itself. This little stand slips nicely into the flat pocket on the Waterfield case (though it doesn’t always want to stay there).
Was it worth it?
I haven’t ended up using the mini as often as I thought I would, in part because around the time I got the mini I cut down on how often I went out for lunch, which was one of the main times I figured I’d be using the mini. Still, I think it was worth it, even if it is clearly a secondary device for me.
August 28, 2017
When I got my new iMac, I took it as an opportunity to revisit my backup strategy. I’m pretty religious about having good backups and they’ve saved my bacon more than once.
There are lots of different ways of backing up your data. You can use Apple’s Time Machine, clone your hard drive, subscribe to an online backup service, manually copy data to external drives, back up to network attached storage, and so on. Lots of people will extoll the virtues of one or more of these options. However, rather than starting with the backup techniques themselves, I find it more useful to start by thinking about the problem you’re trying to solve. Decide what threats to your data you are concerned about, then pick backup techniques that address those threats.
So, what threats am I trying to mitigate with my backup strategy?
Oh crap I shouldn’t have deleted that!
The most common threat to my data isn’t theft, or fire, or hardware failure; it’s Command+S. I’ll make a change to a document and save it, then realize that the change got rid of something I wanted to keep. Or I’ll delete a file and empty the trash before I realize that it was the wrong file. Either way my actions are more of a threat to my data than anything else.
The simple solution to this is Apple’s built-in Time Machine software. It lets me go back and resurrect old versions of my data before I mistakenly deleted something.
In the past I’ve run Time Machine over the network, either to an Apple Time Capsule or to a share on my Drobo 5N. Every so often, however, Time Machine reports that it needs to get rid of my old backup and start again. With my move to a desktop Mac I decided to switch over to using a directly attached hard drive for Time Machine. So far this has been working well, but I haven’t really used it long enough to tell whether it’s more reliable than doing it over the network.
Oh crap my hard drive just died!
After my own incompetence, the next most likely cause of data loss is some sort of hardware failure. Either the hard drive dies, or my whole computer fails. Time Machine can help with these sorts of situations but it’s not optimal. I would have to get a new drive (or a whole new computer), reinstall the OS and then restore my data.
A better solution is to clone my Mac’s hard drive to an external drive. This way if I have a hard drive failure I can get back to work right away by booting my Mac off the external clone drive and pick up right where I left off.
I use Carbon Copy Cloner to do this. CCC figures heavily in several parts of my backup strategy, and I think it’s a piece of software every Mac user should own. Every night CCC clones my iMac’s hard drive to a 1tb external drive. CCC will make this software a “bootable clone”, setting it up so I can boot directly from the cloned drive (unlike a Time Machine drive).
The one potential issue I have with my current setup is that the external drive I’m using is a spinning hard disk, so when I boot my Mac from the external drive it’s very slow compared to running off my nice fast internal SSD. I’m considering whether it’s worth buying an external SSD as my bootable backup instead.
While my most important files are on my iMac’s hard drive, I also want to make sure all the data on my Drobo network attached storage are backed up. I have CCC set up to clone the Drobo as well. Right now I’m actually using two separate clone drives, one for my iTunes library and one for other data. This is primarily because I outgrew both the original drive I was using for this and the larger drive I got to replace it. So now I’m using both the original drive and the replacement in combination. I use Carbon Copy Cloner to clone my Drobo to these drives on a weekly basis.
Oh crap my house just burned down!
While a house fire is the notional threat here, it’s really a stand-in for any disaster that takes out both my Mac and the various backups on external hard drives I have sitting in my office. It could be a fire, flood, tornado, or theft. The solution is to have some sort of off-site backup. For a long time the only way to do this was by physically carrying a backup hard drive somewhere else. This sort of thing is obviously a bit of a pain, so most folks didn’t do it very often (if at all). The advent of high speed internet connections and cheap cloud storage has created a much better solution: online backup.
There are various services out there, some that will store your data for you, others that will back your data up to your own cloud storage service, or even a computer at a different physical location. I use Backblaze, which provides unlimited cloud backup for a yearly, per-computer fee.
One limitation with Backblaze is that it will not back up network attached storage, only drives that are directly attached to your computer. This is where the clone backups of my Drobo come in. Because these cloned hard drives are directly attached to my iMac, Backblaze will back them up. This does mean that my backups of stuff off the Drobo will be up to a week out of date since I only run the Drobo clone job once a week, but the stuff on my Drobo doesn’t change that frequently.
One limitation with online backup is the 1tb per month bandwidth cap that my ISP has recently imposed. I ran into an issue that required restarting my Backblaze backup from scratch when I reformatted my Mac mini, and it will be several months until I have everything uploaded to Backblaze again.
Oh crap I’ve got ransomware!
The most recent threat to my data is ransomware, malicious software that infects computers and encrypts all your data so you can’t access it until you pay the person who coded the ransomware for the decryption key.
The problem with ransomware is, depending on how cleverly it’s written, it can potentially corrupt any backup that can be reached from your computer, including network attached storage, external hard drives, and even online backup. The solution is to have a backup that’s not attached to your computer.
The most recent addition to my backup strategy is a “rotating shelf backup”. I have two large external hard drives and every week I’ll connect one of them to my iMac and clone the iMac hard drive and my Drobo 5N. Once the clone is done, I’ll disconnect the drive and put it on the shelf. The two drives alternate every other week. By using two drives, I ensure that even if I was hit by ransomware while doing the clone, I’ve still got a copy of my data on a drive that’s not connected to my Mac.
Oh crap I forgot that file when I reformatted my hard drive!
Most of these backup strategies are intended to make sure I have as recent a copy of my data as possible. However, there are times where I want to make sure I’ve got an old copy of my data. Whenever I decide to nuke and pave I’ll use CCC to back up the computer to a a disk image on my Drobo. This gives me a copy of my data that can hang around for months or years, long after my Time Machine, clone backup, and online backup have been written over with data from the newly formatted drive. This has saved my bacon a couple of times when I realize that there was an important file stored in some odd location that didn’t get copied over to the newly formatted hard drive. I’ll do the same thing when I get rid of one of my computers.
Do I really need to do all of this?
The truthful answer is probably not. This is a pretty heavily optimized backup strategy. Most of these techniques protect against multiple threats. If a hard drive dies you can recover from Time Machine or an online backup, for instance. A clone backup is easier to recover from, but it’s not the only way. You could protect against all of these threats with just Time Machine and a clone backup that you stash at a friend’s house. But that isn’t going to be as quick or seamless as having strategies optimized for each threat, nor does it provide as much redundancy.
I’m trying to have the best possible solution for each of these potential issues. This means when I do have a problem, I’ll be able to get back up and running with a minimum of fuss, but it’s more effort on the front end.
I would say that as an absolute minimum, you ought to have two different types of backup, one of which should be offsite. There’s nothing like suffering a hard drive failure and then finding out there’s a problem with your backup. As the saying goes, “two is one and one is none.” The easy button for most people is probably Time Machine and a service like Backblaze. Regardless, have a backup strategy and test it periodically.
August 14, 2017