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iPad Pro Impressions

8 min read

iPad Pro

This past weekend, I took the plunge and purchased myself an iPad Pro, including an Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard Folio. Amazon had the iPad Pro on sale for 16% off of list price, which is an uncommonly large discount that I couldn’t pass up. I also had saved up quite a bit of Amazon rewards credit, so my out of pocket cost was quite low. I’ve had my eye on an iPad Pro for quite some time, and now that I have one, its time to share my impressions.

Which iPad Pro?

I chose to purchase the smaller 11" iPad Pro in Space Gray with 256GB of storage. Why? Well, the 12.9" iPad Pro was very tempting, but my primary use case for this device is to be a highly portable alternative to my MacBook Pro. What do I plan to use it for? Ideally:

  • Productivity
    • Email
    • Documents
    • Task Management
    • Note-taking, as an alternative to my trusty paper notebooks
  • Development
    • SSH’ing into my various Linux environments
    • Local development, preferably using Python
  • Writing / Blogging
    • Publishing to my website
  • Media
    • Streaming from my Plex server
    • Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc.
  • Reading

Given my constraints and desire to have something more portable than my MacBook Pro, I opted for the smaller size iPad Pro and Apple’s very slim keyboard case, with the Apple Pencil to help me replace my paper notebooks. I chose the 256 GB storage option because the base model only offers 64 GB, which is just not enough for my needs.

The Good: Hardware

So, what’s the good news? Well, there’s a lot to like. First off, the hardware itself is simply stunning. Its light, thin, fast, and beautiful. The screen is bright and crisp, and the bezel-less design is reminiscent of Dieter Rams' greatest hits. The last hardware design that I loved this much was the iPhone 5s.

The accessories are similarly well designed. The Smart Keyboard Folio attaches to the iPad Pro with ease thanks to an array of powerful magnets, and the Smart Connector means that I never have to worry about charging or pairing the keyboard. It just works. The Apple Pencil is similarly impressive, with an ingenious magnetic attachment to the side of the iPad Pro, and wireless charging that is effortless.

The Good: Software

iOS has come a long way in the past few years, adding rudimentary file management in the Files app, early multi-tasking capabilities, and iPad-specific features that enhance the overall experience. That said, there’s a long, long way to go from an OS-level to truly make the iPad Pro a professional tool. I’ll touch on that more later.

Now, there are some truly amazing apps that I have been enjoying to help me with my target use cases. They’re not all perfect, but I am encouraged by the vibrant and growing ecosystem of truly professional apps for iPad. These give me a great deal of hope for the future of the Mac as these apps begin to show up via Marzipan. Below is a list of apps I am using or experimenting with so far:

  • Productivity
    • Email – Apple Mail. I am a heavy email user, and try out email clients often. For now, I am sticking with the built-in option, which is adequate.
    • Documents – Pages, Numbers, Keynote, and Drafts for personal projects. For work, we use GSuite, so I have installed Google’s Drive, Slides, Sheets, and Docs apps.
    • Task-Management – I use Things on my Mac and iPhone, and now I am using it on my iPad Pro.
    • Note-taking – This is an area where I am spending a lot of time experimenting. I have very much enjoyed note-taking in Drafts with my Smart Keyboard Folio attached, but am also trying out note-taking apps that are more Apple Pencil driven, including Notability and Nebo.
  • Development
    • SSH – Panic’s Prompt and the emerging iSH, which adds an emulated Linux environment to iOS.
    • Local Development – The aforementioned iSH has been a revelation, enabling me to do local development in a very similar way to how I would on macOS, with vim, Python 3.7, git, virtualenv, and other common terminal-based tools. I’m also experimenting with Pythonista and have my eye on a few other editors to play with (Textastic, Buffer, etc.).
  • Writing / Blogging
    • Blogging – Drafts with a custom Micropub action for publishing to my website.
    • Microblogging – Directly on my website, through Indigenous, or via the Micro.blog app.
  • Media
    • Streaming – Plex, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, etc.
    • Local Video – Infuse, VLC, and Plex. To get video into Infuse and VLC, I tend to use youtube-dl inside of iSH.
  • Reading
    • Books – Apple’s Books app works great for ePub content.
    • News – Apple’s News app is decent, but mostly I use Safari with my favorite news sites, or more likely I use my feed reader.
    • Comics – Chunky Reader is pretty solid, though I wish this entire category was more like Plex, with rich metadata indexing and organization on the server, with clients for reading.
    • Web – Safari.
    • Feeds – I have installed Together as a Progressive Web App on my home screen and it works well.

While none of the above apps are perfect, I have been quite impressed with them as a whole.

The Bad: Hardware

While the iPad Pro and its accessories are truly impressive hardware, they’re not free of issues. Because the bezels are so small on the iPad Pro, it can be a little uncomfortable to hold in portrait layout while reading. In the lap, the whole Smart Keyboard Folio and iPad Pro setup is a bit top-heavy, making it slightly unstable. Other than these minor nits, overall I think the hardware is top-notch.

The Bad: Software

While the app ecosystem is amazing, and iOS has made great strides, there are still some fundamental missing pieces that prevent me from viewing iOS as a true alternative to macOS:

  • Keyboard – While the Smart Keyboard Folio is generally great to type on, in spite of its small size and low key travel, it is greatly hampered by software limitations in iOS. There is no ability to re-map keys in iOS, so I am stuck with a system-wide Caps Lock key, and no ESC key. Some apps, such as iSH, allow you to map Caps Lock to ESC, but this should really be handled system-wide. In addition, the Smart Keyboard Folio has a β€œglobe” button in the bottom left corner which is infuriating. Pressing it pops up the Emoji keyboard on screen, and its right next to the control key, which I use heavily.
  • Fonts – iOS comes with a small set of fonts, and there is no standard, built-in way to install additional fonts. I have been able to use an app called AnyFont to install fonts, including my preferred programming font, Dank Mono, but because the system itself doesn’t have support for font management, most apps don’t surface font customization. Kudos to Drafts, though, for allowing users to pick from any font available to the system, including ones installed through AnyFont.
  • File Management – Apple added the Files app to iOS, and its a good start, but has so far to go to truly make it a pro-level file management tool. In addition, there isn’t any ability to plug in external storage to my iPad Pro, in spite of the fact that it has a USB-C port.
  • Multi-Tasking – iOS has a very rudimentary multi-tasking system, which allows you to place multiple apps onto the screen at the same time, in floating panels, and in split views. It works, but is fiddly to use, with delicate gestures required to bring up the dock, drag apps over each other, and position them. In addition, there is no way to have multiple β€œwindows” of an app used in different multi-tasking sessions. I think Apple is definitely innovating here, looking for new ways to approach multi-tasking than traditional window management. In many ways, iOS multi-tasking reminds me of tiling window managers, just… not as good. I’m hoping for good news on this front at WWDC.
  • Web Browsing – Safari is an awesome browser. But, on the iPad, too often websites give you the mobile version of their site, rather than serving up the β€œfull size” website. In addition, there isn’t any sort of download manager, or support for extensions other than content blockers.
  • iSH – I have heaped praise on iSH above, and it really is pretty incredible. Its also an open source project, and is rapidly improving… but its not there yet. Things I’d love to see added to iSH that would greatly improve my experience: custom font selection, better performance, compatibility with additional software, tabbed sessions, and a choice of a different base operating system than Alpine Linux.

Conclusions

Overall, I am thrilled with my iPad Pro, and really excited to see where Apple is headed with iOS for β€œpro” users. There is so much to like, and massive potential for improvement. While I don’t see the iPad Pro displacing my laptop anytime soon, I think it will become an important part of my workflow.

 
 

Retro Apple-Inspired Keycaps for my NightFox Keeb 🍎

Retro Apple-Inspired Keycaps for my NightFox Keeb 🍎
Retro Apple-Inspired Keycaps for my NightFox Keeb 🍎

Finally received my XDA ObliqueΒ keycaps in the mail and put them on my NightFoxΒ keyboard that I use at home. Inspired by Apple keyboards of old, such as the famed Apple Extended Keyboard II.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tracking My Movie, TV, and Podcast Activity

6 min read

As part of my continuing efforts to preserve and capture my memories, I’ve been spending some energy adding more capabilities to my website. I already capture photos, recipes, blog posts, status updates, and other more traditional types of content. In addition, I’ve been privately tracking my own location continuously for months now, including the ability to see some current details about my location and status. I also use the excellent OwnYourSwarm service from Aaron Parecki to record check-ins at specific locations on my site.

Last week, I realized that I was missing some data on my website that would add additional context when exploring my memories: my TV and movie watching history, and a record of what podcasts I listen to. As of today, I am now automatically tracking all of this data, and I’m happy to share a bit about how I made it happen.

Movies and TV

Let’s start with how I am tracking what movies and TV shows I watch. As it turns out, there is already a wonderful service out there for tracking this data called Trakt, which is a startup based out of San Diego. Trakt has done the hard part for me, with an extensive and complete database of movies and TV shows for me to pull from, and a host of great apps that use its powerful API to help users put data into their Trakt account. I am personally using the Watcht app for iOS to manually ad TV episodes and movies to my watch history on Trakt, and to show me a calendar of upcoming TV episodes for my favorite shows.

Trakt Logo

But, being an IndieWeb community member, I want to make sure that my memories don’t get lost in the event that Trakt goes away one day. In addition, I want to be able to see my TV and movie history in the context of the rest of my website’s content. So, I needed to find a way to automatically sync that data to my website.

At first, I thought about using the extremely capable Trakt API to periodically sync to my website, but then I noticed that Trakt Pro members get access to an Atom feed of their watch history. Working with a custom REST API takes a lot of effort, while integrating with a standard feed format is extremely easy. So, I happily paid for a Trakt Pro subscription!

I created a Python script which periodically parses my Trakt feed and then creates entries on my website for each movie and TV episode I watch. It only took me about an hour to put the whole thing together.

Sidebar: Automatic Tracking from Plex

Plex Logo

As you may already know, I have a great collection of digital movies and TV shows. I use the outstanding Plex Media Server to enable me to stream and sync content to all my devices. As Eddie, my co-host from Two Dads Talking, recently mused, tracking activity automatically is much more reliable than remembering to manually track activity. Trakt provides a Plex plugin that automatically syncs your Plex history to Trakt, and once I had that installed, a significant chunk of my activity is now automatically synced!

I still have to manually track content watched outside of Plex, like live TV from Hulu, and content consumed on Netflix, but it’s a good start.

Podcasts

I’m not only a podcaster with a microcast and a podcast, I’m also an avid podcast listener. I listen to podcasts on my daily commute, to relax after work, and to kill time on airplanes. Wouldn’t it be great to have that history tracked on my website as well? As I mentioned above, tracking that history automatically is greatly preferable to manually having to log every episode I listen to. With that in mind, I set out to see if I could capture my activity.

Overcast Logo

I use the wonderful Overcast podcast app for iOS. Overcast is created by Marco Arment, who is also a prolific podcaster. It’s a fantastic and pleasant app to use, and is perhaps my favorite iOS app ever. Overcast has a sync service and web frontend available for users at overcast.fm. Not only can you listen to podcasts in your web browser on overcast.fm, you can also export an extended OPML file that contains all details about your account, including a listing of all podcast episodes you’ve ever listened to. Bingo!

I whipped up a script that logs into my account at Overcast.fm, then downloads a copy of this OPML file, and uses it to sync my history to my website. It works a treat, but I will caution that Marco seems to be rate limiting that OPML export pretty aggressively. For the time being, I’ve limited my sync to once daily, and I’ve also contacted Marco to get his input on how I am using his service. In an ideal world, I’d love to see Marco add a standard RSS, Atom, or JSON Feed for Overcast paid subscribers similar to what Trakt has done for Trakt Pro users. In the meantime, I’ll be conservative about how often I sync and await a reply from Marco.

Why Track Activity?

You may be wondering why I want to track all of this information. Eddie and I briefly touched on the topic in the last episode of Two Dads Talking, but it really comes down to the fact that our memories are precious, and the more context I have when looking back on my life, the richer my appreciation will be for the life I’ve been blessed to live.

During the process of adding these new types of memories to my website, I also have added a monthly β€œrecap” feature which has been one of my all time favorite enhancements. I like them so much, I’ve added links to the last twelve monthly summaries to my home page to surface them. My favorite examples of monthly summaries so far:

  • January 2018, which marked my departure from DreamHost, the beginning of a new chapter in my career, and my second viewing of my favorite musical of all time.
  • July 2018, which includes travel all over the globe, some progress on my Indiepaper project, and outdoor movies in my front yard with my kids.
  • November 2017, which includes a trip to Australia, the acquisition of the best car I’ve ever owned, and my son’s first ever NFL football game.

I’m delighted to continue enriching my database of memories, and really happy with the way my movie, TV, and podcast tracking is shaping up so far.