When The Computing Ideal Isn’t Practical

Happy Holidays, y’all. Blogging from one of my computers, I don’t know if it’s my primary or secondary. In a recent post, Tales of Computeria, I mentioned some computer fluidity, and since then my workflow has shifted a bit more. I drafted this post on my gaming laptop instead of my iPad this round. Wait, what? Yeah, I used a non-Apple device.

The iPad is great, and I’d say it’s still my main “computer,” but it’s no longer my only one. I’m putting the gaming notebook to more use because it’s so capable. Simply put, I had to use it for a few key things that my iPad can’t do, and when it comes to multi-windowing and multi-tasking, a traditional PC still outperforms a tablet by a good amount. In other words, for certain, uh, more productive tasks, the laptop is better and nicer to use than my iPad. Best tool for the job, ya know? (Conversely, when I just want to kick back and read some web articles in Pocket or watch some videos on YouTube, I grab my tablet.)

I realized something recently: no matter how much one prefers to go all-in with a single ecosystem – be it Google’s, Apple’s, or Microsoft’s – the hard fact is that, for many people, computing on only one platform is impractical. Yes, sure, living a mono-platform life – nothing but an iPhone and iPad – is ideal, yet it’s unreal…istic. At least for my needs, it was a good idea that, in execution, didn’t work so well.

Between myself, my job, my wife and sons, and many others in my community, we are all over the place in the metaverse (bonus point for using a buzzword). I don’t know anyone who exclusively uses only one ecosystem, referring to either hardware or software. Some people use Google Docs and some use MS Word (it seems even many Apple users ignore Apple’s Pages). Some folks use Chromebooks, yet many use either Windows PCs or Macs. When last I checked, about half of US consumers use Android phones and the other half uses iPhones. In my own household, this tech diversity is certainly the norm. Google, Apple, Microsoft: we use them all.

Last year, I ditched my iPhone and iPad and went all-in with Google on an Android phone and a Chromebook exclusively. It worked well enough, except my wife and kids didn’t migrate with me…which was one reason why I returned to an iPhone and an iPad. Everyone’s use-case for computing can be different; I couldn’t stay away from the great Windows 11 machine I’m now blogging with, despite the magic of my iDevices.

I was happy and comfortable working on just my iPad for a while and wasn’t looking to switch up my workflow. While it’s true that a geek-nerd like me tends to gravitate to a novel computing setup like a flavor of the month, I’m still human and am averse to change in general. I subtly or subconsciously resisted the fact that I would be using my Windows laptop, but such stubbornness became futile; the gaming got me.

After installing Steam, GOG, and the Epic game stores along with a new game, a demo, and RPGMaker MZ (and also wish-listing many other games), I found my Windows 11 device quite nice and powerful. I also must use it a lot as the administrator account for my five (5) sons’ accounts. For my writing work, many basic interface elements just work better on the “real” computer than on my small iPad. Split-View and Slide-Over are cool and useful, but snapping three side-by-side windows on the big laptop display or even just overlapping many floating ones is a multi-tasking delight. Windows 11 also retains the handy task overview feature that, with a single click, lets me see all my app windows laid out in a grid for easy switching.

With all that magnetic draw, I slowly realized being iPad-only was not pragmatic, it was more dogmatic (I’ve sort of been an Apple fanboy I guess). Now since I’ve started incorporating my Windows machine into my workflow, I’ve had to make practical decisions about a few core apps and services that needed to change. Apple software works well on Apple hardware but not on Asus hardware or in a Microsoft OS.

I needed cross-platform apps and services for my web bookmarks and history, cloud file storage, ubiquitous notes, journal entries, and maybe most important of all, login credentials. That is a lot of change! Here’s what I have switched so far:

  1. Web Browsing:
    • Safari -> Edge
  2. Cloud Syncing:
    • iCloud -> OneDrive
  3. Note Taking:
    • Apple Notes -> OneNote
  4. Journaling:
  5. Password Managing:
    • iCloud Keychain; Browser Password Managers; Pass-coded Notes -> Bitwarden

The first three of those items went from first-party Apple to first-party Microsoft solutions. While there are good things to be say about relying on third-party solutions (like Firefox and Evernote) since they’re more cross-platform, I think I made the most pragmatic choices.

Overall, I’m trying to compute in a way that makes the most sense now (I’m even editing this post on my Chromebook), and of course it’s nice to freshen things up a bit. I’ll point out that my core or basic utilities like email, contacts, reminders, and calendaring remain with Apple’s solutions since they work best with iPhone – it’s practical. Also, when so much communication and stuff (iMessage, FaceTime, Find My) is tied to my phone’s contacts, changing isn’t really an option.

Use the best tools for the job, keep things simple when possible, and stay practical. In reality, striving too much for the ideal sometimes proves less than ideal.

Tales Of Computeria

On this last day of November, I’m contemplating the benefits of my under-utilized laptop. Sure, my kids get a lot out of it — we share — for their school work and such, but I’ve yet to really put my RTX-enabled GPU to work (ok, play). That’s because I prefer to stay comfy in Apple Land — my iPad is my computer (is that hipster-ish?). It’s practical, but more than that, I truly like the synergy and ease of use between my iPhone and iPad (and Apple Watch).

My iPad works much like a laptop with a bluetooth keyboard and mouse that I frequently use. And Apple has truly made iPadOS function more like MacOS in recent years with “Desktop-class browsing” in Safari — let me tell you it’s true because it really works great (cursor hover states!) in the WordPress CMS and in Google Drive/Docs.

That said, when it comes to laptop-like functionality (are you sitting down?), my Windows laptop actually works better! I mean, you know, because it’s an actual laptop and all.

I had to download a game from Steam, which can’t be done on the iPad. So to my Windows 11 laptop I turned (Win 11 is super nice BTW, though it’s still Windows). As I used my slick gaming laptop, it impressed me. The Edge browser, Discord App, Twitter, and Steam all looked and worked nicely on a much more expansive display (over 5 inches larger, which can also easily connect to a giant external monitor or TV via its handy built-in HDMI). Suffice to say, it’s a nice laptop.

So as one who typically swings back and forth between computers, it’s not surprising that I’m feeling certain attraction toward my laptop…but I’d never break up with my iPad, right? Of course not…

But here’s the thing. While I was on Steam grabbing a game demo (Rise of the Third Power if your curious), I noticed another game, Tales of Arise. It’s a recently released AAA title from Bandai Namco, and it’s a JRPG. The thing is, it was made for the PS4 and PS5 consoles, so I never considered it available to me. In other words, since it’s not on Switch, I can’t play it, so I had no desire or real interest in it even though it’s generally considered a great RPG. But after seeing it available on Steam, on my laptop, and within my ability to purchase and play it without the need to buy a new console, I was smacked in the face! I can play Tales of Arise since it was ported to PC (as opposed to Switch).

Not only can I play more great games now, I realize, but I can play them very well since my laptop has a new Nvidia RTX GPU; I’ve already enjoyed RTX-enabled Minecraft on it. So my laptop is like a PS5 or Xbox Series X; it can handle big fancy games as if it’s a latest hard-to-find console. This really flipped a switch in my brain.

After widening my eyes to the fact I can play some great games I previously thought I had no access to, my laptop started to seem like a new console to me (I’ve only been a console gamer really, with some handheld on the side, not counting mobile). So I quickly decided to soon buy an Xbox controller for it. But something else then occurred to me: not only can my laptop play AAA games like a console, it can do so much more because it’s not just a console, it’s a computer. While that seems obvious, it’s the kind of no-brainer fact that takes on renewed significance after seeing it from a fresh perspective.

A good gaming laptop can play new and great AAA console-level games, and it can perform many other tasks, run programs, and of course surf the web. Yeah, you don’t need real-time ray-tracing to send out a snarky Tweet, but does it hurt? Not really. Actually, if we move into “the Metaverse,” a strong GPU might be required just to email in virtual reality, who knows? If so, the chip shortage will be lengthened, but I digress.

So all that said, I’ll keep enjoying my iPad as my main computer, and I’ll put my laptop to good use otherwise. I won’t switch machines, and I won’t not switch either. I’ll just use whatever I feel like using or whichever fits my needs at any given moment the most. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Journaling A Few Days With Day One

Journaling is a good habit, so it makes sense to support it with a good tool. Some prefer good ol’ fashioned pen and paper, yet others like to go digital. While there are many journaling apps, one often stands out: Day One. I’ve been using the app for a week, but this is not my first time trying it. What’s different now?


Day One has a positive reputation, having earned awards for its beauty, simplicity, and functionality. Added to that list are its more recent achievements: privacy and security via end-to-end encryption. Suffice to say, this digital diary deserves noteworthy attention for all its quality. So over the past few years, I’ve eagerly installed Day One a handful of times to try it, but the app never clicked with me.

One of the reasons was its interface. Despite exuding elegance, I found the high number of features, icons, settings, and fine text to be a bit much for my taste. In other words, it looked and felt distracting and somewhat overwhelming. I am accustomed to the relative simplicity of Apple Notes, which has been my main outlet for private journaling; Day One was “busier” by contrast.

Another issue I’ve waffled about — across a variety of productivity apps — is whether to rely on first-party software or third-party solutions. There are pros and cons to both sides; in general, I stick with Apple’s default apps for their ecosystem synergy. That said, there’s a distinct advantage to using a specialized journaling app over a generalized note taking app: dedication.

Day One app on iPad.

That’s why I am trying a third-party journaling app again. It recently occurred to me: I need to remove my innermost personal thoughts from the Apple Notes app. Instead, they should be kept in a dedicated or specialized app, separate from disparate folders and tags of general notes. This would let my secret musings be siloed into their own service that’s more private and secure, and it would allow me to focus attention on my journaling habit, giving it a vital boost.

Simply having a particular app icon — dedicated to journaling — on my iPad’s home screen or dock, for example, makes journaling more visually prominent. Seeing the Day One app reminds me it’s important to journal. More than that, it welcomes me to a dedicated place where I can pour out my brain’s firings and misfirings — unfiltered and unfettered.

I love Apple Notes and rely on it, but my journals felt somewhat overlooked within it; my journaling habit fell to neglect. This is despite the fact that I had a Shortcut on my home-screen to automatically create a new note with the current date in the title, which allowed me to quickly start the day’s diary entry. Also, since Apple Notes now features tagging, in addition to folders, I have begun to reorganize my notes by type and subject. This process, and the results, will work much better with my journals relocated to Day One.

My Day One-week streak!

I’ve only been using Day One for a week, so it’s too early to know if I’ll stick with it. I need a dedicated journaling app though, so I’m giving Day One a real try with an open mind. As I move my journals from Apple Notes to Day One, I backdate them as needed. I’ve also restarted daily journaling again, utilizing one of the features that a dedicated journaling app is uniquely apt for: a writing streak or goal. With Day One, I now have a widget on my iPad that shows my current 6-day journaling streak; it’s another reminder of the importance to reflect daily.

Day One Streak Widget
Day One Streak Widget.

Besides widgets, Day One has many other niceties that aid or improve journaling: calendar view, timeline view, auto date/time stamps, auto weather data, templates, daily prompts, reminders, and ”On this day”. This last feature automatically displays photos for any given date along with any journal entries on that same day. Seeing this in action has been somewhat revelatory, making me think it’s a feature that I can’t believe I’ve lived without.

I have only a few minor quibbles with Day One. I wish the passcode was at least 6 digits instead of a mere 4, or maybe an alphanumeric passphrase option would be better; I guess it’s secure enough. The app has extra icons, text labels, and other features I don’t need — like adding audio, video, or drawings — but the user interface overall is easy enough to look at and use; I’m already becoming accustomed to it. In time, I’ll probably unpack my bags, settle in, and feel comfy enough to unpack my feels and thoughts on a regular basis. And I’ll likely pay the annual subscription fee, which amounts to about the cost of one coffee per month — totally worth it I think. Otherwise, the free version is very capable so far.

So do you journal? If so, how often? And what tool is your favorite? Let me know in the comments below!

iPhone Interactive Widgets Hide In Plain Sight

Redesigned Widgets came to iOS 14, but for all their benefits, they still lack perhaps the best part about a widget – interactive functionality. Currently, Widgets provide glanceable information, which is nice, but it would be better if a few basic functions were available directly on a Widget. Such utility is already proven as interactive “widgets” do, in fact, exist currently on iPhone.

The best example for an interactive widget would be the Music app using playback buttons. Coincidentally, the app already has 3 different sizes of interactive ”widgets” in iOS; they’re just not part of the widget library. All three “widgets” have basic playback buttons and are, actually, Controls.

The first example is the Now Playing Control ”widget” in Control Center. While using the Music app, it features an interactive play/pause button and forward and backward buttons, which change to seconds-skip buttons when using the Podcasts app. A fourth button reveals an audio output button.

The small Now Playing Control in Control Center on iOS resembles a 2×2 widget.
The Batteries and Music Widget bear striking resemblance to the Radios and Now Playing Controls.

The small Now Playing Control next to the Radios Control resembles a 2×2 Widget, which is clearly evident when compared with the 2×2 Music Widget next to the Batteries Widget.

The 2×2 Music Widget can obviously incorporate playback controls. Of course with a bigger widget, more controls could be utilized. A simple example of this is, again, the Now Playing Control in Control Center. Tap and Hold the Control to reveal a larger 4×6 Control with interactive sliders and buttons.

The 4×6 Now Playing Control looks very nice – love those interactive buttons.

A good example of an interactive 4×4 Music Widget is the 4×4 Now Playing Control found on the Notification Panel.

The 4×4 Now Playing Control in the Notification Panel has tappable buttons – very useful!

These interactive controls easily demonstrate how Apple could implement useful buttons on the next versions of Widgets, and I hope they do. Not only is adding controls to widgets feasible, their current implementation suggests that Apple may intend to eventually tailor these features for future Widget iterations.

Bringing controls to Widgets, on both iPhone and iPad, will make Apple’s future mobile devices more functional and more friendly. I encourage Apple to make it happen.

The Safari Browser Refreshes Tab Design

Apple’s newly redesigned Safari web browser is now available, so I’ve been trying out the refreshed “tabs”, among other things, on my iPad. While still adjusting to the updated design, I’m loving the changes so far.


Tab Trials

These aren’t the tabs you’re looking for.

When iOS and iPadOS 15 were undergoing beta testing during this past Summer, early reviews made Safari’s compact tab layout seem dire. After a few iterations, the public version of Safari landed. I wondered how bad the tabs really were and wanted to try them myself, so once my devices were updated with the new release, I set Safari on my iPad to the Compact Tab Bar. I didn’t do this because my 10.2” screen real estate was insufferable; I was simply curious to use the renewed Safari tabs as Apple had initially envisioned for the update. Being optimistic, I figured Apple’s intended tab redesign was good.

I wanted to think different.

Looking at the new ”tabs”, I realized they’re really the same as the URL address bar, just more narrow while more tabs are open. So I thought, I’m looking at web pages, not tabs. To explain better, here’s an excerpt from an article titled, ”Safari 15 isn’t bad, just misunderstood”:

“The tabs are the address bars of other pages you have open. You’re not switching tabs, you’re switching pages. This is also why the title bar and toolbar take on the same background color as the page you’re on. The entire Safari window is the page. When you switch from one page to another, it all changes to match the new page.“

Jeff Kirvin
Safari settings. Compact Tab Bar, please.

Thinking Differently

It’s only been a week, but I don’t think the compact tab design is merely a novelty; I genuinely like the radical tabs, though some reviewers still don’t. On the plus side, it’s good that Apple has provided options in Settings, letting users choose their preferred tab style. I turned on Compact tabs — I call them tab capsules — which combine a tab’s button with the URL bar; the “Omnibar” is really living up to its name. I also enabled “Show Color in Tab Bar.”

Visually, tabs have soft rounded corners, and the tab bar suggests minimal elegance. The active tab is darkened or lightened, making it easy to identify. With multiple tabs open, although the website name is truncated due to narrow width tabs, I haven’t had trouble knowing which tab I’m on or which one to switch to. Each tab has a colored Favicon, and part of the URL title is visible most of the time. These show enough to know where in the world wide web I am — with one exception, using iPad in Portrait mode with more than a handful of tabs open. To help, a simple pinch-in gesture shrinks the current tab to reveal all open websites in a tabs overview page, which shows each web page’s content and name. It’s easy to switch tabs there.

Tabs overview page in a grid.

Functionally, the tabs work well enough. Because the URL bar and tab are now combined, some previously exposed buttons hide in an overflow menu — the ellipsis /three dot button. When accessing a button, an ideal design minimizes extra gestures or taps to save time and be efficient. But an extra tap or two isn’t that big of a deal; the iPad remains a wonderful modern touch-based computer, easily accessible and user friendly. So despite a few functions living behind the ellipsis button, the Safari redesign remains nice to use.

Whimsy Works

The new compact tab bar also presents something special Apple has been known for: whimsy. The company’s software designs have sometimes been called whimsical, featuring fun things like animations. In that light, the tab capsules are delightful to swipe back and forth as they tug on the rubber-banding animation and bump into each other.

Another cool feature of Safari’s refreshed tool bar is simply color; it will now match the main color of the website being visited. This appealing aesthetic blends the tab bar with the website better, making it look and feel more native to the particular site. This color-matching complements the web page rather than contrasting from it. I like the holistic look, and although the tool bar and tabs change color, I don’t lose my location or wonder where the tabs are.

Below are several examples of websites showcasing the color-matching of Safari’s new tool bar. In particular, notice how the Six Colors site, with its constantly changing color gradient, is rendered. Safari matches the color in real-time, as it is changing, and automatically adjusts the font color from white to black and back again. It also subtly applies a lighter or darker active tab fill-color so that the text stays legible.

Six Colors with white text.
Six Colors with white text.
Six Colors with white text.
Six Colors with black text.
Six Colors with black text.
Six Colors with black text.
Starbucks
Target
Nintendo Life
Wikipedia
Psychology Today
Apple
Amazon

Overall, the new compact tab bar is great. It’s not perfect — tabs get a bit too cramped in portrait mode — but Apple did a good job in its design and implementation, thinking through different points. I even like the new pull-down-to-reload gesture to refresh the web page.

The change that I’m still adjusting to is Tab Groups. I had looked forward to the new Tab Groups feature above all, and I’m glad to have them. They change the way I surf the web, and while they add a bit of complexity to Safari, the trade-off is worth it because grouping tabs together and switching between them as needed reduces the bulk of tabs open in the compact tab bar. This improves visual and mental clarity for better focus on the current web task. More clarity yet mild complexity is a fair enough deal.

Finally, I’m also enjoying Safari’s other new features like the new Start Page that is customizable. I also plan to try Extensions, which are new to Safari; I’ve got my eye on Grammarly.

So what are your thoughts about the new Safari tab design? Do you go compact or separate? Color-matching or not? And do Tab Groups help or hurt your web surfing?

UPDATE: Credit to John Gruber at Daring Fireball for surfacing the article by Jeff Kirvin.