After almost two decades of avoiding Microsoft-based web products whenever possible, I’ve come full circle: the new Microsoft Edge is my browser of choice. It has excellent privacy options, a large extension community, and developer support that makes it a reliable option on macOS over Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.
Admittedly, when I first started using the new Chromium-based Edge a few months ago, I was skeptical about its potential. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer left a bad taste in my mouth, thanks to the struggles I had developing against IE6 and IE7 in the early 2000s. But the more time I spent with this fresh iteration of Edge, the more I was left impressed.
As I write this, NYC is a hotspot amid a global pandemic. I spend my days jumping between work, family, and too much coronavirus-related social media, almost exclusively within the confines of a one bedroom apartment in downtown Manhattan. I’m aware this level of stability is, in many ways, a privilege, but it’s nevertheless a stressful time.
I find solace in podcasts covering subject matter removed from chaotic world events: film, gaming, and technology. COVID-19 is a big enough story that some virus talk per episode is inevitable. Still, hearing it from familiar voices, especially when they share the same feelings of anxiousness and isolation I have, is comforting. Podcasts are also easy to squeeze into my day, be it going on a late-night stroll outside, taking care of chores, or unwinding before bed.
What follows are a few of my favorites, grouped by subject. I purposely prioritized podcasts with smaller followings, though I note several more popular options at the end. Subscribe in your podcast app of choice or through the links I provide below.
Tot, a scratchpad app for macOS and iOS, has graduated from a side experiment to an essential part of my workflow in a matter of weeks. I highly recommend giving the app a try on Mac (it’s free), and if the design works for you, buy it on iOS.
Admittedly, when I first saw Tot pop up on social media and sites like MacStories, I was skeptical. There are already hundreds of note taking apps available on the App Store. Given several options like Bear and iA Writer nail the basics so thoroughly, with strong aesthetic design and years of iteration, it’s hard to see how any new competitor can stand out. But I’ve always had longstanding respect for The Iconfactory in terms of their attention to visual design. $20 later (more on that price in a bit), equipped with Tot’s iOS and Mac apps, I dove in to give it a try.
I’m skeptical of how well Apple’s upcoming streaming video service will perform. A Netflix clone with Apple-produced programming could become the HomePod of the streaming video market; Apple’s install base and marketing clout keep the service limping along but otherwise struggles for mainstream adoption.
I’m bearish on Apple’s video plans because they don’t align with the company’s strengths. Apple’s excellence in design won’t keep a streaming video service afloat. Consider the UI that powers existing services. Even with rapidly growing user bases, their interfaces are at best pedestrian (Amazon Prime), at worst an unintuitive mess (Netflix, Hulu). Frankly, most viewers don’t care; 95% of the time in-app is focused on watching, not browsing.
Two of the Macbook Pro’s most hyped improvements – the Touch Bar and more compact profile – have little benefit to many professionals. I’m worried Apple is increasingly hawking consumer level tech that’s missing the high end market.
At least half of the developers and designers I know work primarily with a Macbook Pro hooked to an external display and paired with an external keyboard and mouse. Ergonomics improve with both displays at similar height and distance. It’s more efficient to scan and drag content given the screens’ proximity. And by driving the setup through a laptop, you still get the flexibility of a portable device for meetings or work on the go.
Therein lies the rub with the Macbook Pro’s Touch Bar. With the aforementioned setup, the Macbook’s distance makes the Bar out of reach and hard to see. Ironically, a setup for serious work nullifies the Bar’s purported productivity benefits. And based on Apple’s pricing segmentation, we’re paying a premium for it as well.
The more I listen to podcasts, the more I find a good podcast app enhances my listening experience. I can save time by eliminating silences during playback. Fast search and discovery tools help me find more to listen to. And a reliable sync system smoothes transitions between clients. I like to experiment; I’ve dabbled in almost every major podcast app on the App Store. As of today, I’d recommend two: Overcast and Pocket Casts. Both have standout feature sets and are well maintained by their developers.
The right choice depends on your podcast listening habits. If you listen on platforms other than iOS (desktop, the web, Android), go with Pocket Casts. Likewise, if you have a more advanced listening workflow filled with custom playlists, filters, and subscriptions, Pocket Casts’ user interface is exceptional. In all other circumstances, stick with Overcast.
During runs and lighter coding sessions, I love listening to podcasts. Deep, geeky chats on tech, film and gaming are fun and instructive. The best podcasts are addictive; with memorable hosts and segments, it’s like checking in with old friends. Yet as my days get busier, I’ve had to pare down to just a few strong choices.
Balance separates great from merely good podcasts. They cover a diverse set of opinions, either from a revolving set of guests or hosts from different backgrounds. Yet it can’t be too diverse or the chemistry breaks down.
Once Apple Music’s free trial ended, I deleted all my files and resubscribed to Spotify Premium. The turnaround was surprising; this is Apple we’re talking about here. From Macs, to an iPhone, an iPad, and an Apple TV, I’m a convert. But after several weeks of heavy Apple Music usage, I was done with the service.
I’m not alone on this turnaround. Though 11 million subscribers (in a free trial period) is a decent start, I’ve seen many across, tech and design migrate elsewhere. There’s several reasons why:
My iPhone app usage aligns with the 80-20 rule. Most apps I try are completely disposable; within a few days I delete them or relegate them to a folder off the home screen, for use only on rare occasions. Yet I use a handful of apps every day. They stand the test of time for months, if not years, of usage. As we wrap up 2014, I wanted to highlight my “must-haves”. Many are well known within tech circles, but there’s a few lesser known apps that are also worth your time.
News and Social media
Alien Blue. My Reddit usage pales in comparison to other social media and news sources. I never comment, happy to scan a handful of design and gaming subreddits for links and general information. Thankfully, Alien Blue handles the browsing component well. It deserves special praise for its handling of image galleries and videos, both of which pop up frequently on Reddit threads.
News Funnel. Another plug for my self-built news site that lists top stories from Designer News and Hacker News. It sizes down effectively for the iPhone (and other mobile devices) so I can scan both sites easily.
Nuzzel. The app aggregates and lists the most linked to articles in your Twitter feed, ordered by popularity. There’s no faster way to see what’s trending among my Twitter friends. And via the “news from friends of friends” option, I usually discover some tech, film or gaming related articles I would have otherwise missed. I’ve tried many tools that build content off of my Twitter feed; none of have stuck the way Nuzzel has.
NYT Now. I was I was skeptical of the streamlined, simplified interface of NYT Now when it debuted earlier this year. Yet after a week of usage it secured a permanent slot on my phone’s home screen. At its core, NYT Now lists the full NYT app’s top stories, but adds larger imagery and helpful bullet point summaries for articles I don’t have time to read. It’s that smart use of bullet points that make all the difference on the go.
Reeder. I like having full control over my news aggregation, so for me there’s no substitute for RSS in the form of a Feedbin account. On the go, Reeder is my Feedbin reader of choice. There are other quality apps with Feedbin integration, but I find Reeder syncs faster than the competition. Also, the screen density of list items – dense but not too dense – matches my workflow. It’s about speed and sharing to other services like Pocket and Twitter, not lingering to read full stories.
Tweetbot. I check up on Twitter frequently, which makes a strong Twitter client essential. And while there’s been strong improvements on the official Twitter app lately, it still can’t match the speed and customization Tweetbot offers. Its timeline sync between devices is an especially nice touch.
Hours. I like to keep track of how much I’m working on both my day job and side tasks. I first tried popular web based time tracking software like Harvest and Toggl. But both felt optimized around more complex, team based workflows, when I prefer a simpler system. Enter Hours. The app centers on an intuitive interface for me to start, stop, and switch timers easily. It could use a Dropbox or iCloud based backup, not to mention a more customizable export system. But those are small quibbles on an otherwise strong 1.0 product.
Mailbox. I generally shy away from email apps that try to add their own productivity features on top of my inbox. But Mailbox adds its extras elegantly; with swipe gestures to archive or delete messages, I’m able to move through my inbox much faster than previous mail clients (there’s no coincidence Apple added similar swipe functionality to Mail with iOS8.) Overall, Mailbox adds just enough functionality to add value, but not too much to distract from my inbox content.
Pocket. My one stop source for catching up on content I’ve saved elsewhere on the web and aforementioned news apps like Tweetbot and Reeder. Parsing has gotten better over the years and the clean, stripped down reader view is easier on the eyes than many original web sources.
Wunderlist. I dig Omnifocus as a task manager for complex work tasks, but it’s overkill for simple to-do lists I write for chores, tasks at home, and other miscellaneous work. I’ve previously bounced around and tried Clear and Todoist, but both ultimately lacked staying power. Clear has a cool minimalist interface driven by gestures, but it was too simplistic for my needs and I’d run into occasional iCloud sync delays between devices. Todoist provides a lot more power, but the additional filters and searches overlapped too much with Omnifocus. Wunderlist finds a middle ground between Clear and Todoist; its sync is rock solid and the shared lists are useful and easy to set up with family members.
Next. Like with aforementioned time tracking, my budgeting needs are simple, centered on daily spending for expenses like restaurants, drinks, apps, and electronics. Because I’m entering in new entries manually each day, a smart entry UI is critical, and Next nails this perfectly. I tap a large category button, enter the amount and I’m done.
Overcast. For years I used Instacast to listen to podcasts. But eventually the complexity of extra features I never used (e.g. sleep timers, individual podcast settings), combined with several periods of slow syncing let me to try other clients. Marco Arment’s new Overcast matches my podcast flow perfectly; its interface is stripped down and straightforward, syncing is extremely reliable, and I use both of the exclusive “smart speed” and “voice boost” features heavily. There’s also a few small design touches I appreciate, like the audio equalizer animation during playback and the use of Concourse for typography.
Rise. I first scoffed at the idea of a dedicated alarm clock given the utility of Apple’s Clock app. But Rise is beautiful and has custom alarms that can progressively rise in volume, which I find is a more relaxing, peaceful way to be woken up. Most importantly, its gesture interface makes setup very easy, an important consideration given how often I change my wakeup time slightly from day to day.
RunKeeper. I run several times a week, and while I like select features on Strava and other fitness apps, I’ve always come back to RunKeeper for GPS-based run logging. The app has a straightforward interface that’s easy to both interact with and read as you run. I also appreciate the high degree of customization for automated voice notifications on your distance, time and speed.
Weather Line. I feel like I’ve tried at least twenty weather apps over the years, but since I started using Weather Line a year ago, I’ve been hooked. Like a few other weather apps, it has Dark Sky integration, which I find essential (so much so I own the original Dark Sky app for extra detail during rainy weather.) But Weather Line has a unique line graph interface that’s easily scannable to see how the rest of the day or week will pan out. I haven’t found another app that’s quite as intuitive, especially for a quick glance.
Yosemite’s most striking change to Mac OS X are its visuals, a nod to bring the OS more in line with iOS. That’s distilled in its new set of default system app icons. As John Siracusa writes in his Yosemite review:
Apple is trying to discipline the world of OS X icons. While one icon shape has been deemed insufficient, Apple believes three shapes should just about do it: circle, rectangle, and tilted rectangle…Visual simplification is the order of the day, and details that don’t read well at small icon sizes have been excised.
Unfortunately several apps I use heavily haven’t updated their icon and clash with Yosemite’s new look. In a sea of flat minimalism, bold colors, and thinner typography, a few icons that don’t follow trends can really stand out. So I hunted on Dribbble to find suitable replacements. Below I’ve provided a few direct links if you’re interested in grabbing them for yourself.
If you haven’t replaced an app icon yet, it’s an easy process in Yosemite:
Right/command click on the app in Finder. Select “Get Info”. A dialog box will open.
In another Finder window, find the new replacement .icns file for the app. Click on the icns file and drag it over to the existing app Get Info dialog box. Release the file on top of the existing app icon at the very top of the dialog box.
In terms of my replacements:
iTerm isn’t far off the mark but I wanted a more minimal, flatter look that better paired with Apple’s Terminal icon. Jason Long’s take is a better match.
Mailbox overall looks great, but the “in construction” thin lines (albeit with good purpose to signify beta status) all over the Mailbox icon were distracting. Chris Jennings made a very clean replacement that goes well with Mailbox’s minimalist aesthetic.
nvALT has a clever icon with a small stack of sheets alongside a rocket ship taking off. But it’s busy in the context of Yosemite. So I went ahead and created my own amateur work in Sketch combined with Icon Slate for output. Download it here.
Spotify’s default icon already works with color and a circular shape. Yet I wanted something with a more subtle gradient, punchier color and more clearly defined edge to the icon. Sebastian de With’s Muir set was my first choice, but after using it for a few days the white coloring for the icon’s sonic waves felt off from Spotify’s black aesthetic. So I switched to Jean-François Goncalves’s work. It’s very similar, but with black instead of white accents.
The great Iconfactory put together Sublime Text’s “big button” style original icon, yet it never resonated with me; it was just a bit too “cute” for my tastes. I’ve used other replacements while on Mac OS 10.9, but for Yosemite I’ve settled on a simple tilted rectangle icon from Rafael Conde. I love the subtle cross hatching on the icon’s background.
Tapbots have always had a playful and original bent to their wonderful Tweetbot app; that gives some creative license away from Yosemite’s usual icon layout. But Ilja Miskov put together an option that plays better; it mirrors Tweetbot’s simpler iOS icon cropped to circular form for Yosemite.