Digital Minimalism: Sorting out Cloud Storage

One of the digital minimalism tenets I use is online (and removable) storage is akin to paying for a storage locker for your physical goods. It is easy to just shove files online or to a USB drive without questioning whether you really need all of those files. It’s not a perfect analogy, of course. It ignores prudent backup strategies. We live in a world where we have multiple devices and we want our stuff on all of those devices.

So while I still pay for cloud storage (iCloud and Dropbox), I do try and be mindful of the shit I throw up there.

iCloud, iOS 13, and Catalina

The simplest solution would be to just use iCloud. I pay for the 256gb option mainly for photo storage, backups, and PDFs in iBooks. There are two main reasons I can’t go all-in on iCloud: Scrivener, and lack of selective/smart sync. Now, selective sync is one of those gray areas for my digital minimalism tenet. After all, if the storage of the files exceeds the storage space on my devices, well, why do I keep it? Honestly, it’s a valid question I don’t have the answer to. It is something I think about often, but for now there are things I don’t need replicated all of my devices.

Scrivener only uses Dropbox for syncing projects between Mac and iOS. This sync method is something that I am factoring in to my pros and cons between Scrivener and Ulysses.

A lot of this changes with the next versions of iOS and macOS. While there isn’t true selective/smart sync, both OSs let me pin a folder to ensure its contents stay downloaded. My limited tests show that a pinned folder will automatically download a newly-added file without any prompting.

Dropbox

Dropbox has a few things going for it. Scrivener works with it. It has true selective/smart sync. It also retains versions and deletion history better than iCloud. Dropbox recently raised its prices from $9.99 to $11.99 a month. This price includes smart sync, which lets you choose a folder to always remain offline. This is handy for my large archive of PDFs. I don’t usually need to have them when I’m not online and can save some disk space.

The Road Forward

I am willing to take the hit on Scrivener at this point if it means moving off Dropbox. Of the apps I use, it is the only one that solely syncs with Dropbox1. I have given myself a few action items before the new OSs are are released this fall.

  • Continue to work and see if pinning continues to work to keep files synced for offline access;
  • Work on moving writing away from Scrivener and into Pages/Ulysses;
  • Take a hard look at that large PDF archive and see if it needs to reside in the cloud.
  1. AutoCAD is the other app that doesn’t use iCloud, but I don’t use the iPad app much.
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iPad Life: On a Keyboard Failure Making Me Rethink an Entire Workflow

I have used the Apple Smart Keyboard as my main keyboard for my 12.9” iPad Pro since I bought the device in January 2016. Unfortunately, they are not reliable as I have gone through two of them in that period. I went to Apple to try and plead for swapping out the second carcass but failed.

I love creating on my iPad. It is perfect for writing and drawing with. The Smart Keyboard worked well for me as it was easy to flip around from writing mode to drawing mode and it didn’t add too much weight to the device. It also charged from the iPad and I didn’t need to worry about pairing with Bluetooth.

The Smart Keyboard’s death, however, triggered a long tail of analysis.

The first thought is iOS 13 stands a chance at being a sea change for iPad productivity. I am not sure of two things: whether those changes will make a meaningful difference to how I use iOS; and if those changes work on my iPad Pro. If the answers to both of those are yes, I will likely get something like the Brydge keyboard1 for my iPad and call it a day. If the changes are amazing but don’t work on my iPad, later this year I will look at getting a new iPad Pro2. If the changes don’t improve my use if the iPad, I will take a long look at what the iPad means to my creative life.

There is always a lot of discussion about iPads as laptop replacements, but to get a new iPad Pro setup that mimics what I use now costs about $1,600. That is well towards 13” MacBook Pro prices. If you take out the Pencil, it’s pretty close since the 256GB MacBook Pro is $1,500. At that point, if I drop that kind of money I simply want my iPad to do more than it can now. Little things, like use a mouse and keyboard3, and access data on USB drives. Right now, the new iPad Pros don’t solve $1,600’s worth of problems.

All of the keyboard cases — save the Smart Keyboard — are a form factor that make the iPad more laptop-like, but at the sacrifice of the flexibility of quickly switching to tablet mode. The closest I have seen is the Brydge keyboard, but that one still requires you to remove the iPad from the keyboard to use it in tablet mode. If I am just going to jam the iPad into that style of encasement I wonder if just using my actual laptop is a better option.

Until the WWDC keynote I am not buying another keyboard for my iPad, which means until then I am trying to work off the virtual keyboard as much as possible. Right now it is a tough slog but we will see how that goes. I have a spare Bluetooth keyboard I could use, but I prefer to keep my keyboard and iPad as a singular unit. One thing I do like about the virtual keyboard is just having the tablet flat on the table and not reaching up to use the interface is amazing.

  1. Or, yes, another Smart Keyboard. They aren’t reliable but they work best for the way I use my iPad.
  2. The biggest disappointment would be if USB-drives are only available on USB-c iPads.
  3. The main use case is using our Virtual Desktop system at work.

iPad Life: Update to Playing D&D on the iPad

For reasons I can’t even begin to understand, an almost two-year-old post about how I play Pen and Paper Dungeons and Dragons on my iPad is the top hit page on this site. A lot has changed in my workflow, so I am providing an updated post.

MANAGING MY CHARACTERS

With the release of D&DBeyond, Wizard’s online compendium, they also issued Cease and Desist orders to a lot of the sites that provided character builder services. While it was possible to upload configuration files that had D&D source material, it became too much of a pain in the ass for me to manage. Instead, I figured for short money I could buy direct from Wizard the material I needed and just manage my characters on their web page.

I have been very impressed with the online portal. It’s damn easy to quickly create and update a character. A few times I have been at a con and suddenly needed a level one character in about 5-10 minutes had a workable character for the play session. Updating them when I get new gear or a new level is also very easy.

USING THE IPAD IN PLAY SESSIONS

Gone, obviously, is the Numbers sheet I was using as a hacked-together character sheet. Also the 3rd-party PDFs are gone. I instead use the portal manage my character.

Luckily, the places I play D&D have decent WiFi. With the 12.9” iPad I can view the entire web page for the character manager. From there I can adjust hit points and check off used abilities. It’s also easy to invoke mechanisms like short and long rests and the web page will automatically reset used abilities. There is also an added bonus that having the iPad laying flat on the table lets other players see I am actually using it to play the game, and not Minecraft. I also makes seeing dice rolls easy without a laptop screen in front of me.

The one area I am not thrilled with is the PDF export. For non-spell casting characters it’s fine. However, the amount of information it exports about spells is lacking. It doesn’t tell me that effects, damage, and other crucial information. This isn’t the end of the world since I just keep that PDFs in case the WiFi is crappy. There is a companion app that I can use to look up information. Unfortunately it doesn’t handle characters yet. The PDF is just a backup in case the WiFi craps out. I sync them to my iPad but I have’t needed to use them in a session yet.

I have used this system in roughly 6 games, mostly at conventions. It is working well and for about $30 I solved a lot of character management problems. Hopefully they will implement a character manager to the iPad app. The only issue I have is battery life since I am hammering the WiFi connection. I do keep a small battery charger in my bag, though.

iPad Life: Moving the Goalposts

Any discussion of using the iPad as productivity tool — be it a primary or secondary device ends up with: “Until x application is on the iPad, it can’t be a ‘real device.’” Said application is usually Photoshop. Adobe recently announced plans to bring Photoshop to the iPad. Naturally, the anti-iPad crowd folded their tents, admitted you can now do “real work” on an iPad and the argument ended.

I will give you a few moments to catch your breath from laughing so hard. The MacRumors forums — where most of the arguments I see take place — the big discussion point is that clearly it’s not the real full version of Photoshop, and here are all the reasons it will fail without even looking at the app.

This is the problem I have with people saying you can’t do “real work” on an iPad. Most of the arguments are from people who have never used the iPad for such tasks. They immediately dismiss the idea, and insist until the iPad is exactly like a Mac, it is but a child’s toy. Maybe they feel threatened that Apple will one day stop making the Mac. Maybe their fears will come true. My own issues going to an iPad-only life are well-documented. Which is why the only opinions in these arguments that matter to me are the people who have attempted to use the iPad for more than surfing the web.

Photoshop coming to the iPad is a big deal. While apps like Affinity Photo & Designer, Procreate, and Pixelmator are quality apps, Photoshop is the standard for any photo editing. It’s great to see Adobe finally realize they need to bring their apps to the iPad.

iPad Life: A Post-iPad-Only Life and Rendering Unto Caesar

I have largely abandoned the idea that I can go iPad-only. While I never actually thought it would work for me, and admire people like Matt Gemmell who can, I have come to the grudging realization I cannot join their ranks.

In the parlance of many failed relationships, it’s not the iPad; it is me.

When the focus of my non-day job stuff was writing and drawing, the iPad was perfect for that. Even architectural drawings, while I can’t do full AutoCAD on the iPad, I could still draw buildings and have some fun with that. Schoolwork was a little more challenging where I’d run into some limitations with Word, I could still get around them on the iPad. It was when my career path diverted into information security the wheels fell off the iPad bus. There are some discovery and recon tasks I can do on the iPad, but the tools I use require access to the Unix parts of macOS I don’t ever expect iOS to allow.

I wrote earlier about how I carry too much crap with me and did some data analysis on how I use my mobile devices. While the numbers clearly point towards the iPad as my primary mobile device, they don’t tell all the story. There is a line from the Bible I like which is Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s… and a variation of this applies here. While I cannot go iPad-only, the iPad is still pretty much my primary mobile device. Unless I really need a program only available on the Mac, I only bring my iPad with me. I’m writing this post now at lunch at work on my iPad. I bring the iPad to to take notes, read materials, write, and draw. The reasons I outlined in A Year of Using the iPad as a Laptop Replacement for using the iPad as my primary mobile device still apply. But, I felt like my quest to either go Mac-only or iPad-only were causing me to focus on the negatives of each system, rather than the positives. By accepting I need each device in my life freed up a lot of mental energy. I love writing and drawing on my iPad. I love using Unix tools on my MacBook Pro. If that means I leave the house with both of them in my bag some days, well, so be it.

The “I Carry Too Much Crap” Edition

From Ben Brooks:

My rule here is very simple: take a phone and one other device. Unless you have a major reason why you need three devices, take only two. For me the second device is my iPad Pro, and before that it was my MacBook. If you need a Mac, take a Mac and use your phone for anything else. But decide if you even need that second device — I take mine strictly because if I can squeeze in writing time, it is worth having the iPad Pro. But I could do it all with my iPhone if I wanted

I’ve been in a weird state where I’m straddling a few tech lines and as a result I’m leaving the house frequently with both my iPad Pro and my MacBook Pro. The short version of a long story is I can’t really go iPad-only, but, I also can’t really go MacBook-only at the same time. My primary, non-day job, yet productive, tasks are: writing, drawing, photo editing, and security analysis. I’m oversimplifying here, but the iPad is best at drawing and the MacBook is the only platform I can do security analysis with. The other tasks I can do close to equally as well on either platform.

Ben’s post helped illustrate a growing frustration I have with my daily load-out: I routinely leave the house with my iPhone, MacBook Pro, and iPad Pro. That is one device too many. I’ve made my peace with the fact that I need a powerful Mac, an iPad Pro, and an iPhone as part of my technological setup. What I struggle with is why I feel I need to bring both the iPad and MacBook Pro with me. Core apps I use (Ulysses, OmniGraffle, Affinity Photo) are reasonably feature complete between iOS and macOS1. The iPad-only apps are Procreate for drawing, and the macOS-only apps are my security toolsets.

The practical answer is to just go back to a MacBook Pro. It’s a more flexible platform and the walls I hit are fewer than on iOS. Drawing is the least-performed of my activities. Even today I ran into a weird iOS limitation. I needed to export a multiple-canvas Omnigraffle document to png files. On the Mac, there is a checkbox to export the entire document. On the iPad, no such checkbox exists. [UPDATE: I have since learned there is a workaround] Practicality is not the only driver, though. I really like using the iPad Pro. Typing on the Smart Keyboard is a dream and I love the portability of the device. As with creative work, security work when away from my home is also a rarity.

Since I can’t decide, and impulse and emotions aren’t good points to base decisions on, I’m falling back on my analyst mindset. I created a spreadsheet where I will record on a high-level my device usage. Three columns: Date, iPad, MacBook. The value will be Date (obviously) and for each device row I am using a 4-point grade: 0, did not use the device; 1, used the device lightly; 2, used the device heavily; 3, did something I can only perform on that device. As an aside, this is only for when I leave the house. I don’t care too much right now about my day-to-day usage at home. I will also take care and not cheat the data. If I brought my MacBook, have it on the desk, and the thing I want to do can be done on either the Mac or iPad, unless necessary I won’t drag out the iPad just to give it a checkbox for the day.

  1. There are edge cases on things like some filters for Affinity Photo, but for the purpose of this article we can call them feature-compatible and not get too far down in the weeds.

iPad Life: My iPad Pro Usage post-MacBook Pro Purchase

Fraser Speirs — a long-time iPad-only advocate — is leaning towards getting another MacBook Pro. Fraser is famous for a piece he wrote about going iPad-only entitled: Can the MacBook Pro Replace Your iPad? It was an interesting reverse take on the whole “Can your iPad replace your laptop” argument that is bandied about.

I am both glad and disheartened to hear this. I was glad because it’s easy to get into a situation where taking a stance on something like going iPad-only is tough to back off from. Your identity can be wrapped up in “that guy who went iPad-only”. Inevitably, you hear from all the people who gave you grief about it two years ago with an extra helping of “told you so.” So, being able to publicly and critically assess whether a tool works for you, and change course if it isn’t, is a good trait. It’s disheartening that Fraser feels that iOS 11 doesn’t meet his needs anymore and he needs to use a Mac again.

There are four people I follow on Twitter that are iPad-only folks. Not sorta-iPad only, but full-time, only use an iPad people: Matt Gemmell; Ben Brooks; Fraser Speirs; and Federico Vitcci1. CGP Grey is also a heavy iPad user so he deserves honorable mention here. Of these five, two of them are either using the iPad less after iOS 11 or are thinking of moving back to a Mac. CGP Grey needs a Mac to create his YouTube videos, so he’s always straddled that line. iOS 11 was supposed to be the big start of iPad productivity, but instead people I follow who use the iPad heavily are leaning towards walking away from it.

I am happier with iOS 11 than I was with iOS 10, but not drastically. I think the new Files app is a great step forward. Drag and drop is pretty useful. iOS 11 has helped me not use Workflow app as much as I used to. However, iOS 11 has some weird bugs that are driving me nuts. I’ve been having a lot of rotation issues where I unlock my iPad and the rotation is stuck until I engage the gyroscope again. The Apple Smart Keyboard has been flakey and I need to snap it on and off again to get it work. That said, I think the drag and drop, the Dock, and the new Files app are a net win. I wouldn’t go back to iOS 10. I don’t think I can do tasks I couldn’t do on an iPad before iOS 11, but some of the suffering around those tasks has declined.

Fraser’s comments made me think a little more about my iPad usage after I got the MacBook Pro in March. Has my iPad usage increased or decreased? Unfortunately, I don’t have any data to back up my theories. The best example is my iPad usage last night when I was working on my schoolwork for the week. I’d been taking part in an informal case study on a MacRumors post regarding using iPad Pros for school. Like any thread about iPad productivity it devolved into a thread of half-truths, assumptions, lies, and bold statements of what you can and could not do on iPad. So, when this semester hit the midpoint I posted my findings about 5 weeks with the iPad. I considered the experiment closed at that point. I haven’t gotten any responses to that thread in a few days, so I guess a lot of people consider the experiment closed as well. I could go back to using my MacBook Pro for school and not think twice, or feel I had sold out the cause. Instead, when I got down to the business of doing this week’s assignments I just picked up my iPad fired up PowerPoint and worked on the assignment. When I was done, I uploaded it to the shared Google Drive folder and emailed my classmates.

Was this inertia from having a rhythm of working on school work this way for the last 5 weeks? I don’t think so. When I was doing some writing this weekend I found myself always reaching for the iPad first. For a lot of creative work like drawing and writing, the iPad is such a natural fit now for how I do that work. That’s not to say the MacBook Pro will sit unused. My beloved Topaz filters only work on my Mac. I use Tableau a lot and there is no iPad version. Sometimes I need the might and power of the full Office suite. Today I am working remote and need to connect to our virtual desktop system to do work. That type of work is still best done with a pointing device you can right-click on easily.

So, in conclusion my iPad use hasn’t really changed for the core work.

  1. Federico uses a Mac to record his podcasts, but that is it.