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.

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: 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.

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.

iPad Life : Apple’s New iPad Pro Ad

“What’s a computer?” she asked.

I love Apple’s new ad for the iPad Pro. It shows a young girl using her iPad throughout the day. It starts with her grabbing it off the floor, working on schoolwork with Word, drawing with Procreate, using Goodnotes, and reading a comic on the way home. At the end, her neighbor asks her, “What are you doing on your computer?”

“What’s a computer?” she replied.

What I love is everything they showed her doing wasn’t bullshit. It’s all stuff you can do on an iPad. It’s all stuff I’ve done on an iPad. It’s not some bizarre video that only works in certain conditions that most people can’t replicate. It shows the iPad isn’t a computer, that boring, old, heavy, kludgy thing her parents use.

It’s not a promise for the future. She seamlessly switches between apps, drags a photo in Message and uses her Pencil at various times during the day. My favorite part is around the 30 second mark where she is using the iPad with a Smart Keyboard on a glass counter at a cafe while she waits for her order. When she is ready to leave she smacks the iPad down into the folded position by lifting it up and giving it a practiced smack down that and folds the keyboard under the iPad. The movement reminds me of an Arthur Fonzarelli moment.

The spot also shows off what I consider to be the canonical iPad setup: iPad with the Smart Keyboard and Pencil.

I’ve watched this spot so many times. It’s everything I love about how Apple markets their devices — a little short film showing how people actually use the damned thing.

iPad Life: Ease of Recovering from a Total Failure

There is no good time for a tech failure, but this one had a taste of self-infected. When I started working on my homework for my graduate class recently I noticed two things: my 256g iCloud Drive was almost full; and so was my 128g iPad. The iCloud Drive I knew about. I had dumped up 40g of videos to it and thought I would have more space free than I did. The iPad was worrisome. I’ve looked like even though I had Optimize Photos turned on, my iPad was still storing full images locally. When I signed out of iCloud and signed back in it told me I needed another 50g of iCloud storage. It wanted to re-upload all the images I guess.

So, I ended up just reformatting the iPad via the settings menu. I chose to restore from a recent iCloud backup and about an hour and half later the restore was complete. All my passwords were there. My apps were in the right locations. If it wasn’t for having to re-download my books in iBooks and the Kindle app as well as a few missing text messages, you wouldn’t have known it was a fresh install.

I’ve been thinking of reinstalling macOS on my MacBook Pro. The reasons are a topic for another day, but the time it takes to get everything back up and running is the main reason I haven’t. There are a lot of large apps on there plus the data from my cloud storage. It is the type of thing that will take a weekend to recover from.

iOS, though, is about two hours total.