Life on Mobile: The iPhone Apps And Services I Use

In my last post I talked about the transition from Android to iOS and some of the experiences I had during that journey. Once I switched, I found a rich ecosystem of iPhone and iPad apps I use daily. Some of them are central to my workflow and professional life, and I use them across all my devices, including my laptop/desktop systems. In this post I’ll talk about those apps and how they enable me to run the bulk of my life (and my company) on a phone screen.

Torx Bits

I’ll separate these apps into categories and explain how they work together for me.

Productivity, Research and Information-Gathering

The key apps I use to gather and organize information and research are Notes, Reminders, Feedly, Pocket, and Tweetbot. Notes and Reminders are Apple’s built-in apps. They are basic but, in my opinion, more useful than similar apps I’ve tried such as OneNote or Evernote.

I use Reminders for, well, reminders. It’s essentially categorized lists of things that can be marked complete, and which can be configured to alert at a time or when leaving or arriving at a location. So I can tell Siri “remind me to change my keyboard batteries when I get to work” and it’ll notify me when I arrive. I also share one list, Grocery, with my wife. I can say “Add milk to the Grocery list” and it’ll be there. If either of us buys milk we can mark it complete and that gets synced.

I use Notes for simple textual notes with paragraphs, bullet lists, and images. I outline articles, keep key facts, lists of reference material, and many more. I have a primary note called Tasks, which is stuff that’s in the short-term holding bin. It’ll get moved on to other notes later if I don’t do it right away. Then I have topical notes with information I’ve captured, websites (I don’t use browser bookmarks), drafts of articles, etc. Right now I’m working from a note called Blog Posts, where I’ve captured the key points in this post. I’m writing in another note that’s just about this article. The Blog Posts note has dozens of topics I’d like to write about someday. Other notes include research on a smart watch I’m considering, company culture, queueing theory, marketing resources and tasks, an upcoming webinar, and so on. I have about a hundred notes.

Notes help me get information out of my head so I can give myself permission to forget about it. I used to do this by carrying a pen and a scrap of paper in my pocket. I’d scribble down anything that came to mind and then put it from my thoughts. Now I just note it in the app.

I am a Google user, and Google Inbox potentially offers ways to capture many similar types of information, but for some reason I don’t find it as helpful as the Apple apps, which feel cleaner and less awkward to me. It’s just a feeling, not a fact.

I subscribe to a lot of RSS feeds, to keep up with what’s going on in the industry. I used to use Google Reader, and when it was canned I searched for a replacement and chose Feedly over similar offerings. Others I tried, such as Flipboard, seemed to veer away from RSS subscription functionality into a feed of pleasurable information in a magazine-like format that was intended to find stuff you didn’t know you wanted to read. That’s not what I want. I use RSS so I can be sure I catch news from people and companies I want, and I don’t get unwanted content.

Feedly is great at helping me scan through the feeds from sites I’ve decided to follow, and it integrates with Pocket for saving articles for later. I can long-press an article and it’s saved to Pocket. I don’t usually read in Feedly, I just browse and save for later.

Pocket is also one that I chose from among a handful, including Readability, Instapaper, and Evernote again. I’ve found it to be a great way to read and archive things I want to use as reference. And of course, it’s much better for reading than the websites themselves, which often have ads and distracting layouts or annoying things like expanding and shrinking header bars.

I’m a premium customer of both Feedly and Pocket. I also use Tweetbot to discover information, and long-pressing on a Tweet brings up a dialog to either save to Pocket or add to a Note. Depending on the Tweet, I’ll do one or the other. Tweetbot is worlds better than the official Twitter client. I’ll write a blog post about it alone someday. Its features give me control over my timeline and what I want to see. The official Twitter app is just a distraction and entertainment service, but with Tweetbot, Twitter becomes a vital part of how I interact with and stay in touch with key people, industries, and companies.

Apps For Work

My main work-related apps are Google Inbox, Google Drive, Google Sheets, Google Docs, and Google Presentations. I also have Microsoft Office apps installed, but they’re painful to use and I don’t like them. And there’s the Apple office-document apps: Keynote, etc. I use them sometimes, but mostly just use Google apps. Google Drive is the killer app here; things really work well together with Google Drive in the Apple ecosystem. Much better than iCloud or Dropbox. Google Maps is also much better than Apple Maps.

I used to use GMail on Android, but found that any of the alternatives are better on iOS: Outlook, the built-in Mail, but most especially Inbox.

I use Google Calendar to run my life. If it’s free on my calendar, you can book me then. My calendar tells me where to go and what to prepare for. The Google Calendar app for iPhone is great. It isn’t built natively for iPad (why???) so I use the built-in Apple Calendar app there instead. It’s good enough to work well, but tends to sync a little bit more slowly.

The sore points in Google apps for work are Hangouts and Google+. They feel like abandonware.

Some other apps I use for work:

  • FullContact pulls together my contacts from many places and keeps them synced up. It’s a big win. I’m a paying customer.
  • I occasionally use Adobe Fill & Sign to sign a PDF, but it’s awkward, so I try not to.
  • Duet Display is amazing. It lets me plug my iPad or iPhone into my laptop and use it as an external monitor. This is great for when I’m on the go.
  • I use GoToMeeting sometimes. I use it more on my desktop/laptop.
  • 1Password is indispensable for me. I sync its files over Dropbox, and use it on all of my mobile and desktop devices. It’s so, so good. I do not allow my devices themselves to remember any of my passwords or auto fill things in browsers or system keychains.
  • We use Asana at work, but I don’t use it much. I haven’t opened the Asana app in a while.
  • We use Salesforce at work too. The Salesforce app is pretty bad. It’s only slightly better than LinkedIn.

News

I use a few news-related apps. The main one is New York Times. I’m a premium subscriber there. I came to the NYT through their amazing NYTNow app, which they discontinued. The success of that app seems to have informed the main NYT app, which offers much the same experience in kind of a subset of the app.

I also, less frequently, use Al Jazeera (AJ English). I appreciate the non-US-centric worldview I find there. Every company’s citizenry tells itself they’re the best in the world, and America is no different. Hearing how we’re viewed from elsewhere is important to me. I’ve tried BBC and Reuters and other services, but Al Jazeera somehow hits a sweet spot for me.

In my car, I listen to NPR all day every day, but the NPR apps are what happens when someone tries to app-ify radio without understanding what an app is or why people use it. I honestly tried the NPR and NPR One apps and both times just couldn’t find words to describe the disconnect. I support my local NPR station when they fundraise, and that’s good enough for me.

Apple has a News app, which used to be great. It used to let me specify what news sources I wanted to get stories from, approve or disapprove of stories, and it learned what I wanted. (All substance, no sports, no celebrities, etc.) It was really amazing. I raved about it on Twitter. Then a few months ago they replaced it with a “we’ll show you popular content, without offering you much control” app. It’s the same experience I remember from Flipboard and so on. I don’t use it anymore.

Stories and Entertainment

I’m a paid Spotify subscriber, though due to the fact that I have a large music library that’s pretty esoteric and isn’t on any of the major music services, Apple Music’s ability to sync my library is a must-have. I use Apple Music 95% of the time these days. I wrote previously about the encoding quality issues I had with Google Play Music. I think I remember having much the same dismal experience with Amazon Music. There are other services too, such as Pandora, but none of them offers the combination of streaming, “radio,” and my own library as far as I know.

Twitter counts as an entertainment service sometimes. I use Tweetbot, as mentioned. I also use Netflix and occasionally the Amazon Movies app. These work a lot better on iOS than in a browser on a laptop. They use a lot less energy and generate much less heat. Sometimes I also use the IMDB app.

I listen to a few podcasts using the official Podcasts app: This American Life, Radiolab, and so on. It works well and I enjoy using it.

I also use iBooks sometimes to listen to audiobooks, most of which are from Audible.com. I’ve installed, but never used, the LibriVox app; and I have various apps for religious texts, such as the Life.Church Bible app.

Games

I’m not much of a gamer, but I’ve found a few games I really have enjoyed on the iPad. The first is Monument Valley, which has to be played to be understood. It’s a gorgeous, minimalistic game of exploring Escher-like architecture to solve puzzles.

Lara Craft GO is somewhat in a similar vein, although it has a different feel (Lara Craft can die, and she has to do things like kill snakes and lizards to reach destinations; Monument Valley is nonviolent.)

Prune is another minimalistic, beautiful game. Trees sprout out of the ground and you prune the branches to help them grow tall and straight. It’s a puzzle-solving and strategy game in some ways, but it’s really more about the feeling of the graphics than anything else.

The Room is amazing. I won’t spoil it for you. There are three editions of it now. Each is better than the last. (Start with the first.)

You can find YouTube videos of all of these to get a better sense of what they’re like.

Photos and Movies

I don’t use the built-in iMovie app. When I record a movie with the Camera app, I almost always upload it with YouTube right afterwards and then delete it. I keep a library of unlisted movies of my family and so on in YouTube. I find this is the easiest way to share movies with people, by far. The sharing features in the Apple Photos app are just frustrating.

For photo editing, usually the Apple Photos app is enough—I usually do little beyond simple cropping and color correction. There’s a Photoshop app, but it’s all but useless. I tried Google SnapSeed, but that’s not really an improvement over the built-in app either. Eventually I purchased Pixelmator, which is quite good and lets me do things I previously only could do on the desktop Photoshop app.

I use the Google Photos app, with auto-backup enabled, to get photos off my devices and into my Google account, so I can delete them from the device. If I don’t do this, I run out of storage space on my phone. I don’t find the iCloud Photo Library to be very good. It doesn’t solve the space problems and it has a lot of trouble syncing in my experience. But Google Photos is actually pretty brilliant.

VLC is able to play internet-hosted streams and weird video formats that crop up occasionally.

Programming

It’s actually possible to do a limited amount of coding on an iPad. I use the Prompt app for an SSH client, and iZip Pro for very occasional uncompressing jobs.

I’ve found Working Copy Enterprise to be great for blogging. This blog is Markdown files hosted on GitHub, served by Netlify. All I have to do is commit and push a new Markdown file to GitHub, and Netlify gets pinged to pull and build the new version of the site. It’s secure, fast, and easy. Working Copy is a complete Git + text-editor app. I use it to clone Git repos from GitHub, create and edit files (including images), commit, and push. When I’m done writing this blog draft in Notes, it’ll be less than a minute for me to push it live. A lot of that is due to Working Copy. It’s really well done.

I tried Octopage and CodeHub for static site blogging with GitHub, but they are too limited to work well for me.

I haven’t found a good way to join a VPN. I have the OpenVPN Connect app, but have never gotten it to work. I can get it to connect, but I can’t access the VPN network.

Other

The Amazon app is really good on iOS. I prefer it over using the website in a desktop browser. At times I’ve also installed and used DealNews and eBay. The Apple Store app was actually a pretty terrible experience. I recall it took a gigabyte of storage on my phone (which it also had to first download). I deleted it instantly.

Buffer is great for scheduling social media sharing. I’m a paying customer. I use it for things like my inspirational tweets, which I wrote about previously. Its sharing extension is good too, but I rarely use it that way.

1Blocker kills a lot of the bloat from many websites. And reminds me, when I accidentally go to Forbes or HBR, that I don’t want to be there in the first place.

I use Headspace every single day. I use Yoga Studio several times a week.

Despite the fact that I wrote an absolutely epic blog post about my decades-long fascination with the art and science of tuning instruments by ear, I’ve found PanoTuner to be really helpful.

Airline apps are great for checking in, getting a boarding pass, and getting through security and onto the plane without fussing with paper and waiting in lines.

Conclusion

From airline apps to “git commit” I’ve found that I can run the bulk of my digital life on iPhones and iPads. Most of my common tasks—email, calendaring, notes, and the like, are not only possible, but better on mobile. By choosing apps and services that work seamlessly on mobile, a lot of my life fits in the pocket of my jeans, and I can be productive from anywhere, anytime.

But it’s not all ponies and rainbows. Next time I’ll talk about the little edge cases that don’t quite work, the things that keep me from getting rid of my laptop.

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I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.


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