Mac mini Home Server

I recently replaced my Drobo NAS with a Mac mini. The initial impetus for this came from the fact that my Drobo was running low on space. All of the drive bays were full, so I couldn’t just throw another drive into the machine. This was not an insurmountable problem; these were mostly old 3tb drives, so I could have just replaced a couple of them with newer, larger drives and had plenty of space. However, it got me thinking about what I wanted out of a NAS and whether the Drobo was really the best way to fill that need.

The Drobo/home server fills a couple of roles for me. Primarily, it’s a big pot of storage where I can throw large files that I don’t need to access frequently and take up a lot of room on the primary drives of my computers. It also stores my Plex and iTunes media libraries, making them available over the network to any device in the house.

For the most part, the Drobo has served me well over the past six years, but there are definitely some downsides to using a NAS rather than having direct access to your data from a computer. Network shares aren’t always mounted when you want them to be.1 Certain things are much slower or less reliable when doing them over the network.2

For quite a while I’d assumed that when I eventually replaced my Drobo, I’d get a Synology NAS. However, I realized that many of my issues were with network attached storage in general, rather than the Drobo in particular. While a Mac mini was more expensive than a Synology, I could also reuse some external hard drives I already had on hand rather than having to buy new drives to populate the Synology, meaning a Mac mini would actually be a bit cheaper up front.

Hardware

I had been planning to initially try this out with an old mid-2011 Mac mini, but the old mini gave up the ghost just as I was getting started with this project. So I went ahead and bought one of the new 2018 minis.

For the home server role, I probably could have gotten by just fine with the base model. However, one of the great things about the Mac mini is how flexible it is. My 2011 mini has, at various times, been my main home desktop, a headless server, and a secondary desktop machine at work. I thought the base model might be too limited if I even wanted to use it as a desktop. In order to future proof this machine a bit I bought the higher-end configuration with a 6-core i5 processor and a 256GB hard drive. I did stick with the stock 8GB of RAM, but that can be upgraded in the future (albeit with some difficulty).

It’s not really very consequential in the grand scheme of things, but I do like the space gray color. I think it suits the mini rather well.

Display

The mini runs headless, without a display attached.3 As a server, it trundles along without my intervention most of the time, but I do need to get on it occasionally. I’m using Jump Desktop4 to provide remote access. It allows me to log in to the mini from anywhere using an application on my iMac or iPad.

However, the most common way for me to access the mini when I’m at home is using Luna Display. Luna is a hardware dongle that plugs into your Mac and lets you use an iPad as an external display. While the original use case mostly focused around using the iPad as a second display for a laptop to get more screen real estate the release of the 2018 Mac mini created a lot of interest in using Luna and the iPad as the primary display. This is how I’m using it. Unlike Jump Desktop, this only works when I’m on my home network. However, Luna is a lot faster, less laggy, and has better resolution than a remote desktop app. It really is like having a screen plugged right into the mini.

Luna Display also allows you to use the touchscreen to manipulate the macOS interface on the mini. This is a two-edged sword. While it’s convenient, it also makes clear why Apple has resisted adding a touchscreen to Mac laptops. Many of the touch targets are just way too small.5 The Apple Pencil helps with this since it’s a lot more accurate than my big fat fingers. I’ll often grab it off the top of the iPad when I need to minimize a window (don’t want to accidentally hit the red button instead of the yellow button) or another similarly precise task. Scrolling and right-clicking are a bit troublesome as well. However, the most significant limitation is probably that with Luna display you can only enter text on the remote computer if you’re running an external keyboard. It won’t bring up the software keyboard on the iPad. My iPad Pro spends so much time I the Smart Keyboard Folio that this isn’t really an issue for me.

Software

I gave serious thought to running the mini very stripped down as far as software goes, but in the end, I decided to install my usual suite of apps. A big reason for this is, so I have the option to use Jump Desktop on my iPad to log in remotely when I’m on the road without a laptop. Having this option is a nice safety blanket that makes it easier to leave the laptop at home and go iPad only when I travel. It also means that if my iMac were to go down the mini is all set up to take over right away as my primary desktop.

Backup

One of the critical tasks for a home server is keeping everything backed up. A real advantage of the Mac mini over Drobo is that Backblaze will back up directly attached external hard drives but not network drives.6 A disadvantage is that I no longer have the built-in redundancy in the event of a drive failure that the Drobo provides. Instead, my data gets backed up from my two main external drives to another pair of external drives every night. Combined with weekly backups to “shelf” hard drives that don’t stay connected to my machine, I’m feeling pretty good about my backup.7

Printing

I’ve taken this opportunity to move my printer into the spare room where the mini lives. I print seldom enough that I don’t really need to have the printer within arms’ reach all the time. It’s shared over the network so I can still print from my iMac, and using Printer Pro I can send stuff to it from my iPad as well.8

Concluding Thoughts

I’m very happy with my decision to ditch the Drobo and use a Mac mini as my home server. Having my data on a machine that I can log into directly rather than just a network share makes lots of things simpler and faster. It gives me options that I just didn’t have with a Drobo, particularly when it comes to remote access.

The new mini is a very slick machine. It’s been fast and responsive and has handled the fairly heavy load copying data off my Drobo and doing initial backups to cloud services. I’m really glad that Apple decided to update the mini and keep it in the lineup.


  1. Especially a problem for things like scheduled backups that happen when I’m not sitting in front of the computer ↩︎
  2. iMazing backups of iOS devices seem to work much better when the destination is on a local drive than a network share, for instance. ↩︎
  3. I used the USB-C to VGA adapter I bought for my iPad to temporarily connect the mini to an old display to get things up and running. ↩︎
  4. I also tried out Screens, but ended up settling on Jump Desktop for my remote access needs. ↩︎
  5. Jump Desktop for iOS has some affordances for this, including different mouse pointer modes and support for specific models of Bluetooth mice. ↩︎
  6. I had a workaround for this (clone the Drobo to an external drive attached to the iMac), but it was kind of kludgy and meant the data on the Drobo only got backed up to the cloud once a week. ↩︎
  7. Much more on my backup strategy can be found here. ↩︎
  8. My printer predates AirPrint. ↩︎

Three months with the 2018 iPad Pro

I’ve been using the new 12.9″ iPad Pro for a few months now, and I thought it was time to update my first impressions. Overall, it’s probably my favorite (and most used) Apple device right now.

A smaller big iPad

Compared to my previous 1st generation 12.9″ iPad Pro the smaller overall size is really noticeable. The new 12.9″ is much nicer to use in the hand as a tablet (as opposed to in a stand on a desk). The reduced size and weight mean it’s also easier to carry around. I’m finding that I tend to bring it with me more often than my old 12.9″. Some of this difference may be down to the excellent Sutter Tech Sling that I got at the same time as the new iPad Pro, but the smaller size and lighter weight of the iPad itself plays a role too.

Face ID

Much like my experience going to the iPhone XS from an iPhone 7, FaceID is really the headline feature. If anything it’s even better on the iPad. It works in any orientation, and I mean any. Not just the four cardinal directions, but even when holding the iPad at an angle.

The one annoyance with Face ID is that I sometimes wind up covering the camera with my hand. This is a particular issue for me as a left-hander since, in landscape mode with the pencil charger at the top, the camera is on the left. I wish Apple had just made this a landscape mode device and put the camera in the bezel of one of the longer sides. One thing I like is that when FaceID fails the iPad definitely does a better job than the iPhone telling you why it failed (usually it’s either distance or having my hand over the sensor).

Combined with the ability to double tap the keyboard1 to wake and unlock the device, FaceID makes the iPad the device I’m most likely to use when I need to hop on for a quick task.

Keyboard

I really like the Smart Keyboard Folio. I think it’s the best keyboard that Apple makes at the moment (though that may be damning by faint praise). While there’s nothing like a mechanical switch keyboard with lots of key travel, for a low-travel portable keyboard I think the Smart Keyboard Folio is quite good. While it is thicker than the old Smart Keyboard, it makes a much more solid stand. I think the fact that it’s the same thickness across the entire surface is an aesthetic improvement over the “thin part/thick part” design of the older model. However, the multiple angle options don’t really do much for me. I never really use the more upright angle; it’s just too steep.

Pencil

While I still use the keyboard the majority of the time, I’m getting far more use out of the new Apple Pencil then I ever did out of the old one. The old pencil was always buried amid all the clutter on my desk or stowed away in a bag somewhere, not worth getting out unless I had a big “Pencil job.”  Now, I make a point of grabbing the pencil every time I get the iPad out of my bag so that when I’m using it, the new pencil is always right there, magnetically attached to the top of the iPad. That’s the real game changer.

I’ve found myself using the new pencil quite a bit when editing text (which I have always felt was a weak point of iOS).  With the pencil I can double tap with the pencil to select a word, then use it to drag the blue dots at the end of the selection much more precisely than I can with my finger.  It also allows much more precise placement when dragging and dropping text or images.

I’m also using the pencil quite a bit for taking handwritten notes. I started out doing this in the Apple Notes app, but I think I’ve settled on GoodNotes for this role. While writing on glass doesn’t feel the same as using a pen and paper, it works well enough and the advantages of having my notes digitized from the get-go and not having to worry about filing them or finding them again later more than make up for that.

Display, battery, and USB-C

The display is excellent, but I can’t say I really notice improvements from my old iPad Pro like True Tone and Pro Motion in regular use. There are still some apps that haven’t gotten with the program and updated for the new resolutions, so they still display with a black border around them. It’s pretty seamless (just looks like the bezels are a bit thicker), but it annoys me that I’m not getting full use out of this display.

Battery life is excellent. I used the iPad Pro for notetaking at a conference last month, and despite heavy use, I really did get all day battery life out of it. Using chargers that support USB-C power delivery tops the battery off quite quickly.

USB-C on the iPad is still a story of unrealized potential. At this point, I’m not really using it for anything that I couldn’t have done with Lightning with the right set of dongles and cables. Even the quick charging was something I was doing using a USB-C to Lightning cable with my old iPad Pro. I really hope we get support for things like external storage in the next version of iOS.

The best iPad yet

If you just look at specs on the page, it doesn’t seem like the 2018 12.9” iPad Pro should be all that big a jump from the 1st generation 12.9”. It’s slightly smaller, swaps Touch ID for Face ID, and it gets a faster processor and a place to charge your Apple Pencil. In practice, I’ve found that the new iPad Pro is a significantly better device, one that’s changed how I use my iPad and how I divide different computing tasks among my various devices. I’m nowhere near ready to give up my Mac, but I do find I’m not using it as much lately, and that’s largely thanks to the new iPad Pro.


  1. This sometimes gets described as “double tap the spacebar to wake,” but you can do it with any key. ↩︎

Trying iA Writer

In the past few years I’d been doing most of my writing in a combination of Bear and Ulysses. Bear for note taking and shorter form stuff; Ulysses for long form writing. Both these apps worked well for me individually, but even though I had drawn a pretty clear line between them having two different writing environments did introduce a bit of friction. There are also a few things about Ulysses in particular that rubbed me the wrong way. I dislike the non-standard way it handles Markdown links, for example.

In late 2018 I decided to give iA Writer a try. I picked iA Writer in part because of some of the things Federico Viticci has written about it. I liked the idea of an editor that stores files in iCloud Drive and plays nicely with iOS features like Open in Place. It has both Mac and iOS apps, which is a hard and fast requirement for me these days.

Moving to iA Writer

The first step in this process was to move my existing files from Ulysses and Bear over to iA Writer. Ulysses was simple, I just exported my files to iA Writer’s iCloud Drive folder and they showed up in the app.

Bear was a bit harder because it has a very different metaphor. Rather than files and folders Bear has a flat list of documents organized using tags. While iA Writer supports tags, they’re clearly secondary to the file/folder structure. iA Writer also doesn’t allow for nested tags, which I use pretty heavily in Bear.1

I decided to try to turn my Bear tagging system into nested folders in iA Writer. To do this, I first made sure that everything had a tag of some sort, then exported all of it to a folder on my hard drive. I wrote a Python script that identified the tags by looking for lines starting with a hashtag that was not followed by a space or another hashtag (which would be Markdown headings rather than tags). The script created a folder in the iA Writer iCloud Drive directory for each tag (and within each of those folders for each subtag) and copied the text files into the appropriate folders. I did have to do some manual tweaking afterwards, but I managed to translate my nested tag structure into nested folders a lot more easily than if I’d tried to do it manually.

Likes and Dislikes

Perhaps this is not very consequential, but I don’t think iA Writer looks a nice as Bear. It’s rather monochromatic compared to Bear’s nice use of accent colors.

On the functional side, I like the fact that iA Writer uses vanilla Markdown with some very lightweight highlighting rather than trying to do something fancy and different the way Ulysses does (and Bear, to a lesser extent). One area where I wish they’d go a little further with the Markdown highlighting is to do a better job visually differentiating between different levels of Markdown heading. All headings look the same, and are basically just shown in bold.

I have run into a few bugs. Most annoyingly, the iOS app sometimes freezes when I try to drag and drop text, either within the app or dragging to another app in split view. Copy and paste work fine though, and I really like the ability to move lines (or highlighted blocks of text) up and down with the keyboard. This is especially great on the iPad which lacks some more traditional text manipulation capabilities that you can do with a mouse.

It’s very common for something I write at work to start as a Markdown text document, then get exported to Microsoft Word to share with my colleagues. I like the results of iA Writer’s Word export quite a bit better than Bear or Ulysses.

I may need to rethink my organizational scheme to work better with folders. I’ve got stuff broken up into a lot of different, very specific folders, with lots of folders at the top level and, in some cases, nested quite deep. This worked well with Bear’s tagging system, but I’m not sure this is the best way to do things in a files and folder system like iA Writer’s. Thankfully, iA Writer’s file search capabilities are quite good and very easily accessible from anywhere within the app.

If I do decide to reorganize my file system that will definitely be a task to do on the Mac. Moving files within the app on the iPad is not very intuitive.

On iOS, iA Writer includes a Command Keyboard that can be used to insert common markdown tags, special characters that are hard to get to on the iOS keyboard, etc. There’s a ton of customizability behind this so you can set it up to have exactly what’s most useful to you. I particularly like the fact that it’s available on the iPad even when you have an external keyboard attached.

A change I’m going to stick with

Overall, I’m pretty happy with iA Writer. Having one app for all my writing simplifies my workflow and I like the vanilla approach to Markdown. I’ve gone ahead and cancelled my Bear and Ulysses subscriptions and at least for now, I’ll be using iA Writer as my primary writing app.


  1. A “work” tag with separate tags within it for individual projects, for instance. ↩︎

Three months with the iPhone XS

Now that I’ve had my new iPhone XS for a few of months I feel like I’ve used it enough to have an informed opinion on it. Rather than burying the lede, I’ll start out by saying I really like this phone.

I’m coming from an iPhone 7, so many of the features that make me like the XS so much aren’t really “new”, though they are new to me. First and foremost is Face ID. This has been awesome. It really is like going back to the days of my iPhone 3G when I didn’t have a passcode on my phone: just slide to unlock.

Face ID has been pretty close to 100% reliable for me. The only situation where I consistently have issues is when I’m not wearing my glasses or contacts (at night in bed, for example). My vision is quite bad so when I’m operating without corrective lenses I end up holding the phone very close to my face; too close for the Face ID sensors to work correctly. Once I remember to hold the phone further away at a more normal viewing distance it will unlock. The only other time I had issues was one morning where it simple failed immediately every time I tried to authenticate (a reboot got it back to normal).

Contrast this with Touch ID, which was usable, but never great. I often had to put my finger on the sensor several times before it would unlock. If my hands were too wet or too dry, the fingerprint sensor wouldn’t read correctly. In particular, during a trip to Montana last fall the cold weather dried out my hands dried out so much that my success rate with Touch ID plummeted pretty much to zero. In contrast, when I went out there on a hunting trip this year just after getting the new phone I didn’t have any issues. The only time it failed to unlock was when I had my face covered on a very cold morning.

I’d been anticipating that Face ID would be a really big feature of the iPhone XS for me. The impact of Qi charging has been more of a surprise. Initially I was skeptical about the utility of wireless charging, but since it was a feature of my new phone I decided to give it a go. It’s surprising how much easier it makes it to top off my phone. Plugging in the cable was just one more point of friction that I don’t have to deal with any more.

At this point I’ve got three Qi chargers. One sits on my nightstand and charges my phone overnight. While this Anker charger isn’t the least expensive, it offers the ability to turn off the light that indicates the phone is charging, which is important to me in a bedside accessory.

I’ve also got Qi charging stands that hold the phone up at a nice viewing angle on my desk at home and at work. I initially bought an Anker charging stand for my desk at work. Unfortunately, the stand is tall enough that it contacts the camera bump so the phone sits somewhat unsteadily in it (this probably wouldn’t be a problem with the XS Max). I brought the Anker stand home and replaced it with this charger from Samsung. The circular design means the camera bump clears the top of the stand, making it much steadier (the rubberized material on the stand helps too). I use the one at work quite a bit. The one at home, not so much, in part due to the inferior stand, in part because I just don’t have as much call to constantly have my phone out on my desk when I’m at home. Both stands hold the phone at an angle that makes Face ID fairly easy to use.

The XS’ camera is definitely an upgrade from the iPhone 7. This is the first dual-lens phone camera that I’ve had, and I’ve found the 2x lens quite useful. On the other hand, I don’t really get much out of portrait mode, largely because I take few pictures of people. The front-facing camera on my phones has never gotten much use, and the one on the iPhone XS is no different (aside from FaceID).

Frankly, I thought going to the OLED screen would be a bigger deal. I’d heard lots of great things about the iPhone X screen. It’s a nice screen, but in day to day use I don’t really notice it. The notch doesn’t really bother me. I think part of this is because my phone spends the vast majority of it’s time in a portrait orientation.

I’ve always been a “small phone” guy. I really think the iPhone 5 was about the ideal size for a smartphone, largely because I primarily use my phone one-handed (if they made an iPhone X style phone in that size I’d be all over it). Like the iPhone 6/7 size phones the XS is a bit large for my taste, but workable. It’s still mostly a one-handed device for me, but I do find myself bringing up a second hand to help stabilize the phone more often. This is not so much because the phone itself is bigger than the iPhone 7, but because the larger screen means some things are a longer reach.

I’ve gotten used to the new gestures and the lack of a home button. Tap to wake is great and swiping to go home works well. I really like the ability to swipe right or left on the home indicator to switch between apps. It makes quick app switching much more accessible on the phone than it was on the iPhone 7.

Finally, this is a very nice looking phone. This is the first time since my original iPhone 3G that I’ve bought a white iPhone (all of my others have been space gray or black). I like the look of the pearlescent white back and the stainless steel outer band. Mine is currently careless (though I do have a screen protector on the front glass, as well as Apple Care).

Overall, I really like the iPhone XS. I know a lot of folks weren’t all that excited by it, but coming from the iPhone 7 it’s been a very worthwhile upgrade. Well worth the cost.

 

2018 12.9″ iPad Pro First Impressions

IMG_7782

When I got my 1st generation 12.9” iPad Pro back in 2016, my overwhelming impression was of how large it was. Compared to the iPad Air 2 that I had previously, it seemed huge. With the new 12.9” iPad Pro, my first impression is how small it is. Some of this is coming from the old 12.9”, of course. I don’t know how someone coming from a 9.7 or 10.5” would feel. Compared to the old 12.9”, the new one is about an inch narrower (in landscape) and a quarter of an inch shorter. It feels quite a bit lighter as well; both because it is about an ounce lighter and because the smaller size means the center of gravity is closer to your hand when holding it in landscape. I was already fairly comfortable using my old iPad Pro handheld, but it’s noticeably easier with the new one.

I really like the design. The slim bezels seem like the natural design for the iPad. The squared off edges look nice and don’t create any issues when I’m holding it.

FaceID rocks! I know some people have had issues with it on the iPhone, but in my month using it on the iPhone XS, it’s worked very well for me. So far, the iPad has been similar. I’m still getting used to making sure I don’t cover the camera with my thumb, however. That will be a matter of training myself on where to hold it (yes, “You’re holding it wrong” is still a thing). It may just be setting up a new device and having to log in to a bunch of stuff, but I’m finding Face ID to get into 1Password almost as useful as Face ID to unlock the iPad.

I really like tap to wake too. If anything tapping the screen to wake up the device seems more natural on this than it does on the iPhone. Being able to double tap the smart keyboard to open great, though I’m not at the point where that’s second nature yet. As an aside, I’ve heard this describes as “double tap the spacebar”, but for me, it works with any two taps in succession (even two different keys). The first keypress wakes the iPad, allowing FaceID to do its thing. The second slides the lock screen out of the way.

Speaking of the keyboard, think the Smart Keyboard Folio is an improvement on the old Smart Keyboard. It’s considerably more stable than the older version. While most of my brief use so far has been on a desk or countertop, it does seem more “lappable” as well. I’m not finding the more vertical ”desk” angle very useful, however. Some of that may be due to my height (6’5”). If I were 6” shorter the more vertical position might be better for me (I know @macsparky complained some about the angle of the old Smart Keyboard, but I never found it to be a problem). As it stands, I think it’s going to live at the less steep “lap” angle (which is almost exactly the same as the old Smart Keyboard).

The typing experience is almost identical to the old one. If you liked the old model, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t like the old one, I doubt you’ll find this one any better. Personally, I liked the typing feel of the Smart Keyboard. While it’s not as good as a nice mechanical keyboard, I do think it’s the best keyboard Apple currently makes.

One minor affordance that I just read about today is that when you have the keyboard folded around to the back of the folio (“tablet mode” basically) it has some magnets to keep the keyboard part of the folio in place, rather than flopping around the way the old one did. I’ll still probably take it out of the folio most of the times that I’m not actively using the keyboard, but leaving the folio attached in tablet mode does seem like it will be less annoying than with the old one.

I haven’t really spent enough time with the Pencil to say much about it. The pairing and charging seem to work well. I tried the double tap gesture to get the eraser in Apple Notes and it is a lot easier than switching tools.

The last “accessory” is the new 18-watt power brick. It seems surprisingly big. Since the prongs don’t fold it’s actually a bit longer than Apple’s 29-watt MacBook Adorable power brick (smaller in the other dimensions though). Honestly, I don’t think I’ll be using this much. I’ve got a bunch of MOS bricks which have 2 USB-A ports in addition to USB-C, as well as one of the MacBook bricks. All have folding prongs, which are nicer in a bag and while the 18-watt brick is smaller, it’s not that much smaller. I know a lot of people were eager to get a more powerful iPad power brick from Apple, but I’m not that impressed.

Power brick aside, I’m very pleased with the hardware. On the other hand, the software experience was a bit rougher. I restored mine from an iTunes backup and it stalled right at the end of the initial sync process. I did a restart and it seems like all of my content got synced over.

Once I got past that obstacle, every single app stalled with the progress circle about 2/3 of the way around. Restarting did not fix this, so I ended up deleting apps and redownloading just the ones I really needed. Doing this has the potential to delete local data, but I was pretty confident that everything important was in the cloud, plus I’ve still got my iTunes backup (and until I send it in to the Apple Give Back program I could always pull data off of my old iPad too).

Partway through this process, the logjam broke and the rest of my apps started downloading. I figure there must have been a few apps that were gumming up the works and once I deleted those the rest were able to download. Since I was getting rid of so many apps that I hadn’t used in years (if ever) I went ahead and completed the process of winnowing out old apps, so some good did come of this frustrating experience.

My only other issue so far was not with the device, but with my AppleCare+ coverage. When I got the Proof of Coverage email from Apple it appeared to list two iPads, rather than one. One of the serial numbers matched my new device, but the other did not. It also said both were 1tb models when I had the 512gb version.

I wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be any issue with my AppleCare coverage if I have to use it, so I gave Apple a call. The first rep I called looked into it (using screen sharing to take a look at the email I received and the serial number of my iPad) and passed me on to a person from the AppleCare team. She did some research and was able to explain that the second “iPad” listed was actually my Apple Pencil. She couldn’t say why it listed my iPad as the 1tb model, but she assured me that it wouldn’t affect my coverage. The Proof of Coverage email is rather confusingly drafted, but the Apple support reps I talked to were very helpful.

Despite the somewhat rough start on the software side, I’m very happy with my new iPad Pro so far (for the all of five hours that I’ve had it). I want to spend more time with the Apple Pencil, using it for notetaking and other tasks. I’m also planning on trying some stuff to put the A12X through its paces (probably some video editing in LumaFusion). We’ll see how long the honeymoon lasts.

Omni Focus Field Guide, Third Edition Review

I have long been a fan of David Sparks’ MacSparky Field Guides. These originally started out as a series of Apple iBooks that used the unique characteristics of the iBooks format to combine text and screencasts to cover technical topics like Paperless workflows, Presentations, and, most recently, the iPhone. The iBooks Field Guides were brimming with content, often pushing up against the 2-gigabyte maximum size for the format. Along the way, David also started making Video Field Guides, which were shorter, video-only products covering topics like Hazel, Photos, and OmniFocus.

Recently, David announced that given the uncertainty about Apple’s commitment to the format, he wouldn’t be putting out any more of the iBooks Field Guides. Instead, he set up a website at learn.macsparky.com to host video courses. While this was initially populated with streaming versions of the existing Video Field Guides, he quickly added two new ones: the Siri Shortcuts Field Guide and the OmniFocus Field Guide, Third Edition. While these share the all-video format of the Video Field Guides, in spirit they’re much closer to his iBooks Field Guides. They’re truly massive, with over three hours of content in the Shortcuts Field Guide and more than five hours in the OmniFocus Field Guide.

The OmniFocus Field Guide, Third Edition is an all-new product, covering OmniFocus 3 for both iOS and Mac. As you might guess from the length, it’s very comprehensive. That said, it does not feel at all padded out. Instead, it has a clear progression from simple content for users who are new to OmniFocus, ramping up to power user features and in-depth discussion of how to set up a system in OmniFocus most effectively to get your work done.

I’m a long-time user of OmniFocus 2 (and OmniFocus 1 before that), so I’m more on the power user end of the spectrum. However, I’m also just now making my transition from OF2 to the new OF3. I held off on OmniFocus 3 for iOS until the Mac version also became available. It was released last Monday, as was this Field Guide, so it came along just at the right time for me.

David starts with the basics, installing the software, setting it up, and walking through the various areas of the user interface. Throughout the course, he gives fairly equal weight to the iOS and macOS version of OmniFocus 3. If there is a bias, it’s not leaning towards one OS or the other, but that within iOS he tends to spend a lot more time demonstrating the iPad version than the iPhone version.

He doesn’t just confine himself to telling you how to twiddle the buttons, however. As he steps through how to capture and process tasks he’s also introducing the fundamental concepts that drive OmniFocus (and doing a bit of an introduction to the Getting Things Done system that OmniFocus was originally designed to implement).

There’s quite a bit of content on Tags (about 45 minutes by my count). These are a new feature in version 3 of OmniFocus and David spends quite a bit of time talking about how to use them effectively. Making the transition to tagging tasks and projects is going to be the biggest change for me moving from OF 2 to OF 3, so I appreciate the comprehensiveness of his coverage.

He also spends a lot of time talking about various perspectives. Perspectives are a tool that allows you to slice and dice your project and task list using various criteria to pull out specific tasks. They’ve only gotten more powerful and flexible with the addition of tags in OmniFocus 3. This is an aspect of OmniFocus that I know I haven’t been using to its full potential, so I was happy to see it covered in depth. One area David is clearly opinionated about is the benefits of custom perspectives available in the Pro version of OmniFocus. While he talks about how to make good use of the built-in perspectives in the standard version, you can tell his heart is really with the custom perspectives of the Pro version.

One area I thought could have used a bit more depth is review. David goes through the mechanics of reviewing projects and talks about how he customizes the review intervals to suit the needs of different projects. He also talks a bit about “meta-reviews” where he goes through at a higher level and thinks about his system and workload as a whole. Despite this, I do think the course could have gotten further beyond the mechanics of the project reviews to a more in-depth discussion of what you should think about when reviewing a project.

As befits one of the hosts of the Automators podcast, David spends quite a bit of time talking about how to automate OmniFocus. He starts out with very simple automation using tools like Text Expander, or even just copying and pasting templates from a text editor, all the way up to much more complex automations using the Shortcuts app on iOS.

Unlike some other task managers, OmniFocus is not a very opinionated piece of software. While it started as a very traditional GTD app, it’s always been very customizable and amenable to being used in a variety of ways. If anything it’s gotten even less opinionated in version 3, as tags enable even more flexibility (and allow you to get even further from traditional GTD methodologies). This lends a bit of a “do it yourself” vibe to OmniFocus. In some ways, it’s a toolkit for building a task management system rather than a fully-fledged task management system itself.

David embraces this aspect of the software by discussing six different task management systems you could set up OmniFocus to implement. He covers a system built around defer dates, one based on flagging tasks, and one that leans heavily on the new tagging features. He also talks about using OmniFocus 3’s enhanced forecast perspective as the center of your task management (though this is less of a full-fledged system than a technique that could be applied to defer date, flag, or tag based systems). He also briefly covers a system built around higher level tasks (as opposed to the concrete “next actions” of classic GTD). Finally, David talks about his own system, which leans heavily on tags, but also blends in elements of flags and defer dates.

Not just in this section, but throughout the Field Guide, David talks about various ways of using OmniFocus, even if they’re not how he personally uses the software. He clearly has some opinions about the best way to use it, but he realizes that what works best for him won’t necessarily be best for everyone. He does an excellent job of laying out the pros and cons of various strategies.

As with many of the Field Guides, if you’re looking for a laugh, it pays to keep an eye on the example tasks and projects David is using. His OmniFocus database seems to indicate that David is some sort of mad scientist.

If there’s a unifying theme in this field guide, it’s “The Manager and the Maker.” This is the idea that OmniFocus can be the manifestation of our inner manager, organizing what we have to do and getting it out of our way quickly so that we can do creative work, letting out our inner “maker.” Some folks don’t think that OmniFocus or GTD really work for creative pursuits; that they’re just meant for salesmen and CEOs. David seems to have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about this. He uses OmniFocus to manage the creative work of his MacSparky empire, including articles, blog posts, and this very field guide and he makes clear that he thinks OmniFocus is very useful for creative work.

The OmniFocus Field Guide, 3rd Edition is a great resource. I think anyone looking to get started with OmniFocus or get better at it is going to get a ton out of it, whether they’re a new user or a power user. I know that I’ll be totally redoing my system to take advantage of OmniFocus 3’s new tagging features and a bunch of other strategies that I learned from this course (I’ve got an article on my new system brewing too). The productivity benefits of a smoothly functioning task management system and the complexity of my job (and life) make both the Field Guide and the OmniFocus software a real no-brainer. If you’re finding that the complexity and volume of your tasks mean things are falling through the cracks or taking a lot of time to manage, you should check out OmniFocus and the Field Guide.

The Multipad Lifestyle

David Sparks is a bad influence. The idea of having multiple iPads first got into my brain listening to Mac Power Users #317 when he confessed to Katie Floyd that he had bought a 9.7” iPad Pro to go with his 12.7” one.1

My path to multiple iPads was a little different. For many years I ran 9.7” iPads. Originally, of course, 9.7” was the only choice. I was never really tempted by the iPad mini, not so much because of screen size, but because my iPads tended to spend a lot of their time connected to external keyboard cases. While some manufacturers make keyboards sized to the mini, they’re really too small for effective touch typing (even 9.7” sized keyboards are on the cramped side).

The iPad Pro

When the original 12.9” iPad Pro came out, I thought it was interesting, but not something I’d really be interested in. It was so big, and I had a fairly new iPad Air 2 that I still really liked. Then my Air 2 was stolen and I had to figure out what to replace it with. After quite a bit of debate I ended up getting a 12.9” iPad Pro.2

I really do like the big iPad Pro. The big screen is great, especially for watching video and it does split view multitasking much better than the smaller iPads. The Apple Pencil has been useful, but not anywhere near as big a deal for me as it has for some other folks. I use it mostly for occasionally marking up PDFs rather than drawing.

For me, though, the real killer feature is the Smart Keyboard. As I mentioned, I’ve run external keyboard cases3 with my iPads almost from the very beginning. While I’ve found them much better than the onscreen keyboard, cases sized for 9.7” iPads have always been a little cramped to type on. The larger size of the 12.9” is finally enough to fit a real, full sized keyboard layout. The magnetic connection makes it much easier to get the keyboard on and off the device, so I can easily swap back and forth between typing and just using the iPad without the keyboard to watch video or browse the web. The Smart Connector is a big advance over Bluetooth in that the keyboard is always on. With Bluetooth keyboards if you haven’t typed anything in a while you have to wake the keyboard up before typing.

While I have not gone nearly as far down the route of making the iPad my primary machine as folks like Fraser Speirs or Federico Viticci, the 12.9” Pro has allowed me to go further in this direction than I previously thought. These days I don’t usually take my MacBook Pro with me when I travel unless I think I’ll have a particular need for it.

As much as I love the 12.9” iPad Pro, there have been some disadvantages to it. When I had a 9.7” iPad, it was pretty much my constant companion. With the help of a Tom Bihn Ristretto4 I had it with me almost all the time. I don’t carry the 12.9” around nearly as much. The extra size and weight make it easier to just leave it and only bring my phone. It’s not really a “take everywhere” device for me the way the 9.7” was.

The big iPad is also sometimes awkward around the house. It’s great for working at a desk or table, or sitting on the couch watching a video, but it’s big enough to be a bit awkward to hold in one hand and tap or type with the other.

Thinking about a smaller iPad

Initially, these disadvantages had me thinking about getting a larger iPhone. Ever since the iPhone line split into the regular and plus sizes, I had stayed with the smaller phone. Since my phone was effectively taking on some of the roles that the 9.7” iPad had filled for me, it had me considering whether an iPhone 7+ would make sense. In the end, though, I just couldn’t do it. The bigger phone just wouldn’t fit in some of the places where I keep my phone, and it’s not really friendly to one handed operation.

Eventually, I came round to the idea that the only way I could fill the gap left by the 9.7” iPad was another iPad. Unlike David, however, my solution to this was not a 9.7” Pro, but a iPad mini. I thought the mini would nicely split the difference between the big Pro and my iPhone.

I’d been thinking about going this route for quite a while, but part of the reason I decided to jump on it was the signs that the iPad mini might be on the way out. Apple recently dropped all of the mini models except the 128gb size, as well as undercutting it price-wise with the new $329 iPad. If I wanted the new one, this might be the time to do it.5

While buying a second iPad is pretty much the definition of a splurge, I did economize in a couple of ways. This is my first iPad without cellular data. I relying on wifi and tethering to my iPhone for this one. I also went with just a 32gb model, which is the smallest amount of storage I’ve ever had in an iPad. I figure that the big iPad Pro is going to remain my primary platform for watching video and I don’t sync my music library to any of my iPads, so all I really need is enough space for apps. While Apple isn’t selling the 32gb iPad mini any more, it was still available from other sellers. I found a good deal on one from Walmart. It had evidently been sitting on the shelf for a while, since it came out of the box with iOS 10.0, rather than the then-current 10.3.1.

The iPad mini

This was the first time in a long, long while that I’ve set up an iOS device from scratch. Usually, when I get a new iPad or iPhone I just restore from my old device’s iCloud backup. Thinking about it the last iOS device I set up completely from scratch was probably the original iPad.

That said, cloud services make getting all my data on a new device pretty easy. Download the apps and set up iCloud, Dropbox, and a couple of app-specific syncing services (like OmniPresence).

There are some aspects of the smaller iPad that take some getting used to. The touch targets are all a bit smaller, for instance.

The keyboard is really way too small for touch typing. I find myself doing a lot more hunt and peck, often with the mini in my right hand and typing with my left. Holding the device vertically in both hands and typing with both thumbs is probably the fastest way to enter a non-trivial amount of text. When I’m using the mini I also find myself missing the number key row from the iPad Pro onscreen keyboard (though the flick keyboard in iOS 11 may mitigate that). The mini clearly isn’t going to be a machine for serious typing, compared to the iPad Pro or a Mac.

I use Split View quite a bit on my iPad Pro, but it definitely isn’t as useful on the mini’s smaller screen. I find myself using Slide Over when I need to access data in a second app (I did this with 1Password quite a bit during the setup process when I needed to enter credentials in other apps).

So far I find myself using the iPad mini quite a bit as a secondary screen. It’s what I grab when I’m doing something else and want to look something up on the internet or check email. If I’m sitting down to concentrate on one task I’m more likely to use the big iPad (or the Mac).

Accessories

When I got the mini I did some hunting for a shoulder bag that really took advantage of the mini’s small size. Getting the smaller device in putting it in a bag sized for the 9.7” iPad seemed like a waste, so I really wanted something designed for the mini, but those are few and far between. I ended up getting a nice Waterfield Design iPad mini sleeve with a shoulder strap. This is about as minimalist as you can get (if anything I wish it had a bit more space for extra gear than the one very flat outside pocket that the sleeve sports). I’d link it, but it looks like Waterfield isn’t making the iPad mini sized one anymore.

The other piece of gear that I got for my iPad mini was a cheap folding stand. Frankly, these are not very high quality (though I haven’t broken one yet), but they are the lightest and most compact stand that I’ve been able to find. Everything else would be bulkier than the iPad mini itself. This little stand slips nicely into the flat pocket on the Waterfield case (though it doesn’t always want to stay there).

Was it worth it?

I haven’t ended up using the mini as often as I thought I would, in part because around the time I got the mini I cut down on how often I went out for lunch, which was one of the main times I figured I’d be using the mini. Still, I think it was worth it, even if it is clearly a secondary device for me.


  1. He’s not the only one, of course. I know other people are doing the same thing, notably Myke Hurley and CGP Grey. 
  2. A few months later the 9.7” iPad Pro came out. If it had been out at the time (or if I had known it was coming) I probably would have gone with the smaller size and never known how well the 12.9” Pro would work for me. 
  3. First Zagg, then Bridge
  4. An older model Ristretto specifically sized for a 9.7” iPad that they don’t make any more. 
  5. Before buying new, I did check Gazelle and some other sources for used models. I could only find 16gb or 128gb models, and even those only seemed to be available in the gold color (which I detest).