Several years ago when the 37signals team released their book Rework, I was struck by the beautiful hand-sketched illustrations almost as much as the content of the book itself, and then was delighted to see the same illustrations beautifully translated for the Thai edition of Rework. That beauty was thanks to the work of Mike Rhode, who's since turned his skills into a book — The Sketchnote Handbook. It's got the same charm as his pen-drawn illustrations, and yet he had a secret weapon in making the book — he'd turned his sketchnote writing style into a typeface.
That typeface is, appropriately, the Sketchnote Typeface. It's got the charm of handwritten text with extra whimsy you'd expect from a sketchnote, while being a font you can use in your own work. And from now until New Years, you can get 20% the Sketchnote Typeface with the coupon code TSHBG. That'll get you the Sketchnote Square + Dingbats font — the combination used above — for $23, or the whole typeface of 4 weights for $79 for now until New Years.
Sure, it's not a font you'll want to do all of your work in — that font, for me, is the incredible monospaced font Pitch from Klim Type Foundry — but it is a font you can have a lot of fun with. Sketchnote is that writing font you can use, for once, without getting made fun of. Comic Sans, you've been outclassed big time, this time.
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A review of the app that makes sure I write reviews
OmniFocus is a fabled name in Mac geek circles, made by an equally legendary team of developers at The Omni Group. It’s fabled for good reason: it’s powerful.
Based on the outlining app OmniOutliner, OmniFocus on the Mac feels almost more like a spreadsheet or plain-text app than most polished to-do list apps, and that’s a huge benefit. With its Projects, Contexts, and start and due dates, you can view everything in your entire task database at once, or drill down to just see what’s most important for your work at hand. You can even arrange projects in the order stuff needs done, so (say) you won’t see a task to backup your Mac until you’ve completed the “buy an external HDD” task. That, in a nutshell, is what I love about OmniFocus. It’s powerful, and works great.
But, it has never has sported the most polished UI on the market (that award would have to fall to Things or Wunderlist). If anything, the first OmniFocus for iPhone was the ugliest of the trio of apps. It looked essentially like a stock list app in iOS, with the power of OmniFocus’ features underneath. The iPad app was the one with the polished, custom-designed UI that made it the version of OmniFocus of choice for many of us, but the iPhone app felt fully utilitarian, perhaps on the level of the Mac app. It’d keep you organized, and you’d come to fully rely on it more than you possibly could any other task app, but it sure wasn’t the app to go to for UI design inspiration.
That is, until OmniFocus 2 for iPhone was released. The new version immediately looks at home on iOS 7, but is also obviously not a stock app. The Omni team took the default UI style in iOS 7, and made it their own while bringing every single OmniFocus feature to the computer in your pocket. The main place you’ll spend your days is the Forecast view, which first came from the iPad app and now is equally powerful on the iPhone. The lite UI lets you easily see all of your data in an uncluttered interface, with little enhancements like Save+ to quickly enter tasks one after the other that make it more powerful than ever. The new design is nice enough that it’s easily the nicest app in the OmniFocus suite while staying as powerful as its counterparts on the Mac and iPad. And, best of all, it still works great with apps like Drafts and Siri Reminders to easily send tasks to OmniFocus on the go.
Much ado has been made over the price of the new version, but I see nothing at all to complain about. We get the Omni Sync Server for free if you choose to use it, and the Omni Group’s great support and generous 30 day return policy that no one else offers on the App Store. That and, of course, the most powerful task app with a beautiful iOS 7 design — that’s got to be worth something. I was more than glad to pay for the upgrade this time, and if in 3-4 more years they see fit to make another equally exciting upgrade for that price, I’ll be glad to pay again.
But you know what’s great? OmniFocus for iPhone v.1 still works great on iOS 7, and their team just issued an update to quash the few bugs it had on the new OS. So, if you own the older version and don’t want to shell out, you still can use the old version just like you can still use Photoshop CS5 on your Mac. Just don’t watch the OmniFocus 2 demo video, or you’ll end up wanting to open your wallet.
Next up: OmniFocus 2 for Mac. I can’t wait to see what it brings — and if it’ll finally be the leading app that the other two versions need to catch up to. But I’m fine waiting — OmniFocus 1 for Mac is still working fine, as is the current v.2 beta, and v.2 for iPhone has me more happy than ever with my taskmaster of choice.
Originally published in Techinch Magazine Issue 6
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Email's the original and — in many ways — best way to privately communicate with anyone online. It just works, no matter what email service your friends use, something you can't say for social networks. There's no way to Twitter DM your Facebook friends, but email works whether you're using Gmail or Yahoo! or Exchange or your own SMTP server. For all the talk of replacing email, it's really still good, and there's no reason to get rid of it.
But that doesn't mean it isn't a mess, because it is. Inboxes need cleaned, junk emails need deleted, and the constant dings and notifications are only slightly better than Aol.'s old "You've got mail!" alerts. It's distracting. If all you want to do is write an email to a colleague, opening your email app is asking to get distracted by all the inbox chores you need to do. Plus, most email apps aren't really focused on writing — they feel more like a text box form online with small text and dated formatting options.
That's why I so often switch over to my favorite writing apps to compose an email with Markdown and no distractions, then copy the formatted message to my email app and send.
And yet, there should be something better, and soon there will be. I've been working with Mutahhir Ali Hayat, a developer that's worked with HogBay Software on FoldingText and more, on a brand new app to make writing emails as nice as writing in your favorite writing app. The app is Let.ter, and it's coming to an App Store near you very soon.
Let.ter's a clean writing slate for your emails that lets you just focus on what you're saying, then send a formatted email directly from the app without having to open your full email program and get bugged by your inbox notifications. It's lightweight, simple, and we happen to think it's beautiful.
It's not ready just yet, but I'm pretty excited about it. If you love minimalistic apps, I think you'll like Let.ter. Be sure to signup for our email updates at theletterapp.com to be the first to hear when it launches, and I'll have more to share soon about Let.ter and the work we've put into it.
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Several months ago, I stumbled upon a converter app that quickly became my favorite way to convert measurements and more: Konvert. It had a simple, flat UI that almost is more reminiscent of Windows 8's UI than of iOS 7, with the different conversions listed in tiles that flip to reveal the conversion screen when you tap them. It's simple, easy, and works great, and so even though it'd already been out for several months, it easily hit my list of favorite new iOS 7 apps when iOS 7 was released, since its UI fits in so well. And since then, the InnovationBox team has continued to improve it, adding currency conversion (including Thai Baht, yay!) and more that's kept it one of those essential little utility apps on my iPhone.
So when their team recently released the new Kounter, a simple counter app, I knew I had to try it. Kounter makes it as simple as possible to count anything — think of those little push-button counters that security guards use to make sure everyone leaves the building, but redesigned with iOS 7's thin font design, and that's basically what it is. I was disappointed that you can't just tap the main circle to count, but instead have to tap the plus on the bottom, which makes it a tad less fool-proof for quick counting when you're not looking at your screen. But still, it's a nice new approach to a simple app concept.
Then, their team also has made Calcolor, a beautifully simple calculator app that matches your iPhone 5c or 5s color and case accent color — and happens to look great on any other phone, even if it doesn't look quite as cool. And, the demo sites for each of their apps are equally fun — they show off a full demo of the app in action, in a way that makes sense on the web.
If you need simple number apps for your iPhone, go try these out. I can't wait to see what their team puts out next!
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Computing in public isn’t odd. So why are laptops suddenly odd?
If you live in a dense metropolitan area, public transit is a way of life. Subways and other trains, busses and taxis, and some rarer transportation life forms like Ducktours in Singapore and Tuk-Tuks in Bangkok all serve to get us huddling masses from point a to point b without much thought on our part. And hey, while you’re en route, why not get a bit of work done?
Before the turn of the century, computing on the go was a luxury reserved mostly for politicians and businessmen in power suits. Blackberries, at first, helped smartphones keep that same cachet, but Apple’s iBook (the laptop, not the app and bookstore) and cheap HP and Dell laptops had long-since become common among the rest of us. It’d almost have been odder to sit in an airport lounge without a laptop than with one, and pulling one out on the train — provided there was ample seating and no one needed your chair — wouldn’t have been an odd sight.
That wasn’t long to change, though. Once smartphones and modern tablets burst onto the scene, laptops started being the new desktop and looked rather odd on the train. It’s normal to peck at your touchscreen while standing in a crowded train, but typing on a 13” laptop? How quaint.
Just a few months ago, I was riding the Bangkok BTS mid-morning, with plenty of empty seats around me. I was going to be en route for a half hour, so why not get some work done on my MacBook Air?
So I started writing, and got about 15 minutes worth of stuff done while riding. And nothing happened — except for the fact that everyone on the train looked at me like they were seeing a ghost.
Of course, everyone else on said train was looking at their own computers — only theirs were 4 inch phone screens, or 7 inch tablets (yes, even the full-sized iPad is starting to look large in public, at the same time the iPhone is looking too small compared to Galaxy Notes. It’s a strange world). Surely a 13” screen isn’t so odd. But it was.
And yet, what’s actually odd is that everyone was using laptops in public just a few years back. That’s actually odd, if you really think about what most people were doing. They were carrying around a full computer just to browse Facebook on public Wifi, or at best answer some emails and browse the web. There’s always people actually getting real work done on laptops on trains and waiting rooms, but that’s not the majority.
So now, we’ve got devices that actually make more sense for on-the-go computing. It’s not so much that smartphones made online chat possible, it’s that they made it practical anywhere. eReaders and tablets didn’t invent eBooks — I’ve read full books on a BlackBerry-style Windows Phone in the past, of all things, and of course have read many on Macs and PCs — but they made them practical. Google Maps was always something nice on the PC, as Mapquest was before that, but smartphones and tablets made them practical in ways they’d never have been before. In the same way VisiCalc made PCs make sense for business customers, Google Maps and WhatsApp and Facebook made smartphones make sense for everyone.
There’s still spreadsheets and AutoCad, app development and video editing, and so much more that makes more sense on a laptop. Those are the PC and Mac killer apps — the very reason we buy them. And if you really need them, it’s worth lugging around a laptop.
But that comes with a problem. See, no matter how light and thin laptops become, they’re still large machines. They block your vision, take up a rather significant of lap or airplane tray space, and make you look like you’re in a displaced cubical. Tablets and smartphones, for all their faults, make you look more available, more social — even if you’re really being a zombie behind your tiny screen. You’re not the guy taking up a seat on the train anymore, you’re just someone else holding a tiny piece of aluminum and glass when you’re using your smartphone. But a laptop? Go back to the office, dinosaur.
And yet, that doesn’t quite make sense, either. The very idea of laptops is to be able to work from anywhere, and that’s good. It’s just that most people don’t need full computing anymore for the work they’d do on the go.
And somehow, for the very same reason, I don’t happen to think laptops — PCs and Macs in general, at that — are going away anytime soon. Smartphones are better at some things, tablets at others, and PCs still have their place. As do servers, and to a degree mainframes. It’s just like Steve Jobs said: PCs are trucks, and everyone doesn’t need a truck.
In fact, if you’re still driving a truck, everyone in the city might look at you like you’re a freak on the highway. But you’re getting the work you need done, and their tiny compact gets their work done. Neither is right, neither is wrong.
Originally published in Techinch Magazine Issue 8
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