Going All in With the iPad

Can It Ever Replace My Laptop?

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So the answer to the question above is a definitive “no.” However, with recent improvements to iOS in combination with a number of key apps, I’m getting closer to that ever-elusive goal set forth by my main man, Tim (he can do 80% of his work on an iPad, don’t you know). In previous blog posts, I have documented my frustrations with using an iPad as a laptop replacement. There is little doubt that the iPad provides a superior experience as far as content consumption goes (read: it’s great for listening to, reading, and watching stuff). Where the iPad struggles for me is in content creation.

Now, iOS has come a long way over the past few years. The included dictation feature continues to improve, and is serviceable as a keyboard replacement in a pinch (in a quiet place). However, there is a time limit wherein the speaker is cut off (about 30 seconds). This becomes a problem if one is trying to use the dictation feature to compose a blog or longer email. So far, the only viable option I have found comes from Nuance and their Dragon Anywhere software/service. Dragon Anywhere is far from perfect and it’s $150 annual fee is definitely pricey. However, it has allowed me to do the things that I could not do with the built-in dictation feature.

The frustration with Dragon Anywhere is that it does not function outside of its own application. So basically, you need to dictate into Dragon’s app, and then copy and paste to wherever the text ultimately belongs. This is less of an irritation given iOS’s slide over feature, which allows you to, for example, dictate an email response within Dragon Anywhere well at the same time looking at the email you are responding to.

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This is hardly optimal, but the dictation accuracy makes it worth the extra effort. Moreover, if you are a Dragon Dictation user on your desktop, I don’t really think that this iOS limitation is anymore disruptive than the desktop experience.

While Dragon Anywhere may make blogging and emailing significantly easier for me, it doesn’t really help me with coding or terminal work that is part of my daily responsibility. For website design, I love Panic’s Coda, but it is worthless to me without a physical keyboard. I know there are plenty of great keyboard cases out there for the iPad, but I think if you have to add a keyboard case to the iPad to make it work, then you might as well have a laptop. Additionally, external keyboards are unable to take advantage of auto-capitalization and auto-correction features within iOS. The best solution for me has been to purchase a Bluetooth keyboard that I keep in my backpack and can use with the iPad in emergencies. As for command line work I use a multi-platform solution called vSSH. vSSH allows you to store credentials and connections along with code snippets in the app which then synchronize via iCloud to other devices. So I’m able to create the connections and snippets on my MacBook such that they are then available for me to use on my iPad.

This point, there is no ditching the computer, so for the iPad to be useful to me, I need to make it as easy as possible to get information off the iPad and into the computer (and vice versa). At the most basic level, I accomplish this with an app called Copied. Copied has applications for both iOS and the Mac that basically allow you to synchronize text you copy from one device to another. I also rely heavily on Evernote for organizing work notes and Todoist for my to do list. Both products have well-developed apps on both iOS and desktop. By using identical apps on both platforms, I am able to quickly find things that I need regardless of which device I created or organized them on.

Email has always been a problem for me on iOS. I have never really liked the default mail app on either iOS or OS X, and I’m frequently trying out different applications that fit my needs. I have finally settled on CloudMagic, which has a fantastic iOS client and a limited, but developing Mac client. The most important function of an email client for me at this time is being able to get an email out of the client and into either Evernote or Todoist so that I can properly act upon it. CloudMagic handles this very well with the iOS client; hopefully it will also do so with its Mac client in the future.

Ultimately, making it iPad useful with in my professional life essentially means I need to be able to access my work on both an iPad and a computer. By and large, I have found the applications that allow me to do this. Though I haven’t mentioned them yet, I certainly rely upon Dropbox, Microsoft Office, iA Writer, and Google Drive to share and create content between devices. I am also heavily reliant on accessing my computers remotely by RDP or VNC. I use both Jump Desktop as well as Remotix for networks that I manage; I have also used LogMeIn, Splashtop, and TeamViewer for clients that don’t have static IP addresses.

So, I would say that I’m at a point now where I can use my iPad for about 60% of my work. However, I doubt that there is any cost savings over purchasing a laptop given the software expenses that are necessary for me to make the iPad work. I’m guessing that many of these features for which I am paying extra will be included within iOS in the near future. It appears that the shared pasteboard features of Copied will already be included in iOS 10. So, as far as I’m concerned, I think there is a good deal of work to be done before I can ditch my laptop, but I think I can finally see the horizon.

Improve the Performance of your Headless Mac

In my office, I use an older Mac Mini as a document and media server. Because screen sharing is so simple on OS X and Splashtop with my iPad, I decided to set up the Mac Mini without a monitor (that’s what makes it “headless”). While I could easily connect to the Mac Mini using my screen sharing programs, the computer seemed to be running sluggishly and strange black artifacts would build up over time on the virtual screen. After doing some research, it seems that when no monitor is connected, the Mac Mini’s GPU is unable to start by default, causing the computer to lose processing power. The general fix is to create a “dummy plug” (or “dummy dongle”), which will trick the Mac into believing there is a monitor attached and allow the GPU to start up. There are numerous variations of this trick, but for me, the easiest option was to start with a Mini DisplayPort-to-VGA connector that I picked up at Micro Center for $15. Then, all you need to do is place a 50-150 ohm resistor in two of the VGA sockets (sockets 1 and 6, as shown in the picture below). I used a 68 ohm, ¼ watt resistor that I bought at RadioShack for under $2.  After connecting the dummy plug, I restarted my computer;  When I connected to the computer from my other Mac, no artifacts appeared, and processing performance improved immediately.

Special thanks to the macminicolo blog for the idea!

Making Timeline Movies with Timeline 3D

As always, I receive no compensation for any product listed on this blog.

One of my jobs is to design presentations for use in court; often video or slide shows used in closing arguments. One particularly effective method of communicating the relevant events of a case is a timeline presentation. Now, there are all sorts of timeline applications out there, but if you are looking for a great value, look no further than Timeline 3D. At $65, the program is a bit of a steal - especially in the world of overpriced legal software. Below is a sample of what can be easily produced with the program:

The application is simple enough - enter in your data, add pictures, change your colors, and magically, you have a beautiful, three-dimensional product suitable for export to any number of formats. In my opinion, the most useful way to distribute these timelines or present them in court is to export the data into a movie file that can be played on any computer (most courts are not especially Mac-friendly). While Timeline 3D does have a video export feature, you can have a far better product if you let another Mac gem do the heavy lifting instead.

Keynote is Apple’s answer to PowerPoint, and, aside from a smaller consumer base, it is vastly superior to the Microsoft juggernaut in almost every way. If you happen to have a copy of Keynote, you can actually export your Timeline 3D document to Keynote and then export your Keynote presentation to a movie file that will function like a presentation and not a movie. I know it is a bit confusing, but the movie generated by Keynote can be configured to advance with a mouse click, so that each time you click your mouse, the movie advances to the next slide.

At the end of the day, you will have a smooth, animated timeline movie fit for the courtroom. Moreover, with this setup, you can take your Mac-creation and share it with anyone that can play a Quicktime video. 

Early Problems with Mountain Lion and How to Overcome Them

Mountain Lion is finally here! After downloading the four-gigabyte kitty to one of my three Macs, I then copied the installation file to the other two and installed. I suspected that my 2007 Mac Mini would not make the cut (and I was right), but I needed to try. My 2009 MacBook Pro and 2011 Mac Mini handled the update quickly; the whole process took around 45 minutes (both computers are equipped with solid state hard drives). Here are some issues that arose once I booted into the new OS:

First, Mailplane, a Gmail client I have chosen to use in the place of Sparrow, would not work. Mailplane does offer a preview release, but you need a license code to run it, and if you purchased Mailplane through the App Store, you will not have a license code. Luckily, Mailplane tech support is top-notch, I was provided a license code upon providing them a receipt from my App Store purchase. The preview release seems to work fine.

Second, Tunnelbrik, my OpenVPN client, would not work, even with the beta release that claims to be Mountain Lion-compatible. I cannot be too frustrated, as Tunnelbrik is free and has worked fantastically up to this point; I am positive it will work in the future. However, in the interim, I decided to try another OpenVPN client: Viscosity. So far it is working well, although it will set me back $9 if OpenVPN does not work within the next 30 days.

Third, because I had failed to update Little Snitch, I needed to download the latest version, which runs just fine.

Fourth, most of my applications are not yet integrated into the new Notification Center, which is slicker than Growl, in theory. I expect most apps will integrate with the Notification Center in due time, but for now, give Hiss a try. Hiss is an app that sends your Growl notifications to the Notification Center. It is still in early development, but I have had good results with it.

So far, that is the extent of my travails. I am greatly enjoying the Dictation feature of Mountain Lion - it was worth the $20 upgrade and then some. I am not thrilled with the iCloud document sharing between Mac and iOS devices as I need to specifically choose which files to sync (as opposed to syncing an entire directory), but I just need to adjust. Overall, Mountain Lion seems to be a clear refinement of the already excellent Lion framework. Well done, Apple!

The Virtues of a Closed System

As always, Delcour Solutions receives no financial benefit from mentioning products or services.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. I know that I have been singing the praises of products that help users break the chains of closed systems (Absinthe, for example). As a tech geek, I enjoy making tech do more. As a consultant and computer support provider however, I would much rather users not mess with the status quo. I know, do as I say, not as I do.

Therefore, while more closed systems (systems that are more difficult to modify or customize), such as Apple’s line of iPads and iPhones are frustrating from the customization standpoint, they are much easier to troubleshoot. When an iPhone isn’t working properly, there are only so many thing that can be wrong. If an Android phone has similar symptoms, the pool of potential causes is much larger.

I think this reality is reflected in Apple’s success over competitors with regard to customer satisfaction and service. Certainly, Apple runs on the slogan that their devices “just work.” The fact is that by having more closed systems, there are fewer problems that can occur. Similarly, peripheral devices work better with Macs because the pool of compatible devices is much smaller.

As a technology consultant, I always have to keep the costs of service in my mind. I am better off if my clients have more reliable systems, which is more likely if those systems are closed. Just something to keep in mind as I tell you about how awesome it is to jailbreak your iPhones.

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Technological Simplicity

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