State Of The Apps 2021
The end of the year is a good time to reflect on the apps we use and how we feel about them. This is my state of the apps for 2021.
Every year the co-hosts of the Cortex podcast publish a “state of the apps” episode where they review all the apps they currently use, noting what they installed and deleted during the year. It’s usually a long, meandering, and at time hilarious riff on the idea of having a well thought out collection of software tools.
Having recently begun another series of This Week I Quit, I’ve been asked a few times what apps and services I’m keeping. So, it feels like the right time to do my own State of the Apps for 2021.
Before We Get To The Apps
Everything about the way I live and work is still adapted to the ongoing pandemic. This means a lot of the apps, from flight tracking to ride hailing not to mention the apps I use when traveling around Australia or Japan, haven’t had any use this year.
My creative focus has been on writing, and my studio is still in storage. So, a common criterion for the apps I use is that they can work across iOS, iPadOS and macOS platforms.
In 2021, I bought a new 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which I pair with a Keychron K6 mechanical keyboard and an Apple trackpad. This is my setup for almost all of my writing and daily work. When I need a Mac, I use my 2011 Mac Mini, paired with a 27-inch Apple screen, Keychron K4 mechanical keyboard and an Apple trackpad.
For social audio and podcasting, I have a Rødecaster Pro paired with a Shure SM7b microphone and AKG K240 headphones. On my daily walk, I listen with an old pair of Apple AirPods, and for more serious listening, I use a set of Ultimate Ears Pro Reference Remastered in-ear monitors.
I’ve built a tiny “pandemic studio” around a Tascam Model 12, Arturia DrumBrute, Polyend Tracker, Elektron Model:Cycles, Strymon Iridium, TC Electronic Plethora X5, and my new Ibanez RG5120M Prestige guitar.
Writing – Thinking – Reading
Scrivener is the backbone of my writing process. This hasn’t changed since I started using Scrivener and I can’t imagine it ever will. It’s rock solid, works across devices and platforms, allows you to organise your work effortlessly and doesn’t distract you when you need to focus. That said, I wish the iPadOS version had more of the desktop features, like snapshot comparisons and the ability to work with templates.
The phrase “doing my own research” has become a red flag lately. So, let’s call it reading and thinking. Two new apps, Readwise and Obsidian, have quickly established themselves in this category. My habits of reflecting on past reading highlights and making notes are helping me identify ideas and themes for future writing.
I thought I’d lost my beloved Kindle PaperWhite this year. I dropped it in a sous-vide bath (don’t read and cook). But, putting it in a linen bag full of silica gel bags worked. So, it’s still the way I read ebooks. And Safari is still my browser of choice for everything else. I rely on the Reading List to stop any “read later” articles and the Reader View to remove online clutter.
Although I can’t really justify the cost of my Bear subscription, especially given how good Apple Notes is these days, the Bear interface just makes me happy every time I use it for any sundry note-taking.
My dream for this decade was to travel often, running my life out of a sexy little notebook full of fountain pen scrawls. The reality, as I’ve written about many times already, was different.
This led me back to OmniFocus and building a smaller, more modest version of the interruption-proof productivity management system I had used before. I should say a word of thanks here to Tim Stringer of LearnOmniFocus, who not only brought me up to speed with the newest features of OmniFocus but also introduced me to MindNode. I’d always considered mind maps to be one of those cool but only occasionally useful things. But having a mind map of all your commitments and then using mind maps as a way to start planning projects is a great way to stop the kind of overloading that led me to quit OmniFocus the first time around.
Notion has played an increasingly smaller part of my life this year. I still use it for editorial planning and custom databases for reference material. As much as a I love the customisability and layout options, it’s so slow and cumbersome at times.
Timeular is still my time tracking app of choice. Fantastical is my calendar, mostly for the ease of creating new calendar entries. And a special mention needs to go to the Dymo Label app, which is actually a terrible piece of UI design, but since I haven’t visited a post office since February 2020, being able to print postage labels at home (and use the Royal Mail collection service) has been a lifesaving connection to the outside world.
Whenever possible, I do all my communications inside the Apple ecosystem. I’m not going to argue that any of Contacts, FaceTime, Mail or Messages are best in class, but they’re all familiar and work together.
Twitter has been my main connection to the outside world. In 2021, I reinstalled the iOS app so that I could use Spaces and my feeling about Spaces and social audio have gone on an emotional rollercoaster ever since. However, Spaces is the best innovation Twitter have rolled out in over a decade (even if, as Twitter always do, they overlooked the potential for bad actors to weaponise the new feature). Overall, the experience of using Twitter has improved, thanks to the banning of the platform’s most high-profile troll and the “better late than never” improved user safety controls. But it’s so frustrating that not all features are available on all versions. The iPadOS version is the worst, as there are no bookmarks or Spaces. The iOS version works well, but you can’t schedule tweets. The desktop OS version is my fav, but you can’t start a Space or use the new “downvote” replies feature.
Of course, I don’t use Spotify. Nothing they do is good for the music world, and they seem to be wrecking the podcasting space as well. So I listen via the Apple Music and Podcast apps. Again, they might not be the best apps available, but they work well as part of an ecosystem and that’s what matters to me.
I still read the app versions of The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Washington Post, at least on iOS. Increasingly, I’ve reverted to the browser versions of most long form services (like New Yorker, New York Magazine, and New York Review of Books) because they feel faster and seem to encourage more serendipity. I don’t want to be fed news based on an algorithm. I want the personal friction of looking for unfamiliarity and talking myself out of reading the same topics over and over.
Apple TV has consumed an alarming amount of my attention during the pandemic. Further, the major streaming services – Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, Disney+, and Netflix – have had their claws in my mind. If I had to pick only two, they would be Netflix for its global breadth and Apple TV+ for its sense of style.
I still lean on Adobe for visual creativity. Lightroom Classic is my photo app, and all sorts of tweaking and design stuff happen in Photoshop. I’ve also been playing with Procreate for some digital art using the Apple Pencil (early days with that).
Logic Pro still is and probably always will be my DAW of choice. My Logic Pro Master certification expired a few years ago, but Logic’s keystrokes and shortcuts still feel like a familiar second language. I’ve finally started the process of replacing Sibelius with Dorico. Although I’m not arranging music right now, I’m playing with Dorico and it will become the foundation for my next studio.
For guitar, I still love Amazing Slow Downer after all these years of close listening and transcribing music. I was so glad to see an excellent iOS version. Rounding out guitar practice, The Boss Tone Studio app works in conjunction with the WAZA-Air binaural headphones for late night jamming.
Food, Health And Home
The Internet of Things hasn’t won me over for my home just yet. I operate my Anova Sous Vide cooker manually instead of using the app, for example. But the Meater+ thermometer has become a staple for roasting and smoking. I also have HomeKit automations running smart plugs from Merkoss and WeMo for the stand light in the living room, the air filter in my bedroom and the Christmas lights.
The Membership from Erika Bloom has helped me stick to a routine of 2 or 3 live pilates classes a week via video through the Mindbody Live app. There’s also a library of workouts and exercise advice as well. I supplement this with workouts from Apple Fitness+.
And while they aren’t apps, it’s worth noting the home food delivery services that have kept me fed during this grocery store and supermarket free couple of years. There are restaurant in-a-box services like Made in Oldstead and Rick Stein at Home. I get meat from Farmison, Field and Flower, and The Fish Society; produce from Abel and Cole and First Choice; speciality goods from MexGrocer, Japan Centre and Sous Chef; cheese from The Courtyard Dairy; chocolates from Chocolate Trading Co; and flowers from Freddie’s Flowers.
The March Of The Undead
There’s a small group of apps that feel almost dead to me. It’s been months since I logged into either Clubhouse or Goodreads. I hardly use Calm or Instagram anymore. Bluejeans, Line and Zoom are there by obligation, not passion.
You all probably have a private hoard of zombie apps you want to dispatch with a final decisive blow. Or maybe that’s just me. Some of these might be part of a This Week I Quit sometime soon. Or they might just carry on lurking in the shadows.
Apps Or Tools
Looking ahead to 2022, my biggest desire for the suite of tools I use, day to day, is just for me to be less digital and screen based.
Hopefully, this time next year I’ll be writing about tools and not just apps, and the lists will include brushes and lenses and pens and outboard studio gear.