How I use iOS

In my previous post, I discussed how I use Wunderlist, and teased a post about how I use iOS. Much of what I’m going to say will be very familiar to anyone who listens to Cortex, because I’ve learned a lot from Grey, filtered through my own situation, but I think that there may be some value in this (if only that of concision) for some of you.


When I was in my twenties, I loved mucking around with Linux, building PCs—that sort of thing. Somewhere along the line, it lost its appeal. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but suppose your hobby in your twenties was hotrodding cars and tinkering with them: As cars have grown more dependent on electronics, I should imagine that the fun has drained out of them for the amateur mechanics. I still work with hardware all the time, but for utility not fun. It’s always with a view toward an end rather than being an end in itself, just as I might spend an evening under the hood installing a cold-air filter, but I wouldn’t take the engine apart for kicks.

The more that writing has occupied my time, the less interested I’ve become in how the motor works than whether it goes. I no longer feel any desire to personally compile a kernel, shell, program; I’m more interested in having a computing environment that lets me work efficiently rather than being work itself. And Apple products, famously, work. I bought my first MacBook in 2009 and my first Mac in 2011, but the iPhone 4s was the real gateway drug. That device fitted my brain like a glove. Everything about it was crisp and elegant and clean and simple—it felt like both the future and like a device that should always have been; quickly, it started to feel that it had always been. The 5c was, impossibly, even better. In 2015, Macs became my primary computing device, although I should say that the iPad (currently a 3, soon to be a Pro 9.7”) is probably my primary device at home. I don’t wear a watch, but if I were to start, it’d be an Apple Watch. (I don’t like wearing things on my wrist; it’s just a personal quirk.) Sold.

This “all in on Apple” approach was galvanized by Microsoft’s failed Windows 8 experiment, and sealed because it happened to coincide with the “summer of hell” to which I alluded in my Wunderlist post. One of my colleagues was out on maternity leave; it was a small department, so everyone had a lot more work to do, but as the generalist in the office (i.e. the person who didn’t have a specific focus on particular systems), a lot of it fell on me, and it became stunningly difficult to manage. I had to get organized. Wunderlist was the key, but applying Grey’s teaching from Cortex and adapting it to my circumstances made it very appealing to have one integrated system on many devices, because I no longer had the luxury of knowing where I would be at any given moment.

Setting up iOS.

I am picky about how I set up my iOS devices, and somewhat picky about how I set up Macs. (This post isn’t about what we will soon be able to call, to my delight, MacOS, but I can’t resist pointing out: On a MacBook, especially on a 2016 MacBook, you should not have the dock at the default size and in the default position! So much wasted screen!) The general principle, which I commend even if you decline the rest of my advice, and which applies to Windows just as readily, is this: Everything you use all the time should be immediately to hand, and everything else should be packed out of the way. You don’t want a lot of clutter. And you don’t want visual noise: You want a wallpaper that’s clean, non-distracting, and which provides good separation between the background and the icons. I’ll give you a pass for the lock-screen, but a family photo on your home-screen is no way to say “I love you”!

Those principles can be seen in the screencaps that I posted previously; add to those my poor old broken-screen 5c, which I sometimes use for a few hours in the evening while the 6 (will be an SE in a few days, actually) recharges if I don’t want to pull out the iPad:

iPhone 6 iPhone5 iPad

So we have a dark background on each—it’s a little more stylized on the iPad, but in both cases, the rule is: Dark background (when I remake the SHIELD wallpaper for the Pro, I will go darker), clean separation between the icons and the background, only regularly-used icons on the home-screen.

I have some rules that apply to any iDevice. Settings always lives in the top left-hand corner; the clock usually in the top right-hand corner. The second row (this gets a little hinky on iPad, because of course the icons move if you turn it around; I mostly use it in portrait) always contains Notes, Dropbox, and Gdocs. The bottom row always contains social media. Then there’s always at least one empty row to separate the dock, and three apps in the dock: Always Wunderlist on the right, always email in the middle. (I flirted with the Outlook app for a while, but Mail’s just a better fit for me; try several clients, you never know which will work best for you.)

  • Regarding Notes: The trick—it’s not much of a secret, but I’m always surprised by how few people seem to have this set up—is that you should be syncing Notes with iCloud on all your devices.  That’s what changes Notes from a scribble-pad (that’s what TextEdit and Stickies are for!) into a genuinely useful notekeeping system, especially when you remember that you can use it from any web browser in a pinch. 
  • Regarding Gdocs and Dropbox: I flirted with following Grey down the Byword path, but Gdocs meets all my writing needs comfortably, and while Byword is probably superior in some regards, it’s hard to imagine what benefit would accrue. It’s terrific to be able to write literally anywhere (confessedly you’re unlikely to want to tap out a novel on an iPhone!) and pick up again on any other device. The iPad is the primary writing device, and I’m currently using a Logitech Keys-to-Go bluetooth keyboard for it, which I would call “adequate,” although I’m comfortable typing on glass for light-duty writing.

The iPad and the 5 (which functions as an ersatz iPad Micro rather than a phone) each have a scanning app and Workflow in the top row and Google Sheets in the productivity row. I am auditioning InstaPDF, and it will probably replace TinyScanner. I am a marginal Workflow user; I use it for a few logging  operations, it manages my morning and evening playlists, and I have a few workflows to notify my wife of various things. Workflow is still relatively new, I’ve only been using it for a couple of months, but I think it’s well worth the incidental cost.

The iPhone is a little different. Calendar replaces Sheets, because, straightforwardly, I don’t use Sheets on the phone and I use the calendar all the time. Messages is on the home-screen and the phone app is on the dock because—well, because it’s a phone. I have a folder called “Health” which contains the apps for my MiBand (I know that I said that I don’t like wearing things on my wrist—I don’t, and I’m not happy; in a perfect world, I’d have an anklet for the MiBand) and for my wife’s fitbit (lives on my phone because she carries a flip-phone). The one that usually gets an eyebrow-lift out of people is the bottom right-hand corner. It’s important (especially on the Brobdingnagian 6) to have any apps that I might need to tap while driving or otherwise using the phone one-handed within easy reach of my thumb, especially apps that make noise (and thus may need to be silenced). The dot folder becomes a second dock, and currently contains a couple of radio apps, Music, Youtube, Overcast, and Workflow. Unibox (which I use for one of my email accounts—maybe we’ll talk about email next, but I have a rule that forwards anything from my manager to that account to minimize the chances of missing something from her) also lives here.

Finally, a look at my rarely-seen second screen:


This is another place where I want consistency. The top left-hand corner always has a folder called “Comms,” which contains any communications app that doesn’t live on the main-screen: Sype, Facetime, things like that. “Utils” comes next; it contains what you’d expect: It’s the toolbag. The App Store lives here, as do Gdrive, DeskConnect, PhotoShare (a Bluetooth file-transfer app that sometimes comes in handy because the iPad is wireless-only and not everywhere has it), and so on. Finally, “Extras” is  a home for everything else. The paradigm here is that if an app isn’t on the home-screen, I’m normally going to launch it with Spotlight rather than scrolling and tapping, but sometimes I scroll-and-tap, so I still want some basic organizational structure.

Odds and ends.

Speaking of Spotlight—and this is true on the Mac, too—my feeling is that Spotlight is for launching apps, period. It becomes a much more nimble tool if you go into its settings and remove everything else from its scope. I also encourage people to make use of both Do Night Disturb and Night Shift. DND is an obvious one: Schedule it overnight, be choosy about who’s on your favorites list. Night Shift arrived in iOS 9.3; it warms the color palette of the screen by a little or a lot in a way that’s easier  on the eyes in low light conditions. Find a balance that works nicely for you and schedule it to start around about the earliest possible time that you might go to bed and to end about the latest possible time that you might leave the house. (You can also find both of these in Control Center for ad-hoc situations.)

In fine.

Computers exist in order to allow humans to accomplish useful things. The computing device that is good and well-configured is the one that is as transparent as possible: The interface gets out of your way and lets you work without having to think a lot about what’s going on under the hood. (Well, mostly—all tech people periodically get into a “let’s fiddle around with the carburetor” mood.) You want to think about and look for apps that will actually help you accomplish things or improve your life, and arrange them in a way that’s clean, intuitive, and easy. That, plus consistency between devices, makes for an easy, smooth-sailing life in iOS-land.