One of creative writing’s decisive advantages over similar arts is its low barrier to entry. The writer needs little more than a way to produce text, whether word processor, blog template, or pen and paper. Great work can be created at minimal expense; the labor is mostly in the head.
This doesn’t mean that the writer should become complacent and be contented with standbys like Word and iWork or even higher-grade tools such as Scrivener. Writing-specific apps, especially distraction-free and corrective ones, have come to the fore over the past decade, and while many of them aren’t so useful (for example, I wasn’t so high on the overbearing Hemingway) there are some that can be hacked for neat effects.
I previously discussed how both Google Keep and Notif Pro – neither one a “writing” app per se – can be used to improve the writing process. Although one may never find herself composing “Ulysses” in Google Keep, it serves as a scrapbook and a way to air mental dirty laundry. Notif Pro is great way to see and manipulate the top idea in your mind, through persistent notifications with lists and photos.
Simple, barebones text editors are powerful creative writing tools. Many were designed for composing source code, but they have features that make them uniquely conducive to offbeat poetry and prose composition. In these examples, I mostly consider TextWrangler, a free text editor for OS X that I first started using in early 2013 to write Python files:
Writing poetry in Word or Google Drive is painful because it feels like a prose tool is being contorted into a poetry one. TextWrangler et al treat text as a collection of discrete lines rather than a blob of contiguous words.
This paradigm is naturally suited to poetry. Plus, the white space that naturally occurs between blocks of code and poem stanzas, and the source code comments that are often written in apps like TextWranger, inspires avant-garde approaches to creative writing.
Through TextWrangler, I got the idea for commented poetry. By that I mean poetry in which a blank line is left above each line so that the poet can make meta-comments on the poetry. It’s easier to show than tell:
I doubt I’m the first person to take this approach, but I know that I would not have thought of it had I stuck to Word or Drive. The notion of text as just lines on a page is utilitarian and literalist, but effective for unlocking new creative angles.
Text is text in text editors. Fonts, sizing, and automatic spacings from copy/paste cease to be bottlenecks. Writers can focus on ideas and execution instead of wrangling with style. Poetry, more so than prose, has little need for elaborate formatting or supplementary material. A text editor like TextWrangler helps because it gets out of the way.
The upgraded version of TextWrangler, BBEdit, has other features such as clippings and scratchpad (no need to create an entirely new file just to temporarily hold text you may not end up needing) that ease poetry and prose composition. Repetitive poetry, even on a super-simple level, can be powerful, while advanced pieces often employ motifs (“The Raven,” anyone?).
One of my favorite workflows in TextWrangler is writing a poem, taking a screenshot of its finished state, and then editing the photo in something straightforward like Pixlr Express. The stark interface of TextWrangler provides an earthy grounding to the eventual visual poem:
“Mobile-first” and “mobile-only” are almost clichés in terms of current app design. But overuse of “mobile” language aside, iOS and Android users have definitely benefitted from this new focus from developers on producing software that exploits and respects the unique capabilities of smaller devices. Maybe even too much so: I recently combed thru my app drawer and felt overwhelmed by the nearly 100 apps – most of them both beautifully designed and easy to use – in it. My first instinct was to simply cut myself off from many of the services provided by these apps, so as to simplify my experience and reduce app count. I initially thought about completely ditching RSS reading and some social networking, for example.
Ultimately, I opted to do something different and instead I redistributed my workflow across my mobile device (a Nexus 4), my Mac, and my wifi-enabled Wii U. Although many of the apps and services I was using had versions available for both Android and OS X (and Web), I decided to restrict many of them to only one of my devices and ignore its other versions. So for example, I kept the mobile Google+ Hangouts app, but eschewed its desktop Web/Gmail version, and likewise kept my desktop RSS reader (Reeder) while ditching my previous mobile RSS clients.
The most difficult, yet most rewarding, part of this process was determining which apps and services I could remove from my phone and perform only on my Mac or Wii U. Amid the swirl of “mobile-only”/”mobile-first lingo,” I reflexively felt that I was selling myself short by offloading many of the excellent apps and services I used onto my relatively old-fashioned Mac and my dainty Wii U, but the experience has been liberating. I have improved my phone’s battery life, reduced clutter in its launcher, and restored some piece of mind: there are fewer things to blankly stare at and anxiously check on my phone while on the train, at the very least.
More importantly, I know have a firmer sense of what I want each device, with its accompanying apps and services, to do. The productivity bump and happiness that I have experienced has also made me realize, finally, why Windows 8 has flopped. Trying to treat all devices the same and have them run the same apps is a recipe for poor user experience and too many duplicate services. It becomes more difficult to know what any given device excels at, or what a user should focus on when using it. If focus is truly saying no to a thousand things, then it’s important to say “no” to certain apps or services on certain platforms. Steve Jobs famously said “no” to Flash on iOS, but one doesn’t even have to be that wonky or technical when creating workflow boundaries and segmentation in his/her own life: I’ve said “no” to Web browsing on my Wii U and to Netflix on my phone, for example.
With this move toward device segmentation and focus in mind, I’ll finally delve into the tasks that I know do only on desktop or in the living room, so as to relieve some of the strain and overload from my mobile device. I perform these tasks using only my Mac or my Wii U, and I do not use their corresponding apps or services on my Nexus 4.
RSS can be tricky: you probably shouldn’t subscribe to any frequently updated sites, since they will overwhelm your feed and leave you with a “1000+ unread” notification that makes combing thru the list a chore. Rather, sites that push out an update once or twice per day (or every other day) are ideal material for RSS. Rewarding RSS reading requires you to have specialized taste borne out of general desktop Web browsing (see below), as well as a tinkerer’s mindset for adding and subtracting feeds. It’s a workflow meant for a desktop.
Granted, there are some good RSS clients for Android: Press and Minimal Reader Pro spring to mind. However, neither is great at managing feeds due to their minimalism and current reliance on the soon-to-be-extinct Google Reader. Plus, I’ve yet to find an Android rival for Reeder, which I use on my Mac an which is also available for iOS. The time-shifted nature of RSS also makes it something that I often only get around to once I’m back home, not working, and sitting down, with Reeder in front of me, and so I forego using a mobile client most of the time. This may change if and when RSS undergoes its needed post-Google Reader facelift.
The thrill of wide-open desktop browsing doesn’t exist on mobile. Maybe it’s because most mobile sites are bastardizations of their desktop forbearers, or because screen size is a limiting factor. Moreover, most mobile apps are still much better and much faster than their equivalent websites. I haven’t disabled Chrome on my phone, but I seldom use it unless another app directed me there. Instead, I prefer news aggregators like Flipboard and Google Currents, or strong native apps like The Verge, Mokriya Craigslist, and Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum.
Of this trio, only Tumblr has a first-rate Android app in terms of aesthetics and friendliness to battery life. It’s easy for me to see why I don’t like using any of them on mobile: they all began as desktop websites, and then had to be downsized into standalone apps. Alongside these aesthetic and functional quibbles with website-to-app transitions, I also consciously limit my Facebook and LinkedIn intake by only checking them on desktop, and in the case of Tumblr, I may create content for it on my phone, but I usually save it to Google Drive (if only to back it up, which I’ll always end up doing one way or another) and then finish formatting and editing it on my desktop before posting it.
Twitter is a different story, due to its hyper-concise format. I’ll talk about it in the next entry. Google+ – which is almost completely ignorable as a standlone site on desktop – is also much better on mobile, wherein it performs useful background functions like photo backup. Mobile-first networks like Instagram and Vine are obvious exclusions as well.
Spotify is a unique case. Its Android app is certainly functional, but unstable and not so good with search. It is difficult to get a fully populated list of returned search results, and in many cases you must hit the back button and re-key the search. Its Mac app is much better – the gobs of menus and lengthy lists are right at home on the desktop. For listening to music on my Nexus 4, I use Google Play Music, where I have a large, precisely categorized personal collection accessible via a clean UI, and the terrific holo-styled Pocket Casts, which I use to play weekly trance podcasts from Above & Beyond and Armin Van Buuren, among others.
I’m not a huge fan of Netflix on tablets or large-screen phones. I do probably 99% of my Netflix viewing on an HDTV connected to my Wii U, with the remainder done on my Mac. I can see the appeal of viewing Netflix while lying in bed, so I don’t rule out its mobile possibilities altogether. However, most of the video watching I do on mobile is via YouTube, Google Play Movies, or my own movie collection as played by MX Player Pro.
Skype is a good desktop messenger and video calling service, but it may as well be DOA on Android, especially stock Android. Google+ Hangouts (the successor to Google Talk) is much simpler, since it requires only a Google+ account and has a dead-simple video calling/messaging interface. Plus, Skype for Android is unfortunately a battery-drainer, in my experience. That said, Skype’s shortcomings on mobile are balanced by its strengths on desktop: its native Mac app is still an appealing alternative to having to open up Google+ in Safari/Chrome.
In part two, I shall look at apps or services that I now do exclusively on mobile, as well as the select group of apps and services that I use on both desktop and mobile.
Chrome OS appears to be a hit, thanks to Acer’s workhorse $199 C7 Chromebook and Samsung’s sleek $249 model. Chromebooks are often construed as “companion” devices, meant to supplement a Mac or Windows laptop/desktop, but in my experience they feel more like companions to a tablet/phone. Their modest power, stripped-down OS, and rich ecosystems make them much like a traditional computer influxed with cutting-edge mobile-informed software.
That said, transitioning from a traditional Mac/Windows machine to a Chromebook can be jarring. After all, you can’t install any native apps, and you have to run nearly everything thru the Web browser, all the while being conscious of the machine’s limited power. Here are some tips for getting started:
1. Samsung or bust
The variety of Chromebook models is diversifying, with both Lenovo and HP now getting into the game. The trend is sure to accelerate now that OEMs seem increasingly skeptical of Windows 8.
The $249 Samsung Chromebook is currently the best value on the market. It has a sleek, much-more-expensive-than-it-looks body, and it runs totally silent and cool. Its custom ARM processor is power-efficient and gives you up to seven hours of battery life. It can also support a 3G connection. It escapes the cheap netbook look that plagues the Acer C7 and it’s lighter and better performing that the heavier Samsung 550. While HP’s Pavilion Chromebook is still to be released, its heavy body (replete with Ethernet port) and power-hungry Intel processor don’t inspire confidence.
2. Consider an Ethernet-to-USB dongle
While wifi is more than enough for more uses of the Chromebook – I enjoy playing Pandora One while cooking or exercising, or using it while watching TV -, power users may also want to think about an Ethernet-to-USB dongle for the Samsung Chromebook, which doesn’t have a native Ethernet port. The cabled connection is great for more intensive productivity tasks, such as using Google Drive/Docs or uploading/editing photos, since it gives a nice speed boost to the machine’s modest guts.
3. Customize your dock
While Chrome OS only runs Web apps (with the exception of the browser itself and the file manager), it still offers a comforting desktop metaphor that makes launching apps easy. Filling the dock with icons gives you quick access to full Web apps like Evernote or Tweetdeck, or to your favorite sties, such as the New York Times (optimized for Chrome) or Phandroid.
4. Use the Search key
Chromebooks feature a novel Search key which is a great productivity enhancer. It searches all apps and files on your machine, in addition to a standard Google search.
5. Find equivalents for your Mac/PC apps – they’re out there
I often hear that Chromebooks “can’t do anything” and aren’t serious laptops. This may be true if you’re a hardcore gamer or Wall Street analyst, but otherwise a Chromebook can do almost anything a casual user or student might need to, using apps from the rich Chrome Web Store:
Productivity – Evernote, Google Drive, Write Space, and the excellent Drive-integrated Scratchpad can perform almost any writing or blogging functions
Music – Pandora and Google Play Music both run flawlessly in the browser (and can be stored in the dock), and things should get even better soon once Spotify pushes out its Web app.
Video – Hulu, Internet TV, and YouTube are some of the choice options here.
-The ScreenGrab Team
Acer reported today that computers running Google’s free Chrome OS accounted for up to ten percent of its US PC shipments since November 13, when the company released its $199 C7 model Chromebook. That’s small in absolute terms, but surprising in light of the nascence of Chrome, as well as the even greater novelty of Chromebooks with the right hardware and design (such as Samsung’s model) for Google’s minimalist operating system. Some have framed the issue as a windfall for OEMs, who now have even more leverage to call out the emperor’s new clothes that is Windows 8, since Chrome represents – at long last – a commercially viable non-Mac alternative to desktop Windows. But I think there are two more pressing questions that the apparent success of Chrome raises:
1) Is Chrome really a “desktop” OS?
2) Does Chrome provide hope for inexpensive laptops to beat back the tide of tablets?
Question 1 seems easy enough to answer on the surface. Chrome doesn’t run any native apps and almost hilariously cordons off your files (the hallmark of all desktop computing for 30 years) in an app called, well, Files. Everything runs side by side in the browser and notifications (Gmail, NYT, Google Talk) for anything come directly to the desktop – I would go so far as to say it dispenses with the very idea of a “browser,” since it is agnostic of the notion of “offline” existence and knows that, anymore, your devices are all doorsteps without a connection. Chrome OS is to the Internet what iOS was/is to file systems – it would rather you just not think about it/them.
And I think that it is this always-online existence – and more specifically, the way in which Chrome takes the Internet for granted – that makes both Chrome and the Chromebook line that runs it a possible foil to the storyline of laptops and especially netbooks completely giving way to mobile devices and tablets. PCs are in a rut for myriad reasons: bad software, price, and inefficiency. Why pay $1000 for an email and Facebook machine, after all? At the other end of the price spectrum, netbooks – cheap, modestly powered laptops running Linux or Windows – have suffered tremendously at the hands of the iPad in particular, which offers basically the same experience but with a better OS. Moreover, the iPad has crushed netbooks because iOS makes it extremely clear exactly what your device can do – your apps are clearly differentiated and displayed in a simple visual interface. What you see is what you get; no complex unfriendly file systems or cumbersome user interfaces.
But iOS, even amid the pain it has exacted on traditional PCs, still clings to the somewhat traditional idea of native apps – in fact, it is (in the user’s eyes) a catalog of native apps tweaked to the OS’s strengths and capabilities. The latter point is important in differentiating the iPad from a netbook – a netbook can theoretically try to run many of the more demanding Windows/Linux apps, but performance is bad, an example of users being given too much freedom which in turn leads to a poor experience. The Chromebook line is by almost any technical standard a “netbook” line. These laptops all use either very simple Intel processors or even ARM chips, have no optical drives, and are extremely cheap, with the C7 in particular available for a basically unmatched price.
But unlike traditional netbooks, the experience is carefully and adroitly managed. All “apps” more or less come from the Chrome Web Store and downloadable executable files are forbidden. An “app” tray simulates a traditional desktop computing environment, but lest you think you’re still in Kansas, note that all browser shortcuts (new tab, new incognito, etc) work directly from said desktop.
Basically, Chrome packages a radical new notion of computing – always online, with the whole Web integrated into or at least in close proximity to your apps – in a highly digestible package, much like iOS did when it debuted. And in doing so, it is redefining what a “netbook” or cheap computer even is and what it can do. While it can’t compete with smartphones, it could grow into a real competitor most tablets, especially if Google actually makes a Nexus-grade Chromebook and further hybridizes Chrome and Android.
-The ScreenGrab Team
A tweet a while back from The Verge’s Joshua Topolsky, about a “nuts” app called AirDroid, inspired me to try out that same app on my Nexus 4. After experimenting with it over the past week, I’ve come to see it as an invaluable, futuristic utility for device management. It feels like something that Google could easily buy and make into a standard service for all Android devices.
AirDroid allows for very nuanced file management and manipulation of your Android phone, but its setup is dead simple. Download the free Android app and start it up. It gives you a URL and an access code. Once you input the code on the Web, the page transforms into a vaguely Linux-like desktop which mirrors (or reinterprets, more nearly) your phone’s entire file structure. You can see all of your text messages, photos, and contacts, as well as apps and what’s currently on your clipboard.
One of the underrated aspects of the Android platform is how independent it remains from traditional PCs and Macs. There’s no syncing or real need for cables (especially now that devices like the Nexus 4 support inductive charging) and the platform had no equivalent of the bloated desktop iTunes 11. Sure, curious users can explore a device’s file system on their PC via cable, or send an app from the Google Play desktop site to an Android device that is using the same Google Account. But these are fringe features. Most Android users have devices that are PC-agnostic.
The flip side of this agnosticism is Android’s unparalleled openness, which lets it be manipulated at a level that iOS (for instance) all but prevents. AirDroid is perhaps the most polished example of remote Android management, such that I think that it may be worth Google’s while to acquire it and make it a standard Android tool, perhaps even as a Chrome extension that would play nicely with the increasingly chic Chromebook line.
A few useful things about AirDroid:
1. Easy file upload of basically any file format or size, without iTunes’ restrictions on folders etc.
2. Send a URL to your phone for later – sort of a like a mini-Pocket.
3. Easily sideload apps from non-Play sources.
Granted, these are niche use cases that appeal mainly to geeks like me. But they have real value since they create what I think is the first real semblance of a coherent multiscreen experience between Google gadgets in particular – it gives me a robust tool for manipulating my Nexus 4, even from the lightweight Web-only world of my Chromebook. It enriches both gadgets – the Nexus 4 becomes an even more flexible device and repository for all sorts of files, while the Chromebook becomes a management tool while sacrificing none of its minimalist appeal.
Google has already stated that it wants to provide a truly seamless multiscreen experience, but so far this has been difficult due to Android fragmentation and Google’s considerable deficit vis-a-vis Apple when it comes to creating fully integrated hardware/software that just works together, like the Mac and the iPhone via iCloud (imperfect as the latter still is). AirDroid is a sleek, sneaky way of experiencing Android on your desktop and having more control over the inside of your phone, which is so often a total black box. Google should buy it and use it to further integrate the experience they provide, especially now that Google is working directly on hardware with Motorola and postulating that someday Chrome and Android will converge.
App rating: 77%
-The ScreenGrab Team