App Santa is here

Listen, I know you’ve dropped a few pennies on The Blank Screen book sale but there are other Christmas deals and I think the best is one called App Santa.

You’re used to deals where for a pretty good price you get one pretty good app and ten you’d never imagine using. But App Santa has genuinely excellent apps and you cherry pick the ones you want.

This year it includes several apps that I have recommended, most especially Drafts 4 for iOS, MindNode, TextExpander touch and Clear. Each of which is half price.

There are others and apparently some savings are up to 80% off so do take a look at the whole list.

The 2nd best iPhone and iPad app of the year – as chosen by me

I’ve been thinking about this all evening and especially since Apple announced its pick for the best apps of the year for iPad and iPhone. Apple went for Pixelmator on the iPad, which I like very much and regularly use in the production of this very site, and Elevate or Replay Video Editor (depending on whether you’re in the USA or UK) for the iPhone. And I’d not heard of that.

I think my pick beats all of them. And so does my second-place pick. Okay, I couldn’t get it down to just naming one app, I have to tell you about two, but they are both gorgeous things of beauty that are transformative in my work. The first-place winner, for me, in a mo, but now, an extremely close second place spot goes to… Drafts 4 for iPhone and iPad. Easy. It’s an apparently simple note app where you just fire it up with a tap, write anything you fancy and forget it – or send it off as email. Or a text. Or an OmniFocus task. Or an Evernote note. Or all of the above. And more.

The speed of opening and getting going with your writing is a big deal. It makes Drafts 4 far faster at entering Evernote notes than Evernote itself is. Far. I’ve reached for Drafts 4 in the middle of the night when I’ve had a dreamy idea and I’ve come back to it the next day to send on to email, Evernote – or the trash. Depending.

Drafts 4 also transformed how The Blank Screen site is written. When I’m just pointing you at an interesting article someone else has written, I can go to that, highlight a choice quote and tap a button. Drafts 4 takes in that quote, turns it into an inset block quote, appends the citation including correct link back to the main article and writes me a basic paragraph referring people to that original. One tap instead of back-and-forth to the site several times. I love it for that alone.

But please imagine you’ve just written a bit of an old note. Written it and then tapped one button. This is what you see on iPhone:


There are ten options right there for what to do with your text and I only created two of them. But I could create two, it is possible to create your own. So the top one appends a note to a journal I keep in Evernote and the second one posts the Drafts text straight to this website. Write, tap, publish, gone.

It’s so good I could’ve made this my favourite app of the year and probably should have done because it came out in this version in 2014 whereas my real best-app-ever pick is one whose iPhone version was last released late 2013. Still, it’s best-app-ever and its iPad one was September this year. Come on. That’s up next.


A bit specific: using Drafts to log what I’ve done

I do a monthly report about what I’ve done – last year for a project called Room 204, this year for you, both years really for me – and it’s always been a bit easy because I make proper notes as I go. Except I forgot to do that in May. For the entire month, I forgot. Not once did it enter my head. Must’ve been a quiet month.

But these things really do help me so I didn’t want to forget again. If that sounds obvious, this will sound more obvious: I decided to use my iPhone to help me.

This is going to be really specific but please treat it as an idea of the type of things you can do rather than a recipe for exactly how I think you should do it. Also, please treat it as being infinitely faster to do than it is to describe.

This is what I do when I’ve done something I want to note:


Tap on Drafts on my iPhone

There’s rarely a minute my iPhone isn’t with me so whatever I’m doing, whatever I’ve just finished, I can easily tap on the Drafts app I keep on the home screen.

The thing with Drafts is that when it pops open, you start writing. (See second shot down there on the right.) Think later about where that text will go – is it an email, an iMessage, an Evernote entry? – just type for now. Plus I use TextExpander which is yet another app but it works with and within Drafts so I just type the letters XTD (TD for Today, X for just in case I ever need to write a real word beginning with TD) and the date appears.


Note written and Drafts has sent it

It’s the date plus a dash and a space. After that, I type as quickly as I can and then tap the Share button. What you’re seeing here is the end result: I’ve written my note about a thing I’ve done today (or am about to do, actually), then I’ve tapped on Share. Tapped on “Save for That Was Month” and Drafts has done it. It has sent that text to Evernote. It’s left up here so that I can choose to send it somewhere else but instead I just put it away. Next time I open Drafts, I’ve got a blank screen ready for anything else.

That’s it.

Except look at the shot below: that’s a grab from Evernote on my iPhone and you can see it shows that same text I just wrote in Drafts.

Drafts has sent that text to the end of a note. So I have a That Was Month note in Evernote and Drafts just keeps adding to the end of it. In some ways it’s even more satisfying than my old manual notes because you don’t think about it, you don’t see any of it but the latest, until you go in to check and there are all these things entered.

I should explain that you have to set up Drafts to do this. I don’t find that as easy as some people do but you can see I’ve done it a few times: as well as this That Was Month business, I have a Story Ideas option that does much the same thing. I think of something I can use in a script or a book, write it down, tap Story Ideas and it’s off into an Evernote note.

And I have a general Save to Evernote which, actually, I’ve never used. There are other options below it such as Send to OmniFocus or Email or whatever. A lot of those come with Drafts, the others I’ve gone through setting up what I want. Telling Drafts I want to send text to this particular app or service, to add it as a new note or append to a particular old one, that kind of thing.

How long did that take you to read? Divide it by oodles and that’s how quick it is to use this thing. Which, frankly, means I use it. Did I mention that I have Drafts on my iPad too? So if I’m working on that, wallop, same thing. I don’t believe there’s a Drafts for Mac and maybe I wouldn’t buy it if there were: it would seem daft using it on a Mac when I have Word and Pages already.

So you know, this is what all this costs and where to get it. Everything but the iPhone, that’s up to you:

Drafts for iPhone: £2.49 UK, $3.99 US

Drafts for iPad: £2.99 UK, $4.99 US

Evernote for iPhone: free

Evernote for iPad: free

TextExpander for iOS: £2.99 UK, $4.99 US

Let’s turn to the phones

I swear to you that this is a thing. It really is. Just Google “iPhone home screen” and you will find literally half a dozen articles with people talking about what’s on their iPhone front page. I don’t think it’s such a big with Android users but then I wouldn’t be bothered looking. So. Maybe it’s Android too, maybe it’s everyone, maybe I’m not crazy. But I do have one thought about showing you my iPhone front screen.

Is there any better way of recommending software apps to you than showing what I actually use?

And since we’re talking about the front page, these must be the apps that I use the most. Yes. I use these to run my life. One caveat: I also have an iPad but that would be far too big a screengrab to show you. I also have a 27in iMac, but let’s be serious. You’d have to serialise a screengrab from that.

So here’s my iPhone and this is what it’s got on it that is practically worn out from the amount of use I put it all to:

iphone homescreen today


Some of this stuff you know, some of it just does what it says underneath. Phone, for instance. Music. Let’s just wallop through the biggies:

Top row, second from the left – Fantastical 2 for iPhone. I’ve already talked about that and also Mynd, way down there toward the bottom, one up from Music, in Three Calendars, No Waiting. I was testing out Fantastical 2 then and also Mynd, which I’d only just realised is also a calendar. (I thought it was about meetings. It is. It’s just more.) Time has moved on and you can see that Fantastical 2 has kept its space on my home screen so I must like it. Whereas Mynd – wait, Mynd is still there. Bugger. It’s very good when it’s very good and when I need it but, oddly, I haven’t needed it much. Despite having many meetings. I’m afraid Mynd may be on its way out. I’ll think about it and get back to you. But Fantastical 2, unreserved recommendation: get it here.

Second row from the top, first on the left – Pocket. Read something here on the phone in Safari or in my RSS reader, or on my iPad, or my Mac or someone else’s PC, anything and anywhere, and I can lob it off to Pocket. Pocket is not the first Read It Later service, but it is the first that I used consistently often to save things and also to later remember that I had them and finally read the things.  Pocket is free, by the way. Off you go.

Second row from the top, second on the left – OmniFocus 2 for iPhone. Need I say any more? Can I say any more? I can? Start reading here – and bring a mug of tea. Then go buy this version of OmniFocus for your iPhone. It’s been updated fairly recently and the iPad one hasn’t so I’m havering over whether to recommend that to you. Up to a couple of weeks ago I’d have said yes even though it’s not quite as whizzy as the iPhone one. The iPad version of OmniFocus has traditionally been the best of the three – but that third one, the Mac version, that’s zooming up. It used to be very hard to use, now a vastly easier yet still powerful one is in beta and I’m addicted to it. Right now, I think the Mac one is the best. Go to the Omni Group’s website and find out about all three.

Third row down, second from left – Drafts. I don’t use this remotely as much as I would expect and chiefly because that’s Evernote right next to it. I’ve now got muscle memory that if I want to write anything quickly, it goes in Evernote. Drafts is possibly a nicer writing experience and it is definitely more flexible. Anything you write in Evernote stays in Evernote and that’s great because it stays there in Evernote on your phone, your computer, your tablet and so on. Anything you write in Drafts stays in Drafts but with one tap can go almost anywhere else. Write something and send it from Drafts to OmniFocus or to a text message or to an email. Or, I’ve just this week found out, to Fantastical. I found it tricky to set up but now it works so smoothly that I wonder if it’s even working. All I definitely do with it at the moment is jot down ideas that it then automatically appends for me to a Story Ideas note in Evernote. Get Drafts here and Evernote there.

Fourth row down, first on the left – 1Password. Actually, see today’s The Blank Screen newsletter for more details of this and then go buy it while it’s on sale. If the sale is over by the time you catch this, go buy it anyway. I paid full price, I’m happy. And buy 1Password for iOS here.

Fourth row down, second from the left – Concise Oxford Dictionary. Not only the dictionary text but also an audio pronunciation guide for many words. Every word I’ve ever tried, actually, and I’ve had this app since about 2008. I use it a lot. I wish it were upgraded for iOS 7 or even just to the stretched out iPhone 5 that I use and I wish all sorts of things, but it’s a great dictionary. Unfortunately, it is sufficiently old that I don’t think you can get it anymore. You can get many similar versions but not quite the one I know, so I can’t recommend a particular one. But do have a look at them all, okay?

Fourth row down, third from the left – Awesome Clock. I use this as a bedside analogue clock. It’s very customisable but now I’ve found an arrangement of clock face and hands that I like, I like it a great deal. Unfortunately, it ain’t around. Not today, anyway. Vanished from the App Store.

Fourth row down, fourth from the left – XpenseTracker.  That fourth row sees some action, doesn’t it? I use this for recording all my expenses. Are you okay? Did you just faint with surprise? Someone, bring us hot towels and some whisky. And tell me how much that costs because I need to pop it into XpenseTracker

Fifth row down, first from the left – HulloMail. I used to be on O2 and got Visual Voicemail. (Whereby instead of dialling in for your messages and listening to eight spam calls before you finally get to one from your client and, wait, hang on, she said a number there, bugger, where’s my pencil, you just tap. Here’s a list of the calls you’ve missed and which left messages. Tap on the one you want to hear first, you hear it first. Missed a phone number or couldn’t quite catch a word? Scrub back and forth through the recording.) It is so good that I had no idea there were iPhones that didn’t have it. Until I left O2 for 3 and despite in all other ways being far better, it didn’t have Visual Voicemail. HulloMail brings it back. It brings it back with ads and I keep meaning to upgrade but it’s a subscription and I’m not certain I use it enough. Take a look at HulloMail here.

Fifth row down, second from left – Where To? I keep wanting to call this Exit. Actually, I keep calling it Exit. And I rotate between using this and Localscope: both are easy of finding out what’s near you. I love this kind of app and I pummel mine: the first App Store review I ever wrote was for one called Vicinity and I could not get over what a stunningly great and useful idea this is. Where’s the nearest bank? Where’s a pizza place? Tap, there it is. With business details. I can’t remember why I fell away from Vicinity but I regularly bounce between Where To? and Localscope. Where To? looks very old to me and I just don’t enjoy using it as much as I do Localscope, but it’s given me more accurate information somehow. And I also understand it: I find I have to keep thinking with Localscope about where a certain feature is. But here’s Where To? and here’s Localscope: do have a look at both, would you?

Last one. Fifth row down, third from the left, Reeder 2 for iOS. This is my RSS reader of choice and I have done an awful lot of choosing. Here’s what I wrote about it when a new version came out late last year. There’s now also a Mac version in beta, which I enthused about here. But just go buy the iPhone version.

I’m worn out from enthusing.

My iPhone home screen, like everybody else’s I presume, changes a lot. You can see I’m havering over a couple of these apps. But the rest, the ones that stay there, tend to stay for the very good reason that they are very good. If you want a recommended app, this is what I recommend.

I hope you find they are as good for you as they have been for me.