My Favorite iOS Apps in 2017

2017 was the year I bid farewell to the Mac and went all in with iOS. Following the lead of Federico Viticci and Gabe Weatherhead, here’s a selection of my favorite iOS apps of the past year.

Apollo

Using Apollo (Free, $2.99 to unlock Pro features) on my iPhone X to browse Reddit is such a delight. It has an elegant design that feels uncluttered, and includes a ton of features and options. Despite all that, the app never feels bloated, complex, or clunky.

The app is clearly a labor of love by someone who frequently uses Reddit. There’s a great community of users in /r/apolloapp, where the developer also discusses bugs, feature requests, and what’s to come in later versions.

The iPad experience does need some improvement, though the developer has plans to overhaul this experience as part of version 2.

Apple Notes

Notes continues to be my preferred note-taking app. I’ve used many different apps and services over the years, from Evernote to Bear, but I just keep coming back to Notes for it’s simplicity and stability.

It’s a great example of an app and service that “just works”. Syncing is always rock-solid and fast, with changes immediate reflected across all my devices. The improved Share Sheet in iOS 11 has made it even easier for me to quickly capture thoughts or pieces of information.

There isn’t much I need from a note-taking app, and Apple Notes fits the bill.

Castro

I don’t have the time to listen to every episode of the podcasts I’m subscribed to. The rather unique approach Castro ($1.99) takes to podcast management is one I truly appreciate—and why it’s my favorite podcast app.

Instead of adding new episodes to a play queue automatically, they’re placed into an Inbox to triage first. I can then take a look at each episode and decide if I want to add it to the queue. This is especially useful for managing shows with daily episodes that aren’t required listening. For some of my must-listen shows, I have Castro skip the inbox and add them to the queue directly.

Coda

I’ve owned Coda ($24.99) ever since it was released, but it became one of my most frequently used apps this year. With it, I’m able to use my iPad for web development.

Coda is really three apps in one: a text editor, SSH client, and file manager. Any time I need to make a change to my site that requires editing code, I can connect to my development server using Coda and make the necessary changes.

Since I have full command-line access to that server using Coda’s SSH client, I can start an instance of Jekyll and test the changes I’ve made. If everything looks good, I use git commands to commit the changes and push them to GitHub.

Unfortunately, the future of Coda isn’t clear. Earlier this year, Panic published a retrospective of 2016 and highlighted that the company has struggled to make their iOS apps profitable. I’m optimistic about its future though—if anyone can figure it out, it’s Panic.

MindNode

I started using mind maps earlier this year, and MindNode (Free, $14.99 to unlock all features) is my app of choice. I can quickly hide the interface and create a distraction-free environment as I’m writing down my thoughts, and there are a wide range of formatting options to style and structure the resulting mind map.

MindNode’s support for iOS 11 allows you to open and save mind maps anywhere that’s supported by Files. Mind maps can also be exported into a variety of formats. The app even integrates with Reminders and can sync tasks and completion status.

Things

I used to be a Things user back in the day, but the lack of custom timed alerts on tasks drove me to 2Do. But after recently giving Things 3 for iPhone ($9.99) a try, I immediately switched over.

The app itself is stunningly beautiful. It feels more laid back than most other task management systems, yet still has a lot of the same functionality you’ll find elsewhere. There’s no friction between me and the tasks I create or need to accomplish, and even the task list view shows only the most important information.

It’s not as feature-rich as 2Do but, like Apple Notes, it does everything I need, and even includes a decent Apple Watch app and Siri integration. I also use Things 3 for iPad ($19.99), which is available as a separate purchase.

Working Copy

Working Copy (Free, $14.99 to unlock all features) is one of my all-time favorite apps. For those unfamiliar with it, it’s a fully functional Git client for iOS that seamlessly integrates with services like GitHub and GitLab.

Working Copy is an integral part of the process to manage and update this site. Any changes I make (e.g., new blog post) are committed and pushed to GitHub, after which Netlify regenerate’s the site and deploys the changes automatically. I also use the app to manage the Workflow Directory repository on GitHub.

Working Copy is one of the best GUIs for Git I’ve ever used. Without it, I doubt I’d be using my iPad in the way I do today.

Tiny GIFs in iMessage

As my wife, friends, and work colleagues can attest to, I often communicate using GIFs (hard G, don’t @ me). Most of my usage is within Slack, though I do occasionally use them in iMessage. However, my experience with iMessage and GIFs has been problematic. Whenever I’d send someone a GIF via iMessage, the recipient would often reply saying it was unwatchable because the size of it was so small.

It didn’t matter where the GIF came from (either pasted in or sourced from an iMessage app like GIPHY), the resolution of the GIF received was always extremely low. I had no idea what was causing this and just assumed it was an issue with iMessage’s handling of GIFs. But after receiving watchable GIFs from friends, I began to investigate the issue.

I took a look at some settings for Messages and noticed that there is a Low Quality Image Mode option that was enabled. I remember enabling this option several iPhones ago to save bandwidth whenever I sent photos via iMessage, back when I was on a terrible data plan in the UK. After turning this option off, GIFs were untouched when sent and were received as intended—in their full, bloated glory.

To everyone in my iMessage conversations, I apologize in advance for the upcoming impact to your data plans.

Device Screenshots Workflow Updated for iPhone X

I’ve updated my Device Screenshots workflow with support for iPhone X (direct link to workflow). As with other devices, it automatically detects the orientation of the screenshot and generates either a portrait and landscape image.

iPhone X device screenshot

For landscape screenshots, the notch is located on the right.

iPhone X device screenshot in landscape

I’ve also added a Set Name action to the workflow so a name can be given to the finished device image before saving it.

Phantom Folders in Notes

For months, I had some phantom folders stuck in Notes. Every time I deleted them on my iPhone, iPad, or even iCloud.com, they’d come back a few minutes later. I tried every combination of possibilities to try and remedy this, from turning off syncing completely to deleting folders on every device simultaneously—but they just kept coming back. The only remaining option was to erase all Notes data from iCloud.

I could have left the folders alone since they were empty, but I keep Notes organized and their existence was an annoyance. Before I wiped all my notes from iCloud, I wanted to back them up. I enabled the “On My Mac” account in Notes on my iPad, recreated the folder structure I had in iCloud, and moved all my notes1. I then deleted all Notes data from iCloud from the iCloud Storage options.

Deleting Notes data

After confirming all Notes data was erased, I recreated the folder structure back on iCloud, and moved my notes back. The phantom folders had been successfully exorcised.

I’m still not sure what caused the problem, and likely never will, but it started not long after I began using the public beta of iOS 11. Regardless of what caused it, deleting Notes data resolve the issue for me.

  1. I usually delete notes I no longer need, so I only had about 60 notes across eight or nine folders to move in total. 

Qi Wireless Chargers

Now that my wife and I have both upgraded to iPhone X, I’ve replaced some of our iPhone docks with Qi wireless chargers. I was curious to see how different chargers compare, so I bought three different models:

Qi chargers

Each charger is WPC compliant, does the same basic job of wirelessly charging a device1, and is priced under $25.

A common complaint about wireless chargers is that a power adapter isn’t always provided, just a USB cable. Honestly, I’m fine with that. I have a drawer full of unused USB power adapters and I’m sure most people buying these types of chargers do as well. All of these unused adapters will eventually end up as electronic waste on a landfill somewhere, so I’d much rather use one of the many spares I have.

Samsung

The Samsung charger is currently the top pick over at The Wirecutter. It looks good in comparison to most of the chargers available and, unsurprisingly, has the best build quality of the three. It’s also the only one that came with a USB power adapter. We’re using this in our living room as a communal charger.

There is an LED light at the front that glows blue when a phone is on charge and there’s no way to turn it off. The Wirecutter reports that it’s probably a dealbreaker for use anywhere other than a desk, something Stephen Hackett agrees with. I don’t find the light to be particularly bright but if this is something that would disturb your sleep, you may want to skip it as a nightstand charger.

Yoobao

The Yoobao is noticeably smaller than the other two. It actually seems almost too small when used with something like iPhone X. It’s stable enough and the grip keeps the phone in place, but I wouldn’t recommend it for iPhone 8 Plus owners. I use this charger on my nightstand.

The finish is inferior to the Samsung charger and the plastic material feels rather cheap. There is an LED light that’s permanently illuminated which changes color from red to blue when a phone is on charge. It’s very bright but focused, so as long as you point it away from you on a nightstand or cover it with a small piece of electrical tape, it won’t be a disturbance.

CHOETECH

The CHOETECH charger is bigger than both the Yoobao and Samsung models. It does feels really cheap because it’s quite large and light, but the build quality is pretty good and on par with the Yoobao. Like the Yoobao, it also has a bright but focused LED so you can simply point the charger away from you on a nightstand.

The grip on top (the gray wireless symbol) is pretty disappointing. While it does keep the phone in place, it’s raised and has very little surface area in contact with the phone. This causes it to have a slight wobble. I’m not sure why the manufacturer thought this was a good idea because the actual surface is also rubberized, so there’s no need for such a raised grip.

The blue version of this charger, however, doesn’t have this problem as the wireless symbol appears to be inset, not raised. If you are considering this charger and don’t mind the color, you may want to go for that one instead.

Final thoughts

Each of the chargers works exactly as intended and can charge through Apple silicone cases, so I don’t feel compelled to return them to Amazon. I plan on ordering a fourth for the car, but will test each of these at the weekend first to see which works best.

If you’re an iPhone 8 or iPhone X owner and on the fence about wireless charging, I suggest giving it a try. For $25, it’s practically the same price as a Lightning cable from Apple and you’ll likely find the convenience worth it.

It’s worth mentioning that there really aren’t any good looking chargers, just ones that aren’t as ugly as others. Even the Samsung charger isn’t that pretty, it just looks much better than the competition. As adoption among iPhone users increases, we’ll hopefully see an improvement in the design of chargers.

  1. Unlike the other two, the Yoobao charger does support fast charging though it’s not currently supported on the iPhone. A future iOS update will supposedly enable support for this. 

Using iPhone X on a Flat Surface

Jason Snell, over at Six Colors, has written about his experience with the iPhone X during the past week. One use case where he felt the phone wasn’t as usable as previous models was when trying to operate it while it lay flat on a table or desk:

Facing straight up, the Face ID camera can’t see me, so I can’t unlock my phone without leaning way over the table or picking the phone up. And attention detection can’t detect me, so after 30 seconds the screen dims.

I hadn’t realized how much I left an iPhone unlocked on a table for a minute or two. The iPhone X is more aggressive about locking the phone (and dimming the display), and Face ID is no help. I suppose in the end, the phone will train me—but right now it’s one of the areas where my old way of using my iPhone no longer seems to apply.

The iPhone X can be unlocked with a passcode instead of Face ID, but it’s not obvious how to do it. To use a passcode, tap the screen to wake up the iPhone, swipe up on the Home bar, and tap Face ID.

Using a passcode instead of Face ID

I do this to unlock my iPhone while it’s lay down flat on my desk.

The aggressive screen lock is something I ran into even when I unlock with a passcode. The default setting for Auto-Lock seems to be 30 seconds, so I’ve changed that to one minute and it’s feels much more usable.

Pushy Notifications in Apple News

I like Apple News and it’s the primary way I find out what fresh hell has engulfed the world. I follow quite a few channels and topics but am very strict on which can send me notifications. Right now, it’s just one channel.

Unfortunately, Apple News has a frustrating behavior when it comes to push notifications that can rival some of the worst offenders of notification spam. At some point, Apple News will announce, by push notification, that it has enabled notifications for a channel.

pushy-notification.jpg

Rather than ask if I want to enable notifications for a particular channel, Apple News does so automatically—it doesn’t even ask or tell you how to opt out. Worse still, there is no logic to when this happens. I’ve had this happen months after following a new channel, and even repeatedly occur even if I already turned off notifications.

Enabling notifications for channels without the user’s explicit permission is extremely user-hostile and I can’t understand the reason for it. I wouldn’t mind a gentle nudge to ask if I want to receive notifications every now and again, but this method is far too heavy-handed.

Be Aware of the Updated Button Combinations for iPhone 8 and iPhone X

Apple has changed the button combinations for both Emergency SOS and a force restart on the iPhone 8 and iPhone X. This gave me quite a fright when I needed to restart my iPhone X, only to trigger Emergency SOS by mistake.

On the iPhone 7 (and earlier), Emergency SOS is triggered by pressing the Power button five times. On the iPhone 8 and iPhone X, it’s now triggered by holding down either Volume button and the Power button at the same time.

Sound familiar? The button combination to restart an iPhone 7 is holding down the Volume down button and Power buttons. Out of habit, that’s what I did. At least I know how loud the siren is for Emergency SOS.

The button combination to restart an iPhone 8 or iPhone X is now a little more complicated, as Apple’s support article on the subject explains:

On an iPhone X, iPhone 8, or iPhone 8 Plus: Press and quickly release the Volume Up button. Press and quickly release the Volume Down button. Then, press and hold the Side button until you see the Apple logo.

New iPhone 8 and iPhone X owners, keep that in mind.

iPhone X Availability

I was initially undecided about buying an iPhone X, so I chose not to wake up at some ungodly hour to place a preorder. If and when I decided I wanted one, I was willing to wait several weeks until shipping times became more favorable and stock more plentiful.

I happened to check the Apple Store app earlier today and, while delivery times for all models were showing as 3-4 weeks, some models were available for same-day pickup at my local Apple Store (World Trade Center). I was able to buy and collect exact model I wanted (256GB Silver) this morning, the day after launch1. My wife even placed an order a couple hours later for a different model (256GB Black) and was still able to collect it this afternoon.

This isn’t an isolated experience and I’ve heard about Apple Stores in different parts of the country all having decent stock levels. At the store I collected my phone from, I overheard a member of staff say that they had received so many iPhones for launch day that they didn’t even sell them all—today’s stock is mostly leftovers.

If you didn’t preorder the iPhone X but want to get one soon, try your local Apple Store using the Apple Store app. It seems Apple is making a huge effort to keep stores well-stocked.

  1. Some people I know who did wake up to place a preorder still haven’t received their phones. 

The KeySmart Pro

KeySmart Pro

I’m not the type of person who carries a prison warden-style set of keys. I’ve been using the KeySmart key organizer for over a year and it’s helped keep pocket clutter to a minimum. It reduces a set of keys into something resembling a Swiss Army knife and is far less bulky than than a regular keychain. It’s like the difference between carrying a roll of pennies or a bunch of loose change in your pocket.

I’ve been using their newest model, the KeySmart Pro (pictured above), for the past couple months and highly recommend it. It adds some useful features, most notable of which is its Tile functionality. The KeySmart Pro also includes an LED flashlight and a Micro USB port to charge the device. Unlike regular Tiles, this one is rechargeable.

Tile app

The additional functionality does make the Pro model bulkier than the original KeySmart as it has a plastic shell to encase the electronic components, but it’s hardly noticeable. Without any keys attached, it’s extremely lightweight.

The KeySmart Pro is a great idea executed well. Many Tile users are likely to have one on their keychain (I used to have one attached to my KeySmart) so combining both together makes perfect sense.