Blog

Favorite Android Utility Apps

Every year I try to avoid "resolutions," but that doesn't mean I don't take inventory and try to make changes where needed. Over the coming weeks, I'll cover some of my favorite apps on various platforms. I use iOS, Android, Mac and Windows, so hopefully at least one of the posts will be useful to every reader.

The following Android apps do not require root privileges. Some are paid apps, but most have a free version or trial. I believe in paying for apps I rely on because the app ecosystem is ripe with apps that do not get maintained over time when there is no clear support model for the developer.

These are the Android utility apps that have made me more productive on my HTC One M8:

1Password

1Password is a great password manager on its surface, but I've come to use it for so much more over the last few months. It can be used to securely store credit cards, identity data like Social Security cards, software license keys and even secure notes. The Android version includes the option of a custom keyboard that will populate usernames and passwords automatically with the touch of a button.

1Password also has Mac, Windows and iOS versions that all sync reliably so that your passwords and more are available on every major platform.

Texpand Pro

Texpand Pro is a text expander/text automation app. I've used TextExpander from Smile Software on Mac and iOS for years, but was never satisfied with the Android alternatives until Texpand Pro came along. While it doesn't sync with TextExpander (importing snippets from a TextExpander Sync/export would be a great feature to add), adding snippets is very intuitive and the app follows modern Material Design guidelines. Backup and restore options are available in the app settings, so moving to a new device shouldn't be much work. Some other notable feature are as follows:

  • Write phrase snippets to user dictionary
  • Import snippets from user dictionary entries
  • Hovering expansion button that floats as recognized phrases/abbreviations are typed

I do not use the last feature, personally, but I can see how it would be useful for some. I keep it simple and just expand snippets using a short abbreviation. For example, when I type scb it automatically expands to my full conference bridge phone number and ID. It makes creating meeting invites a snap.

Twilight

Twilight's premise is simple; blue light from your device is bad when you need to go to sleep. Reading on phones and tablets trick our bodies into trying to stay awake. Twilight tweaks the color of your screen so that the bad blue light is filtered. You control how aggressive the filter performs and it will even allow you to dim the screen more than turning the standard brightness setting all the way down. Twilight has the option to automatically enable/disable based on on sunrise/sunset for your current location. You can also set it to start/stop at specific times. If you want to read more about what blue light is doing to your brain at night, the developers put several great references in the app description on Google Play.

Stuff I Use - Belkin Core Laptop Backpack

Stuff I Use is a series on Tech & Coffee that highlights products I use personally and find to be nothing short of awesome. Links to products on Amazon are affiliate links which help support T&C costs.

I went with the Belkin Core Backpack because I wanted something slimmer and a bit more refined than the SwissGear Maxxum I carried previously. I moved away from messenger-style bags about four years ago when I started to notice pain in my right shoulder. I realized I had started to carry more items with me on a daily basis, as I often work remotely. The Belkin Core has been great. The profile is slim, yet I can fit everything I need and still have room for items that I need to add occassionally. The inner pocket layout is near perfect for organizing all the smaller items and with the padded laptop sleeve and document/tablet sleeve, everything stays in its place. The bag is made of a durable material that is light-weight and easy to brush clean. The straps are padded which make carrying comfortable, even when the bag is loaded with heavier items.

BelkinCoreFront BelkinCoreInside

My only issue with this bag has been the zipper on the large outer pocket (the opening nested underneath the gray band). After about a year of use, the zipper no longer keeps a reliable seal. I only keep a few very flat items in this pocket, so it has not been an issue which affects usability for me. Another big factor that led me to this bag was price. The bag retails for $50, but can be found just under $30 from some online retailers.

Windows Writing Workflow

I detailed my tools and methods for creating site content from the iPad yesterday, so today I want to highlight my writing workflow on Windows. My company-issued laptop runs Windows 7, and while I prefer Mac OS, I have run Windows a majority of my life and don't find it as horrible as some. Many of my requirements are the same, however, the tools differ quite a bit between what I use to write on Windows vs. Mac OS X or iOS.

Requirements

I write in Markdown no matter what platform I'm using, so I needed to find an appliation which would allow me to efficiently preview Markdown on Windows. Ideally, I'd like to have some Markdown-enabled composition tools as well. On a larger screen, I enjoy having a distraction-free writing environment. Since the site runs on Squarespace, I can easily pull up the web-based Squarespace composition window for publishing the post.

Apps

  • Google Chrome
  • Dropbox
  • Dark Room
  • MarkdownPad

I use Google Chrome for many parts of this workflow. I'm sure if I wanted to be a minimalist about post creation, I could do all of it in Chrome, but I prefer native apps when good ones are available. Google Chrome serves as my RSS reader (via Google Reader site) and Instapaper client (via the Instapaper website). I have yet to find native Windows apps that do either of these as well as Chrome. I use Dark Room for my distraction-free writing environment. I used OmmWriter in the past, but Dark Room is just more simplistic and has one killer capability that OmmWriter does not offer, transparency. I can have Dark Room running full-screen, yet have the opacity set to 75%. This lets me layer the writing environment over something useful, like a Markdown syntax cheatsheet, for example. If I'm creating a link post to someone else's content, I can have the text of that article behind my composition so that I can refer to it without even changing applications or my hands leaving the keys.

Once the post is written, I save the .md or .txt file to Dropbox, and then open that file in MarkdownPad. Sure, I could simply copy/paste from Dark Room to MarkdownPad, but I like to keep the post in plain text format in Dropbox. This allows me to open the post (if in progress) from other systems and appliations very easily and adds both a backup element and a level of flexibility. Once the file is open in MarkdownPad, I am able to proof and preview the Markdown. Once that is complete, the file is saved again and copy/pasted into the Squarespace post editor for publishing.

I had been skeptical that I'd be able to find a Markdown app on Windows that compared to those that I use on my iPad and iMac. I can say that MarkdownPad was a great surprise. While it is no Marked app (a Mac app developed by Brett Terpstra), it does its job quite nicely.

iPad Writing Workflow

I've been reading a lot about workflows and ways to be a creator with the iPad, vs. just a consumer of content. Below is the writing workflow I have started using. I thought it could be helpful to others, since there is no shortage of apps and tips out there.

Requirements

I had a few requirements that apps I evaluated needed to satisfy. I write in Markdown, so I needed the app, where I will do my composition, to support both Markdown syntax and Markdown preview. A keyboard with Markdown shortcuts was not a requirement, but was a "nice to have" addition. Export options needed to include both plain text and HTML. Dropbox sync was also a must. Brett Terpstra has put together a truly awesome iOS text editor comparison chart, located here. You can click on the features across the top and it will dim the apps that don't meet that requirement. I work from a few different machines/devices, so Markdown/plain text composition allows me to work with the files no matter what OS I'm dealing with at the time.

T&C runs on Squarespace, which has great iOS and Android apps for publishing. The app's post composer recognizes Markdown natively, but I prefer to write and preview elsewhere, and let the Squarespace app handle the publishing step.

Apps

  • Reeder
  • Instapaper
  • WriteUp
  • Squarespace

I read RSS feeds through Reeder, sometimes saving longer reads in Instapaper. If I'm creating a link post, these two apps are integral to consuming the info, which I then add my thoughts to via T&C.

WriteUp is an app that met all of my text composition needs on the iPad. I use Byword on the Mac, and they also offer an iOS app, but I find WriteUp to be perfect for my needs so far. It has Markdown keyboard shortcuts, which are really nice to have. I write, proof and preview the post in WriteUp. This syncs to Dropbox for long term storage of the plain text. When the post is complete, WriteUp exports the plain text to the clipboard and I paste it into the composition window in the Squarespace app. I'm able to tweak post settings, add tags and finally, publish.

That's pretty much it.

Stuff I Use - Griffin Mini USB Cables

Stuff I Use is a series on Tech & Coffee that highlights products that the author personally uses and finds to be nothing short of awesome. Just click the product link below to be taken to an Amazon product page.

Griffin USB Mini-Cable Kit


Griffin Mini USB Kit My occupation requires me to be be fairly flexible and mobile when it comes to the tech I use. Over the past two years, I've worked to downsize the amount of items that I carry in my bag (and the size of the bag itself) to just those things that are necessary to get the job done while working remotely. I've read blog posts from various sites that highlight the items in their bags, and this particular item was highlighted in several. I realized that I was carrying three types of USB cables to interact with other items in the bag. All were between 4 and 6 feet in length, and I had wrapped up each using the 'bull horn' method of cable management and stuck them into a inner compartment.

After seeing this product, I realized that there were very few times that I had ever needed the 4 to 6 feet of cable when using these connections remotely. The mini-USB cable is for hooking up an external hard drive, which is always in very close proximity to my laptop itself. The 30-pin iPod connector is obvious, and again, never needed to be very far away from the laptop as I was using it to either sync or charge the Apple device in my bag. The micro-USB cable is actually the most used out of the 3 cables, because I have a few gadgets that use this connection. The decision I made in the end is that there was no need to have a long cable for any of these 3 connection types in my bag, and so I picked up a set of the Griffin Mini Cables. They sit very nicely in the inside upper pocket (which is tiny), and take up relatively no space in my bag, but provide all the functionality that their much longer predecessors did.

After using these cables for well over a year, I can state that they are extremely durable. The connections "stay put" when in my devices, which is a very important factor for any mobile cable selection. The only drawback of the cables that I can cite is that when you lend one out, you may have to hunt down the borrower to give it back. Seriously though, the only minor thing I'd like to see integrated into this product would be a color indicator near the non-standard USB tip. When light is low, I sometimes have trouble telling the difference between the mini and micro-USB variants. If you are trying to reduce your mobile tech into a more compact set of tools, these cables are an awesome start.