macOS Menu Bar Apps

As I mentioned in my recent MacBook Air review, I’ve spent a lot more time on macOS over the past handful of months. I still use my iPad Air 2 as my primary machine for personal use, but I do just about all of my work as a Happiness Engineer on macOS.

Since I’ve already shared my thoughts about the new hardware, I wanted to speak a bit about the software I’ve been using. I won’t be covering everything today, instead focusing on the Menu Bar apps that I have installed — whether they’re a crucial part of my workflow or something I’m currently testing.

Aside from the standard Wi-Fi, Sound, Battery, Time, Siri, Spotlight, Time Machine, and Bluetooth icons, I have the following applications in my Menu Bar:

  • Alfred: I’m basically incapable of functioning on a Mac without this app installed. I think Merlin Mann is to blame for that. All of his coverage of Quicksilver after I first purchased a MacBook in 2006 has ingrained into my brain that ctrl+space is my go-to keyboard shortcut when I want to do, basically, anything on my Mac. I use it for launching applications, opening files, and searching the web. I have nearly two dozen custom web searches setup that allow me to quickly access Automattic’s internal tools and documentation while I work. It allows me to be productive and efficient in a way that no other application has.
  • Droplr: I share a lot of screenshots and GIFs during my time working with users and Droplr is the best app I’ve found for sharing these files. I usually use macOS’ built-in keyboard shortcuts for taking the screenshots, then I can drop them on to Droplr’s icon in the Menu Bar to share them. The app uploads the file, opens it in my web browser, and automatically adds a URL I can share to my clipboard. If I need to markup or annotate a file, I can do so with its built-in tools and the app even has the ability to record a GIF of a specific portion of my screen, which I can use for illustrating more complicated, multi-step tasks.
  • TextExpander: While, I’ve only just scratched the surface of the efficiency and productivity gains that this application allows for, this is another essential application for me. Since I do a lot of typing throughout the day, I use TextExpander to automatically expand small bits of text into larger snippets that I find myself typing frequently. I only have about three snippets that I use regularly, but I plan to grow that list over time as each one becomes fully integrated into my workflows — there’s no sense in adding a bunch of snippets only to realize that you don’t remember or use most of them.
  • Hocus Focus: This application automatically hides other app windows after they’ve been inactive for a period of time. It helps keep my screen clear of clutter and allows me to focus on the task at hand. I’ve only used the app for a few weeks, but I like it quite a bit so far. I have non-active apps set to hide after two minutes and only disable the feature when I’m on video chats with other members of my team.
  • Bartender: A simple little application that let’s me hide the majority of my Menu Bar apps behind an ellipses icon. This is especially useful when I’m working on my Air’s 13-inch display, since it keeps my menu bar icons from overtaking my screen. I have it setup to hide everything except the applications and system status indicators that I use most — Droplr, Wi-Fi, Sound, and Time.
  • Moom: This is an app that I’m still testing at the moment. It allows you to reorganize, resize, and reposition your application windows with the ability to save these as presets that can trigger with a keyboard shortcut or when you connect or disconnect an external display. Since I often switch throughout the day between my external LG UltraFine 5K display and the MacBook Air’s built-in display, I suspect this will become an essential app for me once I have the time to configure it for all my apps.
  • Backblaze: I started using Backblaze as one of my backup solutions a few months ago. I still use Time Machine with an external drive, but since I use my MacBook Air portably a lot, I don’t have it connected most of the time. Backblaze helps to fill in those gaps for me by continuously backing up my machine, as long as I have an internet connection.
  • 1Password: This is my favorite password manager by far and I use it on all of my devices. It’s thoughtfully designed, incredibly powerful, easy to use, and let’s me share passwords with my wife through our family account. If you aren’t using a password manager, I highly recommend giving this one a try.
  • Turbo Boost Switcher Pro: This little utility app allows me to enable and/or disable Turbo Boost on my MacBook Air, primarily as a way to increase battery life. This is another application that I haven’t spent much time actually testing, but I expect it will be invaluable when I’m traveling.

I have to say, I’ve had a lot of fun finding and testing applications for the Mac over the last handful of months. Although I never exactly “abandoned” the platform entirely, I certainly haven’t paid as much attention to the new software and tools that have been released over the last couple of years. So if there are better options to fill the roles of the apps listed above or you have a recommendation for an app I might be interested, don’t hesitate to reach out on Twitter. I’m always on the look out for the latest and greatest software.

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MacBook Air

As some of you may know, I recently started a new job. I’m now a Happiness Engineer at Automattic, helping users build their online business, share their ideas with the world, or do just about anything you could think of with a website. This new change in my life is at least partly to blame for the lack of publishing here on Initial Charge, but now that the holidays are behind us, I should have a bit more time for writing.

I’ve added quite a bit of new tech to my setup over the past few months and have plenty of thoughts and ideas to share about what’s happened in the world of Apple recently. But today, I thought I’d spend a bit of time discussing the new MacBook Air.

I’ve had the new MacBook Air for about two months now and it’s served as my primary work machine. I occasionally do some communication-related tasks on my iPhone and iPad, but the vast majority of my work is done on the Air.

I ordered the Space Gray model with a 256GB SSD and 16GB of RAM.

There’s a small part of me that wishes Apple allowed for a bit more customization with this machine. But in practice, the Air’s internals have been more than sufficient for my needs. I routinely have several tabs open in Chrome alongside Slack, Things, Simplenote, and nearly a dozen menu bar applications.

I know that this isn’t the heaviest workload — I’m sure video editors and developers would push this machine to its limits. But I haven’t had a single hiccup with it from a performance perspective. For my needs, the MacBook Air has been absolutely perfect in this regard.

I’ve been quite happy with the machine’s battery life as well. I haven’t come close to the “up to 12 hours” that Apple lists on its technical specifications page. But I use Chrome, so that’s to be expected. In real world use, I’m getting closer to 6-7 hours on a single charge without making any alterations to my work. That’s significantly more than any other Mac I’ve ever owned and is enough to get me through the bulk of my work day. I bet if I closed some background apps and disabled Turbo Boost, I could squeeze out a full day of work on a single charge.

From a hardware design perspective, I’ve been mostly happy with the new Air. While it is larger and heavier than the 11-inch MacBook Air that it replaced, the machine itself feels rock-solid. And when you consider the additional screen real estate that it offers, I think this is the perfect laptop size for me.

One notable aspect of the MacBook Air specifically is the size of the power brick. This isn’t something that gets brought up too often when I see others weighing the pros and cons of each model in Apple’s lineup. But the new Air’s 30W power brick is the same one that ships with the MacBook. And it’s downright minuscule compared to the 61W and 87W chargers that ship with the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros. I’m really going to appreciate that when traveling.

To circle back to the display for a moment — it’s superb. It doesn’t get as bright as the MacBook Pro, but I haven’t felt the need for it in my use. I have the automatic brightness setting turned on and it usually floats between forty and sixty percent. I’m running the display with the default scaling settings and everything looks crisp and clear. Absolutely no complaints on this front.

I’m perfectly fine with the ports situation as well. Two USB-C ports has been one more than I’ve needed in my day-to-day use so far. I haven’t plugged anything other than my power adapter and an external display into the machine. Although never at the same time since I’m using the LG UltraFine 5K Display, which delivers power and data on a single cable. When I’m traveling, I’ll surely appreciate the ability to plug in an external drive while I’m charging, but I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d want an additional port — I guess I just don’t use peripherals like everyone else does.

As a quick aside, how incredible is it that a notebook this small is capable of powering a 5K display. It’s the “best of both worlds” machine that I’ve always dreamed of. I get the thin and light ultra-portable when I’m traveling and a spacious 27-inch display when I’m at home at my desk. It really is amazing.

But back to the port discussion. This transition to USB-C has been kind to me. I’ve purchased a new SSD that came with a USB-C cable and a USB-C to Lightning cable so I can charge my external trackpad, keyboard, and mouse when the need arises. Funnily enough, I own more dongle-related t-shirts than I do actual dongles for my MacBook Air.

The Air’s built-in trackpad feels spacious and comfortable — Apple continues to build the absolute best notebook trackpads on the market. There was a bit of an adjustment at first, since I was moving from the older-style physical trackpads to the haptic-powered ones. But it didn’t take more than a week or two before the trackpad felt normal to me.

My biggest complaint is that the trackpad occasionally misses my “tap to clicks”. However, this has been the case with every Mac trackpad I’ve ever used — the Air is no better or worse. I’m almost certain that these missed inputs have something to do with the algorithm Apple uses to prevent accidental clicks while typing. And although it doesn’t happen more than a couple of times each day, I wish there was a way to fine-tune this setting so that it missed these “tap to clicks” less frequently.

Touch ID has been such a nice feature for me and I’m so glad Apple decided to include it without the Touch Bar, which still feels a bit too gimmicky to me. I do have my Mac setup to unlock automatically with my Apple Watch, but this actually lends itself well to how I plan on using my Mac.

When I travel, I often leave my Watch at home — it’s one less thing to charge, manage, and keep track. So I can utilize the convenience of Touch ID in those instances. But while I’m at home, the Air is frequently connected to the 5K display in clamshell mode, which means Touch ID isn’t available. This is where unlocking with my Watch swoops in to smooth out the rough edges. This is the sort of seamless integration and niceties that I’ve grown to love about using Apple products.

And that brings me to the keyboard. Apple’s new notebook keyboard might be the most controversial change to their lineup — even more so than the move to USB-C. I typically stand on the side of it’s mostly fine, but I have experienced some problems that had me reconsider this stance.

The full-size left and right arrow keys still trip me up from time to time. Although I have started getting used to it. I do believe that the inverted “T” design of the previous style keyboard is still vastly superior, but this change isn’t a deal breaker for me.

Before owning the keyboard, my biggest worry was in regards to the distance between keys. This aspect of the keyboard was a significant hurdle for me in the brief moments that I spent test driving the keyboard at Best Buy and the Apple Store. I always felt lost while typing because there just wasn’t enough definition between the keys. Luckily, that feeling subsided quickly and the keyboard actually feels good to type on now.

That is, until I started getting duplicate inputs when I pressed certain keys. Whenever I would type something with the letter “a” or “p” in it, the Air would register multiple key presses when I was only intending to type a single letter. For example, typing the word “apple” would give me something like “aappple”. Referring to this as “irritating” would be a gross understatement.

Since I spend most of my day typing, this is basically a nightmare. I’ve tried to mitigate the issue by attempting to smoosh whatever dust or debris is causing the problem by firmly pressing on the top of the key and giving it a little wiggle with my finger. That will usually give me another day or so until the problem arises again. But this is by no means a solution.

Upon the recommendation of Apple, I went out and bought a can of compressed air that I’ve used to hopefully blow the dust and debris out of my keyboard. The jury’s still out as to whether this is going to fix the problem for longer than my smoosh method, but I’m cautiously optimistic.

It is a pretty major failure on Apple’s part that this is even a problem to begin with, though. I’ve owned a handful of other Apple keyboards throughout the years and I’ve never had to use compressed air to clean debris out of them. In fact, this is the first can of compressed air I’ve purchased since I switched to the Mac over twelve years ago.

I just can’t see how this design flaw wasn’t discovered during testing. It had to have been. I only had the MacBook Air for about 3-4 weeks before I started having problems with it. If it means I have to blow some compressed air into the keyboard every month or two, I guess it’s something I can deal with. But Apple needs to take the time to think about whether the trade-offs are worth it for this keyboard design.

Spoiler alert: they’re not.

Yes, I’m sure Apple’s design team appreciates the thinness of this keyboard, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of usability. Especially when they have another keyboard in their lineup that’s absolutely incredible to type on. I’ve used the Magic Keyboard for almost two years now — it’s an absolute joy to use and since it’s still using scissor-style key switches (as opposed to the butterfly mechanism in MacBooks), it doesn’t exhibit any of the problems that users have experienced with the MacBook keyboards.

Apple needs to stop trying to fix a flawed design and refresh their entire notebook lineup with a new keyboard that utilizes the same key switches that they’re using in the Magic Keyboard. That would be the ideal way forward for Apple and their customers.

Here’s the thing, though. I grouse about the keyboard, but honestly, I love this machine. Nearly every other decision that went into building the new MacBook Air was spot-on. The weight and form-factor are perfect for my needs, Touch ID fits well into my workflow, and the performance is fantastic. The keyboard alone might be a deal breaker for some, but I think this is the best Mac I’ve ever owned.

After the API Changes

—August 30, 2018

Questions in Your Timeline

—August 1, 2018

Uninformed Purchases

—July 24, 2018

Video Games by iCollect

—July 2, 2018

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