Four Cross-Platform Apps I Can’t Live Without

The Mac and iPad work well together, but some apps take that to the next level. Here are four cross-platform apps that I use all the time. Although this list started with an iPad/Mac list, most include Windows versions, and some include Android.

We will be looking at apps used to create and edit files or otherwise sync data like to-do lists, not things like weather apps that just display information.

Why cross-platform apps? The different platforms each have their strengths. For instance, it is great to be able to open a photo on the iPad to edit with the Pencil. Using the same files between the different platforms simplifies this considerably.

I am back to having a laptop (the excellent 14″ MacBook Pro), but for a while, I was primarily using an iMac, and the iPad was my mobile solution, so without some of these apps, I working between the two would have been much more difficult. And sometimes, I just prefer grabbing the iPad instead of the MacBook.

Some apps also have phone apps, so if an idea for a blog post hits away from the computer, I can pull up iA Writer and get started. While the iPhone is not my preferred writing platform, it is great to be able to capture those ideas while they are fresh.

What makes for an excellent cross-platform app?

  • Full file compatibility, so a file created on one platform works on the other and back again. Apps like Garage Band for iOS allow the project to be imported on the Mac, but there is no clear path back, which would not qualify.
  • Near or full feature parity. As much as possible, both platforms should support the same features, and any missing features should not impair file compatibility. An excellent example of a feature that is not shared across platforms is the name generator in the desktop version of Scrivener, but not the mobile version. The feature does not impair the file compatibility in any way.
  • Optimized for each platform. Developers can basically check a box to deploy iPad apps to the Mac, but this often leads to a suboptimal Mac app.
  • iCloud (or other cloud) sync. You should be able to save the file on one device and open it on the other immediately or even have it open on both.

Affinity Suite ($54.99 desktop, $21.99 iPad per app)

Affinity Photo and Designer are solid alternatives to Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, respectively. They have iPad and desktop apps with full file compatibility and nearly full feature parity. Photo and Designer are available for Mac, Windows, and iPad. No Android or iPhone versions are available as of the time of writing.

In addition to Photo and Designer, Affinity also makes Publisher a solid option for desktop publishing. Publisher is currently only available for Mac and Windows, but an iPad version has been teased.

While the Affinity apps are not quite drop-in replacements for Adobe yet, they are compelling options, especially at the price.

iA Writer ($29.99, all platforms)

iA Writer is a very clean markdown editor, and what I used to write this. It is not as full-featured as some; for instance, there are no blogging plugins, but it has a great set of features for writing and even has an iPhone version.

iA Writer saves files as plain text files to its own folder, which gives you a catalog of files. You can add hashtags to the files, then either choose the hashtags or create Smart Folders based on them. This takes a little getting used to but offers a great deal of flexibility. I usually tag files with #wip for work in progress, changing it to #ready when it is done, and #published when it has been posted to my blog and Medium.

Using the hashtags allows you to “move” the files without creating multiple versions and breaking recent file opening, like moving them between folders.

There are quick links to add the various formatting marks for markdown, and some handy features, like creating filling the link if there is a URL in the clipboard when you click the link button.

LastPass (Free app, $3-4/Month for Pro and Family plans, affiliate link)

While I usually don’t like subscriptions, I make some exceptions for programs that provide external services. While Apple Keychain does an excellent job of basic password management, LastPass adds some important features. The most obvious is that it supports Windows and Android. The other big one for me is the Family plan, which allows folders to be shared between family members. Passwords in shared folders can be accessed by family members, with permissions configurable for full, read-only, or no access, so passwords for banks can be shared between parents, and entertainment and education passwords can be shared with children. Passwords that are not in the shared folders are not shared with any family members, so you can maintain security within the family, as well. You can also assign someone who can request your password database after your death.

LastPass also includes security checkups, looking for passwords used across multiple accounts and passwords exposed in data breaches. Password history and a configurable password generator also make managing passwords easier.

Microsoft Office

While the iWork apps are a great option at an unbeatable price, I have run into enough limitations, especially in Numbers/Excel, that I use Office. I am also more used to the Office apps because I use them in my day job.

Office is also the standard when collaborating with others, and while there is decent file compatibility with some of the other options, using Office is the cleanest when sharing files.

Not only are there Mac, Windows, and iOS apps available, but the files can be edited on the web.

Honorable mentions

These apps are great, but for whatever reason don’t make it into my “every day” list.

Scrivener ($49 for Mac, $20 for iOS)

Scrivener is better suited for long-form writing and has a great feature set for writing a novel or screenplay, but it can be used for anything. Since I am mainly doing short-form writing, I tend towards iA Writer, but Scrivener’s layout is fantastic for longer-form work.

iWork (Free for Mac owners)

While I use Office for most of my work, iWork is a great option. This does not have a Windows version; however, like Office, it has the option to edit files on, so you can work on files on your gaming rig or other Windows box.

Vectornator (Free)

I landed on Affinity Designer, mainly because of the rest of the Affinity Suite, but Vectornator has some great benefits, especially being free. It also has an iPhone version, although I usually find the iPhone too small for heavy vector drawing, even on the Pro Max.

In Conclusion

These are some of my favorite cross-platform apps; what are yours? Join the conversation in the comments, and follow me for more articles on photography and the creative life.

My Thoughts on the MacBook Pro 14-Inch

Having just bought the new MacBook Pro 14-inch (M1 Max, 24 core GPU, 32 Gigs, 2 TB), I have to say it is great to have a machine that feels like Apple made it for creators and pros, not Jony Ive’s design sense. Don’t get me wrong, I love (most of) his iconic designs for Apple over the years, but there are times where it felt like the design overtook the user requirements. Things have gone the other way in the new design, with the ultra-slim-looking tapers gone and most of the ports back. All these go to what pro users need, and after the initial impression that the new MacBooks are enormous (they are not, it is just that the full thickness goes to the edges instead of tapering), the design still looks great. The look harks back to the earlier unibody MacBooks, or even further to the G4 Titanium PowerBooks and iBooks, which I am old enough to remember wanting. OK, OK, I remember when the original G3 iMac and iBook were the hot things.

After several years of laptops that did not feel like there was much “Pro” about them, these are refreshingly designed to address the issues that pros have had with the MacBook Pros in recent years. The keyboard feels great, the HDMI and SD Card slots cut the need for dongles and readers, and everything seems ready to get stuff done.

Why I bought one

First off, I’m a Mac user. I edit in Final Cut and Motion, develop for iOS, and feel more comfortable in macOS than Windows or Linux. After a couple of years on an iMac, I also missed the mobility of a laptop, whether traveling, just getting a change of scenery, or working when I am away from my desk. I have been enjoying getting away from my desk, whether it is just to the living room or out to coffee shops. Also, it is finally possible to get a laptop that has the power to do everything most desktops can, and better yet, get it in the smaller size, not just the larger 15 or 16-inch models.

What I Like

The size.

My first Mac was a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, and while I loved the form factor, the power was not there. The new Pros have plenty of power for everything I want to do. Even the 13-inch Pro covers what most people do for most business, creative, and programming uses. Adding the M1 Pro or Max means you have the horsepower to do just about anything, in a form factor that is easily carried even in smaller carry-on bags (and my 13-inch camera bags). For everything I have done, it is on par with or (almost always) better than my well-equipped 2019 27-inch iMac.

The Build.

The new MacBooks feel like they are made for professionals. Professional is a somewhat loaded term, and plenty of people who are not classical professionals will use this. But if you are someone who relies on your computer to get stuff done, create, do business, etc., it feels like (with a few minor exceptions) they were thinking of you.

The screen is beautiful, especially when you throw HDR content at it. The 14-inch size is a nice improvement from the 13-inch.

The camera, keyboard, and speakers are all great. Since everyone uses these things all the time, it is pretty important to get them right, and Apple did. Things like the new TouchID sensor are also nice touches.

The SD card slot.

Even with higher tier cameras (Nikon D850, D500, Z50) in the house, they all support SD Cards, and having a reader built-in makes it much easier to work on the road, at events, and while I am not at my desk.

The return of MagSafe.

I was as appalled as anyone when USB-C replaced MagSafe. The design is just so good, with the significantly lower risk of dropping your laptop or even breaking the power port with an errant bump or tug. Then I got used to the convenience of USB-C, sharing power adapters with other things, access to third-party chargers, and charging from either side of the computer. When I heard the rumors of MagSafe returning, I was actually kind of torn, thinking I would be missing out on those benefits. However, the new implementation is truly the best of all worlds. You can use MagSafe most of the time, but if you are stuck with just a USB-C charger, it still works. The cord is detachable from the charger, so it works with third-party USB-C chargers, and you only need to replace the cable if something goes wrong. The new MagSafe is as close to a perfect solution as I have seen in quite a while. The only improvement I would like to see is the cord going from $50 to $20.

What I Don’t Like

Not a whole lot here. I have seen a couple of times when it got hot, and I wonder if it is too tuned to keep the fans low. It would be nice to easily tweak them to spin up a little more in some cases.

The price.

This one would not be an issue if the M1 didn’t exist. Even as expensive as they are, the Pro and Max represent plenty of value. In the pre-Apple Silicon days, my wife and I were pricing new MacBooks. Each one would have cost almost what it cost us to get both a 13-inch M1 for her AND the 14-inch for me. This was due to the higher memory, discrete GPU, etc., and it would have required the 16-inch since the power wasn’t available in the 13-inch.

Looking at it another way, Apple has compared the M1 Max’s video editing capabilities to a Mac Pro with the 28 Core CPU and an Afterburner card. To put this in perspective, for the price of just those upgrades, you could buy a MacBook Pro with everything except storage maxed out and have enough money left over to buy a second one. And that doesn’t even factor in the cost of the Mac Pro; that is solely the CPU upgrade ($7000) and afterburner card ($2000). By the time you include the price of the Mac Pro, you could buy 3 to 4 well-equipped MacBook Pros.

For anyone who needs the power, the new MacBook Pro represents exceptional value. So why is price a problem? As I said before, because the M1 exists. Even the M1 MacBook Air is so powerful that it will do everything most people need to do at half the price. So consider what you need from your computer and if you need to spend the additional money for the M1 Pro or Max.

One last port.

OK, I’ll be that guy. I wish there was one USB-A port. While plenty of stuff has moved on, some things are still USB-A, and oddly, many are pro-level equipment. Wireless adapters for many mice, presentation controllers, and graphics tablets are still USB-A, as are hardware licensers like the iLok and most multi-factor authentication hardware. You can use dongles, but especially for the wireless adapters that can usually be left plugged into a USB-A port, it is not an ideal situation.

Other Thoughts

The Notch. Some people loath it, some defend it, and some, like me, accept it as an annoying compromise that makes sense. It takes up a part of the screen that is usually not used to move the title bar up and provide a higher-quality webcam. These days, with the prevalence of video conferencing, webcams are a vital consideration. It could be smaller, but I am guessing (hoping?) they left space so they could add FaceID later without expanding it. Having used it for a few weeks, you usually are not looking at that part of the screen anyway, so it has not been a problem. I have seen a few reports of menus disappearing behind it, but apps do pretty well wrapping around it from what I have seen. (Based on Capture One Pro, Affinity Photo, and Xcode)

The Removal of the TouchBar.

Like the notch, I am somewhat ambivalent about the TouchBar. I don’t think it was a bad idea, but with no support for desktop keyboards, even the ones from Apple, developers had less incentive to invest in optimizing for the TouchBar, and it languished. So I don’t feel like we are losing much here, and the function keys are more stable and less likely to be inadvertently pressed.

HDMI 2.0 and UHS-II

I’ve seen some complaints about the HDMI and SD Card not supporting the newest, highest-speed versions of the protocols. UHS-III would be nice, but not much supports it now. HDMI 2.0 supports up through 4K60, and for the vast majority of uses cases, this will be completely fine. I think Apple targeted this much more for ad-hoc use, like conference rooms, shared workspaces, and so forth, that are usually not more than 4K60. Most high-end monitors will be USB-C/Thunderbolt anyways, so while the newest and fastest would always be nice, I don’t think either will be that much of a limitation in real-world use.

Battery life:

It is good, but, especially with the Max SoC, you aren’t going to get 17 hours out of it most of the time. This isn’t surprising; the battery life numbers are based on some pretty specific workloads (which Apple lists) that maximize battery life. So while I have found battery life to be very good, there have been times where I had to plug in a bit sooner than I would have expected.

No Bootcamp/Windows virtualization support:

This isn’t a problem for what I am using this computer for, but I also use a MacBook for my day job, and it may be an issue there. Hopefully, Microsoft will allow for properly licensed ARM-based Windows, but until then, there will be a bunch of Intels that are kept alive just for that purpose.

In conclusion:

If the new MacBook Pros indicate where Macs are going, the next several years will be good. They are very capable and have been designed to address the needs of people who use them to get stuff done. Almost everything users have been asking for has been addressed, and most of it is done very well. I am very happy with mine, and I am looking forward to what is coming in the future.

How about you? Have you bought one, or is it on the shopping list?

Does the new 14″ MacBook Fit in 13″ Bags?

Any time the dimensions of a device change, one if the questions is whether the existing accessories like bags or cases will still fit. I recently bought a 14″ MacBook Pro, and since I own a Think Tank BackStory 13 (which I received as a review product) I was wondering if the new MacBook would fit. While the 14″ MacBooks are a little larger than the current 13″ MacBooks, they are very close to the dimensions of the earlier Retina MacBooks, so they fit many of the bags for 13″ laptops. I have a few different ThinkTank bags, and managed to check a couple others at a local camera shop. Here is what I found:

Any of the 15″ bags should have plenty of space. The 14″ MacBook is closer in size to 13″ computers than 15″, so it fits in any of the 15″ bags I’ve tested (The MindShift BackLight 26, Retrospective 30 shoulder bag, and Retrospective Backpack 15)

BackStory 13: It fits snuggly without stretching anything. I have managed to barely fit an 11″ iPad Pro, as well, but that is getting very tight, especially with the Magic Keyboard.

Retrospective 7: The computer fits and the bag closes fine, but the computer is a bit taller than the laptop sleeve. I would use it, but the computer is maybe a little larger than planned.

Vision 13: Nothing special to note here, the MacBook fits great.

PhotoCross and Urban Access 13: I was not able to confirm these, but the size listed is similar to the Vision 13, so I would expect it to fit in either of these.

Let me know in the comments if you have tried any others, or have different experience with any of these.

Use this link when buying from Think Tank, and receive a free gift with qualifying purchase of $50 or more. (This is an affiliate link, if you purchase using it I will receive a commission)