Mastodon clients: Decisions, decisions

I am a visual person and aesthetics matter to me. Sometimes they matter (a little) more than functionality.

One of the nice things about the federated social media platform known as Mastodon is that it allows for a host of third-party clients to view its content.

I tried several Windows-specific clients and found all of them to look kind of ugly. I don’t want to use an ugly app, even if it’s functional. It’s 2023, we’ve evolved beyond MIDI files and poorly compressed animated GIFs. I eventually settled on a web client called Elk. It looks a bit like Twitter and is nice enough. Then I came across Phanpy, which, despite its terrible name, looks *really* nice, even if it’s perhaps a bit too aggressively minimalist. But it looks so nice!

In fact, I like its look so much I’ve actually started favouring it on the Mac, where I own the Mona Mastodon client. Here’s how each looks, along with the official Mastodon web client, focusing on one post, all of them running in dark mode, because light mode makes me run and hide under the bed. No scaling has been applied to the images.

Mona (Mac client):

Mastodon (official web client):

Elk (web client):

Phanpy (web client):

Some thoughts:

Overall layout: Phanpy is by far the most compact, but that doesn’t necessarily mean better. It does put posts in a nicely rounded box, though, which is a pleasing visual touch. Phanpy puts the image inline with the story title and subhead, which reduces the size of the image. The others are all very similar in layout. Oddly, even though Phanpy offers the most compact layout, I think it does the best job in terms of spacing around the content, giving it a lighter feel, even in dark mode. This is done mostly by simply making the interface wider, allowing everything to spread out a bit more. Compare this to Mona, which has a bunch of empty space sitting to the right of the image.

Phanpy also does the best job of implementing a card-style interface, where each post is clearly separate from the next. Mona is also pretty good, though the contrast between posts and the background is more subtle (a to-taste thing, really).

Colour: The official web client uses a more purple-black, keeping with its theme colour, which is purple. Phanpy is a bit lighter than Elk or Mona, and I think looks a bit better.

Text: Mona wins here, with the sharpest text of the bunch. Elk is probably the worst, but still not actually bad.

Iconography: Phanpy requires you to open a post to see any icons, part of its minimalist thing. The others are all clean and functional, but not exactly delightful. They do their job. Note that several clients allow you to customize the icons. The official client probably has the least attractive icons of the bunch, but again, they are perfectly serviceable.

Options: Elk and Phanpy offer minimal options. Mona is the clear winner here, as it has options out the wazoo. It probably has options for the wazoo.

Conclusion: No one client does everything perfectly. I think my ideal would be Mona’s text/icons/non-minimalism, combined with Phanpy’s aesthetics and use of white space.

This post prompted me to dive into Mona’s options and tweak its interface again, bringing it closer to Phanpy’s. We’ll see if it sticks. The nice part is simply having the abundance of choices to start with. Now, if only a Mona-quality app existed on Windows…

Mona (after tweaking the UI per the above paragraph):

Cache me if you can

I went to upgrade my iPad to iPadOS 17 because it just came out today and I like living on the edge, and I’m also kind of dumb.

But I couldn’t, because my 128 GB iPad only had 3 GB of space left on it. I checked, and it turned out OneDrive was hogging about half the space. I found where you can clear its cache1You will never in a billion years do this accidentally and cleared the cache.

Then it took A Very Long Time to complete. But when it did, the free space went from 3 GB to over 61 GB (!)

The upgrade is in progress as I type this. It’s given me time to think about how I use my iPad Pro, which I bought a little over three year ago:

  • 90% of the time it’s for Procreate2The only app I use with a worse name is Diarium
  • 5% of the time I’m in a crossword puzzle app
  • 3% of the time I’m checking files in OneDrive
  • 2% is for everything else

So really, all I need is a good drawing tablet. Which the iPad Pro is. So I guess I’m good. (But I secretly want a Galaxy Tab S9 Ultra, not because of the super unsexy name, but because it has a super sexy 14.6″ AMOLED display. A larger canvas for drawing is also super sexy. If I win the lottery, it’s mine. If I don’t, well, 12.9 inches is not bad. Hehe /Beavis.)

Using Linux Mint, Part 4: End of line (for now)

Tonight I pulled the plug on my Linux Mint installation, fixed the boot launcher to boot straight into Windows (farewell, grub!) and reclaimed the space on my main drive that had been reserved for Linux, allowing Windows to once again hog all of it.

I may try Linux Mint (or another distro) in the future because I’m still interested in messing around with it, but if I do, I will put it onto its own drive. I’ll still need to dual boot, but won’t have two OSes sharing space on the same physical drive, which puts constraints on both.

The main reasons for nuking Linux Mint for now is related to something I saw (that I cannot find now) stating that Linux is 98% there for most people–which seems excellent! But that last 2% may include a vital piece of software that isn’t available, and becomes a dealbreaker. Linux Mint is free, which is great, but once you eliminate the price and just look at what it offers vs. Windows 11, it comes very close in most regards, but ultimately falls a bit short–for the average computer user. And for me.

I could use Firefox, Discord, Signal and Obsidian. This was nice. But I could only use the online version of Word. OneDrive likewise is reduced to the web version without using third party solutions that aren’t officially supported (and may come with subscriptions). The photo-editing software is not what I want, and just getting photos into the OS is more of a hassle. The game support is actually decent, but imperfect. Again, that 2% is the killer.

In the end, Linux Mint was fun to play around with, to experiment in, but just didn’t have quite what I needed to be a primary OS. In terms of how I’d rate them in overall functionality for my own use:

  1. Windows 11 10/10 – does everything, though not equally well
  2. macOS 8/10 – comes close, but falls down on gaming and third party peripheral support remains spotty for me.
  3. Linux Mint 7/10 – falls down on photo-editing, some specific apps it lacks, cloud storage and gaming (to a smaller extent)

Using Linux Mint, Part 3: A few software wrinkles

After some more time using Linux Mint, which I’ve done more often the past few days as Windows 11 is perpetually applying updates that require a reboot (thus making it easy to select Mint from the boot menu), I’ve encountered a few things that have made the experience a little less smooth vs. the Mac or Windows:

  • Music: My music library is a local folder on the PC and while I might be able to find a way to access the files remotely, right now the music player in Mint wants to just redownload everything, which is not an idea solution (though it works fine if you let it do its thing)
  • OneDrive: There is a paid solution (InSync) and while I can access my OneDrive folder on the PC through the Mint file manager, it obviously does not actually sync changes or anything. For that, I need to use the web version, barring setting up an open source/free alternative.
  • Microsoft Office: While I generally only use MS Word when I have to, Office is not available on Linux, requiring me to use workarounds like saving in .docx format in LibreOffice, or using the web versions, where it’s surprisingly easy to come across something the web version doesn’t do.
  • Journaling: My go-to journaling app, the unfortunately named Diarium, is available on every platform–except Linux. And there’s no web version.
  • TickTick: My to-do app of choice also has no Linux version, though the web version works decently, at least.
  • Pixelmator Pro: This is my primary photo editing app and is Mac-only.

On the plus side, it still feels snappier and more solid than my current Windows 11 install. I’ve actually toyed with the idea of completely nuking all 3 terabytes of storage I have on the PC and just starting over. I don’t know if that would actually fix or improve anything, but it appeals to my urge to cull cull cull.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to juggle between all the OSes like a big dum dum.

Using Linux Mint, Part 2 of an undetermined number of parts

You can see my initial post on using Linux Mint here: I’m posting from Linux, woo (woo?)

For the past month, I have been generally ignoring the Linux Mint installation, because my desire to explore strange new OSes apparently ended shortly after I had completed the initial set up.

However, Windows has been driving me mildly batty lately for a few reasons, some more important than others:

  • Less important: The desktop wallpaper keeps changing on its own. I’ve spent more than a fair share of time troubleshooting this, to no avail. It’s simple to correct, but it’s maddening that it happens. Probably related, Windows will also move my desktop icons from one monitor to another, then back, seemingly at random (not on the fly, but after a reboot or when it is awakened from the screensaver). Multiple monitor mayhem? Maybe!
  • Somewhat important: General slowness all around the OS. The Start menu hesitates when I click on it, or icons take a few extra moments to load. Nothing feels “tight” or snappy. I almost feel like Windows 11 has regressed to that “time to reinstall the entire OS” version of Windows we used to go through in order to regain lost performance. And that was way back in the Windows 98/XP era. Yeesh.
  • More important: File Explorer is crazy slow, even at simple things. I have always found File Explorer slow (this is one of the few ways I find the Mac’s Finder to be superior) and it often wants to (slowly) refresh a folder that hasn’t had any changes made to it. Bleah!

Anyway, enough kvetching about Windows 11. I have updated Mint and installed a few apps:

  • Firefox (actually, it’s pre-installed, but I have updated it)
  • Obsidian (initially as an AppImage file, then as an actual installed app)
  • Discord

Those three apps alone give me most of what I need. I have also spent some time tweaking the settings, look and feel of the desktop, and have run into a few kinks with permissions to the non-Linux folders on my PC. But still no need to use a command line yet!

As a bonus, Linux also hasn’t changed my desktop wallpaper arbitrarily. What a treat. For maximum lolz, I am using the AI-interpreted version of the original Bliss/XP wallpaper that you can find on Microsoft’s site here.

My desktop (click for full size):

At this point, I’ll probably keep using it until I need another OS for something specific (Windows for gaming, Mac for photo/image-editing). Maybe I’ll find yet another OS to install. Maybe I’ll just start doing everything on a used Commodore 64 and pretend it’s 1985.

Right now, Mint does feel faster than Windows, but it’s also only a month old and has minimal software installed. We’ll see how it goes. Stay tuned for Part 3, in which maybe I have to use the command line or something horrible like that.

I’m posting from Linux, woo (woo?)

Today I did a cray-cray thing: I installed Linux Mint on my Windows PC, giving it 500 GB of space on my primary drive, with Windows getting the rest.

So far it has gone pretty smoothly. I haven’t had to use the terminal once!

I’m not sure why I installed it, I think I just wanted to try something different. It did drive home how much of what you do on a computer is done through a web browser, and it doesn’t really matter much what the OS is behind it.

Supposedly Linux is faster than Windows, or uses less resources or something. I’ll keep trying it for a bit, and if I love it, I will marry it! Well, no. But I’ll keep it. If in the end I feel it offers little over what I’m getting with Windows 11, I’ll probably reclaim the space back to Windows.

For now, though, I’m a triple OS guy on the desktop. Such a nerd. Or idiot. We’ll find out soon enough

EDIT: Here’s a link to the Linux Mint page. It’s like I completely forgot my internet manners!

Culling 2022 (bonus post): From many lists to one

Another recent culling decision was to move to a single reminder/to-do app, and the winner there ended up being Microsoft To Do. TickTick was a close second, and I could see myself possibly going back to it eventually.

The things I like about Microsoft To Do:

  • It’s free, with no limitations (free is good, no subscription was my real preference)
  • At first, the My Day feature bugged me, but I’ve come to embrace it. It’s basically a blank page for you to add things to and it’s easy to add daily stuff (which is also viewable elsewhere). It provides a way to focus, which I need.
  • The UI is unusually pleasant
  • Sync works fine, regardless of platform (PC, Mac, phone)

The thing I don’t like:

  • The name. Come on, they didn’t even try! And this replaced Wunderlist, which is an absolutely delightful name.

And here is a CGI cat writing a list in Stable Diffusion:

Speaking of buggy software: Everything Apple produces

When you speak to old Mac geezers (OMGs), they will often wax poetic about Snow Leopard as being the best version of OS X (and remind you it’s the Roman numeral 10, not the letter X), not because it came with a boatload of new features, but because it didn’t. Apple advertised it as having “0 new features” because it focused on improving existing features and fixing bugs found in Leopard, the previous version of OS X.

Back then (roughly the first decade of the 2000s) Apple released its updates on a “when they are ready” schedule, which meant you could go almost two years between updates. That changed in 2012 when Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8) came out a year after Lion. Henceforth, all Mac OS updates would come out on a yearly basis, ready or not.

Ready or not.

iOS updates and the rest of Apple’s lowercase-Uppercase OS releases followed suit, and now yearly releases are the norm.

And they are a bad idea, bad for the industry, bad for users, and Tim Cook should feel bad.

Why? One word: Bugs.

Apple has tacitly admitted it can’t keep up with yearly releases, because it now regularly leaves out major features until “later”. Just this year they delayed iPadOS 16 altogether from September to October just to get things working properly. Yearly releases are not sustainable, they’re dumb, and serve no one when they come with incomplete or missing features and copious glitches. Apple is the 800 pound gorilla in consumer electronics, so if they change course, the industry is likely to follow. And they should!

And the thing is, if Apple switched to updates every two years or “when they’re ready” people would still buy tens of millions of iPhones, plus oodles of iPads, Macs and AirPods, not to mention staying subbed to the cash cows that their services have become. But Apple is not only gigantic, they are incredibly conservative and unlikely to change course unless forced by circumstance or the law (but mostly the law).

Why do I think this? Why am I posting now?

Because watchOS 9 is a bug-riddled mess and since I use my watch for my running workouts, the glitches affect me on a regular, ongoing basis. None of these issues happened before watchOS 9 was released (Apple eventually forces updates, so you can’t even just stay put, eventually you’ll need to upgrade).

Among the bugs I’ve encountered:

  • Stuttery or missing animations (not a big thing, but annoying)
  • Unreliable heart rate monitoring, especially at the start of a run (this is a big thing)
  • Music playback on the watch being permanently muffled when interrupted by a notification. It happened today (again) and even closing the music app did not fix it. I restarted the app and tried three albums before the music finally popped back to regular volume.
  • Pausing music playing from the watch via the AirPods (clicking the touch control on one of the earbuds), then unpausing, and the playback switches to whatever you were previously listening to on the iPhone. It’s like having someone come into your living room, quietly pick up the remote, change the channel from whatever you were watching, then just as quietly leaving the room.

I suppose I should be happy most things are still working. But bleah, the yearly updates are clearly not going to improve, so I really wish Apple and the whole industry would move away from them.

Bad design: Ambiguous UI buttons

Yes, I promised to be more positive, so think of this as me highlighting a UI issue in hope of a positive change. It’s a stretch, just go with it!

The Cider app is currently in beta, and generally I find it to be a superior and certainly a much better-looking experience for listening to Apple Music than Apple’s own decrepit iTunes program (the fact that it still exists on PC years after being retired on Mac shows the contempt Apple has for people who don’t fully buy into their ecosystem).

If you have an album in Cider queued up that is in your library, you’ll see a strip of icons above the list of songs like this:

Remove from Library is pretty clear, so let’s move on to the other two.

Play: The button is red. Does this mean it is waiting to be clicked, then the music will start to play?

Shuffle: This button is also red. Does that mean shuffle mode is currently toggled on? Or off?


Play: This is what the Play button looks like when music is playing. It’s also what the button looks like when music is paused.

Shuffle: This is what the Shuffle button looks like when shuffle mode is off. It’s also (go ahead, guess!) what the button looks like when shuffle is on.

In other words, these buttons convey nothing about their current state. To me, this is bad design, but as you’ll see below, it’s actually pretty common, so it would seem to be the expected convention as I’ll explain below.

By comparison, the new Media Player for Windows 11 is…well, it’s exactly the same. The Play and Shuffle buttons don’t change state when these options are on:

Both buttons will highlight on mouseover, but neither otherwise changes when clicked. How do you know shuffle mode is on? You don’t!

I believe the thought here is these are “top level” buttons used to initiate an action, and are not meant to represent the current state. For that, you look at the full set of controls, which do reflect changes when music is paused or playing. Cider again:

Music paused

Here, the shuffle icon is highlighted, indicating shuffle is on. The Play arrow indicates music is paused. We can confirm this by clicking on Play and seeing the change:

Music playing

So, am I complaining about nothing? Maybe, a little, but I still think a button should change to reflect the current state regardless of where it sits in the UI, so I’m still hoping UX gnomes will fight to get these changed.

P.S. I am obviously not a UI/UX designer, so if all of this seems silly and obvious, remember that…I am not a UI/UX designer! I’m just a slob with a website who would prefer more informative buttons, regardless of what current conventions are.

That darn cloud: A technology reminder

One of the reasons I chose to try Obsidian as my new note-taking app is that it works with plain text files and stores them locally, meaning there is less likelihood of file corruption due to weird syncing/internet issues. As they put in on their site:

In our age when cloud services can shut down, get bought, or change privacy policy any day, the last thing you want is proprietary format and data lock-in.

With Obsidian, your data sits in a local folder. Never leave your life’s work held hostage in the cloud again.

Taken from the Obsidian site

But they also state:

Your notes live on your device, period. You can encrypt them or back them up however you want; it’s your decision, not ours. Plain text files let you do various sync, encryption, and data processing on top of it. Obsidian plays nice with Dropbox, Cryptomator, and any software that works with plain text files.

Here they suggest you can back up or sync files–if you choose–using whatever suitable service you may have access to.

I chose to use iCloud Drive, because it lets me sync between the three devices I’m likeliest to use Obsidian on:

  • Windows 11 PC
  • MacBook Air
  • iPad Pro

It has worked fine so far. But then it didn’t. Ack. What happened was I restarted my PC (because Windows 11 still requires reboots after most updates for reasons) and when I reloaded Obsidian, it began to sync files and folders, and to also index them, which it promised was a one-time operation. It then seemed to cough up a hairball on one file I had open previously (my random newsletter) and started creating non-working duplicates of it. It renamed the original file. It was just generally weird.

On the iPad and MacBook, things seemed to be working normally, so it appeared to be a Windows-specific issue. I managed to create a local version of the files and folders on my C: drive and that is working as expected, but on PC the iCloud version is still behaving weirdly. I might try duplicating the local version and see if that works.

My main point here is that the makers of Obsidian are right–while data failures are possible on local storage (SSD could suddenly die, for example), when your stuff lives in the cloud, you increase the surface area for failure/corruption and can potentially lose your data forever if you don’t have any local backup.

This has been a good reminder for me, albeit a somewhat unwelcome one.

I’m still deciding how best to maintain my Obsidian vault. Local network storage might be a way to go. We’ll see.

Clipboard history is strangely useful

Apparently I copy and paste a lot of random things, so the Clipboard history feature in Windows 10 (accessed by the Win + V combo) is surprisingly handy. I’m not sure if using it makes me a power user, but I’m going to pretend it does.

Here’s a few other random small utilities I use with Windows (I may make a Mac list if I’m not feeling lazy–and the Mac actually has a more dire need for these sorts of things, so take that, Tim Cook!):

  • Greenshot. The included Snip & Sketch actually works pretty decently now, but I’ve gotten used to Greenshot. It works great for grabbing screenshots and has a nice assortment of editing features that turn it into a mini image editor. And it’s completely free. Sadly, the not-free Mac version is not nearly as good.
  • Sizer. This program lets you assign keyboard shortcuts to predefined window sizes. I currently use a horrible piece of software at work that opens windows to something like 80% of your screen size, which may have made sense back in 2003 when everyone had 15 inch monitors, but is super-obnoxious when your monitor is a widescreen 27 inch model. I can only imagine what these windows would look like on a 34 inch ultrawide. Anyway, with one swift key combo I can resize the window to something sane and move it to exactly where I want it on screen. Also free!
  • EarTrumpet. Goofy name, but it acts as a replacement for the standard Windows volume control, making it a lot easier to control audio from multiple devices.
  • PowerToys. Yes, they’re back. It’s the 90s all over again! This is a nice collection of small utilities that let you do things like remap keys, quickly resize images, includes a color picker and more.