Scrivener v. iOS, Part 2 — Remote Desktop Sharing

20140122-140109.jpgA word about remote desktop software and services:

Supposedly this stuff is easy. Supposedly. I stumble over it occasionally, and tech doesn’t scare me or trip me up easily. The thing is, in order to set up a remote connection that shares your computer’s desktop to, well, anything, there are several layers of security and network obfuscation to placate. I believe that it is possible to set up something called “port forwarding” that will eliminate the need to use a third-party service to set up a remote desktop connection between mobile device and computer. (Help me out, here, please! Correct me if I’m wrong.) But if, like me, the words “port forwarding” mean little or nothing to you and you have no desire to learn more; if you have no idea how to implement it without all the hackers in the world glomming onto your poor unprotected computer, then you’ll need a connection service account. LogMeIn, until yesterday, provided these for personal use free. So far as I know, it was unique; but alas, no longer. Now you will pay for your connection service one way or another.

When you first set this up, I do suggest that you try remote connection from no further than the sofa across from your computer. Test your connection and make sure it works. There is nothing more frustrating than settling into a coffee shop, connecting to your computer at home–and nothing happens. Sometimes this happens anyway; your computer crashes, Starbucks’ WiFi is too slow, something. Why have it be a setting you could have corrected if you’d tested at home?

How it works is that first, really, comes the connection service account. You set this up, pay for it however, and then install an app on your iPad (or other device) called a desktop client, and another on the computer you want to access, called a desktop server. You may need to mess with your computer’s settings for desktop sharing and for sleeping or auto shutdown (bad when you want to connect remotely!) The connection service supplies instructions for this, some clear, some not so clear.

Once you have your server set up, you connect to your service account with the server app on your computer and leave your computer running while you travel to wherever. I suggest physically turning off your monitor rather than depend on screen savers/monitor sleeping; I’ve had connections refused because the screen saver was up or the monitor wouldn’t wake from sleep.

When you are at your remote location (your sofa for your first attempt) and have a decent internet connection, fire up your client app and log in to the connection service. The service should show a list with your home/office computer, the one with the server, displayed as available. Tap on that puppy, go through whatever security dance you’ve asked to have set up (depending on the service, you may set this up either at the service itself or on your computer or both) and voila! Welcome to Your Computer on your iPad, iPhone, or Android device.

Below is a list of what I’ve actually tried, along with my observations. This list is not exhaustive. Please note that if the service can stream sound/video to the iPad, many people, particularly gamers, find that to be a desirable feature. But for the purpose of using Scrivener remotely, I could hardly care less. It’s nice to be able to copy/paste between the computer and the mobile device, but I don’t consider it critical. Occastionally I do run into a website that uses Flash (which iOS does not yet support) and is unusable without it. Any remote app will let you use those sites by using a browser on your computer.

    • SplashTop:
    • Initial cost: $4.99 for the iOS app.
    • Annual upkeep: $16.99
    • Useful for Scrivener: Copy/Paste between PC and mobile.
    • Notes: Faster than LogMeIn ever was, and has sound/video streaming built-in if I ever want it. I like its user interface, which makes actions such as dragging objects easier than either of the other services I’ve tried. This is my new service.
    • LogMeIn:
    • Initial cost: $0.
    • Annual upkeep: $99
    • Useful for Scrivener: Copy/Paste between PC and mobile. File transfer features not really needed since I have DropBox.
    • Notes: I miss the way I could set the remote computer’s screen to be the size and color density I prefer. While LogMeIn doesn’t have SplashTop’s raw speed, its connection is more configurable.
    • Desktop Connect:
    • Initial cost:$14.99 for the iOS app.
    • Annual upkeep: $0.
    • Useful for Scrivener: Nothing in particular.
    • Notes: This is the oddball of the bunch. It’s the first I tried, two years ago–$15 looks good compared to $99/year. This company uses a little-known Google service to connect your devices instead of their own servers. Desktop Connect worked OK for a while, but the developer is slow to put out updates to work with system upgrades like iOS 6, iOS 7, or Mavericks. I tried it again after LogMeIn cut me off this week, but it is so slow in iOS 7 as to be unusable, and I have no confidence that an upgrade will arrive soon. Pity.

GoToMyPC deserves a mention even though I haven’t tried it. It is the grandpappy of all these services. It is well-reputed, has been around a while now, and consistently gets decent reviews in the App Store. If I could have gotten in for $22 or less, I’d have tried it before Splashtop.

Scrivener v. iOS, Part 1 — Overall Approaches

KnifeScrivener is the Swiss Army Knife of novel writing programs. Not designed to help a noob with story structure, etc., it is a professional long-form writer’s go-to tool. Scrivener has more features than an Oklahoma bird dog has spots.

That said, it has surprising gaps. One of the most painful is the lack of an iOS (or Android, for that matter) version for mobile devices. Literature & Latte have promised an iOS version Real Soon Now for years. As their last blog entry on the subject was in April, 2013… Well, I won’t hold my breath. As a writer who really loves Scrivener, and who also loves the lightweight freedom of working on a mobile device, my choices are:

  1. Use Scrivener on my desktop Mac via a remote desktop application such as LogMeIn or GoToMyPC. This also works for Windows Scrivener.
  2. Use a patchwork of apps on my desktop Mac and on my iPad to work on portions of my projects on the iPad. This is a Mac-only solution at present.
  3. Bite the bullet and get a laptop. Carry it everywhere. If you’re reading an article about Scrivener v. iOS, you’re likely not interested.

Option 1: Remote Connection
Working remotely is a fair option.

Pros: Every feature of Scrivener is available, since I am in fact logged in to and working on my Mac. If you have Windows Scrivener, this is your only real option. There are remote desktop clients available for Android, as well. This is by far the more versatile solution.

Cons: The various means available to work on a desktop computer from a remote iOS device are, bluntly, kludges (pronounced kloo-jes.) The iPad becomes a giant touchpad, with the various features of a modern mouse simulated by gestures. I find that this option is not practical for long sessions without a BT keyboard for my iPad. Even so, many of the key combos used in ordinary desktop work must still be simulated with a (much reduced) onscreen keyboard. (This is not LogMeIn’s fault, or the fault of any other remote software provider. Apple’s iOS interface to a bluetooth keyboard is limited, and most modifier keys cannot be detected by an app. Since the app on your iOS device can’t detect modifier keys, they can’t be passed on to your remote computer.)

Another problem with this option is that it requires an internet connection, and one with decent bandwidth. Even without sound or video, even with colors dialed back to grayscale and connection optimized for slowness, a remote connection eats data. A 3g connection is too laggy, except at full bars. The WiFi in a typical Starbucks is problematic.

Option 2: External Synchronization
Working with a subset of Scrivener features on an iPad with iPad apps is do-able, and can work well if I respect its limitations, but it has its own problems.

Pros: I can work with native iOS apps. This either eliminates or greatly reduces internet connection requirements. It also means that I can work with interfaces optimized for a touch screen device–no using the iPad as a giant touchpad! I find that working without a BT keyboard becomes more practical, though I still prefer a keyboard for extensive typing.

Cons: This is a Mac-only option; it will not work for Windows Scrivener at present. I must set up Scrivener itself to do external sync. I must use a cloud file service that supports nested folders; DropBox is the only option to work with story structure as well as text content. I can only work with a reduced subset of Scrivener features with iPad apps. I must be disciplined in my workflow to avoid the dreaded “I changed this on both my iPad and my Mac! Crap!” situation. It is possible to lose formatting in the translation from Mac to iOS and back.

Recommendation:
I suggest that if you are only going to use your iPad occasionally for work with Scrivener projects, that Option 1, remote desktop usage, is your best choice. It’s possible to work without a BT keyboard for short sessions, and you will have the entire abilities of Scrivener at your command. You need not invest any effort or thought in sync setup. You need not worry about losing formatting or how to optimize your project for synchronization. There are several well-reviewed remote clients in the App Store, some of which are free.

On the other hand, if you plan on using your iOS device in long writing sessions, or far from speedy internet connections, and if you work with a desktop Mac, you may find external sync to be worth the investment in setting up your project for sync and in iOS apps to edit with. Certainly in this case I’d suggest a BT keyboard. I’ll discuss exactly how to massage your Scrivener project for external sync in Part 2.

— Update 16:53 PST, 21 Jan 2014 —

As of today, LogMeIn announced the termination of its free services. Thus, remote desktop options suddenly became a lot less free, although there still are some comparatively cheap options. I’ll discuss a few in Part 2 of this series as well as discussing Scrivener project prep for external sync.

Camp NaNoWriMo, Day 12

I did get a few words done on my novel today, but basically I’ve just broken down. The brother-in-law passing, the trip from California to Virginia for the funeral, the need to both pack and come up with a systems strategy to keep writing even though I’ve depended heavily on my desktop Mac– my brain is spinning out. I just now sat down and cried because I dropped a bottle of Tylenol.

So Hubby quietly got me the Tylenol and some water (I love that man!), helped me figure out what to pack, and now I’m looking at how to physically keep writing. I don’t have a laptop — I’ve been using a remote desktop app, LogMeIn, on my iPad to use the Scrivener app on my desktop Mac for all my writing.

That ain’t going to work on an airplane from Los Angeles to Richmond.

Solving this is critical to my peace of mind — a software developer for decades, if my writing system isn’t serving its purpose, I can’t just ignore it and write longhand for a few days. My brain will peck away at the systems problem and refuse to think about getting my heroine and her swain into jeopardy and out. I will be fretting about getting to Frys for that needed doohickey, or searching the App Store for the perfect tool, and I won’t be either paying attention to my grieving relations or getting my word count plumped up.

So, yeah, I’ve put in some work on the systems problem today, and I think I have a solution hammered out. It involves the Index Card app for iPad, Scrivener, and one of Scrivener’s capabilities I’ve hitherto ignored, to wit, its ability to use MarkDown codes. I’ll be testing my solution at two different LA write-ins tomorrow, to the tune of 5,000 words (I hope.) I’ll keep you posted.

Writers’ Tools

I may be a writer and actor by choice, but I was a techno geek for far too long for me to ignore the tools I use for writing.

20121212-131426.jpgIt’s been nearly a year since I gave up on the dear old DataChugger LD and asked for an iPad for Christmas. In the two years since I posted about the LifeDrive, the Internet (in particular electronic publishing) had been moving on, and the LifeDrive had stayed put. Software was no longer being updated. I couldn’t buy new books from my favorite authors to read on it any more.

My first thought was to get an iPod Touch (the monthly bills for an iPhone being in the “You gotta be kidding!” range), but the iPad won my heart in the Apple Store with its amazingly light weight and comparatively large screen area. Hubby generously gifted me with an iPad 2 for Christmas 2011.

I have not regretted my choice. My old books from the LifeDrive have moved over to Nook, new ones have been acquired on Kindle, both of which have iPad apps. The mobile hotspot I’d gotten to feed Internet to the LifeDrive works just as well with the WiFi-only iPad.

But then, in May 2012, I decided to take another whack at writing with Camp NaNoWriMo in June. I’d also replaced my ancient Mac with a new Mac Mini two years ago– which meant that I had NO tools to write with, as my Microsoft Word was too ancient to run on the newer Mac.

This resulted a great deal of flailing around, and acquisition of free and cheap software for the Mac and the iPad. (How happy is she? As happy as a geek on a software buying spree.) Here’s my current suite of tools.

Hardware:

  • Mac Mini with max memory available in 2010
  • 32Gb iPad 2 WiFi only
  • ZAGGkeys SOLO Bluetooth keyboard. (Can’t do serious writing without a keyboard. Sorry, Apple.)
  • Novatel 4260L mobile 4G LTE hotspot.

Software:

  • Scrivener. This Mac program is amazing. All the frustration of trying to build a REALLY LARGE document in Word, or any other word processor is gone. It even claims to remove distractions with its “composition mode.” (Ha. Might work for you. My brain creates its own distractions.)
  • Textilus. This IOS app (iPad side) lets me write on the iPad and sync with Scrivener without chewing up my data allowance. It is not the polished tool that Scrivener is, but it does what it does reasonably well.

Network services:

  • Dropbox. Without this free cloud service, using my iPad to write would be hard; iCloud isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. All my files are on their server AND on my Mac, AND available to my iPad. This is the substructure that enables Scrivener and Textilus to be in sync.
  • LogMeIn.This is a free (for what I want to do, at least) remote desktop service. If what I want to do absolutely cannot be done on the iPad, I fire up LogMeIn, connect the iPad client to the server installed on my Mac, and do it from my Mac. Wherever. (Note: it only works well if a 4G connection is available. It will work over 3G, but is ssslllooowww, and drops a lot.) While I can write without this on the iPad (and had to, while I was in the Sierras), it makes life easier. In fact, with this and a bluetooth keyboard, why bother with a laptop? Your tablet or smartphone will happily pretend it’s your desktop computer for those things that a tablet/smartphone can’t do. Yet. The only drawback: it tends to use a lot of data on my data plan.

Things I tried that didn’t really work for me:

  • Open Office. This free Mac Microsloth Office replacement is awkward, and even slower than the original. It is usable for small projects. I use it for spreadsheets, mostly.
  • QuickOffice Pro HD. Nothing wrong with it, as MS Office tools for the iPad go, and I use it for spreadsheets, letters, etc. But– it won’t edit files from Scrivener without losing formatting.
  • Index Card. This iPad app syncs with Scrivener and allows you to structure (outline) stuff in much the same way as Scrivener, but while the ordering part of the structure is transferred to and from Scrivener, the hierarchy is not. Also, no formatting available for main text you write in IndexCard, and it loses formatting from Scrivener. I spent too much time duplicating effort.

That’s the lot. Oh, there are all the usual wonderful widgets on my iPad, and on my Mac Mini, but these are the ones I use for writing. Other writers: What do you use?