15 mins read

Why all your notes and files should be plain text


Hi, friends! Welcome to Installer No. 26, your guide to the best and Verge-iest stuff in the world. (If you’re new here, welcome. So psyched you found us, and also you can read all the old editions at the Installer homepage.) 

This week, I’ve been playing with the redesigned You.com for AI research, trying out the Phanpy Mastodon client, getting back into Zombies, Run after reading Vee Song’s great story about Fantasy Hike, and reading the new “lost chapter” of The Martian before probably just rereading The Martian again.

I also have for you some non-earbud earbuds, a nerdy video about nerdy stuff, a new to-do list app, a new thing in ChatGPT, and much more. Let’s do it.

(As always, the best part of Installer is your ideas and tips. What are you doing, reading, watching, playing, testing, cooking, lifting, soldering, or charging right now? What cool stuff are you into that everyone else should also be into? Tell me everything: [email protected] or +1 203-570-8663. And if you know someone else who might enjoy Installer, forward it to them and tell them to subscribe here.)

The Drop

  • Bose’s Ultra Open Earbuds. For some reason, over the last year or so, almost all in-ear headphones suddenly leave my ears sore and scratchy. So I’m very curious to try these — even though at $299 they’re too expensive for my tastes, the clip-on style seems like it could work.
  • Bulletin. The Verge’s Parker Ortolani turned me onto this: a new (Apple-only) news- and RSS-reading app with a lot of AI features for summarization and stuff, but also just a really lovely UI for reading news feeds. You can add premade lists, dump in any site or feed, even save stuff to read later.
  • The Space Race. A really cool documentary about early Black astronauts, with tons of archival footage and a really wild Cold War subplot. As with all good space docs, make sure you watch this one on the biggest screen you can find.
  • Mark Zuckerberg’s Vision Pro review. The review itself is, like, fine — I think Zuck is right about a lot of the things people actually want headsets for, and about the price-to-quality balance being a tricky one. But shooting a review of a competitor’s product, with your own product, in such a casual way, is just fascinating to me.
  • The ONE thing keeping this iconic vintage laptop from working… Recently, for reasons I hope to someday be able to tell you about, I’ve been deep down the rabbit hole of awesome old gadgets. And the This Does Not Compute channel has become one of my favorite new resources — the host is perpetually trying to restore or resurrect some old PC, and even this random Toshiba laptop left me desperately wanting one. 
  • Superlist. This week’s “to-do list app that’s so close to being everything I wanted and maybe I’ll just spend the whole weekend trying it out.” It’s a teams-first product, which, meh, but this is the best-looking productivity app I’ve seen in years.
  • Mario vs. Donkey Kong. More updated spins on old-school Mario games for the Switch! How did we get so lucky! This one’s a platformer with a really fun puzzle-y twist, which is exactly the kind of game I like to spend too many hours playing on the couch.
  • How AI Tech Can Give Dead People a Voice. This week’s winner of the “Is this powerful and awesome, or is this horrifying” award is The Shotline, which is using AI to recreate the voices of kids who were victims of gun violence. Joanna Stern’s video is great, and The Shotline’s voices will make you feel… a lot of things.
  • DuckDuckGo. DDG just rolled out a cool new tool that lets you sync passwords and bookmarks across platforms without needing an account; you just scan a QR code to add a new device. At this point, I’m wary of saying any company is actually a good privacy option, but DuckDuckGo is certainly doing the work. 

Spotlight

A while back, I got really close to moving all my personal docs, email, calendar, and files into Skiff, which was basically a privacy-focused Google Drive competitor. Stuff got busy, and moving all that stuff is a big project, but it’s been on my list for a while. Super glad I didn’t get to it, though, because Skiff was just acquired by Notion and is now shutting down.

If I’ve learned one thing in my years of covering tech, it’s that nothing is guaranteed to stick around, no matter how much you love it or how popular it is. Things change, mistakes happen, stuff disappears. And every time it happens, I get a little more religious about something that Steph Ango, the CEO of Obsidian, likes to say: file over app.

The idea of “file over app” is to care a lot more about your data itself than the app or platform it’s in. Like, the app you’re using now? Probably not going to be around in 50 years. Text files and JPGs and PDFs? Way more likely to still be here! So invest in formats that last, not apps that don’t.

What that means for me, personally, is that I try to turn my life into text files and their equivalents as often as possible.

  • I use an iOS and Mac app called NotePlan for daily notes and task management — the app is built on top of a folder of Markdown files I can easily use anywhere else. Obsidian and Logseq are both the same way and are both excellent (if very different) apps.
  • I use the bookmarking service Raindrop to store all the links I care about, for Installer and everything else, and once a week I export all my links as a CSV file and again as a text file.
  • Day One is where I keep my actual journal, and every month or so I export the whole thing to a PDF.
  • Once a year or so, when I’m feeling both bored and ambitious, I’ll back up my entire camera roll and Google Photos library to an external hard drive. All the other stuff goes into Google Drive, and onto that same hard drive.

I try to find apps that are made with text files in mind. When I can’t, I try to find apps with good, durable export systems, and make sure I’m backing things up often. I’m done getting stuck inside an app I can’t trust to be around for long.

There’s a lot more for me to do here, and frankly still a lot of stuff in my life that will disappear if some big-name services delete my account or go offline altogether. (I’m still trying to figure out whether my email and calendar are things I should be archiving…) But I now have years of journal entries, daily tasks, project archives, and more in a format I’m confident I’ll be able to at least open and look at on my neural face-puter in 2096. And it makes me feel better, so I figured I’d share.

Oh, and by the way, there are so many great text editors out there. Typora is probably the best writing app I’ve ever used. If you write code, you already know BBEdit and VS Code and Sublime Text. Nota, Ulysses, iA Writer, and a bunch of others all do a good job of helping you both write and organize. Living in text files doesn’t mean living in Notepad or TextEdit; you really can have the best of both worlds. Text files forever!

Screen share

Zoë Schiffer, the managing editor at the excellent Platformer newsletter (and a Verge alum!), just published one of the best tech books I’ve read in a while. It’s called Extremely Hardcore: Inside Elon Musk’s Twitter, and trust me, however wild you think the last couple of years have been at X / Twitter, the actual truth is much wilder. Zoë’s been reporting on this saga throughout, and the book’s a total winner.

I asked Zoë to share her homescreen with us on the eve of her book launch, because one thing I’ve always liked about Zoë is that she is forever deeply conflicted about technology. She reports on it, understands it deeply, uses it constantly, but is also perpetually trying to get her Screen Time numbers down. Since I’m deeply embarrassed by my Screen Time report basically every week, I wanted to see how she does it.

Here’s Zoë’s homescreen, plus some info on the apps she uses and why:

The phone: This is an iPhone 14, I believe. The screen is cracked and I use it exclusively for work. I have an iPhone mini with no apps except Spotify and Google Maps that I use as my personal phone. The process of having a separate work phone (with apps) and a personal phone (with almost nothing interesting) has dropped my screentime to about 2.5 hours a day, not to brag.

The wallpaper: My wallpaper is a photo of my hot a** husband, and my two-year-old daughter. 

The apps: Apple Calendar, Google Maps, Apple Notes, Signal, Apple Mail, Threads, ChatGPT, Spotify, Phone, Messages.

My main homescreen has Signal, which I use constantly to communicate with sources, and Threads, which is my primary Twitter replacement. I also have ChatGPT, which I love. I ask it about various health symptoms and also to create recipes for, like, a single chocolate chip cookie.

One screen over I have TikTok, which is my guilty pleasure, and Bluesky, which I’m trying to use more but feels a little chaotic. I also have a pregnancy tracker because (duh) I’m pregnant. Right now the baby is the size of a lime, so that’s nice. 

I also asked Zoë to share a few things she’s into right now. Here’s what she said:

Crowdsourced

Here’s what the Installer community is into this week. I want to know what you’re into right now as well! Email [email protected] or message +1 203-570-8663 with your recommendations for anything and everything, and we’ll feature some of our favorites here every week. 

“I’ve been playing the new Dominion card game app! Dominion is a deckbuilding game from back in the day, and it’s got several (I believe 15) expansions so far. Previous iterations of the game online and in app form never fully realized their potential. This is the best implementation of the game to date. There is offline play against AI, matchmaking, and you can also do private matches with friends via a Nintendo-esque friend code system.” — Matt

“I’ve been listening to and immensely enjoying Worlds Beyond Number, an actual play narrative podcast from the best folks to ever do it.” — Caleb

“I received my Retroid Pocket 4 Pro in the mail this week after about a month of waiting from China. It exceeded expectations, and I’m having a great time emulating N64, GameCube, and PlayStation 2 games. On Saturday I had a friend over, and we played couch co-op games just like the good old days using a USB-C hub and a couple controllers. Highly recommended for a huge nostalgia kick.” — Nicholas

“Having fun playing old Nintendo titles on the Miyoo Plus. Such a great device. Feels like a time machine.” — Jamie

“I’m playing, and overwhelmingly impressed with, Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown. It feels like a love letter to Castlevania and Metroid, and heavily inspired by Hollow Knight… but also innovates in some really clever ways. It also runs incredibly well on the Switch.” — Steve

“Probably one of the most used apps on my phone is Mela, by Silvio Rizzi. It’s a thoughtfully designed recipe app designed to share with your family. It has a shared family recipe library and integrations with Reminders and Calendar to ensure my fiancé and I are always on the same page. Oh, and it also has a built-in RSS reader for finding new recipes!” — Liam

“It’s called What Happened Last Week, and it’s a great way to keep up with news from countries that are not often reported on in places like Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It contains clear explanations and contexts on developments so it is easy to read even if you have never heard of the names in the story. I find it really useful and complementary to the big Western news sources.” — Richard

Windows95Man is Finland’s entry to Eurovision this year, and it’s amazing on so many layers. Watching the video on YouTube is mandatory for full appreciation.” — Sighjinks

“The new season of Game Changer on Dropout started this week, and it’s a treat as always!” — Noah

Signing off

The biggest, weirdest tech story of this weekend is coming from a slightly surprising place: the floor of the NBA All-Star Game. Have you seen the videos of the all-LED full-court screen? Here’s an example of what this kind of thing looks like during a game, too. It looks like a total nightmare to play on, and I’d bet $10 we’ll never see this in a real game with any stakes. But boy is it going to be something to watch. This is my kind of augmented reality.





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