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iPhone app review – Tradewinds 2

(This iPhone review and others like it have been moved to my new app review site, positivemachine.com. Why not have a look?)


Name / Category: Tradewinds 2 / Games
What it costs: $2.99 on sale (normal price $4.99)


What it is: A port of an old PC game about visiting ports.


Why you should buy it: Because you have an addictive personality and some misguided, internet-era obsession with pirates and the Caribbean that the makers of this game could not possibly have foreseen, and therefore exploited, back in the 1990s. Thank god for the iPhone, then, as the current rights holders and publishers will finally be able to make good on their foolhardy investment from nearly two decades ago. If they’re really lucky, their children will start calling them again. From jail.


Why you shouldn’t: If you already played Chocolatier, a game that shamelessly ripped off the look and gameplay essence of this classic title, you might not want to revisit the old sail-around-the-world-making-money genre. Of course, Chocolatier did remove all the pirates, sea battles, and general fun found in Tradewinds 2 in order to include a realistic simulation of chocolate manufacturing – complete with catapults, giant ingredient icons, and indoor ferris wheels. Tradewinds 2 also feels a little more ‘adult’, that is to say people drown at sea by your scurvy hand.


Alright, fine, I’ll give a rating: 4/5

Buy Tradewinds 2 in the iTunes App Store.
Buy Chocolatier ($4.99) in the iTunes App Store.

——-

Below: Tradewinds 2 (touching any of the buildings shows their names)

From sangsara.net

Below: Chocolatier’s port view

From sangsara.net

Below: Chocolatier’s action puzzle replacement for sea battles.

From sangsara.net
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Comparing ebooks: Classics, Stanza, and Eucalyptus on iPhone

Reading books on little mobile devices has never been very pleasant. I first started reading ebooks ten years ago, on the black and green screen of my PalmPilot. I packed it with Shakespeare to avoid bringing a bag full of books to class. Later in university, I would do the same to get around bringing a suitcase of books back and forth every summer. I used my computer then, and much better looking PDF files.

On every new phone I’ve bought in the last ten years, I would try and find ways to read books on it, but in that era, it was like hoping your phone could tell you where you were on a map and how to get someplace else. Up until my last Nokia phone, which DID have GPS, the dream of comfortably reading books was still a distant one. Apps were clunky and coded in Java, could only access ugly system fonts, and were no better than opening up a text file in notepad. Proper formatting was secondary to getting words on a screen.

Despite these limitations, I maintained a fondness for the idea of mobile reading and ebooks. Many people I know tell me they can’t read off a screen. I think that has less to do with the idea of reading off a screen and more to do with the poor software that’s traditionally been available. Microsoft Reader on Windows, which I used to play with, was actually one of the best desktop solutions with its ClearType rendering technology. Of course, telling your mom she should sit in front of a computer to read her bedside novel isn’t going to win any converts. Handhelds are the key, but phone software just wasn’t up to it.

There are many advantages to reading an ebook on a modern mobile device. For one, you don’t need to have adequate ambient lighting. You can pretty much curl up on a couch in the dark. This doesn’t apply to e-paper devices like the Amazon Kindles, of course. You can carry hundreds in no more than the volume of a single paperback. If it’s a phone that’s already in your pocket, you can read in short bursts, anywhere. The main tradeoff used to be that the text would be ugly, which can really make a difference to the whole experience.

Of course, I’m here to tell you that’s no longer the case.

The iPhone, with its App Store full of quality 3rd-party software applications, has far more book reading solutions than any other phone had in the past. A company called Mobipocket used to dominate the mobile book reading software space on regular old phones and PDAs; but they were bought by Amazon which has its own Kindle software for iPhones now. One wonders what their plans for Stanza are.

I’ve tried just about all I could get my hands on. Most of them are not very good. Some stick to the old word processor paradigm and print text downwards on a scrolling page. I don’t think that’s the way to go. The best ones try to replicate the paper book experience, which is of course, the current best way to read.

—–

Stanza app

Above: Stanza, by Lexcycle (now acquired by Amazon) [lexcycle.com] – Free

Stanza came first, and it was free. I won’t go into the details of everything that Stanza does, but it does a lot. You can buy DRM-ed books and you can download public domain books. You can even upload your own PDF files into it. The text rendering though, was a completely DIY affair. It started up with a vanilla black on white scheme, and if you wanted the words bigger/smaller, the line spacing and margins changed, or whatever, you would have to tweak it on your own. It didn’t come with presets to approximate professional results. In fact, the earliest versions of Stanza used justified text as a default preset. It looked awful. The latest versions have a feature where you can enable hyphenation, which tells the program it’s okay to break some long words up to avoid sentences looking like morse code. What you see above are my own presets, the result of much trial and error.

Classics app

Above: Classics, by Andrew Kaz & Phill Ryu [classicsapp.com] – $0.99

Classics arrived on the scene a little later with a completely different approach. The selection of books was hardcoded into the app. You couldn’t add or take away anything. It was a small library of carefully curated choices, and the fact that each page was professionally typeset to look good was alluded to in marketing materials. Oh, and it had a flashy page turning animation. Subsequent updates to the app added new books, but that hasn’t happened in awhile. It debuted at the price of $2.99, which its developers claimed was a special introductory price. I suppose that meant it was especially high for early suckers, because you can get it now for just 99c. The much-lauded professional typesetting was a real disappointment for me. Text was larger than it needed to be, everything was poorly justified (huge rivers), and the text color wasn’t quite bold enough. Still, I loved the sound and look of the turning pages. Because every page was pre-rendered and fixed, none of these aspects could be changed by the reader.

I alternated between Stanza and Classics for awhile. I changed the settings in Stanza to keep my text left justified until the option to hyphenate appeared. I could never get the page color I wanted. The yellow you see above looks a lot darker on my iPhone’s screen, which works well enough.

Eucalyptus appAbove: Eucalyptus, by James Montgomerie [eucalyptusapp.com] – $9.99

Eucalyptus blows them both out of the water, but there’s always a catch. It only accesses public domain books on Project Gutenberg, which Stanza can do in addition to opening other files. There are about 20,000+ texts accessible through the PG library.

That’s it. That’s the only negative apart from the price. I don’t consider not having the ability to turn your page color a sickly red and your text color Christmas-green to be a drawback. I love it when somebody who obviously knows his business, a professional of some sort, calibrates something so I don’t have to. If you’re the type who tries to fix his own air-conditioning or calibrate his own plasma TV, then perhaps you will enjoy whipping Stanza into shape. I didn’t.

Even an illiterate can see that Eucalyptus has nailed the look of a book on a small screen. It even has a much better page flipping animation than Classics, and does it in real-time 3D. You can manipulate the softly flowing paper of a page in mid-air the same way you might a real page. You can’t do that in Classics. To maintain control over its presentation, Classics seems to store every page as some sort of image file (it’s nearly 50MB in size with about 15 books in it). Eucalyptus renders plain text with its own proprietary algorithms to make those beautiful pages on the fly. Because of that, you can change the text size, but not the typeface (it looks like Times to me turns out it’s the open-sourced Linux Libertine).

I want you to indulge me and do a little experiment. Scroll back up and read the first paragraph, slowly, in each of the screenshots. Then come back here.

~

If you’re like me, you would have noticed the big gaps between words in Stanza, and the need for hyphenation, which slowed down your reading/comprehension speed a little. The overall feeling you got after reading it like that was probably something along the lines of “meh”. Classics, on the other hand, somehow encourages reading faster, and skimming. I think it’s the larger type, which also serves to soften the gaps… but you’ll see gaps aplenty on other pages in Classics. The rhythm of the sentence is wrecked. It goes from a slow, three-part opening line that sets the tone for the book to come into something rushed, and not fully digested. When you read it in Eucalyptus, it should be something of a revelation.

With regards to Stanza: I don’t like having too many choices, because they encourage me to fiddle instead of just read. And if it’s not done quite right, like in Classics, I just groan and try to make do. I’ve read quite a few of the books in Classics. But when ebook reading is done really, really well, like in Eucalyptus, then I can see a bridge clearly stretching from those days spent squinting on a dim, muddy screen in English class, all the way to the present, and it makes me really glad that now other people might finally have reason to get into this.

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Comments on HDR Camera vs iFlashReady [iPhoneography]

I just posted a comment on another site that ended up being too long, so I thought I’d reprint it here for my own records.

Last week, Glyn Evans from iPhoneography.com put up a review of HDR Camera [iTunes link], a US$1.99 iPhone app that promised to magically turn single-exposure photos from a crappy 2-megapixel camera into HDR masterpieces. For that review, Glyn used one of his usual sample photos (a close-up of a bolt on a wooden gate) to demonstrate the app’s effects, but being the smartass that I am, I wrote in to essential say that I thought it wasn’t suited for the purpose at hand (scenes with potential for HDR photography are usually marked by a wide variance between their light and dark areas [hence the name, High Dynamic Range], such as landscape shots with lots of sky. Properly done, HDR photos show the world in ways that our eyes cannot perceive, with everything evenly lit despite an overpowering light source).

I recommended looking at another application that I use regularly, iFlashReady [iTunes link], which gives fantastic HDR-like results. Glyn agreed with my points, and took down his review for some rewriting. It’s just gone up again today, and his conclusion is still that HDR Camera is a waste of money.

My comment starts below. The remarks directed at another commenter, TrevorML, are in response to his question about the suitability of other general image editing apps on the iPhone to this sort of processing.

Hi Glyn,

Since our correspondence, I’ve had the misfortune of being tempted to try HDR Camera out for myself, and have arrived at the same conclusions as you. It largely produces unpleasant results I would be ashamed to show anyone on my iPhone or Flickr account. Other apps like iFlashReady and PhotoFX are far more capable of taking a badly exposed photo (a fault of the iPhone’s limited camera software) and giving it some points of interest.

TrevorML: I’m glad you asked that question. Naturally it’s impossible for any iPhone app today to produce true HDR images, as those require a series of bracketed images as you have noted. The iPhone camera API does not allow apps or users to manually adjust the auto-exposure values, or any other values for that matter. The best we can have for the moment (perhaps iPhone OS 3.0 will hand over more control to apps) is apps that simulate the effect by recovering lost/hidden photographic data.

I initially thought that iFlashReady worked by simply boosting the brightness of photos, which is how we might normally approach the problem in Photoshop/Aperture/Lightroom, etc. but it’s actually more advanced. Looking at the developer’s website, I discovered that they produce a professional application, Essential HDR (www.imagingluminary.com), for Windows PCs. It seems that they’ve taken some of their technologies and applied it to iFlashReady, and probably decided that marketing it as a brightening app would be more commercially successful than proclaiming its HDR features. Rightly so, I think, as few mainstream iPhone users know or give a crap about HDR.

But iFlashReady does work as an HDR app in practice, and like I was saying, it goes beyond simple brightening. What seems to be happening is a localized contrast balancing that increases brightness in dark areas without touching already well-exposed spots. A dark object can be directly beside a bright one, and the effect does not bleed over. I think it’s probably more than just tweaking shadows and highlights too (as can be done in PhotoFX; I’ve tried and the results are not comparable), as it seems to have many subtle steps and a gentle tonal curve. The result looks surprisingly natural, and you can see that above. The ones from HDR Camera certainly do not.

Another thing that impressed me greatly was that the makers of iFlashReady seemed to have tuned their results with the iPhone’s camera in mind. Noise is effectively suppressed, or simply not exaggerated by their processing. HDR Camera’s “Night Mode” produces horrendous blotches of color noise across the entire photo. A few other apps I’ve seen also seem to just port their image effects over from the desktop side of things with no regard for imaging characteristics of the iPhone’s camera.

If I sound like I’m plugging the app because I know the guys who made it, well I don’t. I just use it nearly every other day and enjoy it a great deal. But since I’m recommending, another app I use often and find sadly underpublicized is the superb “ColorTaste with TOY LENS” [iTunes link] by Tandem Systems (who is really a rather friendly Japanese developer), which costs US$1.99. In my opinion, this app handily beats others like ToyCamera [iTunes] and Camerabag [iTunes] because of one feature: lens distortion modelling. It doesn’t just alter colors and add a vignette (although it can do those too), its Toy Lens mode subtly distorts and blurs photos to look like they came from a tiny plastic lens, like what you’d find on a Diana (120 film) or Vistaquest VQ1005 (keychain digital) camera.

Again, to tie it back to the earlier part of this comment, this sort of initiative in iPhone app development impresses me greatly. Rather than just doing a me-too image processor, these two companies have opened up new avenues of iPhone photography.

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What’s the best place to host a blog?

In the past few days, I’ve had a couple of conversations with people about what the “best” hosted blogging platform is (pure coincidence, my life isn’t that geeky). I’ve been using Google Blogger for this here outlet since 2002, with a short WordPress dalliance in-between that cost me a few weeks’ worth of posts when my hosting company suffered a database outage.

Blogger isn’t really so bad, but it IS bland and boring. In exchange for solid, Google-level stability, you have to put up with a small selection of dated templates and no easy way to customize your blog without some knowledge of HTML and CSS. But at least you can. Everything about the page can be changed, provided you know how. I’m quite familiar with the ways of the internet, but I can’t make this page look good to save my life. Adding widgets is quite easy, though, which gives it an advantage over the next service.

WordPress.com – a hosted blogging service, not to be confused with the WordPress.org blogging software for installing on your own server, offered by the same company – is very modern in comparison with Blogger, but doesn’t allow you to insert your own widgets and bits of code. That means no cute little Flickr slideshows, ads, or shoutboxes. Some plug-ins are offered by WordPress.com itself, but those are limited. Templates/themes are also limited to the ones included, with some minor tweaks to header images, colors, etc. but these tend to be very nice and good enough for most people.

Typepad costs money, unlike the first two choices, and I’ve always held it in high regard for the fact that they’ve managed to stay afloat in a sea of free competitors, and their marketing has been quite good. The site’s landing page boasts a large number of high-profile bloggers and professional journalists who swear by Typepad, and promises hundreds of expertly designed templates to turn even complete luddites into proud owners of beautiful sites in mere minutes. –– When I finally tried to sign up for the free trial this week, the reality was a complete disappointment. These templates are anything but modern and attractive. It’s hard to justify paying a minimum of US$5 a month when just a few more dollars can get you…

Squarespace. The things that are being done by this company put their competitors to shame. Sure, their prices are a little high, but I’ve yet to see the design and technology at work here being offered anywhere else. Many software packages say you can put a website together with virtually no HTML knowledge, but they’re still pretty hard to use. Squarespace lets you drag and drop content, switch layouts/themes with a few clicks, and do complicated CSS adjustments like changing the width of columns, the amount of leading (space) between lines of text, font sizes, etc., with sliders and other intuitive controls. All in real-time, so you can see the changes you’re making. If you want to get technical, it apparently lets you do that too.

Of course, there are a bunch of others like Livejournal and Vox (both free and owned by Six Apart, the company that offers Typepad), but I can’t recommend them for any serious use. They’re kind of hybrid blogging + social networking platforms, limited in scope and geared towards more ‘fun’ and socially oriented applications. You can’t use your own designs, and I don’t think you can export your data if you’d like to move to another service. Blogger, WordPress, and Squarespace make it easy to leave, always a good sign.

My conclusion is, if you can afford US$8-14 a month, Squarespace is your best bet. Their gallery of customers includes Mark Ecko’s personal blog and corporate site, Digg founder Kevin Rose’s blog, and a few other great-looking examples. If you’d rather go free, choose Google Blogger if you have some coding knowledge or would like to put ads and fun gadgets on your page. WordPress.com is a stylish, easy alternative for people who just want to start writing.