Cortex Camera is your best bet for quality iPhone photos

Original iPhone capture
Original iPhone capture
IMG_0506
Cortex Camera capture

It’s hard to believe that you can get different results from the same hardware—the same smartphone camera—just seconds apart. The first photo was taken with the iPhone 5S’s built-in camera app, which employs some impressive software techniques to improve most photos. In this case, a low-light scene forced an ISO sensitivity of 1000.

The second photo was taken with Cortex Camera, which takes a series of images over 2 seconds or so (you don’t have to keep your hands perfectly still, but still-as-possible helps). These are then combined for far less noise, more accurate colors, and higher resolution (12mp on the iPhone 5/5S, which normally take 8mp images). The default Camera.app also combines up to four captures for better photos, but is optimized to work for all situations. For any scene without moving subjects and where you have the luxury of time, Cortex delivers better results.

Camera.app 100% crop
Camera.app 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop
Cortex Camera 100% crop

The shots above are 100% crops from the same scene. Note that the Cortex Camera version is both larger and more detailed. It has more potential for processing, and beats a fair few prosumer point and shoot cameras at the pixel level.

The first app to do this “supersampling” was Occipital’s ClearCam, which I used to swear by. However, like their other app 360 Panorama, ClearCam hasn’t received any updates in the wake of iOS 7, and appears to have been abandoned as the company pushes their new Kickstarter-backed project, the Structure Sensor. At this time, ClearCam makes you wait longer and has a cumbersome alignment and enhancement process. Cortex Camera just takes the picture and saves it all in one step. It’s a damn shame, because both Occipital apps were among the first and best of their kind, enabling users to do things with their iPhones that seemingly defied the capabilities of the hardware. They clearly have a knack for clever imaging technology; I just hope they take a longer view of supporting their products some day.

If you’re in the market for a new app to take and share those 360-degree panoramas, Sphere (formerly Tour Wrist) does a good job and is free. Bubbli is also promising, but captures video instead of photos to stitch a scene together, which means you have to pan slowly to get an even exposure. If you’ve got the cash and a love of new gadgets (mustnotbuymustnotbuy) Ricoh’s new Theta camera does the trick in a single click. It’s the first consumer-ready spherical capture camera and looks like a presentation remote. Simply hold it above your head and hit the button, and it takes in the entire scene. What’s more, the $400 device has built-in wifi and beams photos over to your iPhone for instant sharing. It’s not hard to imagine this feature on an iPhone a decade from now.

One Week with the Jawbone UP: How its Design Inspires Behavioral Change

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I bought one of the newly revised Jawbone UP wristbands a week ago. For those not following the rise of wearable activity trackers such as the Nike+ FuelBand, they are essentially pedometers you put on your wrist as you go about your business each day (and wear to sleep at night, in some cases), that connect with your PC or smartphone to give you more insight into your health. The UP was one of the first products on the market, but suffered from design and manufacturing defects that led to a hasty recall and another year on the drawing board before it was finally re-released last Christmas.

It all started with using the free Moves iPhone app (by the Finnish company ProtoGeo) for about a week, during which I got a taste for recording and quantifying my movements. When I saw the UP on sale locally, it was an easy purchase. It’s only been a week, but it has been a behavior-altering experience for me so far. Along with its companion app, the UP provides a couple of key features.

  • Activity reports
  • Food logging
  • Sleep quality tracking
  • Social network awareness
  • Fiddle-free design
  • Comfort and style

Activity reports

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Open up the app and you’ll see at a glance how you’re doing against your set objectives. A healthy target is 10,000 steps a day, but few sedentary workers can meet that. Because UP is an internet-connected service, it’s able to tell you what others like you (in age, gender, height, and weight) are averaging. In my case, the average most do is about 5,500 steps a day. I decided to set myself a high but achievable goal of 8,000 steps.

What’s happened since? I’ve found myself striving to reach that by alighting one bus stop ahead of my destinations, taking the long way around the office, and going for more short walks whenever I can.

It translates your activity into calories burnt, which it shows you alongside an estimate of how many calories you burn just resting, and a total for each day. Every now and then, the application shows you “Insights”; pre-written facts and advice tailored to your own performance. Examples include deciphering hidden patterns in your behavior and mood, and helping you understand terms like “you walked 8,000 steps” with statements such as “equivalent to walking across the Golden Gate Bridge and back”.

Food logging

This part is optional, but you can enter your meals (or just photos of them) to keep a record of what you’ve eaten. If they’re available in the online database, nutritional information is attached. It has the same effect as using an expense tracking app: it makes you acutely aware of every little bit you put into your body, and alerts your conscience to the unnecessary.

In practice, having a vague idea of how many calories I’m consuming, coupled with the knowledge of how much I’m burning (or NOT burning, on idle days) has been powerful. If I know that I’ve only moved a minimal amount all afternoon, any random urge to snack quickly meets a mental roadblock — “Why would I need more calories?”

Sleep quality tracking

Like the popular Sleep Cycle app, the UP band can monitor your movements in the middle of the night, and map out your light vs. deep periods of sleep on a graph. And then at the best possible time close to your intended waking hour, it will silently vibrate in the morning.

You are asked to set a sleep goal for yourself, and along with all the other data it collects, this is plotted over a timeline of days, weeks, and months, which illustrates how good you’ve been at getting the sleep and exercise you need.

Social network awareness

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This is easily one of the best features of the UP. Other people can be added as “teammates” and their activities populate your Home screen, turning it into an Instagram of physical activity. You’re encouraged to inspect their details, leave comments, or react with a small selection of emoticons. You might see that a friend had a healthier lunch, or walked far more than you, or slept better than you. These events nudge you into behavior change.

When I started, one of the only people it found for me to add to my “team” was someone living in Japan that I only follow on Twitter and YouTube. I asked, she said ‘Sure’. I don’t know her personally at all, but I’ve found that reading UP’s activity feed is a unique interaction different from regular status updates. Being able to correlate your own physical state with another person’s through shared metrics, leads to a different sense of awareness; any encouragement you receive resonates that much more. Her most active day blew me away at over 24,000 steps, followed by 11 hours of sleep. It really spurred me on to try and find the time for activity. Multiply that by the number of people you follow, and the social features become an extremely compelling component.

On my second day, two more people I interact with online bought their own. On the third, my girlfriend joined in.

Fiddle-free Design

While the UP is not designed to be worn and forgotten — its constant presence serves to remind you of your goals — it is designed to be worn and left alone. Its long battery life (about 7-10 days) is one of the ways in which this is obvious. Charging via USB only takes about 80 mins, which you can easily do while idle.

In chasing this long battery life, the UP eschews Bluetooth syncing, which other products like the Fitbit and Nike+ FuelBand have. To sync the UP, one must remove it and plug one end into a smartphone’s headphone jack. Jawbone recommends doing this about twice a day to keep up with your own stats and update your team. On the other wristbands, one only has to start the app, and they sync wirelessly.

I actually think this omission is a strength.

Like how shooting on film frees you from constantly checking how the photo came out on the little digital screen, thereby letting you take more photos and experience the scene you’re in, not continuously syncing the UP creates mystery, anticipation, and actually lets you get on with it and not fiddle with tracking apparatus every spare minute.

In his excellent essay about using a FitBit, Paris and the Data Mind, Craig Mod described looking at the LED display and seeing that he had climbed 96 flights of stairs one day. The next thing he did was walk halfway across the flat town of Palo Alto to the nearest flight of stairs he knew of, so that he could shift that number to read 100. It sounds like great exercise, but I don’t want to obsess over live numbers or end up conducting accuracy tests each day over how many steps it’s counting.

The UP way, you’re wondering things like “will I break my record today?”, and if you’re extra competitive, “I hope I don’t lose to so-and-so,” as you go about your business. Sometimes, by not knowing, you exceed your targets. And then you sync at the end of the day, and it’s like waiting for lottery numbers to be called out. It’s its own kind of fun.

Comfort and style

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The UP is available in 8 colors, of which 3 are available here in Singapore right now. I got the Black (sorry, Onyx), and it’s pretty nondescript and unlikely to draw attention. The brighter colors pop more, and show off a subtle zig-zag texture that identifies it as part of the company’s product range under design chief Yves Béhar. None of them are what you’d expect a “wearable computing device” to look like. The only button is cleverly hidden, looking like an integrated design feature. Two LED lights are embedded beneath the hypoallergenic rubber surface, and only visible when lit. It’s much thinner than the FuelBand, and could easily be mistaken for one of those Livestrong-type charity support wristbands from a few feet away.

These things help with making the UP an invisible part of daily life, which gives it potential to succeed at being adopted by more. But as the wearer, I always feel its presence (at least in this first week). The routines I’m developing around the app, around thinking about moving more, burning more, eating less, around how my teammates improve themselves, are the very definition of behavior change.

If having visualized, connected, and actionable data on your own body and movements sounds interesting to you, the UP will probably be a great addition to your life.

Using VSCO Film with Compact Cameras

Many of us have a soft spot for the look of film photos, whether because of nostalgic associations; or a preference for the grain, faded tones, and color shifts that render the familiar world just a little more interesting. The effort to simulate this in digital photos has lately become conflated with “vintage” effects, where age and strong aberrations are introduced. Those are okay for throwaway shots and fun Instagrammable occasions, but not when a moment deserves quality with a little added character.

As a frequent user of the Visual Supply Co.’s VSCO CAM iPhone app, I knew their VSCO Film preset for professionals using Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture were going to be capable of producing subtle film-like looks, and save a lot of time in post-processing to achieve the kind of results I usually want. But there’s a big difference between a US$0.99 app and buying two sets of presets (a handful of finely-tuned settings and slider positions) costing US$79 each.

It’s a no-brainer for the working photographer who shoots weddings and events; VSCO Film presets are the result of people with more time than you, slaving away to find the perfect combinations of color, lighting, and grain to get the most out of photos. You pay to save yourself that Herculean effort, and make it back almost immediately.

The amateur photographer (me) has less incentive to part with their money, apart from curiosity and desire. I don’t even own a DSLR camera. The VSCO presets are very much designed to be used on well-exposed, high quality RAW photos from a DSLR. On holidays, I mostly shoot with high-end compacts like the Ricoh GR Digital, which are capable of saving RAW files, but I’m just as likely to use Point & Shoots or smartphones with small sensors, depending on the situation. Up to this moment, I’ve always chosen to save JPEGs over RAW for the convenience.

I tried to find articles online about whether or not it was worth buying VSCO Film for use on photos from regular compact cameras, but found little in the way of reassurance. The company’s official line was that they would “work”, but an SLR + RAW files was recommended. Being presets, they could not be expected to perform consistently across sources of widely varying quality.

It doesn’t help that the company has a No Refunds policy, and does not make available any demo files for curious customers to judge the results with. Being that they are geared towards professional users using gear I don’t have, I understand my need to see how the presets work with consumer cameras is a unique and unsupported one.

If you’re a Lightroom 4 or Adobe Camera RAW user, there’s a preset in the including Toolkit called “JPEG Contrast Fixer”, which corrects some of the issues you will encounter when processing a JPEG from a DSLR or camera incapable of saving RAW files. As an Aperture 3 user, that option was not available.

Since there’s a sale now on to celebrate the release of VSCO Film 02 for Aperture, which amounts to savings of 25% if you buy both packs, I decided last night to take the plunge and see what would happen. I’ve only had a couple of hours or so to test it out on some old vacation photos, but the results are encouraging.

The bottom line: If you’re not concerned with absolute emulation of the film stocks the presets are designed around — and online sentiment I’ve come across seems to be that their accuracy is subjective anyway — and you merely want to achieve a look reminiscent of film photography, you’ll be perfectly pleased using VSCO Film with consumer compact digital cameras.

The shots below were taken with a Ricoh CX6 and GRD3, and processed only within Aperture using VSCO Film 01 & 02. The trick is usually to boost exposure between 0.3 to 1.0 whilst recovering highlights, and then apply the presets you want. This approximates the default brightness I see in many DSLR photos, while expanding the dynamic range a little. Most compacts I’ve used tend to underexpose by default, with the exception of many a Sony Cybershot.

Even with the knowledge that these can work well for those with lower-end cameras, the usual per-pack price of US$79 (and US$119 for the Lightroom versions) is still going to be a significant roadblock for the casual photographer. Nevercenter’s Camerabag 2 for the desktop is just US$20 and capable of yielding great results too. I just wanted something that integrated with Aperture (non-destructive editing), wasn’t a plugin or app I had to leave the environment to use, and was more subtle. Camerabag’s baked-in presets are decidedly closer to “vintage”, but you are free to tone them down and save your own favorites.

Processed: Ginza by night

Original: Ginza by night

MacHeist 4 ends today

MacHeist 4 ends today. The annual bundle has gotten bigger and better — just US$29 for a ton of apps and services worth 20 times more — but they’ve struggled to reach the minimum target of 25,000. That was how many needed to be sold before the premium bonus apps became unlocked for everyone. After 8 days into the 10-day window, they gave up and opened them anyway. Now they’ve finally crossed the mark (26,053 at time of writing) with hours left to go.

There’s probably a longer article in here about why this is the case. Bundles like these used to make a much bigger splash, and I remember a period where Groupon-like daily deal sites for Mac applications were like… daily deal sites for free iOS applications. I guess that’s where the attention has gone now, and much of the spending intent has followed the growth in mobile platforms. Prices there are generally lower too, and I wonder if this means independent Mac apps have to start charging less, or more, to keep profits up.

Anyway, I highly recommend you look into MacHeist while it’s available. 25% of the money goes to charity, and you get a 15-month subscription to Evernote Premium as part of it. I usually pay US$45/year for Evernote and find it immensely useful as a place to store all the webpages I see and want to have searchable, shopping and reading lists, wholesale documents for safekeeping, and snippets of data in an offline notebook whenever I go on a trip. It’s essentially a digitized version of your memory for sanity. There are also great games like Braid, Bioshock 2, and the episodic adventures of Sam & Max, Jurassic Park, and Strong Bad, from developer Telltale Games. That’s like… a hundred hours of gameplay.

One great utility was added this morning: Bartender. It’s not a cocktail recipes app, the world hardly needs more of those, but a tool that sits in your Mac’s menu bar and subsumes all the other menu bar items into it. I’ve greatly cleaned up the visual clutter on mine (made somewhat worse by recent versions of OS X preferring to show menu bar icons in monochrome only), moving things like Bluetooth status, Volume, Dropbox, and my Jawbone status monitor into Bartender’s “bar menu”. Good stuff, and normally sells for US$15.

Why Can’t Twitter Be Like Foursquare?

Turf Geography Club

I never thought little ol’ Foursquare could lead the way for Twitter, but their approach to the third-party access and monetization problem shows more class and understanding. For the past few weeks now, instead of investing in a user experience that users would choose, Twitter’s stated solution has been to make their apps the only ones in town.

Thanks to a tweet from @tarngerine today, I discovered Turf Geography Club, a location-based iPhone game built atop Foursquare’s place database, with additional Monopoly-like mechanics for upgrading and defending your property. It stands out from all the other “check-in and own this location” type apps by taking a flat-out fun (as opposed to a utility) approach: retro 16-bit style graphics, a Wes Anderson-inspired aesthetic (evident in the name, video trailer, and writing), bears, compasses, illustrated logbooks, and nonsensical references to an eternal struggle between man and nature.

What I liked was how I could suddenly start using Turf as my Foursquare client of choice, checking in as I usually do, but also playing this separate, app-specific metagame at the same time. Likewise, I can choose to use Path to document my movements with friends, and share a subset of those actions to Foursquare, for my other contacts to see them. Or I could document something private in Day One, the journaling app, and still check in to Foursquare from there where the location made sense (publicly, without sharing the contents of my journal entry).

Whatever you think of Foursquare and the people who use it, you can’t deny that this is what everyone would love Twitter to continue being, and what the company seems bent on defying: a confident social platform open to innovative ways of being used.

Foursquare recently updated their mobile apps in a big way, taking focus away from previous key features such as Mayorships, and emphasizing discovery and recommendations instead. The Foursquare app is now really good at showing you things of interest nearby, in categories such as food, shopping, and sightseeing, based on recommendations from other users. I can’t get those in Path or Turf, but my one-way actions in those apps feed back into the enrichment of Foursquare. That’s reason enough for me to keep the Foursquare app on my phone in addition to all the other ones that offer check-in functionality.

Twitter’s mobile apps also do a couple of things that third-party apps aren’t allowed to. It shows interactions that your friends have had on the service: tweets they’ve liked, people they’ve recently started following, and it shows supposedly personalized things of interest: local trending topics, and popular links being shared. The latter is where their advertising monetization is meant to happen, and it’s something that no one loves because it’s often dead wrong about what we want to see.

Imagine if Foursquare’s app showed you places you would never go, or check-ins from people you didn’t know or like. What would be the value in that? Instead, contextual intelligence and expert data mining help Foursquare stay valuable and interesting to users when they want to explore, while their availability to third party apps keeps users active and in the equation. The people at Twitter can’t go wrong throwing everything behind the creation of that value, in the interests of long-term viability, instead of shutting down the future of their service that may come from apps like Turf.

Ditching Read It Later for Instapaper

This evening I made the switch from Read It Later to Instapaper. The latter is by far the more popular service. On the surface, it might be hard to choose one over the other. Their iPhone apps both cost $4.99 (Read It LaterInstapaper), they both have free-to-use websites, they both suck the text out of a web article you’re too busy to read at the moment of encounter, and store it online for later enjoyment. Well, at least that’s the idea.

It seems grabbing the right text off a page isn’t that easy, and RIL was just letting me down too many times. Quite often I’d have words like Home, About, and Related Articles – clearly bits of the navigational interface missed by the dust filter – appearing before or in the middle of the story I wanted to read. Sometimes they’d be the only words on display: the article itself having been weeded out and tossed aside, 90% of the page’s content or not!
The RIL text engine wasn’t very smart about pretending to be a normal browser either. Sometimes the policing mechanisms of a website would prevent it from loading the intended content and direct RIL to the front page instead. In the instances where I might only get around to reading the article months later, there’d be simply no way to remember what I was supposed to have been saving. Salon, Edge Magazine, Wired Mobile, and The New York Times all gave it trouble, among others.
There were reasons I stayed this long, though. Read It Later excels at being social. After reading an item I really liked, I could send it to Diigo for full-text archiving, or Evernote, or tweet it, Facebook it, bookmark it in Delicious, share it in Google Reader, or even email the plain text to a friend who might be interested. The Diigo bit was closest to my heart. But for every sweet feature – a full-screen view and a scrollbar for quick skimming are two examples worth mentioning – there’d also be the disadvantages of being second-best.
I think the reason Instapaper has such a knack for sniffing out the right words from a page is that dedicated users send Marco Arment emails whenever something doesn’t work right. By his own admission, the system is a pile of hacks, but as far as the end user (me) is concerned, it just works. I wish it didn’t always have to be about Features vs. Excellence, but Instapaper definitely wins the lower-my-blood-pressure challenge. RIL probably doesn’t get enough feedback to develop a comparably intelligent engine, but missing the first paragraph of every article on the New York Times? Come on.
Also, most apps install support for Instapaper first, and the wait for RIL integration is always long and uncertain. I don’t know if Nate Weiner, Read It Later’s developer, does anything to help adoption of his service along, but like in the case of the new Twitterrific for iPhone, users like me end up being the ones petitioning other app developers to please please please consider adding RIL support. It sucks.
Plus, in the time since I last saw Instapaper, it’s received a bunch of great new features like a paginated viewing method, and an enhanced presentation with inline graphics. I’ll miss RIL’s sharing features, and hope Instapaper adds just a couple more export options to the current choices of Tumblr & Twitter (Diigo, please!), but for the moment it’s enough that I can bookmark stuff and be secure in the knowledge that they’ll be waiting for me, complete, when I get to them.
The fact that this blog somehow appears in the screenshot for Instapaper in the App Store has nothing to do with it, I swear!

Smartphone usability and my parents

I just watched my mother try to take a photo with her Nokia smartphone for the first time. An orchid in the home was blooming, and it was the closest camera within reach. She only uses it as a regular phone, and as the least technically-minded member of the family, is strangely the only one not using an iPhone. Needless to say, she was baffled by the Symbian OS. A primary hardware feature on the device, and the icon was buried in a submenu. Afterwards, she asked my father where to find the file so she could email it to herself, and he couldn’t readily answer her.

His last phone before the iPhone 3GS was a Nokia E90 Communicator, a top-of-the-line Symbian workhorse business machine. He’d spent so much time understanding how it worked, that the iPhone’s simplicity initially confused him. He’d ask how to access the file system so he could manage his data. Coming around to a task-centric model (photos are always available in the Photos app; music lives in the iPod data well, managed with iTunes) took awhile, but now that he gets it, the Nokia way is unfathomable. Managing a nested file system on a mobile device is no consumer’s idea of fun.

There’s always been the image of Macs being for stupid/lazy people who can’t work “real” computers and handle complexity in the user interface. Now the iPhone has inherited that reputation in the face of competition from Android, a system that David Pogue calls “best suited for technically proficient high-end users who don’t mind poking around online to get past the hiccups” in his review of the new Droid X. This became clearer as I got older, but I don’t consider most people over the age of 40 who struggle with technology to be stupid or lazy. It comes down to privilege, familiarity, and priorities.

One of Apple’s most prominent user experience attempts at improving accessibility involves mimicking real-world interfaces, such as using a yellow notepaper background and handwriting fonts in Notes, and superfluous flipping page animations in iBooks. Marco Arment has a good post on this: Overdoing the interface metaphor. It’s a divisive strategy that works well in the early stages of familiarization, but soon becomes a hindrance as one grows more proficient/confident. One of the best metaphors I’ve ever encountered on a mobile device was the lens cover on one of my old Sony-Ericsson cameraphones. Slide it open, and the camera application started up. Along with a physical shutter button, it was perfect, and my mother would have understood it instantly. Such a design benefits even experienced users who know how to start the camera up from the main menu. It’s easy to see how a physical feature can offer that experience, but the real challenge is finding that middle ground in software.

* I ended up taking the photo with my Panasonic LX3.

➟ Smokescreen

If I hadn’t just seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed this was possible. Smokescreen is a soon to be open-sourced technology that converts Adobe Flash content to HTML5/Javascript, in real time. It’s essentially Flash without a plugin, and it works with animation and sound just fine in my desktop Safari.

The company behind it describes itself as “an ad network” that wanted to see the richness of Flash ads come to devices like the iPad, without the need to rewrite code. It’ll be released soon, but have a look at the demos they’ve got up now with your Flash blocker on.

Link [smokescreen.us]

Hipstamatic – a new iPhone toycamera app

I was going to write about this on PositiveMachine.com, but decided to contribute a properly useful review to the iTunes store instead. I am republishing it here for those not using the Singaporean App Store, in the hopes that it brings some attention to this rather exciting new camera app. My one sore point: it is sooo very close in execution to an iPhone app I wanted to have built earlier this year. A different concept, but maybe someday I’ll convince the guys at Synthetic Corp to take it up.

—-

Hipstamatic

I discovered this app by accident whilst absentmindedly searching for the keyword “Holga”. The preview screenshots in iTunes don’t do it justice.

It’s also the first camera application I’ve seen with in-app purchasing, which made me quite wary of this being something I might become tempted to sink a lot of money into, unnecessarily, over time. Everyone else gives free updates with more features, why should this be any different? The answer might be that the app itself is very different. It features a polished user experience that almost puts a real, no-longer-in-production camera in your hands, and the quality of its image processing is superb – some of the best I’ve ever seen on the iPhone. Its creators no doubt know that photography geeks are more than a little bit vulnerable to buying new equipment for a camera they love, and in-app purchasing is a brilliant way to exploit that. What’s 99c for a new lens, 3 colored gel flashes, and a new black border on all your pictures? If only things were so cheap in the real world with Lomography and Superheadz products.

But freshly installed, one can get some brilliant results out of the two included “lenses” (film choice only affects the borders/frames, except in the case of the single B&W option available in one of the in-app purchase packs), but I’m willing to bet you’ll be so impressed with the whole experience that you’ll pick up one of the extra add-ons within a day. So budget for the price of the app (currently at $1.99, a so-called introductory price) plus 2 x $0.99.

More than any other photography app out there – and I have bought more of them than I’d have liked – this one gives you the feeling of owning a whole new camera. The UI design is a big part of this. You constantly see the front and back of the camera as you change settings and take photos. You have a tiny and inaccurate preview of your shot where the viewfinder is supposed to be. You don’t change the look of your photos by moving sliders or pressing radio buttons, you swap in visual representations of “films”, “lenses”, and “flashes”. Sure, it’s little different from any other photo app under the surface, except the results are up there with the best of them, but that surface gloss makes you forget Hipstamatic is taking shots through your iPhone’s camera. And the results back that up. Night shots taken with the “Jimmy” lens and the fake flash are soaked through with warm light, almost devoid of speckled color noise. It’s the kind of result you’d expect from a film camera that left its shutter open until the film was fully exposed. Marvelously rich and much more analog than you’d have thought was possible from an iPhone.

Moreover, like ShakeItPhoto before the last update, Hipstamatic doesn’t give you the option of processing photos you’ve already taken with some other app or the built-in camera module. I wouldn’t like to see this behavior in every app, but it makes perfect sense here and really sells the illusion of a unique toy camera with risks involved. You don’t get a safety shot, you just get the one you take, which makes every shot somewhat precious. It also gives you a bit of a heart attack when you’ve captured something you think might be great, and then the app crashes. It does this quite a lot when saving at the highest resolution of 1050 x 1050px, even on my freshly-rebooted iPhone 3GS. I’m hoping the next update brings more stability, but even so, this fully deserves a five-star rating today.

iPhone app review: Ramp Champ

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

Ramp Champ (Game)

Price: $1.99
What it is: A carnival of sadomasochism.

Every retirement home has one old man who used to be a championship boxer, tough enough to still knock out two young men bigger than him. Likewise, every group of cowed nerds has among their numbers one who will eventually arm up and shoot up the school in a black trenchcoat. Ramp Champ has a lot in common with these people.

It lives amongst the feeble pursuits most call “casual games”, a candycoated term cooked up by executives to describe alternative entertainment for normal people – those don’t play first-person shooters and airplane simulations eight hours straight at a time – or as we like to call them, “games for pussies”. But don’t be fooled by the company it keeps. Ramp Champ is a prison-hard motherf*cker. I suspect it broke out of hardcore gaming prison and into casual gaming prison just because it was bored.

Ramp Champ is like the serial killer who wears thick glasses and tucks his striped shirt into his pants and talks with a feigned speech impediment and holds a boring desk job at a government agency, but really goes home every night and becomes like Christian Bale or something, with ripped muscles from pumping rusty iron in his basement and hunting animals in the woods naked.

So what looks like an innocent game of skeeball is actually an elaborate psychology experiment. I mean, it must be! The physics simulation suggests that you have full control over where the ball goes, if you’re good enough, and then when you need to score the most, it lets some blind Parkinson’s patient take over the shot. But sometimes, it does exactly what you expect, making the time spent smearing goat’s blood on your own face seem completely worth it. It frustrates, it makes a mockery of your so-called skills, and it’s completely addictive. I know because I’ve mastered it at the cost of my sanity.



Slammer Rating: 4/5 shivs

Buy Ramp Champ in the iTunes App Store.


Above: What you’ll see when you become a ramp champ. Each of the levels’ three goals filled in with a yellow dot.


iPhone app review: Paper Toss World Tour

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

Paper Toss World Tour (Game)
Price: $0.99

What it is: Same sheet, different cans.

The original (and free) Paper Toss introduced a new casual game genre so shallow, it threatened its own sequel possibilities. A ball of paper is flicked into a bin. To increase the challenge, the bin could be moved farther back, and a fan provided wind. What more could be done?

Fortunately for the developers at Backflip Studios, that question had already been answered by millions of poncy fat cats who regularly jet around visiting manicured gardens that charge thousands of dollars a year for the privilege of hitting little white balls into holes: change the scenery.

The result is Paper Toss World Tour, an armchair tosser’s dream. Wait, that came out wrong. By virtue of having 8 different cities to visit, the game finally has something that resembles a career mode. You begin in a Japanese Zen garden, and unlock others from there. The distance between paper and bin varies in each city, and you get some nice environmental effects like the sandstorms in Egypt. I only wish they’d included Singapore as the final stage, whereupon missing the trashcan, SWAT teams materialize with shotguns and rottweilers to end your career. Oh well, there’s always the next version.

Confusing New Ratings System: 3/5 and B+

Buy Paper Toss World Tour in the iTunes App Store.
Get the original Paper Toss for free in the iTunes App Store.

Below: The original Paper Toss game.

Below: Paper Toss World Tour