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Reviews

iPhone app review – Birdfeed

(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: Birdfeed / Social Networking
What it costs: $4.99


What it is: Intentionally crippled Artfully restrained Twitter client.


Who it’s for: A small subset of Twitterers unfortunate enough to suffer from chronic design savviness – that is to say, they’re unable to use any app whose interface was not first sketched out in a Moleskine and then neurotically tuned at the sub-pixel level with symmetrical grids. Very few options exist for these pitiful but gifted consumers, and before Birdfeed came along, it was pretty much between Tweetie and Twitterrific. You know you’re one of them when someone mentions Birdfeed designer Neven Mrgan’s name and your first thought isn’t “wait, how do you spell that?”


Who it isn’t for: You call yourself a power user, and you expect your Twitter client to do useful things like show you who your followers are, and give you one-click access to different views via a thoughtful toolbar along the bottom of the main timeline. Well, if you dare ask for such niceties in Birdfeed, clearly you don’t get it. If you have to question why there isn’t a choice of themes, or any sound effects, or why you can’t view someone’s avatar photo at full-screen size, know that you’re a goddamned philistine and should probably apply for a job at Microsoft. With their legal department.

By the way, if your current app is something as godawful-ugly as Twittelator Pro, or to a lesser extent, SimplyTweet (seriously, have a look), I don’t think the creators of Birdfeed even want your filthy, filthy money.


“Art-School Snob” Rating: 4/5

Buy Birdfeed in the iTunes App Store.

From sangsara.net
From sangsara.net
From sangsara.net
From sangsara.net

* This review has been slightly amended for clarity. Some felt it was hard to tell whether I was poking fun at myself (and my own anal-retentive requirements), or slamming Birdfeed for possibly choosing form over function. I don’t believe that it does. It’s a swell app that makes a few tough choices and mostly gets things right, and the 4/5 score reflects that.

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Reviews

iPhone app review – I Dig It

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


Title/Category: I Dig It / Games
What it costs: $0.99 (on sale, regular price $2.99)


What it is: A cool game for cool cats who dig diggin’


Why you should buy it: How often do you come across a game that puts you in the shoes of a poor, down-on-his-luck farmer given just four hours to pay off a mountain of debt and save his family from being evicted? And when you do, does that game then give you a hybrid bulldozer/excavation drill/jetpack machine with which said farmer may propel himself into the dark, igneous depths of the Earth’s crust in search of diamonds and rare metals? What? Get outta here!


Why you shouldn’t: Maybe you think this is too casual for a hardcore gamer like you. It does, however, have RPG elements (machine upgrades), and by connecting to Facebook for the trumpeting of achievements, is a little bit like Xbox Live. Maybe you’re a geologist, or a geothermologist, or work in the construction industy? Fine, you’re not going to like the digging physics. I mean, you can excavate ALL the soil beneath your farm, leaving your house, shed, and gas station floating above nothingness. I’ll understand if a man of science like yourself can’t just SIT IDLY BY and watch this problematic concept generate fun. There, there.


“Indie Diamond in the Rough” Rating: 5 out of 5

Buy I Dig It in the iTunes App Store.
Try I Dig It Lite for free in the iTunes App Store.



Categories
Reviews

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
Categories
Photos

Using an iPhone 3GS as a film camera

I got my iPhone 3GS a little over a week ago, on the 11th, and have been lucky enough not to get one that overheats or goes dead after a few hours. The WiFi reception isn’t as good as on my old iPhone 3G, but that’s another story.

My main reason for upgrading was the speed increase, and in that respect the phone has been everything I expected. I play a lot of casual games on it, and being able to start up and get into a level within seconds is something I’ll never take for granted. Even other handhelds like the Nintendo DS and PSP don’t always do a good job of loading quickly. Don’t even get me started on games that only let you save at predetermined points.

The secondary draw of the iPhone 3GS was its improved camera. With apps like Autostitch (a Flickr group I started is here) and ShakeItPhoto updating to support the increased memory/speed of the 3GS though, it may soon be my favorite feature. It’s not like I’ve never had a good camera on a phone before; my old Nokia N82 had a good, autofocusing 5MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics. It was versatile enough that I tried using it as my only camera while on a short holiday. But it wasn’t a very lovable device – great hardware features bolted onto creaking, vintage software.

Because the iPhone does so much (takes notes, calculates tips, translates Japanese, tracks expenses, etc.), and gets pulled out of your pocket so often, it also finds more use as a camera. And with the right iPhone apps, you can do all your post work and upload the results to Flickr without even coming near a desktop. Some of my other recommendations: Photo FX, CameraKit, ColorTaste (outputs low-res photos, hopefully an update is on the way), Mill Color, and Camerabag.

Here are some photos I’ve taken this week, processed to look like they were shot with a film camera: noise, light leaks and all. (Unfortunately, these weren’t done on the iPhone.)

Starbucks mug macro

Mandy in the garden Mooks' Australian paraphrenalia Chili's Burger Canon Singapore Visitor Centre

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Reviews

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.

Couch surfing 2.0

This past weekend saw my girlfriend and I buying a couch for my bedroom – I’ve wanted a comfortable reading and napping platform in there for ages, but always thought an armchair would be enough – and looking silly in the IKEA parking lot trying to get the flat-packed-for-our-convenience boxes into the back of her car. Assembly only took an hour, and it has to be said that Lady Gaga’s album “The Fame” is ideal for such brainless activity, if nothing else. Certainly it can be good for nothing else.

Apart from looking very out of place, this couch (I hereby name it Karl Lagerfeld) has changed the two-point dynamic of my bedroom space. Before, I was either in bed or sitting at the computer. This meant that I’d be online most of the day, either working or wasting time on the internet. Often, there was nothing to separate the two.

But now, a third place for my ass exists, and that has changed everything. No longer confined to this desk, strapped down by continuous IM messages and the climbing number of Unread Items in my feedreader, I’m finding it possible to finally sprawl out and read a good book or watch a DVD. Nobody enjoys a film from a computer chair.

It was all good going already, and then last night I rediscovered Boxee.

An earlier alpha version, tried out during the pre-Karl days, didn’t really appeal to me. For those who don’t know, Boxee is “media center” software that gives you a big, simplified interface for accessing your media from across the room with a remote control. Very much like Apple’s built-in Front Row, or the one that comes with some versions of Windows. So when I was seated right in front of the computer, there was no need for it. From the couch though, it’s incredible.

With just the simple old 6-button Apple Remote that comes with almost every Mac, Boxee not only gives me access to locally stored video files (if you rip your own DVDs [or even download films] or TV shows, it downloads cover art and synopses from the internet to accompany them, very slick), it also plays content from providers like Joost and Hulu (US-only), as well as video podcasts like BoingBoing.TV and Rocketboom.

Another alternative is Plex (Mac OSX only), which I’m about to try out today. Both programs sprang from the open-source Xbox Media Center (XBMC) project.

It’s got me thinking that one day, I won’t even want a traditional desktop in my home. A large, wall-mounted high-definition TV with a wireless keyboard/mouse on the couch can simplify things to just a single location: workspace, reading area, and bed. Kinda like this guy.