Apples Best of 2016 Apps

Today the App Store released its annual best of for 2016. The store highlights the top ten app and games giving them prime position on the store front. Interestingly this appears to be a local selection as I have seen various articles showing different winners.

Without further adieu please find this years Australian selection…

iPhone App of the Year

Prisma – Free Photo Editor, Art Filters Pic Effects

Runner Up

Quartz: News in a whole new way

iPhone Game of the Year

Clash Royale

Runner Up

Reigns

iPad App of the Year

Heuristic Shakespeare – The Tempest

Runner Up

Sketchbook Motion

iPad Game of the Year

Severed

Runner Up

Chameleon Run

@Email Client Wars Pt 2: Returning to an old friend

In a previous post I discussed my search for the perfect email client. Airmail and Spark where the two contenders with Spark ending up as the preferred option. Spark stayed on all my devices for some months however on hearing from David Sparks Mac Power Users1 and Federico Vittici Macstories on a an update to Airmail2 I decided to go all in and give it another shot.

Unfortunately after a couple of months Airmail didn’t work out. In principle the idea of a power user email client sounds great however the implementation isn’t up to scratch. Plagued with bugs, UI inconsistencies and notifications that worked intermittently Airmail didn’t live up to the hype. Going back to Spark seemed like the only option however that too was underwhelming. In the end I decided to take a look at what I was looking for.

Email is an important business tool for me however it becomes an anchor at times and even after implementing Slack across my teams the volume is quite over the top. To determine the best app for me I really needed to consider what exactly are my needs and from there source the client that best fits my needs. What was I looking for then?

  • Clean UI
  • Few bugs, tricks or gimmicks ( I spend too long in email to work around them)
  • Snoozing
  • Unified Inbox
  • Minimal friction to get things done

Going back to Spark as I mentioned underwhelmed me whilst a solid client the UI appeared to crowed. In an attempt to look different many UI elements that were not functional took up valuable screen real estate. Snoozing was great emoji responses were not – I could not have imagined sending an emoji response to my boss!

The search continued with Airmail staying as my client of choice until I saw a tweet about SaneBox the service which helps manage the email beast.

SaneBox learns what email is important to you and filters out what isn’t – savings you from endless interruptions.

I watched the introductory video and signed up for the free trial. In conjunction with Airmail it worked OK however it made one of the features I liked in Airmail redundant. In addition the new triage folders didn’t display so well in Airmail and left me to think about of an alternate client.

In the Macstories review of iOS 10 Vittici note the changes made for iPad were minimal however some were quite useful. One example were the improvements to mail which allowed for three panes to be viewed in landscape; folders, inbox and the actual email.

As a trial I moved my exchange and icloud accounts over to the Apple Mail client incorporating the SaneBox triage folders. For me this has been a resounding success. Over a few short weeks I have trained my email with the help of SaneBox unimportant emails go to a SaneLater folder, newsletters to another and i am only interrupted by what is important – funnily enough its very few. Now I only check my emails twice a day.

Apple’s Mail is simple and bare bones however it is this simplicity that makes it powerful and far more user friendly. The less bells and whistles makes for a much better work environment that is distraction free3. Distraction free has become an important selling point for many apps particularly writing apps like Ulysses.

SaneBox has filled a gap adding the snooze feature missing from Apple Mail which is a must have in my workflow. Snooze comes in two flavours; tomorrow and next week (Monday morning) however there is a more powerful specific time customer folder that can be created as well. This feature allows you to create a custom snooze for a set number of hours, days or weeks; great for emails with actions.

SaneBox also has a reminders feature. SaneReminders notifies you when an email you sent wasn’t responded to by a certain time (just CC or BCC tomorrow@sanebox.com, monday.9am@sanebox.com). This can also remind you to come back to an email you need to reply or follow up on.

Dependant on the subscription4 you signed up for you have multiple options and other folders.

  • Archive
  • Custom trained folders
  • On forwarding folders
  • Vacation
  • Custom snooze
  • No reply folder
  • Spam black hole

SaneBox provides a web dashboard where you can train/untrained folders, statistics on you folder and email usage, and time saved. if during the course of the first few weeks with SaneBox you move emails to folders where you would like them to go then you will spend very little time in the dashboard. It is very handy though for fine tuning your subscription.

SaneBox is not necessarily the saviour to all your email issues. It is however a great tool and one when paired with the Apple mail client really shines. It has given me back some much needed time and organised my email beast. The cost is small when you consider the time saved and it costs nothing to try. If you use this link you’ll get $5 off your first month.

  1. MPU #328: iOS Email
  2. Airmail 1.3
  3. Not to mention bug free!!
  4. There are a number of subscription options with very reasonable pricing and payment options.

App Review – Timepage for iPad by Moleskine

Fantastical has been my go to calendar app for macOS and iOS for sometime now and I have loved what they have done for calendaring. Nothing came close to the ever useful Fantastical across all my devices. Just recently things have changed.

In January Moleskin released Timepage their iPhone only calendar app which was a beautiful clutter free timeline of events. At the time I took a look and really enjoyed the UI however the lack of iPad support really was a let down and I stuck with my old favourite Fantastical. This week on the App Store the Editors Choice for iPad1 is Timepage and for the first time in years Fantastical has been removed from my iPad.

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Downloading Timepage was a no brainer and quickly replaced Fantastical. As with the iPhone app the UI was uncluttered and distraction free. The app comes with a day, week and month view all accessible through swiping .

The day and week views appear on the screen side by side. The day views sits on the right of the screen and as you would expect lists all the events for the day along with the weather based on your location. Week view on the left provides all appointments in a list for the week. Where more appointments than space exists the screen will cycle through the list on a regular basis. This view can also be adjusted to show only a select few days up to 10 days (going beyond a week view).

The month view starts with a heat map showing the the different calendars by colour that you can with your finger move through to see where your appointments sit through the month for each calendar. This is a handy feature when you have a shared home calendar, subscription sports calendars and a work calendar. After swiping right for a second time you come across a typical monthly appointment view and if as full as mine can be quite crowded.

As mentioned weather details can be seen on the day view however if you press on the currents days weather details you will be presented with the weather on a scrolling timescale and where the week view is shown you will now see the weather for the week.

A swipe to the left from the day/week view presents you with a extensive set of preferences for the calendars to the customisation of colour and font size. One impressive feature is the assistant which can provide you a daily summary of events and weather, rain alerts, even a contextually aware alert of when to leave for an appointment.

One very nice feature I found while writing this article was the little clock at the bottom of the preferences home screen. An analog face that was hard to decipher however if you press it it replaces the preferences menu with a great looking analog clock alongside your day view.

Timepage does have a couple of little bugs still however none are showstoppers and don’t spoil the user experience. If you are looking for a better calendar app than the one iOS provides and something a little less cluttered than Fantastical take a look at Timepage2 it’s beautiful, functional and really shines on the iPad.

  1. Supports slide over and split view
  2. Good price too not too expensive but worth every $

iOS 10 – Notifications & Widgets

This month I took the plunge and jumped on board the public beta program for both my iPhone and iPad. Having seen nothing but strong reviews and nil major issues it was time to give iOS a test drive. Needless to say I have been seriously impressed and have really enjoyed the changes.

One of my favourite features of iOS 9 was the redesigned notifications/widgets screen. It had become a part of my iPad daily workflow for the last year and I would suggest it was a massive improvement that wasn’t given a lot of airtime during the iOS 9 review season.

iOS 10 brings a redesigned notifications/widgets screen one which I’m undecided on. The interface now looks very different and Im not entirely sure i like it.

My first gripe came after installing the beta on my iPad; rather than restore the widget settings the process set up a default setup. This set up looked simply awful and did not endear itself to me. The date had been moved from the right to the left and all the widgets were in one long continuous column

Each widget is now encased in its own grey box looking almost skeumorphic. For accessibility purposes this appears to be a great choice and gives the user a clear defined space for their widgets. The date oddly takes up a great deal of real estate. This is evident when you look at the notifications/widgets screen in landscape which highlights how much space is unused. Like a number of other iOS 10 features big and bold appears to be the new ‘thing’.

The notifications screen is one long column of notifications taking up only one third of the screen through the middle. unlike the previous version notifications has its own screen rather than a tab selection. Again this choice of limiting the amount of space appears a waste of good real estate; this is probably worse on my iPad Pro. Like widgets this looks less problematic in portrait mode however there is still some real estate wasted.

One oddity I noted; most screenshots you will see that the left hand side of the date is blank. This morning however the weather appeared in this space something I hadn’t seen in all the weeks of testing the beta.

Overall I’m personally not a fan of this new look it feels a little rough and clumsy and for me not as user friendly. Naturally being a beta its is a little rough around the edges however we probably only a weeks from launch I can’t see too many changes being made that will tip my view in the opposite direction.

Instapaper – Instapaper is joining Pinterest

This week Betaworks announced that it had sold Instapaper to Pinterest. This came as a huge surprise to most in the industry leaving most somewhat baffled by the acquisition.

I have had a copy of Instapaper since the early days when Marco Arment was the developer. Instapaper has been my go to app for all my read later needs converting all web pages to readable text in a simple but friendly UI.

All acquisitions like this make you wonder what is next and whether the app will be around in another 12 mths time. In the meantime we can only go by the developers statement1

For you, the Instapaper end user and customer, nothing changes.

  1. Keep your fingers crossed too…it certainly can’t help!

Updated Ulysses 2.6

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Overnight The Soulmen released a massive update to Ulysses.

Ulysses 2.6 brings a raft of features to make the app even more user friendly and a tool for writers of all shapes and sizes. One of the biggest changes and the best in my opinion is the ability to publish direct to WordPress. The Ulysses blog outlines in detail all the changes in 2.6. The following blogging features are what you can expect;

  • Post to self-hosted blogs or blogs via WordPress.com
  • Add as many blogs to Ulysses as you have
  • Publish as draft or published, immediately or scheduled
  • Set (or auto-set) categories and tags, excerpts and featured images
  • Set post format Set slug and title link Publish as HTML or Markdown
  • Preview in Ulysses
  • Set post-publishing actions, i.e. open the WordPress editor or WordPress preview, after the post has made its way from your device to your blog

These for me are the biggest features of the update that should bring more users to Ulysses 2.6 and further cement those already taking advantage of the well conceived writing tool. If that didn’t convince you however these additional features should push you over the line.

  • Dropbox on iOS
  • Quick Open (Global Search on iOS)
  • Typewriter Mode
  • VoiceOver

Still not convinced? These great reviews of the app in its entirety should bring you around.

Full City Press – Ulysses 2.5 review

Macstories – Ulysses 2.5 for iPad and now iPhone

Now you are convinced !! Go now and buy Ulysses 2.6 it’s a premium quality app with a price to suit. Don’t be put off its worth every $$.

Subscription Pricing: The new bane of the App Store?

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In App purchases have changed the App Store pricing in a big way. Effectively reducing apps to mobile slot machines that customers pour money into on a daily basis.

Addictive games like Candy Crush Saga started the trend of monetising components of the game to help advance progress. Following suit came Clash of Clans, FIFA 16 Ultimate Team™ and even SimCity. This trend was a boon for mostly gaming developers and saw some games become multi million dollar cash cows.

Prior to WWDC in June Phil Schiller 1 the Apple would be bringing subscription pricing to the App Store for select product categories. Developers largely supported this however there is an undercurrent of concern in the community what this may lead to.

In recent times two big name mobile developers announced changes to their business models. Firstly Smile Software 2 that its much loved TextExpander software would be updated and moving to a subscription model. This decision was met with howls of discontent about its pricing structure and value that it offered with many looking to jump ship and move away from the product entirely. Then in the last few days Evernote which has had subscription pricing for some time 3 an increase its costs and limitations to the free version. This too was not entirely a popular decision.

Subscription pricing whilst offering a cash stream for developers brings concerns for customers; namely value for money. Will a customer see a constant stream of updates and benefits for the dollars they pay? How many apps will go this way and what will people end up paying per year for the privilege?

Let’s look at one company who is doing this and doing it well. As an Apple geek it pains me to say that Microsoft offer a great package for a good price. Office 365 is not a stand alone app but a series of excellent productivity apps that will help any user remain productive at their Mac, iPad or their work PC. The pricing is quite high but what you get is excellent value with the mobile products alone worth every dollar. Microsoft are also keeping the apps up to date and Apple even rolled them out with the launch of the iPad Pro to demonstrate the mark up features with the Apple pen. This is subscription pricing at its best and shows the possibilities to come.

In my opinion Evernote is not an example of a good subscription. Poor quality bloated apps that have failed to innovate and improve on what was once a great idea. Evernote is considered a big developer and it is concerning when they cannot manage to provide a decent offering to subscribers.

Smaller less known developers could potentially struggle to meet expectations and I wonder who is going to monitor this? Would refunds be available? What are Apples expectations of developers offering subscriptions? Lots of questions and few answers yet but time will tell whether this will improve things in the App Store system for developers. The hope is developers and consumers both benefit from this and quality apps become the well supported norm.

  1. Daring Fireball 8th June 2016 ↩︎
  2. Smile Software Annoucement ↩︎
  3. Evernote Annoucement ↩︎

 

Email Client Wars: Airmail vs Spark

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Email; the bane of most business people. It is unproductive, it is at times valuable and other times a nuisance. Unfortunately it’s not going anywhere and we all need a tool to manage the volumes.

Apple Mail unfortunately does not quite hit the mark and many of us are in search of a email client that works for us as individuals with all the bells and whistles. I have been testing two clients Airmailby Bloop and Sparkby Readdle.

Both apps have been extensively reviewed by others and I’ll not go into that depth. What I will aim to show is the differences that are swaying me towards one app over the other in the fight for a place as my iOS email client.

Two articles are great for understanding both apps in details

“Airmail is the most powerful email app for iOS out there right now, treating iPhone and iPad users with the same respect and attention other developers would only show for their Mac apps.”

“For now, Spark continues to be one of the top email apps on iOS, with dozens of smart features and nice touches.”

User Interface

Spark is by far the more polished UI it looks great. It is not too cluttered and can be personalised with theme choices and the addition/removal of some features. The same UI crosses both iPhone and iPad.

Airmail unfortunately is a very bland vanilla looking interface. There are no themes to choose from and is quite stark. There are options that allow you to colour the various email accounts you have. This is then shown in the main screen down the left hand side as a small strip of colour . As with Spark the UI is similar across both iPad and iPhone.

Both UI’s have two similar features; firstly both are optimised for iOS 9 and a the iPad Pro which is a big plus in my world however both don’t allow the email on the iPad the fill the screen. Both UI’s divide the screen with 1/4 filled with the inbox and the 3/4 the email being viewed. In my opinion this should be an option to turn on or off as you please. Some emails like newsletters really benefit from utilising the whole screen for viewing.[1]

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Setup

Both apps are reasonably straight forward to set up. Once you accounts are created and configured[2] it take little time to get up and going. Spark has a neat Smart inbox feature that determines the type of email you are receiving and seperates them accordingly. Airmail has so configurable and has many configuration options. One of my favourite options is the Send to 2Do; this options sends the email to 2Do, opens 2Do at the task and also as a URL linking to the original email.

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General Use

Emailing should be straight forward and easy here both apps don’t disappoint. Following the theme of the app Airmail offers lots of formatting and other options on the email screen while Spark is more straight forward offering the basics. Again the interfaces are quite different with Spark being spartan with a dash of colour and Airmail being bland however full of options.

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and the winner is?

For me both apps offer something for everyone and are probably two of the best clients since the dearly departed Mailbox app. However for me Spark is the better client. It is refined and polished to near perfection. It also handles better with less little bugs getting in the way of everyday use. While not important to use, the look plays an important part in my opinion and Spark really is easy on the eyes particularly if you need to look at it 8 hours a day. Spark is my client of choice but try them both they are both solid apps.

Continued: Check out Part 2 of my battle with email

 


  1. It certainly better on my eyes too. It would remove the need to wear glasses in some instances  ↩
  2. Airmail struggled to setup a POP3 account correctly. Deleted items would remain on the other device. Sync didn’t appear to be the issue. Support has been prompt however no resolution  ↩

Review: Notebooks 8 by Alfons Schmid

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Over the last couple of months I have been reviewing my workflow to accomodate writing for my new blog, my business writing and documentation storage. Finding a single solution to create, annotate and store this documentation has become increasingly laborious.

Finding a solution among the many suitors is also difficult not to mention expensive. The list of options is at times overwhelming; 1Writer, Drafts 4, Ulysses and Editorial all fit the bill while having many pros and cons.

One app Notebooks 8 I am currently trialling has some interesting features that may hit the mark. Notebooks 8 provides a solution that meets some of my needs, from markdown writing through to PDF annotation. As described on the developers website;

With its unique combination of functions, Notebooks can replace multiple dedicated apps on your iPhone and iPad:
* Note Taker
* 1st Text Processor
* Markdown Composer
* HTML to Markdown Converter
* Task Manager and Reminder
* File Storage and Organizer
* Clipboard Manager
* PDF Converter
* PDF Reader
* eBook Creator

My needs are simple I need a place to write in markdown, a location to store and annotate PDF’s all synced and backed up through Dropbox. Interestingly Notebooks 8 works well in this regard.

The UI is a straight forward folder structure appropriately named books. It allows you the ability to organise your work into meaningful books that syncs to your Dropbox account

No matter whether you want to quickly put down a note or carefully craft a formatted document with styles and images, in Notebooks you can do both

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The layout and interface of Notebooks is clean and offers a number options to display your files. The left hand side of the screen shows the books. Also on this side you can have standalone documents and a power user feature of @contexts which shows you searches based on tags.
You can add and create multiple document types with the better options being markdown and plain text. Document types that can be stored and viewed are;

  • .doc (not displayed like they do in Word)
  • .md
  • .txt
  • .pdf
  • .png
  • voice memos
  • photos

PDF’s added to Notebooks can also be annotated with a toolbox of stock standard annotation tools. My only complaint with this app is its handwriting engine its pretty poor and hard to write anything legible. This makes it hard for me to move from my current PDF annotation app PDF expert.

Two of my favourite features are found in the way documents are viewed. Firstly PDF’s in landscape can be viewed as a book with two pages at a time with a really smooth page turning experience. The best feature of the two is the ability to view two documents from the app side by side. While only one app can be edited it is a really handy feature on the bigger iPad Pro. Something I havent tested as yet is the publish to ePub feature which sounds handy and could be another favourite feature down the track.

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Writing in notebooks is similar to most basic writing apps supporting markdown. Its isn’t as powerful as Drafts, Byword or Uylsses and requires an app like Workflows to publish or create further actions with the text. One little gripe when writing in Markdown I would really like to see some coloured syntax to help the eyes focus on my writing.

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Overall Notebooks 8 is a solid app from a repsonsive independant developer. There is much to like about this app and the sync to Dropbox make its a safe option. Given time and further development I can see it becoming an important part of my workflow. The app price alone makes it worth a try and the small in app purchase for PDF annotation worhtwhile if you want to help support the developer.

For now its staying on my home screen.

Frustrated And Wanting To Someone To Blame

Overnight a wonderful writing app Ulysses was updated finally supporting iPhones and most importantly my beloved iPad Pro. I had been reading all the tweets and press coverage and was excited to get a copy.

The first reviews were published MacStories[1], Macsparky[2] and The Brooks Review[3]. All glowing and adding to the anticipation of what is a fine app.

Let’s get this straight I have no issue with paying a premium for high quality apps. I purchase Omni Group apps which are some of the more expensive apps in the store. In fact I have suggested that apps like Drafts 4 charge more just to support the developers.

Now my frustration… Ulysses was promoted at a special price. I went straight to the App Store searched and there it was and the price was disappointing. As usual we Australians have to live with the fact that US developers sometimes advertise their special price in the app notes. This also means we get to see the difference.

App Pricing

Doing a quick calculation using the mornings exchange rate USD>AUD suggested the app was priced $4 higher than a direct US to Australian conversion. This has been an issue in this country for many years with many big companies charging more here for some reason. Out of frustration I tweeted the developer and the App Store.

The developers response:

@wonk71 @AppStore we have no control over the local prices. But is it possible oz has higher taxes or so? We have the same in Germany here…

Naturally no response from the App Store but it’s a very disappointing practice that looks bad on the developers. If it’s Apple or the Australian Federal Government someone is to blame. It would be nice to know who exactly!

In the end I bought the app and its a bloody gem!