Mini Metro: Sim City for the Stressed Out

 

Mini Metro – $4.99 on the App Store

There are a lot of apps on my iPad that stress me out sometimes. Managing email, keeping up with todo lists, organizing homework – life is busy! That’s why I really appreciate a good, calming iOS game. Gentle music, soft colors, and a moderate pace all make for an enjoyable experience when I’m feeling tense. Mini Metro has all of this. I’m even going to put it in the same category as Monument Valley and Alto’s Adventure. Yeah, it’s good.

Mini Metro is a real time strategy game in which you create subway lines to move passengers around a city. The map starts small, but more stations pop up quickly as time goes on. You can connect the stations any way you want, but you’re limited by the number of lines, trains, and tunnels at your disposal. You earn more of these resources as the game progresses, allowing you to create a larger network.

What really makes the game challenging for me is the different types of stations. At first, there are three: the triangle, the square, and the circle. Each “passenger” is represented by the shape of the station they’re trying to reach. As the game progresses, more obscure shapes start popping up. There might be only one star-shaped station on the entire map, which means a passenger will have to transfer lines. Uh-oh.

I love this game because the objective is simple, but the execution is difficult! One minute my subway is operating like a well oiled machine, and the next minute I’ve got three stations nearing capacity. I’m still learning what strategies work best, and I’m enjoying experimenting with different techniques. Mini Metro is a great game because there are a myriad of ways to approach it. When my mind feels cramped, letting it out of the box like this is a great way to relax. ••


Thanks for reading! Have comments or feedback? I’d love to hear from you! I respond to all messages I receive. Drop me a line on Twitter @NickFoster56 or email me at staringatphones@icloud.com. And be sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Medium!

Bear: Beautiful Notes for iOS and Mac

I’ve been using iCloud Notes for about a year now.  In general, it works well.  After using Day One, however, I’ve been bitten by the Markdown bug, and I wanted to find a new text app that supported it.  Markdown is kind of like pseudo-HTML formatting.  It’s simpler to type than standard HTML, and it’s definitely faster than all the tapping involved with formatting in the Notes app.  I also liked the idea of organizing things with tags rather than folders.  Tags are better than folders because you can put a single note under multiple tags if you want.  These criteria led me to Bear.


The first thing you’ll notice about bear is that it’s absolutely beautiful.  The colors and typefaces are amazing.  Bear’s simple interface is exactly the same on iOS and macOS, which is awesome.  The editor is clean and distraction free, and shows Markdown output as you type.

But Bear goes beyond just writing text.  You can add images inline, or any other type of file as an attachment.  It’s also very easy to export all your notes and attachments from the Mac app (I’ve been burned by iCloud Notes here before).  Tagging is as simple as adding a hashtag anywhere in the note.  You can also use #tag/subgroups or #multi word tags#.  These are all automatically detected and can be found in the sidebar, or you can simply search for them.  You can also use other special search operators such as @attachments or @untagged.

Bear uses a subscription model for its pricing.  It’s $1.49/month or $14.99/year, with a one week or one month trial, respectively.  This subscription covers iPhone, iPad, and Mac.  This is great, since I’ve found many reasonably priced iOS apps have absurdly priced Mac counterparts.  At first I was put off by the subscription model, but I’ve since warmed up to it.  I realized that I would happily pay a flat $15 for Bear.  However, I move around between apps like this somewhat frequently, and in a year, I may have found something else.  If Bear still fits my needs in a year, I’m willing to support the developers by paying again.  Longevity and adaptability are worth paying for.  ••

Journaling with Day One

I’ve dabbled in journaling before, occasionally keeping a prayer journal during my daily Bible time.  I don’t think I’ve ever set out to make a journal about my life in general.  Now that I think about it, I’m kinda surprised I never have (I like lifelogging, it’s fun).  Recently, I’ve spotted some articles online about the Day One journaling app, and I decided to give it a go.

I’m still playing around with what exactly I’m going to log.  I guess that’s the beauty of a journal: it can be anything.  It doesn’t have to have rules.  Fortunately Day One allows me to still be organized, even without rules.  Every post is automatically geotagged so I can, for example, look up all the notes I’ve taken in church.  I can also tag things manually or sort them into different notebooks.  Day One also supports Markdown, a sort of pseudo-HTML that makes formatting a snap.  I’ve fallen in love with Markdown so much that I’ve switched notes apps to one that supports it (more on that app soon).


When I downloaded Day One, there were two things I knew I wanted to log.  Firstly, I wanted a place to put down good Bible verses I discover.  Getting closer to God is a big goal of mine this year, so I’m getting more intentional about morning Bible time.  I tag all these entries with a “Bible” tag.  Secondly, I wanted to simply put my thoughts down in writing at the end of each day.  This includes a list of good things that happened that day – being more positive is another 2017 goal of mine.

Throughout the day, if something makes an impression on me, I may put it down in my journal right then, or I may simply “check in” using the widget.  This creates a blank, time- and location-stamped post that I can add words to later.  I also created a Workflow that takes the contents of my clipboard and makes a new entry, and I’ve added this to my Workflow widget.

I also find stuff to add using the app’s Activity Feed.  This timeline can pull from your calendar, photo roll, location history, and even your social posts.  Here’s the beauty of it though: Day One doesn’t automatically add all that stuff into your journal like a firehose.  Instead, it’s there for you to scroll through at the end of the day.  See anything worth saving?  A few taps creates an entry for it (stamped at the time it happened, not when you logged it).  It’s so nice to curate my memories, instead of just dumping everything in there.  I think I’m going to like this app.  ••

Airmail: Stop Fighting Email

In addition to Notability and 2Do, another app that really changed the way I work last year is Airmail.  Just like iOS Reminders, I had used iOS Mail for years and years, and never had much of a problem with it.  However, as time went on, my use of email outgrew the app.  As I started getting more mail, I began using the “Unread” inbox filter to keep track of emails that required action.  However, I had to make sure I didn’t accidentally mark one of those emails as read, because then it would get lost in the shuffle of all my other mail.  Basically, I realized I needed to move to an inbox zero-based approach, moving all mail I was done with out of my inbox, leaving only the important stuff.  I wanted a more powerful email app to do this, so I turned to Airmail.  Shoutout to my girlfriend’s dad for this recommendation!


The bottom line is that Airmail allows me to be faster and more organized with my email.  The goal is to get everything that isn’t important right now out of my inbox, so I can focus on what is important.  After reading an email, if I don’t have to take any action on it, I archive it right away.  If it’s something I need to deal with later that day, like when I get home, I usually just leave it in the inbox.  If I’m going to deal with it another day, I snooze it.  Snoozing is one of the most powerful features of Airmail.  Snooze a message, and Airmail moves it to a special folder.  Then, at the snooze time, I get a fresh push notification and the message reappears in my inbox.  This has totally streamlined the way I work with email.  No more fiddling around with read/unread to make sure I can see the important stuff.  The important stuff is all that’s there.

Archiving and snoozing messages is super quick and easy thanks to Airmail’s customizable swipe actions.  I have right swipe set to Archive and left swipe set to Snooze and Trash – you can select up to four actions for each direction!  Need even more?  A full list can be pulled up for an individual message (see image 3).  There’s even more actions available, but I’ve set the app to only show the ones I use.

Customization is a big theme throughout Airmail.  The main menu in the left pane of the app is fully customizable on both iOS and Mac, and there’s tons of options.  Airmail also has support for smart folders (created via searches, just like 2Do).  I haven’t set any up yet, but I’m going to soon, to organize emails that I refer to often.  All this customization is what makes Airmail a great app: it can be as powerful as you need it to be.  There are still a few bugs and things that need to be worked out (threads on the Mac are kinda wonky), but it’s a relatively new app, and I’m sure these things will be fixed in time.  If you’re tired of fighting your email and want to work with it instead, you should definitely give Airmail a try.  ••

New Workflows from 2016: Notability

Two weeks ago, I started writing a post detailing some new apps and workflows I’ve started using over the past year.  It was originally going to be one post, but it quickly became clear that 2Do was going to need a post all to itself.  So I’ve decided to make each new workflow into it’s own post.  Today, I’m going to talk about Notability.


Easily the biggest new app I’ve started using this year is Notability.  Notability can technically be used as a text-based note app, but it’s really designed for use with a stylus.  I’ve officially given up paper in the classroom in lieu of taking notes on my iPad.  I’d messed around with this app before, but never actually gone all in with it for school.  However, my girlfriend and her sister both swear by it, and they convinced me to give it a try.  A week or two before fall semester started, I picked up a decent stylus on Amazon, and created a folder in the app for each one of my classes.  I’ll never go back to taking notes on paper ever again.  From the ability to use different colors, to the straight line tool, to copy and paste, Notability is simply a better way to take notes.

Notability offers many features that make it a fantastic experience.  First of all is the fact that I can write and highlight in multiple colors.  No more muddied diagrams with way too much information penciled in.  I can now draw or highlight different parts of a diagram with different colors, and then explain each part with the corresponding color ink elsewhere on the page.

Speaking of diagrams, I can import pictures and even entire powerpoints and documents into my notes.  If a diagram is too complicated for me to draw well (or if I’m just feeling lazy), I can simply insert the one my professor used on their slide.  In class, instead of wasting time trying to meticulously copy diagrams, I can actually focus on what the professor is saying (novel concept right?) and write that down, and then just leave a blank space in my notes to paste the graphic in later.  This makes my notes a lot more coherent and useful.

The final big feature of Notability is that I can record an entire lecture and my notes sync with the recording.  This means that I can play a recording back and watch my notes replay in real time.  I can also tap on a specific part of my note and the recording will jump to that spot.  So if I miss something my professor said, I can just put a big star in my note and easily come back to it later, I don’t even have to bother noting the time.

Notability is $9.99 for the iPad and iPhone version, and then another $9.99 for the Mac app.  However, I’ve been able to get by without the Mac app.  I’ve set notability to back everything up to Dropbox in PDF form, so while I can’t edit notes on my laptop, I can at least view them, and that works for me.  If you do a lot of writing on paper, you should really give Notability a try.  You may not think you’ll like it – I was adamant about the superiority of paper notes for a long time – but trust me: this is the 21st century.  There are much, much better ways to take notes.  ••

June App Review: WordPress

App: WordPress
Developer: Automattic
Price: Free
Platforms: iOS, Android

Awhile back I wrote about how I used the WordPress app on my iPad to write posts at SPSU.  However, the WordPress app is useful for other things too.  Because of this, I decided to go ahead and give it a full write up.  I’m going to focus on the iPad here (because it’s better both for writing and reading), although just about everything I’ll mention also applies to the iPhone.


I’m going to split this review into three sections – one for each of the main things I do with the WordPress app.  The first is writing posts.  I haven’t been using this much lately, as I’m currently on summer break, but I intend to go back to writing posts on my iPad at school when the fall semester starts.  Writing in the WordPress app is pretty simple, as it should be.  The main writing screen (see image 1) is mostly dedicated to just that: writing.  There’s a few rich-text options at the bottom, nothing too fancy but nevertheless a solid set of tools.  I was most impressed that the WordPress app also had plenty of support for adding extra metadata to posts (see image 2).  Categories, tags, an even a featured image can easily be added.  The WordPress app also has good support for unpublished drafts.  This is imperative for me since I write posts in advance and then spend a few days editing them.  The app’s writer doesn’t have every feature WordPress.com has – for example, I can add images to a post, but not an image gallery – but it has enough that I can write the majority of a post on the iPad and then tidy it up the next day when I get on the computer.

The second part of the WordPress app that I use is the reader.  This (obviously) allows me to follow other people’s blogs.  Of course I can follow other WordPress blogs, but the WordPress app is also an RSS reader, so I can add pretty much any other blog I want.  I was using IFTTT to send my RSS subscriptions to Pocket (see this recipe), but recently I’ve been exploring WordPress more and I liked the convenience of following blogs with one click.  We’ll see what I end up using in the long term.

The last part of the app I want to talk about is notifications.  I get push notifications every time someone follows this blog, comments on a post, replies to a comment I posted somewhere else, and so on.  This is nice because it makes it easy to stay up to date about what’s happening here.  WordPress notifications work well, and they’ve also done an excellent job managing notifications across multiple devices.  With many apps I can only look at notifications on my iPhone because otherwise I’ll get tons of duplicates.  I’m actually less concerned about multiple devices ringing at once; the big problem is that after I’ve dealt with a notification on one device it’s still there on another.  However, WordPress avoids this problem.  If you get a push notification on one device, but then look at it on another, the first device’s push notification automatically clears.  This retroactive notification clearing is something every app should have.  The only other apps I know of that do this are iOS Mail, iMessage, and Twitter.  These are all super-high level apps (two of them preloaded, system apps), and it’s impressive that WordPress is in the same plane in this regard.

So as you can see, the WordPress app is a pretty good jack of all trades.  It’s not perfect, but right now it’s doing a great job of helping me keep up with this site and the greater WordPress community.  The WordPress app is definitely one of my iPad’s indispensable apps, and I hope WordPress continues improving it in the future.  ••

April App Review: Alto’s Adventure

♦ This post is one of the Best of 2015 ♦


App: Alto’s Adventure
Developer: Snowman
Price: $1.99
Platforms: iOS

I love this game.  The gameplay is simple, yet challenging, the graphics are beautiful, and even the soundtrack is great.  There’s something wonderfully addictive about endless runner games, and this one has really got me hook, line, and sinker.


Alto’s Adventure is a really simple game.  Alto’s llamas are escaping, and the best way to catch them is (obviously) by snowboard.  Slide down the mountain, catching llamas, grinding on wires, and doing backflips.  The controls couldn’t be simpler: tap once to jump, tap and hold to rotate backwards.  For some reason, backflipping is particularly gratifying.  As you go along, you’ll encounter various obstacles, from rocks to large chasms you have to jump over.  Alto’s Adventure is an infinite runner, meaning the level is randomly generated as you go along, and the goal is to simply go as far as possible before wiping out.

Alto’s Adventure is a ton of fun right off the bat, but there are other things that make it more interesting and complicated.  There are two power ups: the hover feather (lets you float over rocks and recover from failed backflips), and the coin magnet (picks up coins as you get near them).  These coins can then be used to purchase upgrades to make the power ups last longer.  The other thing you can purchase is a wingsuit (see image 5).  After doing lots of tricks, you’ll charge the wingsuit, which allows you to fly over obstacles and do loop-de-loops.  It’s really quite fun.

The last obstacle in your way are the Elders.  After snowboarding a certain distance, you’ll wake up a sleeping Elder.  This guy will chase you as to go along (see image 6), and if you’re too slow, he’ll knock you down and you’ll wipe out.  This adds a certain bit of adrenalin to the game, but it’s nice that you’re not being chased the entire time.  If that were the case, the game would be stressful, but as is it’s really not.  Elder chases add a nice bit of difficulty to make the game more interesting.

There are several objectives to Alto’s Adventure.  As a mentioned before, you could simply go for the longest distance.  You could also go for highest overall score, a combination of distance and tricks.  Finally, there are many “goals” in the game, things like “Land a double backflip,” “Land a 5x combo,” or “Slide on three ice patches in one run.”  Goals come in sets of three (see image 7); completing a set moves you to the next level and a new set of goals.  These are “levels” are purely a measure of skill, they don’t affect the actual game in any way.  Every tenth level earns you a new character.  These are fun to play around with, as each one has different strengths and weaknesses that may help you with certain goals.  For example, Maya is slow, but she can flip much easier than any other character.

The last thing I want to talk about are the graphics and soundtrack.  The graphics have a beautiful, muted, almost pastel tone; very simple and nice to look at.  As you play, the background progresses from day to night, and sometimes it starts to rain.  These little touches make the game a little less monotonous (not that it is at all).  The soundtrack is also good.  A simple keyboard score, it does a good job of setting the overall mood of the game – fun, but not stressful.  It’s really quite nice.

In conclusion, Alto’s Adventure is a game that I enjoy more than most iOS games I’ve ever played (even more than Threes! and Monument Valley).  If you haven’t checked this game out, I highly recommend you do.  I have easily gotten my $2 worth of enjoyment out of it.  What’s also nice is that, after paying $2, the game will never ask you for money ever again (you can’t even buy those coins I talked about).  My current high score is 99,096 points.  Beat me?  I’d love to hear what your score is, as well as any tips you’ve picked up.  Leave a comment or shoot me a tweet @NickFoster56 and let me know what’s up.  Happy snowboarding!  ••