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  The WordPress app also has good support for unpublished drafts.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.  ••


January App Review: Threes!

App: Threes!
Developer: Sirvo
Price: $1.99
Platforms: iOS, Android

Threes! is a game that came out earlier this year, and when it did I immediately began hearing about it.  I listen to a lot of tech podcasts, and it seemed everyone was raving about this game.  For whatever reason, I never actually looked into it until recently.  In fact, it took a T-Mobile store demo to get me hooked.  Once I had seen how unbelievably simple (and wonderfully challenging) the game was, I went ahead and bought it.  Let me just say that it was definitely worth downloading.

Threes! is an easy game to learn.  There are tiles on the screen; swiping in any direction moves all the tiles that aren’t up against one side.  When tiles slide into each other, they start to combine, but only in specific ways.  1 and 2 will add together to create a 3 (see image 2).  After that, numbers only add to their duplicates, 3+3=6, 6+6=12, and so on (see image 3).  (If I did as poor a job explaining that as I thought I did, check out this GIF.)  The challenge is to get ever higher numbers without filling up the board and running out of moves.  Sound easy enough?

Turns out, it gets difficult pretty quickly.  My biggest problem is that I end up having, say, two 12s that are separated, and no easy way to combine them.  The more moves you use to manipulate the card’s positions, the more cards come in, and the more the board fills up.  It’s the perfect mixture of difficult yet simple, vexing yet fun, annoying yet enjoyable.  Like any good puzzle game, Threes! can be frustrating – but only in the best way.

Aside from the actual gameplay, Threes! also has a certain charm to it.  This is accomplished through the little on-screen characters.  Each number is a character of its own, with a unique face and voice.  It’s subtle enough that you can ignore it if you don’t care, but delightful enough that I bet you will.  When you get a new card for the first time (for example, the first time you get a 96 card), the game pauses for a moment and shows you a short bio for the new character.  It’s just enough diversion to be amusing and fun without being distracting.  It’s really quite enjoyable.

Threes! also got some special attention from Apple this year, winning the iPhone Game of the Year award (alongside Monument Valley as iPad Game of the Year).  I think this is well-deserved, and I congratulate the developers on their accomplishment.  Other developers also noticed the popularity of Threes!, however.  There have been multiple knock-off apps, most notably 2048 (which is free).  I’m a big fan of free alternatives, but there is a difference between an alternative and a knock-off.  I was happy to pay $1.99 for Threes! in order to support the developers who had the original idea in all its brilliance, and I encourage you to do the same (I doubt you’ll regret it).

As you can see in the last screenshot above, my current high score is 7,392.  I’m interested in your best score, whether it’s higher or lower than mine.  Go ahead and post your scores in the comments below, or hit me up on Twitter @NickFoster56.  Have fun!

December App Review: Monument Valley

App: Monument Valley
Developer: ustwo
Price: $3.99
Platform: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire

I know Monument Valley came out last spring, but I hadn’t actually played it until a few weeks ago.  Monument Valley recently jumped back into the spotlight after they released an expansion pack, Forgotten Shores.  The extra press Monument Valley got was enough to convince me to buy the game, and I must say that it’s the best $4 I’ve spent on the App Store in a very long time.

Monument Valley is a puzzle game that involves moving the environment around you, the buildings and bridges, to reach your goal.  Monument Valley isn’t particularly hard, but it’s delightful.  That’s not a word I use often, but in this case, it’s not one I use lightly either.  The graphics are beautiful, and the soundtrack is just as good.  Most importantly, Monument Valley has this M.C. Escher thing going on with it (see images 2-4).  I’m constantly thrilled and amazed when two objects that shouldn’t line up somehow do.  It’s really neat.

The original game includes 10 chapters for $3.99.  Forgotten Shores, an expansion pack, was recently released as an in-app purchase for an additional $1.99.  When this happened, some people got rather angry.  They felt that, having purchased the game, they should get the additional levels for free.  ustwo, however, put a ton of time, effort, and money into Monument Valley, as well as into Forgotten Shores.  I think it’s perfectly fair for them to charge for new levels; I for one happily paid another $2 to get more levels of a game I had already greatly enjoyed.  Unfortunately, the way app store pricing currently works, it sometimes seems you have to make your app free in order for anyone to download it.  Free apps are great, but I also support people like ustwo who make quality apps and aren’t afraid to charge for them.  Monument Valley has met with huge success; a testament to the fact that other people share this appreciation for quality.  (If you’re interested in hearing an excellent interview with one of Monument Valley’s developers, including conversations about Forgotten Shores pricing, listen to this episode of the Inquisitive Podcast.)

There is also one final chapter of Monument Valley, Ida’s Red Dream, which is a part of the (PRODUCT)RED campaign.  (PRODUCT)RED is a charity working to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Apple has participated in (PRODUCT)RED for a long time, offering special red iPods and other products.  A portion of the proceeds from these products, available only in Apple Stores and on Apple.com, go to (PRODUCT)RED’s charity.  For several weeks, many apps on the App Store have released (PRODUCT)RED versions.  These apps feature special red app icons, and most include special in-app purchases.  Proceeds from these purchases go to (PRODUCT)RED.  If you purchase Monument Valley during the (PRODUCT)RED promotion (November 24-December 7), you’ll get Ida’s Red Dream for free, otherwise, it’s an additional $0.99.  It will not be available after December 7.

Overall, Monument Valley is a really fun game.  It is short, but it’s so beautiful and enchanting that it’s definitely worth playing.  Now if I could just pull some M.C. Escher folding trick on the roads around here to make my commute to school shorter…  ••

November App Review: Yahoo Weather

App: Yahoo Weather
Developer: Yahoo
Price: Free
Platform: iOS, Android

The preloaded weather app in iOS is pretty good, and when you just need to check the high and low for today, it gets the job done.  As of iOS 8, it does give hourly forecasts for the next 24 hours, as well as a 10-day forecast.  However, it still lacks more in-depth info.  Most people turn to The Weather Channel app for more extensive forecasts, but I don’t like that app very much.  A while back, I went looking for a new weather app.  What I found was Yahoo Weather.  This app is simple, has a beautiful interface, and gives good, comprehensive weather forecasts.

The Yahoo Weather app has only one main screen.  Swiping left and right shows you the same screen for all your saved locations.  The screen gives the current temperature, the day’s high and low forecast, and a short description of the current conditions (i.e. Partly Cloudy).  In the background is a photo reflecting these conditions.  What’s cool is that these photos are drawn from the Yahoo-owned Flickr, so you always get a different photo.  Scrolling down on this screen shows you much more info.  There are small “modules” for Forecast, Details, Precipitation, Sun & Moon, Wind & Pressure, and a satellite Map.  Aside from Forecast (which remains at the top), you can drag these modules into any order by dragging on the little dots in the upper right corner of a module.  This is a small feature, but it’s well thought out, and gives a nice level of personalization.

The feature of the Yahoo Weather app that I use most is the extended forecast.  Yahoo Weather gives a 10-day forecast (though to see it you’ll have to click the small “10D” button in the lower left corner of the Forecast module), as well as hourly forecasts for the next 23 hours.  I also like seeing the the wind speed, the time for sunset, and the radar map.

The Yahoo Weather app also has optional twice-daily forecast notifications.  You can get a morning notification telling you the forecast for the day, or an evening notification giving the forecast for tomorrow (or both if you like).  Both can be set to go off at any time (in 15 minute increments, that is).  I know the app used to have alerts for severe weather, but it seems they removed this feature.  This is a shame, since I liked having those alerts.  I didn’t get too many of them; they seemed to have a higher threshold before they went off than The Weather Channel’s app did.  I sort of liked this; it seemed like I got severe weather alerts all the time from The Weather Channel when nothing much was happening.  In addition to these push notifications, the Yahoo Weather app also has a Notification Center Today View widget.  This gives the current temperature and the high and low for today and tonight.  It also has a Flickr image, similar to the main app screen.  The widget is nice, but I wish it took up a little less space.  It’s honestly more than twice as tall as it needs to be.  I assume they did this so that they could fit in the nice picture, but I wish they’d just crop the shot and take up less space.

The forecasts seem to be accurate enough, though I can’t say that I’ve done any testing to confirm this.

All in all, I really like the Yahoo Weather app.  It’s uncomplicated, looks nice, and gets the job done.  My only complaint is the missing severe weather alerts I mentioned.  However, I still like the app, and I use it relatively frequently.  If you need a more comprehensive weather app, I definitely recommend Yahoo Weather.  ••

October App Review: 7 Minute Workout

App: 7 Minute Workout
Developer: Wellness & Prevention, Inc. (Johnson & Johnson)
Price: Free
Platforms: iOS and Android

The 7 Minute Workout is the latest fitness craze.  Turns out, short, high intensity workouts are better than longer, less intense workouts.  The reason?  Intense workouts get your metabolism up, and it stays up for a long time after your workout.  This means that a long workout isn’t necessary.  There are tons of knock-off 7 Minute Workout apps available, but this one is the official one made by Johnson & Johnson and Chris Jordan (the creator of the 7 Minute Workout).  This app was also featured in one of Apple’s commercials.  I was really excited when I first heard about the 7 Minute Workout, since I’m really busy and don’t like to spend a long time working out in the morning.  Since I use this app often, it seemed like a good one for me to review this month.

The app is pretty straightforward.  You can do the official 7 Minute Workout, which has the original series of 12 exercises, or a Smart Workout, which gives you different exercises each day (which I like).  There is a also a huge library of other workouts to choose from (see image 5).  The 7 Minute Workout (which is really 7 minutes and 50 seconds), consists of 12 different exercises.  You do each exercise for 30 seconds, and then you have a 10 second rest period.  The exercises are simple, and there’s a video on screen showing you exactly what to do.  There are also helpful audio cues so you don’t have to look at your device the whole time.  You can give an exercise a thumbs up or a thumbs down, depending on whether you like it or not.  In addition to the 7:50 workout, there’s an optional warm-up and cool-down, which each clock it at about 3.5 minutes.  After the workout, you can rate how difficult it was on a 10-point scale from “Relaxed” to “Exhausted” (see image 4).

The only complaint I have is that the app doesn’t yet integrate with Apple’s new Health app in iOS 8, but hopefully that will come later.

That’s about it.  The app has an excellent, simple design: it gives you instructions and then gets out of the way.  The workout become the focus.  I really enjoy doing the 7 Minute Workout.  It doesn’t take long, and the intensity makes me feel like I’m actually doing something.  If you’re looking for an easy way to cram in some exercise first thing in the morning (or any other time of day), I definitely recommend this app.  ••

Why More People Don’t (But Should) Use Windows Phone

I don’t think it’s any secret on this blog that I like the iPhone.  However, picking a smartphone is a matter of personal preference.  Obviously, Android is also popular choice.  Blackberry, not so much anymore.  There is, however, one more smartphone platform that doesn’t get a lot of attention, Windows Phone.  I think the reason some people are put off by Windows Phone is the fact that it’s very similar to Windows 8.  Many people do not like Windows 8 on their computers.  To a large extent, I agree with them.  The reason for this is because Microsoft designed Windows 8 primarily for tablets, and it just doesn’t work as well on a PC.  Honestly, though, I like what I see from Windows tablets, and, by extension, Windows Phone.  I’ve never owned a Windows Phone, but from the little bit I’ve seen, it looks like a pretty impressive platform.  The user interface is unique, the OS seems responsive, and the phones themselves have good specs.  There’s just one thing left: apps.  Windows Phone has a definitive lack of apps.  It’s really a shame too, because right now, Windows Phone is stuck in a feedback loop.

Why don’t more people use Windows Phone?  Because there aren’t many apps for it.  Why don’t app developers take the time to make Windows Phone apps?  Because there aren’t many users.  Like I said, this is too bad, since I think the platform has a lot of potential.  Fortunately, Microsoft has one thing going for them: deep pockets.  If Windows Phone is going to catch on, it appears it’s going to catch on slowly.  If any company can afford to wait this one out, it’s Microsoft.  Microsoft has tons of money coming in from sales of Windows PCs (which people continue to buy, whether they like Windows 8 or not), Microsoft Office, and the Xbox.  If Microsoft can continue to support the Windows Phone long enough for people to adopt it, they just might have a hit here.

This is exactly what I hope will happen, maybe it will, maybe it won’t.  I’m curious as to what kinds of phone you guys use.  iPhone, Android, Windows Phone?  Something else?  Feel free to leave a comment and participate in the polls below.  Thanks for reading!  ••

September App Review: Swing Copters

App: Swing Copters
Developer: Dong Nguyen
Price: Free
Platforms: iOS and Android

Last winter, the mobile gaming scene was taken by storm with the breakout hit Flappy Bird.  The unbelievably frustrating game featured a bird flying through a series of gates made of Super-Mario style pipes.  The controls were simple: tap anywhere on the screen to make the bird flap his wings once, counteracting gravity just a bit.  By keeping the flaps and gravity perfectly balanced, steering the bird became possible.  But only just.  The game was incredible simple, yet incredibly difficult, which of course equals incredibly addicting.  One wrong move and you lost.  After every crushing defeat, you’d promise yourself to play “just one more game,” but somehow you’d end up playing another.  And another.  However frustrating, the game was actually really fun, and it was possible to get the hang of it.  However, at the peak of its glory, the creator, Dong Nguyen, pulled the plug.  The game was removed from app stores (which remained flooded with counterfeits), supposedly because the creator felt bad that he had caused so much global frustration and addiction.

However, Dong Nguyen has done it again.  With his new vertical game, Swing Copters, you navigate a player upward, this time controlling his movements left and right.  The same style applies: move through a series of gates and don’t crash.  However, the addition of swinging hammers and the upward direction actually make Swing Copters more difficult than Flappy Bird ever was.

Starting the game is confusing.  You tap the screen to start, and your character immediately flies to the right and crashes.  What on earth happened?  You try again, with the same result.  After 5-10 times, you realize that you’re supposed tap the screen to reverse the character’s horizontal direction.  No, you don’t have to tap a certain half of the screen, and no, you don’t have to tilt the device.  The lack of gravity really makes Swing Copters more difficult.  Even though you’re still only controlling one dimension, you are now controlling both directions in that dimension.  It’s a subtle difference, but now instead of only having to think about up, you have to think about left and right.  The game is also hard because of your character’s sideways momentum.  The longer you travel in one direction, the faster you go.  This means you have to constantly switch directions in order to stay in control.

When Swing Copters was first released, the space between the ground and the first gate was about the same as the space between the first gate and the second.  Since the app’s release, there has been an update, giving you way more space before the first gate (see image 4).  This makes the game easier, because it gives you time to “stabilize” your motion before encountering the first gate.  Before the update, my high score was 2; within a few minutes of getting the update, my high score was 10.  However, don’t think the game is easy now.  It’s still really, really difficult.

Overall, Swing Copters is a fun game.  I’m going to try not to play it too much though, since it is very addictive.  I really hope Dong Nguyen can come to grips with his app this time, and understand that sometimes we as humans like to be frustrated.  After all, what would life be like without challenges?  Imagine Edison with no light bulb to invent.  Henry Ford with no automobile.  Okay, so maybe those aren’t fair comparisons.  Still, I hope Swing Copters is here to stay.  ••

Special Note:  You may have heard about the now-confirmed Apple event coming up on Tuesday, September 9.  Rest assured, Staring at Phones will have full coverage of the event.  Be sure to check back here next week to see all my predictions, then again the day of the event for a special follow-up.  Hope to see you then!

Three iOS 8 Features I Want Right. This. Second.

Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference ended just over a week ago, and during the conference we saw some new stuff about iOS 8, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.  Apple likes to be really secretive about new hardware, but it has to be a little more open about software because third-party app developers have to be in on the loop in order to ship iOS 8 software along with the actual OS.  Because of this, we saw a lot of stuff about iOS 8 during WWDC.  After I got the lowdown from the excellent TechHive.com, I’ve compiled a list of my top three picks.

1. Actionable Notifications
I’m guessing you’ve been here: You’re in Safari, reading some article online.  Suddenly, you get a text message, and a banner pops up at the top of the screen.  You read the text and decide to respond to it right then, so you tap the banner.  iOS then takes you out of Safari and into Messages; then after you reply, you have to switch back to Safari.  Most of us take this for granted: that’s just how iOS has always worked.  But with actionable notifications, you can swipe down on that notification and a keyboard pops up.  You haven’t switched apps, this is just an overlay over whatever you’re currently doing.  After typing your reply, the overlay disappears, and you’re right back to Safari.  Nifty, huh?  (I’m not sure if I described that very well, so here’s a picture from TechHive/MacWorld if you’re confused.)

2. Hands-Free Siri
Google has recently made a big deal of the “OK Google” line.  On certain Android phones, you just say those words and the Android virtual assistant pops up, no button pushing required.  As of iOS 8, the iPhone will have a similar feature.  As long as the phone is plugged in (as a battery life consideration), saying “Hey Siri” will activate, well, Siri.  I think this is a cool idea, especially if your phone is charging on the table across the room, and you want to have it, say, play some music.

3. Continuity
Continuity is a feature that will tie your iPhone, iPad, and Mac closer together than ever before.  There are lots of different parts of Continuity, but I’ll only mention a few here.  One feature is called Handoff, which allows you to, for example, push an email draft from your iPhone to your Mac.  This is great if you decide you’d rather use a real keyboard for that email.  Sure, you could have just emailed it to yourself, but that’s a pain.  Continuity will also allow you to accept phone calls and send SMS on your Mac or iPad, basically routing things through your iPhone.

As a bonus, I’ve got one more feature that isn’t official yet, but is rumored.  I really hope the iPad will be able to run two apps side by side, at the same time.  I don’t think Apple should even bother allowing this on the iPhone, it’s just too small.  But the iPad is a different story.  It would be really nice to be able to use Mail and Notes (or other combinations of apps) at the same time, instead of switching back and forth.  So, for all you Apple engineers out there who I’m sure are reading this, could you please get on that?  Thanks, I appreciate it.  ••