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!

Blogging with Bob Lee

When I started writing again this year, the biggest goal I had for my blog was to build a community. I’ve been trying to connect with both readers and other bloggers with similar interests. Through this search, I met Bob Lee. Bob is an iOS Developer, and he’s sharing his journey learning Swift on the iOS Geek Community on Medium and the training course he’s working to release, The UIKit Fundamentals with Bob. Bob has really worked hard to create a community around his blog, and he was kind enough to let me interview him and ask him a few questions:


Me: Who are you and what do you do?

Bob: First of all I am from Korea. I went to middle school in Malaysia, and high school in Vietnam. I studied chemical engineering in the States. In high school, I had no idea what coding was. My first year in college, I took a course in C. C is hard! I didn’t learn a whole lot in that class. After spending some time in school, I decided to come back to Korea, not sure what I wanted to do. I dabbled in web development and iOS development. Web development is very broad and competitive, but I realized iOS is more stable. All iOS developers are on the same path.

Me: What made you want to start blogging?

Bob: When I came back to Korea, I thought about freelancing. But I’ve always wanted to teach people. So I started making YouTube tutorials and blogging about iOS development.

Me: Through what channels do you interact with your readers?

Bob: Medium is where everything really starts. This is where people find my other social media. I engage with people a lot on my personal email list. Right now I’m making a course called The UIKit Fundamentals with Bob. I started reaching out to people, just telling them that I was making the course and asking, “If you are interested, please contact me.” It started as slow progress, but I got to interact with those people who responded one by one. Lots of people just want a huge email list. I wanted to build a great relationship with each person. Every two weeks I send an email sharing updates on making the course. Taking the community slow helped me build relationships. I never try to sell anything; I’ve sold my authenticity over selling products.

Me: How do you pick topics that your readers find interesting?

Bob: I only talk about iOS; I want people to come back and see the same content. Not stuff about me personally, not other tech stuff. I knew I had to pick one thing. Swift is my first language. I write on the programming topics I struggle the most with. That’s how I’m confident that I’m providing value to people. I’m not a genius, I’m going through the same process as everyone else. This thing will be hard for other people, because I struggle with it.

Me: What’s your advice to build community in blogging?

Bob: Here’s what I want people to know: Sharing your story is the most important part. Many of the things I write about are really technical; I have to convince people why they should be interested in this. I always use “I,” not “you.” People are actually interested in other people’s stories. Why did I have this problem, how did I solve it? The story comes first.


I’m going to take a page out of Bob’s book here and reach out to all of you reading this. If you ever have any feedback about the blog, an app you’re interested in me writing about, or just want to say Hello, drop me a line! You can email me directly at staringatphones@icloud.com or tweet to me @NickFoster56. I’m looking forward to meeting you! ••

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.  ••

Link

Link: The iPod-Phone Prototype

iphone_prototypes-0

Image Credit: The Verge

http://www.theverge.com/2017/1/6/14188624/apple-prototype-iphone-ipod-click-wheel

This is a fascinating article.  Obviously, it took Apple some time to land on the design of the first iPhone, but I’d never seen any of their other attempts.  This design basically took the old iPod interface (remember the click wheel?) and added the ability to make phone calls.  The result is… unpolished, maybe even unusable.  The most mind-boggling part is that the click wheel isn’t hardware, it’s on screen (although the article does say that might just be because it’s a prototype).  It’s clear why Apple didn’t go with this design, but it’s really neat to see an idea they attempted.  It was natural to think of the iPhone as an extension of the iPod, so it probably seemed natural to attempt this with the UI.  Fortunately, however, this idea didn’t win out, and we got iOS instead.  ••

New Workflows from 2016: 2Do

Hi everyone!  I’m finally on Christmas break for the year, so I’ve got some more free time, and I wanted to get back to the blog and do some writing.  A lot has changed in the way I use my tech in the past year.  I’ve discovered several new apps that have really changed the way I use my devices to get things done.  That being said, I wanted to share a few of them over the next couple of weeks.

One app I’ve just started using is 2Do.  I’d been using the stock iOS reminders app for almost 4 years now, and it’s never worked away I wanted.  2Do, on the other hand, meshes with the way I use reminders perfectly, and I really enjoy using it.  This post isn’t meant to be an app review, it’s more just a commentary on the way I use 2Do to get things done.


The way I used the reminders app was weird.  I had all notifications except the app badge turned off, and all reminders set for the morning (the default time of 9am).  That way, everything was technically “overdue,” and the app badge just showed my total number of tasks for the day (side note: I know some people hate app badges but I love them and think they’re incredibly helpful and useful).  That worked OK, because most of my tasks aren’t time specific.  But that meant I couldn’t make a reminder that went off at a certain time (or location) if I wanted to, since notifications were off.  This system had once worked for me, but more and more now it felt like I was fighting it (and don’t get me started on fighting the Reminders app itself).

I know there’s lots of great to do list apps out there, but I refuse to use one that doesn’t at least sync with iOS reminders: I simply can’t give up setting reminders with Siri.  I had initially overlooked 2Do because I didn’t think it supported iOS reminders – it doesn’t ask to access your reminders the way it would photos or contacts.  However, 2Do supports syncing with iCloud reminders as a CalDAV server.  This seems odd to me, but it does work, so no complaints I guess (and I’m sure there’s a good reason for this that I don’t understand).

One of the most important features 2Do has is separate due dates and alarm times.  This means I can have most of my reminders due on a certain day, without that 9am alarm, and yet still have notifications on for other alerts.  I ended up turning off notifications for 2Do and letting the stock reminders app handle them, just in case I add a reminder with Siri that goes off before 2Do gets a chance to sync.  More on the way I implemented Siri later.

Before that I want to talk about the app itself.  It runs so much better than the stock reminders app, which is always crashing for me.  And it has so many more features, like due dates and tags and projects with subtasks.  Some of these advanced items are a little wonky when they sync over to the reminders app, which I still use on the Mac (because 2Do for Mac is $50), but it’s not a big deal.  I realized that I’d really outgrown the Reminders app; I really need the extra power of 2Do.

Speaking of power, the last thing I want to talk about in 2Do is smart lists.  2Do has unbelievable search and filter tools, with lots of keywords and AND/OR/! logic operator support.  My first smart list is my “Today and Location” smart list, which uses the search: !hide type: nodue OR overdue OR duetoday.  This list shows everything due today (or that I missed prior), and the “nodue” keyword includes location-based reminders (which don’t have a due date).  This list also excludes anything with the “hide” tag.

My other smart list is my “Inbox” for tasks I’ve set with Siri.  Trying to implement Siri was a conundrum.  I wanted alerts if I told Siri to “remind me in two hours” or “remind me when I get home,” but I didn’t want that default 9am reminder for something I set for next week.  So first I went to the reminders app and created a new default list named “Siri.”  Any new reminders created with Siri go on this list, but 2Do’s default list is still my standard “Reminders” list.  All this mess brings me to my smart list: !hide Siri type: alarms AND !duetoday OR nodue AND nolocation.  This shows all reminders: #1 On my Siri list, #2 That still have an alarm, and #3 That aren’t set “in two hours” or “when I get home.”  I then just keep an eye on this list and remove the alarms on any task that show up here (and then they disappear from the Inbox because they no longer match #2).

Is this a little convoluted and maybe even absurd?  Sure.  Does it fit the way my brain gets things done and help me accomplish more?  Oh yes.  ••

 

iOS 9 is Here!

Last Wednesday was the official release of iOS 9.  After updating a day late, I’m really liking the new version.  There’s lots to talk about, but I’m going to highlight my two favorite features: the improved Spotlight search and iPad Multitasking.

Spotlight
Spotlight has been moved to a new-old home, to the left of the first home screen.  This is where it was before iOS 7 (interestingly enough, however, you can still access Spotlight by pulling down from any home screen, but you won’t get as many suggestions).  Right at the top of the new Spotlight are “Siri Suggestions” – contacts and apps that iOS thinks you may want to use right now.  So far, they just seem to be recents, but Apple has said that these will slowly tailor based on your usage.  Check Twitter and Facebook every morning?  Those apps will show up at that time.  Under that is “Nearby” – a group of buttons for finding restaurants, gas stations, and the like.  These too will change based on whether it’s breakfast or dinner time.  Finally, underneath that are a few top stories from the News app, which makes its iOS 9 debut.  What’s cool is that you get all this information by just swiping into the Spotlight screen.  If you actually start to search, you’ll see similar results to what you’d have seen in previous versions of iOS.  Except for one major thing: you can now search the content in third-party apps right from Spotlight.  Dropbox, among others, has already added support for this feature, and I think it’s going to be super useful.

iPad Multitasking
Unfortunately, iPad multitasking is a little fragmented.  Let me break it down.  The iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 4, and the iPad Pro (so the newest model of each size), can truly run two apps at the same time.  This can be done either with both apps taking up half the screen or with more of a 3/4 split.  So that’s great, but I have an iPad Mini 2.  Well the iPad Mini 2, 3, and 4; the iPad Air 1 and 2; and the iPad Pro can also do what’s called “slide over.”  This is where one app keeps running in the background, and an iPhone-width app slides over it on the right hand side, taking up about 1/4 of the screen.  Like this:


This is useful, but so far not many apps have been updated for it (disappointingly, not even all of Apple’s apps support it.  Why doesn’t Music?).  Hopefully this will get better though.  The final feature of multitasking, which comes to the same models that get slide over, is picture in picture.  This is available both for video apps like Netflix and things like FaceTime, so that’s really cool.

The last thing I want to talk about is performance and battery.  I mentioned in my WWDC post that iOS 9 is available for all phones that got iOS 8.  I was hoping that this, coupled with the fact that Apple trumpeted iOS 9 as improving performance, would mean that iOS 9 wouldn’t slow my phone down.  So far, my phone has been about the same (hooray!), but my iPad is definitely slower (this makes no sense, they’re the same model year).  Still, this is better than the usual performance hit we’ve gotten used it.  So far, battery doesn’t seem to have taken a hit either.  I’ve yet to try out the new Low Power Mode, but I think that’s a good idea too.  All in all, I like iOS 9, and I hope developers continue to add support for all the cool new features.  ••

Taking Action on Notifications

One of the first iOS 8 features I wrote about last summer was actionable notifications.  Basically, this feature allows notifications to have buttons that let you respond to them without even opening the app.  When I first saw this feature, it was in the context of banner notifications on the top of the screen.  I thought this was definitely a cool idea, but not quite an earth-shattering one.  However, once I realized that these actions are also available on the lock screen, I realized how much time this feature would actually save me.

Let’s go through a hypothetical situation here.  Let’s say I’m sitting in class and my phone is buzzing off the hook.  I’m not going to look at it in class, so when it ends, I have a bunch of notifications.  Let’s say I’ve got a text from my brother, asking me a question about church tonight.  I’ve also got 16 texts from a group message, a notification from WordPress that someone linked to my post, two emails about my scout troop, a Twitter mention, two Instagram likes, and a Snapchat.  (Of course, I rarely open my phone and see notifications from all of these apps at once, but for the sake of this example, I’ve named lots of apps which have notifications I can act upon.)  Let’s go through each of these one at a time:

First is the text from my brother.  Since Messages is an official Apple app, it can have much more functionality than Apple would allow a third-party app.  Because of this, I can swipe right on this notification and tap reply.  A keyboard then pops up right on the lock screen, allowing me to respond to the text (rest assured, random people who find your phone can reply to your texts only if you’ve turned this feature on).  The only thing that’s annoying about this is that iOS won’t let me use SwiftKey on the lock screen, because that keyboard requires full access, and I guess they don’t want it to run unless I’ve put my passcode in.

Next are the group texts.  If it’s not something I want to reply to, I can just read them all right there on the lock screen, and then swipe right and dismiss the most recent one.  Now the cool part happens: I don’t have to dismiss every text.  If I dismiss one text from a thread, all texts that came in before that also clear.  The assumption is that if you’ve read the most recent, you’ve read them all.  This is great, because sometimes I open my phone to 50 or more group texts.

After dealing with all the messages, I’ve got a WordPress notification.  Since most of my pingback notifications are from my own blog (which is a whole different can of worms I can gripe about), I just want to approve them right away.  Fortunately, I can swipe on the notification and tap “Approve.”  The only annoying part is that this doesn’t mark the notification as viewed in the WordPress app; messages, in contrast, are all marked as read when you dismiss the notification.

Now come the emails.  I was a Boy Scout for seven years, but I aged out last fall.  I’m technically an Assistant Scoutmaster, but I don’t really do anything in that post.  That being said, most of the troop emails don’t apply to me.  With actionable notifications, I can swipe on each notification and tap “Mark as read.”  And they’re gone.  This is also nice because, while my read states do sync between devices, this process can take a while.  So if I read an email on my iPad, then see it on my phone, I can easily mark it as read.

Now on to social media.  More than likely I want to favorite that Twitter mention, and I can do so right from the lock screen.  As for the Instagram likes, I can just dismiss them.  Like WordPress, these don’t mark as viewed in the Instagram app, but I can just clear them next time I’m there.

Now all I’m left with is the Snapchat.  The difference here is that you can’t do anything to Snapchat notifications on the lock screen (besides clear them), so I have to unlock my phone for this.  Since Snapchat focuses on pictures, there’s not much they can do with actionable notifications.  However, I’ve just gone from 24 notifications to 1, without even unlocking my phone.  That’s a major boost in efficiency, and even better, one that I can use every day.  ••