My favourite mobile apps and games: 2021

It’s the end of the year, so here’s a round-up of my favourite apps and games. Apps first!

10. The Geography (@thesaveroom): Generative audio meets abstract Nordic landscapes in this hypnotic endless chill-out machine, featuring a little five-note keyboard for you to add your own notes. (Android/iOS)

9. Mission to Mars (@SmithsonianChan): Visit the red planet and drive rovers across your desk/down the street in this engaging, educational and entertaining AR app. (Android/iOS)

8. Serial Reader (@serialreaderapp): Reckon you lack time to read the classics? This app thinks otherwise, smartly feeding you bite-sized chunks of famous books on a daily basis. (Android/iOS)

7. (@StartPageAI): Safari extensions arrived thick and fast these past few months. This is my favourite, listing all existing open tabs (and letting you close them with ease) when you try to open another. (iOS)

6. Halide (@halidecamera): The iPhone’s best camera app lands on iPad, with a fully optimised interface. You’ll still feel like an idiot shooting snaps with a tablet, but at least now the results can be superb. (iOS)

5. Animoog Z (@moogmusicinc): Animoog combined Moog’s trademark sounds with a stunning multitouch interface. This follow-up takes audio sculpting into the third dimension. Essential for newcomers and pros alike. (iOS)

4. Book Track (@SimoneMontalto): As someone with terrifying ‘to read’ piles in physical and digital editions, this app helps me make sense of it all, with its gorgeous interface and smartly conceived features. (iOS)

3. Carrot Weather (@CARROT_app): The best weather app for iPhone and iPad continues to excel, with an absurd amount of customisation, superb design and buckets of snark. (iOS)

2. Pixelmator Photo (@pixelmator): Sneaking in right at the end of the year, this iPad classic for improving your snaps has now been squeezed into your iPhone. Only avoid if you hate making your photos look better. (iOS)

1. Solstice (@dte): An excellent example of an app that does one thing really well, Solstice tracks daylight changes in a human manner, and offers notifications that can aid SAD sufferers by only running when days are getting longer. (iOS)

Apps 2021 honourable mentions: MusicHarbor; Morpho Convertor; Obsidian; Meandr; Kiff; PageTurn; StopTheMadness; xSearch; Watch to 5K (Apple Watch).

Next up: my favourite mobile games of 2021…

10. Super Mombo Quest (@orubegamestudio): Console-like platformer, which has you direct a big-tongued hero about tiny levels, grabbing gems and leaping on enemies. Fast-paced and packed with things to do.

9. Impossible Isles (@TeamPesky): Clever puzzler where you boost your score by laying down tiles in a way that adds bonus points. Ducks hate rabbits but love water. Trolls are smashy. A new daily deal keeps things fresh.

8. Retro Goal (@newstargames): Football for the rest of us, stripping back management to the basics and matches to touchscreen-friendly highlights. (Android/iOS)

7. Railroad Ink Challenge (@horribleguild): Single-screen strategy, where you build a road and rail network from randomly dished out cards across just seven turns. (Android/iOS)

6. Sliding Seas (@MugshotGames): Yet another match game, but this one had me hooked from the start. Varied level design and smart mechanics make this one a joy to play for the long term. (Android/iOS)

5. Day Repeat Day (@gimblll): Another match game, but this one lives within a slice of dystopia that plays out via a messaging system. Hugely rewarding when you take in all its finer details. (iOS)

4. Baba Is You (@ESAdevlog): Wonderful conversion of a Switch puzzler, where you redefine the rules for success by shoving labelled blocks around. Baba Is Brain-Smashy. (Android/iOS)

3. Townscaper (@OskSta): City building that’s all about the joy of building. There are no goals/budgets/scores – it’s just you and the algorithm, discovering secrets and making your little cities grow. (Android/iOS)

2. Super Arcade Football (@outofthebit): Overhead footie done right – and the first that to my mind manages to take SWOS to penalties. Plenty of options. Great controls. Just get it. (Android/iOS)

1. Cards of Terra (@obsolete_one): Unassuming sort-of solitaire with monsters? Sure. But Terra soon expands into a deeply compelling mash-up of collective card games, turn-based strategy & puzzling. (Android/iOS)

Games 2021 honourable mentions: Letter Rooms; Pureya; Salvagette; Rush Rally Origins; Overboard; Deep Golf; Kitty Q; Sugar.

Apologies to anyone I’ve forgotten. I’m sure there are quite a few. And if you make apps/games and would like to pitch an iPhone/iPad/Android/Mac app or game to me for possible coverage in 2022, email me next week. Until then: Happy New Year!

Originally posted on Twitter. Follow me there for more app/game stuff.

December 31, 2021. Read more in: Apps, Gaming

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Apple should counter its emulation stance by adding retro classics to Apple Arcade

9to5Mac reports iDOS 2 is to be pulled from the App Store. This isn’t the first time the app’s been removed, and probably not coincidentally comes hot on the heels of news posts showing people using it to get Windows 3.1 running on an iPad. (With a bit of effort, you can get classic Mac OS running too.)

Apple, naturally, cites that its rules have been broken:

Executing code can introduce or changes features or functionality of the app and allows for downloading of content without licensing.

Presumably, Apple reckons the ‘executing code’ bit is the main issue; after all, kicking an app for running illegal content would be a touch hypocritical, given how many book readers and audio and video players are on the store. Ahem.

This also points to shoddy App Store review. It’s not like iDOS 2 snuck through. It’s been back on the store with this exact same functionality for a while now, and received several updates. I’d hoped this was a sign Apple was changing its tone on retro gaming and emulation, but feared it was not. And Apple’s seeming distaste for emulated classic games feels further cemented by it not approving entirely legal retro-gaming streaming service Antstream Arcade for the App Store.

So what now? If you like emulators and want them on your phone: Android. Sure, there are workarounds on iOS, but they’re more hassle than they’re worth. But if Apple was canny, there would be another way — a very Apple way: add a retro arcade to Apple Arcade.

Apple Arcade is oddly lacking in arcade games. Apple likes doing things by the book. Plenty of companies are happy to license out old IP. So alongside Arcade Originals, App Store Greats and Timeless Classics, let’s have Arcade Classics. Get fully licensed Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Robotron, Bubble Bobble, Dig Dug and loads more — an actual old-school arcade — on to Apple Arcade. It would be a great way to show off iOS 15’s new virtual controls overlay system, along with simultaneously dealing with the bizarre lack of arcade games in Apple Arcade and the paucity of classic games on the App Store as a whole.

July 23, 2021. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, Opinions, Retro gaming

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You can do real work on an iPad, so stop claiming otherwise

Now iPadOS 15 has appeared, it’s a crushing disappointment to those people who enjoy being crushingly disappointed when Apple doesn’t do precisely what they want. And it’s not like I don’t have frustrations with the iPad myself. For years, I’ve banged on about wanting full external display support, the dream being a fully modular computing experience that could ‘be’ tablet, laptop or desktop within relevant contexts. But as I wrote for Wired, this is not Apple’s strategy. The company isn’t seeking to replace laptops with iPads, but to “finesse the transition between its platforms, with all your hardware and software working together”.

In a sense, iPad still exists where it was originally positioned, between a smartphone and a laptop. It’s just this definition has expanded from the device’s originally fairly limited scope. But even from day one, it was a superior device for some tasks—without that, it wouldn’t have had any reason to exist. Today, the ambition of app creators has helped the platform evolve into a primary device for a wider range of users, including some illustrators and video editors on the move.

It’s with this in mind that I find increasing frustration in commentators who should know better slamming the iPad for not having “real apps” to do “real work”. It’s like the conversation hasn’t moved on in a decade, despite the platform and its capabilities being far beyond what was possible with the original iPad. And while I do understand some people are irked they can’t get Final Cut on their iPad, I’ve also watched video folks scythe through 4K edits on LumaFusion. Elsewhere, I’ve talked with visual designers using Affinity apps and illustrators working with Procreate. Writers? Plenty tap away on an iPad with the likes of Ulysses and Scrivener. Musicians? There are tons of superb synths, virtual instruments and DAWs for the system, many of which work brilliantly, and most of which cost a fraction of their desktop counterparts or equivalents.

Could Apple do more? Sure. But is iPad somehow deficient? I don’t think so, unless your requirements are very specific—or your real aim is screaming that iPad is doomed at the top of your lungs, despite all evidence to the contrary.

July 8, 2021. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology


Celebrating 20 years of writing for money—and imposter syndrome

You can blame Stuart Dredge. We’d been in frequent contact for months, with me working for a marketing department and feeding him pithy comments for Cre@te Online, a Future Publishing magazine aimed at web designers. Then the dot-com crash happened and I abruptly found myself out of a job.

I told Stuart, asking him to in future contact me on a different email address. He immediately responded to the news by asking if I’d like to pen the back page of the magazine’s next issue—a ‘Sacred Cow’ column on Flash. I jumped at the chance.

Stuart must have been happy with what I wrote, because my details were quickly passed on to other editors at Future. I started writing software reviews and took over Internet Advisor’s nascent Makeover column, where a reader would write in and I’d overhaul their website, like a cross between Gordon Ramsay and Bill Gates—only with significantly less riches than either of them.

About six months later, I plucked up the courage at an Apple Event to pitch to then-MacUser deputy editor Ian Betteridge (who I recall was happy to briefly escape several hours of dealing with reader tech support issues). I was new and had to write under a pen name. That didn’t last long.

Things continued to snowball. I started writing books on iMovie and web design. (I don’t even recall how that came about.) The number of publications I wrote for grew. Many are now gone… Computer Arts; Practical Web Design; .net. Others from those early days—most notably MacFormat and Retro Gamer—are still kicking.

That first column for Cre@te Online was 20 years ago this week. And I’ll let you in on a little secret: my brain helpfully still thinks I’m winging it. Any day now, it suggests, I’ll be ‘found out’. 20 years of experience, writing for the biggest tech publications and companies around and I have imposter syndrome. I doubt that will ever go away.

Why it’s there, I’m not sure. Prior to that first paid gig, I’d written for years—just not for money. But I suspect my lack of formal training in writing/journalism makes me think I don’t have the ’right’ to be here, doing what I do. This is logically ridiculous when I’ve been smashing words into shape for two decades and am fortunate enough to have a solid number of editors keen to call on me for more work.

Whether I’ll be lucky enough to still be doing this 20 years from now is hard to say. Since I started regularly writing for magazines, the industry has changed beyond all recognition. I half imagine by 2041 (or, more than likely, a lot sooner) an AI will be able to do what I do at the press of a button (pressed by an AI robot editor, natch). Until then, I’ll continue writing and I hope you’ll continue reading—be they my words or those of others, not least any long-time writers who also regularly mull over how lucky they are to be doing what they do.

June 7, 2021. Read more in: Opinions, Stuff by me, Writing

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For Apple and others, flexibility is the vital component to the future happiness of workers

A tale in three parts:

  • Apple states as of September that employees will be back to the office at least three days per week, and will get the option of two additional remote-work weeks per year (The Verge)
  • Apple employees respond, asking Apple to be more flexible and account for individuals who might want to work from home on a permanent basis (The Verge)
  • Daring Fireball writes a surprisingly callous response, slamming the Apple employee letter and inferring those people “aren’t a good fit for Apple”

I’ve primarily worked for home for 20 years now. It has pros and cons. I’ve been fortunate to be there for most of the big moments in my child’s life, not least her first steps. If I’d been on a 9–5, I’d have missed those—and so much more. But I also recognise that for some people, being around others in an office environment is how they thrive. Also, some jobs can only be done in that way.

However, many jobs can be performed well in a distributed team environment. Apple itself has shown that, in all the many things it’s achieved during a pandemic. At this point, my take—as someone who is very aware of being in a fairly privileged position—is that flexibility is the way forward.

The Daring Fireball take is, for me, colossally bad. From a pure commentary standpoint, it’s distasteful for an individual working however they like to hand-wave away requests for flexibility from people who have discovered how they can do revolutionary work and not miss out on things like family moments (while avoiding soul-sapping commutes).

But the same is true in reverse. Some people thrive on in-person interaction. So denying that (as some other companies are looking to do) is equally problematic. Companies will have to figure out new ways of working that are flexible and smart enough to cater for alternate ways of thinking.

For Apple specifically, the company used to say ‘think different’. It could leverage that approach and lead a new way of how major corporations work rather than being so prescriptive. And while Apple shifting to three days in/two days out is a big cultural shift, it has an opportunity to do more. If your company has been by every measure a massive success during the pandemic, then it has space to be more radical, not less, regarding workers.

June 5, 2021. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology


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