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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My iPhone and iPad apps of the year (2020)

I use a lot of iPhone/iPad apps. This year, I thought I’d list my favourites. Without further ado…

10. Voxel Max: An interesting creativity app, based around drawing in voxels rather than pixels. Packed with features that feel desktop-grade, especially when used on an iPad.

9. Longplay: An intriguing music player, designed to get you listening to albums again, mostly by omitting or hiding controls for messing around with individual tracks. Entertainingly lets you sort albums by most ‘neglected’.

8. Looom: This iPad-only animation app is an oddball. Want a traditional timeline? Steer clear. Fancy something that’s more like playing an instrument and that makes great use of an Apple Pencil + free hand set-up? Then it’s ideal.

7. Photoshop Camera: These days, the ‘Photoshop’ brand is slapped on a lot of products. This is one of the better ones—a creative live camera app with a slew of imaginative, fun and customisable filters.

6. Zen Brush 3: There are loads of great painting apps for iPad and iPhone, but Zen Brush 3 offers something different, carefully emulating East Asian ink brushes for a meditative and unique creative experience.

5. Pastel: Anyone of a visually creative bent will work with palettes at some point. This minimalist yet powerful app lets you quickly make your own—including from photos—manage and stash them, and also sync them across iCloud.

4. Portal 3: You’ve likely seen and used audio apps designed to help you sleep or focus by drowning out background noise. Portal is a more immersive experience, integrating beautiful looped video that helps take your mind somewhere else for a few moments.

3. Universe in a Nutshell: If you ever wanted to know your place in the universe, this app will make that very clear. Comparing objects from the Planck length to the size of the observable universe, it’s a fun ride for kids and adults alike.

2. Halide Mark II: The original Halide did enough to cement itself on countless iPhones. This evolution takes things further, effectively becoming the only pro take on a camera app you really need—especially if you’re into shooting RAW.

1. NetNewsWire 5: RSS is a tech I’m baffled isn’t more popular. Perhaps if there were more readers like NNW5, it would be. It excels in elegance, simplicity and options. That it’s free means you’ve no excuse for missing a story from favourite publications.

December 31, 2020. Read more in: Apps

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Android users and an unwillingness to pay for great games

Half the time, mobile is a disaster for gaming. There’s so much entitlement, and freemium fare has only intensified the idea from certain quarters that all games should be free. When they aren’t, such people tend to get very annoyed; and this problem is especially bad on Android.

I’m asked why premium games often rock up first on iOS and in some cases many months (or years) show up on Android, like an afterthought. In reality, games creators have put in plenty of thought. Mostly, said thought is whether porting their game to Android is worth the hassle, given the state of the market.

A recent case study of this occurred when a games creator whose work I’m fond of announced one of his older iOS games was coming to Android. Said game remains objectively excellent — a highly polished premium effort that is like a classic arcade title finely tuned for mobile play. Short of you being a gaming genius, it’ll take you a good few hours to get to the end of the game; and because it’s arcade fare, there’s plenty of replay value.

When the game was first announced as coming to Android, people were very excited. This games creator has a strong and loyal following. But he’s noted in the past — publicly — that free to paid conversions for his other titles could be better. In part, I put this down to a certain subtlety in his pointing people towards the paid option — this creator has a tendency towards being too generous. Even so, some reckon he’s not generous enough: I’ve seen plenty of gripes about in-game ads, in his flagship title that is otherwise free, and moans that updates from a tiny one-man indie were taking months to materialise.

With this latest title, things hit a nadir. On announcing the game would be premium, people kicked off. “Why can’t it be free?” they complained. And today, I’m told that a whopping 50% of Android users are requesting refunds on the title. Now, perhaps by some staggering coincidence, this game is just not their thing. More likely, they’re taking advantage of Google Play’s two-hour refund window, burning through whatever they can in that time, and then getting a fiver back into their pockets.

Ultimately, this event merely highlights why a lot of game developers no longer bother with Android at all. 50% refunds probably sounds extreme, but I’ve heard of similar figures from other games creators who’ve released objectively good games. In short: Android gamers as a group too often just aren’t willing to pay. (iPhone/iPad users aren’t yet quite at the same level, although things on Apple’s platform aren’t exactly rosy for creators, judging by what I hear from various quarters.)

Perhaps this is the final nail in the coffin — yet more confirmation of sorts that freemium killed mobile games. That notion everything should be free extends far beyond gaming, and is a major problem from creative indies to publishers alike. I suspect what many people forget in their entitlement is that there are creative people at the other end of these games — and their livelihoods. So, again, if you claim to love something, support it — it really is that simple. Otherwise, whatever praise you’re offering is nothing more than hot air.

April 13, 2020. Read more in: Apps, Opinions, Technology

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Adobe Photoshop for iPad’s problems are down to hype, value, and not managing expectations

Bloomberg has run the piece Adobe Exec Defends Photoshop for iPad After App Falls Flat, quoting Adobe’s Scott Belsky about the launch. In a series of tweets, Belsky said:

a real-time v1 lesson: you’ve gotta ship an MVP to start the journey, but it will be painful at first. by definition, it won’t please everyone (and if it’s a reimagination of a 30yr old popular/global product, will displease many)

if you try to make everybody happy w/ a v1, you’ll either never ship or make nobody happy. such feats require customer feedback to truly exceed expectations. you must ship and get fellow passionate travelers on board.

He’s right, but the problem is that expectations weren’t managed. Instead, we got a hype train, and suggestions we would get full-fat Photoshop; instead, v1 is a stripped-down release. Belskey says the team decided to “nail perfect PSD support” rather than “just port 30 yrs of stuff (and baggage) on day 1”, which is sensible, except some of that baggage includes taken-for-granted features like layer effects.

Photoshop on iPad also represents a U-turn for Adobe, who’d previously argued people didn’t want this kind of pro-level software on iPad. It now feels like that argument was made because Photoshop didn’t exist. I can’t help wondering how long this app has been in development. Was it around in some form for years, or is it a reaction to Affinity Photo showing that, yes, pro-level creatives really do want this kind of app on iPad?

Affinity Photo itself is another piece of the puzzle, in the sense of the value proposition. If you already pay for Creative Cloud, Photoshop for iPad doesn’t require further outlay. But if you don’t, it’s a tenner a month. By contrast, twice that cost nets you Affinity Photo – with its richer and mature feature-set – forever. (In fact, at the time of writing, Affinity Photo is on sale, in an epic piece of trolling, for the same price as a single month of Photoshop for iPad.)

Despite its flaws, I’m glad Adobe released Photoshop for iPad. It’s something that needed to happen, and further cements the importance of Apple’s device. But it doesn’t surprise me that the response to what we got has been a mixture of anger and disappointment. Adobe must now iterate very quickly, and bring Photoshop towards feature-parity with the desktop version. After all, that’s another thing that Affinity Photo enjoys – the iPad version is not a ‘lesser’ product.

November 8, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Apps, News, Opinions, Technology

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What’s more important in UI: what you tap or what you see?

Daring Fireball recently linked to Maps Plus. The app uses Google Maps data but filters it through an Apple-style interface. John Gruber says:

It’s close to what you’d get if Google Maps were still providing the data for Apple Maps.

And this is true. It even has Street View. It doesn’t, though, have turn-by-turn, and there is, to me, a worse problem: the roads are the wrong colour. This is because when Google shifted its system to a faster vector-based approach, it dispensed with varying road colours individual nations used, preferring US ones worldwide. Instead of blue motorways, green A roads and yellow B roads, UK motorways became orange, A roads were coloured yellow, and B roads were white, not differentiated from smaller roads. Motorways and A roads since received correctly coloured markers, but that only helps when one is in the viewing area. Otherwise, at a glance, the M3 diagonally crossing the screen looks at a glance like an A road.

Apple Maps got this right in iOS 7b4. This means in the UK, you can more easily spot the roads you need, just by what colour they are. By contrast, Maps Plus loses this, through working with Google’s mapping system. So you end up with a user interface that’s more suited to iOS, but content where its ‘user interface’ is far worse. Complicating matters further, Google remains far superior to Apple when it comes to points of interest and with Street View versus the oddball Flyover. So either Apple needs to get way better with POI or Google needs to get over itself and start recognising everywhere isn’t the USA. Usually, I’d suggest there’d be no chance of Apple winning such a race, but Google doesn’t seem to want to budge on this one.



June 6, 2016. Read more in: Apps, Design

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